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Lessons from Zombiefest, Part the First

Gather ’round, members of the living. You are about to become educated on the finer points of the undead film genre.

A while back my brother and I watched every film begotten (and misbegotten) from Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead — 16, plus one trailer.

That’s right. We’ve done the hard work so you don’t have to.

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Zombie films almost always contrast human incompetence, ignorance, or incompatibility with the external threat of the revenant hordes. Which is to say, humans nearly always screw themselves worse than the zombies do. Zombies are not stalkers or serial killers. They frighten because they are single-minded and unstoppable — unstoppable because of quantity rather than invulnerability. Like a virus. In fact, substitute viruses for the undead and you basically have the same movie.

Even so, fear of the undead usually stands for something else. It’s always the fear of others, a group that shifts with mainstream society’s notion of norms. So, for instance, it has been argued that Night of the Living Dead‘s zombies represent drug-addled hippies, out of their minds and focused on getting their fix. It was 1968, after all. That symbolism is debatable — and it gets a lot more complex, though no less true, when the zombies become somewhat sympathetic in later films — but it is clear that Romero at least always tries to depict the pitched battle of humans vs. undead as something more than just that.

A note for the true fan, there are spoilers below because, well, all zombies spoil eventually. Also, some of the clips are gory, duh.

We watched the films based on release date, but they are here grouped according to main series and remakes.

Lastly, please forgive the stylistic schizophrenia of the write-ups. That’s what you get when you mix a collaborative spreadsheet and several personal kegs of beer over a weekend of sedentary film-viewing.

Romero Series:

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

The granddaddy, near perfect. Black-and-white. Zombies are not slow, mindless or lumbering. They are the living recently-dead, not rotting corpses. Some even use tools to kill. (Joey: “That may be the most un-zombielike thing I have ever seen.”) No crawling out of the grave. Some confusion about whether they can be killed in any way that a human can be or if you have to shoot them in the head (which becomes the standard later on). Seems they cannot “infect” the living. Mention of a Venus satellite coming back to Earth and starting the “epidemic”. Mr. Cooper is a dead ringer for Rob Corddry. Odd fixation on taxidermy. Little girl zombie confronting her parents as disturbing now as it surely must have been in 1968. Lead character is a black man, unusual for 1968. He never gets it from the zombies but is killed in the end (mistakenly?) by a group of rescuers that looks exactly like a lynch mob. Best quote: “They’re coming to get you, Bahr-bah-rah.”

One of the reasons that Night spawned so many remakes and derivatives is that it has lapsed into the public domain. As such the entire thing is online for your viewing pleasure.

Rating: ★★★★★

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Hard to argue with a movie whose setting is the locus of the real undead in America: the suburban shopping mall. This continuation is conceptually brilliant, but executed not as well as the original. Possibly influenced by Network (released two years earlier), the film starts in a TV edit suite broadcasting news of the sprawling zombie epidemic. (Interesting flipside to the always-on TV in the first film, basically a character unto itself. At one point in Night someone justifies his actions by saying “Well, the television told us to.”) Action shifts to a mall where a small band of survivors takes refuge from the madding crowd, a consumerist utopia vs. unstructured lust (the urban street, natch). The agent of zombification is now officially viral. The voice of reason, again, is a black man. Firsts: Tom Savini (make-up effects auteur) cameos as a biker; disembowelment; helicopter scalping; obese zombie (rare!). Also, entire biker gang is drinking High Life, which in itself merits applause.

Here’s Savini fending off the shoppers, er, zombies and coming to his own end.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Day of the Dead (1985)

An undead movie with a message. That sucks. Or rather, doesn’t live up to the Romero standard, which disappoints all the more. (For true suckage, we must wait for a few remakes, coming in future post installaments.) So, the outbreak is basically worldwide, lots of shots of overrun cities. A group of scientists and military folk hole up in a vast underground bunker. The scientists are running experiments on captured, shackled zombies because, you see, even zombies have feelings. Bud, the only zombie in any Romero flick that speaks a line, is the central figure. Behind him is this weird three cross motif on the wall. What is he, the messiah? The whole thing is paced through rubber cement, e.g. the first kill (of a zombie, no less) is 58 minutes into the film. The brainy scientists vs. brawny military disagreements tire after, oh, the first one. In the end, it’s too much preach, not enough gore. One of the sensitive humans says “How can we set an example for them if we act like barbarians ourselves?” Gag.

Here’s an unchained Bub actually shooting (and saluting) the head military guy, who is then gang-dismembered.

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆

Land of the Dead (2005)

Twenty years separate this from Day and thank god for that. This is a great movie. The world is completely overrun with the undead. Uninfected humans are barricaded in walled urban centers (hello Baghdad Green Zone!); there’s something of a comfortable equilibrium. Frequent sorties for supplies are undertaken outside the city in a heavily-armored truck-tank that can mow down zombies and distract them with fireworks (“sky flowers”). The twist is that the undead are beginning to remember things, are getting smarter, acting braver. Oh, also they learn to swim. There’s a bit of a zombies-are-people-too vibe which annoys and I’m no great fan of zombies seeking revenge (meaning they are compelled by more than just a hunger for flesh, boo), but overall this is one great flick. Dennis Hopper and John Leguizamo are fantastic.

Here’s the original, unreleased trailer that integrates some footage from the first three movies, plus the creepy quote from Night.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Stay tuned for the next riveting installment of the undead marathon recap. And for god’s sake aim for the head.

Zombiefest

The Weekend of the Living Dead has begun over here at Ascent Stage HQ.

My kid brother Joey and I are long-time horror film fans. There isn’t a sub-genre that doesn’t delight: vampire flicks, Japanese stuff, Italian stuff, classic slashers, supernatural, psychological, torture porn, you name it.

But there’s a special place in every horror buff’s heart for George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead from 1968. It is the granddaddy of the hundreds, possibly thousands, of zombie flicks that have eaten our brains ever since.

Recently I came across a crude “genealogy” of the films spawned by Night of the Living Dead. Got me thinking about doing an undead marathon. Did a little research, added a few films and … here we are, a birthday present for the Leap Day Kid. 17 films, 25 hours, some beer ok a mini-keg of beer, rum, vodka, and scotch, and two little boys watching scary movies while the family is out of town.

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It’s wrong to call all these movies a franchise as you’d do with Friday the 13th or Halloween given the divergent creative visions of the two original writers George Romero and John Russo. They each took the series down very different paths. With remakes, unauthorized sequels, and special editions thrown in you get, well, you get a lot of the living dead.

Romero
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Day of the Dead (1985)
Land of the Dead (2005)
Diary of the Dead (2008)

Remakes
Night of the Living Dead (1990, Savini)
Dawn of the Dead (2004, Snyder)
Day of the Dead (2007, Miner)

Russo
Return of the Living Dead (1986)
Return of the Living Dead 2 (1988)
Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993)
Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis (2005)
Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave (2005)
Night of the Living Dead: 30th Anniversary Edition (1998)
Children of the Living Dead (2001)

Unofficial
Day of the Dead 2: Contagium (2005)
Night of the Living Dead 3D (2006)

Netflix provided most of the movies. I’d get three at a time, rip them to the Apple TV and back they’d go. But a few — the Savini remake, 30th anniversary edition, and Children of the Living Dead — proved very difficult to find. (Facets and Specialty Video & DVD in Chicago are great places to find the most bizarre of your cinema needs.) At least one had not even made it to video yet. (Thank you, torrenters.) The very last in the list chronologically, Diary of the Dead, just left theaters and is represented here as a trailer only. Boo.

So we’ve just begun. Joey recommended a strictly chronological progression through the lot, regardless of series coherence. He thinks it’ll be interesting to map the evolution against social/historical climate and larger trends in horror. There are of course other ways to slice it, as this chart shows.

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We’ll no doubt be posting the findings of our research as the weekend proceeds.

If you’re interested in trying this out yourself, might I recommend a survival manual?

Laboratory Conditions

The past spring I went on a field trip to scout vintage hardware for a film project with Steve Delahoyde of Coudal Partners. We ended up in Los Alamos, New Mexico. We ended up making a slightly different film.

Nudebomb

Presented in five parts, one per day this week. Start here.

(Wow, glad that came along. The image of the impaled turkey was making me ill.)

Sto-Mo

So here’s our first test of stop-motion animation with LEGOs. My son and I have grand plans to create our own alternate storylines. But given the difficulty in creating even this C-grade animation we may be scaling back our vision. Still, this is really fun.

Couple things:

  • Lighting is the hardest part. LEGOs are shiny. Really need a diffuse light tent.
  • Timing is the second hardest part. You can calculate shots per second, of course. But even then you have to be constantly doing math for dramatic pauses and such.
  • iStopMotion is an invaluable app if you are interested in this sort of thing. Easy enough to do with a regular digital camera, but iStopMotion lets you use an iSight and leaves the last frame semi-transparent on the screen so you can see what you are trying to line up with.
  • That’s a half-destroyed Hutt sail barge in the background.
  • Shout out to Wilhelm.

The inspiration for this little family project was my son coming across the hardcopy of a flipbook animation I mentioned in this post years ago.

Heading for a black hole

This is how things get done in Hollywood, so why not for the new Coudal film 72°?

“It’s always the sign of a good meeting when you decide to go grab a quick drink right after work and you wind up leaving the neighborhood bar at around 8:00.”

My god, what have we done?

Shudder

Yesterday I watched two extremely disturbing movies, Open Water 2: Adrift and Jesus Camp. One was infinitely more troubling than the other.

Open Water 2 is a sequel only in that it uses the same premise as the first which is simply and completely this: people stranded in the water at sea. Horrible, of course, but this one tries to up the ante by plopping the bobbing humans into the drink right next to a yacht that they cannot climb back onto. Whoops, forgot to put the ladder down! Panic ensues. People die. But wait there’s more. Did I mention that there is a baby who’s been left on board the boat? And a monitor on deck that faithfully transmits her hungry, neglected wailing to the stranded floaters (including her parents) boatside? Sound awful? It is. Most movies of this ilk ask for a generous suspension of disbelief, but Open Water 2’s premise manages to be completely unbelievable yet still disturbing. I don’t recommend this movie if you are a poor swimmer, afraid of the water or being alone, a parent, or if you’ve ever been a child.

But the stomach-churn caused by Adrift pales in comparison to Jesus Camp, last year’s documentary about an evangelical summer camp for young Christians. I actually had to turn away a few times. Simply couldn’t watch as little kids trembled and cried and threw themselves to the ground for God. The adult organizers of this camp are truly scary as they prompt the kids into ever more ridiculous shows of their faith. The implicit — and a few times stated — impulse is that if the Muslim world is creating armies of mindless devotees in madrasas then Christianity best do it too. What’s so troubling is how mature these little kids act. Like they are reading from a script. There’s absolutely no shred of free-thinking or even childishness. And that’s the great shame: to be raised in an environment of such unquestioning dogma that the wonder and curiosity of childhood is not even an option.

I’d rather be the kid trapped on the boat, frankly.

Superfriendly

Pardon the Al Bundy moment here, but I gotta say that reliving childhood via your own kids can be damn fun. Possibly my strongest memory of pre-8 year old life is watching the Superfriends cartoon (followed by Scooby Doo) with my dad in the basement on Saturday mornings. I loved the Superfriends intensely, so it was with some trepidation that I bought the recently released first season of The Challenge of the Superfriends for my five-year-old son. Trepidation because, of course, nothing ages well from the 1970’s. Or very little besides Pink Floyd. I didn’t want to load the DVD initially, afraid that’d I’d fracture a time-honed nostalgia that remembered the Superfriends as gallant, smart, and timeless.

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Certainly the Superfriends is simplistic. The Legion of Doom’s goal is simply to spread evil and conquer the universe. Dialogue is overt and crude. And the whole thing is borderline racist with token ethnic superheroes that are clearly secondary to the main stock. And yet, I wasn’t disappointed. The storylines are suprisingly unique and clever. Yes, each episode starts with a new plot by Lex and friends (none Super) to overthrow the Hall of Justice with the Superfriends having always to react (how about some proactive justice, people?), but there was a lot of thought put into each episode’s twist. Time travel, summoning of the undead, alternate universes — the type of thing that was way beyond me as a kind but now strikes me as fairly interesting for a saturday morning ‘toon. And if the the recent upsurge in nightmares of my son is an indicator also fairly “adult” in content.

The real evidence of the value of The Challenge of the Superfriends comes from comparing the seasons that preceded it. Challenge was the first where they got rid of the awful, basically useless teen sidekicks and pets. You recall Wendy, Marvin (I’m sorry, Marvin the Superhero?), and their dog Wonderdog and of course the Wonder Twins and their annoying monkey Gleek, yes? Well, sorry about that. What a dark period that was.
Viva Green Lantern.

SOAMFP

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What are you doing reading this blog and not standing in line to see this movie?

UPDATE: So I got to see this movie about snakes. Believe it or not, they are actually in the plane, not on it. So you can imagine the problems this causes! Good fun. The movie was sublime perfection, everything I could possibly have imagined. Best part: the story doesn’t so much as imply a reason why a gangster would try to down a plane with a crate load of snakes. Plausbility is for the weak.

Airplane movies

For some reason on my flight to Turkey I was compelled to watch not one but two thrillers that take place on an airplane. I’m not sure my seatmates were altogether thrilled.

Flightplan is more-than-decent. Jodie Foster is excellent as a mom on the verge of hysteria having lost her child on a massive new airplane clearly modelled on the double-decker Airbus A380. I can’t think of when I’ve seen Foster in a role coming apart like that. The suspense is remarkable given the oft-voiced point in the movie “how can you lose a child on an airplane?” And there’s a twist that only Sept. 11 could give us.

No less surprising was Red Eye, Wes Craven’s slow extrication from the horror genre he’s so comfortable in. Yes, you can make a compelling movie two-thirds of which takes place between two people sitting in plane seats. It isn’t as clean as Flightplan, but it has its moments and Cillian Murphy is perfect as a charming seatmate psychopath. Wes Craven does a good job substituting the latent fear of dying because a madman killed you in your dreams with the post-9/11 fear that you never quite know who you are sitting next to on an airplane.

Of course none of this matters. The countdown is on for Snakes On A Plane . You think losing a child on an airplane is tough? How about getting away from several hundred snakes? Kudos to the studio for merging title and plot synopsis in one pithy phrase — a sure sign that this will be a winner.

Also a tip: if you are watching a movie on your laptop when dinner arrives and you have a backpack, just prop it up between your knees. Take the laptop off the tray table and rest it on the pack, stabilizing it with your knees. Watch, eat.

One show, daily

I attended a taping of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart today in NYC. Great fun. Actually way more fun than I thought it would be. I guess I just figured it would be a little sterile in a studio setting, but it was actually funnier. For instance, I always assumed that the correpondent reports that are filed from “Baghdad” and “Washington D.C.” — obviously in front of a green screen — were at least done backstage or something. In fact, the correspondents are mere feet from Stewart on stage and watching his off-camera reaction to their reports is hilarious. Sometimes it felt like he didn’t know what they were going to say, though of course it is scripted and flowing past on the telepromters. The staff cracks up constantly too — and why not? Just great to see how much everyone enjoys the show. There’s a bit of a pre-show standup routine by a staffer that was really quite funny and then Stewart comes out to answer some audience questions. One guy asked Stewart how he felt about the fans who purchased the old show set on eBay and are touring around the country. He said he had not heard about it — which I find very hard to believe. (Thanks for the tickets, Matty!)