Director: Bob Clark
Writer: Alan Ormsby
Starring: Richard Backus, John Marley, Lynn Carlin, Anya Ormsby, Jane Daly, Mal Jones, Henderson Forsythe
Can a mother’s love surmount the barrier between life and death? Christine Brooks (Lynn carlin) wishes her son Andy (Richard Backus), a soldier in Vietnam, would return home, and lo and behold he does. But Andy isn’t the pleasant, gregarious soul he was before the war. He stays alone in his room; he doesn’t eat or drink. He has an accelerating skin condition that he only just manages to hide from the others. Oh, and he has a thirst for human blood, the only thing that can arrest the decay that seems to be consuming him. The war has done something to Andy, something that can’t be undone. A mother’s love may not be enough to keep him from an overdue date with destiny and the cold, dark embrace of an overdue grave…
In the old days of late-night viewings and VHS rental shops, you may have encountered this film as any of the following: DEAD OF NIGHT, THE NIGHT ANDY CAME HOME, NIGHT WALK, and so on. These days, we’ve all settled on DEATHDREAM, and with this latest stunning release by the good folks at Blue Underground, the film – no matter what its title – should enjoy its rightful place in the annals of zombie and horror cinema as a watershed moment in the development of practical makeup effects as well as a deeply meaningful commentary on America’s problematic relationship with its own combat-scarred veterans.
Basically an extended riff on W.W. Jacobs’ classic 1902 short story, “The Monkey’s Paw,” DEATHDREAM is a far more effective chiller than its simple origins suggest. Not only is it a none-too-subtle commentary on the punishing psychological damage of war and the empty life that many Vietnam vets faced when returning home, but it’s also a very well-acted, eerie horror movie regardless of its strong socio-political statements. Andy (a tour de force performance by Backus) spends most of the film in a near-catatonic state, sleepwalking through a parody of his former life, presumably sustained in his present form only by the fervent wishes of his mother. When he does emerge long enough to exhibit any emotion, it’s a highlight of the film, from his slow burn as the mailman natters on (a delightfully annoying turn by Arthur Anderson), forcing him to explode in anger, to his delightfully sardonic repartee when responding to Bob (Michael Mazes) during the double date.
Everyone changes eventually.
There’s a barren quality to the film that echoes Andy’s own state of mind, as well as a great score by Carl Zittrer enhanced by a seething, goblin-like voice that whispers Andy’s name and a motif that sounds like a piano string being scraped, all of which add to the overwhelming sense of tension in the film. You can’t help but feel your skin crawl as the poor guy succumbs to his vampiric (yes, I admit that) Bathory- and MARTIN-esque hunger for blood. While Andy struggles with what he has become, only revealing the true depth of his turmoil in a few choice moments, like his brief conversation with the doomed Dr. Allman (Henderson Forsythe), his family barely holds their own fear and anger in check, and there are obviously plenty of issues that were there long before a re-animated Andy came home, especially between Andy and his father (John Marley, who will always be remembered as the foolish Hollywood producer, Jack Woltz, who dared to stand up to Don Vito Corleone at the beginning of the first GODFATHER and had the head of his prized horse put in his bed to teach him a lesson. Fun story: Marley thought this movie was about his character and not Andy!).
For students of the zombie genre’s history that haven’t yet experienced DEATHDREAM, the film has some eye-opening connections to past and future horrors, such as POV shots of a house that look quite similar to those in John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN; you know, the movie that bore the familiar tagline, “The Night He Came Home?” Hmm. As Andy begins to exhibit more overt physical signs of decay, the film takes a drastic turn into the truly macabre, with a final undead look that rivals PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES for “Eeriest Zombie Face Ever.” While script writer Alan Ormsby (CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, SHOCK WAVES) also oversaw the makeup effects, he did bring in a young man named Tom Savini to assist, thus launching Savini on a legendary career in horror that would also shape the success of several other films we all know very well indeed. And if you want an amusing non-horror link, Andy’s mailman says “I’ll just be double dog damned,” a phrase we all know well from annual marathon of director Bob Clark’s holiday classic, A CHRISTMAS STORY.
Clark’s untimely death in 2007 put at least a temporary end to then-developing plans for a remake, but perhaps one day we’ll see a 21st century take on this story. In the meantime, the original is itself timeless in its scathing treatment of the ways in which we callously discard those that gave everything to safeguard our freedom, including an obvious drug addiction metaphor complete with “tripping” sequence. Keep your eyes peeled for Clark and Ormsby in cameos as a cop and a bystander, while CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS co-star (and A CHRISTMAS STORY Santa) Jeff Gillen pops up as a bartender.
Everything’s fine, Bob!
If the film’s final moments don’t creep you out completely and fill you with an overwhelming sense of pathos, then you’re one of the walking dead yourself. And whether living, dead, undead, or anything in between, you owe it to yourself to get a copy of this definitive release of DEATHDREAM from Blue Underground, which improves dramatically on their already great previous release, and includes so many satisfying commentaries, interviews, and behind-the-scenes extras that offer a complete retrospective on this too-long-overlooked film.
Publisher: Dynamite Entertainment
Writers: Craig Engler & Fred Van Lente
Artist: Edu Menna
Colors: Sal Aiala
Letters: Simon Bowland
The popular zombie television series expands into another medium via this new comic book incarnation, co-written by one of the show’s co-creators and preserving the TV show’s irreverent and action-packed approach to the zombie genre.
“Sea of Death” takes us to a much earlier point in the Z NATION universe than that seen in the current series (debuting its fourth season this fall), utilizing the medium of comics to fill in a previously unknown chapter in that world’s apocalyptic history. We’re back in Year One, civilization has collapsed, and a National Guard team are dispatched by a very familiar character (you’ll recognize this person immediately if you’ve been watching the show since day one) to obtain a much-needed nutrient known as “Soylent Z.” Naturally, it’s not going to be an easy trip, and things quickly become very complicated. This first issue ends at the docked “Empress of the Seas,” a gargantuan cruise ship whose luck is not likely to be better than the Titanic – but whether it actually sinks or everyone on board just dies is another matter…
This polished debut issue does an excellent job of launching a new adventure while assuring readers that it’s still Z NATION deep down in its mutated DNA.
This fast-paced issue quickly rolls out a new team of characters and sends them on their perilous journey while sketching in their personalities and giving readers a chance to get to know them – all the more effective, then, when some don’t even make it to the final page. There are one or two who just might emerge as this comic’s Murphy or Warren; who knows, perhaps the TV show might even bring a later version of one of these folks onto the small screen! And who’s to say we won’t encounter earlier versions of our favorite Z NATION heroes here as well?
There are some excellent page designs and coloring techniques throughout, from a shadowy sequence in a warehouse of vital supplies, to numerous action beats in which zombies are dispatched in front of orange starburst backgrounds that might even remind readers of the “BAM POW ZAP” moments in the BATMAN TV show. There’s even a character in this story with a very familiar name! Now where have I heard “Blumberg” before, hmm… (and yes, it’s an honor!)
It also wouldn’t be Z NATION without a few innovative additions to the vast zombie mythos, and in this issue alone we’re introduced to a weapon that could give Addy’s Z-Whacker a run for its money, as well as a new zombie species whose natural behavior while alive becomes all the more frightening in unlife. And yes, there are serious stakes, comedic repartee, and even heart-breaking or at least shocking losses.
This polished debut issue does an excellent job of launching readers on a new adventure while assuring them that it’s most definitely still Z NATION deep down in its mutated DNA. I’m looking forward to seeing where the rest of this series takes us; there’s a great deal of potential to tell many other stories in the Z NATION universe, so there’s every reason to believe this comic could run for years to come.
After fifteen years and six films, the RESIDENT EVIL film franchise has reached its FINAL CHAPTER…if you want to believe that. I mean, let’s face it, we’ve seen FINAL titles before in series that blasted past them soon enough. And with soft reboots and complete relaunches, who’s to say there won’t be another RESIDENT EVIL in a few years’ time? In fact, it’s probably a certainty.
Where was I? Oh yes…after fifteen years and six films, the RESIDENT EVIL film franchise is wrapping things up (yeah, yeah). So to celebrate the big finale (now in theaters as I post this), I thought it was time to provide my take on the entire series to date. I had already covered the first film in depth in ZOMBIEMANIA many years ago, but now it was time to watch all of it – every movie, every mid-air twirl, every bullet casing with the Umbrella logo lovingly shot in slo-mo as it fell to the floor. I was joined by Accidental Hellraiser Scholar Natalie Litofsky, and together we queued up one DVD after another.
The team is assembled, so let’s get to reopening the Hive! We want to know what went on down there…
(NOTE: I usually give a film a “brain” rating in my reviews, but in order not to break up the flow, I’ll hold those until the very end.)
RESIDENT EVIL (2002)
It’s too easy sometimes, but it’s as true here as it often is with other long-running series – the first film is still the best. A tightly-constructed, claustrophobic, atmospheric action horror romp, RESIDENT EVIL does what it needs to do and does it well. It sets up its characters nicely, including the memory mystery at the heart of Alice’s dilemma as our heroine – played as she ever will be by stalwart Milla Jovovich (in a performance of confidence and conviction throughout all the insanity the series will one day throw at her) – wakes up into a world that will soon turn upside down.
Joining her are notable cast mates like Colin Salmon, James Purefoy, Michelle Rodriguez (doing her usual badass routine), and Eric Mabius, among others. The movie also employs good old-fashioned shambling zombies – reanimated by the T-Virus rather than space radiation, which opens the door for some seriously problematic mutations later in the series – it has some fantastic action sequences including the razor-sharp laser corridor scene, and it has a propulsive score with a satisfyingly contained environment for zombie mayhem.
True, there are some clunky expository moments, but that’s more or less just a nice nod to the series’ video game origins – and the Hive map does provide a good way to orient the audience as to the location of our heroes during the story. The story rolls along relentlessly toward a stunning conclusion, and as I’ve often observed elsewhere, this has what may be not only one of my favorite final shots in zombie genre history but film in general. As the camera pulls up to reveal a ruined city, the foreboding setting for Alice’s next big challenge, the movie ends on a promise that the sequel will ultimately fail to fulfill in spectacular fashion. About that…
RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE (2004)
Squandering the superb setup from the end of the first film, APOCALYPSE is not nearly as bad as I used to think…but that’s only because the series still has so far to fall. Eschewing the clear direction and stylish lighting from its predecessor, this movie adopts the awful “shaky cam” approach to action that prevents viewers from getting a bead on anything, adding some silly slow motion strobing for additional ill effect. Sienna Guillory makes her first appearance as Jill Valentine in a scene that immediately demonstrates how incapable she is of speaking or behaving like a human in any way (but for game fans, at least she’s wearing the right outfit).
There are some decent set pieces, including the relatively rare “corpses clawing out of cemetery graves” gambit that people only think the genre is all about, and a cute horde of zombie kids having a reporter for lunch. Alice is now officially bonded with the T-Virus and becomes a full-fledged superhero, even though she already had one hell of a midair zombie dog drop-kick in the first film.
What starts as a painful comedy stereotype with LJ (Mike Epps) results in one of the movie’s only likable characters, and Oded Fehr (of THE MUMMY fame) is pretty well wasted. As for Eric Mabius’ Matt, he’s mutated into the Nemesis creature (no longer played by Mabius), giving the movie a chance for a final boss fight with more shaky cam. The movie ends on a sinister note that will be addressed about midway through the next film with a couple lines of dialogue. And on we go…
RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION (2007)
It’s a brave thing to drastically change the style and setting of a series in its third installment, but EXTINCTION benefits from the shift as well as the direction of HIGHLANDER helmer Russell Mulcahy, following series originator Paul W.S. Anderson and APOCALYPSE director Alexander Witt (whose IMDb page will clearly show how that worked out for him as far as other directing gigs). The desert setting and accompanying sandy color palette offer a stark contrast to the metallic blues of the first two films, and Alice’s now brown gear fits in nicely with her new surroundings (but really girl, stop cutting your own hair with a weed whacker). In fact, she’s now taken a step up from superhero to Messiah, with her blood a possible cure (they’re going to drop that entirely soon enough though). Ali Larter joins up as Claire Redfield but doesn’t add much presence, while two additions from APOCALYPSE get dramatic exits.
There’s a nice tribute to Bub from DAY OF THE DEAD in one scene, and that’s not all – this one seems to be very interested in paying homage to everything from THE OMEGA MAN to the PLANET OF THE APES movies to THE BIRDS…or is that ZOMBIE 5: KILLING BIRDS? And after almost entirely ignoring or obscuring them in APOCALYPSE, the zombies are back with a vengeance here, sporting some excellent textured makeup designs. Some of them are even capable of being trained as a sort of zombie strike force, but fortunately they don’t do anything as silly as arm them and give them motorcycles (just wait until RETRIBUTION).
Besides Alice’s magic blood, EXTINCTION also establishes a number of cold hard facts about the state of the world that the rest of the series will completely ignore, like the drying up of the oceans (which are miraculously just fine in a movie or two). The movie ends with the films’ second-best finale, setting up an army of Alices – or is that a Wonderland of Alices? – that will take the fight directly to Umbrella. Surely the series wouldn’t throw away this setup like it did the one from the first movie? I mean, surely the next installment is a feature-length war of Alices Vs. Umbrella, right? Right?
RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE (2010)
Wrong. Eliminating the entire army of Alices in the opening sequence, AFTERLIFE is the beginning of a major downturn in quality for the franchise, topped (or bottomed if you like) in its ineptitude and embarrassingly bad 3D-reliant “special” effects only by its immediate successor. Although RETRIBUTION holds the record for letting go of any semblance of logic even in the relative unreality of the RESIDENT EVIL series, this movie begins to sever the series’ ties with sensibility in several ways.
As a primary villain, Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts) is actually laughable – his every exaggerated neck crack (please, can we retire this from all movies now?), his you-want-to-punch-his-smug-face smirk, and his painfully obvious Agent (“MATRIX“) Smith shtick made us laugh out loud. And when he gets half of his own head shot off and still comes back only to get blown up at the end (only to return again next time), it eliminates any tension whatsoever; the man is just a walking Looney Tune.
Speaking of cartoons, Alice loses her powers but continues to flip through the air and survive fiery crashes with no trouble; some of the composited shots of her and her clones swinging or plummeting generated more laughs. And who needs powers? One guy with no bonded cells manages to stop a plane from going over the side of a building with his bare hands, while Claire does a run up a wall and twirls over an opponent easily enough.
As for her opponent, what the hell was that giant FINAL FANTASY Axe Monster? He shows up with no explanation whatsoever – one simple line of dialogue referring to him as another product of the Nemesis program could have covered it. As for the now flower-mouthed THING-like zombies, apart from the bad CGI, they’re just a very stupid concept (source game faithfulness notwithstanding).
BONUS NATALIE QUOTE: “I didn’t know this was a comedy!”
As you can surely tell, this is the movie that really started to lose me. Now for some – especially game fans – the later installments may be more satisfying because they begin to utilize some of the weirder creatures and elements from those games, reality be damned. But for me, the film series narrative starts to go off the rails as everything transforms into much more of a heightened live-action animé than a zombie movie. This one ends with the shocking return of a previous character who is so unrecognizable here compared to her last appearance, you’d have to know that’s how she looked in later games; that shows no respect for those that only watch the movies, but hold on – it’s about to get much worse…
RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION (2012)
Starting with a backwards-running sequence that rips off the concept from the DEAD ISLAND game trailer released one year earlier, and following that with an extended copy of the 2004 DAWN OF THE DEAD opening, here is without a doubt the worst film in the series…at least as far as I know as of this writing. There are tons of visual callbacks and a number of familiar faces from as far back as the first film returning in roles that give them nothing good to do but only serve to pander to an audience that will merely look at the faces and say, “Hey it’s him/her again!” or “I recognize that!”
BONUS NATALIE QUOTE: “Is this entire movie about them getting out of the facility?” (ANSWER: Yes, pretty much.)
In particular, the introduction of Ada Wong suffers from the worst kind of disregard for moviegoers – she’s never given any proper backstory or character, relying entirely on game fans that will simply see her in her distinctive outfit and be happy she’s flesh and blood. As a non-game viewer, I still require characters to have personality and purpose; she has neither.
If the humans are zombie-like in their development, the zombies are by contrast bizarrely developed to comedic levels. The undead in this series long ago started running rather than shambling, as well as sprouting flower-mouth appendages and other assorted lunacy, but now we have the “Las Plagas” zombies with uniforms, guns, chainsaws, and motorcycles. As for their creators, Umbrella’s motivations have grown so convoluted and insane, one wonders what their end game is if they intend to still function as a corporate entity at all (more on this below).
Moving on from homages in previous films to flat-out thievery, this movie also grafts a random sudden surge of motherhood onto Alice in a duplicate – right down to the alien cocoons – of the Ripley/Newt ALIENS relationship, while the Red Queen has gone full Skynet (from TERMINATOR, of course), waging war on Mankind. The endless city simulation sequences are just an excuse to shoehorn some disaster porn into the series, snow and ice don’t appear to make anyone cold anymore, and if you enjoyed the unexplained Axe Monster in the last one, here are two! Sigh.
ANOTHER BONUS NATALIE QUOTE: “So the entire world ended because one dude thought he could make some money on some stuff.”
RETRIBUTION is definitely one of the worst big-budget films it’s ever been my misfortune to see, a tidal wave of nonsensical visuals with no underlying plot, no sense of character, and little to no consideration for the reality established by the previous movies, to say nothing of its contempt for moviegoers’ intelligence. With this as the last installment before the FINAL CHAPTER, one would be forgiven for contemplating whether or not to give the sixth movie a miss, but when you’ve gone this far, and the winged Hell demons are already dive-bombing the White House…
RESIDENT EVIL: THE FINAL CHAPTER (2016)
As I write this, the final installment (yeah, right) of the series is out in theaters. What do we have to look forward to? If I were to guess based on the most recent film, nothing good, but hope springs eternal – even in a post-apocalyptic world ruled by a massive malevolent conglomerate. I’ll share my thoughts on THE FINAL CHAPTER when I can, but for now we leave Alice and her many friends and enemies on the precipice of Hell itself. For anyone else brave enough to attempt to binge-watch these films in a weekend as Natalie and I did, you may well find yourself feeling much like Alice, staring blankly out at a nonsenical, hellish landscape of fire and destruction, wondering how everything went so wrong…
Before we get to the ratings, a few last general comments about the Umbrella Corporation:
• They sure do love their branding. Forgot where you work? Just look at the floor or the wall or literally any piece of technology and there the logo will be to remind you.
• Where do they get all that space? Umbrella sure does love enormous architecture, but the underground facilities in particular just get crazier and crazier, from the ship that’s clearly bigger on the inside (calling the Doctor from DOCTOR WHO), to the primary base under Tokyo that looks bigger than the city above it? How did they build that thing? And at this point, shouldn’t the Earth just be imploding after Umbrella has managed to dig out everything under the crust to build their endless array of secret bases?
• The cybercrab controller that debuts in AFTERLIFE also brings up a question: Why bother doing that when you can simply kill an uncooperative individual and clone them endlessly into mindless minions, like they do with, oh, everyone else they have working for them? And why did it take virtually an entire movie for Alice to come up with ripping one of those things off Jill, and why does Jill remember herself and everything after removal, but Claire was afflicted with almost total amnesia post-crab?
• Let’s talk about clones. Forgetting how insanely complex and amazing that one technological breakthrough is in comparison to everything else, by the end of the series we know that just about everyone working for Umbrella is a clone trooper (sounds familiar) or a copy of a known person. So if they’re struggling with what the T-Virus has done to destroy humanity, how about deploying thousands of clones to repopulate the world instead of leaving them all hanging on racks under the Kamchatka ice? And why would Umbrella run clone-populated simulations using clones imprinted with incredibly detailed internal lives that include political activism?
• Finally…what the hell is their end game anyway? We find out by the fifth film that Umbrella sold the T-Virus around the world to everyone and had run countless outbreak scenarios for all the world’s major cities, so even if the initial Hive outbreak was an accident, it couldn’t have been entirely unplanned or unforeseen that one day the virus would get out and about (Natalie’s addition: How did they sell it to everyone without having the antidote developed and sold as part of the package? Who would buy the first part without the second part?). And although earlier, the Red Queen seemed to want to assist in containing and even curing the situation in the first film and EXTINCTION, by RETRIBUTION she’s waging war on all living humans. Meanwhile, Umbrella keeps maintaining armies of clones, taking over people with cybercrabs, running simulations for a virus that already destroyed the world, and letting a guy in sunglasses monologue incessantly until most of the people working for him probably wish he would shoot them in the head. And when the world is over and all are dead…how will Umbrella make money exactly?
And now, without further ado, the ratings round-up!
I’ve enjoyed Midnight Syndicate’s atmospheric work for many years now, and if you’re a zombie fan that has never yet sampled their unique blend of synthesized sounds and orchestrally-shaped compositions to create a themed melodic exploration of the macabre on every album, you now have the perfect way to discover the nightmare world of Midnight Syndicate. If you’re a zombie fan and gamer, well this is just about the closest thing to Heaven…I’m sorry, Hell on Earth!
ZOMBIES!!! OFFICIAL BOARD GAME SOUNDTRACK is Midnight Syndicate’s brilliant new release, offering a horde of zombie-themed tracks to accompany the long-running Twilight Creations ZOMBIES!!! game and series of expansions. It’s also one of the most enjoyable and skin-crawling musical recreations of the apocalypse you’re likely to hear, and “It Begins” with a propulsive first track that avoids heavy rock clichés, bringing us into the end of the world with a melancholy, almost heroic sound.
“Where Did Everybody Go” conveys tentative and disturbing discovery that leads into a sense of urgency – a mission begins? “They’re Coming For You…” builds slowly, incorporating unnerving ambient sounds like shuffling footsteps and barking dogs to create an unsettling soundscape of terror. There’s a definite sense that the living dead are converging and no one is safe. Hissing and groaning fills the soundscape in what feels like a night-time urban environment of gated alleyways and rainswept streets.
“Slight Miscalculation” is big and bold again, but things go even wilder and more epic in a sort of musical Rube Goldberg running out of control. There’s a never discordant but complex blend of instrumentation as the assistant at the mortuary flips the nuclear switch and then the radioactive sandwich falls into the lightning bolt (thank you, David Cross, for perfectly capturing the descent into a zombie apocalypse in one twisty sentence). The track ends with the gasping first breath of some unliving thing rising to take over the world!
“Last Day to Live” is a melodic piano-driven track set in a windswept uncertain world with a plaintive final touch. “No Escape” feels more ambient than melodic, a general suspense piece that slowly ramps up – bits reminded me of James Horner’s ALIENS score – into a more percussive action scenario. “I Don’t Think They’re Dead” begins with steady eerie breathing, but is otherwise a slightly more generic suspense track with a nice rhythm and some satisfying countermelodies.
It’s back to the rainy “Town Square” as zombies thrash about and set off car alarms, with survivors running, screaming from afar, and shooting at anything that moves. “Zombie Master” is a track to make Murder Legendre proud! This ominous, epic theme heralds the arrival of the magical malevolent will that impels the living dead, crashing together like the cogs of an unstoppable machine of terror, with a hummable dark melody that also nicely complements the album’s opening track. This is purposefulness and madness intertwined.
This is purposefulness and madness intertwined.
“Raiding Todd’s Tool Shop” is all about urgency. As strings interweave to convey speed and purpose, ambient noise and a running radio report set the mood as our survivors seek the equipment they need to make it out alive. A sudden interruption in tempo and the crash of zombies getting in signals that it’s time to leave. And watch out at the end! “Veiled Hunter” is a short but concussive blow that suggests the battle has just begun, while “Into the Abyss” returns to Midnight Syndicate’s familiar rolling percussion approach to melodic construction, with some similarities to the “Slight Miscalculation” track.
“Alternate Food Source” is frenetic, with a visceral effect as you hear the gnashing of teeth and rending of guts. “Fear” has a metallic relentlessness that suits its title. As the track gives way to a ticking motif and distorted radio warnings, time very much seems to be running out; I particularly love the pulsing rumble at the end. “Adrenaline Rush” is the musical equivalent of grabbing your stuff and running from the horde as they bear down on you. The panic builds as fast footfalls and heavy breathing mixes in with the wild piano and percussion. You’re going to build up a sweat listening to this track…they’re right behind you!
It’s an epic, suspenseful, blood-racing and bone-chilling finale.
“Dusk” is an oppressive respite from the carnage, but surely hope is fading, and in “We’re Screwed” that becomes certain. Many of the album’s familiar motifs come together in this track as the end game approaches and the horde closes in for a very messy kill. There’s one thing left to do…and that’s give up! “Race to the Helipad” takes us on one last desperate run to escape the apocalypse. It’s an epic, suspenseful, blood-racing and bone-chilling finale to a superb album that not only expertly pays homage to the zombie genre but should serve as the pitch perfect accompaniment to a round of ZOMBIES!!! or the end-of-the-world game of your choice. Do you hear that? Quick, “get to da choppa!”
Director: Don Coscarelli
Writers: Don Coscarelli
Starring: A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister, Kathy Lester, Bill Cone, Mary Ellen Shaw, Terrie Kalbus, and Angus Scrimm!
Young Mike (Baldwin) is convinced that something strange is going on at the local mortuary, where the enigmatic and decidedly creepy Tall Man (Scrimm) can lift coffins entirely by himself. Investigating with the help of older brother Jody (Thornbury) and ice cream man Reggie (Bannister), Mike soon uncovers a sinister plot to turn dead humans into zombie dwarf slaves for transport back to the Tall Man’s alien dimension. Or it’s all just a dream; either way, it’s pretty weird.
Forget for a moment that this film went on to spawn four sequels and that it led to further elaboration on the history of the Tall Man (although not much and all of it pretty ambiguous). Just think of it as a one-off experience, which indeed it was when it first came out. Evaluating it purely on its own terms, it’s one of the most effective dramatizations of a grief-induced nightmare ever made. Nothing that happens in the movie is necessarily real, but all of it is certainly creepy and a superb example of low-budget horror cinema. With the recent Remastered restoration in particular, it’s a stunning way to revisit ’70s film making at its most evocative, and that distinctive soundscape – including the incredibly hummable theme song – has never sounded more (ironically enough) real. Even the visuals, which look more vibrant than they ever did when the movie first came out, retain enough of the texture and feel that serves the material very well indeed.
By picking through the clues strewn throughout the movie, we can gather that Mike’s older brother Jody has just died. Suffering from the immense loss, Mike descends into a convoluted series of feverish dreams that mix elements evidently drawn from reality – the graveside service, the funeral parlor, life with Jody and their friend Reggie before the accident – and throws in a few bizarre additions – the dwarves, the dimensional gateway, the flying bug-thing – to create a dark landscape of the mind in which Mike and the audience are trapped.
It’s one of the most effective dramatizations of a grief-induced nightmare ever made.
It’s a nifty piece of work when interpreted in that light, but even if you want to watch it as a straight-forward if surreal story about an alien posing as a funeral director and ensnaring a local boy in a web of intrigue and mind-bending horror – and who wouldn’t when you put it that way? – then by all means feel free. It works on both levels. But really: crushing down and re-animating human corpses, canning them, and then sending them through a dimensional rip in order to provide slave labor for a distant desert world? Doesn’t really sound too cost effective, does it? And don’t you love how quickly our heroes just accept the sheer insanity of the premise with little more than a shrug?
The Tall Man himself, Angus Scrimm, is one of those men whose physical presence is so innately unsettling that he could only have been put on this Earth to become one of our undying icons of sheer terror. The rest of the cast tries very hard, but it may be to Scrimm’s benefit that he has little dialogue and only has to glower menacingly. The others have to tackle actually speaking, and occasionally their acting is rough around the edges. But earnestness counts, and everyone is doing their best to be “in the moment.” Special kudos to Baldwin, who cries on cue, convincingly conveys anger and frustration, and makes me genuinely believe he’s figuring out how to put together his makeshift shotgun shell hammer device in the moment.
But never mind a bit of uneven acting. What makes this movie a classic is its suitably languid pace and visual style, enveloping you in the nightmare world of the Tall Man while one of the eeriest musical scores ever written (by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave) chills your very bones. The otherworldly hum of the gateway hidden in the funeral parlor is also cause for goose bumps, and there are numerous inexplicable bits and pieces that enhance the dreamscape, like the Jawa-esque dwarf zombies and the cackling psychic lady in shades. Does she know more than she’s telling when she gives Mike a test of bravery that foreshadows Luke Skywalker’s own in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK one year later? Could she even be a long-time nemesis of the Tall Man? No answers are forthcoming, at least not yet, and that’s also part of PHANTASM‘s eternal charm. It hints at the edges of a grander saga, a bizarre mash-up of horror, science fiction, action adventure, and family drama, and it manages to keep all those balls in the air (had to, sorry) while never quite focusing in on any single one of them to the detriment of the others.
[This] bizarre mash-up of horror, science fiction, action adventure, and family drama…manages to keep all those balls in the air.
And then there’s the scene I used to consider annoying but now find genuinely warm and pleasant, and that’s Jody and Reggie’s brief jam session on the porch. Sure, they may not quite be “hot as love,” but Phans surely think so. And besides, Reggie’s need to tune up provides a cool if sledgehammer subtle bit of foreshadowing about how to temporarily interfere with the Tall Man’s plans. If you want still more of “Sittin’ Here at Midnight,” you can track down Bill Thornbury’s complete 1995 recording on various DVD releases, as well as the disco version of the theme tune!
PHANTASM is a delightfully dreamy slab of early modern horror with tableaux that stay with you forever, particularly if you saw it first as a child. Could there be anything more terrifying than the sight of the Tall Man standing menacingly at the end of a long corridor with the whine of a silver sphere close behind? After all, you can run all you like, but the game is over boy, and now you die!
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