The Purge (2013)

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*. The opening newsreel and security cam footage of crime in the streets (which is apparently part of a “purge feed” package) recalls the similar use of such scenes of civil unrest in movies like 28 Days Later and the remake of Dawn of Dead. The year is 2022 and we know where we are. This is the controlled-burn anarchy of the zombie apocalypse.
*. Is that a stretch? I don’t think so. I see this movie as a direct descendant of the zombie meme. At the end of my commentary on Night of the Living Dead I made the point that Romero’s breakthrough in that film was to see the zombies as us. Even family members and neighbours were out for our blood.
*. In Rabid Cronenberg gave that idea a “scientific” spin by having a virus release the collective id. Something similar was done in films like The Crazies and 28 Days Later. Viral zombies were “natural” (i.e., not supernatural) zombies, but the outbreak of the virus was still an intervening event. As I said at the end of my discussion of Rabid, the next logical step in this progression was yet to come.
*. With The Purge we have that last step. The Purge is a general amnesty providing “a lawful outlet for American rage.” But that rage is not viral, nor the result of a toxic spill or a voodoo ceremony. Instead it is original sin. The zombies, or crazies, or homicidal freaks, aren’t sick or possessed. They’re just the people in your neighbourhood. The people next door, all of them, are psychopathic killers. Only a very thin layer of civilization holds them back from satisfying their blood lust. That was the point of Night of the Living Dead too, but here there’s no excuse or explanation given for it. It’s simply a given.
*. By the way, if you’re rolling your eyes at the suggestion that this is a zombie movie or has any relation to Romero, look again at the Purgers approaching the Santin home and think again.

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*. I’ve often pointed out the connection between zombies and contemporary cultural bogeymen. They’ve been cast as the unemployed, the have nots, and terrorists. Here they seem to be a bunch of preppy kids getting their Manson on, or friends of the demented postmodern shits from Funny Games, but if you look at the movie from a distance, so it takes on a more mythic shape, then they’re the zombie version of the Occupy movement, breaking into a gated community and spreading some destruction around.
*. Politically this is having your cake and eating it, as it puts us in the uncomfortable position of having to feel some sympathy for a rather unlikeable and overall pretty useless family that’s representative of the 1%. For some reason they are all dressed in white. Why, if I were their neighbour I might indulge a bit of purging myself.

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*. The gang of Purgers, meanwhile, is hard to figure out. Why do they wear masks? Especially given that their Polite Leader’s face looks the same anyway with it off, what with his plastic-elastic smile. And the whole business of blood lust as ritual duty seems self-contradictory to me in some way.
*. The threatened family is, of course, a horror staple, raising the question of how far you would go to protect wife and children (Wes Craven was particularly intrigued by this, and made it the basis of movies like The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes). Here, however, the question is made messier with Zoey and her boyfriend Henry. Why does she stick with him even after he tries to kill her father? There’s something weird going on there.
*. Weird, or sloppy. For what basically plays out like a teledrama on a single restricted set the script is surprisingly clunky. It makes no sense whatsoever, but the family keep getting separated. And I thought having one scene where a Purger takes too long to kill one of the family only to be gunned down by someone sneaking up on them from behind was enough. There was no need to repeat it three times.
*. I really don’t like that remote-controlled dead-baby cam. It’s such an obvious device, and yet has no dramatic function.
*. The idea of the Purge itself is an interesting premise, albeit one that only works as long as you don’t think about it too much. But the movie settles down very quickly into a dull and extremely predictable thriller that goes nowhere. The political muddle I mentioned earlier takes its toll. Just what is writer-director James DeMonaco’s target? The NRA? Privileged rich people? The American class structure? I honestly don’t know, which is very strange for a movie that feels so much like a morality play from the 1950s.
*. You see, here’s the problem: building on the analysis I began with, as I see it DeMonaco’s real target is human nature, or original sin. There may be some good people out there, but not many and anyway they’re outgunned. And yet since religion is off the table there is no answer for our innate depravity but to better arm ourselves. Get stronger doors, and buy some bigger guns. Which is just where Romero left us back in 1968.

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