Cured of My Will to Live

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So, here’s a thing: it’s already hard enough to get your ass up out to the theater to watch a movie you honestly don’t want to watch. Who wants to waste their time and money like that, right? It’s even more difficult when you’re in my previous position with Maze Runner: The Death Cure where I kept having to re-schedule the opportunities around my work and opportunities to see that movie do not come easily because it is 2 AND A MOTHERFUCKING HALF HOURS LONG, got damn. And yet, here I am having finally seen it and so very eager to get this franchise wrapped up that I started typing the moment I got home from the theater.

And I do have some words of praise to afford the filmmakers: first off, to actually seeing the franchise all the way to the end right at the cusp of when young adult dystopia material was reaching at its end, particularly in the wake of the Divergent series’ decision to give up. Several young adult franchises involved splitting the final book in their respective literary source series into two movies unnecessarily as has been the fad since Harry Potter‘s films and this is something Maze Runner did not choose to do, to my significant esteem. I suppose this decision may have been less spurred by narrative integrity than by the fact that as of the time Maze Runner: The Death Cure has been released, it has been a little under 2 years since The Divergent Series: Allegiant underperformed and a little over 2 years after The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 underperformed, a death knell to the type of material The Maze Runner operates in. But that circumstance is also why the tenacity of the filmmakers impresses me almost as much as the fact that they have been financially rewarded for their faith. And particularly since it’s no big secret that gap of time was prolonged by the unfortunate injury of lead actor Dylan O’Brien during filming, at which point the studio decided to hold off until he could recuperate properly because nobody needs to die while making a movie.

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OK, and now with all that young adult adaptation background that I am very ashamed to have at my disposal, I can actually praise Maze Runner: The Death Cure for something actually within the text of the film itself: not only is it better than its predecessors – a low bar to clear – it might possibly be a decent watchable movie. That claim requires many caveats: to begin with, you have to have watched the first two movies because there is no hand-holding flashback or recap opening the film and – welcome in the wake of the exposition vomit that made up the scripts of Maze Runner and Scorch Trials – most of the movie is spent in actual narrative momentum with a clear objective in mind. That objective being, after the final moments of Scorch Trials where the evil corporation WCKD who accidentally invented desert zombies (zombies that don’t really appear as much in Death Cure except within the bookends) kidnaps several friends of our hero Thomas (O’Brien), he and his team arranges to break into WCKD’s walled metropolitan safe haven to specifically save Minho (Ki Hong Lee). Specifically Minho. I mean, sure there’s other folks that they mean to rescue but they only wanna mention Minho.

OK, I’m going to admit at this point while I’m getting snarky that while I’m sure The Death Cure pays off significantly to those who have been invested in the struggles of Thomas, his right hand man Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Frypan (Dexter Darden), and Brenda (Rosa Salazar). As I’m sure anybody who followed the last two movies could figure out, I was not at all and while I concede that the movie does very well to collect all of the threads of the story and tie them into a neat conclusion, it ain’t my jam. For one thing, the kids’ acting got worse with the way they try to escalate and intensify their responses to each situation with puppy dog attempts at gruff exclamations of “shit!” and this is shoved in our faces when Brodie-Sangster has an arbitrary development to his character that feels nothing more than mean-spirited. He does little else with it than bark at other characters often and hyperventilate because Newt – like pretty much every other ally – doesn’t really have a personality beyond “is loyal to Thomas”.

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It’s also shoved in our faces when the group’s mission is made complicated on the sudden romantic implication between Thomas and fellow Glader Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) that seems hella outta nowhere, especially considering how sex-less the first Maze Runner pointedly was about a girl living enclosed amongst boys and how little time they spent together in The Scorch Trials before Teresa was revealed to be a turncoat for WCKD. That the heroic group is apprehensive about Thomas’ desire to find some good in her again despite accepting the mid-film reveal of an easily guessable previously-thought-dead* murderous villain who apparently changed between movies from a violent psycho into a brusque senior rebel to look up to with few objections is just one of many inconsistencies that I rolled with because I wanted this movie to wrap up.

These threads are also the subject of an ending that really wants to sell you on the gravitas of the situation by suddenly taking stakes at the last minute that were barely on the ground before (though it ends on a much more hopeful note than that sounds) and add that to uncompelling performances from actors who are empty presences at worst and at best given little to do except Aidan Gillen’s evil militaristic Janson (which is essentially Gillen playing the same slimy contemptible piece of shit he built his career out of playing) and I’m just not here for the story, y’all. Power to those who are.

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But if you’re watching Maze Runner: The Death Cure for the visuals of director Wes Ball and the cinematography of Gyula Pados, well… it’s actually a pretty good-looking movie. We’re not talking Deakins here, but the setting of the majority of the film in an area of urban ruins and sleek cold reflective surfaces as in the central Last City where WCKD centers itself gives Ball and Pados a lot of room to play with light and shadow to give Death Cure a more mature chilliness than any scene of young looking late 20-year-olds with guns could possibly have. In general, the design of The Last City feels like the modern response to the city from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, a desperately authoritarian and insincere industrialization of survivalism all proven by how tall and closed-off the towers are. It’s not revelatory at all since we already had a feeling the makers were getting better within the sweltering desert heat of The Scorch Trials, but it’s impressive set-building and it does tell us what was the answer to The Maze Runner‘s visuals all along: keep Ball and Pados the fuck away from trees and grass.

A much more enjoyable benefit to yours truly: the action setpieces are all not only coherent and impactful, they’re also unhinged in a manner akin to the Fast and Furious movies. The central “break in and break out” heist of The Death Cure involves several “are you crazy?” type of stunts and actions on the parts of the characters that clearly would have killed any person in real-life physics – including a crane swinging a bus full of children by its front grill over a wall – and it’s the most joyous and alive the franchise has ever felt to me. And this isn’t something The Death Cure takes its sweet-ass time getting to: it opens on a kinetic grounded train heist that makes for great enough popcorn spectacle in the early months of the year.

So… is this enough to say I like Maze Runner: The Death Cure? Not really. Given how much I unexpectedly gave T.S. Nowlin’s final screenplay for the franchise, I’m starting to feel I spoke too soon in claiming it’s a decent movie. But it does recognize the job it has in closing out a franchise and establishing a brand new environment to blow to smithereens in its climax. And it sets its mind on completing that job no matter how messy it gets and for the franchise’s perseverance, I do admit admiration growing in seeing it finally reach the end of its own maze.

*I am aware that the character in question was revealed to be alive in the third book that this movie is based on, but I am not sure that his “apparent death” was as ludicrously severe as this character’s was.

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Scorched Earth

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In an effort for makeup work on writing a movie about nothing (and not in the fun Seinfeld variety), The Maze Runner‘s screenplay piled on a whole bunch of plot twists revealing the state of the world of the franchise and why the kids were trapped in giant circle for a long time, ending on its two most horrifying reveals.

The first is that Patricia Clarkson is forced to appear in this movie with a lifeless monologue to deliver, something she deserves so much better than it deserves. This is followed up by the more horrifying reveal that her character, Dr. Ava Paige, did not commit suicide as we were led to believe and so Clarkson was shackled to appear in this franchise as its apparent long-term antagonist. I can’t imagine this has any impact on a viewer not familiar with Clarkson as an actor, since our knowledge of the character’s existence up until the movie tells us she died is less than 2 minutes and less than a minute passes after that to tell us she’s alive and the bad guy.

Anyway, now Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials came about to bring along a cast of regretful and overqualified veterans to stifle her loneliness. Giancarlo Esposito’s on autopilot, Alan Tudyk’s playing a gay stereotype, Lili Taylor is just dying inside, and Barry Pepper’s the only one that’s giving a performance could call “committed”. But before any of them pop up, we are introduced shortly to Aidan Gillen’s apparent guardian Janson kicking off the overqualified adult actors after Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), the franchise’s hero, has an inscrutable flashback before waking up in the helicopter we saw him and his friends get scooped up in at the end of the previous film. Janson offers them quarter in his industrial facility with the total amount of trustworthiness that a character played by Aiden Gillen can provide, which is like… nothing so it’s not a shock when we quickly discover he’s actually working for the evil corporation of WCKD (something pronounced “wicked” but I totally feel like pronouncing as “wrecked” because I don’t wanna do a damn thing this movie asks). Thomas and his crew wisely escape upon this discovery into the real world.

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By the way, included in Clarkson’s final lines of the last film was an observation that more kids survived the events of The Maze Runner than expected and clearly The Scorch Trials thought this as well because the group Thomas escapes Janson’s facility with is smaller than the group Thomas entered that facility with, I swear to God. And they get split up anyway halfway through the movie in search of a resistance group against WCKD called The Right Arm, so there’s little interest in any character that’s not Thomas and being interested in a character as bland as Thomas feels just, like, a bad move.

But there is a good thing about this new quest they go through is that they’re not stuck behind walls and that means WORLD-BUILDING in what we now see (and Clarkson again told us in the final minutes of The Maze Runner) is a ravaged post-apocalyptic world since a virus known as the Flare destroyed most of the world. It happens to be a virus that Thomas’ clan is immune, the point of being trapped in that hole in a maze. Yeah, it still sounds stupid to me too, but when I’m about to praise the world-building of Scorch Trials, I’m not talking about the verbose and exhaustive attempt at mythology screenwriter T.S. Nowlin (now working alone, still based on James Dashner’s novel) tries to stretch out the concept. Nor am I talking about the totally unmoving addition of zombies called Cranks into the terrain replacing the CGI monstrosities in the original (and being no more convincing).

I’m talking about the set design frankly, a place where director Wes Ball gets to use his background as a graphic artist and visually shape a world that feels completely abandoned by anything but heat and smoke. Most of the travels of Thomas and company take place in a giant desert filled with fallen edifices and drown metropolitan structures called The Scorch, which Ball and cinematographer Pados Gyula do a lot to make the landscape feel endlessly barren and dry. Which sounds like the same as the boring ol’ hole-in-a-maze of the first movie except without plants and with better color timing, but it’s not. There’s character in the Ozymandias structures these kids* run through and climb, the implication of our world past in some cases recognizable. In several cases to geographically confusing degree with the buildings we catch, but I’m trying to cease being mean to Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials for like two seconds.

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And well before we even enter that desert, Jansen’s “sanctuary” to the kids is already so cold and character-less in a deliberate manner that it’s not surprising to find one’s self not entirely at ease when he leads the protagonists there with open arms (Good golly, could actually be visual directing of tone from Ball? Or was I just already on this movie’s bad side that my distrust extended to the textual context of its characters? Probably both.). Meanwhile, the little “guarded” hideout where we meet allies Jorge (Esposito) and Brenda is scrappy and desperate enough in its makeshift fashion that it’s kind of clear it’s the characters have some at-the-ropes alignment against WCKD and we can trust them. Tudyk’s corner is all unglamorous decadence in a bazaar-esque fashion, costumes and nightclub/opium den lair (with some drugged-up editing and lensing which seems… quite weird for a kids film, but aight).

Pepper and Taylor are living in a Western (Pepper’s performance especially reminds me of the one he gave in True Grit). It’s not a great Western but it’s a Western set with the same sort of texture and low-key design as the rest of Scorch Trials.

Basically, it’s not inventing the wheel in design and certain setpieces (The Scorch, Jansen’s lair) are a lot less interesting than otherwise (Pepper and Taylor’s home area), but it’s the closest Maze Runner: Scorch Trials has to feeling like it’s moving somewhere (it certainly has more momentum than its predecessor). And it doesn’t stop the story from feeling like a bunch of aimless wandering goose chases to find the legendary Right Arm until the movie decides to have WCKD show up to perform one “Very Evil Moment” yet again (but probably a godsend to one of the actors) and deliver another labored and contrived twist with one great big “is the movie over?” cut to black before returning for another scene to taunt me, but it’s something. Ball can use set design well enough once he’s out the gates and Lord let that keep me holding on when I dive into that one final Maze Runner movie and then forget this franchise ever existed.

*I have to note how weird it feels to regard these characters as “kids” when most of the actors are legit older than I am, but that says something about how I feel about Young Adult in general.

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Every Dead Body That is Not Exterminated Becomes One of Them. It Gets Up and Kills! The People It Kills Get Up and Kill!

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R.I.P. George A. Romero
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So, it’s no secret that Night of the Living Dead is one of the movies that so viscerally changed my life as a film and that it is reserved that most esteemed seat in my heart as my favorite horror film of all time. I feel like the things Night of the Living Dead did for the genre were never bettered in the slightest since. And yet, common consensus seems to lean on its 1978 follow-up Dawn of the Dead being one of those rare cases of a sequel outperforming its predecessor and if I can’t really bring myself to love it more than Night, I still might just lean on the idea that Dawn is kind of the “better” movie in a sense.

Part of it is having to just come to the conclusion that, despite being some scraggly ol’ hipster who loved the genuine lo-fi work of Night of the Living Dead and the way Romero squeezed atmosphere out of every single limitation he had and from sheer creativity, Dawn of the Dead is objectively more polished and thus a lot more focused as a horror film and as a social commentary. For of course, like its predecessor, Dawn of the Dead in itself is a very dedicated commentary ingrained inside the presentation of a zombie movie and unlike Night, it does take a good amount of digging into it to find audiences looking into a mirror about how the then-alarming growth of suburban shopping malls as a hub for community interaction deteriorates human interaction and turns folks into mindless followers of blind consumerism and BTWTHEREISNOETHICALCONSUMPTIONUNDERCAPITALISM… *clears throat*.

But there’s just so much more ambition in Dawn of the Dead that Romero gets to act upon from square one that distinguishes the movie from the very first shot with a wash of bold and textured red – distinguishing itself from Night‘s black and white – that widens and focuses to reveal it was simply a close-up of the carpeted wall of a local Philadelphia news station already three weeks deep in the outbreak and shutting off its broadcast soon. It’s here where producer Francine (Gaylen Ross) and traffic pilot Stephen (David Emge) decide to steal one of the helicopters for their own personal escape, which… guys, a helicopter! Romero gets to use a helicopter and gives his characters more mobility (and thus the zombie infection more scope) than in the claustrophobic trap of Night‘s isolated house (though again… I prefer Night in that sense, I just find Dawn‘s approach impressive!).

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During their escape, they also pick up SWAT team member Roger (Scott Reiniger) in the middle of his brutal and consciously racist police raid of a housing project. During this raid, we get to witness the full extent of the zombification of the dead and the escalating violence in no time introduces us to Tom Savini’s landmark zombie makeup and gore – comic book greys to neutralize any details in a person’s face without losing their aged look (this becomes clearer as characters we see die and return as zombies), vibrant red blood so we know somebody is maimed and the gore is the first thing our eyes target, and an all-timer of a head explosion. The sort of violence you get in a 70s cop picture put now to a darker context that demands you reckon with the amorality of the SWAT’s fascist exercise of power on the poor and cold disposal of their bodies in a practical sense. In a moral breakdown atop the building, Roger meets the hardened but humane Peter (Ken Foree) and invites him in the escape group, thereby rounding their aimless flight out of the city.

After finding out staying in the air is easier said than done, they make their personal base out of the Monroeville Mall, a huge construct of shops and restaurants and other resources that they take much time turning into their own fortress of personal goods. And at first, it’s relatively fun as a bonding exercise to have them figure out plans and ways to maintain the whole location for a long time, but soon after it becomes frighteningly insulated and the activities they try to indulge in – now that they have everything they want locked away from the world – like Stephen and Fran’s makeshift restaurant date (with a shockingly dark punchline cut to it), just feel like attempts to pretend the world isn’t dying outside those walls, even despite Peter’s steely residence near screens to illuminating the insanity going on with psychotic talking heads and Fran’s insistence that the mall won’t last. It’s a weighty portrayal of the apathy privileged people have to others’ suffering when it’s distanced and the way that Romero shoots the even the maintenance hallways and vents with plenty of space between the cameras and characters sells Monroeville Mall as just as openly empty as the lives of our four.

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That’s without recognizing how effectively uneventful Dawn of the Dead becomes very quickly. From the moment the news duo pick up the SWAT duo, the movie doesn’t really have a narrative object or target outcome. The characters have few places to express anything beyond sheer survivalism (though they’re all embodied by great performances) and until maybe the 2/3 moment – punctuated by a stressing waiting game turned into a headshot – their detours are almost strictly utilitarian. And so they earn the R&R they take in Monroeville, but it still feels sheltered and naive to do so in their condition and their personalities are clearly clashing enough to promise their eventual exile from the shelter they found. It’s almost the Tokyo Story of horror films in how much time you understand is wasted watching these folks try to deflect the inevitable.

I realize I’m not delivering this as humorous, but that’s one other thing about Dawn of the Dead. Its sense of levity and personality – most largely supplied by Italian prog rock band Goblin**’s iconic score overselling the eerie nature of a giant empty mall (the most iconic musical cue of Dawn, “The Gonk”, is in fact not Goblin’s creation) and a climax that precludes its intense horror and hopelessness with a disarming amount of pie fights – is what prevents Dawn from turning into an overwhelmingly nihilistic film in spite of all its observations about humanity, especially in consideration of the alternate ending it was forced to shelve due to budgetary restrictions*. And this is probably where I especially end up preferring Night as a film, because it’s fearless in selling its themes angrily and with vicious bite. Dawn still finds itself watchable and insightful due to its craft and survives the theatrical ending turning out to be the film’s only flaw.

There’s only so much you can stretch out of the budget and narrative constraints of a single-location story that demands its characters, save for Fran, refuse to evolve due to their egos, but Night already made good on Romero’s promise to deliver on that and Dawn of the Dead is the result of him trying to push it further and build as a filmmaker. When one recognizes that the driving force of the zombie genre has to be its characters cooped up, Dawn of the Dead is the ultimate zombie film to bring that out. And being made in the ultimate middle ground between the updated budget of an esteemed filmmaker but the creative freedom of an independent feature, Romero ends up with the ultimate movie to show his heart, his ideas, his glee, and even the city he came from that he clearly loved for supporting his dreams and letting him shooting in malls and airfields and news stations. There’s probably no better film to remember and revisit him by.

*Allegedly, the particular dummy needed for the grim final note of that alternate ending was considered unfinished and couldn’t be used so they just had it the target of that famous head explosion in the housing raid.
**Goblin was of course at the time collaborated with Italian giallo icon Dario Argento, who also famously helped Romero with the development of the film.

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Dead Men Tell The Same Ol’ Tales

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I don’t think a single person in the world asked for another Pirates of the CaribbeanPirates of the Caribbean movie. Hell, I don’t think a single person asked for it back in 2012 when Rob Marshall’s sloppy Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides made good on Disney’s threat to continue past the original trilogy. Hell, I’m sure half of the people who received Pirates sequels when they asked for them in 2006 and 2007 kind of ended up with a regret that they existed to dilute and complicate the enjoyment of the original Curse of the Black Pearl, one of the most fun and surprising summer blockbusters of my lifetime. It would only make for Walt Disney Pictures and Johnny Depp to want to keep hanging by that successful thread during one of the most tumultuous periods of their respective careers (which Disney has since recovered from but I don’t think Depp’s ever will). And the honest truth is that much like On Stranger Tides has mostly faded from others’ minds, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales will do so as well and this is despite being a much better movie than the sequels that preceded it.

That’s not a high bar.

Anyway, the way Dead Men Tell No Tales gets to being that “best sequel in the franchise” is simple, they repeated the narrative steps of Curse of the Black Pearl. Like that’s it. They took every single narrative step that the one great Pirates of the Caribbean movie pulled and retread them all again. Though the way they retread those steps are inarguably weaker, for one re-establishing our ol’ pirate scalliwag “Captain” Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) once again abandoned by his crew (but without the messiness of mutiny and all) and having him recruited by a young man wishing to free somebody he loves from imprisonment amongst the pirates. That young man is Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) and he wants Jack’s help finding Poseidon’s Trident to free his father, previous hero Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) from the curse Jack actually put him under three years ago to save Will’s life – the curse that made Will the Captain of the accursed ghost ship The Flying Dutchman. Alongside them is a young scientifically minded woman Carina Smythe (Kaya Scodelario) who is also in search of Poseidon’s Trident and her father, evading pursuers accusing her of being a witch (which makes little sense but whatever) while Jack is evading the revenge of undead Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) after Jack gets rid of his compass.

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So basically Thwaites and Scodelario are playing the same roles Bloom and Keira Knightley (also returning as Will’s old love Elizabeth Turner) played in the original Pirates trilogy and while Scodelario is barely better at establishing agency than Knightley, Thwaites is far below Bloom. And Bloom’s no De Niro. It’s some very vanilla acting overall, only salvaged by Depp finding a lot more comfort in having Sparrow become a tricksy puck rather than the lead and Bardem’s spitting anger. Even Geoffrey Rush is done with this, in his mandated return as pirate rival to Sparrow, Admiral Hector Barbossa.

I’m not 100 on the logic of Salazar and his crew’s return, but that’s fine because that crew makes up the first time in a while where the frequently undead (because when does this franchise ever not have undead pirates?) actually play with the horror imagery, having them half present and fragmented and grisly but in blue paleness to their skin is sure enough to give children the creeps enough to pass as a Disney film, while Bardem knows how to turn that handicap on his character into an anchor for his acting, much like Bill Nighy before him as Davy Jones. And while it goes without saying that directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (of the fellow sea-faring picture Kon-Tiki) are not Gore Verbinski in their popcorn filmmaking ability, there’s a lot in this film to make for a pleasant enough diversion from the very labored script (I personally think Barbossa gets the worst of it with an element tacked on that feels absolutely unearned despite how long we’ve been acquainted with Rush in the character, but there’s also the possible contender in Royal Lieutenant Scarfield played by David Wenham, who seems so arbitrary and second-banana as a threat compared to Salazar). There’s their action sequences such as the wonderful rescue of Jack and Carina from execution early on, particularly in a very theme-park-ride esque shot involving a guillotine on Jack’s head that feels like a Looney Tunes moment. There’s the wiliness of a flashback in which Jack shows his sea skills that turned Captain Salazar in for dead. Rønning and Sandberg know their way around over-the-top physics in an action scene, save for a very underwhelming and forgettable CGI climax to remind us that this is of course a summer tentpole (in 2017… a disappointing summer to say the least).

There’s nothing about this that screams a necessary watch. Like I said, nobody asked for this movie to exist and I think the world would keep right on turning if it didn’t. But Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a return of the franchise to some kind of quality and however minute that amount may be, it has to count for something.

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25 for 25 – This Ain’t No Love-In, This Ain’t No Happening, This Ain’t No Feeling in My Arm

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When I decided to get digging into this personal series, one of the very first things that I remembered was how immediately unsatisfying my double review of Halloween and Night of the Living Dead was upon its first posting and my public pledge to return to those movies whenever I could. Whelp, I guess it’s time to pay the piper. And one of these is my favorite horror movie of all time so I may as well begin with that.

Night of the Living Dead is potentially the laziest choice you could ever make for your favorite horror film because it is so very popular and well-known and influential. It ranks up there with the Universal Monsters and Psycho as the most influential and recognizable horror film of the 21st Century, effectively shaping how horror cinema would function in all of the years to follow. And how it does that is also possibly how it finds itself snuggly close to my heart. One of these the minimalist austerity of the classical era, something director George A. Romero had absolutely no choice except to use as a tool kit for his low-budget black-and-white $114,000 production. The other is the absolutely visceral physically-minded horror that Night of the Living Dead cuts through its seemingly restrained production like a beast swooping upon a prey, the most recognizable aspect of horror filmmaking these days of slashers and torture porn and generally violent horror pictures, from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre all the way over to A Cure for Wellness, even if the gore isn’t a-flowing in a particular horror movie. Given that I adore both of those sides of the horror cinema coin, the fact that Night of the Living Dead flips in between those is in the end a large part of what ensures it a spot in my personal canon. It’s not the FIRST movie to do it – Psycho, Eyes Without a FacePeeping Tom, and Blood Feast (let alone all of the Hammer studio pictures) introduced many of these practices in a more sophisticated manner – but the grimy dirt on Night of the Living Dead‘s production values probably makes it easier for me to respond to (and answers why it’s one of my filmmaking bibles as a movie). Sometimes grit and grime makes something seem more real, even if it’s as ridiculous as a zombie story.

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Indeed, Romero and co-writer John A. Russo provided the FIRST zombie story as we know it, as they were previously simply treated as voodoo hypnotized corpses pristine without a semblance to the shambling, decrepit, and cannibalistic corpses we know them as (and while the zombies in Night of the Living Dead aren’t all that decrepit, the very pale makeup gives them a sickly ghoulish look especially with the contrast of the black-and-white photography, not to mention their absent facial expressions). That first zombie story is not complex on a surface level: a group of people in the face of a plague of undead eaters sit stuck in one small house, all in different frames of mind at our first meeting of them, and we slowly watch the tension between different game plans and egos boil out until the zombies spill into the house and up the carnage. Barbra (Judith O’Dea) is our first in on the story, as she witnesses her brother’s death in a cemetery visit gone nightmarish and then follow her to the seemingly abandoned house, but she’s quickly made catatonic and unresponsive from the trauma and the main focus is the clash between African-American calm tactical-minded Ben (Duane Jones), who comes in soon after to secure the house, and the white, paranoid, sputtering, flop sweat patriarch Harry (Karl Hardman), holing up in the basement to protect his wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) and sick daughter Karen (Kyra Schon).

All others are merely casualties in the middle of Ben and Harry’s fight for control of the situation from two very apparently different stances and I really can’t go this far anymore without echoing everybody else on how obviously (even if incidentally by Romero’s admission) Night of the Living Dead functions as a racial commentary. There’s no way in 1968 you can have a white man and a black man so at heads, especially with the black man winning out most of the time, frustrating the white man at how he’s usurped and not be a commentary about race relations. There’s no way you can have THAT ending (which I won’t spoil) in 1968 and not be a commentary on race relations. I’m not being profound in mentioning this. It’s especially obvious that the film WANTS us to be on Ben’s side – Ben is always the most rational character in the frame and Jones is frankly the only actor who gives a performance above and beyond the basics of his character – so when the movie goes on to use Ben and Harry’s conflict for its own nihilistic ends, it’s not the way one expects or hopes.

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What violates my sense of narrative most in this film, more than the ending, more than the sudden violence used to punctuate the long drawn-out tensions (convincing with Romero’s control on the framing and editing), is the fact that the fight between Ben and Harry ends up leaving people killed no matter what. Abruptly, suddenly, with no real information to contextualize beyond a news cast that serves us exposition and an eye on how this situation is working out within the continental United States (I’ve read around on how the Vietnam War and its frank television coverage is another subject of Night of the Living Dead‘s social commentary, removing the divide American viewers had with violence going on in a faraway country and bringing right home). I don’t want to go so far as to claim Ben is wrong in the end (for it’s not a secret how cruel the film is to everyone and on nobody’s side), but he’s OUR HERO. He’s supposed to leave the film with everybody alive and well.

And he can’t save everyone the way we want him to. This is something I think Robert Kirkman has tried to utilize in his comic book series The Walking Dead (and its TV adaptation) and its hero Rick Grimes, but the problem is there’s more of a finite element in film whereas a comic book can keep adding characters on and on.

Anyway, that’s all just praising Night of the Living Dead on the narrative end without acknowledging that the real reason this movie is such a Bible to me is how it utilizes its limitations as much as it can to be potent tension regardless of how apolitical you might be. Again, this movie takes place in one house and yet Romero knows how to keep the 96-minute runtime moving with using the angle of the frame to clock out the increasing uneasiness of its characters all the way to their outright hysteria, a sense of bringing the movie out of balance visually with fear with an insistence on having the movie feel trapped or cornered with these characters, whether the angry humans or the dangerous zombies. Implication enough – with the help of the actors’ expressions – to know we’re watching something horrible and giving a sickliness to the frames of powdered white people eating Bosco’s Chocolate covered hams pretending it’s blood-soaked guts. And while the music is nothing to write home about, oversignaling the mood, the sound mix is otherwise the sort of thing that gets under your skin in its lo-fi (as it would have to be) manner. Just recently, I tried to show a friend a clip of the most infamous (and possibly violent) moment in the whole film – you know the one… with the trowel… – and she wouldn’t finish it because hearing the continuous moans and beats of the zombies outside the house door was completely upsetting to her. So, there’s your thing.

Any movie was eventually going to open the doors in 1968 – shortly after Some Like It Hot destroyed the Production Code’s power – for truly violent reckless cinema to finally enter horror culture, but Night of the Living Dead does it with a slight restraint and earthiness that both adds to the grungy disturbing elements and then harkens back to the limitations of our more classical terror works that had to make do with (albeit unfortunately NotLD does have a cheapness that makes unpalatable to some). And no other movie does it with such an angry attitude, having things to say about how ugly the world is, right down to the final beat of the film and how the credits follow the ramifications of it to the very final frame.

Night of the Living Dead didn’t open the doors, it blew them wide the fuck open. For cinema, for horror culture, and for this little 16-year-old that watched it late at night in an isolated house in Homestead, FL in 2008.

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Splatterhouse Rock

Sam Raimi’s original Evil Dead trilogy hits a pretty sacred spot for me. The first entry is the first NC-17 movie I’ve ever watched, a horror movie that jarred with my previous idea of Raimi as the director of something as wholesome as Spider-Man, and a truly demanding work of emotional exhaust. The second entry (for the record, the last one I saw) is a rollickingly impressive toss of slapstick and disturbing material that deftly avoids undercutting the comedy or terror of the moment. The third entry is of course just a good-time adventure picture reminiscent of the ol’ Harryhausen works that made me want to grow up to be Bruce Campbell’s Ashley J. Williams and one that is absent of horror movie elements in a deliberate manner. They’re all pictures I have intense nostalgia for and while I accept the flaws in them (except Evil Dead II, it is flawless, fite me), they are movies I don’t take to kindly to remaking.

Even the original trio of producers – Robert Tapert, Campbell, and Raimi themselves – through their Ghost House Pictures company were the ones who had an active and involved hand with making Evil Dead, Uruguayan filmmaker Fede Alvarez’s feature-length debut after making a very impressive (in spite of film grain and some dated CGI) indie short film on YouTube called Ataque de Panico (if you’re into giant robots like I am, check it out, it’s only 5 minutes long). The more news I heard about it, the more jaded I was towards the idea of the remake all the way into the advanced screening I sat in on surrounded by folks excited for the return of the “Ultimate Experience in Grueling Terror” and once it began… well…

Rather than Ash and his close friends, Alvarez and Diablo Cody’s scri– wait, what the fuck?! Diablo Cody? Seriously? Huh. The script focuses on five friends along the same relative lines towards each other as the original gang: David (Shiloh Fernandez) brings his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) to a retreated cabin in the woods in the hopes of connecting with his sister Mia (Jane Levy), whom he’s had a strained relationship bordering on abandonment long since the death of their mother. Mia’s own friends Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and Olivia (Jessica Lucas) are already there to lay down the real stakes of David and Mia’s reconciliation – Mia has by now had an alarmingly near-fatal heroin overdose and they’re keeping her out of the world for a while to help her break out of her addiction.

There are many reasons why it pains to say that (despite reviews picking on the characters) this focused-on group – although pretty much nobody in it is three-dimensional – are significantly more interesting than the cannon fodder of the original 1981 film’s five people. One of the reasons reciting this fact frustrates me will be obvious later on in this review.

During this retreat/intervention is when Eric and David dig around and end up finding the Naturon Demonto and Eric screws around with it enough to mean bad juju for the group, begin with the possession of Mia and the utterly disturbing self-torture her possessed herself through. Dismissed as heroin fit. Which, needless to say, will bode very unwell for these folks.

OK, with that plot run-through done with, I’m sure it’s ok to just come out at this point and say that Evil Dead ’13 at once assuaged half of my doubts and unfortunately validated the other half and that’s why I haven’t grown as appreciative of it as a movie as most of the other Evil Dead fanatics I know who are every bit as dedicated to that trilogy as me. It is actually a really well-done film, dedicated to practical effects in gooey visceral manner akin to Raimi’s own magic bag of tricks (if not as much with giggles that keep us from going “ew!”). Fede Alvarez probably has a great amount of future in a cinematic craftsman as he’s just about ready to spray shot by shot without any discrimination with blood whenever he can. He does it well enough to be believable and make us avert our eyes – maybe the biggest point of this for me is when Mia, possessed, deliberately scalds herself in the shower to the point of boils erupting on her body.

Which could go both ways really – technique aside. It’s fine to recognize the Evil Dead franchise as one based largely in its physical violence and DIY pools of red, but it’s always been more than that, underneath it. The first Evil Dead wasn’t just a splatter pic, it was a ghost story that spent half of its runtime establishing the mood and the location of its terror, building itself up. Evil Dead II was essentially one giant showpiece for the talents of Bruce Campbell, God bless him. Even say the classic early works of Peter Jackson could specifically be defined exclusively by being a bloodbath (though personally I feel Evil Dead ’13 out-bloods Dead Alive by a bit) took it to being more than a flow and based its viscera display on a sense of humor that Jackson made appealing without being ordinary.

It’s not that Evil Dead ’13 isn’t scary. Or that it HAS to be more than the sum of its gore. It probably wouldn’t bother me as much if Evil Dead ’13 didn’t have an avenue by which to be more than it is now.

But it does. And it stares me right in the fucking face.

Mia’s struggles in trying to break out of her heroin addiction. Any movie with a premise based on the bodily tortures of someone by their own hand or a friend’s and bothering to use THAT as a backstory for one of the leads must be able to see how easily one could compliment the other. But the movie screws itself over by making Mia essentially the first victim of the possession and, as such, she’s out of commission for most of the picture. We don’t get that sort of depth to the story and it was right there… right there in Alvarez and Diablo Cody’s faces. The most we get as a result is when Mia first starts acting strange, her friends and brother act horribly dismissive towards her actions as a withdrawal fit. Like goddamn. Such potential wasted.

On the other hand, it’s possibly this might be a blessing in disguise. Most of the film lies on Shiloh Fernandez and Lou Taylor Pucci’s shoulders and tell you the truth, neither of them are nearly enough to hold my attention long until the next violent setpiece. Hell, they don’t have the same blank [insert victimized posture here] presence that Campbell’s unimpressive performance in the first film had, they’re just reciting words about “insanity” and such. Can’t say much about Jessica Lucas or Elizabeth Blackmore. Jane Levy is easily best in show and that’s because she has a lot more descent into madness to work with, as well as being the easiest emotional anchor, even once she’s far gone into Deadite territory (if I’m being honest, I can’t tell where Levy’s appearance ends and Randal Wilson’s performance as her possessed version begins because they compliment each other so very well). So, if they did try to make it a tale of dealing with addiction, they may very well have had the movie fall on its face.

As such, the movie simply stands as a testament to how much blood one can spill into a movie before the MPAA tells them “Whoa… no…” (right down to a final setpiece that had my friend whispering to me in the theater “Slayer would be proud”) and that’s fine enough. It doesn’t make for a bad movie at all. But it makes for one that leaves a lot to be missed in terms of substance, especially when teased like it is, and all the bloody gushiness in the world can’t make up for it to me.

On a final note, all that shit in the credits. In the theatrical cut, it’s all the biggest fan service that could bug me. It’s great to see Bruce Campbell’s face, but we didn’t need it. It’s cool to hear Professor Knowby’s voice, but it’s after the fact. And in the TV/Home Video cut… well, what was necessary about the car scene? There’s no tension, nothing implied, we just know “Oh, she’s… not possessed. Which we knew.”

Ay yi yi yi, Evil Dead, folks. It could be better.

Hail to the King, Baby!

What a world to be alive in when there are at least four versions of Army of Darkness. Count ’em, four of those fuckers! I’ve only seen three – the theatrical version which I own on DVD *ahem* in a special manner (I’ll get into it at the end of this review), Sam Raimi’s preferred director’s cut which I don’t own yet because I suck, and the television cut which is the first time I watched it on Sci-Fi sorry Syfy back when watching that channel wasn’t anywhere near punishing – but I also know of an international cut. And given that Army of Darkness is one of the most fun movies that has ever graced the earth, even if I still prefer its two predecessors in the Evil Dead series, that makes it a wonderful world when you could get a slightly different experience like Douglas Adams edited this movie rather than Raimi and Bob Murawski. If it were a perfect world, my preferred cut would be the first half of the director’s cut (which actually tightens up the crazy windmill scene where Ash deals with a bunch of mini versions of him in a manner only Ash could be excused for) up until Ash faces his evil version, the theatrical cut starting from his line “Good, bad, I’m the guy with the gun” (absent from the Director’s cut because even Raimi can be a fucking idiot) and go all the way down to the end, for reasons I will go into later on as well. But the world is wonderful enough where we have both. Maybe one day I’ll make an editing exercise of this, Soderbergh-style.

Still I dropped that bomb earlier about how, despite never ceasing my adoration for Army of Darkness as the one movie I am most likely to pop into my DVD player more than the other two films in my Blu-Ray player, I still consider those The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II the superior pictures. For one, those two previous movies actually still have that raw “we made this” sense to them that the studio production of Army of Darkness simply lacks… though Army of Darkness clearly eschews hiding that to embrace the fact that it is a great big adventure. It’s moving the adventures of Bruce Campbell’s Ashley J. Williams into a new fucking direction and it’s an absolute blast for that.

The other thing is that, maybe, as a result of Raimi and crew now having made into Hollywoodland and getting to make Army of Darkness there with that Universal Studios money, Army of Darkness‘s storytelling is less ambitious. It is not as dedicated to making a genre picture as its two predecessors (it is inarguably out of the horror genre – even the presence of living moving skeletons in the film is more Harryhausen tribute in swashbuckling adventure form rather than even the slightest effort at being spooky in even the obvious fun sense) and it’s less thematically sophisticated – taking basically the bare premise of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (as it’s obviously an unofficial adaptation of) and removing all Twain’s wit to make room for Raimi’s Three Stooges inspired slapstick sensibility. Which is fine, better you work with what you know than what you don’t know as well… nobody really likes Evil Dead II for its clever dialogue play, but because of Ash’s visual suffering.

Ash’s suffering has now taken a brand new turn here. He’s not stuck in one creepy wooden cabin anymore, but – as we last left him in the end of Evil Dead II – he and his Oldsmobile ARE still stuck somewhere he’d rather not be in. He’s in the Middle Ages, briefly enslaved in a misunderstanding yet still clear asshole move by Lord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert) until Ash is able to prove himself a bit more of a top dog than Arthur by killing two Deadites – the possessed undead creatures from the franchise – which have been giving our 14th Century boys a bit more trouble than they’ve wanted. The Wise Man (Ian Abercrombie) recognizes Ash through his “boomstick” and chainsaw as a prophesied hero who would “fall from the sky” to rid our Medieval fellas of their Deadite scourge, but of course Ash is reluctant to get involved in the quest to find the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis in the far end of the land and bring it back to them until The Wise Man also states that the book will of course be able to send Ash back to his own time and his deadbeat job at S-Mart that he misses so much.

And like that, after courting one of the beauties there (Embeth Davidtz) like he didn’t days before have to kill his old girlfriend, Ash is now off on his quest to save the day and get back home.

This is obviously the Ash show, even if we have a wider cast of characters now. Everybody is just moving out of Campbell’s way as he delivers annoyed, snarky sarcasm every single step he has to take, but with a newfound certainty and undertones of grizzledness to his fatigue that wasn’t in his hysterics during Evil Dead II (though the scene where he is stuck in a windmill with the night’s effects messing with him still harkening slightly back to the sort of torture he had to go through in the second film) that frankly make him… there’s no other word for it…. a badass. He’s totally rude (my favorite delivery of a line in this movie is a nearly unnoticeable throwaway: as he’s being congratulated by the peasants in his return, he is so done with this shit that he tells one of them off-hand “Get the fuck out of my face.”), he’s much more of an asshole than he ever was in the series, he totally thinks his life is bullshit at this point, but he’s also maybe the most badass here than he ever has been in the series. And Campbell’s ability to still make a character so blatantly dismissive yet charismatic as an adventure hero this time around promised great things for that show the following year The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. that only three people in the world watched (seriously, I’d recommend it).

And it’s not like Campbell doesn’t have a bunch of studio sets and big budget stuff to keep him in the moment anyway, as Raimi begins to expand his toybox of techniques he’s learned between the previous Darkman and here, to the continued effect of cartooniness from Evil Dead II (except in a more appropriate playing field now). Some are kind of easy to catch, like the superimposition used for the mini Ashes scene, but they’re all really bubbly and the artificiality of it is only a minor annoyance. I can’t get mad at catching the claymation bones of a villain as he has a thrilling swordfight with someone. I can’t get too angry at Raimi’s camera movement trying to hide the fact that Ash’s final Oldsmobile battle rig isn’t moving when just the introduction of the thing in the fighting zone is bombastic enough to get me going “Yeah!”. That ending battle between the knights and the undead is chaotic and everywhere and I love it all the more for that, especially when it can still make clear the stakes and location of all the major players. The movie takes care of just the bare minimum of what it needs to and you can either enjoy the ride or take a hike. It’s not that long anyway, it’s a brisk 81 minutes, so stop your whining.

Of course, unlike The Evil Dead or even Evil Dead IIArmy of Darkness is so light and frothy that we never once have the idea that anything will go wrong and Ash will fail. So I don’t feel I’m spoiling anything by pointing out the biggest major difference between the theatrical cut and the Director’s cut which is their endings. In both versions, Ash drinks a potion the Wise Man makes him to have him sleep through time, but in the Director’s Cut, Ash drinks one drop too many and ends up waking in an apocalyptic future rather than the time he came from. It definitely is more in line with both Twain’s novel and how the Evil Dead movies before it ended with their own “Ash is still in deeper shit” moment, but I can’t say I’m fonder of this ending that what Universal mandated for their American release of the film.

Which is Ash getting back to his time just fine and suddenly saving the day again from a Deadite at S-Mart with all the confidence and cockiness a hero needs to make a battle against a demon seem like an effortless inconvenience. It maintains the humor, the grandeur (hell, it translates it and transforms the mundanity of an suburban department store into a fucking battleground), and of course, the badassery that makes me absolutely love the movie entirely. Every line Ash has here is a quip and we just keep loving him more and more. I wish it wasn’t edited and shot in a discontinuous manner that felt like Raimi was begrudged to make this ending (the Deadite never really gets a final blow so much as just dies). But it’s still totally awesome and the movie ending on any other note than Ash having just reholstered his shotgun, telling a girl to “Hail to the King, Baby!”, and making out with her would have been an outright tragedy, I don’t care how dark the Director’s Cut ending would have been.

It’s way too good to be King.

And of course, a King Campbell was in my eyes. I hadn’t seen Evil Dead II yet in high school and obviously his performance in The Evil Dead was too bland and cookie-cutter to be stand-out, so it is his Army of Darkness performance that really made the guy shine in my eyes making him my favorite actor as a teenager as I kept watching a movie or tv show that would be on the air if he even had the smallest appearance (bad move since that meant I sat through The Love BugMcHale’s Navy, Man with the Screaming Brain, etc. the poor guy’s been in a lot of stinkers) and always having a blast to see him on-screen no matter what he was doing.

So back to the manner in which I own the DVD. Well, since I live in Miami for a while where Burn Notice was filmed, my mom found out they were filming right outside her workplace, so I talked my way out of work that day, arranged to meet with my friend there, snuck on set and well…

Photo on 10-27-15 at 4.39 AM #2

Hail to the King, Baby!

For God’s Sake, How Do You Stop It?!

There’s an observation within two horror franchises that I’ve seen communicated to a point that I can sort of meet them halfway: When it comes to the Resident Evil games’ entry into over-the-shoulder shooting gameplay around the time of Resident Evil 4 (technically its sixth entry) and to Aliens’ release as a runner-up to Alien, it simply makes sense that the franchises have now delved away from horror to becoming outright action. We’re not scared of there being monsters behind the door, we know they’re there and we’re going to hit them first (though I maintain that Resident Evil 4 is still a very scary horror game).

Evil Dead II turns that thing all the way around. As far as director/co-writer Sam Raimi was concerned, the only real evolution from horror now that we know the monsters are there… is comedy. To laugh along with them as they take out their torments on poor Bruce Campbell’s Ashley “Ash” J. Williams. While still retaining a lot of the overt yet solid creepiness of the horror genre.

If I may be frank, I honestly believe the comedy shift favors Evil Dead II more than the action shift favors Aliens or Resident Evil 4. It is as a result one of my favorite movies and one that I consider superior to The Evil Dead.

This certainly wasn’t an opinion I was willing to jump to immediately, simply based on nostalgia. While I saw The Evil Dead for the first time in middle school and so was able to latch unintended nostalgia onto it, I didn’t see Evil Dead II until I was in college. Yep. But I did see it in 35mm when I first saw it, so it had that going for it. Which is nice.

Before I go any further, I really need to be a stickler for something – constantly I see Evil Dead II referred to as a remake and it is most certainly not such a film, but it’s easy to see where the misconception comes from. Originally the screenplay by Raimi and Scott Spiegel (drafted in the middle of the production of Crimewave – a noir parody film that was Raimi’s sophomore film and written by the Coen bros. I made it sound better than it is) called for the film to be opened up with the recap of the original film using its footage, but rights issues in one way or another got in the way.

As a result, Evil Dead II opens up with a newly-shot and cast re-run into the main events of The Evil Dead sped through in the first 15 minutes – Ash is in this version of events joined solely by his girlfriend Linda (Denis Bixler replacing Betsy Baker) albeit because who wants to start a movie with the protagonist killing his four friends within the first few minutes? Like the previous film, Linda becomes possessed from the now-renamed Necronomicon Ex-Mortis (soidifying the book’s presence as a Lovecraftian Element rather than just implying it). Ash reluctantly dismembers her to save her soul and is tormented for it. And we reach the end point of The Evil Dead where the force actively rushes for Ash next right before the ending credits.

Except THIS is where Evil Dead II really starts for all intents and purposes. If you haven’t seen The Evil Dead (in which case, go watch it now! Why are you reading this?) You may use the preceding minutes in Evil Dead II to fill in where we are in Ash’s story, but if you have seen the previous movie, that opening only serves as a refresher. The editing even gives the frame a frozen-frame zooming-in motion as if to motion to the audience that NOW we’re really getting into the story.

And just as we’re left with Ash realizing he is so fucked, the first third of the movie proper has one character and one character only – Ash. By himself. In the Cabin. As one would expect, such a premise would need a charismatic and able lead actor to guide the audience through the various psychological and physical torments Ash goes through, especially one that could allow himself to be at once victim and clown to take hold of Raimi’s intent of turning this demon possession story into a Three Stooges Halloween Special without making the joke on the ghouls themselves. It’s certainly not going to be that bland handsome face who was more of a function than a character in the first movie so I guess Evil Dead II is kinda doomed.

Except Bruce Campbell is exactly that kind of actor who can perform all those demands of mugging and slapstick and jumps through those hoops ably, making me kind of mad the movie moves on to the arrival of four other characters pretty quickly. I could watch Campbell throw himself about all fucking day if I have to. When his evil hand begins having a life of its own, Campbell is so perfectly able to make his own appendage distinguishable enough in movement to be its own character and especially a threat to himself. When the hand begins to turn against him slamming plates on his head, it’s hilarious. How could it not be? But right before that, when Ash lies on the floor crying “give me back my hand”… Campbell doesn’t make it any sort of joke. He’s seriously scared and alone, his voice quavering and weak.

Maybe a trained mime or clown would know how to do it better than Campbell does it, but it fools me and that’s enough to – alongside his energetic frenzy at both fear and laughter – to make this Ash one of my favorite performances I’ve seen in a motion picture and needless to say my favorite Campbell turn (I haven’t seen his 1997 Running Time though, which Bruce would emphatically call his favorite performance he has done. Maybe it’ll change my mind).

It’s not exactly where one could say Campbell developed his awesome ability as a magnetic (if one-note) lead who isn’t used half as much as he should (I’d claim it was just prior when he played Renaldo “The Heel” in Crimewave; maybe Cleveland Smith if we really want to go back), but the amount of over exaggerated caricature in a single eyebrow arch or drop of a jawline is what makes Campbell one of my favorite actors.

Anyway, that’s a lot of gushing for Campbell alone and there’s still plenty of movie to talk about. Maybe I’ve remained on it because for the most part, Evil Dead II still does all the things The Evil Dead did right: Peter Deming’s cinematography re-incorporating all the fog, the motion of the camera with off-kilter angles, blue lighting (this time without ever letting us see the light sources). But now with a decent budget, funded by Dino de Laurentiis – thanks to Stephen King’s vouch – giving designers Randy Bennett, Philip Duffin, and Elizabeth Moore much to up the theatricality so we don’t have moments where we catch it being a movie so much as a ride. Such showcases of their newfound budget includes the movie having stop-motion (most notably the undead Linda dance Ash witnesses) that looks like something out of Ray Harryhausen’s nightmares or the bigness of scenarios like the final battle where the house and woods become a living breathing monster set and completely go against Ash and his new sidekick Annie Knowby (Sarah Berry), the only other character who doesn’t seem to just be there for the sake of body count and the daughter of the Professor whose voice is heard in the tape recording found in the cabin played throughout the film. It should be thrown in that even if the characters of Evil Dead II don’t have weight, they are all stock types to its immense favor of at least cannon fodder having personality within it (I wonder if Bobbie Joe would have been better if Holly Hunter, a friend of Raimi and Campbell’s who B.J. is based on, instead of Kassie Wesley DePaiva – though if I have to admit, she’s at least second-best in the small cast even above Berry. She’s got attitude at least.).

But Campbell and Raimi’s glee at just throwing the movie into whatever tonal gear they feel like without making it clunky (praise to editor Kaye Davis for keeping up) is undoubtedly the biggest anchor that turns Evil Dead II into such a one-of-a-kind movie that could only be made by the sort of folks that at once just love to make movies for the fun of it and yet at the same time know exactly what about the elements all together work to give the experience it needs. Going whiplash from psychological terror to live-action Looney Tune to underground trapped with a zombie to bloodbath to outright heroics in the end (everybody’s gotta love when Ash gets his chainsaw arm and shotgun it’s just so g… no, I won’t say it) and just when it makes the most unexpected turns of design and direction (the final beats are obviously De Laurentiis-esque though I don’t doubt they were entirely of Raimi and Spiegel’s invention), it leaves itself ready for another adventure of fear and laughs.

Maybe the biggest element that personifies Evil Dead II as a movie is where Ash is still in the cabin by himself and the Cabin elements – the lights, the windows, the boards, the cabinets, most ghoulishly memorable of all a single deer head mount with eyes as white all the possessed characters in the franchise – begin laughing at him, cruelly and cartoonishly, jerking around in sync with their giggles. And Ash, absolutely appalled by this point at how much he’s been messed with, goes into hysterics laughing along with the cabin all around and joining them before those bellows of delirious laughter become anguished screams and cries of despair without Campbell missing a beat.

That really is Evil Dead II in a nutshell and maybe the finest scene in both Raimi and Campbell’s career and watching it by itself as a short film makes a pretty obvious tell towards both how viewer will react to the movie (I’ve seen rooms of people laugh at it; rooms of people silent in horror) and to how certain and dedicated Raimi and Campbell are to leaving you just as crazy and exhausted as Ash, but completely fulfilled out of pushing through it all with him.

On a final note only vaguely related to Evil Dead II that I can’t discuss anywhere else, the 35mm screening I saw the movie in for the first time still had all of its trailers attached to the print and one of the things that played right before the movie began was a Loews Theater bumper of theater etiquette.

Featuring. Fucking. Sesame Street characters. And I am an unapologetic Sesame Street enthusiast. It was so awesome to watch it right before an Evil Dead movie.

Man, if the print burned up right before the movie started but after this video I would have felt like I got my goddamn money’s worth.

Oh, sorry, I probably should’ve ended this post about laughing scene. Yeah, we’re done here, I’m gonna watch this video again and again.

The Ultimate Experience in Grueling Horror

Around age 12, at one point in my life, I was playing soccer or basketball – one or the other – with my cousin and my brother. I asked my cousin off-hand what the scariest movie he ever saw was and he answered with The Evil Dead, which he happens to own at the time on VHS and lent it to me, which I was hesitant to do since I knew the movie was rated NC-17 (a pretty little known fact by anyone except probably those like me who were raised to avoid PG-13 movies until age 13 and R rated/NC-17 were right out of the question according to my parents). Still he insisted not only that I watch it, but that I watch it in the dark at night.

I chickened out not only at that chance of seeing it in the dark, but I did not chicken out on seeing the movie that very night anyway (though I remember having a heart attack when my mom watched me rewinding it, thinking she’d punish me for it – in retrospect, I don’t even think she knew the movie existed and so I don’t know why I feared it). That same cousin later on let me keep it (as was kind of his habit with any movie he lent me, he wasn’t really a cinephile though he did enjoy movies enough to occasionally pass by and borrow whatever was in my collection.)

For this reason among others that I will go into, The Evil Dead is a movie that has a special place in my heart for a great number of reasons. It is maybe the first horror movie not featuring Freddy Krueger that I took an extreme obsession towards. At the time, it was a movie that I was pretty surprised could be so tonally different from director Sam Raimi’s later Spider-Man (my favorite movie at that age), to be so cruel and gory within his first feature film (although now I’ve watched enough of Raimi’s films to catch the consistent in-your-face wacky style style that he’s had in every movie from The Evil Dead to Drag Me to Hell.

A much bigger reason for my adoration and constant watching of The Evil Dead was simply that I was impressed by how it was made. As both an emphatic IMDb browser then and already having been bit by the bug of wanting to make movies at that point, I began to take Raimi’s low-budget production history to making a superficially simple but effective horror story followed by acclaim at Cannes – from Stephen fucking King of all people – as a gospel for my goals (though I think if I had seen Mad Max – just as literal in portraying momentum via cinematic language as The Evil Dead – then as opposed to this past summer, it might have been my mecca instead).

For these attachments I find linking me to The Evil Dead as a movie (as well as the entire trilogy), it will be tougher than anything to actually approach said movie objectively. I’m much too fond of it for all the different attributes it has. That said, when you look at it hard enough, you can catch its flaws as a picture, I’ve just never thought of them as damning enough an element to make the film any less of a classic (if conceding that is nowhere near a perfect film).

The VHS copy I was lent of the movie had a cover that I actually think does a great job of portraying what the movie essentially is:

As you see in this blatant photoshoot, star Bruce Campbell (who plays Ashley, the protagonist for the entire trilogy and even makes a fanservice appearance in the 2013 remake that was produced by him, Raimi, and franchise producer Robert Tapert) standing next to a grave with a matte full moon and a pretty wary look in his eyes. Sure, it’s not nearly as fully of all that gooey gore that is the film’s very notoriety, but it pretty much is at once an obviously artificial bit of atmosphere setting – the atmosphere being a haunting and spooky one – while at once being effective simply because of how unambiguous it is about what to fear.

So much of the movie within from the get-go is dedicated to airy and foggy tones while allowing for enough darkness to get things shadowy without at all coming off as all-black amateur hour (fucking Friday the 13th). This while the rawness of the shoot gives it a more legitimate feel to it, a more immediate involvement akin to a found-footage film without hiding the good stuff or looking it was shot with an ass. It’s a hella great compliment to the soundmix featuring enough nightlife and silence within it – occasionally allowing the crushing of woods leaves and branches to define what we don’t see and what may be lurking waiting for the five teenagers – and also provided in angles and framings that verily provide impact, all diagonally and Dutch and bright lights to give outline to shapes in the dark. Lights that are very much visible when the shot widens enough, but that’s ok. It’s a ghost story without any real ghosts, just enough of a mood to make you fear before anything can happen to the gang.

The Evil Dead is essentially the equivalent of going through a novelty haunted house and seeing where the tricks come from in making those ghosts and monsters only after they jump out to scare you. With a lot of blood.

I mean, there is a shitload of blood within it. Like so much that, despite undoubtedly being the only “pure” horror film in the whole trilogy (as I will go late on with the other three films this month in obviously enthusiastic anticipation for Starz’ Ash vs. Evil Deadthe second film became a horror/comedy hybrid, the third an adventure picture that only occasionally touched on horror moods), it still has a very aware sense of humor about the buckets and buckets of fake gore that take place in all places the moment that the movie’s premise of five friends in a cabin in the woods becoming prey to released demonic spirits that possess them and scar them horrifically. An entire scene late in the picture dedicates itself to shocking Ash by having blood spurt and pour from incredibly nonsensical places from a film projecter to a light bulb.

Raimi and Tapert were totally aware of how shocking the power of the on-screen blood could be to punctuate the haunting mood of the film, but not simply on its own…

The characters surrounding The Evil Dead are inarguably cannon fodder, even Ash is devoid of any charisma that he’d be later on known for (that comes more in Evil Dead II than in Campbell’s deer-in-the-headlights performance… I meant “deer-in-the-headlights” in a good way, I promise). Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), Scotty (Hal Delrich), Linda (Betsy Baker), and Shelly (Sarah York)… all five of them are only there to suffer on account of their messing with the Naturom Demonto (isn’t it great to see Lovecraft references in indie films?). I once wrote a review on the blogspot page claiming that this movie’s main premise is to witness the suffering of friends and loved ones like Ash does and deal with the horror that the only humane thing is to cut them into pieces, but I think that might be kind of a bit too much credit to the characterizations. And especially when a lot of shots hold the victims at a distance while we see from the demonic forces’ point of view.

But the anchor to it all is simply that we do have to watch them slowly but surely lose control of themselves (alongside some very creepy makeup working to disguise these humans in a very Halloween way – but also the fact that the cast seems more game playing creepily lullabying or screaming demons than, y’know, people), at some points recognizing ourselves with Ash psychologically having to deal with this. And the gore only adds to it, watch all these folks we were just riding a car with at the beginning turn into pieces of flesh and liquefied meat. It’s disgusting and cartoonish yet effective, even Campbell’s melodramatic yelling as the butt of the joke keeps things from becoming way too sober to enjoy it.

Anyway, this has said a lot of stuff about my feelings about The Evil Dead and a whole lot of it is more how I’ve adored it in my adolescence rather than any objectivity, so let me just point out the few kinks in my love for it that grew over time.

First, the infamous tree rape scene, the one that most likely got it on the UK’s Video Nasties list more than all the gore in the film.

Fuck that scene. Pun not intended (and now that I realized I accidentally used it I am ashamed). But really, fuck that scene. I know a lot of people don’t have a problem with it, but I always did, even at 13. And I usually am not reluctant towards rape scenes in cinema or television (though I always find them uncomfortable to sit through, no matter how necessary to the narrative). And I know that it’s positioned at a point that sort of makes it essential to the rising of the violence, in that it is the very first time we see these forces attack and it is with outright brutality, but whereas most of these violent incidents can do so while being banal enough to feel sort of like semi-laugh moments, that’s just never been the case with this scene. And it didn’t HAVE to be a rape scene in order to get point across that something is in the woods attacking. Come on.

And the other thing is that, like I said before many times in this review, this movie is really obviously cheap and has its moments where the artificiality of it shows up in obvious ways. The most nagging of these to me is in the case the Professor (Bob Dorian’s in an audio tape attached to the Naturon Demonto)’s workplace under the cabin… which looks exactly like a filmmaker would just get the elements necessary to have your standard workdesk with any semblance of personality or liveliness. And then, y’know, add a fucking The Hills Have Eyes poster just because. Fuck is this?

But despite these pickings, there’s still so many things I want to talk about from the editing (of which Edna Ruth Paul got help from a certain Joel Coen… hey hey hey) to the music choice of old-timey stuff that wears its fears on its skeletal sleeve and that’s unfortunate because I simply don’t want to keep you guys here forever to talk about an impressive work of ingenuity and creativity to supply a creepy isolated house movie that you oughta just experience for yourself by now. Talking this long about a movie that I love as much as The Evil Dead might leave you all dead by dawn…