Friday, November 21, 2008

Horrorfest ’08 Report #6: They’ll Get You in the End (Unless You’re in Love)

Recently, Simon Pegg—co-writer and star of zombie movie/parody “Shaun of the Dead”—wrote an op-ed piece for “The Guardian” in response to the British television movie “Dead Set” discussing the virtues of the classic slow-moving zombies versus the modern “speed” zombies. The piece was titled “The Dead and the Quick” and basically argued that since zombies are technically dead, they should never move quickly.

Although I have enjoyed some of the quick-moving zombie pictures that have come out during the past few years, I tend to agree with Pegg on this matter. Pegg argues that the classic theme of the living dead is humanity’s natural fear of death. Not just physically death; but our mortality as a whole, which involves growing old and developing physical disabilities. Pegg writes, “Death is a disability, not a superpower. It is hard to run with a cold, let alone the most debilitating malady of them all.” He continues, “…the zombie trumps all (movie monsters) by personifying our deepest fear: death. Zombies are our destiny writ large. Slow and steady in their approach, weak, clumsy, often absurd, the zombie relentlessly closes in, unstoppable, intractable.”

I’m happy to say that during this year’s Horrorfest I did not have to sit through any zombie movies where the living dead operated above the laws of our mortal nature. Beyond being dead and still walking around consuming the flesh of others that is. No, the two zombie movies I watched this year contained the classic lumbering death we’ve all come to know and love through the years. And they were satisfying.

Spanish horror director Jordi Grau directed the 1974 zombie cult classic “Let Sleeping Corpses Lie”, released in Italy as one of the popular “Zombi” pictures. Grau’s take on the zombies in this picture doesn’t stray far from George Romero’s zombie model in his own classic “Night of the Living Dead”. And they benefit greatly from his beautiful color cinematography.

We meet a London-based artist on a weekend trip to the country. When a sanity-challenged woman destroys his motorcycle in a thoughtless accident, he hitches a ride with her to the small town where he sister and brother-in-law are expecting her. Once there they discover that the dead appear to be walking around and are hungry for flesh.

While this movie doesn’t really add much original to the basic function and form of the zombie, Grau does add his own original touch to the thematic elements of zombie lore with an environmental theme that could have found this movie in my last Horrorfest report “Nature’s Revenge”. The cause of the walking dead in this scenario is an experimental, non-chemical, sonic insect control device for the area’s farmers. The pitch of the sound waves drive the insects into a maddened frenzy that sends them tearing into each other’s flesh for food instead of vegetables. Well, it apparently gets under the skin of dead humans in the same way. Don’t mess with nature, man.

“Zombie Honeymoon” will go down as one of the undiscovered gems of Horrorfest ’08. This ultra-low budget film found a home a couple of years ago on Showtime, but I imagine it has still been seen by very few. It is a love story between a young woman and her new husband, who unfortunately has become a zombie. Because of the typical symptoms that come with zombism (craving human flesh and all that) this comes as a great inconvenience to the newlyweds.

This movie (along with Mr. Pegg’s) exemplifies how well zombies work as creatures of comedy while still being monsters of horror. Going along with Pegg’s arguments, I would say this is because zombies are monsters made up of our human weaknesses rather than our strengths. I suppose it is a stretch to think of the animalistic nature of werewolves as strength, but the sexuality of vampires is viewed by many as strength, especially within a society that tends to repress such feelings. But both these monsters are always depicted with super strength and other supernatural senses, while zombies are depicted as mindless and even childlike.

“Zombie Honeymoon” takes this childlike innocence one further by depicting that most innocent of cinematic outlooks, the pure romantic. Hollywood spends endless millions each year to churn out countless romantic comedies that look at the realities of life as something of a distraction from our childhood notions of romance. As long as you can be true to that childlike nature in yourself, you can attain that storybook romance you always dreamed of as a kid. In “Zombie Honeymoon” there isn’t any romance purer than the one depicted between these two lovers, when not even death and the oral consumption of friends and family can tear their love apart.

While I only looked at two traditional zombie movies, I did see two others that depicted some zombie traits (mindless humans attacking normal people in brutal, savage manner). But these movies were smart enough not to claim the attackers were zombies. In both films the mindless beastials are not yet dead, but do everything left within their power to destroy the unaffected. And one is the smartest horror movie I’ve seen in years.

“Quarantine” takes a queue from this year’s earlier creature feature hit “Cloverfield” and puts the audience in a point-of-view position in the middle of all the action. A two-person television crew is doing a feature on a typical night in the life of an L.A. firehouse when the unit gets called on what is supposedly a routine medical assist. It turns out the apartment building they’re called to is ground zero for a particularly virulent strain of rabies.

The POV format has both excited and confounded audiences since it was popularized as a perfect horror context format in the late nineties with the ultra-low budget phenomenon “The Blair Witch Project”. Many can’t get past the jittery photography in these movies, and often the logic behind having some character continue filming while the world falls apart around them is often weak. However, “Quarantine” has a great practical answer to that problem. But the greatest strength of this format is that it efficiently and effectively does what every horror movie is required to do in order to achieve the maximum terror effect—it puts the audience directly into the role of the story’s victims.

Wisely, “Quarantine” does not deal in themes and theories, yet it still addresses the zombie theme of facing our own mortality. Here mortality is a direct and immediate concern, and its question reaches a quick conclusion for each character. Because the CDC is onto the rabies outbreak before any of the people in the apartment building are even aware there is a threat, they become trapped in the same space with their own imminent deaths. But like all the creatures on this Earth, death is what we fight against more passionately, and sometimes savagely than anything else—even when it is inevitable.

In “The Signal” we get that whole immediate mortality thing going again, but this time we have another romance thrown into it. Here its not the pure-hearted Hollywood version as presented satirically in “Zombie Honeymoon”. No, here we get a love triangle, and when one of those lovers has had his brain short-circuited by a television signal that rewires everyone’s brains into sadistic harbingers of death… well, it brings a new definition to the jealous boyfriend.

But somehow that makes “The Signal” sound too standard. This is one of the most original horror flicks I’ve ever seen. It is a story told in three chapters by three different filmmakers. The first chapter is steeped in the horror of what is happening and focuses on the on the love triangle’s apex, the girl. There is nothing much here that hasn’t been seen before in one of those end of days/zombies are taking over the world storylines, but it is all so expertly done.

The second chapter follows the jilted boyfriend in his hotwired journey of mass murdering revenge. With people killing each other all over the city, the boyfriend doesn’t stick out as anything that isn’t happening to everyone, but his search to find and kill his lover and her new lover finds him and his victims in one of the strangest scenarios. No one can trust him, but he must use others to find his targets. This middle section acts as one of the strangest, bloodiest, and funniest film sequences ever conceived. Once again embracing people’s weaknesses as comedy in a context of horror serves the filmmakers well.

The final chapter is the film’s weakest, but follows the new boyfriend on his quest to save the girl from her former lover. This is the section where human nature rails against the inevitability of mortality. And once again we find horror filmmakers embracing the romantic notion of “love conquers all” as the driving force against that mortality.

Of course, it occurred to me as I was writing this that “The Signal” might also serve as some sort of statement about violence on television equating with violence in our society. If you think about how the mind-bending signal of the story works, it is going to affect those less ambitious in our society first, since it requires you to sit and stare at the signal for some time before its affects take root. Those who strive for more out of life will therefore have greater resistance against the signal. And those concentrating on things depicting violence against their fellow man, which dominates so much of our entertainment culture, are more likely to succumb. Of course, that creates a bit of a paradox when the same man writing this is also suggesting that “The Signal” is something worth seeing. But nevertheless, it is.

Read Simon Pegg's article "The Dead and the Quick" here.

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