Tuesday, October 16, 2007

DAWN OF THE DEAD-ish (2004)

Going back to James Gunn, the writer probably thought that it was a privilege and an honor when he was tabbed to rewrite George Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, an opportunity to do right by the undisputed King of the Dead.

Of course, he didn’t factor in the legion of Deadheads who would set about gnashing their clothes and rending their teeth that the dude behind the Scooby Doo adaptations was set on reimaging the holiest of holies. Who would think that some folks would get so upset over a 25-year-old zombie flick? Hell, some of the nattering nabobs weren’t even born when the original DAWN OF THE DEAD first hit the screens of the mall multiplex.

I recall that internet death threats were involved at points, because dude… people are that stupid, and inevitably stupid people say and do stupid things over stupid things.

Of course, these are the same folks that didn’t bother to support Romero when LAND OF THE DEAD came out because they heard it wasn’t all that good. They’d wait until the DVD came out, they typed as the intertubes crackled with betrayal. Romero had let them down, the bastard. Six months later they probably typed the name of the movie into a P2P and downloaded it. Way to show the support.

But then, the trailer hit the screens. As it unreeled, it was interesting enough. Tantalizingly ominous, but on the whole nothing special. But then as the trailer ended with a girl blacking out the screen with a can of spray paint, the film reel burned away to leave blank screen... a momentary blank screen, as the shadows of the dead lurched up from behind and began to paw at the fabric.

Now that was a fucking trailer. And with that small but decidedly awesome stroke of creativity, the remake suddenly seemed in good hands. Promising, even.

And for the most part, that promise was kept.

Not so much a remake as an homage to the genre, DAWN OF THE DEAD 2.0 opens with a tepid bit of character development that explodes into one of the most satisfying ten minutes of pre-opening credits in horror, as seemingly overnight the world dies. And then gets back up and starts gnawing on those that missed the first round of dying. And of course, when there is no more room in Hell and the dead walk the Earth, the survivors hit the mall. Because that’s where the goodies were in 1978 and still were in 2004.

That’s pretty much where the remake ends. After that it’s a well-executed zombie thriller that just happens to take place in a mall.

The bad news is the relative weakness of what follows the first ten minutes and a fantastic credits sequence featuring Johnny Cash's sepulchral voice. Granted, a very hard act to follow. Although a lot could have happened between the first draft Gunn turned in, then the one Michael Tolkin handed over to Scott Frank to doctor up and hand to director Zack Snyder. But James Gunn got sole writer credit for the final result, which means that he gets all the blame for everything script-related. Although Tolkin wrote the plodding DEEP IMPACT and Frank was responsible for the plothole-driven MINORITY REPORT, so there you go...

Doesn’t being a screenwriter sound like fun?

Most of the narrative drift involves plot holes one could drive a city bus through and random contrivances that threaten to derail the whole project. One has to admire Snyder's ability to keep things cracking at a pace that demands that the viewer not notice the complete lack of internal logic until after leaving the theater.

However, the frightened mall rats here are a loosely sketched lot of stereotypes: the feisty heroine, the taciturn black cop, the nice guy, blah, blah, blah.

In other words, almost no one here inspires empathy, thus serving as nothing more than zombie fodder. Almost… because Gunn also throws a wholly unexpected character into the mix called CJ (played by Michael Kelly).

At first, CJ comes across as yet another stereotype in a morass of stereotypes. Yet another swaggerin’ baseball- capped redneck with a mustache, a slow-talkin’ peckerwood wearing the loser badge of mall security… and using that small authority suddenly writ large to play God when the shit hits the fan.

The thing is, the damned asshole grows on you. And even better, the character rewards the warmth by confounding expectations. Weirdly enough, the ostensible villain of the piece is the only character who is actually given an character arc. Bloody brilliant.

Admittedly, while replacing the social satire of the original with the equivalent of dead-baby jokes (both figuratively and literally); the script does manage to maintain the uneasy balance of being both scary and funny at the same time.

But as an immediate horror show experience, it does its job and does it rather well. Any weaknesses are more than adequately balanced by several well-crafted setpieces, and the occasional sly bits of irony. My favorite being the survivors on the roof of the mall being ignored by a military helicopter flying over... a helicopter that looks suspiciously like the one parked on the front lawn of the White House during the opening credits.

And then the DVD hit the shelves and… holy shit.

Of course we know that she made it out of the bus unbitten... as we learned from LAND OF THE DEAD, the belly-button ring is the first thing the zombies go for.

The DVD of DAWN OF THE DEAD is exactly what I expect a DVD to be but rarely ever see. Of course the gore was juiced up. That’s to be expected in a sane and rational world.

But what I didn’t expect is to get two short films that expand on the premise of the feature. One of them is rudimentary, but still packing a small wallop of its own. It's a video diary of the last days of doomed gunstore owner Andy, trapped across the block and starving to death, separated by a sea of dead, pissed-off flesh from the other survivors.

Of course, doomed is a relative term in a world where most deaths are rewarded by living death.

The second bonus feature is the most rewarding, a as-it- happens live feed from a local news desk as the world slowly decays outside the barred studio doors. It’s cracker-jack apocalyptic stuff that transcends the obvious breadcrumb budget, a taste of what we zombiphiles have frequently been promised but have never received… a fullscale epic account of the world dying and then slowly shambling to its collective feet.

Now, if all three pieces were all edited together and tweaked a little…

Thursday, October 11, 2007

"You Don't See That Everyday"... SLITHER

If you have an affinity for those mid-'80s splatter- zomedies such as RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, DEAD/ALIVE, or NIGHT OF THE CREEPS, you might wanna drop in on this one if you haven't already. For some reason, despite being the highest ranking genre film of 2006 on Rotten Tomatoes, a lot of folks didn't. In my book, it was easily the most perplexing tanking in recent box office memory.
It was funny, it was scary... it was very lonely in the movie theater. Theaters are way overrated anymore, anyway.

What writer/director James Gunn (scripter of the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake) has pulled off here is a step beyond the current Hollywood trend of auto-cannibalizing every classic (and even not-so-classic) horror film in the vaults. Here, he remakes an entire sub-genre as one Whitman's Sampler of dark, drippy treats.

Some of us have seen it all before: On the eve of a hoedown celebrating the start of deer-hunting season, a meteor crashes to Earth on the outskirts of some grubby little redneck town. Soon after, in the course of a late-night tryst, one of the locals stumbles across it and becomes infected by the blobby menace from outer space. Rapidly mutating into a voracious, tentacled slime creature, the redundantly monikered Grant Grant (a game Michael Rooker) takes a break from feasting on neighborhood pets to indulge in inseminating the town mattress. And before you can say, "Well, you don't see that everyday," phallic little slugs are darting into the townies' mouths and turning them into shambling zombies with a hive mentality and (natch) a taste for human flesh.

It's then up to the sheriff (an agreeably deadpan Nathan Fillion), Grant's plucky schoolteacher wife (Elizabeth Banks) and the foul-mouthed Mayor MacReady (Gregg Henry) to stop the menace before the inherent threat of Air Supply's "Every Woman in the World" is consummated.

Borrowing heavily from David Cronenberg's venereal horror classic SHIVERS (aka: THEY CAME FROM WITHIN) for his narrative framework, Gunn peppers the proceedings with samples from everything from 1958's THE BLOB up to the wretched DEAD & BREAKFAST. In regards to the latter, he raises the bar by showing empathy for his down-south folks by presenting them as viable characters, not just as stereotypical inbred caricatures.

And unlike D&B, none of his zombies break out in a rap or bust a move cribbed from the THRILLER video. Maybe that's why SLITHER didn't go over so well... it didn't pander to the lowest common denominator.

The key to the success of Gunn's script is his affinity for each of his characters (even the ostensible villain of the piece maintains aspects of his humanity), dryly delivered irony, and the indulgence of some immensely quotable lines that rely on understatement instead of ham-fisted mugging.

Ultimately, Gunn reveals the thematic focus of SLITHER to be the triumph of finally requited love by closing the proceedings with "The New Kid" from the Old 97's.

Indulge in listening to the song through the closing credits for a bonus.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

28 Days Leads to Weeks Later...

Horror — like comedy — is entirely subjective. What some folks may find terrifying others find silly. And, of course, the reverse can be true. As horror film tropes go, nothing has the potential to descend into utter ridiculousness more than the zombie film. And before the keyboard battalion of internet Cliff Clavens chime in with "You know, that's not entirely accurate — 28 DAYS LATER isn't exactly a zombie film..."

Yeah, I get it... the Ragers in the two films aren't exactly zombies. But like zombies, they're weird and pissed off and don't remember how to play nice. That's close enough for a game of hand grenades and horseshoes.

But 28 DAYS LATER... and 28 WEEKS LATER... don't play around. This is deadly serious business here and, as a white-knuckle ride into primal horror, more than welcome entries into the admittedly weak zombie canon.

The first film dealt with the set-up:

A bunch of ALF types busts into a Brit animal research lab, bent on liberating the research animals. Unfortunately, they liberate a bit more than they bargained for when an ungrateful chimpanzee promptly bites the hand that freed it, setting off a chain of infection. Seems the gub'mint has been working on a viral form of rage. Nasty stuff, it seems. Once infected, a poor sap goes from happy-smiley to wild-eyed and frothing-at-the-mouth in seconds flat.

Twenty-eight days later some nekkid bicycle delivery guy called Jim wakes up in a hospital bed to find that the city of Big Ben is half past dead. After mucking about for a while in the ruins, he finally hooks up with some other folks, which is good, because there are some severely messed-up people still roaming the streets — we're talking the tweaker version of a George Romero convention here. The infected are fueled by an all-consuming rage that blinds them to anything, save for spreading the disease (not unlike Rush Limbaugh listeners, but only slightly less open to reason).

Although 28 DAYS LATER isn't the most attractive film to watch (although shot with tricked-out Canon XL-1s, it is admittedly an inspiration to DIY digital moviemakers), it does maintain a serious level of dread. Well, to a point. After our hero and his new friends head out to the boonies to look for a promised bastion of civilization, things tend to lag a little. Just a little, because things get a little loopy when they finally do hook up with civilization.

The only issue I have here is how derivative the film is. Anyone who remembers DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS is gonna go, "Hey, wait a minute...."

We're talking very casual riffing here: substitute deranged, bloodthirsty feral folk for the bloodthirsty broccoli of the original. Add to that various "tributes" to the Romero trilogy and ensuing knock-offs, and ol' Danny Boy's doing a whole lot of borrowing here. But then, I'm far enough along in this game where I'm a little tired of homages and just want to see what the directors have to say for themselves.

Actually, a couple more issues...

It's best not to give much thought to the implication that Jim spent three unmolested weeks in an unsecured hospital bed as all bloody hell broke loose around him. Because after that comes the wondering about how he spent so long a time unmolested in his hospital bed as the city went to hell, how he went near a month without an IV refill, and how he manages to wander about a Rager-packed London all day before he finally encounters some just before nightfall.

But if you can get past that, then you'll be able to swallow anything that happens in the sequel.

28 WEEKS LATER... picks up ... well, six months later.

London has been re-secured by the United States military and the infected starved out. Civilians are being brought in to reseed the Isle of Dogs, a London peninsula and obviously some prime real estate.

But due to an unfortunate lack of intuition on the part of an Army doctor overseeing the project, all hell breaks loose again and the Yanks are up to their armpits in Iraq allegory.

Some viewers had issues with how inept the military came across in the film. I didn't have a problem with them being presented as being a little off their game in this, because I spent four years in the military... so I've seen that if there's a possibility for the brass to find a way to screw things up and then exacerbate (heh) the situation, they'll find it.

There's a reason the acronyms SNAFU and FUBAR came from the military.

Also at issue was the handheld camera approach that was used during the attack scenes. Some folks hate the shaky-cam, I don't mind it if there is a point behind it. Here, I thought that it was an interesting choice on the director's part... a lot of tight close ups during the conversational points, and a lack of cover shots during the chaos to try to put the audience in the scene as almost (as close as you could get) being a participant, rather than a casual observer to the narrative.

The film was near pitch-perfect in delivering what I want out of a horror flick (aside from one sort of silly bit that was already touched on in a few weeks before with the release of GRINDHOUSE). In the first movie, the infected just ran around in a rage attacking the uninfected; here, subtext is added to underscore what fuels that rage.

The movie also works better than its antecedent as far as acting. While Cillian Murphy's Jim in the first entry was a bit of a cypher, here we're offered some incredible nuance in the performances of Robert Carlyle and Catherine McCormack. We're talking an almost imperceptible tick of the lips, a twitch of the eye that conveys a lot more shadings to what the character is feeling that may not be picked up on a television screen.

Let's put it this way: Even being a horror junkie of the old school, I was curled up in a ball in my seat for the last hour. And I'll cop... there was one point where I actually sobbed, the dusty waterworks spilling open for the first time since...


... Bambi's mother got shot?

This was the best white-knuckle horror film I've seen in years. It's not as meditative as the first one, but it sure is a lot more primal.

And in its essence, isn't that what a good horror film is supposed to be?

All I Know About Staying Alive, I Learned From the Living Dead...

Aim For The Head!

Half-assing your way to the obvious solution wastes precious time. Do it before someone finally yells "Just shoot it in the head, already!"

Beware The Others

There are always ravens that want to steal your shiny objects. Don't leave shiny objects lying about. Keep your guard up... the ravens can smell your stuff.

That's why they're called The Others.

Cultivate a Team

You need a team to keep off The Others. Know who you want to be fighting alongside and who'll have your back before things go bad...after the shit hits the fan is way too late to start putting together a fantasy team.

Don't Get Noticed

Metaphorically speaking, flying your helicopter around the roof of a mall that you've barricaded yourself in is going to draw the wrong kind of attention.

Literally speaking it's an even worse idea. Let some other group of survivors draw the attention.

And ^^that is the cheesiest binocular effect in the history of film. 

Eliminate The Dead Wood

That whiny yuppie/hippie/slacker/whatever is always the one that ends up letting the menace over the threshold.

Cut/chase and send him packing...or just throw him to the zombies and use the distraction to make a break for a more secure location.

Hipsters suddenly become useful.


Speaks for itself, doesn't it? Just secure the house before wasting time arguing whether the basement — or the ground floor — is the best place to weather the zombie attack.

Any fool knows that the second floor is a much more secure refuge...

Greed Kills

If you have enough to get by on, going out for more is just a bad idea. There's more to life than dying over something you don't need.

Help Is Not Coming

The Man doesn't give a flying rat's ass about you. He's got his own shit to deal with...and it ain't you. Besides, if you finally do get his attention he'll just mistake you for one of Them...

It Is What It Is

Bad things happen...wasted time trying to figure out the Why of the situation could be spent finding a way out of the mess.

Just assume that it was of The Man's doing, and move on to...

Just Deal

This is how the zombie apocalypse begins. A few scattered reports of cannibalism. Authorities making excuses. Late night hosts cracking jokes. Then shit gets real.

Just deal with it or die.

Know Your Exits

All safe avenues come to an end...know when to recognize the right exit when it presents itself. And no...air ducts are not to be considered as an escape route. Take it from me...they won't hold your weight.


Loyalty only goes so far

Or love for that matter. They may look like a former loved one, but once they turn there's no reasoning with them. As usual, but worse. Leave them to shamble on after their dead friends into a fading twilight...

...or for their own good just put them down right away, for God's sake. They're just gonna die anyways, and then get right back up and bite you in the ass.

Malls Are SO Like Not a Good Idea

Everybody knows that the Mall is where the goodies are... even the dead. Think outside the big box. Think about how your asshole local gun nut might not have made it back to his fortress.

Wouldn't hurt to check. Right?

No Such Thing As “No Such Thing”

Try telling a zombie gnawing on your arm that it doesn’t exist. It's not listening, is it?

Just because there hasn’t been a documented case of the walking dead doesn’t mean that it hasn’t happened…

...with no one left to document it.

Open Your Eyes

Someone has to be the first to raise the alarm… just make sure that you’re also the first to hit the gun store before the looting begins.

On the other hand, also make sure that it’s not just some scabby-faced tweaker clawing at you for change or a smoke, or no one will believe you when they really need to.

Pie Fights Are Fun

And they’re good for alleviating boredom…unless you invite the dead. They don’t get slapstick.

Inflicting humor on the humorless is never a good idea.

Quit Yer Squabbling

Infighting distracts until it’s too late to start working together.

End of argument.


Dude. Just fucking run. No one's gonna think you're a pansy.

Stay Out Of The Graveyard

If the shit is hitting the fan, don’t run towards the fan.

They ARE Out To Get You

It’s not paranoia…the shambling masses are mindless and building in numbers. And they want you to join them…

But at least you can always fake caring about American Idol until a break opens up.

Understand Why Taboos Are Taboo

Using an antediluvian spell to raise the dead for shits n' giggles is generally not a good idea. Especially if that spell is contained in a book bound in human flesh.

Vanity Is Deadly

If a zombie has you by the hair and is about to impale your eye on a shard of wood, hair loss is an option.

When All Else Fails... Wing It!

If a gun isn’t available, a lawnmower can do in a pinch.

X Is Not An Option

Nor booze or any other distraction. Just because it makes you feel better doesn’t mean the situation has improved. Maybe some meth to keep the senses sharp...

Shit...what was that?

You Are Going To Die No Matter What

It’s best not to think about that one, you...

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The Grapes of Death (1978)

Leave it to a Frenchman to incorporate "grapes" into the title of a horror film. Or for that matter, "raisins".

While discussing the auteurs of horror, French writer/director Jean Rollin is usually disregarded as one of the lesser names, dangerously close to being considered the Andy Milligan of Goth.

His oeuvre is primarily populated by winsome vampires barely out of their adolescence, and usually mostly out of their clothes. With a background in more adult entertainment, his genre films however display a visual flair that is immediately recognizable, a distinct eye for the baroque that transcends his modest budgets. Although languidly paced, with a minimal amount of dialogue and an emphasis on the erotic, the films are usually grounded by an unexpected air of the melancholy. And usually with a Grand Guignol flare for gory mayhem.

If his name is known at all to the casual horror fan, it is in association with Rob Zombie’s “The Living Dead Girl”, a hillbilly-industrial track ostensibly based on the English retitling of Rollin’s 1982 film, LA MORT VIVANTE. While not his first entry into zombie territory, THE LIVING DEAD GIRL hews closer to his vampire mythos than his earlier effort, 1978’s THE GRAPES OF DEATH (aka: LES RAISINS DE LE MORT, aka: PESTICIDE).

It’s not exactly a zombie flick, but that is the closest genre you could categorize LES RAISINS DE LE MORT. If there would be an antecedent, it would be George Romero’s THE CRAZIES.

The film follows the trials of Elizabeth, a young woman traveling by rail across the French countryside. She’s en route to meet with her fiancé, who runs a winery. Before she reaches her destination however, she encounters a homicidal man who has just murdered her traveling companion, and whose face disintegrates before her horrified eyes as he chases her off the train.

Lost in the rural expanse, the woman encounters various peasants who seem to have become trapped between life and death, driven mad by the pain of decaying alive, and more than eager to throttle her and visit various abuses upon her body (implied by the fact that any uninfected individual she comes across in her adventure inevitably takes the proverbial bullet for her - by pitchfork, hatchet, or whatever lethal tool the living 'dead' have at hand at the moment).

Finally, it is revealed that her fiancé has been pimping out wine tainted by pesticides, which has been consumed en masse earlier at a festival by the unfortunate villagers (talk about becoming dead drunk).

This is easily one of Rollin's most accessible films, but may not be to the tastes of anyone weaned on Empty-Vee styled horror flicks. But to those with a discriminating palate and eyes welcoming to subtitles, this is definitely recommended neo-zombie fare -- leisurely paced, atmospheric, and with liberal dollops of gore and mayhem to boot, this is late 70's horror at its best.

The title was near impossible to locate up until a few years ago (aside from crappy greymarket dupes), at which point Synapse Films released a lovingly mastered DVD, in a transfer digitally enhanced for widescreen television. With a commendable attention to detail, this disc is a keeper.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Resident Evil: Extinction

Now, I wasn't expecting this to be good. But I did really like the first RESIDENT EVIL, which when removed from the eponymous video game it was based on was a stylish bit of zombie headbanger fun. And if nothing else, Milla Jovovich and Michelle Rodriguez were easy to look at. There was even a cute German zombie with big, sad eyes.

And while the second one was bad, it did have its moments. Unfortunately, the moments consisted of absurd disregard for internal logic, such as having an airborne virus reanimate a graveyard full of desiccated corpses (not to mention having the living characters -- caught in a mass resurrection of the dead -- take a unclear-on-the-concept shortcut through said graveyard).

RE: III takes the muttonheaded moments of the latter and makes them shine in retrospect. This is one piss-poor excuse for a zombie flick. Mostly because zombies have almost nothing to do with the narrative. The living dead on display here serve mostly as background as unconnected vignettes unfold in the foreground.

Oh, wait... rewind. Did I say narrative?

The only sign of a story here is a low-rent MAD MAX convoy driving around the desert in circles, in a futile attempt to find some sort of a plotline to follow.

Seems that when the deadly T-virus that causes the living to go dead and come back all bitey exploded from the bowels of the Umbrella Corporation research labs, it also inexplicably caused all the water on the surface of the planet to dissipate. And since Aussie director Russell "Highlander" Mulcahy is at the helm, that means that the Australian post-apocalyptic mode is in effect: a spaghetti western featuring SUVs loaded with junkyard armor, roaring back and forth across a dustswept outback.

The sad thing is, they didn't even bother to erase the tire tracks from the previous takes, so that the vehicles seem to be following their own trail. An apt metaphor, I suppose.

Meanwhile, some mad scientist (you know right away that he's mad because he looks like a button-down version of David St. Hubbins from SPINAL TAP) under the employ of the ubiquitously evil corporation is cribbing scenes from George Romero's DAY OF THE DEAD as he trains zombies how to answer cellphones. Failing that, he trains them to be zombie berserkers. Because having damn near everyone in the world already zombified isn't enough for evil corporations.

While all that nonsense is unraveling, our Mad Maxine (Milla Jovovich) is back in her fetish gear, tricked-out this time for the desert. After periodic set-pieces that serve no narrative function, she joins the vagabonds to see if they've found a plotline to follow. They haven't, so she helps them fend off a flock of badly-rendered CGI zombie crows instead.

Unfortunately, if a digital zombie crow attack looks as primitive as the super-imposed analog from 1963's THE BIRDS, all that shows is that no one is even really trying.

Then it's back to driving around the desert again, although this time (about halfway into the 95 minute movie) they decide to go to a CGI version of Las Vegas.

Yay! Something's bound to happen in Vegas!

Um, no... Vegas is empty. Apparently whatever happened in Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas. Seems that the zombie crows ate everyone left there, which is the biggest disappointment here... if you're going to have a zombie post-apocalypse set in Las Vegas, then you damn well better kick down with some zombie showgirls and a zombie Elvis or two. And a zombie Wayne Newton, damn it!

But no, none of that. So since there's no zombies in town, Dr. St. Hubbins loads up a cargo car full of hyper zombies and has a helicopter drop it down in the middle of our road worriers. Why? Damned if I know. I suppose since there's no plot, everyone has to resort to their own initiative... even if it doesn't make a lick of sense.

So Milla walks up to the cargo container, sticks her ear up against the door... and then the door drops down, unleashing a swarm of sprinting zombie clowns. Well... not really zombie clowns. But the amount of zombies that spills out of the container reminded me of the infinite number of clowns that jump out of a tiny car at the circus. Although they seemed more like timewarped zombies from NIGHTMARE CITY than what you'd expect to encounter in the Resident Evil series.

During this big zombie attack things almost get exciting, but unfortunately every damn one of the zombies in this flick are sporting so much latex and facial prosthetics that they sort of look like Halloween bobbleheads. It's hard to maintain the creeping dread with zombies that look like they're ready to bust a move from the THRILLER video. They could have saved on the budget by buying zombie masks off of eBay. All in all, it would've looked about the same. Actually, probably better... the makeup was pretty silly looking.

It doesn't help matters any that all the blood effects are done with really unconvincing CGI. You just don't do CGI blood in a zombie flick... it's just plain wrong.

But then, this is one CGI-happy movie. Even Milla's face gets the CGI treatment when they go to a close-up... she looks so airbrushed that her face should be on the side of a cruisin' van, not a movie screen. Every detail and contour is so washed out that it looks like her eyes, nose, and lips are floating in a placid pool of translucent skintone.

Finally, Milla gets fed up because the movie is almost over and they still haven't stumbled across a plotline, so she sends off what's left of the vagabonds to Alaska to see if there's one up there.

And then things get really silly, but then movie is almost over so it doesn't really matter. But if there's another sequel, the writer really has their work cut out for them.

Double damn.

Monday, October 1, 2007

The Hell of Bruno Mattei

In late May, Italian horror filmmaker Bruno Mattei succumbed at age 75 in a Rome hospital after a short illness. Scornfully referred to throughout the 80s and 90s as the next Ed Wood, the evocation of his name within genre circles to indicate bottom-of-the-barrel filmmaking has only recently been usurped by German video game adapter and gutter savant Uwe Boll. Notable for fringe explorations of cannibals, zombies, caged women and mutant rats, with Mattei's death comes the obligatory call for a revisionist approach to his oeuvre. A good starting point would be his seminal and most maligned effort, the 1981 genre mashup...

Notable if not only for being the film with perhaps the most alternative titlings (aka: ZOMBIE CREEPING FLESH, aka: VIRUS, aka: CANNIBAL VIRUS, aka: NIGHT OF THE ZOMBIES, aka: ZOMBIE INFERNO, aka: ZOMBIE OF THE SAVANNAH, aka: ZOMBI 2: ULTIMATE NIGHTMARE), the ubiquitously derided effort also stands as a cinematic meta-joke that most genre cinephiles were unfortunately too savvy to grasp at the time of its release.

Launched in response to the success of fellow Italian horror maestro Lucio Fulci's ZOMBI (itself riding the international box office play of George Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD), the narrative follows a Jeep full of soldiers sent deep into the heart of Papua New Guinea to investigate an outbreak of cannibalistic murders following a chemical leak at a research facility codenamed Hope. Joining a female investigative reporter and her cameraman, they find that the leak has killed all those exposed and reanimated them as murder-happy characters.

As they trek deeper into the heart of darkness, the film becomes a delirious amalgamation of the exploitation tropes popular in Italian genre cinema of the era.

Upon release(s) audiences were perplexed by the seeming overuse of stock footage, the haphazard use of themes and the overt cannibalization of the soundtrack of Romero's film.

They missed the point.

As such, the movie overtly follows the template of any other zombie flick release before and after. What distinguishes Mattei's entry is a droll sense of absurdity about the genre and even the filmmaking process in itself. With the use of allegory, recurring motif and underlying subtext, Mattei's perception would be that the military/industrial complex views the indigenous peoples of the island as superfluous to the experiments that they are conducting in their midst, and when they become a problem, seek to dispose of them out of hand rather than attempt to remedy the situation in a humane fashion.

Further emphasizing the disregard held for these citizens is the absurd attempt to contain the problem -- the aforementioned Jeep full of disposable grunts sent out to eliminate evidence of malfeasance, implying the low regard held for both the aboriginals and of the military industrial spear carriers they have sent to certain death.

At times critics have facetiously evoked Jonathan Swift's essay "A Modest Proposal" as being the screenwriter's inspiration, seemingly without seriously considering that that may have indeed been the scribe's influence, and that elements of the film could have intentionally been satirical, if not ironic. Even Italian horror-meisters may know their Swift, and Mattei's point stands as a metaphor for the perils of irresponsible conduct at the fringe of the dystopian Global Village, as the sins of the industrialized nations are soon to be revisited upon their own citizens.

One can view HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD as being almost performance art, a film about cannibalism that wholeheartedly indulges in creative cannibalism at every turn: from over-the-top appropriation of conventions and themes from every sub-genre of Italian horror, to the cannibalizing of Goblin's score from DAWN OF THE DEAD, and on to the reliance on stock footage. However, in one case the use of the stock footage of an aboriginal tribe dancing counterparts with the protagonist's shedding of her clothing before entering the village, representing the shedding of her outsider skin. Which is also served as a nod to his professional dispatch to the outer circles of cinematic hell, a cockeyed roman á clef, if you will.

The often derided stock footage itself deserves special note, in that while it is dismissed as padding to bulk up the film's running time, the over-all benefit in that regard would be negligible. Rather, the recurring motif of this transitional technique should be admired as a cost-efficient way of utilizing montage to establish the mise en scène in a manner that imbues a certain cinéma vérité aspect to the proceedings... although it also could be argued that the device is Mattei's homage to Romero's own fondness for utilizing library tracks within the framework of the first two Dead films.

Also of note is Mattei's fondness for situational neo-surrealism that borders on crypto-farce, such as the nonsensical juxtaposition of the top hat and tutu-clad soldier whose swan song is literally "Swanee River" and in essence an evocation the Pantalone stock character of Commedia dell'arte. Absurdities exist on many levels within the film (such as the "cat-gut" visual gag on to the eventual fate of the "media puppet" character), although to claim that some (if not most) were intentional would be to prick the balloon of smugness found hovering over some critics of the film.

And while no one would argue that Mattei didn't deserve the designation as an auteur of the awful, to dismiss him as solely that would be missing the director's underlying recognition and ultimate recantation of the meta-aspects of his oeuvre, and with his death comes the obligation to realign the condescension towards his cinematic signature.