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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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Tuesday, Oct 23, 2007


With the arrival of DVD and its accompanying technology, a whole new underground filmmaking scene was created. Supported by conventions and Internetworking, fans looking for something outside the standard studio dreck discovered real talent and a creative tenacity long missing from cinema’s mainstream. Noted among these up and coming entities were companies like Tempe Entertainment (run by longtime direct to video pioneer J.R. Bookwalter), Splatter Rampage (one time home of the amazing Campbell Brothers), Low Budget Pictures (run by the endearing psycho savant, Chris Seaver), and Eric Stanze’s Wicked Pixel. Unlike the other production companies mentioned, this St. Louis based organization takes the making of terror very seriously. Over the course of nearly a decade, Stanze and his various artistic-minded associates have tried to legitimize low budget fare – and for the most part, they have done a bang up job.


Looking at the six titles released by the company since 1998 (and leaving out projects produced by Stanze including The Undertow, Insaniac, and Buzz Saw, among many others), we can see a collective growing in confidence and pursing sometimes impossible goals. While constantly stymied by less than sufficient budgets, time constraints, and the typical pitfalls that come with trying to produce big screen spectacle on a slivered shoestring, Wicked Pixel remains a standard bearer in homemade horror. They consistently deliver imaginatively viable experiences while never shying away from controversy, absurdity, and ambition. Their films are bloody and sexual, erotic and overreaching. They take the typical macabre makings – demons, serial killers, ghosts – and craft experiences so visceral they violate your personal space while remembering to remain firmly within film’s logistical language.


Specifically, here are the movies that have made the company an indie icon, beginning with Stanze’s first:


Savage Harvest [rating: 7]
When a family member asks for help cleaning up around his property, Karen calls together a few friends. They head out for a weekend of camping and foraging. When they arrive, they notice something bizarre - Aunt Linda is nowhere to be found. As they set up their tents, Uncle George suddenly shows up, telling a weird story about ancient Native American rituals, demonic forces, and possessed stones. He warns them not to touch these tainted rocks, as they contain the souls of demons determined to possess the living. Within hours, some of the party members have vanished. While looking for their lost pals, the gang comes across a disgusting monster with mayhem on its mind. It turns out that the ancient myth has become a reality, and as the stones slowly take over various victims, it is up to the survivors to figure out how to stop this menace.


Though it’s hampered by shortened running time and an ineffective plot stumble at the start of the second act, Savage Harvest is one of Stanze’s best. It is a gory, gruesome mix of the Evil Dead, ancient burial rites, and stellar directorial flare. Visually arresting, never erroneous or inappropriate, and always pushing the plot forward, you can’t help but feel you are in the capable hands of someone who knows what he’s doing. Scares are never telegraphed, suspense is built without reliance on formula or fraud, and while his actors are amateurs at best, there is a real attempt at creating characters that we care about. Stanze doesn’t settle for one-dimensional placeholders - he makes sure his victims are viable personalities. This means his movies have presence and a palpable sense of dread. When combined with the technical elements, this makes for a fine fright film.


Ice from the Sun [rating: 8]
The Presence - the intangible spirit of a sorcerer’s apprentice - regularly rounds up mortals from the world of reality and transports them into his deadly parallel domain. There, he plays on his victims’ most ferocious fears, using their wounded psyche for his own ubiquitous amusement. After centuries of this, the angels of Heaven and the demons of Hell get together and recruit a recent suicide victim, a young woman named Alison, to help them out. Via an ethereal messenger, they make her an unusual offer. If Alison can enter the ice-shrouded domain of the Presence, and defeat him, she will be given a second chance at life. She agrees, and as another group makes their way into the wicked underworld, Alison begins her mission. But it will take a lot more than desire to defeat an evil as powerful as the Presence.


Profound, pompous, and occasionally preposterous, Eric Stanze’s Ice from the Sun is a stunning work of near-auteur level genius. Like a Nine Inch Nails video channeled through the lens of David Lynch, or a music montage as envisioned by the Devil, this delightful, disturbing film is far from perfect. Yet for what this director accomplished on a shoestring budget, a ton of 8mm film, and a few enigmatic locations, Stanze should be given considerable praise. Homemade movies are never this inventive, challenging, or brave. What’s great here - and “great” is the word that needs to be used - is Stanze’s inherent cinematic skill. He understands the camera better than any of the other no-budget independent filmmakers in the game. He is not indulgent or obsessed with referencing scenes or sequences from the past. Instead, Stanze sets out to create his own innovative, original visions, and he succeeds royally.


Scrapbook [rating: 6]
Leonard has been killing people for over a decade. He kidnaps his victims, drags them to his deserted farmhouse, and tortures them before ending their life. He also asks them to do one last thing before they die. They must write in a section of his photo album, a tainted volume containing every individual he’s butchered (and their sad, sickening story). Leonard claims that his latest catch, a plain girl named Clara, will be his last. After she writes her tale in his journal, Leonard’s journey will be “over”. Thus it’s a harsh, monstrous battle of wits - and wills - between this innocent girl and a truly twisted madman. Who will win, and what will become of the scrapbook of these deeds, rests completely in the resolve of a deranged psychopath, and the damaged victim under his vile control.


Scrapbook is unrelenting. At the heart of this brutal character study are two very brave, quite excellent actors. Tommy Biondo’s killer is not the most frightening villain ever conceived. Instead, his is more of a bewildering presence, unpredictable and always keeping us wondering…and worried. Indeed, the true suspense of Scrapbook comes from imagining the perverted possibilities Leonard has up his blood-splattered sleeves. The far more effective acting comes at the exploited expense of actress Emily Haack. Naked to partially-clothed throughout most of the movie, this solid, sturdy female is forced into situations so horrid, so completely devoid of humanity that they almost become meaningless. The first 45 minutes of this movie is really nothing more than Leonard beating, raping, defiling, abusing and confusing Clara. And this is where the movie stumbles. By making everything so confrontational and craven, the film forces us to disconnect from the characters, leaving the action rather hollow. 


The Severed Head Network [rating: 6]
The eight efforts offered here - covering several years of output from both Wicked Pixel as a company, and as a group of talented artists - all use the term ‘macabre’ rather loosely. Sure, there is bloodshed, and lots of carefully controlled nightmare fodder. But there is also beauty, sadness, sexuality, humor, and experimentalism, elements not necessarily associated with the fear format. We are treated to actual animal slaughter as part of Chad Eiven’s Vomire, while Stanze delivers a tone poem about loss entitled Faith in Nothing. Jason Christ gives us a nominal music video (Curveball’s “Pile of Junk”) and a satiric slasher joke (Victim). Toss in Tom Tevlin’s Unwatched, the surreal story of an odd old man named Sedgewick, the kid vid gone grotesque Liontown and Tom Biondi’s proto-porn revenge tale Satisfaction, and you’ve got an intriguing if inconsistent collection. 


Overall, The Severed Head Network is engaging, if not completely successful. For every work of inspired artistry, we get slaughterhouse suffering and naked numbness. It’s hard to argue for Tom Biondo’s installment, which seems more like an experiment in inverse erotica than an ersatz thriller. The high minded posh poetic narrative doesn’t help matters much. Similarly, Stanze’s surreal fan dance strains at anything other than a way of explaining framing and composition. The real finds revolve around a fractured senior citizen, a slice and dice gone goofy, and a commercial for a real wildlife con job. Had this collection been more about the story and less about style, we’d have a real treat here. Instead, this well meaning Wicked Pixel release is only marginally masterful. It will definitely satisfy its target audience, but anyone who doesn’t appreciate outsider ambitions will be left feeling depressed and disgusted.


Savage Harvest 2: October Blood [rating: 7]
After a fatal on-set accident, director Tyge Murdock returns to his hometown until things cool down. There, he reconnects with best friend Deke and ex-girlfriend Ashley. Both have issues leading back to a massacre a decade before. Deke is also babysitting alienated loner Zack, who lost most of his family in the carnage. Desperate to discover the truth, our isolated man is slowly coming undone. Similarly, Ashley’s sister Mikki killed herself after what she saw that night, and her grieving sibling is also seeking closure. After retracing the events of that fateful night, a return trip to the property is warranted. Of course, the foursome finds themselves facing the same Native American demonic forces which caused the chaos before. Even worse, the Kerrigan family is now involved, and with so much potential possession fodder around, it appears the forces of evil will have a field day destroying their human hosts.


Like slamming two separate and somewhat independent ideas together into one two hour test of your terror tendencies, Jason Christ’s earnest Savage Harvest sequel feels bifurcated and slightly askew. Leaving the Evil Dead dimension of the excellent original (as created by writer/director Eric Stanze) for a more subtle, eerie J-Horror fear feel, this production protégé wants to make sure his aesthetic is represented on every fascinating, flawed frame. The first hour of the film is an intriguing four character drama, an attempt to use the bedlam of the initial storyline to argue about how death and destruction affects those left behind. The second half finds Ashley with an axe in one hand and a chainsaw in the other, slicing and dicing her way through torsos, cleavage, arms, legs, crotches, and heads. Such splatter spectacle will definitely delight gorehounds. You will love aspects of this movie. You will sigh over other segments. Such inconsistency makes this sequel good, but definitely not great.


Deadwood Park [rating: 9]
When Jake returns to the small town he grew up in, it drags up painful memories from the past. While still in grade school, his twin brother was abducted by a notorious child killer. His body was never found. Hoping to get some answers, he moves into his aging family home and begins to ask questions about the case, the suspect, and the dilapidated amusement park where several of the victims were eventually found. The sheriff, still sulking over his inability solve the crimes, warns Jake against interfering. But the lawman’s curious daughter Olivia, wants to help find the truth. She teams up with Jake, and together they piece together a surreal story involving a local priest, a buried trunk, and a similar series of murders back during World War II. And while all clues point toward Deadwood Park, some of the answers may actually be much closer to home.


For those who wonder why they don’t make horror movies like they used to anymore, Deadwood Park is the answer. In this hurry up and hurt someone status of scary movies, Stanze goes way back and old school, creating a visually stunning and emotionally powerful piece of cinema. Stressing his amazing imagery, this director truly delivers. This haunting, harrowing effort is truly remarkable, a film one gets lost in. It’s not just the mystery that’s spellbinding (which resolves itself more than satisfactorily) or the problems hounding our hero. Stanze’s innate skill as a moviemaker drives us constantly forward, facing each moment of dark foreboding and chilling fear with solid sparks of suspense. In interviews, the director has said that this was a paean to ‘70s terror. Clearly, he was referring to pacing and pitch, not the sordid drive-in exploitation that substituted for scares in the Me Decade. This is outsider cinema at its best.


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Sunday, Oct 14, 2007


For dedicated horror fans, it’s the hideous Holy Grail, a cup runneth over with as much minced body parts and juiced marrow as possible. It’s the icing on a particularly nasty cake, a filling so foul in a pastry so vile that simply sampling its entrails-laced spice will send your palette to purgatory – forever! Since its popularity as a means of pushing the exploitation film into a new, non-nude dynamic, to its post-millennial pose as a redefining hardcore homage, gore has given the movie macabre its surreal, sacrilegious fascination. It’s also elevated the craftsmen behind the scenes – the make-up artists and effects technicians – to the level of Gods, beings given over to unbelievably realistic interpretations of human death and dismemberment.


For those of us who love dread, splatter is often viewed as the demon drug of the otherwise subtle and subjective spookshow, the next step in our genre appreciation, that uneasy leap from bone rattling to bone breaking. Some cinematic categories couldn’t survive without it. Imagine, a zombie epic without some flesh feasting, or a slasher film where the killer’s injurious intent is illustrated by a simple fade to black. For those who like to think of horror as a disease, a blight on movies comparable to tawdry XXX fare, gore is like the pop shot at the end of a rather aggressive sex scene. It’s the raison d’etra, the punchline at the completion of a jaundiced joke, a way of rewarding audience patience and solving narrative incompleteness with severed limbs and missing heads.


And yet, for some in the fear faction, gore isn’t groovy. It’s a cheap date that puts out, even when you don’t want it to, a shortcut scapegoat that argues for aesthetic sloppiness and a lack of true imagination. It’s the fart joke in the family comedy, the terminal disease that makes an already overdone drama more saccharine. While there are bigger abominations in horror – the continued Euro-trashing of vampires, the purposeful PG-13ing of content – many view the excess of blood to be indicative of what’s wrong with the contemporary creepfest. Citing old school scares like the Universal monsters and Haunting style ghost stories, they reject grue’s carnival barker bravado and cheap shot sentiments.


Of course, DVD has only broadened the debate, studios and their hired hands using the format’s ability to manipulate and reconfigure footage to produce dozens of unrated and unedited director’s/collector’s cuts. While there are rare cases when the new, MPAA-less version offers nothing new except extended dialogue and expositional material, that the vast majority of the updates are nothing more than moments of sluice originally rejected as inappropriate. Purists tend to balk at such an unnecessary reworking, while the more aggressive in the gorehound community argue that all censored scenes should arrive on home video in contradiction to their previous violated state.



But beyond the “us vs. them”, the classicist’s clash with the craven, the question remains – why is gore so satisfying? Why does it sicken some and excite others? Is there a psychological basis for such a dichotomy, or does it all just boil down to some manner of cinematic constitution. After all, there are awarding-winning dramas (Saving Private Ryan) and celebrated satires (anything by Monty Python) that uses blood and its excessive letting as a means to a much more viable ends. And while there would be some who’d actually enjoy the experience, no one is suggesting that actual autopsies be filmed and featured as the latest horror trend. No, somewhere between realism and revulsion lies the gruesome’s gonzo appeal. Tracing a path to its current controversial acceptance may lend some insight into what is, notoriously, a rather contentious creative predisposition.


For many, gore came to the fore after old school exploiteers Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman decided that the nudist colony film was fading. Always looking for a new way of bringing gratuity to the grindhouse, they decided that violence was the next great unexplored option. Now, substituting terror for titillation may not seem like the soundest business model, but the duo knew that their outsider status mandated moving the film medium beyond the simple and safe. It was their purpose to tweak cinematic taboos, and since sex and brutality had been longstanding Hays Code no-no’s, what better subjects to celebrate. But by 1963, everyone and their ballyhooing brother were filming strippers for cash. Lewis and Friedman saw the wanton writing on the wall, and decided to delve into gratuity’s dark side.


The one-two punch of Blood Feast (1963) and 2000 Maniacs (1964) proved to be intensely profitable. While they may not have started the horror subsect (it is up to others to argue over and determine the first true gore film), their success fueled a fiscal belief that terror could use a little redrum redirection. Initially, few picked up on the pair’s slice and dice dictum. It just didn’t seem like the proper paradigm for a softcore smut peddler to play in. Then the MPAA arrived, its “parental guidance” ideals putting a kibosh on everything that exploitation experts were pushing. While many spent the next few years battling First Amendment court cases, splatter gravitated underground. Aside from the occasional appearance in a high minded Hollywood effort (Bonnie and Clyde and The Exorcist, for example), it was film’s fringe dwellers who kept the claret flowing.


For many, the next great wave in motion picture pus came from Europe – and the Italians, in particular. Names like Argento, Fulci, and Bava brought the long dormant death dream back to prominence, mixing artistry with atrocity (or in some cases, just plain evil) to forge a kind of graphic Gothic approach. Movies like Suspiria delivered Grand Guignol grotesqueries back to the fore. By the end of the ‘70s, Zombi 2 and Cannibal Holocaust were pushing the boundaries of acceptability.  American filmmakers were also doing something similar. George Romero reinvented the living dead movie with his organ-caked offering Dawn of the Dead, while Friday the 13th combined slaughter with inventive make-up work to popularize the soon to be omnipresent slasher film. 


By the mid-part of the ‘80s, the genre had come into its own, with big name F/X men like Tom Savini, Rick Baker, and Rob Bottin ruling the medium’s cutting edge. Films like The Thing, The Evil Dead, and A Nightmare on Elm Street illustrated that outrageous and excessive violence could be used in undeniably compelling ways, while a landslide of direct-to-video efforts established that – sans intellectualizing or originality – splatter was destined to cannibalize itself. Sure enough, by the ‘90s, fright fans were looking for something new to tweak their tired interests. CGI gave imaginary creatures a well-deserved reprieve, while foreign fear factors – especially those from Japan and other Far East nations – offered a sly, more supernatural means of macabre. It wasn’t until the torture porn efforts of the early ‘00s that gore regained its footing. Today, it’s viewed as a necessary part of the overall horror story.



Yet none of this addresses why ample arterial spray remains so enjoyable. History has a habit of contextualizing something to the point of passivity, yet new grue mavens arrive on the scene everyday. As a matter of fact, technology has helped many of them crawl out of their fanboy basements and realize their own repugnant visions. So there is obviously something universal in the fetid format’s appeal. Yet even armchair psychologists and legitimate professionals can’t agree on a reason why. Some point to the adolescent need to rebel (citing that most blood lovers derive from the standard misspent and misunderstood youth movement) while others view it as merely a technique for experimenting with one’s own internal tolerances.


Indeed, the whole double-dare and/or water cooler nature of the set-up could explain its unusual appeal. Since, by its very nature, our social order is tied to competition, being the first on your block to see the latest gross out spectacle – and better yet, thriving on it – could be interpreted as a blatant badge of obsessive dishonor. It’s a calculated cool to be sure, but in a dynamic that tends to reward such unusual accomplishments, being able to tolerate a torso ripping isn’t the worst reward one can seek. Then, of course, there’s the standard human attribute known as morbid curiosity. Tied directly to the above-stated starvation for attention, people are notorious for wanting to stare disgust directly in the face. In addition, such sentiments are usually linked to mortality and a fear of death. Gore, therefore, may provide the panacea that allows the looky-loo a chance to feel more secure as part of this tenuous metaphysical terrain.


Yet the most obvious reason for gore’s continued interest is reflected in its execution. Filmmakers have gotten exceptionally good at such “gags”, while companies like KNB and Digital Domain transformed the terrifying into a viable art. When a throat is cut in your standard scary movie, wound gaping while rivers of blood pour from the slit, it’s not the crime that’s compelling. No, what lovers of such degradation are responding to is the tiny technical elements – the momentary pause before the skin stretches and parts, the realistic look of the flowing fluid, the actor or actresses’ performance and response, the manner in which the director frames and composes the shot. Because it can easily look like the fakest of filmic propositions, horror fans are particular about their putrescence. In fact, part of the appeal is the very “compare and contrast” nature of such appreciation.


Then there is imagination. Fear fans love to see things they’ve never witnessed before. They enjoy being treated as motion picture archivists, using the past as a means of measuring the present. The splatter specialists understand this, and strive to bring something different and exciting to each new project. Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof contains one of the most disturbing car crashes ever, the effect of the wreck on everyone involved examined and highlighted in horrific detail. Similarly, Saw III contained a sequence of brain surgery so sickening that many wondered if such a procedure was medically sound (to everyone’s surprise, it was/is). When Eli Roth offered up various power tools in his amazing Hostel, they didn’t shy away from their murderous mechanical mayhem, and in the Michael Bay produced Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, Leatherface got to wield his weapon in ways original auteur Tobe Hooper could only imagine.


So maybe it is the need to stare death squarely in the face. Perhaps it stands as a cruel desire to see others suffer for the sake of a thrill. Maybe, like the canvases of Francis Bacon, devotees locate the mastery inside these massacres. Or it could just be the new age equivalent of The Depression’s desire for happy, sappy musicals. In a recent interview, Re-Animator director Stuart Gordon suggested that horror is cyclical, ebbing and flowing based on the political signs of the times. Naturally, his argument took a more liberal bent when he points out that Reagan and Bush have been responsible for the most aggressive of redolent renaissances. But he may have a point. Gore is an escape, a vision of unreality in a world overdosing on actual information. It stands as a connection to our corporeal being, a way of helping us manage our fading humanity.


And besides, it’s a great deal of illicit fun. Like discovering your Dad’s stash of Playboys when you were young, the shady, antisocial nature of such disturbing imagery represents the heavy metal equivalent of movies, the raised fist anarchy that many horror fans long to embrace. After all, the genre itself stands in direct defiance of everything that makes the artform attractive – the stories are sordid and the images brutal and disturbing. So, in retrospect, perhaps the reason that gore is good stands as part of a more common individual attribute. There will always be those who follow the flock. In contrast, certain individuals will challenge such a corrosion of conformity. For them, the battle flag is soaked in corpse-grinding suet, blood caking every facet of this rage against the mainstream machine. This is one revolution that is frequently televised – and the images are always a deep, dark red. That’s why gore is so grand. It’s also why it’s so good.


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Wednesday, Oct 10, 2007


As an idea, it wasn’t very original. Filmmakers had been updating Shakespeare since the Bard’s plays first appeared. Even as far back as their first staged productions, directors and theater companies have been meddling with the Masters’ hollowed words and characters. So when Troma employee James Gunn proposed an updating of the playwright’s classic tale of star crossed lovers, it wasn’t something novel. Heck, West Side Story had done it in the ‘50s, and it was and still is considered a classic. As a notion, turning Romeo and Juliet into a punk rock pierced body part projection of the Manhattan Independent Film Company’s aesthetic, seemed quite normal. Besides, director Lloyd Kaufman relished the idea. Long a proponent of cinema as art, he saw the subject as a perfect realization of all his lofty ambitions.


Over the previous 25 years, Troma had developed a myopic reputation as a gross-out gore enterprise. Thanks to Kaufman, its chief spokesman, president, and guiding creative force, the company had grown from the maker of mindless sex farces (The First Turn On, Squeeze Play) and distributor of genre/horror oriented fare (Mother’s Day) to a recognized industry icon. But with 1985’s The Toxic Avenger, Kaufman created a character that instantly connected with everyone, including outsider audiences. Utilizing the still in its infancy home theater marketplace to widen the fanbase, Troma was soon turning out product with provocative names like The Class of Nuke ‘Em High, Troma’s War, and Sgt. Kabukiman, N.Y.P.D. The formula for each film was strategically similar – find an outrageous situation, pile on the blood and female breasts, and deliver a clever combination of old fashioned exploitation and new fangled VCR fodder.


No one expected the newly minted Tromeo and Juliet to be any different. Though the company had ridden the Avenger‘s coattails (and receipts) through a couple of sequels, and had found financially beneficial homes for a myriad of languishing, unknown films, the late ‘80s and early ‘90s had not been the company’s most inventive time. Fans started complaining over recycled content, uninspired approaches, and the lack of any real significant social value. For many, Troma was becoming the Mad Magazine of moviemaking. It was okay to love them as a kid, but once your cinematic adolescence arrived, you’d gladly trade your Toxie treasure for a far more meaningful fright film experience. Besides, VHS was a dying format. Something called DVD was on the horizon. Hoping to hold its marketplace, Gunn’s version of Shakespeare’s seminal story was greenlit.


The result was Independent FILM‘s last hurrah, the final gasp in the pre-digital discussion of celluloid as the saving grace of cinema’s stalwart ideals. The camcorder production had been part of the movie mix since the late ‘80s. There were even individuals like William Wegman who experimented with the medium as far back as the early ‘70s. But film, actual FILM, was still considered the main motion picture pathway. More could be done with lighting and design, and editing was easier than on clumsy, easily creased magnetic tape. But logistics argued for the handheld camera, and its ability to radicalize the realities of a location. No longer were long set ups necessary, complicated even further by technically trained crews. Digital defined the very essence of the practical point and shoot ideal. With a Super VHS in hand, you were your own cinematographer and your own studio.


Inherently, Troma understood this. Porn had replaced film with video, and most of the industry was looking at the viability of the technology. But Kaufman is a kind of convoluted craftsman. Though his films may stink of the frequent fart joke mentality they employ, his philosophy has always centered on the artist, and their art. Raised on the filmic revolution of the ‘50s and ‘60s, he made his mark in movies during the equally tumultuous era of the ‘70s. For him, a VHS would never replace a reel of well-shot film – and he would use Tromeo and Juliet to prove that. Though most of the company’s recent output had been seen as cheap and uninspired, and the Bard viewed as box office poison (this was before Baz Luhrmann’s hyper-stylized rip off, by the way) Gunn’s script was so special that, as long as it was given a proper professional production, something special would result.


As a scribe, James Gunn was untested. Today he is known as the mind behind such blockbuster offerings as Scooby-Doo, the Dawn of the Dead remake, and his own homage to the horror films of the ‘80s, Slither. Yet back then, he was a hungry young film fan desperate to get in on the industry’s ground floor. Tromeo and Juliet would announce his arrival in a truly spectacular way. Setting his story in the crime-ridden streets of a maleficent Manhattan, his warring clans (the Capulets and the Ques) involved in pornography and perversion, Gunn fed directly into the tried and true Troma system. He made sure to add plenty of sex, a few surreal stabs at standard scares (including the first act arrival of a ‘penis monster’) and a healthy dose of boldfaced bloodletting. Yet amongst all the tattoos and East Village eccentricity, scattered among the lesbian scenes and overdone fight sequences, Gunn snuck something into this film that few Troma entries had before – heart.


Indeed, Tromeo and Juliet is a very emotional movie, made even more effective by the work of its incredible cast. In the leads, Will Keenan and Jane Jensen find the perfect balance between satire and seriousness, actually getting us to care about this couple’s future. Even more shocking, Kaufman surrounds the pair with equally adept performers like Debbie Rochon, Sean Gunn, Stephen Blackeheart and Bill Beckwith. Together, they form a company of pseudo Shakespearean proportions, delivering Gunn’s adept dialogue with passion and panache. Even better, the script’s narrative drive finds smart, clever ways of incorporating some of the Bard’s actual lines into the conversations. As a matter of fact, Gunn was so successful in establishing the affection between the lovers that when the original ending was screened (following the classic, the pair commit suicide) test audiences demanded a paramours’ reprieve.


Even more importantly, Tromeo and Juliet argued for the continued viability of film as a means of independent expression. Indeed, the most crucial aspect of outsider cinema is its connection to the hobbled Hollywood hackwork it so desperately battles against. Video, and the current trend toward digital, sets up a clear delineation between itself and celluloid. It purposefully plays on the homemade sense of its construction, supposedly bringing the audience closer to the content. As a result, however, it also distances itself from the medium being mimicked, and this means the message looses a lot of its impact. Film, because of its cinematic synchronicity, argues ideas with images. With it, you don’t have to worry about tape’s obvious disparities. A Troma film and a Tinsel Town title are on equal aesthetic footing.


This is why Tromeo and Juliet represents the Independent film world’s last viable gasp. Sure, Troma continued to use celluloid (Terror Firmer, the soon to be released Poultrygeist) to realize its aims, but there was something far more substantive about what Kaufman created out of Gunn’s inventive ideas than any eventual projects. In combination, they forged a happy medium between the company’s previous perversion and the gravitas of Shakespeare’s subject. While some may scoff at the notion of a company accountable for so many mediocre and misguided movies as the last bastion of good old fashioned art, one viewing of Tromeo and Juliet should appease all concerns. It wasn’t the most original idea ever conceived. The end result, however, is one of Independent film’s brightest moments.


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Monday, Oct 8, 2007


They’re noted for their insanity onscreen – blood and body parts flying across the frame with reckless abandon, while gyno-Americans explore each others’ naughty, naked nether regions. As toilet humor cascades across the speakers and monsters make mayhem among a cast of literal unknowns, subtext and closeted intelligence fill in the often glaring gaps. It’s like anarchy whittled down into art, the language of film spoken outloud by idiot savants and translated by terrorists. Let’s face it – it wouldn’t be a Troma movie without some spatter, some slaughter, and some satire. It’s been the independent film company’s modus operandi since a mild mannered mop boy named Melvin transformed into the Toxic Avenger.


So it probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that there’s an equal amount of chaos going on behind the scenes. What might shock you is how eager Troma is to share these motion picture meltdowns with its loyal fanbase – and the rest of the world. Long before DVD became known for its context including benefice, founder Lloyd Kaufman and his various apprentice associates where using their productions as a proving ground. It wasn’t a matter of survival of the fittest. In many ways, they were reverse Darwinists – survival of the sickest. Indeed, it takes someone with a strong creative constitution and nerves frayed to the point of numbness to make it through one of these Bataan Death March experiences.


Want proof? Well, then look no further than the four documentaries created by the company to support the films Terror Firmer (Farts of Darkness), Citizen Toxie (Apocalypse Soon), Tales from the Crapper (When Reshoots Go Wrong), and their annual trek to France’s famed film festival (All The Love You Cannes). Differing in both tone and dimension from your standard digital EPKs, we are tossed directly into the maelstrom that is Troma movie making, from Kaufman’s occasional demagoguery to the blatant incompetence of his cast and crew. Collected all together on the definitive DVD box set, Make Your Own Damn Movie, we witness how logistics, personalities, and blatant incompetence conspire to undermine the best laid plans of indie horror mavens.



Farts of Darkness sets up the standard Troma paradox – big budget outsider idealism helmed by untested cast and crew. With Kaufman as ringleader, we get a surreal circus of party hearty goof offs, well intentioned egotists, and legitimate technical talent. In the beginning, the goal is always the same. As a matter of fact, we learn the Troma creed as part of this delicious documentary. Like the Ten Commandments for the tattooed and pierced, the mandates revolve around making a good movie, hurting no one, and being fair to everyone involved. Naturally, such tenets are almost instantly ignored as participants learn of the lack of craft services, the ungodly hours, and the occasional need to defecate in a plastic bag.


Terror Firmer, a fictionalized take-off based on the book version of Make Your Own Damn Movie (by Kaufman, Trent Haaga, and Adam Jahnke) revolved around a film crew making an epic in Manhattan. Unbeknownst to everyone involved, a psycho killer is stalking the set. Believe it or not, this is the least of the film’s potential problems. After all, it’s being directed by a blind man (Kaufman essays the role of sightless auteur Larry Benjamin), and a seedy love triangle between production assistant Jennifer and her diametrically opposed paramours threatens to undermine everything. Naturally, when the murderer makes his presence known, everyone bands together to defend their territory and finish the film. Extreme arterial spray and flatulence ensues.


The madness of independent moviemaking in all its cinema vérité glory is the best way to describe Farts. It’s a backstage melodrama overloaded with logistical nightmares, inconsistent planning, and body wasting work. While it’s commendable that Kaufman wants to collaborate with so many untested young people, it’s clear that, in many cases, responsibility is not a skill earned in film school. Many of these overzealous wannabes are only involved to get high, grab ass, and add a Troma title to their otherwise weak resume. Even the people who’ve been with Kaufman over the long haul tend to let him down once the pressure is on. Unlike the standard Hollywood Making-of which offers up nothing but bragging and “aren’t we great” accolades, Farts of Darkness shows the warts and all reality of trying to make a movie. It should be mandatory viewing for every basement dwelling geek who argues that they could create something more substantial than Kaufman and clan. Such a statement can only come from a lack of perspective – and actual participation.



Things only get worse in Apocalypse Soon. After 11 years without another installment, Kaufman decided to relaunch the Toxic Avenger franchise with a new effort – Citizen Toxie. Rumor had it that the film was also a financial necessity – the company was facing tough economic issues, and hoped that going back to the iconic classic character would right the solvency ship. The storyline was like an amalgamation of everything Troma stood for. Our lovable nuclear mutant must defend a school for special kids from the notorious Diaper Mafia. After an explosion creates a dimensional tear in the fabric of the cosmos, our hero finds himself flung into the parallel universe of Amortville. In the meantime, his evil twin from another realm – the Noxious Offender takes over Tromaville. It’s up to Sgt. Kabukiman, NYPD to gather together a team of superheroes to save the day, as well as everyone’s favorite irradiated champion.


Clearly a case of ambition overriding ability, Citizen Toxie would end up being a noble failure, at least commercially and critically. For fans, the film stands as a wonderful overview of the entire Troma mythology – especially when the loony league of justice including Mad Cow Boy, Dolphin Man, Mastor Bator, and The Vibrator all show up. Yet from the very beginning of Apocalypse Now, we can see that personalities and other individual issues constantly unite to undo Kaufman’s goals. First and foremost, the actor hired to play Toxie goes from ‘lucky to have a job’ to problematic prima donna in the span of a couple of hours. Worse, the crew is incapable of taking matters seriously. Abusing Troma’s “learn by example” ideal of education, we come to understand a lot about young cinema wannabes. Most are slovenly slackers who get pissy for no valid reason. Many feel that, at a certain point, hard work is no longer their forte. And a few will mutiny over the dumbest, most ridiculous ideas (like the rumor of lead paint at a location).


Pulling it all together becomes a task of Herculean proportions, and the stress takes its toll on Kaufman. In these days when every famous face wants to be loved (or at least respected) and studios cringe at any kind of negative publicity, Troma wears these filmmaking fiascos on their sloppy, scattered sleeves. It’s almost as if, having survived such a taxing ordeal, and watching the results get little or no respect, Kaufman carts out his dirty laundry and shouts “See? See what we put ourselves through for you fans? Huh? HUH???” While not quite so demonstrative, the message remains crystal clear – art like this doesn’t come fully formed out of the ether, stitched together by cherubs and given a glossy patina by enchanted leprechauns. Instead, Kaufman is like a potter throwing film out of feces. And his hands are almost never clean.



Of course, he’s the first one everyone comes crawling to when things go painfully awry. Case in point – Tales from the Crapper. Taking advantage of the digital explosion, Troma hired a producer named India Allen to oversee the creation of two separate direct to DV-R films featuring manufactured sex kitten Julie Strain. Working in LA, Kaufman was unaware of any problems initially. The two movies – one about a shape-shifting, bloodthirsty alien man-eater and the other centering on vampire strippers – were completed, and sent to the company for approval. When Troma finally saw what they had (and what they had paid for) they went ballistic. Basic moviemaking concepts like characterization, storytelling, and continuity were thrown on the window. In their place was scene after scene of unsalvageable material, most of it shot in a manner that rendered everything almost unwatchable.


How Kaufman and company saved this artistic abortion forms the basis for When Reshoots Go Wrong, a lesser if still effective behind the scenes exposé. Looking tired and dejected, the director offers a first person tour of the carnage, presenting Troma’s side of the story and taking Ms. Allen to task at every opportunity. For those who’ve seen the finished DVD product, it’s not hard to envision what Kaufman is complaining about.  During the documentary, Lloyd frequently holds the camera on himself. He’s not the same chipper chappy we’re used to. Instead, he’s all too serious. He talks about how hard it was to work with the material and how unhappy he was with some of the post-production circumstances. We then get to see more interns acting atrociously. Experiencing the usually giddy Troma chief in grim businessman mode is amazing. Gone is the jovial jokester. In its place is a man struggling to stay sane.


Of course, many could argue that much of this is Kaufman’s own fault. If he didn’t run such a loosey goosey ship, if he didn’t rely on unproven volunteers to do what professionals take decades to perfect, if he simply sat down and connected with his crews instead of disappearing to locations around the globe to cameo in other people’s productions (under the guise of supporting independent art), he might not have so many mishaps. But even when he takes precaution and prepares diligently for his annual trip to Cannes (for the film expo element of the festival), a few inebriated bad apples will spoil the company’s already marginalized name. It’s something we witness firsthand in All The Love You Cannes.



Starting off like an instructional video, this full length feature finds Lloyd narrating, giving us a basic idea about how things work at the famed French institution. He highlights the way movies are packaged and sold, and the necessity of generating any and as much publicity as possible. Without hype, international buyers won’t stop by your booth (or in this case, your hotel room) and you leave without making significant syndication and foreign distribution deals. These are the lifeblood of little companies like Troma. It literally could mean the continued existence, or the end, of a struggling outsider organization. Of course, said pronouncements slowly backfire on the company as – thanks to their unruly interns – they get in Dutch with their hotel, with public relations people, and the local French citizenry.


Part ugly American dissertation, part lesson in doing a better job of picking your assistants and associates, this is the lesser of the four major Behind the Scenes features discussed, if only because the individuals mucking things up for Troma are so reprehensible. Watching drunken dullards take advantage of their boss to publicly embarrass themselves and said employer has never been so shocking. Maybe it’s the clueless posing of everyone involved – a little power taken to inhuman extremes. It could be the massive quantities of alcohol consumed. It might be the notion that kids who basically know nothing about the business end of cinema are destined to act like dorks. Whatever the case, All The Love You Cannes is educational on many levels. The pitch and shill of the international film trade is intriguing. How quickly your reputation can be ruined by dozens of directionless mooks is just irritating.


Apparently, that’s the point. What other company besides Troma would tear down the façade and let the viewing public see their shameful, disorganized reality? Though he’s typically outnumbered by the crudeness of his crew, Kaufman himself comes across as a surly, sometimes insensitive jerk who appears hindered by all that’s happening around him. Even worse, those looking for an excuse to diminish the company’s output as of late can look at the onset anarchy of Citizen Toxie or Tales from the Crapper and have their case proven, pointblank. But there is still something so rebellious, so anti-Hollywood-in-your-face about the way Troma does things that such a scattershot approach borders on the endearing. Mavericks are supposed to make a mess. They’re supposed to stumble and break stuff. They’re revolutionaries. By their very nature, they buck tradition.


And no one bucks up more than Lloyd Kaufman and his crews. Whether it’s the guerilla filmmaking follies of Terror Firmer, the actor inspired angst of Citizen Toxie, the overall ineptness of Tales from the Crapper, or the lack of suitable corporate etiquette while visiting Cannes, Troma has taken to playing the clown both in front of and behind the camera. For a glimpse at what such a Hellsapoppin’ plan might achieve, go out and buy a copy of the Make Your Own Damn Movie boxset – or better yet, collect copies of the four films mentioned here. Not only will the company be happy for the cash, but you’ll be rewarded with the truth about independent filmmaking. As usual, the facts are never pretty. 


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