Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Were Not Quite Zombies

People really do have quite low standards when it comes to defining zombies. Sometimes this can be a good thing, sometimes this can be the cinematic equivalent of a gunshot to your kneecaps. Here we have two examples of zombie films with deceptive titles; a pleasantly surprising 50s noirror film with the old definition of zombies redefined and a mid-80s Jesús Franco porn-horror movie of the sort he was so terribly fond of making. As I've always believed in hearing the bad news first, we'll start with the Franco.

Mansion Of The Living Dead
by Jesús Franco

If he were at all interested in telling the truth or (or making good movies) he would have called this Abandoned Hotel of the Skull-Faced Rapists; now that's a title I can feel good about! Four women with atrocious eighties hair and clothing pull into a deserted island hotel and make some truly irreverent small talk. At least it's actually in Spanish and doesn't appear to have been dubbed. One of them has a shiny silver bowl cut and...hey, isn't that Lina Romay? She's gained some weight since Female Vampire, convinced Franco she deserved a speaking role, and she looks she was just fired from the B-52s. They go into the lobby and the whole place is devoid of other guests or wait staff. Just when they plan to leave the creepy blonde hotel manager pops up and gives them two rooms, claiming the others are all booked. There is a weird bit of tension as the four women decide who they'll room with. This is because they have all been keeping their affairs secret from one another in the mistaken belief that the girls they are not sleeping with are nun-style prudes. The second they get into their rooms, each pair has essentially the same conversation about being worried they would end up sharing the rooms with those prudes. Now that they're alone, relieved, they all take their clothes off and start making out. Well, it's been 10 minutes and Franco already has four unattractive women licking each other. I'm not 100% on this, but I'm nearly positive that Franco was the guy who invented this style of filmmaking where female characters spend three quarters of the film naked. They do ordinary things, have conversations, eat, talk on the telephone, walk around, but their breasts are fully exposed. Guess you can't fault a guy for making a film he wants to watch. I just wish he had never released them, cause he's been encouraging a lot of assholes to do the same thing.
Well it seems the girl's have all forgotten their swimming suits and go out to the empty beach in varying states of nudity. That's when someone drops a clever from a balcony that lands between two of them and the creepy janitor shows up. He serves no purpose, I assure you. Well, aside from the mounting weirdness and paucity of other people, flying knives, a peeping tom custodian, and apparently no food or drink to be had, nothing's too out of place and so they settle in for the night and the women start screwing again (well, sort of...i'll come back to that). The next morning one of the girls goes out for a stroll and finds her way into an old monastery nearby. She finds something terrible, screams and disappears from the plot. They never mention her again, except in the context of her girlfriend being mysteriously horny all of the sudden. The other girls go looking for food and the janitor gives them the "I'm lazy and women belong in the kitchen" routine. One of the girls, I can't tell them apart so I'll just call her the brunette, fed up with this goes for a walk and finds the hotel manager. They waste no time in having sex, but he stops when he hears the chiming of a clock. He leaves with her an excuse about having to feed a sick woman and that he'll meet her tomorrow in his car. This is just about the time we meet the woman on the dog collar. The hotel manager brings a tray of food to a naked woman chained up in one of the rooms. She wants to eat and he finds that disgusting, for some reason. He complains of how much like an animal she's becoming "You just eat and shit". He then starts having sex with her but stops so that she'll want more. Jesús Franco: feminist first, filmmaker second.

The hotel manager takes the brunette to the monastery in his car and then leaves her there, telling her not to go anywhere. She gets out seconds later, wanders into the monastery, and meets a group of men in white hoods with plastic skull masks. The only exception is the head priest who looks like some large animal spit on his face and he never wiped it off. The men seize her, declare her a sinner and strip her clothes off. Spit-face reads a perverted scripture (dedicated to satan instead of god, some real excellent writing) while the guys in skull masks take turns raping her and then they stab her in her vagina. We will never learn why.

The remaining two girls decide to shack up together now that their partners have both gone missing and it takes them about a minute and 30 seconds before they get down to having sex. They find the body of one of the girls lying naked in the pool, dead. They go to report it to the hotel manager, but he hilariously tells them that's an issue for the help desk, which is clearly fucking empty. Lina Romay and the hotel manager meet in the hallway, just like the other girl did, and he promises to get her out. He leaves her and then she takes to wandering (can't say I blame her, as I was tempted to do the same thing during this film). She meets dog collar girl, who explains that yes, she hates the hotel manager for locking her up, but no she doesn't want to leave. She explains while eating a sickening amount of food with her hands that she has become enthrall to him and likes being starved, chained, and taken out to piss on a dog collar. Then, out of nowhere, she gets jealous and insists that Lina take her silver wig and beat it before her man comes back. She wisely backs out of the room and then unwisely heads over to the monastery. There they do the handing down of the verdict (guilty!) and then start raping her. She then discovers the true identity of spit-face, which while being the only logical explanation, doesn't really make any sense. 

Let's go over the things that are never explained in this movie: Why the girls have kept their affairs secret; why the hotel is abandoned; Who the dog-collar girl is; Why the white-sheet boys are doing what they're doing; who they are; why they worship satan; why they let Lina Romay live but not her friends; why peeling off their face make-up kills them; which girl is found in the pool; who the janitor is; why some of the cult members have plastic skull masks; what the hell Jesús Franco was thinking. I've heard rumours that this was supposed to be a remake of Tombs of the Blind Dead, which I guess makes sense elementally, but, wow. Who knew something could ever make Tombs of the Blind Dead look superior to another film (by leaps and bounds no less). Of course, if this was intended as a remake, Franco never told anyone until it was done. There is no talk of Knights Templar so I assume that business was just a little too complicated for him to understand. "Skeletons in hoods killing ugly women? I can do that!" It only took me one other movie in his canon to find something worse than Female Vampire, so imagine how much better Tombs of the Blind Dead looks next to this.
The only thing more off-putting than watching the men in white forcing themselves on the four women is watching the women give themselves to one another. Lina Romay, Eva León, Mabel Escaño, and Mari Carmen Nieto were no strangers to pornography at the time so it's more than strange that they apparently had no idea how to convincingly fake having sex with each other. Now, I don't mean to say that I think this is ever called for in a movie, or that had they done a good job it would have saved the movie, but there's something profoundly silly about watching four grown women pretending to like having sex with each other. When Lina and her girlfriend start kissing it looks like they both can't stand each other and they both wince visibly. I guess you can only be forced to act like a lesbian for so many years before a naked girl can just make you mad. It's like watching two awkward teenagers forced to do it in a game of spin the bottle. They don't really like each other and were hoping they would land on the quarterback. And then there's their acting outside the bedroom. And I'm not sure what Lina Romay did to convince Jesús that she deserved a speaking role, but it wasn't worth it. She and the other girls talking drags this movie out much more than it can withstand. In fact, seeing as there isn't anything remotely frightening or relevant in the movie, everything makes it drag. This movie in general is a drag. Franco does everything in his power to make the sex as ugly and uncomfortable as possible; like when Lina Romay sits down on the toilet (with the intention of urinating if I'm not mistaken), and her girlfriend sits down opposite her and they start stripping and making out. She's on the fucking toilet, Jesús! Have some dignity. It's no wonder everyone was so turned off.

The Creature With The Atom Brain
by Ed Cahn
Finally, a schlock man I can tolerate. If you couldn't tell from it's title this film is a solid piece of red scare tripe. We see a man break into a gambler named Hennessy's house (through the steel barred windows) and murder someone as he's counting his money and putting it in his safe. His death throws are recorded in the man's personal recorder as he's commenting on his takings for the day. The police are as baffled by the assailant's super-human strength as they are by the words the man says before killing his target. "This is Frank Buchanan...I told you I'd see you die!" The last thing Hennessy says is that the man doesn't look a thing like Buchanan. That could be because Buchanan is controlling the man with the help of a mad scientist called Steigg. The police find no trace of the hitman, but the next day when a DA turns up dead in his garage under similar circumstances, they suspect a connection. Both men were involved in the arrest of notorious gangster Frank Buchanan. They check into it; he's supposed to have been in a Roman prison after having been exiled from the states following his jail-time. Well, as the audience has no doubt figured out, he's gotten out and teamed up with Steigg. Why has the German doctor agreed to murdering people? Well he was once a Nazi scientist who has since fallen out of society's good graces and was forced into a basement laboratory when Buchanan found him. Obviously Nazi beggars can't be choosers, so in exchange for funding and a detour in revenge city, the two began their work.

One side-effect of their volatile experimenting is that the radiation they've been using to control people has started to rub off in the crime scenes (the first real clue!). Equally disconcerting is that the fingerprints left behind belong to a man who, not a week earlier had succumb to tuberculosis. Now this doesn't make a lick of sense until the police read about the robbery of eight corpses from the city morgue. Chet Walker (They call him Dr. and he's in the employ of the police, so I take it that he's some kind of proto-forensics man), and his boss Captain Harris get the aid of the military in setting up radiation-detecting equipment to scour the city. In the meantime, they've hired police escorts to guard the other men who sold Buchanan up the river all those years ago. The police don't expect him to use a zombie-uniform cop to show up to relieve the guard at assistant DA Franchot's house (chalk another one up for Buchanan and the Nazi). So as Buchanan's hit list gets smaller, the police get closer to finding the madman. This worries Buchanan and so he starts to expand his remote control murders to the police investigating. He turns captain Harris into a zombie and sends him to Dr. Walker's house with the intent of menacing his wife and daughter. All they can manage to make him do is break his daughter's doll into a dozen pieces and then leave. The police stop the zombie cop when he crashes his car, scrambling the signals from Buchanan and Steigg. Now all he wants to do is find Buchanan and kill him. The police and the military follow him back to Buchanan's place, but he's not interested in going quietly. He sends the reanimated corpses out to face them on his front lawn while Walker tries to overpower Buchanan and stop the zombie attack.

Cahn knew how to make a solid zombie picture, if nothing else. He was making every kind of reanimated corpse film there was to make in those pre-Romero days. The composition, acting, and action scenes are all respectfully done and all the scenes with zombie attacks are handled really well. The first attack where we see the zombie breaking Hennessy like a fourth-of-july popper is pretty effective. As is the final confrontation between the well-dressed undead and the military men. Cahn knew the cinematic appeal of watching men in suits fighting in large groups better than any other American director. Of course, the film is helped by the script by Curt Siodmak, writer of I Walked With A Zombie, The Wolf Man, The Beast With Five Fingers, and Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, one of a handful of german émigrés who made American movies better in the 40s and 50s. This movie's script takes it's cues from two different movies. Obvious are the connections between this and another commie-horror movie; Howard Hawks' The Thing From Another World. However, despite the thematic similarities, the movie that Creature owes the greatest debt to is Fritz Lang's The Big Heat. We have someone working with the police tirelessly, distracted from his family. We have a gangster who can't be touched (though for reasons of anonymity rather than status), killing people and eventually attempting to harm our heroes family (a wife and daughter in both cases). We have our hero and villain duking it out at the latter's lavish pad. We have crooks turning straight and then being killed. Both films were made in part by left-wing German noir-men, and both are fairly routine, very solid examples of their genres. Even the actress who plays Walker's daughter, Linda Bennett, plays Glenn Ford's daughter in The Big Heat, doing exactly the same role. The framing story of the police vs. gangsters is basically identical. Creature strives towards being family friendly and so shies away from the outright viscousness of Lang's film, because producer Sam Arkoff was much more interested in appealing to wider audiences than Fritz Lang (his best known film is about a child murderer for god's sakes). In losing the motivated lighting and murky character-lines of its precursor, director Ed Cahn had a less interesting plot-arc to work with, but he was free to bring in his visual trademarks: pandemonium-via-stock footage, large groups of men marching together, old fashioned fisticuffs between two square-jaws. There's that sense of global annihilation Cahn repeatedly strove for, even if the problem couldn't be more localized. Cahn's films have conviction that many 50s sci-fi films lack; he's not afraid to end a film in broad daylight, or to make the villain look like a human being. His romances are always tastefully done, instead of put upon like SO many films of the period; with guys like Arkoff screaming at you for a romantic ending, it must have been a challenge to be so reasonable about it, but he's rarely disappointed in this regard. Here our hero is already married and clearly cares about his family, but understands that in cases that involve radioactive zombies, he's got to see the big picture, and his smugness even serves to add some conviction when he explains to his daughter that Harris won't be coming by their house anymore. Considering Arkoff's other films it could have been much worse. In fact I used Arkoff's other work to back me up here. Sam put his money into a lot of films, but Cahn's never looked as pitiful as the directors of say The Giant Claw, Earth Vs. The Spider or The Amazing Colossal Man and its sequel. I say bravo.

El Santo at 1000 Misspent Hours & Counting has commented how much Ted V. Mikels stole from Creature With The Atom Brain for his Astro Zombies, which makes this film one rung midway up a very interesting ladder (Lang, Hawks, Cahn, Mikels? Just imagine where it ends). While he comments on all the plot similarities (and there are many), he might also be interested to know that the name of the Assistant DA in Creature is also the name of John Carradine's hideous lab assistant in Astro Zombies. Now that's generally something people do when they're nodding at their heroes (Final Destination, Slither, Night of the Creeps), but Creature was only 10 years old when Mikels made his movie; still it's tough to imagine someone being so completely oblivious to copyright laws that he would go so far as to outright steal the names of characters. But this is 60s horror we're talking about, so no plot (on or off screen) is too wildly unfounded.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Underdog

Very frequently in this business of mine I run into films that my brain tells me I shouldn't like but something deep within my black heart tells me I do. Maybe it's a character I find myself drawn to, or the cinematography, or the situation our heros find themselves in that draws me to it. Today I look at two such films, movies that if I had a brain in my head I would have left for dead, but something about them strikes me in just the right way. They're both 70s zombie-type films that borrow heavily from their predecessors but whose directors impart unique stylistic flares; their way of doing something new with something old. They are a bit slow and a definitely aged, but they are films that I keep coming back to. And they were both made in the 1970s, so, you know...theme post

Let Sleeping Corpses Lie
by Jorge Grau
The story of this film that most nerds should be fairly familiar with. Jorge Grau got producers interested in his style after making films like Violent Blood Bath. Of course Spain and Italy had probably just gotten a hold of Night of the Living Dead in the early 70s and I'm sure Amando de Osorio's Tombs of the Blind Dead was pretty big at the time and so some Italians with money wanted to get a jump on the next big zombie film. They approached Grau with the idea of making Night of the Living Dead in color, but at the time he was preparing to make Bloody Ceremony, a female vampire film that looks like a Spanish version of Suspiria (I've only ever seen the few publicity photos in the Corpses prologue). When he was finished they tried again and Grau's plate was empty and so he went to it with the regular furnishings of an Italian film; a bit of mad science, a lot of zombies, a pessimistic ending and one washed-up American actor.

A man who owns an antique shop (and the most pristine mod clothes I've ever seen) closes up his shop and heads out on his oh-so-cool motorcycle for the country. He passes a lot of people wearing surgical face masks to block out the smog and a woman who runs across the street naked. Cause it's the 60s! Or, it still was in Spain! My guess is no one gave Grau the word that the swinging 60s were called that for a reason. Anyway, George is the man's name and he stops briefly to gas up, which is just enough time for a woman to back her mini cooper into him and crush his bike. George, livid, goes on the attack but Edna (the driver) agrees to take George to his destination. Hers is a little more out of the way and also a little more pressing so George agrees to drive her there first but not before stopping for directions (did I mention he insisted on driving? Well he takes the keys with him when he goes for directions). He goes off and finds a gardening crew implementing a new kind of pesticide. The pesticide uses radiation to work on the bug's nervous system making them want to attack all other bugs in the immediate vicinty. The crew goes all music-man and claim it's the best thing since DDT. George reminds them DDT caused Cancer and so begins George and Edna's tempestuous relationship with men in uniform. As soon as George gets what he needs Edna is attacked by a damp, pale man with creepy red eyes. He chases after her when she flees the key-less car but is, predictably, nowhere in sight when George and the owner of the radiated field come to her aid. Curiously the man she describes sounds an awful lot like a local vagrant who drowned a while back. Hmm...

Well George has just about had it up to here with this girl, but he hasn't seen nothing yet. Well it turns out the reason our soggy zombie friend went missing is because he and Edna had a common destination. Edna is off to this part of the country because her detoxing sister Katie is there with her husband, Martin and together he and Edna are going to cart Katie off to rehab. The plan has her on edge and she decides to sneak into the garage to take that edge off. Martin catches her fixing up a shot and she goes a little berserk, but Martin resolves not to let his wife's habit ruin his evening and sets up a photo shoot on the grounds of their home. It is when Martin has left her unguarded when the zombie attacks Katie. She runs to try and find her husband and then watches in terror as the zombie kills him just as Edna and George pull into the driveway, scaring him off. Enter our washed-up American.
The inspector (Arthur Kennedy) attacks our heros with accusations unfit even for an Italian authority figure. He suggests that Katie, who now looks more distressed than anyone in the world has ever looked, killed Martin and that George and Edna were somehow in on it. He insists they stay in town for questioning, which means they'll have nothing better than do some Sherlock Holmes-ing while the Inspector stares down his nose at them. They go to the hospital to visit Katie, and George happens in on a baby attacking a nurse (this isn't as ludicrous as it sounds). He and the attending physician both begin to feel like mayhap that new radioactive pesticide is responsible. The science works thusly: The radiation works on the bugs tiny little nervous system, causing them to flip out and kill everyone around them, sort of like pouring alcohol on a scorpion. What else has an immature nervous system? A baby's isn't fully formed yet and so have begun acting equally violent. The gears in motion yet? They are for George, but, being one of those types he won't believe it until he's got proof. The two develop Martin's photos and find the assailant who does indeed look a certain dead drunk. That's just when the Inspector shows up and confiscates the pictures and tells them to knock it off. The next line may be why Art agreed to do the film. "You're all the same the lot of you. With your long hair and faggot clothes. Drugs, sex, every sort of filth. And you hate the police." Writing doesn't often get this raw or acting this electrifying.

So, with his face stinging from that official slap he just received George blows his top and drives Edna to the cemetery to prove the dead don't walk about killing folks for pleasure. He'd have a better argument if there weren't a posse of the undead waiting for the radiation to juice them back up. George and Edna escape just barely but a patrol cop the inspector had tailing them gets dealt with rather viciously. The undead crush him with a tombstone and pull his guts out. George discovers the zombies can be stopped by setting fire to them, which the Inspector then hilariously misinterprets as the work of a satanic cult. "...Have you ever heard of...Satanists?" After the attack George tries everything in his power to stop the radiation which he now accepts as the cause for the living dead and Edna tries to get to her sister. Both of their plans would be easy were it not for the inspector and the improved range of the pesticide.
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie has problems, alright, big ones, but I love it just the same. My thorough enjoyment of this movie was the first sign that my standards for entertainment had slipped a little from exposure. My pleasure isn't unfounded I swear. This movie would have been utterly unwatchable except for a few things, not the least of which was that it was in the hands of a careful director. He may not have been discerning when it came to dubbing, but handed a mediocre script written as a rip-off, for god's sakes, he delivered something that could have survived on style alone. First and foremost for me is the cinematography. I'm not sure where in Manchester this was filmed but it's absolutely gorgeous. There's a continuing shot of a church on a hill where the cemetery lies. It looks like a painting and it took a few viewings to convince me it wasn't just that. The work done by Francisco Sempere using Grau's carefully composed shots is masterful, ten times that in any other Italian horror film I've ever seen. It predicted the kind of work Emmanuel Lubezki would do with texturing and making film look like oil paintings come to life (not that Sempere was better by any means). 

But Grau doesn't let his artistic side get in the way of his job scaring people. In fact, in the film's best scare scene, it helps it. Katie and her doctor are boarding an elevator when three zombies from the morgue surprise attack them. The camera is placed in the reasonable but slow elevator and shows the ghastly looking corpses charging down the hall in quite spooky marching fashion. It's incredibly effective and the only time that we've been inside the elevator looking out when the zombie's attack. Grau also did an insane amount of research for this little project. He leant a good deal of time working out how his zombies were going to behave. He remembered the sound of gas escaping a dead body at a wake he attended when he was a little boy and used that as his zombie moaning noise. He wanted each zombie to retain something of the way they die in their appearance (now there's something people mercilessly steal these days). I guess what I mean to say is that Grau could have been an real director if people had been paying attention. He already seems to have the same qualifiications of most art-house players in the 1970s and if would go a long way towards explaining it's main characters and its rebellious nature...
As for those things: Ray Lovelock and Cristina Galbó as George and Edna may be the coolest people in any horror film and part of the charm is seeing honest-to-god beatniks dealing with such a nightmarish crisis. There clothes are impeccable and seeing them slowly succumb to wear-and-tear without every losing their character is deeply satisfying. They are both reasonably attractive (Cristina Galbó earns a spot on my cute foreign film star list) and act like adults until circumstances can no longer allow them to. In fact, except for the unforgivably dull delivery on the parts of their dubbers I'd say they're my favorite Zombie protagonists of all time. I can say that I can't remember the last time i rooted so hard for a guy to save the day and get the girl. Of course the Italians had to make the balls of that too, but what can you do? The movie works because I found myself caring (CARING? IN AN ITALIAN FILM!?!) about the main characters. It made the cemetary stuff work because I knew how much the Italian's cared about saving main characters, and so was worried about the two of them (I admit also to feeling a little like a schoolmarm when Grau couldn't avoid showing Cristina Galbó's underwear as she cowers as the top of the stairs).

The other thing that gives Grau away as a closet-art student is his handling of the other side of the plot. We have George and Edna fighting zombies, but the thing that gives them the most trouble is the powers-that-be. And before we move from that, the Zombies are created by the government. How's that for student protest logic? Go Jorge! As for the other plot threads, on one side we have George trying doggedly to shut down the radioactive pesticide and paying for it (sort of like Silent Spring, but with Zombies). On the other we have the police breathing down their necks, refusing to listen to them and behaving violently whenever possible. Then there's that opening montage of the city overrun with smog and hippies. If George had stayed to fight it out with naked protest girl he might have been a lot better off (Also, I assume George is some kind of drug-booter or burglar of some kind and that his errand in the country concerns this, but we're never let in on his weekend plans). Grau gives more screen time to the problems with authority than the problems with the undead. This could be because he was making this movie because of interfering studio heads, or because he was from Spain, a country still in the throws of dictatorship. Or maybe he was the only horror director south of Paris with a brain in his head. He couldn't do anything with the script, but what he did with the rest of the money they gave to him.

And speaking of doing anything for money, Arthur Kennedy gives a performance here that would have added a few years to Bela Lugosi's life. From beyond the grave Boris Karloff could look at the publicity photos from THe Snake People with pride knowing he didn't throw in the towel quite so nefariously. Arthur Kennedy plays an Irish inspector, but apparently he didn't have it in him to apply the method to this role (stands to reason, the Italians can really take the fight out of you). The extent to which he feels he needs to act Irish was simply changing the vowel sound of words like "my" and hardening the consonants in "Christ". He simply didn't care and I don't blame him. The Italians got to Kennedy in the mid-60s, but before they got their mitts on him the man had one hell of a damn resume: The Man From Laramie, The Desperate Hours, The Glass Menagerie, High Sierra. He was no Jimmy Stewart but I don't think the Italians had any inkling how bright a flame they were sticking in shit when they forced him into a trench coat for The Tempter, The Dirty Mob, Kiss My Hand, or Taboo Island. I guess it wouldn't have been to much to ask to just die when you've been resigned to Exorcist rip-offs and fake Emmanuelle sequels. Mel Ferrer and Eli Wallach were taken for similar rides but I don't think they felt the sting nearly as bad as old Arthur.
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie might not be so cool when I'm thirty, but I gotta tell you, I love this beautiful mess. And don't we all want to make a brilliantly photographed revisionist zombie film? No? That's just me? Whatever, more for me. It's been my dream ever since I saw 28 Days Later for the first time and discovering that someone had done a tremendous job with the concept 30 years earlier was a little like finding out I have an uncle who got arrested for pissing on Nixon's shoes. It does the heart good to see your dreams come true before you had them. Like what would it look like if David Cronenberg ever made a zombie film...?

by David Cronenberg
See how I did that? Somewhere between Let Sleeping Corpses Lie and Dawn of the Dead were David Cronenberg's takes on the zombie genre. He got the ball rolling with Shivers, his first proper film but Rabid owes a greater debt to the films of George Romero. Plot wise we're closer to Crazies territory, but Romero is Romero. See if this sounds at all familiar: In a rural out-of-the-way place a virus begins killing people and resurrecting them with a hunger for human flesh that soon moves into the big city impacting hundreds of people. Pretty run-of-the-mill, right? Well, it wouldn't be Cronenberg without something icky and biological and in this case it's a phallic stinger that springs out of Marilyn Chamber's armpit after too much experimental cosmetic surgery following a motorcycle crash. Chambers plays Rose, the victim of a motorcrash along with her boyfriend Hart. The accident occurs conveniently just a few miles away from a clinic offering a new kind of plastic surgery. With Hart's consent they operate. The stinger emerges when she awakens from her induced state of sleep following the operation and it comes with an increased sex drive. We don't actually see much of the sex, but we know what's up. She uses her sexuality to escape the confines of the institute and makes her way to the nearest metropolitan area. People begin springing from every corner of society with symptoms which are something like rabies mixed with cannibalism (which is close enough to zombie for me). Not soon after the whole city (Toronto) is quarantined by men with guns, hazard suits and gas-masks. Hart and one of the men who worked at the clinic named Murray Cypher go looking for Rose because they know something the rest of the world doesn't: she's the ma-genitor of the epidemic.

Once again it was the characters that lead me to like what is in all honesty probably a very mediocre (but never dull) picture. Cronenberg spends so much time setting up the atmosphere so he can make the chaos in the third act seem truly crazy. This doesn't really work because he hadn't yet perfected his atmospherics. In two years, when he did The Brood, he had gotten all the bugs out of his system and would start a wave of nearly-perfect horror films that would last him until 1988's Dead Ringers. Cronenberg wasn't quite there but he was definitely close. A lot of the visual cues are right out of The Crazies and I feel like I've seen similar versions of the fate of Murray in a dozen other films before then, but that didn't stop me from caring enough about his character to wish I didn't see it coming. Cronenberg gets a gold star here because he gets a naturalistic performance out of a fairly well-known pornstar. Marilyn Chambers is understated (maybe because he was worried she'd go all Green Door is he didn't close the lid tight) and manages to pull off the most convincing performance in the film. Prefiguring and besting Sasha Grey's work for Stephen Soderbergh, her detachment helps us feel for her character and fear her a at once. She does a better than decent job with Rose, quietly taking in her changing psyche and her new drives. She has no problem conveying a dawning evil sex drive (and to be honest I could have lived without that portion of the story, but Cronenberg was going through a phase, so I give him a pass. What the hell, it was the 70s, right?). Sympathetic characters are what Cronenberg does best and it's why all of his late 70s and late 80s films are light years ahead of his output in the 90s. And bonus: Fast Moving Zombies!!!!
What I like about this movie is that he was still in that phase of his career where he was feeling sorry for himself over something (watch The Brood for more on this subject). Hart, who I take to be a surrogate for our man-in-the-planet, has more than one reason to find Rose, which scares him sure, but he's too afraid, too guilty, and too much in love with the girl to stop looking for her. He is after all the reason she had to go into intensive care in the first place. He crashed the motorcycle and now she's a rabid scorpion woman who's only aim is to bed every man she can find. Hart knows she can't help herself, but is probably at least a little hurt by this. He also knows what he has to do should he actually find her: kill her. Of course none of this could be as strong as the feelings he still harbors for her. You don't chase just any girl around while there's a fatal rabies strain going around. Interesting too that Cronenberg decides not to make Rose immune to the disease she causes; making her both more human and more sympatheitc. He does a good job with the final encounter between Rose and Hart, which takes place on the telephone, which will happen when a girl breaks your heart. The scene is a pretty marvelous mock-up of your average break-up and it's Frank Moore's shining moment. Hart bottles all of his feelings up inside him as slowly his window becomes shorter and shorter and he is left without anyone to help him. As with any break-up you can't control any aspect of it, you don't get to explain all of your feelings, and you don't get to decide how to end it. 

Though admittedly the above conclusion comes from watching the movie through a lens of personal experience it seems safe to say that Cronenberg's particular point in this film (his movies have at least one bone to pick with modern life) is about the way that masculine urges manage to override feminine identity. The plastic surgeons control what they purport to be the perfect image and systematically make all the female visitors submit to their standards of normalcy. Rose's change into vampiric femme fatale is because of both her boyfriend's steering her through life and because of the male clinicians assurance that her body needs fixing, that there is an objective idea of beautiful. This is of course nonsense and Rose's rampage can be seen as the feminine identity revenging itself on a city full of perpetually unsatisfied men. Coupled with Cronenberg's sympathizing with Hart and his search for his girlfriend to try and get her back/destroy her, Rabid can be seen as one of the very first movies that takes a fairly normal stance on male/female dynamics (i.e. woman as destroyer, man as saviour) but remain sympathetic to both characters. In this way we can view Rabid as one of the first overtly feminist horror films, something that made me like it all the more.
Something tells me that between The Fly, The Brood and Dead Ringers that Cronenberg was an incredibly unhappy man in his personal life. Having just gone through the kind of emotional claustrophobia depicted in Rabid at the time I watched it, it struck a chord with me in a way no other Cronenberg film ever has which made me see past it's many flaws to its very core. Any man who can use zombies to explore his feelings is someone I'd be glad to call a friend. It's almost enough to make me forget History of Violence.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

"A Race of Atomic Supermen!"

You know, my dad has always maintained that the only way to appreciate a movie in context is to take a look at all the other shit that was made around the same time. That way you can be painfully aware just how much ground was broken by a particular movie. Take Night of the Living Dead, for example. Night is a great film in any sort of context, but, it's greatness becomes undeniable when you put it next to other zombie films at the time. Like Ted V. Mikels' The Astro Zombies, to pick something on my netflix queue. Made in 1969 (the year AFTER Night of the Living Dead), this movie has more misplaced genre cliches than a Mel Brooks film, only Mikels wasn't trying to be funny. There's some absurd mad science, a communist plot, a laboratory romance with no certainty as to who the second member might be, a deformed lab assistant, a rambling robot who murders beautiful women, Tura Satana as a scantily clad foreign assassin, a Tor Johnson-type gunmen partnered with a gay hispanic dancer running around killing people, blackmail with no possible motive, and to top it all off John Carradine pulling the strings.

The Astro Zombies
by Ted V. Mikels
Now, far be it from me to expect zombies in a movie with "zombies" in the title, but there is only one zombie in the film. Does the plural form mean NOTHING to filmmakers? That your movie has the lamest zombie after 1960 is insult enough but don't ramp up my expectations with an 's'. Anyway, off to the series of murders and drinking games this film calls a plot.

First we see a woman with enormous breasts drive her car into her garage only to be killed offscreen by a man wearing a giant robot bug mask. The credits roll over scenes of toy robots dancing over noises so loud they woke up the people on the first floor. Next we see a crafty looking Mexican steal a body from a car crash with a racist sort of gleam in his eye. Then in another movie, a dough-faced blonde headed guy rewinds a tape in an old tape player and then laughs to himself. Then in yet another movie four men who took "dress to impress" to heart all stagger into a room one at a time (my guess here is that Mikels finished writing the script and then shoved them on camera when they had a name and a back story to recite). They discuss science and the spate of Mutilation Murders in town. We'll later see a newspaper with the headline "Mutilation Murders" just in case you jokers thought they weren't serious. They talk about a doctor called Demarco who was part of a program aimed at creating a sort of man-machine hybrid they could transmit orders to via brain-waves so that men wouldn't have to be sent into space. A robot would have been easier but let's not interrupt the gentlemen, they're having so much fun with their conversation. I'm not exactly sure what conclusion they come to but next we're in a laboratory where one of two male doctors does everything to hit on one of his assistants short of pull his penis out. Everyone leaves save one other lone female lab aid who gets murdered by the Astro Zombie.
In one of the other films we've introduced the doughy blonde guy goes to a lounge with the aim of selling the tape to a woman (Tura Satana) who couldn't look more ridiculous if she were painted white like a geisha (too late!). The blonde guy demands twice his asking fee when he sits down (we assume he's probably killed someone, maybe that guy from the car crash? No, what are the odds that the bearded mexican guy was at the same car crash. It's his boss whose voice is on the tape after all...) After throwing her drink in the blonde guys face and having her squirmy assistant pull a knife on the guy they agree to give him the money, then they kill him. This is a pattern, by the way, doing something pointless to hurt someone even though you plan to kill him anyway. Later she'll burn someone with a cigarette and then shoot him 20 seconds later.

Christ, this feels like a lot of plot for a movie that feels like the product of a night of heavy drinking. We haven't even gotten to John Carradine yet, or why he's making Astro Zombies in his lab. Long story short (and this is most certainly a long goddamn story): he wants to make it so he can transfer memories into the astro zombies so that the world's greatest minds can live forever. You know if he had told this to Nasa or the FBI he might have gotten a grant for it, but he's mad after all and so the result is that buxom women are being killed daily. Everyone figures out that Demarco is behind everything we've seen so far and they all want in, so the 7 or 8 different stories all come to a head in the lamest fight I've ever seen. The bug-man grabs a machete (???) from a closet in Demarco's lab and runs around cutting off heads until Demarco flips the switch and turns him off, dying of a gunshot wound. The End.

It's a rare man who could make me pine for Ed Wood, and Ted V. Mikels is just such a man. Next to Carradine's behavior here I'd call Bela Lugosi lucid. I think the most charmingly stupid thing about this film is the way people interact with each other. Tura Satana takes a page out of the masters of Tor Johnson handbook and slaps her henchman around, shouting and swearing loudly whenever she can. John Carradine spends most of his screen time performing busy work and explaining it to his assistant, who's name he can't seem to remember. It's absolutely brilliant. He'll call him over using some variation of "Rancho", say something vaguely sciency, then look around like he doesn't know where he is. This is all cut up by reaction shots of the mute assistant who just leers evilly the whole film. "Sancho, set the heart pump valve to 5! (Carradine looks lost and confused, the assistant leers and squints). "Fancho, we must affect the brain transplant while the body is in a semi-criogenic state." Priceless. Then of course there's the scene where the Astro Zombie loses his power source (revealing that mask he's wearing to be nothing but a big skull, but that's not the best of it...) and recharges himself by sticking a flashlight against his head. He runs back to the lab and Carradine looks horrified and motherly "My god, what's happened to you? Francho, get a chair!"

Then there's the insane behavior of the heroes. We are shown an endless nude dance scene where the girl's body has been painted to look like a curtain she uses. When it's over we see the audience is all well-dressed middle aged men and women applauding politely and drinking cocktails. "Didn't I tell you sweetie, this girls' great!" then they play a drinking game and we see every second of it. One of Tura Satana's henchmen has a wardrobe change every few scenes, at one point donning a giant plush beret. He dances around, throwing his switch-blade from hand to hand at the slightest provocation and when he's shot to death at the end it looks like he's dancing.

Mikels doesn't pretend to know what he's talking about with the science and never repeats anything more than he has to. I could just picture him ashing a cigarette in the script as he buried his head in someone's bra while the camera rolled. George Romero worked in a factory in Pittsburg after he graduated from Carnegie-Mellon and he made one of the best films of all time for under 15,000 dollars. Ted had a castle and John Carradine. I guess the universe has spoken.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Alien Zombie Chainsaw Crocodiles

This one's a little stranger than I anticipated - and I don't just mean the plot. Tobe Hooper--once legendary director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist, and Salem's Lot--has fallen on hard times, alright. To go from having your name on the shortlist of greatest horror directors of all time to directing Crocodile for the Sci-fi channel is a long way to fall. His descent into crapdom started pretty much immediately after succeeding with Salem's Lot in 1979. In fact it only took him three years after Texas Chainsaw to make a terrible crocodilian film - it's called Eaten Alive, but you'd have no reason to know that. His excellent follow-up The Funhouse is a film talked about more than seen or appreciated and his bonkers remake of Invaders from Mars somehow never makes it into the pantheon of great 80s horror films. His most ambitious film to date is a movie that few people know about and even fewer have seen and it starts to show the cracks in Tobe's abilities when presented with one too many elements to keep in check. It's entertaining as shit, but it's not hard to see investors forcing him to produce a sequel to Texas Chainsaw after seeing what he made with a million and a half bucks.

by Tobe Hooper

Haley's comet comes to Earth but once every 76 years, so when it streaks by earth, the space station Churchill drops in to check it out. The crew (made up of Americans and Englishmen [yeah, like America would pool resources to explore space. Nice one, O'Bannon!]) spies something a little more interesting by the comet, an Alien space craft. The thing is endless when Colonel Carlsen leads his crew into the bowels of the ship where they discover a room full of winged space-dragons floating like dead goldfish. Things just keep getting interesting for Carlsen; in the middle of the dead-dragon room are three perfectly preserved naked human beings, two men and a woman. He grabs the people and one winged corpse to bring back to the ship for examination. A month later the ship is silent and a rescue team has to be sent up.

The rescue team locates the three naked space folks still lodged in their impenetrable coffins, but the rest of the crew is missing as is the escape pod. Science and the military are collectively stumped. When the female wakes up, they are alarmed to learn that theirs is not a mission of peace and love. She approaches the nearest guard and sucks the soul out of him, turning him into a six foot day of the dead figurine. No one's quite sure what to make of this, but a clue arises when during the examination of the guard's body he wakes up and does the old soul suck on the doctor presiding over the operation. The doctor and the dead guard trade physiques for a split second until the guard is killed and order restored. The scientists begin noticing a trend; it seems the space vampire's kiss turns others into vampires, newly hellbent on stealing the lifeforce of others to survive. Not unlike a zombie, except with a lot more blue light and space noises. In literally no time at all the three space vampires have escaped to suck more life from people.

Just when it seems like all might be lost the escape pod from the Churchill crashes nearby and Colonel Carlsen is retrieved. He seems to have some kind of mental link with the female vampire and they begin tracking her (this move is used to different effect in Slither). He also tells the folks on Earth just what happened before everyone dissappeared (though the revelation that the space vampire's disintegrate after two hours without a bite to eat is a pretty good clue). The reason Carlsen was spared is because the lady vampire seemed to want him for some kind of mental intercourse. Whatever happened it's enough to draw the two together despite the rest of the madness that surrounds them. That madness as they soon discover is quite sprawling indeed. Not only has the spaceship entered Earth's orbit, the other vampires have essentially turned all of london into soul thirsty zombies.

Despite Hooper in the director's chair and Steve Railsback saving the day, this was very much a british production. As El Santo from 1000 Misspent Hours points out Lifeforce's plot is something of a mixture of the three Quartermass movies; and the action feels very british (even if Hooper retreads some Poltergeist effects in the scene at the hospital). Something about watching the mannered horror of the brits is somehow easier for me than any other European country's horror films. I can watch hours of bad british horror (Tower Of Evil, anyone? Frightmare? These are not good movies.) but get bored pretty quickly when watching Jacinto Molina or Dario Argento. Maybe it's the accents, and as for those: Frank Finlay, Patrick Stewart, Peter Firth, Aubrey Morris and other British stage and screen actors round out the cast, which is something of a let-down because with the exception of Firth and the very limited Railsback, none of them is called on to do much more than stroke their beards thoughtfully. The film makes a few other mistakes, Hooper in particular made a couple of very silly decisions (like leaving Matilda May, the female vampire naked for the film's running time. He probably felt he needed some way to keep people interested but it just feels lazy. In fact Hooper's juvenile connection between sex and salvation doesn't really amount to anything except a floating sex-scene between May and Railsback, so the whole theme smells of desparation, which makes is just wrong because nothing else in the film is so haggard), but nothing is so great that it takes away from the fantastic nature of the film. Lifeforce works in spite of its break-neck disregard for common sense. It moves so quickly from one bug-eyed plot point to the next that it's easy to get lost in the story. Tobe Hooper may have fallen from grace, but he's got a few films under his belt to remind everyone why he was so highly regarded at one point; he was a mean story-teller.
The story of course wouldn't have been so charmingly goofy were it not for Dan O'Bannon's script. O'Bannon had had ups and downs at this point; he'd written the most succesful science fiction film in 15 years and also wrote Blue Thunder (the movie and the TV series) and Heavy Metal. Now anime is where I usually draw the line, but Lifeforce does have some things to recommend it. One, it's absolutely crazy (but not in an Italian witch-craft film kind of way), two, it has a riveting plot structure and is paced well enough so that no matter how insane the things you're watching become or how silly they might look, you want to know more. Also Lifeforce has one thing that many 80s zombie film's lack; Peter Firth running around apocalpytic London with a handgun capping crowds of zombies. I admit being way, way excited about the film's conclusion. In what looks like a precursor to 28 Days Later, Firth's blonde-headed Colonel running up and down the streets and alleys with a gun killing zombies is something I wasn't prepared for, but it was what really made the film for me. Not enough Zombie films can tread the line between action and horror, but Hooper pretty much does it perfectly. The zombies in the final act are scary and fast which makes the action unpredictable until the end. That if nothing else made the movie for me.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Fulci's Trilogy - Do Not Entry

Shortly after the...well, whatever it was you might call City of the Living Dead, I wouldn't use success but logically it can't be called a failure because a year later he made effectively the same film. Granted there was an interim between his first zombie movie and his second in which he made easily the worst of his 80s movies. I'd review that film but quite frankly I don't even like thinking about it (House By The Cemetery is it's name and awful doesn't even start to describe it). Anyway, shortly after that shit...Fulci set his sights on the project they'd remember him for. I came across this next movie when it was featured on Bravo's 100 Scariest Horror Movies of all time or some such thing (the show is a farce unto itself. Volume 2 consisted entirely of movies with upcoming DVD release dates). The Beyond was one of the ones I'd never heard of and when I went to watch the rest of the 100, imagine my surprise when amidst The Dead Zone and Don't Look Now, this lurid, satanic gorefest pops up. Watching it, I was struck by the moments the pundits kept talking about. Eli Roth in particular said that what scared him was the moment when a little girl gets shot in the face and said face explodes. That...isn't what I'd call scary, but Eli Roth isn't what I'd call smart, either, so... This movie isn't really frightening, per se, but it does have scary moments (ones left out of the program, needless to say) and a conclusion that finally manages to strike a balance between dismal, thoughtful, and cogent.

The Beyond
by Lucio Fulci
This review is going to try and outline the plot of the film as best as possible. The problem with trying to do this is that the film is so full of holes you could grate cheese on it. The actions of every character are easy enough to summarize, but there is no definitive version of every nuance in this movie. There are so many unanswered questions that just about everyone with a website has a take on them, but as Fulci died about ten years ago there is no one to consult. So, after anything that might seem a little confusing I've added my own take on them. Prologue time: A mob swarms an inn to kill an artist they suspect of witch-craft (this is actually a really nicely shot sequence, which is funny because the cinematographer is on camera as one of the mob members. Maybe that's why it was the most beautiful shot in all of Fulci's career, cause his cameraman wasn't filming it!) The mob melts the artists face off (his name is Schweick) with some of the quicklime stewing in the basement of the inn. Skip to the present: a woman named Liza (Catriona MacColl once again playing the heroine) has inherited the inn and is showing it off to her friend Dr. Mccabe. She seems to having some trouble dealing with supernatural accidents that keep happening to the help. A carpenter sees some ghastly eyes floating in a window and falls off his ladder. Joe the Plumber goes into the basement to see what's been blocking up the pipes and a big arm comes out of the wall and takes his eyes out. Liza has only one thing to console her, her new friendship with a blind woman and her seeing-eye dog who she picks up on the side of the road one day (wish I was making that up). The woman has a big scary book in her house that (small world) used to adorn the inn when Schweick was killed all those years ago. Outside of that little plot thread we have Liza's assistant trying to figure out what it is that's hidden beneath the house and Joe's family dealing with his death, both of which lead to some truly sick death scenes.

Joe's wife Lizaann and child Jill visit him in the morgue to dress him for the funeral (I've come to the conclusion that this must be something Italians do. Screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti and Fulci must have just assumed that Americans do it, too, but I've never heard of such a thing happening before the autopsy at the goddamn MORGUE! Especially since there is a sign on the door that reads: Do Not Entry. On the most recent DVD pressing of this movie the scene is called "Do Not Entry"; one assumes they just love shit too much to care that they're taking a dive into it). Worth noting is that when the police found Joe they also found Schweick's body in the cellar and bring him along too. Inside the morgue Joe's poor wife gets frightened by something, knocks into a bowl of surgical acid and gets her face melted off. Then her leavings chase her daughter around the room until she sees what probably scared Mom in the first place: Zombie Schweick! Jill then has both of her parent's funerals to sit through; afterwards, strangely she is left completely alone as all the adults present abandon her. (Maybe this happens in Italy, too?) Anyway, Jill now has the same eyes as the blind woman Liza picked up. (I guess what Fulci's trying to say is that Emily [the blind woman] and Jill are now both affected by evil, but that means that Emily has no reasonable cause for her blindness and the only reason she's blind is to make her death scene scarier). Anyway, she'll come back into the story later in the same kind of illogical way that Michael comes back into Burial Grounds.
Then there's Larry, Liza's assistant. He goes to town hall to look up the plans of the inn and after the town clerk goes to lunch, he too falls off a ladder (their stunt guy must have been an expert with ladders). Then while he's lying unconscious on the floor some fucking spiders eat him...Spiders! There are some real ones present but the ones that do the biting are some very fake puppets. Then the zombies show up. Just after Liza figures out that Emily's house has been putting on the appearance of being new and only looks that way when Emily's in it. The next time Emily and her seeing eye dog come back to the house (looking brand new once again) she isn't alone. Zombie Schweick isn't alone either, he's got three or four of the meanest, decomposing living dead thugs I've ever seen. The more I remember this scene the scarier it becomes. the zombies don't advance on her, she sicks her dog on them. Even still they don't attack her. She still ends up dead, or, redead. You see Emily's recently snuck out of hell and so one of the seven portals to Hell was opened up, Schweick's long-dead body summoned as a zombie bounty hunter to bring her back by any means necessary. I think this means that they just have to separate her from her earthly body.

Now the next part doesn't make too much sense to me. Schweick's accomplished his mission, so why do he and his buddies stick around and turn the rest of New Orleans into zombies, too? Reason aside, zombies abound. McCabe and Liza go to the hospital to ask the former's colleague Dr. Harris (Al Cliver) what his take on all this is (McCabe rather hilarious gets to say "I'm gonna talk to Harris" before and after the edit that takes us to the hospital). They get there in time to see every body in the morgue rise from the dead. Harris gets a face full of glass after some pretty inexcusable friendly-fire from McCabe. They find Jill in the morgue where Schweick hid the first time and sure enough Schweick comes out of the same body locker he did the first time; at the same time Jill attacks Liza so McCabe shoots her in the face. The two escape into a closet which leads them into the basement of the Inn and right into Hell, their eyes the same as Jill's and Emily's.
The Beyond was probably the best movie Lucio Fulci ever made but believe me when I tell you that doesn't mean shit. This was obviously the most technically savvy and scariest of his movies, but that doesn't excuse it from being a Lucio Fulci movie. The plot doesn't really make much sense and he insists on having his characters say things that, though they sound creepy and profound, just set the film up to be more complicated than he can get away with. There is talk of seven portals to hell, we only really see one. Unless Fulci was counting the closet at the morgue, but I'd like to think that he knew better than to suggest that if Satan were gonna put seven doors to hell he wouldn't put two of them in the same zip code. Perhaps he just meant that all of New Orleans was just one big doorway, what with all the debauchery and partying (have to wonder how screwed Amsterdam's gonna be when someone breaks out of hell over there). And of course there's that Italian penchant for disregarding common sense (and rather uncommon sense as well). The name of the villain for one: Schweick doesn't sound like the name of a witch who settled in 1927 New Orleans, but screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti wasn't really big on accuracy. Consider his use of Dunwich as the setting of City of the Living Dead, which is supposed to be a town built over Salem, which has never needed a town constructed over it because it's currently sits about a 45 minute drive from where I sit). House by the Cemetery takes place in "New Whitby, Boston". See what I mean.

Fulci gets points for making both the appearance of the first batch of Zombies and the ending scary. His zombies were really the most disgusting to date, and I mean that in a good way. Romero gave us the fresh dead and then the few weeks dead. Fulci was the first person to attempt a much later date of death. Schweick in particular is one icky bastard. What really would have been something is if he had taken the zombies out of the controlled studio environments (the morgue, the inn) and moved them into the streets. He would have really broken ground there. The budget here must have been a little bigger than before; he is able to afford better camera equipment, better lighting (for once), permits and a real town to film in. Interesting to note that though he was clearly given a lot of money for this picture (more than ever before, I should say) he must have had a hard time getting people other than greasy nobodies like Al Cliver to appear in his movies; even Ian McColluch and Giovanni Lombardi Radice sat this one out. Regular Catriona MacColl is here but filling out the majority of supporting roles were crew members. His cinematographer, writer Sacchetti, Fulci even makes an appearance as the town clerk (the scene on the DVD is entitled "Lucio goes to lunch"). Maybe he just like a sense of community. Maybe the rest of the Italian film industry thought he was completely insane. Tisa Farrow wasn't above appearing in Joe D'Amato's Anthrophagous but coming back for another Fulci picture was out of the question.
Lucio Fulci very quickly became irrelevant after The Beyond. He returned to making ultra-violent Giallo's like New York Ripper, Manhattan Baby, A Cat In the Brain and The Ghosts of Sodom. He even messed around in projects clearly beneath a mind like his (Fighting Centurions, Murder Rock). When the time came for an official sequel to Zombie came about they asked him to do it but was so disappointed by it (Claudio Fragrasso's script especially, as I understand it) that he walked away from it and left Hell of the Living Dead's Bruno Mattei in charge. Zombie 3 has nothing of Fulci's eye for colorful madness and is too stupid even to be called his work but it bears his name. This must have been a real blow to his pride because Zombie 3 is pretty widely regarded as the worst zombie film of the 80s and of all time (there are quite a few on that list); it's dumber than just about any Uwe Boll film. By the end of his life, Fulci had become so marginalized that he even used a pseudonym on his last film, Door To Silence. So much for the man who once compared himself to Dario Argento. He may never have made a film that I'd call good, but he got the Italian Zombie film to its pinnacle, something it's never gonna return to.

Fulci's Trilogy - Shatter The Imagination

When we last left our hero he had made a clumsy film that people loved. Zombie was almost as popular as it's American father-in-law. What did we learn last time? That when something is popular it begets a sequel. Yes, even half-sibling knock-offs get sequels in Italy, folks. It wasn't until about six years later that Zombie 3 was put into production, but in the meantime Fulci was given free range in the zombie field as he had mined gold there once already. I'd like to point out the biggest difference between Fulci's zombie films and Romero's zombie films. When Romero made his zombie films it was made as purely as a film could have ever been made. A kid from Pittsburgh found himself with money, cameras and a crew and decided that this was the film he was going to make. An original script and concept were born that would inspire filmmakers for generations. There was everything I could have asked for: the perfect locked-in-the-house plot, reasonably frightening zombies, decent gore effects, minimalist music, naturalistic performances, decent, believable dialogue, even a racial-empowerment element (I won't bother arguing about his intentions here). With one film Romero reinvented the zombie genre and made a real life-blood film for independents and horror movie makers. It was inspirational and remains so. When Fulci made his zombie film there was nothing original or commendable about it. It was an unofficial, nominal sequel, a cash-in on someone else's second-hand success. Not only that, the plot was essentially a composite of a dozen different voodoo pictures from the 40s and 50s. Romero was playing God with his genre, Fulci was rehashing a rehasher's rehash. Perhaps with that in mind, he made another zombie movie, a zany, illogical, catholic type Zombie film. If Fulci was good at anything it was upsetting large groups of people through political or religious mockery and he added a little of that tragic mishigas to his next film. Though the same can't be said about his make-up effects, Fulci was out to prove that he wasn't a one-trick pony.

City of the Living Dead
by Lucio Fulci

A woman conducts a seance. Somewhere a priest hangs himself. Beneath his feet something rises from its grave. More of that lucid magic. The woman conducting the seance dies. A mirror shatters, a wall cracks open, a man tries screwing a sex doll in a decrepit shack. What does it all MEAN?!? Later we discover the woman from the seance is not actually dead but in fact was buried alive. A reporter happens by in time to hear her screams and pick-axe her out of her grave (then we have the near-miss with the pick-axe in the eyes set-piece). After digging her up, she and a reporter (Reporter by the way is Italian for "Unemployed snarky twit who does and says whatever he or she pleases in the name of a non-story and gets away with proclaiming the dumbest shit as frequently and matter-of-factly as possible.") head down to the sight of the hanging to see what all the spiritual fuss is about. They will get there in time to solve the mystery of the opening of the Gates Of Hell (the film's alternate title) but not in time to save anybody from being killed by it.

We see all kinds of gross wierdness from every corner of Dunwich. Some girl is hanging out with the crazy guy with the sex doll when the hanged priest shows up and kills her. Later, he imposes himself on a couple making out in a car. The girl bleeds from the eyes, pukes up her insides and squeezes her boy-toys brains out. Anyone who knows this movie will probably know it because of that harrowing montage. The brain thing happens a few more times before curtains fall. If I Drink Your Blood and Grapes of Death taught me anything it's that when an artless director spends money on an effect (Severed Head, exploding guts, what have you) you bet your ass you're gonna see it more than once. In some cases that effect or prop is going to be thrown in your face many more times than is believable because they're so very proud of the money they spent. Then there's more grossness involving a drill and Giovanni Lombardi Radice's head (another reason this film gets remembered. Incidentally someone powerful in Italy must have really hated Giovanni Lombardi Radice, the man spent most of his time playing men who are supposed to be mentally retarded and who often get brutally murdered. It could have been someone's job dreaming up inventive ways to kill Giovanni Lombardi Radice because he met his maker more ways than I can count). A bar full of people is finally attacked by zombies and the film's only gut munching takes place. Then the only two surviving adults break into the hanged priests tomb, encounter some blind-dead type zombies and deliver the bluntest death-blow in Italian cinema. One of Seance girl's friend mentions that the Gates of Hell stuff in Dunwich is enough to "Shatter your imagination". I think Fulci tries to do just that with his ending, but I don't think even he's quite sure.
Fulci might have been inept, but he had finally found something that fit him like a glove with these zombie films. They allowed him to steep the world in a thick coating of filth without alienating people with his crazed leftists critiques that not even Pasolini could have stomached. Take the ending of his film Don't Torture A Duckling where a priest falls off a cliff and has his face caved in by a rock. Subtlety is not Fulci's strong suit; Brains coming out of a promiscuous teenagers head is. He clearly blames religion for something; this is obvious. A priest tries to open the gates of hell and then becomes possessed by an evil spirit causing all kinds of nasty shit to happen. Sounds to me like someone's harboring a grudge against the big guy, or at least the men who claim to speak for him. The thing that I think probably excited Lucio most was the prospect of fitting in his anti-religious sentiments into these new zombie films because people didn't know what the hell any of it meant. How could they complain if they didn't know what to complain about? Romero and Argento had given him a way to be both artistically and commercially successful.
This is a rare phenomenon outside of Italy (I have to guess it happened there all the time because nobody changed their style a lick in all the years they made exploitation pictures and someone must have been watching them). Anyway, Fulci quickly established a profitable style (one that unfortunately for his fans, only lasted until The Beyond, when that was done he went back to writing his own films to no end resembling that of his living dead chamber films.) He had a good thing going I'd say because these are the films that people remember him for. The studios liked them so much they increased his budget each time. You'll notice the changes in the places being terrorized and just how gross the zombies look. In Zombie they were good because they were the opposite of the kind Romero had done thus far and until that point they were all anyone cared about (that blue corpse make-up would make the rounds of b-studios well into the mid-80s). In fact the only one who outdid Fulci in grotesque realism was Romero when he made Day of the Dead, effectively tipping his hat to Fulci and putting the likes of Bianchi, Mattei, Jean Rollin, Jesús Franco, Frank Agrama, Claudio Fragrasso, John Landis and Lamberto Bava back in their place. Fulci utilized a good amount of his stock players. Catriona MacColl, Radice, Antonella Interlenghi, Carlo De Mayo all served Fulci well in the 80s. MacColl, de Mayo and Interlenghi would all work with him again and would all receive the same atrocious dubbing. The dialogue, to say nothing of the plot, makes no sense and the dubbing just makes it sound all the more stubbornly illogical.
The problem with success is that it means that all the mistakes you make just melt away. Everything wrong with this picture, and there's quite a bit wrong with it, would become something Fulci associated with success. So, instead of fixing his mistakes and making a more concentrated effort at story-telling, his stories just got more cryptic and the gore just got worse. Backwards: that's how Italy works. Someone makes the most disgusting film of his career and how does the world respond? More Money!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Fulci's Trilogy - Kill The Director!

Lucio Fulci! Oh how you make my heart weep! Lucio Fulci might be the single most irksome director I've ever had the pleasure of encountering. My problem with Lucio Fulci comes from the fact that for every stupid with a capital S decision he's made, every dumb goddamn film, every obscene second of celluloid he committed, people can't seem to get enough of this guy. He was by all accounts a lucky idiot who happened to stumble upon a goldmine and then people decided he was some kind of secret genius. He wasn't and his death or the hundred films he left behind will not change that (nor will it change the public's opinion of him). Firstly: none of his films are scary, save The Beyond. Second: most, if not all, of his films were in poor taste and didn't seem to realize they'd ended up there. Third: Gore does not equal tension, fright, or quality, especially when it wouldn't fool an 8-year-old. I don't how many times someone has to pour red paint on a mannequin before you realize it looks just as stupid as it sounds. He seemed to thrive on subject matter that average people would call shameful. I don't ordinarily have a problem when people who love violence get a hold of cameras and lights and stuff and decide to make a film, but I start to bang my head against a wall when people call their bluff, take them seriously, and then make films to either rip-off, cash-in or pay homage to these idiots. Join me as we walk through the history of Lucio Fulci abridged part 1: Fulci became a filmmaker (I feel comfortable calling him one of the worst in revered b-horror along with no-talent masturbators like Jean Rollin and Jesus Franco) to win back an ex-girlfriend. He was an art critic and evidently felt he could do better work than the folks he was critiquing. I don't mean to over-simplify, but this is rarely if ever a good sign. The New Wave people I get, cause they actually revolutionized Cinema by being abject and strange and honest. Fulci was strange alright, but he was no Godard, friends. He started off making musicals and light comedy. Musicals and Light Comedy. The guy who did Cat In The Brain was a fan of musicals. He quickly moved up the Italian food chain, graduating to swords-and-sandals to westerns then thrillers then the much praised Giallo. My favorite story of this path-to-glory period of Fulci's is during one screening of Beatrice Centi, a medievel film Italian audiences hated the movie so much that they started shouting "Kill The Director!" mid-screening. Anyway, he made his giallo's like The Psychic and Lizard in a Woman's Skin until he was given a gift no amount of begging could ever take back. That gift was actually second-hand. In 1978 George Romero changed the face of cult horror when he released Dawn of the Dead. Dario Argento helped him make it and so when it made it to Italy Argento recut it, dubbed it and sent it to theatres as Zombi. It was like the Emmannuel of Italy. It was incredibly popular and made Argento a truck-load of money, which he took and made the incredible Inferno. So, as often happens with popular films in Italy a sequel was requested. You'll never guess who asked to make it. That's right...

by Lucio Fulci
A boat drifts into a dock in New York City. The police board it and are attacked by an ill-tempered, chewed-up fellow. The registered owner of the boat is a Doctor who nobody, including his daughter Ann, has heard much from in the last few months. So Ann, and three other hairy and able people take a boat to his island to see what all the fuss is about. On the way there, the second girl is attacked by a zombie on the ocean floor, who is then attacked by a zombie (this is not nearly as exciting as you've been led to believe). This is clue £2 that something fishy is going on. They get to the island, find out that Ann's father Dr. Menard has been stuck in the nominal hospital while voodoo turns the bodies of the many, many dead folks on the island into zombies. Then we get treated to a brief Night-style barracade, torches 'n shotguns finale and only two of them get out alive. In between we have close-ups of eyeballs (one of which is gouged out on a sharp piece of wood), much moaning and slow-reactions to throats being ripped out. We have zombies shambling down the main street of the island, much munching on guts and ignorance of continuity. We have topless scuba diving and a shark fight made boring. I don't know what Fulci's aim was but last time I checked things go SLOWER when they're underwater. How anyone could still make a movie where people resolutely refuse to run is astounding. Argento may not have had the strongest grip on reality but at least people fucking booked it when the time came.
The zombie violence in this film is wild, colorful and plentiful, don't get me wrong, but I've never understood when people all of the sudden confused schlock with quality, sick with scary. This movie is not frightening. I saw the cover art of the decaying zombie face for the first time when I was probably 9. It wasn't frightening, but I understood I shouldn't have been staring at it. It was in the Z section of the horror films, after all. It was 4 years later when I saw the film for the first time and the only thing that really stayed with me was that everything was so slow. Everyone in the movie sure seemed scared, but at no time was 13 year old me scared. The zombie make-up was impressive (a little more haunting than Romero's, i'll admit) and the gouged-eye looked like a gouged-eye to be sure, but it wasn't frightening, it just happened. If you make a horror film where a woman being deocculated is just something that happens, then what exactly have you got left to be proud of. I could go on at length, as I do, about the fact that no one's performance (or the dubbed voices of Tisa Farrow or Richard Jordan) is naturalistic or even slightly believable. Regulars Al Cliver, Ian McColluch, and Dakkar are professional, if risible and devoid of pride. The average performance in a b-list Italian movie is not generally something that people write home about, so I won't stress over it. I will however stress the problem inherent in most of Fulci's work. The gore makes its appearance and Fulci seems to think that showing us something disgusting is the same as showing us something scary. It's not and I have Andrea Bianchi, Bruno Mattei, Luigi Cozzi, and Umberto Lenzi to back me up on that one. I might also point out that Lenzi had already proved that point when he made Man From Deep River seven years earlier. Now, Dawn of the Dead wasn't exactly terrifying, but I point out that Romero's films sink or swim based on the people in their films. He's a character director, which is why Night and Dawn worked and Day and Land didn't. That's shorthand, but ask any nerd and they'll clear it up for you. Anyway, back to Fulci.
Zombie is a serivceable shambler picture (I know a good many people who are more than pleased with it) with admittedly striking visuals every quarter of an hour or so but it is not scary, it is not suspenseful, it is not smart, it is not grounbreaking, it isn't much of anything in my eyes. It did, however, forecast a trend in horror films for the next 35 years. Thanks to Quentin Tarentino, Eli Roth and the Spierig Brothers, this small man and his below-average horror movie will now live on forever.