Saturday, October 20, 2007

Return of the Living Dead's Dying Print

The most well-rounded zombie film, in terms of scares, action, profundity and visceral visual beauty is probably George Romero's Dawn of the Dead. The most critically misunderstood, but increasingly rediscovered and bleakly touching zombie film is probably Romero's Day of the Dead. But the zombie film which beat the pants off of Day with audiences that same year and essentially redefined zombie horror to this very day was Dan O'Bannon's Return of the Living Dead, arguably the most entertaining zombie film and ranking second only to Dawn.

O'Bannon brought limber speed and brain-eating to zombies, as well as speech - it's telling that Romero's trilogy-closer Day contains a speaking zombie as well. To the horror genre itself, O'Bannon brought irreverent post-modern humor (the characters have seen Night of the Living Dead) long before Scream and not at the expense of the story's integrity. He used splatter slapstick in ways that only The Toxic Avenger was also attempting at the time, and without the benefit of overt camp. This is one of the greatest horror movies ever made, one of the greatest horror-comedies ever made, and one of the greatest movies of the 1980s.

Next Saturday I'll be seeing it at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, making it the third time I'll have had the privilege of the theatrical experience. Previously I've gone to screenings in New York and Toronto. Sharing the enjoyment with an audience is delightful, as there are really only two ways to feel as though you're seeing a beloved film for the first time: with others who have not, thus enabling you to feel their first time exposure by osmosis and remind yourself what that was like, and secondly, under the influence of narcotics which fog your brain well enough not to remember what happens next. There's nothing like your first time, but both of those will have to do.

In Return's case there is now an additional incentive to see the theatrical print. Both releases of the film on DVD since 2003 have had sound editing work, basically uncrucial to the experience but important for any fan who's had such details memorized since the first 20 viewings of their worn-out VHS rental copy. Oddly these edits have been made by O'Bannon himself, and I'm sorry to say, though they may have been what he initially wanted I don't think they improve the film in the least. Call it the George Lucas syndrome, though O'Bannon possesses more talent in one hair of his Southern fried beard:

Out of chronological order, and spoilers ahoy, the first group of changes had to do zombie voices. These are the talking zombies who made talking zombies famous, and their voices were all suitably weird. Unfortunately, the first talking zombie we see got his voice modulated several octaves lower than it originally was. Dig the original:

Now dig the DVD edit:

Not as much personality, huh? I guess O'Bannon thinks the lower octaves are scarier, but the "tar man" was plenty scary and funny as he was, and that voice was part of his character. The same change is made to this zombie and his famous line later on:

The original voice had a bit of Jersey accent, which is weird for a Civil War zombie. On every worn-out VHS I'd ever seen, you couldn't even notice the uniform! Appartently the Civil War zombie angle was meant to be more a part of the film - it takes place in Louisville, Kentucky - but it exists only in this shot and an old cannon seen in the "Resurrection Cemetery."

Then there's matters concerning the film's kickass West Coast punk soundtrack. Despite the enduring popularity and lasting appeal of the tunes mixed into key moments throughout the story, O'Bannon has never really expressed much an interest in this aspect of Return over the years. The bands chosen seem to have simply been what was available at the time, despite their high quality, and their inclusion may have been done mainly in tandum with the punk teenager characters than what O'Bannon felt was essential to the overall aesthetic.

In the first edit, O'Bannon moved the start of "Take a Walk" by The Tall Boys to the last seconds of this scene pictured above, which like so many others contains Howard Hawksian framing and many actors talking rapidly over each other. According to Dan's commentary on the 2003 DVD, he wanted to hear what they were saying. They're screaming about a zombie on the other side of the door, in full panic, and I think having punk music playing during this emphasises the dischord. You can still make out the gist of their dialogue, which isn't essential to the story. In the subsequent shot, the group is running from this building to the nearby cemetery, and it's at this point in the song that the soundtrack sings, all you gotta do is, GO! GO! GOOOoooo... Which is a sublime detail and one not unnoticed by other fans.

Finally and most egregious of all changes is the removal of psychobilly grandpappy Roky Erikson's "Burn The Flames" during a climactic scene in which James Karen cremates himself rather than become a zombie, even though he's a good Catholic:

O'Bannon's rationale here was that he wanted to hear Karen's death scream, but once again, you could totally hear it even with the song originally pumped in - it's a death scream, for goodness' sakes! You only hear a couple seconds of the song in the DVD versions, and it's pointless.

During all these scenes, I can only soak up the precious seconds of authenticity during the next screening, before all the remaining prints crumble into dust...if you live within 100 miles of Santa Monica, getcher ass down to the Aero this Saturday!

Also, a warning on the most recent dvd. While the anamorphic transfer looks good and a new doc has been added to the features of the 2003 dvd, the new cast commentary has the HORRIBLE hinderance about 3/4 through the running time when MGM DVD decided it was necessary to have a couple of jackass interns or PAs or parking attendents or something to come into the audio recording booth and pretend to be zombies. This consists of making shitty jokes and interrupting the actors who were actually in the movie. Eventually they leave while there's still a few minutes of movie left, but I have NEVER seen or heard such a retarded thing on any DVD.

The new cast commentary is really good otherwise, too. Who knew Beverley Randolph was basically the same as her character, Tina? I actually wanted to complain to MGM but can't find any email at their website, only a way to join their mailing list. If I could, I'd tell them to fire whosever moron idea that was and never, ever do anything like that again.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited Appeal of Wes Anderson

Three quirky character actors pray at some magic Hindu thing or other

This is a real tipping point for one of my generation's favorite auteur-type directory persons, the film that makes critics realize that the one-trick pony's one trick gets old after the third or fourth time. In his defense, he's genuinely talented. Rushmore personally moves me to this day. The Royal Tenenbaums didn't interest me in the least. The quirkiness was on overdrive, and most of the public's interest in his style peaked on it and burned out with it. Few folks went to see The Life Aquatic, which I did enjoy, but wasn't moved by.

A friend of mine pinpointed that film as the tipping point - to him, the story was a statement from Anderson regarding himself and his career. Bill Murray's character has found specialized success and acclaim, and doesn't know what to do next. I can see that for Anderson. No wonder he started doing credit card commercials afterwards.

The real tragedy of most modern auteurist directors is that they're such self-centered whiz kids who never got to grow up. A total non-talent like Quentin Tarantino makes movies about hipster references to other movies, since that's his whole life. Kevin Smith never pushed himself beyond the artistic demands of Clerks, since that film was based on his life up to that point and he let his fame prevent him from having any kind of significant life experience since then.

Anderson's best film was based on his childhood, and his subsequent films have been oblique whining about family estrangement and the pressure of talent and fame.

Darjeeling is the first Anderson film to feel completely pointless, and even makes such pointlessness a point of navigation. Owen Wilson's character has brought his two brothers together, ostensibly with vague aspirations to come together SOMEHOW. They're in India, right? Everything is spiritual and magical and something is bound to happen that will reconcile them from their familial estrangement.

Eventually we find out he wants to get them to see their mother. They do, and it resolves nothing. The mother admits to them she has no great revelation that will bring the family together, so they must express themselves without words. Cut to the actors staring at each other and smiling. Then the mother takes off the next morning, guaranteeing there will be no closure.

Earlier in the film, stranded from the titular train, Jason Schwartzman comments that it would seem meaningful if they were to hear the sound of a train whistle at the moment. It doesn't happen, and Adrian Brody says it would merely be annoying.

Ha-ha, audience. This is a movie where as little as possible happens, and if you're looking for deeper meanings you'll have to supply them yourself. Like Anderson's other movies, there will be at least 3 or 4 fake endings for you to start reaching an internal stopping point for emotional involvement to the travelogue of a story.

For instance, is there any reason the movie is in India? No more than why Bill Murray and the less talented half of Ghost World needed to traipse around Tokyo in the much more offensively gratuitous Lost In Translation. I think the directors and producers just wanted to visit those places. For the movie characters, it's simply an exotic, colorful foreign place for them to do some soul-searching and resolve their petty personal crises come the final reel. Japan and India are merely trendy places in modern Western consciousness. How orientalist can you get?

Owen Wilson's character often exhibits his ignorance by not barely knowing what certain things are called. This seems more like a defensive concession of the location's gratuitousness than making a necessary detail of it.

Even the patented eclectic soundtrack™, also a staple of Tarantino's, feels like it's running on fumes. There probably aren't nearly as many songs as the more memorable mixlists of Rushmore and even The Life Aquatic, which finally features Devo after Mark Mothersbaugh scored his previous two films - no MM score this time, though. When the songs show up, they're played within the context of the movie from Jason Shwartzman's ipod. Macbooks are also featured throughout the film by a supporting character. Can Anderson's "Think Different" spot be far behind?

Die hard Anderson fans will more likely see the formulas as assets and not liabilities. To do so is still to pigeonhole the object of your fandom as only capable of a few things. At this point I'm a bit annoyed to notice that for three consecutive films now, Anderson marks the beginning of his third act with a sudden tragedy - the death of a major character, or an unknown one, or a suicide attempt - something to hush the room and qualify the "drama" tag of the coveted comedy / drama balancing act.

Some directors are so genuinely talented that their film-world status as auteurs boxes them into repeating their public perception rather than taking chances. Wes Anderson should try to be a little less like himself, or try director other people's scripts. It's working for David Cronenberg, and both men are genuine talents unlike the tweedledee and tweedledum of Miramax, Tarantino and Smith. David Lynch, however, is a genuine GENIUS and I don't mind waiting 5 years in between his brain droppings since each one is so dense and thick with peanuts of meaning.

The Darjeeling Limited's meaning a few years from now will be that it's the film where Owen Wilson's character mentions trying to kill himself, just before the real Owen Wilson actually did.

Could've used a choreographed dance number, too.

Jan Pehechaan Ho

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Melvin works upstairs

Okay! I'm moved, I'm digging the new job, and I'm ready to get back to yammering. Before part 3 of the Post-9/11 thing, I thought you-all might like to see how my life continues to intersect with Troma in all kinds of weird ways. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Melvin Ferd himself - the 98 pound weakling who had a horrifying accident and became THE TOXIC AVENGER...

I saw "Mark Torgl" on the staff list and thought - Naw, couldn't be. Could it? But how many freakin' Torgls are there in the world? He's only around a few more weeks, so I was lucky to arrive when I did. Boy, that Alfred E. Newman mug hasn't changed a bit. And what a super nice guy to step out of his editing suite and let me take the pic!