Thursday, October 9, 2008

October Shall Be Voodoo Month!

Ok, now it’s time for a history lesson. Not a very in depth one, and nothing below the surface, but it’s still important, damn you. A little while ago I sat in on a zombie panel at the release of Jonathan Maberry’s Zombie CSU and the question of the first zombie movie we’d seen came up. Fantasy author Gregory Frost's answer was I Walked With A Zombie, which he thought might have been the first zombie movie ever made. I, the upstart of the group, told him otherwise. So the inevitable next question was, “Just what was the first zombie film?” The answer in a moment, but first a digression. It’s no secret to anyone with an interest in ethnobotany or more than a passing familiarity with zombies that zombies are in fact a real thing. They aren’t the George A. Romero-created horror paradigm that so many of us are obsessed with but rather laborers who ingest one drug that stops their hearts so they can be revived later by another drug (Maberry and the other panel members knew more about the actual cocktail you have to take to get undead). This practice is not new and there are a few books on the subject (Harlem Renaissance pariah Zore Neale Hurston’s 1937 account of her trip to Haiti, Tell My Horse, and Wade Davis’ 1985 expose on the subject, The Serpent and the Rainbow, to name a few), but we’re here for the cinematic side of things. Before those books were published, there was exactly one account of zombies as we know them in American culture until 1932; a 1926 short story by H.P. Lovecraft called Cool Air was really all there was. In 1932 the first [voodoo] zombie movie was directed by Victor Halperin and produced by his brother Edward. Bela Lugosi plays the ring leader of the zombies and the story is not unlike many of his other post-Dracula roles.

White Zombie
by Victor Halperin
A young couple, not unlike the one from The Black Cat, The Raven, or The Old Dark House, ride through the night in a horse drawn carriage. The two lovebirds, Neil and Madeline, are in Haiti and they’re to be married that night. Why have they come here of all places? Well, they’re seeing an old acquaintance of the young woman named Charles Beaumont. He’s graciously offered his hacienda as the site of their nuptials, but what the husband in this equation doesn’t realize is that this acquaintance has a different marriage in mind. Seems Beaumont and Madeline used to have a bit of a thing and Beaumont isn’t really over the young lass. Seems he brought her here to win her back and he’s got an ace up his sleeve if she says no. As if it needed to be said, she does, which sends Beaumont for his lifeboat, an old man by the name of Murder Legendre. We know this man is evil because he’s played by Bela Lugosi, and also because he runs a sugar mill staffed entirely by zombies. Beaumont and Murder (well I'll never be able to type those names together again) have come to a little agreement; Beaumont wants some of Murder’s zombie powder - the stuff that made his staff so efficient - so he can administer it to his former lover and have her all to himself. You know how this goes: she gets drugged, seems to die, the body gets stolen, revived in private. Now both Neil and Beaumont have pretty awful prospects staring at them. Neil and Dr. Bruner, the missionary who was to wed the young lovers set about trying to find the body after Neil spies Murder’s zombie minions making off with it. Once Madeline gets her second wind she acts not like the lively young lass Beaumont envisioned, but as catatonic as the workers in the mill; the White Zombie of the title. Careful what you wish for, eh?

White Zombie, as many others have noted, is one of the best American horror films of the early sound era. It's straight-faced, unlike Dracula or The Invisible Man, engaging, unlike The Mummy, and not too wierd like The Black Cat. It does, however lose a bit of it's frightening quality after the first act, not unlike Island of Lost Souls. It is however nicely paced, has a few decent shocks, and a mostly reigned in performance by Bela Lugosi. His supporting cast are really just that (all competent, no one exceptional. Madge Bellamy does a fine job as a vegetable, Robert Frazer the same as a jilted eccentric). The 1932 release date explains a lot (the scripts reliance on a christian in Haiti to do all of the spiritual and physical legwork, the attitude towards the natives). There are, as I said, many fine moments, the introduction the sugar mill being the very best. There's also the Matte painting that stands in for Murder's lair that looks sufficiently spooky. The ending is a bit romantic (even by 30s standards), but I can't really expect much else. Thoroughly confusing is why the only black person in the film is Neil and Madeleine's chauffeur and why Victor Halperin made no effort whatsoever to make the natives appear as anything but porky white guys. Perhaps it was this ethic that brought about the ruin of his career four years later when he and his brother attempted to cash in on their success. The simple and haunting White Zombie gave way to the dull and wrongheaded Revolt of the Zombies, a movie with no connection to this except for some recycled footage of Bela Lugosi in close-up and the same men behind the lens. All in all, at an hour and 5 minutes, you could do a right sight worse.

It would be a while before anyone got the voodoo zombie formula right again, so viewers with a taste for the islands had to mire in thoughtless crap like King of the Zombies and Ouanga or Drums of the Jungle. It was in 1943, a full decade after the first zombie film that we have the second great one. Incidentally, it's the first one Gregory Frost ever saw.

I Walked With A Zombie
by Jacques Tourneur
Curt Siodmak's screenplay begins (as his often do) in transit. Betsy Connell is a nurse headed to the West Indies to care for a woman named Jessica in a vegetative state (sound familiar). She is part of the wealthy, but incredibly petty Holland family. Paul Holland, the husband of said patient-to-be, is a reserved man who is himself in something of a catatonic state. He's become incredibly reserved since his wife's coma struck and rarely leaves his house. Wesley is Paul's half-brother and he is a drunk who clearly harbours more than a little resentment towards Paul. Wesley it seems, is the one who really cares enough about Jessica to get her help, not her husband. And then there's Wesley's mom who oversees the whole thing like a Tennessee Williams character. She discovers this in a series of rather awkward encounters with both men, and once those are out of the way, Tourneur starts turning on the creep.

One night shortly after arriving, Betsy hears a strange crying coming from an empty stone tower on the Holland's property. When she sneaks out to discover its origin, she comes face to face with Jessica in ghastly white robes. Paul calms the frightened nurse while Wesley grabs Jessica and carries her back to the house. Talk about priorities. And as for that, Betsy finds herself tragically falling love with Paul (Christ the 40s were a melodramatic time). Anyway, so Betsy realizes she and Paul can't be together, but she wants to make him happy, and gets it into her head that the only way to do this is to take Jessica, in secret, to a voodoo ceremony to see if someone can't magic all the coma out of her. So, in the middle of the night, nurse guides patient through a dead field to the ceremony where they come face to face with....A Zombie! And a scary bastard he is. The ceremony doesn't go as expected, it just has the effect of making the voodoo worshippers interested in kidnapping Jessica to add to their zombie collection. A whole slew of starcrossed lovers, an antsy voodoo cult, and a zombie wandering about. Sounds like fun to me.

A precursor to both Bernardo Bertolucci and David Cronenberg, Jacques Tourneur was able to make very effective films that dripped with sexual overtones. He was at his best, strangely, with his first few films working for notorious noirror film producer Val Lewton. Tourneur's three films for Lewton (Zombie, Cat People, and The Leopard Man) are standouts in Lewton's RKO output and as horror films that stand the test of time. Cat People is quite simply one of the finest movies ever made, genre aside. After parting ways with horror he made a good many movies in the 40s and 50s, the most famous of which, Out Of The Past, is a delicious bit of noir filmmaking; many of Lewton's lessons clearly paid off. He would make one last masterpiece - 1957's Curse of the Demon - before fading into the limbo state of Italian no-budget filmmaking and bad TV, poor Jacques. But what he was able to accomplish before the art world turned cold and shut him out is enough to make any filmmaker green with envy.

I Walked With A Zombie gets mixed reviews from the zombie loving crowd. Some find it tedious and boring, others calculated and chilling. Everyone however agrees about the power of the films best scenes. The first, the discovery of Mrs. Holland in the bell tower and the second, the first appearance of the zombie. Personally I don't think there's been a better cinematic zombie than the one Darby Jones portrays here. Rigid posture, bugging eyes, Jones has some real cosmic menace. His performance is about the one thing everyone finds to like about I Walked With A Zombie. There are some other decent performances here, but I for one don't really get Tom Conway as a romantic lead. Depressed husband I get, but not future prospect. He did better playing stodgy men of science and perverted psychiatrists. That voice and his mad appearance lend themselves to characters, not leads, if you get my meaning. Frances Dee is wholly uninspiring, but Edith Barrett as Mrs. Rand and James Ellison as Wesley make up for it. Ellison's finest moment comes when he spies Jessica leaving the premises, headed for the voodoo priest bidding her with spiritual finger come hither. His wordless response is perfect and the movie closes on a simultaneous up and down beat. It's one of my favorite ending shots of all time. The film has a sort of sun-drenched look to it that Tourneur delivers flawlessly and it makes me love I Walked With A Zombie all the more. I really like this film and I think it's one of those rare works of art that lends weight to the horror genre's transcendent power. It is very thoughtfully composed, a little heavy-handed, legitimately scary at times, and quite beautiful to watch.
Incidentally, if you happen upon the Val Lewton Collection of this, it's worth it to watch again with Kim Newman's commentary. The man is brilliant and knows everything there is to know about this film. Plus who doesn't like the sound of a British film critic's voice?

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Children of the 80s

The 80s saw the last hurrah of the real horror film (it wouldn't see it's renaissance until 2002). Horror movies really got going at the end of the 60s, held their gory, gnarled fingers on the pulse of audiences all throughout the 60s and finally flatlined somewhere around 1986. Gone were bawdy exploitation fright films worth watching, even for a laugh; gone were creatures that gave us nightmares; gone were shameless but fun cribbing from the writings of Richard Matheson and H.P. Lovecraft, gone, gone all of them gone right around 1986. Granted there was horror between then and 2002, but my god, talk about slim pickens. You'd have better luck getting scared watching an Abel Ferrera film than if you picked up anything Wes Craven or Dario Argento put their name on in the 1990s. I think what really killed horror films (but conversely we're also some of the most entertaining films in the genre) was the invention of the horror comedy. Specifically, the zombie comedy. This started out as something truly awesome to behold; smart, funny, esoteric romps through the land of the living dead with madder than mad science, excellent performances, genre conventions turned gleefully on their heads, and a nice balance of gore and character. This may have given birth to some of the most wretched films I've yet to see (I'm alone in the world of horror reviewers, but I fucking hated Dead Alive and Cemetary Man, and I can't stand the recent crop of them, either; Dead & Breakfast for example). The archetypes, however, the films by which all the rest would be judged (dis-favorably) were quite marvelous (and I don't mean Zombies on Broadway either). With the exception of Frank Hennenlotter's Basket Case, I can't think of two 80s horror films so highly praised for their charming weirdness (well, maybe I can, but that's a story for another day....)

by Stuart Gordon

Reaminator is based on a pulpy H.P. Lovecraft serial from the mid 1920s that people love to tell you is nothing like the film. The opening is one my favorite moments of camp ever filmed. A group of professors gathers around a locked door; there is some kind of commotion going on behind it. When they finally get it open they find a young man with spectacles wrestling with a much larger man in a suit. The young man breaks free of the elder man's stranglehold and then kills him in front of the horrified audience he's just gathered. As the perfect 80s synth score chugs away behind them, one of the assembled spectators gasps "You've Killed Him!" to which the young man replies as he's dragged from the room "No! I Gave Him Life!" How much more perfect can you get? This air of tarring and feathering the horror tradition pervades the rest of the film, which is excellent, because if this movie took itself too seriously, there's no way it'd be as fun.

Next we see a similar life and death struggle as Dan Cain, a medical student, tries in vain to revive a corpse with a pair of defibrillators. This is apparently not the first time this has happened to the doomed young doctor, because his punishment is to be confined to the morgue where he can do no more damage to the living (or so you'd think). He meets three people during his first visit that are going to be very important to him very soon. Halsey, the dean of the medical school, Hill, the resident brain specialist, and Herbert West, the gentleman who was dragged kicking and screaming from the prologue. Now, what exactly is he doing here? Shouldn't he have been locked away. If you're Dan Cain, you'd agree one hundred percent, because West is about to cause him more trouble than Mogwai after midnight.

West sees an ad placed by Cain for a spare apartment and answers it just in time to spy Cain and the Dean's daughter, Megan indisposed on the couch, something the Halsey doesn't know about. With that piece of blackmail in place, West takes the basement apartment and then the weirdness begins in earnest. First is when Dan's cat goes missing and Megan finds him chilling in West's freezer, very much dead. This is upsetting enough, but not half as bad as when Dan hears screaming in the middle of the night and finds West and the cat battling it out in the basement. Dan helps West rekill the animal and then demands an explanation. Herbert West it seems, is no ordinary mortuary attendant. He took the job at the big freezer so he could have access to dead bodies and continue his research. The nature of that research, as we've seen, is bringing the dead back to life with a phosphorescent green liquid he's created himself. Dan's intrigued; wouldn't you be?

They go next to the morgue to try the now successful serum on a slightly bigger host. They manage to bring a hulking corpse back to life, but, what neither considers is how Rufus the cat behaved just after found life again; the result is the same, except instead of a cat, they have to contend with someone much bigger than either Cain or West. Neither can get their hands on the body in time and it kills Dean Halsey, who has the misfortune to run into it before West can take a bonesaw to its chest. West, as it turns out, is less than reasonable, and sees only another opportunity to try out his serum when the dean drops dead in front of him. The results are, once again, less than impressive. The dean's ravenous lunacy lands him in an asylum, puts Megan into a state of pretty understandable grief, and gives West a new rival. Hill, it seems, is just as keen to know the secret of life after death as West is, but he's just a little less insidious a character. Hill will stoop to blackmail, just like West, but he doesn't realize that West isn't above murder to keep his secret safe, at least until he gets proper recognition for it. What does he do? Well he cuts off Hill's head with a shovel and reanimates it in an aluminum pan and his body, which lies a few feet away on the floor. Gordon's a real charmer. Those of you who have seen The Brain That Wouldn't Die will already have a pretty good idea of what this looks like; For the rest of you:

The best part of the film occurs jut after Hill's body and head work together to steal West's reagent, kidnap Megan, and invite all manner of zany rescue attempt. West, the reanimated Dean Halsey, and Cain all swarm in to stop Hill, and the resulting chaos is about the craziest fucking thing you'll ever see. Picture a morgue coming to life, being really angry, really confused, and hopped up on Red Bull. Then add exploding intestines and you come close to imagining the conclusion of Reanimator. Of course, as this is a Lovecraft adaptation, there must be some indication of evil ever lurking somewhere nearby, so we're treated to the hint that there might be a new reanimator in town.

Stuart Gordon, I've always felt, is the Herschell Gordon Lewis of his time. He started making low-budget, gory, campy fun, and he makes it to this day. His films are full of life and are in general a blast, even if they occasionally suck worse than a post-Cujo Stephen King adaptation. Today's film is hotly debated because it's based on an H.P. Lovecraft story (Lovecraft fans are some touchy people). Lovecraft's fans always get their tentacles in a bunch whenever anyone takes on the master's work, and never more so than when The Reanimator is brought up; for the record, the film is actually not a bad adaptation until the third act. Gordon was a man of his time, and so couldn't very well not deliver on the elements that kids of the era craved when they went to see an 80s zombie film. So what we have is the story "Herbert West - Reanimator" brought to the 1980s in every aspect (clothes, styles, gore, nudity, sex, and the blackest of humour). And it's so much fun you occasionally forget you're being scared by a few things. The ending for example is a re-imagining of every zombie holocaust scene from every bad Italian zombie film before or since. Hill and West make for interesting Nemeses, because, in an exaggerated spin on the Hammer style, they're just two different evil bastards pitted against each other. Bruce Abbott as Cain isn't much of a hero for most of the film, and only half comes through at the end when we expect him to be a bit more assertive. The real hero is Jeffrey Combs as the charismatic, deranged Herbert West. His deranged swagger makes him endlessly watch-able as he slips further and further from reality and into Vincent Price-esque depths of madness. If Cain had been pitted against him, this could have been a rehash of any of Price's films at AIP in the 1960s, where countless, lumpy, vaguely handsome good guys were shuffled in front of him to take their turn acting as a sponge to his eloquently delivered, tortured apostrophizing.
The zombies themselves are mostly comic set pieces until the orgiastic third act comes to a close and West is confronted with the horrible result of his work. Watching a naked corpse run down a hallway to strangle a collegiate girl was not something I thought I needed to see at age 13, but now I don't know where I'd be if I hadn't seen it. I never saw any of the sequels, simply because I hold this film in such high-esteem that a purely comic riff on the carefully balanced themes and story devices of Reanimator would just feel half-done. Reanimator was at least partially a horror film and a damn good one at that, and when films forego craft for an overhaul of absurd elements, I feel cheated. See the original and die happy so we can fill you full of neon reagent.

Return of the Living Dead
by Dan O'Bannon

Dan O'Bannon may be the most underrated man in the horror game. John Carpenter's made a few good films (and one masterpiece), but he's shown nowhere near the creativity of just one of O'Bannon's films. Wes Craven lost his touch years ago, yet studios paid him to write the sequel to a remake of one his films, something he proved incapable of doing when the original was released. Sam Raimi hasn't made a great film since Evil Dead 2, yet year after year we see Spiderman sequel after Spiderman sequel, and they never get any better. Yet everyone seemed more than willing to let O'Bannon slide right out of the public eye. What happened? The man was the reason we have some of our greatest horror movies? He gave us the script for Alien, perhaps the most thoroughly creepy and thoughtfully composed monster movie of all time. He gave us Lifeforce, a super fun, zany zombie-alien mash-up, a formula no one seems to get right these days. And he gave us Return of the Living Dead, a wonderful send up of Romero's famous living dead pictures, the same year as his own disappointing Day Of The Dead hit theatres. This film, unlike Day, lived up to its full potential and is jammed with blistering comic moments, as well as some legitimate scares. A film that proves not only through it's genius script, but in it's expert staging that O'Bannon was twice as handy a writer, and just as capable a director as anyone else.

Interesting to note that, like Reanimator, this film was steeped in controversy, as many were a little miffed about the use of the words Living Dead in the title, lawyers and fans alike, if you get me. This film isn't exactly a sequel, and legally it certainly isn't one.

Our story concerns a myriad of disaffected 80s youth; punks you might call them. There are a half-dozen of them hanging out at a graveyard, and boy do they look the part. We have capes, leather, zebra stripes, chains, and buckles, and everything else Hot Topic would sell fifteen years later. And if the clothes don't say it all, how about these names (Spider, Scuz, Trash, Suicide...and then there's Casey and Chuck, but, nevermind that). We'll be focusing on the two members of the group who don't quite look the part. One of them, Freddy, is not with the group because he's just finishing his shift at the mortuary (a good sign in any horror film) while his friends wait outside for him. He and Frank, his considerably older coworker, are shifting some barrels around inside the large building's storage facility. Frank tells his young friend that the barrels are full of some secret government corpses, and that in fact the events of the movie Night of the Living Dead are not fiction, but fact. The only evidence lies right within the very canister they're rolling around. No sooner has Frank explained to Freddy that there's no way to break open the canisters does Frank's comforting tap accidentally crack open the crate and expose the two rubes to whatever chemical affected the corpse. When they wake up they have a bigger problem than what to tell their boss about the cracked canister. There's a nude, yellow body running around like an idiot. They manage to lock him up and then they get their supervisor, Burt to help them with the body. Because he's played by Clu Gulagher, I just get the feeling he'll get the job done. After a comical couple of minutes where they struggle with the best way to kill something that by rights should already be dead, they finally dismember the thing with a hacksaw (they have to as cutting off it's head does nothing but give them a just as crazy, headless corpse to catch up with).

Meanwhile, Tina, the only one of the gang of kids not dressed for a Dead Boys concert, wanders away to find Freddy. Freddy is her boyfriend and this is the only reason she's come along with the punks in the first place. Well she happens upon an empty warehouse and goes into the basement (I have to assume she's been here to pick her boyfriend up before). She discovers something even more unnerving than the yellow-tinged naked body Freddy, Burt, and Frank tangoed with. A grungy, dripping, zombie with its flesh leaking off it's bones (referred to as the Tarman in the end credits) comes roaring out of another storage canister. With a throaty cry of "Brains" it chases Tina around the room, forcing her to seek shelter in the same canister the thing escaped from.

After getting their situation under wraps, Frank, Burt, and Freddy bring the writhing body parts to the mortuary where the kindly old mortician, Ernie, is also working late. Understanding that Ernie would be a little wigged out about the sight of legs, hands, and bits of chest squirming around in little plastic bags, Burt tells him the bags are full of rabid weasels. Ernie agrees that the best thing to do is fire up his crematorium and send the things to hell. This doesn't go as smoothly as they might have liked however. The chemical that has revived the mangy corpse goes right up into the air with the smoke from the crematorium and the rain storm that has just kicked up brings it all right down into the soil of the graveyard nearby; the same graveyard Freddy's friends have decided to hang out in. You know what this means? Why it's that right of passage in the world of post-Plan 9 living dead films; the bodies of the dead burst out of their graves to stir up trouble. Trouble for six kids having stupid fun on top of some headstones.

Before the zombie invasion has reached the crematorium, Burt sees that the chemical has wreaked havoc on Freddy and Frank, and so paramedics are called. The ambulance arrives and the paramedics have just enough time to deliver their diagnosis ("You have no pulse, your blood pressure's zero-over-zero, you have no pupillary response, no reflexes and your temperature is 70 degrees") before they become food for the living dead. On the other half of the grounds, things aren't going too well for the malcontents. The first to go is Trash (notable for one reason only, because she's Linnea Quigly, and she dances around naked) who falls down in the mud and gets eaten soon after. Next is Suicide, the leader of the bunch, who runs afoul of the tarman, allowing Tina to escape with Spider and Scuz. They head for the crematorium, with zombies running after them (and yes I mean running. Though 28 Days Later revolutionized the zombie film, it wasn't the first to feature 'runners'. Chuck and Casey lock the door to the basement and stay in the warehouse, afraid to go outside again.

From here on out we have a new spin on the Night of the Living Dead board-up-the-windows scenario. The zombies, super smart and marathon-runner-fast, take more and more ground in the mortuary as Freddy and Frank's condition worsens. And to cap it all off, we have a race against time before nuclear weapons are used to erase the whole mess. Miles away in some official building, a higher up called Colonel Glover moves ahead with the plan to use whatever means necessary to contain the potential zombie epidemic he's got on his hands.

Enjoying this movie immensely was not a surprise when I first saw it in 4th grade. The emotional kick I got watching it, then and everytime I've watched it since, is a surprise. For whatever reason (and this is true of Reanimator, too) this movie manages to make me care about the characters in ways that most serious dramatic pieces can't. Maybe it was some ingrained sympathy for radical lifestyles, but, I paid rapt attention when the punks in this film were in danger. I saw this movie before I saw Night of the Living Dead, and so this was the first time I'd seen the board yourself up set-piece before. This had a pretty huge influence on me; most of the things I wrote between first watching it at age 8 and then actually starting to write in screenplay format all had some element of Return Of The Living Dead in it.

The reason this film is (rightly) remembered so fondly is its humour. I may be the only person who found this film scary, but I more than sympathize with the people who laughed their asses off while watching Return. O'Bannon's script is just plain funny. The interactions between the feuding twenty somethings is a hoot, as it becomes clearer and clearer that these guys hang out with each other simply because they've got no one else to hang out with.

Suicide: How come you guys only come around when you need a ride someplace?
Spider: Cause you're one spooky motherfucker, man!
Normally tired cliches like Chuck trying to get with Casey are funny even when they shouldn't be. For my money the funniest bits go to Clu Gulagher, who gets to lampoon his tough-guy persona with all the bluster he can muster. When his Burt has to put a stop to the first zombie's running around with Freddy and Frank, he blows himself up like a puffer fish and begins screaming at Frank, who can't get up the courage to let the thing out of the closet. "Goddamn It Frank, Be A Man!" He really gets all the best lines. When he discovers that the only phone in the building is in the basement with the Tarman, he paces for a minute before picking up a board and bellowing, "Open the door. I'm gonna knock it's Goddamn Block Off!" Blustery older men are pretty much always funny to me, and when they so perfectly act the part, I can't help but laugh. So when a film can go from mercilessly making me gut laugh to wrenching those guts with some pretty terrifying stuff, I call it a success.