Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Zombie Down Under

Zombie Comedies are to a great extent, the bane of my existence. Everyone who's listened to me long enough knows it. Basically it boils down to this: no one knows how to balance horror elements and comedic elements. There are notable exceptions to this rule and they succeed because of one thing, they know how to keep the humour in check long enough to get in an emotional story. Reanimator's story is wild and thrilling, and we get enough time to care about a few characters; Shaun of the Dead is absolutely hysterical until the third act when all of a sudden it becomes Day of the Dead; Fido is a cruel film when you get right down to it, but good god does it mask this cruelty well, in a series of beautiful masculinity jokes. The film that serves as the archetype for terrible zombie comedies (and I'd like to reiterate that I am, it seems, entirely alone in my thinking this) are Peter Jackson's Dead Alive. There have been a few films in recent years that seem to be homages (rip-offs) to this film, The Spierig Brothers' Undead most notably so (which I could watch even less of than its predecessor). I honestly don't get it, I didn't get it while I was watching it, I don't get it now. It isn't fun, it isn't funny, it’s very crass, so incredibly unbelievable, so boringly stagy, so slow and so pointlessly obscene that I had no choice but to simply stare and ponder how exactly anyone thought these were marketable ideas. I'm coming to see that the New Zealand film commission will dole out money for whatever despicable trash comes their way (Bad Taste, Black Sheep, The Cars That Ate Paris, Undead) on the off chance that it comes out like Walkabout.

Dead Alive
by Peter Jackson

Right from the get go it's clear to me that Peter Jackson had a long way to go before The Fellowship of the Ring. If you could look at the acting done in this prologue and then look at, say, Ian Holm and Ian McKellen in their scenes together in Fellowship, and then realize that the same man stood behind the camera, and then not do one of those cartoon double-takes, you're of stronger faith than I. A New Zealander and his aboriginal guides are on safari in Sumatra (Jackson’s obsession with King Kong shows through in that he actually calls the region Skull Island. I wonder how Sumatra feels about this). Anyway these fellows are in the middle of carting a crate back to their jeep while being chased by a dozen or so angry natives who clearly don't want the package taken back to civilization. After narrowly escaping, the guide and his men drive over a bump and the crate falls on the white man. When the others notice the bite marks all over him ("You've got...THE BITE!" - Kill me now!), they get to chopping off everything bitten with a machete, ending with his big head. The level of bonkertude this scene exudes from every pore is everything I despise about amateur horror films. First of all, it's racist. Second, the acting is so over-the-top bad it isn't even comical. Third, the violence is unnecessarily plentiful and poorly executed. Why, oh why do people find this interesting? I don't get how anyone could look at Friday the 13th or Burial Ground and think "You know what's missing? Painfully unfunny jokes. And you know what, the acting's too good!"

The crate does make it back to civilization, more specifically to a suburban zoo someplace else in New Zealand. The story shifts focus to mama’s boy Lionel and his girlfriend Paquita. Lionel is a hopeless social derelict and the only reason Paquita wants to spend time with him is because of one of those prophecies everyone in or around Australia puts stock in. She’s destined to be with him, you see, which is all well and good except that Lionel’s mother hates the little tart and wishes, out of some untold creepy desire, to have the boy to herself. This overprotective nature leads her to spy on the two lovebirds on their date at the Zoo where a certain claymation rat monkey is being housed. Lionel leaves with one monkeybitten mother and no girlfriend at all. Lionel’s mother gets increasingly ill until parts of her body start falling off - in just the first of this film’s many disgusting set-pieces, her ear goes into her pudding and she eats it – not funny. Within the hour she’s become a zombie and her first victim is her nurse. Lionel, being of unsound mind, puts both corpses in the basement and goes looking for a tranquilizer to keep that little mess under wraps. He finds it in the office of an exiled Nazi doctor – not funny.
Lionel's hide-the-corpse game can only go on so long and within days of his mother becoming a zombie, he gives her up to the cemetery. After her funeral, he sneaks to her grave to administer more sedative and is interrupted by a gang of rockabilly thugs (apparently every other country but the States has these – another phenomenon I don’t quite get). The thugs menace our boy and wind up zombies when mom exacts her revenge. They are then combated by a priest who knows kung-fu – not funny. Lionel takes them all home and must act as den mother to the group of the undead he’s accrued. While under his care, two of them mate and produce a zombie baby. Then Lionel’s uncle Les shows up to contest his mum’s will which leaves everything to our mama’s boy. Things really go south when Les throws a party at mum’s house, with Lionel and Paquita inside and the zombies in the basement. What follows is about thirty minutes of people getting torn apart in inventively disgusting ways including with lawnmowers, pliers, spinal cords and by Lionel’s inexplicably huge mother – not funny, not scary, not anything.

Ok…so….look, Peter Jackson is a fine filmmaker when he wants to be. Heavenly Creatures, made the year after Dead Alive, is great. Forgotten Silver is really funny. The Lord of the Rings films, whatever else can be said of them, are a lot of fun. The Frighteners, while far from perfect, is as decent as mainstream horror got in the 1990s. His King Kong remake is…well, King Kong. And before all of that, we have Dead Alive…shudder. This film is the opposite of how I want my zombie films to be. It relies on terrible humour related to gore effects and/or jokes that I wouldn’t have found funny as a child and don’t find funny now. I guess I should establish that dead alive is supposed to be a send up of horror films (hence the 1950s setting, the indestructible protagonist and villain, also it’s play on family values and the fact that it’s hero is particularly lame instead of the typical self-assured greaser, who end up as dispensable enemies). In that regard, you could say that Dead Alive is the film for every nerd who’s ever wanted the protagonist of their genre films to look a little more like them (my guess is this is exactly what motivated Peter Jackson – you can’t tell me the guy who made the Lord of the Rings movies isn’t a nerd). This sort of yearning for a horror fan’s horror hero is admirable, I suppose, but that has nothing to do with the resulting film which is a big, stupid mess. I mentioned earlier that I appear to be completely alone in the world of online horror reviewers in my contempt for this film, but here I stand. Everyone who’s opinion I’ve ever sought has confessed undying love for Dead Alive, and I’d like, once and for all, to give a dissenting view.

Everything that most reviewers will tell you they love about this film is what I hate about it. I dislike the gory effects and the way they’re utilized. I dislike the way in which the jokes are lingered over almost pornographically like Jackson’s standing just out of the frame going “get it? Isn’t that funny? Ha!” I dislike the way in which the film dispenses with all of its party guests in the climax because I can’t think of people as indispensable and don’t find their believably grotesque murder funny, which is how we’re asked to treat it after Jackson typically gives us reason not to hate them. Cause then your movie seems more mean and misanthropic than acceptably formulaic. The idea of a film being a never-ending parade of the grotesque is something I think should stay within the walls of Troma studios and when I go to a zombie film done by anyone else, I’d like to see more care put into the script than the make-up. This is a film with the spirit of an Umberto Lenzi movie filtered through a Three Stooges act.

Now, apparently when Dead Alive was released it was not, as I originally thought, met with unbridled horror and perpetual vomiting. In fact, not only did its director live to make better films but people actually walked away with the urge to create films of a similar nature. As if so often the case with knockoffs, these films suffered generational loss and are, if not quantifiably worse than Dead Alive, than at the very least they found even more creative ways to suck. Exhibit A: This next piece of shit.

by The Spierig Brothers

Meteor showers begin pelting the earth and striking people, making them rise from the dead. A woman, a backwoods gun-nut and some other hapless folks are trapped in an old farmhouse when the hoards of the undead begin to prey on the living. The film is essentially a series of setpieces that revolve around said gun-nut and his triple barreled shotgun. I wish I were kidding. After having apparently seen Phantasm as well as Dead Alive, the Spierigs decided that the notion of someone named Mungo McKay carrying three shotguns connected by some dowels was enough to hang a movie on. When Don Coscarelli did it, first of all, he was the first to do it, second of all, he used it conservatively. By the time aliens show up for the denouement, I simply didn't care. But seriously, Aliens? The hell's that about? I’m not sure why no one in the crap cinema game gets the notion of subtlety. After 40 years of extreme gore marking our horror films, you’d think people would look elsewhere. It’s not as though there’s any shortage of it on TV, movies, or cartoons. I don’t mean to say it was the gore that caused my displeasure with this film. Heavens no, it was all in the direction. Every performance is over-the-top stupid, every scene of someone having their head gored is in Matrix-style slo-mo for no reason. The film is full of really stupid trend filmmaking artifice. When you don’t really know to how to spin a yarn worth a damn, you tend to resort to things that have worked in the past. It’s the same with acting, specifically with comedy. Too often people think that you have to resort to physical humour in order to get a laugh, this is not true. You don’t need to fill your movie with bumpkins who get their heads stoved in or with slow motion arms getting shot off if you know your film is worth the money it took to make it.

The film had one thing going for it, and that was a sort o stylish look that they maintain throughout, and I give that more to cinematographer Andrew Strahorn than I do either director. I swear there’s something about films being made by people who tag themselves as the something brothers. Unless you’re the Coen Brothers, stop it! I’m talking to you Wachowskis, Duplasses, McManuses, and especially you Speirigs. All your telling me is that one of you isn’t enough brain power to make a goddamn movie and the results should be the product of two different creative powers at work. If that’s the case, you ought to be ashamed. You don’t see the Dardennes or the Nolans hiding behind a cool working name. I swear this is the product of people watching Do The Right Thing and thinking that they’ve earned their place in the limelight as much as Spike Lee because they’re violent and profane and have ‘style’. This is quite untrue (incidentally, Spike hasn’t made a film worth a goddamn in about 20 years). Put some fucking thought into your movies. You’re not making a music video.

So back to Undead for a second, it’s basically a rehash of every overused cinematic cliché that ‘s plagued (zombie) movies since 1943. Their in the house, they have guns, their stupid, there’s violence, it’s really unsatisfying. And with that, I say good day.

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