Archive for the ‘George Romero’ Category

The other day I was describing PHENOMENA to a buddy who’s similarly enamored of horror flicks, and when I kept emphasizing how wonderful a movie it is, he thought I was fucking with him, since I apparently had a devious smile on my face the entire time. It made me smile just to think about it, but smile weirdly, because the movie is insane. Let me say it here in black-and-white without quotation marks: I sincerely, absolutely believe that PHENOMENA is a brilliant horror film. You can find vastly differing opinions elsewhere, but this essay is about mine.

PHENOMENA, originally released in the United States as CREEPERS (the reason for which will soon be apparent), is the work of Italian horror auteur Dario Argento. I’ve had only limited exposure to Argento’s filmography. I’ve seen ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST at least a dozen times, of course, but Argento was one of several writers on that film, not the director. And I’ve seen DAWN OF THE DEAD a couple dozen times, but Argento’s main contributions to that film as far as I know were in the way of musical compositions and support to his friend George Romero.

The only Argento film upon which I can hold forth in any meaningful way (besides this one) is 1977’s SUSPIRIA, but SUSPIRIA is far from the only notable film in his arsenal. Argento’s primary milieu is within the genre of film known as giallo. PLEASE NOTE: I do not and would not claim to be any kind of authority on giallo cinema. I will explain it as best as I know how, but for a more comprehensive look, please visit my friends at Paracinema. They even have a piece on PHENOMENA, which I will finally read as soon as I’m done writing mine! I’m sure theirs is smarter, as you’ll see soon enough. But let’s try to sound academic as long as possible before bringing up the monkey.

So, Giallo: It literally means “yellow” and it’s an evocative reference to the yellowed pages of pulp novels. Giallo is a kind of pulp tale, but rather than more traditional pulp topics such as noir or sci-fi, giallo quickly diverged into its own thing. Generally speaking, giallo films tend to be lurid, bloody psychological thrillers. Think Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, only with a significant level-up on the gore. Giallos may or may not have supernatural elements, but the color red (ironic, due to the name) is a near-constant. Stabbings abound. Quite honestly, I stayed away from the giallo genre for a long time because, despite its encouraging tendency to feature female protagonists, giallo as a result and by nature also features a preponderance of graphic and vicious violence towards women. I’m a guy who prefers monster movies to knife-murders, and — unfairly or not — I’d always figured giallos to be the artier precursor to slashers, like the FRIDAY THE 13TH series. That assumption is not entirely incorrect, but of course it’d be foolish to write off an entire genre, particularly one so influential.

Directors like Mario Bava, Massimo Dallamano, Umberto Lenzi, Sergio Martino, and Lucio Fulci were the most prominent practitioners of giallo films, though genre journeymen more famous for other types of movies, such as Enzo Castellari, Antonio Margheriti, and Fernando Di Leo, also worked in the arena. That’s how significant a movement it was. Of all giallo directors, Dario Argento is the one whose name is arguably most synonymous with the genre. His films THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970), DEEP RED (1975), TENEBRAE (1982), and OPERA (1987), among others, are giallo hallmarks. The aforementioned SUSPIRIA (1977) is a giallo film with somewhat more of a supernatural angle than usual. 1985’s PHENOMENA is even more of a departure.

PHENOMENA is a deep, dark fairy tale. It’s a completely unrestrained work. It defies convention, throws peerlessly bizarre protagonists into the mix, and veers tonally all over the map. Clearly, if Argento and his co-writer Franco Ferrini had an idea, they put it in. No doubt this is what puts off some of the film’s detractors, but for me, the audaciousness is thrilling and inspiring. Let’s do a recap and you’ll see what I mean:

The film opens on a cloudy late afternoon in the rolling, lushly green hills of Switzerland. Right off the bat, what Argento manages to do with wind is eerie and evocative, and the primal unsettling quality of wind through trees is a recurring part of the film. The instrumental score by frequent Argento collaborators Goblin (the Italian prog-rock band who also did the score for Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD) and Simon Boswell is weird and unforgettable and also a kind of secondary character who wanders throughout the film. So by the time any human characters enter the frame, the tone for PHENOMENA is set. A busload of young tourists is herded onto a bus by their chaperone, and as the bus is driving off, one schoolgirl is left behind. She chases the bus, but as it disappears, she realizes how very alone she is. The girl is played by a young actress named Fiore Argento, and if the surname sounds familiar, that’s no accident. Argento had no reservations about featuring his nearest and dearest in his films, often in ways that might give meeker hearts pause. More on that in a moment.

In an epically eerie sequence, the girl wanders through the hillside until she finds a small isolated cottage. With literally nowhere else to go, she ventures inside, calling out for help. There’s something chained inside the house. It breaks free, slashes at the girl, and chases her outside. We don’t see what the girl sees, although we do see some angles from the vantage point of her pursuer. The girl runs to a cave near a waterfall, and is run through with a pike. The attack continues until it’s clear the girl is dead, at which point something falls into the waterfall and is washed away by the rapids far below. In case it wasn’t immediately clear, the object is the girl’s head.

The next time we see that head, it’s dessicated almost down to the bone, with maggots and worms and all manners of creepy-crawlies doing what they do upon it. The skull is encased in glass, in the laboratory of a wheelchair-bound forensic entemologist named John McGregor. McGregor is describing his work to the two police investigators who have come to see him: He’s a scientist who uses insects to determine the method and manner of a victim’s demise — basically, if the TV show CSI were like this movie, I’d watch the TV show CSI. Here’s why: McGregor is played by Donald Pleasence, the veteran British character actor who is probably best known to horror fans from his role in John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN. He serves a similar function here. I should also mention that McGregor has an assistant named Inga who happens to be a chimpanzee. By assistant, I mean that Inga helps McGregor with his experiments and helps him talk out theories and also pushes his wheelchair for him. If you’re still reading, I appreciate it and I will understand fully if you want to stop now and run off to watch the movie for yourself. It’s worth doing.

Into the movie comes young Jennifer, the teenaged protagonist of the film. She’s played by a then-14-year-old Jennifer Connelly in her first starring role, having previously made her debut appearance in Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. Jennifer Connelly is shockingly beautiful in this movie — I say this not at all in any creepy way, that’s not the effect her appearance provokes — she’s like a fairy-tale princess, the kind you want to see no harm befall. Your eyes go right to her in every scene, but not in any kind of lustful way — she’s simply a striking figure, almost a special effect, and exactly the kind of visual anchor that an unhinged narrative like this one requires.

Jennifer — Argento allegedly gave Connelly’s character the same first name in order to help her get invested in the story — is headed to a Swiss boarding school, having been shipped off by a famous actor father who doesn’t seem to care much about her. Her chaperone is Frau Brückner, a local employee of her father, played by Daria Nicolodi, another frequent collaborator of Argento and the mother of his famous daughter, Asia. (Both of whom are actors Argento has used repeatedly in his films, to go back to an earlier point.) Jennifer is dropped off at school and nearly immediately ostracized by the other girls. There are two things you need to know about Jennifer: She sleepwalks at night, and she can commune with insects. She has psychic abilities that give her disturbing images of the future and torment her sleep.

So one night, while walking in her sleep, Jennifer is awakened by a schoolmate being murdered out in the surrounding woods. It seems that the killer from the opening scene isn’t done preying upon young victims. Jennifer gets lost in the woods, but is rescued by Inga, who introduces Jennifer to McGregor. With their shared affinity for insects, Jennifer and McGregor become fast friends and soon enough they team up to investigate the murders on their own. Since McGregor is house-bound, he sends out Jennifer with a fly in a box to aid in the investigation. Jennifer and the fly find the cottage from the opening scene, which leads to more disturbing revelations.

In other words, what I am telling you is that, in addition to a chimpanzee lab assistant, this movie also has a fly detective. And songs by famed metal bands Iron Maiden and Motorhead. And a little person with Patau syndrome. And I’m not even done recapping yet, but I’m going to stop there, because believe it or not, PHENOMENA has even more twists and turns and seemingly random factors that all collide and result in a uniquely fizzy combustion of weird inspiration. I don’t want to reveal any more than I already have.

PHENOMENA is an everything movie. Most people are understandably content with just one or two flavors, and such a mad mixture of elements is too much for them. Most movies would begin and end with the string of murders at a Swiss boarding school, or with the sleepwalking girl with psychic powers. The apocalyptic swarms of flies and the chimpanzee protagonist may be five or six too many layers of awesome for the conventional filmgoing mind to handle. But PHENOMENA is the only movie I know of in which a chimpanzee protagonist and an apocalyptic swarm of flies team up with Jennifer Connelly and Donald Pleasence in order to defeat a deranged murderer — if you know of any others PLEASE let me know — and that is the reason it gets a blue ribbon from me.

Throw everything at me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb

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And we’re back!  Ready for round two.  Inspired again by my friend-in-movies at Rupert Pupkin Speaks, I’m re-presenting and reshuffling my top fifty movies of all time.  “Reshuffling” sounds a little more extreme than what I’ve done here — most of the titles remain the same, and the order isn’t much different.  But there’s a fair amount of new blood, and I’ve updated the links to any movies I’ve written about at length (those are bolded in red.) 

This list is absolutely subject to change, so keep watching this space, but while you’re at it, don’t forget to keep watching the skies.

1. THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY (1966).

2. GHOSTBUSTERS (1984).

3. DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978).

4.  ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968).

5.  UNFORGIVEN (1992).

6.  KING KONG (1933).

7.  PREDATOR (1987).

8.  MANHUNTER (1986).

9.  BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986).

10.  MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED (1976).

11.  John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982).

12.  HEAT (1995).

13.  FREAKS (1932).

14. JAWS (1975).

15.  Berry Gordy’s THE LAST DRAGON (1985).

16.  THE WILD BUNCH (1969).

17.  SHAFT (1971).

18.  BEVERLY HILLS COP (1984).

19.  THE BIG GUNDOWN (1966).

20.  SEA OF LOVE (1989).

21. RAISING ARIZONA (1987).

22.  EVIL DEAD 2 (1987).

23.  OUT OF SIGHT (1998).

24.  THE INSIDER (1999).

25.  ALLIGATOR (1980).

26.  COLLATERAL (2004).

27.  THE GREAT SILENCE (1968).

28.  AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981).

29.  MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946).

30.  CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954).

31. PRIME CUT (1972).

32. WATERMELON MAN (1970).

33.  GROSSE POINTE BLANK (1997).

34.  25th HOUR (2002).

35.  COFFY (1973).

36. QUICK CHANGE (1990).

37.  MAGNOLIA (1999).

38.  HANNIE CAULDER (1971).

39. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981).

40.  48 HRS. (1982).

41.  GOODFELLAS (1990).

42.  SHOGUN ASSASSIN (1980).

43.  PURPLE RAIN (1984).

44.  THE UNHOLY THREE (1925).

45.  TRUE GRIT (2010).

46.  THE PROFESSIONALS (1966).

47.  VIOLENT CITY aka THE FAMILY (1973).

48.  THE HIT (1984).

49.  EMPEROR OF THE NORTH POLE (1973).

50.  ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011).

50 1/2.  The five-minute skeleton swordfight in JASON & THE ARGONAUTS (1963).

______________________________________________

And that’s that…. for now.

For a little bit more all the time, find me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

Two things you should probably know; 1) This piece was originally featured on CHUD.com, and 2) It was written very soon after the series finale of Lost aired, which will help you better understand the first joke…

So there’s this island, right?

Hey wait – where you going?  Come back!

Thanks.  Anyway, Survival Of The Dead takes place mostly on an island, where the dead are coming back to life and there are a couple different factions warring over how to rule the island, and there are farm animals on the island, and a brunette who seems to have some connection with a dark horse, and a crazy-eyed old guy who knows how he wants to run the island, and shootouts keep happening, but really people, I’m still not describing Lost.

Survival Of The Dead is the most recent zombie movie from genre monolith George A. Romero.  Survival Of The Dead is somewhat hilariously-titled (spoiler warning: the dead don’t survive — kinda by definition) and the humor is mostly on purpose there and in the rest of the movie.  For a bleak zombie movie about the end of the world, it’s got a pretty great sense of humor.  I really shouldn’t be calling it a zombie movie I guess, since they’re not once called zombies here.  The word is “deadheads,” which at least has nothing to do with hippies.

George Romero is one of those directors whose movies had some part in making me who I am, so I’ll always be rooting for his new stuff to be good.  He’s a trailblazer and an iconoclast, and I would be hard-pressed to speak too critically over anything he’s done.  I’m happy that a bunch of people seem to like this one, and I’d never begrudge anyone their enjoyment of a George Romero movie.
So can I just say that Survival Of The Dead is pretty far from my favorite George Romero movie, and leave it there?

No?  Well before I get into it, can I at least conjure good memories by naming the contenders?  My favorite would be somewhere between Night Of The Living Dead and Dawn Of The Dead (choosing between them would be like choosing between A Fistful Of Dollars and The Good The Bad & The Ugly – one started the whole thing, the other escalates it to perfection), and I also have a major soft spot for Knightriders, which is one of Romero’s most personal movies and has probably his best ensemble cast of his whole filmography.

Survival Of The Dead is not as good, or as personal, of any of those three movies.  This is a bit of an understatement.

The story concerns a band of corrupt National Guardsmen who grab an armored car full of money and head to a coastal island where a pair of Irish immigrants are locked in a lifelong mortal struggle.  The island is called Plum, but it would be fair to call it the Island Of Bad Accents.  Really, the Leprechaun movies have better accent work.  The movie’s main conflict is between the O’Flynns and the Muldoons, who always hated each other but now are at war over the problem of zombies.  I mean deadheads.  The O’Flynns want to take the typical approach, a bullet to the head, while the Muldoons want to keep them chained up until some kind of cure is discovered.  It’s an interesting idea, and like the best Romero, it has not-so-vague socio-political implications, but it never really pans out.

One problem is that Romero’s movies are starting to suffer from casting unknowns.  That’s a dangerous business – sometimes you end up with a Ken Foree and it’s great, but other times you end up with people who aren’t up to the task of carrying a movie.  Of the three principals in Survival Of The Dead, Romero neo-regular Alan Van Sprang is likable if not thoroughly believably badass as “Nicotine” Crockett, whereas the film’s ingénue, Kathleen Munroe, is not nearly memorable enough (and a little too reminiscent of the young Mick Jagger), and the film’s true protagonist, Kenneth Welsh as the Irish John Locke, Patrick O’Flynn, brings the whole enterprise too close to Darby O’Gill territory to be effective in the way Romero needs him to be.

The other problem is the movie’s stilted and cramped cinematography.  Romero’s movies are about human nature and end-of-the-world philosophy – they yearn to be impressively widescreen, or at least to feel more epic and affecting.  Survival Of The Dead is very poorly-shot – the action choreography and character placement are slapdash, often missing several moments that would make it feel more fluid and comprehensible.  It’s not worthy of the work of the low-budget innovator who made Dawn Of The Dead, and it’s not at all a good showcase for cinematographer Adam Swica.  This movie looks like a million bucks, and speaking literally, that’s not a good thing to say about a movie.

All right, I’m done bagging on Survival Of The Dead now.  As I said, I’d rather think nice thoughts about everything Romero.  So let me say that there are a couple unique and genuinely haunting images spread sparingly throughout, and if you’re an aficionado of this sort of thing, you’ll at least appreciate the several innovative zombie-killing gags.  (Romero literally invented that particular pleasure of films, and he’s still the best at it.)  And I’m a fan of anything I’ve never seen before in movies, so here’s a short list to end the article of all the things Survival Of The Dead has which no other movie anywhere else has to offer:

  • An Asian gentleman sitting on a rooftop and fishing for zombies.
  • A zombie lady riding a horse.
  • A zombie lady biting a horse.
  • A bunch of zombies pulling a cowboy’s butt off.
  • A zombie pulling someone’s scalp off.
  • A zombie taking a bullet to the head so that their head explodes and then the scalp lands on the now-empty neck.
  • A lesbian soldier introduced as she publicly whacks off in a jeep.  Don’t ask don’t tell!

I feel confident that this list will let you make the final decision as to whether you want to see this movie or not.

@jonnyabomb

P.S.  Here is the German poster for the movie, which is very German and thus extremely scary: