Saturday, December 16, 2006

Buffalo Shitheel

The year is 1966 and to everyone who wasn't really in tune with reality (most of the film world outside of the United States and Italy), Zombies were still solely the creation of voodoo. The Hammer studio was an especially poignant testimony to the stupidity of horror films before (and after) landmark horror films like Night of the Living Dead redefined horror genres and subgenres. Case in point, their two takes on the living dead Plague of the Zombies and The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires. Plague of the Zombies a really dimwitted take on the voodoo zombie film, which combined elements of White Zombie and Revolt of the Zombies, the films that launched and killed, respectively the careers of director/producer brothers Victor and Edward Halperin. Writer Peter Bryan took the manual labor and tropical locale aspects of the old zombie films and set them in familiar territory. The film takes place not on an island, but in a village nearby Cornwall, England, and takes all the voodoo and puts it beneath the action in a tin mine. It, like all British horror stories was bloody, slow, and cruel and featured plenty of pasty Cornwallers (yeah, there's a better joke in there, but this is educational, damnit!). The acting is dry, the script is dry, the direction is dry and the skin is dry. But the frightening lack of moisture isn't all that is wrong with this stiff picture. 

Plague of the Zombies
by John Gilling

First of the film's shortcomings is the plot. Because this is Hammer, and the only thing that the English knew about horror films is that they have to move slower than an Italian's reaction time, they couldn't conceive of an original plot for a zombie movie in 1966. Anyone who’s ever seen Dracula will recognize the plot, as it's basically the same without the voodoo. Something kills a woman, and then brings her back to life, and she's killed, and then the same starts to happen to her close friend so the first victim's husband calls an old doctor to figure out and it turns out something supernatural is happening and the rich count across town is responsible and is going to kill and bring her back to life forever. Couldn' any better than that? Lets go back a few years to 1941. A young hack by the name of Jean Yarbrough set out to make a quick buck off of the voodoo trend and gave us the awful racist White Zombie knock-off King of the Zombies. These guys are basically the same person, interchangeable products of two different systems. John Gilling, director of Plague of the Zombies is basically the British Jean Yarbrough and Plague of the Zombies a retread of the many voodoo films from 1936-1958. Yarbrough directed King of the Zombies in 1941, one of seven films he made that year. He is credited with directing 107 films on IMDB, one of which is the famously awful The Devil Bat staring Bela Lugosi. Yarbrough made films cause he would have been homeless otherwise. Gilling was a go-to for Hammer with a little more vision than most though his films, while occasionally pretty to look at, showed nothing of the flair they should have for his constantly being employed in the horror genre; his successes are far outweighed by his missteps.

Gilling made a few dozen forgettable British genre films like Pirates of Blood River, The Mummy's Shroud and The Reptile for Hammer Studios. On the whole his films were rehashes of much more fun films. The only thing original about the film was the zombies of the title. The zombies are genuinely creepy at times; the first encounter with one of them is the scariest in the film, brief and well done. The transformation sequence is really uncalled for, as voodoo doesn't call for decomposition or even traditionally death. This was a landmark because it was the first time that zombies had ever been shown in color, and the first to feature lots of blood. Because however they decided to steal another Universal pictures monster motif and have all the shambling dead strangle their victims to death instead of eating them, there was no real gore, and most of the blood is unexplainable, but their face make-up was original and actually frightening (thanks to decent decay effects; the first to take that approach if memory serves), which is more than can be said for many of the hammer films (I'm looking at you Captain Clegg! Frightened to death, my ass!) This was also the last zombie movie made before Night of the Living Dead was made and Plague had its stiff ass handed to it by a novice in plaid button-downs from Pittsburgh. Oh, how sweet the sound of British horror being forced into nudity and gore by originality, cohesive stories and believable characters.

The second puzzler is the ignorance of voodoo culture. Dolls and labor zombies and blood and mines being run on zombie blood via dolls is forgivably ignorant, but what the hell is all this other nonsense? What does any of it have to do with the crew of brutish foxhunters? What was Dr. Forbes going to do with corpses? Why do they pronounce Haiti "High-Ay-Tea"? Does anyone here have a degree in anything? Where is everyone else in town? What is really baffling is that the British got away with making racist films well after Freedom Summer. The racism in this film has to do with a lot vaguely ethnic men in buffalo hats who beat drums. And of course there is the films sole black person, a butler with 8 seconds of onscreen time who's credited as "Coloured Servant". Truly progressive. I can let one stereotype slide because this was England, not Inglewood, but Buffalo Hats? There aren't any buffalo in Haiti. Whose brilliant idea was this? 

The evil count who kind of looks like a Closing Time era Tom Waits is killing women by collecting their blood in a vile and pouring it onto a small clay figure with large breasts. All the while, the men in the stupid buffalo hats play the drums; this is the voodoo from "High-ay-tea" in case you couldn't tell from the staggering weirdness and ignorance Gilling displays here. So then a hunting party in all red chases a fox through downtown Cornwall and stomps through a funeral procession, knocking the body out of the coffin and into a ditch. This is witnessed by the driest of the cast of characters Dr. James Forbes. Meanwhile townsfolk are upset that the town's doctor, Peter Thompson, is killing more people than he's curing. Forbes shows up and proclaims his faith in the young man's ability. Yeah, cause yokels like being told by dusty scientists exactly what the problem with them is. So then Forbes offhandedly decides that the best way to rekindle his friendship with Thompson is to dig up a corpse and experiment on it. I...have nothing to say. Anyway, the first girl, Alice, has been acting strange and goes for a midnight walk so her friend and Forbes' Daughter Sylvia follows her. (I think she's his daughter, they have the same last name, but they don't really interact at all. This would make Forbes both Seward and Van Helsing, but, this ain't Dracula, so on we go). So, Sylvia meets a hobo and then gets kidnapped by some of those obnoxious foxhunters and meets the count (how many sinister sideburns on my face. One, Two. Two chops, Heh heh heh.) who is strangely nonchalant about the fact that his guys just through the poor girl over their shoulder and tormented her viciously a second ago, but he seems nice enough so she agrees not to tell anyone. Tom Traubert sends her on her way and says she needs to stay on the path. She doesn't cause why should she and we have the first encounter with a zombie; fortuitously he's holding Alice's body. Across town Forbes and Thompson actually did start digging up corpses and the body from earlier is missing and actually convince the police officers that catch them that it was a good idea. That digging this corpse up was going to benefit science and that they now have to keep this a secret so they can find the body's location.

Now there's a whole slew of truly harrowing questions the film spends what seems like a lifetime answering. Where is the body? Did the aforementioned hobo kill Alice? Why does the count keep Sylvia's blood in a bottle? Why the buffalo helmets? I think the only real horrifying question is what the fuck was Forbes going to do with that body if they hadn't been caught? I guess British people just do things for the sake of doing them. Like when Forbes cuts off zombie Alice’s head with a shovel in favor of braining her or when he tries to put out a room that’s completely engulfed in flames. Or, this is my favorite, when the count decides he needs to raise the dead to mine tin. It’s TIN!!! Did I miss something? Stock must have been up that year. And don’t you think despite Forbes constantly telling everyone reasonable not to let anyone else know that bodies are being stolen, you’d think between two cops and a priest knowing that there is some sick corpse related mischief afoot that eventually they would tell someone (after walking into a bar with a rabbi). Didn’t the count for a second consider that by stealing every corpse and slowly killing all the women in town that an outsider might notice the declining population of Cornwall? But I suppose these quibbles are to be expected, after all this is not the normal universe you and I live in; this is the world of Hammer film logic where foxhunters disrupt funerals without consequences and a man like Forbes is considered a scientist. And if in this world digging up a corpse and doing weird shit to it qualifies as science, I can see how Plague of the Zombies qualifies as an interesting movie. 

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Cannibal Apocalypto 2006

Here it is, proof that Mel Gibson is now one degree away from the Italians. Ok, first, I’m not going to pay money to see Apocalypto, in the same way I wouldn't pay money to see Accepted or the remake of When A Stranger Calls. It isn't necessarily that I hate Mel Gibson for his anti-Semitism and his objectifying women (both rational choices, don't get me wrong) i don't like Mel Gibson because he makes movies that are completely uninteresting. Barring Braveheart, he has made two films that were of no interest to me and sounded more than a little repulsive. (Jesus getting worked over for two hours in Aramaic isn't exactly something I relish seeing; neither for that matter is Man Without A Face). And now, given a few film reviews and descriptions and an interview with Gibson, I’d like to offer you, my students some insight from a man who has seen the most disgusting movie ever made. But first, Gibson's piece de resistance: In Apocalypto, academy award winning visionary director Sugartits O'Houlahan takes us on a journey where we witness one culture destroying another in a horrible way.
Interviewer for Entertainment Weekly Allison Hope Weiner lets us know that "There are beheadings, people's hearts being cut out, one guy getting his face chewed up by a jaguar..." in this picture. Not exactly Pride and Prejudice is it? Gibson had this to say "Fucking Jews, Jews Cause All The Wars," oh, no wait, he had this to say, "The world is a violent place. Violence is a recurring part of our history. But this movie is not as violent as a chain-saw movie, not by a long shot. That's just some teenager with pimples being hacked to death. This is less violent than Braveheart, I think. The sacrifices at the temple are puny in comparison to what they did to the guy on the rack in that movie. But I want people to close their eyes sometimes. There is one point where a guy jumps over a waterfall and brains himself on a rock. I don't want people to watch that piece. I've given them plenty of time to close their eyes, because that's really heinous." Chainsaw movies? Is he talking about Texas Chainsaw? Cause, that and all of it's sequels were less disgusting than this, which, brings up our next point. And I'd also like to note he tells us that the difference between a good and a bad film is the oiliness of the face being cut off. 'Really heinous'...? Maybe, but he left a few things out. When Liza Scharzbaum, a reviewer from Entertainment reviewed the film a week later, she filled in the blanks, " would not feature a fellow chomping down on the testicles of a slaughtered animal, a father slit open in front of his son, a pregnant woman nearly drowning, or an extended scene of human sacrifice in which heads roll down steep temple steps like bowling balls. And the nogginless bodies that remain would not be photographed in piles inspired by old Holocaust imagery." Animals killed, heads destroyed, testicles eaten, jaguars eating faces. Why does this sound so familiar? Hmmm.
Oh yeah, cause Gibson's just made Cannibal Holocaust 2 before Ruggero Deodato could and he went the extra step of taking out the corruption of the white man that made all of the brutality justifiable. When Alan Yates and his crew rape and burn natives for ratings, it gives Robert Kerman's character some perspective and the moral high ground to say "I wonder who the real cannibals are." Here, Gibson makes it real obvious that the only ones the natives have to blame for their downfall is themselves. The other difference is the overall gutlessness of Mel Gibson. When Deodato came back from Venezuela after making the most repulsive film ever committed to celluloid and was investigated by the Venezuelan and Italian Governments. It took five years to release the film in Italy and then it was banned in a bunch of different countries. And Deodato didn't even get drunk and hit on a cop. The Road Warrior makes a film that blames the Jews for everything, denies he's an anti-Semite, gets pulled over for drunk driving and drunkenly, publicly blames the Jews for everything, denies he's an anti-Semite and now this guy has the audacity to make a cannibal film and release it like it was The Last Temptation of Private Da Vinci Code and treats himself like a misunderstood artist with a greater message.
The other thing about this whole incident as that in the same interview as he defends his squished heads, he says that it was a combination of alcohol and stress that made him get on the soap box and tell two cops who didn’t ask just who’s responsible for all of those wars. Isn’t that what ex-congressman Mark Foley said after he was caught with a computer full of perverse instant messages. Foley gets rehab and no further congressional terms and Gibson gets another million dollars and an Oscar nod in 5 years when everyone's forgotten his antics.
Instead of swearing in all caps, I’m going to use a metaphor. As I write this, Hannity and Colmes is on my television and Hannity is interviewing Donald Rumsfeld who says of American's response to Bush's job in Iraq "People have diminished the threat [of terrorism] in their minds...By Golly we're in a period with a gathering storm." That's Mel Gibson talking about Jews. A few second later, Hannity asked, "How do you have a discussion with a man who denies the holocaust happened?" That's me asking that same question to everyone who paid the $98 price of admission to see any of Gibson's movies recently. Oh, and,

Anyway, Gibson and his father are both Traditionalist Christians, which apparently states somewhere in their holy scripture that the holocaust never happened. (The real one with Nazis, not the cannibal one Deodato invented. Now, why there isn’t a religious group denying the Cannibal Holocaust up and down is beyond me, you’d have the privilege of being the first punk-horror religion, and in America, that’s saying something). Regular Christians aren’t holocaust deniers, I know several Christians, and I think they all grip the concept. Gibson just happens to embrace his special brand of arrested development with a boozey swagger and sweaty smile that makes me want to vomit.
What we have is someone using his own notoriety as a famous blowhard to market a neo-gore film in the vein of the Italian classics. Well, whatever pays for his next picture; presumably something along the lines of "All Cannibals are Jewish" or vice versa.

Monday, December 11, 2006

I Review This Movie

I Drink Your Blood was the first film to take after Night of the Living Dead in many ways, but was the opposite in tone, style & content (for the two of you in AP English, this will make perfect sense). The movie had bright colors, college humour, scheming child actors, dying animals, painful stereotypes, blurring of scientific fact, small-town romance & of course rabies (and oh, the rabies it has).

I Drink Your Blood
by David E. Durston

The plot specifics you can find anywhere, in fact DVD Drive-In and DVD Maniacs have particularly good ones, but here’s the outline. The ugliest Satanist hippies you’re likely to meet experience some car trouble in a small town. They quickly wear out their welcome: holding nude worship/acid dropping sessions, destroying a house for no reason, killing at least a baker’s dozen of rats for barbecuing, molesting a young girl, and finally drugging the town’s oldest resident. When his Grandpa comes home tripping face, and with his sister still recovering from the sexual assault she seems to not be all that bothered by, a miffed little boy kills a rabid dog, drains it’s blood and injects it into some meat pies he sells to the hippies. That night the unwashed lot go a little crazy two of them acquire stabbing objects and start foaming at the mouth, one of them winds up dead and the remaining gaggle take to the woods. Then the film’s rising action kicks off with some unmotivated sex with some construction workers (they're building the ‘damn dam’.) When the sheriff calls in a doctor for whatever reason, they spy the crazed construction zombies who give chase with tools and machetes soon after spotting them. He explains that they all have hydrophobia (rabies) and Durston liberally expands the symptoms of the disease to include a crippling fear of water, instead of the general uneasiness one feels when confronted with liquids. Anyway, soon the non-infected get whittled down to a few survivors before the police show up and cheat us out of our much deserved squib-fest ending, instead just showing us a lot of gunfire and then pile of dead bodies, and expect us to connect the dots. Montage editing sucks.

The restoration is beautiful, especially the audio, which works for me because my favorite things about this film are two lines of dialogue. When they spy the construction workers the doctor cries out with dry urgency “Jesus Christ” and when the nice hippie witnesses the first killing he turns to the hippie leader and says “You’re mad, you bastard!” Priceless...

And now the history. The film was written and directed by David E. Durston, who made seven films before retiring to obscurity until, like many horror directors, someone finds some value in their disastrous career and some posthumous adoration kicks them back into gear. Before directing I Drink Your Blood, his first film in 1964 was co-directed in Turkey with native filmmaker Metin Erksan. The film, Susuz Yaz, is apparently well regarded in Turkey as the characters are still talked about by the Turkish people. He made four more films before landing himself in the middle of this project, one gave Tubbs from Miami Vice his first role in the blaxploitation film Stigma, one was bought and destroyed to save someone’s reputation (didn’t end up needing it) and one is unknown the world over (as evidenced by its entry on IMDB). It's little tidbits like this that make you think that the 80 year old Durston had to do some serious rearranging of his schedule when he got the DVD reissue phone call.

I Drink Your Blood or Phobia as it was originally called was made in the sweltering heat in a small ‘ghost’ town in New York that had been all but abandoned by a small group of Jewish men who were about ready to leave town as well. When the unorthodox Durston and his mangy crew showed up, they gave the Hasidic Jews the creeps and they got out of town, but not before OKing their free use of all the buildings. As soon as the old men said ‘go crazy’ they did, in a really fucked up sort of way. I don’t like swearing, but it’s called for here because this was the first american film to be rated X for violence (Durston was such an uncompromising artist). This was the first American film to feature onscreen brutalization of animals in purely obscene terms (they aren't going to feed anyone). A Chicken, a dog and many, many rats are killed in the film. Durston tries to defend this a number of ways on one of the DVD’s interviews ('the rats were already dead after cosmetic testing killed them" "Chickens are killed everyday"), but, I’ll never forgive him for softening Americans up for the likes of Cannibal Holocaust. Though it was Georges Franju’s Le Sang des Bêtes in 1949 that first presented us with heedless, overseas animal cruelty (bizarrely spliced with views of scenic France, perhaps for some sort of jarring contrast.) and then Mondo Cane in 1963 which gave us another collection of cruelty and killings which was more likely the culprit for the cannibal films (as 1000 Misspent Hours tell us), I still retain a bit of leftover contempt for the smirking, eccentric Durston as he tries to back away from his DIY exploitation techniques in one interview. And I sort of like this movie. Filmmakers shouldn’t back away from their careers; it makes it easier to cringe at the thought of them. Look at Ruggero Deodato; he went through years of litigation and constant defense of his films and right now he’s prepping Cannibal Holocaust 2.

While making the film, Durston shot under the name State Farm because he didn’t want anyone stealing any of his ideas or his title, which wound up being the first thing cut from the finished product. Upon completion producer Jerry Gross took it to distributors and Ad men to see what could be done with it. they decided to dig out a Del Tenney picture called Zombies and make them a double bill to make money for a studio, which was common practice at the time. They ran it past one exec Barney Cohen who reveals in an interview with the director that when he learned of the films’ premises he cheerfully dubbed the bill: I Drink Your Blood, I Eat Your Skin. And here we are. Movies were to be treated as commodities, and sold at all costs. Want to sell one thing, slap it on another. This happened so often in the 70s, it was rare to find a film was seen alone and with its original title if you were at a drive-thru.

Now, as this is kind of a zombie movie we’re talking about, it is essential we discuss who got ripped off and who would rip it off. The first and most important is Night of the Living Dead, the centerpiece of this course. The film centers on a few people with an ever increasing number of people-who-eat-people who go around spreading infection through direct contact (bites, screwing, etc.) They also use tools to kill, give chase to their live quarries and the real kicker comes at the end when the only survivors board themselves up in a house. Sound familiar? Anyway, despite many similarities the originality exposes itself in a very silly sort of way, through its shortcomings. The soundtrack, instead of the understated dirge-like industrial stuff used in Night is a flamboyant cartoonish score. And as for cartoons, look at the colors. The brightness of the clothes alone, ignoring the overacting and uncalled for sex/romance is enough to pass this off as Italian, but the Giallo pictures Italy cranked out by the dozens weren’t quite this violent until after this gem made it’s way to American’s drive-thrus and beyond. The yellow shirt that the main hippie wears and the redness of the blood is nearly blinding. And as for the blood, this wasn't the first real gore film, but aside from Herschell Gordon Lewis' films, this film didn't have a lot of precedent. Look at the intestines, in beautiful faux Technicolor. I made that up, but look! Hands cut off, guts stabbed out, heads removed and carried around.
The other similarity is the downer ending both original and new. The original ending called for everyone except the little boy to meet a ghastly end, but they settled for killing just about everyone. This film can be seen as a take on the American culture war at the time (construction workers vs. hippies? It’s like a Springsteen song, for god’s sakes), but, let's not get hung up on the political message of the zombie man. There is exactly one person who's gotten this right: George A. Romero. This theme is elaborated upon in such subtle ways as killing all of the hippies, even the one we’re supposed to sympathize with, and having one of the hippies not tell anyone about her new infection and decides to line-up the construction workers for some of the least attractive film sex you could ever imagine (picture Jerry Blank from Strangers with Candy and take away the makeup. You there yet? Good, now sandwich her between a dozen Jersey construction workers). I suppose it’s extreme left vs. extreme right, except Durston wasn't quite competent enough to say anything other than ‘look, stereotypes'

Yeah, it’s big, silly and gross (the gore effects are bright, but not exactly realistic, despite the cost of the human head they carry around for a good 15 minutes) but I liked it, don’t ask me why.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Welcome to Honors Zombie

Watch this space for reviews and discussion of Zombie films, as well as class assignments for Honors Zombie, the most trusted name in Zombie Studies