Friday, November 20, 2009

Further Zombie Movie Viewing

JUNK (1999). A bit of a throwback to Fulci's zombie nightmares of the '70s and '80s. A band of robbers on the lamb from the cops following a botched robbery hide out in the adandoned factory the US Army once used for raising the dead. The Army's gone but the dead wait for someone stupid enough--a band of robbers on the lamb from the cops after a botched robbery, say?--to come knocking around their digs. In short order the abandoned factory is anything but and the fun begins.

VERSUS (2000). Ryuhei Kitamura's debut feature is yet another triumph of stylish action filmmaking over substance. It strives to be the next Evil Dead II, and comes close to succeeding, especially in a sequence in which three Yakuza thugs shoot and duke it out with a horde of the gun-toting walking dead. Too much surface and not enough depth make this a bit of slog through an otherwise paunchy middle, but some explosive laughs and a amusingly downer of an ending make this one worth the effort.

SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004). An absolutely remarkable film in that, though a comedy, the zombies are played straight. Who'd'a thought that was possible?

28 DAYS LATER (2003) and 28 WEEKS LATER (2007). The first is a masterpiece of genre filmmaking, the work of a creative team (director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland) who wish to pay tribute to George Romero without merely borrowing ideas and tropes. The second film succeeds largely because of Jeremy Renner's performance.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1990). Romero's rewrite of the material that made him a name in 1968 plays like an "what if?" revision of the original. What if Barbara didn't devolve into catatonia? What if Ben weren't played by Duane Jones? What if the whole thing were directed by Tom Savini instead of George Romero? This movie answers all those questions, at the same time enforcing our love of the original film, and opening our hearts just a little bit more, to admit this cute, quirky little follow-up.

RESIDENT EVIL (2003), RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE (2004), and RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION (2007). Slick, rousing, studio-funded and distributed zombie action. Characters throughout the series are drawn as well as their videogame counterparts, but are distinguished from other flimsy constructions by their ferocious will to live, no matter what, dammit! Milla Javovich and Oded Fehr make a great-looking pair of actors to hang a series on.

UNDEAD (2005). Australian zombie movie that is probably better known for the extraordinary efforts of the Sperieg brothers to get the movie made (it's self-funded, written, directed, score and special effect-ed by the brothers) than the movie itself. The movie is a snappy and above-average mash-up of zombies and aliens with images that inspire a true sense of wonderment.

HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD (1984). Released back in the day as Revenge Of The Zombies and credited to director Vincent Dawn, this is actually the work of Bruno Mattei, who is responsible for, among other things, Rats: Night Of Terror and Robowar. It is a loving tribute to, of all things, Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2 (itself a tribute--rip-off--of Dawn Of The Dead). It does not lack for a constant barrage of zombie attacks and gore grisly enough to make you throw up a little in the back of your mouth. Not very good but certainly memorable.

BIRTHDAY CALL (2004?). A couple of guys barricade themselves in a garage against a horde of the living dead, but still find the time to call a mutual friend to wish him a happy birthday. At a succinct and hilarious two minutes and thirty-six seconds, this is twice the movie the feature-length expansion, Hide & Creep, turned out to be.

THE ABANDONED (2007). Not your typical zombie movie but a good one, filled to the brim with dread and menace and an atmosphere of certain doom. An abandoned orphanage in the middle of Nowhere, Russia holds the promise of a middle-aged American woman's origins. What happened there forty years ago? And what the hell is happening there now? Certainly nothing good, as she discovers. The Abandoned is a trap from which no one emerges unchanged, or alive, for that matter.

CHOPPER CHICKS IN ZOMBIETOWN (1991). The Cycle Sluts arrive in a nearly deserted town where Don Calfa is rising up the dead to work in the local mine. The walking dead escape and the Sluts are the only thing standing between and a busload of blind orphans. This would have played a lot better without the polka music and slide-whistle that accompanies the zombies wherever they go.

DEADGIRL (2008). Zombies don't have to walk the streets to be terrifying. Sometimes, they can do that just by lying around all do. Deadgirl is suitably creepy and sickmaking as much for what is kept secret as what shows up on screen. It also manages to conjure up "Jenifer," the comic story by Bruce Jones and Bernie Wrightson (as well as the Dario Argento Masters Of Horror episode).

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Essential Zombie Movie Viewing

Essential to the appreciation of Zombie Cinema are the classics: Night Of The Living Dead (1968), Dawn Of The Dead (1978), and Day Of The Dead (1985). If you have not seen these films, read no further, hie thee to a video store and purchase—not rent, purchase—post haste this holiest of trilogies. This post will be here when you return. The following movies are in no particular order, other than that in which they occurred to me.

THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE (1974). The government is field testing a sonic device designed to provoke insects into attaching and devouring each other, thereby negating the need for expensive and poisonous insecticides. Unfortunately, this devices emanations are also provoking infant humans to attack their caregivers and, well, it also raises up the dead who attack and devour the living. A rarity, then: a zombie film with an ecological message. It is also the best of the first crop of post-NOTLD zombie movies, with its own, distinctive atmosphere of dread and lurching menace. Previously released as Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (Anchor Bay), it is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Blue Underground.

CHILDREN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS (1972). Starring Alan Ormsby in what is widely considered to be to single most annoying performance captured on film. Is it? Well, yeah, he's really fucking annoying, like, please God, kill him, I beg you annoying. But that's okay—that's what kind of movie this is. Don't go into this expecting wall-to-wall zombie gut crunching; it takes a while to warm up. The dead seemingly rise up for the singular purpose of dragging Ormsby's character to hell and, by the time they do, you're right there with them.

THE BEYOND (1981), HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981), and CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1983). Lucio Fulci's "Real Estate" trilogy, each involving a parcel of land or piece of property. The secret ingredient here, the element that raises this trio of films above the rest of Fulci's horror oeuvre is the work of writer Dardano Sacchetti. Rather than employing a linear narrative, Sacchetti instead creates a series of linked nightmare setpieces; rather than guiding us through a proper story, we are allowed to view, at length, the interior workings of minds terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought. More revealing is the moment in City wherein a character, face to bloody face with one of the living dead, turns away; when he turns back, the gore-encrusted specter is gone, vanished, like a dream.

DEAD/ALIVE aka BRAINDEAD (1992). Quite possibly the goriest, bloodiest, sploshiest zombie movie of all time. It also features a terrific story (a rather uplifting one at that), spot-on performances, and Peter Jackson at the height of his directorial powers.

CEMETERY MAN (1994). Michele Soavi, actor (threw up his guts—literally—in City Of The Living Dead; had his eye gouged out by a raven in Opera) and frequent director, turns out a visionary work. Based on the novel by Tiziano Sclavi, creator of the Dylan Dog comic and starring Rupert Everett as the titular character, caretaker of the Buffalora cemetery—he buries them and, when they come back from the dead—he shoots them and buries them again. Surreal, beautiful, and sexy. Anna Falchi is extraordinarily easy on the eyes. (Sidebar: Oddly enough, Rupert Everett was the physical model for Dylan Dog, somehow making him the perfect casting choice for cemetery man Francesco Dellamort√©. It is Brandon Routh, however, who is playing Dylan Dog in the upcoming movie adaptation of the comic strip.)

DEAD & BURIED (1981). Gary Sherman, director of the latter day British classic, Raw Meat, turned his eye toward the living dead to deliver an off-kilter zombie movie with a fascinating twist. James Farentino, sheriff of a small Maine fishing town, is beset on all sides by bizarre murders and the possibility of the dead returning to a semblance of life, all tied to Jack Albertson's funeral parlor. Delightfully creepy, with a snappy sting in its tail.

THE EVIL DEAD (1981), EVIL DEAD II: DEAD BY DAWN (1987), and ARMY OF DARKNESS (1992). Groovy!

RE-ANIMATOR (1985), BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR (1990), and BEYOND RE-ANIMATOR (2003). Without Bruce Campbell there would be no Evil Dead; without Jeffrey Combs there would be no Re-Animator. Even though Combs looks nothing at all like the tow-headed fiend described by Lovecraft.

SHOCK WAVES (1977). Okay, yeah, Wiederhorn did direct Return Of The Living Dead Part 2, but this is no reason to ignore the greatest Underwater Nazi Zombie movie of all time. The special effects and monster make-up was, ironically enough, created by Alan Ormsby.

LAST RITES OF THE DEAD (2006). Marc Fratto, writer/director of the frenetic, kinetic vampire movie Strange Things Happen At Sundown, turns his attention to the walking dead in what could possibly be the best zombie of the new millennium, much as I hate using the phrase "new millenium." The dead rise up, but they're not the discombobulated eating machines of yore; they are walking, talking, rational people who also happen to be dead. When Gina Ramsden is murdered by her boyfriend she joins the ranks of the walking/working dead, ostracized because of her palor and tendency to leak from the bullet wound in her head. She joins a support group, tries to fit in, but is unable to decide who or what she is: life-challenged or simply deprived of the bloody human meat chunks that make her feel more alive than she was when she was actually alive. The climactic three-way battle between Gina, her boyfriend, and the zombie wiccan priestess is a sight to not be missed: vivid, bloody, and whacked right out of its skull. Released cut on DVD as Zombies Anonymous.

NIGHT OF THE CREEPS (1986). Thrill me! (See earlier post.)

NIGHT OF THE COMET (1984). The end of the world does not suck. Amusing, creepy when it needs to be, and funny throughout.

PLAGA ZOMBIE: ZONA MUTANTE (2001). Trying to imagine what a zombie movie directed by Robert Rodriguez would be like? Before he did Planet Terror, I mean. This movie has gore, dismemberments galore, and style to burn. The double disc set, released under the aegis of the Fangoria International label and retitled Plaga Zombie: Mutant Zone, also included the first movie in the series, Plaga Zombie, which is cool but not nearly as cool at the sequel.

TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD (1973). Amando de Ossorio's Spanish classic. Templar knights, hanged for turning from God and performing hideous blood rites to make them immortal, return from the dead to revenge themselves on the living.  Only the first sequel, Return Of The Blind Dead (aka Return Of The Evil Dead in some circles) comes close to matching the original. Night Of The Seagulls, fourth in the series, does have a cool-sounding title, though.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Hail To The Once & Future King, Baby

Of all modern horror film directors, few have worn their hearts on their sleeves as often as George Romero. Along with consistently delivering the bloody goods his fans require, he is perhaps better known for supplying food more sustaining that simple gore. Night Of The Living Dead, Dawn Of The Dead, Day Of The Dead, Land Of The Dead, Diary Of The Dead, and even the 1990 remake of Night have shown Romero to be distinctly aware of the nutritional balance between blood, guts, brains and heart.

Romero has left the genre several times; once to escape being tagged a "horror" director (see There's Always Vanilla, his follow-up to Night, currently available as an extra on the recent Season Of The Witch DVD) and once more, to commit to celluloid his dream project, a film the international success of Dawn Of The Dead allowed him to make.

Oddly—or perhaps not so oddly—themes and concerns expressed in the Dead films (and nearly all of Romero's films) followed him to Knightriders.

Prime among these concerns is a basic, almost primal, distrust of authority. The wandering troubadours who make up the dramatis personae of Knightriders have broken away from the culutural and authoritative straight and narrow path, having decided to adhere to an ancient, "outmoded" ideal of honor and integrity.

Whereas the characters in the Dead films are often portrayed as initially lost outside the imposition of everyday culture and society, the heroes of Knightriders are lost once they've split off from their tiny kingdom and willingly cast themselves adrift in the larger society. In the Dead films characters tend to flounder madly when attempting to keep a grip on the few vestiges of world before the dead rose up: the Monroeville Mall in Dawn, the illusory authority of the federal government in Day, an imaginary economy in Land, et al.

From the very start of Knightriders, Ed Harris's King Billy is a conflicted man, grooming Morgan (Tom Savini) to assume the crown and leadership of this rag-tag bunch and, simultaneously, providing Morgan, with increasingly and unkingly erratic behaviour, every reason not to. Billy's purpose is stated early on: follow the Code, not the King. The King may often be wrong, but the Code never is. (A message that may contain even greater meaning, the suggestion that, the men who composed the laws adhered to an ideal, a higher purpose, than the men who dictate the meaning of those laws.)

Knightriders's climax is an inversion of the typical climax of the Dead films. In Knightriders, a battle is fought, the winner claiming leadership of the group: a return to stability in the bosom of the aforementioned ancient notions of honor. The new king takes on the old king's responsibilities and the old king, certain now that his ideals will continue beyond the end of his life, wanders off into the wasteland to perform a few good deeds before his death.

A Dead film usually climaxes when the characters therein at last understand that the frayed remnants of the old world that they so desparately and pointlessly cling to are the very things that doom them. Finally letting go—of the mall, the hope of rescue, worthless currency—of these things is what allows the characters to save themselves. King Billy's troupe already understand this, but every once in a while the King has to die to remind them.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Welcome To Valkenvania

This is the way movies (and books and TV shows and comics and any other form of entertainment) work: either they do or they do not. They don't have to be great art to work for you, they just have to hit you are the right (or wrong) time in your life, and whether they work for you or not is wholly dependent upon how willing and open you are to accept what the maker of that movie has to say and how he has to say.

Which brings us, in a completely roundabout way, to Nothing But Trouble. This is a movie that, for reasons I, personally cannot begin to fathom, worked not at all for lots and lots of people. And why not? It had a smashing cast—Chevy Chase (just beyond the top of his career slope, but still damn near the top), Demi Moore, Taylor Negron, John Candy (also, and Dan Ackroyd himself in two utterly unrecognizable roles. Ackroyd also co-wrote and directed. If the gods of cinema had been looking down from on high, they too would have nodded in agreement.

Chevy Chase volunteers to drive Demi Moore, Taylor Negron and Bertila Damas somewhere; a short cut takes them through an isolated part of Pennsylvania (which is not near as difficult as is sounds, as all of Pennsylvania is isolated). They quickly run afoul of local traffic ordinances and are brought before a judge who throws at them all manner of law books hundreds of years out of date. And here the adventure begins.

The isolated Pennsylvanian town in which our heroes find themselves, Valkenvania, is a surreal landscape of decay and rot, the land of Oz gone horribly to seed. The "villains," the right good Shire Reeve (Dan Ackroyd with the head of a penis so subtly replacing the tip of his nose that it somehow looks natural) and his brood want nothing more than to add Chase and his group—the "good" guys—to their collection, either as in-laws or as a set of discarded driver's licenses nailed to a memorial wall in an attic. It is largely unimportant which fate Chase and Co. chooses.

Ackroyd the writer and director falls squarely on the side of the Valkenvanians, and there is no guessing as to why: he is so obviously in love with the strip-mined, paint-peeling, garbage-scented corner of the world he has created and peopled. Most beloved of all the places in this rancid, dyspeptic Emerald City is Mr. Bonestripper, a rust-pitted, rattling death trap of a roller coaster that deposits all riders into the gaping maw of a demonically-grinning, razor-toothed abattoir.

When Chevy Chase is sent to his doom on Mr. Bonestripper, the Teller of Tales randomly decides that he must live in order to satisfy the whim of the moviegoers and this turd-colored Oz comes apart at the coal seams, creeping flame and seismic disruptions signaling The End to this wondrous funhouse of a town.

The proper ending, to be included in the eventual Special Edition Blu-Ray release, will have Chase's character swallowed whole by Mr. Bonestripper, his remains fed to pigs and dogs and this whacked-right-out-its-skull Oz would continue on, business as usual, providing homes and work for all who dwell there.

Nothing But Trouble was a dreamy return to simpler times, when visitors to small, out of the way towns were treated properly: greeted as friends, fed a healthy meal, shown to a bed and, during the night, brained with a sledgehammer. Organs would be sold on the black market and what's left fed to the dogs; the car sold to the junkman down the road for a few extra dollars.

For me, this movie just works, though the ending could use some fixin'.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Only Who Can Save The Universe?

Sometimes I'm afraid to admit how much I love this movie. Not because it's a deliberately campy cheese-fest of brobdinagian proportions with a silly soundtrack with song titles like "I Love All The Love In You" performed by Bob Crewe and The Glitterhouse Orchestra. While any one of these reasons would be enough to fill me with the fear of eternal damnation were I to use the words "love" and "Barbarella" in the same sentence.

It's because of her. Because of Hanoi Jane.

Damn you, Jane Fonda! Damn you for the follies of your youth! Why could you not have stayed married to Roger Vadim and spent your youth as an internationally-desired sex kitten?

Anyhow, my history with this goes all the way back to 1977, otherwise known as The Year Star Wars Came Out And Changed Everything. Now. This is the weird part. Because in 1977, Barbarella was almost ten years old. It originally came out in 1969. So what in the name of Christ and all his disciples was it doing being shoved back into theaters nearly a decade after its expiration date?

I have a theory. Bear with me.

It goes like this: movie studio executives did not expect Star Wars to be a hit, much less the cultural phenomena it went on to become. Star Wars had sucked the life from everything the other studios had dumped into the theaters (The CarMarch Or Die, etc), soaking up dollar after dollar and, with Christmas on the way, it seemed that there was no end in sight. What to do? What to do? No time to rush anything into production. What to do? Hey, I know! Let's grab something science-fiction-y from the vaults, get Boris Vallejo to crap out a new poster, then dump it into theaters. Since its already been paid for, anything it returns at the box office will be nothing but pure profit.

"Make it so," the high studio mucky-muck intoned, and so mote it be.

So it goes that I saw an ad for it in the paper and, hormones raging, suggested to my brother that, rather than taking in another showing of Star Wars, we get my dad drop us off at the Patterson (not the home of the Baltimore Creative Alliance) to take in a screening of Barbarella. Or two. Or more, had my dad not returned to get us and, annoyed that we were not waiting out front like we were supposed to be, come into the theater to find us. Much to my chagrin and my brother's delight.

I was, as they say, enthralled by Roger Vadim's campy vision. The effects were just good enough to be called special. The music, as performed by Bob Crewe and the newly-minted (in '69, that is) Glitterhouse Orchestra, was pure mid-to-late '60s schmaltz, and nothing but gooey good fun. And Jane herself, all squishy and squeezably soft boobies and butt, was the perfect confection, the most delectable bit of eye candy my poor, deprived (depraved) 13-year-old eyes had had the pleasure to rest upon until that moment. When the my brother begged—begged!—the question: "Can we please leave now?" as the credits rolled I demurred. I wanted needed to see it AGAIN.

And so we did. And then my father came to get us and we went home and I could not stop thinking about this movie. It had in ways only a handful of other movies had embedded itself deep into parts of my brain I had not yet begun to explore.

I was obsessed.

The credits proclaimed that the movie was based upon the novel by Jean-Claude Forest. I later discovered that it was actually a "graphic" novel; not long after I had secured a copy of this graphic novel (still have it). From the pages of various Atlas Comics I found that there was a soundtrack issued. In due time, I braved the cold, cold streets of Baltimore city itself, locating and visiting a walkdown store (no longer there) on Charles Street to purchase a copy of that album (still have that, too). From Jerry Ohlinger's Movie Memorabilia Store I mail ordered a copy of the Boris Vallejo poster and bunches of black-and-white stills (still have the stills; the poster, however, has long since bit the big one, fraying from the pin-holed corners that progressed toward the center like a devastating, papery cancer). When home video came knock-knock-knocking at my front door, Barbarella was among the first movies secured on VHS, to be followed by the laser disc and, now, the DVD. The vinyl album was retired and replaced with with a CD, ordered from an online store in the great country of Britain (I'm listening to it as I write this). I've also added a vintage hardcover edition of the original graphic novel as well as the oversized, circa early 1980s sequel.

And yet. And yet whenever I mention this movie to various certain friends, I get that look, the one that says, "I would never watch that movie, let alone allow a copy of it in my home, because of what that bitch did to our boys." And, you know, I can (kinda) sympathize. Because if I had been aware of what she'd done (if I hadn't been playing in the dirt in the back yard or shop-lifting toy from the local Two Guys department store), I'd probably not be too terribly inclined to give a movie like Barbarella a chance.

I can only offer the following in my defense:

1. It's not like I was there, yanking the howitzer's lanyard alongside Jane while she was visiting Hanoi and hanging out with the enemies of our country.

2. Moreover, my favorite Jane Fonda movie was made years before she went off without thinking and made herself a target and lifelong enemy of America's conservative elite (whoever the hell they might be).

3. Barbarella is the only Jane Fonda movie I have in my collection, even though I kinda thought she was okay in On Gold Pond opposite her dad.

4. My love (obsession) for this movie developed out of teenager's love of feminine pulchritude and the mysteries of the opposite sex and therefore has fuck-all to do with politics.

Maybe, just maybe, if I could sit down with my conservative friends and explain it to them, as I've explained it to you (whomever you may be), they would nod in understanding and say, "You know, I hate that bitch beyond reason but you've made your point and made it well and, therefore, I forgive you and accept your love of this movie."

Forgive me they may, once they've heard and considered my defense. But still the one person who will never forgive is my brother, whom I made sit through Barbarella twice that evening over thirty years ago.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Why Are The Good People Crying?

IT'S COMING. Yet another inferior remake of a George A. Romero original. (Remakes are, by definition, inferior products.) In this case, it's Romero's 1973 follow-up to Night Of The Living Dead, The Crazies (a.k.a. Codename: Trixie, a.k.a. The Mad People). The only thing distinguishing this from the other remakes of his classic films is that, for once, Romero's getting paid: he's listed in the remake's credits as an executive producer, so woo-hoo!

I did not stumble across this movie in my teens, on late-night TV, or as some local channel's Sunday afternoon movie; I discovered The Crazies post-Dawn Of The Dead, so I knew what I was in for before the opening credits even rolled.

Night Of The Living Dead is laid back and stoned most of the time (much like Brad Pitt's character in True Romance) compared to the seething anger on display in The Crazies; whereas Night sought primarily to terrify, Romero's trademarked social commentary submerged and largely unself-conscious, The Crazies swats at any target wandering foolishly close enough.

The story, if you've never seen it (or its first, albeit unofficial, remake, the Dustin Hoffman-starring Outbreak), is this: a military bio-weapon infects a small, more-or-less isolated town; the citizens of said town go blood simple and attack anyone who's not been infected; the military surrounds the town in the hope of stopping the bio-weapon from escaping the town and infecting the world. The lead characters are the town's sheriff, his nurse wife, and the sheriff's best friend (played by Harold Wayne Jones, who showed up again in Romero's Knightriders).

(Also present is Lynn Lowry, previously blood-drunk in I Drink Your Blood, and again as a savagely-mauled prostitute in the Cat People remake. Ms. Lowry is the only original cast member with a role in The Crazies redux. Richard Liberty, who would figure more prominently and endearingly as mad scientist Dr. Logan in Day Of The Dead, here plays Lynn Lowry's dad, driven to incest by infection. Behind the camera is Bill Hinzman, first zombie on the scene in Night Of The Living Dead, acting as cinematographer, and Michael Gornick, who would take over as cinematographer on future Romero productions, as a sound tech.)

The National Guard rolls into town on troop carriers and, having rounded up everyone into the local high school, begin rooting and looting through the townspeople's stuff. A priest self-immolates to protest parishioners being dragged from his church. With the Guardsmen behaving badly in the streets, the confined locals degenerating into toxin-induced savagery, the military muckie-mucks debating procedure over lunch, we, the audience, are left with only two beams of light to cut through the darkness and despair: Sheriff David (Will McMillan) and Dr. Watts (Richard France). Watts is on-site to whip up a cure for Trixie; the Sheriff, ironically, is the cure.

The fact that it is a fine film, with Romero putting to good use the things he'd discovered making Night, There's Always Vanilla, and Season Of The Witch, is likely why is was considered prime fodder for a remake. The fact that it is an obscure film in Romero's body of work (though hardly as obscure as the two preceding it) somehow reduces the crime of remaking it to a misdemeanor, unlike the first-degree rape perpetrated by the remakers of Day Of The Dead.

Remakes are, by definition, inferior products. We may, however, remain cautiously optimistic that The Crazies redux is, at least, providing Mr. Romero with a paycheck—decent enough that he will be able to continue making movies—if only to provide future re-makers something to remake.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

That's Why It's Called Unsweetened

There is no movie more obscure than a Canadian movie; there is no Canadian movie more obscure than a Canadian cult movie; and there is no movie more obscure than a Canadian cult movie that deliberately strives for obscurity.

Such is the case of John Paizs's The Big Crimewave (originally known as just Crimewave, but retitled upon home video release so as not to confuse with Sam Raimi's Crimewave)

In the '80s, it seemed as though any store owner with some empty floor filled oft times filled that space with a used VHS bin. Such was the case at one of the many record stores at the local mall; this one in particular I was addicated to. The source of these used VHS tapes was a mom 'n' pop video rental place in Virginia—I'd never visited the place but have long nutured a warmth and affection for the owners: they had great taste in movies.

While picking through the bin one Saturday afternoon, I stumbled across a The Big Crimewave. Thinking it was another, half-recalled movie (Screamplay, which sounds nothing at all like "Crimewave"), I bought it: hey, it was cheap, I was making good money, so what the hell, right?

Got it home, popped it in and was, literally, never the same person. I could not believe that someone had actually made a movie like this, a backwash-sucking, hysterically funny film that literally only one-half of one percent of the population of North America (and maybe parts of Europe) would actually get, let alone appreciate.

The Big Crimewave is the story of Steven Penny (John Paizs), a young filmmaker whose only desire is to become the world's greatest color-crime filmmaker. He moves into an apartment above the Brown family's garage and becomes the center of attention of Kim, the Brown's teenage daughter (played by Eva Kovacs). Before Penny can complete his color-crime epic, he must first fashion a script, which he works on only at night, by the light of a nearby streetlamp.

As his discarded scripts attest, Steven is a whiz at coming up with beginnings and endings (we are treated to visualizations of these throughout the course of the film—my favorite is that of Ronnie Boyles, the world's worst Elvis impersonator). What his scripts lack, and this is integral to the process of making color-crime films, are middles, the stuff that happens between the beginnings and endings. Despite Kim's efforts to console him, Steven descends into a deep depression, the characters from the various versions of Crimewave (the title of the movie we're watching, and the movie Steven Penny is desparately trying to write) oozing out of his brain to play cards, have sex, and otherwise torment their creator.

His depression ends when Kim ships him off to America via Greyhound to meet script doctor Dr. C. Jolly who, unbeknownst to both Kim and Steven, has gone homicidally insane! In short order, Steven Penny is saved by a dog driving a pick-up, is brained by a streetlamp, experiences a live-changing epiphany and returns to his garage apartment… Still unable to write the middle parts of his screenplays—but that's okay, because now Kim is ready to become his writing partner.

Deadpan comics like Steven Wright seem ready to leap out of their skins compared to John Paizs's Buster Keatonesque stone face as he wanders through the surreal Manitoban landscape he's created, uttering nary a word, a waif in a wilderness populated by pick-up truck-driving homophobes and eternally undrying puddles, while Kim takes on the job of narrating his innermost thoughts, to wit, "Steven often wondered what would happen in the Jaws of Life ever fell into the wrong hands."

It's unlikely you've ever seen a movie like this one before—it is, in fact, the only one of its kind, and that's exactly how obscure it is.

[Exactly how obscure is that? Put it like this: The Big Crimewave has only ever been released on VHS and in my life I have only ever held two (2) copies of the VHS tape in my hands—one is still in my possession, the other was given as a Christmas gift to a friend. It may be available as a download from some website but I have not yet found that site. If you find it, let me know!]

The Mud Monster Cometh

In the fall of 1978, my brother and I sat down to watch some TV and stumbled across an oddity, an episode of a show called The World Beyond, which was about a guy who could see and talk to ghosts whenever they wanted to be seen or spoken to. And the ghosts would tell him to go places and do things. Already my brother and I were fans of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Circle Of Fear, and whatever other horrors were available over the airwaves in those dim, dark days before the advent of cable, home video, and the home entertainment explosion.

The World Beyond was the pilot for an occult detective television series in the vein of The Night Stalker(TV, 1972) and The Norliss Tapes(TV, 1973). As explained in the pre-credit sequence, sports writer Paul Taylor died while undergoing a surgical procedure but was retrieved from the brink of death. His brush with the "world beyond" allowed him to communicate with the dead--or, more correctly, for the dead to communicate with him. Had the pilot gone to series, each week would have seen Taylor dispatched by a spirit guide to protect innocents confronted by supernatural peril. In this, the second of two like-named pilots (the first being The World of Darkness, which I have never seen) Taylor found himself on a remote Canadian island whose inhabitants were being menaced and killed by a made of mud and sticks. Because of the monster's unique nature, this program was sometimes aired under the alternate broadcast title, "The Mud Monster."

Subtitled simply "Episode: Monster," The World Beyond was first aired in America on January 11, 1978 on the CBS Network. It was directed by Noel Black who had made a name for himself by directing the feature film Pretty Poison (1968). The teleplay was by Art Wallace, who also wrote The World of Darkness (TV, 1977), as well as episodes for various other fantastic television series such as Dark Shadows, Space: 1999, Planet of the Apes, Star Trek. One of Wallace's Star Trek episodes, "Assignment: Earth," was also a pilot for an unmade television series.

For years after, I could only remember the barest bones of situation, plot, characters; what I remembered best of this hour's worth of genre TV was the monster itself, and it haunted me (albeit in a good way) for decades. Until a phone conversation prompted a friend to perform a quickie search on to reveal the title of this long-lost childhood trauma. Though I have not seen it in over thirty years, I still recall it fondly. I think my brother does, too.

[The World Beyond has yet to show up on home video; it's even hard to find as a bootleg. Clips can be found on YouTube; the movie itself can be found at Super Strange Video--I have not yet sampled this outfits wares or services and so cannot attest to their quality.]

[This post was adapted from my own Wikipedia entry for The World Beyond.]

Monday, November 2, 2009

Shut Up or Die

Apparently, I've encountered Stephen McHattie many times throughout his career. I just never noticed it before. He's guest-starred in episodes of my favorite TV shows (The Equalizer, The X-Files), I've seen him in movies (Watchmen, Theodore Rex, The Ultimate Warrior)...but never before has he stood up and forced me to take notice of him and his work. Until now, of course. Now, I am convinced that McHattie is something of a god among men.

Which brings me to Pontypool.

Pontypool is one of those movies that has existed on the periphery of my genre radar screen. For months now, I have been peripherally aware that there was a movie called Pontypool, originating from somewhere in the cold, hidden waste north of the Canadian border, and that this movie, though not actually a zombie movie per se, would appeal to fans of the zombie film genre. That would be me.

Given the state of theatrical releases of genre films (by that, I mean decent, worthwhile, actually scary and exciting genre films--sequels, remakes, and Americanisations of Japanese long-haired-ghost movies do not count), I knew I was not going to see this one on the big screen. If I got to see it at all, I should count myself among the lucky few. As it happens, I was at my local Blockbuster a few days before Halloween and, having snagged a copy of The Brothers Mullen for my wife, wandered over toward the Horror section to see what dreck remained on the shelves.

Didn't make it. Well, I did, and a grabbed a copy of Deadgirl, but before I got to the Horror section, I stopped in the P section of New Releases and there was Pontypool. The movie I had been told to watch out for over the last several months was there on the shelves, a Blockbuster Exclusive no less, and no one had warned me that it was available. (Probably because of the aforementioned Blockbuster Exclusive thing, now that I think about it.) By way of celebrating their exclusive right to this property, my local Blockbuster--no doubt in reflection of Blockbusters around the country--had devoted at least twelve inches of space to the six copies available to rent. This, in a section at the exact end of the store opposite the Blockbuster Exclusive-New Release section. Odd, but I had the opinion that Blockbuster might actually be somewhat embarrassed by this movie's exclusivity. I mean, six copies of this little piffle of a movie means that much less space they could otherwise devote to, I dunno, Transmorphers: Fall Of Man.

But I digress.

Director Bruce McDonald (The Tracey Fragments, Hard Core Logo, and several other movies I have never before seen) and writer Tony Burgess (adapting from his own novel, apparently a bestseller in his native Canada) have taken the right pages from Kevin Smith's book in staging this film. There is but a single location, radio station AM 660 CSLY, in the basement of a local church. Everything takes place, departing only momentarily for peeks outside as the wind rises to blow snow against the windows, and when the infected townspeople arrive, attracted by the sound of Grant Mazzy's (played by Stephen McHattie) voice.

(And what a voice it is: a smooth baritone, deepened but not yet roughened by Mazzy's alcoholic intake, a voice that easily slips inside your head to envelope your brain, bringing with it all sorts of crazy, crazy ideas.)

An hour or so into the snowy morning drivetime broadcast, in the midst of news of school closures, news reaches the station that something is going on outside: people are going crazy, speaking gibberish, massing in numbers, and attacking otherwise sane people. What the heck's going on out there? Mazzy, his producer and engineer, are at a loss, and things get worse. And worse. The violence grows and local authorities are unable to control are, most likely joining in.

A reporter from the BBC calls, wanting an interview with Mazzy: people are dying out there, the reporter claims, and Mazzy might somehow he connected; care to comment?

Turns out, he might actually be.

For some time now I have been joking about someone recieving a virus attached to his email and instead of that virus infecting his computer, it infects the guy instead; a virus written in computer code "jumping" species and infecting people instead. Could such a thing be so far into the future? It's already been suggested that people's mind are a matrix of "intelligent" ideas, called memes, that our brains use to program themselves with. In Pontypool, director McDonald and writer Burgess, are suggesting that language itself, the means by which ideas are transmitted, can somehow break down, become corrupted, the corruption distorting the meaning of words, infecting and corrupting the matrix of intelligent ideas used to program our brains. When language itself turns against us, we have only two options:

Shut up or die.

I could digress further, and that in itself is a testament to the wonderfulness of this movie: that there are so many discussible moments here, in what has likely been written off by Blockbuster Video's matrix of semi-intelligent meme colonies/purchasing agents as "just another zombie movie." Do not, however, be similarly fooled.

As for Stephen McHattie, he is firmly on my radar screen: I will be on the lookout for him in the future.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Casting The Runes (Again)

While brushing up on Curse Of The Demon, I made mental note of the fact that no less a personage than Kenneth Branagh his own self is in talks to remake Jacques Tourneur's demonic classic. One would hope that the classically-trained Shakespearean actor will scoff at allowing himself to be cast as dull fuddy-duddy Dr. John Holden, skeptical inquirer, and demand the meatier and more vivid role of supernatural impresario Julian Karswell, as essay by the grand Niall MacGinnis in the original.

One can only hope.

Though I am stand firmly in the anti-remake camp (I mean, Christ Almighty, exactly how many remakes of King Kong, et al, do we really need, guys?), I am cautiously optimistic.

The Perfect Crime Specialists

Where is Byron Chudnow? According to the Internet Movie Database, bastion of cinematic knowledge on the interwebs, he is not dead. Born in 1926, he'd be 83 years old now. His last active credit was as a producer for the Robert Mitchum-starring TV comedy drama, A Family For Joe in 1990. He spent four decades in the entertainment industry in various capacities, from musical supervisor to editor to producer.

Byron is also credited with having directed three feature films and one TV movie, each of these movies linked by a single element: dobermans.

Yes, Byron Chudnow is the director of The Doberman Gang, The Daring Dobermans, The Amazing Dobermans, a trilogy of theatrical releases, followed by Alex and the Doberman Gang, a 1980 TV movie that attempted to sell Chudnow's concept of canine-based action-adventure to a home audience.

I caught up with The Daring Dobermans in the '70s on (where else?) late night TV and was suitably impressed by the concept and execution of story and stunts. The final set-piece committed by the eponymous quintet and, allow me to state this for those of you who may doubt: any movie—ANY MOVIE—built around a climactic bank robbery executed by five doberman-pinschers wrapped in explosive vests is a classic in any book.

So, where's the retrospective DVD box set of this glaringly ignored triptych of canine goodness? Billy Jack got his—why not the world's perfect crime specialists? (And let's be quick about this one, too, before Byron croaks—if he hasn't already.)

Friday, October 30, 2009

Even Good Directors Can Go To Hell

I really, really wanted to like this movie—honest! My wife can attest to the extraordinary measures I undertook in order to secure a copy of this movie, on Blu-Ray no less, by selling (yet another) chunk of my DVD collection to the local CD/DVD venue for the store credits that was used to purchase this disc. I don't want to think about that, because if I inadvertently gave up my fullscreen copy of Night Of The Bloody Apes, or my even duplicate of Queen Of Black Magic for Sam Raimi's triumphant return to horror…I think I might just lay down and cry.

I've been a fan of Raimi's since '87, after subjecting my entire family to Evil Dead II on VHS (my brother and sisters loved it; my mom tolerated it, though not without complaint; my dad found better things to do in another room). Since, I have avidly followed Raimi from film to film, celebrating his triumphs (The Evil Dead, Crimewave, Darkman, The Quick And The Dead, Army Of Darkness), forgiving him his failures (The Gift, For Love Of The Game, A Simple Plan, Spider-Man 3), and searching for sparks of that old, Evil Dead magic even in his most generic efforts (Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2).

Which brings me to Drag Me To Hell. (Love the title, by the way.)

Drag Me To Hell is, in fact, sporadically inspired: the energy with which Raimi imbues the setpieces, beginning with a knock-down-drag-out between gypsy witch and timid bank loan officer, is on par with what the director brought to Evil Dead II. Allison Lohman, though no Bruce Campbell (but then, who can ever hope to measure up to the Chin?), and mostly bland and blonde throughout, does display some spark of character as she progresses towards the climax, especially in her final battle with the witch's corpse and demon helper.

The movie's failure and subsequent loss of any and all good will garnered by what preceeded the climax is wasted, flushed, blown and otherwise shat out in a moment, and it's an easy one to spot. Movies such as this tend to focus on big, BIG movements, because there are no small things going on here—this is LIFE AND DEATH WE'RE TALKING ABOUT HERE, DAMMIT!

So, when Justin Long slams on the brakes and the #10 envelope containing the crucial button is lost amidst a blizzard of similarly unmarked #10 evenlopes, you know—YOU JUST KNOW!—that as sure the sun will set this evening and rise in the morning, that Lindsay, poor, poor girl that she plays, is going to grab the WRONG ONE.

Why Raimi didn't simply super-impose the title "PLOT POINT!" on top of this shot could not have possibly made it more obvious. (Well, okay, maybe it could. But only the under 10 year old crowd will find themselves agape at the denouement without that supered graphic.)

Picture this: your life—nay, your immortal soul!—depends on stuffing a button torn from your coat sleeve into the gaping maw of a dead gypsy witch's mouth. You grab the envelope containing said button from a confusing pile of identical envelopes. And it does not occur to you to, say, give the envelope a little rub between thumb and forefinger to, I dunno, check and make sure that little button is still inside the envelope?

Nope. You trust it's still there, grab your shovel and head off to the graveyard to do battle with the demonic undead

Had Sam and his co-writing brother Ivan given us the wink-nudge ahead of time, we all would have warmly welcomed the climax and denouement as a goof and homage to Jacques Tourneur's Curse Of The Demon. In that film, Dana Andrews must overcome his obstinate disbelief in the supernatural in time to somehow sucker warlock Niall MacGinnis into taking back the scrap of paper that acts like a GPS signal to a demon made of fire. (Not the easy task it may sound like, either.)

As things are, Drag Me To Hell's final resolution smacks of gratutious cruelty, to Allison Lohman's character and myself, who felt that she had fought the good fight well enough to be spared.

There was so much more that Drag Me To Hell's creators could have stolen from Curse Of The Demon—a lovely, very human villian; a stalwart, square-jawed hero; a sense of mounting dread; a monster whose image has ground itself into the public subconscious in the half century since its initial appearance—that it makes me sad they stopped at copping merely the last fifteen minutes.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Thrill Me

It was the summer of 1986. I was in Ocean City, the pre-season, which was, in those days, like a post-apocalyptic wasteland, only without the barracading of oneself against endless assaults of ravening hordes of the living dead. Instead, I was at the local movie theater, which was located all the way up Coastal Highway, about a mile from Delaware and its tax-free booze.

Milling around the lobby—I believe I was waiting for the next screening of Police Academy 2 to begin (which is not as bad a movie as you may think…if you're stuck in Ocean City with nothing to do and no one to talk to and your thoughts often drift to the gun on the nightstand, praying for a zombie to come stumbling through the door to distract you from turning the weapon on yourself) I came across a poster. Featured on said poster was a cute, young white couple, obviously dressed for a formal college dance, but lugging about a clunky-looking flamethrower and pump shotgun, accountrements that would easily gotten them stopped at the door of even the most liberal establishment. But there was a reason for the heavy weaponry: surrounding the couple was a horde of slathering dead folk reaching for the couple in the most offensive manner.

The tagline read: "The good news is your dates are here. The bad news is…they're dead."

The movie being advertised was Night Of The Creeps, directed by Fred Dekker, starring Jason Lively, Jill Whitlow and Tom Atkins. Naturally, I was intrigued.

Let me put this in context: I had seen Night Of The Living Dead in 1976 (or thereabouts) and, at the tender and very impressionable age of only 16, was invited to and attended a screening of Dawn Of The Dead in 1979 by the owner of my local comic shop. In 1985, I was one of the few witnesses to Day Of The Dead's blink-and-miss-it theatrical release.

To say I was somewhat interested in zombie cinema would be to make an understatement.

Alas, I did not see Night Of The Creeps that evening. Instead, I shuffled off to see Police Academy 2, returning later to my hotel room to contemplate the aforementioned gun on my nightstand, praying once more for zombie armageddon. There but for the grace of God went I.

It was until a year later, the movie unceremoniously dumped onto VHS and into video stores without so much as a notice from Fangoria or a by-your-leave. It was a classically produced and abandoned film, forgotten by the studio that made it, bought up by an uncaring video distirbution company and lumped into whatever block of garbage was being shipped to the mom-and-pop video stores in those dark days before the advent of Blockbuster (um, yeah).

Fortunately, I found it. Others did, too. Now, don't get me wrong: Night Of The Creeps is not a great movie, by any stretch. Viewed by today's teenaged sophiticates, it would not muster within them the splattery enthusiasm afforded the latest remake of a '70s or '80s classic.

What Night Of The Creeps has is a light heart and a tongue firmly planted in its cheek. It—or, more appropriately, Fred Dekker—not only had a fun and sometimes shockingly violent story to tell, but also an appreciation of not its own history, but of its genre as well. Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space is not only namechecked in both past and present-day sequences, but integrated into the story itself. (I've often considered Creeps to be Dekker's take on Plan 9, his meta-hommage to Ed Wood as well as the "true" story upon which Wood based his own warped narrative.)

Creep's opening is cleverly built around the classic urban legend of The Hook-Handed Man. Creep's climax, over-the-top for the mid-1980s provided the inspiration and template for the even more mind-scarring climax to Peter Jackson's zombie opus, Dead/Alive (aka Braindead)--zombies versus lawnmowers, anyone?

Night Of The Creeps arrived this week on DVD and Blu-Ray after twenty-three years of waiting for a proper release. Go and buy your copy now.