Monday, June 30, 2008

George A. Romero Month, Film 11

About the time that George A. Romero was preparing for his 180 fashion-world thriller Bruiser, there was a little known television series called Spaced running in Britain. It's director Edgar Wright and star Simon Pegg were massive George Romero fans (in one episode, Pegg stays up late playing Resident Evil 2 and has a Romero-style nightmare). Well, Bruiser, it turns out wouldn't be much of a forecast for Romero's future, but Spaced and it's creators had a big surprise in store for the creator of the living dead. When I saw the trailer for their debut feature film, and heard the music ripped right from Romero's Dawn of the Dead, I nearly wept with joy. When I saw the film, I was amazed at how unbelievably funny these unknown brits were, but even more astounded that they were willing be as dark as their hero was in Day of the Dead.

Shaun of the Dead
by Edgar Wright

Shaun's life is going nowhere. His best friend and roommate Ed is a big dumbass who will forever stunt his emotional growth; their third rommate wants him gone as he never pays, cleans, or does anything productive. His girlfriend recognizes this and seeing that he will never be an adult, breaks up with him. His mother and step-dad are a constant source of frustration, as is his job at a copy store. In fact it would take a very large change in his life for him to be worth much to anyone. What sort of change? Well, as I'm sure everyone who reads this knows, the change is the impending Zombie plague that starts up one morning.

After Shaun and Ed realize the score (the scenes where Shaun is introduced to the zombies on the streets are a combination of Let Sleeping Corpses Lie and Day of the Dead) they begin prioritizing. Shaun, being the only one of the two with family or a life of any kind, takes the initiative, seeing not only a chance to save his loved ones, but to prove to all of them that he's more than the nothing they have, until now, rightly taken him for. So, armed with Cricket Bat and shovel, they leave to collect Shaun's girlfriend, her two roomates, his mom and stepdad and head to their favorite bar. Complications, big ones, ensue. As the man on tv says "It is vital to stay in your home, not try to reach any loved ones and avoid physical contact with the assailants."

As tributes go, this one is really only skin deep. There are borrowed music cues (the best music of Dawn of the Dead shows up in the beginning), very similar zombies, and that's really about it. Edgar Wright has on many occasions admitted his (and every other zombie filmmaker of the last 40 years) debt to Romero. Zombies as we know them, after all, are his creation. The behavior of his zombies are identical to those of Romeros. Also present from Romero's films, the fact that this film can be a big fucking bummer when it wants to be. This is a film where people have to alternately kill or watch die their parents, best friends, and lovers. I call that a big fucking bummer when for most of the film we've been asked to laugh our asses off (which is not hard). The first half of the film is a hoot, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, the writers, are geniuses on the level of Monty Python. Hot Fuzz, their take on the Bruckheimer action film, illustrates this pretty nicely. Their humour is both universal and uniquely British, like the Pythons. Present also are some pretty amazing acting talents. Dylan Moran of Black Books, that cute Lucy Davis from the original Office, Bill Nighy, and of course Pegg and Nick Frost. The humour is delightful, and ranges from british in jokes to unexpectedly effective puns and other simple tactics. I could have done without the gravity of the conclusion, but, I guess it isn't a zombie film without a scene of someone's guts being pulled out. It's also good to know that zombie films will always be a fresh subject to be mined, even while shit like House of the Dead and Vampires vs. Zombies continues to be produced day after day. Romero was pleased with Shaun (his quote is on the DVD cover, and he asked Wright and Pegg to be zombie extras in Land of the Dead), and so am I. I'm also pleased to know his influence has wrought some truly brilliant things over the years.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

George A. Romero Month, Film 10

After Land of the Dead I admit I was stricken. Harsh conclusions began formulating in my head. What if Romero never made another zombie film? What if he never made another film again? Jesus, this wasn't going to be his last word, was it? Granted it was only natural for films like Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later to be slicker and effortlessly more youthful, but I just thought it would have been a terrible damn shame if Romero never once tried his hand at delivering another zombie film to his ravenous fanbase. Midway through my freshman year of college, I was riding on a train and picked up someone's discarded newspaper. I flipped through to the entertainment and began looking up movie reviews. There, under Rambo, in bold, was the answer to my prayers.

Diary of the Dead
by George A. Romero
As is only to be expected of a Romero film, this picture is topical. Who's on trial this time? The Media and youtube culture. Like Cloverfield we are given the inside scoop on the apocalypse as it unfolds. Unlike that boyish film, Romero's has the balls to own up to its heinousness of character. This attitude was probably this film's saving grace, and it's probably the only time that a director's age gave him insight into a twenty-something's cultural phenomenon. We open on a college thesis film project being shot in the dead of night. They break for the night about the same time they start hearing ghastly reports on the radio and TV. Frightened, the young director goes off to find his girlfriend and by the time he gets to her and then finds his crew again, he's changed his manner. He is now humourless and intent on capturing every facet of his friends behavior during the crisis. Everyone from the project who's still around (one of the actors, Ridley and his girlfriend leave for his parent's house early on) decide to travel together to get everyone to their respective homes. This becomes tricky when they learn what all the fuss is about; shortly into their drive they happen upon a car wreck. When one of the charred victims gets up and starts trying to get into the big camper they stole from the film department, they all fall right into panic mode. Students Jason, Mary, Debra, Tony, Elliot, Gordo, Tracy, and craggy english professor Andrew drive to a hospital, an mute amish man's farm, a warehouse commandeered by a guerilla group, Deb's house, and finally to Ridley's mansion. During this pilgrimage the group thins and thins and thins.
Simple plot, right? In fact there isn't anything special about this film really, but goddamn it, it's better than Land of the Dead. Using digital photography and "real" performances, Romero gets to revel in the reality monster film genre and bite into post-reality TV media at the same time. When the big, crass cameraman in Cloverfield says "people are going to want to know how it all went down" it's a fantastic cop-out and characteristic of the really stupid mentality that drives many of today's college students. When Romero has his protagonist sit down in front of a mirror and say that he's going to record everything he sees and not waste the opportunity it feels more like some kind of arrested development than just a hobby. I run this piece of psycho-analysis past Toetag Production and the makers of the Saw movies, who year after year strive to invent ways to make it look like they've not only convincingly killed people, but in the most fucked up way possible. With this condition in mind, it bugs me that the last words of Diary of the Dead are Deb's questioning whether we (humans, or Americans anyway) are worth saving. Any college kid with half a brain knows that. NO! We aren't! And after you watched your stupid boyfriend film a bunch of his friends getting their faces bitten off by zombies, I believe you would know the answer just as well as anyone. Of course, that little slip-up isn't enough to ruin the movie.
The reason it works is because, like Land of the Dead, it is decently paced. Unlike that film it's engaging and I did care about some of the characters. It had a few arresting visuals (the ending in Ridley's mansion is pretty well done) and the characters were for the most part believable (I had a hard time accepting the drunk English supervisor, but he was still kind of fun, anyway). There were a few legit scares (this was actually a horror film) and Romero still knows how to work a cheap shock. Diary of the Dead moves pretty quickly, even if it does apostrophize a little more than it can get away with (Deb's voice over gets old real fast). I don't need to be told how boorish and post-modern America has become, I live there. Romero could probably have gotten away with not treating the audience like outsiders to the problem, but I do get why he needs to rub our face in it. He's angry and so am I, so I give him his space to cast stones. From someone who's almost never taken studio money or ceded creative control, I let it slide. If this was Dark Castle's Diary of the Dead, I might not be so generous. I'm just glad Romero got one final word in on the subject.

George A. Romero Month, Film 9

This is part of my effort to write about my 100 favorite films in two pages or less.

Night of the Living Dead
by George A. Romero

Though his body of work is small and uneven, George A. Romero has done more to influence trends in independent cinema than even the likes of  John Cassavetes. Entire production houses have been built on love for Romero’s movies; the decades worth of homages, however, no matter how carefully considered, are never as satisfying as the real thing. Much of horror cinema can be traced back to a cemetery in Butler County, PA. George A. Romero wasn’t a film student, he was just a kid who loved films. He used to rent reels of films so he could watch films like Tales Of Hoffmann in his grandparents' house in New York City where he lived at the time. He spent his youth consuming movies and at his earliest possible opportunity, gave back to the world he loved so much. Initially hanging out at editing labs, he quickly became head of a Pittsburgh production house and started directing commercials. It was when he and a few friends each contributed six hundred dollars and long hours of their time that history was forever changed.

A shy woman named Barbra and her obnoxious brother Johnny arrive at a cemetery in the middle of the nowhere to plant a wreath on their father’s grave. They argue, wonder about the dead radio reception, pray, and then a man in a suit assaults Barbra and murders Johnny with his bare hands. Barbra runs and the man chases her all the way to an empty farmhouse next to a gas pump. She locks the doors, but the man is outside, and soon more men just like him show up. No American film had ever thrust its audience so deeply into harm’s way. The man is dead, the woman is catatonic and alone, danger has nothing preventing its entry into the house to make short work of her. Audiences must have experienced the ultimate double-take when the hero finally shows up and he is a handsome, strong black man. Duane Jones, the best actor Romero was acquainted with at the time, gives the performance of a lifetime as Ben (or anyway, it had to do; he has but one other screen credit, the fabulously arch Ganja & Hess), the resilient, forward thinking brains and brawns in the small house of survivors. The monologue he delivers about wanting to drive his truck into the group of the living dead is pitch-perfect. Next to the bitter Mr. Cooper, the biting Mrs. Cooper, the invalid Karen, the slow-witted Judy, the well-meaning dope Tom, and vegetative Barbra, Ben is the only protagonist worthy of the name. He is the most levelheaded, the most reasonable, and yet it is his actions that lead tragedy. And even when the story seems to have brought us out of the fire with the arrival of local law enforcement, Romero, ever the satirist, has one last cruel ace up his sleeve.

This film was the start of not just Romero’s life as a director, but of his career as a maker of existential horror films. His movies present heroes with more than just the movie monsters they by definition have to fight. The real threat is in the oppressive air that surrounds his characters at all times, the feeling of utter helplessness. In all of his horror films the real reason to be frightened isn’t necessarily because of the ghastliness of the zombies, vampires, or mass murderer, but because that thing has invaded your well-being and done all it can to erase it. In Night we are shown immediately what this is like when Barbra’s brother is killed in front of her very eyes and the man who does it just has time to wipe his mouth before he starts in on her. Ben’s troubles really start when the cowardly Mr. Cooper comes up from the basement and begins acting unreasonable apropos of nothing. He ends doing battle more seriously with Cooper than the ghouls who wait patiently for them to self-destruct.

This being a horror film, it is the horrific elements, not the well-crafted characterizations, that it is remembered for. In that vein Night became infamous for one scene in particular. After reports on television advise all survivors to head to rescue stations, Ben, Tom, and Judy try to fuel up Ben’s truck. When things go awry and the truck goes up in flames, the undead hoards partake of the newly barbecued lovers in what is cinema’s most important gore scene (many people would point to Blood Feast's tongue, but I hold this up as this had reach and gravitas). Thanks to black and white cinematography, real meat, Bosco chocolate sauce and the impassive looks on the zombie extras faces, a macabre effect was achieved that was wholly original at that point in history. This scene was what put the film into production limbo; it’s the reason that it can be found in every dime horror bin across the country, why there are legions of zombie film fans all over the world, and in a roundabout way why I want to make movies.

There are a few titles that will always spring to mind when horror movies as a genre are brought up in conversation; George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead will always be one of those names. The images of crowds of the undead roaming about and eating flesh are unforgettable and have been copied more times than can be easily counted (even if they were borrowed from lesser known films from a few years earlier). This was also effectively the catalyst of the "cabin in the woods" genre. Even if you’ve never seen it, you know it by reputation; it is one of ‘those’ films, the ones with unspeakable things that are never elaborated on in polite conversation. These are the films I spent my youth searching for; these are the films I plan to make someday. It was Romero’s drive that most influenced my decision to make movies. He had no producer, he had no guarantees, no credentials; the only thing he had was ambition and friends.

The acting, cinematography, music, and editing are all solid considering the budgetary restraints. Compare Duane Jones' or Judith O’Dea’s performance to those of the leads in any Jack Hill or Roger Corman movie and a few things become clear. The first is that Romero’s family was incredibly supportive and functional. The second is that Romero was capable of working with people in ways that maybe only people like John Cassavetes understood as well. His movies would not seem quite so scary were it not for the actor’s capability of showing how far from comfort they have fallen. Cooper acts out of concern for his pride, but he also has a family to worry about. When he and Ben clash, sympathy initially falls in Ben’s court, but then consider that Cooper’s actions are understandable given the extreme circumstances. He is pig-headed and loud, but he isn’t the villain the usually reliable black-and-white code of ethics paints him as subconsciously. He seems the villain because a film needs a villain and the zombies just don’t cut it for the entire second act. Horror films weren't this deep back then. You had tragic flaws, but never just people with all the tiny flaws that make them up.

Since Night of the Living Dead had no producer with expectations it could do whatever it pleased and the existential nightmare world it creates is really just the beginning. On top of its casting and gore scenes, there is that ending; it defies all expectations, all standards of decency. I won't ruin the proper ending, but here's a minor spoiler for you, just to illustrate how little interest the image 10 crew had in fucking around: Just after Barbra is carried away to certain death by her zombie brother, Karen, the little girl, dies, only to be revived as one of the undead, and then she murders her mother with a jagged trough. Things like this just weren’t done in proper films but Romero pulled no punches. This was the end of the world like no one had ever shown it: brutal, dark, and terrifying. No other filmmaker in the world had been as bold as George Romero, and rarely has anyone taken the chances he took. When he finished editing the film, Romero through the reel into the back of a truck and drove around looking for some place to screen it. Courage and vision drove this man to his destiny, and I can only hope that I can be allowed to make films of my own and continue telling the world about George Romero and his legacy.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

George A. Romero Month, Film 8

When we last left our friend George A. Romero, he was stumbling a bit over his other revisionist horror projects. The lagtime between the Season of the Witch and today's film was a period of growth for Romero (and his budget). The Crazies was a more concentrated effort, and one with a message. After Night of the Living Dead, not wanting to be pigeonholed, he took a turn down the road less traveled. He went for broke with There's Always Vanilla, then decided maybe horror still had something to offer him, but wanted to add something of his own to it. With Season of the Witch, he equated witchcraft with middle-aged sexuality. He added some elements of Night of the Living Dead to The Crazies, but that film was mostly a bolder restatement of his earlier theme of the murderous potential of a group of people. His next film has a number of important distinctions from his previous three features; it's a post-modern, revisionist vampire film quite unlike any other; it acted as the foundation for the style he was about to become famous for; and it's one of his best films.

by George A. Romero

A twitchy young man watches as an attractive, young woman takes her seat on an over-night train to New York City. He waits for darkness, prepares a syringe, and waits outsider her door. He imagines the scenario in which a woman like this would willingly invite him into her room. Then he charges in, sticks her with the syringe, and tries to subdue her. When she protests and tries to swear at him to call him down, he shouts back "Please! This is important to me....just go to sleep". When the drugs take effect, he undresses and lies with her on her bed. He then cuts her arm with a razor blade and drinks her blood. This should be in the pantheon of great horror movie introductions along with Night of the Living Dead, The Thing, and the new Dawn of the Dead, but as I appear to be one of 1,000 people who've seen this movie all the way through, I'll excuse it's absence.

The young man excuses himself from the Train at Pittsburgh and is greeted by a large man in a white suit. The two walk in silence from the trains to the older man's house. Martin, the young man, is visibly awkward and his older cousin seems to fear him. When they arrive home the first words out of the older man's mouth is "Nosferatu". The old man appears to be on to Martin's killing spree, but doesn't know quite what to do. A word about our old man; he is in no uncertain terms a nut. His name is Tada Cuda, he believes every word of his eastern European religious upbringing, which means that he believes that Martin is descended from vampires, and therefore must be one. Martin goes out of his way to show the coot that he is not a vampire, like taking a bite out of the garlic left in his room and going out almost exclusively during the day, but that doesn't stop Tada Cuda from putting an alarm bell on Martin's bedroom door and ranting to whoever will listen. Martin's other relatives are a touch nicer, though it must be said, not unconditionally. His cousin Christine is a kindly woman in her late 20s married to an absent blowhard named Arthur. Christine likes Martin, but probably just because he isn't Arthur, who stays out drinking when he isn't at work. Romero handles this little subplot really well showing once again that he is in his element portraying real people instead of caricatures.

Despite the obstacles, Martin tries to settle in to his new life. He befriends one lonely housewife who he does chores for and begins spying on another lonely housewife who we assume is the boy's next target. As he has no one to talk to about personal things he begins making phone calls to a local radio DJ to try and talk out his extraordinary existence and the difference between it and what you might see in the movies. Tada Cuda meanwhile tries to ingrain the religious fervor into Christine and all others within earshot. The old man sees religion as the ultimate justification for his loathing of the boy and whatever actions he might take. While Tada Cuda tries to either reform or condemn the boy publicly, Martin takes both of his relationships one step further. First he stalks and kills the woman he's been spying on, then he begins sleeping with the other. The killing doesn't go as planned (the woman's lover is present, upsetting his plans more than a little), and the consensual sex is not something he is used to; together the events are enough to throw him off pretty seriously. He begins getting anxious and starts trying to kill drifters which nearly gets him arrested. Between his relatives, his lovelife, his only outlet for conversation, and his hunger for blood things are bound to come to a head.

Martin is and has always been George A. Romero's favorite of his films. Having seen most of them, I'd call that pretty reasonable. Martin is, more than any other Romero film with the possible exception of Night of the Living Dead, about real people. Season of the Witch and There's Always Vanilla were about close-to-normal people, and the characters in Dawn were a touch exaggerated and everyone that followed was just this side of completely unbelievable (sometimes, as in Creepshow, this was on purpose). With the purposive exceptions of the titular hero and Tada Cuda, everybody acts in a reasonable manner, not even given the circumstances; everyone is very clearly an average inhabitant of Pittsburgh. Their actions in the face of all the weirdness are thus perfectly understandable. When Christine and Arthur leave Martin, upsetting him to the point of nearly getting caught, they do it because it seems the logical step in their marriage, that it serves as a plot-point for the story proper seems incidental. This is a very interesting choice to make because he invests much more energy into telling the story behind the religious infatuation and blood motivation charging Martin and his crazed uncle. Romero (who cameos as their talkative, down-to-earth priest, who actually got a few laughs out of me) goes out of his way to contrast Tada Cuda's religious ravings with that of the neighborhood christianity. The religion that Christine adheres to, the one that Romero's Father Howard preaches, is as much a part of the Pittsburgh lifestyle as the game that Arthur insists on watching, the factories on nearly every street, and Tada Cuda's grocery where a lot of chatty women pass the time. Martin serves as an upset to the community in more ways than one. By entering the town to alternately kill, sleep with, and divert the affections of many women, he is not unlike your typical movie vampire; the difference is that he nearly becomes a member of the community in doing so. Having an affair with one of the women makes him close to the two lovers he stalks and kills. Instead of a descent into depravity, Martin descends into normalcy, which in the end has the same effect as if he was as evil as Christopher Lee or Bela Lugosi. Except instead of a village or even a small party with torches, it's one old man and his warped beliefs. That neither Martin nor Tada Cuda is in the right when the film's conclusion rolls around is definitely a good thing. Martin seems to have relaxed his vampiring, and ends blamed for the one murder he didn't commit. There's a lot going on in this movie and for it to remain uncelebrated is criminal.

The actors are all competent: John Amplas as Martin in particular seems like he's not acting at all. Romero found him at a Pittsburgh playhouse. This film was the first of Romero's post-Night community pictures: his wife plays Martin's cousin, Tom Savini plays the hard drinking Arthur, the brothers Buba who acted as editor and sound designer respectively, on top of lending Romero their house to use as a location, show up as drug dealers near the end, and a few zombie extras in Dawn show up as extras here. This kind of communal feel is really what makes Romero's films so special to me on top of everything else. Technically it isn't anything special to look at, but there's one decision Romero made that floored me in its conception. Whenever Martin is in the process of attacking or gets the urge to kill we see black and white footage of the boy in period clothes performing a more romantic seduction and murder. He's imagining an ancestor doing the killing and it looks not unlike many other cinematic vampire attacks. Playing with time like this, in a brilliant flash of montage editing, is something he'd never done before and he's never done since. It works really well and Martin is made thrice as interesting because of it. It makes clear just how much Martin is influenced by old lore, though he jumps on his old uncle for the same influence.
The message seems to be that tradition is a great corrupter and that one needs to make way for the new. It's why Christine and Arthur leave their town, why Martin becomes an object of lust, why a priest laughs at an old man's tired faith, and why Martin is a new kind of vampire. His use of syringes and razor blades is, for my money, ten times as gross as using your teeth (What would have made the teeth work better for me is to show the wounds getting infected the same way your mouth does when you get punched in the jaw. Thank you Nick Smerkanich for that tidbit). The only tradition Martin adheres to is to go around vampiring, and as with any old evil, there's an old consequence waiting for you.

Friday, June 13, 2008

George A. Romero Month, Film 7

Occasionally you get attached to something finite and when it ends you spend a good deal of time pining for it to continue. I know a good many people who've been dying for a fifth Phantasm film, par example. The same can be said for the living dead films. Considering that it took 18 years for the first three films to come out it was no surprise to learn that after twenty years of waiting for another George Romero zombie film, another one was finally in production. Naturally I was excited, until I read the synopsis in an Italian Fangoria while on vacation. I guess it's fitting that I should have been in Italy when I found this out as Greg Nicotero, the makeup artist on Land of the Dead met Romero while vacationing in Italy with his family in the late 70s. The synopsis incidentally isn't as stupid as it sounded in the magazine, but I wish to christ he had let someone else write this film. He finally has all the money he could ever ask for and the results are ten times as tepid as if he had none.

Land of the Dead
by George A. Romero

It's the future now and the zombies are now a fact of life. We're never told how much time is supposed to have past between this and any of the other films, but the costumes and everything are definitely modern. I do wish that there was a more clear connection between these movies so it was possible to tell how long this has been going on. I get the feeling that Dawn is supposed to be the logical continuation of Night and that Day is supposed to be a little while after Dawn. Land I don't knowm because Romero treated it like a sequel but the only thing that's ever been carried over from any of these movies was actor Jon Polito from film 2 to film 3, but that doesn't really mean anything. I guess what he's trying to say maybe is that crisis transcends time, or that maybe it's been a problem for the last 40 years, or that there was no gap between any of the films. Anyway, it's very much 2005 and the last people in America have sequestered themselves in a city, the center of which is a lavish apartment building called Fiddler's Green. The poor folk, gypsies and the like all live in the streets while the rich control Fiddler's Green, running it like a vicious bureaucracy. Missions are sent out constantly to look for supplies and survivors in the surrounding zombie-filled towns. Running these missions is a man called Riley who's had it up to here with the whole operation. We join him on his last foray into the land of the dead and he's particularly antsy for a few reasons. One reason is that his second in command Cholo is a cocky dickweed who seems to have other things on his mind. These ulterior motives lead him into a liquor store with a rookie who gets killed because Cholo refuses to give up his search for booze (we'll learn who it's for very shortly). The other thing getting Riley all riled up is the fact that the zombies who populate the town seem to be behaving like people once again (they're pretending to pump gas, play music, and even seem to be using their guttural moans to communicate with each other). Were it not for his impending retirement, he'd be a lot more distressed than he already is. Things are, inevitably, not going to go as planned for Riley, Cholo, and any other human being in the city.

When the troops pull out of town, a large crew of zombies, led by a gas station attendant zombie with a stolen machine gun, head for the city. Riley goes in search of a car to drive him and his sidekick Charlie, only to learn his dealer is a crook who never intended to sell him the car in the first place. He and Charlie spend the first part of the night in prison after killing the crooked dealer (the man they murder is inexplicably a dwarf in a pimp costume). Cholo goes looking for his retirement gift, an apartment in the green. When he delivers the booze to the man who runs lavish fiddler's green, Kaufman, his plans hit a snag. As Riley puts it "they won't let you in there, they won't let me in there. We're the wrong kind." Kaufman lets Cholo down easy and sends him off with an armed escort. Cholo manages to escape with his life and decides to take matters into his own hands. With his team, Cholo seizes the giant armed Road-Warrior-type truck that gets taken out on all the supply excursions, escapes from the city, points a missile at Fiddler's Green and starts making demands. Kaufman, knowing that the only man who can track Cholo and the large car is the man who designed it, as luck would have it, Riley. Kaufman tells Riley that everything he was searching for prior to his arrest is as good as his so long as he gets the tank back to town. And so, with the clock ticking, Riley, Charlie, a hooker with a heart of gold named Slack, and three armed guards race to find Cholo before it's too late. But let's not forget the large group of super smart zombies headed into town.
Well this was a lot of promise gone way fucking south, now wasn't it? There were any number of hungry young kids with brilliant zombie movie ideas who would have walked over hot coals for the chance to work with George A. Romero, but, as with most aging bearded filmmakers, he trusts no one but himself. This worked a lot better in the 70s. Now what it means is that there's a very specific world populated by very dumb stereotypes. The heroes are quite insipid, the sensitive idealist, the dumb sidekick, the soft-spoken hardass female, the big, fat mercenary even the hero zombie feels tired. The villains are even worse: Dennis Hopper's Kaufman is funny, to be sure, but is not a real person, nor for that matter is John Leguizamo's Cholo. First of all, how in the world did Simon Baker and Dennis Hopper get the word "Cholo" out of their mouths without afterwards shaking their heads so vigorously they dislodge a tooth. Not to mention that the character Leguizamo plays is maybe the most despicable hispanic stereotype in recent memory. From a man known for his positive portrayal of African Americans, this just seems senile. Asia Argento and Robert Joy don't do much more than murmur the whole time, casting an even greater light on Romero's apparent lack of direction. His script is filled with some pretty inexcusable dialogue. We have slang that sounds silly, even for a dystopian film; liberal use of phrases like "stenches" and "sky-flowers" just makes me want to tear my hair out (to say nothing of the appalling nicknames of everyone in Cholo's gang). Asia Argento is here, not doing a whole lot with her character; one last favor to friend Dario Argento (her father) for funding Dawn of the Dead all those years ago.
Making this movie without scare one was Romero's prerogative considering he invented the zombie-action film, but right out of the gate he makes it clear that he's not interested in frightening people; it's politics he's after, which means that the Greg Nicotero gore is the most shocking thing in the film, which after a few seconds gets old pretty quickly. We have Kaufman's use of clumsy George W. Bush-type dialogue, an uprising led by a poor, rebellious Irishman and the idea of the dead returning to eat the rich couldn't be any less subtle. Not that I mind this kind of symbolism (does something so frank count as symbolic?) I just wish he had taken his time writing a better script. It's paced well, to be sure, like all action films should be, but this isn't what I wanted from what should have been the zombie film to end all zombie films. I wanted an apocalypse I could smell on the breeze. The zombies have no menace whatsoever, and the killing just feels arbitrary. Romero carries his learned zombies over from Day of the Dead, now allowing all of them to carry and operate firearms. What he's saying with this, I'll be honest, I don't know. I didn't really get it in Day either (other than gunplay being an American's birthright, I guess). It's an uprising of sorts, but the first people who suffer are the poor. This film, its message, its zombies, its people has nothing of the character of Romero's first zombie movies and has nothing resembling the gravity or effect of those films. What I wanted was a movie that made even the 2004 Dawn of the Dead look soft. Instead this film just takes cues from that one, which took its cues from 28 Days Later (which was a tribute to both the original Dawn and Day). All in all, I have as hard a time liking this film as I do believing a zombie with emotions (the whole subplot involving the super smart emotional zombie is just silly and I don't anyone who would think of it any differently). Luckily, he seems to have a few more in him.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

George A. Romero Month, Film 6

Now at first this seemed like a stretch but then I thought about it harder and realized that it makes perfect sense really. I first caught Neil Marshall's Dog Soldiers in a heavily edited version on the sci-fi channel, but even without swearing or gore I really enjoyed it. Not only are there sly nods to Hammer Studios and Sam Raimi, but there's more Romero influence in here than the Day of the Dead remake. The reason this belongs under the banner of George A. Romero Month is because, not unlike 28 Days Later, it is an homage of sorts to both Night of the Living Dead (in that it's plot structure is nearly identical) and Day of the Dead (in that militarism plays a crucial role) and, not unlike 28 Days Later, I liked it better than the latter film.

Dog Soldiers
by Neil Marshall

The film has two prologues, one typical of a slasher movie, the other typical of a Steven Seagal movie. First we see two vacationing lovers celebrating their anniversary in a tent in the woods. The man, all foreshadowy like, gives his partner a silver letter opener. 8 seconds later their tent is torn open by some giant creature and both man and woman are devoured. Prologue part 2 shows us a soldier being put through some kind of bad-ass initiation test. The soldier, Cooper (maybe a nod to the villain of Night of the Living Dead), is being chased by men in uniforms who catch up to him almost immediately. His commanding officer, Captain Ryan, does the usual questioning of his capabilities at being a hard-ass and forces him to shoot a dog. When he refuses Ryan shoots the dog himself and dismisses the grunt.

The next time we see Cooper, he and a squad of five other men are dropped in the middle of a really pretty section of the scottish highland on some military exercise. As is always the case with these operations, it is supposed to be harmless (they're guns aren't even loaded with real bullets). Private Cooper and the other five (Sergeant Wells and Privates Joe, Terry, Bruce, and Witherspoon) rove about, and are secretly watched by another squad (though something about their sneakiness makes their involvement seem less than harmless). The men, unaware of any foul play make camp that night and start trading war stories. After Wells tells a most gruesome tale about a soldier and a landmine, someone or something makes a mutilated cow fall from the ridge overhead and scares the bejesus out of them.

The next day, soldiering resumed once again, they run into the unit who've been spying on them only to discover that whatever murdered that cow also worked over these guys pretty nicely too. Aside from a good deal of viscera, the only thing they find is a stockpile of unused weapons and Captain Ryan who is much the worse for surviving the attack; he can barely hold his guts in. They trade their empty Enfield rifles for live sub-machine guns, grab the injured Ryan and make a run for it. This is when we first get a glimpse of the beasties doing all the menacing. Bruce agrees to watch the rear as the others escape and gets so scared after his gun jams that he runs right into a jagged tree limb. When Wells goes back for him, a most big and bad wolf on two legs tears his stomach open and runs away. Cooper is barely able to tuck the man's insides inside and drag him back with the rest of the unit. The men seem just about out of places to run when a woman in yellow land-rover pulls up and tells them to get in. She takes them to a nearby farm house owned by a family she knows and they set about securing the place. From here on out it's very much Night of the Living Dead territory with the attacks on the secluded farmhouse becoming more frequent and an attempt to make use of a fuel-less car going awry and ending in an explosion. The difference (other than the fact that there are werewolves in place of zombies) is that there is also a few Hammer style mysteries to unravel. What became of the family who owns the house? Why do Ryan and Megan keep looking at each other that way? How does Megan know all that she does without having fallen victim to the family of wolves? And what's the significance of that first attack? This isn't exactly Indiana Jones stuff, and you'll guess the answers before Neil Marshall hands them to you but it's enough to keep Dog Soldiers from being stricty a Night remake with wolves.
Dog Soldiers is above all else, incredibly fun. There are plot holes aplenty and juvenile spots, but, it's still worth the hour and a half. Who doesn't like a story of one highly trained bunch of soldiers against another, especially when one troupe is has machine guns and a sword and the other composed of big, scary werewolves. The cutting, dialogue, and a few of the performances, like Sean Pertwee as Ryan, are pretty silly. Marshall as a first time director had a lot to learn about subtlety. The second prologue feels put-upon and the plot is nothing special, but it's a blast. The gore is up to code and is enough to satisfy any fan of the zombie genre. The coolest thing about the film is the wolf design, which is the best I've seen since the Howling. The wolves walk around on two legs, have heads that make use excellent use of sharp angles (nose, ears, shape of the head) in that they look very far from humanoid which takes your mind off of their human form, keeping their identities far from the viewer's mind. They are scary in design and their movements are also far enough from human to be frightening. They have a lot of menace in just their physical presence and so when they show up in the house for the climax it's remarkably spooky. The characters, though slightly boyish at times, are reasonable given my expectations with regard to english twenty somethings. Occasionally they hit a few false notes, but for a debut feature this is one strong film. I particularly love the photography and the locations (one of the best decisions any director can make is to set their movie someplace with personality. Terrence Malick, Jorge Grau and Eric Rohmer all understood this and made up for many other shortcomings they may have encountered [I'm thinking mostly budgetary]). The footage of the scottish highlands is gorgeous and could be a nod at Grau's Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (which let us not forget was designed to be the color version of Night of the Living Dead).
The Hammer elements are pleasing, to say the least (spooky house, torches, wolves, Christopher Lee character). The Sam Raimi elements are the most madcap (combinations of horror and humour work very well most of the time, Private Bruce's unspoken last name is Campbell). The Romero elements are put on the back burner because of the nature of the beast, but it doesn't take a magnifying glass to pick them out. First, and most obvious is the Night-style barricading second and third acts. The conflict between the men and Ryan is similar to that of Ben and Cooper in Night. It's also identical to the one between Rhodes and Sarah in Day of the Dead. Inner conflict in small spaces is Romero's forte and it's something Marshall has used a lot, as in this film and The Descent. Romero's jump-off point, that when you're stuck in the confines of the space, what your running from isn't your biggest worry, isn't as fully realized here as it could be and isn't Marshall's biggest concern; once he's set it up, it's more about the story of the seven people trapped in the house and their surviving, rather than their relationships with one another (the villain is also far too diabolical to be taken seriously). For example, the foundation for a relationship between Megan and Cooper, but it doesn't get very far, and disappears when the film plays it's final hand. Romero and Marshall were trying to make two different films, Marshall's a comic book style action film, Romero, an intelligent horror film. Both are frightening, both are brilliant despite budget restraints, and both are remarkably entertaining. 

George A. Romero Month, Film 5

Here at Honors Zombie's in depth look at the influence of director George A. Romero, an important part of this retrospective is looking at the director's other work. With the exception of the few industrial films he made for his Pittsburgh based production house and the odd television spot, he only ever made one non-horror movie in his life. This isn't a unique choice (Wes Craven & John Carpenter share the trait) but it is unfortunate that the one film Romero chose to go straight with has been universally forgotten. That film, There's Always Vanilla, sounds dreadfully boring and is out of print. The film following that, the subject of today's installment of Romero and his films, was his not-so-triumphant return to horror after a four year break.

Season of the Witch
by George A. Romero

A bored housewife named Joan who hates herself, her husband, daughter, and her banal suburban existence. She suffers from nightly visions of being raped by a man in a skin-tight black costume (these scenes are eerily reminiscent of the far superior hallucinations of Roman Polanski's Repulsion), which her therapist is unable to satisfactorily explain to her. At a party one night, her 'friends' and neighbors clue her in on the talk of their circle of catty old women: the newest addition to the neighborhood, Sylvia, the witch. Joan meets Sylvia a few nights later and while her truly sheltered friend Shirley grills Sylvia about her lifestyle, Joan flips through the pages of the very sillily titled books on witchcraft lying around. She's so intrigued that she goes out and buys a few of these books herself. It's about this time that her battle with her daughter comes to a head. Joan hates her daughter's boyfriend Gregg and the two have fought many arguments over the young girl's life. One night, Joan comes home and finds her daughter and Gregg having sex; her daughter is understandably upset to learn that her mother sat in the room right next to the one she was fornicating in, and runs away from home. Joan's husband gets violent about her behavior, namely that she didn't punish their daughter for her actions, Gregg decides that Joan is just as attractive as her daughter and begins trying to seduce her, and she decides to take a more proactive stance on witchcraft in an effort to reclaim her life.

It's only natural that after making what is essentially a perfect movie that a director might not repeat his success. Night of the Living Dead is about as close to the best horror film of the 20th century as you might come and it seemed to have happened essentially by accident. That his next few films would pale in comparison should have been expected, but that the first two after Night are so very languorous and bizarre is disappointing to say the least. If the plot seems like it rambles, that's because it does. The problem is it also moves like a tortoise; though there is a good deal of shifting from plot point to plot point the film never moves, in fact there are long stretches where it just sits down and takes a breather. It gets old pretty fast. The themes he covered in There's Always Vanilla make an appearance (dependence, marital discord, suburban living) in Season of the Witch, but in a cockeyed fashion. Romero was trying to make more out of one of them (horror or the domestic drama) but couldn't decide which he was more interested in. We spend much more time watching Joan tramp through her menial housewife existence than we do her exacting a supernatural revenge on the six or seven people she feels deserve it (not that anyone but her husband actually suffers). The real problem with the movie is the muddy nature of the plot. Joan's dreams are never really explained with regard to her real life and what exactly she has planned for herself after the death of her husband is left ambiguous. Sylvia's last appearance where she congratulates Joan on her choosing to pursue witchcraft is truly puzzling. She tells her protege not to misuse the magic she's stumbled on or it might destroy her, but Sylvia's life seems no better for her having used witchcraft and at the end Joan seems just slightly less bored than when we first met her. The subplot involving Gregg and Joan's affair really needed some more closure than it got, which is to say, any at all. She breaks it off with him, he leaves, then her daughter is cited at a truck stop. Gregg leaves, her daughter never re-enters the picture and no one is punished or changed. Gregg never comes back into the story and so we never know whether Joan was ok with the outcome of the affair. Also, it seems the only reason she needed to use witchcraft was to seduce the sleaze bag in the first place. She just wanted it to seem like her idea, rather than simply submitting to the lame advances of a pudgy substitute teacher with a growing libido. The sequence of events seems to be: "Your daughter's gone so I need someone to have sex with and I find you attractive, if you want to have sex, I'm willing to do that." "Not like that. If we're doing this, I want to be in control of everything." Greed all around. Gregg is just an unrepentant, flabby dickweed and why Joan would want any part of that is the biggest mystery in this film.

Considering that Romero only saw fit to show us old women chattering like magpies for much of this film it's fitting that at the end of it, I don't feel like I walked away with much. The dream sequences are effective given their budget but don't amount to anything. In fact this whole film doesn't amount to a damn thing as I didn't care iota 1 about anyone or anything that happens. The most interesting thought I had during this movie was whether or not Donavan wrote the song for use in a terrible little movie from a no one in Pennsylvania, or whether he was simply passed out on mushrooms when he landed on the contract and someone took it as a yes. The song is even used inappropriately. Dawn of the Dead was calling, but Romero was buried too deep in Pittsburgh to hear it. Thank god he got these films out of his system, because I don't know how much more mid-life crisis I could have taken. He was however, on the upswing. His next films would just get better until he reached his peak, then things would once again take a down-turn.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

George A. Romero Month, Film 4

Well it's been mostly bad news since the start of Romero Appreciation Month, but I have the first bit of really excellent news. I don't think in all my years of going to movie theatres to see new movies had I ever been so absolutely thrilled with a film as when I went to see the remake of Dawn of the Dead. I had been anticipating the film for close to a year before its release and at no time during the film did I feel the least bit disappointed. This was, other than The Thing, the best remake I'd ever seen, and is one of the best zombie movies of all time.

Dawn of the Dead
by Zach Snyder

See that Strike production label? That's hint number one that this film rocks. A nurse named Ana listens to an arrogant doctor plan his weekend while she waits to tell him about a peculiarity with one of the patients she's been treating. The doctor doesn't know what to make of the irregularity (unusual complications resulting from a bite), and dismisses her. She chats with another nurse, drives home, chats with a neighborhood girl, and sleeps with her husband. This about as convincing a portrayal of normality a horror movie has ever been capable of. Of course, it is this normality that makes us in the audience chomp at the fucking bit waiting for the zombies. Luckily it's not even ten minutes into the film when the action starts. The next morning the little girl from the neighborhood walks into their bedroom with a huge bite on her face. Ana's husband sees to her wounds and gets bitten on the neck for her troubles. Ana tries to stop the bleeding and call an ambulance but the line is busy. In about three seconds time her husband stands up and leaps at her, his eyes black and lifeless. She grabs her car keys and climbs out the bathroom window, her husband in pursuit. Outside it seems the entire neighborhood has fallen victim to more of the same thing. Men and women chase after each other in the streets, a man with a gun takes potshots at them before being hit by a car, and just before leaving, Ana's husband leaps on top of her car and smashes her windshield with his fist. On the expressway a man tries to pull Ana out of her car when she stops to watch two people attack and kill someone in the back of a bus, causing her to crash her car. When she wakes up she meets a burly policeman named Kenneth, a hood named Andre and his pregnant Russian girlfriend Luda, and an average looking guy named Michael. They all head to the mall, believing it to be safer than the streets.

The mall will provide some safety, but not unconditionally. They meet two zombies upon first investigation; Michael sticks a broken croquet mallet through the first one's skull and Kenneth and Ana manage to incapacitate the second. When they flee to the second floor they find that they're not alone; three security guards (militaristic C.J., ignorant Bart, and sensitive Terry) who were working the night shift when the zombies took over. C.J. wants them to go right the hell back where they came from, instinctively distrusting everyone he can't overpower (Kenneth is massive and were it not for his injured arm may just have kicked all three of these men's asses right then and there). Ana, seeing no alternative surrenders the only guns they carry and agrees to take orders from these dipshits. C.J. quarantines everyone in an electronics store to watch coverage of the military's handling of the zombie situation; Michael, suspecting that unless someone says something, they're going to be doing a lot of sitting on their asses, suggests they signal for help on the roof and take care of the unfinished zombie on the first floor. They agree to help, and while Ana and the others paint 'HELP' in big letters on the roof, Andre and Luda go to the bathroom to look at the bite on Luda's arm. They stupidly but understandably keep it a secret and agree to sequester themselves away from the rest at the earliest convenience. This will prove difficult if things continue the way they are; C.J. and Bart lock everyone in the department store before going to sleep in the electronics store.

The next morning is when things get moving; the TV signals have all gone dead, which means for all our heroes know they're the last people on earth. Ana convinces Terry to let everyone out to use the bathroom and change clothes and while he observes the security cameras he notices a Mack truck tear assing through the parking lot. C.J., who's already displeased with the interlopers he's got, wants nothing to do with this new batch. Kenneth, Michael, Ana, and Terry manage to overpower him and put him and Bart in mall prison. When they manage to get the truck and all of it's passengers indoors, tragedy proves enlightening. The new recruits are Tucker, a tall guy who looks a little like Randy Quaid; Steve, an asshole yuppie; Norma, the old woman who drove the truck; an older guy named Glen who looks like he just finished his shift at the diner; Monica, a blonde who will add nothing to the plot save for seconds of teenage boy appeal; Frank, an older man with his twenty-something daughter, Nicole, and a morbidly obese women in a wheelbarrow. Kenneth, despite the fact that now there are people to interact with wants to leave in search of his brother who is supposedly at a nearby fort. He'd leave were it not for the report that some of the new people give about the fort being overrun and abandoned. He agrees after the morbidly obese woman with bite marks withers and dies, only to rise up and chase Ana around a furniture store. Ana drives a tending iron through her eye and she is subdued. So if the evidence is to believed, a bite kills you and brings you back seconds later to kill and repeat, bad news for Frank. He'd been bitten and Ana can barely talk Michael and Kenneth down from their urge to kill him and preserve the others; the best she can get is that they'll let him die before shooting him to spare his daughter the pain of having her dad murdered.

Then, with all in-house problems wrapped up nicely, we have the "what the mall has to offer" scene. They hit golf balls off the roof, watch movies on the obscenely large TVs, film themselves having sex, and spy celebrity-look-alike zombies for the guy on the roof of the gun store across the way to shoot at. They would probably have lived like this for a lot longer were it not for two things: the sudden loss of power and Luda's pregnancy. Andre did a pretty good job keeping Luda away from the others as she has both gotten more pregnant and begun to show signs of decomposition. Andre fixes her in restraints because as he predicts she dies giving birth and comes back before the child is born. Undeterred, Andre finishes without the help of his partner. When Norma walks in and witnesses the macabre delivery room she pulls her gun to kill the new mother, and she and Andre shoot one another. Meanwhile, Michael and Kenneth take Bart and C.J. to the parking garage below ground to restart the generator. In a scene clearly inspired by the tire changing from 28 Days Later, zombies find them, eat Bart, and block the other men in the fenced-in area surrounding the generator. They manage to ward off their attackers using gasoline and a cigarette lighter, but this is the final straw for Kenneth who proposes they leave, but fast. They all agree on a hastily slapped together plan to fortify the mall shuttles with aluminum siding, chainsaw slits, and big cans of propane so they can head to the gun shop, pick up it's owner and a bunch of guns, then head for Steve's boat which sits at the harbour on the other side of town. Seems fool proof, until some nonsense with Nicole's dog throws a monkey wrench in the works that puts their plan into effect ahead of schedule.

That director Zach Snyder had only done commercials and writer James Gunn graduated from Troma's stable of anti-talent before making this movie speaks volumes about their love for the original. The movie is also paced like a pulp novel; there isn't a dull moment. I haven't since this film been so riveted in a theatre. Snyder balances horror, action, and levity better than any other young director in recent memory, and were it not for the epilogue I'd say it was one of the few new horror films with a happy ending. Gunn's screenplay can't escape some of his B-horror roots, but he stays far away from the bigger mistakes film makers his age make (He'd make a few more of 'em later in his Slither the next year). Snyder does a terrific job making us care about the people in the mall and does something no other director has attempted in 20 years, having the villain turn into a hero. C.J. starts as a prick who loves the tiny bit of power he wields, but seeing his only real friend killed humbles him enough to see the common good. He would like to be in charge, but would like to survive even more. His change makes perfect sense and makes for an interesting conclusion; if they had to combat both him and the zombies, it may have been just a little much (want to know what happens when you combine too many conflicting villainous forces watch Resident Evil). Snyder and Gunn try hard (and mostly succeed) to make you forget the reason that they're making this movie is because of Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. It isn't as gritty or hard-hitting as Boyle's film, but it's still immensely entertaining and of higher quality than most of your big screen horror films. The zombies, the editing, cinematography, secondary love stories, and gunplay-laden conclusion are all inspired by 28 Days, but Dawn is bigger and meaner than 28 Days (I have explosions and chainsaws to prove it). I think Gunn's opening has ten times the impact of 28 Days. Instead of warning us what's going to happen, it just happens. Brilliant.

As a remake it delivers (though the plot is a bit backwards what with trucks and boats coming last in the new one). Gone is most of the labouring over the consumer America theme and the mall as a character. The mall itself is much less unique a setting in 2004 than it was 1978, so all of it's wonders and facets are only given one minute-and-a-half-long segment. Present is the mixture of action and violence (I give props to this films ability to actually scare. The original Dawn was creepy, but never really got around to doing any first-rate scaring. The new dawn is profoundly frightening when it chooses to be), most notably in the scenes in the sewer, and the drama inherent in watching your loved ones become zombies (also present: three original cast members). Gunn is interested in exploring the effects of human relationships during the crisis, like Romero did with Stephen and Fran in the first film (and secondarily with Peter and Roger, and the Puerto Rican couple in the tenement building). The movie starts with one such kick in the stomach; Ana first sees a neighborhood kid turn and then her husband and quickly sees that everything and everyone in her life is gone, irreversibly changed. She doesn't understand it, and so her taking the time to figure out how the whole thing fits logically (Gunn's dialogue comes close to sounding like nerd-linger speak here, but luckily all the principles are decent actors. Sarah Polly, Ving Rhames, Michael Kelly, Mekhi Phifer and Jake Webber are all strong and capable leads, and Snyder isn't quite so flat a director as Gunn is a writer, but neither man does too shabby a job). The next jolts comes when Andre watches his wife and unborn child slowly drift away from him. Nicole has to say a very hurried goodbye to the only family member she has left. C.J. experiences is to a lesser degree when Bart is killed, though this serves more to demonstrate that his tiny world-view needs some expanding. He would have died without Kenneth and Michael, who go out of their way to help him. Little things like this make Gunn a little more 3 dimensional a screenwriter than Romero who keeps his characters on the same downward spiral from start to end. Everyone in Snyder's Dawn is conflicted and almost all of them have a big weight on them, a loss of some kind. Gunn doesn't just give people reasons to live, he gives them reasons to die too, and how each one gets over it is the focus of the second act. The third act is a little closer to Romero territory, everyone on the same page, all of them focused on escape and preserving each other's and their own lives. It's a good feeling after the likes of Steve Miner's Day of the Dead to see a film where the characters care enough about to each other to help each other survive and I, as an audience member root for all of them. Another key difference is in the pacing. Snyder, working with a younger, ADD addled audience makes his film move in ways Romero's never does. The difference in temporal feeling can be likened to the differences in the two films' zombies. Romero's plot, like his zombies, shambles from victim to victim; Snyder's film tears ass and leaves a whole lot of blood in its wake.

George A. Romero Month, Film 3

Ok, I'm definitely grasping here, but I feel like this deserves to be placed under the banner of Romero Appreciation Month, if only to illustrate just how good his few films are. Here's my justification: If Romero had never done for zombie films what Alfred Hitchcock did for slasher films there would have never been a Resident Evil video game (it doesn't take a wizard to figure out that zombies in a house in the woods begat zombies in a house in the woods). Nerds will tell you this was both a good thing and a bad thing. I spent a good deal of my youth playing Resident Evil with Michael West. We would wait until dark and we would scare ourselves to death waiting for zombies, sharks, and giant spiders to attack (he did most of the actual game play. I'm not ashamed to say I suck at video games and have no desire to return to any of the things I wasted my younger years playing. I guess you could say that the game may have contributed to my love of zombie films or my desire to make them, but Dawn of the Dead was really the fire inside my boyhood desires. God, how embarrassing would it be if I had to tell people that my hopes and dreams were the product of hours of playing a video game). Anyway, the capcom video game Resident Evil came out in the states in 1996 and had as many as three direct sequels, three spinoffs and a remake before it was optioned for film rights. We played all of these games (even the ill-advised first-person shooter) and I can say without exaggeration that they were all scarier than the film (which, as we'll learn, isn't hard). I'd write up the film's first sequel but christ almighty that sucked worse than having a cavity filled. And I don't hate myself enough to watch House of the Dead.

Resident Evil
by Paul W.S. Anderson
The prologue tells us that Umbrella (a rather uninventive Japanese attempt at an American sounding corporation) is the world's single largest producer of shit (drugs, electronics, munitions, chemicals, other completely illogical things that no company in the world could get away with selling at once. It's supposed to be a secret that they sell weapons, but who would America sell to? We only have enemies. You think you can keep anything a secret today?) Anyway, our story starts with a gentleman stealing brilliantly colored liquids in double-helix shaped glass containers in a lab of some kind (those must have cost a fortune. Seriously blown glass in a shape as intricate as that costs a ridiculous amount of money. What's that? Oh, you just wanted to see the pretty colors and don't care about logic or anything? Oh, ok. You're not gonna do shit like the whole film, are you?). Before he leaves he throws one of them on the ground and then runs like hell for the exit through what looks like an ordinary office building. Well it seems that this is no ordinary office building because the green stuff that the guy spills sets off some kind of alarm. The elevators shut down, the doors all close, sprinklers turn on and the workers cannot get through the safety glass. Then everyone who isn't drowned or suffocated gets a heavy dose of poison gas.

Next thing we see is a very naked Milla Jovavich (we'll later learn her name is Alice) sprawled on the floor of her shower. Apparently she has lost her memory because of the huge defense mechanism set off by the spill. After dressing herself in the red dress someone left her for on the bed of the adjoining bedroom, she takes to investigating. Other than the collection of automatic weapons in the bottom clothes drawer in a ridiculous glass case with a number lock pad (oh you are going to do this the whole time. Splendid!), she discovers nothing of use in the large mansion she finds herself in. Then, in the blink of an eye she is strong-armed down a hallway by a guy in a suit, and then a SWAT team bursts through the windows (it should be noted that the room they smash into is just steps away from an open-air hallway. You're such an idiot, Paul) and demand that the girl give a report. As she's a recent amnesiac she has no idea what to do. They take her and the guy in the suit to an underground passageway that leads to a train that leads to an underground complex called the Hive. They hot-wire the train and find another amnesiac called Spence. He and Alice were both guards working for the same organization who sent the SWAT team and runs the hive. Both these two were assigned to protect the secret entrance, but neither can remember the other, or, that they were married (it was Spence who laid the red dress on the bed, and he's also the guy who spilled the green liquid everywhere. You didn't think that was a surprise, did you, Anderson?). Hold on a second. OK, so you're running a big secret operation where hundreds of people work everyday and not only do they not know that it's a secret, they don't even know what they're making. If they knew what they were doing, then the doors locking wouldn't come as so much of a surprise. This isn't like Three Days of the Condor where it's six people working on game theory and filing reports for Washington, this is hundreds of people with cubicles and assembly lines who have no clue what the fuck they're getting paid for. And as if that weren't stupid enough, the train was built for the purpose of, I assume carting the workers to and from their jobs. I say this because if this is not the case, then a plot thread crucial to the story doesn't make any sense (and thus the whole film doesn't make any sense. Fancy that?). That means that not only do the people working underground not have any clue that they live in perpetual danger of being gassed, but that nobody got the least fucking suspicious on their morning industrial train ride under a mansion in the middle of the woods. Where's the parking lot these people use? Nobody suspects when three hundred people flock to the middle of the goddamn woods in business casual with briefcases and coffee every morning. These are the geniuses who are secretly selling nuclear weapons to North Korea or wherever? Has Paul W.S. Anderson never been outside before? This is maddeningly imbecilic.
So the swat team, 7 in all, policeman, and two amnesiacs make their way up to the hive and find that just about everyone's been killed, their bodies floating around in their flooded offices or lying in heaps on the plush office floors. Their leader (Colin Salmon, the best thing about this film) explains that the hive is run by a security system known as the red queen. The red queen murdered everybody and they need to find out why. Using a lot of stupid gadgetry they get through all the computerized locks and get to the central computer to try and shut it down. Wait I thought they were trying to analyze the meltdown. Don't tell me Anderson forgot what he wrote two pages ago? Are you shitting me?

So once the electronics wizard gets the doors to open to the pristine chamber that leads to the computer's motherboard four of the team start walking down, only to have the doors lock and the computer cut everyone to ribbons with a fucking acrobatic laser beam (and nobody told the janitorial staff? This place is huge and you mean to tell me that there's no clean-up crew and that no one told them that if they hang around mopping the wrong room after hours they might get cut up by laser beams. Dude, the video game made more sense). So that leaves one electronics guy and two amnesiacs to shut the computer down. As they prep the big pinch or whatever the thing is that fries circuit boards, the computer puts in an appearance; or more accurately takes the appearance of its inventors young daughter. A red holographic little girl issuing warnings about the procedure. The last thing it says before being shut down is "You're all going to die down here." YOU MEAN TO FUCKING TELL ME THAT THESE GUYS PROGRAMMED THEIR FUCKING COMPUTER TO MENACE THE TECH SERVICE GUYS!?

So then what happens is the zombies show up and kill one of the marines. Another plot hole then rears its head (there's a drinking game waiting to happen. Every time the plot fucking reaches behind itself and cuts a big hole like a snake with a scissor in its mouth, take a shot). If the red queen killed everyone because the green liquid spilled everywhere, the sole purpose of which, if I'm correct, is to make people zombies, why would the computer hasten the process. Unless everyone in the building was killed simultaneously in freak accidents that night, there was no danger whatsoever of the 'virus' ever doing any of these people any harm. So the computer in essence killed everyone so that a zombie movie could happen in one spooky boiler room after another (to say nothing of the pointless conglomeration of satanic forces which conspire to make sure that Milla Jovavich wanders around in an always shrinking red dress). Tell me something, why in building your underground office complex did you decide to make most of it a big sewer? Cause much of the midsection takes place there. The rest of the film is basically the dwindling survivors cutting deals with a mischievous British school girl while dodging zombies and pulling guns on each other. Then there's the zombie dogs, the creature with the big tongue, Michelle Rodriguez and other sorted wretchedness.

"Director" Paul W.S. Anderson has never made a film that everyone likes. His films don't even generate the least bit of support from the bad film aficionados who put up with Uwe Boll. The best thing he's ever done, if for no other reason than I've met people who say they like it, isEvent Horizon, so that should tell you something about the rest of his films. His other work includes Mortal Combat and Alien Vs. Predator. So Resident Evil was fated to fail. The video game had a lot of explaining to do, but it worked because it was staged like a whodunnit. The plot elements and various villains were unraveled slowly and so the crazier the plot got the more excited you were to solve it before the answers showed themselves. It even takes place in a big spooky mansion, inviting further comparison to an old-school British mystery. For 12 year-old me, there wasn't much spookier or more exciting to fill the hours with. What happens when the fuckhead behind Mortal Combat gets his hands on it? Well he ditches the suspense, the rustic spookiness, adds stupid editing tricks, Marilyn Manson music, and Milla Jovavich and her vagina. The stuff that they selectively maintain and cut from the video game are all wrong; gone is the spooky setting, the sound design, the believable inciting action, and the likable characters. What does that leave: an underground zombie factory, a swat team, an evil corporation, and the name Raccoon City. I liked the video games, but it was still, after all, translated from japanese. I understand that just about everything would have to be tweaked to get anything resembling success from this story, but it could have at the very least not sucked. Anderson seems to have felt that the real issue with the source material was that it didn't feel enough like a video game and set about curing that with every stupid trick he ever learned.
Incidentally the zombies in the game were also scarier and more effective than those in the movie. The film zombies are just people in suits and lab coats who walk around with their arms out. Anderson also doesn't explain why the zombies bite humans if not to eat them. The one marine they manage to get their hands on they don't actually eat, the just mark him up with their teeth and move on. So what is the weapon exactly that Umbrella was working on? Something that waits for you to die so it can resurrect you after a few hours so you can bite people on the off chance that you might hit an artery or something. Puh-leaze. There was no thought put into this movie. At all. All I can say is thank god for 28 Days Later.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

George A. Romero Month, Film 2

When I said that the remake of Day of the Dead was basically a sillier retread of the remake of Dawn of the Dead, there was a precedent I should have mentioned. I'm guessing that part of the reason that the Day remake was like the Dawn remake may be because that the movie Day of the Dead is essentially a sillier, grimmer version of Dawn of the Dead. I vastly prefer Dawn in just about every way, but I still think Day has a lot to offer. I like to think of Day of the Dead as Dawn's Italian cousin (though both films were made in Americans).

Day of the Dead
by George A. Romero
The opening episode lets us know exactly where we stand as observers of the apocalypse. A woman in a helicopter awakes from a nightmare in which dozens of arms break through a wall to attack her to an even scarier reality. She and the three men she shares the cab with are scouring minor metropolitan areas for signs of life, which as we soon learn are hard to come by. As a newspaper headline tells us the dead have come back to life and if the town they've stopped in is any indication, the crew of the helicopter may be the last people left alive. After a parade of zombies greets them, they get back in their chopper and head back to base. Base, as it were, is an underground missile silo used as a home for a handful of soldiers and scientists. The woman with the dream, the only female among our heroes, Sarah is the most optimistic of the bunch, in that she sees the value in continuing to search for survivors. John the pilot and Mcdermott the radioman would much rather just pack up as much weed and food as can fit in the helicopter and find an empty island. The rest of the survivors are a little more divided in their opinions. There's the military men, all of whom but Captain Rhodes, and Privates Steel and Rickles are nameless stoners in green. The three whose names we learn are tyrannical dipshits for whom underground containment has eroded much of their kinder impulses. The scientists, whose camp Sarah sits in, are trying (with little success) to figure out what's causing the dead to rise. Dr. Fisher is sick of taking orders from the men in green, and Dr. Logan is a nutcase who spends all of his time operating on zombies. He clearly sees more life in his corpses than the men with guns who boss him around. His latest project, a docile corpse he's named Bub has been conditioned to remember things from his first life. He manages to pick up a telephone, shave, and most alarmingly use a gun.

Rhodes only recently assumed command after the death of his commanding officer and wishes to turn the silo into a military quarantine. This has everyone on edge as Rhodes feels entitled to a dictatorial reign, but as Fisher points out, his orders were to aid the research being done. Rhodes would rather pack up and leave, but where is there left to go. It's fairly clear from all the drugs and alcohol being consumed that everyone's had their fill of living underground (you will too before long). Sarah and private Salazar have been sleeping together, and because he's been unraveling mentally, she's beginning to feel unstable. Now of course we need some action to speed these conflicts to a head, don't we? Otherwise we're likely to spend 98 minutes watching people bicker at the top of their voice. The way that research is conducted is via the capture of zombies from a mine connected to the silo. This is an incredibly dangerous procedure and the first time it happens Rickles is nearly murdered because of Salazar's sleep-deprived incompetence. The second time, through a series of mistakes, two of the stoner soldiers are killed and Salazar is bitten on the arm. Sarah incapacitates him and cuts off the infected area, but Rhodes and his men aren't convinced. The final straw is when everyone figures out that Logan has been experimenting on the bodies of the dead soldiers. That's about when Rhodes snaps and demands that John fly him, Steel, Rickles and private Torrez away from the base. Then the following tangents collide: Sarah and Mcdermott are thrown into the mine to motivate John into compliance with Rhodes, Bub escapes from his chains and finds a gun, and Salazar lets about a hundred zombies into the base using the industrial elevator to the surface.
It isn't the best of the series, the most thoughtfully written, pleasantly composed, or realistic (HA!) but it is the goriest of George A. Romero's movies. It's also the one that fills me with the most existential dread. The film's color scheme is all dull greys and greens, and the movie is set entirely underground. I inherited claustrophobia something fierce from my dad and so the idea of being one of twelve people left on earth and having no more than a few hundred yards to share is quite terrifying to me. Worse still, Romero makes sure that the characters contribute greatly to that confinement. Sarah, Fisher, John, Salazar, and Mcdermott all feel like they're in a prison and Rhodes definitely wants it that way. Romero also uses this to justify the truly off-putting deaths Rhodes and his men meet. In fact he's all about extremes in this film; Rhodes and Steel are absolutely unbearable and frequently act like caricatures (I've read many comic books that have men just like these assholes). The extremes in characters results in much wooden acting from the principles (decent wooden acting, but the performances all suffer from the choice to work with unreasonable stereotypes). These things I could deal with as a child of 10, but after having seen many, many films of the kind I realize that Romero was smarter than the likes of Lamberto Bava and Lucio Fulci and should have resisted that urge. I bring up the Italians because the gross-out factor is the heaviest it ever got in a Romero film. There's only one real gut-munching scene (five people get it in all) but it's enough. The make-up in this film is really spectacularly disgusting, it may be the best in the genre, or it was at the time of it's release (it's just a shame Romero told all of his zombie actors to take their behavior way over the top). I do give Romero all the credit in the world for coming along and putting all the hacks in Europe to bed with this movie. They couldn't possibly top this film's gore effects and Italian zombie films were effectively pulled out of production. It's really the sweetest justice; who better to show just how lame the effects of Zombie Lake, Burial Grounds, and Zombi Holocaust were then the man who (through no real fault of his own) gave them their start. After all, Day had an impact on me, why not the film industry? Watching four men get pretty authentically torn limb from limb definitely had an impact on my young mind. That coupled with the closeness of everything and I had reason enough to be very afraid of this movie. It's also very difficult to make yourself sit down to watch a movie where everyone's going their own brand of insane. Add John Harrison's awful musical score and you've got nightmare fuel. The music for this movie is powerfully bad; worse even than the Mötley Crüe and Rick Springfield heavy soundtrack of Demons. I can't think of a more flagrantly 80s sound than the music in this film (it sounds remarkably like the kind of music used in a video-game called Castlevania my childhood best friend used to play but it isn't even as scary in Day of the Dead. In fact all in all the memroies I have of playing that game are scarier than this movie is, and it didn't have half the zombies).

Romero, ever the pundit, loves to put social commentary in his films (especially in his zombie films) and it's laid on pretty thick here. Through with complacent America he moves onto hardcore America, namely the military (he'd save conservative politics, the route of all evil, for last). It's no coincidence that the military men are either fascistic cretins or pot-smoking do-nothings. The stoners who get the short end of the stick are really just there cause they have to be. Torrez, Johnson, and Miller could care less about the mission and spend most of their time getting high or gardening their weed plants (they get killed when actually asked to do anything). Rickles, Steel, and Rhodes are crass, boyish, and rude (Logan and Fisher never swear, Mcdermott openly criticizes Steel for doing so) and wish to play soldier at all costs. There is so little to take charge of, yet they want total control of it, which means everyone unquestionably follows orders. Fisher's argument that their orders revolve around keeping the research afloat makes for a nice paradox, but Rhodes is too thick to think about it. In fact once the paradoxical limbo has been established, Romero moves away from it and focuses once again on psychological states and questions of ethics (i.e. John being OK with escaping and leaving everyone and everything behind). Personally I'm on his side because if they wait around much longer there won't even be the little humanity they know about left to enlighten with research. I, am also of course with Romero in taking a stand against the military, but did that really have to be said? His 'subtle' displays of anti-militarism feel put-upon (many of the soldiers cross themselves before succumbing to the undead or killing themselves) and could have been avoided. I could also have done without all that stuff with Bub. Not that America doesn't deserve it, but still.
The other consequence of having a movie about soldiers is the mandatory gunplay. When the soldiers are asked to use their guns against the zombies, they of course can't do it. But when the scientist, helicopter, and radio man have to do it, it's bullseyes all around. This feels more like an Italian film for this reason, as well. Between the gore, the music, the dialogue, character development, and maddest of mad science one could get the impression that America wasn't this film's country of origin. Which is funny because this only came after having worked really closely with Dario Argento on Dawn of the Dead. Which is perhaps why Day feels like a dumber version of Dawn (despite all the 'scientific exploration' in this one). The plot is right where Dawn left off, in fact Jon Polito essentially reprises his role from the earlier film. There's authroity that has to be dodged, although here it's inside with them. Stir-craziness is a big factor and the conclusion comes when the zombies get inside the safe haven the heroes have confined themselves in. In Day it's said that they've been put there to do research, so ostensibly the government is to blame for everything you see, but in a round-about sense. In Dawn the government's economic policy that lead to the creation of gigantic shopping malls is certainly meant to be given some blame, but it's never mentioned in such terms. In Day everyone is a skilled marksman, in Dawn they have to be taught to shoot by the two people with any skill. Survival skills are implied in Day because of the severity of the situation, but I think some degree of incompetence from the people who are supposed to exhibit it wouldn't have hurt. The big difference I guess is that the crazy Americans with guns and the smart Americans with guns are nominally on the same side in Day, which puts the intelligent people at even bigger risk because they share a house with both crazed gun nuts and flesh-eating zombies. One thing's for sure, playing fake steel drums over a beach scene that is so clearly in coastal Massachusetts doesn't mean we're in the carribean. This wasn't his best film; I'd rank it higher than Creepshow and Two Evil Eyes, but I wish to god Romero had someone else write this film for him. With Dawn he set his sights high, and with Day they were back down to naught. He'd have been better off back at that farmhouse in Evan's City.