Friday, December 10, 2010

THE TALKING LIVING: The Dead are not given their due in AMC’s zombie series The Walking Dead.

I’ve been an avid horror film fan for over 20 years, with my fascination extending liberally to the cannibal/zombie genres. I can name you close to every single distinguished zombie film made since George A. Romero’s seminal “little” film “Night of the Living Dead” debuted in 1968. I can verify each film by establishing them to a particular era of cinema while simultaneously indulging in what country (or collaboration of countries) produced it. I can even do one of the best zombie impersonations you’ve ever laid eyes on. What I cannot do is give “The Walking Dead”, AMC’s new zombie series, the worship and tribute it requires from a zombie enthusiast such as me…and here is why!

Truth be told, “The Walking Dead” was a show produced and targeted at “un-dead heads” (no pun intended): an audience who do not hold the zombie genre (or zombies for that matter) in a lovingly high stature. As I came into this series, I anticipated at least a shell of a typical zombie farce with a huge homage to el maestro, George A. Romero. What I received was an almost blatant disregard to the actual zombie, and more centralization on the struggle of humanity and its polarized views of the aftermath. 
 But wait…humanity’s struggle, picking up the pieces of the aftermath… sounds like a zombie film to me! Granted that the show is a television effort with a network notable for its drama-fueled shows and textured plots, zombie-themed films/shows are not revered for their dramatizations and slow-paced (no pun intended) plots of deep human emotion. In a zombie film, zombies do not support the plot…they are the plot. Zombies are not background noise, and zombies sure as hell don’t go entire episodes without claiming a single victim!

There are many faithful devotees of “The Walking Dead”, and with their undying love for the source material and/or the show, a trite few (or more) pine that my argument is invalid because this particular show was not aimed towards “goreheads” and “horror enthusiast” like myself—they could never be any more correct than they are with that statement! The fact is, the horror world was abuzz with the impending show and its inevitable impact on our society. Purveyors of “The Walking Dead” need to understand that while they casually browsed the internet, watched TV, and trolled Facebook to unearth this upcoming television show, zombie fans and enthusiast were exhuming the many sources hyping “The Walking Dead” (be it Fangoria, HorrorHound, Rue Morgue magazines or well-regarded horror websites) as the next big horror show. “The Walking Dead” was supposed to reinvent television for horror fans and establish a point of reference for all horror-related shows to come. Not since the late 80s/early 90s golden age of horror television, with the likes of “Tales from the Darkside”, “Monsters”, and “The Hitcher”, has there been a source of entertainment for the enigmatic horror fan. Sure there was two seasons of “Masters if Horror”—but you needed a premium channel subscription for that and even that show failed to deliver “real masters of horror” (No George Romero? William Malone? Peter Medak? Rob Schmidt? Brad Anderson? Is that your final answer Mick Garris?).

“The Walking Dead” failed at the ability to successfully deliver the supernatural elements that drive a horror film/show, and instead constructed a massive emotional rollercoaster that tells rather than shows. The show had the necessary crew assembled to produce a well-rounded zombie apocalypse with dark emotional undertones (note the prefix under-!) and groundbreaking special effects not seen on any TV show; that in itself is a grand failure for not using what you have to its fullest extent.
When I heard that KNB Effects were on board to helm the special make-up effects for the series, I was more than ecstatic. What more can you ask for when it comes to Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger, protégés of the master of illusion, Tom Savini? Nicotero and Berger both have some amazing resumes that include, among others, “George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead” (1985), “Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn”, “From Beyond”, and “Bride of Reanimator”. “The Walking Dead” was a slam-dunk for aesthetically pleasing make-up and eye-popping visual effects. If readers are familiar with Nicotero and Berger’s work, it’s evident that not only do the special effects compliment the film/show, but the special effects are their own character.

Where this area of the show fails (and how could it!?) is in the hands of the script and subsequent cinematography. KNB’s work is not shown and given its credit; it is hidden amongst the wide angled shots of the doomed city (where the art direction and production design units shine), the claustrophobic zooms that try in vain to collect every bit of unrestraint emotion from the actors, and the CGI gunshots and bullet holes (Savini taught these boys the art of squibs and blood filled prophylactics…why not indulge?!). 
Where “The Walking Dead” fails in plot and SFX, it mesmerizes and charms with fervent cinematography and art direction/production design. There is no complaining about the visuals inherent within this eye-candied show. Everything is stunningly shot as the downplay of colors (completely blatant and in regards to an actual concrete jungle) give the scenery a much needed boost and helps laden the somber tone with an unearthly hue of desolation. The camera sometimes hints at a documentary feel, while combing for an omniscient being scanning the ruins and vestiges of the fallen from high above. Obviously, as mentioned previously, the budget was used more so in the cinematography department, parlaying any assumptions of failure within camera aesthetics quickly, with a single pan.

After indulging within the strict parameters and the frequently oblique outlooks above, it would surprise you to hear from me that “The Walking Dead” is technically not a bad show per se. It consists of a well-crafted chemistry and allure that has definitely consumed the masses and found itself many polarized audiences nationwide. Its success in finding a wide audience far outweighs the failure in captivating the small percentage of die-hard horror cinema buffs that have turned a blank and emotionless stare (again with the puns) in the other direction.

The idea of the last vestiges of mankind succumbing slowly (and mentally) to a horde of the undead is nothing new. George A. Romero is the master at crafting emotionally captivating characters and trapping them within the confines of their own moral values (or lack thereof), other’s condescending viewpoints, and cannibalistic zombies from hell. In fact, Romero’s “Dead” films are all made from the same fabric of social commentary and commit themselves as benchmarks in emotional embattlements within zombie cinema—for Romero, zombies will always be “us”, and it will always be us against us.

“The Walking Dead” firmly established itself as a vehicle for drama within the first few minutes of the pilot episode—which is a great way to immerse an audience and enthrall them into submission. The failure, once again, is in the emaciated attempt at constructing the living dead as the antagonists. “The Walking Dead” is keener on letting the survivors emotionally invest within each other, and then deconstruct themselves into a pile of psychological debris. For a more successful run at a television program that is employed with the task of “giving the dead their day” on network TV, the zombies must become more of a catalyst in the psychological breakdown of our pitiful survivors. This is where Romero delivers and why his films are filled with such intellectual gusto. But then again, this is Romero…comparisons definitely pale (no pun intended….again)!

- Ray of the Dead

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Satyricon: Rome. Before Christ. After Fellini.

 I initially stumbled upon the film “Fellini Satyricon” at the behest of one of my favorite Norwegian Black Metal bands, aptly named, “Satyricon”. I’ve come to always push the boundaries when confronted with words and the meanings behind them and “Satyricon” was no different. Upon unsheathing its origin, Gaius Petronius Arbiter (or Titus Petronius…whoever you believe), his background of writing the “first” novel, and Fellini’s grandiose achievement at creating this epic film --all while participating in a Satyricon (the band) discography, I was instantly mesmerized by the sheer decadence and the aesthetically shrewd filmmaking “Satyricon” so proudly exhibits.  

The film loosely follows Petronius’ fragmented novel (passages were lost prior to discovery or unable to be saved through preservation) about the misadventures of narrator and former gladiator Encolpius, his 16 year old lover Giton, and his former lover and friend Ascyltus. The film deviates substantially from the original source material, injecting its own morbid fantasies while recreating and eliminating original scenes. One cannot be irate at Federico Fellini for his attempts at sculpting a polished and polarized view of Rome during the rule of the eccentric and dominant Emperor Nero.

The film begins with our protagonists, Encolpius (the enigmatic Martin Potter), berating his former lover and flat-mate, Ascyltus (Hiram Keller), for taking his love slave, Giton (the very feminine Max Born) and then selling him for a profit. The two tussle in an amusing and highly laugh-out-loud way as Ascyltus leads Encolpius to the buyer of Giton, famous actor and eccentric theater owner, Trimalchio (Mario Romagnoli in a scene stealing role). Encolpius retrieves Giton (with the help from some Roman guards) and sets off back to the massive tenement building that he lives. They eventually meet back with Ascyltus, with Encolpius deciding that it would be best if the two went separate ways, dividing their stuff amongst each other. Ascyltus demands that Giton choose who he would like to go with, inevitably choosing to leave with him. This leaves Encolpius heartbroken, a massive earthquake disrupting his despair to level the entire tenement building.

From there, the film branches off into different storylines, encompassing many different themes and ideas while introducing colorful characters and impressive production designs by Luigi Scaccianoce. Amongst the many diverse characters introduced are an eccentric poet (Salvo Randone), a wealthy freeman (Mario Romagnoli), and a behemoth Minotaur (Luigi Montefiori—known to the horror, cult, and exploitation cinema world as George Eastman, goremeister extraordinaire).

Fellini had already established himself as a primo film director with such titles as “La Strada”, “La Dolce Vita” and “8½” already under his belt. His version of “Satyricon” has stood the test of time and garnered many high praises from film enthusiast and lax theatergoers alike. There is something for everyone in this film. The meaning of life, the choices sculpted by destiny, and the political and economical struggles prevalent within every society ever formed on Earth scream for acceptance and appreciation amongst the film dirt and cigarette burns of this celluloid masterpiece. “Fellini Satyricon” is a permanent benchmark in mainstream arthouse cinema. No film will ever encompass the quintessence embedded within this film of decadence and morality. Long Live Fellini!