The recurrence of rabbit imagery in the Korean films I’ve seen recently prompted me to go on a little investigation. (One of the main characters in I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK wears a helmet with bunny ears, the killer in Bloody Reunion wears a child’s rabbit mask, and the house in Hansel and Gretel is decorated with disconcerting rabbit portraits and stuffed animals.) This is what I found out: the rabbit, as I should have remembered, is one of the animals on the zodiac, and many Asian countries describe the patterns on the moon as resembling a rabbit, whereas we see the Man in the Moon. The creature’s importance as a symbol dates back to a Buddhist tale in which a rabbit sacrifices himself to feed a hungry beggar (who is actually a heavenly ruler in disguise), and as a reward for his generosity, he is taken to live in heaven (the moon).
So how does this knowledge inform my comprehension of today’s films? Not one bit! It’s a nice little piece of trivia to have, though. As my source points out, “The rabbit’s familiar role as a protagonist in Korean folklore says something about the personality traits that are valued in Korean culture. Time after time, the animal is portrayed as docile and smart, witty and creative.” Maybe the use of rabbit imagery in the horror films is meant to be ironic, since the characters are far from being either docile or generous.
In my first blog post about Korean movies, I noted that the films tend to be on the longer side. Bloody Reunion, however, being only an hour and a half long, won me over by its remarkable efficiency of storytelling. We first see a beloved elementary school teacher who is very pregnant. While she sits on a rock watching her pupils at recess, blood begins to run down her leg; something is wrong. She gives birth to a child we are meant to understand is hideously deformed. Years pass and the child’s defects drive a wedge between husband and wife. In horror and shame, the father commits suicide – hanging himself in front of his son.
This all happens within the first two minutes of the film. Economical. The rest of Bloody Reunion clips along at a nice pace, as it develops its characters and sets up the story. After the opening, we skip to a point near the end when police discover a basement full of mutilated bodies and go to the hospital to question the only two survivors of a horrific massacre: the aging, unconscious mother/teacher who is now dying of cancer, and her meek, shell-shocked caretaker who was once her student. She explains to the police what happened and most of the movie that follows is a flashback that shows her version of events:
Knowing that the teacher is close to the end of her life, the caretaker has decided to arrange a reunion at the house with a handful of former students who are all grown up now. As each student arrives, we get some great shorthand characterization. There’s the sad-sack former athlete cut down by injury, the plastic surgery-obsessed glamour-puss who used to be fat, the sensitive “shy guy” who lurks, the troubled and rebellious loner, and the seemingly well-adjusted couple who have overcome poverty and are engaged to be married. As each character interacts with their old mentor, it becomes clear that she wasn’t exactly a beloved schoolmistress, after all. In fact, she was kind of a mean bitch who physically and emotionally abused them throughout their childhoods in ways that very much shape and haunt their adult lives. One by one, the pupils confront their teacher about the various ways she ruined their lives, and then the carnage starts. Someone in a bunny mask starts killing the partiers one at a time, in extremely gruesome, albeit unrealistic, ways.
Is the killer the disfigured son who has come back to take revenge on the kids who once reviled him? Or is it the “shy guy” who took pity on the son and wants to punish his unsympathetic classmates? Or is it something else entirely? Probably one of those things! I won’t spoil the ending except to say that the movie really pulls the rug out from under the viewer, for better or for worse. For such a short movie, there are a lot of plot twists and weird structural reversals. The big reveal didn’t really work (for me) and left a lot of unanswered questions, as well as making some unsatisfying revisions to the first two-thirds of the movie. Setting that aside, though, I was still pretty impressed by the narrative risks that were taken.
The other horror movie I watched, Hansel and Gretel, eschewed the grimy, gory aesthetic of Bloody Reunion for a bright fairy tale world. The stream offered on Netflix is pretty terrible, giving all movement a drunken, glitchy look, and subtitles are only provided if you watch it via computer. But if you can overlook the obnoxious streaming quality, the movie is absolutely gorgeous to look at. The house in the forest where most of the action takes place looks like a set out of a Wes Anderson movie: all soft blues, greens, yellows, and reds with quirky wallpaper, printed upholstery, and books and toys everywhere. The movie falls only one step short of being a Doctor Seuss book. The rabbit motif is present in almost every scene. The walls are adorned with cheerful (but creepy) paintings of people wearing animal masks (or are they animals doing human things?). Sometimes there are actual rabbit masks hanging on the wall, stuffed rabbits that seem to cover every surface in the house, and a rabbit cartoon that plays on a loop on TV.
The plot is relatively simple: a young man has a wreck on an isolated country road and a little girl takes him back to her family’s house so that he can get his bearings. He spends the night recuperating with the family, a mother and father with three children – two girls and a boy – and notices something a little off about them. The parents are chipper but nervous, while the children are too serious and knowing. The next day, he sets off through the woods to return to the road where his accident occurred, except that the forest is a magical labyrinth that sends him right back to the house. From that point, things get increasingly weird as the parents disappear and the children beg him not to leave them alone. Mystical forces (and a whole lot of guilt trips from the kids) conspire to keep him at the house. These “angelic” children are not what they seem.
A lot of the reviewers on Netflix have raised a question about the intended audience for this film. General creepiness and graphic scenes of child abuse make Hansel and Gretel too intense for younger viewers, but the fairy tale qualities, while creating an unnerving disconnect between visual cheeriness and dark emotional drama, kind of kills the suspense for older viewers. (I will note, however, that an early scene of long black hair spilling through the opening to the attic triggered my Ringu-induced PTSD. Shudder.) The movie is too long and might have benefited from cutting a lot of the push and pull between the protagonist’s attempts to leave and the children’s pleas for him to stay. After the fiftieth time he tells them that he has to get back to his dying mother and his pregnant girlfriend, and the children just pout (evilly) and say “You hate us! Why do you want to leave so badly! You’re just like all the other grown-ups!” my only response was to roll my eyes and pray that something new would happen.
The lead actor, Chun Jung-myung, is totally adorable, but his character is too passive to be interesting. Instead of panicking or getting angry about his situation, he sort of accepts all the weird shit that happens with a weary resignation and tries to reason patiently with the hellspawn. The child actors are all pretty remarkable at keeping up with the tonal shifts that require them to be sweet, then creepy, then vulnerable, then creepy again. And the late addition of a deliriously unhinged deacon played by Park Hee-soon provides an entertaining bit of scenery chewing.
It may sound like I have a lot of complaints about this movie, but I liked it. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, either in style or storytelling, and I regret not watching it on disc so that I could fully engage with the visual richness. It sags in the middle, becoming repetitive, but there’s enough interesting stuff in there to make it worth a look.
Bloody Reunion (also called To Sir, With Love)
Hansel and Gretel
While I was watching The Loved Ones tonight, a question kept nagging at me: why do so many horror movies begin with a hero or heroine who is already broken in some way? Why take a person who has already been traumatized and subject him/her to even more terror? Without a good reason, this trope just seems mean-spirited on the part of the filmmakers.
Brent, the main character in the Australian flick The Loved Ones, is a teenaged boy who accidentally caused his father’s death six months earlier in a car wreck. He struggles with his guilt over the tragedy, isolating himself, practicing self-harm, and only half-heartedly taking solace in trysts with his sympathetic girlfriend. Then, he is kidnapped and tortured by Lola, a quiet and obsessive classmate who he had rejected when she asked him to the school dance, accompanied by her equally deranged father.
Because horror movies often have a moral component, I found myself asking, What did he do to deserve all of this? Brent was polite when he said he couldn’t go to the dance with her. And we’re clearly not meant to sympathize with Lola. There’s no implication that she is crazy because she has been victimized in some way — she appears to be pure evil. I know I probably shouldn’t ask those kinds of questions — not everything has to have a moral — but horror flicks so often do that I’ve learned to seek it out. When bad things happen in real life, they don’t always happen for a reason. Life is chaotic and unpredictable; tragedy is often unexplained. But no matter how much a filmmaker might try to mimic the unexplained nature of reality, a plot point is still a creative choice with an underlying intention. Bad things often happen to characters because they have done something to “deserve” it, whether it’s being unchaste, unkind, or arrogant. We’ve been conditioned to expect this kind of punishment in horror movies.
So what to make of the relatively innocent character who is victimized once (prior to the film’s timeline) and then re-traumatized in the course of events?
In certain contexts, it makes sense. Most protagonists of ghost stories are already haunted by loss and grief, making them more susceptible to communion with the spirit world. In revenge movies, prior trauma can provide the characters with a partial catalyst for their vengeance. In films that deal with the supernatural or conspiracies, survivors have to deal with being discredited, dismissed, and further alienated because of their grief — other people believe that they are simply paranoid as a result of past experiences, and therefore unreliable, the boy who cried wolf.
But then there are the cases where the prior trauma doesn’t appear to have an immediate purpose, either as an origin story, catalyst, or cause for punishment. The tragedy just serves to make the survivor even more of a victim. I’m thinking of Sidney from the Scream series (murdered mother) and Sara from The Descent (husband and child died in a car wreck, best friend was having an affair with her husband) and it seems like the usual moral principle of “punishment” doesn’t apply anymore. Ghost Face starts slashing and cave monsters attack and it seems like the whole universe is ganging up on these poor women for no real reason. These two examples suggest that recovering from prior trauma gives the heroines greater strength to face the current tribulations. When Sara is nearly trapped in a collapsing tunnel, her friend tells her, “The worst thing that could have happened to you has already happened,” meaning, rock slides and cannibalistic creatures are a breeze compared to the death of a child. Sara taps into a reserve of hidden strength and escapes certain death. Sidney, too, eventually finds empowerment, refusing to be made a victim once again.
Brent’s situation in The Loved Ones is slightly different. He was the driver in the wreck that killed his father. Although it was an accident, he naturally feels guilty. But neither the accident nor his guilt have anything to do with the nightmarish situation he currently finds himself in: Lola seeks revenge for an unrelated slight; Brent does not use the memory of his father as a talisman for staying alive; his abduction did not happen as the result of poor decision-making.
I worried for awhile that the movie was going to pull a bait-and-switch: that Lola, her father, and their sadistic games were a figment of Brent’s guilty conscience, or a manifestation of his personal demons (I was relieved when things did not go this way). He doesn’t have much dialogue after the torture begins, but I wondered if ever he felt like he deserved what was happening. Maybe he felt that way at first — the film doesn’t indicate — but maybe the pain he suffers helps him rediscover his will to live, despite everything. Fortunately, the movie never answers the question of why, beyond “Lola is a crazy bitch.” That still doesn’t explain why he had to suffer to loss of his father — does it just make him a more sympathetic character? Does it make his suffering more profound in some way?
I don’t know. But I thought The Loved Ones was an interesting, well-crafted movie that managed to shock me and make me squirm. Does anyone have any thoughts on the issue?
I made the mistake about halfway through watching Ginger Snaps of reading what Brian Collins of Horror Movie A Day had to say about it, and, boy, it got me fired up! He said the movie wasn’t “great,” which, fair enough, maybe it isn’t, but he also dismissed the main characters (two Goth sisters from Canada who battle with lycanthropy and puberty) as unlikable. Even worse, he commented on the unattractiveness of the younger sister and the hotness of the older sister. Way to react like a typical bro-dude.
Horror as a genre typically panders to the male gaze by serving up tits (and lots of them), but part of the whole point of this movie is that the girls, at least up to a point, don’t want the attention of boys and do everything they can to avoid it. When the older sister does finally have her sexual awakening, it’s horrific and doesn’t turn out well for the boys who objectified her. And the younger sister hasn’t even had her period yet, for fuck’s sake! Commenting on her attractiveness, or lack thereof, epically and ironically misses the point.
And so what if the sisters are unlikable? Of course they are. Teenage girls are The Worst. You know who else is The Worst? Teenage boys, but somehow we’ve spent decades – millennia, really – glorifying The Worst tendencies of teenage boys and nobody complains that it isn’t fun to watch. It was nice, in a way, to see teen girl characters that didn’t fit the stereotypes of either the “plucky female heroine” or “bitchy popular girl.” They were unpleasant in a realistic way that actually served a function: to cover up the fears and uncertainties of adolescence.
I know Collins’ attitude isn’t exactly an egregious example of sexism, and it’s perfectly valid for someone to find the movie lacking in various ways, but it still really bummed me out. The failure of a male viewer to understand how much it could mean to girls who love horror but seldom see anything they can identify with bummed me out. I don’t want to turn everything into some kind of feminist issue, but there’s such a dearth of good, female-centric horror with emphasis on feminine anxieties that, in the rare case where a horror film handles these anxieties honestly, I think it’s worth having a conversation. The existence of the Final Girl does very little to make a horror film female-centric and exploiting the (too obvious) fear of vulnerability and rape is just as much about male titillation as it is about a woman’s anxiety. I’m interested to see more about the everyday terror of being a girl, which I thought Ginger Snaps delivered on very well.
Puberty is scary for everyone, but at least boys get cool deep voices, fun erections to play with and a newfound sense of camaraderie. For girls, everything fractures. Formerly close bonds between friends fall apart as secrets become currency and insecurity deepens into an all-encompassing paranoia. Before puberty, you had an identity: a tomboy, a storyteller, a trouble-maker; but after puberty everything that you are is reduced to your sex. You’re either an ugly freak like Bridget or a dirty slut-bitch like Ginger, and there’s no real in-between, unless being invisible counts.
I imagine when a boy is told, “You’re a man, now,” there’s a sense of pride in hearing that. But when you get your first period and someone says that godawful fucking line about being a woman, part of your soul dies because there’s no implication of exciting possibilities or new discoveries. It’s about the crushing responsibility of being a woman, of one day being a mother, of keeping your body safe and your reputation clean. Instead of boners, you get a bloody crotch. Instead of thinking about all the sexy sex you want to have, you think about getting pregnant and turning into a walking cliché – losing your figure, losing your identity.
Being a woman (or a mother) isn’t that miserable, really, but everything feels more dramatic when you’re thirteen. I cringed so hard when Ginger’s mother reminded her she would be getting her period for the next 30 years or so. When I was that age, thinking about those things, I could feel imaginary chains wrapping around me. And I cringed for Bridget, too, watching her older sister cross that line and knowing that the horrors of growing up were waiting for her, lurking around the corner.
No wonder the sisters in Ginger Snaps are so obsessed with suicide. I thought about death a lot when I was that age, too, not because I was truly suicidal but because it seemed so much cleaner than the messy, slow-moving tragedy of life. No wonder they, like all teenage girls, are so sour and unpleasant most of the time. The end of every single day felt like a miracle of endurance, and that is really terrifying.
Horror for Girls
Making a distinction between horror about girls and horror for girls can be a little difficult. A lot of critics cite Carrie when talking about Ginger Snaps; I don’t know if Carrie is really “for girls” the way Ginger Snaps is, but sexual awakening certainly causes anxiety that can be exploited for horror. A recent example is Teeth, a movie about a young girl who discovers that she has a literal vagina dentata. The film touches on many of the conflicting fears a girl can have about her body: sexual assault, sexual prowess, and sexual rejection.
A horror movie doesn’t even necessarily have to be about “women’s issues” to be female-centric; one of my favorite movies is The Descent, about a group of friends who go on a caving trip and discover that they are not alone. The movie doesn’t force a conspicuous “Girls kick ass!” message. The characters happen to be women and they happen to like adventures – this empowers the characters by not making an issue out of it. There’s friendship, betrayal, and loss. Also, monsters.
Another movie I enjoyed was May, about an isolated, socially awkward woman who is more than a little deranged and so starved for companionship that she turns into a clingy mess at any sign of affection. She’s creepy and overbearing, but I sympathized with her, too. I wanted her to make a friend, to have a boyfriend, to maintain any kind of healthy connection that might pull her out of her pathetic weirdness. But I wanted her to still be a little weird. The movie also seemed to comment on what we now call the Manic Pixie Dream Girl phenomenon; other characters in the film see May as quirky and interesting, even though she is clearly insane. People see her as they want to, instead of seeing her as she is – and when they finally have a moment of clarity, they reject her. This is a good example of how women sometimes get trapped in roles they don’t choose for themselves, and punished when they don’t conform to the lie.
May was directed by Lucky McKee, who made another interesting specimen of seemingly “feminist” horror, The Woman. In the film, a man finds a feral woman in the woods and captures her, keeping her tied up in a shed. He tortures the woman in order to “civilize” her and, as he recruits his wife and children to help out, it becomes clear that he terrorizes his family in equal measure. At first, The Woman could seem like another exploitation film, using the blunt instruments of rape and torture to shock the audience, but when the wife and teenage daughter look at the wild girl with empathy in their eyes, the movie becomes an interesting comment on misogyny and how certain men still can’t stand to see a liberated woman. Not exactly a subtle film, but definitely interesting.
This is all to say that I am a woman and I like horror movies. I can get down with the slashing, the damsels who need saving, and the gratuitous boobage of the 80s, but every once in awhile I like my dismemberment with a little feminism.
First of all, I’d like to say I have mad respect for Brian Collins, the super dedicated guy who runs the Horror Movie a Day blog and also writes columns for Badass Digest. True to his blog title, he has watched a horror movie every single day for the last five years. As much as I love horror, I don’t think I have the stomach for that (or the time!), but when the fall season approached I vowed to do the best I could. Mr. Collins and his blog have been an invaluable resource for choosing films to watch; horror is a big genre, and as with any genre, the tropes can get a little well-worn and clichéd after a while. People who don’t watch a lot of scary films tend to complain about how derivative and predictable they can be — and they’re not wrong – but once you’ve watched a shit ton of movies, you start to see the nuances and slight variations that can make a film valuable or interesting despite what might seem, on the surface, to be just another retread. So naturally, as someone who has watched over 1500 horror films over the course of five years, Collins should know what he’s talking about when distinguishing the gems, the curiosities, or the fun twists from the plain old crap.
While not exactly a horror movie a day, here is a comprehensive list of the movies I’ve watched in the last two months:
Sleepaway Camp: I watched this on my friend Holland’s suggestion and I’m so glad I did. She also recommended Slumber Party Massacre to me, which would make a great double feature with Sleepaway Camp because they are both gloriously silly 80s movies that make you wonder how much the filmmakers were in on the joke. My favorite parts of the movie: the short-shorts and cropped shirts worn by all the boys, the cop’s hilariously fake moustache, the scenery chewing aunt, and the creative kill sequences. Also, the ending – oh, the ending!
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon: This is a neat little piece of meta-horror comedy. Behind the Mask takes place in a universe where Jason and Michael Myers are real and a film crew sets out to document up-and-coming local slasher, Leslie Vernon, as he prepares to execute his first massacre. The humor is winking and deadpan, but not overly precious when it comes to skewering horror conventions. Leslie Vernon himself is charming, affable, and charismatic, nicely subverting the mystique of the evil villain.
Hatchet and Hatchet II: The people who criticize these movies as being dumb don’t seem to understand that the schlocky, over-the-top goofiness is intentional. I liked seeing horror movies that take place around New Orleans and in the Louisiana swamps. Some of the characters are likable, some of the characters you want to see get hacked up (and they do), and Tony Todd of Candyman is always an engaging presence. Mercedes McNabb (Harmony from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is delightfully daffy as an aspiring porn star who shows her tits a lot. All around, these movies are crowd-pleasers.
Recommended with caveats:
Lovely Molly: This is a stripped-down, no-frills “haunting” movie by the guys who made the Blair Witch Project. Even though it’s not exactly a found footage film, it still has the intimacy and simple scares like its predecessor. Halfway through, I realized it wasn’t really a horror movie, but something more psychological. The symbols and themes get a little heavy-handed and your mileage may vary regarding the film’s handling of drugs and abuse. I think I liked the movie because it reminded me favorably of Absentia, another movie that portrays the relationship between sisters and how they confront events that may or may not be supernatural.
The Tall Man: I still don’t know how to feel about this movie, but something about it struck a chord with me. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I will say it’s interesting because of its contradictions: it’s a horror movie that isn’t horror, as well as a nakedly sentimental film that is undercut by a big streak of nihilism. The Tall Man is a film set in America (but made in Canada) by a French director whose other films appear to fall into the extreme horror category, which could explain some of the disconnect in the movie’s tone. The rural setting has a fairy-tale quality that is grim and beautiful, but also suggests the director has never set foot in America, giving it an out of time, out of place atmosphere.
Cabin Fever 2: Spring Break: The first half of this movie is great. Ti West indulges in the quirks that he’s become well known for: retro stylistic flourishes, loving nods to genre convention, and long scenes of characters talking about nothing. For about 45 minutes, this was my new favorite movie, but then the last half hour just got nasty and kind of boring as everything went batshit. I still love you, Noah Segan (from Deadgirl, Brick, and Looper). So glad your career is taking off.
Bloody Birthday: It’s kind of sad this movie has mostly been forgotten about because it’s really well-made for an 80s slasher-type film. And as far as killer kid movies go, this one has some pretty impressive child actors, especially the little girl who is the ringleader of the evil pack. She is equal parts innocent and freaky, but never vamps around or hams it up while playing the villain. Bloody Birthday can be a little slow, but the loose structure and unresolved ending keeps it from being too formulaic.
YellowBrickRoad: The caveat here is that the ending is terrible. Like, really, really terrible. But up until that last 5-10 minutes, it’s a really interesting film, kind of a cross between The Blair Witch Project and Lost. A group of academic types decide to write a book about the inhabitants of a small town in New Hampshire who suddenly walked down a road in 1940 and disappeared forever. As part of their research, they decide to travel the same path; freaky shit ensues. It’s actually a lot like Lost – the overarching question was “What is the island?” and here the question is “What is the road?” Something supernatural is obviously going on and one by one the characters go insane. The movie wisely plays coy about a definitive explanation.
Quarantine 2: Terminal: I thought this was a surprisingly decent zombie/infection movie, considering that it’s a sequel to an American remake of a superior Spanish series. Again, Quarantine 2 is not a remake of [REC] 2, even though the first Quarantine was a remake of the original [REC]. Quarantine 2 takes place first on a plane and then in the personnel areas of an airport where the flight’s survivors are locked in by the CDC. I was bummed out that the characters never escaped into the actual airport because it would be fun to watch the virus run rampant through all the concourses. The film probably didn’t have that kind of budget.
Next time I’ll talk about the movies that aren’t great but are worth checking out for one reason or another and the movies that started strong but squandered their potential.
Not all zombie movies are scary. In a way, zombies are fundamentally not scary. They are slow, uncoordinated, and mindless; in other words, easy to run away from, easy to fight, and you don’t have to worry about outsmarting them. Not even the filmmakers take them all that seriously in many cases, offering the movies purely as vehicles for creative kills and cheap-looking dismemberment gags. (Any movie featuring strangulation via entrails is cool by me. Bonus points for a character strangled by his own entrails.)
But zombies can be frightening for a lot of obvious reasons: many of us are still squeamish about death, dead bodies, and putrefaction. The undead also trigger our fears of disease, pandemic, chaos, and apocalypse. However, what really freaks me out in a good zombie film is the “Uncanny valley” factor.
Quick primer: The word “uncanny” refers to a concept loosely defined as “the opposite of familiar” (or the German word “unheimlich”). The term “Uncanny Valley” was coined in reference to robots and how they fit on a spectrum of human-like qualities. The theory is that we find comfort and familiarity in robots that have a certain amount of human traits (body shape, limbs, facial features), up until the point where it looks too life-like. Because we can sense that this life-like machine is still something less than human, the disparity triggers our fear and revulsion. The robot is familiar in form, yet at the same time completely alien to us.
The concept of Uncanny Valley applies to zombies quite easily: as much as they look like us, they are not us. Not anymore. The horror factor is even higher if the zombie used to be your wife, mother, boyfriend, or child, because the degree of familiarity heightens the disconnect between who they were before and what they have become.
Zombie movies play on the same fears as movies about madmen (nobody home, nothing to reason with) and ghosts (used to be human). We can empathize with our fellow living humans who are sound of mind, but when the dead rise, vacant of their former personalities, all bets are off.
Further note: there’s some controversy among horror nerds about what is considered a “true” zombie. Many people cite Romero’s rules: zombies are truly dead, show little to no evidence of brain activity, and move slowly. Additionally, in Romero’s films, people can reanimate after death, regardless of whether they were bitten or infected by another zombie. However, I believe the concept of infection is at the heart of zombie mythology; this means I’m willing to include films like 28 Days Later and [REC] in the subgenre, despite the fact that these are really plague stories, with infected people who are technically alive, somewhat conscious, and extremely spry.
A smattering of zombie movies that are interesting:
[REC] is a tense, tight Spanish film about a television reporter and her cameraman who get trapped in an apartment building during a deadly outbreak. This movie has one of the most terrifying endings I’ve ever seen. The American adaptation, Quarantine, just doesn’t have the same punch, even though it’s essentially a shot-by-shot remake. [REC] 2 is a decently scary follow-up, and even Quarantine 2 (not actually a remake of [REC] 2, weirdly) is a pretty good time, albeit in a different way.
Nazi zombies. I shouldn’t have to say anything else, but this is an enjoyable Norwegian film that doubles as a “cabin in the woods” type story about a group of students who go on a skiing trip and get picked off one-by-one. Entrail and toilet humor abounds.
Rammbock: Berlin Undead
This German zom-rom-com (sort of like Shaun of the Dead) is short – barely an hour long – and fun. Not too groundbreaking, but solid and entertaining.
Shaun of the Dead
Duh. The gold standard for horror comedy, because it works as commentary on zombie tropes while making use of them successfully.
This movie didn’t really work for me as it did for others, but the premise is interesting: the zombie plague is spread through language, and a radio DJ finds himself at the center of the maelstrom. Action is scarce, since most of the film takes place inside the radio station, but the atmosphere is creepy and the situation intriguing.
I had a hard time including this one because it’s pretty nasty and, depending on your tolerance for disturbing shit, thoroughly reprehensible. Two teenage boys stumble upon a zombie woman tied up in an old mental hospital and have to decide what to do about her. To say that what follows is kinky gives kinkiness a bad name. The movie is fascinating in a trainwreck kind of way, and it either comments on misogyny or revels in it. Also, I’m glad that Noah Segan (Looper), who has been effectively douchy in indie films like this and Brick, is finally getting more mainstream attention.
Finally, I continue to defend the remake of Dawn of the Dead.
This should go without saying, but SPOILERS!
Danny Boyle’s 2002 film 28 Days Later isn’t just one of my favorite scary movies; it’s also one of my favorite films, full stop. When Cillian Murphy’s character Jim wanders through the deserted streets of London, the effect is chilling and beautiful whether it’s my first or fifteenth viewing. The threat of the “rage virus” and the snarling hordes of infected people feels big and real, while the digital video and lived-in performances give the film an indie restraint that belies its apocalyptic subject matter. Murphy, Naomie Harris, and Christopher Eccleston are fantastic in their respective roles.
Some people complain, though, that the movie falls apart in its third act when the survivors finally arrive at the military outpost near Manchester only to find a handful of crazed soldiers and their queasily charismatic leader (Eccleston). Detractors argue that the movie shoehorns in political commentary with a trite message that reads like “Who’s the real monster here?” Does 28 Days Later muddy the water by throwing a human threat, the deranged inhabitants of the military camp, into a landscape already populated by raving, mindless flesh-eaters? I understand these criticisms because the movie raises several murky issues of morality that it doesn’t seem ready to solve in a definitive way. For me, though, the final sequence (in which Jim goes cuckoo, allows the soldiers to become infected, and slaughters them one by one) is consistent with one of the themes the movie has established: humanity isn’t just “people killing people,” as the major says – in extreme circumstances, the intentions behind our violent actions do make a difference. The movie teases moral ambiguity on the surface, but I’d say it draws a fairly clear line in the sand about who is naughty or nice, and it does so by showing the attitudes each group (Jim’s group vs. military) has toward the infected.
Our heroes, Selena, Jim, and Hannah, take no pleasure in killing. They understand that they are killing sick, living people, rather than faceless ghouls; but that sentiment can’t get in the way of survival. Selena tells Jim that she would hack him to death “in a heartbeat” if he ever gets infected. It’s not personal, just survival. In most “zombie” movies, the undead are treated with contempt, as if they were enemies with real agency rather than just walking corpses, and the heroes often gloat when they take the zombie down. This makes some sense in the context of a true zombie film, because the “enemy” is already dehumanized. But the kills in 28 Days Later are treated as self-defense; Selena reacts to her attacks with shocking violence but she never gloats.
Jim, most of all, is sensitive to the humanity of his adversaries, far gone though they might be. In the beginning of the film, he says, “Sorry, Father,” somewhat comically, after striking an infected priest who attempts to attack him. Jim later kills an infected child in the diner and is clearly disturbed by what he has done. No matter how monstrous or aggressive these people have become in their illness, Jim still sees them as people who no longer have control over their actions. This sensitivity could be explained by his comatose state during the outbreak, making him a newcomer still adjusting to this nightmare world, but the film seems keen to establish Jim as a fundamentally decent and empathetic man.
Contrast this against the attitude of the solders who treat killing the infected as a kind of game. Tucked safely away in their country manor with guns, food, walls, and barbed wire, they don’t need to kill to survive. Jim is sickened when he sees the soldiers’ glee over using the infected as target practice and their laughter at watching them get blown up in the landmines. At first their reaction seems natural to me as a viewer, because this is how I’m used to seeing survivors of the zombie apocalypse react – with a coping mechanism that finds humor or entertainment in the grim situation, or relieving stress by harming the people/things that terrify us. But it’s clear from Jim and Selena’s revulsion that there is something darker behind the men’s enjoyment, a lack of empathy and a sick pleasure in dehumanizing the enemy. Does this mean that Selena, Jim, and Hannah are righteous, compared to the soldiers? When Jim reaches his breaking point near the end and slaughters the soldiers wholesale, is he justified in his actions?
It’s never entirely clear if the film is inviting us to join Jim in his judgment on the men or if we have to judge him, too, for his barbarity. Are we meant to remember the general’s pronouncement that the infection changed nothing, that all you have, ultimately, is “people killing people”? The film wants us to ask whether Jim is really any different than the infected, or if he is really any different from the warped and depraved soldiers, but I call a bit of bullshit on that. Jim dispatches solders and infected both without discrimination because they are equally dangerous threats that have to be put down. The soldiers are pathetic by the time they meet their end, panicked, hunted, spreading infection, and they are clear objects of pity despite their previous distasteful actions. Yet still, neither Jim nor Selena gloat over their deaths. Maybe Hannah, a little bit — but she is a teenaged girl, after all. Personally, I’ve never taken issue with the film’s morality. The ending seems consistent with the rest of the film, since the characters do what they have to in order to survive.
So, the film represents three kinds of people. In the first group you have the infected who, through no fault of their own, have become slaves to their destructive instincts and no longer control their own actions. In the second, you have the fundamentally decent people who kill because they have to but choose to retain their human characteristics: warmth, empathy, and familial connection. And finally, there are people who have the capacity to choose good over evil, but give in to their more primitive and dangerous desires. On the surface the three groups might look the same, especially when they’re soaked in blood, but it matters what’s in their hearts and minds. That’s actually kind of sentimental, if you think about it. (Danny Boyle, you big softie)
Final thought. One very interesting moral sticking point is this: the infected are killed because they don’t have control over their actions, while the soldiers are killed because they do. What should one take from that?