Monday, March 29, 2004

Review: Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Sequels are tricky, remakes even more so. But a remake of a sequel? That's just begging for trouble. And when you consider that this is Zack Snyder's first effort as a feature film director (he previously worked in commercials) and that James Gunn is responsible for writing the abysmal live-action Scooby-Doo and its needless sequel, the 2004 version of Dawn of the Dead should be an outright disaster. But it's not. In fact, on its own terms, this new Dawn is scary, nasty and wickedly funny.

I'm just not sure it's really a remake.

It's true that Gunn and Snyder use the same basic scenario as George Romero's revered original Dawn of the Dead, a loose sequel to his zero-budget cult classic, Night of the Living Dead: The recently dead have risen to feast on the living, and a determined group of survivors holes up in a shopping mall while the undead mill about outside, clammoring to get inside and pick them clean. And there are certainly specific, respectful nods to the cast of the Romero's Dawn: there's a shop in the mall called Gaylen Ross (who played the female lead in the original); Scott Reiniger turns up as a general; Tom Savini plays a county sheriff; and Ken Foree is a televangelist who gets to say the tagline, just like he did in the original--"When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth."

Only the dead in the new Dawn don't "walk the earth." They run. Fast.

In that sense, Dawn of the Dead owes a lot more to Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later..., in which humans infected with a biological weapon that turns them into mindless, bloodthirsty savages, than to any of Romero's zombie epics (or, much more recently, Resident Evil), in which the dead move so slowly you can practically dance past them. (That made sense, in a way. If the radiation or virus or whatever--a reason is hinted at in Night of the Living Dead, but no explanation is offered in either version of Dawn--that reanimates the body only activates certain parts of the brain, then a lack of coordination is to be expected.) Try that with these jacked-up zombies, and you'll be lunch before you make it half a block.

This different approach to the material is evident from the opening frames. Ana (Sarah Polley) works in a hospital in Milwaukee, where a patient with a bite wound has been brought. She thinks little of it, drives to her suburban home, has a brief conversation with a cute little blonde girl (cue ominous music) and has sex with her husband in the shower, thus missing the news bulletins blaring out of her TV. In the morning, she and hubby are awakened by the little blonde girl--now looking not nearly as cute with blood running from her mouth--who promptly rips hubby's throat out. He dies quickly--and just as quickly is back up again, wild-eyed and trying to put the bite on Ana, who wisely jumps out the bathroom window and makes a run for it. To where? Anywhere that's safe. But that's the problem: nowhere is safe. Not anymore.

In an opening credits sequence as effective as any I've ever seen, images of befuddled reporters and officials are intermingled with flashes of zombie mayhem, all to the tune of Johnny Cash's apocalyptic "The Man Comes Around."

Ana hooks up with other survivors, like Kenneth (Ving Rhames), a tight-lipped, take-no-shit Milwaukee cop; Michael (Jake Weber), your average nice guy; and Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and his pregnant girlfriend, Luda (Inna Korobkina). They take refuge in the local mall, only to find three security guards (Michael Kelly, Kevin Zegers and Michael Barry) who don't take kindly to others invading their hiding place.

More survivors arrive later, and the rest of the movie becomes an ongoing battle between the entrenched living and the dashing dead, who wander around outside the mall until they spot fresh flesh and rush for supper, infecting the survivor with their bite. And the survivors, to their credit, are all amazing shots, able to hit zombies in the head (the only way to stop them for good, you know) as they barrel forward. And trust me: a lot of heads get blown off in Dawn, which somehow only got an R rather than an NC-17; guess it didn't have enough sex for the MPAA to give it the more adult rating. (That seems to send a dangerous message: Sex and any discussion of it is to be discouraged, while violence is not acceptable, but preferable.)

With all the fighting and flying, there isn't much room for character development (even with some characters starting off looking bad or good and ending up the polar opposite), though the action does slow down long enough for moments of quiet observation: a game of chess between Kenneth and Andy (Bruce Bohne), the gunshop owner across the street from the mall, played with binoculers and dry-erase boards; Andre and Luda playfully debating whether to give their child an African or Russian name; an infected survivor waiting to die and revive as another survivor stands vigil, awaiting the moment when the trigger must be pulled.

Even though Romero's 1978 screenplay is credited as the basis for this latest Dawn, much of it has been tossed in favor of speed and brevity. That's not necessarily a bad thing; one of the legitimate criticisms of Romero's original is that it runs too long (over two hours, and even longer in the "director's cut") and it's pacing is too languid. While that certainly allows more room for character development and social satire (zombies = typical mall shoppers), it also allows for less attentive viewers to nod off before the gut-muching conclusion. No chance of that happening in the new Dawn: the zombies just keep on coming in menacing swarms well photographed by veteran cinematographer Matthew Leonetti (who shot Poltergeist, among many others), and slow patches are few and far between.

The lack of fidelity to Romero's original also means that the pointed but unsubtle social commentary is almost entirely absent here. That's not a criticism of Snyder or Gunn. The two movies have entirely different goals. Romero wanted to poke fun at the consumer mentality; snyder and Gunn are much more interested in action/adventure and snarky dialogue.

Still, there are hints of commentary here and there in the Snyder/Gunn Dawn: An overhead view of the suburb Ana lives in seems to imply that a zombielike state of conformity already exists, lacking only the zombies themselves; a brief debate about what to do with an infected survivor echoes past arguments over the treatment of AIDS patients, and the zombies themselves could represent how quickly everything, including the human race, becomes obsolete. Society's house of cards folds in record time--what took an undetermined time in Romero's Dawn (weeks, perhaps) and days in 28 Days Later... takes mere hours here.

Without Romero's interest in overt commentary, though, the shopping mall location ceases to make sense. Romero chose the mall for its satirical possibilities, not because it would be the best place to go when the dead rise, especially given their proclivity for massing there. Maybe Snyder and Gunn would have been better off setting their zombie holocost in a hospital, a warehouse, a high school--anywhere but a shopping mall--and calling their movie something other than Dawn of the Dead. That way, they'd have been spared the comparisons and their work could have stood--or, more appropriately, stumbled and rumbled--on its own.

Unavoidable comparisons aside, though, this new Dawn is good-humored, dark, gross fun well done. It may not be a classic like the original, but it's energetic and entertaining--and that's all it needs to be.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Review: The Golem (1920)

German actor Paul Wegener co-wrote, co-directed and played the title role for the third time in his career. (He played the Golem for the first time in a 1915 version, then, oddly enough, in a sex comedy titled The Golem and the Dancing Girl in 1917; Wegener co-directed both of those movies as well.

Rabbi Loew, who sees in the stars that misfortune is to befall the Jews of Prague, comes up with a pretty extreme plan to save them: He creates a monster to rescue them from oppression. Loew makes a statue of clay, obtains the proper mystic word to animate the statue from a demon named Astaroth, and brings this statue, named the Golem, to life to defend the ghetto when the Emperor declares that the Jews must leave by the end of the month. Loew takes the Golem to the Emperor's palace, where the clay behemoth quite literally brings down the house and convinces His Majesty that he might want to reconsider that whole "Get Outta Here!" position.

This is all grand and skippy...until the Rabbi's assistant, who is in love with the Rabbi's young daughter, uses the Golem to knock off his romantic rival. Disaster ensues, and the Golem goes out of control and starts tearing up the town, starting a huge fire and killing innocent townspeople until the spell that animated him in the first place is broken.

Wegener's Golem, with his enormous stature and stiff, jerky movements, provides the template for later movie monsters such as Universal's Frankenstein and the Mummy--especially the 1940s versions of these beasties, when they'd been reduced to the level of supernatural henchmen. There are also particular scenes that seem familiar now, like when a girl in the palace presents the Golem with a flower, or when the Golem hurls the lover from the top of the Rabbi's tower to his death, or when the enormous Golem confronts the little blonde girl at the end of the movie. All of these scenes can be found, in one form or another, in Universal's Frankenstein series, particularly James Whale's Frankenstein, which displayed Whale's knowledge of (and influence by) the great German Expressionist horror films.

The architecture in The Golem also strikes a familiar note: It has the oddly angled rooftops and walls first seen in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and later employed in several Universal pictures, especially Murders in the Rue Morgue (itself a thinly disguised remake of Caligari), The Old Dark House (also directed by Whale) and Son of Frankenstein (not directed by Whale, but intentionally mimicking his style and visual sensibilities).

It may be this familiarity with its elements that robs The Golem of its excitement for modern audiences, as well as an utter lack of characters to care for.

Since the Golem is little more than a tool--first for good, then for evil--he doesn't elicit sympathy. Rabbi Loew engages in black magic--one of the reasons the Emperor states for wanting the Jews out of Prague--to bring the Golem to life and willingly lets his creation kill people at the palace to make his point, so he doesn't exactly come off like a good guy either. And the Rabbi's assistant incites the Golem to kill the daughter's boyfriend, and what is his punishment for all the resulting harm the Golem causes? Nothing. It even looks an awful lot like he gets the girl in the end.

The Golem is certainly a cinematic landmark, showing the way for many of the movie monsters to come. That doesn't, however, make it a great movie on its own terms. Interesting? Certainly. Influential? Undeniably. But a classic of cinema as a whole, much less the horror genre in particular? Not exactly, though it's genre fans will find it worth a look, if only to see where the Frankenstein Monster and Kharis the Mummy learned their dance steps.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Review: Susperia (1976)

Italian horror films tend to be a bit more to the gory side of things than their American counterparts. This is not necessarily a good thing: On both sides of the Atlantic, splatter pyrotechnics tend to take the place of creativity and originality.

Master Italian stylist Dario Argento is more inventive than most, and his films are, consequently, several cuts above the average splatter flick. Susperia is probably Argento's most famous film, and while it's shot with a great deal of ingenuity and features respectable acting, it also features some of the most disturbing, upsetting murders ever committed to film.

A pretty, petite American student (Jessica Harper) goes to Europe to study at a dance school...but you just know it's not merely a dance school, don't you? The headmistress (Joan Bennett) is a witch! The school is a coven! And bad things happen to students who figure this out--very bad things.

Within the first fifteen minutes of Susperia, the audience is made to witness a murder that has to be one of the most gruesome events in any horror film. A student escapes to a friend's apartment and is attacked there by...well, something (all we really see is a silhouette and a hairy paw). The poor girl is smothered, yanked through a window, stabbed slowly and repeatedly (including a smashing closeup of a knife entering an exposed, still-throbbing heart), and-finally--is hung and flung through an overhead stained glass window.

This murder takes damn near forever to play out and is accompanied by the howling, clanging soundtrack provided by The Goblins (whose music turned up in numerous Argento films as well as in George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, which was co-produced by Argento). This is but the first of three truly nasty murders--all explicit, all taking place over a series of minutes, all carried out in disgusting (if inventive) ways.

It's a shame that Argento goes to such great lengths to show dismemberment and torture. He creates great mood throughout the film and manages to give the audience the impression that they're constantly being watched and measured for murder. But Argento's more spectacular visuals--a pane of glass bisecting a young woman's head, another young woman falling into a sea of barbed wire, and more maggots than you'd ever want to see in several lifetimes--overpower whatever mood he creates.

Consequently, Susperiaisn't so much scary as it is upsetting. After that first murder, I was more depressed than anything else and pretty much just wanted to turn the VCR off. But I stayed with the movie to the bitter end, at which point I didn't feel like I'd watched a masterful horror film; I felt like I'd passed a test. And tests, if I remember anything from high school, aren't meant to be enjoyed.

(UPDATE: In 2007, two of my very best friends, JB and Sister Dee, came over to La Casa del Terror to watch movies that each of us, for one reason or another, needed to give a second chance to. My choice was The Shining, JB's Pulp Fiction. Dee's selection? Susperia. I gave it a second chance that night as well, and was pleasantly surprised: While I still found the violence repellent, I found Argento's visuals, especially his use of color, appealing. There was more than gore going on there after all. Sometimes, you have to take a second look to see something for the first time.)

Friday, March 5, 2004

Spam Sandwich

This site doesn't get much e-mail--hell, it doesn't get much traffic of any kind, really. But like everyone else with an e-mail address, I get junk mail. Lots of it. For every message from a reader, I get ten from solicitors of one flavor or another. I just wish the flavors came in more varieties:

Penis Enlargement. There must be a lot of guys out there with tiny dicks. Or, at least, guys who think their cranks are minuscule. Because a majority of the spam I get is about penis enlargement, with such subtle subject lines as "Hey Adoresixtyfour make you're cock ENORMOUS" or "My wife loves me my King Dong." (Yes, their grammar and spelling are sterling, too.) And while I'm touched by the concern for the welfare of my male member, I'm sorry to report that their entreaties and efforts are badly wasted here. For one thing, size was never an issue for me--none of my girlfriends ever complained about any lack of length or width, and one, upon seeing my penis for the very first time, said, "Oh my's HUGE!" I do not say this to boast in the least--it is not, in fact, anything remotely close to "HUGE!" Maybe it was the perspective from which she viewed that most private part of me, or maybe, compared to those she'd seen before, it was, indeed, larger than what she'd experienced previously. Whatever the case, it certainly didn't need enlargement. But on another, more pertinant point: My sex life ended about eight years ago, so even if my cock were dragging along the sidewalk behind me ( hurts to even think that!), I haven't met any woman in recent memory who wanted to touch any such portion of my anatomy, much less who actually gave a damn how big it is.

Erectile Dysfunction. Apparently, not only do guys on the Information Superhighway have little wicks, but they can't keep their candles up, either. This was also never a problem for me: the last time I had sex (or the last time I can remember, anyway--give me a damn break, it's been nearly a decade), I was able to go for 45 minutes without coming down. And, again, my sex life, like Generalisimo Francisco Franco, is still dead (and about nearly as long, too). So stop offering me perpetual hard-ons, kids. They're wasted on me.

Paris Hilton. Okay, I didn't give a shit about the hard-partying elder heir to the Hilton Hotels fortune before she filmed herself honking the bobo of Shannen Doherty's ex (a tape which somehow made it out onto the Internet--an accident, I'm sure) or before she and the fugly daughter of Lionel Ritchie starred on a "reality" show in which they treated average, decent, hard-working citizens with less regard and more contempt than they would show for the flop dropping out of her little yipping dog's ass. And I still don't. So go away. Now.

Auto/Homeowners Insurance. Look, dicksmacks. I don't own a car. Never have. Probably never will. And the only way I'll ever be able to afford property in this God-forsaken city is if I (a) bribe the right alderman, (b) hit it big in the Lotto or (c) purchase an empty lot in a gang-/drug-infested neighborhood, dig a hole in the middle of it with my bare hands and call it home. And even if I did own a car or a house, I wouldn't be dumb enough to go without insurance. Then again, spammers think I have a microscopic trouser snake that I can't keep up, so maybe they really do think I'd be dumb enough to drive or buy property without insurance. But would I be dumb enough to buy insurance from somebody I couldn't look in the eye? Nobody's that dumb...are they?

"YOUR ASSISTANCE IS URGENTLY NEEDED." Why, certainly, I'd just love to give my phone number, address, social security number, savings account routing info, etc., to someone who randomly e-mails me out of the blue. Does anyone actually fall for this nonsense? Somebody must have, because I get at least one of these pleas a month, usually from a "gentleman" who claims to be someone called Bates Alan, a Nigerian dying from emphysema who needs help getting his money out of his country and into the hands of people who can use it to help others. For one thing, I had a dear uncle die a slow, painful death from emphysema, so I don't find its use in an obvious scam to be particularly amusing. For another, "Bates Alan"? I know I'm a stupid American and all, but I'm also a movie buff: Alan Bates was a longtime British character actor; the use of his name in this scheme is even more idiotic when you consider that he died recently, therefore putting his name in the news and under the noses even of people who don't frequent the Internet Movie Database. So not only are you a disgusting ratfuck, but a stupid one as well. Don't ever let me catch you, "Bates Alan"--I'll use your kneecaps for my Saturday morning oatmeal.

RE: Account suspended. The messages look official enough, with the eBay or PayPal logos (sometimes both, since eBay recently bought PayPal) prominently displayed with their basic layout, colors and fonts used. But why would they be asking for my password and my credit card number when they already have...oh, of course. It's because the messages aren't from eBay or PayPal or any other reputable organization that would jeapordize its reputation by soliciting such information via e-mail. They're from ripoff artists who want to steal my identity or, at the very least, run up thousands of dollars in charges on my Visa or DiscoverCard. Thanks so much, but I can take a wrecking ball to my credit rating without any help from knotheads like you. Really.

Whatever happened to people I know or love--or, in rare cases, both--sending me "Hey, how's it going?" or "I just got this fab job!" or "Just wanted to say, hi"? Why are the majority of the e-mails I get from people I not only don't know, but don't ever want to know? Is e-mail now just another means of shoving a hand into my pocket to take what little I have left? Is the Internet, as a means of hearing from people you care about, about to be as obsolete as letterwriting and making calls on anything but a cellphone? Or is the volume of this shit just dispiriting?

I don't know. My head hurts. And I think I just got another spam from somebodyoffering me Viagra again. Or computer equipment. Or a share in a Brazilian goldmine. Or....

Monday, March 1, 2004

Oscar Hangover 2004

Y'know, it's a seriously good thing I didn't have money riding on Sunday night's Academy Awards when I made those predictions yesterday. Because if I'd put my money where my mouth was, there'd be no room in it for my foot.

Damn, but I fucked up those Oscar guesses.

I mean, I wasn't completely shut out--at least I got Best Director (Peter Jackson) and Best Picture (Lord of the Rings: Return of the King) right. And I did correctly guess that Sofia Coppola would take Best Original Screenplay for Lost in Translation, even if it wasn't one of the categories I was focusing on.

But all the acting categories? My predictions were quite versatile, really--they blew and sucked at the same time. Not one of them came true. Closest I came was Best Supporting Actor, where I flipped a coin and picked Alec Baldwin; had the 1964 silver quarter come up heads, I'd have chosen the winner, Tim Robbins.

It figures. The one year I veer from the norm and pick a whole leased dumptruck full of upsets, all the favored performers take their categories. And if I had to be wrong about Johnny Depp winning Best Actor, couldn't Bill Murray have won? Nope. Widely acclaimed thespian and widely acknowledged dicksmack Sean Penn had to take it. At least he showed up, which gave viewers a chance to see his wife, Robin Wright (Penn). The Princess Bride! Yay! Unfortunately, she was there with Dicksmack. Boo!


Well, even if my picks stank like the third week of a garbage strike, at least I was home for the festivities. No, I didn't eat the Reggio's pizza or drink the Red Dog--after an afternoon with JB and Sister Dee having drinks at Cesar's and dinner up the street at Thai Classic, I was already lit and full, thank you.

And my companions made certain that I'd be home in time to enjoy the telecast--as much as I could stand of it, anyway. It's always fun to see the fashions, both good--Angelina Jolie, usually gorgeous, was a goddess in white satin with hi-beams fully juiced--and bad--Uma Thurman proved that you can indeed make a dress out of mismatched kitchen curtains an hour before the show. But there was way too much Billy for me: too much Billy Bush, who annoyed every celeb he "interviewed" before the show (Angelina looked fit to go Lara Croft on his retarded ass); and too much Billy Crystal, who proved yet again that he's really not that funny. Or clever. Or even mildly amusing. And if I live to be 100 (unlikely, but stranger shit has happened--trust me, it has), I nevernevernevernever want to see Billy Crystal even close to naked again, much less naked three damn times. If America wants to go all Puritan and get pissed off about too much nipple showing, how 'bout a beatdown on Billy? Please?

But no. He went on. And on. And so did the show. Why can't they keep it down to three hours? Hell, if you cut all the jokes about how long the fucking show is, you'd probably lop off 20 minutes right there. Or, if the show really has to run nine hours, why not do it on a Saturday night, when most of us don't have to get up and go to jobs we hate the next morning? And can the presenters just present, instead of being forced into reading TelePrompTered-to-Death jokes that have been written and rewritten for months and still aren't the least bit giggle-inducing? As much as I enjoyed watching Liv Tyler put on her cute l'il horn-rimmed glasses, that time could better have been spent handing Annie Lennox her l'il gold statue that much sooner.

But as much as I bitch about the Oscarcast's epic length and monumental lack of humor, you know I'm going to watch it again next year. And you know you're going to as well.

And yeah, as much as I blew it this year, I'll make predictions again next year. Hey, it's a big mouth--there's enough room for both Size 11 1/2 feet in there.