Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Killing Yourself To Live, and Also Just To Die.

Don Sharp started his career making bad movies, some of them Hammer films, some of them sub-Hammer. He made some of the new Fu-Manchu films with Christopher Lee in the 60s and ended his career making bad horror films in the 80s with Dr. Who-esque make-up effects. Bad All Around. Had I bothered looking into this I may have been able to convince myself not to watch Psychomania or as I call it, the reason George Sanders killed himself. Luckily, I have the internet, which means that I can watch terrible Zombie films free of charge. So, for this reason I would like to thank, a pretty damn good source for free movies, and if you don’t mind sacrificing quality you can feast on everything from terrible B-horror, to public domain Kurosawa. Anyway, finding was what led me to finally pull this one off of my Netflix queue and give it a once-over. This movie completely exceeded my expectation of silly, made-up rituals; this films features rites and ceremonies the stupidity of which rivals even the most contrived voodoo movies. It went a little something like this:

by Don Sharp

Some kids in a gang called The Living Dead (with matching biker outfits with embroidered names) cruise around the director’s backyard in between stone formations meant to look like Stone Hedge in Curse of the Demon. Anyway, the leader’s name is Tom and his mom is a psychic. She and her butler/servant/lover(?) Shadwell (George Sanders, far and away the only name and possibly the palest actor in this film's awfully pale roster) run a non-profit seer ring out of her home and belong to a cult that worships frogs that only live in cemeteries (we’ll be seeing a lot of this frog before the end, too much). Anyway, Tom lets us in on the plot by asking, quite out of the blue, some unmotivated questions. “What happened to my father? What’s the secret of the living dead? Why don’t you ever seem to age, Shadwell?” Well, glad we’re not fucking around anymore, oh wait, yes we are. The whole film is an exercise in fucking around. Tom goes into a room and almost dies (???) and the only thing that saves him is the frog medallion that Shadwell gives him. Anyway, his mom tells him that as long as you want to come back, you could die and come back and live forever. That’s an awfully thin criteria for eternal existence. With this in mind, Tom sets a plan into action, a plan that will allow him to fuck around forever. The next we see Tom and the Living Dead, they’re fucking around downtown, scaring women with babies and performing other important services for the community when Tom kills himself by driving off a bridge. Tom’s girlfriend Abby persuades his mom to lend them the body so they can bury it in their own way, which by the way means singing a pre-recorded folk song while they bury Tom sitting up right on his motorcycle (we’ll revisit this, I assure you). So, Tom wills himself back to life and the position he was buried him allows him to come riding out of the ground and then start his revolution. He soon convinces the other members of the gang to do likewise and we are treated to a goofy montage of the gang killing themselves in incredibly elaborate ways while Tom watches from the wings. Then they start fucking around again, messing up a grocery store, confounding authorities with their undead antics. The only hitch is that Abby isn’t dead, nor does she want to be. So, the gang gives her an ultimatum just as Mom has second thoughts about giving her son the secret to eternal high-jinx. A race against time? Well, no, not really. Oh and the frog makes a bunch more appearances.

Ok, given the tepid pace, the goofy overtones, the pale skin, the bad prog soundtrack, the nature of the hooliganry on display, this movie feels more like a British biker film than a zombie film. Maybe because the only Zombies are actually just the same bratty malcontents we’ve been dealing with all along. Their behavior is childish at best and doesn’t change at all when they discover the secret to eternal life. It’s a pretty big deal, eternity, but these guys choose to ignore it completely and just do their normal jackass routine. Also, not a second of this film takes place at night and none of it is the least bit menacing. Everything, from the frog imagery to the mass suicide of six bikers is treated with the utmost nonchalance that only a true halfwit could have produced this kind of torpid radge.

Now lets go to my favorite part of the movie; Tom’s funeral. I believe it was at this point that George Sanders took a long draught from his hipflask and thought “I worked with Hitchcock. I was in Picture of Dorian Gray! What the hell happened to my career?” You can practically see him planning it all in his head as he drops off a frog medallion to a group of pasty bikers in a second rate youth-gone-wild film. Anyway, in the scene Abby and the gang adorn Tom’s body with flowers slowly and thoughtfully, all of them dressed in street clothes. All the while one of the members of the gang strums a guitar and sings, but the song we hear has very obviously been recorded in a studio with reverb added to it. The song is clearly supposed to be about Tom, but it had more to do with trying to be like Easy Rider than it did with the movie. The lyrics sound like this “He really got it on, he rode that sweet machine just like a bomb” All the while Tom’s body is sticking out of a hole in the ground with his helmet and uniform on like he’s been taxidermed. It’s like something from Strangers With Candy.

What this film ultimately proves to me is that as you begin to close in on the last of a genre’s offerings, you find films that have little to nothing to do with that genre or any of its conventions. For every Night Of The Living Dead, a film that takes a genre and turns it on it’s head in a revolutionary kind of way, there is a Psychomania, a film that takes an approach found in another genre and attempts to squeeze blood from an idea so dead it invites a funeral more ludicrous than Toms.

Horror Express
by Eugenio Martin

This movie, another sub-Hammer vessel about a yeti who controls minds, is an absurdly stupid picture with one inspired effect and one scene that approaches being scary. One might get the impression that this is a Hammer film what with the presence of both Christopher Lee & Peter Cushing, but look around at all the Italian and Spanish names in front of and behind the camera and suddenly everything becomes much clearer. Another tip-off should have been the heedless cruelty, rivalry and positively absurd scientific deductions made by Lee and Cushing.

Are story starts humbly enough with the archeological find of the 20th century. It’s 1919 Siberia and Christopher Lee has just found a frozen yeti and believes it’s the missing link. He takes the frozen monkey on a train bound for civilization. On the train, quite by coincidence, is his friend Dr. Peter Cushing, also a count, a countess, a psychotic monk, and an armed detective. Anyway, some folks begin dying almost right away, their bodies found with bleeding white eyes. Cushing suspects something and pays a porter to check the big crate marked “not an eye-eating yeti” and in doing so becomes missing-link food, but this has served to release the thing from it’s crate and start what will be some dynamite scientific thinking. Anyway, the monk figures this thing’s gotta be satan, so he finds it and offers his body as a host and the thing graciously agrees. Soon after the detective shoots the hairy creature and all is well. That is until our men of science decide that the source of evil was the creature’s glowing red eyes (the films one decent effect, even if they are obviously just LEDs). Upon examining the eyes they (SOMEHOW) are able to look at the images stored in the eyeballs memory. First we see matte painting of a dinosaur, then a matte painting of outer space. Now if it were me, this information leads to only one conclusion, that they’ve discovered the fabled space ape, but our boys aren’t as easily satisfied as I am. They decide that this is actually just an alien that took over this apeman and survives by sucking brains (hence the bleeding white eyes of the victims). Before they have time to think about finding out which passenger has been taken as a host, some Cossack soldiers board the train in the hopes of hijacking it, I think, or maybe just to rob it, who knows. What’s important is that the hardened captain of these Russians is a very not-Russian Telly Savalas*. They board the train but before they can do any damage or scare anyone they start battling the alien. It wins. It kills all the soldiers in a dark room and sucks their brains, turning them into red-eyed zombies who want more brains.
Ok, well, it could have been a lot worse, I guess. Apparently Cushing almost didn’t do this film, not because he opposed to the laughable plot or subject matter, but because his wife had died recently. Christopher Lee, seeing what an undeniable blockbuster this was going to be, sat him down and said “Come on, Pete, remember House That Dripped Blood? Remember Satanic Rites of Dracula? We have an obligation to our fans. And besides this one seems special. Did you hear they got Kojak to be a commie?”

*Telly Savalas as a russian? Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu was pretty atrocious, but seriously? They didn’t even bother trying make-up or a real accent or anything; they had their star and didn’t give a good goddamn about anything else. If you were making a film today that called for a Russian and Keannu Reeves had signed on, I guess you wouldn’t care either. Or maybe it’s because the budget was $300,000 and they spent all their money getting names on the marquee and it didn’t matter what they did. Maybe they did what Roger Vadim and Raoul Levy did when they hired Curd Jürgens to be in …And God Created Women, they just took 8 hours and rewrote the script to include a juicy part for an old german so he wouldn’t say “Fuck You” and take his famous ass elsewhere.
And between these two films we have the only reason that Arnaud d'Usseau will be remembered for anything

Monday, September 3, 2007

R.I.P. Terry Gilliam

This isn't about zombies, but I feel so utterly alone that I felt it was important enough to give the film I just watched a write-up. The plot of Terry Gilliam's Tideland is one you can find on Wikipedia, so, I'll just skip it. The point of this post is that I am rarely confronted by feelings so strong as to confuse my senses and stifle my reaction so heavily. When Tideland ended I didn't know how to feel. I was sad, yes. I was angry, a little. I was pleased, perversely, but only slightly. Few films have elicited this kind of reaction from me (Jigoku is the strongest example I can think of. The Dreamers, Day of Wrath, I Spit On Your Grave and Funny Games came very close. I anticipate this response from Salo, if I ever find the damn thing). Bottom line: I've felt like this few times in my life. But look at that list. They are either obscure foreign genre pictures or new school art-house grime with some kind of pornographic message about the absence of purity in the world. And more importantly, they have all been just about forgotten save by the Criterion Collection and a handful of diehards, myself included. Why? My theory, as I'm sure there are dozens, is called the Death of the American Intellectual.

This is a theory that I've slowly been refining in an effort to make sure that it makes sense. Tideland was given a good, hard kick in the face by American critics and audiences alike and will now live on as a small scale Munchausen to put on Terry Gilliam's shelf of failures next to Death of Don Quixote. Let's take the side of the critic for a minute. Why would I, as an intellectual who is paid to watch films and sees quite a few watch a two hour film about a little girl who helps her parents shoot smack, then watch them die, befriend a retarded man and his deranged sister who have taxidermed their loved ones and do the same to the girl's dad, while reality slowly peels away, she hears the voices of her dolls' heads, she begins a courtship with the handicapped man, bleeds inexplicably and is saved only when a train crashes nearby, killing unseen passengers. Put all of these things in Gilliam's signature jaunty, all-too-close lens and you have an incredibly confrontational head trip that gives you no choice but to consider things your mind would never have subjected you to, even in your nightmares. Ok, so, like Owen Gleiberman from Entertainment Weekly, we give the film an F, shall we? It has no merit and the disgust I'm feeling is explained by the horrible things I just watched, end of story.

Now, let's take my point of view. When something disgusts, scares, upsets or makes you feel unpleasant, isn't it half the fun of being a human being to ask why? Spiders drive me insane. Why? The movement of their many legs perhaps. The quickness with which many of them scuttle across surfaces of clashing color. The alien shape of their bodies. Why did they haunt my childhood dreams? Why do I jump at the sight of them? Why do I seek out movies that feature them prominently? I've slowly gotten to a certain level of understanding of their existence to not be as terrified of them as I once was. What was all that about? If sitting through Tideland only made you think about how much you hated the movie, you're not thinking at all.

This is not an ordinary movie, nor is it one that anyone should really enjoy (In a Fear & Loathing kind of way), but it is mesmerizing. A movie that covers so many forbidden topics is not out to repulse you (well, some of you), but to make you think; to show you something you've never seen or even considered before. Any film that can make me feel so completely uncomfortable exists for a reason. It wasn't a squemish sort of discomfort, but something else entirely. My mind was being attacked by the possibility of these things ever happening. The story, though told by someone with a vivid imagination, is grounded in reality, and this scares me in a way very little else does. This could have been the hellish American Pan's Labyrinth it's been made out to be by some (God knows Gilliam would have been capable of making it), but he didn't just make a special effects movie or a simple horror movie. He made a movie that shook me to my very core. I had to repress the urge to say, "How can you do this?" many, many times while watching Tideland. If while watching this movie, you're only thought was "How much longer till the end?" you ought to be ashamed of yourself. America, its attention span, its appreciation for art, and its tolerance are vanishing quickly. Killed off by commercial films, advertisements and the lightning quick rate of production of things like cell phones and pop music. Exhibit A: Ingmar Bergman is dead and I can't find a soul in my film class who's even heard of him. Exhibit B: Tideland's approval rating. Some journalist compared it to Malpertius recently, in that in 30 years, it will have found its niche. 30 years? Find me someone under 20 who's seen the Seventh Seal, and then we'll go looking for the guy who's seen Malpertius. The reason we are so quick to forget about Tideland is because it was in danger of making us think. Isn't it strange that someone who has made such commercially and artistically successful films as Brazil and Meaning of Life would out of the blue try and gross you out with a story involving a kid cooking heroin for Jeff Bridges. NO! Doesn't anyone else think he's trying to tell us something by refusing to make movies people approve of? America doesn't like thinking anymore, especially about things that distress us. Case in point: The War! If something isn't both commercially appealing and pleasant to think about, America could give a rat's ass about the message it's sending. Sure, it's got one of the strongest performances ever given by a child, beautiful photography, an inspired, touching musical score, and is unconventional in every sense of the word, but where are the tits and gay jokes? I'm not dreaming this right? Tideland occupies one space at Blockbuster, but I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry is grossing 400 million dollars as we live and breathe. The Death of the American Intellectual is a very real thing and it's being carried out by a number of perpetrators: Joel Silver, Jerry Bruckheimer, Adam Sandler, MTV, Youtube, Fox and anything or anyone else that keeps attention spans short, expectations high and standards low. Read a book, watch an Antonioni film, find a Georgia O'Keefe exhibit (even if it's online), whatever you do, don't settle for flash, and don't stop because it makes you think.

They say this is what's going to kill Terry Gilliam's career. I say it's already started killing something intangible and Gilliam's career is just one casualty. Though, that doesn't mean that if he were never to find backing for a film again I wouldn't stage a sit-in at the closest movie theatre. Our greatest artists are dying everyday, and we are watching them go without any recognition of the bright light they brought to the earth in their short time here. Let's not cut short the careers of the few artists still breathing.

Saturday, September 1, 2007


Here are pictures of the desert treats we enjoyed at Zombie Night 2007. Thank you to bakers Rachel, Lina and Maggie. Lina, i'm not sure what happened to your desert, but it was delicious

Severed Leg Cake

Finger Cookies

Announcement Cupcakes

Zombie Head Cake (I like to think it's the lead from Zombie Lake)

Disembodied Hand Cake

Tombstone Brownies (complete with epitaph for tasteful zombie movies)