Saturday, October 11, 2014

Make your own zombie movie

The Living Dead Festival was held this weekend in Evans City, Pennsylvania. The Festival is an annual event in recognition of Night Of the Living Dead, the great-granddaddy of all films featuring walking corpses that want to eat living flesh. The first part of the movie was made in the Evans City Cemetery. Among the guests was the writer/director of that famous film, George Romero.

 Big George in the (living) flesh!

I first saw NOTLD in the early '70s, and recognized in it some of the themes that were common to my nightmares: being in a confined space, and besieged by monsters who wanted to get in and get me. Yikes. Romero had filmed my bad dreams!

I have always  compared other movies in that genre to the original. I’ve seen many, but not all, so-called “zombie” movies (which is a misnomer, according to Romero, who does not call his animated dead zombies. They eat human flesh so they are ghouls). Many of those movies do not work for various reasons. Sometime in the past couple of months I watched World War Z with Brad Pitt which I thought failed. It had a reported 190 million dollar budget, was full of special effects and action, and yet for me it flopped. Why? My guess is that it was too big, and got away from elements that make the best of those stories memorable: the sense of isolation, being trapped, and of course total paranoia.

As successful as the TV series The Walking Dead is, it often strays from those tenets, yet it works. I guess it has to do with the ongoing characters and some interesting situations involving them. Once we identify with characters a movie or TV show is halfway home. Add to that several scenes each episode of “walkers” getting their heads blown apart, or stabbed through the skull, or beheaded in graphic detail, and you have a recipe for success as a cult hit. The violence, the same reason many will not watch it, is why some others love it. For the record I don’t turn away from the violence, but I think it is overplayed. I prefer it to be an ever-present threat to the living people, but used less often to much better effect.

Last week I watched a German movie with those common zombie movie themes called Rammbock, subtitled Berlin Undead. The movie is only 63 minutes long. It gets right to the action and does not waste any time making its point. I appreciated that, but thought except for it being in German and set in an apartment building in Berlin, it added absolutely nothing to the  genre.

I felt I could make a movie like that. You could too.

For one thing, Rammbock was filmed on a small budget by some clever filmmakers who used real locations and a bunch of friends to play the dead people. Most zombie movies just copy other movies. In Rammbock they did some things right that you could copy in your own movie.

First, use an ordinary guy as your protagonist. In this movie Michael has come to Berlin from Austria to give his ex-girlfriend, Gabi, her keys, and to try to win her back. As he walks into her apartment he finds out she is not there and there is a plumber banging on the radiator. The plumber is the first we see of the victims of the particular virus that causes murderous rage.

This seems ridiculous to us Americans who all carry high-powered assault rifles and .44 Magnums at all times (or so it seems, especially to folks in other countries), that the plumber’s young assistant is shooting at zombies with a slingshot. A slingshot! But it always works in movies to get away from more traditional ways of killing zombies with something more exotic than guns or knives. Maybe you could try killing a zombie with a cocoanut, or dropping a piano on it. It does not really matter what you use to kill them with, just make sure it is interesting and bloody.

Rammbock seemed to skimp on the traditional zombie appearance, depending more on make-up and frothing mouths than more elaborate rotting-face appliances. Why are zombies’ faces all messed up, anyhow? Well, for horror movie shocks, that is why. If you think about it, it seems that some of them would be funky-faced, and others would not. But I guess there is nothing scary about a zombie that doesn’t look like what we expect a zombie to look like. So, on second thought, go with what the audience expects, rotting faces.

You can do like the movie did, and show a crowd of zombies from a distance, and in motion. This was done with a hand-held camera, which gives it a frenetic feel. A bunch of undead running around, grunting and growling, camera moving jerkily, adds to the atmosphere.

The other thing that adds to the atmosphere is, as I mentioned earlier, setting it in a small space. In this case an apartment complex, confined to a few dingy rooms. There were times in the movie when I thought the real-life apartments they filmed in looked squalid enough to be depressing. But it added to the overall atmosphere of fear, anxiety and that good old paranoia.

Before the final scene the main character goes to the roof and looks out over Berlin, with some matte shots of smoke rising above the city. That is a good way to show that everyone is being affected, not just his little group in the apartments.

Unlike Rammbock you could also have a few sex scenes and some naked boobs. Earn your R-rating with more than gore.

I have written before of the original Night of the Living Dead and why, despite its low budget origins, the movie still has the ability to frighten and disturb the viewer. You can read about it in my 2008 post “The Forty-Year Night.”

Saturday, October 04, 2014

A spoonful of opium helps the medicine go down; or, Nineteenth century over-the-counter addictions; or, Passing laws that make drug problems worse.

They Laughed When I Sat Down by Frank Rowsome, Jr came out in 1959 and was a best seller. The book is a look back at advertising in America, especially the early advertising of the prior century. Chapter Four, “Shake Well Before Using,” is the story of patent medicines and their excesses, both in advertising claims and contents. The inevitable result was the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Selling concoctions of flavored water, herbs, alcohol and opium will at some point cause major concerns.

Scans are from the McGraw-Hill first edition. Copyright © 1959 Frank Rowsome, Jr

Stories of children in day care (and yes, the 19th century did have day care centers; but they were probably informal and not regulated) being dosed with Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup to keep them calm and sedated during the day lead me to speculation as to how patent medicines caused addiction that lasted after the products were taken off the market.

This 1999 comic, Brave Old World, has a frank view of an era many view as nostalgic, but on examination was far from the rosy images of later generations. This sequence of panels illustrates what I'm talking about:

Suddenly having the supply of cheap narcotics bought at the local drug store yanked away caused people to ask doctors to prescribe. Many then got their drugs legally. However, the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914 brought a stop to that. It stated that addiction is not a disease, therefore not a medical problem and could not be treated by a doctor. So, no more prescription pad relief for addicts.

We are a society geared to punishment. We believe that weaknesses by others should be listed as crimes and handled through the prison system rather than medically. Even modern era painkillers, which have a definite purpose but can be abused, are controlled by the Feds through intimidation of physicians. Trying to cut off the supply of drugs by making them illegal has only led to criminals stepping in as the suppliers.

The War on Drugs, which is one of the most miserable failures of the past forty-plus years, has been like Prohibition of the twenties and thirties. It does not work. Yet for the billions spent trying to stop the flow of illegal drugs only a small portion is spent on treatment for addiction.

According to the online article, “History of Drug Use and Drug Users in the United States” by Elaine Casey, in the 1920s “addiction became a federal crime . . . the [Supreme] court thus lowered narcotics use into the underworld, forcing addicts to migrate to the urban centers of illicit supply. It also forced formerly decent and responsible citizens who had acquired an unfortunate habit to become aggressive and violent criminals. It made addicts conform to the image of nonscience, as they robbed or cheated or prostituted themselves to support the illicitit price, they did indeed become debauched, corrupt and depraved. In 1923, as many of 75 percent of the women in federal penitentiaries were Harrison Act prisoners (Clark, 1976).”

In 1918, a Congressional committee released findings that showed that the underground traffic in narcotic drugs was about equal to the legitimate medical traffic. Instead of opting for lessening of the laws to allow treatment or handling of addictions by physicians the Harrison Act was tightened. As the article says, “. . . the nation was finding that ridding itself of heroin would require considerably more than legislation.”

 Caution on the bottom of the label: “May be habit forming.”

I have heard recently that cracking down on doctors prescribing the heavy-duty painkillers has just turned prescription pain pill addicts to that old standby, heroin. It is the Law of Unintended Consequences in action. The Feds put the squeeze in one area, and it opens up more business for the traffic in illicit drugs.

The past century has seen various attempts to control narcotics and illicit drugs and nothing seems to work. In many ways, by just putting the stuff on store shelves as was done in the 19th century, seems almost better than what has happened since then with the attempts to turn people away from illicit drugs.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Race switching in The Equalizer and an obscure Star Trek comic

News that The Equalizer was the top movie this past weekend prompted me to recall the 1980’s television series of the same name. Edward Woodward (1930-2009) was Robert McCall, a man who was available to solve any problems for a price. And sometimes for free.

This 4-page satire from Cracked #228, from 1987, pretty much gets the gist of the show. And it is drawn by John Severin, which is always a plus for me.

It doesn’t surprise me that Denzel Washington plays Robert McCall in the movie. Washington is a great actor and has a track record at the box office. The fact that he is African-American really doesn’t matter, and it seems that it happens more often. It did seem surprising to me to see Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in The Avengers, but the biggest surprise to me was seeing Will Smith as James West in The Wild, Wild West. Okay! Whatever sells tickets.

But the reason I mention it is because of something else I noticed this past weekend when I picked up a 1979 Peter Pan Book and Record Set of Star Trek at a local thrift store. In the well-illustrated but uncredited comic book Uhura has suddenly gone from being African-American to a blonde white woman, and Sulu has transformed from Japanese to African-American.

Some reviews of this comic on the Internet  have called the depictions mistakes, but c'mon...the comic was done in 1979, the television series was in endless reruns, and copious photos were available of all the characters. Even without Mr. Spock to explain it logically, the reason would be is they did not have permission of the two actors to do their likenesses. George Takei and Nichelle Nichols probably decided not to sign off on being represented in the comic. Why the people who produced this comic just didn't do something as simple as change the names is a puzzle to me.

On the other hand, with satire John Severin could do a likeness of Edward Woodward because it is parody, therefore fair use.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Gun laws and the Law of Unintended Consequences

I own guns. I do not have a concealed weapons permit, nor do I leave the house with a gun on my person or in my car. I think it is just asking for something bad to happen. There are just too many stupid people I would want to shoot.*

I was angry when, in the wake of Sandy Hook, innocent students and teachers gunned down by a mass killer, the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre came out with his own guns blazing. Figuratively speaking, of course. His solution was not that common sense measures should be taken to prevent gun violence, but that no measures whatsoever should be taken.** He called for more guns in schools! Guards! Paid for by taxpayers!

Since the National Rifle Association is the lobbying shill for gun manufacturers, you would think they could have at least offered to pay the cost for the guards, or provided them free arms with training, but no. The NRA is only in the business of making sure their gun manufacturers make money with the least encumbrances to sales. They are saying we provide the guns and ammo for you to buy. You pay for your own protection from our products.

Immediately many states, including my home state of Utah, went to work with legislators passing laws making it possible for teachers to carry weapons in schools. In Utah by law the teacher does not have to inform anyone that they are armed. And the principal cannot tell them to leave their gun at home.

I know one thing from experience, that no matter how carefully constructed a plan is there will always be something that will come along that no one anticipated: the Law of Unintended Consequences. The impression that was given when news cameras showed teachers in gun classes was that the teachers would know what they were doing. But realization can be much different than expectation.

A 6th grade teacher in a Utah school had a gun on her person. She went to the school restroom and blew a hole in her leg when her concealed weapon fired. Oops. She also blew up the toilet bowl. Kind of the old insult to injury thing. I'm sure that the teacher did not leave home that morning after secreting the weapon on her person and think, “Today I'm not going to put the safety on; today I am going to shoot myself and make myself look like a fool to the entire nation.”

It surprised me, despite the nationwide publicity, when the school district said only five people called to complain about teachers with guns. I should not have been surprised. In polls more than 50% of Utahns think having guns in schools is perfectly fine, that having a sharpshooter like this teacher with a hole in her leg, ready to stand her ground (when she is again able to walk) to an armed intruder, is a perfectly good idea.

That must be why they played up the story of a hearing specialist who goes to several schools working with deaf children. She has a gun. A pink gun. It was on the local news and even NBC Nightly News.

Do you feel safer knowing this young woman is toting a gun to school?

Now that both of these armed teachers have been outed, will they be targets? After all, the idea of a concealed weapons permit was to have one up on a potential enemy, not to let them know you would be the first person he had to shoot. I didn’t use their names for that reason, although they are named in various news stories.

Okay, so in the case of the teacher shooting herself, she is an exception. Most teachers carrying guns in classrooms are careful, have the safety on, and are likely not to shoot themselves by accident. I think there is a possibility that the best-case dream scenario of the gun lobby could happen: an armed person could enter the school shooting and a brave teacher with a concealed weapon could use that weapon to stop the rampage.

But because of the nature of the universe, that the best-laid schemes gang aft agley,*** then there are bound to be some other events that will happen, and probably before rather than after the best-case dream scenario. I don’t need a gift of prophecy to foresee the potential of one or more of these things happening:
A teacher's gun will be stolen by a student, then used on the teacher or other students.****
A  paranoid teacher will use the gun against an innocent person on school grounds.

A jealous teacher will kill another teacher over a relationship.

A teacher’s gun will discharge by accident, killing a student. 
I wonder if when dreaming up their schemes did legislators really consider the liability incurred by a school district for having armed teachers in classrooms?

*In case it went over your head that last sentence was a joke.

**The paranoia of the “camel’s nose in the tent,” that there is a direct line to a tweaking of existing laws and confiscation of all firearms is sheer fearmongering by the NRA. It has become something of a religious belief by rabid supporters of the Second Amendment, but has no basis in reality.

***“To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough” by Robert Burns (1785).

****I’m not counting the derelict parents and foolish gun instructor who allowed a 9-year-old girl at a specialty gun range in Arizona to fire an Uzi machine gun which went quickly out of control and killed her instructor.