I finally did it. I finally watched DAY OF THE DEAD again. I’ve been talking about doing it for years. Here’s the thing: back in let’s say, 1986 after DOTD had completed its initial run, me and my younger brother went to see it at a midnight show at a local mall in Texas where my family had just moved to. I thought the movie was great, very thought-provoking and frightening but it also left me with a terrible feeling. It was like this dour, depressive, hopeless ennui that was difficult to shake. It was such a nasty mental residue that even though I’ve revisited George A. Romero’s other films multiple times, I never checked it out again because it seemed like gambling with my psychological well-being. Jeez, I even own DAY OF THE DEAD on VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray knowing one day I’d bite the bullet but somehow I always found an excuse to avoid it until just recently (coincidentally right before the anniversary of its release date). Anyway, here’s how it went…
What was I thinking? DAY OF THE DEAD is awesome and sure, there are a few nihilistic moments but it’s not anywhere near as depressing as I thought it was. In fact, it’s kinda rousing and exciting, introduces the most personable living dead creature I’ve ever encountered (“Bub”) and features a very rare (for a zombie flick) happy ending. Ironically it’s rather an uplifting or at least cathartic affair as all the bad guys are treated to horrible fates and the few decent characters are treated to an island paradise. I couldn’t have been more wrong, there’s plenty of fun to be had here. There’s almost a carnival-like video game shoot ‘em up atmosphere when a couple of the heroes are trapped in a funhouse-like cavern and must press forward to get to the exit on the other side.
It turns out my experience had much to do with my own baggage. I was not in a good place in life and I guess the movie exasperated some of my fears and insecurities at the time. Looking back, I remember that I had recently had some frightening drug experiences, had to say goodbye to a few friends and was living in a new state I felt extremely uncomfortable in. Plus it was the eighties and AIDS was everywhere and I think a movie about a contamination so damning it would lead you to suicide hit my vulnerable psyche hard as a young gay man. Even the idea of the civilization coming to a halt was more frightening to me back then; these days I think I’d have more of a “Well, we kinda deserve it” reaction to such a calamity. Romero’s previous dead-flick (DAWN OF THE DEAD) had that semi- enticing “live in a mall” aspect going for it. Wet blanket DAY OF THE DEAD pointedly confirms there are NO MORE MALLS and that alone was a devastating concept to this eighties kid. Sadly, I’ve gotten used to the idea of “no more malls” at this point (Amazon is its own sort of zombie invasion) and yikes, maybe DAY OF THE DEAD doesn’t seem as dark these days because the real world has gotten so much darker (or maybe that’s my steadily declining eyesight
Michael Jackson is the perfect monster
No one forgets his first time, and a significant gateway into horror was the 1983 short film slash music video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Directed by John Landis with makeup effects by Rick Baker, this 14-minute video was the perfect introduction to horror for some: it introduced werewolf mythology, paid homage to teen horror films of the 1950s, included zombies of all shapes & sizes, and revolved around the notion that all of it was as harmless as a night at the movies.
But more than that, it showed new initiates to horror that the genre was meant to be fun, a marriage of scares and — here — a musical score, a balance of horror and humor. When critics of this long-marginalized niche of filmmaking call it nihilistic or “less than” art, it should be duly noted that some fans were brought to scary movies for the very reason that they would jump in their seats and then realize that the fright was in the fact the punchline of the joke. Yes, horror has changed with time, and yes, it can make intellectually serious commentaries through its tropes, but the most important moment in any horror film is when the credits roll. A catharsis comes with horror, and it signals that despite the heart-stopping horror, you were always going to make it out of this alive. You may even decide to dance to it as you leave the theater. There are worse ways to go, wouldn’t one suppose?
Frisk (1995). Based on the 1991 novel of the same name by Dennis Cooper, this delightful charmer tells the story of gay stoic psychopath Dennis (Michael Gunther) who early on developed a taste for murder and necrophilia after coming across some snuff magazines. Dennis’s letters to his friend Julian (Jaie Laplante) who is having an incestuous relationship with his younger brother Kevin (Raoul O’Connell) and to prospective murder victim, Uhrs (Michael Stock)- who shares them with his femme fatale fiend friend Ferguson (Parker Posey)- form the main means through which the story is propelled.
Delighted with the goings-on, Ferguson and her pal join in on the murder and mayhem and the three lunatics form a deadly menage a trois, that even manages to kill Alexis Arquette. Featuring a soundtrack by Coil-who previously produced an unused soundtrack for Hellraiser- this is a fiercely f*cked flick (pun absolutely intended).
Cruising (1980). Keeping on the theme of movies about gay serial killers for a moment, William Friedkin’s Cruising is probably the most prominent example and famously caused a great deal of controversy during its production and lots of fulminating since. It’s unfortunate that the movie is probably better known for the controversy surrounding it, rather than the film itself-which most detractors have probably never even actually seen-because it is in my opinion both William Friedkin and Al Pacino’s best movie.
Set in the world of gay S&M culture and clubs and featuring many real-life participants of said lifestyle as extras, Pacino goes undercover (a minor pun) as a nominally straight cop in order to root out a serial killer, preying on the denizens of these dank and dark coteries and ends up becoming beguiled. It’s a dark film about distasteful subjects with a very real force punctuated by its ominous open-ended finale.
The film has many parallels with the real world and as of yet unsolved “Doodler” murders in San Francisco and the “Fag in a Bag” murders in New York City, committed by Paul Bateson, who had previously appeared in The Exorcist as the radiological technician that gave Reagan the cerebral angiography. Punk rock fans will also be intrigued to know that The Germs contributed several songs to the soundtrack, although only one made it into the film.
Windows (1980). Counterbalancing Cruising, Windows plays like a sapphic Cruising. Aberrosexual rage and lust abound in this tale of obsessive love and the ends one will go to possess someone they can’t have. Shot in my backyard of Brooklyn Heights and featuring such memorable moments as Rocky’s Adrian (Talia Shire) being molested by a rather odious cabbie; Adrian’s lady love using an audio recording of the assault as masturbation material and more telescopic voyeurism than Hitchcock’s Rear Window can shake a stick at.
This tale of the mentally disturbed is very interesting for its cinematography as it was directed by Gordon “The Prince of Darkness” Willis, who handled the duties on such milestones as The Godfather series and several of Woody Allen’s cinematic offerings.
Eating Raoul (1982). This film is hilarious; a married couple Paul and Mary (Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov) devise a scheme by which they lure rich perverts to their humble abode in order to slaughter them via frying pan, steal their money and thereby open their dream restaurant. The works are fouled up when a self-styled, self-assured suave Mexican conman and thief named Raoul (Robert Beltran) that they have rather reluctantly placed under their tutelage, enters the picture.
Raoul sells the corpses to a dog food manufacturer, thus making their enterprise doubly lucrative. Raoul then cuckolds Paul in an attempt, to steal, his woman, his money and his life; but true love wins out in the end when Mary turns the tables and brains Raoul with the frying pan, fade to black.
But no, that is not all, their realtor was promised a fancy dinner and they forgot; never fear though, because thanks to some quick thinking on the part of the deadly duo, Raoul becomes the main course. A great politically incorrect satire that has gone overlooked for far too long.
A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985). I’m not a huge Freddy fan; definitely more of a Jason junkie. This however, is my favorite of the series and I feel it is underappreciated- the first and third entries I feel unfairly take the lion’s share of the reverence- it features Freddy’s best look, it keeps a steady pace, has the greatest set piece of the entire series in the pool party massacre and what I believe to be a genuinely good acting job on the part of Mark Patton as Jesse Walsh.
Before you point it out and given the subject matter of most of the movies I’ve reviewed so far; I saw this when I was a kid, so the “subtext” or “overtones” or whatever was lost on me and yes, it is there if you’re looking for it; but it isn’t a central aspect of the story.
Wicked, Wicked (1973). A gimmick movie definitely, but a pretty interesting one. Presented in “Duo-Vision” this is a slasher movie before there was such a thing and one that to my knowledge doesn’t get mentioned when there is talk about the genre and its primogenitors.
A masked psychopathic killer is stalking a sprawling Victorian beachfront hotel with a cop on his trail trying to save his singer ex-wife who happens to be in the killer’s sights. This is a fun and oftentimes funny little movie, that deserves better than to be relegated to oblivion.
Viy (1967). Based on Nikolai Gogol’s story of the same name, this was the first Soviet horror film to be released and tells the story of Khoma, a seminary student who winds up being bedeviled by a witch and her demon minions. A very cool film, indeed.
The Night of the Devils (1972)
Another film based on a Russian writer’s work, this time A.K. Tolstoy’s The Family of the Vourdalak. This Italian-Spanish co-production directed by Giorgio Ferroni, chronicles the misadventure of Nicola, an ultra-hip and modern 1970’s businessman, lately gone insane after reluctantly stumbling into some old-timey weirdness in the woods surrounding a peasant household near the Yugoslavian border, that suffers from a familial curse whereby, they are haunted by a witch-vampire hybrid that attacks them and turns them into vampire-zombie hybrids feeding on loneliness, sorrow and blood.
Nicola tries to persuade them through rationality that none of this can be true but what he cannot contend with is the irrational nature of things, far older and far beyond the horizons of his parochial comprehension. The Night of the Devils oozes creepy atmosphere and in my opinion, is an unsung horror gem that shows that no one does horror better than the Italians.