Sunday, June 26, 2005

More on DD and LOTD

A refreshing summer rain has averted me from the outside chores I was going to do (honest) so let me make a few notes on the (relatively) new-to-DVD Donnie Darko Director's Cut and Romero's brand-new Land of the Dead.


1. Donnie - I've now watched this movie (counting both versions) about five times, including with and without commentary tracks, and each time I see new things. There's a lot there, and as Kevin Smith says in the commentary, the movie really swings for the fences. It was the first non-student movie that Richard Kelly directed, and (like Welles or Tarantino) he had a lot of ideas percolating his whole life and he wanted to make sure they made it to the screen at least once. As it was first marketed, it was made to seem like it was just some dime-a-dozen teen horror movie. It did not appeal to that market at all, and cult films take a while to develop that status, so for a while Mr. Kelly's prospects seemed dim. However, there's nothing geeks like better than to tell other geeks about geeky stuff, so the film soon took on a life of its own.

It's about a very intelligent teenage boy who may or may not be psychotic. He has cool parents who some might say were too tolerant, but are a nice change from the typical tyrranical family heads of lots of teen angst films (Carrie, Footloose, etc.). Weird stuff happens, and keeping track of it can be a challenge. He wakes up on the other side of town with no memory of how he got there, with a string of gothically drawn numbers inked on his arm. Good thing, because meanwhile an airplane engine has fallen from the sky and landed right on Donnie's bedroom. The authorites can't figure out where the thing came from because there are no airplanes in the area that have had any problems at all. He keeps seeing someone in a macabre rabbit suit even though nobody else does. He has a cool literature teacher and a cool physics teacher who seem like they are conspiring with the students against the school authorities (and would be whether DD was there or not). One of the former teachers at the school is now a crazy (?) old lady who wrote a book about time travel many years ago. Time warp bubbles emerge from his mirror and from his family members' bodies without them noticing. Donnie takes all this in matter-of-factly and thinks it's cool.

It has the ambition of The Matrix, in that it wanted to use an established popular movie genre to ask big questions -- about God, human nature, time, fate, free will, paradoxes... all the stuff that philosophers and bloggers love to ramble on about without coming to a conclusion. It occurs to me that I haven't really said what it is I like about it, so let me put it this way: If you think you will like it based on the comments above, you will! If not, you won't. Note to Open Court: If you put together "Donnie Darko and Philosophy" I'll buy one.

2. Land - Film Freak Central didn't like it at all despite being big fans of Night, Dawn, and Day (that link has links to articles with lots of good insights on N, D, & D). One word they used that stood out was "lame." I'll have to confess after having given this some thought, there was lameness to certain aspects of it. (Again, spoilers warning.)

First, the notion that somewhere in their undead brains the zombies have the capacity for rational thought is acceptable to me. (Is it their brains, though, or their minds? That is, do they have a lump of sophisticated nerve endings or do they still have the roots of something intangible that allows for memories to be processed, moral judgments to be made, predictions and decisions about the future to occur, etc. "Day's" premise was that the latter is possible.)

Also, I love the idea of a fortified city of survivors. I wish they had gone more into the development of that city and how they all got from point A (average day) to point G (barricaded behind some rivers and fences due to the unfolding undead situation). What were points B, C, D, E, and F like? I think the nice people in the excellent Dawn remake were NUTS to leave their well-stocked, relatively safe, relatively comfortable shopping mall to drive through zombietown to a boat that might have sunk to look for an island that might not exist but if it does is probably infested with zombies too. Just because you're agoraphobic doesn't mean it's a bad idea to stay inside. As I mentioned the other day, I like the idea of seeing how a society will react to something like the unburied dead returning to life and preying upon the living. The early-80s TV movie/series V centered around the experiences of the resistance in Los Angeles, but it also spawned a line of paperbacks about the V-experiences of people in cities around the U.S. (BTW - the resistance was to an invasion of facistic reptilian aliens disguised as humans.) The subsequent TV series featured Howard K. Smith broadcasting (from a Visitor-free Zone, of course) news updates about anti-Visitor activity around the world. I would love to see something like that showing various reactions to the events of the Dead movies.

The souped-up truck (named "Dead Reckoning") was cool; I don't care what the Film Freak guy says. It reminded me, as I mentioned earlier, of the vehicle(s) they used in Damnation Alley and to a certain extent, Ark II. Look - if you're going shopping and the grocery store parking lot is infested with the walking dead, that's the vehicle you want.

Here's what was lame, though. All this class warfare stuff has been done to death. Done well in "Gangs of New York," (which also featured armies of slum dwellers in Romeroesque combat); done horribly in "Titanic." I hate to say it, but the sophistication of the class-struggle analysis in "Land" was more akin to the latter than the former. (However, that does suggest another scenario for a zombie movie: Everyone is on an ocean liner, and/or an aircraft carrier, and they have to make periodic runs to the shore to get food and stuff. All in all a fairly decent lifestyle, considering. Then something goes wrong and the ship (or one of them) starts to slowly sink, leaving them mere hours -- 2? 12? 24? A non-integer? -- to figure out what to do.) I think Romero was trying too hard to make Hopper into an amoral, Enronesque, multinational capitalist GOP donor with no scruples at all, rather than giving us insight into how he got to that top penthouse, and whether in fact it is true that the denizens of the city owe their unbitten status to his (admittedly ruthless) organizational skills. Maybe they do, or maybe he's just a guy who knows how to come out on top, or both. I'm sure there is an article somewhere about War-on-Terror profiteers that Romero read and based the Hopper character on. Not only that, but if the downtrodden underclass is so great, how come none of them raised an eyebrow when the Asia Argento character was tossed into the zombie cage for sport?

Also lame was the decision of Riley, the protagonist, to allow the Big Daddy-led zombies to roam free in their formerly fortified city when his assistant wanted to fire on them. He was supposed to be such a great humanitarian; How did he know there weren't other survivors stuck back in the city somewhere waiting for him to show up in the anti-Zombie RV and rescue them? And why does he act like it was such a great thing for the surviving city dwellers to set off on foot to find someplace else to fight off the zombies? Fine and dandy from his perspective, because he had a well-stocked, well-armed, professionally staffed RV/missile launcher to travel in (which would not have even been built had it not been for the Hopper character), but I can't understand why he acted like he was doing the downtrodden a favor by seeing them off in the middle of the night with virtually no prep time, on foot, with minimal armament, into zombie-controlled territory. Talk about your limousine liberals! I don't get it. Romero must have some kind of personal issues with closed spaces. If I could find a steady source of food and water and stuff, I'd be perfectly fine with just hanging out inside a secure building ad infinitum.

The gore (this time supplied by Greg Nicotero) was, IMHO, up to par and then some. Savini had a cameo role, and when I see it again, I want to verify that he has the same clothing as his biker character from "Dawn."

So overall, I liked it, and I'm sure I will see it again and again. Maybe there will be a director's cut after a while to address some of the concerns noted above. And again, if they want to put together "Philosophy of the Dead" then they've got one sold already.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know this is belated, but I finally saw the movie last night at one of the few theatres still showing the movie in the northern VA suburbs of washington, dc.

I liked it more at first blush than I did after I thought about it. I think you're right that Romero must've heard about Halliburton and decided to pattern the Hopper character after them. His obvious disgust for how he envisions that person colors how that character is portrayed, and makes Kaufman fairly unbelievable. We're supposed to accept that Kaufman knows about all sorts of stuff, to the point where he can have people killed and thrown away, and Asia Argento tossed to the zombies, and has organized the city to where he owns and controls Fiddler's Green. Yet he hasn't insisted on building large walls to cordon off the land approaches to the city (or to Dead Reckoning's essay point), even though we see work crews. They also haven't thought up a warning system to alert other parts of the city if someone sees a zombie inside the cordoned area. None of the proles know what's happening until they get eaten, and the Fiddler's Green residents somehow managed not to figure it out until the zombies break through the glass.

Both Kaufman and Cholo are also ridiculously stupid about money. Would Cholo really be dumb enough to think that he's going to be able to get back in the city to spend the money he's ransoming from Kaufman? And if not, where's he going to spend it? Cholo at least still thinks the city is there. Kaufman has seen the residents of the Green become a zombie buffet, yet he's still driving off with his cash. I guess he's supposed to be thinking he can buy the zombies off too.

That's not as bad, though, as the idiot guy left in the dock building to watch out for the ransom. I simply can't believe that anybody would willingly agree to be left alone for several hours outside the protected city. Yet Cholo doesn't force the guy to go- he just asks him nicely. I don't care if the guy is dumb or gullible- he has to know what happens if more than one or two of the dead find him.

This guy is just too unbelievably stupid. I know that horror movies often ask us to believe that people walk off by themselves in situations where the rest of us would insist on sitting together in a room for the next week, if that's what it took, but usually in those cases the character can at least legitimately question whether the bad guy is around. In this case the many bad guys are unquestionably around, it's only about how long it will take for them to find you.

The dead have limited use of their senses to find their prey. They can see, hear, or smell their food. The human sense of smell isn't too good to begin with and in a reanimated corpse it should suffer further. So our river-waiter's attempt to hide out of sight should help him significantly. If he can just stay quiet, so he can avoid being heard and hear anyone sneaking up on him...but instead, he puts on the full ear-covering headphones...

...and, nope, nobody is that dumb. And George, your movie really didn't work for me.

5:10 PM  

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