Monday, March 13, 2006

Zombi 3

Directed by Lucio Fulci, 1988

I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge my fiftieth zombie film! I haven’t blogged more than 20 yet, but my tasty brains are decisively marinated in zombie cinema juices. Grr! Argh! Brains!

Taking a tip from Return of the Living Dead (I claim theft—RotLD was released in 1985, Zombi 3 in 1988) the zombie menace here starts when the cremated remains of a zombie—here, a science experiment gone wrong—spreads through the air. This results in zombification of any living things, as we see when Fulci invokes Hitchcock in a Birds homage. Young people flee the birds and, soon enough, people by hiding out in an abandoned hotel (with a convenient box of guns). IMDB and the DVD case inform me that terrorists, not cremation, release the zombie toxin into the air, but that’s not what occurs onscreen.

Fulci is a problem. In 1979 he filmed a so-called sequel to Night of the Living Dead called Zombi 2. It was pretty good for its kind, and features the classic underwater zombie versus shark scene as well as memorably groundbreaking gore. Apparently this lent him such status among horror fans that he had a license to remake permutations of his movie over and over again. Most of his films share a similar plodding pace, whining women, and excessive gore marked by mutilations and eyeball damage. The Beyond, City of the Living Dead, House by the Cemetery, and Zombi 2 are all a little homogenous for my tastes, though I respect Fulci’s contribution to the cause we both love. Zombi 3 is slightly faster-paced and features a band of survivors—key differences from his earlier films which make me think the American slasher genre affected his filmmaking by 1988.

The effects are good, the gore is sufficient, and the zombies are hungry. It’s a Fulci zombie film.

Zombie explanation: A military-sponsored science experiment goes bad. Upon cremating the captured zombie corpses, the virus gets into the air. Containment proves impossible and bloody mayhem ensues.

Contribution to the zombie canon: A return to my favorite premise: infectious zombies want to eat you. These zombies can be killed by conventional means, not only the traditional blow to the head, and their infection is so virulent that even casual contact may infect you. Certain aspects of the film seem to draw upon The Stand and Return of the Living Dead.

Favorite moment: A pretty girl is zombie-pushed into a pool of stagnant water. Leaping to the rescue, her potential paramour pulls her out of the water—only to see that her legs have been chewed off in the short time she was underwater. Pretty girl goes crazy and attacks him zombie-style!

Favorite zombie: The hungry self-propelled refrigerator head. Second place: legless pool girl zombie. Third place: DJ zombie.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Snake People

Directed by Juan Ibáñez, 1971

Not only does the film open in color (a pleasant surprise, as I’ve been reviewing black and white zombie movies lately) but it opens with a diabolically cackling voodoo dwarf. I am ready for this ride. Filmed around 1968, it has a fabulously mod opening credit sequence. Swinging!

The Snake People takes place on yet another island where the natives have discovered the secret of corpse reanimation. Sex zombies are popular here—“docile native girls” giving into their “primal urges”, as we’re told. This fleet of nubile girls kisses and chomps their way through meddling policemen. Flesh eating in an early zombie film! Yay! One of them even looks a little green-gray in color, acknowledging decomposition and the eventual gore of zombies; otherwise the zombies are perfectly humanlike.

On the side of the angels (the mongoose people?) are a hard-drinking handsome cop, a French policeman determined to bring law and order to this zombie-lovin’ island, and a beautiful temperance activist visiting her island-dwelling uncle (a barely recognizable Boris Karloff, near the end of his career). On the side of the zombies is, of course, Boris Karloff. (When zombies come from non-white populations, a white man inevitably bridges the two races to exacerbate the zombie menace. To identify the villain in these films, just pick the white man who loves the island and its people. He who champions racial tolerance and cultural empathy is always the zombie freak.)

Zombie explanation: Voodoo. Again.

Contribution to the zombie canon: I’m having a hard time sifting a lesson out of this film. I liked the evil snake woman’s hips, I guess. Extended musical scenes were still reasonably common at the time, and the extended native dance ceremony is a too-familiar sight in these voodoo zombie movies. But I’d watch it again for her hips.

Favorite moment: Cranky old Boris, looking like KFC’s Colonel, chasing a co-conspirator around a table with his cane.

Lessons learned: There are ALWAYS drums on the island.

Revolt of the Zombies

Directed by Victor Halperin, 1936

All right! I’m pretty stoked that Revolt of the Zombies offers Asian zombies instead of the clichéd Caribbean islander zombies. What’s more, I find their verbiage fascinating: the word zombie is freely interchanged with robot. These robot zombies built Angkor Wat, and now the Allies want the secret of making zombies for military purposes. An armed squad of Cambodian zombies demonstrates their usefulness in war; though not physically different from live men they are nevertheless impervious to bullets or fear.

Seeking the zombie process in Angkor Wat, a couple of people fall in love, someone else goes mad from jealousy, and some others die. The zombies do indeed revolt but their zombifying spell has been broken by then, making it less a revolt of zombies and more a revolt of really angry ex-zombies.

Zombie explanation: An “Oriental ceremony” centered around zombifying smoke. The eventual zombie master creates armies of live robots for love of a woman.

Contribution to the zombie canon: While it still falls under the early 20th century problem of using zombies to inflame racial insensitivity, I appreciate the unusual choice of Asian zombies. The verbal association of zombie and robot is pretty hip, too—if only they were also monkey ninja pirates!

Favorite moment: The overused image of Bela Lugosi’s eyes, stolen from White Zombie.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

I Eat Your Skin

The movie opens with an island ritual: after much lithe dancing and bikini-titillating, a lovely native faces the sacrificial sword. About that time I had the revelation that’s escaped me over the past few decades-old zombie films:

Until George Romero, zombies in cinema seem to have stood for a racial “other”. As a modern zombie fan I’m accustomed to the inclusiveness of zombies—your neighbors, friends, and family were as equally likely to fall prey to the zombie plague as any stranger. Zombies are us. In these old movies, most of which offer voodoo as the zombie origin, zombies are the fearsome, incomprehensible them. I’m no longer surprised—but still a little sad—that this dovetails with racial fear. Zombie origins aren’t as noble as I thought when I started this mass consumption of zombie cinema.

I Eat Your Skin’s zombies are bug-eyed murderers who enjoy machete decapitations. The group of white victims includes a ludicrously nasal trophy wife, a cancer researcher, a lothario author, and a random guy with Kyle McLachlan’s chin. Thrown together on Voodoo Island, a struggle for life and gasoline ensues! Wacky. Apparently the natives require a young, blonde virgin for their rites—kinky, eh? The last black and white zombie movie I watched was King of the Zombies, and they sure have upped the sex content since 1941! In fact, now the voodoo king is singing and shaking his muscular loin-clothed body and I am digging the equality of cheesecake in this movie!

Zombie explanation: Voodoo seems to be the initial cause, but a surprise twist shows that a mad scientist created them with irradiated snake venom! That’s pretty rare—set up the blacks as villains but reveal whites as the true evil.

Contribution to the zombie canon: Zombies of this era were still evolving into what we now take for granted. These reanimated walking dead threaten the living, but there were a few distinctions. First, there was rarely any eating of flesh. Second, zombies generally formed groups that worked together to serve a master.

Favorite moment: A zombie carries a big box labeled ‘EXPLOSIVES.” Zombies be blowin’ shit up!

Moral lessons: There are ALWAYS drums on the island.

Friday, March 10, 2006

King of the Zombies

Directed by Jean Yarbrough, 1941


Despite its WWII undercover operative framework, King of the Zombies is centered upon and carried by the hijinks and humor of its uncomfortably racist comedic relief. I haven't seen an eye-rolling, shuffling minstrel performance like this since Spike Lee's Bamboozled. This film has not aged well.

A plane goes down on an uncharted island. The plane's passengers-- a bland gentleman, his valet (the comedic role), and the pilot are welcomed by a wealthy recluse who claims to have escaped Austria on the eve of the war. The man's wife acts suspiciously hypnotized and floats through the house posing dramatically above our sleeping heroes. The guy is, of course, evil, which means you have Jews standing in for evil and blacks standing in as comedy relief. This movie made me feel dirty.

Ruling over the mansion's kitchen are a maiden and crone set who introduce the bumbling valet to zombies, which apparently infest the mansion like mice. Of note is that only the blacks see or acknowledge zombies until over midway through the film, and all the zombies are black. This film didn't even know it was dealing with racial issues.

Zombie explanation: A combination of white hypnotism and black voodoo. Very odd. It also appears to be reversible, though there's no built-in medical explanation as in Serpent and the Rainbow.

Contribution to the zombie canon: Thus far, the most racist zombie movie I've watched. It's also one of the earliest films in which the word "zombie" is spoken freely. This was surprisingly rare in early zombie films.

Favorite moment: The zombies come when you clap! "Oh, drat! I only meant to turn on the light with the Clapper (tm) but I seem to have called forth the kitchen zombies!"

Favorite zombie: The guy dressed like your gradndpa when he goes golfing.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Day of the Dead

Directed by George Romero, 1985

To balance out the almost lascivious gore that accompanies most zombie movies, the best films offer a healthy dose of characterization. I find that a strong component of survivor psychology is a facet of the best films. And yes, Day of the Dead ranks among the best zombie films. It is in fact my favorite.

This is the third and least commercially successful of Romero's classic zombie trilogy (which became a quartet with 2005's Land of the Dead, reviewed elsewhere on this site). It's soaked in a distinctively eighties ethos: you will smirk at zombies in shoulder pads and feathered hair. That's part of Romero's glorious investment in modern zombie culture, though-- Night of the Living Dead delineated 1960s invasion psychology, Dawn of the Dead encapsulated the 1970s, and Day deftly handles the Cold War-frightened 1980s.

Zombies have overrun the country. In an underground zombieproof bunker, a small regiment lives uneasily with an even smaller scientific team. The scientists study the reasons, means, and possible cures for the zombie plague; the army men acquire zombie specimens for experimentation. As zombies, stress, and claustrophobia shred the group, our scientist heroine Sarah shifts from seeking a cure to staying alive. And not in the awesome disco way, either.

This movie has a lot of talking. A great deal of talking. So much talking! People talk, and then they yell, and sometimes someone has a breakdown or shoots a zombie. Then they talk again. If the discussions were of a less intense nature this might be a dull movie, but I find the unraveling psychology of a small band of survivors absolutely riveting. Now, right in the opening scenes, Romero establishes Sarah as something of an unsympathetic bitch, and the movie never loses sight of her less savory traits. Some of the people who do the worst things are the most pitiable. Even a character who clearly exists to be killed is given a good dose of screen time so that you legitimately regret his death. Character development in this movie is on par with the more famous, better-loved Dawn of the Dead.

Yet Romero does not withhold his trademark zombie gore. A zombie handed a razor blade starts to shave his own face off in a show of residual memory. Visitors to the mad scientist's lab run into a preserved zombie baby (making this the first movie, I think, to address fetal zombieism-- a record I previously thought held by 2004's Dawn of the Dead remake). Shovels go through faces and tongues fall out of throats and arms are hacked off and entrails, as ever, are pulled from screaming victims. Huzzah.

Zombie explanation: Not applicable. Only Romero's first zombie film hinted at a cause. I vastly prefer the in media res approach of his subsequent films. Besides, the futile search for cause and cure fuels this film and adds to the sense of desperation. You don't watch Romero films for a cause-- you watch for the gruesome effects and apocalypse psychology.

Contribution to the zombie canon: It's Romero; that almost says it all. But as I mentioned above, the psychological components are crucial to the movie's longevity and to post-disaster movies in general. Additionally, it raises some chilling parent-child concepts, as the increasingly insane Dr. Logan adopts shifting paternal and childish roles with Bub and other zombies. Also fun are the cultural tidbits with which science pummels zombies: Stephen King novels and Beethoven, apparently.

If you're watching this movie in light of later zombie efforts, note some mild similarities between this and 28 Days Later-- particularly the mad military commander, dark tunnel zombies, and the importance of post-apocalyptic sedation.

Favorite moment: Any moment with Bub. His instinctive salute in particular.

Favorite zombie: Bub the sentient zombie! Bub is such a sweetheart. But Dr. Tongue is a fan favorite and a brilliantly designed zombie: clearly someone who was shot in the face, the lower half of his face is gone and his slick red tongue falls out through his throat as you watch him decompose. Look for Dr. Tongue in the opening abandoned city scene. The final zombie invasion of the movie is a blast; watch for the following zombies and more: football player, clown, army men, bride, groom, a man in apron and dishwasher gloves, fisherman, ballerina, chef, surgeon, fortune teller, and tennis player.

Lessons learned: Wherever it is you think you escaped to, know this: there are already zombies behind you.