Monday, July 29, 2013

Five Fave Zombie Tales

During our discussion following seeing World War Z, the attending Blades all digressed into geeking out over our favourite zombie works, referencing classics of the genre, and generally highlighting the giant shoulders WWZ stands upon. So here's some of the Blades' lists of fave zombie tales from the broad scope of possible narratives.

Samantha's List:
1. Deadgirl (Film) Deadgirl is not a typical zombie flick. It concerns only a single, female zombie who is somewhat non-threatening. Throughout the film, she is chained, naked, to a surgical table and kept imprisoned by two living boys ... the story escalates from there. Directors Gadi Harel and Marcel Sarimiento manage to take a done-to-death genre and make it fresh and terrifying while also addressing rape culture. They explore the idea that zombie flicks are less about the zombies and more about how the living act when no one's watching. Despite Deadgirl's serious message, it still has plenty of that campy gore and scare we've come to expect from zombie movies. 
2. Cabin in the Woods (Film) It is incredibly difficult to make a horror-comedy that doesn't suck. Cabin in the Woods succeeds in walking the line between hilarity and horror. It is self-aware and smart. Plus, it pays homage to some of the best horror stories ever told, including international terrors that usually don't get much credit in Hollywood (Japanese horror is unbeatable--literally in CitW) 
3. Cell (Novel) I like Cell for two reasons. First, like The Ring, Cell plays on the fear of technology--phones, in this case. Secondly, it reworks the zombie monster. Stephen King never calls his zombies zombies, he calls them phoners. And, unlike zombies, phoners quickly begin to group into flocks where they share one mind and communicate telepathically. What's scarier than a zombie that can communicate with its group...? ... The dentist. But no one would read a book about the horrors of a root canal (unless Stephen King writes it, then it'll be a best seller). 
4. Resident Evil (Film) Resident Evil is fantastic because it's both a zombie horror story and a mystery. Usually, film viewers are thrown into the zombie apocalypse after the infection has already spread to a large segment of the human population. Viewers get a half-assed origin story for the infection (aliens, government experiments, mutated rabies virus, broken photocopiers that finally induce incurable rage among coworkers, etc.). That's not the case with Resident Evil. We get to see the origin story unfold before the Earth is overrun. Resident Evil also combines some of the best horror elements without becoming contrived. There's a creepy little girl (who's also a computer bent on killing the humans it once protected), mutated monsters, dark hallways, an infection, decapitation, flickering lights, packs of vicious dogs, lasers, and an evil corporation. It's definitely worth a watch or two. 
5.World War Z (Novel) Through a series of realistic (fictional) interviews, Max Brooks manages to give readers a plausible look at what a zombie infestation would mean for the world. Brooks, like most zombie writers, has his own take on what a zombie would act and look like--which is interesting, no doubt--but it's his living characters who are truly compelling. I also found the *SPOILER* (somewhat) utopian ending very different from most zombie narratives *END SPOILER*. Plus, Max Brooks is Mel Brooks's son...bonus points right there.

Courtney's List
1. Shaun of the Dead-I don't think I can justify this with an explanation. It's one of my favorite movies. Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Dylan Moran (the guy who looks like a grown up version of Harry Potter) work so well off one another.
2. Zombieland-The film had a great balance of action, comedy, and gore. Every time I see a zombie film now, I find myself referencing the set of rules that Jesse Eisenburg's character lists. Brilliant.  
3. 28 Days/Weeks Later-Epic scores composed by John Murphy. Any movie he has worked on, he creates haunting scores--again epic, and beautiful. I'll just say epic once more because I LOVE John Murphy's work.
4. Dawn of the Dead (both--but, leaning towards Zack Snyder's remake)-The opening and ending sequences to the remake are the main moments from the film that stick with me. The use of Johnny Cash's "When the Man Comes Around," and The Jim Carrol Band's "People Who Died" compliment the movie so well. And Sarah Polley was a pleasant surprise also. 
5. Resident Evil (games)-Having I have seen all the RS films (non-animated), I prefer what I have seen and played in Resident Evil 2 for playstation and Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles for Wii. The infected vary in characterisitcs, "species," and originality that you just don't see in all the films. And though I do love Mila Jovavich's character in the film, the games showcase the other female characters more heavily--adding more variety in story and selection (in terms of skill to "fight" he infected and capture items/intel to complete the game...but never really coming anywhere near a "cure" or "antidote")

David's List
1, H.P. Lovecraft, ‘Herbert West–Reanimator’
2, Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
3, Shea & Wilson, Illuminatus! [Those poor poor hippies]
4, Grettis saga [featuring Glámr, the old Norse zombie]
5, William Seabrook, The Magic Island [real-life zombies by a real-life cannibal]

Mike's List:
1. I Am Legend - Richard Matheson (novel): I got my copy in one of those Science Fiction book club promotions where you paid a buck and got a stack of books. It was the shortest in the lot, but it's the only one I still own. While Matheson was writing vampires, Romero admitted it was a huge influence on Dawn of the Dead and his subsequent zombie films. This book is one I've returned to many times.
2. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks (audiobook): I've never read the print version, but the audiobook deafened me to how similar Brooks' character voices apparently are. It's tough to think Alan Alda, Mark Hamill, and Denise Crosby sound the same! I love how the book is short fictions inside a larger frame. It's not solid in every story, but there are a number I find gripping every time I listen.
3. Valley of the Dead: the Truth Behind Dante's Inferno - Kim Paffenroth (novel): Unlike many high-lit/low-culture mash-ups, Kim Paffenroth's zombie-filled retelling of Dante's epic poem is very smart. Paffenroth does far more than just jam zombies into the rings of hell. He demonstrates a strong understanding of the scholarship surrounding Dante's Divine Comedy, with episodes from Inferno recrafted, yet retaining their original meaning.
4. "Nightcall" by Kavinsky (song): It's but one song, but the story behind it is that the lyrics are the voice of a man who has recently become a zombie, and yet is somehow aware of it. I love the mix of '80s techno-soundtrack and horror backstory to this very cool, very hip tune.
5. Dreadnought by Cherie Priest (novel): Best use of zombies in a steampunked America where the Civil War has gone on for two decades: this is like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, except with Airships, Trains, and then Super-Dreadnought-Train with a Texas Ranger, a Civil War Nurse, and a shitload of zombies. One of my fave steampunk reads, as well as zombie ones.

Brittney's List

1. The Walking Dead (graphic novels and television show): The Walking Dead, in graphic novel form and television form, should be viewed as two completely different entities. While they both start out the same they are both travelling in completely different directions and at different velocities. Without getting into spoiler territory, I'll focus on the teenage characters: Carl and Beth. Carl and Beth have VERY little to do in the graphic novels. As is the status of the teenager in most zombie texts, they are there as filler. I wouldn't even consider many of them as secondary characters. However, when we make the move from the graphic novels to the television show, Carl and Beth both take on larger roles, especially Carl. It will be interesting to see where his character development takes him.
2. This Is Not A Test - Courtney Summers: Courtney Summers usually is lumped in with the boy meets girl YA fiction, so when a book blogger friend of mine recommended this novel to me I was pretty curious. A group of teenagers face the zombie apocalypse together and set up home base in familiar but dangerous territory -- their high school. I won't get into it much more than that, but I found it pretty refreshing.
3. Feed - Mira Grant (First entry in a trilogy): We cured cancer and the common cold but in doing so created The Rising, affecting humans and animals alike. Set ten years post zombie apocalypse, a group of bloggers try to find out what REALLY happened. More of a thriller than straight up horror, in a medical and political vein.
4. The Forests of Hands and Teeth - Carrie Ryan: The Village meets Dawn of the Dead. Like almost literally. But I'm a sucker for an unreliable narrator. Like most YA, there's a DUNDUNDUN surprise! love triangle.
5. Generation Dead - Daniel Waters This is the first entry in a series and I have to say it now -- VERY melodramatic, sometimes even eye-roll worthy. That being said, it is a very different take on the zombie text. Because of all the genetically and chemically altered food teenagers eat, some of them have been reanimating and are dubbed "differently biotic." There are many echoes of civil rights movements in history (including our own present -- what does it really mean to have EQUAL rights?).

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Pacific Rim

I've read a number of reviews which compare Guillermo Del Toro's Pacific Rim to Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. This is not a bad comparison - they share the same basic plot: monsters from another universe are trying to break through to this one. Giant mechs are humanity's best hope. These mechs are piloted by people who engage in combat in a violent form of synchronized swimming. The problem with these reviews is that they make the comparison as a pejorative, which it is not for the fan of kaiju-eiga (giant monster movies, particularly Japanese rubber-suited-battle-fests). C.S. Lewis advised critics to know what they are criticizing before doing their work. Pacific Rim is a kaiju-eiga. It stands on the shoulders of many men-in-suits, not just the Power Rangers. For the Power Rangers themselves are the product of Ultraman and Godzilla. Pacific Rim pays homage to all those films, and then some, from the Gundam series to Neon Genesis Evangelion. Yes, it uses ideas we've seen before. Yes, it engages in blockbuster cliches. But in addition to not really knowing the genre they're watching, these nay-saying critics have neglected to note something else.

Pacific Rim is Power Rangers made by Guillermo del Toro. And that's saying something.

Fans of del Toro's more serious work, such as The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth may be disappointed by Pacific Rim's utter lack of serious subtext or social commentary. Admittedly, there are some brief overtures to the environment and the decommissioning of military forces, but these are in the service of the narrative, not political statements. Del Toro's heroes are of the same stripe as many of his other films: they are rogues, rebels: they are no longer the military, they are "the resistance." If there is any political subtext, it is just that del Toro still hates Facism. This is nothing new, and Pacific Rim adds little to an argument del Toro made better in Pan's Labyrinth. This film is part of del Toro's Hollywood legacy, built upon action adventure hits such as the Hellboy films and Blade II. The takeaway message I left the theatre with is that in the case of Apocalypse, we should put Idris Elba in charge.

The film is loud, bombastic, and over-the-top, much like the Jager mechs at the heart of the film. It is unapologetic in its imagination of disaster. It is precisely the sort of "inadequate response" that Susan Sontag spoke of in the 1960s in reference to the SF films of her day. I have also seen critics decry the film for pandering to audiences' desire to sit mesmerized by shiny lights while shoveling buckets of popcorn into their mouths. The lights are shiny, and the film is of the popcorn variety, and this is not a bad thing.

To paraphrase Michael Chabon's "Trickster in a Suit of Lights," when did entertainment become a bad word? Chabon was speaking of short fiction, but the idea holds true for film as well. Before film was a propaganda device or a means of meaningful documentation, it was a means to entertain. It is still its raison d'etre. But entertainment does not necessarily mean low quality. Chabon champions the short story writers who entertain in the ghettos of genre, but do it well. Entertainment need not be shoddy. And Pacific Rim, as Forbes stated, is what a summer blockbuster should be. It is a tight narrative with brisk pacing that keeps us interested in the humans behind the mechs. It's the movie Transformers could have been if it hadn't been written by committee, and if it had remembered we came to watch giant robots, not Megan Fox.
Pacific Rim delivers the viewer into an immersive, fully realized world that bears a skeletal resemblance to Power Rangers. But the similarity is only skeletal. The flesh that del Toro has placed over that skeleton produces a very different experience. If Power Rangers is targeted at my 7-year old son, Pacific Rim is the movie that the seven-year old will love when he is 17, 27, 37, and so on. I saw grown men mimicking Jager moves as we left the theatre. I wanted to emulate those moves myself.

This movie is for the fan of the kaiju-eiga. It is a twenty-first-century overhaul of the giant monster film where two men in rubber suits engage in Wrestlemania in a miniature metropolitan area. The destruction is glorious, the fights are breathtaking, and the characters are the sort one expects when they're named Hannibal Chau, as Ron Perlman's is for his favorite historical figure, and his favorite Asian food joint. They are pulp heroes in a mech anime given flesh, set to the Wagnerian-metal blend of Ramin Djawadi's soundtrack. If you thrilled to Power Rangers when you were a kid, you need to see Pacific Rim. The Rangers are all grown up and ready to go fishing. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

World War Z roundtable discussion

This month, we tried something new - three of of our bloggers went to see World War Z with special guest Jeff Nelson. We all had previous experience with Max Brooks' book (Courtney rightly hesitated to call it a novel) either as print (Brittney and Courtney) or audiobook (Jeff and Mike). The four of us attended a late-night, non-3D showing of WWZ in a packed theatre one week after the movie's major release date. The following transcript is our very fresh thoughts on the movie, only slightly edited for readability and coherence.

Mike: I want us to start out by talking about our expectations for the film, what we came to it with in terms of Max Brooks' book, trailers, or pre-release buzz.

Brittney: When I heard that they had to reshoot 40+ minutes of content--a huge chunk of screen time for them to redo--I thought, "Brad Pitt's making this with his Plan B productions - how could he let this happen?" Add to that the rumors about fights with the director, and I was coming in with pretty low expectations. 

Jeff: I didn't hear much about the production drama, but I did manage to hear the spoiler - basically, how they were going to beat the zombies in the end. But despite that, I really enjoyed it. 

Courtney: When I first saw the trailer, I thought it seemed yet another average rip-off zombie flick, with fast-runners of I Am Legend and 28 Days Later. And then a week ago, I got over that prejudice and decided to read the book, because I heard it's a decent read; I read the majority of the novel--if you could call it that--and it changed my expectations of the film. I wondered how they would focus on the individual stories that were being told. That said, I was going in with low expectations.

Jeff: I'd heard the audiobook with Mark Hamill, the much abridged one, but I couldn't remember details about plot points, so I didn't really have expectations concerning the book.

Mike: I've never read the print edition - I've listened to both versions of the audiobook: both the much abridged 2006 version, and the less abridged 2013 version. I actually think this is the best way to experience the book, given that it's an "oral history" of the zombie conflict, and the voice actors are really gifted performers who elevate Brooks' prose with their performance.

Brittney: I think if I had listened to the audiobook, the reading experience would have been different - there were so many voices, at times almost written in dialect, but there was still a uniformity to the character voices, perhaps because of the repetition of ex-military voices or civilian voices. I had previously read the book, and when I heard about the movie, I wondered, "How is this going to happen?" How are they going to turn all these different narratives into one cohesive narrative. So I was pretty skeptical.

Mike: I was hoping it would be like Contagion, which is like WWZ without the zombies. 

Jeff: I think when you're looking at adapting a book to a movie, you have to strip it down and focus on one main element or one character, rather than trying to tell everything in two hours, because it just can't happen.

Courtney: It reminded me of Resident Evil, the first and third games for the Wii, where you as the player are trying to find something -- a cure, or a better, more secure environment for the entire game. It's the continuous movement, collecting data, info...breadcrumbs, as is in the movie...which was very clever in the movie. Brad Pitt keeps making these connections using little details that he saw along his journey: it's very similar to the flow of Resident Evil.

Mike: That's an interesting moment of intertextuality, though I'm stretching the use of the term text to say so. Instead of referencing an earlier fast-zombie in a film, you're referencing a game. I'm reading the second edition of Linda Hutcheon's Theory of Adaptation, which just came out this year. She basically says we need to get away from discussions of adaptation which focus on fidelity to the book as original, as though the book has some priveleged status when you have so many other possible media for adaptation. Normally, academics only talk book to film, and miss out on discussing other adaptations like video games or comic books, or in my estimation, even trailers as works of art. She says that when you have a video game adaptation, it's not about fidelity to the original narrative, which is linear, it's a non-linear narrative that happens in the same world as that book. Which is another way of considering an adaptation - not, "is this exactly like the book?" but rather, "is this happening in the same world as the book?" If you consider WWZ in terms of book-to-film fidelity, it's a failure. If you consider it as another story in that same universe, it fares a bit better: at least, up until the last hour.   

Brittney: That's a good point. I think initially, it could have fit into the narrative. But in the book, one of the military men says you can literally walk away from the zombies--you could speedwalk and get away. I didn't like the changes the film made to the zombies' origin and the way they act, since it changes the way they deal with them completely. 

Mike: Agreed. The first hour, aside from the film's change from slow-walkers to fast-runners, could easily have taken place in parallel to the stories in the book. Brad Pitt's story even intersects with them at points, like in Israel. It kept the film from being a slavish recreation of a story I already know. But once they started playing with the origin and solution, the film generated a sort of alternate history of the zombie war Brooks imagined. But my greatest disappointment with any comparisons of fidelity to the book was the loss of the social commentary. In the book, the most horrific moments don't involve zombies: they involve real-world atrocities that are already happening.

Jeff: You mentioned that movie and even trailer stands on its own from the book — maybe opening titles can too?If the movie had any message, I think it could be that it's important to pay attention to what's happening in the world, and that was emphasised most in the opening titles.

Brittney: I lamented the loss of multiculturalism and multi-nationalism from book to film. 

Mike: There was a little bit!

Brittney: A very little bit. We got Israel and we got...South Korea.

Mike: And when we were in South Korea, all we saw were Americans.

Brittney: No Koreans!

Courtney: But there was an ethnic diversity to the people the characters were interacting with, even in Wales - the doctors at the W.H.O. But Brooks really went to every corner of the globe...he even had the Canadian Armed Forces!

Jeff: I agree that the lack of social commentary is a failing of this movie, when you consider other zombie films, especially George Romero's, which were often commentary on consumerism or what have you. Aside from the credits, that commentary is lacking.

Courtney: I just read something about the music, Muse's "The 2nd Law: Isolated System." Brad Pitt wanted to find something like "Tubular Bells" or the Exorcist Theme, and they knew that Muse was creating their new album based on Max Brooks' book, because Matt Bellamy likes to use literature as inspiration for the songs he's writing. And that song is about escaping consumerism, or control, etc.

Jeff: I like the idea of it being a "post-zombie" movie. One of the characteristics of earlier zombie movies is that nobody ever says the word "zombie." As soon as you say the word zombie, it becomes ridiculous. But they call them zombies here, or the military calls them...

Brittney: Zekes - they other them. In World War II you have Charlie, you have Hans, you have...

Jeff: Gerries...

Brittney: And here we have Zekes. They didn't humanize them, whereas in The Walking Dead, there's this perception that "they're people!" And a lot of characters have trouble with that, that they have to kill this person they previously knew. In WWZ we don't get any of that. They become the Other.

Jeff: For any kind of apocalypse movie, I always enjoy the lead up before it hits, where there's clues in the background action while the main characters go about their lives. Rise of the Planet of the Apes did that well, although is was mostly working off the original movie.

Mike: The build-up in the film of WWZ was really strong. It felt like the film I'd wanted Zach Snyder's Dawn of the Dead to be. Snyder's Dawn of the Dead started so well: I was terrified in those opening minutes, and loved that wide-shot that showed the car driving through the urban devastation of the zombie plague. And then the action moved into the mall, and it ceased being interesting. I suppose that's what I didn't like about the final act of WWZ - once the story moved "indoors," I wasn't as interested. The scenes of large-scale zombie hordes were really well-done, and kept emphasizing how bad things were.

Brittney: Eli Roth made a good point regarding that kind of wide-spread terror. He said that the one thing that he always wanted to see was the actual moment the plague hits, not just one spot but everywhere. You usually end up seeing glimpses of the widespread panic on news, like the opening of World War Z, but you don't actually get that global panic of it happening everywhere. 
Jeff: I remember reading that the director had the idea to model the movement of the zombie swarms on insects, which I found really effective.

Mike: The whole film seemed crafted around the idea of speed - the pacing was fast, the zombies were fast - which is appropriate, since the medium of film is all about speed and concision. A book has the time to unfold, but a film only has those two hours. Plus, the fast-zombies made for some great jump-scares.

Brittney: I know I jumped in my seat a few times - the zombies moved so quickly - you couldn't anticipate all of the jump-scares. It keeps the audience on the edge of their seats and makes for a much better movie.

Courtney: Again, I was really reminded of Resident Evil, where you battle fast-moving zombies. The movements of the zombies in WWZ were very much like those in the Resident Evil video game. And those zombies were also triggered by sound.

Mike: It's definitely built on the shoulders of other works, which is inevitable--

Courtney: --there are only so many original approaches...

Mike: Yes, and we're past the crest with the wave of zombie films and fictions in this last decade.

Brittney: We're post-zombie...Sean of the Dead might have been one of those crest points.

Mike: Yeah - and for this film to be as entertaining as it was despite that, is a testament to its quality. I'd give it a solid 4/5. It's not a great film, and it's not Brooks' novel onscreen, but it is a great thriller, and I have to give it props for being a film younger teens can see, and enjoy, without it being a splatterfest...

Jeff: Yeah - there were no scenes with intestines being ripped out. I'd also give it a 4/5. I do enjoy a good zombie movie!

Courtney: Having watched the movie, I'm kinda disappointed, since it was a Brad Pitt vehicle. Though it was pretty intense, I would give it a 3/5.

Brittney: I give it a 3.5/5, because this movie almost entirely fell on Brad Pitt's shoulders. He was in nearly every scene, and he gives an excellent performance as the family man who just has to get home. But the ending was too predictable, which was a big let-down for me.