Wherefore Art Thou Zombie?

The Husband does not like zombie movies. Neither is The Husband a fan of apocalypse movies, though he’s perfectly happy reading Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. Which is, let me assure you, much less action-packed than even the worst zombie movie.

Unlike The Husband, I am a fan of zombies and their apocalypses. Although I can’t watch a CGI squirrel get run over without lingering trauma, people getting their innards torn out and devoured is not a problem. The end of humanity? I’m okay with that. Maybe it’s my misanthropy.

So, I went to see World War Z by myself.

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Zombie narratives are, among other things, apocalypse narratives. Most “classic” zombie movies end with The End. Even if the characters aren’t all dead yet, there’s not much hope for humanity carrying on. Let’s face it, it’s hard to make sure you’ve nailed all the zombies, and it only takes one to end the world. It’s otherwise rare that movies end with the admission that we’re probably not going to survive. Even horror movies, as a genre, don’t usually go further than having the main characters beheaded, eviscerated, stabbed, bludgeoned, electrocuted, hanged, strangled, impaled, dismembering, squashed, trampled, drowned, run over, or what-have-you. The rest of humanity (the audience) is free to carry on, secretly delighting in the knowledge that only other people get murdered by serial killers, deranged backwoods Southerners, aliens, evil spirits, mind control, rabid dogs, mad scientists, mermen, mummies, crazy truckers, vicious moms, brutal stepfathers, sentient viruses, psychotic roommates, mutants of various kinds, including giant ants, genetic freakshows, and Frankenstein’s monster, sociopathic stockbrokers, and so on. Movie characters used to get killed by vampires, but blood-suckers don’t seem to go in for that much anymore.

But a zombie movie—that’s nihilism for you. Even Romero’s zombie films, in which there are always survivors, end on a note of hopelessness (with the notable exception of 2005’s Land of the Dead). Zombie comedies, like the fine Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Zombieland (2009), are another exception, suggesting as they do that zombies and humans can, in fact, get along. Or at least stay of out of each other’s way. Classic zombie movies care about 1) scaring the shit out of you, 2) grossing you out, and 3) the way human beings interact with each other under the stress induced by the end of the world. This includes the problem of grief (it’s never safe to grieve in a zombie movie—that’s always the fastest way to get eaten), the challenges of altruism and compassion, of teamwork, of dwindling resources. Zombie movies have always been about what it means to be human, particularly under duress. How do you distinguish between the human and the zombie? What’s the difference between dead-eyed materialists who’ve been contaminated by predatory capitalism and an undead thing that senselessly, relentlessly consumes its own?

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Of course, zombies are sturdy representatives of any plague, biological or metaphorical. They’re a handy species that way—wonderfully adaptive. For all their physical frailty, they endure. They are a metaphor for the evils of capitalism, of conformity, of viral outbreaks, of international politics, of human consciousness, of an ecosystem irreparably out of whack. But whatever the plague, the end of the world tends to produce the same set of philosophical questions.

The resurgence of zombies as the monster of our 21st-century moment is particularly interesting because of the ways we have fiddled with the zombie narrative to make it fit our obsessions. When Romero created the modern zombie in 1968, he didn’t need—or want—an explanation of their origin, so the “probe from Venus” rationale was shoehorned in. But no one really cares about space probes in The Night of the Living Dead. What’s important is that we somehow managed to create zombies. The brother and sister at the beginning of the film literally, if inadvertently, call forth the first zombie from the graveyard they’re visiting. The way the characters interact with each other only results in more zombies and more death. That World War Z opens in Philadelphia is a nod to Romero’s legacy.

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In the sense that society has somehow produced these monsters, zombies aren’t that different now. But zombieism itself turned out to be a great carrier for the 21st-century fear of viral outbreaks, of contagion. Just as a virus only lives to replicate itself, a zombie does nothing but bite. And every time it bites someone, it creates another zombie. Since zombies can’t process anything they eat, no matter how hungry they seem, the biting seems to be solely for the purpose of passing the virus through contact with broken skin. The first notable version of zombies-as-virus was probably 28 Days Later (2002), which transformed the vacant, shambling undead to virally-infected rage monsters who were in a really big hurry to tear us apart. If World War Z is any indication, contagion has only become more central to the contemporary zombie, superseding questions of consciousness or humanity. (The brilliant AMC show “The Walking Dead” is a classic zombie narrative in that the question of what it means to be human remains central.)

Part 2

So, World War Z. As Matt Zoller Seitz and Kenneth Turn both noted, it’s Contagion (2011) with zombies. Seitz is a fellow zombie fan. (We are legion.) And this seems to account for a lot of his lack of enthusiasm for the Brad Pitt-Marc Foster adaptation of Max Brooks’s “oral history” of the zombie war. It’s true that World War Z doesn’t operate by most zombie-movie rules. Most zombie films, for example, start small—the family member or neighbor who begins behaving strangely—and then widen to show the scope of the disaster. World War Z operates in reverse.

We are introduced to Gerry (Pitt) and his happy family, but as the apocalypse begins around them, nobody in his family—nobody he knows—is turned. In fact, he and his family are quickly relocated to an aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean—pretty much the safest place on the planet. Really, Gerry’s family is superfluous. His character needs to have a family to provide tension—he doesn’t want to leave them, they don’t want him to leave, will he make it back to them, and so on—but otherwise, they don’t matter to this story. They are placeholders, not characters. It’s a shame, because as a several reviewers have pointed out, this leaves Mireille Enos, as his wife Karin, with nothing to do but look worried, on the few occasions she gets any screen time.

The film follows Gerry around the world as he tries first to figure out what happened, and then just figure out a way to survive. Gerry comes across groups of people who, in another zombie movie, would be the main characters: a group of US soldiers stationed in South Korea, holed up in a bunker; clumps of survivors in Jerusalem; the planeful of people later escaping the overrun Jerusalem. But Gerry is on his own.

Most zombie films have a climactic fight/escape scene somewhere in the last third. World War Z’s spectacle is closer to the halfway mark—the terrifying vision of an endless stream of zombies racing to climb over each other until there is a mountain of them, scaling the wall that keeps Jerusalem safe from the undead hordes. They spill, fall, leap over the side in a matter of minutes. It is not the individual zombie that threatens. It is the tide of zombies that will overwhelm world-war-z-jersualemus, no matter how many individual zombies we kill. IndieWire described the sequence as “less like a big summer movie set piece and more like a nightmarish Hieronymus Bosch painting; the level of detail is staggering and utterly terrifying.” (The studio really should have left it out of the trailer. It would have made that moment in the film even more terrifying.) This is what the zombie threat really is—which is the point that Brooks makes in his novel, too. Zombie movies have always relied on the individual encounter to demonstrate the zombie menace and scare their audiences. But the real threat of a zombie apocalypse isn’t the individual zombie. It’s the swarm of zombies.

It is only in the final third of the film—the infamously rewritten and reshot ending—that Gerry comes face-to-face with A Zombie (Michael Jenn). Gerry ends up at the World Health Organization in Cardiff, Wales, (Wales?) where he and the surviving scientists try to figure out how to keep the zombies from killing us. This sequence returns us to the familiar territory of zombieland: trapped in a labyrinthine medical complex, the one roomful of supplies the characters need to access blocked by a handful of the infected wandering the sterile corridors. The scale of the film finally shrinks down to the individual. And really, it is one of the best sequences of the picture, including one of the only zombies who is allowed any length of screen time or character. Seitz’s description of that zombie’s “snicker-snack yellowish rat-teeth” is spot on. The person that zombie used to be is gone and the body has become a virus personified, sniffing out the best carriers for its DNA.

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What the film doesn’t do is spend a lot of time on how human behavior alters once the world has started to fall apart. In fact, World War Z is perhaps unique among zombie films in that most of its characters are admirably generous. They may be foolish, misguided, or noble and brave—and mostly zombie fodder—but the individuals that Gerry encounters do not hesitate to share resources. The family Gerry and his family hole up with in a New Jersey apartment building is the first striking example. Practically before Gerry’s family is through the barricaded door, they are being offered food and drink. The most selfish “character” is what remains of the government and the military, made up of individuals whose job it is to make ethically unpleasant decisions. These people have always been in the business of facing circumstances in which there is no good answer. Their decisions are the result of deliberation and generally (in this film anyway) produce the civilized emotions of a guilty conscience. They are not the product of panic or terror.

Of course, the few mobs of the living in World War Z are no better than any other mob: people race to loot supermarkets for emergency supplies, shoving aside others gripped by the same panic. The living can also be deadly in large, unthinking groups. A cop dashes into the supermarket, but instead of rescuing Gerry’s wife from attackers, or punishing them, he frantically grabs baby food jars from the shelves and disappears. Meanwhile, amidst these panicked looters, Gerry looks for asthma medication for his daughter. A young man with a gun materializes. A freeloading druggie? A thug? Nope—the pharmacist, who hands Gerry the meds he needs. There are the inevitable figures who resort to violence, immediately taking up arms to “protect” themselves from the living. But these are the minority in the film. People want to survive, yes, but in Brad Pitt’s world, many of them are willing to try and help others survive, too. Gerry isn’t the only character willing to make sacrifices, even if he is the (totally self-effacing and not especially funny) John McClane of zombieland.

It is these detours from the usual that make World War Z an interesting zombie movie to me, as a fan, even if the PG-13 rating makes it a pretty sterile one. There are problems with the film, the most serious one being that Gerry movies-david-morse-world-war-zLane doesn’t get to have much of a character—he’s too “perfect,” to say nothing of overly sturdy—but the film works anyway. It does what it can do with a PG-13 rating, like the Jerusalem set piece, really well. And because Gerry is played by Brad Pitt, it’s much less of a problem than it might otherwise be that he doesn’t have much of a character; we still want to watch him. (Having Israeli soldier Segen [Daniella Kertesz] pair up with him in the last third helps.) The film is a rare combination of big action moments that successfully carry you along and small, dramatic scenes in which both work.

Sunday Random Roundup, September 15, 2013

Not really. It turns out this post is all about Hong Kong cinema.

Other interesting tidbits will appear later this week.

Well, now it’s been *two* weeks since the last post. Apologies. Since I’ve actually got a day job now, I have to learn how to manage my time. And I was experiencing technical difficulties. I discovered that my ability to use Microsoft Office did not extend to my shiny new MacBook. I had to buy the software all over again. So, a few days went by while I grumbled loudly to myself about having to shell out $120 for the software or $80 for a *four-year* (university) license for the software. Apparently now you don’t get the option of hanging on to your outdated software unless you’re willing to spend more money. Grumble, grumble, grumble.

Hong Kong Cinema San Francisco Film SocietyAnyhoo. First (and last, as it turns out), I’m very excited about the San Francisco Film Society’s Hong Kong Cinema program, screening October 4 – 6 at the Vogue Theatre. If I make it up there, I’ll be especially looking forward to director Johnnie To’s new film, Blind Detective (2013), starring the fine Andy Lau (who is also a hugely famous pop star). Lau has starred in a number of excellent Hong Kong films, including Infernal Affairs (remember, I mentioned it last time–the movie The Departed is based on?) and Wong Kar-wai’s As Tears Go By (1988) and Days of Being Wild (1990). He’s also been in some classic oddball Hong Kong films, including God of Gamblers (Wong Jing, 1989) with Chow Yun Fat and Running on Karma (2003), a Johnnie To/Ka-Fai Wai film, in which Lau plays a monk turned bodybuilder who can “see into people’s lives.” (Spoiler alert: There are several shots of Andy Lau’s naked rear end–or is that part of the body suit?)

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Blind Detective appears to be unrelated to To’s other disabled policeman officer from 2007’s Mad Detectivewhich is AH-mazing on all fronts: great direction; Ching Wan Lau as the eponymous detective; and a plot that involves multiple personalities, live burial, and a lot of shark fin soup.

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To is also responsible for a slew of other stylish police procedurals and thrillers: The Mission (1999), PTU (2003, stands for Police Tactical Unit), Triangle (2007), and Exiled (2006). Many of these films star some combination of Anthony Wong, Simon Yam, and Lam Suet, all Hong Kong greats. Most of To’s films are available via Netflix; Exiled and The Heroic Trio (1993)—for some lady bad-assery with HK stars Michelle Yeoh, Anita Mui, Maggie Cheung—are streaming. Election is available on Hulu.

Here’s one of three trailers for Blind Detective on YouTube–you’ll know a lot more about the plot (and the goofy HK sense of humor) if you watch the others.

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If you’re unfamiliar with HK film, you can be forgiven for thinking where’s the funny in that story? One of the many (many) delights of discovering HK film is discovering the bizarre–to American audiences–combination of tones in one film. Scenes will often careen from one mood to another mood that seems mutually exclusive in ways that sometimes appear (or are) nonsensical. In fact, HK filmmakers used to color-code the reels by genre, and, according to David Bordwell, at least one film production company, Cinema City, used to “demand that each reel contain at least one comic scene, one chase, and one fight.” Something for everyone in the audience! Bordwell points out that this strategy “influenced most directors who emerged in the 1980s, even the elusive Wong Kar-wai. His wispy plots look more structured when you realize that they’re built up reel by reel in postproduction” (The Poetics of Cinema 104). This is especially helpful to keep in mind when watching Wong Kar-wai’s haunting 2046 (2004), for example.

Oh dear. I don’t seem to have gotten very far.

Another treat at the HK Cinema screenings is the chance to see The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1977) on a big screen. Starring the awesome Gordon Liu (Chia-Hui Liu), who more recently played the Bride’s exacting kung fu master, Pai Mei, in Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004). The SFFS describes 36th Chamber as an “essential kung-fu film.” The screening is a tribute to its director, Lau Kar-leung (aka Liu Chia-liang), who died in June, a martial arts master, and Gordon Liu’s teacher. Also screening is Lau Kar-leung’s Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1984), also starring Gordon Liu.

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There are, of course, some other, more sedate films, which also look wonderful. Two intimate dramas, one about a woman who agrees to be a surrogate mother in order to pay for her brother’s surgery (A Complicated Story), are also screening. And for the obligatory historical epic, there’s The Last Tycoon, directed by the aforementioned Wong Jing and featuring the delectable God of Gamblers star Chow Yun Fat.

Last but not least is a mystery/thriller directed by Oxide Pang, Conspirators. Oxide is the twin brother of Danny Pang. The brothers have collaborated on many films, including the genuinely creepy The Eye (2002), which received the backhanded American compliment of being remade (in 2008, with Jessica Alba), and both versions of Bangkok Dangerous (2008, 1999), which are surprisingly different films despite the same basic plot. Oxide is on his own with Conspirators, which looks fun, but maybe not as visually exciting as some of the Pang brothers’ other films.

You can see the rest of SFFS’s Fall Season here.

This roundup has gone off the rails, if I may mix my metaphors. I do have some other tidbits, including interesting items from the recent Toronto International Film Festival. First up, however, will be a long overdue post on World War Z. Stay tuned.

Will the real Blind Detective please stand up?

Is it this movie?

blind-detective-poster-1-610x858Or this movie?220px-BlindDetective

 

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Or perhaps this one?

Sunday Random Roundup for September 1, 2013

Greetings and salutations, dear readers. It’s been another week, somehow. First, a little blog-related news. I have plans for some posts about specific films that I hope to have ready sometime this week. Second, great news about the Alice Guy-Blaché Kickstarter project I mentioned last week: It’s been funded! Hooray! If you had anything to do with it, THANKYOUTHANKYOUTHANKYOU! If you haven’t had a chance to check out the documentary project or want to project updates, take a look at the directors’ Kickstarter page and watch the trailer (linked below) for Be Natural. Yippee!

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Onward. So, it’s hot and kind of miserable, even though it’s a beautiful day.  Summer’s waning, tomorrow’s Monday. This Sunday, I thought we’d take a look at some films opening soon, so we’ve got something to look forward to, especially now that you’ve already gone and seen The World’s End. (I have, in fact, and I’m mulling over post-worthy comments…)

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[Pssst: If you somehow haven’t seen Shaun of the Dead (2004) or Hot Fuzz (2007), you are truly, truly missing out on some of the great comedy of the last ten years. Plus, all three films are positively littered with great British actors: Bill Nighy, Martin Freeman, Jim Broadbent, Paddy Considine, Billie Whitelaw, Karl Johnson and Olivia Colman (two of the actors in the current BBC America show “Broadchurch”), and no less than two James Bonds, Pierce Brosnan and Timothy Dalton (who absolutely deserved at least a nod for Best Supporting Actor in 2007. I mean, really.). And you really should be watching “Broadchurch.”]

So here we go.

First up, one of my favorite American directors has a new film coming out (near me? fingers crossed!) October 10: Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive is a weird departure for him…sort of. From the guy who brought you the genius Ghost Dog, Broken Flowers, Dead Man, Mystery Train, and on and on, we now have…a vampire movie. Well, it’s still a Jarmusch film; it’s got the divine Tilda Swinton and The Avenger‘s delicious villain, Tom Hiddleston, as “two vampires who have been in love for centuries.” The first sneak peek doesn’t give much away, but it does have Swinton’s radiant face. (Maybe she is a vampire. That would explain how she still looks so young.) One of my favorite performances of hers is actually her angel Gabriel in the Keanu Reeves vehicle Constantine (which is a better movie than you’d think).

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And while I’m at it, my other favorite part of Constantine, Peter Stormare’s Lucifer. (You probably saw him first in Fargo [1996].) The clip annoyingly cuts off just as Lucifer is saying, “There’s no accounting for taste.” The scene runs another minute or so. It’s worth seeing in its entirety.

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If I’ve somehow accidentally convinced you to watch Constantine, it’s streaming (not for free, unfortunately) on Amazon Prime. It comes on television fairly regularly, too.

Anyway…

Only Lovers Left Alive also stars Anton Yelchin, who was in a very different and quite entertaining vampire film, the recent Fright Night (2011) remake with Colin Farrell. (Farrell makes a fantastic villain; he’s a kick to watch.) And you also get the wonderful Jeffrey Wright. I cannot understand why Wright isn’t in a ton of movies, or why he isn’t a Hollywood leading man. You might remember Wright as a particularly fine incarnation of James Bond’s CIA pal Felix Leiter in a long line of Felix Leiters in Casino Royale (2006) and Quantum of Solace (2008). Or as the kinda-sorta evil doctor in Source Code (2011). Or Winston in Broken Flowers (2005), if you’re a Jarmusch fan. He’s also been in Cadillac Records (2008), W. (2008, as Colin Powell), and Syriana (2005). You’ve seen him; you just haven’t seen enough of him.

In addition to getting great performances out of great but mostly not super-famous actors, one of the things Jarmusch does best is rhythm. It’s not always musical rhythm. It’s often dialogue or cuts.

Dead Man (1995)

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Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai (1999)

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And now for something completely different:

To no one’s surprise, Matthew McConaughey’s new film, Dallas Buyers Club, looks fantastic, due out November 1. In 1986, Ron Woodruff was diagnosed with HIV. You may remember that was a particularly bad time to get that diagnosis, since no one wanted to fund research or treatment for the “gay disease.” Woodruff, a real dude, discovered that he could get better HIV drugs south of the border than he could in the USA. They weren’t illegal, as he points out in the trailer, “they’re just unapproved.”

McConaughey has made a great career out of playing some oddballs and unlikely protagonists. Sometimes they just seem unlikely because it’s Matthew McConaughey playing them. All of his memorable characters that come to mind do have that McConaughey swagger, but they’re still very much characters (and not just Matthew McConaughey playing that character), and he’s always a pleasure to watch. Catch his cameo in Tropic Thunder (2008), or way back when in Lone Star (1996), or way, way, back in 1993, in Dazed and Confused. Classy.

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And finally…

Spike Lee has gone and remade Chan-wook Park’s brutal Oldboy (2003), which I think I first saw at a Wisconsin Film Festival screening. It’s being released on November 27. I’m not sure a straight remake can stand up to the original, but Lee’s version looks like it will certainly be worth watching. I do hope it’s more of a Spike Lee Joint and less of a remake. It stars Josh Brolin, whom I always like to watch, Sam Jackson (who comes to a bad end, if the trailer is anything to go by), Sharlto Copley (District 9 [2009]) and Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene [2011]).

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The new “Oldboy”

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The original Oldboy is the middle installment of Park’s revenge trilogy, in between Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Lady Vengeance (2005), and it stars Min-sik Choi, who is a-mazing. (He’s also in Lady Vengeance.) I last saw him in the slightly-less-brutal I Saw the Devil (2010), directed by Kim Jee-Woon, and also starring the more well-known Byung-hun Lee. Lee has been in the two recent G. I. Joe movies and Jee-Woon’s wacko The Good, the Bad, and the Weird (2008). Below is the famous (if you’re into that sort of thing) fight scene from the O.G. Oldboy. It is stunningly brutal. Brutal and goofy and somehow sublime all at once.

The old Oldboy:

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(I am curious to know what “dickshit” is a translation of.)

Available streaming…

on Netflix: The gorgeous Dead Man, Broken Flowers, and The Good, the Bad, and the Weird.

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byun-hun lee

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