Friday, April 25, 2008

It's About Time

You know, it takes someone truly feckless and eccentric to make Robert Rodriguez look like a really concise filmmaker. This film, part of the infamous Grindhouse pairing Rodriguez and Quentin Tarentino put out last year, may not have struck me as such a success were it not followed by what I call the failure of Tarentino’s film, Death Proof. What happened to him, exactly? When did the name Quentin Tarentino start to elicit so many groans from one-time fans? I don’t know, but, what we have here is a complete reversal of expectation: Rodriguez’s film works in almost every way, it even succeeds in being The Thing tribute that Slither failed to be; Tarentino’s is the Shark Sandwich of his career. Who’s ready to hear me say something I hoped I would never say?

Planet Terror
by Robert Rodriguez
And here I thought no one could do filth right anymore. The plot is silly enough: a troop of military grunts seizes control of a base in Texas after a green gaseous toxin is released by a disreputable chemist named Abby who likes castrating his clients. It’s all very unclear and Italian, but the boys in uniform all walk right into the cloud of green gas that starts spraying everywhere. Meanwhile, a couple of slimy plot threads are all about to converge; a go-go dancer with the unfortunate stage name Cherry Darling leaves the stage in tears after one of her routines and heads to a barbeque joint where a cute mechanic named El Wray shoots the breeze with the proprietor TJ. TJ, as it turns out, is also the brother of the town’s sheriff, and El Wray, in a similar twist of fate, is Cherry’s ex-boyfriend. She walked out on him, leaving his pride less than intact and he’s been searching for her ever since. He agrees to give her a lift to town, but that plan goes south when they swerve to avoid missing a deer, flip the car on its side, and then the poor girl gets her leg torn off by a bunch of freaks in the woods. Wray gets hauled off by the sheriff for questioning (apparently Wray and the sheriff have met before in a professional capacity) and Cherry is committed to the E.R.

The hospital where she stays employs a strange bunch, indeed. There’s Dr. Block, the cuckolded wife of Dakota, the anesthesiologist (when we meet her she’s texting her lover with one hand and calling a babysitter with the other), Skip, the creepy paramedic who seems only to enter rooms at 45-degree angles and Dr. Felix (Rodriguez’s real-life MD), the disease obsessed physician who diagnoses the first zombie bite of the night. When Dakota’s girlfriend shows up in the ER with a big hole where her brain should be, Block (once again) becomes suspicious of his wife. When the incidence of viral infections and pussing sores becomes too high Felix skedaddles and Block decides to use his wife’s anesthetic needles to get some answers about her extra-marital activities; she barely escapes with her life. Her attempt to save her son goes about as poorly as possible (more on this later) and she (once again just barely) makes it alive to her father’s house. In the meantime Wray rescues Cherry from the hospital, and everyone heads to JT’s place. They agree that the safest thing to do is get out of town, but don’t get very far before the military stops them and brings the survivors back to base. In the military jail, Abby, the only survivor from the intro, explains how screwed everyone is. Wray, of course, doesn’t let this stop him from rescuing everyone and fashioning a fancy new set piece for his girlfriend to walk on (and save the day with).

I liked it. THERE! I said it. I liked the zombie comedy. How could I not, everyone looks like they're having a blast. And there's Michael Biehn, and he's hilarious. There are a few things every reader should probably be made aware of. The first: I generally hate horror comedies, especially zombie horror comedies. Occasionally, a Shaun of the Dead will come out of nowhere and make me forget all my reservations (it helps of course that Edgar Wright knew how to balance his influences), but for the most part the zombie comedy gets no love from me. Dead Alive, Cemetery Man, even Slither didn’t really do much for me. I think that it takes a really light touch for the zombie comedy to do anything but slip on its own entrails. One thing I’d never considered in the formula for success is what happens when instead of setting out to make a horror movie with comedic or romantic elements, you set out to make a straight-up comedy. This is actually an incredibly smart strategy because it means that every over-the-top element makes sense and is, for the most part, welcome. In a horror movie, for me anyway, every time we’re asked to accept a stupidly excessive trick (the zombie baby in Dead Alive, the banjo player in Dead & Breakfast) we are pulled out of the mission of the horror movie (which, need we forget, is to scare people) and told to laugh at something that’s genuinely tasteless. To have to go from laughter to sadness because the frat boy behind the camera thinks he’s clever is really irksome. (Aside: this whole notion of horror moviemaking where you “play with the conventions” is just about the stupidest thing I’ve ever encountered. I thought they sent you to film school to step away from that bullshit!) This is, of course, to say nothing of the nonsense Tarentino's been up to. If I had to pick one word to sum up Death Proof, it would be 'Masturbatory'. Some people are looking into the future; he's stuck blowing himself for rediscovering some things in the past.

So, in the midst of my anger at the state of horror films, imagine my surprise when the person who comes along with a solution is my cinematic nemesis Robert Rodriguez. The second thing people should know about me is that Rodriguez and I have been in something a Sergio Leone type showdown ever since I rented From Dusk Till Dawn in the fourth grade. “I paid $5 for THIS!?” My friend and I spent that whole evening with our mouths open, wondering who thought this was a good idea. Evidently Quentin Tarentino thought it was great, cause he helped him direct it, wrote a big check for it, and put himself in the sleaziest role. Why couldn’t he have latched onto Wong Kar-Wai? I would have liked to have been able to see Fallen Angels in the theatre, and I don’t think I would have minded a Tarentino cameo either. Whatever genius Rodriguez once proved to everyone he possessed when he made El Mariachi, every film after that went a long way towards making everyone (himself included) forget that it had ever existed. Desperado? Spy Kids? From Dusk Till Dawn 2 and 3? Essentially he’s made a career out of making off-season Matrix type films that everyone in my high school loved. I didn’t get those films, and still don’t, for the most part. I’m a firm believer in needing more than breasts and explosions to make a film watchable. So, with all this on the table, let’s head back to the reason I’m writing this.

Planet Terror works in the one way I never thought it could: as a comedy. Having sat through Death Proof, I was fully expecting the Desperado of zombie films. What I got instead was the Airplane! of zombie films. Now, before we all get carried away, there were weak spots: the effects, namely. I’ve recently come to see that I really hate the Greg Nicotero School of gore effects. The excessive, breakneck vileness of his work really grosses me out in the wrong way. You’ve seen it in all of Rodriguez’s films and in Land of the Dead, Cabin Fever, and any number of made-for-sci-fi sequels and originals. I find it crass and think it’s deeply at odds with the Tom Savini and Rob Bottin effects I grew up on. I realized that his effects account for my dislike of a lot of recent horror films, but, they weren’t enough to make me dismiss Planet Terror, neither was Rodriguez’s insistence on using cheap effect shots whenever possible (explosions, men thrown out at cars and exploding under the wheels of trucks. I get that it’s supposed to be over-the-top, but this movie could have been perfect if he had just cut back a little bit). Also, why would you cast your son in a movie if you're just going to have him shoot himself in the face? For that...I...have no words.

The reason that no horror movie mistakes could ruin Planet Terror is because it’s not a horror film. It does perfectly capture the feel of old Italian horror films and it boasts everything that usually sinks a horror film, but it uses it to its advantage in the smartest way I’ve ever seen. It flaunts genre knowledge without being smug. Little things keep piling up outside the horror that loosen you up: the sheriff refuses to give Wray a gun in the most abject circumstances because he’s a criminal, Bruce Willis explains his war experience with all the gravitas he can muster, which includes accidentally killing Osama Bin Laden, Dr. Brock pops up in completely illogical locations to menace his wife with a syringe, El Wray rides a miniature motorcycle during a pulse-pounding chase; all of it is wonderfully hysterical. It’s much like watching the things that ruined some of the best and worst zombie movies all right in a row. It was immensely entertaining, and I just found myself laughing harder and harder (I even admit to not minding that preposterous machine gun leg thing; nevermind that it's completely impossible, that's precisely the point!). This is a labor of love with both a heart and a brain.
Interesting to note that the zombies towards the end look a good deal like the ones in Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City. And here I thought that movie would never help anyone! I guess anything really is possible.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

A True Classic

The following essay about Dawn Of The Dead is one I wrote as part of a hobby of mine. I've taken to listing my favorite films and then describing in two pages or less why I love them so much and how they've contributed to my love for film and my decision to be a filmmaker. Dawn was an easy one, as I've loved since the first time I saw it in the fourth grade. My double VHS copy of the film came with a brochure for fanboy gear, and I still have a t-shirt and hat with the logo and that most awesome of lines "When there's no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth." (Ken Foree, the Paul Robeson of the b-horror movie, is one of the slickest protagonists I've yet to see.) The movie has colored much of my creative output in my life: stories told to friends to while away the hours at school, screenplays written for myself and others that will never get made, this website and my dogged pursuit of every zombie movie ever made. All of it is because of this movie. I love Night almost as much, but Dawn was the one that really did it for me; my first, and as far as I'm concerned, the only one I need.

Dawn of the Dead
by George A. Romero

Dawn of the Dead? Oh yes, friends. Why this, of so many bad post-exploitation era zombie films? Why this at all? Dawn of the Dead and I have something of a history together. I saw this movie in the fourth grade as part of my dad’s attempt to both catch up on horror films he had missed out on as a teenager and to show me what horror cinema really is. And he was spot on really; what film represents the vanguard of 1970s horror cinema better? Director, writer, performer, and producer George A. Romero (Ed Wood and Orson Welles weren't the only ones) had gained renown for directing Night of the Living Dead, it’s indie predecessor, the godfather of budget horror, but it was with Dawn that he let the world know Night wasn’t a fluke. Unfortunately Romero never quite lived up to the standard set by Dawn; the supersaturated gore, the not-so-subtle critique of consumerism, the better-than-average performances pulled from the many non-actors filling the screen. Dawn is the action horror masterwork by which all should be judged, it features accurate representations of the culture and zeitgeist of 1978, features the height of 1970s shoe-string make-up effects and embodies the spirit of a true B-movie.

The film starts with the fevered dreams of Fran, a technician at a television station preparing an emergency broadcast, one gets the impression, for the last time. The story follows Fran, her helicopter pilot boyfriend Stephen and two cops, one black, Peter and one white, Roger. Zombies are overrunning western Pennsylvania, a surrogate for the rest of the world, and these four may be the last of civilization by the time the credits role. The film proper takes place mainly in a then-new indoor shopping mall, the potential for laughs, social criticism and discomforting violence of which never runs dry. Having grown up a few hours away from the places shown in the helicopter flight to the mall, I found these scenes particularly eerie. The forest where the zombies are killed by the dozens of hunters and soldiers looked not unlike the type I saw everyday. In this regard (as well as many others) Dawn is the movie that first led me to believe I could make movies. If Romero could put action in my backyard, why couldn’t I? I saw the same potential lying in wait in the everyday world that he did.

The handling of the crisis in the woods and the TV studio could be footage from a forgotten Maysles Brothers’ documentary; dozens of people in plain clothes interacting fanatically with one another in a believable yet alien fashion. The screaming pundits do an neat job with the exposition: “They get up and kill! The people they kill get up and KILL!” Next we see the way the authorities are handling the crisis; not well. The men in blue are holed up outside an urban tenement building that refuses to be evacuated. It’s here we see what it is everyone’s so terrified of. The scene in the basement is one that no gore-fan will ever forget.

The conflict that permeates the film is whether to abandon everything and survive or to keep up the façade of normalcy and soldier on. The theme is not uncommon in war films and it’s handled with acumen uncommon to many budget horror films, especially when after weeks of living a life of relative solitude, our survivors question whether they’re doing the right thing. In a scene cut from the original theatrical run, our heroes go through the motions of life, try to prepare for the birth of Fran and Stephen’s child, their martial discord, exploring all the clever ways to while away the hours, while slowly it dawns on them that the mall has become a prison from which they might never escape.

Technically, Romero’s no Antonioni but he’s capable and he delivers. Where he shines is in his character portrayals; the complete, believable people stuck inside this world. As anyone would if stuck in a claustrophobic nightmare such as this Romero slowly unpacks every facet of the four personalities; the neurosis, the need for control, tenderness, sorrow. The best of Romero’s characters for me is Ken Foree’s Peter, the tall black hero of the story. He looms over the crisis like a kind of detached father figure. He suffers the most when Roger succumbs to his wounds and wakes up one of the living dead; he tries in vain to patch up Stephen and Fran’s relationship, with some difficulty he is the first to admit defeat to the outside world without giving in to the hopelessness that overtakes Fran. He stays withdrawn enough to care when things go wrong, but not to let it overtake his psyche. His eyes say it all when Fran and Stephen passively battle over whether to keep the television on which has stopped all broadcasts days ago. Stephen wants to believe there’s a reason to stay and protect the mall, Fran sees that there is none and wants to leave it; Peter watches them both, undecided about what to do, but smart enough to either not have a side or just not to let on what he really believes.

It’s a competent character study, but it is much beside the point, which is of course zombies. Romero essentially picks up where he left off with the make-up. Night of the Living Dead showed you the dead freshly risen from the dead and their appearance reflected this. Now, several weeks into the crisis, livor mortis has set in. The blue corpses of the dead are much more troubling a sight then the average looking people who menaced the heroes in Night. With the crisis now extended to much larger portions of the world then just a Butler County farmhouse. With the bigger environment for the humans comes a much larger number of the living dead. Hundreds of the creatures wait hungrily outside for the doors to open and when they finally get in, Tom Savini was there with improved make-up effects. It’s tough to think of a film’s make-up that has so inspired the makers of movies than Savini’s work here. The graphic images of the invading biker gang being salvaged for meat have been copied more times than the opening shot of Jaws and with good reason. This is what people came to see and it’s what they take away from the film more than anything else. What really got me was watching the screaming victims continue struggling even as they were dismembered.

The denouement, while optimistic by definition, is complicated. The survivors, having sworn off the mall and its excesses, traps, and allure, escape in the helicopter they rode in on from the immediate threat of the zombies. What waits for them beyond the sunset is not hard to predict. They may escape the dawn of the dead, but there’s a day in front of them that can’t be any better than what they left. Romero has a penchant for never leaving a story completely told, realizing that if we don’t see the bitter end, the imagination gets to fill in the rest. He uses this trick in nearly everyone of his movies; we see enough to know how the problems at hand were dealt with, but the bigger problems lie in wait over the next hill. This kind of story telling is the kind that has had the biggest impact on me. Bring your characters in or out of the fire, but never extinguish it. There’s so much more imagination in never closing the doors you’ve spent your time and energy opening.

To me, Dawn of the Dead is a nearly perfect film (even with the over-the-top musical cues, budget constraints, and limitations of many of the actors) thoughtful, never excessive, naturally performed and will be at the top of my list until the day I die. With any luck I’ll stay dead when that day comes.