Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Minority Report

If you know the future, presumably you can change it. If you knew about Lee Harvey Oswald beforehand, you could possibly stop JFK's assassination. Or, maybe it's the very knowledge of what's to come that drives you to it. MacBeth probably wouldn't have murdered Duncan had the witches not prophesied he'd be king. That question of self-determination versus fate lies at the heart of Steven Spielberg's Minority Report (2002), based on a story by Phillip K. Dick, author of the works that inspired Blade Runner and Total Recall.

In the year 2054, John Anderton (Tom Crusie) is the chief of a Washington D.C. law enforcement agency known as Precrime. Using the power of three "Pre-Cogs," humans with psychic ability, the officers of Precrime are able to stop murder before it occurs. Homicides have not occurred in D.C. in six years as a result. The system is turned on its head when Anderton is identified as the future murderer of Leo Crowe, a man Anderton's never heard of. Anderton flees his own agency, pursued by Justice Department Detective Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell) who seems to have his own agenda.

Minority Report is almost like an inverse of Blade Runner. Instead of a grimy, cyberpunk, industrial dystopia in Ridley Scott's film, Spielberg sets his world in a brighter, cleaner, more optimistic metropolis. Instead of the morally (and biologically) ambiguous Rick Deckard hunting down his quarry, Anderton is an upstanding citizen who becomes hunted by the system he helped build. If Blade Runner is futuristic film noir, Minority Report is a Hitchcockian chase about the man wrongfully accused.

The paradox driving the plot is how Anderton both looks more guilty as he tries to clear his name and how he would not have been pushed toward this destiny had no one predicted it. He never would known about Crowe if no one had never told him he would murder him. The film is also remarkably clever in the ways it explores its central gimmick: determining how someone could get away with a murder in this environment and the idea the Pre-Cogs, though never wrong, can disagree.

Of course, this society almost doesn't need psychics. Retinal scanners track everyone; billboards and advertisements play personalized jingles and offers when someone's eyes are scanned. These little metallic spiders crawl through apartment buildings to search for suspects. In a sequence that's disquieting and darkly funny, we see them scuttle through a number of rooms, interrupting an arguing couple who pause to allow the search and then resume fighting when the machines leave as if nothing happened. Privacy is dead.

Spielberg loads plenty of action scenes: a chase involving a squad of cops on jet packs, Anderton leaping from car to car as they descend down a vertical highway, and the sequence when Anderton and one of the Pre-Cogs (Samantha Morton) sneak through a mall relying on her powers to know when to stop and go.

Minority Report is certainly one of the better sci-fi movies in recent years. Instead of mindless scenes of destruction, there are some intriguing ideas put forward, and the special effects, quite good, don't overwhelm the story. It's good stuff.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Hey Rube

I've only read one other book by legendary Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, and that's Hell's Angels. It was a fascinating inside look at the notorious biker gang. My only other connection to Thompson is Terry Gilliam's adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas, which for the most part I found a chore to sit through but admired a lot of the craft and performances that went into it.

Hey Rube (2004) isn't so much a book as it is a collection of essays and columns Thompson wrote for ESPN.com from November 2000 to October 2003 and assembled into one package. There's no overarching narrative to connect the entries. Most consist of Thompson's musings on the 2000 Presidential election, September 11, government, the media, and any other topic that catches his interest or ire but mostly gambling and football.

Now, I played a little football in high, middle and even elementary school, and by the time I got out of it, I counted the experience as the most miserable in my life. Something about out-of-shape, overweight middle-aged men screaming at me to hustle and go along with stupid chants and cheers while sermonizing without any irony I would look back on those years as the best in my life irked me. The mystery is why I put with it for so long.

I rant just illustrate how little football means to me. Sure, I'm happy when the Browns do well and occasionally watch a game on TV, but I don't follow it. Likewise, I'm not gambler and understand nothing of odds, spreads, and bets. So when I say Hey Rube did not do much to hold my interest, I hope you understand why.

There are entertaining and funny passages and entries , particularly about the 2000 Election, the short-lived XFL, and what Thompson would doto improve baseball (one way, eliminate the pitcher). But even though most entries are short, I rarely could muster the enthusiasm to read more than one or two at a time.

Thompson was clearly a good writer, but this collection feels more like inside notes for people more knowledgeable about Thompson, his work, and whatever he writes about. I'm not in that circle. So many people pop in and out of the columns, I often had no clue what he was talking about and whether any of it was factual. Thompson is known for mixing fact and fiction, but I wish he could have made it more coherent here.

Hey Rube probably would have worked better to have read it at the time these essays were written as the events described happened. Ten years after the fact, I'm lost. I imagine more devout fans of Thompson will and sports will enjoy this more.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Salvador

Wartime reporting is certainly among, if not the most, dangerous jobs in journalism. Dropped into combat without a weapon and sometimes thousands of miles from the nearest safe zone, war correspondents probably have to be lucky as they are skilled and careful. There's not even a guarantee what you write or photograph will be printed or broadcast anyway. The question is why would anyone want to risk life and limb to cover a far-off conflict.

Those such as Ernie Pyle shared the plight of the infantryman in World War II Europe with the folks back home and connected them to families. Vietnam War photographers such as Eddie Adams and Nick Ut cut through the government and military spin and revealed the ugly reality going on over there on behalf of the American people. Covering a war is the chance to report something important.

In Oliver Stone's Salvador (1986), wartime photographer Richard Boyle (an Oscar-nominated James Woods), sees the outbreak of civil war in El Salvador as a chance to salvage his career, which has been devastated by alcoholism and coasting on his past successes. Dragging along friend Dr. Rock (James Belushi), Boyle literally drives into the Central American conflict, encountering and being threatened by the right-wing dictatorship, the left-wing guerrillas, American embassy personnel and military, and humanitarian aid workers. As the violence escalates, Boyle attempts to both capture the events and get his Salvadorean girlfriend (Elpidia Carrillo) and her children out of the country.

I've never found Oliver Stone to be an uninteresting filmmaker. Even in his bad movies, he has a unique, ambitious vision, and several of his films raise important questions, even if some are mostly polemic and aren't particularly subtle. Although it predates Platoon, Wall Street and JFK, Salvador clearly is a Stone movie and contains many of what would become his hallmarks: gritty violence, morally ambivalent protagonists, criticism of U.S. foreign policy, the power and distortion of media, and in-your-face direction. It certainly showed he was a talent to watch.

The media are presented in two extremes. There are the ground-level photographers represented by Boyle and John Cassady (John Savage) who seek the truth. They dig deep, look for the ugly side, and try to expose them. But there's also television reporter Pauline Axelrod (Valerie Wildman) who reports from the safety of embassies and compounds, accepting the official story from government leaders who secretly order execution squads throughout the city, and by reporting that line, she aids in the creation of those lies. Reporting can be vital or harmful.

Woods' Boyle reminded me of Hunter S. Thompson: a self-destructive journalist wandering from incident to incident, encountering strange people in strange locations, and reflecting that back on what America is all about. The shot of him and Dr. Rock riding down the highway in a red convertible feels straight out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. However, Boyle is more intense and less whimsical and bizarre. He's just so cynical, he doesn't give a crap how people view him.

Salvador works best when buried in the middle of the chaos of the conflict and concentrates on Boyle's photography and what he's trying to accomplish. It feels gritty, authentic, and intense. Unfortunately, the movie tends to meander around other plot lines, and that drags and distracts. Still, Salvador is worth a watch.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Count Dracula (1977)

Television is both an open and restrictive venue for film. This 1977 version of Count Dracula was originally a two-part British television series, and while it is limited by the medium, it's certainly one of the more faithful and traditional takes on the classic story.

Solicitor Jonathan Harker (Bosco Hogan) journey to Castle Dracula in Transylvania to oversee the sale of an English estate to the count (Louis Jourdan). Dracula, through suave and cultured, projects an eerie menace and aura. Soon, Harker learns of the count's unnatural power and realizes he's his prisoner, and Dracula moves to England for new blood to quench his unholy appetite. He targets two sisters: Lucy (Susan Penhaligon) and Mina Westenra (Judi Bowker), who is Harker's fiance. Institutionalized Renfield (Jack Shepard) seems to cue into Dracula's presence while Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Frank Finlay) arrives with his knowledge of the occult to battle the undead.

At nearly two-and-a-half hours long, its probably the most faithful and complete interpretation of Bram Stoker's novel. Unlike versions that move plot points around and excise numerous elements, this one doesn't feel truncated. While there are some changes, they aren't as jarring as other adaptations.

The film is subtitled as a Gothic romance, which is the best way to approach this version. The horror elements are toned down, and those that are there aren't very effective. Scenes that indicate Dracula's power with a colored filter, negative footage, and distorted frame come off as more laughable than terrifying. The more straightforward aspects -subtle fangs on victims, an infant delivered from Dracula to his brides, Lucy's transformation and staking - are better because they feel less gimmicky.

Since this is filmed for British TV, the interiors are shot on video, and it makes the movie look cheap at times. In fact, it's probably best to treat this less a movie and more as a taped play. The sets and camera angles are limited, and the film concentrates on performances than anything. On that level, it is a rousing success.

Jourdan carries the show as Dracula. He's got that cultured, suave foreign aristocrat part down mixed in with a subtle dark menace. He's cold and calculating yet has an undeniable charm. In some ways, he's last of the traditional cinematic vampires; later variations have either played up the savagery (Salem's Lot is skulking monster) or pumped up the romantic elements (Frank Langella's very sexualized Dracula just two years later). This is one of the last vampires I can think of that balances both.

Nearly stealing the show from Jourdan is Finlay as Van Helsing (who would play a similar role in Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce). He doesn't show up until the second half, but you believe him as both a trusted intellectual and occult expert. There's also Shepard's Renfield, probably the most tortured and least deranged version of the character.

Although dated, Count Dracula holds up fairly well, and that's largely do to the strength of its performances. I didn't find it scary, but it explores and translates more plot, character, and themes from Stoker's novel than just about anything other version. Die-hard vampire fans would do well to seek it out.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Legend

Director Ridley Scott's 1985 effort Legend includes almost every element of childhood fantasy possible: fairies, goblins, demons, swords, witches, monsters, spells, and innocence. The movie is a sincere attempt at a deliberate, symbolic meditation on childhood and growing up, but despite some strong elements, it didn't hold my interest.

Princess Lilly (Mia Sara) is shown the unicorns by forest boy Jack (Tom Cruise), and she can't resist touching one. Somehow, this enables goblins to spring a trap, killing one of the unicorns and cutting off its horn. The goblins work for the Lord of Darkness (Tim Curry), a demonic figure seeking to cover the world in unending nightfall. By eliminating the unicorns, the embodiment of good and pureness, he will accomplish his goal. Soon, he also captures Lilly, and it's up to Jack and a group of mythical forest creatures to save her and the world.

For a setup that seems to promise an epic tale, the plot for Legend is rather thin. Not much really happens for long stretches, and we get many sequences of characters running through the fields and forests as heavenly music plays, birds chirp, and all that jive. Indeed, if Conan the Barbarian is for the adolescent males of the eighties, then Legend is for the adolescent females of the eighties. There are some not-too-subtle hints this film is about growing up and leaving behind the whimsies, fantasies, and innocence of childhood. So even though there are demons, goblins, and other creatures, don't expect a sword-and-sorcery epic.

The production design and special effects are impressive, but they feel limited. Consider the depiction of Middle-Earth in The Lord of the Rings: you had this huge, expansive world stretching out as far as you can see and filled with entire nations of people and races of creatures. By contrast, the world of Legend feels small. We don't see that many people or get a sense of how big this world is. Everything looks like it was filmed on a sound stage. I suppose it's not fair to compare two movies separated by two decades of special effects and hundreds of millions of dollars in budget, but I still feel disappointed.

The saving grace of film for me was Tim Curry as the Lord of Darkness. When people think of ultimate evil, this is what they envision. He's an awe-inspiring presence, at once able to be all-powerful, frightening, and yet darkly charismatic. He's capable of destroying everything you hold dear, but he'd rather seduce you with his charm and make you be like him. He gives the film a much needed dark edge.

Overall, while there are elements of Legend I admired, there were just as many parts that left me cold. The film is visually ambitious for its time, but on a narrative level, it felt flat. I think I'll stick with Conan.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Escape from LA

"Call me Snake."

In 2013, the U.S. is a fascist state run by an Evangelical president-for-like (Cliff Robertson) forcing everyone to conform to his moral values since his election in 2000 (wait a second). Los Angeles, long separated from the mainland by an earthquake, is now a dumping ground for all those unfit to live in this new "Moral America." The president's daughter Utopia (A.J. Langer) steals a doomsday weapon and takes it to Cuervo Jones (George Corraface), the leader of a revolutionary group on LA planning a third-world takeover of the United States. Malloy (Stacy Keach), the president's main military adviser, convinces the president to use notorious war hero-turned-outlaw Snake Pliskin (Kurt Russell) to retrieve the device. In return, Snake will be pardoned for every crime he's committed, and as added motivation, if he doesn't do it in 10 hours, a government virus will kill him. It's Hollywood for Snake as he encounters gangs, creeps, weirdos, murderers, and other dangers on his mission.

That plot sounds remarkably similar to its predecessor Escape from New York (1981). In fact, director John Carpenter has made a virtual beat-by-beat remake of his original, substituting the west coast for the east coast. Thankfully, unlike New York, which looked like a generic abandoned city, LA looks like LA, albeit one in ruins, and there is an anarchic joy in seeing such recognizable icons destroyed. The Hollywood sign is in flames, Beverly Hills is a colony of plastic surgery mutants (led by Bruce Campbell!), Disney Land is a terrorist compound, Wilshire Blvd. is now Wilshire Canyon and prone to tidal waves, and the Coliseum is an actual coliseum.

Sadly, most of the locations are only there for one scene and then forgotten. They really don't factor into later events. In place of a gripping plot, the film plays more like a travelogue in a post-apocalyptic LA. The only character we spend any large length of time with is Snake, and he's, by design, a gruff, closed off personality. He's a classic Carpenter anti-hero -cynical, dry humor, self-preservation as his only value, and complete disregard for anyone else - and he's perfectly played by Russell, but the movie around him isn't particularly deep. I liked the skewed vision of LA, but it felt more like a series of one-note jokes rather than biting satire.

What really drags Escape from LA down for me are the action scenes. While some of the concepts sound cool such as surfing on the tsunami and the glider assault on Disney Land, they just don't generate much excitement or tension. Carpenter has never been the best action director, but with this high of a budget, I expected more. They just feel flat.

Other elements are more successful. I enjoyed Robertson as the president; the lampooning of family values and political correctness is fun. Steve Buscemi gets some laughs as sleazy agent Map to the Stars Eddie. The special effects are spotty, but overall, I liked the depiction LA, and Russell makes worth watching the film just for him. Snake is the tough guy every guy wants to be; he doesn't give a crap about anything but himself, and he can back it up.

The ending elevates the picture. SPOILER Snake returns to the mainland, and rather than help the US or the Third World, he opts to shut down the planet with the doomsday weapon, sending Earth back to the Dark Ages. Afterward, he finds a pack of cigarettes - long banned in the US - and lights one up. END SPOILER That's just the embodiment of cool.

I've seen Escape from LA a number of times and am usually entertained by it, but it lacks a certain drive and energy. Instead of building up anything, events just happen, and we're just killing time until the climax. I'm probably going easy on it because it's a Carpenter film, but it does have a certain cynical edge to it.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Thor

Strangely enough, the song "God of Thunder" by Kiss did not appear anywhere in Thor (2011), but the day after I watched this movie, I heard it in Rob Zombie's Halloween.
Anyway, I took my time before writing this review because I wasn't sure how to approach it. I saw this on a Friday night in a packed theater filled with people who reacted at all the right times: laughing at the jokes, cheering at the action, etc. Admittedly, I have an innate distrust against such transparently commercial blockbusters, as Thor strives to be. I had to give myself space to separate my actual feelings toward the movie from my gut-level distaste for anything designed primarily for the general masses, so I have done my best to review the film on its own terms as what it tries to rather than what I would have wanted it to be.

After an act of disobedience all but destroys a truce with their ancient enemy the Ice Giants, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is banished by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) from their kingdom Asgard to Earth and stripped of his godly powers. There, he falls in with a small group of scientists led by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) while a government agency known as S.H.I.E.L.D. sets up camp around Thor's hammer, which Odin declared only one worthy of the power of Thor can wield. Meanwhile, Thor's brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), jealous his whole life that Thor was the heir to their father's throne, begins a power bid when Odin falls into a coma.

Directed by Kenneth Branagh (known mainly for his Shakespeare adaptations and playing Professor Lockhart in Harry Potter), Thor feels like the cliff-notes version of a much longer movie. To be more precise, it feels like an extended introduction to the character of Thor so when The Avengers movie is finally made, everyone will know who he is. The main story elements -Thor's downfall and moral redemption, his romance with Jane, his fish-out-of-water escapades on Earth, his family drama at Asgard - all feel condensed. The movie comes in at under two hours and moves fairly briskly, but I wonder what was ultimately cut out.

Branagh manages to include a lot of material that would seemingly contradict each other but somehow works. The fantasy elements of Asgard and the gods (Thor and friends going to town on an army of Ice Giants with his hammer) and the more reality-based Earth scenes (Thor fighting through a military base) don't detract from each other. It all feels like they're part of the same universe. Branagh manages to draw upon his Shakespeare background with the Thor-Loki-Odin triangle; the family drama feels like something the Bard might have conceived if his plays were about superheroes.

I also liked how, for once it seems, the stranger-in-a-strange-land theme didn't go for the obvious, cornball route of turning the outsider into a moron; Thor remains arrogant on Earth even after his powers are lost. After drinking coffee for the first time, he merrily demands another cup, smashing his current cup on the floor. Later, his night out at the bar has an unsuspected outcome.

The action scenes are well done, and several special effects sequences are quite good, but what I appreciated most about Thor was how it didn't follow the typical superhero origin formula: average guy meets girl, gets power, establishes himself as a good guy, and fights a bad guy at the end to rescue girl. Thor has his powers at the start but loses them; the main arc is how he gets them back.

I am getting pretty burned out on comic book and superhero movies, but I must admit I enjoyed Thor. It's not a deep, groundbreaking work of cinema, but as an action movie blockbuster, it moves fast, has some good action and effects, and is supported by solid performances and a sense of humor. For what it is, it works.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Halloween (2007)

Remakes of classic horror movies have gotten out of control the last few years. It seems anything under the sun that was even a modest hit in the 70s or 80s is perfect fodder for a studio looking to cash in on name value. I try to keep an open mind. After all, I really like John Carpenter's The Thing and David Cronenberg's The Fly. My belief is if a filmmaker can take the same basic core idea, and explore it in a new, interesting way, I'm okay with a remake. My problem is most remakes tend to fall under the category of shot-by-shot remake, rendering them unnecessary and blunted rehashes, or they alter the premise so much, the only connection to the original is the name. Rob Zombie's take on Halloween (2007) manages to do both.

After being pushed to far by bullies and his white-trash family, 10-year-old Michael Myers (Daeg Faerch) snaps, and on Halloween night, slaughters four people, including his sister and stepfather. Only his stripper mother (Sheri Moon Zombie) and baby sister are spared. Committed to Smith's Grove Sanitarium, Michael is treated by Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell), but he gradually shuts down emotionally and mentally, hiding himself literally and figurative behind masks. After 17 years, he grows into a hulking monster (Tyler Mane), escapes from the institution, and makes his way to his hometown of Haddonfield to find his now teenage sister Laurie (Scout Taylor-Compton).

Keep your eyes peeled; there's a lot of familiar horror movie faces here, especially those who have appeared in Zombie's previous work: William Forsythe, Dee Wallace, Ken Foree, Danielle Harris, Danny Trejo, Bill Mosely, Tom Towles, Leslie Easterbrook, Brad Dourif, Udo Kier, Richard Lynch, Sid Haig, and Clint Howard. Most of them are unnecessary cameos, but they elicited more smiles from me than the rest of the film.

Zombie ratchets up the violence. While the original Halloween is certainly harrowing and violent, it's nowhere near this bloody or gory. Gone is the silent, cling-to-the-shadows shape Michael Myers, and in his place is a rampaging beast who slaughters everyone in the room. In the original, Myers, you have to grant him, was smart; he took his time, was careful, selected his targets in advance, and struck at their most vulnerable moments. Zombie's approach eliminates any possibility of suspense or tension.

Giving Myers the abused child background negates his effectiveness even further. Instead of evil incarnate, he's someone with mommy and daddy issues. Ignoring the movie's complete misrepresentation of mental illness, this back story reduces him. Instead of the iconic bogeyman whose presence is felt everywhere, he's just another masked lunatic. The intriguing ambiguity and mystery of the original is replaced by simplified, stereotypical melodrama.

Also not helping matters is Zombie's decision to turn almost every character into a shrill, white-trash stereotype or otherwise repugnant human being. Gone is the bookish and shy but smart Laurie Strode essayed by Jamie Lee Curtis, replaced by an obnoxious Taylor-Compton. No longer is Dr. Loomis a determined protector of good from evil; McDowell's take is an exploitative publicity hound. The rest are just sleazy and nasty. Only Trejo's janitor and Dourif's sheriff generate any sympathy.

The movie is also hampered by a bipolar narrative. The first half chronicles child Michael and his treatment while the second plays like a rushed variation on the original Halloween. The first half plays as unnecessary back story, and the second half just illustrates how more effective the original is. The climax, when Laurie and Myers finally confront each other, is drawn out, repetitive, and confusing. In the original, Michael wants to kill her. Here, I don't know if he wanted to kill her, kidnap her, or reunite with her. If she was always his target, why bother slaughtering so many people that had no connection to her and go out of the way to do so?

Just doing a word count, I see I've used "unnecessary" three times before this paragraph, and that's the best word for this film. The back story of Michael Myers is unnecessary, most of the characters are unnecessary, the mean-spirited tone is unnecessary, the graphic violence and nudity are unnecessary, and most of all, the film itself is unnecessary. The original deserves better.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Galaxy of Terror

On paper, I should be excited for Galaxy of Terror (1981). It features Robert "Freddy Kruger" Englund, Sid "Captain Spaulding" Haig (from The Devil's Rejects), and everyone's favorite Martian, Ray "Uncle Martin" Walston. Meanwhile, Roger Corman and James Cameron are behind the scenes. Unfortunately, the aforementioned actors have relatively small roles while Cameron is a production designer and not yet a director. Instead of being a lost b-movie classic as I've heard, the film is a muddled, plodding Alien knock off.

You know the drill: in the future, the crew of a spaceship dispatched to a far-off planet on a rescue mission finds the mutilated bodies of their intended quarry, and soon, they too are being picked off in horribly gruesome ways by a mysterious being. It's a premise that's produced a number of good movies (Alien, Forbidden Planet) and countless bad ones. While this isn't among the former, it has a enough positives to stand out among the latter.

Cameron shows his talent on such a low budget. The film certainly appears more expensive than it really is. It does feel like a spaceship and alien world, but so much of the film is just hard to see because the sets are so under lit. Characters randomly seem to split up after learning a threat is picking them off, but I couldn't actually tell how they managed to get separated in the first place.

There's also other confusing story elements. One character (Erin Moran from Happy Days) is supposed to be a psychic, I guess; I wasn't sure. The presence in the film is revealed to be the darkest fears of the crew, though I find it strange most of them share a similar fear of tentacles and space slugs. That notion only feels like it was tacked on at the end with Ranger (Englund) facing a doppelganger of himself, and nominal hero Cabren (Edward Albert) confronts his dead crew mates.

Then, there's the Master. At the beginning, we see this floating red ball of light order the rescue mission (wait, what?), and apparently this being is the supreme ruler of Earth. I don't know what the hell it is supposed to be or the nature of its power, and SPOILER, when Cabren discovers the mysterious old crew member Kore (Walston) is the Master and everything is revealed to have been an elaborate plot by him to select a new Master, the film just ends, and you're left scratching your head. END SPOILER

Alien is a simple, direct monster movie in space. You enjoy the interaction between the dynamic characters and the deliberate, tense buildup. Plus, the creature is an original, frightening beast. Galaxy of Terror has an assortment uninteresting characters, a confusing narrative, a letdown of a threat, and not enough lighting. I liked the production design, and it was cool seeing Englund and Haig before they played their most notorious characters (they make the most of their parts), but stick with Alien.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Return of the Living Dead

I actually watched The Return of the Living Dead (1985) back-to-back this weekend with Cemetery Man, and you probably couldn't find two other zombie movies that better exemplify the differences between American and Italian horror cinema. While Cemetery Man is surreal, episodic, ironic, artistic, and not really concerned with logic, The Return of the Living Dead contains a linear narrative, strict logic, tongue-in-cheek humor, and broader, schlockier elements. No one's going to call this the existential zombie movie, but it remains wickedly entertaining.

Freddy (Thom Matthews) begins his first day working at the Uneeda Medical Supply Warehouse. After he asks veteran employee Frank (James Karen) what's the weirdest thing he's ever seen, Frank proceeds to tell him how Night of the Living Dead was based on a true story. The bodies from the incident as well as the gas that reanimates the dead are stored in the basement. Long story short: the gas leaks out and causes an army of brain-hungry zombies to rise out of the nearby cemetery.

The zombie conventions are turned on their head here. Instead of the slow, lumbering ghouls from the films of George Romero, in which they could be put down with a bullet to the brain, these zombies are fast, smart, and virtually unkillable. They even talk, both to lure victims out ("Send more cops") and explain why they eat brains (makes the pain of death go away). Chop them into pieces, the pieces come after you. All you can do is completely incinerate them, which allows the gas to enter the atmosphere and get rained down, creating more zombies.

Having a mostly indestructible monster risks the danger of reducing the plot down to just guessing what order the characters will die in, but writer-director Dan O'Bannon defuses that possibility by the loading the film with a gleeful and dark punk cynicism. It's the end of the world all right, but we're gonna party. Freddy's friends are not faceless preppies but a mix of punk rockers (Mohawks, chains, leather, disrespect for authority with names like Spider, Scuz, Suicide, and Trash, although they're not as tough as they think.

These characters have reason to distrust authority. Every time the police or paramedics arrive as would-be rescuers, they get eaten. It's a great running gag, and it reflects the black joke at the center of the movie: everyone who tries to help or solve the problem makes it worse. Burt (Clu Gulager) has Ernie (Don Calfa) cremate the first reanimated body, only for the gas to make it outside. Calling an ambulance only leads to more people getting killed, and calling the military ... well, let's just say they don't send in the Marines.

RotLD also explores the dividing barrier between life and death in a more comical way. After being exposed to the zombie gas, Frank and Freddy slowly grow sicker and more nauseous. Before too long, they have no pulse, no blood pressure, and what appears to be rigor mortis. They don't take the news too well. If Cemetery Man builds a lot of its humor from the nonchalant, deadpan reactions to the living dead ("You're the mayor. You're supposed to be setting an example. Now get back in your coffin."), RotLD mines its laughs from the hysteria of its characters when their plans backfire.

Cemetery Man was also very surreal and dreamlike at times (three women played by the same actress, an inbred mute falls in love with a severed head, and symbolic cinematography), but RotLD is more straightforward and logical. We see how one event leads to another and builds to another chain reaction that's somehow worse than the previous. It's certainly more linear than Cemetery Man, in which the only overarching plot line was Dellamorte's growing madness.

Like a zombie playing with entrails, The Return of the Living Dead breaks undead decorum, and the result is a movie that's wild, unpredictable, chaotic, exciting, and funny. The movie's like one of the punks it depicts: it's got an attitude.