Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Dead Air (2009, Corbin Bernsen)




In full disclosure, I got my copy of this movie from the director, Corbin Bernsen. However, I'd been planning on seeing this for probably a year after learning the star was Bill Moseley, whose performance in Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 I and my friend Nick became obsessed with in high school. Unbelievably, he already had a website for his "Chop-Top" character which even more unbelievably had available an album featuring the guitar work of theatrical guitarist Buckethead entitled Cornbugs. After mailing a fan letter with my purchase order, he sent back an autographed picture and in the next couple years released a couple more CDs worth of hard-rockin' Halloween music and skits. This was prior to the second phase of his career, starring in Rob Zombie's House Of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects after Mr. Zombie reportedly saw him reprise his Texas Chainsaw character to host a Universal Studios horror award show. I don't know how Bernsen met him. After telling Bernsen how much I enjoyed his performance in Brian Yuzna's and how I was looking forward to this new film he'd made starring my beloved Bill, he reached deep into his magic bag of goodies and produced a screener DVD for me to keep. The only caveat was not to express my opinion until after the release date. Now here we are. If you're reading this: Thanks, Corbin! You made something a lot bolder than the mere "zombie movie" I was expecting: You made a horror movie with Muslim terrorist villains. Ho-lee Moseley.

Dead Air proves that if horror movie producers were really serious about scaring the shit out of people, they'd use terrorism. This is the most anti-terrorist horror movie made since 9/11, maybe the only one, since - I don't know if you heard about this, but the American arts community has tended to be suspect of patriotism since the 1960s. George Romero, the Pope of zombies, has consistently used them to satirize American society for so long that every genius thinks they've got a social allegory to tell through zombies, resulting in trite piffle like Fido. After 9/11, Romero changed plans from using zombies as stand-ins for the homeless (as per this 1990s Onion AV Club interview) to using them as generic Marxist revolutionaries against generic Capitalist-Fascists in a convoluted metaphorical plot. Romero has essentially become the insufferable tenured liberal college professor of horror, writing politically charged essay movies like Diary of the Dead. Yes, he sympathizes with zombies. This ceased to be original when he gave over completely to those feelings in Day Of The Dead and that was the beginning of the Return Of The Living Dead epoch of zombie movies; the end of Romero's reign. This film belongs to the 28 Days Later epoch. Iraq-occupation zombie sequel 28 weeks later and the upcoming ZMD: Zombies Of Mass Destruction (which leaves a Mulsim-American protagonist stranded amongst zombie Middle America) are the default politics against which Bernsen and Yakkel tread.

Screenwriter Kenny Yakkel does not go so far as to make the infected running persons Muslim, more trickily the zombies are American victims of bioterrorism. In every passing year since Romero's day zombies have increasingly become meat bags for mutilation gags, the type Romero's gun crazy redneck posses enjoyed. Another liberal rebuke. Every child in America will have slaughtered a thousand zombies by the age of 12, at least in videogames. The point is that Yakkel's victims are both sympathetic and to be feared, traits not one less complimentary to the other. More than the zombies the film's biggest antagonists are the same terrorists who let loose the infection, and phase two of the plan involves further incensing hatred of Muslims. You'd think setting off a bomb would be enough, yet Yakkel wants all to know he doesn't hate Muslims. Therefore his evil terrorist characters are as conscious of inflaming bigotry as an enlightened white liberal. This is a refreshingly different set of politics from the Romero orthodoxy of the genre. Oh wait, the virus was developed by Americans...but only according to the terrorist. Incorporating the clash of civilizations, Yakkel's terrorists have apparently seen zombie movies too: their zombie pandemic has an expiration date to keep from reaching the Holy Land.

Bill Moseley's role as a call-in radio show host is perfect casting, his crotchety voice is a natural fit. He's more restrained here than I've ever seen him in his long career playing geeks and psychos. The only "normal" role I can eve compare him against another zombie movie, playing the short-lived Johnny ("They're coming to get you, Barbera!") of Tom Savini's decent 1990 Night Of The Living Dead remake. Showing a different side from his usual persona, Moseley is perfectly adept at playing protagonist and takes the film through the big emotional arc of terrorism: unlike horror films which tack on the subject as a throwaway grab for greater relevance, Dead Air waits as long as possible to reveal that the victims of the attack are turning into mindless slobbering killers. This gives Moseley and the supporting cast of the radio station time to soak in the feeling all Americans have dreaded since 9/11: what about the next time? Will there be a next time? How bad could it be? I heard these questions answered in the echoes of each character's reactions: "It's real." "It finally happened." Seeing Bill's reactions as a normal person kind of shook me. His comedown from freewheeling filler of airtime to panicked citizen trying to use his airwaves to help is what embodies the dramatic weight of the film, the collective feeling of the floor dropping out from underneath. I only wish his character were a crappy morning zoo crew host so there'd be even more of a comedown. The comedown makes his character and he's very good. Bernsen's direction is skittish in the pre-crisis period but matches pace once when things get going. His handling of combat scenes on a low budget is particularly impressive. Carpenter-esque, almost.

As one tagline explains, "Terror. Horror. The Worst Of Both Worlds." Perversely, the reality which the film's depiction of Islamic terrorism is grounded makes the movie-reality acceptance of zombies a little easier and therefore scarier. In a completely blatant fashion free of metaphor or analogy, Yakkel's story ties both fears together in a way that will horrify a lot of people for lack of political correctness. Yakkel has gone so far to show his heart is in the right place - the third act reveals Westernized Muslims in danger whom Moseley's character loves and cares for - yet our culture preprograms knee jerk reaction to any film with Muslim villains and slandering this film as anti-Muslim would be a cinch. Meanwhile the supposedly countercultural genre of horror continues to be ideologically characterized by upcoming productions like Kevin Smith's Red State (just guess who the villains are in that one) and Eli Roth's reflections that his torturous Hostel films are really about the draconian Bush years. Bernsen, Yakkel and Moseley have made a horror film for the rest of us, one which could get them into real controversy and danger, and one which will be rediscovered by many during the long war. This was a lot more than I bargained for as simply a Bill Moseley fan, and I couldn't have been more pleasantly surprised.

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