The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

deaddontHere we go, another zombie flick- do we really need another? Well, I liked the setting, and its offbeat, rather kooky feel, which was a little like a Zombie Twin Peaks. If that sounds great to you, then its possibly worth a watch- it certainly appealed to me; oddball characters in a rural, remote setting, there was a lovely mood there. But it doesn’t hold together. The weird thing was, the gentle, almost affectionate tone of the place (“Centerville”) and its laidback characters (this film has a great, albeit terribly wasted cast- Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover etc), seemed quite at odds with some of the grisly, graphic gore, feeling rather like two different movies.

The problem for this film was, if it was a comedy, it wasn’t particularly funny; certainly amusing rather than hilarious, and if it was intended to be a horror film, well, it stumbled throughout. In all honesty, it has all been done before: Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead was both more knowingly arch regards commentary on zombie flicks and also much funnier, while George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was far better with the social commentary. Director Jim Jarmusch is rather heavy-handed here with the zombies returning to favourite old haunts and habits of when they were alive, commentating on consumerism and waste – its fine but it was old years ago, and Romero was much more subtle with it. 

I was also confused by some of the plotlines, as characters seemed to come and go- three children, for instance, escaping from a zombie-infested child detention centre find a house for shelter and aren’t returned to again, its like the screenwriter forgot them and left that arc completely hanging. Other characters are followed for awhile -the three ‘Cleveland Hipsters’- and then we find later them dead, their grisly fate occurring offscreen which may have seemed an arch commentary on horror tropes but just left me feeling… not frustrated exactly, but so many of the cast are just thrown in and then wasted. And I’m still not certain there was any point to Tilda Swinton’s creepy funeral director turning out to be samurai sword-wielding alien who calls a flying saucer to come pick her up. 

In the end, I was left wondering “why?”, you know, what was the point of the whole thing? There’s certainly some reward from the kooky feel of the place and the characters but its all quite wasted- I suppose its a case of the director not really being the right guy for this particular genre mash-up. I don’t think I’ve seen anything else Jim Jarmusch has directed, but I gather his background is more arthouse, indie material than this kind of thing: I suppose how this turned out would be akin to someone like Terrence Malick making a horror film or a sci-fi film- an intriguing idea but not necessarily resulting in a successful movie. Maybe Dan O’Bannon was more of a genius than anybody gave him credit for. 

The Dead Don’t Die has recently arisen from its box-office grave and shambled onto Netflix here in the UK. Possibly worth a shot at Halloween, maybe.

 

Last night, on Halloween

returnMost film bloggers, for obvious reasons, spend October devoted to watching horror films- its inevitable really; timely at best, tiresome at worst, and I’ve done it myself in years past, to some extent. Not this year, though during the month I did watch one decidedly sub-par horror film (The Curse of la Llorana) that rather proved that there’s nothing quite as boring as a bad horror film, and that, God Knows, there are far too many of them. Besides, there is enough horror on the news every day without adding to it by watching horror movies. 

I’m finding -indeed, I just commented as much on someone else’s blog- that Covid is changing how I’m looking at things, that I’m suddenly looking through some strange prism, like how the world seems to change when reading a good Philip K Dick story, or H P Lovecraft. Its like watching a colour movie gradually fading into black and white.

So anyway, last night was Halloween, so it would have been rude not too finally succumb to the season by watching a horror film. Actually, I watched two, picking two of my favourites: John Carpenter’s classic The Thing, from 1982 -a very good year for movies-and for a change of pace (real-life schedulers please note) Dan O’Bannon’s delightfully irreverent zombie flick Return of the Living Dead, the unofficial sequel to George Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead

thing3The weird thing is that Covid is changing how we look at certain movies, because Carpenter’s The Thing, in the past accepted as a reflection of the Aids epidemic, inevitably now reflects the paranoia and unseen menace of  the Covid Pandemic. The enemy within, the spreading alien contagion, the betrayal of our own bodies. I won’t labour the point, but it did make watching the film this time around a different experience. Part of that is so much bullshit- its what we are seeing, not what the film was originally  intending, and the important thing is that its still a great film, but its a reminder that films never change, but we do, and the world around us. Naturally I was watching Arrows Blu-ray edition from a few years back and it looks quite beautiful (I actually thought it had come out last year, but was horrified to learn it came out back in 2017, yet again me being baffled by the passage of time) – I understand a 4K UHD edition is likely coming out next year, and have to wonder just how much it can improve upon Arrow’s disc, and wonder if I will be suckered into buying this damn film again. Its clearly Carpenter’s best film, and one of the best End of the World movies ever made. I understand they are making a remake/reboot, somehow with Carpenters blessing  (probably the cheque he gets handed to him, he loves easy money, bless him).

Return of the Living Dead, from 1984… crikey, I can still remember seeing this in the fleapit ABC cinema in town back in the day.  Its a cheap and nasty b-movie that revels in being silly, which is an angle even more brilliant now than back when it came out, mainly because of all the zombie stuff we’ve seen since, particularly The Walking Dead (Return should be aired immediately after every season finale of The Walking Dead, if only for a Reality Check). Zombies are a stupid idea; the central premise overwhelmingly daft, its amazing that people get suckered into taking it so seriously, when you really think about the ‘logic’ of it.

There’s a lovely moment in Return when the rain, infected by the ghastly chemicals that reanimate the dead, soaks into the soil of a cemetery (the ‘Resurrection Cemetery’, ‘natch) and the dead start to rise, and a skeleton promptly thrusts itself out of the wet earth, its jaw drops, and the soundtrack breaks into song “Do you wanna PARTY?!!” Its daft, irreverent, silly, hilarious. These zombies know how to rock, and they know how to party . “Send more Paramedics!” one of them gasps into a radio handset, and once that meat has been exhausted, another calls in “Send more Cops!” Its all about the brains, stupid. Considering its humour, the film is also surprisingly dark, its ending inevitable, rather echoing the dark inevitability of the conclusion of The Thing

The Wearisome Dead

wd10The tenth season of The Walking Dead recently commenced, and I felt duty-bound to watch the first episode. As I have remarked here before, after so many seasons of The Walking Dead, it has felt something of a chore carrying on (surely season six was the last time the show was decent), but really, stopping now makes all those years/seasons seem such a waste. So grit your teeth and bear it somehow seemed to be the only course of action, seeing it through to the bitter end. An end had to come, surely.

But there was an eighth season, a ninth, and now a tenth. Still no end in sight, either, if the truth is told. I think the show runners seem to believe this thing can run forever, or at least pay for some more swimming pools, summer houses or luxury cars. There certainly seems little other point to the ordeal, and ordeal is what it has become. Even the cast look interminably bored, or perhaps they are all just distracted by thoughts of swimming pools, summer houses or luxury cars themselves.

So anyway, I dutifully found the Walking Dead folder on my Tivo, which had already recorded three episodes of season ten before I finally got around to it (that’s a certain sign of how grim it has become, when after a long break a new season begins and I’m in no rush to watch it) and off I went in some vain hope of some fresh direction, some excitement, something new.

But no. Its the same bloody show. Its like they just don’t want to save it. The same characters going through the same old motions (except Negan is a gardener now, as if that’s what the show feels is progress/development). Open with some zombie action, a training exercise that, you know, is sure to go wrong but our heroes manage to survive. Various shots of zombies getting stabbed, sliced and diced. Christ, even the zombies look bored. How many ways can you depict a walking, shambling dead guy and how many ways can you stab, slice and dice one? Its not as if anybody is ever in any danger, and at this point the whole routine has become so tiresome the thing is becoming a parody of itself.

Mind, it was probably already that a few seasons ago. The Walking Dead is a show that was creatively dead a few years back, its just become a zombie itself, a tv show way past its termination date, shambling along. Its very title has become ironic.

I feel like a zombie myself, sitting here watching it. I think all the fans still watching it are zombies at this point, watching the show from some kind of habit, loyalty or stubbornness. I’m put to thinking of that scene in George Romero’s zombie classic, Dawn of the Dead, with all the zombies in the shopping mall, and a character reflects that the zombies are repeating the actions of their old lives, when the mall was an important place in their lives. That’s us, now, watching this show.

I remember when the zombies were interesting, when they were dangerous, when there was a sense of tension when encountered. That’s long gone, now, and when that happened the show lost its heart, its pulse. The show is a zombie going through the motions and so are we, watching it.

So this first episode ends, and I go back to the Tivo and the second episode is… oh shit, that’s it. Its a flashback episode. The hell with this shit, they are still cranking out that old routine of stretching plot-lines out forever. There’s a hint, just a hint, of something happening at the end of the first episode, and then they go abandon it for a flashback, making us wait for episode three or four for anything even approaching a development.

Well, the hell with that. I’m pulling the ripcord baby, I’m out. Delete episodes two and three and cancel that series link. I’m done. I tried, God knows I tried.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)

pride1This one’s a curio. This mash-up of genres gets caught somewhere in-between really; too irreverent to be a genuine period costume genre and too light to be a genuine zombie horror movie. Fans of Jane Austen likely feel it isn’t being sincere enough and fans of zombie flicks likely feel it isn’t gory or scary enough. Maybe that’s inevitable with mixing genre’s like this but I can imagine cinema-goers looking for a zombie horror would have been left bored and frustrated by the romantic costume drama and the Jane Austen fans would be horrified by the zombie stuff, leaving no-one particularly satisfied.

Based on a book by Seth Grahame-Smith, I would imagine the film’s problems are inherent in the source material – as Jane Austen is public domain I suppose it seemed a neat idea to use her material and sprinkle zombie thrills into it for sardonic wit. Perhaps it works better on the page, or is the idea itself simply better than the execution? In any case, I think the film-makers should have perhaps used the book as a springboard and then made it truly cinematic by making it a ‘real’ horror movie rather than the action-comedy that it actually is (I did think of Buffy the Vampire Slayer at times, it has that knowing, slightly irreverent tone).

But maybe that is the point. Zombies are daft- at least George Romero knew to not take them too seriously, and rather use them for some social commentary.  Yes our culture does seem to have an unhealthy continuing fascination with zombie horrors, as evidenced by many movies and of course the long slow lingering death-crawl of The Walking Dead. But even when filmmakers take them seriously, its all clearly becoming something of a self-parody, so maybe Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is on the right track after all, and horror fans are wrong to be expecting any scares; the scares are all done.

Yet it is rather fun though, and I quite enjoyed it. The action scenes are well-staged and the gore pretty convincing, and of course the period costume drama is well-staged. Matt Smith in particular demonstrates a gift for comedy. For all its failings as a horror film, it at least injects some freshness to the awfully tired zombie genre. What I also found interesting was its alternate-history, using a period setting and giving it a genre spin.  Whatever next, zombies of Christmas Past in A Christmas CarolGreat Expectations and Zombies? 

Even better- War of the Worlds staged as the period drama that HG Wells wrote. Only when the Martian ships land they open up and hordes of martian zombies crawl out. I can see the tagline already : They don’t want our planet, only our brains.

 

The Conjuring (2013)

conjuring12016.83: The Conjuring (Amazon VOD)

Its a funny thing watching horror films. The line between the genuinely creepy, authentically unnerving and just plain silly nonsense is a surprisingly fine one, and getting only more so as years pass and more films get made. In the effort to shock jaded audiences film directors are tempted (forced?) to push things further and further, in just the same ways as action films push the credibility of stunts and fight sequences. How many times have we seen film characters emerge unscathed from crashes/explosions/fights that would leave real people in hospital recuperating for weeks? How many times do we see film characters survive horror films after witnessing and experiencing things that would leave normal people mentally unhinged if not genuinely insane?

Its very refreshing then to see a horror film that doesn’t cross the line into the ridiculous but instead manages to be realistic and plausible. And how refreshing to see two genuinely great horror films in quick succession. So soon after watching The Witch, I’ve now seen The Conjuring,  another genuinely creepy, very effective horror raising itself out of the formulaic ghost story nonsense it might have been in less capable hands.

James Wan is not a ‘name’ like John Carpenter or George Romero (or maybe I’m just ‘out of the loop’ these days) but he has something of a pedigree behind him- he’s the director of Saw and Insidious – and with The Conjuring he brings us a rather more mature and confident horror tale than I was expecting. The Conjuring is a period horror film set (mostly) in 1971, with paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, both excellent) helping a Rhode Island family, the Perrons, who have recently moved into a remote old farmhouse that is haunted by various entities.

What makes The Conjuring so interesting isn’t so much the jumps and scares -Wan has clearly demonstrated with his earlier films his ability with such- but rather with its sense of restraint. There isn’t a terrible amount of gore and the horror isn’t particularly graphic- its more the atmosphere and threat of horror that benefits this film, and the sense of mystery. There feels something like a grounding of reality in what might have been a silly ghost story- after all, we have seen so many haunted houses/tales of possession that its hard for this stuff not to descend into self-parody awfully quickly.

We are told from the start that this is based on a true story, but that hardly means much in a genre when so much is carelessly declared to be ‘true’. For one, I’m thinking of The Quiet Ones that I recently watched, itself a period film set in the 1970s that purports to be a true story, complete with period photos of the ‘real’ people during the end credits that are actually fake (I call it ‘The Fargo Effect’). How much of The Conjuring is true is unclear but from what I have read it does have some basis of truth with some documentary evidence. The thing I find curious is why any ‘truth’ should have any effect on the ability of the film to frighten, or give it any more credibility than horror films like The Exorcist or Poltergeist. If its a scary or unnerving experience, then surely that is enough. Maybe its all the Blair Witch Project‘s fault.

 

 

Creepshow OST

creepshow-limited-edition-2I well remember recording the title music from Creepshow onto audio-cassette from a VHS rental copy so I could later listen to its creepy and evocative theme. Audio-cassettes; you may remember them, plastic cases with spooled magnetic tape, sort-of an older and even more archaic cousin of the video-cassettes that yet linger in car-boot sales. Just thinking about it makes me feel very old, so many things have changed since- but it used to be the thing back then,  to save music off-air with a microphone close to the tv speakers, fill C-60 or C-90 tapes with different bits of movie music, tv themes, stuff like that. I used to do that in those days; I remember around the same time recording the entire Blade Runner film onto audio cassette off a VHS rental so I could listen to it over and over. Was I ever so young? Was I ever so enthusiastic/obsessed that I’d hush the rest of the household in order to record Alien during its ITV premiere, dutifully cutting out the commercials? If only I could meet that younger version of myself, the damned fool.

So here we are today, and in the post arrives my copy of La La Land’s new CD of the expanded John Harrison Creepshow score, complete and with numerous library cues used in the movie. Listen to some people and you’ll be in no doubt the CD format itself is as doomed as that old audio-cassette that I had recorded the music onto all those years ago- well, let’s fight the good fight on that one, I still love my CDs. Funnily enough, I believe this album is also going to be released on vinyl, how strange is that?

With a lovely and detailed booklet (mine also signed by Harrison himself) which is a rewarding enough read in itself, this release is something of a tribute to those good old days, the purchase a nod to that damn fool teenager with a microphone I used to be. The music is fine, that evocative creepy main theme as lovely as ever, the score dominated by old-school analogue synths with some piano. Its dated I guess but that’s part of the charm with these sort of releases isn’t it? The film and score is over thirty years old, after all-  imagine my teenage self back in 1983 being told I’d be listening to the score in 2014…

 

 

 

Creepshow (1982)

creep1982 was a hell of a year for movies – well, genre movies in particular. Blade Runner, The Thing, Poltergeist, ET, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, Conan The Barbarian, Tron, Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior, The Dark Crystal… one hell of a year indeed.  Young ‘uns these days may watch those thirty-plus-years-old films and scoff at static matte paintings and blue screen bleed and physical effects etc whilst pointing fingers at the cgi-till-your-eyes-bleed wonders of many modern day tour-de-force blockbusters, but the films of 1982 were fresh and varied and so very different from one another. That year was the true climax, the promise of the Star Wars phenomenon of 1977  come to fruition, a Golden Summer of genre movies. It had taken five years but Hollywood had finally gotten its sci-fi/fantasy act together. Sadly, we didn’t realise back then that we wouldn’t see anything quite like it ever again.

It just seems so remarkable looking back on it. I recall an ad in Heavy Metal magazine for Blade Runner saying something like “… Ridley Scott (Alien),Harrison Ford (Raiders of the Lost Ark),  Douglas Trumbull (CE3K)…” well, no marketing budget can buy adlines like that; the coming together of talent back then was amazing. Now, this springs to mind one film I neglected to mention on that earlier list –Creepshow, a glorious horror anthology that might have had a similar adline, “…brought to us by Horror greats; George Romero of Night and Dawn of the Dead fame, famous novelist Stephen King and make-up wizard Tom Savini”.  Well it certainly beats ‘from the producers of Hostel 2 or Halloween 5 or Alien vs Predator’.

Inspired by the infamous 1950s EC Horror Comics, Creepshow was an affectionate nod back to those vaguely anarchic morality tales of horror, comics brought to life  in bright four-colour photography. I’m not sure the film was really about being scary (although it does have some rather effective ‘jumps’ and shock moments), rather it always seemed about being fun. Now that may seem a strange thing to be saying about a horror flick but really, that’s what Creepshow was and perhaps is even more so today.

Just released last week in a handsome Blu-ray edition here in the UK, Creepshow is just fun, fun, fun. Sheer joy to watch. The cast is to die for- Hal Holbrook, Fritz Weaver, Leslie Nielsen, Ed Harris, Adrienne Barbeau, E.G. Marshall, Ted Danson… its a pleasure just to sit back and watch them do their stuff, with thoughts of the great films that were behind them and for others greater films still ahead of them. Even Stephen King gets to camp it up, starring as the ill-fated dumb farmer Jordy Verrill. Its cheap, its brash, its five tales are short and to the point. Ed Harris’ bizarre dance to even-more bizarre Disco music is worth the price of admission alone. Its a great little movie the charm of which just seems to improve with age. The old adage they don’t make ’em like they used to is never truer than it is for films like Creepshow. An unadulterated pleasure. The young ‘uns may well scoff at its dated charms, but hell, what do they know?

Like the Arrow release of Lifeforce a few months ago (really, have we ever had it this good as we have of late?), this release is loaded with great special features, including two audio commentaries and a 90-minute doc, that, while included in a SE DVD some years back has here, incredibly, been  remastered in HD (that’s one in the eye for Warner whose releases of Blade Runner have all failed to present its film-length Dangerous Days documentary in HD). Add in a Savini doc, deleted scenes and galleries of VHS art, posters, lobby cards and pressbooks… for any fan of this film its a sumptuous pinch-me-I’m-dreaming release. Wonderful stuff.

More Zombies! More Zombies!

wwzIt says everything about modern  movies when you compare, say, George Romero’s fairly intimate, character-based zombie films such as Dawn of the Dead and Day of The Dead to the huge apocalypse of armies of crazed zombies swarming by the thousands over the landscapes of World War Z. It’s a triumph, if that’s the right word, of spectacle over character.  This nightmarish spectacle is one that leaves the viewer goggle-eyed. There has never been a zombie film like this one, if, indeed, its a zombie film at all (I don’t know if I missed something, but are these Undead really Undead, or just humans crazed by some Rabies-like virus that turns them into mindless killing machines? The word ‘zombie’ is banded around but I’m not so sure that’s what these creatures are. Or maybe after all these years I’m confused by just what a zombie really is).

But its interesting to contrast the cable tv show The Walking Dead to this huge-but-troubled blockbuster. On the one hand, we have a lengthy, successful series that is well acted, with fascinating characters and brutal, bloody realism. On the other hand we have a huge, sprawling movie with fairly one-dimensional characters and toned-down, not-so-bloody fantasy (at least in the theatrical cut).

Which is not to suggest that WWZ is a bad movie. In its slightly-extended, grittier Blu-ray offering it has much to offer. It is at times shocking, with a huge sense of scale and chaotic dramatics, a bewildering sense of urgency and relentless doom. But its weakened by the huge colossal numbers of frantic zombies and their relentless apocalypse in comparison to the deeper drama of TWD and the empathy we feel for its characters. Bizarrely there seems an intensity to TWD that is missing in WWZ for all its scope and vision- WWZ feels like a video game, an amusement park ride, whereas TWD feels real.