Thursday, October 21, 2010

Death Warmed Over

The zombies in George Romero's zombie movies have always been MacGuffins. The real monsters are human beings. This point is emphatically made at the end of Night of the Living Dead when Sheriff McClellan's posse shoots Ben through the head. Romero has spent the running times of five more movies making this same point. Near the end of Survival of the Dead (2009), Romero includes a visual gag that suggests that even he knows that he's flogging a dead horse by now. And so it goes.

The set up for this one finds a band of rogue guardsmen wandering into a Hatfield/McCoy-style feud between families on an island off the coast of Delaware. As with the end of Dawn of the Dead, the survivors are jackals fighting over the bones of the world. The living dead themselves are hardly even a threat in this film, though the movie does include a nod to the director's original intentions for Day of the Dead (and then the never-filmed Twilight of the Dead), in which the dead were to be used as weapons between rival groups of survivors. The movie ends on a final image that suggests that hatred runs too deep in human beings for even the apocalypse to erase. In some ways, this image is a summation that the series has needed; an exclamation point, if you will. Hell, this ending might be worth slogging through all five sequels to get to.

For the most part, this movie depends on the audience liking or, at the very least, identifying with the various human characters and this is where the movie gets itself into trouble. Romero is capable of writing well rounded characters--see for instance, Martin--but he hasn't bothered with it here. This is, perhaps, an indication of the director's ultimate disinterest in making zombie movies anymore or maybe it's just an awkward convention of the form, but most of the characters here are cardboard cutouts. As with certain John Carpenter movies, you can see the director chafing at the bit to make a western here rather than a horror movie (which is odd, given the setting, I guess). Without having anything invested in the characters, the movie misses its opportunity to turn the screws. The viewer just doesn't give much of a damn about what happens to any of them. They're all meat for the grinder. Still, this isn't the first of Romero's zombie movies to have this very same problem.

Mind you, there are zombie gags aplenty, many of them calling to mind Tom Savini's story of how he was hired to do Dawn: Romero asked him to start thinking up as many ways to kill someone as he could. The film's first zombie death tips the filmmakers hand, in which a zombie soldier has his head blown clean off, with his scalp leaping up in the air and coming back down on his now-headless neck. A lot of the zombie death gags are like this one: too cute for their own good. Sometimes, it seems as if the director is feeding the gorehounds among his fans without caring if his violence is connected to the movie. It all seems very casual and not particularly horrific. Given that so much of the violence here is done with computers rather than practical effects, I wonder if there's a visual disconnect at work based on the overuse of CGI in all films of recent vintage. I think there probably is.

That all said, this is very much the slickest and most visually pleasing entry into the series. Its Canadian locations have a nice autumnal look appropriate for the apocalypse. It's a look that does double duty as a Norman Rockwell-ish portrait of Americana, emphasized by the various zombie "characters" wandering about (the mailman, in particular). Romero has better actors than he ever had in Pittsburgh, too, which minimizes the fact that his characters are cutouts somewhat. But slick and visually pleasing can only take you so far. This film has a thousand times the production values of Night of the Living Dead, but that film is a masterpiece and this one is less than a masterpiece. You really never can tell.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 21

First Time Viewings: 21

1 comment:

Putergurl said...

The recent rash of new zombie movies has more or less added further exclamation points to the idea that you almost cannot make a zombie movie any longer without reverting to camp and humour in your zombies. The original directors are victims of their own Frankenstein monsters, and their own near disgust with the whole sordid mess is apparent. I don't think there is any way to really reclaim the horror in the zombies themselves; if there ever really was any for long after the shock value was gone. The zombie extras are cannon fodder, and the zombified main characters usually just become postscripts to the error of their ways when they were alive.
I think Robert Rodriguez validated many of your excellent points in "Planet Terror". Even with deliberately injected inferior production values, you can do great zombie horror only by developing the characters and making the audience care about them.