Thursday, September 30, 2010

Zombies: Sprint or Shamble?

Zombies are in now more than ever. At work yesterday, the conversation among myself and a few co-workers somehow turned to Zombieland and 28 Days Later. I can't imagine a similar dialogue occurring 20, 10, or even five years. The undead have gone mainstream. Whether it's because they're in the stylish movies or fun games, zombies are hip, instead of lurking in the cultural underground. Zombieland was a certified blockbuster, and anticipation is building for Frank Darabont's The Walking Dead on AMC, the network of the Emmy-dominating Mad Men.

This relates to what I'm getting at. In a movie review of Resident Evil back in 2002, the online edition of GamePro magazine mentioned there were two paths a zombie movie could take: stark and serious, such as George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, or goofy and tongue-in-cheek, such as Peter Jackson's Dead Alive. Now the choice has narrowed from tone and intent to physical definition: should the living dead walk or run?

I feel part of the reason zombies are hip now is because many filmmakers are electing the latter. The sped-up, intense, chase-you-down hellcats from the likes of 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake keep pace with today's wired-in, connected, multitasking generation more so than stumbling ghouls. The world is speeding by, and we're seeing a parallel in undead cinema. Besides, the shambling zombies are viewed as more pathetic than terrifying. All one needs to do is walk around them and not act stupid. Fast zombies can carry a sequence matching any modern action scene.

Which I think is the problem.

Slow, lurching zombies have an aura to them. They're decomposing figures barely held to together by what's left of their rotting flesh and moving in a clumsy, almost comical manner. It's a fitting gait because what the living dead is is a parody of nature. The human body is an amazing example of biology. So many processes, chemical and otherwise, are in such careful balance, if any part of it is skewed, a person can't survive. Zombies, just by existing, are mocking the laws of science. This is not an argument that slower zombies are more realistic. They're just a reinforcement of that inherent contradiction.

A professor I know at Ohio Wesleyan, former Columbus Dispatch film critic Rich Elias, told me zombie movies are in right now because of the impending Social Security crisis in America. George Romero said Night of the Living Dead was about revolution, a new generation devouring an old one literally. While that film spoke of the counter-culture of the sixties, Elias' observation is almost an inverse: the old devouring the new. In the next few years, millions of Baby Boomers will retire, bringing with them increased financial burdens on the rest of us, whether it is medical or pension costs. When you think of a Baby Boomer retiree, do you think of a spry, healthy, energetic individual? No, with retirement comes old age, and in the worst sense of the phrase, old age brings a weakening body, loss of mental faculties, loss of energy, and less independence.

But I just walked into a trap. I already said fast zombies are in. If this elderly generation is about to wreak havoc on the nation, why are zombies running today? I don't know. The only explanation I can think of is it's a matching of modern sensibilities (speed) with the current socio-economic situation. Culture is fast, and zombies are relevant, so zombies must be fast too.

Still, cinematically slower zombies are more horrifying. Yes, one is easy to avoid. So is 5. 10? 20? 50? 1000? It's a numbers game. Fast zombies, while a more immediate danger, are limited in what filmmakers can do with them. They attack and chase; maybe they get you, maybe they don't. Rinse and repeat. If a movie has interesting characters surrounding it, such as 28 Days Later, that repetition can be averted. But really, once you reach a certain number of fast zombies, it really doesn't matter how many more you add. It serves the same purpose.

With slow zombies, the danger shifts depending how many there are. Think how many people die every day from normal illnesses, accidents, and whatnot. That adds up quickly. Sure an armed group can take down hundreds of zombies in a day if prepared, but how many people are that well supplied and equipped? And for how many days? The enemy is constantly replenished. It's a war of attrition against an untiring enemy. Fighting zombies in an open field or out in the street gives you freedom of movement, but going inside a building at night is another situation. That's true of fast zombies as well, but my point is to illustrate a comparable threat level.

Slow zombies are an accumulation of horror. Their numbers grow along with the sense of despair and hopelessness. One hideout is safe for a while, but you can't stay indefinitely. Whether it's to forage for supplies or because they found a way in, you'll have to leave. Would you feel safe anywhere? Could you sleep if you never stopped hearing constant moaning and scratching at the walls? I suppose the same effect can be achieved if fast zombies too, but those situations are usually resolved one way or another in a much shorter span of time. Fast zombies rise; the world's finished. Slow zombies; the world will end. It's the power of suggestion. The world will end eventually, and slow zombies give you a chance to think about that. With fast zombies, it's a decapitation, a fast, shocking death, a surprise. With slow zombies, it's a slow, piece-by-piece disembowelment, and you're fully aware as it happens.

Slow zombies give you a chance to confront death, this impartial, relentless state that doesn't care who you are, where you go, or what you do. It will claim you. A shambling ghoul is a haunting reminder you're next. This is your future: a pathetic, falling-apart creature. Fast zombies don't allow you a chance to ponder that fate. It's just attack, attack, and attack. That's not to say fast zombies don't have their place. Dan O'Bannon hilariously sent up genre expectations of slow zombies with The Return of the Living Dead by having his ghouls run and sprint after their victims, and Danny Doyle showcased rage personified with the infected of 28 Days Later.

But consider how many memorable shambling zombies they're have been over the years versus the number of memorable fast zombies. In some cases, the slow zombies become equal characters (Bub in Day of the Dead). They have detail and texture you can infer so much from (wedding dresses, fishing rods), and you can get a sense of what they were when they were alive. It's tragic. The fast zombies usually become memorable on their own only when the pace slows enough to showcase them (the half-corpse tied to a slab in The Return of the Living Dead). When zombies are running, you can probably replace them with any mutant, alien, or creature that chases and bites people, and it woudn't alter the movie too much. Running zombies turn the living dead into just another monster.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Hard Boiled

Whenever I hear someone say Transformers or another big budget, Hollywood blockbuster of its ilk is a great action movie (or even entertaining) I tell them to watch Hard Boiled (1992) by John Woo. No one can tell me it still doesn't blow out of the water any of today's shaky-cam, slow-mo, mindless, blow-something-up-every-five-minutes bore fests. In terms of pure action, Hard Boiled is still hard to top.

After his partner is killed in a sting gone wrong, police inspector "Tequila" Yuen (Chow Yun-Fat) develops a vendetta against arms dealer Johnny Wong (Anthony Wong) and moves against him. Meanwhile, Alan (Tony Leung), an assassin loyal to another arms dealer, "Uncle" Hoi (Kwan Hoi Sang), is courted by Johnny Wong because the gangster is impressed by his skill. Eventually, Tequila and Alan's paths cross. Countless bullets are expended, and the body count soars in the process.

The plot's thin (reportedly the script was drastically rewritten just before filming because the original plot involving a psycho who poisons baby formula was too repugnant). The narrative is used for little more than to justify how the characters end up in different places, and some aspects, such as Tequila's relationship with his girlfriend (Teresa Chang), feel as if they're missing scenes.

The actors make up for the vagueness. Yun-Fat gets to be something of a Hong Kong Dirty Harry, guns blazing, grizzled, tough, no time for procedure. Leung plays several angles, and you sense he is morally torn by the choices he has to make. Sang is like the Asian version of Don Corleone, a criminal but not without his code of honor, and Wong is suitably slimy. Even the smaller roles impress: criminal muscle Mad Dog, informant Foxy, and the police superintendent manage to distinquish.

But no one watches Hard Boiled for the story or characters; it's the acton and gunfighting. As Johnny Wong states, "In this world, the man who holds the guns rules the world." Everything gets shot up. Someone else probably said it, but it fits: it's a ballet of bullets. The shootouts remain to this day some of the best action sequences I've ever seen.

It's been said endless action get repetitive and boring, but Woo avoids that pitfall by providing enough breaks and mixing up the scenario. No action scene is like the one that follows (apart from the use of guns). Woo is inventive with his camera, wooshing, diving, and following his protagonists. It's not just two groups standing still and firing at each other while the camera goes bezerk to be "realistic." Woo manages to keep the camera steady so the action is clear and visible. The slow motion is used for more than "Hey! Neat!" moments. It shows off important details and action we otherwise would have missed. We get characters sliding down stairs, swinging from the ceiling, attacking on motorcycles, fighting hand-to-hand, and more. In one scene, the police evacuate a maternity full newborns by rapelling down the side of a building. Woo also mixes up the locales: tea house, small boat, warehouse, hospital, morgue, bridge. It never gets monotonous.

Woo doesn't shy away from showing the consequences of violence. Blood flies everywhere, innocent people are caught in the crossfire, and property is destroyed. It's not sanitized like similar Hollywood productions of mass destruction. Directors like Roland Emmerich, Stephen Sommers, and Michael Bay usually gloss over this side of the equation, making all the violence we see look fun and safe. While the action set pieces here are outlandish and over-the-top, they carry real weight behind them. The effects are tangible. People bleed and hurt.

So that's Hard Boiled, which still holds up as one of my favorite action movies. Forget the tame theatrics of formualic blockbusters. This mops the floor with just about anything Hollywood has churned out in the last twenty years. If you're going to concentrate solely on action, it better stand out and show me something I haven't already seen a million times. Hard Boiled does just that.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Year of the Zombie: 1985

Author's note: this was originally a Facebook note I did on October 30, 2009. Since I have plans for the month of October for this blog, I decided to post this note now to get it out of the way and have it in an easy-to-access place. The only difference is I added pictures. Hope you enjoy.

In honor of Halloween, I thought I'd discuss a rather prolific year in the undead sub-genre. The strange thing, in 1985, the height of sequel sameness, all these zombies were different and unique in their own way. Today, everyone is making zombie movies, and they all seem the same, but for some reason, back then, that wasn't the case. I think I'd attribute that to the different creative minds involved then, compared the assembly line Hollywood has become now.

Anyway, here are the main zombie movies to arrive in theaters in 1985. Any of them would make a great Halloween viewing. Just don't bring snacks.

Day of the Dead: George Romero's third (and for twenty years, final) zombie movie, continuing with the legacy that began with Night of the Living Dead in 1968 and Dawn of the Dead in 1978.

By now, zombies outnumber humans 400,000 to 1, and a group of scientists and soldiers have holed up in a missile bunker, desperately seeking a solution. One scientist, nicknamed Frankenstein, believes in taming the zombies, teaching them not to attack. Tensions are high as the soldiers, led by the psychotic Captain Rhodes, grow increasingly agitated and impatient with the seeming lack of results.

Definitely the goriest and bleakest of Romero's Dead films, Day is something of a black sheep because it's not as groundbreaking as Night or as fun as Dawn, but it's my personal favorite. Many people dismiss it as too talky and repetitive, but Romero takes the time to examine philosophical and social issues of the time, especially the jingoistic, militaristic policies of Reagan, man's inability to communicate with each other, and the nature of what makes us human.

The Return of the Living Dead: A spoof of Romero's work, it actually proved to be more successful than Day. Both a witty send-up and an effective horror piece in its own right, Return was written and directed by Dan O'Bannon, the screenwriter for Alien.

Postulating that Night of the Living Dead was an actual event, Return shows the results of an industrial chemical leaking out and creating a legion of brain-hungry zombies. And these aren't stupid shamblers; these zombies run, think, and outwit their human victims. They even talk. Plus, a bullet to the brain won't put them down; they have to chopped into pieces and completely incinerated.

Return also takes the time to show two doomed humans slowly transform into the undead, providing some of the biggest laughs as the paramedics inform them they have no pulse, blood pressure, or body temperature. The zombies themselves are well designed, particularly the tar man and the half-woman.

Re-Animator: Based on the work of H.P. Lovecraft, this would probably offend him because it deviates from the source material and tosses in a load of gore, but for fans of dark humor, it doesn't get much better than this. Mad scientist medical student Herbert West (played to perfection by Jeffrey Combs) has a developed a re-agent that brings the dead back to life, bringing death and destruction on all those around him.

Although a zombie movie, Re-Animator is closer in kinship to Frankenstein. The ghouls aren't flesh-eating walking corpses so much as reactivated bodies imbued with a consciousness that has rendered them insane and violent. Think of them as really cranky people who just woke up from a very deep sleep with their brain functions ceased.

The movie is much more controlled than the premise would suggest. The jokes are built up logically and told in an absolute straight-faced manner with buckets of blood. It's not slapstick so much as it is situational irony and context. Stand out scenes include an angry black cat, a gruesome morgue resurrection, and a visual pun involving a severed head. Sick and twisted, but well-crafted.

Lifeforce: Tobe Hooper's first movie after Poltergeist, he goes for broke. He includes Hayley's Comet, space vampires, soul-sucking zombies, the destruction of London, a murder mystery, body hopping, insane asylums, psychic connections, outer space hijinks, glass coffins, giant bat creatures, and Patrick Stewart kissing a man.

The plot doesn't make much sense. Astronauts find these humanoid creatures in the tail of Haley's Comet, but they turn out to be vampires that suck the souls out of people, leaving their victims dessicated husks who seek more victims until London is overwhelmed. Technically, these are vampires, but the victims are zombie like, and that's good enough for me. They need to drain the lifeforce out of people every two hours, or they dry up and disintegrate.

A huge failure at the box office, this movie ruined Hooper's chances in Hollywood, but it's great fun in the tradition of space operas. The original title was The Space Vampires, but that was changed to the more serious-sounding Lifeforce by the studio to make into a blockbuster. It's wild and outrageous, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Thanks for reading. I hope you seek these movies out and enjoy them.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Vampire Hunter D(ream)

Let me preface this entry with mention that I do not believe in the supernatural. Yes, there are things mankind does not comprehend, and there are genuine, inexplicable phenomena in our world, but I trust science to eventually catch up to those mysteries or for them to remain unsolved. I don't buy into the notion of any dark forces plotting to destroy our lives and lead us toward damnation (except maybe lobbyists).

With that said, I feel compelled to discuss a recurring dream of mine over the past few years, one in which I play vanquisher of the evil undead. By that, I mean vampire hunter (or slayer for you Buffy fans). I don't believe in vampires. Sure, there are weirdos who think they are, and maybe they drink blood, but they aren't the supernatural creatures of folklore. They're posers in black clothing and makeup.

It's not the same dream every time. Sometimes, I'm like Blade, leaping from building top to building top like a superhero, plowing through everything in supersonic speed. Others, I'm like James Woods in John Carpenter's Vampires, storming into an infested building with guns, crossbows, and pikes like a modified SWAT officer/outlaw. Then, there are mixture of other scenarios, mostly influenced by the movies and books I've seen: confronting Rutger Haur as he was in Buffy the Vampire the Slayer, hiding in a winter setting as in 30 Days of Night, and cradling a makeshift crucifix in a bedroom as night falls in Salem's Lot. (Thankfully, never Hugh Jackman's Van Helsing. That movie angers me.)

It wouldn't be unfair to conclude the dreams are influenced by my media consumption. In fact, the most recent dream would support that. I received a wooden stake to be used in a historic barn reconstruction as part of a press package, and later in the day, I read a review for Faust, which was made by Nosferatu director F.W. Murnau.

But still, isn't more fun to probe for some deeper meaning? According to one website (Dream Moods Dream Bank), dreams about fighting vampires suggest feeling drained of energy and autonomy. Fighting vampires is a literal depiction of trying to keep things in order, and suffering from exhaustion or feeling overwhelmed might attribute to that.

So does that mean I'm completely dominated by what life has thrown my way? I just moved to Columbus, have my first job after college, am facing student loan repayments in November, and I can go on, but that will probably bore you. I like my new job, and I enjoy my new independence. I admit I'm still getting settled. It doesn't explain the previous dreams over the years. Was I feeling equally stressed and overwhelmed at all those times? I don't think so.

You know, before five minutes ago, I hadn't found any interpretations of vampire hunter dreams, just vampires. Assuming that explanation is true, it's disappointingly banal. I suppose even though I am something of a skeptic, I guess I was hoping for something more mind blowing. Of course, maybe I'm merely repressing what I really want to say and how I feel. Maybe the vampire dream is more appropriate than I'd like to admit. In Rashomon, people can't be honest with themselves, and maybe those fantasy dreams about things I don't believe have more truth than I'd like to admit. Or maybe I just watch too many movies.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Lifeboat

Leave it to Alfred Hitchcock to turn a cliched scenario into something compelling. That's what he does with 1944's Lifeboat; he took a stock setup with a cross section of stereotypes, dumped them in a pressure cooker, and watched them crack.

A freighter carrying passengers and cargo to London is sunk by a German U-boat, which even fired on the lifeboats as they were deployed. But the ship's crew managed to knock out the u-boat with a well-placed shell, and survivors of the freighter begin collecting on a lifeboat that somehow escaped destruction. We meet a hodgepodge of people including socialite reporter Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), no-nonsense engine worker Kovac (John Hodiak), injured crewman Gus (William Bendix), shipyard owner Mr. Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), nurse Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), and others. Soon, another is brought on board: a German sailor (Walter Slezak). After debating what to do with him (Kovac favors of throwing him overboard), the group decides to keep him, not knowing if he's trustworthy. Without working navigational equipment, the survivors sail on, hoping to reach land or a ship.

Hitchcock filmed the entire movie on one set. The effect is isolating and claustrophobic; even with all that ocean space, there's nowhere to go. It's an impressive job; it really feels for the most part these characters are adrift at sea (only the star-lit sky is obviously artificial). There is an immediacy of physicality. Watching it, you feel cold and wet when they get blasted by waves, and when they aren't progressing as the sun beats down, you become anxious for a drink. In fact, several of the actors got pneumonia, and one almost drowned.

To keep the story from going adrift, Hitchcock sprinkles in challenges the character must overcome: a storm, debates over command and captive, low supplies, and a makeshift amputation. The true nature of the German is revealed gradually. We the audience see him doing things behind the others' backs, but we're not too sure what he's going for until later.

Other subplots aren't as successful. We get a lot of back story for some, usually referring to loved ones elsewhere, and those weren't really needed. The exception is Gus' background as a dancer with a girl back home. He doesn't want to lose his leg because he thinks she'll run off with an old boyfriend, but Constance uses logic against him in a satisfying manner. The difference is that moves the story along; it convinces Gus to get the amputation. The others -Alice's affair, the attraction between Kovac and Constance (not very convincing. Their interaction is best as intense dislike) - feel like padding. Even at 90 minutes, the movie feels overlong.

And not even Hitchcock was above throwing in a token black guy, Joe (Canada Lee). Reportedly, John Steinbeck (who wrote the story) was offended by what he saw as Hitchcock's racist condescension. I'm merely bothered he didn't give him more to do than play an instrument and occasionally help the others.

Still, when the movie focuses on the situation and how the characters are dealing with it and each other, the movie's great. While pretty tense and harrowing, it's pretty funny, particularly with Bankhead's character. When we first see her, she's wearing a mink coat and sitting comfortably on board with all her luggage and a camera while the others are covered with oil and dirt and shivering. Over the course of the movie, we see her lose all symbols of her status and position.

The movie is also heartbreaking at times. Early on, Joe brings in a shell-shocked woman (Heather Angel) and her infant (never seen beyond a bundle), and the baby dies shortly after. When she comes out of delirium, the woman asks where her baby is. The next morning, she's missing and so is the anchor.

There was a controversy at the time of release because some critics saw it as pro-Nazi. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The movie is a call for people to band together and forget their petty differences to repel fascism.

SPOILER ALERT.
The German is the craftiest, most intelligent character in the movie and the most accomplished sailor (he's the captain who ordered the attack on the lifeboats). He leads them to a German supply boat, hordes hidden water and vitamins, and hides his true evil behind a jolly exterior. He's a murderer and a manipulator, but when they unite against them, he's powerless.
END SPOILER ALERT

Lifeboat is not listed among Hitchcock's notable works, but it's a riveting exercise in tension in a deliberately restricted filmmaking environment. While it drags at times, it definitely shouldn't be overlooked. And yes, Hitch still gets a cameo.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Metal's Year: 1980

Heavy metal traces its origins back to such classic rock groups of the sixties and seventies such Led Zeppelin, Cream and Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath came along in 1970 with their eponymous debut album and really codified the sound, themes, and attitude. So while this time period certainly had its share of talent musicians and groundbreaking songs, I can't help but examine the genre's history and conclude 1980 to be heavy metal's most memorable and rewarding year. Disco was dead. The big hair and pop style of the eighties had yet to take hold, and several bands hit their creative and commercial peaks in 1980. Two were making comebacks after losing their front men, two were establishing themselves as legends, and two more were making their debuts with arguably their greatest works.

Coming into 1980, AC/DC was on a roll. With Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, Let There Be Rock, and Highway to Hell behind them, they looked unstoppable. Then tragedy struck. Singer Bon Scott was found dead in a friend's car on Feb. 19, a night of exorbitant drinking resulting in acute alcohol poisoning. The band soldiered on. With new front man Brian Johnson, the band recorded Back in Black, a tribute to Scott and the group's biggest success. When I saw band live in January 2009, half the songs were from the Bon Scot era, and the other half were from the Brian Johnson period. Of the Johnson half, they performed "Hells Bells," "Shoot to Thrill," "Back in Black," and "You Shook Me All Night Long." Those four titles should tell you just how well the album holds up.

AC/DC wasn't the only band in need of a replacement singer, albeit for different reasons. By the end of Ozzy Osbourne's tenure, Black Sabbath was in a rut. Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die came off as tired and unenthusiastic, and drug abuse was also taking its toll, particularly on Ozzy. In 1979, he was fired. Enter Ronnie James Dio, formerly of Rainbow. Dio injected the fresh blood Sabbath needed, and the result was 1980's Heaven and Hell. Gone were the slow, chugging riffs of the early Ozzy era, and in their place were fast, intense cuts that matched anything other groups were doing at the time. Standouts include the title track, "Neon Knights," "Lonely is the Word," and "Children of the Sea." While there's no denying Ozzy's haunting wail is the voice of metal, Dio's clearly was the better singing voice, reaching a power and clarity Ozzy couldn't.

But Ozzy wasn't out. Ozzy went solo, finding a brilliant young guitarist in Randy Rhoads. Blizzard of Oz screamed to the world that Ozzy was back with a vengeance. Go to any sports arena, and you'll hear "Crazy Train." It's a metal song even non-metalheads acknowledge as great. Let's not forget "I Don't Know," "Mr. Crowley," and the short, surprisingly tender solo "Dee." While I rate the followup Diary of a Madman as superior, Blizzard was Ozzy's declaration that he was a force to be reckoned with.

Another new band emerged when Iron Maiden released its self-titled debut album. Maiden was part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, which ditched the earlier blues influence of heavy metal for something faster, harsher, and more punk-driven. At this point, Bruce Dickinson had yet to join the band; the lead singer was Paul Di'Anno, and he has a more guttural, less refined voice than Dickinson. Instead of the fantasy epics of Maiden's glory run, this early work is grittier and more street gang-like. The songs, save for a couple of slower ballads, are shorter and more aggressive, the kind of music people itching for a fight listen to. While not the best album in the band's canon, it's an important first step.

1980 also saw two other New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands solidify their spot at the top of the mountain: Judas Priest with British Steel and Motorhead with Ace of Spades. Both groups had already released several albums and been together for some time, but these were their breakthrough successes. Judas Priest, more so than any other band, codified the look, feel, and spirit of heavy metal: the leather and chains, the industrial sound, the sense of rebellion, and the go-to-hell attitude. Sabbath pioneered metal, but Priest entrenched it. Everyone knows "Breaking the Law," but such classics as "Metal Gods," "Rapid Fire," and "Living after Midnight" offer an excellent crash course on the sound and appeal of heavy metal.

With Ace of Spades, Motörhead brought together heavy metal, punk, and classic rock into one blend. The sound is metal, the attitude punk, and the rhythm rock. Lemmy does not have a good singing voice, but it's the perfect fit for Motörhead. The title track, "Love Me Like a Reptile," "(We are) The Road Crew," and "Shoot You in the Back" are not sappy love songs to croon. Lemmy rasps and growls fast, intense, merciless rockers that shake you to the core. This is the album to listen to when downing alcohol at a rundown bar where everyone looks ready for a fight. There's never been any question about Motörhead selling out. The band is a force of nature: unstoppable and unchangeable.

So there you have it, my reasons for why 1980 was the greatest year for heavy metal. These bands, like the genre, had their ups and downs, but everything gelled in 1980. The sound, the look, the feel, the attitude, and the success aligned. I'm sure there are other groups I've left off, but right here, these groups represented the cream of the crop at this time .

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Mustaine

The day of the American Carnage show, I bought Dave Mustaine's autobiography (co-written by Joe Layden) and attended a book signing. Mustaine, for those that don't know, is the front man for Megadeth; he's its primary songwriter, vocalist and guitarist. When I met him, I had been waiting for more than an hour, and from the looks of the line, he had at least another hour to go. He appeared bored, but he was pleasant, and he put on a good show that night. I thought it was funny this signing took place at Joseph-Beth Booksellers at Legacy Village, a rather trendy and expensive shopping district. Most people there for Mustaine looked like they'd never been in this kind of bookstore before. The line snaked all through the store up to the second floor, and the few regular customers who showed up were probably disconcerted to see the mass black t-shirts with insignias for Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax.

Anyway, on to the book itself. It's a compelling read, moves along a brisk pace, and Mustaine is brutally honest about his personal demons and drug addictions. He discusses everything from growing up in split household and constantly moving, living with Jehovah's Witnesses, getting into music, joining and subsequently getting fired from Metallica, forming Megadeth, spiraling into fame and addiction, getting married, finding success and failure, rehab, relapse and becoming a born-again Christian to growing tired of Megadeth, damaging his fret hand, and then reforming Megadeth. No stone is left unturned.

I went in expecting an unending tirade against James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich of Metallica, and while Mustaine is honest about why he feels the way he does, he doesn't dwell on it. He offers his reasons for feeling bitter and resentful -being forced to leave just as the band was hitting it big, no second chance, having to ride a bus from New York to California after getting the news, seeing his contributions marginalized, feeling Megadeth didn't achieve the same level of success - but he admits his own faults. He drank too much, lost his temper a lot, caused trouble, and missed indications there was trouble in paradise.

Mustaine covers a lot of history, and it feels like he only has time to skim over some important stuff. The book feels less like a narrative and more like an extended chronological self-interview in which Mustaine states his beliefs and summarizes his experiences. People kind of fade in and out of the timeline, so the reader rarely gets a defined view of someone beyond what Mustaine tells us they were like. I guess it goes back to that rule of show, don't tell.

However, Mustaine has an ironic, sarcastic sense of humor. At one point, he notes he found out more about doing and acquiring drugs in rehab and AA than anywhere else. He doesn't sugarcoat. He's blunt, and he does have interesting stories to share. For example, I had no idea he tried to woo Kerry King into Megadeth during the initial stages of Slayer's formation.

Overall, the book is fast, interesting read. Megadeth fans have probably already read it, but non-metalheads might find some interest. Mustaine explains the appeal of heavy metal and thrash, offers some of the musical theories behind them, and he's an fascinating individual. Yes, it's limited in scope, but that's the nature of autobiographies. The book gets into the mind of Mustaine.