Yesterday my brother and I spent the afternoon at a local zombie film festival. We are not hardcore enough to dress up and go to zombie proms and occupy main street for a zombie walk, but we WILL hang out around those types to watch movies. It was a pretty solid turn out of mostly non-weirdos and though I didn’t partake in any zombie carnival games and the theater seats were the most uncomfortable thing ever, I still had a good time.
First up was the classic Dead Alive, which I had first seen a bit of many years ago, before director Peter Jackson was OSCAR WINNING DIRECTOR PETER JACKSON. Then I watched it a few years ago all the way through and it made me physically ill. So, while I knew it was a great flick, I was dreading the gory climax because I didn’t want to be holding back gags in public. Fortunately, it wasn’t as bad as I remembered. Or perhaps these days, I’ve just seen too much…
Lionel is a young man living under the thumb of his domineering mother. He doesn’t seem to want much out of life, but when the girl who works at the grocery store takes an aggressive interest in him, he can’t help but start to feel the things all people feel. Soon enough, he is on a date at the zoo. This does not please Mother, who follows them and ends up being bitten by a rat-monkey. She quickly falls ill and turns into a zombie. If Lionel had mother issues before, well things can always get much, much worse. Lionel tries to keep things under control, but no matter what he does, the number of zombies he has locked in the basement just keeps growing. When his uncle shows up and throws a kegger at the family home, that’s when things get really messy.
Dead Alive is a triumph of campy, gory fun. I didn’t get sick this time, but it is still the most disgusting thing I have ever seen. And I say that with all the affection in the world. The leads are charming and likeable. The script is hilarious. And the gore is so implausible that it becomes just as much a part of the humor as any of the jokes. This is obviously intentional. One can’t help but smile when a pile of sentient intestines stops to admire itself in the mirror. Dead Alive may be early Peter Jackson, but it holds up just as well as anything he’s done since. Grade: A+
Next was an import from Cuba, Juan of the Dead, which apparently arrived by Fedex to a near-panicked festival director while Dead Alive was playing. Juan is the ringleader of a merry band of ne’er-do-wells living an uninspired life of petty crime in Havana. When the zombie apocalypse starts to go down, Juan is street-smart enough to know that this isn’t the work of the Americans or political “dissidents” as the TV tells him. Seeing an opportunity to cash in, Juan starts a zombie dispatching business. “Juan of the Dead. We kill your beloved ones,” may be the bluntest slogan in history.
This film was another absolute gem. The horror takes a huge backseat to comedy in this one as well. Juan has a tango with a zombie, there are not one but two accidental harpoonings, one team member faints at the sight of blood and must remain blindfolded during battle and there are not one but two sequences that make a mockery of the tragic deathbed scene. But as in all great works, there is a pureness of heart lurking underneath all the inanity and it is genuinely moving how far Juan is willing to go for love of friends, family and country. I highly recommend getting your hands on this one, if you can. Grade: A+
Finally, it was the granddaddy of them all. The movie that made Zombie Movie Night and an entire subgenre possible. Romero’s (public domain) masterpiece, Night of the Living Dead. Sure, you can pick it apart like every other low-budget horror movie. Like is catatonia really the best choice for your heroine? Why are there so many scenes speculating on the cause of the undead if you’re not going to reveal the answer and it’s ultimately unimportant? But I don’t linger on these problems. Respect, man. And you certainly can’t hold the culture of the time against the film, even if it does make you cringe when a man punches a woman to shut her up or, in fact, women aren’t even considered when counting off the able-bodied people in the room. Nope, can’t complain. Respect, man. What the film does well and what I think is one of the main reasons it holds up (mostly) and has spawned so so many imitators over a forty year span is that it understands human conflict. No matter how grave the peril, individuals have the need to feel like they are in charge of their own fates. “That’s what most important is that you’re right and everyone else is wrong,” Mrs. Cooper tells her stubborn husband. “Go in the basement or stay upstairs” is the movie’s central conflict, but it could just as easily be interpreted as liberal vs. conservative, fight vs. flight or, though the film to its credit doesn’t acknowledge this, black vs white. It’s the grey areas that are the real problem, since everyone can be paradoxically wrong and right at the same time. That’s how it goes when “we’re only human.”
The head of the festival asked how many people had never seen Night before and an incredible amount of people raised their hand. I would have liked to get their take on the ending, which even after multiple viewings maintains its shock value for me. I’ve seen bummer endings before and will again, but this one is so bleak and callous and jarring, it’s amazing. Grade: A+