Though at first glance it may not appear to be true, it really is a celebration of foreign films this weekend on your favorite movie channel. Three of the four entries discussed in this installment of Viewer Discretion Advised come from people and places outside our own broad borders. Granted, two were made by Canadians and one is an Aussie export, but the outsider mentality is still strong in this interesting creative collection. As a matter of fact, when placed up against the sole bit of America motion picture making on the schedule, us Yankees look pretty pathetic. Between terse looks at the horrors of human hostility and the ways in which stardom breeds contempt and corruption, a dopey little actioner about genetic engineering doesn’t stand much of an aesthetic chance. Perhaps it’s proof that, when it comes to exploring the extremes of cinema, international contingents have a better handle on the difference between art and artifice. For those interested in what’s cooking on those preeminent pay stations for the week of 14 October, here are the choices:
One of 2005’s biggest debacles, here was a typical high concept action movie that didn’t really live up to expectations. Godfather of the gauche epic, Michael Bay, may have thought he could fool film fans with his high tech retread of Parts: The Clonus Horror, but by casting the frequently flat Ewen McGregor and Scarlett Johansson, this sterile sci-fi film was guaranteed never to quite take off. If you can get through the cheesy first hour, filled with way too much sloppy future shock speculation and Big Brother bullshit, you may actually enjoy yourself. Heck, there are worse ways to spend a Saturday night than with a superficial serving of speculative silliness. Besides, no one knows action better than Bay. Sister station Cinemax has had this flawed, bloated pseudo-blockbuster plastered all over its channels for the last couple of months. Now its time for those only privy to Home Box Office to experience this serving of entertainment entropy.(Premieres Saturday 14 October, 8:00pm EST).
One of last years’ best films came from one of the industry’s most unusual cinematic sources – Canadian horror hero David Cronenberg. Who would have thought that the man behind such philosophical splatter fests as Rabid, Scanners and Videodrome would take some graphic novel source material and turn out a searing crime drama featuring fascinating performances by Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris, William Hurt and Maria Bello. This is a movie that’s as brutal in its emotions as it is in its title bloodshed, with secrets revealed, true selves unmasked and homespun wholesomeness soiled and sullied. Though never as flashy or flamboyant as his work in films like The Fly, eXistenZ, or his adaptation of William Burroughs’ classic novel Naked Lunch, Cronenberg’s camera is still stellar, painting a near perfect portrait of the potential evil lurching inside the heart of Middle America. Not since David Lynch’s masterful Blue Velvet has small town life seemed so sinister. (Premieres Saturday 14 October, 10:00pm EST).
Heavily hyped upon its release to theaters, this Australian horror film never quite connected with audiences. Granted, it’s gritty low budget leanings may have turned off fright fans used to the gloss of the mainstream movie macabre, and the narrative does borrow liberally from other cruel classics like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Hostel. But with its “based on true events” tagline, and gratuitous influx of gore, what should have been a sleeper hit instead just calmly came and went. As part of Starz’s 24 hour terror marathon (starting on Friday 13 October with the channel’s documentary on the slasher film) the small screen may be the perfect place for this overlooked effort. In the comfort of your own home, the intense atmosphere of dismay and eventual unrelenting violence may seem less shocking. One thing’s for sure – the Down Under tourist boards can’t be happy about the impression this film offers. (Premieres Saturday 14 October, 9:00pm EST).
What if the break up between Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, history’s most famous and popular entertainment duo, was driven by elements other than ego? What if there was a nasty secret between the pair, a secret shrouded in murder, and a massive cover-up? This is part of the premise for Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan’s adaptation of Rupert Holmes’ novel centering on the ominous reasons behind the split of a fictional comedy act. With Kevin Bacon assuming the Lewis role and Colin Firth essaying a real Rat Pack composite, the acting is excellent. Unfortunately, many found Egoyan’s tone at odds with the narrative’s more darkly comic elements. And some may still be put off by the film’s unrelenting reliance of sex to sell its sleaze and subtext (the movie was originally rated NC-17, before edits). Still, for a drama with a decidedly different bent, this is one of last year’s lost treasures. (Saturday 14 October, 10:00pm EST)
Seven Films, Seven Days
For October, the off title idea is simple – pick a different cable channel each and every day, and then find a film worth watching. While it sounds a little like an exercise in entertainment archeology, you’d be surprised at the broad range of potential motion picture repasts in the offing. Therefore, the third sequence of seven films featured this week includes:
14 October - Mystery Train
Jim Jarmusch’s triptych take on the King is both boldly original and oddly effecting. Besides, any film featuring Screamin’ Jay Hawkins is all right in SE&L’s book.
(Flix – 10PM EST)
15 October - Primer
Four friends develop a device which may or may not be some sort of time machine. The implications, or the lack thereof, become the basis for this fine low budget effort.
(Movie Channel – 9:45PM EST)
16 October - Basic Instinct (Edited Version)
Another entertaining exercise in editing courtesy of those crackpots over at American Movie Classics. Only slightly better than the CGI bikini and bottoms of VH-1’s censored Showgirls.
(AMC – 8PM EST)
17 October -The Misfits
Clark Cable. Marilyn Monroe. Eli Wallach. Montgomery Clift. Arthur Miller. John Huston. Enough said.
(Encore Westerns – 8PM EST)
18 October - The Magnificent Ambersons
If you failed to catch this flawed Orson Welles masterwork when it was part of a day long celebration of star Joseph Cotton, now’s the time to take a look.
(Turner Classic Movies – 8PM EST)
19 October - Dune
David Lynch takes on one of sci fi’s most beloved novels, and delivers his own unique take of speculative fiction. Not to be missed.
(Movie Plex – 8:45PM EST)
20 October -Deep Blue Sea
Want proof that Samuel L. Jackson can elevate even the lamest cinematic premise. Along with LL. Cool J, our man Sam saves this ‘Smart Sharks in an Underwater Laboratory” lunacy.
(TNT – 11PM EST)
As part of a month long celebration of all things scary, SE&L will use its regular Monday/Thursday commentary pieces as a platform to discuss a few of horror’s most influential and important filmmakers. This time around, the considerable career drop off of one-time horror maestro John Carpenter.
While he’s not the most historically important horror meister to fall from genre grace in recent years (that title belongs to Tobe Hooper) John Carpenter is still considered by many cinematic scholars as the best example of hit or miss moviemaking that macabre has to offer. After a sensational start with Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13, his homage to Hitchcock, a sensational slice and dicer entitled Halloween, put him at the forefront of the fright flick community. So successful was his reinvention of the slasher film (which would later go on to dominate the latter part of the ‘70s and most of the ‘80s) that his next films were anticipated as heavily as a rock star’s next album. But when those titles finally arrived, they appeared to betray Carpenter’s considered creative start.
The Fog (1980) was the first indication that something was wrong with the newly named Post-Modern Master of Suspense. After a TV thriller entitled Someone’s Watching Me! (a starring vehicle for the director’s then significant other, actress Adrienne Barbeau) and the equally evocative Elvis biopic (featuring the filmmaker’s first collaboration with Kurt Russell) a New England ghost story that tried to mix folklore, atmosphere and gory killings just didn’t come together as a solid cinematic whole. While certain moments shined, other aspects felt silly and superficial. This concept of incompleteness continued with the director’s next two films – the action epic Escape from New York and the October 31st revist Halloween II. Though only a producer and writer on the Michael Myers misstep, it was an example of the sort of sequel that almost destroys the source material from which it was derived. With New York, the ideas were more engaging than the execution, with some of Carpenter’s more novel inventions lost inside some sloppy speculative fictionalizing.
With 1982’s The Thing, Carpenter seemed reinvigorated and ready to pile on the blood bathing. This seminal scare fest, complete with some of the ‘80s best geek show effects, proved that the fear facets of the director’s dynamic were still in place. Even after a string of genre-defying efforts – the killer car coming of age flick Christine, the intergalactic romance of Starman, the chop suey surrealism of Big Trouble in Little China – it appeared the faltering of a few years back was mostly over with. Unfortunately, the studios didn’t see it that way. Looking at the basic box office returns for his last few films (and not their noticeable artistic merits) Carpenter was set adrift. He would have to get independent financing to film his last legitimate masterpiece, 1987’s Prince of Darkness off the ground, before then slipping into a kind of befuddled b-movie bog.
Like The Fog before, They Live (1988) marked the second, and sadly, final fall from grace for the filmmaker. As a political commentary, Carpenter struck a chord that was wickedly witty and scathingly satiric. Unfortunately, he saw fit to place the perfectly pedestrian wrestler turned actor Rowdy Roddy Piper in the lead. Instead of finding a legitimate actor to imbue his alien invasion narrative with the proper combination of brains and brawn, he let the acting amateur attempt to carry the entire film on his matt flattened shoulders. It didn’t work. Soon, Carpenter was slipping further. While the effects were sensational, Memoirs of an Invisible Man was another incredible stumble. Another failed performer – in this case, a no longer ready for ANY time Chevy Chase – destroyed the quasi-clever take on the classic unseen fiend film.
It was definitely all downhill from there. Aside from the made for cable TV macabre of Body Bags, Carpenter helmed no less than five full blown failures over the last 15 years. In the Mouth of Madness was an attempt to recapture some of his Prince of Darkness pride, but it ended up being so confusing that it turned off audiences. His remake of the seminal ‘60s British horror film Village of the Damned also had its moments, but never really came together in any of the ways the original did. Escape from L.A., Vampires, and Ghosts of Mars were all good ideas (Snake Plissken returns, James Woods as a cynical beast buster, and spectral possession on an interplanetary level, respectively) but none made a major splash with fright fans. With the exception of two installments of Showtime’s weak Masters of Horror series, Carpenter hasn’t been behind the lens of a major motion picture in the last five years.
With such a rollercoaster ride in popularity, as well as with his lax presence within the horror realm, one has to ask why Carpenter has fallen victim to such a seemingly fickle fear fanbase. Granted, his newest movies are much more anticipated than those of Tobe Hooper, or even someone still viable like Wes Craven. In addition, his resume reads rather well, with the now considered classics The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China and Prince of Darkness vying for space between cult favorites like Escape from New York. But there must be more to the lack of respect his recent efforts have received, as well as his continuing creative downward spiral than Internet arrogance and the rabid reconsideration of his canon.
Truth be told, Carpenter’s problems begin internally. He is one of the few horror directors who must also be completely hands-on in most of his movie’s production aspects. He usually composes the scores, and always takes part in the screenplay. This may be his artistic Achilles Heel. Worrying over the musical backing for a particular scene or how a character or situation will develop over the course of a film may end up spreading his aesthetic too thin, especially when you consider he must then direct the material he’s been busy overseeing. Even his heralded predecessor Hitchcock only handled one aspect of a movie’s making – the mise-en-scene. No one is complaining about his hyphenated happenstance in efforts like Halloween or Prince of Darkness. But it seems strange that grand concepts like They Live can come across so limp onscreen.
Another possible problem stems from something called the Entertainment Extremes. Carpenter’s good movies are so good, and his bad films are so horrible, that his status becomes a clear case of what the aficionados remember best. Such a lasting impression can definitely stain an overall reputation, and when viewed in this light, Carpenter’s successes are seen as several decades old. His latest run of films have all underperformed both creatively and commercially, so that when someone does consider the director, they tend to view his better days as far behind him. As the horror history books continue to be rewritten, Carpenter becomes more and more of a founding father and less of a current component of modern macabre.
It doesn’t look like things will be getting better anytime soon. The 58 year old is next scheduled to take on a project called Psychopath, which is supposedly based on a video game (strike one) and purports to be another in a long line of lame serial killer/FBI profiler films (strike two). With the messageboards already a buzz that this is a bad move for a favored filmmaker, and a Rob Zombie helmed revisit of Halloween in the works (an indirect strike three) we may be looking at the last vestiges of a once vital movie magician. No one is writing Carpenter off completely – his oeuvre is too overpacked with potential to toss it aside forever – but it does look like a once prominent personality is falling further and further down the horror hierarchy. Here’s hoping he recovers before reaching rock bottom. After all, Tobe Hooper has the utter has-been angle covered quite well.
From the User’s Guide to Indian Films Intro
The movies described in the User’s Guide are the hit list of Indian cinema. They’re not only the best films of all time, but they give you the best glimpse of what Indians enjoy, their sense of tragedy and comedy, their aspirations, their regrets. In short, it’s a visual chronicle of Indian society in the last 50 years. Enjoy.
Fire (1996)/ Earth (1998)/ Water (2005)
dir: Deepa Mehta
Inspired by Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Trois Couleurs Trilogy, Deepa Mehta set out to make three films that would provide an unsparing look into the hypocrisies of Indian society. Fire and Water concerned such thematically controversial topics as lesbianism and abuse of both the lower castes and women that they are still banned in India. Mehta forces contemporary India to explore they ways in which it justifies oppression and inequality, all in the name of religion. Narratively, Fire tells the story of a young woman trapped in a loveless arranged marriage who finds an emotionally and physically fulfilling relationship with her elder sister-in-law. Earth takes us to Lahore just before the traumatic 1947 partition of India and Pakistan and shows us the chaos of people being uprooted and displaced, and how generations of friendships forged between Hindus and Muslims, overnight, transform into murderous hatred as the city erupts in communal riots. Water, the final film in the series, casts light on the struggle of poor Hindu widows abandoned by their families to live a life of celibacy in overcrowded ashrams. All three films demystify the sacred values that Indians hold family, love, homeland, and identity. They give us a glimpse of all the insidious compromises and sins we are willing to commit in the name of duty and faith.
It’s a veritable smorgasbord of selections this week at the local brick and mortar. As Halloween quickly approaches – at least in the eyes of shopping malls, department stores and TV networks – and the season of fear fires up, the scary movie reissues are still riding roughshod over the product produced within the last year. If you look hard, however, you’ll find one of the summer’s more perplexing productions – a comedy which lifts many of its more meaningful elements from Frank Capra instead of the lead actor’s typical Three Stooges style. Even more confusing, this past blockbuster season saw an American master with a set of razor sharp satires and intelligent experiments to his name deliver a light little homespun confection that many found so sweet that it was almost dramatically disheartening. Still, with the pagan demonology dense and the old slasher cinema reinstating its importance to the genre, a fan can literally gorge themselves on anthologies, limited editions and collector’s sets of long beloved cinematic splatter. So grab your already gutted wallet and wander into a favored retailer for the selections available on 10 October, such as:
Starting off high concept and only rarely venturing into the low brow, Click represents a kind of career stepping-stone for the superstar Sandler. Getting to the point, age wise, when his goofy fratboy foolishness stops looking hilarious and begins feeling pathetic, this family farce tried mightily to move in directions the comic never before considered. Some found its third act lapse into Frank Capra-esque schmaltz awkward and poorly realized, while others argued that it worked well within the complicated narrative the actor was attempting. Indeed, Click is more than just a remote control gimmick – it’s every man’s middle aged crisis come to life, complete with the ability to live through it all in just a few fast forwarding moments. Sure, the ending is a tad pat, and most of the ancillary cast is wasted in ways that only add to the overall uneven feel of the film, but with Kate Beckinsale actually providing the heart that’s missing from most of the story, we are more than willing to forgive, forget and enjoy.
The Exorcist: The Complete Anthology*
Though it contains such sloppy sequel missteps as The Exorcist II: The Heretic and both Renny Harlin and Paul Schrader’s unnecessary prequels, there are still three good reasons to consider picking up this sell-through priced package - the original film, its equally compelling DVD redux, and the underrated third installment helmed by author William Peter Blatty himself. As an exercise in horror, The Exorcist stands as one of those true genre rarities – a narrative that plays successfully in both the realistic and supernatural realms. As an everyday tale of a mother’s fear over losing her daughter to the unknown forces of maturity, the drama is dense and detailed. As a religious based diatribe on how evil lurks deep within the heart of even the most innocent child, it’s a true terror knockout. No other director before or since had William Freidkin’s talent for taking the fantastic and framing it within the ordinary. Blatty’s return to the more normalized nature of wickedness was welcome, but for sheer shock value, stick with the original – and the included digital re-edit featuring the infamous ‘spider walk’ scene.
The Fox and the Hound: 25th Anniversary Edition
Just a week after revisiting the confirmed classic The Little Mermaid, Disney drags out this uneven effort from 1981 – when the studio was sinking in a 2-D animation quagmire – and tries to give it the masterpiece polish of its other films. Thankfully, no amount of added content can correct the problems inherent in this syrupy, saccharine story. Without giving away much, let’s just say that these natural enemies who become pals in childhood are forced to face each other later on when the naiveté of youth no longer allows them the ability to be free of judgment or instinctual response. Though the novelty of seeing – or in this case, hearing – Kurt Russell return to his House of Mouse roots might be draw enough for some, the badly rendered animation and depressing core concepts might lead a few wee ones to whine about the lack of wholesome fun usually associated with a work from Uncle Walt. Many still view this feature as a fine effort from a mostly new guard of young Disney staffers, yet it seems stiff and dull compared to the masterful films that were a mere five years or so away.
Considered by critics to be Jean-Luc Godard’s last great film – or biggest blasphemous abomination, depending on whom you survey – this reworking of the birth of Jesus and his equally holy mother is definitely different. With the mad scientist of the French New Wave firmly in control of his cinema subverting mannerisms – odd cuts, sequences of stilted surreality, parallel plotting – and a post-modern appeal that updates the Bible to the back streets of Paris, what should be significantly sacrilegious manages to capture the concepts of faith and belief better than any preachers sermon or authentic ‘Gospel’ recreation. Many will be surprised at how funny and uniquely human it all is while others will marvel at how the master of motion picture deconstruction actually makes his massive experimentalism work. Once baby Jesus is born and starts acting like a miniature messiah however, all bets are off. Still, for the purely hypnotic visual trance that Godard can apparently fashion in his sleep, this is one of his most arresting and engaging efforts.
A Prairie Home Companion *
It doesn’t seem like the most promising combination – the king of deadpan communal comedy, Garrison Keillor and the master of multi-character narratives, Robert Atlman, collaborating on a film version of the radio icon’s famous show. But by all accounts, the 81 year old auteur has delivered another of his stunning studies of human frailty supported by Keillor’s simple, homespun humor. Using a moc-doc sort of format (the film follows the fictional final show for Prairie‘s cast and creator) and interlocking stories that seem to slowly merge into a standard Altman interpersonal infinite, what could have been harsh and critical becomes soft and whimsical, especially in the hands of a true cinematic artist. Thanks to bravura turns by Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones and Keillor himself, this behind the scenes look at the individuals who come together to deliver a weekly radio repast is, perhaps, not one of Altman’s confirmed masterworks, but it does prove far more potent than most of the mediocre movies that came out this year.
Style Wars & Style Wars Revisited*
Many love the music and the cultural lifestyle, but few are probably aware of the connection between rap, hip hop, break dancing and graffiti. The art of tagging, or marking one’s territory with paints and symbols as a warning to others, is as old as ‘50s greaser gangs. But thanks to the ‘70s malaise that drowned New York in a sea of underprivileged and lost youngsters, the notion of vandalizing the subway cars late at night, mostly with brightly colored and artistically designed derivations of one’s name, became a symbol of status in a reality brazenly bereft of same. This concept of citywide acknowledgement and respect soon became a substitute for violence and brutality, with kids using their spray can skills instead of their fists to settle scores. As this amazing documentary (now reissued with a new film revisiting the scene) shows, once music caught up with the whole graffiti underground, it wasn’t long before scratchin’, dancin’ and rappin’ became the new tools of trade for those looking to escape their situation. Today it’s all so commercialized and compromised. Want to see the reality of a revolution before it was corrupted by corporations? This is the place to start.
Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2: Two Disc Gruesome Edition*
You think Michael Bay took a beating when he announced his remake of the seminal ‘70s scarefest, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre? You should have heard the howls when original Chain Saw creator Tobe Hooper announced that he was about to direct a sequel to his power tool classic. And even worse, he intended it to be a social satire. The collective groans from the horror hopeful were almost as loud as Leatherface’s favorite limb cutter. Surprise, surprise, Chain Saw II was a regular revolting hoot, a movie mixing Tom Savini’s vivisection F/X with Dennis Hopper’s mad Method acting turn as a vindictive relative of the original film’s victims. There was even a crackerjack comic performance by Sawyer cook Jim Siedow. Though heavily edited to earn the necessary “R” rating mandated by Cannon heads Golan and Globus, this rip roaring Tejas two-step was still a nasty, novel take on the entire Saw mythos. Some find it sloppy and uneven. Others argue for its place right alongside its far more serious sister film. Thanks to a brand new special edition DVD release from MGM, now’s the time to settle this bet between the divided devotees once and for all.
And Now for Something Completely Different
In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 10 October:
John A. Russo, one of the collaborators/masterminds behind Night of the Living Dead (along with George Romero), has long tried to destroy his reputation by creating a series of incredibly bad b-movies (Voodoo Dawn, Midnight) and starting a surreal series featuring schlock actresses in various states of undress (many going under the Scream Queen moniker – Scream Queen Swimsuit Sensations, Scream Queen’s Naked Christmas). So should we expect anything better from this sophomorically titled treat trading on the taboo topic of a nasty Noel? Even with the amazing Debbie Rochon in the lead, and a certifiable whack job dressing up like Kris Kringle to thrash his victims with a handy dandy claw, this still could be an example of bottom feeder bait and switch. You know – sounds good on paper and in summary, but barely works as a narrative once the celluloid starts to unfold? Anyway, SE&L will just side with the lovely Canadian cult actress at the center and avoid Russo all together. With his money mad hands all over the Dead DVD in which new footage was inserted to pad out the masterpiece’s marketability, he deserves to be ignored.
As part of a month long celebration of all things scary, SE&L will use its regular Monday/Thursday commentary pieces as a platform to discuss a few of horror’s most influential and important filmmakers. This time around, George A. Romero’s redefinition of the zombie movie.
He didn’t invent the zombie movie, but his entries in the genre have clearly defined and mythologized it. Some would even say that he is the only undead auteur that understands the cinematic category. As important to horror as any filmmaker before or since, advertising executive turned director George Romero single-handled lifted the living dead film from its voodoo roots and reconfigured it as a stunning social comment on the shifting state of America. From 1968 until now, the Pittsburgh icon has forged a unique career, mixing styles and subject matter to touch on almost every aspect of the macabre. He’s taken on vampirism (Martin), madness (The Crazies) - even a tribute to one of the founding facets of post-modern horror, EC Comics (Creepshow).
Yet it’s his regular return to the flesh eater film that remains a constant in the mind of his followers. Such substantive acclaim – all four Dead films have met with varying degrees of adoration – makes Romero that rarity in the realm of the reanimated human. Naturally, this begs the question, what is it about his approach to the cannibal corpse that makes it so powerful, and why can’t others match his legitimate legacy as a formidable fright filmmaker? It’s a quandary that has sparked hundreds of overheated debates.
It was clear from his first installment of what is now a quartet of quintessential efforts that Romero wasn’t using the classic concept of horror to formulate the fear in Night of the Living Dead. Classic terror, usually defined around the Universal ideal of Gothic monster movies made during the ‘30s and ‘40s, argued against a clear reality as the backdrop to fear. Instead, everything was hyperstylized, from the setting and situations to the players taking part in the terror. From Romero’s point of view, the growing aesthetic advances made during the ‘50s and ‘60s, from the medium mutating French New Wave to the cinema vérité documentaries sweeping the circuit, allowed the introduction of truth and authenticity into motion picture macabre.
Night‘s story was deceptively simple. A brother and sister, visiting a relatives grave, are attacked by what appears to be a madman. It soon turns out that the dead have come back to life, and are killing and consuming the living. Finding a seemingly abandoned farmhouse to hide in, Barbara soon meets up with Ben, a fellow refugee that just so happens to be black. As they try to secure their position, they discover a family in the basement, along with a teenage couple. All are hiding and less than excited about helping. Soon, everyone is working together to battle the growing menace outside. News reports witnessed over the television indicate a situation slowly winding out of control. Even though the reports seem positive, there’s a growing sense that all is lost. All these people can do is hope for the best, and fight to survive.
With this one monochrome masterwork, Romero reconfigured the elements of fright, using recognizable individual types and understandable circumstances to elevate his shocking supernatural splatter. Night invested the scary movie with a new sense of immediacy, its narrative almost unrelenting in the way it paces its zombie attacks. Just enough time passes for the television to deliver another set of sinister warnings before the next deluge of the dead occurs. This then gave the terror that much more relevancy to an audience used to the hustle and bustle of life. The situation therefore didn’t require such a massive suspension of disbelief.
All pointed political grousing aside (each one of his films have a sound social stance at their center), the real advance Romero championed was indeed to connect horror to the everyday life of the audience. Few were familiar with haunted castles, grave robbing, and blood drinking Counts. But show them a mob of viscous, mindless killers pounding at the door, looking for flesh to consume, and suddenly the security of existence seems a little shaky. Toss in a touch of racism, matricide, and a lot of unanswered questions about human foibles and frailties, and you have a major shift in the fright film language.
It continued on a decade later with Romero’s return to the series, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. Now capable of tapping into elements unavailable to him at the time of Night‘s creation (color film, advanced F/X and make-up work) and using a far more recognizable space as his frame of everyday reference – the shopping mall – this filmmaker fashioned his new slaughter spectacle as an apocalyptic look at the disintegration of infrastructure and the completely plausible ‘us vs. them’ mentality that arrives whenever an unfathomable act of evil confronts our sensibilities. In this case, a group of professionals (two TV reporters, two government soldiers) hole up in a local shopping center, clearing out the zombies and protecting themselves from the monstrous mob outside to try and recreate their once semi-privileged lives.
All throughout the course of the film’s opening act, we see the foursome battle to reach their consumer sanctuary, fending off all manner of undead obstacles. Once safely inside, they begin to plot. Zombies are destroyed, doors blocked off. A perfect asylum from the atrocities around them allows the group to gorge on the many materialistic pleasures available. We see our heroes hording food, glutting themselves on fancy meals and overindulging in items of extravagance. By the time some like-minded outsiders arrive – in the guise of marauding bikers – our clique has become covetous of their self-made retreat. By contrasting the death of one social structure with the attempted birth of another, Romero made all his points about class and equality. But buried in the heart of the political science was really just an examination of the human desire for comfort and security.
In many ways, Dawn represented the end of the reality-based Romero horror film. His next two efforts in the Dead series would remove most of the recognizable pragmatic aspects of the situation (real world places, interpersonal human interaction) with outrageous scenarios and even odder zombie circumstances. As a result, the director continued to polish his approach, picking and choosing the aspects he really wanted to explore. His follow up, 1986’s Day of the Dead - considered by many to be the lesser of all four films (it’s a highly debatable delineation) - argues from the beginning that the real world is long dead. In a stellar opening setpiece, a lone band of governmental scientists and soldiers try to drum up anything “living” in what appears to be an abandoned town. The minute their presence is known, however, hordes of ravenous zombies begin literally crawling out of the woodwork. As the streets fill with thousands of flesh craving fiends, we see the end of human civilization, reconfigured in the stammering, shuffling walk of a reanimated corpse.
This doesn’t mean that Romero totally avoids reality in this glorious cinematic gross out. Instead of focusing on the social, or the political, the director focuses his attention on personality. We see the simmering divides between people, the hatred the military has for the scientists and visa versa. Both are forced to live and interact with each other, but with their individual purposes being crossed and contradictory, they can literally never see eye to eye on anything. This means the real horror is personal, not apocalyptic. As the world decays outside, humanity’s lost hope are arguing in a bunker over sexual favors, the rounding up of additional zombies for experimentation, and what they will do should the need arise to escape from their underground bunker.
This makes Day a very dark film indeed, the kind of exploration of the fragile human soul that many don’t imagine they’ll ever want to witness. Unrelenting in its horror, featuring the perfect contextual juxtaposition of Tom Savini’s ultra realistic autopsy like effects, it remains a movie arguing that the only way to recapture the purity of existence is a kind of total rejection of the past. Toward the end, when things are going decidedly deranged, the Jamaican helicopter pilot argues for everyone to simply drop their duty and fly off to a deserted island somewhere. There, some manner of life can be restarted, one without the constant threat of the living dead causing chaos and the amplification of human faults. The idea is not so much rejected as reconfigured by many of the things we see later. When a “trained” zombie named Bub proves that he can respond with thought, no matter how simplistic, ‘it’ dooms everything around it. The notion that these “things” can actually reason refutes the feeling that they’re just obstacles to overcome. Instead, they become opponents in a battle for the rest of the planet.
With such a solid third installment, it’s odd then that it took 20 years for Romero to revisit his zombie mythos. He has been quoted as saying that the failure to fully realize his ideas for Day of the Dead (his original script featured zombie armies, trained by the government, waging all out war against their fellow flesheaters in massive battle scenes) plus the rather uninteresting political landscape left him lost for a way back into his series. Oddly enough, when Land of the Dead finally arrived, it was amazingly well received. Considered a return to form and a furthering of his agenda-based fright facets, the truth is far more complex. In essence, Land is a distillation of all three previous Dead films. It offers Night‘s home as hospice, Dawn‘s man-made oasis, and Day‘s military inspired sense of security. It also illustrates the corruptibility of all three, how each one is a fool’s paradise built on bricks and the backs of those dumb enough to try and fend for themselves.
In Land, years have passed, and zombies now live in quasi-communal packs, easily preyed upon by scavengers looking for goods to barter with in the new quarantined city of Fiddler’s Green. This sectioned off society has a typical structure – fat cats at the top, middle class barely making ends meet, underclass doing all the grunt work – and it reflects the way in which the living dead also organize themselves. When they finally decide to attack the humans, they place the lesser corpses up front, fodder for protecting the so-called “smarter” ones following up behind. The purpose is simple – confront the living on their own terms. The concept is clear – as a repressed majority, they will no longer sit by and let the Establishment minority ignore their existence.
Again, the political ramifications are intense. The zombie leader is a big, beefy black man who was obviously once a gas station attendant. Similarly, the humans capable of defending the Green are all members of the mitigated lower class. Together, they form a conspiratorial element that is destined to topple any arrogant hierarchy. But the main theme of Land of the Dead is the shredding and selling of hope. In a world which seems sorely lacking in any kind of recognizable trust, Romero reiterates that belief in something beyond oneself is only fated to fail. By using the individual instinct to survive, and marrying that with the intelligence to find an escape, the results are either prophetic or predetermined. Land ends on a note of vigilante vindication as well as a possibility of survival. It has de-evolved the genre into a simple screed on Darwin’s ‘only the completely capable endure’ ideal.
Romero will always be remembered for reinstating terror back into the horror movie mix. Where once outrageousness and the fear of the unknown seemed like reason enough to keep the macabre minions at bay, he amplified the angst by directly linking his dread to the things in life that people can instantly identify with. They say that the number one and two fears that most individuals have are their own death, and the death of a loved one. Romero rewired this trepidation into a meditation on mortality, an argument against an afterlife and an easily recognizable relationship between living humans and undead corpses. Keeping the connection physical – via eating – was the final major masterstroke. It gave his Dead films a visceral edge that most fright films just couldn’t compete with. It’s why these four films remain classics of the creature feature genre. It’s why George Romero’s legacy as a fright icon is already secured.