Dec 31, 2007

2007 Year in Film

2007 was a year of trends aplenty, both overwrought and unspoken. Amidst the landfall of gargantuan threequels (of which few were worth their weight in box office figures) were a plethora of savory revisionist westerns (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men), documentaries about topics both great (Operation Homecoming, Into Great Silence) and small (Helvetica, Rolling Like a Stone, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, The Cats of Mirikatani), and an unofficial trilogy of mind-blowing action films (Exiled, War, Shoot ‘Em Up) that, through their own particular stylistic indulgences, looked at masculine codes of honor in ways both thrilling and humorous. Iraq dominated the multiplex in theory only, with the limp diatribes of In the Valley of Elah and Rendition disappearing almost without a trace, while two of the year’s finest releases were actually revamped staples from cinema past: Charles Burnett’s 1977 masterpiece Killer of Sheep, and the latest (final?) version of Ridley Scott’s almost-as-great Blade Runner. It was a prolific year for animation, from the no-holds-barred surrealist firebomb that was Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters to the timeless American familial values of The Simpsons Movie to the dreamy landscapes of Paprika to Ratatouille’s effortless splendor to the political upheaval of Persepolis. McLovin’ and Spider-Pig rightfully seized the box office, while it was the year’s onslaught of gritty, no-frills genre pictures (Eastern Promises, We Own the Night, Black Snake Moan) that proved the necessary antidote to the rancid Zack Snyder/Frank Miller collaboration 300. A pair of nifty Stephen King adaptations (1408, The Mist) and two of the greatest zombie-ish films ever made (28 Weeks Later, Planet Terror) assured us that horror isn't dead, despite the hollow flogging emphasized by so many of the genre. The year’s worst films shared amongst them a single defining trait: more so than technical or artistic failings, they were one and all exercises in turgid and unjustified nihilism, marketing misanthropy as the new cool whilst further desensitizing their audiences to the far-reaching pains of the world.

French fries. A milkshake. A meatball. Masterpieces come in all shapes and sizes, and the feature-length adaptation of Cartoon Network's ultra-surrealist Aqua Teen Hunger Force is an act of cinematic anarchy for the ages, dispensing of audience pretensions in a matter of moments before free-falling into a flabbergasting anti-narrative that exists somewhere between dadaist upheaval and Warholian self-examination. The Simpsons has always been more loving and South Park more scathing in their respective satires, but none is so subversively and forcefully deconstructive as this insane pop culture jambalaya.

The title of Paul Thomas Anderson's fifth feature is a promise to be fulfilled, for sure, but most intense about this epic adaptation of Upton Sinclair's Oil! is his utter refusal to sympathize with Daniel Day-Lewis' brutal Daniel Plainview. Alternately (sometimes simultaneously) horrifying and bemusing, There Will Be Blood rumbles like a turgid well before its histrionic breaking point, a regressive exclamation point that calls to attention our own self-destructive obsessions with money and faith.

A sermon-like immersion on an unprecedented scale, Into Great Silence is the 2001: A Space Odyssey of documentaries, touching the infinite in its somber, restrained examination of religious life. Patience and meditation give way to enlightenment and transcendence, and so too does Philip Gröning's film reward our inquisition with invaluable wisdom on how best to live our lives.

Death is coming for us all, and all we can hope to do is to live with love and virtue before he comes knocking on our door. The Coens' meditation on fate and chance strikes chords at once universal and specific to our own time, while their cagey aesthetics - like Chigurh's restrained menace - continuously suggest a beast about to break free from its cage. Our suspense is baited not just for the lives of the characters on screen, but our own.

Zodiac is so blatantly anti-film in its construction that it could have been a documentary. David Fincher opts for the subtle underpass to his trademark stylistic flourishes and the result may be his best film to date, an absorbing look into the nature of obsession: for life, for power, for meaning, for truth. The intangible nature of each represents Zodiac's devastating "based on a true story" relevance.

Following Spider and A History of Violence, Eastern Promises continues David Cronenberg's shift from physical explorations to those more intangible. A mother without her daughter and a daughter without her mother represent the film's unspoken moral axis, while it is Cronenberg's delineating camera that most effectively gets to the bottom of his character's dichotomous identities.

Anderson will always be trounced upon by those who mindlessly equate quirk with superficiality, lest they actually deal with things on a case by case basis. Unlike the cute but simplistic Juno, Anderson uses his touches not as substance but as flourishes, moments and memories infused into compact packages that speak for more than the sum of their parts. Hotel Chevalier may be his finest hour yet, squeezing enough pain and longing into less than a quarter of an hour so as to rival his own feature-length masterpieces.

Films are our dreams and wishes, and Paprika's self-devouring chaos proves an inescapable journey down the rabbit hole of our collective yearning for meaning and truth. Satoshi Kon's latest animated masterwork escapes contrivance by allowing its characters to stand defined through their actions, explaining its heady sci-fi narrative only just enough to send us on our own way into the abyss.

No unnecessary sequel of the past ten years has been as profoundly realized as Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's survival extravaganza, exploding out of an otherworldly ether as it propels the general storyline of Danny Boyle's original film into areas more fable-esque than straight horror. The ties of blood are strongly felt as the sins of our fathers return to haunt us - often in ways unseen, but here as violent and bloody as ever.

Herzog's films have never existed in a context larger than that which they fashion for themselves, and it is in this way that Rescue Dawn's Dieter Dengler ascends to the same heights of primordial experience as Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo. At war with both man and nature, his transformation reflects not only the duties and necessities of the soldier in combat, but the malleability and endurance of the human spirit.

12:08 East of Bucharest, Ratatouille, Death Proof, Rolling Like a Stone, Exiled, Broken English, Superbad, Black Snake Moan, The Taste of Tea, Helvetica

Hostel: Part II, I Know Who Killed Me, Zzyzx, Bratz, Park, Captivity, Smokin' Aces, 300, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, Shrek the Third

Dec 28, 2007

Commando (1985): B+

It dawned on me while watching Commando, Arnold Schwarzenegger's 1985 follow-up to his massive surprise stardom in The Terminator, that the man has become far more than the sum of his parts in our culture, a admittedly apparent fact nonetheless growing increasingly more relevant with the passage of time and the man's increased involvement in our turgid political world. Most people pray that they leave their mark on this earth in some substantial way before they die, whether they donate something to science or leave behind their genetic makeup in the form of an offspring. Arnold has nothing to worry about, though; he's become a Paul Bunyan in his own time and the guy still has his hairline. Watching his performances now - especially those from his earlier feature films (to say nothing of Pumping Iron) - it's almost impossible to watch him as simply a performer. As an actor and politician in addition to inimitable cultural icon, his presence has become such that the man and the myth can't be separated. His influence bubbles up everywhere like an unseen reservoir beneath the framework of our society, his most famous character a now long-cliched association with virtually anything having to do with death en mass, and he now the ruler of one of the U.S.'s most prominent states (seriously, when California breaks off into the ocean, Arnold will declare himself high ruler and proceed to take over the world with his self-sustained army). In that vein of larger-than-life celebrity, Commando is an almost-masterpiece with its deadpan satire of Arnold's archetypal human role, the good-guy renegade who'll kill thousands of faceless villains (mostly rent-a-cops and barely-paid mercenaries) just so he can save his little girl (in other words, a perfectly caricatured encapsulation of the Reagan values on the rise at the time).

Even as one of Schwarzenegger's earliest roles, the film's approximation of action convention within a specific cultural and social context (present mostly for show and in a diluted form, but present nevertheless) is potent without effort, a straighter (and arguably greater) example than Edgar Writer and Simon Pegg's Hot Fuzz. A rapid-fire sequence of Arnold suiting up with knives, grenades and makeup that makes him look like a freshly cooked steak whips onto the screen with more macho intensity (not to mention unspoken homo-erotic undertones) than the combined entirety of 300 combined, while Arnold's goofy face - an unlikely combination of convincingly vacant emotions and chiseled muscle intimidating to the point of absurdity (the film itself opens with a ridiculous montage of Schwarzenegger's biceps and abs), here made the comical antithesis to The Terminator's ruthless and truly terrifying killing machine a la Arnold's batty eye motions and calculated, machine-like gestures (these side thoughts interrupt the flow of the sentence too much) - provides the entirety of the film's nth-degree action conventions with the perfect point of illogical comedic contrast. Played with pitch-perfect intensity and unwavering solemnity (like a Sacha Baron Coen performance, the humor is never actually acknowledged to the viewer, just as Borat wouldn't be funny if he were winking to the audience), Commando is an extraordinary representation and send-up of its chosen genre all at once, thrillingly silly in its action sequences (which never want for unreasonable and wholly impossible feats of strength; seriously, Arnold stops just short of throwing tanks at the enemy) and obviously subtle in its clumsy emotional touches. Most heroic protagonists (James Bond or John McClaine) would first attempt to break into a building through a window or an unlocked door so as to go unnoticed; Arnold, never one for fucking around, rips off the side of a wall for easy and immediate access, and similarly tears a seat out of a vehicle so his bulky form can ride relatively out of sight. That the film may have stumbled onto this self-degrading effectiveness wholly by accident - rendering it not so much a brilliant satire but a piece of lazy hackwork brilliantly oblivious to itself - could theoretically make it an even more legitimate success. Actuality over intention reigns, nevertheless, and Commando - as far as representing a rather slim sub-genre of 80's exploitation flicks - represents one of the finest. That the film so precisely captured Arnold's iconography so early in his career speaks to its inbred understanding of cinematic celebrity culture, and, in doing so, seems to have guided everything that has followed since. You're welcome, California!

Dec 7, 2007

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007): A-

As tremendous an act in empathy as anything Werner Herzog has ever committed to the documentary screen, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters elevates a particular niche interest - that of the hardcore videogamer - to exquisitely existential heights, carving out the determination and passion exhibited by those who are drawn to the medium of classic arcade games for purposes beyond that of mere pastime enjoyment. The film's incredibly watchable aesthetic is due in part to the subject matter, as seemingly light and breezy a topic as one could imagine in the midst of so many Inconvenient Truths and No End in Sights dominating the circuit, but more important here is the manner in which the filmmakers explore these gamers' passions as an extension of their self-defined roles in a world full of judgment and confrontation, acting not only as an incredibly humane exercise in cinema but also as an antidote to the ridicule-laden representations such persons have generally suffered on the silver screen. A single competition forms the dramatic crux of the narrative, that between the official named Gamer of the Century Billy Mitchell, world record holder for the original Donkey Kong and fierce perfectionist wary of anyone encroaching on his high scores, and the reserved, somewhat insecure Steve Wiebe, a family man from Washington determined to prove himself the best at something after suffering so many undeserving letdowns over the course of his life. The look that follows at the gamer culture may as well be an offshoot of the Corleone family: questionable high score records, allegiances to particular gamers (and stances against others), and paranoid territoriality all play a role in the unfolding events that go beyond mere scores and enter the realm of personal integrity for all those involved. Though effectively streamlined for maximized entertainment, Seth Gordon's condensation of these months-long events never takes the route of simplicity, quickly summarizing videogame history and ideology (though I suspect many of the films viewers, myself included, will already be familiar enough with the territory as to be able to enjoy the recap purely for its aesthetic virtues) before dovetailing into the techno-infused insanity of it all. Despite the fact that the central Steve vs. Billy conflict is so well rendered as to make the minor subplots feel like excess fat by comparison, The King of Kong remains a breathless act of investigation, as admirable for its craft as for its objective consideration, and one of the finest documentaries in recent years.

Atonement (2007): C

The Oscars have long been losing their worth, and it might appear that the final stake was driven in the heart of it all when the indulgent awards extravaganza stopped being a means and started being an end. Films like Atonement are made (largely, if not entirely) to win awards, carefully pampered and stylized so as to appear ravishing at a surface glance, their carefully manicured posturing frequently lauded practically sight unseen thanks to reinforced obsession with superficial hoopla (the razzle dazzle the two-faced Chicago both criticized and drank deeply from). Far be it from me to lambast convention, an oft-used and wholly inadequate critical take down that mistakes commonality for mediocrity (suggesting that normality by definition has nothing to offer). Atonement, however, exists outside both artistic convention and mediocrity, more closely resembling a fashion show in the guise of a literary classic than an actual living, breathing film. Such a pity that a story so compelling in the details and a production so effortlessly lavished with technical mastery is put to such dullard ends, a cinematic fellatio for anyone easily impressed by set and costume design. In the years preceding World War II, the rich and naïve 13-year-old Briony (Saoirse Ronan) mistakes a series of events involving her elder sister Cecilia (Kiera Knightley) and Robbie (James McAvoy) for sexual malice on the part of the latter. (Spoilers ahead.) When Briony discovers her older cousin being raped on the property surrounding their mansion, she insists the attacker to be Robbie (despite having not seen his face), believing him to be a dangerous sexual predator after inadvertently reading one of his more strongly worded love letters to Cecilia. The schism she thrusts between he and her sisters romance carries into the wartime era, during which time her growing maturity allows her to realize not only the extent of her actions, but Robbie's innocent from the very start of the matter. Say what you will, director Joe Wright is obviously respectful of his material, and it is in this aghast formalism that he misguidedly reduces the richness of Ian McEwan's literary work to its lowest common denominator. His previously overrated Pride & Prejudice sacrificed complexity for narrative compactness, and so too does Atonement seek to streamline all aspects of its narrative (be they character relationships or the presentation of the social climate of the time) in the name of palatability. Even a prolonged single take navigating the war-torn beaches of France is stripped of all feeling, despite being an absolute triumph of technical direction. That's Atonement in a nutshell: compulsively watchable but scared at the thought of alienating audiences with emotions of the truly ugly kind.

Juno (2007): B+

Juno gives me hope for emo culture. The film oozes earnestness out its ears, a quality that is likely to win or repulse different viewers right off the bat given its loose wielding of quirky teenage culture, snarky attitudes that front deeper emotions whose possessors are often unable to articulate them beyond a wall of angst. The film has already been compared to last years non-indie Little Miss Sunshine, although their similarities barely register beyond superficial classifications of the cinema. Concerning Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page), a 16-year-old girl who finds herself an expecting mother after some sexual discovery with her long-time best friend Paulie (Michael Cera), the film is like one prolonged and totally uninterrupted mental doodle, at first scattershot and clumsy but ultimately finding an appropriate groove for its storyline. Like this years similarly plotted (and more blatantly titled) Knocked Up, Juno uses its preggo-centric storyline as a jumping point for more extensive character studies, and it is in this manner that the titular character becomes most interesting. Far from a typical 16-year-old, Juno has seemingly absorbed the entirety of three decades worth of pop culture into her vernacular (at one point arguing over Dario Argento's status as the master of gore): rambunctious, cool, smug and totally unprepared for reality all at the same time. The character first smacks of screenwriting laziness, as if her surreal complexity were but a shorthand to avoid dealing with the usual ramifications of an unplanned teenage pregnancy, but through both the conviction of Ellen Page's performance and the ultimate steadiness of director Jason Reitma's sleight of hand, the film sells the character as a penultimate outcast with far more to learn about herself than she realizes. Occasionally spilled over into manipulative treacle, the film's wit is not unlike the defensive personality of its lead protagonist: a cover easily pulled aside to reveal genuine tenderness inside wanting for acceptance.

Dec 2, 2007

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters (2007): A+

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters may be the most scathing deconstruction of Hollywood (and the culture at large) this side of Robert Altman's The Player. The suburbs of New Jersey echo the end of the universe as envisioned by Douglas Adams in this feature length version of the series popularized by Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, a place at once everywhere and nowhere, where anything can happen at any given time, no questions asked. Essentially a Molotov cocktail lobbed at both conventionalized artistry and anyone who's ever taken their cinematic consumption (or life) for granted, the film works primarily through its own constantly reinforced audience deception, perpetually distracting the viewer with the utterly bizarre nature of it all as it pulls one rug out from under their feet after another. Naysayers cry "stoner!" as if a good toke were the death toll of all intelligence or worth, an almost willful misreading that not only denies the profundities of anti-logic but also the near-impossibility of articulating such thoughts in accessible terms during the waking life. Though not all fans made the transition from ten-minute episodes to ninety-minute extravaganza, it's telling how the irreverence of the film has managed to ruffle feathers amidst those who don't get it (similarly telling is the ease with which many fall back on the 2007 Boston bomb scare as an easy point of derision, a critical cop-out that reveals less about the film than the person addressing it). The film acts as its own litmus test, defying all conventional readings and thus confirming its own significance in the process. To condemn the film for its incoherence is like blaming water for being wet.

Few features of the new millennium have been as viciously and consistently funny, given both the objective nature of comedy and the Airplane!-like rapidity with which the film fires off its endless stream of sight gags and insanity-infused dialogue. Pop culture personality has been condensed into the form of several anthropomorphic fast food items and other assorted personalities (among them, a Plutonian alien sporting a faux German accent and digitized, stoner residents of the Moon) whose collective misadventures are at once about everything and completely pointless, as if every conceivable cliché from Hollywood's junk drawer were assembling into as coherent a form as possible and given a story to match, here revealing the many absurdities of life we invest ourselves in from moment to moment, generally without thought or question.

At its simplest, the film concerns the efforts of our heroes - a milkshake named Master Shake (Dana Snyder), meatball Meatwad (Dave Willis), and French fry packet Frylock (Carey Means) - to save the world from the rampage of a deadly exercise machine (but one of the many mashed-together plot lines), with a talking watermelon, mad scientists, time travel, roller coasters, Space Ghost and Neal Peart of Rush all figuring prominently in the mix. Not a minute goes by that some nugget of our collective consciousness isn't put on the chopping block, although Aqua Teen is a far cry from the ironic cynicism of Seinfeld in its dealing with the minutiae of daily life. Taking nothing for granted, the film explores the underbelly of our modern world as one would the remnants of a building destroyed by a tornado, its unrestrained jambalaya of pop culture parts bordering on Warholian sans the passive voyeurism. The ultra-surrealist tones all but defy serious readings, and it is in the vacuum of expectation or form that the film's satirical bite becomes most potent; its rejection of typical claims to importance is so encompassing that it enters into the realm of the profound. The opening musical number - possibly the single funniest piece of cinema since The Producer's "Springtime For Hitler" - isn't just a brilliant re-imagining of "Let's All Go to the Lobby," but a brutal "fuck you" to all who pride themselves better than the movies or their fellow audience members, leveling the barrier between artist and audience and expressing in no uncertain terms virtually everything that need be said in a fierce act of movie film revolution. "Do not explain the plot, if you don't understand, you should not be here." Amen.

Nov 23, 2007

The Mist (2007): B

If I may risk incurring the wrath of countless Shawshank lovers everywhere: The Mist is the best of Frank Darabont's three Stephen King adaptations to date. Although myself unfamiliar with the source material in each of these cases, the reason for this has less to do with the abrupt change in genre than with The Mist's relatively minimalist plot, one focusing more on the behavior of a particularly epoch of humanity than on larger dramatics and thus less likely to attract the kind of superficial, syrupy direction that rendered the director's preceding works so vanilla in their effect. The Mist uses similar touches but to appropriately B movie effect; although only incidentally similar to John Carpenter's underrated The Fog, the film knows its influences, homaging the director in an early reference to his own remake of The Thing. After a torrential thunderstorm the likes of which is rarely seen, a small, seemingly typical American town is cut off from its basic utilities. David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his son Billy (Nathan Gamble) travel to the local supermarket to pick up food and supplies, and it is during that a strange mist engulfs the town, reducing visibility to near zero and bringing with it a substantial level of dread. A bloody man runs into the store as the fog encroaches screaming of "something in the mist," and one customer who attempts to flee via his parked car can be heard screaming in the distance. After a back-room encounter with monstrous tentacles that kills one of the employees (an event seen by only a handful of people), the refugees slowly split into three factions: those who believe nothing is truly wrong, those who know something monstrous - even supernatural - lurks beyond their vision, and those who believe the mist is the wrath of God upon them, the final judgment day.

Although likely to appeal more to some than others based purely on their ideological particulars, King's nihilistic tale of how people respond to one another after the safeguards of society have been removed is alternately appropriate and disheartening in its nihilism, the former for its accuracy and the latter for its repeated use of shortcuts to make its points. As the totally bonkers Mrs. Carmody, Marcia Gay Harden lends enough conviction to the religious zealot to make the character believable in the moment, if only just; her hatred-in-the-name-of-love self-righteousness so one-note and extreme that it exists less as a character trait than as a plot justification. Fortunately, then, the film makes up for its sometimes-skimpy allegory with all-and-all physical terror, transcending traditional B movie trappings in its presentation of its various creepy-crawly monstrosities as a literal plague. The special effects are wanting in only a technical sense, their kinda-cheesy guilelessness making them something of a modern equivalent to King Kong: easy to dismiss at first but downright terrifying if you buy into their charms. Darabont showcases the film's horrific elements not with any sort of traditional build-up and climax, but with a more casual sense of montaged unease, with scoreless sequences of many things happening at once, none of them pleasant and most of them downright terrifying for the squeamish (one moment in particular - in which a seemingly tiny insect reveals its true size - momentarily induced me with something akin to turrets syndrome, much to the amusement of my surrounding audience). The Mist culminates with a harrowing look at what may as well be the end of the world - entrenched in the titular smoke, it's as if the surviving characters have found their way to heaven only to discover it a hell in sheep's clothing - and though one gets the sense that it may be taking the path of nihilism purely for the sake of wrenching our guts into a knot, its effectiveness is altogether impossible to shake.

Nov 4, 2007

American Gangster (2007): C-

American Gangster shares more than a passing structural resemblance with Malcolm X, another epic length Denzel Washington headliner. Like Spike Lee's hugely ambitious biography, Ridley Scott's much lavished period piece is a work that - like its antagonistic main character - wants it all, only to get very little in the end. The film is impressive only in technical, superficial ways; the recreations of 1970's Vietnam and New York City never want for believability but the whole of Scott's undertaking threatens to topple over from the sheer narrative and stylistic unruliness of it all. In an attempt at self-validation, the film proudly states its based-on-a-true-story status right out of the gate, only for the following 150 minutes to suggest a pretentious, all too self-conscious attempt at one-upping the cinematic mythology of Scarface and Heat all rolled into one. Denzel Washington is Frank Lucas, an NYC-based heroine dealer who upsets the market when he decides to eliminate the middleman from his business, traveling to the Vietnam jungles in person to acquire the raw goods, untouched and undiluted. Flipside is Russel Crowe's do-good narcotics cop Richie Roberts, who struggles to remain straight amidst both a crooked police force and the strains of an ensuing child custody battle. American Gangster explores the labyrinthine connections - personal, political, professional - that connect these two individuals in their respective paths, with Roberts looking to bust Lucas and the many (both criminals and cops) to whom he bears ties, but its expositional meanderings never rise above a sense of both tedium and emptiness. Scott seems convinced of his material's irrevocable importance, an angle that dogs every pseudo-pretentious swipe at elevating such into the realm of American myth. American Gangster loads up the screen with all the goods from any Grand Theft Auto game but it fails to find any deeper meaning, relevance, or even excitement amidst it all; it would be unfair to compare the film to Scarface (their stylistic aims are on opposing ends of the spectrum), but one can't help but think of Brian De Palma's great work of pop art during American Gangster's more testing stretches. Perhaps most disappointing, though, is Washington himself, who, while masterful even during Malcolm X's most overbearing moments of indulgence, brings next to nothing to his character here aside from that required by the script - basically, a lot of faux-macho, gentlemanly posturing punctuated by angry staring, shouting, and brow-furrowing. (Frank Lucas is angry. You won't like him when he's angry.) Crowe isn't much better off, although given the skimpy material at hand it's difficult to blame either actor. The film's best scene, then, comes when the two confront each other one-on-one. Its quality could be the result of the two actors finally being allowed to play off one another, or it could be the fact that it comes near the tail-end of this lifeless stretch of empty craftsmanship. Take your pick.

Oct 31, 2007

Night of the Living Dead (1968): A+

Fuck hyperbole – George A. Romero's debut film Night of the Living Dead may be the purest horror film ever made. Only the memories of those who were first there during its unveiling can attest to just how revolutionary a creation it was, simultaneously redefining the rules and capabilities of the medium while also forging an entirely new subgenre that – if the recent success of a third Resident Evil film and the upcoming remake of Romero's own sequel Day of the Dead are any indication – remains alive and well today (no pun intended). Even during my first, now hallowed viewing experience, I knew what the zombies were and the general "rules" surrounding them; the reactivation of the body via some viral infection or radiative force, the eating of the flesh of the living, the fact that those bitten by a zombie would ultimately become one themselves, and the killing of the undead through the destruction of the reanimated brain. These qualities have long since been absorbed into horror culture at the same level as Frankenstein and Dracula, the fact of which attests to Night of the Living Dead's timeless potency as one of the genre's most formidable exercises. Although among my most re-watched films, it never fails to evoke the same chills time and time again. Romero would go on to more brilliant and complex works, but in its own direct way, Night of the Living Dead represents unsurpassable perfection.

Kneading its murky imagery into a tsunami of terror over the course of an agonizing hour and a half, Night of the Living Dead focuses primarily on suggestion over action, the tangible violence and onscreen conflicts complimented by a foundation of perpetual, mysterious dread, of normality imploding on itself. A day trip to visit the grave of their father turns into a living hell for Barbra (Judith O'Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner), who happen into the middle of the outbreaking zombie plague just as it begins, with any explanation for the sudden terror besieging them amounting to nil. Johnny taunts Barbara over her childhood fear of the cemetery, only for the wandering man in their midst to actually have been already "coming to get her" in the first place. Night may seem overeager to send shivers down its viewers spines but the film works precisely as a validation of our deepest childhood fears, from what we're unable to see in the dark to the general strangeness abound in much of our everyday bric-a-brac. Romero's minimalist cinematography borrows a page from Polanski in its diagonal framing, often suggesting an ethereal landscape of blacks and grays melding into each other, not unlike some dense fabric from which the monsters of our dreams come for us at our most vulnerable. The lack of visual distinction may be the film's most powerful attribute; like the splotchy paint strokes of a surrealist work, our imaginations work overtime to "fill in" the gaps, without our even realizing it.

Romero denies having intended any racial commentary in his character's power struggle, but it's actually the final series of unfortunate events that solidify the work as one of 60's activism rooted in social unease. Ben (Duane Jones) and Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman) duke it out not as black man and white man but as entangled might and pride, and it is in its observation of people interacting under the strains of unimaginable duress that Night of the Living Dead becomes most universal. It's downright impossible to not recall 9/11 as our human protagonists, safe for the time being in their boarded-up country house, huddle around a television waiting with baited breath for the next nugget of information about the unfolding chaos around them. Along with my virginity, I'd give damn near anything to watch the film again for the first time, totally ignorant not only of its own narrative progression but of all things zombie. Horror films have become more technically gruesome and forcefully shocking in the past forty years, and indeed, some have surpassed the film in scares, if not in aesthetic potency. No amount of technical nuance, however, could ever hope to rival Night's sinister lurk through the subconscious. From the subtle voyeurism of its opening credits through its impossibly bleak conclusion, it subjects us to the kind of unrelenting nightmare we only wish we could wake up from.

Feature: 31 Days of Zombie!

Oct 30, 2007

Dawn of the Dead (1978): A

Much has been written about George Romero's Dawn of the Dead – more, perhaps, than any other horror film ever made, given its much-deserved critical/cultural standing and expansive opportunities for academic investigations. Night of the Living Dead was a hit upon its initial release but its success came slowly through word of mouth on the nickelodeon circuit. Ten years later, Dawn of the Dead was ready to capitalize on its predecessor's already extensive influence, and thus a brilliant film was granted the luxury of finding its audience immediately. I myself have seen the film around a half dozen times or so over about ten years, first renting it sometime during my pre-adolescence, after having been blown away by the bleak, unflinching terror that was Night. My initial experience with Dawn remains something of a blur; gore and blood abounded, for sure, and given both my age and the still-potent trend setting nature of the film, my sense is that it was something of a sensory overload (and to think it was on a scratchy old pan-and-scan videotape).

Very clear, though, is my memory of the film's most infamous piece of dialogue; though I myself am not as huge of a supporter of the film as many are (though a near-masterpiece, it is easily my least favorite of Romero's original trilogy), I believe it contains the finest single moment in the director's zombie pantheon. Fleeing the metropolitan areas overrun by the exploding zombie populace, our protagonists land their helicopter at a shopping mall in search of food and supplies, only to find the place overrun with the mindlessly wandering undead. Wonders Francine (Gaylen Ross), "What are they doing? Why do they come here?" With a dry wit that even he may not be privy to, her boyfriend responds: "Some kind of instinct. Memory, of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives." Even at the age of ten, I recognized the implied criticism of meaningless reliance on commodity to define oneself, even if the concept itself was temporarily beyond my articulation.

Watching the film once again, Romero's carefully calculated deconstructions on social woes of the time seem most brilliant in their simultaneously identifying the film as a distinctly American work rooted in the cultural anarchy of the 1970's as well as one packed with universal truths on the human condition, borders of time and place notwithstanding. The former packs the greatest punch in the third-act war between the main protagonists holed up in their shopping mall fortress and the military convoy that overruns them (bringing the zombie population flooding back in), stealthily evoking not simply the tensions between pacifist movements and more aggressive social orders of the time, but any scenario in which men turn on each other in the face of greater disorder (in other words, look at any historical timeline and pick your example of choice). The latter, then, is one implicit in the passive social hierarchies throughout Romero's screenplay, particularly amidst relationships and connective tissues so obvious they tend to remain hidden in plain view. In a prolonged television debate meant to inform viewers on how to handle the crisis at hand, a lone scientist stresses the importance of exterminating the dead "without emotion." How fitting, then, that the soldiers who underestimate the zombies – treating them more like disposable hunting targets worthy of ridicule than a lethal force to be reckoned with – are generally those who find themselves being torn limb from limb.

Romero's staging of these sequences is deliberately jarring in their sense of physical placement and spacial relationships, a quality that often renders his montages aggravating and underwhelming in the moment, only to improve immeasurably in a more contextualized retrospect. The opening sequence of a television station in disarray is a nearly unsurpassed example of cinematic crisis in the moment, while the subsequent raid on a zombie-infested apartment complex is by turns overwhelming in its chaos (two words: exploding head) and necessarily off-putting in its perpetual state of confusion. Romero's framing of social ills via his rotting, walking metaphors is ingenious but it's the more subtle, unspoken statements that register with the greatest force. Along with Peter's (Ken Foree) passive rip on America's mallrat culture, a personal favorite touch comes late in the film, after our characters have locked off their place of residence and cleared it of any danger, now lavishing themselves with unnecessary material goods galore while the world goes to shit beyond their decorated walls. Francine, decked out in makeup and channeling heroines of the silver screen with her sexy six-shooter, is briefly juxtaposed with an identically lavished mannequin (the moment may very well be her inner self-realization), plasticine and utterly devoid of anything human. This lies at the core of our character's moral reawakening and the reclamation of their identity apart from the material. In other words (to quote Marylin Manson), without the threat of death, there's no reason to live at all.

Feature: 31 Days of Zombie!

Oct 29, 2007

Day of the Dead (1985): A+

Like an ugly duckling, Day of the Dead took some time to get the love it deserved (and even then it has remained a black sheep amongst its brethren) – a scenario not uncommon to works of art that tell people what they simultaneously need to know and want not to hear. The film was – and to a large extent, remains – a victim of its own implicit place in film history; like the occasionally artful summer blockbuster, Romero’s third "Dead" entry is routinely examined and dismissed less for its own qualities than its “failure” to conform to the expectations unfairly assigned to it sight unseen, here as a zombie movie sequel indebted to two highly lauded works come before. Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead were both brilliant and easily among the greatest horror films ever made, but that Day of the Dead doesn’t follow the expected trilogy arc of capping off its saga with all-out climactic spectacle is hardly an inherent strike against it. Part of this degrading misconception lies in the fact that Romero’s original vision was cut short by budgetary restraints over issues with the increasingly more powerful MPAA rating system, the final result being far from the originally conceived "Raiders of the Lost Ark with zombies", and gore hounds subsequently decrying the relative lack of visceral bloodshed (regardless of the fact that, during its brief moments of splatter, Day features some of the sickest zombie action ever filmed). Similarly, Day is – in the popular sense of the term – a decidedly anti-audience pleaser. Set primarily underground during what appear to be the final death twitches of mankind, the film is quick to dispatch with any practical ideas about escape or happy endings. Welcome to the suck.

It is hardly to their discredit that both Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead are rather accessible in their social diatribes layered upon physically tangible plots of humans survivors struggling to overcome. Whereas those films commented externally on the world around them, Day of the Dead is also a work of deeply internal ruminations, a film that assumes our flaws and, intrinsically, our imminent mortality (whether at the hands of flesh-eating ghouls or each other), and searches for the silver linings amidst what otherwise appears to be insurmountable hopelessness. The remaining survivors of Dawn of the Dead took off in a helicopter already low on fuel, unsure of what awaited them next. Day of the Dead begins with a small cadre of armed survivors looking for more of their kind, traveling up and down the Floridian coast in their own running-on-fumes whirlybird. The situation has only continued its downward slope; according to the estimates of Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty), the dead now outnumber the living approximately 400,000 to 1. Any chance of killing them off is long since fucked; surviving, then, requires a two-pronged approach of re-evaluating our own definition of socialized living and stopping the zombies’ instinctive drive to eat us, rather than stopping the zombies themselves. Unlike Night's evocations of racism or Dawn's attack on consumerism, Romero's zombies here aren't terrorists or AIDS or any single meaning to be interpreted. To this point, my colleague Eric Henderson summarizes Romero’s matter-of-fact approach so perfectly that I simply must recount it here (kudos to him, too, for his brilliant review of the film, which can be largely thanked for my current involvement with the online film community). “With Day of the Dead, Romero is through fucking around with allegory.”

The audience happens upon this quickly thinning group of survivors long after the metaphorical shit has hit the fan, in effect stripping Day of the Dead of the more typical human drama familiar to its genre, replacing it with its own choice existential probing. Not long ago, a group of scientists and military men were haphazardly thrown into a hole in the ground by the increasingly desperate government, in hopes of their finding a cure for the out-of-control zombie epidemic. Their shelter is an abandoned mineshaft locked away from the besieged surface – as one character tellingly puts it, a “fourteen mile tombstone with an epitaph no one will bother to read.” Littered with financial records and shambled vehicles, it is our decrepit society swallowed up by mother earth in an attempt to rid itself of our viral existence. God takes on a very real presence in the film – the zombies a modern flood and our embittered protagonists an unwilling Noah – and, like that biblical tale, Day of the Dead has its own dove and olive branch, though they admittedly take some rooting around to find. Like Kubrick, Romero has been called cynical, even misanthropic, but so too is his portrayal of man’s inhumanity to man unblemished realism lined with a sincere and genuinely optimistic hope for those who emerge from the ashes. In tone, Day of the Dead is his 2001: A Space Odyssey, we but children taking our first steps, stumbling along the way, growing stronger with that which does not kill us.

In genre, however, Romero’s masterpiece is of a radically different equation; rooted primarily in the dark side of 50’s sci-fi earnestness, Day of the Dead is complicated by its pot boiler psychological dwellings. As pointed out by many – usually in a negative light – its characters are largely of the with-us-or-against-us breed, good or bad, heroic or villainous. Here, mankind has been whittled down to the simplest of its elements, each clinging desperately to the order of the old world and the structure – however destructive – provided by a social chain of command. Romero’s anti-militaristic diatribe, though, is but a surface decoration to the film's approximation of 80’s anxieties, and it is no coincidence that the film’s tyrannical soldiers and commanding officers are all of the strictly Caucasian and heteronormative persuasion. As the zombies outnumber the humans, so too does the status quo crush down upon the female, the black, the Spanish, the eccentric, the queer. 12 Angry Men dealt similarly in characters-as-representations but its straight-faced drama apparently made such walking metaphors legitimate in the eyes of the critical community. Forget them; Day of the Dead litters its understandably bickering personas and heady physical spaces with nuances and suggested depths galore, waxed gloriously by John Harrison’s criminally undervalued, sublime musical accompaniments. The first two acts of the film play out as a series of pushes and pulls between conflicting human interests, not unlike religious groups squabbling over he said/she said bullshit while the bigger picture hovers obviously and ominously over their heads. The final bloodbath, then, is not unlike the final judgment day followed by paradise – or a lack thereof.

The film’s many unspoken joys, however, come from the path to this suggested destination. The commanding Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) has gone apeshit at the apparent lack of progress made by the scientists under his care, their unstable working environment and almost total lack of resources notwithstanding. The most promising work comes from the research of the aforementioned Dr. Logan (amusingly called Frankenstein by the rest of the characters), although the soldiers – dick-obsessed and thuddingly literal-minded – are unable to see it. Of his many zombie specimens (rounded up and leashed by the soldiers for his experiments), it is the endearing Bub (Sherman Howard) who holds what may be the key for mankind’s survival. If Dawn of the Dead was Romero’s zombies-as-people shtick at its most nihilistic, then Bub is that film’s spiritual antithesis, an essentially reborn human literally learning to walk and talk again for the first time. Interaction with everyday items such as tape recorders and telephones reveals lingering memories and even – after a tense encounter with the asinine Rhodes – a retained capacity for moral judgment (here, even a zombie knows an asshole when it sees one). Indeed, the film’s characters are predictable in the sense of who will live and who will die, but naysayers of this point often fail to see how these respective paths mirror their individual commitment to or abandonment of a crumbling social order.

Like Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead begins with a character surfacing from the depths of a nightmare, here the leading Sarah (Lori Cardille), whose status as the lone female amongst so many hormone-raging, semen-backed-up males making her an easy emotional point of access for the audience (small critical tangent: could not Day of the Dead – with some minor technical tweaking – easily be the “mineshaft gap” sequel to Dr. Strangelove?). Repeatedly waking up from one surreal nightmare into another, Sarah’s prolonged escape mirrors our own collective social mires, our protagonists ultimately ascending from the hellfire into a heavenly light that purifies them of their penchant for self-destruction. Bub, meanwhile, establishes the first threads of civilized behavior by overcoming of his instinctive barbarity, while the nearsighted Rhodes – in one of the pinnacle villianairy dispatches in all of cinema – runs his empty-headed cockery into the deadest of dead ends. Day of the Dead attacks this central theme of human behavior ruthlessly, almost silently, turning it over time and again like a Rubik’s cube. This deconstruction is so encompassing that the climactic explosion of zombie mayhem – revealing and awesome though it is – is practically an afterthought.

Feature: 31 Days of Zombie!

Oct 28, 2007

Evil Dead II (1988): A-

A first time viewer might be forgiven for thinking Evil Dead II a work of impossible expectations. About twenty minutes in, the film has achieved so fierce a stylistic velocity that it seems about to drop over dead, as if it had overdosed on caffeine and gone into overdrive during its highly energized death rattle; its brilliance, then, comes in the form of its being able to sustain such delirious energy for an additional hour after this point of apparent exhaustion. The Evil Dead remains the stronger film if only for its relatively straightforward take on the same scenario, but this sequel/remake is something of a masterpiece unto itself; with a substantially larger budget at his disposal, director Sam Raimi essentially remade the film that jumpstarted his career, largely cutting down on the horror quotient and instead recasting the tale as one of frightful slapstick. Laughs notwithstanding, however, the film is just as unforgiving as its darker predecessor; viewers with heart conditions may want to keep their thumb near the pause button, lest their own health be put at unnecessary risk.

At the films outset, the slate has been wiped clean – in essence, the original Evil Dead never happened as far as this cinematic reality is concerned. Ash (Bruce Campbell) once again finds himself besieged by supernatural forces during his intended getaway time in a secluded mountain cabin, with demonic spirits wrecking his escape route and quickly breaking down the doors to his ramshackle shelter. No sooner than his girlfriend has been zombified than additional soon-to-be victims show up at his pathetic fortress: two archaeologists researching the malevolent Book of the Dead that resurrected the evil spirits in the first place, and two naïve locals hired to lead them to the cabin. In comparison to the minimalist plot of the original, these elements function as little more than decorations to the narrative, although they afford the necessary outlets for the indulgences of style that make up Evil Dead II’s haywire genius. The film isn’t so much postmodern as it is anarchy captured in a bottle, with every batshit crazy sight gag serving to further deconstruct its chosen genre trappings.

Such Tex Avery-inspired whimsy takes on many forms in Evil Dead II’s seemingly endless visual barrage, although none may be more delirious than a physically collapsing Ash forced to reckon with his own possessed hand, both as a still-attached extremity and, later – thanks to his ever trusty chainsaw – as a detached limb with a life of its own. Evil Dead II’s tendency towards self-references might have been knock worthy were the film not so regularly on the money; truly, Ash may be the grooviest of modern horror heroes, particularly with his makeshift chainsaw-arm and boom stick in hand. Such everything-and-the-kitchen-sink aesthetics, however, don’t prevent the film from maintaining the modest B movie craftsmanship of its predecessor, as Evil Dead II isn’t afraid to leave things a little rough around the edges. Such imperfections – like the roughly hewn projection effects of the final act, as well as some sketchy stop motion zombie animation – instill the film with creative, soulful fingerprints, while the sheer volume of highly noticeable continuity errors, whether intended or not, become a running gag all to themselves. Ultimately, the film is so impressive that it’s structural indebtedness to the enjoyable but inferior sequel Army of Darkness comes as something of a disappointment, if only because the open-ended conclusion is not unlike the tiniest leak in a wonderfully overstuffed bag of goodies.

Feature: 31 Days of Zombie!

Oct 27, 2007

Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974): B+

(AKA The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, Don't Open the Window.)

Although the social relevance of Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is likely to have had greater impact (and well-earned shock value) during its initial release, its intelligence in approximating the cultural conflicts of the day has since earned it the quality of timeless relevance, even if the film itself is relatively unknown compared to many of its 70's horror brethren. Two young people en route from London to the countryside are united in their heretofore separate journeys after a chance (albeit slight) collision disables one of their vehicles; suffice to say, their subsequent attempts to find their way about put them in precisely the wrong place at the wrong time. A pit stop to ask for directions sees the initial implementation of a new piece of machinery on a nearby farm; the device, channeling ultrasonic radiation capable of covering a radius of several miles, neutralizes the insect and parasite population by irritating the critters' nervous systems to the point where they kill each other off. Unbeknown to all (and strictly according to this film's brand of science), the nervous systems of recently deceased humans share similar qualities with such lower life forms, here reanimated and immediately turned into murderous beasts with a cannibalistic hunger for their living counterparts.

As dead bodies begin piling up about the humble countryside, the local law enforcement is quick to blame the two youngsters, who always happen to be present at each new crime scene and who - unfortunately for them (in a deeply ironic manner of speaking) - always manage to escape unharmed and without either witnesses or evidence to back up their innocence. Beneath the tangible zombie carnage unfolding on the screen, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is a potent exercise in radical/conservative tensions; the police chief, wary of the anti-establishment youth suddenly in his midst, is quick to blame them for the Manson-esque murders soon as look at them, knocking them for their "long hair and faggoty clothes." Our passively hippie protagonists, then, wage a layered battle: themselves versus the walking dead who want to tear out their innards and eat their faces, their progressive values versus the stubborn traditions of the authorities, and their naturalism versus the destruction wrought by modern technology. No moment of this multifaceted conflict is more potent than when a zombie attempts to break down a door safeguarding our protagonists, wielding a giant cross as a battering ram. Accused of Satanism, these youth make no proclamation to religion, the film's siding with them suggesting a skepticism towards any higher power amidst such unneeded hell on earth.

The method by which Let Sleeping Corpses Lie fuels its supernatural narrative remains a bit of a stretch but the film justifies itself by remaining unwaveringly true to its chosen brand of logic; in one particularly creepy scene, we learn that the nervous systems of infants are susceptible to the infecting radiation as well (it's a hospital nurse who learns this fact the hard way). Similarly are the characters occasionally thick-headed to the point of irritation (a not uncommon trait to a wide portion of the genre), but so too are the archetypes they deliberately embody. Even if judged on style alone, the film would be a triumph; though not much different from your typical lurching creeps, these zombies wheeze and moan like no other, a simple audio gimmick that is blatantly manipulative but absolutely creepy, not the least for its relative subtlety. Let Sleeping Corpses Lie artfully builds its atmosphere of spiritual (and social) unrest with its gliding cinematography, and the thrills pile up faster than any of its potential flaws or abandonments of logic. Though no Halloween or Carrie, this little gem is not unlike an undiscovered wine, long ripening and ready to be savored.

Feature: 31 Days of Zombie!

Oct 26, 2007

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988): C+

Despite the strongly emphasized exoticness its Haitian scenery, The Serpent and the Rainbow may be Wes Craven's most pedestrian film. This says a lot about a director who has defined his career largely through the presentation of everyday scenery perverted by the unexpected and the supernatural, from Freddy Kreuger's creepy distortion of his surroundings to the tight, uncanny claustrophobia of the seemingly innocuous Red Eye. This 1988 deviation deals with horror of a more singularly supernatural kind: how many of its bizarre events are tangible, as opposed to imagined terrors duking it out with a hypnotized reality? Such material would seem to befit Craven's surrealist sensibilities but the film never rises above a merely quotidian perspective; it stands more than a leg up from the condescending, desaturated color palates and cultural reduction of globe-hopping junk like The Last King of Scotland but its bourgeois form wants for mystery or intrigue. In the original Nightmare on Elm Street, we saw Freddy's wake of destruction, but it was his often unseen, wholly felt presence that worked the film's wonders. The Serpent and the Rainbow negates such potential through its disinterested aesthetic, and generally forgets the old adage that less can be more.

In traditional folklore, the earth was represented by a serpent and the heavens a rainbow, with all creatures dying somewhere between the two. Man's soul, however, allows him greater suffering than that which exists in the physical world, and it is this crux upon which the film builds itself and quickly falls stagnant. Bill Pullman is Dennis Alan, an American medical researcher sent to Haiti to investigate the apparent reanimation of the dead that has been documented by the locals; one man, known to have died and been buried over a decade prior, had just recently been photographed alive as could be. Dennis' investigations find him quickly involved in both the local radical movement against the oppressive government as well as voodoo practices that blur the line between reality and imagination - or, quite possibly, the physical world and that of the afterlife. Only sporadically does Craven effectively showcase these unearthly elements, and often time incidentally at that (such as the visual blackout when Dennis finds himself buried alive); most of the time, the film suggests and overly decorated haunted house, its art direction excessive to the point of implausibility, its literal evocation of the supernatural disappointingly leaden and unimaginative. Many of these flaws are relative but they nonetheless thirst for personality. From Pullman's clumsy narration to the complete lack of context for the narrative's central political conflict, the film amounts to little more than a lethargic tour guide.

Feature: 31 Days of Zombie!

Oct 25, 2007

The Evil Dead (1981): A

Sam Raimi's grueling debut feature toys with the viewer not unlike its own doomed characters, simultaneously playful and merciless. Although the initially obvious, almost over-the-top channeling of genre conventions (the creaking porch swing, ominous thunder and lightning to matching visual cues, the full moon blotted out of the sky by encroaching clouds) suggests little more than a jokey frolic through haunted house territory to come, it is this sly take on the material that allows the film to slowly turn into a nightmarish Jackson Pollock composition come alive before the audience even knows what hit them. Constructed on a minimal budget over the course of several years, Raimi's film is fiendish in its alternation between the perspective of predator and prey; even when the audience assumes the viewpoint of the film's roaring, malevolent spirits, the primal immediacy of these handheld shots totally disarms any notions of physical space or safety. Eli Roth might get his rocks off from literally torturing the audience but his chickenshit exploitation schlock knows not of such savagery.

Such off-the-cuff filmmaking befits material that has all but become horror legend over the past quarter century, itself indebted to countless tales come before it from all mediums of the genre. A weekend getaway with several college buddies ultimately sees Ash (Bruce Campbell) fighting for his life when unseen forces in the woods become alive and attack their secluded cabin; Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) senses something wrong after they discover the bizarre Book of the Dead in the cabin basement but her fellows scoff at any perceived notion of danger. It isn't long, then, before all hell is raining down on the cabin, with roving spirits infecting its occupants, turning them into zombie-like menaces bent on destruction. Raimi's full-frame compositions make the most of his probing wide-angle shots, with everything from the eerie excesses of his Guignol indulgences to Campbell's inimitable face mugging the camera accruing an extravagantly nightmarish quality that never wants for a few more dozen gallons of blood. The film seems lightweight but its thrills quickly become a pervasive force to be reckoned with; cheesy effects often appear ready to burst at the seams but Raimi's eye for lighting and audio/visual augmentation make for some of the most grotesque, prolonged sequences of unadulterated terror every shown in a theater, from one particularly demonic death rattle to Cheryl's literal rape by the thorny vegetation outside of the besieged cabin. Nearly unparalleled, The Evil Dead's no-holds-barred resourcefulness places it among the masterpieces of the genre.

Feature: 31 Days of Zombie!

Oct 24, 2007

The Dead Pit (1989): D-

Occupying that unfortunate space between the not-quite-painful atrocity and the so-bad-its-good spectacle of disaster, The Dead Pit instead stuns with its ineptitude around every corner without ever giving in to the trashy joys potentially affording by its bottom-of-the-barrel decor. To hell with being nice: this film is junk of the barely watchable kind, and recommended only to viewers with blood alcohol concentrations well above the legal driving limit. The right mindset can make even the most rancid movie enjoyable in a backwards, jeering manner, but The Dead Pit is virtually unforgivable in its glaring menace. Michael Bay may be reprehensible but at least his films are watchable in the technical sense of the word; the makers of The Dead Pit shouldn't be blamed for the obviously minimal budget at hand, but their complete ignorance to any style outside of the film's synthetic haunted house masturbation suggests deliberate intent to harm the audience. Incidentally enough, the film takes place in a mental hospital, and after experiencing something that makes The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies look good by comparison, such a locale may be just the respite one needs.

Ramshackle as it is from one moment to the next, the film actually has a somewhat discernible plot amidst its borderline nauseating imagery (seriously, try to not become disoriented by the roving hallway shots). Dr. Ramzi (Danny Gochnauer) is a brilliant surgeon whose genius has slowly given over to inhumanity and madness, and has taken to torturing and killing patients in his attempts to conquer death. To save both his life and his career, Dr. Swan (Jeremy Slate) kills Ramzi and leaves him to his hidden basement tomb ("Cask of Amontillado" style), where the reclusive doctor is quickly forgotten. Twenty years later, Swan encounters an amnesiac patient (Cheryl Lawson) spouting delusions about an evil surgeon and "the people in the basement," a prophecy that quickly comes to pass. Thanks to its cheapo videowork and synthetic score redundant of every other B horror flick of the 80's, The Dead Pit achieves a kind of hallucinatory madness in its drawn-out climax; the zombie makeup looks like shit but the grain is so artlessly heft that it's hard to tell the difference. Too bad, then, that the total sense of visual, narrative, and logical disorder prevents any of these bare-bones aesthetics from working in a way not akin to razor blades followed by lemon juice. The uniformly thankless and irony-free performances even strip the moments of gratuitous nudity of their campy would-be joys, while the cameraman seems to have perfected his ability to shoot every scene from the worst possible angle. One character, in a moment of self-sacrifice, exits not unlike James Cagney in White Heat; with about ten minutes to go before the end credits, he took the easy way out.

Note: Thanks go to my love Shannon for providing me with this hard-to-find gem of an inclusion. Anyone who has thus far enjoyed my output should personally thank her for her profound tolerance/support of my cinephilia. I adore you.

Feature: 31 Days of Zombie!

Oct 23, 2007

Shaun of the Dead (2004): B+

Shaun enjoys a simple kind of life: a shift on the job, a round of video games with his roommates, a brew at the local pub. It takes the near-destruction of society by the arisen legions of the undead (not to mention his long-delayed dumping by an embittered girlfriend) to wake this chap up to his ingrained apathy and dissatisfaction in life. Shaun of the Dead takes the basic premise of any number of self-betterment tales and sets it amidst one of the horror genre's most tried-and-true formulas, the result being a film that is at once plainly obvious and remarkably sharp-witted, the latter mostly thanks to the film's utter honesty in its exhibition of the former. Initially, this would seem to upset the very root of its satire, immediately connecting the metaphorical dots in presenting its alive-and-well human protagonists as nearly indistinguishable from the rotting zombies threatening to eat their faces. The alternating laughs and revelations, then, stem not from these correlations (which have grown increasingly more difficult to present without lending to tedium, Romero's brilliance be damned), but from their given acceptance and the subsequent attempts to overcome their damning accuracy. In this most apocalyptic of genres, Shaun of the Dead is not unlike a ray of unexpected sunshine - even if it has a little red on it.

Though leagues apart in their comedic tendencies, the film shares a spiritual kinship with 1999's Office Space, with both Ron Livingston's Peter Gibbons and Simon Pegg's Shaun striving to overcome their reliance on The Man amidst socially-reinforced oppression. Shaun, a man so passive and unaware that he can hardly walk down the block to the convenience store without tripping over himself, is himself stuck in a rut of personal insecurity and employment-based woes; while Ron found his personal freedom through an admonishment of superficial workplace responsibilities, Shaun discovers himself via whacking zombies in the head with a cricket bat. By means of modestly creative framing patterns and editing schemes, Shaun of the Dead milks its chosen dissatisfied-people-as-zombies shtick for all its worth (all the while throwing in a few choice homages to boot, this viewer's personal favorite involving the plan to rescue Simon's mother, the deliberately named Barbara), and though not all of its gags work as intended - a bit where four protagonists impersonate the living dead so as to pass through a crowd of zombies, unnoticed, fails purely for its total abandonment of reason - there's seemingly no limit to Simon Pegg's hilariously inane facial expressions. The genuinely undead help to pry this zombified laborer from the dead-end lifestyle he's come to accept for himself, and Shaun of the Dead, though not without its rough patches, evokes this skewering satire with a rambunctious attitude worthy of the most pointed gadflies.

Feature: 31 Days of Zombie!

Oct 22, 2007

Re-Animator (1985): A-

Gleefully tossing aside any perceived notions of good taste, Re-Animator established its maker as a premiere genre master in the same vein that Blood Simple and The Terminator announced the Coen Brothers and James Cameron to the world. Stuart Gordon's foray into the outer limits of life, death, and heads carried about by their decapitated former bodies is a nearly operatic exercise in splatter, hilarious and horrific all at once and utterly without apology. Though its button-pushing manipulations of sex and violence pale in the wake of the past 22 years worth of cinema, its raunchy sincerity remains a force to be reckoned with; although very much a black comedy, Re-Animator doubles as a touching love story delivered with equal levels of seriousness, the two qualities constantly pushing at one another with an electric fusion of energy. As if afraid he'd never be able to make another film, Gordon pulled out all the stops, the result being a dauntless work achieved only through the naivety of it being a practically impossible film to make in the first place. Too add audacity to boot, Richard Band's "original" score echoes Bernard Herrmann's arrangements for Psycho around every corner, appropriately complimenting both the learned compositions at hand as well as the many cinematic texts that Re-Animator throws into the viewers face at lightning speed.

The emboldened young medical student Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) arrives at Miskatonic University (a fictional school common in horror tales, first created by H.P. Lovecraft in his here-adapted tale "Herbert West-Reanimator") after a less than desirable ending to his studies in Switzerland. Though the epitome of professionalism, his pomposity is quickly at odds with the faculty of his new school, whose work he considers close-minded and outdated; his mission, slowly revealed, is to conquer "brain death" by providing life to deceased bodies well after the heretofore accepted point of no return. After a brouhaha with a resuscitated body sees the Dean of Admissions (Robert Sampson) killed (only to be reanimated as a raving lunatic), Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale) begins to interfere in West's experiments, in hopes to acquiring his secrets and claiming them for himself. Meanwhile, Megan (Barbara Crampton) - daughter of the Dean and fiance-in-secret to West's roommate Dan (Bruce Abbott) - suspects foul play, and works with Dan to uncover Dr. Hill's motives.

Though Herbert West remains the most iconic element of Re-Animator's postmodern indulgences - with neon green syringe in hand, no less - it is actually the oppressed relationship between Megan and Dan that provides the film with its much-needed emotional core, one that is ransacked by chance, evil schemes and misguided bouts of love. Gordon preludes their plights with touching moments of young love, although there is nary a doubt as to their imminent inclusion in the events ahead. Re-Animator's romanticism is genuine but understandably prone to complications of the supernatural kind; when Dr. Hill orders a walking cadaver to kidnap Megan - over whom he has held an unhealthy obsession for some time - the subsequent torture she finds herself subjected to is likely to derange any viewers sense of their physical self, gender notwithstanding. West's actions may borderline on the insane but his sense of right and wrong is ultimately in the right place, his ultimate fate continuing in the lexicon of mad scientists gone awry. Re-Animator's set-up is so delicious it threatens to diminish its payoff simply by comparison, with the ultimate explosion of zombie mayhem defined more by the energy of its performers than its sense of spectacle. In its best moments, the film itself practically leaps off the screen.

Feature: 31 Days of Zombie!

Oct 21, 2007

Close-Ups, Part III: "De-Faced" Close-Ups

This is the third post in a three-part contribution to Matt Zoller Seitz's Close-Up blog-a-thon, running October 12-21 at The House Next Door.

3:10 to Yuma (1957)


The Terminator (1984)

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Crash (1996)


In the Mood For Love (2000)

Lost in Translation (2003)

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (2004)

The Fountain (2006)

Three Times (2006)