Why I Hate Zombies

Posted 7/28/10 by Danny

It seems the last five to ten years have been the era of the movie remake, and I have to say, I really can’t blame Hollywood too much. Why recycle the same old archetypes, plots and settings in different movies (see Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, and now Avatar) when you can just remake the exact movie hit that brought home the bacon 20 years ago?

For the most part, it doesn’t bother me.  The originals still exist.  Who’s to say a remake can’t be valid in it’s own right?  Too often, however, the trend is to completely miss the elements of the original that made it popular, enjoyable…worthy of a remake.   It leaves you wondering “Did they even watch the original?…or just get a cursory glance at it’s Wikipedia entry”

Most recently the remake bug crept into the horror genre, and I still looked the other way. Despite finding these bastardizations particularly troubling, I’ve kept my mouth shut.

Anyone that knows me can attest to my horror movie expertise.  While most of my high school peers were out being productive members of society, (drunkenly trying to feel up cheerleaders on a mud covered ATV somewhere) I was at the local Blockbuster deciding whether 976-Evil or Fright Night was the better showcase of Stephen Geoffreys acting prowess.

The winner is Fright Night by a head

 

 Seriously, if it was on rental shelves between 1993 and 2006 and remotely resembled horror fare, it was in my VCR…as sure as Evil Ed up there ended up in gay porn.

When Friday the 13th was remade I figured there wasn’t a whole lot of cinematic “magic” to recapture anyway, so I wasn’t too disappointed when it fell flat.  The bar was set pretty low to begin with.

The “Jason” Formula:

Setting: Campsite…or NYC streets…or Spacecraft (WTF guys, really?)

Cast: Several horny teenagers and one bookworm/ingénue/fish out of water

Supporting Cast: Cabins, Premarital Sex, Cutlery, Corey Feldman

Insert gruesome death – repeat.

Crank one of these out every 3-4 years and you’ll have an endless supply of spectators ready to shell out $9 for a ticket.

When the Nightmare on Elm Street remake overly sexualized Freddy by making him a pedophile rapist, I was disappointed.  That’s not creepy, it’s just sleazy…Even so, I thought it was a decent homage to the original.

For the record, I’m all for a darker Freddy.  Toward the end of the original franchise he was more like a stand-up comedian frequenting the airport Ramada then anything that would illicit fear.  I just wanted them to cut the cheese factor, though, not make him someone you’d see “interviewed” by Chris Hanson on Dateline.

Like most remakes, these recycled horror attempts missed the mark.  Whether by failing to find a new audience, infuriating the old audience, or by some sort of netherworld curse on anything soiling the purity of the horror classics, they’ve flopped…and I’ve mostly stayed indifferent to them, until one man decided to “reimagine” what I consider to be the greatest slasher movie of all time.  I just can’t keep quiet anymore, Mr. Zombie.

 

Rob Zombie: Assaulting the sensibilities of horror movie fans since 2003

 

After making shitty music for rednecks year after year, Rob Zombie decided to commit his brand of uninspired, low brow shittiness to celluloid also…and there was much rejoicing across trailer parks nationwide.

Before I dive into how Rob Zombie took one of the most expertly crafted and executed horror films of all time and shat all over it, I’d like to talk about what makes a movie scary.

The Scariest Thing is the Unknown

 

A cliché statement, yes…but often overlooked in horror movies these days.

Would The Blair Witch Project have been scary at all if you had seen what was pummeling the tent in the middle of the night, or what sideswiped our hero at the end?  No, Blair Witch was scary because everything was only implied, not shown, leaving your own personal boogeyman to populate the vacuum.  Your imagination fills in the blanks and it will always produce something more frightening than what CGI could create. (Possible exception for the closet scene in The Ring)

 

“Hey, have you seen my umbrella?”

 

 

I’ve heard terror described as being mauled by a tiger in the jungle, while horror is hearing the twig snap under the tiger’s paw as it approaches you from behind…and that’s an important distinction.  The original Halloween truly was a horror film.

Yes, Michael Myers wasn’t a visually unseen killer in Halloween.  He loomed like a dark cloud in the background of the whole movie.  But what made Halloween embody the concept of horror was the unseen psychology of the killer.

Freddie was burned alive and exacting revenge on the offspring of those who killed him.  Jason drowned as a child due to negligent camp counselors and was exacting revenge on future generations of promiscuous teenagers.  Michael Myers had no motive.

Halloween opens with a young Michael spying on his sister and her boyfriend mid awkward teenage coitus (in true 70’s drive-in movie fashion).  After what has to be the quickest sex anyone (aside from internet commentators) has ever had, the boyfriend leaves.  Little Mikey then grabs a butcher knife from the kitchen and offs his still naked sister in her bedroom.  The parents arrive shortly after to find their six year old son staring blankly into space, bloody knife in hand.   That’s the cold open; cut to black; fast forward 15 years.

So you’re John Carpenter and you’ve officially stunned the viewer.  No explanation? Nothing? …and there never is.  Not in the original, anyway.  Even Michael’s psychiatrist Sam Loomis, played by the B-movie scenery chewing Donald Pleasance, has no clue where the homicide came from.  His expert opinion backed by years of studying the human psyche is to deem Michael “pure evil”.  I’ve tried to find that in the DSM-IV, but I guess psychological diagnostic criteria have changed some since 1978.

 

“Let’s see…Narcissism, Oedipal Complex…ah, yes…Pure Evil”

 

 

So what we’re left with is a faceless, seemingly invincible killer with no clear motivation or agenda.  And that tapped into a fear we all have: Insanity.  Whether it’s our own insanity or the idea of someone out to harm us; a human threat that (unlike the rest of us) can’t be swayed with logic or reason, we all fear insanity.  This was laced throughout the plot masterfully.  When Michael impales Bob (aka: expendable horny teenager #4) and pins him to the kitchen door, he stands back and cocks his head to the side.  It’s the same look your dog gives you when s/he hears a high pitched sound.  It was a mindless inhuman fascination…it was appreciation. Those subtleties up the “creepy” quotient and thicken the atmosphere.

And that brings me to another point: Horror movies must be entrenched in mystery to be effective.   Not just a mystery about what and how, but also about why.  This can be difficult to sell in the slasher sub genre.  It’s a challenge to build more than just a surface mystery around a masked killer picking off high schoolers.  Halloween was an original, and it accomplished this through psychological implications that stick with the viewer long after the end credits have rolled.  It was done so well that in 2006, the original Halloween was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”

Let’s contrast this with the Rob Zombie school of filmmaking, which is none of those things.

Rob Zombie’s first filmmaking attempts, House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, were very similar in style, and by “style” I mean groin-punching levels of maturity and taste.  Take the most vulgar, filthy, inbred, white-trash rednecks you can imagine and make them sociopathic killers.  Easy enough…it worked for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and that’s fine.  Despite my personal preference against that type of movie, I can see they have a place in the genre.  I couldn’t have survived my childhood in Alabama without a healthy fear of hillbillies…I get it.

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Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake took those same filthy redneck archetypes and made them, not just insular characters, but the friggin Myers Family.  What was a picture perfect, mid-west family that inexplicably produced a homicidal sociopath became just another abusive lion’s den.  One of the distinguished patriarch’s first lines is about how he wants to “Skullf*ck the shit” out of Michael’s mom…ah, Mr. Zombie, your prose is so ethereal.

I would hate to live in Rob Zombie’s world.  Everyone in RZ’s suburbia is sexually depraved, morally reprehensible, and constantly drunk.

The remake’s first half is spent explaining Michael Myers and his violent tendencies.  This would be like opening Citizen Kane with a scene of Kane as a child riding his sled clearly labeled “rosebud” and then proceeding on with the rest of the movie.  Rob Zombie immediately neutered the mystery of the original and then finished up the second half with torture porn, after which he presumably patted himself on the back and continued drinking Natty Light and squeezing canned cheese into his bearded face.

The original Halloween had a nondescript quality that hit home.  You could imagine this episode happening in your neighborhood because of how unremarkable the setting and characters were.  The violence was sudden and inexplicable.  Rob Zombie’s Halloween made Michael Myers a relatable villain, and that is exactly the opposite of what made the original disturbing.  He made the soulless Michael Myers sympathetic.  He humanized the poster child for inhumanity.

And then there’s the way he treated poor Loomis.

There was no better casting choice in the original for Michael’s psychiatrist Sam Loomis, than Donald Pleasance.  Pleasance was type cast as a villain for most of his career, playing a Bond villain at one point.  I honestly don’t think anyone else could have sold the ridiculously over-the-top dialog Pleasance was asked to dish out.  I would describe him as the sole voice of reason in the film, but everything he said was so melodramatic, no one could call it “reasonable”. It’s almost impossible to believe his character was supposed to be a trained doctor.  He’s part brave hero, part crazy old doomsayer, and all horror movie icon.

The classic Loomis monologue: “I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face and the blackest eyes… the ‘devil’s’ eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… ‘evil.’

In Rob Zombie’s Halloween, Loomis (played by Malcolm McDowell) is more of a self-interested opportunist.  He swaggers into the movie looking like a cross between a pot smoking hippie and a grizzled biker.  After dramatically removing his sunglasses in true Carusonian method, he tells Michael’s mother that her son is deranged.  A child psychologist actually described a patient as “obviously deranged”…to his mother.  I wonder if he reevaluated that choice of words after she killed herself.

Also, notice how the original Loomis spent 8 years trying to reach Michael.  In the remake it takes about 8 months for Loomis to declare Michael lost forever.  Sure, he still visits Michael for the 15 years he remains locked up, when he’s not capitalizing on Michael by writing a book about the murders or touring colleges to promote his profit making venture.

Let’s also look at Michael’s escape from the sanitarium.  The original escape was chilling, once again leaving more to the imagination.  Loomis and a nurse drive up to the hospital where they see the patients wandering the grounds.  No hit-you-over-the-head exposition, just a quick few lines of dialog to set the hairs up on your neck, and let you know that something is wrong.  Before you know it, Michael has ambushed the car and is driving away into the night.

Michael’s escape in the remake is directly attributable to (you guessed it) a couple of drunk rednecks.  Two guards decide to enter after hours to rape one of the newly committed girls, a standard Rob Zombie plot point, and they figure why not do it in the 300lb murderous psychopath’s room…which because of Mikey’s obsession with making masks, looks remarkably similar to a Slipknot concert.

 

The many faces of Michael Myers

 

Predictably, Michael dispatches them both and heads out to wreak havoc on the unsuspecting population of Illinois.

As far as the killings go, well…if you’ve seen one slasher movie, you’ve seen them all.  Rob Zombie wasn’t any more brutal in his death scene execution than John Carpenter was in the original.  Teenagers hook up and subsequently get stabbed or choked or bludgeoned and the viewers cheer or cover their eyes or say “Oh no, GIRL! Don’t go in there!!”, depending on your level of respect for the other people in the theater. Usually, a good time is had by all.

Except for me, who sits there boiling with anger that people call Rob Zombie an “artist” or a “filmmaker” or a “homo sapien”.

I guess I shouldn’t be this upset over a remake.  Maybe it’s my childhood attachment to the original.   The first time I saw Halloween, I’m not sure how old I was, but it’s fair to say I was way too young to be watching that type of movie.  It won me over early and I never looked back.  It became the yard stick by which I judged every other slasher movie I saw from then on.  I considered John Carpenter a horror master and even sat through the 6 minute fight scene in They Live because of it.  I feel like Rob Zombie skullf*cked my childhood.

I guess I’m just hoping for a new crop of horror filmmakers to be inspired by a more subtle way of storytelling.  I would hope they would focus on things that horrify rather than terrify.  If they grow up watching Rob Zombie movies they’ll never know what it’s like to be creeped out…grossed out, yes…but not creeped out.  That ability to unnerve the viewer is what made John Carpenter, and the original Halloween, great.

In the end, I’m surprised John Carpenter gave his blessing to Rob Zombie‘s crayon-scribbled rendering of his seminal work.  I’m shocked Malek Akkad, son of the original Halloween producer Moustapha Akkad, attached his name to this project.  But overall, I’m stupefied at the audacity of Rob Zombie…to think he could take the killer redneck stereotype that he lifted from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and apply it in a broad stroke to every film he makes is insulting to horror fans everywhere.  It’s an oversimplification, it’s lazy as hell, but most importantly it doesn’t fit in Halloween.  If you want to make more of your own movies, maybe a sequel like House of 1001 Dalmatian Corpses, by all means, Mr. Zombie, go for it. But leave Halloween alone.

Please.

Danny

dannygrantmusic@gmail.com

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