Biting the Hand That feeds

As a young man, George A. Romero was one of my heroes.

I had a host of reasons for this. Romero was a genuine maverick; an artist who could skilfully use the cinematic apparatus to tell a story (excuse me while I get all Andre Bazin on you). His zombie movies earned him a place in infamy that saw him, on the strength of his craft and the sophistication of his stories, rise into the pantheon of world cinema. People talked about him in a way I wish people talked about me; no matter whether they were a teacher, a theorist or a fan, their criticism was swiftly overtaken by their enthusiasm. Romero had created a dimension and all of us had filled it with our imaginations. He is a bit like the Velvet Underground; virtually ignored in his own time, but anyone of any interest since will declare themselves an admirer.

I also love the way he looks; he looks like Colonel Saunders in a safari suit.

While it is true that Romero is the master, I thought Zak Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead was even better. It remains the most horrifying film I have ever seen. I don’t know what it is about zombies; as Dennis Hopper says, ‘They creep me out’. After watching Snyder’s film (which I fully expected to be shit), I did not sleep for days. I was pushing my bed against the door of my room for over a week (this is true – I do not say it for comic effect), and screeched in abject terror and hurdled a fence when some guy unwittingly walked up behind me in a deserted street.

I think this is another aspect of what makes zombie films (like these) so effective; they seek to create a sense of psychological reality. Most ‘American’ films (I employ this phrase in its derogatory incarnation) evoke a world strangely like our own, yet without any emotions that resemble ours. On the other hand, Zombie films present a wildly fictional reality of horror and siege which seems to easily and comprehensively hit all our emotional trigger points.

I don’t buy all that bullshit about zombie movies being a ‘critique of consumer culture’ – I think the horror goes much deeper than that. There is something about seeing someone you know, or even someone you love, partially dismembered, putrescent and seeking to eat you. I believe a lot of the ‘pleasure’ of watching such films as a teenager comes from breaking social taboos – both in the fictional world you’re watching, and the rules of what is acceptable (especially in 1978). It’s exhilarating in a manner similar to other kinds of risk-taking activity.

That said, I watched Dead Set the other night. It’s a great idea, in line with Romero’s recipe; zombies take over the world and surround a small band of survivors who are forced to rely on one another to survive. The twist with this one is that the survivors are the cast of the UK Big Brother, holed up in the Big Brother house.

Apparently, not only did it screen on UK television, but it also screened here in Australia in 2008. It was hellaciously violent and gory. I heard a story (which may be apocryphal) that in 1978, Romero had to tint the blood tomato-sauce red, because if it was a more ‘realistic’ colour, then the censors would ban it. That said, the blood – and guts – in Dead Set were slaughterhouse-real. There might have been some thread of social commentary to do with mindless consumption, etc. etc. woven through it, but finding that was like trying to find a celery stick in a mound of entrails.

Afterwards, I felt degraded by what I had seen. I didn’t see the character’s pain as metaphorical; I saw it as raw pain and suffering. I discovered that I don’t want to watch other human beings stricken by terror and then suffering physical agony while dying the most hideous of conceivable deaths. I can actually pin-point the moment in the film when this was clear; someone in the house has their head shattered like a pumpkin with the butt of a fire-extinguisher. The fire-extinguisher as instrument of decapitation will forever belong to the hideous Irreversible, directed by Gaspar Noe.

To think that Irreversible walked that tenuous line between pass and ban across the censor’s desk and now, less than ten years later, has parallel scenes rivalling it on television, is astonishing. It reminds me of Sam Peckinpah and the scenes of graphic violence that he pioneered for The Wild Bunch (1969), a film intended to shake audiences out of their ‘cowboys-and-indians’ notions of violent death. Were he still alive, he would see how his techniques are now reproduced by directors such as John Woo, who can only be described as a whore to ‘entertainment’ (I know this is leaning toward the histrionic, but it is my blog, after all).

***

When I was in high school, a friend and I snuck in to see A Clockwork Orange at Melbourne University, the only place that would screen it while it was banned. We watched the same old scratchy print that I saw again maybe ten years’ later at The Astor in Windsor; it was the only one going around until Kubrick died and the ban was lifted. When I saw Orange the first time, at age 16, I enjoyed it, but wasn’t particularly disturbed. The last time I saw it was probably somewhere in the last 5 years, since turning thirty. I have known a few women who have been raped (some of them have been my partners), and now, when I watch the film, I find the rape scenes particularly gruelling.

Maybe the experience is less ‘metaphorical’ now. When I see blood, I believe that it is blood. I once held a man’s body closed to prevent him bleeding to death while we waited for an ambulance. When they arrived, I looked as if I had been dipped in the carcass of a butchered animal. I remember the reek of the blood; it smelled very strongly, like raw egg. I remember clearly how the blood tightened as it dried on my skin, like the grip of something.

Maybe these things have altered my sense of realism and metaphor.      

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One Response to “Biting the Hand That feeds”

  1. Good review, will check out Dead Set. I am not a huge zombie film fan but recently was pressured into watching a fantastic low budget under the radar flick called Pontypool. The catch is theres hardly any zombies and its all done from the point of view of a radio announcer getting calls about the zombie apocolypse. The premise sounded awful to me but the movie was so well done particularly by the main actor its one of my favorites now.

    Contrast this with so much of the pulp garbage that comes out and the hit to miss ratio is low. Perhaps you could explain why in many modern action thrillers (thinking the remake of The Thing here) modern actors are all walking around looking bored and vacant.. “oh a 20ft alien ate my friend, Il just raise my eyebrows a little.” Am I missing something? Its crossed my mind that all the actors / actresses may be botoxing their faces and are unable to fake emotion.

    Its telling that first hand experiences tend to make people shy away from the movie depictions of certain subjects. Myself since having kids am unable to watch any horror / thriller movies where anything bad happens to kids. Reminds me of ex soldiers who refuse to watch military movies.

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