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.

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