Mystery Floating Eyeball Theatre Presents: Twin Peaks — Fire Walk With Me

Hey y’all. I’m hoping at this point that if you still don’t know who killed Laura Palmer, then it’s not really a big deal to you and you won’t care about the few spoilers found in this review.  -Brooks

LAURA PALMER 

made her debut as a plastic shrouded corpse on April 8, 1990, in the premiere episode of the David Lynch/Mark Frost television series called Twin Peaks. She became world famous, but was never seen as a living character until 2 1/2 years later, when Lynch’s feature film prequel, Fire Walk With Me, was released. It was financial failure. Therefore, here in America, it was considered an artistic failure. Thus, back in the 1990s, many people missed or causally dismissed an excellent, mythic tragedy.

LAURA PALMER, FULL OF SECRETS 

is nowhere to be seen at first. The movie begins with a different corpse: a murdered prostitute named Theresa Banks. In a strange, forty-minute prologue, FBI agents Chet Desmond, (Chris Isaak), and Sam Stanley, (Kiefer Sutherland), arrive in the backwater town of Deer Meadow to investigate her death. They encounter hostile authorities, sullen townspeople, and secret codes. Desmond mysteriously vanishes and we are treated to a barrage of nightmarish hallucinations and temporal derangements. None of these plot threads are ever resolved, but musically, this portion of the film functions as an overture, introducing images, sounds and surreal characters that will resurface thematically throughout the movie.

LAURA PALMER, FULL OF SECRETS, IS TRAPPED.  

One year later, we meet the living Laura Palmer, (Sheryl Lee). She’s a pretty girl, a prom queen; she walks to school with her best friend Donna (Moira Kelly); she waves to her boyfriend Bobby, (Dana Ashbrook), who is the captain of the football team; she shares a glance with her secret lover, James, (James Marshall), in the school hallway; she goes to a bathroom stall to snort cocaine…

We are rapidly introduced to the tawdrier aspects of her life. We see how she can manipulate Bobby, (her drug connection), with a certain smile and tone of voice. We learn that she uses prostitution to pay for her drug habit. We discover that she actively caters to dangerous men in dangerous places.

We also see the Laura who loves her friends and actively fears they may fall into her self-destructive vortex and get pulled down with her. 

“Do you think?” asks Donna, in an idyll moment of teenaged rumination, “that if you were falling in space that you would slow down after awhile, or go faster and faster?” 

“Faster and faster,” answers Laura, “and for a long time you wouldn’t feel anything…and then you’d burst into fire…and the angels wouldn’t help you, because they’ve all gone away…”

Laura’s bleak vision flows from one core secret she cannot share with Donna. 

LAURA PALMER, FULL OF SECRETS, IS TRAPPED IN A LIE.  

“BOB is real! He’s been having me since I was twelve!” Laura tells her only confidant, a shut-in named Harold Smith, (Lenny von Dohlen). But the identity of BOB is a secret even to Laura. To get through the nights when the ceiling fan in the hall is turned on with an ominous schwupping sound and BOB, (Frank Silva), crawls through her window and onto her bed, Laura imagines him as a beastly vagrant, pretending he’s a product of her own masochistic fantasies. But this lie called BOB is beginning to wear thin. Soon she will no longer be able escape the true identity of the man who stole her childhood.

BOB is also a lie that her father, Leland, (Ray Wise), uses as a scapegoat, something to blame for the crimes he commits against his daughter. Together with Mrs. Palmer, (Grace Zabriskie), who drinks to avoid the truth, the Palmer family, pillars of their community, live out the daily lie that has Laura is trapped inside. 

This story of incest and self-destruction could be told realistically — but Lynch never intended Twin Peaks to be a real place.

LAURA PALMER, FULL OF SECRETS, IS TRAPPED IN THE HEART OF THE AMERICAN DREAM. 

Twin Peaks was created at the end of the Reagan-Bush era, and on the surface it is the very embodiment of the nostalgic dream of America invoked by Reagan. It exists in a never-never land in the Pacific Northwest, surrounded by ancient woods. And in it Laura lives a perfect life with her perfect family in a perfect world. And like her, Twin Peaks is full of lies and secrets. It is the cage to which she is surreally bound. 

In the strange world of David Lynch’s dream mythology called Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer is the protagonist of a classic tragedy. Like a Greek play in which the gods personally meddle in the lives of mortals, Fire Walk With Me is filled with supernatural entities that initiate and feed off of Laura’s slide into destruction: a dwarf and a one-armed man, a grandmother and her beak-masked son, and a killer named BOB who is more than just a lie — who is the personification of the disease of incest that can pass itself down through the generations of a family.

LAURA PALMER, FULL OF SECRETS, IS TRAPPED IN THE LIE AT THE HEART OF THE AMERICAN DREAM. 

Inevitability is one hallmarks of a classic tragedy. Knowing how plays like Oedipus Rex or Hamlet will end actually increases their effectiveness. Laura Palmer’s fate is equally inevitable. In Fire Walk With Me, we see all avenues of escape close to Laura, one after another. All avenues except one. 

But we also see something else, the one secret never revealed by the television series. At her core, Laura is still a good person, kind, charitable, and fiercely protective of her friends. She chooses death to save this core, to save the little girl inside that still believes in angels. And in the end, in a mythic red room, we see an angel appear to the spirit of Laura. In this final image, Fire Walk With Me becomes a requiem, offering a hope of transcendence from the nightmare of the American Dream.

(Next time: Would Rosemary’s Baby be the same story if it were told twenty years later. Michele Soavi and Dario Argento don’t seem to think so. The Sect is on the run.)

Mystery Floating Eyeball Theatre Presents: The Tenant

“He heard the birds. There was one, which opened the concert, then, all the others started in. Honestly, it wasn’t a concert. Listening attentively, it was striking how this noise resembled that of a saw. A saw going back and forth. Trelkovsky had never understood how there was any comparison between the noise of birds and music. Birds didn’t sing, they screamed. And in the morning they scream in chorus. Trelkovsky burst out laughing: wasn’t it the grandest of failures to mistake a scream for a song? He asked himself what would come of it if man took to greeting the day with a screaming chorus of their despair. Still, not exaggerating, supposing it were only those who had sufficient reason to scream, it would make a terrific din.”

–from The Tenant by Roland Topor, translated by Ted Huettig

(Consider the windows of an old Parisian apartment building. Some are illuminated. They let us peek into the lives of strangers. Some are dark. Secrets and shadowed faces lie within. These windows are like eyes, eyes that watch furtively as a small man named Trelkovsky enters the building. He is a Polish born, French citizen looking to rent the apartment vacated by Simone Choule, a woman who committed suicide by jumping out the window. 

(“How did he know?” the windows seem to whisper. “Who is he really?”)

Trelkovsky is the title character of Roman Polanski’s 1976 film The Tenant (Le locataire.) Polanski, a Polish born, French Citizen, plays the title role. Trelkovsky is shy and unassertive, bullied by friends who turn his housewarming into a late night party. The noisy party immediately poisons Trelkovsky’s relationship with the other tenants — strange and morose characters who complain about the smallest of noises. 

(At night Trelkovsky sees them across the courtyard in the window of the communal toilet, not doing anything, just standing for hours on end…)

Trelkovsky goes to Simone Choule’s funeral hoping to meet her friend, Stella (Isabelle Adjani). Stella is there, but as Trelkovsky stares at her the priest’s sermon suddenly turns into a morbid rant about the decay of the body and the transcendence of the soul, “…except for creeps like you, yearning for carnal satisfaction. The graveyard is where you belong…” Trelkovsky flees the church in a panic. Later in the film, when he finally does make it to Stella’s apartment, all he does is get drunk, refusing even to take off his tie. She takes the upper hand, stripping him while he drunkenly muses: “At what precise moment does a man cease to be what or who he thinks he is? If I cut off my arm, I can say, ‘Me and my arm,’…but if I cut off my head, do I say, ‘Me and my head?’ or ‘Me and my body’? What right has my head to call itself me?”

(Trelkovsky wakes as if in a fever and creeps out of his apartment to use the communal toilet. Its walls are covered with Egyptian hieroglyphs and other strange symbols. When Trelkovsky looks out the window, he sees himself in his own apartment, spying back through opera glasses.)

Despite Trelkovsky’s attempts to live an inoffensive existence, his neighbors continually complain about noises he doesn’t remember making, and even complain to the police. They seem to regard him as an arrogant playboy, with no regard for others.

But Trelkovsky has an altogether different identity emerging. He is becoming fascinated with the clothing left behind by Simone Choule. One night he awakens to find his face made up as a woman’s. He blames the neighbors, “They’ll drive me to suicide.” In a peculiar act of defiance, he buys a wig and dresses in full drag.

Trelkovsky has become a Trapped Woman, like the heroines of other Polanski films. Like Rosemary in Rosemary’s Baby, he tries to escape, but we can see clearly that it is his own insanity and not an actual conspiracy that forces him back into his apartment. Like Carol in Repulsion, Trelkovsky is surreally linked to his apartment. But while Carol’s apartment changes to reflect her mind, in The Tenant it is Trelkovsky who changes, somehow satisfying the unspoken needs of his lodging. As he turns into Simone Choule the windows around the courtyard turn into theatrical box seats where all the other tenants wait like an expectant audience. They join us in watching Polanski play Trelkovsky as Simone Choule. It’s almost as if Polanski is happy to run the female part of himself through the wringer for our entertainment.

But The Tenant is not some strange, ultra-personal script written by a Polanski working on his woman issues. It is a very faithful adaptation of a short novella by the late Roland Topor (1938-1997). I can’t tell you much about Topor except that he was a French author, artist and filmmaker who was associated with the “Fluxus” art movement and helped found the “Panic” movement with Alejandro Jodorowsky and Fernando Arrabal.  He also was one of the creators of the classic French science fiction cartoon, La Planète Sauvage, (Fantastic Planet). You can even find him playing Renfield in Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake of Nosferatu, (which also stared The Tenant’s Isabelle Adjani.)

Both the novella and the film The Tenant truly deserve the adjective “kafkaesque”. Like Kafka’s stories, both versions of The Tenant elude any sort of pat interpretation. Both are imbued with a paranoid sense that one will always be found guilty of unknown crimes by neighbors, enemies, and even friends. Both are full of haunting, unexplained images and a dark, absurd sense of humor. And both leave us tantalizingly unfulfilled, haunted, full of questions, speculations and ideas.  

(The stage is set. We, the members of Mystery Floating Eyeball Theatre, have joined a stern audience full of Old World patriarchs, shrewish busybodies and humorless neighbors. Above us, Trelkovsky, the Trapped Woman, stands defiantly at the window, in full costume. He’s about to make her escape.

(We’d best applaud.)

Next time: We in America are too young to have a real Old World, but we do have a myth called The American Dream. Trapped inside is the most celebrated dead character of the 1990s: Laura Palmer. Witness her escape in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. 

 

 

Mystery Floating Eyeball Theatre Presents: Repulsion

Opening credits. Close up of an eye. The title Repulsion floats by. The eye darts around nervously. The credit DIRECTED BY ROMAN POLANSKI slashes horizontally across the screen. The camera pulls back. The eye belongs to Catherine Deneuve. She holds the hand of a middle aged woman whose face is covered by a grotesque mask of facial mud. Deneuve plays Carol, a manicurist who has once again zoned out into her own world…

Repulsion came out in 1965, three years before Polanski unleashed Rosemary’s Baby on the general public. The plot is simple enough. Carol and her older sister, Helen, (Yvonne Furneaux), are two Belgian girls living together in Swinging London. Helen is an outgoing, older woman who is having an affair with a wealthy businessman. Carol is a shy and unstable virgin who is terrified and fascinated by sex —  a condition made worse by her beauty, which attracts the kind of swinging, leering animal men who always assume no no no means yes yes yes. When Helen and her lover go on an extended European holiday, Carol descends into madness.

Identifying with Carol is difficult. She is moody, sullen and withdrawn. At first Polanski’s roving camera brings us into her world as voyeurs. We walk with Carol, spy on her, gaze into the impenetrable mask of her beauty. Then we share a voyeuristic moment with her, feeling her frustration as she tries to sleep through the noise of her sister’s lovemaking. We begin to see what she sees:  Neighbors framed by the peephole in the door, the play of light and shadow on the ceiling, the grotesque upside down mouth of supine beauty salon patron.

The rhythm of Repulsion also puts us in Carol’s world. Time vanishes into a series small vignettes. It’s daytime and Carol sews and sings to herself. It’s raining outside at night and Carol lies in her bed tracing a crack in the wall. It’s day again and a skinned rabbit she intended to cook is festering with flies. Time fades in and out for Carol — she loses minutes, hours, days, and we lose them with her. And despite her obvious insanity, most of what she does is eerily familiar. Have you ever been just a little too nervously aware of the creaks of a settling house, or the footsteps of someone walking outside your door? Have you ever stopped while getting dressed in the morning and suddenly realized you’ve just been staring into space? Have you ever placed a rotting rabbit’s head in your purse instead of the rent check? Okay, well maybe not…

As Carol sinks further into dementia, Polanski forces us to share her hallucinations. The most frightening is a shadowy, leering rapist who appears whenever Carol contemplates anything with sexual overtones. An act as innocent as admiring a dress or putting on lipstick may be the transgression that causes the shadowy man to attack in unearthly silence.

Soon the apartment itself becomes a reflection of Carol’s mind. We’ve already seen how movies like Rosemary’s Baby and Shock portray a surreal link between the homes that trap the lead characters and the secrets that hide inside them. In Repulsion, Carol’s mind is her trap, and soon her apartment becomes a direct manifestation of that mind. Rooms grow in size. Cracks spontaneously appear with sounds like gunshots. The walls become soft, like clay, and clutching hands erupt from their surface.

The identification between Carol and her apartment is so close that when Colin, (John Fraser I), her frustrated would-be boyfriend, breaks the apartment door down, it is, for all practical purposes, a rape. (It is even set up as a rape by a preceding scene in which Colin’s mates at the pub ridicule and egg him into violence.) Although Colin is apologetic as soon as the door is broken, he still ultimately gets what’s coming to him…

In the end, Carol gets completely lost inside her giant apartment mind. She withdraws into a catatonic state. We never discover a cause for her insanity. Instead Polanski and screenwriter Gérard Brach take us to a mad precipice and let us peer over the edge, offering no soothing explanations to make things safe again. That’s why, even to this day, this is such an unnerving film.

Repulsion leaves us with just one tantalizing clue to the enigma of Carol’s insanity. After a wandering survey of the wreckage of her apartment, the camera zooms in on a family photograph, on the face of Carol as a child. She looks off fearfully at something we will never see.

Close up of an eye: a gateway to the disturbing world we glimpsed against our will.

(Next time: When is a trapped woman, not a trapped woman? Find out in Polanski’s The Tenant.)

Mystery Floating Eyeball Theatre Presents: Shock

The camera is a restless spirit. It prowls the dark, cluttered cellar of a deserted beachside house, then past a kitchen sink full of ancient, fetid dishwater, and finally ends up in a shrouded living room. Suddenly a shutter opens, filling the room with light. Unseen hands knock away cobwebs and yank the sheets off the furniture. The front door opens to admit box-laden moving men. A seemingly normal, middle-class Italian family is moving in: pretty red-haired Dora, (Daria Nicolodi), with her second husband, Bruno, (John Steiner), and her seven year old son, Marco. Dora smiles and laughs to conceal her unease…for she has lived in this place once before…

In Rosemary’s Baby we met a trapped woman who literally had a secret inside her — the fetus in her womb. In Shock, (first released in America as Beyond the Door II), Dora also houses a secret: The suppressed memories of the time she lived in the house with her abusive first husband, Carlo, before he succumbed to heroin and suicide. Like Rosemary, Dora is surrealistically bonded to the home that traps her. The house is haunted by Carlo’s ghost just as the trauma of his death haunts her mind. And, like Dora’s mind, the home has a secret hidden away…behind that brick wall in the cellar

This 1977 film, the last theatrical release by Italian maestro Mario Bava, was originally called Shock.  It was given the title Beyond the Door 2 to capitalize on the success of Beyond the door, an unrelated Italian Exorcist rip-off from 1975, (originally called Chi Sei?), that might be fun with a group of friends and a case of beer, but should otherwise be avoided. (Not even a case of tequila can save Beyond the Door 3, a 1989 direct- to- video flick.) The only thing the two Italian films share is a child actor named David Colin Jr., who wins the 1970’s Creepy Kid Award for his role as Dora’s son, Marco.

As the family settles into their new home life, Marco gains an imaginary friend, and sometimes he becomes that friend. Through Dora’s eyes we see him everywhere, spying on her with eyes that burn with adult reproach, hate, and jealousy. “I have to kill you,” he whispers after watching her kiss Bruno, and then he runs off as if it were all a game.

We also see Dora through Marco’s possessed eyes as he reaches forward to caress his sleeping mother with the mottled corpse hands of his dead father, Carlo. Marco and Carlo collaborate on cruel practical jokes. Like hiding a razor blade between the keys of a piano. Or cutting the voice box out of a crying doll and sending the bleating thing down the stairs on a Slinky. Or even stealing and destroying the crotch of Dora’s underwear.

On paper, it might seem like overkill to have both a ghost and a possessed child in the same movie. But Mario Bava’s films have a dream logic that transcends genre or category.  It doesn’t matter if his characters are haunted by witches or vampires, ghosts or guilt, or even Death itself. Haunting has its own logic. 

Bava had already been working for more than two decades in the Italian film industry when he made his directoral debut with the 1960 film La Maschera el Demonio, (released in the U.S. as Black Sunday), featuring actress Barbara Steele in a dual role: as Katia, the innocent daughter of a cursed Russian family, and as the ancestral witch, Asa, who returns from the dead to steal a new life from her innocent descendant. The success of this film launched Bava’s career as a director in every conceivable genre: thrillers, westerns, science fiction films, Viking movies, crime capers, Hercules films, and comic book adaptations. But he was always at his best in his supernatural films like La Frusta e il Corpo, (The Whip and the Body, 1963), Operazione Paura, (Kill Baby Kill, 1966), Il Rossa Segno Della Follia, (Hatchet for the Honeymoon, 1969), and Lisa e Il Diavolo, (Lisa and the Devil, 1972).

Working with incredibly small budgets, Bava, an experienced cinematographer and special effects wizard, could take us inside lavish Gothic mansions full of shadows and striking colors – ancient houses that are the personification of the decadent, aristocratic families that inhabit them. These are places where the weight of the past is both beautiful and smothering.  They are death traps for both the innocent and the guilty. Bava’s cinematic dreams of these deathtraps have been an acknowledged influence on filmmakers like Martin Scorcese, Tim Burton, Federico Fellini, David Lynch, and Quentin Tarantino. 

It was at the behest of Bava’s son, Lamberto, that Mario made his last horror film. In the script for Shock, Lamberto and his collaborators attempted to write what they considered a Stephen King type story, re-staging ideas and effects from some of Mario’s greatest supernatural films into a modern, non-gothic setting with a contemporary nuclear family. Thus, the unseen hands that clear away the sheets and cobwebs at the film’s beginning are a wink from Mario Bava. He clears away the gothic trappings of his earlier horror films and replaces their lush, colorful visual style with a naturalistic lighting scheme that has more the flavor of a 1970’s American drive-in film than an Italian fantasy. (The score, by an art rock group called I Libra, also contributes to the endearingly cheap texture of Shock, as it careens between haunting melodies, cheap synthesizer shock chords, and ridiculously groovy jazz-fusion jams.)

Parts of Shock were even directed by Lamberto Bava, who had worked as an assistant on his father’s films since the mid-sixties. Although Mario meticulously story boarded Shock, on many days he feigned illness, forcing his son to do the actual directing. (This experience paid off well for Lamberto when he made his directoral debut Macabro, (Frozen Terror) in 1980.)

Bava aficionados consider Shock one of the maestro’s minor works, but it holds a special place in my heart. Maybe it’s because it was one of the first Italian horror films I ever saw. Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for the film’s seventies ambiance, (it IS a bit like a Stephen King novel…early paperback Stephen King, without any pretensions. It also resembles The Amityville Horror, which was made two years later.) 

But what still grabs me, even now, is the movie’s claustrophobia, which is greatly augmented by the suburban setting. Dora has no place to go, and the past that haunts her is only a few years old – it is not an ancient ancestral curse, but a painful memory that is barely suppressed. 

As soon as things get weird, she asks Bruno the same question all horror movie audiences always ask: Why don’t we leave? Bruno’s quiet, male-logic answers, But you already own this beautiful house…But it’s so conveniently close to where I work…Marco’s just being a boy, playing some jokes…, sound hollow and condescending. As it turns out, Bruno has his own reasons for wanting to stay in the malevolent house.

In the the end Dora’s situation is even more claustrophobic than Rosemary’s. She’s trapped by a perverse triangle of three men: Her living husband, her dead husband, and her son. As daylight ceases to flow through the windows of the house, as appliances attack and the furniture maneuvers itself to block all exits, as the triangle of men tightens, Dora must at last go down into the cellar and learn the truth behind the brick wall that seals off her mind and soul.

Nest time: Sometimes the scariest secrets are the ones never fully revealed. Cahterine Deneuve gives us a glimpse of madness in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion.

Mystery Floating Eyeball Theatre Presents: Rosemary’s Baby

“There are plots against people, aren’t there Dr. Hill? –Rosemary Woodhouse

Did you hide with Jamie Lee Curtis in a dark closet while an ominous man-shape thrust his fist between the slats in Halloween? Were you buried alive with Catriona MacColl in The City of the Living Dead, screaming as the pickax of her would-be rescuer punched through the coffin right next to her skull. Did the knife that stabbed Janet Leigh in the Psycho shower sink into your flesh? Were you ever trapped with the shrieking Fay Wray inside King Kong’s giant hand?

Horror movies are commonly condemned for the relentless way they trap and threaten women. But lurking within this genre is an interesting subset of films featuring women as central protagonists in plots that slowly reveal conspiracies controlling their lives. These women are trapped in the ever-constricting box of a Man’s Man’s Man’s Man’s World.

I call them Trapped Woman movies.

Most of these movies appeared after the second wave feminism began in the 1960s. Some of our most interesting directors have made Trapped Woman horror movies. David Lynch. Mario Bava. George A. Romero…

All of them are men. And the three most important movies in this sub-genre, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant, were made by Roman frickin’ Polanski, a man NO ONE will ever accuse of being a feminist.

So what’s going on here? Is the intent of these filmmakers sympathetic, subversive, or simply sadistic? I don’t know the answer to that, but I can add one more “s” to that list: “surreal”. By “surreal” I mean that in these movies the protagonist and her landscape are intimately bonded. One reflects the other. The end result gives each of these movies an emotional wallop that hits me right in the gut.

(Incidentally, most of these directors have also produced what could be called Trapped Man movies, which we’ll get to somewhere down the pike. The most interesting difference between these two genres is that while one or two of the Trapped Women turn out to be murderers, all of the Trapped Men are killers.)

The 1968 film Rosemary’s Baby is the Rosetta Stone of the Trapped Woman genre. I’ll assume here that you already know the story. If not, go watch it now because I’m about to give away the ending.

 

 

Are you back? Good. Rosemary’s Baby begins with a mystery. A fresh faced young couple, Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse, (Paul Cassavetes and Mia Farrow), are apartment hunting in the City of New York. They visit the Bramford, an old brownstone that, at the end of the 19th century, gained an unsavory reputation as the home of cannibals and Satanists. There they are shown the apartment of the late Mrs. Gardenia. During the tour, the building manager discovers that the 89-year old woman had, for some reason, used a heavy piece of furniture to block access to what seems to be an innocuous closet.

The young Woodhouses are young, modern and disdainful of superstitions. They take the apartment and Rosemary goes into full nesting mode. She fills the mystery closet with towels and linens and diligently redecorates her new home in bright yellow colors that push away the dark mustiness of the Bramford and all of its elderly residents. The Woodhouses are chasing the American Dream. For Guy, that dream is a successful acting career. For Rosemary, the dream is a sunlit vision of home and children. The two begin to focus on the task of getting Rosemary pregnant.

But the Bramford’s dark history seems to reassert itself when the building’s only other young resident, Terry Gionoffrio, (Victoria Vetri), kills herself by jumping out the window. Terry, a former homeless drug addict, unmarried and pregnant, had been taken in as a charity case by Roman and Minnie Castevet, (Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon), who live in the apartment adjacent to the Woodhouse abode.

In the wake of this tragedy the Woodhouses and the Castevets get to know each other. Although Rosemary is somewhat put off by the nosy Minnie, Guy is quite taken by the charismatic Roman and begins to spend many evenings visiting the Castevets. Left alone, Rosemary has troubling dreams of Catholic guilt and inadequacy. Then one night she has a full-blown nightmare in which the elderly Bramford residents surround her, unclothed, chanting in an unknown language, while Rosemary is raped by a creature with inhuman eyes.

Finally Rosemary’s attempts to get pregnant succeed, and she suppresses her nightmares to focus on the long-awaited new life gestating within her. But with her pregnancy comes pain, constant pain, like a wire cutting through her middle, sapping her energy and draining her complexion to a chalky whiteness. She thinks no more about the mysterious closet barred off by Mrs. Gardenia. But the secret of the closet, a hidden place, matches the secret of the fetus growing inside Rosemary. Rosemary is surrealistically bonded to her home, her cage.

Rosemary’s old friends are alarmed by her weakened condition. Normally these old friends would be part of the normal support network that gathers around a pregnant woman. Call that a benign conspiracy. But, unfortunately for Rosemary, this network has been replaced by Guy’s new friends, the Bramford residents, whose own childbearing days are long gone. The Bramford support network, led by the Castevets and their friend, an obstetrician named Dr. Sapirstein, (Ralph Bellamy), tell Rosemary that her constant pain is perfectly normal. Under their patronizing care, Rosemary’s world shrinks to the size of her apartment. Her only contact with the outside world is Minnie, who brings a foul-smelling vitamin drink that must be ingested daily, for the sake of the baby of course.

Finally the pain goes away and Rosemary moves into the elation of her second trimester. But in the contracted world of her apartment, the Bramford support network begins to seem constricting and ominous. Her unease grows when her last contact with the outside world, an old friend named “Hutch”, (Maurice Evans), suddenly falls into coma and dies. His last lucid request was for Rosemary to be given a strange old book called All of Them Witches. His last enigmatic statement was, “The name is an anagram.”

Rosemary’s paranoia grows with her pregnancy. She becomes convinced that her husband has sold her baby to a witch’s coven for a sacrificial ritual. As she nears term, she struggles to escape her contracting universe, which finally shrinks to the size of the phone booth she uses to call Dr. Hill, (Charles Grodin), the only person she knows who may not be part of the conspiracy. This remarkable scene takes place in one six-minute long take. Trapped in glass, placed on hold, Rosemary clutches the phone chord like a lifeline, cowering every time a stranger approaches the booth. And we cower with her, just as we did with Jamie Lee Curtis in the Halloween closet.

Her call for help is useless. Dr. Sapirstein and Guy return her to the Bramford apartment. She makes one final, futile escape attempt, which ends with her losing consciousness as she is smothered by a mob of men and old women.

She awakens to the news that her baby was born dead. But as she lies in her sick bed, she dreams the sound of a crying infant. By now convinced that there really are plots against people and that not all of her dreams are only dreams, she is drawn back to the mystery of the barricaded closet. Only now, when the secret of her child has left her body, is she able to unlock the secret of the closet. It leads to another closet in the Castevets’ apartment, where a kindly group of onlookers care for her infant and revere him as a child of Satan. Rosemary steps into a funhouse mirror view of the hubbub of relatives, doctors and friends that normally surrounds the birth of a child. When the onlookers start chanting “Hail Satan”, the result is both creepy and hilarious –hilarious because they are so relentlessly normal, and creepy because their plot is real.

If the people on the other side of the secret door are an evil mirror image of a caring family network, then the movie’s universal appeal comes from the fact that Rosemary herself is also a mirror, more clearly defined by what she isn’t than what she is. Most of her personality is supplied by Mia Farrow’s deft performance. As written, Rosemary seems to have no ambitions and only one dream: family. She is not a career woman, a bon vivant, or an artist. She is not eccentric or quirky. She is not a practicing Christian, or an active member of any other religion. She is pretty, but she does not stand out in a crowd. She is just trying to live the life all women are told they should live. Her very blankness allows all of us, male and female, to place ourselves in her shoes and to compare her trap to the cages of our own upbringing.

In the end, Rosemary accepts her maternal role, gently rocking an infant who may be the spawn the Devil. Does she do it out of maternal instinct? Does she do it because it is easier to accept the role of a good mother that society has given her, even if that society is evil?

What would you do?

Next time: Sometimes the secrets of a Trapped Woman are found in the head instead of the body. Let the late, great Mario Bava escort us into one such nightmare — a SHOCK! that hides BEYOND THE DOOR II.)

Mystery Floating Eyeball Theatre Presents: Season of the Witch

She follows her husband at a respectful ten paces as he walks down an outdoor path, reading his paper and oblivious to the landscape of barren trees, baby dolls, and the doppelgängers of his family. She can only hear electronic tones, chimes, and obsessively ticking clocks.

She’s in a car. She tries to lock out her husband. He swats her on the face with a newspaper, snaps a leash onto her fashionable collar, and leads her to a dog pen where her pontificating, pipe smoking therapist promises to look after her.

This is, of course, a dream. A dream realtor in a leisure suit takes her on a tour through the dog pen, which is now a lovely suburban home. He checks his clipboard. “Let’s see…Mitchell, Joan. Oh, you’ve been here before. But just for the record: Kitchen, fully stocked…through there the garage, and there’s the den with sewing corner and books…And this is Billy.”

A handsome handyman is working on the door. He smiles at her.

The Dream Realtor continues: “He fixes things, delivers groceries, liquor, medicine…etcetera, etcetera…he does the gardening, the painting, etcetera, etcetera…Oh, you’ve never wanted the ‘etcetera’. Really Mrs. Mitchell you should get ‘with it’. You know, it’s later than you think and all that. And Billy’s great!

“And the television, three sets, with special programming designed to give you ideas…in case you should run out of ideas.”

The Dream Realtor leads her to the kitchen, where three loud housewives play cards. “And the ladies, of course. They’re available for luncheons, teas, and bridge, etcetera, etcetera…And now to the upstairs…the bathroom…pills and things…bedroom with everything you need: walk-in closet, jewelry and checkbooks. Oh, and a phone number: For doctors, police, priests…etcetera, etcetera…

“Don’t forget to pay your bills.” He hands her the keys and exits. When she looks into the mirror, a sad old woman stares back at her.

Then she wakes up. Now the mirror shows a handsome woman in her thirties. She has a lovely home, a sexually active teenaged daughter, and a distant husband. Her name is Joan. Her husband is named Jack Mitchell. She is Jack’s Wife.

Jack’s Wife was the original title of the third movie made by George A. Romero and his intrepid Pittsburgh crew, following Night of the Living Dead, (1968) and There’s Always Vanilla aka The Affair (1969). It was released in 1973 under the title Hungry Wives and then re-released as Season of the Witch, (not to be confused with the movie Halloween III: Season of the Witch, nor to be confused with the more recent Season of the Witch starring Nicolas Cage) after Dawn of the Dead became a huge hit. With spooky new cover art, Romero’s intriguing little feminist drama ended up in the horror section of most video stores.

After the dream sequence opening and a few connecting scenes, the plot kicks into motion when Joan accompanies her closest friend, Shirley, to visit Marion: A Real Live, (and thoroughly Middle Class,) Witch, who gives Shirley a Tarot reading. “My mother was a witch,” says Marion over post-Tarot tea, “When I was child I was taught certain recipes and incantations and I was sworn to secrecy. Well, today I can just go down to the book store and find a paperback primer for witches…”

Shirley is only shallowly titillated by the charismatic Marion, but Joan is honestly intrigued. Marion feeds Joan’s interest by loaning her a witchcraft handbook.

Joan’s nightmares darken, haunted by a shadowy man wearing a strange beast mask who breaks into her home. In response she begins to experiment with casting spells, spells to chase away the nightmares, spells to bring back her runaway daughter, and finally, spells to seduce a cute, young teacher named Gregg. The seduction succeeds and her daughter is found, but the nightmares continue.

“Don’t play with it (witchcraft),” warns Marion, “Don’t use it lightly. Knowing you’ve abused it can destroy you from within…with fear if nothing else…” But as Joan’s man-beast nightmares come ever closer she becomes unwilling to accept naturalistic explanations for the success of her other spells. Ultimately she breaks from reality completely and hides in the darkness of her home with husband’s shotgun, waiting for the beast to attack…

Although Season of the Witch is probably a disappointment to most of the horror hounds that pick it up looking for zombies and gore, I rather like the way it has aged. The clothing and slang of the early seventies give the movie a pleasant kitsch aroma, and the sensationalist overtones of women’s lib and witchcraft have mellowed considerably, allowing us to see the movie as a cautionary tale about the ability of the mind to trick itself — a pertinent warning in our current landscape of science denialists and fuzzy New Age religions.

This theme, about how the mind can trick itself, is played out in miniature during a marvelous scene in which Gregg manages to convince Shirley that a tobacco cigarette she just puffed is actually marijuana. Thanks Romero’s tight editing and to an amazing performance by Ann Muffly as Shirley, we feel like flies on the wall watching a middle-aged suburban housewife freak out.

Like most early Romero films, the production values are bare bone…you get the feeling that most of the actors are wearing their own cloths, and the quality of performances varies greatly, but, along with Muffly, Raymond Laine gives a good performance as Gregg, and Jan White as Joan does a reasonably good job of anchoring the film, except for a few scenes where her heavy eye makeup turns her anger into an absurd glower.

In the end Joan is emancipated by her temporary insanity. She comes back to earth by joining Marion’s coven in an initiation scene that seems surprisingly authentic — at least until the end, which has a detail that links the ceremony to Joan’s opening dream sequence. Aside from one gratuitous reference to Satan, (who in this context may just be one of a host of minor deities invoked by Joan practicing in solitude), Romero does not depict witchcraft as a form of Satanism, nor does he portray it as a Goddess and nature-based religion. The details of witchcraft are kept vague because this is not a movie about magic or demons or religion or “good vs. evil”. It’s a movie about one woman’s ironic liberation.

In the final scene we meet Joan at a party. She is exotically dressed, confident, and no longer married.

“I can’t get over how young you look,” says a fascinated suburbanite, “Aren’t you the one that–”

“I’m a Witch,” says Joan. The camera lingers on her ambiguous gaze, one that seems to invite us into the future. Yet in the background we hear that she is still being introduced as Jack’s Wife.

(Next: Stories of women trapped like Joan are a horror movie staple. Let’s revisit the Rosetta Stone of this genre, Rosemary’s Baby.)

Mystery Floating Eyeball Presents: Notes on LAND OF THE DEAD

(Spoiler alert. This column contains plot details from the first four of George A. Romero’s zombie movies.)

WE LIVE IN THE LAND OF THE DEAD.

Small Town America. Home of the values our leaders extol. It’s midnight and the living dead stumblingly stroll through a moonlit park. A brass band under a gazebo bleats out an attempt at music. A fine Negro gas station attendant steps out to man his pumps. He’d be happy to fill your tank and clean your windshield, if he could just remember what gas is, what a windshield is, what a car is. Fireworks go off in the sky and all the zombies stop to look up.

WE TAKE WHAT WE NEED FROM THOSE WHO HAVE NOTHING.

The fireworks were launched by a small squad of living humans who rolled into town in a totally awesome armored vehicle that looks like something out of Damnation Alley. While the fireworks distract the zombies, the humans raid stores for canned food, medicine, useful chemicals, liquor, and anything else needed or wanted from the days before everything fell apart.

The raiders take all this stuff back to Pittsburgh, now a heavily guarded compound. They give the booty to their employers, get paid, and then go out to spend their money on the streets. They are safely walled in from the zombies, but they are also walled out of the luxury skyscraper where their rich and privileged employers live. The skyscraper is called Fiddler’s Green. The lives of those outside Fiddler’s Green are little better than the “lives” of the zombies outside the compound.

WE CANNIBALIZE OUR PAST.

George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead is a strangely nostalgic, backward-looking movie. It does not have the shock-of-the-new energy found in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, or, (to a lesser extent), 1985’s Day of the Dead. The legacy of those first three films — all of which are heavily alluded to in more recent films such as 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, and the remake of Dawn of the Dead — practically forced Romero to look back over the past forty years of a movie genre he invented: The Zombie Plague Movie.

In Land of the Dead Romero acknowledges this retro gravity in an eerie scene where zombies arise from the water, their heads breaking the surface of a placid, moonlit river. This scene is a direct allusion to the 1962 film Carnival of Souls, a strange, low budget, dreamlike horror film by Kansas director Herk Harvey. Harvey was a maker of educational films who stayed out of the Hollywood system with the same fierce independence as Pittsburgh-based Romero.

Carnival of Souls had a strong influence on the look of Night of the Living Dead, but it was not a zombie film. At that time, movie zombies were still solitary creatures, slaves to cinematic voodoo priests. Night of the Living Dead re-imagined zombies as gut munching ghouls that could spread their infection with just one bite. In Romero’s alternate world, zombies are an apocalyptic plague. They arrived at Night. By Dawn their numbers had grown exponentially. By Day they outnumbered us. Now, in Land of the Dead, it is night again and we live in their world.

This new night does not have the black and white immediacy of first Night. This night is colored midnight blue. There’s something almost comforting about seeing zombies in the moonlight. It’s a romantic image that says, “Okay. Things have gone to shit and it’s only going to get worse from here.”

By starting at this point, Romero’s backward-looking film can talk about the here and now. Thus, his film also looks forward. Romero can look forward by looking back because that’s what America has been doing, in an increasingly desperate and schizophrenic fashion, for half a century.

And Romero has a lot to say about America, Land of the Dead.

OUR LEADERS USE FIREWORKS TO DISTRACT US.

Outside the Pittsburgh compound, fireworks distract the zombies. Inside the compound, the living are also distracted. They’re distracted by the continuous hustle for food and shelter. Those who save a little disposable income tend to spend it on the pleasures of the red-light district, which offers the usual sex and drugs and gaming, along with newer thrills like caged zombie fights.

And everyone is distracted by Fiddler’s Green. Images from inside this heavily guarded skyscraper show people living a good life filled with good food and good clothes and good shopping. But only the very rich can live there. No matter how much you save, you’ll never be able to afford a place in Fiddler’s Green.

The irony is that those who live inside Fiddler’s Green are just as distracted as everyone else. They are distracted by their own home. They are distracted by the constant barrage of propaganda extolling the virtues of Fiddler’s Green.

After 9/11 we were all told to go shopping. In The Land of the Dead, the privileged are still following that dictum, even though the world as they know it has ended. They are as mindless as the mall zombies from Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. One can only hope they smell better.

OUR LEADERS HAVE NO IDEAS; NO COMPASSION; NO CONNECTION TO REALITY.

One of the most interesting demographic changes of the last few years has been the growing divide between the Rich and the Super-Rich. At the top of Fiddler’s Green we find the Super-Rich in the form of a man named Kaufman, (Dennis Hopper), the self-styled “CEO” of the Pittsburgh compound. Kaufman is proud of how his money keeps the whole game going. His money pays the military men that protect the compound. His money pays the raiders who steal the last useful fragments of America’s past. His money pays the killers who murder Kaufman’s opponents and dispose of the bodies.

Kaufman’s money pays for the fireworks that keep the zombies distracted. His money pays for the games and entertainment inside the compound — the bread and circuses that keep the living population of Pittsburgh entertained…and distracted. His money pays for the protection of Fiddler’s Green and the luxuries that keep the rich and privileged safe…and distracted.

About halfway through the film we see Kaufman’s money. It’s the green kind, folding money, huge bundles of high denomination bills that get their power and backing from the government of the United States of America.

But in The Land of the Dead the government of the United States of America collapsed long ago. Kaufman’s money is useless green paper…or it would be except for his unquestioning faith in its value. Kaufman’s rock steady belief in his money is the only thing that sustains the corrupt economy of The Land of the Dead. The bills might as well say “In Kaufman We Trust”.

Kaufman isn’t worthy of that trust. And the real engine of his economy, the stuff stolen by the raiders, will eventually run out. But Kaufman can’t see that. Not only does his money pay to distract all the classes beneath him. The money itself is a distraction, a distraction that enslaves Kaufman’s mind, a distraction that separates him from the reality of the Land of the Dead.

THE FUEL THAT WE LIVE ON IS RUNNING OUT.

The difficulty of getting gasoline has almost been a running joke in Romero’s zombie films. In Night of the Living Dead, the simple act of refilling the gas tank of a truck became the film’s central action set piece, but that’s all it was — it was not part of the film’s subtext.

Romero maintains that the casting of Duane Jones as the hero who leads a small group of humans against the zombies was also not intended as part of a subtext. Jones, says Romero, was simply the best actor to read for the part. But Jones was African-American, and putting a strong Negro protagonist into a horror film was simply unheard of at that time.

Romero clearly enjoyed the extra wallop that Jones’s taboo-breaking presence lent his film. So, ten years later, Romero made a point of making Peter, (Ken Foree), the ultra-competent leader a small band of survivors, a Black Man. And, wouldn’t you know it, Peter first establishes his Alpha-Male credentials in another tense set piece based on obtaining gasoline for a helicopter.

In Dawn of the Dead there is a slight suggestion that Peter is better able to survive the crumbling of the existing order because he was never fully allowed him to participate in that order. In Day of the Dead, John, (Terry Alexander), is a Caribbean helicopter pilot who would like nothing better than to remain an outsider to the bunker where the last remnant of the military industrial complex is slowly destroying itself. He only reluctantly becomes the Black Hero when he begins to care for some of the scientists.

There is no gasoline set piece in Day of the Dead, although John does harp on the issue, insisting that his “whirlybird” be kept fully fueled at all times. But before budget cuts forced a drastic rewrite, Day of the Dead’s original, epic script actually opened with a motley band of rebels searching for gasoline. In that script John was a leader of rebels against a banana republic that had been established on one of the Florida keys.

The central idea of the unfilmed Day of the Dead script was to use the zombie apocalypse to show extreme class warfare. That central idea has been carried over into Land of the Dead. However, twenty years later it is is no longer necessary to show this in the context of a banana republic. The same corruption and extreme class division can now be quite plausibly placed into Pittsburgh, USA.

In this landscape Romero’s protagonist is Big, Black, and Dead. He’s the Negro filling station attendant we meet at the film’s beginning. And he’s a zombie — the ultimate outsider. Only now, he’s in the majority. And he has something to say.

LOOK AWAY FROM THE FIREWORKS!

The Gas Man zombie, (identified in the credits as “Big Daddy”, played by Eugene Clark,) has learned not to look at the fireworks. He teaches this to other zombies. They see that the people who routinely raid and destroy them come from a glowing tower in the distance. And now, no longer distracted, they march toward that tower called Fiddler’s Green.

All classes above them who remain distracted will be destroyed. This revolution will not be televised.

SEE! ACT! EAT!

In the original script for Dawn of the Dead, everyone died. However, Romero was eventually talked into letting two characters live. He let them escape to an uncertain future in a helicopter that was almost out of gas.

When you watch Dawn, you can tell where the ending changed because the most ridiculous and cliched “hero” music that Romero could find starts playing in the background. Whenever I see it, I think of the end of Bertolt Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera” where an absurd happy ending, (that, under the surface, is extremely bitter), comes out of nowhere. In the American version with a text adapted by Marc Blizstein, one character even sings, “Happy Ending, nice and tidy — it’s a rule I learned in school…”

While it seems absurd to compare George A. Romero to Bertolt Brecht, I can’t help thinking about that crazy old German playwright when I notice that Land of the Dead is the only modern horror movie I can think of that gains most of its force and momentum from its subtext.

Maybe I shouldn’t use the word “subtext”. That sounds like too much work. It’s not like Romero is being subtle. His “subtext” is as aggressive and in your face as an exploding zombie head.

But, just to drive the point home, I think I should repeat the message that “Big Daddy” brings us. After all, he can’t say it. All he can say is “Rrraaaaaugh!”

So here is my translation, once more, with feeling:

WE LIVE IN THE LAND OF THE DEAD.

WE TAKE WHAT WE NEED FROM THOSE WHO HAVE NOTHING.

WE CANNIBALIZE OUR PAST.

OUR LEADERS USE FIREWORKS TO DISTRACT US.

OUR LEADERS HAVE NO IDEAS; NO COMPASSION; NO CONNECTION TO REALITY.

THE FUEL THAT WE LIVE ON IS RUNNING OUT.

LOOK AWAY FROM THE FIREWORKS!

SEE! ACT! EAT!

(Next time: Romero’s first “horror” film after Night of the Living Dead was a flawed but fascinating psychological film that tapped into a particularly fruitful vein of 1960s and 1970s horror films. I call them “trapped women” films. We’re about to exit the Romero Portal… and enter the Season of the Witch.)

Prelude to the Land of the Dead

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It’s Friday the 13th, 2020, and I’m working at the library. We’d already been getting regular instructions of how to do our jobs as safely as possible in the ever changing context of COVID-19. Still, I was surprised by all the chairs in the staff area hallway this morning.

They were there because new social distancing procedures meant that only one person would be allowed in each study room. Our study rooms are very popular. At least half of our users want to meet in groups of two or three. The rooms are particularly popular with tutors. Now, none of them will be able to use the facility.

Most understand why.

A few hours after opening we push more chairs into the staff hallways.

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To aid in social distancing, we needed to remove half the chairs around our common tables — the big tables you can sit around and use without the privacy of the study rooms. We also turned off access to every other public-access computer so their users can sit at a presumably safe distance from each other.

We have a lot of public-access computers where I work. Today, even with half with half of them off, there seems to be enough to go around.

Friday is one of our days when we have a small weekend staff. The morning is busy with the traditional work of checking in and checking out DVDs, books and audiobooks. Keeping social distancing is tricky. Self check kiosks are great when they work, but they’re often finicky, and when people come to the front desk, they want to hand you their card and hand you their books to check out. We have moved the scanners and the check out pads so that they can theoretically scan their own cards and check out their own items while we just look at our computer screens and correct all accidents of automation. But…

Force of habit. You hand me your card and I take it, scan it, and hand it back. Force of habit. You hand me what you want checked out, I take it, scan it and hand it back. Force of habit, I touch my face. Force of habit, you touch your face.

At lunch break I hop between the various things I read. I always have a fiction book and a nonfiction book going at the same time as well as a news source or a magazine. The fiction I’m reading is a book I bought 40 years ago and have just gotten around to: John Shirley’s bizarre proto-cyberpunk fantasy City Come A-Walkin’. The nonfiction is Tony Bramwell’s delightfully dishy Magical Mystery Tours: My Life with the Beatles, which recounts how Mr. Bramwell grew up with The Beatles in Liverpool and got hired by Brian Epstein and swept up in the hurricane of the band’s success and somehow landed on his feet as a fairly successful record promoter.

And for news, I’m reading the Arkansas Times Blog. But I’m several days behind, still reading entries from March 10th and 11th. I could catch up very quickly, but I’m sort of digging the slower pace. I know that more is coming, but the writers from two days ago don’t. It turns what would be a fairly mundane reading experience into a sort of thriller.

After lunch, the day slowly winds down. We close at 6 PM on Fridays. By 5 there’s just one stressed out guy in one of the study rooms and just a few other patrons in the stacks. Empty chairs practice social distancing.

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14 hours from now I’ll be informed that the Library will be closed to the public, but the staff will still come in to do all the various tasks we must perform when we’re not at the front desk. 24 hours after that, I’ll be told not to come in at all next week, that most of staff should stay home, and that we’ll still get paid. Like a week of snow days.

Less than a week after that we learn that we’ll be closed through April 19th. Or will it be longer? We’re in an unusual position now. We have to support each other by staying apart. It goes against our instincts, but that’s what it’s come to.

At 6:00 PM on Friday the 13th, 2020, we lock the doors and turn off the lights and vacate the premises. And though we’ve been on Daylight Savings Time for a week, it’s very gray outside, and the gray seems to be getting darker.

They’ve been calling this disease the novel coronavirus. That sounds about right, cause right now I feel like I’m living in a novel.

 

Next time: George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead had a lot to say about life in the era of George W. Bush when it debuted in theaters in June of 2005. Less than three months later Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the way that was handled threw the film’s message into high relief.  Now, fifteen years later, what would Land of the Dead say about our current slow motion disasters?

Mystery Floating Eyeball Theatre Presents: Dawn of the Dead

(Yes. Spoilers galore. I mean, come on y’all, this movie’s almost half a century old. If you’re upset, wait until I tell you about Citizen Kane.)

Three guys and a girl go to a mall. The guys say “wait here” to the girl and leave her alone amongst the foodstuffs while they run around sampling hardware and guns and power tools and having a good ol’ time, leaving her to fend off a Hare Krishna cultist who just won’t leave her alone…

Sound suspenseful? Oh, I forgot to tell you that the cultist and most of the shoppers are gut-munching zombies. This scene occurs in Dawn of the Dead, George A. Romero’s 1978 action-adventure sequel to his classic 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead. This time Romero takes us a few more steps beyond the End of the World in a vivid, gory, color-comic-book film that makes some surprisingly prescient comments on the impulses that led to Reagan eighties.

The film opens on the chaotic set of a television news show. “Every dead body that is not exterminated becomes one of them!” shouts a government scientist. “It gets up and kills! The people it kills get up and kill! The only way to stop them is to destroy the brain or sever the brain from the body!” He has to shout to be heard over the backstage crew, who heckle him as they abandon their jobs. The TV station, a microcosm of society, is breaking down.

Cut to a government project apartment building, under siege from a SWAT team attempting to enforce martial law. The building’s inhabitants, mostly African American and Puerto Rican, are resisting. Suddenly these divisions of race and class vanish when the freshly killed fighters rise to attack both sides indiscriminately.

Two members of the SWAT team, Roger, (Scott H. Reiniger,) and Peter (Ken Foree,) decide to go AWOL with Roger’s friend Stephen, (David Emge,) the helicopter pilot from the TV station, and his girlfriend Francine, (Gaylen Ross). This alliance of refugees is threatened from the outset by Stephen’s resentment of Peter, who almost unconsciously assumes a leadership role with quick thinking and a cool head. Stephen’s desire to prove himself to Peter and Roger leads to some dangerous gunplay and earns him the derisive nickname “Flyboy”.

(The fact that Peter, like the protagonist of Night of the Living Dead, is African-American, adds an extra layer of internal tension.)

Things look up for the group when they land on the roof of a gigantic suburban mall overrun with zombies. After safely barricading themselves in the offices on the top floor, the men have way too much fun raiding the stores below, leading to the aforementioned Hare Krishna suspense sequence. Soon they decide to “conquer” the mall, locking the main doors and slaughtering all the zombies inside. When this grisly work is finished we see them as triumphant lords of the jungle, (the mall), who have successfully conquered the forces of nature, (the zombies), and then proudly survey their conquest, dressed in animal skins, (fur coats and leather jackets.)

Throughout the mayhem, one can’t help but notice the similarity between Dawn of the Dead and the first Star Wars movie. (By coincidence, Dawn of the Dead was released exactly one year after Star Wars came out.) Both feature three guys and a gal having a great adventure as they run about shooting and killing hundreds of dangerous foes. But while the anonymous white-armored Storm Troopers die bloodlessly in a welter of special effects, the zombies die in explosions of blood and brains, and each one has a human face and a faint vestige of personality. To shoot a zombie is a little like looking at a mirror and shooting yourself.

And Francine refuses to be a Princess Leia. She has to force the men to teach her to shoot a gun and fly a helicopter, (to the chagrin of Flyboy, who greatly resents her encroachment into the boys’ club,) but she never becomes a cute, safe, tomboy-in-a-dress like Leia. Francine is also pregnant, but she refuses to live out Flyboy’s other adolescent fantasy, the good ol’ “I’m the last man on Earth and you’re the last woman and together we’ll father a new species,” fanboy dream.

Francine takes no joy in carnage, but SWAT soldier Roger revels in the adrenaline rush of zombie combat. His recklessness ultimately causes him to receive a fatal zombie bite. He dies slowly while the others lapse into decadence, slipping back into their pre-Apocalypse roles. Peter cooks for the group. Francine nurses and takes care of the boys’ club. And Flyboy begins to treat the mall-harvested luxuries as one of his natural rights. More and more he comes to resemble that breed we eventually called “Yuppies”.

Meanwhile, on television, a one-eyed scientist appears as the voice of rationality. (Richard France plays the scientist, ironically revisiting his persona from the movie The Crazies) With a single-minded stare he advocates eating the zombies before they eat us, dropping nuclear bombs on all the major cities, and other ideas reminiscent of the hawkish 1980s Cold War pundits that insisted that we “think the unthinkable”.

All this comes to an end when a biker gang spots the helicopter and recognizes the mall as a conquered paradise ripe for plunder. They breach the doors and invade Flyboy’s kingdom. “Just stay out of sight,” counsels Peter. “They’re after the place. They don’t care about us.” “It’s ours!” whispers Flyboy, shaking with Proto-Yuppie righteousness. “We took it!” With those words he seems to initiate not only the bloodbath that ends the movie, but also the entire roller coaster of the Reagan eighties, in which the morality of wealth shouted dominion over all.

(Next time: The 80s never really died. Wealth still shouts dominion over all. And, not surprisingly, zombies took over the pop culture landscape. So, in 2005, George A. Romero finally got to revisit his zombie universe. Some might argue that the end result wasn’t as scary as the Dawn of the Dead remake…and I might even agree with them. But unlike the remake, Romero’s film actually had something to say, and for me, at least, that counts for a lot. If you want to hear what I heard Romero say, meet me in the Land of the Dead.)

(If you want to know what I thought of the remake, check the comments section.)

Mystery Floating Eyeball Theatre Presents: THE CRAZIES

HEY Y’ALL, I GUESS I SHOULD WARN YOU THAT THIS REVIEW GIVES AWAY A FEW PLOT POINTS…BUT NOT AS MANY AS YOU MIGHT THINK –BROOKS

It’s 10:00 PM and the small farming town of Evan’s City is about be rudely awakened. Hundreds of soldiers enshrouded in white biohazard suits are rolling into town, rounding up the citizens, and detaining them at the local high school. A biological warfare germ, Codename Trixie, has been accidentally released into the water supply. Martial law is declared…

So begins The Crazies: a 1973 action thriller that was one of George “Night of the Living Dead”  Romero’s attempts to break free from the horror movie genre. Although The Crazies was shot on the cheap with a cast of unknowns, it is ultimately darker, more believable, and more entertaining than big budget movies like Outbreak.

The main characters of The Crazies are rapidly introduced and set into motion in two interweaving plots. First we meet David (Will MacMillan) and Clank (Harold Wayne Jones): two Vietnam vets with no desire to be rounded up under martial law. Joined by David’s wife and two other residents, they attempt to escape Evans City. They manage to evade the soldiers that cordon off the town — but the Trixie virus proves to be much harder to shake.

Next we meet Colonel Peckham, (Lloyd Hollar),seemingly the only sane man in the chaos of the military’s containment effort. Thrown into a rapidly deteriorating situation with virtually no background information, he struggles to maintain order in a morass of conflicting protocols, security barriers, and technical glitches. If he fails, a virus that always causes death or chronic insanity will escape into the continental United States.

This is not a movie to watch for deep, probing characterizations, although Romero’s cast of unknowns does a very good job of bringing their thumbnail sketch characters to life. While the two plots revolving around Col. Peckham and the Evans City escapees crackle along like something out of a good airplane paperback, Romero, with his usual mordant sense of humor, shows us how breakdowns in communications spawn chaotic violence.

The most intimate impediment to communication comes from the biohazard suits worn by the soldiers. Rendered faceless by gas masks, their muffled dialogue is barely audible. These masks are a constant liability — at one point a Vietnam vet on a berserker spree is able to take out dozens of soldiers simply because they have no peripheral vision. (And their blood shows up spectacularly on the white suits.)

The infected vet lacks the ability to prioritze. When he stops for a slug of looted whisky, is his Rambo spree is cut short in a shockingly undramatic death.

No one dies heroically in The Crazies. Trixie won’t allow it. The virus causes its victims to become lost in their own little worlds. (How wonderfully 1970s!) In one scene an infected hippie girl terrifies an entire group of soldiers. She only wants to talk, but is oblivious to their warnings, (“Keep Away! Don’t come any nearer! My God she’s one of them!”). This flower child confrontation finally ends when one of the soldiers shoots her. “Oh!” she says, finally understanding their words in the form of a bullet.

The situation is no better at headquarters. “This is so random!” fumes Dr. Watts, (Richard France,) one of the scientists who developed Trixie, as two MPs escort him to Evan’s City. “I’m telling you, this is a mistake!…A technician, a lousy technician, is all you need! If I don’t have access to my equipment, I’m useless!”

Throughout the film, Dr. Watts’s pretentious Mid-Atlantic accent is the voice of reason, railing against all the mistakes and arbitrary protocols that prevent him from finding a cure. Yet his own ability to communicate is hindered by his self-absorption. When he becomes convinced he has, in spite of all odds, found an antibody to Trixie, he chafes and frets at the voiceprint verification needed to inform Colonel Peckham of his discovery. Finally he decides to bring the Colonel the news in person — but as soon as he steps out of the lab the soldiers guarding Peckham’s headquarters mistake him for an escaped Evans City resident. They herd Dr. Watts into the Evan’s City High School, now a massive loony bin, where his cure is lost forever…

…Assuming, of course, that he actually found it. His lab assistant never spotted the evidence Watts viewed through his microscope. Was Dr. Watts on the brink of a cure, or had he just finally succumbed to Trixie?

Ringing with the sounds of unanswered buzzers, endlessly ringing phones, and distorted, unanswered radio voices, the network of missed connections rises all the way up through the bureaucracy of emergency powers to office of the President, who won’t even face his grainy teleconferencing screen while ordering a nuclear last resort. From the President to the Boys in the Trenches, it becomes impossible to tell who is A Crazy, and who Isn’t. Despite all this, at the movie’s end we meet a doctor who is smoothly confident that he will soon find someone with a natural immunity to Trixie.

“You wanna check this one?” asks a soldier, pointing to one of the Vietnam veterans – the one who has a natural immunity — the one that still lives. “You kidding?” The doctor dismisses the vet as obviously insane, and the vet, with his own history of being screwed over by the military, doesn’t say a word. In the world of THE CRAZIES the only successful forms of communication are found in the trajectory of a bullet or the stealthy vector of a disease.

 

Next time: Five years after making THE CRAZIES, George A. Romero combined its action-thriller format with the premise of the movie that first put him on the map. Meet me at the mall for DAWN OF THE DEAD.

(Want to know what I thought of the remake?  Check the comments.)