People Are Vectors: George A. Romero’s The Crazies

The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle

The Crazies movie poster

 

George A. Romero practically invented the lucrative zombie subgenre with Night of the Living Dead in 1968, simultaneously trapping himself within it for most of his subsequent career. Romero’s zombies served him well enough for six films and counting, at least two of which transcended the genre and are still discussed in serious terms. His less famous later creations the “crazies” only appeared in one of his films, but their influence on popular culture is disproportionate to their fame. They are arguably thematically richer and — despite not technically being zombies, per se — exert a greater influence on most significant subsequent zombie films by other directors.

The Crazies (1973) may not belong to Romero’s official Living Dead cycle, but what sets it apart is mostly a matter of branding. Zombies had captured the popular imagination in a way that the more vaguely-defined crazies could not, at least at first. The classical Romero-style zombie is simply a reanimated corpse with an insatiable animal hunger in place of higher brain function — in effect a subtraction of the intangible human essence, or what a religious person would describe as a soul. In contrast, a crazy is exactly what it sounds like: a living person driven to unchecked violence and lust, while still remaining recognizably human.

A scene from George A. Romero's The Crazies“People are vectors.”

The most significant innovation Romero introduced in The Crazies can be summed up in its most chilling line: “people are vectors.” In Night of the Living Dead, it was enough for Romero to vaguely drop hints of some sort of mysterious extraterrestrial radiation causing the dead to rise. The virus factor would preoccupy subsequent zombie auteurs for decades, particularly Danny Boyle with 28 Days Later. It’s a rich concept that touches on many sensitive themes: pollution, conspiracy theories, biological warfare, sexually transmitted diseases, and pandemics. While now virtually every non-Romero zombie movie defaults to a viral origin story, it seems that Romero himself is disinterested in the mechanics of either zombies or crazies. He’d much rather focus on randomly-selected bands of survivors, on the run in a world where society has broken down. Living humans are a greater danger than monsters, and death is no longer absolute.

All the usual Romero tropes are present, particularly institutional corruption and ineptitude. On the macro level, the U.S. government and military serve their own interests first, to the degree that they function at all. The government has secretly engineered and weaponized a virus with the innocuous codename Trixie and accidentally releases it into the water supply of small town Evans City, PA (a real town, where portions were actually filmed). As in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the action remains in the small burb for the entirety of the film. Forget Patient Zero; this is Town Zero.

George A. Romero's The CraziesThe military tries to clean up its own mess

The authorities swoop in and attempt to quarantine the bucolic burb until the virus burns itself out. We learn they were blithely aware of the risks in transporting the virus, and remain chillingly apathetic even after the beginnings of catastrophe. One especially coldblooded general casually munches sandwiches while discussing how to contain the epidemic. Romero’s usual sympathies are for the individual conscience hamstrung by soulless bureaucracies. Even in Day of the Dead, where the military was the primary source of conflict, some individuals remained sympathetic. In The Crazies, Major Ryder (Harry Spillman) and Colonel Peckam (Lloyd Hollar) struggle as much against their superiors’ counterproductive orders as they do trying to pacify the crazies on the battlefield and protect the uninfected.

Even the civilians have deep ties to the armed forces. David (Will MacMillan) and Clank (Harold Wayne Jones) are Vietnam War veterans who now find themselves in opposition to the institutions they once served. They spend most of the movie completely in the dark as to why their town is in chaos, and in fact come into violent conflict more frequently with the military than with their now-insane former friends and neighbors.

Romero also continues his tradition of foregrounding women and people of color. The ranks of Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead, Lori Cardille in Day of the Dead, and John Leguizombie Leguizamo in Land of the Dead are joined by Judy (Lane Carroll), a pregnant nurse who initially assists the military’s containment efforts. Her character is far more significant and integral to the plot than her equivalent in Breck Eisner’s mediocre 2010 remake, played by Radha Mitchell. It’s sad but perhaps unsurprising that a B-movie from 1973 would feature a stronger feminist character than one from the 21st century.

George A. Romero's The CraziesLynn Lowry inaugurates her career as a scream queen

But on the other hand (you knew that “but” was coming), the other primary female role is played by Lynn Lowry as an impossibly ethereal and willowy teen with a marked resemblance to Sissy Spacek. The character’s primary function is to look innocently gorgeous and be raped by her infected father. Lowry would go on to a long career as a scream queen in sexploitation films.

The Crazies is largely humorless in tone, save for ironic music cues throughout. A persistent martial snare drum plays under otherwise rather dull scenes of Ryder and Peckam arguing in a cheap office set, and “Johnny Comes Marching Home” accompanies sequences of desensitized soldiers summarily executing detainees.

The establishment of martial law and military occupation of a town on American soil raise the question: how do you tell the difference between genuine resistance and murderous rage, which is to say, just plain crazy plus capital-c Crazy? Is not killing and shooting other human beings by definition crazy, especially when systematically operated by the governmental and military organizations that are supposed to protect and serve life? In the movie’s most charged sequence, a priest immolates himself on his church steps. In 1973, it would have been an unmistakable visual allusion to the Buddhist monks that self-immolated to protest the Vietnam War. A soldier executes him. Was the priest protesting or Crazy? Was the soldier merciful or Crazy?


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Adapting Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: After the End of the World

The Road movie poster

 

Genre fiction has long resided on the wrong side of the chasm between escapism and literature. But as The Atlantic notes, cult writers like Neil Gaiman are crossing over into the mainstream while established novelists like Michael Chabon are exploring the genre territory blazed by the likes of Margaret Atwood. Few know these blurring barriers as well as Cormac McCarthy, a writer with firm bona fides in the literary world whose devastating 2006 novel The Road incorporated elements of speculative fiction. It become a crossover hit and landed a spot in the world’s biggest book club: The Oprah Winfrey Show. Its vision of a burned world populated by scavengers drained of all humanity is sometimes even described as a zombie story, sparking an argument over whether or not it qualifies as horror or science fiction. My own two-fold answer: of course it does, and the question is also irrelevant. Speculative futures and fanciful technology are not the true subjects of science fiction, but rather means to an end: exploring the here and now.

The Road made its way to theaters shortly after a very different vision of life after the apocalypse. Director McG’s Terminator Salvation was the fourth entry in an escapist action franchise detailing a formulaic battle for the fate of humanity. The Road is set at a time long after such heroic struggles can even be imagined, and when the drudgery of mere survival is waning. The world itself is terrifyingly realized onscreen, using real desolate locations: particularly an eerily abandoned stretch of turnpike in Pittsburgh, and the still largely lifeless blasted remains of Mount St. Helens in Washington. The only technical problem I noticed was the somewhat distracting tooth continuity throughout. Decay: now you see it, now you don’t.

A scene from The Road“If I were God, I would have made the world just so and no different.”

I re-read the novel a few days before seeing the film, which turned out to be a mistake. The book remained the emotional, visceral experience it was on my first read, but its freshness in my mind kept me somewhat detached throughout the movie. I could not help but dispassionately analyze the particulars of the adaptation. I’m among those who loved the book, but didn’t necessarily desire the movie to be faithful. The mechanics of how it could be done fascinated me. How do you adapt a book that lives and dies on the Steinbeckian terse, harsh, understated poetry of its language? Joe Penhall’s screenplay is remarkably faithful in terms of plot and sequence of events, and the few changes are mostly effective. In particular, a neat trick involved seamlessly combining three separate incidents in the novel into a single sequence: The Boy falls ill, The Man loots an abandoned boat, and they are robbed.

It’s hard to imagine a better director for The Road than John Hillcoat, whose previous film The Proposition, from a screenplay by Nick Cave, could have been the movie that Cormac McCarthy never made himself. But The Road as a film somehow fails to recreate the emotionally devastating effect of its source material. Another candidate for director might have been Alfonso Cuarón, who managed to transform P.D. James’ novel Children of Men into a gut-wrenching vision of a near-future society disintegrating before our eyes. McCarthy had presented Hillcoat with a significant challenge; The Road is, in a sense, a long denouement to a story we didn’t see. Perhaps the strongest argument against genre fans claiming The Road as their own is that most zombie stories concern the fall of civilization. The Road is set far after an implied cataclysm, where everything has been taken away, even the very names of the people and places that remain.

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road“If there is a God up there, he would have turned his back on us by now. And whoever made humanity will find no humanity here.”

That said, the McCarthy does glancingly allude to a cataclysmic event followed by violence on a massive scale, waged by tribes described as Bloodcults. There are many aspects of the back story that Hillcoat and Penhall opt to clarify (particularly the Man & Boy’s family life), but the massive wars that swept the country in the preceeding years is not one of them. This largely unspoken past in crucial to the book, as the reader contemplates how the Man, the Boy, and everyone they encountered somehow lived through it all, be it through fighting, hiding, or collaborating. The Man’s strategy for survival is to lay low and instill in his son the need to preserve a metaphorical “light” of basic humanity. We see numerous alternative strategies that also worked, but which result in the destruction of the soul. One such walking dead man we meet is Old Man (Robert Duvall), who apparently collaborated with the Bloodcults until the toxic landscape claimed his health.

Some of McCarthy’s poetically spare language is preserved in the limited voiceover narration delivered by the Man (Viggo Mortensen). But some evidence exists onscreen that the filmmakers feared the audience might not be able to put two and two together. While being scarcely mentioned by name in the book, “cannibalism” is one of the first words spoken in the film. It presents this savagery as the specific omnipresent threat that forces the Man and Boy to remain totally alone and self-reliant. Another clue the movie is more obsessed with cannibalism than the book: in the closing credits, a plump female character is chillingly named “well-fed woman”. That’s certainly more humor than can be found in the text.

Viggo Mortensen in The Road“I told the boy when you dream about bad things happening, it means you’re still fighting and you’re still alive. It’s when you start to dream about good things that you should start to worry.”

Another key element I missed from the book is the realization that the Boy has literally never seen another child, ever, which goes a long way towards explaining his careless reaction to glimpsing another boy. Long accustomed to hiding from all contact, he explodes with the dangerous need to connect. Although The Boy has evidently known little else, he seems to have the inborn need to cling to signs of life. The boy also marvels at a glimpse of a beetle — a detail which I believe was added — whose metallic-like wings refract the grayish light and provide one of the film’s only flashes of color.

The ending of the novel is something that can only work in prose. A simple change in verb tense hints at a possible future, a radical change in thinking for characters previously forced to organize their lives around immediate survival. Beyond an overarching quest to reach the ocean, they indulged in little talk of the future, or of any kind of continuance at all. Life on the literal and metaphorical road is a sick combination of drudgery and terror. Every event in their lives is sudden, unexpected, and never likely to recur in quite the same way. The final words in the novel are perhaps the first thing the boy hears that hints of a comforting routine he might expect in his future. Translated to film, Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall do perhaps the only thing they could do: plug a bunch of words into a character’s mouth that was silent in the book.

Charlize Theron in The Road“My heart was ripped out of me the night he was born.”

The casting is pretty much perfect, particularly Kodi Smit-McPhee, who so resembles Charlize Theron that it’s eerie. Even the supporting cast is superlative, including Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Michael K. Williams, Molly Parker, and Garret Dillahunt. The latter is an interesting, versatile actor, having played an upper-crust psychopath in Deadwood, a criminal idiot in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a murderous cyborg in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and here a vile cannibal. That’s a remarkable range of deranged characters, but will he ever have a chance to play a normal guy?


Official site: www.theroad-movie.com

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Rewind & Reboot: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

X-Men Origins Wolverine movie poster

 

Much of what’s wrong with X-Men Origins: Wolverine can be traced right back to its confused conception, indeed beginning with its clumsy title. The ungainly prefix is clumsily bolted on solely for it to alphabetize adjacent to the three previous X-Men films on Walmart shelves, iTunes, Pay-Per-View, and torrent trackers. The two halves split by a colon try to have it both ways: “X-Men Origins” brands it as part of a proposed series of prequels to the lucrative original trilogy (none else of which have yet to materialize, apparently discarded in favor of the complete reboot X-Men: First Class), while “Wolverine” promises a fresh new franchise in and of itself.

With the original trilogy still warm in its grave, barely a decade after it began, why rewind and start over again so soon? There’s no reason why a prequel featuring honest-to-goodness movie star Hugh Jackman as the fan-favorite icon couldn’t have stood on its own. One gets the feeling X-Men and X2: X-Men United were prematurely discarded. All of this is quite the pity, as director Bryan Singer’s interpretation was far superior than this and Brett Ratner’s weak X-Men 3: The Last Stand.

I can understand the desire to create a jumping-on point for new viewers, one that does not require a detailed memory of the events of the previous installments. But if what 20th Century Fox and Marvel Comics sought was a fresh start, this isn’t exactly it. The narrative contorts itself to slot into some of the established chronology, while simultaneously ignoring or contradicting many other significant elements of the canon.

Liev Schreiber and Hugh Jackman in X-Men Origins: WolverineSabretooth and Wolverine demonstrate the proper protocol in executing a man hug

Danny Houston portrays a younger version of William Stryker, a role originated by Brian Cox in X2: X-Men United. We learn a little more of his villainous motivations and ties to Wolverine’s secret origin, none of which really surprise or illuminate. Fans might be pleased by superfluous cameos by a younger Cyclops (Tim Pocock) and Professor X (a digitally rejuvenated Patrick Stewart). Then there’s the matter of Sabretooth, whom we already met as Magneto’s henchman (Tyler Mane) in the original X-Men (2000), but now entirely recast and reconceived as Logan’s brother Victor Creed (Liev Schreiber).

A prologue set in Canada’s Northwest Territories in the mid 1800s reveals Logan’s damaged psychology to be the product of fratricide. He and brother Victor were doted upon by a wealthy adoptive father, but their superstitious biological father wanted to kill them. The best sequence immediately follows: an impressive montage of the brothers fighting side-by-side through the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World Wars I and II, and Vietnam. The wordless sequence succinctly illustrates the immortal warriors growing apart, as Victor becomes increasingly unstable while Logan slowly develops a moral code and distaste for killing.

A Wolverine film seemed like a promising idea when I first heard of it; it could have provided a neat way to shake off the detritus that had accumulated by the end of the original trilogy. Each subsequent installment added too many additional characters drawn from decades of Marvel Comics history, and quickly snowballed to the point where the ensemble cast became comically unwieldy (pun intended). So, the notion of a fresh story focused around just one character sounded like a wise choice. But expecting a smart creative choice from 20th Century Fox was obviously too much. X-Men Origins: Wolverine is overstuffed with a tremendous number of X-Men b-listers, including The Blob (Kevin Durand), Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), Gambit (Taylor Kitsch), The White Queen (Tahyna Tozzi), and Bolt (Dominic Monaghan). The latter, incidentally, features in one of the best scenes in the film, in a low-key confrontation with Victor that approaches real drama.

Taylor Kitsch, will.i.am, Liev Schreiber, Hugh Jackman, Tim Pocock, Ryan Reynolds, and Lynn Collins in X-Men Origins: WolverineThe Amazing Adventures of the Uncanny C-List Characters, coming soon from Marvel Comics

Worse than the proliferation of supporting characters is its menagerie of villains. Like Spider-Man 3, the film features a muddled array of enemies when just one well-developed villain would have suited the story better. At least three mortal nemeses align themselves against our hero here: Stryker, Sabretooth, and Weapon XI. The best, most iconic comic book villains are flamboyant characters intricately tied in with the origins of the hero: Batman vs. The Joker (Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger), Spider-Man vs. The Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), and Superman vs. Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman, Kevin Spacey). But Wolverine’s most serious foe here is the literally mute and expressionless Weapon XI, devoid of character or charisma. Worse, his moniker looks much better in print than spoken aloud; “Weapon Eleven” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine is directed by Gavin Hood, of the critically respected film Tsotsi, making it unusually finely pedigreed for an escapist piece of entertainment based on kids’ comic books. Marvel Comics seems not to have learned its lesson from handing Hulk to Ang Lee and Thor to Kenneth Branagh. A good case study for Fox and Marvel would have been Warner Bros.’ disastrous Invasion, from Oliver Hirschbiegel, director of Downfall. Both Invasion and X-Men Origins: Wolverine are somehow fatally broken, to the point where they fail to make rudimentary sense (which ought to be a base requirement for popcorn special-effects-driven blockbusters). Is it too much to ask that films like this at least be internally logical?

Stryker’s scheme simply doesn’t add up. What exactly does he intend to do? Stryker is evidently dissatisfied with his creation Weapon X (who escaped and became Wolverine). After what he perceives as a failed beta test, Stryker moves on to Weapon XI, an ostensibly perfect soldier with superpowers extracted from other mutants. So why does he go to extreme lengths to keep Wolverine under observation by a fake girlfriend (Lynn Collins) for several years, when all he has to do is kill him and extract his powers with his super-syringe? Even more puzzling, if Stryker wants Logan dead, why does he trick him into signing up to become Weapon X? Stryker succeeds only in making an already near-indestructible man even more so.

Tahyna Tozzi and Lynn Collins in X-Men Origins: WolverineThe White Queen and Silverfox look worried as they dash through some corridor or something, whatever, who am I kidding — Tahyna Tozzi and Lynn Collins are just in this movie to titillate the fanboys

The problem with comic book superhero stories is that there’s a point at which your powerful protagonist becomes literally inhuman, and thus difficult to find sympathetic or relatable. The best example is Superman, literally an alien who can do almost anything. What kinds of problems would such a creature have, and how can any viewer relate to him? Here, Logan and his nemesis Victor are both effectively immortal, so there is little at stake in their conflict. The most interesting comic book superheroes must reconcile superhuman powers with their deep flaws and anxieties, like Spider-Man’s insecurities and Daredevil’s disability, or are normal human beings with extraordinary drive, like Batman and Iron Man.

A pirated version of X-Men Origins: Wolverine infamously leaked online before its official theatrical release. It was roundly panned, and Fox attempted damage control by claiming it was an unfinished workprint with placeholder CGI, sound effects, and titles. According to the Los Angeles Times, the version finally released in theaters was reportedly almost identical, an embarrassment to say the least.

The special effects are rather shoddy, especially compared to the state of the art as seen in its contemporaries Star Trek and Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. Wolverine’s claws and Sabretooth’s bounding and pouncing suffer especially from unconvincing cheapness. The only two genuinely impressive exceptions were wasted, to showcase supporting character Cyclops’ laser eye-beams slicing large structures into geometric chunks.

Stray Observations:

  • Two easter egg codas follow the credits. One is totally unnecessary (Stryker’s fate is better left to the imagination), but the other is enjoyably campy, with a kind of sick humor that could have enlivened the rest of the film.
  • The DVD features an anti-smoking Public Service Announcement, no doubt penance for Logan’s signature cigar-chomping. But where are the warnings against drinking alcohol, riding motorcycles without helmets, killing people with blades, and performing unethical medical atrocities?
  • The script is a nonstop barrage of clichés: if I had subtracted one star for every time somebody utters “Let’s do this” or “Look what the cat dragged in,” my rating would be, well, a lot of negative stars.

Official movie site: www.x-menorigins.com

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