Posts Tagged ‘george romero’

Just as it wouldn’t really feel like Halloween without reviewing at least one of the films in John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s venerable Halloween slasher series, the season wouldn’t feel complete without reviewing a zombie flick of some sort or other as well, and this year I’ve chosen to revisit one of my personal favorites — 1990’s remake of George Romero’s seminal “walking dead” film, Night Of The Living Dead, written  (and overseen to one degree or another) by Romero himself and directed by former special effects wizard and all-around horror legend in his own right Tom Savini.

Am I going to attempt to argue here that this version is in any way, shape, or form better than the original? Of course not, that would be an absurd proposition, but it’s certainly stands head and shoulders above the bumper-crop of horror remakes that followed in its wake (and continues unabated to this day), stands as a damn fine film in its own right, and is a special treat for those of us who are devotees of the first movie in that it remains absolutely true to its roots while simultaneously being unafraid to toy with our expectations almost from the get-go.

I assume the basic plot needs no real recap here — besieged folks hole up in a farmhouse while the dead return to life and start to attack and feast upon the living — so let me just jump right into the meat of things and talk about why I think the changes Romero and Savini made here work , since that’s the subject that gets most horror fans worked up anyway. First off, Patricia Tallman’s iteration of Barbara is certainly no deranged or shellshocked “shrinking violet”-type here — anything but, and that marks a welcome departure since even by 1990 that sort of portrayal of your lead female character was going to seem hopelessly out of date. Instead, she’s more akin to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley character from the Alien series and isn’t just unafraid to mix it up and “get her hands dirty,” so to speak, but welcomes the chance to do so. It’s a stark contrast to what we knew about the story — our thought we know — and Tallman pulls it off remarkably well.

Less obvious, but equally as notweworthy in its own right, are the subtle changes the Candyman himsef, Tony Todd, makes in his portrayal of Ben. With Tallman’s Barbara picking up a good deal of the slack as far as the action is concerned, he’s not called upon to be the “hero,” in a the traditional sense, in the same way that Duane Jones was in the original film, yet he is every bit the “glue guy” who holds the group together and functions as both its collective clear head and its conscience, leading by example in a group of strong-willed, industrious people who could all lay claim to the mantle of “unofficial leader” in their own right if they so chose. He’s steady, grounded, and carries on Jones’ legacy with distinction, even while being less a “man of action”-type than his esteemed predecessor in the role.

And while the Harry Cooper of 1990 is still largely an asshole, thanks to a nice turn from Tom Towles in the part he’s a more multi-faceted and all-too-human asshole than he was in the original script.

There are changes I don’t particularly care for — I would have loved for this film to be in black-and white, for instance, and I’m ambivalent about the re-worked ending (I don’t absolutely despise it as some purists do, but I have a certain amount of sympathy for their viewpoint), but on the whole I think Savini does a really nice job of contemporizing a story that didn’t necessarily need it, but was bound to get it anyway given the first film’s — ahem! — “copyright-free” status that insured that somebody, somewhere was going to remake the thing (as others have, unfortunately, since). In short, given that Night Of The Living Dead was essentially guaranteed to be remade, we should all be grateful that the remake that ended up happening first was this solidly-done, respectful, and professional — and that it didn’t just content itself with those things  but was willing and able to successfully update many of the key concepts, characters, and themes carried over from the original, as well. I can’t think of many horror remakes of more recent vintage that have managed to both remain true to their origins while subverting audience preconceptions at the same time; it’s definitely a tricky balancing act to pull off, but Savini and company were more than up to the task.

"Survival Of The Dead" Movie Poster

I guess I’m an old-school horror fan (or maybe I’m just old), but to this reviewer the theatrical opening of a new George Romero “Dead” movie is still a big deal. Always has been, always will be. And that’s why, even though his latest, George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead has been available for purchase online and on demand on cable for a couple of weeks now (it also opened theatrically in Europe about a month before it did here in the US) and I’ve been chomping at the bit to see it, I’ve resisted. I wanted to see it on the big screen, with an audience (an audience, it should be noted, that’s probably been pretty effectively boiled down to nothing but Romero die-hards like myself after the — shall we say — less than enthusiastic reception for Diary of the Dead) — because damnit, even though this opening wasn’t an “event,” per se, it still counts as one in my book. I guess I’m just stubborn like that.

So the question now is — was it worth the wait? Obviously the theatrical release, limited as it is, can only be described as formality on the part of Magnolia Pictures and their Magnet imprint — they know this thing isn’t gonna recoup its costs in theaters, and it’ll probably be gone in a week. Like so much indie horror, they’re counting on alternative “viewing platforms” providing nearly all of the audience for this film. And so it goes. 42 years (think about that for just a second — 42 fucking years! This guy has been making zombie films for nearly half a century!) after Night of the Living Dead, the creator of the modern zombie genre is well and truly back to his independent roots, albeit for completely different reasons than those that prevailed in 1968.

Back then, Romero was just a young guy who made local TV commercials in the Pittsburgh area and there was no reason for Hollywood to take a chance on him. He had to go it alone and find independent distribution for his film because that was the only choice had had. Today,  he has to go the independent route because there’s a sense that the times have passed old George by, and that he just doesn’t “have it” anymore.

As is my wont to do with conventional “wisdom,” your humble host is here to piss all over that notion.

Romero's zombies : still hungry after all these years

Survival of the Dead picks up immediately after the events in 2007’s Diary of the Dead, so rather than viewing this as Romero’s sixth “Dead” film (even though it is), it’s probably best to think of it as the second film in his second “zombie cycle,” since Diary took us back to the beginning. Our focal point here character-wise is the ragtag renegade National Guard unit-turned-highwaymen we met briefly in Diary when they held up the fleeing students’ RV.  Thanks to the wonder of internet cell phone connections, they’ve learned about a place called Plum Island, off the coast of Delaware, that’s supposedly a zombie-free paradise.

When our ragtag band of Uncle Sam’s formerly-finest led by Sergeant “Nicotine” Crockett (Alan Van Sprang) arrives at the ferry crossing to the island, though, they find they’ve been set up by the crusty old Irish sailor who sent out the internet greeting to the world, one Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Welsh), who intends to trade safe passage to the island for — well — everything they’ve got, which in this case happens to include a million bucks’ cash.

Needless to say, the Sarge and his boys (and one girl, a lesbian solider nicknamed, drearily enough, “Tomboy” and played by Athena Karkanis) aren’t going for this and a battle ensues between O’Flynn and his cohorts, the renegade military unit, and whatever zombies happen to be mulling about on the ferry.

After “Tomboy” saves O’Flynn’s life, they all make sorta-nice and head for Plum Island together — there’s just one problem. O’Flynn’s become persona non grata there since he and the patriarch of the other large island clan, a hard-ass named Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick) don’t exactly see eye to eye on how best to deal with the undead menace. O’Flynn’s  a shoot-’em-all-in-the-head sort of guy, while Muldoon wants to train them to eat something other than human flesh if possible and keep ’em around for — well, I dunno, domestication, I guess, although he’s big into family, as well, and probably just doesn’t like the idea of pumping lead into the skulls of his loved ones if he doesn’t have to, even if they are, you know, dead. The fact that the two families have a generations-long blood feud going on between them (think of them as the Irish version of the Hatfields and the McCoys) doesn’t help matters, either.

The families have shared the island uneasily over the years, with the O’Flynns making their living as fishermen while the Muldoons have earned their livelihood as ranchers (I didn’t know ranching was a big thing in Delaware, but there you have it). So anyway, the premise has some holes in it (and the amount of inbreeding on the island must be crazy).

It’s also, dare I say it, repetitious — essentially what we’ve got going on here is the exact same set-up as Romero’s earlier Day of the Dead, although this time the roles are reversed. In Day, the people who wanted to attempt to domesticate the walking corpses were the smart (if still crazy) ones — the “heroes” of the story, if you will. This time around, they’re the unscrupulous assholes. And while this time Romero’s got a whole island to play around with rather than Day‘s underground military research bunker, it doesn’t change the fact that premise-wise, we’re pretty much in firmly familiar territory here.

Patrick O'Flynn don't take no shit from no zombies

Other problems persist : while most of the acting is certainly competent (something that couldn’t be said for Diary), the OTT stereotypical Irish accents do start to grate after awhile, and make O’Flynn and Muldoon feel more like caricatures than fully-fleshed-out characters. The time frame is problematic as well : this supposedly takes place just six days after the dead started walking, yet Muldoon has hatched his plan to try to coexist (or maybe that should be enslave) the zombie hordes pretty damn quickly. Also, the zombies exhibit the type of familiar-to-their-real-lives actions (think Bub from Day “Big Daddy” from Land of the Dead) that, in previous Romero lore, it took them years to come around to (there’s a hysterical scene with a chained-up living dead mailman delivering the same letters to the same box over and over again).

Still, there’s an awful lot here Romero gets right.  The zombies themselves have an unknown quality to them that’s been missing for some time, and there’s a sense that the standard “Romero rules” may not necessarily apply across the board. the effects work, apart from a couple of crap CGI sequences, are generally good, and the blood-n’-guts are handles with the level of aplomb we’ve come to expect. the interactions beween the characters are handled in a pleasingly naturalistic manner, giving us real insight into how real people deal with the by-now-done-to-death scenario of a “zombie apocalypse.” And of course, the question of who’s actually worse, them or us — a staple of Romero’s flicks from the beginning — is brought to chillingly effective life through the demented actions of Seamus Muldoon and his clan.

The family blood feud adds an interesting wrinkle, as well, and gives us a look at a heretofore unexplored facet of life in world overrun by the dead — how the tensions of a new and altogether deadly situation can either serve to transcend age-old tensions (think of Yugoslavia — everyone was pretty much united in their hatred of the Soviet interlopers, yet the minute the dreaded commies were gone all the age-old ethnic tensions came bubbling back to the surface resulting in — well, you know) or, in this case, exacerbate them even further.

As with Diary, given the proximity of events here to the beginning of the shambling-corpse onslaught, the zombies themselves aren’t as “far gone” in appearance as they were in movies like Day and Land. they’re more at the level of physical putrefaction we saw in Dawn on the Dead, although there’s more overall goriness to their look than the simply greyish-blue facepaint many of them sported in that classic film.

As for the conclusion, well, that’s right outta Day as well, with the zombies kept as “research subjects” by Muldoon turned loose to wreak havoc on the island, with the added wrinkle here being that against this backdrop the blood feud between his kinfolk and the O’Flynn’s is finally settled once and for all (or is it? I don’t want to give too much away, but the film’s final scene does show that age-old enmity carries on even after death. I’ll say no more and have probably said too much already). As for the survivors (such as there are) from our now-freelance National Guard crew, well, that’s where we get another interesting wrinkle on Day‘s premise — rather than escaping to an island at the end, these folks decide to get the hell off the island. One major problem with the ending that I won’t divulge too many details about — Romero’s trademark social commentary, which had been pleasingly relegated to a more figure-it-out-for-yourself status (as opposed to the pounding-you-over-the-head-with it he did in Diary) really does take over and get pretty damn preachy for the last minute or two. It’s not enough to dimish your overall enjoyment of what is, aforementioned niggles aside, still a well-done zombie flick, but why George can’t just trust his audiences enough to figure out what he’s saying anymore (it’s never too far in the background, after all) is beyond me. He  achieves the classic balance between horror and sociopolitical allegory throughout this film, then breaks his old sledgehammer from Diary back out for the conclusion.

What you see this movie for --- zombies on the loose!

And speaking of Romero as social commentator, while it does get admittedly heavy at the tail end, it’s still, on the whole, pleasing to see that he hasn’t abandoned this angle to his cinematic storytelling. You go into a George Romero “Dead” film expecting sociopolitical allegory, after all, whether it be Night of the Living Dead‘s none-too-subtle parallels with race relations at the time and its firm stance in support of black civil rights, Dawn of the Dead‘s absolutely blistering (yet, perhaps paradoxically, quite understated) critique of consumerism, Day of the Dead‘s exploration of Reagan-era militarism and the Cold War “bunker mentality,” Land of the Dead‘s savaging of Bush-era “War on Terrorism” bullshit and the outright evil that is gated “communities” (an oxymoron if ever there was one), or Diary of the Dead‘s annoyingly-overstated-yet-nonetheless-spot-on take on both the voyeurism and, ironically enough I suppose, narcissism at the heart of today’s YouTube-style “culture” of “emerging media.”

While Survival of the Dead doesn’t exactly tackle any new symptoms of our overall cultural malaise, mining instead, as mentioned (or at least implied) the same thematic ground as Day, taking that exploration of “bunker mentality”-style tribalism and nativism out of a Cold War setting and transposing it into today’s world of racist Arizona immigration laws,  ugly nationalism and xenophobia expressed in the form of right-wing “Tea Party” pseudo-populism, and anti-Muslim hysteria, isn’t necessarily indicative of any creative bankruptcy on Romero’s part, it just shows that he understands that while circumstances may have changed, the essential dangers inherent in any sort of “us-vs.-them” mentality persist.

As you’ve probably been able to gather by now, Survival of the Dead is shy, by several orders of magnitude, of being the absolute spot-on classic that Romero’s first three “Dead” films were. But enough of what makes those movies so movies so undeniably compelling, even after all these years, is still here — the characterization, the sociopolitical analysis, the technical expertise in terms of editing and pacing, the humor, the heart, and, yes, the splatter — to make it well worth your time.  Modern zombie flicks, be they comedies like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland,  action-thrillers like the Resident Evil films, or contemporary thoughtful meditations on the human condition in the face of  apocalypse like the 28 Days and Weeks Later all have bits and parts of the George Romero legacy in there somewhere, but to date no one has been able to combine each of those various elements to achieve all the possibilities inherent in the zombie film in the way that the man himself has done — and continues to do. Survival of the Dead isn’t on the same level as his best work, but it’s still miles ahead of what anyone else has been able to accomplish within the genre he created.

"The Crazies" (2010) Movie Poster

I really — and I mean really — don’t want to compare director Breck (“Sahara”) Eisner’s new remake of  1973 independent exploitation horror classic “The Crazies” with Zack Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake. It’s just too obvious. But then, the parallels are too blatant to ignore. And not just because they’re both based on George Romero films.

First off, like “Dawn,” the fact is that “The Crazies” just didn’t need to be remade. The original is as fresh, exciting, and relevant as ever. Sure, Viet Nam is no longer a contemporary issue, but substitute Iraq or Afghanistan vets for the lead characters in the original, and all the issues end up being the same. Biowarfare, massive paranoia in the populace, government fuck-ups and subsequent government cover-ups, and excessive state secrecy — the main political themes in the original are every bit as relevant today as they were in 1973 — hell, moreso.

Secondly, like Snyder’s “Dawn,” this isn’t, on the surface, a bad remake. It’s stylish, exciting, suitably grisly (although, also like the 2004 “Dawn,” not so grisly that it would only appeal to horror fans — this is definitely a mainstream flick not intended solely for a genre audience), competently acted for the most part, suspenseful, and a fun and gripping ride.

Thirdly, it’s respectful to the original premise without being a tired rehash. The basic set-up is the same — plane carrying a biowarfare agent code named “Trixie” crashes down in a small rural locale (this time the fictional town of Ogden Marsh, Iowa, rather than Evans City, Pennsylvania — again, as with “Dawn” 2004, Romero’s story gets transplanted to the midwest), but the characters have the same names and that’s about it, the focus here being  solely on David (Timothy Olyphant) his wife  Judy (Radha Mitchell) , and David’s best friend Russell (Joe Anderson) trying to both escape and learn what it is that they’re escaping from.

On paper, this should work. The original paid as much attention to the action from the point of view of the military as it did to the plight of its nominal protagonists. And while Romero was able to pull of this juggling act with his usual supreme skill, in point of fact the idea of a small confused group of principal characters who are in the dark as to what is going on so that we learn the truth of events at the same pace they do is, technically speaking at least, better and more gripping in terms of pure plotting.

As always, though, it all comes down to execution, and the creative choices made by the filmmakers along the way.

The “Trixie” virus itself operates in essentially manner as the 1973 film, inflicting loopy behavior followed by violent homicidal madness followed by death. The folks fighting it, though — that’s where the main difference between the two films is to be found, and it has profound implications for exactly what type of movie this remake is.

In Romero’s original, Dave and Russ are Viet Nam vets back in their home town, trying to adjust to a society they no longer quite understand. They’re blue collar guys trying to find their way in a country that has used them up and spit them back out. David’s girlfriend ( or, as the new version would have it, wife) is also blue collar, working as she does as a small town nurse. They are quite literally nothing to the political and economic establishment, outsiders to the system trying to eke out a means of basic survival within it.

In the 2010 version, though, that’s all changed — and with it, so has the tone of the film itself, at least from a political standpoint. You see, this time around, David is the local sheriff, Russell is his long-serving trusty deputy, and Judy is the town doctor. Our heroes, therefore, are no longer outsiders fighting against a murderous virus unleashed by a murderous establishment that’s trying to use a murderous military to clean up their mess — our heroes are yuppie system insiders who used to be part of the establishment but now are expendable to it since said establishment is out to use its military to clean up its mess.

In a way, this shift in focus is somewhat tolerable, in that it shows that the system is more than willing to eat its own to cover up for its excesses and/or incompetence, but on the whole, it’s a pretty serious cop-out compared to Romero’s original vision, because it the message in the 1973 version is that the system is rotten, corrupt, evil, and homicidal and can only be successfully fought by those outside it. The new version, though, sends an altogether different message — yes, the system is rotten, corrupt, evil, and homicidal, and yes, it will even turn on its own, but brave and courageous souls within the system itself can fight it. In Romero’s film, the system was co-opted from top to bottom and rotten to the core. In Eisner’s new version, the system is out to destroy innocent lives, sure, but our best chance for salvation comes from within its very ranks.

Another key difference between the films is that in Romero’s flick, the military were incompetent fuck-ups who were changing their plans on the fly every second and everything they did only made matters worse. This seems much closer to actual reality, as we have $300 million helicopters that can’t fly, “Patriot” missiles that can’t hit their targets, and more red tape and bureaucratic snafus among the brass than you can count. Who many times have we “changed strategy” in Iraq and Afghanistan? Has anything worked?

In Eisner’s version of events, however, the military, while certainly undertaking actions that anyone in their right mind would consider unconscionable, such as wiping out innocents and infected alike in order to prevent the virus from spreading, acts with cold, technical precision and absolute competence. So while Romero was telling us that the money we were shoveling at the Pentagon was wasted, the new, Hollywood-approved vision of “The Crazies” is one with a perfectly capable and dependable military — it’s just that they gotta be ruthless sometimes. You know how it goes.

"The Crazies" Promo Poster

If you feel like shutting your brain off and going for a well-made cinematic thrill ride that offers little or no actual food for thought,the 2010 version of “The Crazies” works just fine. It’s a pretty solid little white-knuckle rollercoaster of a flick. The effects are solid, the story is involving, and the premise is neat,the ending is pretty damn spectacular — and it even has the guts to show a news report during the closing credits giving the government’s official BS line about what happened in Ogden Marsh. But come on. The government and the media lie? That’s an easy and obvious criticism to make. We all know that.

And here’s where the final unfortunate parallel with the 2004 “Dawn of the Dead” remake comes in. Like that “reimagining,” where Zack Snyder and company managed to set the film in a mall packed to the rafters with excess yet somehow say nothing about consumerism and greed and “the American way of life,” this new version of “The Crazies” takes a classic Romero work of socio-political commentary and almost completely emasculates it. The film takes Romero’s bold and thoroughgoing critique of the entire system itself and makes it safe and palatable. Sure, the government lies, but they’re competent and efficient and there are good people within the system who can change it when things get a little too ruthless and bloodthirsty (provided they don’t, you know, get killed). In the end, Eisner doesn’t seem to have the guts to even seriously criticize the military itself, despite the fact that they’re clearly the bad guys in the film! Go figure.

And that is this movie’s ultimate failing. It portrays a ruthless and inhuman military-industrial complex engaged in full-fledged, wholesale slaughter — and metaphorically, if not literally, lets them, and even more importantly the system they serve, off the hook. The essential theme at the core if the film is no longer “smash the system, it’s beyond repair” as it was in 1973, instead it’s “work from within to change the system — even if it’s trying to kill you, hey, it’s nothing personal.”

As with  Synder’s “Dawn,” Eisner here has taken Romero’s work and replaced all its guts with stuffing, while preserving it an admittedly aesthtically pleasing form. You might call that a remake, I just call it taxidermy. And while stuffed birds are nice to look at, they’re not nearly as spectacular as those that are alive and flying.

"The Crazies" Movie Poster

With the new big-budget (well,comparatively speaking) Hollywood remake of George Romero’s seminal 1973 horror film “The Crazies” (a.k.a. “Code Name : Trixie”) upon us, now seems as good a time as any to take a look back at the original — as well as the new version, which your host took in last weekend. But let’s give the progenitor its dues first, shall we? I mean, it’s only fair, and in addition to coming first, it’s also, for reasons I’ll delve into a bit later when we look at the new one, the better of the two by far.

It’s a shame that this film is so often overlooked by horror historians, because truth be told it’s every bit the precursor to “Dawn of the Dead” that “Night of the Living Dead” was. Sure, it didn’t fit the “zombie movie” mold as established at the time since the “crazies” of the title weren’t walking corpses but were, instead, victims of a viral biological outbreak, but by today’s standards as set forth by films like “28 Days Later,” it certainly fits the bill — which is why we’re dealing with the rather bizarre situation we find ourselves in where the remake is considered a proper “zombie flick” while the original, at least at the time, wasn’t.

But it’s not just the fact that it’s (admittedly retroactively) classified as a zombie movie that makes “The Crazies” a thematic lead-in to “Dawn,” it’s the fact that it deals with current (at the time) political and socio-economic issues in a direct manner that makes this film every bit the precursor to DotD that NotLD was. Yes, “Night” tackled issues of race and Cold War paranoia and the like, but it did so mainly indirectly, via metaphor. “The Crazies,” on the other hand, tackles militarism, Viet Nam, germ warfare, state secrecy, and related issues every bit as head-on as “Dawn” tackled the emptiness of consumer culture and the wretchedly excessive gluttony of the “me generation.”

On the run from "The Crazies"

It’s evident from the start that Romero isn’t going to beat around the bush with this film. We start with a guy murdering his own family by burning down their house. He’s acting weird and completely loses it in rather a hurry, and when the local Evans City, Pennsylvania volunteer fire brigade arrives, including among its ranks two of our film’s main protagonists, recently-returned Viet Nam vets and lifelong buddies David (Will MacMillan) and Russell (Harold Wayne Jones),  the family man-turned-firestarter has a tragic moment of lucid clarity before succumbing completely to madness and death.

And the story seldom slacks up from this intense introductory sequence, with Romero opting instead to put the pedal to the metal and never let up. In fairly short order we learn that a military plane containing some sort of vaccine has crashed in the mountains nearby, that the vaccine isn’t a vaccine (of course) but is instead a deadly germ weapon designed to inflict madness, mayhem, and death on an “enemy” population, that the military can’t get its shit together when trying to effect a containment and clean-up, that the local population, infected and otherwise, quickly comes to be considered an enemy by the military, that the heavily-armed townsfolk and rural dwellers aren’t going to take being put under martial law lying down, that the virus, conde named “Trixie” is probably airborne, that gas-masked, hazard-suited military guys who are clearing out households and disposing of dead bodies aren’t opposed to looting homes of their goods and corpses of their cash, and that the US government will wipe the whole area, and everyone in it,  out in order to keep a lid on what’s happened. Oh, and in true Romero fashion, the bodies of the biological plague’s victims need to be burned.

As Romero himself would say, "another one for the fire."

The action shifts around a lot in “The Crazies,” with equal time being paid to the military’s ever-changing “plan” of response, the violent actions of the townspeople (infected or otherwise), and the struggle to escape the situation undertaken by our previously-mentioned protagonists David and Russell along with David’s girlfriend Judy (Lane Carroll), who works as a nurse and is pregnant, and a local evacuee named Artie (Richard Liberty, who would go on to appear in Romero’s “Day of the Dead”)  and his daughter Kathy (cult film legend Lynn Lowry of “Shivers” and “I Drink Your Blood,” among many other credits), who join them along the way.

There is a somewhat lengthy interlude wherein our erstwhile heroes take refuge in the clubhouse of a local Country Club, which actually comes as a welcome relief when it happens, but apart from that it’s pretty much full-throttle mayhem and paranoia and frantic desperation all the way, with barely a pause to take a breath.

And here is as appropriate a time as there probably is for your host where your host to salute the genius social commentary of George Romero, because not only does “The Crazies” deal with the obvious themes mentioned earlier, but the story of Dave and Russ as returned vets at loose ends suddetly confronting a battlefield scenario they don’t entirely grasp the implications of has none-too-subtle, albeit entirely unstated in the script and its dialogue, parallels with both the war in Viet Nam itself, and the situation many veterans found themselves in coming home to a country they no longer fully understood. One gets the definite sense, in fact, that once all hell breaks loose in their tiny town, these two feel more at home than they have at any point since coming back.

The insanity and outright viciousness of the outbreak itself, its victims, and the military’s inept and violent “containment” procedures only escalate until things reach a downright insane, and pretty goddamn bleak in most respects, conclusion. It’s entirely fitting, but it’s the breakneck-paced story along the way, driven in every respect by the human and entirely (if at times depressingly) understandable actions of the plethora of characters on all sides here that makes “The Crazies” so memorable. It’s 100 miles of bad road and we’re packed like sardines into a jeep with no shocks full of people whose actions, reactions,  concerns, and motivations we understand all too well. Some we like, some we don’t, but they are all us, and we are them.

"The Crazies" DVD from Blue Underground

“The Crazies” is available on DVD (and, as of a couple of weeks ago, Blu-Ray) from Blue Underground. The remastered picture looks absolutely superb for a low-budget exploitation flick filmed in rural Pennsylvania in 1973, the sound is mono but clean and good, and the extras package is nice, as well, featuring the trailer, a great little documentary featurette on the cult film career or Lynn Lowry, and an absolutely sensational commentary track from Romero and Blue Underground head honcho (and “Maniac” and “Maniac Cop” director ) Bill Lustig. Romero’s memory of the production is sharp, Lustig asks terrific questions, and the two of them obviously get along terrifically well. It’s an absolute pleasure to listen to.

Hard-core Romero fans are generally the only folks who have given this movie its proper due, but hopefully with the remake in theaters now, horror and exploitation fans, and just people with taste in general, will take a look at this somewhat neglected classic. It packs a punch both for what it does as well as what it says about ourselves and our society. Spellbinding, gut-wrenching stuff all the way around.

And speaking of that remake, we’ll get to that in the next day or two, maybe even tonight if I’m feeling ambitious.

"Deadgirl" Movie Poster

"Deadgirl" Movie Poster

Continuing with our little not-really-a-countdown-in-the-strictest-sense-but movies-that-make-good viewing-this-time-of-year-in-any-particular-order-anyway, we come to one of the more controversial indie horrors of recent years, newcomers Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel’s “Deadgirl” (with screenplay by Troma alum Trent Haaga).

This movie raised a lot of eyebrows (and hopefully only eyebrows) when it hit the independent and genre festival circuit this past year, and now that it’s received a (damn comprehensive, with commentary from cast and crew, an exhaustive “making-of” documentary, trailers, promo spots, and the like) DVD release from Dark Sky Films, your host gave it a look last week and found it was well worth at least a rental provided you can stomach the initial premise, which I must admit it something of a tall order.

Simply put, juvenile delinquent outcasts (think underachieving “Trench Coat Mafia” wannabes) Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) and J.T. (Noah Segan) decide to do what they do best one day, namely skip school, and go fuck around in a long-abandoned mental hospital. Not the kind of thing I usually got up to when cutting class, but hey, that’s kids these days for you. Anyway, while they’re tearing around in a tunnel underneath the main building, they become would-be prety for a vicious doberman that’s on the premises for reasons that are never even close to explained (guess it just lives there) and in their desperate bid to run away from the hungry canine they come across a gig old MF’ing metal door that they figure they can open up and slam shut behind them, then wait inside whatever sort of room lies behind it until the doberman gets bored and moves on.

There’s just one problem : the door is quite literally rusted shut. To make a short story even shorter, they do of course not-so-eventually prise the door open and get away from the dog, and inside they find a crummy, damp, disused cellar-type room with a dead naked girl wrapped in plastic laying on a table inside of it. J.T., horny teenage ne’er-do-well that he is, seems rather taken with the female corpse at his disposal and decides within a couple of minutes to fuck her, dead or not. Except she’s not. Or she is. Or she—well, hell, she’s a flesh-eating zombie.

Rickie, the closest thing that passes for a conscience in the movie, is quite rightly repulsed by the whole idea and high-tails it out of there when his efforts to talk J.T. out of his stupid idea lead to a fistfight. Besides, our guy Rickie is sweet on a real-live girl who won’t give him the time of day, anyway.

J.T. quickly becomes lost in his little depraved fantasy world, skipping even more school than usual (in fact, never going), and spending all his time with his chained-up dead —ummm—“paramour.” He also shoots his mouth off about his cool (as in absolutely frigid) find to another buddy, Wheeler (Eric Podnar), and he in starts getting his rocks off in the zombie lady, as well—and then shoots his mouth off to a couple of asshole jocks at school in order to—I shit you not—try to sound like a cool dude who’s getting some pussy.

One thing leads, of course, to another, and through the jocks we learn that our zombie chick follows the classic “Romero Rules” of the living dead and passes on her infection via biting. The preppie jock asshole who gets bit is the boyfriend on the girls that Rickie likes and pretty soon she shows up in the cellar, as well, and—well, the details at this stage are pretty unimportant since it’s the basic premise itself that is the film’s real “grabber.”

Of all the rather inventive new takes on the zombie genre that have come along in recent years — another of which we’ll be getting to on this countdown when we take a look at another recent indie horror, Paul Solet’s “Grace” — I must say that a zombie as sex slave/fucktoy is one I’d certainly never considered. Which probably says that I’m more well-adjusted than I think. Let’s be honest—if the basic premise of this film doesn’t sicken you, then you’ve got some serious issues.

If you can get over the hump (no pun, dear God, intended) of the genuinely revolting basic set-up (and if you’re like me a setup that twisted literally compels you to keep watching in an effort to, at the very least, see how much you can stomach), then what we’ve really got here is a pretty well-done coming-of-age story about throwaway kids in our modern culture. Rickie seems alright enough apart from being sullen and carrying a gun around, and J.T. is the classic “bad influence,” trying to corrupt the character the audience is meant to, at least partially and reluctantly, identify with, and basically the real dramatic tension here is seeing whether or not Rickie will come over to the dark side or, if not, just how far J.T. can push him before he pushes back. So, for all that the horror community has been buzzing over “Deadgirl,”  in truth underneath all the mega-controversy lies a rather standard story of  a confused youth trying to find his way, albeit one that’s pretty well done.

Fernandez, for his part, turns in a standout performance as Rickie, with a sort of Joaquin Phoenix-esque “dangerous cool” tempered with a believable amount of hopeless loserability. He’s the only character who’s at all multi-dimensional and he pulls off the task of making Rickie repulsively believable quite nicely. Jenny Spain as the deadgirl herself deserves special mention for even having the guts to take the part, and given that she has two — ummm — “moods,” namely absolutely docile and absolutely rabid, I have to say she nails (sorry—really, no pun intended again) both perfectly.

The cold clinical precision of the film’s atmosphere is nicely brought to life by directors Sarmiento and Harel, and its muted color palette and the intricate simplicity of its extremely precise shot selection further adds to the dirty-yet-paradoxically-antiseptic ethos of the piece, the dichotomy of which provides a constant yet not-too-heavyhanded visual representation of Rickie’s own inner dualistic struggle.

Pretentious description? Yes, guilty as charged — but accurate nonetheless.

As for the ending—you really do see it coming. But it’s still sort of quietly tragic because you want Rickie to be better than he ends up being.And no, despite how that reads, I’m really not giving much of anything away.

One thing you won’t walk away with after seeing “Deadgirl” is much hope in America’s youth. This flick paints a relentlessly grim and way-too-accurate picture of what it means to be a young outcast in today’s society, and the “accepted” type who “fit in” come off as being even worse than the losers.

I guess what I’m saying is that ultimately, as in reality itself,  there are no “good guys” in “Deadgirl.”  Just tremendously flawed human beings (and a zombie sex prisoner), some of whom are less repulsive than others—and the ultimate failing of the one who seems okay is much more sobering than witnessing the outright depravity of the kid who’s just no damn good from the start.

“Deadgirl” is short on redemption but long on honesty, and for that reason, moreso than it’s shocking premise, it’s a pretty gutsy little piece of filmmaking.