Thursday, January 28, 2010

Till Death Do Us Part: This Year In Chaos

I thought it only right to take a look at some zombie films before I delve into the curriculum change I've been planning since last year. Think of it as cleaning out my notebook if you will. Today we examine three films with more in common than the undead. One is brand new and one of the only French zombie films in existence, two of them aren't exactly new but they were made with help from my favorite independent studio Glass Eye Pix and all deal with the idea of love and family withstanding members of that family becoming zombies. The reason I don't devote more time to each specifically instead of doing this here threesome is because that though each has their say about love at the edge of life and death, none of them gets it right, but each does it differently. This gives me hope because not only does it show that filmmakers are always trying to do new things with the zombie genre, but that there's still a chance that someone's going to come along and really nail this. Well let's work our way up, shall we?

Mulberry Street
by Jim Mickle
When a diseased rat takes a bite of some people on the bottom of the food chain in a New York neighborhood, a virus begins to spread. The first bite is at dawn; by nightfall the whole city's been infected. Not only are they flesh-eating zombies, but they also take on rat-like countenances a la The Witches. The people we'll be concerned with are the residents of a tenement building. Clutch, the handyman is awaiting the arrival of his daughter Casey, an Iraq war veteran. He was planning a surprise party with the help of his friend Coco, a black gay man who starts out as a welcome diversion from all the ugliness and low-budget performances but wears out his welcome near the middle of the film, and Charlie, an older Jewish man who lives with his even older friend Frank. Clutch seems to have a sort-of-a-kind-of-a-thing for Kay, the single-mother who works at a local bar run by Big Vic, but neither has made much of their mutual attraction. Sadly, though these are well-defined characters (in a 30 Scenes for Two Actors kind of way) the only thing that writers Jim Mickle and Nick Damici, who also plays Clutch, are all that interested in is killing everyone off.

Mulberry Street starts off strong enough, promising a sort of slice-of-life zombie film on the The Fog model but with a decidedly Spike Lee-esque undercurrent; it is New York after all, and chaos and a heat-wave spell Do The Right Thing even in a film as lowly as this. And what's more this movie becomes a kind of love letter to New York based character actors. Damici and Mickle cast people who I have to guess are friends of theirs like Larry Fleischman and Glass Eye guru Larry Fessenden and in an uncredited and touching cameo, departed character actor Victor Argo appears with Damici in a picture in Clutch's apartment. So as a love letter to those thousands who struggle to make it as actors, Mulberry Street is kind of heart-warming. As a movie, movie or even a zombie movie, it doesn't really do much more than set 'em up and knock 'em down. The most compelling things about the film are the relationships between the characters (Clutch and his daughter, Kay and his son, Coco and Clutch, Charlie and Frank) but the script dispenses with nearly all of these characters before they can prove much about their friendship.
Mickle makes for an uneven director at the best of times, relying heavily on cheaply rendered fake news footage and oddly static action scenes and poorly done CG effects and obnoxiously muddled editing. His camera sits at a strange angle, which in the claustrophobic apartment building where the film takes place gets old fast. And for a film that takes place almost entirely in the same building Mickle doesn't establish a definite sense of place - the building needed to be another character, not just the place where people hide and die. And unfortunately the zombies weren't even that well executed and for all their menace, Clutch has an easy enough time punching their lights out for them to create much tension. Still I've seen much, much worse.

Zombie Honeymoon
By David Gebroe
Now here's a film that promises a real delving into the idea of romantic love and the undead intersecting. Open on a wedding. Wait, scratch that, open on the credits set to the sound of people chewing. Not a great move, kids. I get that it's supposed to be unnerving but really I just kept thinking how rude it was. Noisy chewing's like nails on a chalkboard to me, not a surrogate string quartet. Anyway, Denise and Danny get married then rush off to their rented honeymoon home. I don't get this place one bit. It's a beachside home (not a mansion but big enough I guess) with expensive shit in it, like big TVs and arcade games. Now I've never spent enough time on the west coast to get acquainted with anything like this, but is this a thing in California? Weirdly overstocked beach houses that middle class newlyweds can rent for a week or two? But ignore the arcade games and shit, they never return...come to think of it I can't really see why they're there in the first place. So they have fun and do a lot of having sex and laying out and such until one afternoon a man wanders out of the ocean and spews up black bile into Danny's mouth. Denise rushes him to the hospital but for whatever reason it's too late and Danny dies in front of her and the attending physicians. She's naturally crushed until he starts coughing and comes back to life, good as new that is.

Ok, so I think you can guess where this film is headed. Danny appears normal at first but soon he's killing and eating small animals, then people, then his flesh starts to decay, then the police get involved and Denise has to decide what's most important to her. If I had one complaint it's that we don't get any real sense of these two despite spending the whole movie with them. Their personalities change for the sake of whatever kind of scene writer/director David Gebroe wants to try and carry off. He makes a pretty huge mistake in telling Zombie Honeymoon like a conventional young-love story with just a few substitutions because he also doesn't bring enough to the telling of the story to escape its pitfalls and inevitable dullness. I knew the minute that fellow spewed up in Danny's face how the film was going to end so it was up to Gebroe to then make the next hour as tense and horrifying and claustrophobic as can be and he failed to do any of those things. The first of Zombie Honeymoon’s problems is that it's shot in oppressively bright colours to emphasize the youthful, west coastness of everything from the house the newlyweds stay in to the small animals Danny winds up eating. It's hard for there to be much darkness in a film that refuses to get dark. Every frame is full of wasted space and there is never the sense of urgency a story like this requires.

I feel that the one thing that would have saved Zombie Honeymoon would be if the filmmaker stopped fucking around. Why is it crucial for us to see the "let's buy our house and move to Portugal" scene in quite such ecstatic detail if we already know it's not going to happen. I mean, it never happens in typical romantic dramedies, and we already know what the score is, so why waste everyone's time? Not to mention that Denise and Danny become two completely different characters during this scene. They're also completely different characters when they argue during dinner with their friends Buddy and Nikki and when they feud over Danny's just having killed and eaten their travel agent (if someone could tell me whether I'm supposed to find this funny I'd appreciate it, because the tonal shifts are all out of left field and have no consistency or level ground to return to). We're obviously meant to care for Denise but she just isn't a real character, she's a series of actions with a semi-sad look on her face who is too well-lit and nicely composed to be a real character who's actually watching the love of her life become a zombie. It's also mildly distracting that Tracy Coogan who plays her is from Ireland and her American accent slips more than it ought to in an eighty-minute film. One minute she wants to cover for his killing, the next she can't stand him, and the only thing that remains consistent is that this film wants a rewrite it never got.
I guess if I had looked at Honeymoon's poster and seen that John Landis had recommended it, I could have stayed the hell away from it. Ultimately a film with the word "Honeymoon" in the title that is about the cross-section of horror and romance could have used a more believable dose of either. Gebroe presents Zombie Honeymoon like it was made-for-TV or like he was gathering footage for a music video. Things happen and have no impact on our emotions, which is damning in a little movie. Little films are supposed to have heart, that's why the rest of the world goes to them (to deliver the romance they weren't going to find in either Transformers 2 or He's Just Not That Into You because both are about science-fiction, implausible relationships and special effects, really). Zombie Honeymoon thus comes off like Gebroe's resume film rather than anything he cared enough about to instill with the kind of heartbreak his plot required. What would you do if your husband were turning into a goddamned zombie? Don’t you think you might be on edge all the fucking time? Might you make every second left of your life together count? For more on this subject, we head overseas where the situation is much worse than the one in California.

by David Morlet
I admit to being really psyched about Mutants because I was told that this was slowly building up steam in Europe and that it was being kept out of US cinemas for the usual reasons (subtitles). That said, early word was mostly positive and I simply had to have it! And for a few wonderful minutes it really seemed like Mutants was going to be the perfect close to a decade of pretty excellent horror films. In a beautifully composed opening sequence a woman runs away from zombies in a creek, heading desperately toward the road nearby. But just as she dodges her pursuers and gets to the road she's hit by an ambulance and literally explodes as if she were not a person but rather a poorly sewn burlap sack of blood and thin vital organs. This should have been my first-clue that Mutants was perhaps not the first-rate zombie film I'd been expecting. Anyway, zombies are running amok but we don't really get a sense of how bad things are all over. The ambulance is being driven by Sonia, a paramedic. Her husband Marco tries to revive the man in the back and both are watched by Perez, a SWAT with a large gun pointed at both of them. When the critical case stops breathing she forces Sonia to stop the van so she can shoot the dead man in the head. And to prove just how nice she really is, she then makes Marco and Sonia clean the blood out of the back of the van with river water. Perez evidently needs these two for some reason because she won't let them out of her sight. They stop at a gas station for fuel and supplies and things take a nasty turn. The discovery of someone who is probably infected leads to a showdown between Husband and Wife and the lady with the gun. The boy who attacks Marco doesn't look infected, just mentally impaired, so Sonia won't leave without him and Perez won't risk his presence. Marco grabs a gun, the boy attacks, and things get ugly. When Sonia gets back in the ambulance she has Perez's gun and a gutshot Marco who may or may not have swallowed some of the infected boy's blood.

She rushes him to a derelict office building to operate on him in peace...or anyway it looks like an office building on the outside. Inside it looks kinda like a basement they rented to do their interior filming with and doesn't match the outside at all. Regardless, they're stuck here and even after Marco recovers from the gunshot, there's still the chance that he's got the virus. As his hair comes out in clumps and his mood turns dour, his doomedness seems assured but Sonia won't let him die without a fight. She too was bitten, it seems, over two weeks ago, but nothing ever happened to her. Maybe if they can find out what about her makes her immune, they can cure him. That's all well and good but Marco has three good days left in him maybe and if they ever get help to come, the chances of finding someone to figure that shit out in time are slim to none. Sonia seems to know they'll never get that far but she doesn't care; when time is just about up for her husband she pumps him full of morphine and locks him in the basement so she can work out a solution on her own but just as she goes back upstairs the marauders arrive. Four survivors arrive and basically force Sonia to help them get fuel for the ambulance. The fuel is in a roadside office through the woods and as their leader doesn't want to risk going back to get it, he's going to send Sonia to get it. She agrees to help only when she hears that there's a radio in the office as well. It's hear that we learn that she has another reason to want her husband to come out alive; she's not just immune to the virus, she's also pregnant, so she books it to the radio and back, but, as we're about an hour into the movie, things spiral out of control and loads of folks get theirs in a messy and fast-paced fashion.
In Mutants' defense it is easily one of the most beautifully shot zombie films of all time. Director David Morlet or possibly cinematographer Nicolas Massart has a real eye for the scenery that surrounds the abandoned building and it really is just a joy to take in every exterior shot they have to offer. Though soon after they get to the building I found myself wishing for more shots of trees and less time with the characters. Morlet is clearly a student of old-school horror as there are a ton of things in play. In the setting there's plenty of The Shining, in the editing, the gore and interior cinematography Zach Snyder's Dawn of the Dead, in the interplay between the people and the virus and the notion of the government's role in things and that it is a virus that's causing the zombies there's a good deal of 28 Days Later and in Sonia's pregnancy and last-ditch escape Children of Men. There's a nod to Rosemary's Baby and of course to Romero's film in the general atmosphere of hopelessness, especially in the context of a married couple alone with zombies all around. And though I could spy a lot of references going by, none of it strengthened the film's narrative, leading me to think that Morlet didn't really have confidence in the story he was telling. This is further underlined by his choice of editing style. The problem with slick, modern editing and frenetic high definition camera work is that character stop being characters and start being objects. They move around a good deal and they never slow down and the most directors think that sheer momentum of bodies is the same as getting to know these people.

And furthermore the story really is quite thin. Sonia and Marco are alone for what is maybe a day, during which time we learn nothing of their relationship, other than the fact that it doesn't mean quite as much to Marco as it does to Sonia. Then when the gang shows up the film turns into a 28 Days Later paraphrase with Sonia, like Jim, bringing the zombies down on the heads of her oppressors, except that we haven't been through enough with Sonia for her arrival to be all that heroic and we haven't spent enough time with the gang for them to really have earned their villainy. So their deaths feel perfunctory more than satisfying. I could see Morlet scripting the scene and shooting it feeling like he had a conclusion as strong as Danny Boyle's and in the staging it appears like he should have but there's no weight behind it. We know that the villains will die and we don't like them so it doesn't matter, we know Marco will emerge and save Sonia at the last minute, and we know that Sonia is immune. Where exactly does the tension come into play? Hélène de Fougerolles is such a strong physical performer as well that it's a shame that Morlet almost makes no use of her. Her beauty, hidden under sweat and grease and blood and fear, makes all her scenes interesting just because she's in them but I can only imagine how good they could have been if Morlet had actually gotten us into her head. Also the film's score in no way matches up to John Murphy's for 28 Days Later. It's fucking awful; rhythm people, tell the drummer to slow down or you'll wind up inviting Ghost of Mars comparisons and NOBODY wants that. Forgive my sounding so cruel but Mutants started out so strongly and is handsomely put-together but the script just couldn't meet the direction halfway. Beyond that the gore effects are distractingly over-the-top, especially when they punctuate what should be difficult emotional scenes between the two leads. Morlet cared much more about how the film looked than what the people who occupied the frame for 90% of the movie thought or felt. I've seen break-neck editing, and hopeless looking characters with an abundance of fire-arms despite this being the end of civilization and I've seen gore and I've seen the ending to 28 Days Later (though for the life of me I can't think of where...). I need more than different scenery, no matter how arresting it is.
Mutants is the most recent of the three films discussed today and it really does represent the most mature and concise directorial vision but it still isn't good enough. Morlet clearly speaks the language of horror films and that to me says that he should have had a better and more interesting story to tell, not one that is interesting in its being superior to amateurish films like Mulberry Street and Zombie Honeymoon. In the end despite my enjoying the tension created in at least the first 40 minutes of Mutants, I can't really rate it heads and shoulders above the others which both went straight to DVD. The problem, so far as I can see, is that director's think that the idea of a zombie film is enough to make up for listlessness and aimlessness. Not a one of these movies has a great ending but most importantly not one of them has a consistent stance on relationships. Mulberry Street clearly has ideas about families as it presents several of them it's just too preoccupied in set-pieces for the characters to actually have a conversation about what they're feeling. Zombie Honeymoon is about two people who are in love but that love is never conveyed in the script, direction or performances. Mutants is a movie about love lasting after death has changed the nature of your life and your struggle to survive, but it happens to people we never get to know. What the makers of low-budget horror films always need and seem to always forget (there are of course exceptions) is that we need to care first before we can be shocked and we need to care when it's all over too. You can't drop characterization in favor of action, nor can you have empty gestures that amount to something in other films. In order for a film about zombies to work, you need the one thing they lack: a beating heart.

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