Monthly Archives: March 2015

Timecrimes (2007)

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*. When did so many words start getting slurred together to form catchy neologisms? It must have come in with the Internet, when a brand or title or name was all one run-on web address. Hence: Timecrimes. Not Time Crimes, which would have made perfect sense. But Timecrimes. Or, in the original Spanish, Los Cronocrimenes.
*. I find this a clever and entertaining but ultimately unsatisfying movie, for several reasons.
*. A lot of people hold this up as a time travel movie that actually “makes sense.” It does not. The paradoxes of time travel are not resolved, they are simply avoided for some reason by Hector. Just because you can draw a squiggly line on the back of a calendar doesn’t mean you’ve explained a damn thing.

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*. It’s also not clear to me what Hector’s motivations are. Once he figures he is caught in the loop and so should try as much as possible to keep the new time frames working like the old, I can see why he might think there’s some sense to what he’s doing (even if there is no real sense for it). But why does he leave the lab in the first place? He didn’t know he was the guy wearing the bandages. And if there is no changing what happened anyway, why not just sit around and wait for events to replay as they must?
*. As a special instance of motivation, why on earth would Hector just blithely agree to enter the time travel tank when the scientist El Joven (writer-director Nacho Vigalondo) tells him to. That thing does not look safe at all. And yet he climbs in right away. I’d take my chances with the bandage-headed man. And plus there are two of them in the lab and the only weapon the other guy has is a pair of scissors. So come on.

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*. Finally, there’s the girl on the bicycle. I can see killing her off if the point that’s being made is that Hector is essentially a selfish and amoral jerk. But this is something that the movie, as far as I can tell, does not want to say, or even imply. Hector is an Everyman, he is not evil or cruel.
*. Otherwise, Hector could have prevented her death and staged it so as to fool the Hector on the roof. This is what I thought he was going to do when he cut her hair and gave her a jacket to wear. Then it turns out that he was just sacrificing her out of expedience. The Hector on the roof never actually checks to make sure that she is dead.
*. Aside from all of the above, I thought this was a clever little film that did a good job milking an entertaining feature out of a very limited budget.

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*. Bárbara Goenaga is very pretty, but why does Hector strip her naked? Because that’s the way Hector finds her, of course, but only because that’s what Hector did to her in the first place. Which introduces an infinite regress.
*. The film starts out quite effectively creepy. I like the setting of the unfinished house with everything covered in plastic wrap, and all the time spent looking through binoculars. The binoculars are scary because they constrict Hector’s vision so much. He can see things at a distance but nothing right in front of him, or to either side. You half expect something dangerous to suddenly jump up in his face.
*. Hector’s hiding behind a tree creates the same sense of unease. From the camera’s POV we can’t see anyone sneaking up on him, and neither can he. But again, nothing is done with this.
*. Then there is the character of the scientist. I didn’t trust him a bit. Surely, I thought, he’s a brilliant mad scientist at a private lab, hiding all kinds of sinister secrets from his bewildered guinea pig Hector. Then it turns out he’s just some schlub version of the sorcerer’s apprentice who’s stuck working weekends.
*. This turns the movie into something like an ironic case study in the Peter principle. Now there’s an infinite regress! The future is doomed to keep getting dumber as we descend the ladder of our competence.

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City for Conquest (1940)

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*. Nothing says you’ve gone back, way back, in time like having a derelict in the role of chorus, offering up his poetic paeans to the great city. Now there’s a character we haven’t seen in a while. Today we have less sympathy for the down and out, and for poetry.
*. Frank Craven’s smug “Old Timer” is often cited as a “parody” of his Stage Manager character in Our Town (also 1940), but I’m really not sure this was the intent. He’s a comic figure here, but I don’t think he’s meant to be seen ironically. He speaks the truth, smugly, because he still has a shirt on his back.

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*. I think this is important because the movie is dated in other ways that I find make it hard to watch today.
*. It’s based on a novel that has also dated. Meaning it was a melodramatic stab at the Great American Novel: a sociological panorama taking in all walks of life, from high to low. The film is a celebration of that life, of the relentless struggle upward. And should our heroes fall, then even that may be a Howellsian “rise,” a moral triumph.
*. So what should be a tragic tale — Peggy no longer has her name in lights but is back where she started and stuck dancing in a sleazy burlesque show, while Danny is blind and working a newsstand — is presented as a happy ending. Hey, at least they still have the shirts on their back!
*. There’s an interesting cast, especially in the supporting roles. Anthony Quinn is slick and slightly alien-looking as Murray Burns. Elia Kazan only acted in a couple of movies, this being one of them, and he’s pretty good. I wonder if he was responsible for writing that great line he delivers after he gets shot.

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*. Cagney is great as usual, and for once has a female lead who can hold the screen against him. Ann Sheridan may not have been a great actress — aside from her ability to turn on the waterworks here — but she had presence. A lot of that can be chalked up to beauty. Judging beauty is always a personal call, but Sheridan definitely had it. She came to Hollywood as a beauty contest winner and was dubbed “The Oomph Girl” (which she didn’t like), but it’s the intelligence and knowingness in her face that makes her irresistible. It’s like she knows this is all good fun and not that important. That sort of assurance makes her seem more natural, and hence more attractive.

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*. Yes, I’ve got a bit of a crush on her.
*. Sadly, her part isn’t much. In her big early scene with Cagney where she reveals her burning ambition to make something of herself (and he reveals his total lack of the same), there’s the potential for a very interesting dynamic. But Peggy settles back into convention, from being the abused ingénue (“Gee this is the first time I’ve ever signed a contract! I’m so excited I can hardly write!”) and even rape victim (which I think is clearly what happens), until finally going back to her roots, and her steady guy. She is, after all, still his “goil.”

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*. My goodness but the chorines at the Follies Burlesque are scantily dressed! I’m surprised those outfits made it by the censors. They’re barely covered up! This must have been the equivalent of Showgirls in its day.
*. As Richard Schickel notes in his commentary, it’s funny to see Cagney, a great dancer, giving up the floor to Sheridan. He could have put on a show. Meanwhile, Quinn wasn’t a dancer at all and his work with Sheridan was doubled.
*. Once again with the convention of the boxing manager protecting his fighter from the leg-weakening debilitations of the fairer sex. Peggy is another Delilah, cutting down and blinding her Samson in a manner just “like his ancient namesake.”

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*. A “well-made plot” can be self-defeating. It becomes predictable, formulaic. Structural matters are foregrounded and seem too obvious. Danny’s and Peggy’s parallel rise to becoming names in marquee lights is too neat. But it’s the ending that is the real problem.
*. The movie takes far too long to wrap up. When Cagney is blinded there is still over half an hour to go, and he doesn’t get back together with Peggy until the final seconds. So instead the finale is given over to Edward’s symphony, which allows Max Steiner to go all out but which just isn’t that interesting.
*. Schickel nails it: “basically this movie stops stone cold and we hear a concert . . . it’s slowing down what is meant to be a fairly lively movie.” It has to be there to complete the structure of rise and fall and rise, but how much do we care about Eddie? His triumph seems like a consolation prize, given where Danny and Peggy have arrived.

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The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

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*. “Inspired by a true story.” That’s one way of putting it. It’s actually based on a non-fiction book by Wade Davis that looked into a supposed case of zombification in Haiti, suggesting that it might have been caused by the use of drugs.
*. Davis wanted the picture to be directed by Peter Weir, and to star Mel Gibson. With Wes Craven on board, things were bound to head in a very different direction.
*. Not that Craven sinks the film. In fact, I think this is one of his better efforts, in part because it’s grounded, somewhat, in reality. The story takes the zombie genre back to its historical and cultural roots, and even the wilder sequences come with an explanation (being the result of psychotropic drugs).
*. It could have done more though. There are actually moments here reminiscent of The Killing Fields or The Last King of Scotland. It would have been interesting to crossbreed the horror genre with a movie that was making a political statement about the real horrors of a police state, but that never quite happens.

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*. Nice to see Michael Gough showing up in a film that must have reminded him a bit of his Hammer days.
*. The ending features one of the most spectacular human fireball effects I’ve ever seen. I mean they really light that guy up good. But it’s ruined by bringing the bad guy back to life so he can be disposed of again. When did this motif — the super villain who cannot be killed just once — become obligatory? Of course Craven knew it well (he’d used it many times before), but here it just seems tired and pointless.

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*. This should have been so much better. At every step of the way you feel a sense of wasted potential. The cast is really quite good and there are places where it should have really come alive, like the torture business at the police station, and especially the Boston dinner party where the lady of the house is possessed and turns into a knife-wielding psycho. But they never come off. There isn’t a single suspenseful, shocking, or scary sequence in the entire film. After a while you’re just waiting for something weird to happen.
*. Was Craven reverting to his creative comfort zone? Or was this a case of the studio trying to make the source material into a more commercial property? I’m not sure who’s to blame, but it doesn’t really work.

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Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988)

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*. The first Return of the Living Dead was a movie that snuck through by the skin of its teeth. What I mean is that it could have been an absolutely terrible film, but the script by Dan O’Bannon and the quirkiness of some of the performances were just enough to keep it charmingly afloat.
*. No such luck the second time around. The sequel is garbage.
*. They try to channel some of the charm from the first film. James Karen and Thom Mathews are both back, playing roles very similar to those they played in the first film (a bickering couple who get infected with the 2-4-5 Trioxin gas and later turn into zombies). But they’re both at a loss here, with nothing much to do and nothing at all to say.
*. It seems as though Karen was just told to wail away pointlessly, scream, and cry out things like “Oh merciful god!” This is one of the most annoying performances I’ve ever seen on film. You’re just praying for him to get run over by a truck so he’ll shut up.
*. Allan Trautman is also back as the Tarman, but I’m not sure why. He only shows up briefly in a single scene. It’s like a zombie cameo. But he was one of the best things about the first film!
*. The new faces are no better. I hate to call out a kid, but Michael Kenworthy as Jesse is just awful. He’s almost as painful as Karen.
*. Not that he’s given a lot of help. The script is so bad it set my teeth on edge, with “jokes” so rough they cripple any attempt at delivery. Jesse tells his sister Lucy that since the zombies only eat brains, maybe they’ll leave her alone! When in danger he says “Great. I’m not even out of grade school and I’m already going to die.” After shoving his bully-zombie nemesis off a roof he says “That’s why you’re dead, asswipe. No brains and a big mouth.” After the same bully-zombie gets electrocuted in spectacular fashion Doc Mandel stands over his smoking corpse and says “Must have blown a fuse.” Ha-ha.
*. But at least these seem like lines that were actually written. Much of the movie consists of the actors just running around and screaming.
*. It’s not funny. It’s not scary. It’s not clever or witty or subversive. It’s just a retread of the first film but is worse in every department except for the zombies, who look a bit better. A film this bad should have killed the franchise in its tracks. But that was not to be.

Day of the Dead (1985)

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*. There is a firm narrative now attached to this film. It was envisioned as a much bigger movie but the budget was cut in half when Romero nixed an R-rating (you can read the original script online, and it’s worth a look). On release, it failed to catch on with critics and audiences, leading to a short, limited theatrical run. Then its fortunes revived, first on VHS and then on DVD, raising it to the status of a lost or at least overlooked masterpiece. Of the films making up Romero’s first zombie trilogy, it is even considered by some to be the best (and by Romero his favourite).
*. As is so often the case in such revivals or revisions in a movie’s reputation, the pendulum may have swung back too far. I’ll confess when I first saw this one (on VHS in the late ’80s) I was disappointed. It just didn’t seem as lively or essential as Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead. I have, however, returned to it several times over the years and it’s grown on me. I still consider it to be the least of the trilogy, but nevertheless there’s a lot to like.

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*. What’s to like? The gore effects were the best yet. Savini really hit his stride here and pulled out all the stops. The underground storage facility was another great found location, almost as good as the Monroeville Mall. The script isn’t just a retread of the same old zombie siege conventions, and introduces lots of tension with the various group dynamics. And finally the actors are better, with at least a couple of performances being excellent.

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*. And so why did I (and many other zombie fans) feel disappointed?
*. In part because it doesn’t break as much new ground as the first two. If it didn’t have Romero’s name on it, it would probably be considered only a minor gem of the period.
*. Another negative, at least to my ears, is the score. It sounds artificial and inappropriate to the action.
*. But I think the big problem is with the characters.
*. I was surprised to hear Romero remark on the commentary that he thought it didn’t go over well because it was darker and less “comic book” in its presentation. I had the opposite response, finding it more comic book than its predecessors.

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*. The sense you had in the first two films was that you were watching real people trying to cope with an impossible situation. Here we are presented with caricatures: the mad scientist, the tough-as-the-boys heroine, the laid-back Jamaican dude, the drunken Mick (who keeps repeating “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph” at the first sign of trouble), and the power-tripping military man with his gang of thugs.
*. These caricatures interact in a comic book fashion by mostly yelling and pointing their guns at each other. I actually lost count of the number of times this happens.
*. Another way of looking at it is to notice how in the earlier films the characters behave in an essentially rational manner. Things don’t work out that well, but every step of the way you can see the logic of what they’re doing: planning to get some gas in the truck so they can make it somewhere safe, holing up in the shopping mall because it’s a self-contained economy, etc. But here nothing makes sense. What use are Dr. Logan’s experiments in behaviorism when zombies outnumber humans 400,000-to-1? And what are they doing down there in the cold and the dark anyway? Why don’t they all go to the island paradise?
*. Now I’ll admit some of this is enjoyable. I mentioned the two performances that I thought were excellent earlier. These are Richard Liberty’s turn as Dr. Logan, which is fun because he really gets to play up the Dr. Frankenstein figure in a blood-spattered lab coat, and Howard Sherman (or Sherman Howard) brilliantly miming the character of Bub.

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*. Also enjoyable in their over-the-top campiness are Joseph Pilato as the elaborately coiffed Rhodes (there must be quite a supply of hair gel in the mines somewhere), and Anthony Dileo Jr. as the quivering Miguel.
*. Just what does Sarah see in Miguel anyway? Like the rest of the characters he is an exaggerated caricature, this time of the useless coward. I love how his rage at his own worthlessness leads him to take his bitter revenge on everyone in the mine in the most spectacular, suicidal way. That’s how the worm turns! But how did such a wimp ever hook up with a tough cookie like Sarah? Did she take pity on him? Or are we to believe that at one time he had his shit together?
*. Meanwhile, just as the cast are imagined as less human and more like a set of stock characters, the zombies are becoming more human and, paradoxically, less threatening or interesting. As noted, I love Howard Sherman’s performance as Bub, but I’m not sure I like the idea of a zombie with a conscience. They are a force of nature, personifications of death, but not people.

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*. Dr. Logan’s plan to “domesticate” them puts Romero ahead of the curve again, as this is an idea that will be picked up again at the end of Shaun of the Dead, and taken much further in Fido. But again, such an idea, while a natural extension of the zombie mythography, has the effect of making them less scary. They’ve gone back to their roots in the Haitian cane fields as a source of cheap labour.
*. It’s a good movie, but not a zombie classic in my book. I think that even on a bad day Romero is worth watching, and this is one of his best looking, most interesting zombie films. But the trouble with being such an original is that you are always taking chances. And they don’t always pay off.

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The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

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*. The bacsktory to this film is of a complexity that only a lawyer could understand, or have any interest in. The bottom line is that after Night of the Living Dead the two co-writers of that movie — George Romero and John Russo — went their separate ways, with Romero starting a franchise of “Dead” films and Russo taking over the “Living Dead” moniker.
*. The Return of the Living Dead movies, however, weren’t really the brainchild of Russo so much as they were the product of the fertile imagination of Dan O’Bannon, who wrote and directed this lead-off to the series.
*. It was O’Bannon’s first “official” directing effort (his emphasis), and with it several significant changes would be made to the Romero zombie formula. The living dead would be faster, fully articulate, and more intelligent. They would also be somewhat sympathetic. Living death is a curse, and those afflicted are drawn compulsively to devour not just any human flesh but brains specifically. For some arcane reason this eases their pain.

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*. Most of all, however, the ROTLD films would be funny, or at least that’s how the series would start out. Realism would be thrown to the winds. It makes no sense, for example, that the decomposed corpses are able to speak, or that any human mouth could bite through skulls with such ease. In contrast, Romero always prided himself on the realistically stiff movement of his zombies. He wanted audiences, at least on some level, to believe.
*. Does its sense of knowing humour work against it? Kim Newman thinks so, writing that “The Return of the Living Dead is a movie that is self-destructed by its cynicism . . . too hip and spoofy for its own good.” I can see his point. The best horror-comedies retain a real atmosphere of terror, with the humour coming as a relief. Here there’s nothing very scary or suspenseful going on and it’s all played as a series of zombie skits.
*. Eco-horror: the barrels of improperly disposed toxic waste lead directly to acid rain. I wonder why there isn’t more eco-horror these days. The world’s pollution problem has only gotten worse.
*. Why doesn’t the Tarman eat the brains of Rank and Freddy when he breaks out of his tank? They’re both lying unconscious there. Perhaps it’s because they’ve been infected with the gas. When the Yellow Man is released, he runs past the two of them to attack Burt. But they still have “live brains” don’t they? Even though they have no vital signs, they haven’t flatlined into full zombiehood yet. Frank is still “live” enough at the end to want to kill himself rather than turn into a zombie.

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*. When Ernie suggests using acid on the zombies his friend Burt rightly remarks that there’s not enough of it. Which is so obvious one wonders why Ernie bothered mentioning it at all, except to introduce it later when Freddy is blinded.
*. The scene where the ambulance driver turns on the headlights to suddenly reveal the crowd of zombies is brilliantly conceived. Indifferently executed, but brilliantly conceived.
*. The gang of kids is a real pot-pourri of music and fashion. There are punks, preppies, nerds, and new wavers. All of them looking pretty ridiculous by today’s standards. God, the ’80s were an awful time.
*. I guess it’s interesting that Ernst Kaltenbrunner was an actual Nazi official, and that his namesake Ernie here has a photo of Eva Braun on the wall, a German pistol, and a crematorium deliberately modeled (by O’Bannon) after Auschwitz. But what of it? I’m not sure what the point is. As we see him here, Ernie is a fully sympathetic figure.
*. Let’s call Linnea Quigley the sexiest zombie ever and get that award out of the way. I’ll confess, what I found most remarkable about her performance was her apparent lack of pubic hair, which was definitely not the style in the mid ’80s. That came later.
*. Here’s the story: on her first appearance it was remarked that her pubic hair would never get by the censors, so she then shaved it off. This, apparently, only made things worse. She then wore a prosthesis that gave her a plastic pubis which I gather is what we see her in (though I certainly can’t tell that she has anything on). In any event, she probably advanced the pubic grooming movement considerably with her role in this film, which may endear her to some and make her a public (or pubic) enemy to others.

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*. The Tarman is excellent, but he’s really the only good effect in the film. The yellow man sequence is a joke, the acid on Freddy’s face looks like layered-on putty, the torso woman is a simple puppet, Linnea Quigley’s “open jaw” mask can only be seen for fractions of a second because the mouth was fixed in one position, and most of the extra zombies just seem to have some colour added to their faces.
*. The production designer was very unhappy and fired the original makeup man William Munns, but given the very low budget I’m not sure how much more could have been done.
*. There’s a really interesting documentary on the making of the movie, More Brains!, that gives you a feel for what all was happening behind the scenes. It was not a happy set. From the dissatisfaction with Munns’s work to O’Bannon’s notoriously difficult personality and other conflicts among the cast and crew, it sounds like it was a tense time. It’s surprising for any of this to come through in a documentary feature like this; usually everyone is just happy and complimentary to one another. Not here.
*. It’s a decent little movie, but let’s not get carried away. It’s clever (at times) and fun, but it’s no cult classic. There’s a lot of material that doesn’t work, it’s dated, and it often tries too hard. What I mean by that last point is the party music, the characters who just scream at each other, and the final credits that play over the best parts of the movie we just watched. I enjoyed them enough the first time.

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City of the Living Dead (1980)

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*. Just for fun, let’s begin at the end. What the hell is going on?
*. The official explanation is that it was the result of a botched job of editing together pieces of damaged film, though there are some other interesting interpretations out there.
*. A scramble of editing resulting in total nonsense: you could say such an ending epitomizes the entire film. There are a bunch of decent parts here but they don’t add up to anything coherent. It isn’t just the ending that doesn’t make sense. What’s Bob’s problem? Is he on the run? From what? What is with that wormy corpse in the old building he hangs out in (aside from making a bizarre complement to his self-inflating sex doll)? Why does the wall drip blood when the glass from the window sticks in it? How do the zombies teleport in and out of physical space? Is the dead priest possessed, or just evil?
*. The script has the feel of something Fulci (and Dardano Sacchetti) scribbled on a napkin. As is usual with Fulci, it’s just a clothesline to hang a bunch of violent scenes from.
*. A lot of the lines are very funny, in that over-the-top Euro-horror way. I like how the medium warns the cop that in some distant town “horrendously awful things are happening, things that would shatter your imagination.” His response is more direct:

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*. As far as the opening goes, it’s hard to beat having a woman’s scream against a black background. I wonder what the first film was to do that. I know it’s been done many times since.
*. So the Book of Enoch (which I don’t think is meant to be the Book of Enoch) was written “more than 4,000 years ago.” That’s unlikely. They were just inventing writing back then. There weren’t a lot of books.
*. It’s one thing not to be able to start your car in a scary movie, but to not be able to open the door, from the inside, seems like overkill.
*. It’s weird how they killed off the leads they did in order to come up with such a mismatched couple at the end. These two people don’t even know each other, and now they’re going to raise little John-John together?

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*. The drill kill is probably the most famous scene. And it’s one that is totally extraneous to the plot. Why is the girl’s dad a psycho killer? I get it that he doesn’t like Bob, but . . . man.
*. You have to love how the cop volunteers some men to help at the cemetery, but this offer of assistance is turned down. The cops should just take care of John-John and leave the rest to a psychiatrist, his girlfriend, and a couple of out-of-towners. Well . . . OK!
*. It’s almost too easy in a film like this, but isn’t there some really erratic continuity in the cutting between day and night scenes?
*. This is sometimes regarded as the first of Fulci’s “Gates of Hell” trilogy (the next instalments were The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery). But there’s little real connection between the three movies.
*. I’m generally a big supporter of actors looking their age in movies, but don’t John-John’s parents seem a bit old to have such a young child?
*. Dunwich (which was actually Savannah) is apparently built on the ruins of the original Salem, of witch-trial fame. Which is weird because Salem is still a community named Salem as well as a historical site. Whereas the Lovecraftian Dunwich is some remote location (the road to it is said at one point to be blocked by a landslide!), and isn’t marked on any maps.
*. The score, with its lazy electronic beat, is effective most of the time but starts to get monotonous after a while. There’s too much of it. And what’s with all the animal noises? The awakened dead sound like a bunch of baboons, and in the one scene they even get the leads to all look up in the tree tops as though expecting to see them swinging around like Tarzan.
*. Of course it wouldn’t be a Fulci movie without piles of writhing worms covering the screen. And as a young man living on a farm, I have stood on many a carpet of maggots. But I never experience anything quite like the infamous maggot scene here. And those are the real deal, no CGI cheating! The actors literally had patches of maggots glued to their faces, and then another 50 kg of the little worms blown at them with an airboat fan. I wouldn’t be surprised if Janet Agren (Sandra) was throwing up for real.
*. Speaking of Sandra, just what is her relationship with her psychiatrist? Is she just a patient? When she’s in trouble, why does she call him, and why does he call her “honey”?

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*. Another Fulci signature is the sudden zooms into disorienting close-ups of eyeballs and mouths. This should be silly, but for the most part he gets away with it. Perhaps it’s just so unexpected and unconventional it keeps us on our toes. And helps to conceal the crude dubbing.
*. Whenever I watch Fulci I’m sure I’m watching crap, and yet I keep returning to these films. Why? I think it has to do with his sense of style. In the documentary on the making of this movie star Catriona MacColl shares a great insight, that Fulci’s movies have a “poetic Italian decadence that sets them apart from American horror movies.”
*. What this “poetry” consists of is hard to pin down though. You can feel it, but it resists close analysis. I think it has something to do with the surreal atmosphere, that foggy sense of being in a time and place outside of the normal canons of logic and verisimilitude. Fulci’s horror movies are cheap, exploitative and derivative genre-fare, quite sloppily made in most technical respects, yet they’re always marked by a very personal, idiosyncratic vision that’s full of uncanny moments.

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Zombie (1979)

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*. The different titles this movie was released under testify to its attempt to ride on the coattails of Romero’s zombie franchise. When Dawn of the Dead was released in Italy as Zombi, the title of this movie was changed to Zombi 2, though it was in no way a sequel to that film (or, indeed, any other zombie flick). Now that’s marketing! Or a rip-off. Or both, really.
*. The opening and closing scenes, set in New York City, were also added post-Dawn of the Dead to tie it in to that film’s zombie apocalypse. Which may be why there’s no explanation given for why a boat was sailing from zombie island to NYC in the first place. Who is holding the gun in that opening shot? Who is he addressing?
*. The zombies in this movie are old-fashioned, or at least more traditional, being the product of Caribbean black magic. They are not Romero-esque living dead, whose ultimate origin is uncertain.
*. Like Romero’s zombies, however, they are slow-moving flesh eaters who infect their victims with their undead condition (at least the ones that, for whatever reason, they choose not to devour). And when I say “slow moving” I mean really, really slow moving. These are some of the most lethargic undead I’ve ever seen. They seem scarcely able to move. I wonder if the layers of makeup they had to wear blinded them, making them afraid of bumping into things.
*. But they can’t really be blind. This is one of the only zombie movies I know of that actually gives you shots from the zombies’ point of view. Even crawling out of the ground, with dirt falling from the camera’s lens. I found this quite disconcerting. I can relate to a psycho-slasher’s POV, but a zombie’s?
*. By the way, sticking with slow moving and sightless undead, if you think the resurrected Templars from the Tombs of the Blind Dead movies are even slower, that’s true. But that’s because they’re filmed in slow motion, not because they’re really slow.
*. The opening here, with the death ship sailing into New York harbour must have been meant to recall the arrival of Dracula’s plague ship full of rats in Nosferatu (or other iterations of that story).
*. The plot here isn’t that strong, and there are a lot of silly moments thrown in just to move things along, but that’s really not the point. This is a movie based around a handful of set-piece scenes that are actually quite impressive.
*. The two best scenes are the zombie vs. shark fight and the splinter in the eyeball. Once seen, they cannot be forgotten.

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*. How dangerous was the shark stunt? I don’t know. When I first saw it I was amazed. How did they do that? Since then I’ve read that the shark was apparently a harmless type, and heavily tranquilized for good measure. It probably just wanted the zombie to go away.

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*. The splinter in the eye shot looks great, but it makes no sense. Why wouldn’t Paola just turn her head slightly to one side, or use her hands to break off the splinter?
*. Kudos to Brian for his proto-hipster look, complete with shaggy beard and ironic Daily Planet t-shirt. He even gets to deliver authentic-sounding Dude lines like informing Peter and Anne that Matul’s “not a cool place to hit. The natives claim it’s cursed.” True that.
*. It’s kind of hard to miss the racist overtones, what with our gang of white heroes (they’re even mostly dressed in white) besieged by rebellious natives. Though I suppose the conquistadore zombies help mollify this a bit, as well as the idea that the third world is somehow biting back at its colonial exploiters.

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*. I’ve seen Dr. Menard being criticized for missing the revived Lucas at such close range, but I think this is realistic. Just because you’re in a zombie movie doesn’t mean that every time you shoot your gun you’re going to get a spectacular kill shot to the head. Sometimes you miss!
*. Fulci does like his worms, doesn’t he? I wonder if he was genuinely drawn to them or if they were just a cheap and easy gross-out effect. I think he was drawn to them, for whatever reason.
*. I prefer this to most of Fulci’s movie because at least I have a pretty good idea of what is going on. There’s no bizarre nonsense about a gateway being opened to another dimension. It also has a handful of great scenes (the opening sequence of the ship entering New York, the shark fight, the eye gouge, and the final shot of the zombies crossing the Brooklyn Bridge). That said . . .

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*. It’s not a great movie, or even a great zombie movie. Aside from the eye poke, the gore effects are pretty poor. The zombies are just people with layers of crap thrown on their faces (Fulci thought of them as potted plants). And the action sequences are quite dull. Because the zombies move so slowly their victims often have to patiently stand in front of them, waiting to be attacked. Then, since their zombie masks don’t seem to function that well, we never see them chewing or eating the flesh they bite off. Finally, the climactic battle in the church is a yawn, with the zombies seeming not to advance at all and the same shot of the molotov cocktails exploding repeated over and over.

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Dawn of the Dead (1978)

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*. This is widely, though not universally, regarded as the greatest zombie film ever — a title that it has managed to hold on to despite a tsunami of better-financed competition in the twenty-first century.
*. It’s a movie I feel I grew up with. I didn’t see it when it first came out, but caught it later on videotape. Of course I was blown away. I hadn’t seen anything like it. Few people had.
*. Contemporary reviewers were in shock. It has an entry in The New York Times Guide to the 1000 Best Movies Ever Made, but the reviewer (Janet Maslin) admits she walked out after the first fifteen minutes. It had that kind of effect.

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*. It’s also one of those movies that has had so much said about it, both in mainstream sources and online, that there’s little left to add. It’s like trying to do a commentary on Psycho.
*. That said, a lot of what’s been said has been overdone. Romero states on the DVD commentary that he’s only interested in the concept behind his films: “I don’t care about the people.” And concept films are much beloved of people who write about movies. It’s easier to indulge in paraphrase and interpretation than to comment on technique.
*. And interpretation isn’t hard here. A satire of consumerism? Well, yes. That’s kind of obvious. Romero knew it was obvious. He was amazed people thought this was something that needed to be pointed out to audiences.
*. After all, just because Romero is a director interested in developing social and political themes doesn’t mean he’s interested in being subtle. In fact, he wanted to make a comic book film. The blood here is a ridiculously bright red that Tom Savini hated but that Romero liked because it added to the effect. The non-Goblin music also seems jarringly out of place (and I think Dario Argento cut some of it for European release), but again Romero liked it for the same reason he liked the bright red blood. He wanted it to be fake.

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*. The opening shot has Francine’s head leaning against the wall. This is a position that is repeated countless times in the film. Characters are always standing or sitting with their backs against a wall. Was this a conscious decision? I doubt it, but it makes a thematic point.
*. There is at least one way that the comic book sensibility plays against the movie. The biker gang are complete idiots, just vandals without a cause. How have they survived so long engaging in such risky behaviour for so little real gain? At this point, why do they want to steal a bunch of useless tat and baubles from department stores? Or rob a bank of paper money?
*. The best (or worst) example is the guy who straps himself into the blood pressure machine just as the zombies are getting the upper hand and are all over him. It makes no sense at all, except as a way of forcing a pretty ineffective joke (the severed arm giving a dangerous reading).
*. And yet I suppose Roger is just as big an idiot, and his juvenile goofing off is what leads to his ultimately getting killed. It’s as though there’s a corollary to the zombie virus that makes (men at least) revert to being children.
*. Or perhaps it’s not the zombie virus itself so much as it’s the setting. The mall represents consumerism, sure, but also a fantasy of plenty and self-sufficiency. It’s a sort of paradise or Eden for homesteaders who don’t have to actually do any work, and where all one’s wants are provided for (remarkably, the power stays on throughout). Is this not what Freud saw as the paradise of childhood?

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*. It’s very cheap, but effectively leverages what production value they had (the helicopter, the use of the mall) to make a movie that looks like it has a decent budget.
*. The best directors make strengths out of weaknesses. Romero had no money to pay for big stars, but he didn’t want them anyway. You want to see ordinary people in a situation like this. You don’t want to see Brad Pitt playing the hero and saving the world from zombies. Of course you got that anyway, but only later, when the zombie phenomenon had entered its decadent Hollywood phase.
*. What carries it all though is the insane level of energy that everyone agrees was present on the set. This manifests itself in countless ways on screen. People are always running from place to place. They talk excitedly. And most of all there are a lot of cuts. The camera doesn’t move much, but the editing is frantic. Even the slow, talky scenes are presented in this way.
*. Is the gore the most shocking thing about it? I don’t think so, and perhaps it wasn’t even at the time. The killing of the two children at the airport has always struck me as a particularly shocking scene, and the very frank talk about the advisability of Francine having an abortion (Peter says he knows how to do it). It seems to me that the best horror movies (and novels, for that matter) gain a lot from this kind of disarming frankness. We feel we’re in a world that is more real, and one where there are no rules about what can and can’t be talked about, what can and can’t be shown. That the dead have come to life and are eating people is one thing, but killing a pair of noisy, hyperactive kids (they are the sole exceptions to normal Romero zombie movement) and sitting around talking about abortions . . . now those are signs of the apocalypse.

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Rabid (1976)

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*. The Keloid Clinic (Inc., even though turning it into a franchise is still something that is only in the planning stage). Is there a more obsessive Cronenberg element than these bizarre clinics and institutes whose cures are always worse than the disease?
*. The Special-K monograms on the bathrobes unfortunately make it look like the Kellogg’s Clinic. The word “keloid” refers to a kind of scar tissue, which is fitting enough for a plastic surgery centre, but I think of a portmanteau of Kellogg’s and hemorrhoid, especially as Rose’s scar looks like an irritated sphincter.
*. Sticking with Rose’s little addition, it’s usually described as a penis, which seems to stack the deck on how you’re going to interpret the film. Even Cronenberg on the commentary calls it a “penis-like proboscis,” which is doubly weird (how is it like a nose?). I still think it’s an erupting sphincter, but the retractable needle is unique. I suspect it may be inspired by a distaste for skin tags.

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*. Back to the Keloid Clinic: on the commentary Cronenberg mentions how he’s always been interested in the enclosed world of a hospital or clinic, with people isolated from the world because of some condition. The isolation is physical, as the clinics (like this one) are often situated in some remote location. It’s his version of the cabin in the woods. He also comments that the artist is a type of this outsider, a monster because of his enhanced perceptions. So it’s Yaddo as well.
*. Cronenberg’s background was in literature. He originally wanted to be a novelist (his first novel, Consumed, came out in 2014) and he never went to film school. Low-budget horror was his film school.
*. That importance of the writing is evident throughout his work. I think it’s behind Kim Newman’s very astute comment that “Cronenberg’s underground films [Stereo and Crimes of the Future] are more fun to read about in synopsis than to watch.” This was the feeling I had watching all of Cronenberg’s early movies for the first time. I’d read about them extensively before I actually got to see them, and the experience was always a bit of a let down. Cronenberg’s a good director, but I can’t help feeling there’s more there in his scripts than he gets on screen.
*. Some of the script also seems to have gone missing here. Apparently Rose’s intestine was lost so she couldn’t digest food and so had to feed herself on blood. I think it would have been nice if that had been explained. It’s hard to figure out why she would grow a feeding tube otherwise.

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*. Why the close-up on the Freud paperback? Cronenberg is silent about this on the commentary. Is Rose expressing (in a manner foreshadowing the Somafree Institute of Psychoplasmics) her penis envy? Later Cronenberg does remark on the Freudian analysis of boys in the audience fainting during the finger-cutting scene because of castration anxiety.
*. Marilyn Chambers is actually pretty good, and an obvious choice since she does project sexuality well in a role where she’s both Virgin/Madonna and Whore at the same time, (the Ivory Snow girl who became famous for doing porn. I don’t think she delivers her lines convincingly, but she has an expressive face that manages a difficult role very well. (She also has demonstrative nipples, but I won’t dwell on the obvious.) And the fact that her co-star Frank Moore is just terrible in every regard (as well as looking a bit too much like Christopher Walken to be safe), makes her seem that much better.

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*. When I say her faces manages the role what I mean is that it has to show, in silence, her tragic inner conflict. Her despair, pain, and vulnerability, and then her hunger and cool predatory sexuality. The latter came naturally (the scene in the porn theatre, for example), but also look at the scene in the shopping mall where she’s getting picked up. It’s a situation a beautiful woman has to deal with all the time, and she’s obviously somewhere else but not at all a blank.
*. Then there are her more conflicted moment, like when she cries in the truck, and best of all when she looks at Hart after he’s been knocked unconscious in the stairwell. Will she kiss him, or kill him? That’s a hard ambiguity to sell just with her face, but she does it.

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*. I’m not sure Sissy Spacek (who Cronenberg originally wanted) would have been much better. Especially considering that Cronenberg doesn’t really seem that interested in his actors’ performances anyway, at least in his early films. He doesn’t even mention Frank Moore’s name on the commentary, though he may have been trying to forget the experience.
*.  While Chambers has some great moments, she’s also helped out by being presented in stereotypical porn scenarios (including a bucolic interlude in a barn), as well as being kitted out in various fetish uniforms: from her leather biker get-up, to her tight jeans and cowboy books, to a fur-coat streetwalker look, to wet t-shirt and panties.

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*. The point, I think, of such a wardrobe is to draw attention to how clothes deceive us. Chambers is another one of Cronenberg’s variation on the Jekyll/Hyde character: people who don’t really change from one personality into the other but are always possessed by both at the same time. She is the carrier and the disease: Madonna and whore again, victim and predator. Because isn’t that the fate of beauty? And as she tries to explain to her boyfriend, she didn’t make herself this way.

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*. What are Cronenberg’s targets? Sexual promiscuity? Perhaps. I don’t think he has much time for the sleazy guys who keep hitting on Rose. But he’s also not very fond of Dr. Keloid, who we last see as a mad dog being taken away to the pound (or more likely destruction). Cronenberg calls him “a victim of his own cleverness.” He thinks he knows everything, but no!
*. A slightly odder target is Santa Claus. Does he really have to get shot by the policeman at the mall? That seems a stretch. But on the commentary Cronenberg observes that this is something we’d all like to do.

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*. If you’re not used to Cronenberg’s early stuff you’ll be struck by how cheap this looks. It had a budget, he recalls, of “maybe $560,000.” Over the opening credits I kept wondering how they were going to film the motorcycle accident that was so obviously being set up. When it came  it was even cheaper than I thought it would be. It’s just a shot of a bike flying through the air, then exploding (of course) into a fireball.
*. On the other hand, the car accident where the taxi falls off the overpass was pretty impressive. I wonder what percentage of the budgets was blown on those ten seconds of film.
*. How cheesy is it that in the examination room at the clinic the pictures on the wall are a print of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man and an eye chart? Come on.

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*. Martial law comes to Montreal. Well, they know how to live with that. There’s an obvious parallel to the October Crisis, but I doubt many Canadian viewers even get this today.
*. Sometimes you mis-hear dialogue in a movie and make up your own, in the same way we sing popular songs to incorrect lyrics we’ve misidentified. That happened to me at the end, when Rose is on the phone to Hart and realizes that she really is the vector for the disease and is about to get killed by the man she’s infected and locked herself in with. She says “I’m afraid” before he pounces on her. When I first saw the movie I thought she said “I’m a freak.” This worked for me because it showed both self-awareness and self-loathing at what she had become. Alas, I had got the line wrong and she really does say “I’m afraid.”

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*. Romero was an influence. The ending is a clear nod to Night of the Living Dead, with the “hero” turning into just another body to be thrown on the pile. But even more than that, the look of the film owes a lot to The Crazies, especially with the soldiers and men in protective suits running around. It’s easy to see this now as a spin-off of the zombie apocalypse, along viral lines that 28 Days Later would develop further. The crazies aren’t the living dead, but they are “us” transformed into, or revealed as — depending on how cynical a view you take of human nature — wild animals. It’s just a little less supernatural than zombie mythology would have it. The next logical step in this progression was still to come.

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