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Wednesday, Oct 31, 2007


Daniel Kraus’ PBS sponsored documentary about local law enforcement in a small southern town is an outright masterpiece. Sheriff strives to do little more than give us a look behind the badge as Ronald E. Hewitt secures the North Carolina community of Brunswick County. What we get instead is the broadest scope of human drama as depicted within the tinniest of backward burgs. Hewitt’s family has a long tradition in the area – several streets and buildings in town are named after his kin. But it’s the buzzcut Baptist who rules things now, his God, country and Colt .45 mentality a breath of fresh air in these days of questionable police practices and criminal oriented news reporting. In fact, if Hewitt could be cloned and his doubles resituated around the country, it’s a foregone conclusion that the crime rate nationwide would decrease ten fold.


Following the cinema verite style of fact filmmaking, Kraus isn’t out to have talking heads narrate Hewitt’s life story. Instead, he rides along, quasi-Cops style, as the compact constable goes about his daily chores. One day, he could be speaking to a school assembly. The next, he could be investigating the robbery and murder of a local attorney. Over the course of the film, we see Hewitt dealing with a life or death manhunt, coordinating a roadside dragnet, and busting up an illegal video poker emporium. Always the gentleman, this sheriff never looses his temper. He doesn’t curse like a sailor or aggressively pursue suspects. Instead, Hewitt believes in using the techniques he’s learned on the job, in combination with the close knit nature of the surrounding area, to aid in his investigations. He can even work the local media, when necessary.


When we first meet Hewitt, he appears like your typical Southern lawman, his deceptive drawl putting him instantly into the canon of stereotypical country bumpkins. But Kraus doesn’t let that caricature carry. Within seconds, the man is wooing reporters, directing child services to help a pair of juvenile victims, and phoning other locals for added technical and scientific support. Suddenly, the Joe Higgins/Jackie Gleason version of the sunglass donning Confederate copper is replaced by a brash, intelligent man with a keen instinct for solving cases. During a particularly telling montage, Kraus intercuts various statements Hewitt has made to TV, and the sheriff’s use of carefully moderated words and specific terms indicates a thoughtfulness and caution that is indeed rare. Even more amazing, we see him coordinating and communicating with his constituency. While some may argue such an approach is necessary to maintain one’s political position, we sense there’s more to it than that – at least, to Hewitt.


Indeed, he’s the human representation of dedication and determination. He never quits until the last lead is followed up and never rejects a request for assistance. When he travels to a State Sheriff’s Conference and, unexpectedly, wins the award for outstanding sheriff, his humble thank you and acknowledgement of his peers is priceless. Thanks to the manner in which Kraus captures the on the job moments – directly, precisely, without any identifiable motive or manipulation – we view Hewitt is pure hero worshipping terms. He becomes the guy we wish was looking out for us, the type of peace officer your parents once advised you could trust and rely on. While there are probably a few skeletons in his closet (everyone’s life has them, even if they’re incredibly minor at best), we are sold a full blown family values version of small town swagger. And we love it.


Kraus makes sure to show us Hewitt’s sense of personal pride as well. He is careful in how he dresses, making sure to always look put together and well turned out. He never shows fear, or a lack of confidence, though an occasional aside for a bottle of cold water or a moment alone reveal a very real, very vulnerable human being. Kraus uses his camera instinctually, picking up on points that a more staged approach would probably miss. When the lady behind the video poker counter pleads ignorance as to any remaining money in the building, Hewitt delivers a wonderful little speech about being “right and square” with his suspects. After a little more poking and prodding, the cash she swore didn’t exist magically ends up in his hands.


Sheriff is also interested in the different cultural dynamics of small Southern town life. Hewitt is seen hunting, shotguns slung, daughter along to provide firm parent/child companionship. There is also an intriguing moment when the lawman congratulates his son’s friend for making first chair percussion in the school band. “I told you he was going to do that!”, Hewitt’s son says with a smile. A hug and a kiss confirm another close tie. In fact, most of this man’s life is made up of networks and contacts, links between people he’s known for decades and individuals he’s interacted with on both sides of the criminal justice system. It a closeness that helps support a few Solomon like opinions. While he doesn’t like the local nudist colony, (and many in the community don’t) he still champions the member’s right to live that lifestyle – as long as they are doing it peaceably.


The new DVD from FACETS Video helps broaden our perspective. Along with the original 76 minute theatrical version of the film, we get over 40 minutes of deleted footage, sequences expanding our understanding of Hewitt’s duties and his approach to same. What’s even more compelling is, once we’ve seen the additional material, we recognize that the narrative doesn’t need the extra enlightenment. Kraus has done such a marvelous job of sketching in all the necessary details from the collection of sequences we see in the film that Hewitt and his circumstances come across fully formed and capable of easy consideration. As intimate as it is instructional, and insightful, Sheriff stands as a unique cinematic accomplishment. It’s impossible to imagine that, when Brunswick County was chosen and Hewitt was contacted about this particular project, such a stellar behind the scenes statement would be made.


It’s a credit to Kraus who did something similar with his look at a 40 year old beer drinking wrestling fanatic with Down’s Syndrome named JeffTowne. What seemed obvious at first all of a sudden transcended its borders to blossom into an engaging, irresistible discovery. Sheriff Ronald E. Hewitt could easily become a modern day Andy Griffin, ‘golly gee’ philosophizing making everyone from the Carolina’s seem like hambone hicks. Instead, we see the meshing of modernity with tried and true tradition. The result is something spectacular, a film about a job that actually explains said career’s allure and fulfillment. He may not like the hours, and many of the crimes he must investigate are heinous and inhumane, but this is one lawman who takes pride in the service he provides. He’s a Sheriff, and darn proud of it – and so are we.


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Tuesday, Oct 30, 2007

As our month-long tribute to terror ends, SE&L celebrates one of the missing in action icons of practical special effects - Mr. Rob Bottin.


On the Mt. Rushmore of Cinematic Repugnance he’s Teddy friggin’ Roosevelt, his brooding, bearded façade figuring prominently along with those of Dick Smith, Tom Savini, and Rick Baker (substitute Stan Winston where appropriate). His cartoonish, slightly surreal take on creature F/X was marked by a disturbing level of invention, and when asked to recreate more human horrors, his autopsy like efficiency reveled in the body’s more noxious humors. Yet after giving David Fincher a tour de force performance for his serial killer spectacle Se7en, he more or less disappeared, showing up sporadically for a few high profile projects (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fight Club) before fading away. Since 2002 however, he’s been more or less MIA, a once brilliant madman lost in the exile of his own increasing reputation.


A California boy, Rob Bottin was born in 1959. He grew up loving monster movies and started creating his own characters while in his teens. A few of his sketches caught the eye of fellow fright lover Baker, and at age 14, he was hired on to work for the in-demand artist. After assisting on the ’76 version of King Kong and that space opera blockbuster Star Wars, his big break came when John Carpenter was looking for someone to realize the menacing pirate ghosts for the filmmaker’s much publicized Halloween follow-up, The Fog. Bottin, an imposing kid at 6’2”, not only designed and executed the F/X, but he played the lead spirit – Capt. Blake – at the end of the film. After a brief stint supporting Tom Savini on the sickening slasher sleazefest Maniac, Bottin began working with Baker on the pair’s next secret project.


Buried in myth and clouded by contradictory innuendo, the falling out between the men over the creation of a realistic werewolf transformation remains an incomplete motion picture legend. At the time, Baker accused Bottin of stealing his ideas, while the young gun threw the same accusation back at his onetime mentor. Watching The Howling and An American Werewolf in London side by side, the mutual influence is obvious. Yet were Baker reverted to a bloodless, full body metamorphosis for director John Landis, Bottin used the inherent limits of individual physicality to create a more brutal, bloody change. With Joe Dante’s Howling beating Werewolf into theaters, it looked like the student got the last laugh. However, when Oscar rolled around, it was Baker who walked away with the newly created award for make-up effects.


Undaunted, Bottin literally threw himself into his next project. The remake of The Thing was a technical nightmare, but assigned director Carpenter could think of no one better than the gifted 23 year old to realize the creature concepts he had in mind. The original ‘50s classic had actor James Arness dressed as something resembling a human carrot. The Thing’s reinvention would be more along the lines of the source material short story “Who Goes There?”. Carpenter wanted the ultimate shapeshifter, a being that could literally take the form of anything it came in contact with. In these pre-CGI days, it was an epic undertaking, but Bottin was up for the challenge. He worked seven days a week, sleeping in his shop, for over a year to make the horrific entities the director wanted. By the end of production, Bottin was so spent he had to be hospitalized for extreme exhaustion.


All the hard work paid off, though. For many, The Thing remains the last word in advanced physical effects. It’s a gruesome, gore-filled cavalcade of bleakness and cruelty. From the ultra realistic dog death sequences to the finale which finds Kurt Russell’s McReady battling a 30 foot amalgamation of everything the extraterrestrial’s emulated over the course of the film, Bottin filled the frame with as many innovative atrocities as possible. When it hit theaters in 1982, fright fans heralded the movie’s sluice drenched spectacle. Critics were not so kind, often referring to Bottin as the cinematic equivalent of a geek show barker. Of course, time has only cemented The Thing’s status as a classic. Today, Bottin is idolized, not marginalized, for what he created.


Luckily, his next project would help broaden his appeal. When Joe Dante was looking for someone to visualize the wild – and frequently wicked – imaginary threats forged in the brain of that famous little despot Anthony as part of a big screen remake of the classic Twilight Zone episode, he turned to Bottin. Like Looney Tunes on acid, the F/X expert turned rabbits into oversized demons, and manufactured a collection of corrupt cartoon effigies who recalled the Warner Brothers icons gone gangrenous. Dante loved what Bottin did so much that he brought him on to realize the goofball aliens of Explorers. During this same time, Ridley Scott was actively seeking someone to help him lift the fantasy film out of its sword and sorcery doldrums. Overwhelmed by what he had seen of his work, he asked Bottin to assist in bringing the main villain of his latest film, Legend, to life.



For some, turning the rather unimpressive Tim Curry into the stunning mangoat known as The Lord of Darkness remains Bottin’s latex and appliance masterpiece. In form and figure, the characterization is flawless, from the elongated and hoofed legs to the massive horned headpiece. Even more astonishing, Darkness has a massive musculature that hides its actor’s own flabby physique. When combined with Curry’s inspired performance and Scott’s stylized approach, the domineering demon became the film’s signature visual, surpassing stars Tom Cruise, Mia Sara, and a wealth of impish supporting players. For all its flaws as a film, Legend still stands as a stunning triumph for the artistic technician.


After working on another Dante film (Innerspace) and turning Jack Nicholson into the Devil for The Witches of Eastwick, Bottin returned to splatter with Paul Verhoven’s terrifically vicious Robocop. The violence he created was so nasty in fact that the movie received an initial X rating. When the MPAA finally came up with the NC-17 in 1990, Robocop was often cited as an example of a film that suffered at the hands of the board’s implied censorship. With its exploding limbs, melting bodies, and ultra-realistic gunshot wounds, Bottin definitely pushed the limits. Yet when he and Verhoven regrouped to take on the long dormant sci-fi project Total Recall, the ratings results were the same. Like The Thing before, the make-up maestro expanded the possibilities of his craft, turning the Mars madness into a primer on various techniques and approaches (the film would be recognized by the Academy with a Special Achievement Award).


While he was working all kinds of movie magic to turn Arnold Schwarzenegger into an interstellar hero, a little something called computer generated imagery was slowly seeping into the fabric of film. The Abyss became one of the first films to use the new technical tool to realize a F/X sequence – in this case, the watery alien probe – and as studios saw the potential in motherboards for their outsized visuals, experts like Bottin suddenly saw their talents devalued. While he continued pressing forward, helping Warren Beatty and Barry Levinson realize the gangster brutality of Bugsy, and giving Basic Instinct its ice picked pulse, it would be three years before he stepped onto a set again. By that time, digital was destroying manmade dexterity, and as if in direct response to such shortsightedness, Bottin set out to break the benchmark once again.


Initially, it’s hard to see how Se7en does this. Many of the murders occur off screen, and when we witness the repulsive results of John Doe’s unhinged “preaching”, the ratings mandated cuts removed much of Bottin’s brilliance. Still, he researched every aspect of the film, taking in a real autopsy and studying obesity’s affect on the body. He reviewed crime scene photos and the creation of police evidence files. When the cast and crew saw the results of Sloth’s visualization, the effect was so disturbing it made more than a few sick to their stomach. When added to director Fincher’s already dark vision and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker’s bleak ideas, Bottin’s genius generated the kind of psychological terror that has since made the film infamous.


And then – nothing. Well, not really. Bottin did work on Mission: Impossible, Fear and Loathing, Fight Club, Charlie’s Angels, and the Adam Sandler flop Mr. Deeds. According to the IMDb, his last legitimate credit was for “special animatronic cow and bull effects” in Serving Sara. A scan of the World Wide Web turns up very little current information. When Special Edition DVDs are put together, his participation is typically reduced to archival interviews or older featurettes ported over from previous packages. His absence from the current cultural landscape is confusing at best, especially when you consider how influential and important his work has become. There are people who literally obsess over everything Bottin has ever done, from his uncredited turns as a teen to the missing footage excised at the hands of the MPAA. For many fright fans, he’s an unseen God, a man whose disturbing dominion has suffered without his input.


Perhaps Bottin feels he can’t compete with the scan and spatter concept of post-millennial makeup. Maybe’s he’s earned all the money and respect he could ever want and simply needs a rest after four decades in the industry. At 47, he’s still a very young man, and could easily make a comeback should the right project strike his fancy, and with the retro renaissance currently feeding the fright film, a Bottin helmed Saw or Friday the 13th would seem like a gore nerds dream come true (he wrote an unused script for Freddy vs. Jason back before the project ended up with Ronny Yu). Whatever the reason for his vanishing act, here’s hoping he recognizes how much he’s missed. A sketch artist with a stylus can only do so much when it comes to creature effects, and Bottin could be a wonderful guide to those unfamiliar with hand on latex practicality.



Besides, horror needs him desperately. Bottin believed in using imagination and innovation as a means of achieving his frequently gruesome goals. He never let the limits of a budget or a medium get in the way. Sure, he obsessed over things, often to his detriment, but the results stand as archetypes for the artform. As a makeup artist and special effect technician, Bottin managed the seemingly impossible. Even as technology transformed the industry, his gear and greasepaint efforts stand as timeless. Sure, they can remake The Thing (as currently planned), using CGI to realize what almost killed the craftsman, but it won’t be the same. Indeed, no carefully rendered and realized monster can match what Bottin did with blood, sweat, and a lot of bladder F/X tears. This is why, even absent from the scene, Rob Bottin rocks. He’s the standard no hard drive can replicate – or replace.


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Monday, Oct 29, 2007


By its very nature, the short film has a hard time lending itself to horror. While the simple shock, the gross out gag, and the briefest of interludes between the supernatural and cinema can all find a home within the truncated format, creating macabre in such a tight logistical span seems almost impossible. Dread relies on mood, atmosphere, premise, follow through and other nebulous elements to be effective, and getting all that across in seven to twenty minutes is tricky at best. Those who’ve managed such cinematic slight of hand deserve praise for cracking one of the artform’s most complicated puzzles, said success translating into an equally deserving example of the medium.


In 2003, Other Cinema, an independent DVD distributor, collected several fine examples of these horrific mini-movies, including corrupt classics by such insane savants as Damon Packard and J. X. Williams, and released them in compilation form. Experiments in Terror proved that, though minimal in running time, the short film could be massive on imagination and meaning. Four years later, the company is back with Experiments in Terror 2. Expanding the selections while bringing back frightmare favorites (Packard and Williams both have new offerings), the expanded technological options provided by the digital revolution argue for a renewed viability. But there are specific pieces picked from four decades before that illustrate the necessity for artistry first, artifice second.


Viewed in one huge 95 minute hunk, or screened separately, this is avant-garde fear at its most mesmerizing. For anyone sick and tired of sloppy slice and dice or visually muted ghost stories, these optical wonders, bursting with retrospective revisionism and meticulous montages, creates a compelling overview of what people find frightening. There are very few examples of standard narrative story structure here. In face, aside from Angel Nieves 2001 effort The Fear and Bill Morrison’s borrowed plotline from the 1927 film The Bells (for his 2003 work The Mesmerist), everything else here is handled in an evocative, suggestive manner. The aforementioned shorts are sensational, Fear playing like a perfectly formed summary of late ‘70s/early ‘80s moviemaking. Morrison’s found footage, combining decay and remastering to offer up a disturbing sense of psychological parallelism, is a wonder to behold.

Thematically, there is a constant sense of backwards glancing here, a look at how dread past remains resonant in contemporary terror. Between 2 Deaths (2006) offers an intriguing look at San Francisco locations used by Alfred Hitchcock for his masterwork Vertigo. Director Wago Krieder does his best to line up shots exactly as the Master of Suspense did, and his morphing back and forth between the modern material and the Jim Stewart/Kim Novack gem stands as a stunning archival stunt. Similarly, Amor Peligrosa takes the age old symbol of death – the skeleton – and turns it on its frisky, fornicating head. Michelle Silva’s silly sexual congress remains compelling, if only because it seems so metaphysically apropos.


But it’s the actual works from the 1960s that help us understand the post-modern movement in Experiments. Opus 5 (1961) is a celluloid collage, a collection of unsettling images – fire, lights, religious iconography – that suggests a primer from hence all horror has originated. Lloyd Williams’ skilled juxtapositions give the presentation a creepy, unearthly aura. Similarly J. X. Williams’ Psych-Burn (1968) is the love generation unhinged, a compelling cock-up between go-go dancers and gory backdrops that even finds a way to turn the psychedelic acid rock of the era on its head. As the imagery bombards us with its death and debauchery subtext, the music is mindlessly interrupted, classic fear beats and shrieks inserted to remind us of the yin yang nature of man.


Oddly enough, when modern filmmakers attempt the same thing, the results can be less than impressive. Usama Alshaibi’s equally scattered Hold My Scissors tries for the Hellspawn head trip, and yet can’t quite pull off the impressionistic hat trick. It comes off as minor Shakespearean – full of sound and fury, and signifying very little. Similarly, Clifton Childree and Nikki Rollason’s She Sank on Shallow Bank wants to recall the early shorts of David Lynch (an auteur who truly understood the format) with their monochrome meandering. But for every provocative moment – a woman suggestively drowning on a sound stage seashore set – we get ghostly shoes shuffling around a boat. If there is sense to be made of such accidental imagery, it gets lost here.


The remaining masterpieces more than make up for any cinematic slack, however. Damon Packard, one of the undeniable masters of retro-revivalism, has utilized his entire catalog of Me Decade macabre to manufacture the dead-on dementia of The Early ‘70s Horror Trailer. A nine minute amalgamation of various damsels in all manner of ABC Movie of the Week distress, we keep waiting for Burt Bacharach’s “Nikki” to start up in the background. Luckily, Packard is one step ahead of us. He utilizes underscoring from such diverse sources as Escape from the Planet of the Apes and peppers the entire project with as many Super-8 stunts (prism lens, double exposure, slo-mo) as possible. Some may see it as nothing more than a massive gimmick given over to self indulgence. But when viewed through the eyes of someone who lived through the era, it’s absolute genius.


So is the aforementioned Fear. How a modern filmmaker like Angel Nieves managed to accurately recreate the look, feel, performances, and overall dread dynamic of an early ‘80s exploitation schlocker in 2001 is unnerving. From the sets to the storyline, you never once guess this is a post-millennial production. Instead, its old school scare tactics that feel fresh and innovative, carefully controlled pacing providing the right amount of suspense. It’s a very disturbing experience, one that leads to an instant reflection on the films it faithfully mimics. With The Mesmerist, the effect is different, but equally devastating. While The Bells is often dismissed as a well acted, half-formed morality play, director Morrison digs the meat out of it, using the original, racially insensitive title cards, to offer a comment on stereotypes and human sin. While it’s great to see Lionel Barrymore and a young Boris Karloff in full genre mode, it’s the underlying message about intolerance and redemption that’s far more effective.


As an added treat, Other Cinema includes a pair of compelling bonus features. The first is an interactive ‘Closet of Horrors’. By using your remote and clicking on the illuminated doorway, you are transported to one of a random collection of trailers, clips, and fright themed commercials. It’s an unfathomable delight. By contrast, the rant-oriented Warhol Beyond the Grave (from a longer piece known as Pleromadromadhetu) finds the long dead pop art phenom rising from the tomb to take on his legacy, as an anti-Andy screed plays in the background. It’s a weirdly compelling combination, both a declaration and denouncement of the 20th Century’s leading limelighter.


An appearance by the man - or the image of same – who once declared the disposability of fame is an excellent end note to this compelling collection. With its devotion to former frighteners, Experiments in Terror 2 appears to suggest that post-modern fear is too throwaway to warrant commemoration. For many in the creative community, the siren song of what came before is far more compelling than the simulated superficiality of current CGI creepshows. While these may be mere trials in the lexicon of fear, they are far more fully formed than much of today’s takes. As curator and compiler of this remarkable overview, Other Cinema deserves a lot of credit. While they won’t satisfy everyone, these short film scares deserve their moment in the sun. Experiments in Terror 2 gives it to them, and we couldn’t be happier.


 


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Sunday, Oct 28, 2007


They’re the go-to ghouls when things get dicey, a bit of splatter spice when dialogue and characterization can’t save you. From their initial start as nothing more than a novelty – an unruly urban legend suggesting slaves and other island immigrants – to their present status as scary movie saviors, the zombie has become a main member of the macabre in-crowd. In fact, when placed alongside vampires, werewolves, and serial killers, they become the Fourth Horseman of the cinematic apocalypse. While historians can argue over when and where the undead made their first onscreen appearance, it’s clear that a plainspoken Pittsburgh advertising man made these monsters mainstream. When George Romero released Night of the Living Dead on an ill—prepared public back in 1968, he ushered in the first phase of the post-modern horror film. And we’ve been jonesing on these resplendent rotting corpses ever since.


So why do we love zombies so? Does it have something to do with how they quench our instinctual and omnipresent bloodlust, or is there something deeper to our dedication? One thing is definitely clear – the notion of human as evil is not new. Aside from extraterrestrials and otherworldly demons, most craven creatures are born of man. The vampire is a person poisoned by the need for blood, a werewolf the hapless victim of a passed along curse. Frankenstein was forged out of corpses, and ghosts are the spiritual remnants of individuals unstuck between dimensions. So turning the recognizable homosapien into a horror show is not such a stretch. Even the cannibalism angle derives directly from jungle legend and legitimate archeology. In fact, in the world of horror, the undead are perhaps the most logistically recognizable (if rotting) entities ever.



Similar to when the slasher barnstormed the genre, turning dreadfulness into a man next door dynamic, it’s the possibility of occurrence that could explain the zombie’s appeal. After decades of radioactive beasties and world war atrocities, the notion that people are one infected step away from being pusillanimous killers has a special, intrinsic truth. It’s the same with mass murders and our newfangled Dr. Lecters. The general perception has shifted from human’s being generally good to powderkegs waiting for the right psychological spark to set them off. While we might not initially imagine our friends feasting on our flesh, we can readily visualize them stabbing us in the back for a promotion, a prom date, or a piece of property. Call in cynical or paranoid, but we now think the worst of civilization first.


This could clarify the undead’s appeal. They reflect our inner beliefs, our need to know just how cruel the koffee klatch or the Glee Club really is. We take our own inherent fear, give it a decomposing façade, and night terror the world into a wicked, hideous mankind eat mankind paradigm. And when done well – as in the films of Romero, Danny Boyle’s brilliant 28 Days Later, or Zach Synder’s purely pathological Dawn of the Dead remake – we feel our apprehensions being supported and assuaged. A zombie film confirms our already razor sharp sense of suspicion, acknowledging that parents should loathe their offspring, friends fear their associates, and strangers believe that everyone is out to get them. And the solution couldn’t be simpler – a well placed bullet/implement to the head.



The ease of disposal is also part of the living dead’s allure. In the case of classic monsters, there is very little control. Dracula and the Wolfman require such a depth of knowledge, rituals and remedies and how to apply them, that their victims usually crumble from a lack of proper preparation more than anything else. In the case of the slasher, a supernatural aspect has been woven into their fatalistic fabric. When you kill the boogeyman, he’s not necessarily dead. Driven by his paranormal desire to destroy, his body is an immortal temple of terror. But zombies are different. Granted, a single bite and you’re screwed. But if you have the nerve, and the dexterity (fast running versions of the villains notwithstanding), you can utilize what’s around to stay alive.


It’s the foundation for the fanboy argument over slow vs. speedy corpses. In these post-millennial days, where everyone wants their needs satiated immediately, if not anticipated beforehand and remedied in advance, the concept of killers that can literally give you a run for your money may seem quite contemporary. But when viewed in hindsight, the articulated cannibal is not very frightening. Oh sure, their initial threat is as shocking as it is overwhelming. But with most of the human race as far from the President’s Physical Fitness regime as a McDonald’s drive-thru, the notion of outrunning your death appears impossible. While it surely fits our current omnipresent pessimistic nature, it’s a macabre facet that quickly exhausts all its steam. It also moves beyond our ‘there but for the grace go’ fear factor. When the monsters are more mobile than we are, the odds of survival - and the implied suspense - are reduced dramatically.



Maybe it’s the gore. After all, we are a populace of traffic accident voyeurs. We voluntarily risk our own vehicular health to see any and all automobile atrocities, and NASCAR’s enduring popularity is frequently attributed to the everpresent possibility of on the pavement carnage. As the 24 hour a day news cycle brings us desperate people using blood soaked violence as a way of solving their societal problems, we get daily doses of arterial spray. So imagine how successful a movie could be when it places such grue in a clever cinematic context. It’s the main selling point of most zombie movies, from Romero’s classics to the most minor homemade romp. In fact, when a living dead movie fails to deliver on the human juice dreck, the audience typically reacts in abject boredom.


It’s a vicious viscous cycle of course. Once Dawn of the Dead set the bloodletting benchmark, followers and copycats were compelled to increase the ick. Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 was another nasty noxious benchmark, toppled by Romero’s own Day of the Dead. When Synder’s remake extrapolated on the many ways to vivisect a corpse, Georgie upped the offal with his Land of the Dead. Of course, what many outside the auteur fail to realize is that redrum is only inviting when combined with a proper collection of cinematic mixers. There are dozens of wannabe fright masters who simply grab the Kayro syrup and start splattering. They could care less about directorial flair, artistic vision, or motion picture acumen. To them, a successful zombie film equals gallons of the grotesque, the legitimate language of the medium be damned.



While it’s true that gore can get you past an abundance of filmic faux paxes, it cannot solely sustain an audience’s interest. Peter Jackson’s nonstop vein volley Dead Alive would never have succeeded without the filmmaker’s frisky sense of humor. Sure, it’s as dark as the brain matter flowing from the heads of his characters, but it’s necessary ballast to maintain the movie’s meaning. Without it, you might as well be filming autopsies down at the local morgue. Violence, whether real or created in the mind of a special effect wizard, can only take a viewer so far. Blow off someone’s head, or slice off their sinew, and it’s initially horrific. But without a sense of perspective, it becomes a one time terror, not something that sinks beneath your quickly goose-bumped flesh.


No, context is necessary to sell your undead scares, and it’s this complementary commentary that really underscores the genre’s continuing success. Scholars have even argued that our love of the zombie is tied directly to the current state of social, political and/or world affairs. When George Romero created the modern mythos with Night of the Living Dead, he was sure to add a hot button subtext to the narrative. He made his main character, Ben, a black man. Not only was it unusual for an individual of color to be the cinematic hero, but in the surrounding situation where everyone else was white, his implied leadership was sly and subversive. It made the ending all the more poignant as well. Similarly, the sequel took the growing materialism and sense of institutional distrust and reflected it in the survivors’ sense of post-apocalyptic entitlement. Watching them defend their mall mentality, as well as the monsters intrinsic need to ‘shop’, made Dawn a devious delight.



While many argue that Romero dropped the ball with Day, the message got even meaner. Smack dab in the middle of Ronald Reagan’s second term, the jaded jingoism of the storyline, its battle between the military and the scientific for an already dead planet played out like a corrupt Cabinet meeting. Romero had originally hoped to create an all out action epic featuring zombie soldiers battling each other in a kind of unwinnable game of corpse-tac-toe. When he couldn’t afford the elaborate effects, he turned the people into pawns and made the monsters sympathetic. The final facet in his ongoing love affair with the undead – Land of the Dead – was another political paean. In this case, the rich got richer and the disenfranchised just rotted. Mirroring another unrealistic Republican administration, it stands as the filmmaker’s final social statement – for now.


Placing the zombie within a certain recognizable structure has been a long standing logistical strategy. Bob Clark’s Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things branded the counterculture, while Dellamorte Dellamore found Dario Argento apprentice Michele Soavi using the recently deceased as a reflection of Rupert Everett’s emotional detachment. On the other end of the spectrum, a director like Lucio Fulci uses his cannibalistic creatures as a geek show sentiment, to shock and sicken without much inferred meaning. It’s the way in which most underground and independent filmmakers treat the terror. It’s also the reason why most knock-off horror films fail to leave an impression. With perspective comes permanence. It’s what separates the Romeros from the retreads.



Still, all of these reasons don’t sufficiently explain our fascination with zombies. Some will argue the innate need for people to feel fear, the necessary valleys in the human’s emotional rollercoaster. Others will argue escape and leave it at that, feeling all film is nothing more than 90 minutes of vicarious entertainment experience. There’s always the “double dare” concept of facing your fears, walking directly into the gorge of blood drenched death and coming out the other end unscathed. And then there are those who merely love a good shiver now and then. Though the ease of realization can also play a part (Romero rendered his Dawn corpses with some green face paint – now that’s horrifying), there must be a single factor that endears us to the dead.


Maybe it’s the monster’s malleability, its ability to be anything to anyone at anytime. Vampires and poltergeists come with certain situational truths, be it nighttime only visitations or projections placed within the ethereal plain. In order to accept them as terrifying, we have to fall into their traditions and buy into their entire heritage. Not true with the undead. Aside from one or two simple rules, they remain transient, capable of taking on any form we feel is necessary. And they keep on coming – never giving up or lessening their resolve (quite a capitalist conceit, when you thing about it). In truth, we love zombies because they are flawless reflections of our own inner fears. No other creature can claim that mantle of meaning. Like their prehistoric need to feed, the undead are forever – and we will always celebrate them as such. When other monsters have lost their snap, the living dead will continue to haunt our darkest nightmares. And we can’t get enough.


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Saturday, Oct 27, 2007


Ask any writer and they will tell you – titles are perhaps the most difficult part of the literary process. A great moniker can really accent the themes and subtext of what you’ve created, while a bad one belittles everything you’ve tried to accomplish. It’s the same in cinema. A great marquee tag like A Nightmare on Elm Street, or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre can completely enliven an audience’s interest, while full blown fumbles like Strip Nude for Your Killer evoke nothing but guffaws.  Cannibal Man is a perfect example of the mishandled name dynamic. Upon first glance, one would expect a standard bloodbath, main character lunching on human flesh as part of a pathological pastime. In truth, this is a subtle, slightly unhinged character study focusing on a lonely individual who uses murder, and the subsequent disposal of his victims, as a way of dealing with his disenfranchised lot in life.


You see, by day, Marcos is a butcher at the local slaughterhouse. The random killing of animals and the making of the company’s signature soup (in a large mechanical extruding device) doesn’t bother him. But living in a hovel in the shadow of some luxury apartments drives him crazy. He hates being poor, seeing it as the reason he can’t get ahead in life. It also keeps his possible paramour – Carmen – at arm length. When an argument with a taxi driver turns fatal, the resulting death has Marcos starting to slowly unravel. Before long, he is killing his friends and family and hiding the bodies in his bedroom. Then, late at night, he cuts up the corpses and transports pieces to his job. There, they find their way into the offal that makes up the patented processed broths. As he further loses his grip on reality, a fey neighbor named Nestor befriends Marcos. Together, they enjoy late night swims and intimate company. But our murderer is incredibly paranoid, and with his new pal’s apartment overlooking his home, there may be more to the companionship than mere camaraderie.


A couple of decades ahead of its time, and so era inappropriate that it threatens to logistically implode, Cannibal Man is not the movie you think it is. It has more in common with foreign fright epics like Nekromantik and Dellamorte Dellamore than your typical early ‘70s horror. Like most of the movies coming out of Franco’s Spain, this is an anti-fascist screed masquerading as macabre. The main theme of the movie is not flesh feasting. In fact, the cannibalism is implied and never actually shown. Instead, what director Eloy de la Iglesia wants to focus on is the rising gulf between the classes. On the one hand, you have Marcos. Living in a rundown hacienda and existing hand to mouth, he’s barely managing. While he puts on a good façade, poverty is destroying him from the inside. It makes him angry and defensive. On the other end of the spectrum is Nestor. The spoiled son of wealthy parents, he spends the summer spying on the locals from his luxury apartment balcony. There is more to his voyeurism than mere curiosity. As a repressed homosexual who can’t express his feelings, he uses his position as a means of endearing himself to men.


That their conflict and collusion comes late in the film highlights Cannibal Man’s multifaceted approach. At the beginning, we get actual animal slaughter (never a good thing), the bled cows symbolizing Spain’s gutting of its people. The argument that leads Marcos to his first murder is based solely in morality, the cabbie unwilling to let our hero and his honey make out in the back of his hack. In fact, all the crimes here are based in inherent social unease. Carmen can’t be with Marcos because of her father’s overbearing paternalism, while his brother’s lack of familial cooperation leads to his demise. Eventually, our antsy antihero stops killing, and it’s at this point where Cannibal Man goes a bit wonky. There are some incredibly evocative moments, as when we see the silhouette of our lead butchering his victims. But there are also sequences of forced lunacy, as when a rotund, effeminate drug store owner coos and minces over Marcos’ purchase of air freshener and perfume.


In fact, it’s fairly obvious that de la Iglesia was far more interested in the suppression of same sex sentiments than playing with fear. Before he befriends Marcos, Nestor is shown staring, longingly, at shirtless boys playing soccer. When he speaks, it’s in a soft whisper that seems to imply something sinister, or sad. Whenever he runs into his neighbor, the tension is so thick it practically stifles them both, and a late night swim at a local spa is all wet torsos and longing looks. As if to amplify this undercurrent, Marcos has several quiet moments where he flashes back to his night with Nestor. When the two get together at the end, playing possum while avoiding the obvious attraction, it’s meant as a instance of solidarity. For 1972 Spain, this was all subversion as high treason. Perhaps the random murders were necessary to remove the stigma of social commentary from the film. After all, had Cannibal Man been categorized as something other than scary, the government would have stepped in and shut it down.


Yet because of the title, and the concept of human flesh eating, many will come to this film expecting nonstop hack and slash. And while we get a gruesome collection of kills (including a nasty axe to the face that predates such F/X prosthetics by at least a decade) and a Sweeney Todd style manner of disposal, there is very little dread in Cannibal Man. Instead, it is more of a psychological study with political subtexts than a full blown fright flick. De la Iglesia really pours on the proposed suspense, constantly hinting that Marcos will eventually be found out. But some of his stunts are far too obvious. Dogs are seen sniffing around his front door, and coworkers play a game of ‘keep away’ with a gym bag loaded with body parts. Much better are the times when local barmaid Rosa constantly thrusts herself into Marcos’ life. All she wants is physical companionship. But we know loverboy’s bombshell secret, so their sexual back and forth really gets the anxiety flowing. While the last act ennui faced by our lead can feel overwhelming, dragging everything down with it, this is still a very inventive and intriguing film.


Like Delicatessen without Caro and Jeunet’s flair for the visual, or Tobe Hooper taken Continental, there is much more to Cannibal Man than death, dismemberment, and digestion. As a matter of fact, once you realize that this isn’t going to be your typical fright flick, the political and cultural agendas become painfully obvious. This makes Eloy de la Iglesia a very interesting filmmaker, one not afraid to mix genre, metaphors, and meaning to get to the heart of his obsessions. Those looking for a grue-laden, lunch loosening exercise in nausea will be sadly disappointed. Others who don’t mind a little message with their menace will find Cannibal Man a refreshing forgotten gem. It’s very good, in a very odd and insular way. It’s just too bad about that title, though.


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