Richard Matheson – he was legend

 

© Orion Publishing Co

 

Something has got me thinking about Richard Matheson, the science-fiction and horror author and screenwriter who passed away in 2013 at the age of 87.

 

What thing?  Well, the news that the anti-Covid-19-vaxxers in America, determined to plumb the depths of stupidity to find new reasons for not getting vaccinated, have found the stupidest reason yet.  Speculation is rife that the vaccine could turn you in a zombie.  You know, like one did in the 2007 sci-fi / horror movie I am Legend, with Will Smith, which was based on Matheson’s 1954 novel of the same name.  This has prompted one of the movie’s scriptwriters, Akiva Goldsman, to step up and announce on social media: “Oh.  My.  God.  It’s a movie.  I made that up.  It’s not real.” In fact, the source of the contagion in the movie wasn’t a vaccine but a virus, genetically reprogrammed by Dr Emma Thompson to combat cancer, going spectacularly rogue.

 

In Matheson’s novel I am Legend the monsters are vampires, not zombies.  Also, what turns people into those vampires isn’t the movie’s lab-reprogrammed virus, but a mysterious pandemic.  However, the book’s premise of the world being suddenly and nightmarishly turned upside down and a small number of uninfected humans finding themselves menaced by those who’ve been infected and turned into monsters, including their own loved ones, was one that a young George Romero appropriated for his seminal 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead.  In doing so, Romero made it the blueprint for at least 80% of the zombie movies that have lurched across cinema and TV screens ever since.

 

In the novel, the number of uninfected humans is small indeed: just one, Richard Neville, who is alone in the world during the daytime and then under siege in his fortified house at night, by the vampires that everyone else has turned into.  Gradually, Neville, researching the plague, stumbles on scientific explanations for the vampire-like symptoms of its victims, why they drink blood, why they can only be killed by stakes through the heart, and why they have an aversion to sunlight, garlic and crucifixes.  I am Legend also ends with an unnerving psychological twist.  Neville, who’s spent his days roaming the surrounding city and staking the slumbering vampires, realises that the vampires are now the normal ones and he’s become the monster of everyone’s nightmares, the deadly legend of the title.

 

It’s a pity that though I am Legend was filmed on several occasions, and though Matheson lived to a venerable age, he never got to see a satisfactory celluloid version of it.  The novel received its first film treatment in Italy, where Rome unconvincingly stood in for Los Angeles, with the cheaply and incompetently made L’Ultimo Uomo della Terra (The Last Man on Earth).  Neville was played by Vincent Price, whom Matheson admired as an actor but thought was miscast in the role.  L’Ultimo Uomo della Terra was at least fairly faithful to the book, unlike the subsequent film versions, 1970’s The Omega Man, with Charlton Heston, and the 2007 one.  In The Omega Man the vampires have become a group of demented albino mutants called, with an unsubtle reference to Charles Manson, the Family.  In the Will Smith version of I am Legend they’re even less impressive, a bunch of bald, hyperactive zombies animated by some shoddy CGI.

 

Both the later movie versions lack the courage to portray Neville as being totally alone and eventually have him encounter other, as yet uninfected survivors.  They also lack the courage to include Matheson’s game-changing ending.  Instead, they close with Heston and Smith depicted as Christ-like figures who nobly sacrifice themselves for the good of what’s left of humanity.  Neville was a more interesting character when he discovered he’d become a bogeyman.  Still, disappointing though all three film versions are, there’s at least a good graphic-novel adaptation of I am Legend available.

 

© Gold Medal Books

 

The more I reminisce about Matheson, the more I realise what a wonderful and influential writer he was.  His other big – though ‘big’ perhaps isn’t the most appropriate adjective – novel of the 1950s was The Shrinking Man (1956).  Its hero, an archetypal middle-class American male called Scott Carey, is exposed to a radioactive cloud that causes his body to shrink at the rate of a seventh of an inch every day.  Thereafter, Carey’s world turns nightmarishly upside down too, though at a more gradual rate than Richard Neville’s.  First, he experiences psychological and sexual humiliation as he finds himself increasingly dwarfed by his normal-sized wife.  Following an assault by the family cat, no longer a loveable moggie but a carnivorous monster, the now-tiny Carey loses all contact with humanity and finds himself trapped in his house’s basement where the dangers facing him become formidable indeed.  A common spider, for instance, takes on elephantine proportions.  And Carey’s shrinking doesn’t stop, let alone get reversed.  At the book’s close, he muses, “If nature existed on endless planes, so also might intelligence.”  Thereafter, he dwindles away into infinity.

 

A year after its publication, the novel was filmed as The Incredible Shrinking Man, directed by Jack Arnold and with Matheson providing the script.  Matheson was unhappy with how Arnold structured the film.  He told the story in linear fashion, whereas Matheson wanted it to begin with the shrunken Carey in the basement, reliving what had happened to him via a series of flashbacks.  However, it’s still one of the best science fiction movies of the 1950s.  It crucially retains the novel’s bleakly philosophical ending.  I can remember seeing the film on TV as a kid and being genuinely upset when the ending defied my expectations that things would finish on an upbeat note.  The Incredible Shrinking Man was, incidentally, one of the great J.G. Ballard’s top ten favourite sci-fi movies.

 

© Sphere Books

 

As well as novels, Matheson was a prolific writer of short stories, many of which were collected in four books called the Shock series.  Shock 1-4 were published in Britain in the 1970s by Sphere Books, who decorated the covers with lurid and gory images – the antithesis of the unsensational, non-violent and thoughtful works inside.  The stories I remember best include Long Distance Call, about a woman plagued by mysterious phone calls that, she discovers, emanate from a local cemetery into which the telephone wire has blown down; The Children of Noah, about a motorist who finds himself in Kafkaesque predicament when he breaks the 15-miles-per-hour speed limit of a tiny American town called Zachary; and the brilliant The Splendid Source, in which a man embarks on a quest to find out where dirty jokes really come from.

 

Long Distance Call was one of several Matheson stories that were turned into episodes of the celebrated TV anthology series The Twilight Zone (1959-64).  The best of these, adapted by Matheson himself, was of course Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.  In this, William Shatner essayed his second-most-famous role, that of a just-released psychiatric patient who’s on board a plane and, looking out of the window, sees a gremlin dismantling one of the engines on the wing.  Whenever he tries to alert the crew and fellow passengers, the beastie inconveniently disappears from view.  Particularly memorable is the moment when the traumatised Shatner dares to peek through the window again and discovers the gremlin pressing its face, which resembles that of a hare-lipped teddy bear, against the outside of the glass and staring in at him.  The episode was remade as a segment of the movie version of The Twilight Zone in 1983, with John Lithgow in the Shatner role, and ten years later it received the ultimate accolade – it was spoofed in a Treehouse of Horror edition of The Simpsons, with Bart Simpson the only passenger on the school bus able to see a gremlin sabotaging its engine.  This version was called Nightmare at 5½ Feet.

 

© Universal Pictures

 

Other episodes that Matheson penned for The Twilight Zone were also influential.  A World of Difference is about a businessman who makes the mind-blowing discovery that he’s a fictional character and his life is actually a movie.  Furthermore, the movie has just had its production halted, meaning he’ll have to live in the ‘real’ world as the declining, drunken movie star who’s been playing him.  This clearly informs Peter Weir’s 1998 film The Truman Show.  Meanwhile, Little Girl Lost tells the tale of a child who, one night, falls from her bed and into another dimension, a mysterious, misty void from which she can hear her parents’ concerned voices but can’t escape.  A young Steven Spielberg no doubt saw and remembered this one, because the same idea features in 1982’s Spielberg-produced Poltergeist, though this time the little girl is sucked into the other dimension through the household TV set.  And yes, The Simpsons spoofed it too in Treehouse of Horror.

 

Steven Spielberg has much to thank Matheson for.  Matheson’s short story Duel, based on an experience he had on November 22nd, 1963 – of driving home depressed at the news of Kennedy’s assassination and being harassed by a large, tailgating truck – was filmed as a TV movie in 1971 by Spielberg and gave the young director his first big critical success.  Again, Matheson wrote the script.  Duel-the-movie has motorist Dennis Weaver and the psychopathic driver of a 1955 Peterbilt 281 truck get into a deadly game of cat and mouse around the roads and highways of rural California.   We never see the truck driver himself, just his immense, bellowing, dinosaur-like vehicle.  Duel is the archetypal man-versus-machine story and, again, has been influential.  Stephen King basically rewrote it (but upped the ante by adding lots of malevolent vehicles) with his short story Trucks, which he later filmed as Maximum Overdrive (1986).

 

The made-for-television movies that filled American TV schedules in the 1970s kept Matheson busy.  As well as Duel he scripted The Night Stalker (1972) about a reporter called Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) who investigates a series of killings in modern-day Los Angeles and discovers that the perpetrator is a vampire.  The Night Stalker was successful enough to eventually spawn a TV show called Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75), also starring McGavin, in which Kolchak investigated other strange cases involving monsters and supernatural phenomena.  Though short-lived, the show was a major inspiration for Chris Carter, whose massively popular The X-Files (1993-2018) had a similar theme.  Carter acknowledged his debt to Kolchak by having Darren McGavin guest-star in two X-Files episodes.

 

Meanwhile, the TV anthology movie Trilogy of Terror, from 1975, was based on three of Matheson’s short stories.  The first two segments are unmemorable, but the third one, which Matheson scripted from his story Prey, is great.  It stars Karen Black as an insecure woman who tries to shore up her relationship with her boyfriend, a lecturer in social anthropology, by buying him an antique ‘Zuma fetish doll’ as a birthday present.  The doll is a hideous-looking thing and sports a many-fanged grin resembling a Venus flytrap.  Before she can give the doll to its intended recipient, it comes to violent, gibbering life and she spends the evening fighting it off in the confines of her apartment.  Black’s plight is the inverse of the shrinking man’s.  She’s normal-sized and the threat she faces is tiny, but terrifying.  This also creates the template for Joe Dante’s movie Gremlins in 1984.  In particular, the scene in Gremlins where Frances Lee McCain fights off a horde of the sneering, reptilian mini-monsters in her kitchen, employing a blender and a microwave oven as weapons, is very reminiscent of Trilogy of Terror.

 

When he wasn’t writing novels, short stories and television scripts, the ever-industrious Matheson was writing for the cinema.  In the early 1960s, he scripted several of the movies based on works by Edgar Allen Poe that were made by American International Pictures and directed by Roger Corman: The House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962) and The Raven (1963).  All told, Matheson did a good job of preserving the original stories’ gloomy, clammy spirit, whilst meeting the commercial demands of a studio and a director who were already famous for their exploitation movies, and keeping engaged a star – Vincent Price – whose performances tended to slip into the knowingly hammy when his material bored him.  The movies aren’t the most faithful adaptations of Poe, but they’re surely the most fondly remembered ones.

 

© Academy Pictures Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

Matheson also worked on British movies.  For AIP’s trans-Atlantic rival, Hammer Films, he scripted The Devil Rides Out in 1968 and managed to turn Dennis Wheatley’s bloated, reactionary novel about upstanding Anglo-Saxon aristocrats fighting a bunch of ghastly Satan-worshipping foreigners into something rather good.  And in 1973, he adapted his haunted-house novel Hell House for the screen.  The result was The Legend of Hell House, directed by John Hough and starring Roddy McDowall, Clive Revill, Pamela Franklin and Gayle Hunicutt as psychic investigators trying to get to the bottom of terrifying supernatural manifestations in the titular mansion.  The movie’s ending, which has the surviving investigators finding a hidden sanctum where the psychic forces are emanating from an embalmed body, played by a very un-embalmed-looking Michael Gough, is pretty stupid, which Matheson himself admitted.  Still, John Hough directs the film’s scary set-pieces with vigour and there’s an unsettling electronic score by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson.

 

Matheson was a modest soul and in interviews he usually seemed puzzled that so many people could be so inspired by his work.  He might have ended up a very rich man if, like his famously litigious contemporary Harlan Ellison, he’d bothered to sue every filmmaker and writer who’d ripped off his ideas.  Mind you, he’d probably have spent all his time in court, so I’m glad he just turned the other cheek and devoted that time instead to writing his marvellous stories.

 

© Cayuga Productions / CBS Productions

Dave of the dead

 

© The Stone Quarry / Netflix

 

I’ve finally caught up with one of the most hyped films to land on Netflix last month, Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead (2021).  I’m not a massive fan of Snyder’s work, though I can’t say either that his films rouse in me the antipathy that they seem to rouse in thousands of other movie-fans, who regularly spray adjectives like ‘bloated’, ‘dour’, ‘humorless’, ‘prolonged’, ‘hollow’, ‘overbearing’ and ‘overstuffed’ at them, while dissing Snyder himself as some sort of dumb-assed filmmaking dude-bro.

 

Mind you, I’d only seen two of his earlier films.  The first was his 2004 remake of George A. Romero’s masterful 1978 zombie epic Dawn of the Dead.  I have mixed feelings about Snyder’s version of Dawn.  Its first 25 minutes are terrific, but thereafter it becomes a routine, if slick, affair, with no attempt to replicate or develop the satire on mindless consumerism that made Romero’s original so enjoyable.  (Incidentally, I recently discovered that Romero shared my opinion of the remake.)

 

The second was his 2013 Superman movie Man of Steel, which I thought was underrated.  I didn’t mind it being darker in tone than the Superman movies of the late 1970s and 1980s and liked how it showed Superman getting a hard time, initially at least, from a suspicious humanity.  Admittedly, Henry Cavill as Superman and Amy Adams as Lois Lane didn’t engage in the way that Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder did in those roles three decades earlier, but the splendid supporting cast – Michael Shannon, Laurence Fishburne, Russell Crowe, Diane Lane and Kevin Costner – more than compensated.  That said, not being a fan of DC Comics overall, I felt no inclination to watch Snyder’s later ventures into the DC Extended Universe, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Justice League (2017).

 

As its title suggests, Army of the Dead sees Snyder return to zombie territory, although this new movie takes place in a different universe from Dawn of the Dead.  Whereas in Dawn, the zombie outbreak happens everywhere and brings civilization to its knees within days, in Army it’s localized and quickly controlled.  It begins with holidaymakers, gamblers, croupiers, showgirls and Elvis impersonators succumbing to a nasty, bite-y zombie virus in the casinos and hotels of Las Vegas, after a top-secret convoy transporting the bug crashes in the nearby Nevada Desert.  The US military responds and manages to contain the virus, plus all the zombies carrying it, by sealing off Las Vegas behind a towering perimeter wall of metal containers.

 

Although it was obvious from the start that I was going to be watching a big, dumb, action-fantasy-horror movie, even at this early point I found myself shaking my head in disbelief.  From where did the military suddenly rustle up all those giant containers?  And how come the Las Vegas they seal off seems to consist only of the downtown area with the casinos and hotels, but with nothing else attached?  Doesn’t the real city sprawl a bit? Doesn’t it have suburbs?  I’ve never visited it, but I had the impression that Las Vegas was more expansive, thanks to reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (2013) and watching David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return (2017).

 

Oh well. Now under zombie-lockdown, Las Vegas is completely inaccessible.  This is frustrating news for casino tycoon Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), who has 200 million dollars in cash sitting in a vault under a casino in the city and would like to retrieve it. The fact that the US government has just announced that it’s going to erase the zombie plague by nuking Las Vegas in a few days’ time gives extra impetus to his desire to retrieve it.  Thus, Tanaka approaches a tough ex-mercenary called Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) and offers him a generous portion of the 200 million in return for putting together a ‘team’, breaking into Vegas, blasting their way through the zombies and liberating the money before everything goes up in a cloud of mushroom-shaped radioactive smoke.  Ward was involved in the original military operation to evacuate non-infected people from the city and seal it off and so is the best man for the job, but he carries psychological baggage.  His wife perished during the operation, which has so traumatized him that he’s been reduced to flipping burgers in the kitchen of an out-of-the-way diner.

 

Indeed, food seems to have become the Bautista character’s way of dealing with post-zombie stress disorder.  He’s still blathering about lobster rolls near the movie’s close, two-and-a-half hours later.  (Yes, two-and-a-half hours – this is a long film.)

 

© AVCO Embassy Pictures

 

The set up reminded me less of past zombie movies than of John Carpenter’s rugged sci-fi actioner Escape from New York (1981), in which tough guy Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is sent into a future version of Manhattan, sealed off and transformed into a giant, hellhole prison run by its own inmates, to rescue the US president whose plane has just crashed there. The president was played by Donald Pleasence, so the film was eerily prophetic in its vision of a dystopian future America run by a president called Donald.

 

The difference is that Carpenter would have established the premise, introduced the protagonists and got them into the zombie-fied Las Vegas within the first quarter-hour.  Snyder, it’s fair to say, is a less economical filmmaker.  While Bautista was in the middle of assembling his team, and no one had got anywhere near Vegas yet, I checked my watch and realized 45 minutes had already passed.  Herein lies Army’s greatest problem.  It takes its time getting going.  And even after it gets going, there are still periods when everything stops going again so that Snyder can shoehorn in ponderous, talky, supposedly character-building stuff.  I can’t help wondering how much better the film would have been if some studio bigwig had told Snyder that Army wasn’t allowed a 150-minute running time.  No, it’d only have 90 minutes maximum in which to tell its story.  I’m sure the result would have had much less flab and far more momentum.

 

Another issue I have with Army is its derivativeness.  I don’t mind films containing little nods and homages to other films, but Snyder not only pinches a major subplot and supporting character from James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) but also rehashes at least two of that film’s legendary action sequences.  As the film progresses, it also increasingly calls to mind the Will Smith sci-fi / horror movie I Am Legend (2007), with Bautista and his crew discovering that there aren’t just ordinary, common-or-garden zombies shambling mindlessly around downtown Las Vegas.  There’s also a more evolved variety that can sprint, climb, communicate, experience emotions, reproduce, organize themselves and even wear metal headgear, making them impervious to that normal zombie-stopping technique, “shoot ’em in the head.”

 

Frustratingly, like the film I Am Legend (and unlike the marvelous 1954 novel by Richard Matheson on which it’s based), nothing is done with these creatures once they’ve been introduced.  They merely become another threat to be blasted away, like a new foe that’s appeared on a new level of a computer game. Considering how it’s clear at this point that both Bautista’s team and the evolved zombies are being shafted by unseen corporate villains, it would have been interesting if the script had had Bautista try to communicate with the creatures and enlist their aid against the common enemy.

 

One other irritant is Snyder’s use of music, which is meant to be ironic but just seems clunkingly obvious: Elvis Presley’s Viva Las Vegas (1964) and Suspicious Minds (1968) to evoke the setting and the Doors’ This is the End (1967) and Credence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Riding (1969) to evoke the apocalyptic mood.  Most of these appear as cover versions by the likes of Richard Cheese and Allison Crowe, Theo Gilmore and the Raveonettes, which suggests Snyder didn’t trust the young audience the film was targeting to be able to handle hearing the songs in their original forms.  Worst of all, though, is his deployment of the Cranberries’ Zombie (1994).  I’m not a fan of that song but it was written to protest the killing of children by the IRA.  Using it on the soundtrack of a Hollywood blockbuster about zombies doesn’t strike me as funny, but as crass.  (Also, when Zombie plays in the background of a scene, it gives away an important, upcoming plot twist.)  Still, I laughed when Culture Club’s Do You Really Want to Hurt Me (1982) made an unexpected appearance.  Musically, Snyder got one thing right, at least.

 

© Island Records

 

Despite everything – the film’s bloated-ness, overlong-ness, derivativeness and unimaginative use of music – I did quite enjoy Army of the Dead.  Largely this is due to the cast.  Even though he’s the size and shape of a muscular Michelin Man, Bautista comes across as a likeable human being, while the other performers do a good job of creating characters you can relate to and root for.  Well, apart from the character who might as well have ‘I’M A SCUMBAG WHO’S GOING TO BETRAY EVERYONE’ written on a signpost above his head. Particularly good are Ana de la Reguera as Bautista’s capable deputy, who quietly carries a torch for the big fellow; Tig Notaro as the helicopter pilot tasked with flying them out the disaster zone before the bomb drops on it, who displays Dr. ‘Bones’ McCoy levels of loveable crankiness; and Omari Hardwick and Matthias Schweighöfer as, respectively, a macho, chainsaw-wielding mercenary and a nerdy, mild-mannered safecracker, who get involved in an unexpected bromance.

 

And the action and suspense scenes, when they come, are exciting.  It’s just a bit disappointing that, as I’ve said, so many of these scenes evoke similar scenes in earlier movies – Aliens or I Am Legend or, say, 1981’s An American Werewolf in London (two blokes crossing some desolate terrain at the film’s start, trying to escape a slavering monster) or the 2013 Brad Pitt vehicle World War Z (Bautista’s team having to make their way through a building that’s crowded with zombies, who are all in a statue-like state of hibernation but will wake up if there’s any sudden sound).  Definitely worth waiting for is a gory sequence featuring the movie’s best original touch, possibly its only original touch, a zombie tiger that’d originally belonged to Vegas magicians / entertainers Siegfried and Roy.

 

To sum up – plot-wise, Army of the Dead is as ragged and hole-ridden as the undead creatures that inhabit its dystopian setting, but it remains entertaining.  Its main problem is its inordinate running time.  If an hour had been chopped off that, you’d have had a thrilling, engaging action-horror movie as fast-moving as its evolved tier of zombies.  Unfortunately, the two-and-a-half-hour-long Army too often resembles its other tier of zombies, the ones that just shamble.

 

© The Stone Quarry / Netflix

The full Fulci

 

From amiddleagedwitch.wordpress.com

 

Today, March 13th, 2021, marks the 25th anniversary of the passing of Italian director Lucio Fulci.  Here’s a reposting of a lengthy treatise I wrote about the mighty Fulci back in 2014.

 

Nowadays, satellite television can beam any subject matter, however adult, into our living rooms.  Thanks to this, the whole family, from grandma and grandpa down to the pre-school infants, can now sit together in front of the TV and enjoy, communally, such splendid sights as the bit in season three of The Walking Dead (2012-13) where Danai Gurira grabs a big jaggy chunk of glass and rams it in extreme close-up into David Morrissey’s eyeball.  Even better, a few minutes later, they can enjoy the sight of David Morrissey, again in extreme close-up, pulling the jaggy glass out of his eyeball.

 

This wasn’t always the case.  Audiences didn’t always have easy access to images of extreme eyeball abuse.  Indeed, three decades ago, a scene where a person got a humongous wooden splint stuck in her eye while being dragged through a hole in a door by a mouldering zombie was enough to cause outrage amongst the powers who decided what British film-fans could and couldn’t watch.  The scene belonged to the 1979 Italian horror movie Zombie Flesh Eaters, directed by the inimitable Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci.  And it was the gory content of this and movies like it that led to Britain’s Video Nasties scare of the early 1980s.

 

By 1983, the Department of Public Prosecutions, cheered on by the likes of public-morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse and the right-wing British tabloid press, had drawn up a list of 72 films deemed liable to ‘deprave and corrupt’ and thus open to prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act.  39 of the 72 were successfully prosecuted.  The remaining 33 weren’t prosecuted or were subject to unsuccessful prosecutions, but at the time you had little chance of seeing them through legitimate means.

 

Now that the hysteria has long passed, the majority of these films are available in uncut versions in Britain.  A couple of them, like Don’t Go into the Woods (1981) and Contamination (1980), have even suffered the ultimate humiliation.  They’ve been awarded wussy ‘15’ certificates.

 

Among the movies Lucio Fulci directed, two, Zombie Flesh Eaters and 1981’s The House by the Cemetery ended up on the list of 39 prosecuted titles; while a third, 1981’s The Beyond, was on the list of 33 that escaped successful prosecution.  A fourth, 1980’s City of the Living Dead, didn’t make the Nasties list, but British police seized videos of it nonetheless.  A fifth, 1982’s The New York Ripper, wasn’t classified as a Nasty either but still got banned from British cinemas.  For this achievement alone, I think Lucio Fulci deserves respect.

 

I have a complicated relationship with Fulci.  I doubt if I’ve ever seen more than one or two things he’s directed that I’d classify as good films, but I have to admit that when I encounter a new Fulci title in a DVD store or see one scheduled for broadcast on the Horror Channel, my pulse speeds up.  I get a prickly, sweaty sense of excitement.  I tell myself, I have to see this.  Although the end result is usually the same.  After the damned thing has finished, I sit back and feel a strange combination of bemusement, queasiness and disappointment, while a voice nags at me: “What the hell was that about?”  Although to be fair to Fulci, there’s usually been at least one sequence in the film that’s made me think: “Wow!”

 

Lucio Fulci didn’t find fame, or infamy, in the English-speaking world until the late 1970s, but he’d been a staple of Italian cinema for a long time before.  He started as a scriptwriter, first of all working on the 1954 comedy Un Giorna in Pretura.  In 1959, a dozen film-scripts later, he began directing.  One of his earliest directorial efforts was Ragazzi del Juke-Box, a musical starring the soon-to-be 1960s pin-up Elke Sommer.  During the 1960s and 1970s, Lucio beavered away making comedies and spaghetti westerns.  He also tried his hand at directing giallo movies, those twisted, kinky, violent and macabre Italian variations on the thriller genre: 1969’s Unna Sull’atra, 1971’s A Woman in a Lizard’s Skin and 1972’s Don’t Torture a Duckling.

 

© Medusa Distribuzione

 

Of Fulci’s giallo films, I’ve only seen Don’t Torture a Duckling and it’s surely one of the best things he did.  It has none of the excess and goofiness of his later horror films and it benefits from its distinctly un-giallo-like setting.  While most examples of this sub-genre take place in an affluent urban world inhabited by high-fliers in the creative industries (photographers and fashion models are common), Duckling is set in a rural and backward south Italian village, its separation from modernity symbolised by the nearby highway where traffic rumbles past oblivious to its existence.  While the setting allows Fulci to take pot-shots at the institutions of conservative, traditional Italy, his cameras film the countryside there sumptuously.

 

That said, viewers today will be troubled by some early scenes, seemingly played for humour, which show heroine Barbara Bouchet teasing the village’s young boys by brazenly exposing herself to them.  Imagine if the film had had hero Tomas Milian exposing himself to the village’s young girls.  It’s a clumsy foreshadowing of the film’s themes, which are the threat posed to childhood innocence by an immoral world, and a serial killer’s determination to preserve that innocence by any means necessary.

 

Some commentators have noted that Fulci’s sudden interest in giallo movies, and hence in darker, bloodier material, coincided with the death of his wife Maria, who in 1969 committed suicide after discovering she had cancer.  But the director himself never mentioned a connection between this personal tragedy and the darkening tone of his films.

 

The release of Zombie Flesh Eaters in 1979 saw Fulci plant his flag both in horror-movie territory and in the consciousness of impressionable, sensation-hungry teenagers, as I was then.  The film was a success despite critics slamming it as an inferior cash-in on George A. Romeo’s seminal zombie movie from the previous year, Dawn of the Dead. 

 

© Variety Film  

 

Well, Zombie Flesh Eaters isn’t as good as Dawn of the Dead, but it has an undeniable something about it.  The story kicks off with an un-crewed boat drifting towards New York Harbour while a ravenous zombie lurks in its hold.  Then it shifts to the Caribbean island from which the boat originated, where a full-scale zombie epidemic, possibly scientifically induced, possibly supernatural, is underway.  And at the very end it returns to New York, which has now succumbed to a zombie onslaught too.  The stuff in New York is ropey but the scenes on the Caribbean island, depicted as a cursed, pestilent and windswept hellhole, are wonderfully atmospheric.  A sequence where the protagonists stumble into a ‘conquistadors’ cemetery’ and the graves start disgorging some ancient cadavers is especially hard to forget.

 

But even that scene is surpassed by an earlier one where a female scuba diver flees from the predations of a large shark and hides behind a coral reef; only to discover that on the other side of the reef there lurks – eek! – a soggy underwater zombie.  The shark and the zombie then proceed to fight, in a slow, balletic way.  It’s typical of Fulci’s best sequences in that it manages to be simultaneously bizarre, haunting and totally bonkers.

 

The film is helped by the presence of two British performers, Ian McCulloch and Richard Johnson, who just ignore the absurdities of the situations and dialogue and get on with some proper acting.  I read an interview with McCulloch a while back and he professed himself bemused by Fulci’s filming techniques in New York. These involved the cast and crew turning up at a spot, filming without any licence, and then clearing off as soon as the police appeared.  This might explain the film’s curiously disjointed final image, which shows an army of zombies shuffling along an elevated bridge whilst below the New York rush-hour traffic trundles back and forth as if it’s just a normal evening.

 

The female lead, played by Tisa Farrow, is bloody awful, though.  Tisa is the younger sister of Mia Farrow, and I’ve often wondered what the pair of them talked about when they met up during this period.  “Oh hi, Tisa.  I’m busy making A Wedding with Robert Altman and Death on the Nile with Peter Ustinov.  What are you up to?”  “Well, I’m fighting off a horde of flesh-eating zombies in a conquistadors’ cemetery with Lucio Fulci.”  Mind you, considering what Mia had to endure with Frank Sinatra and Woody Allen, maybe she thought her kid sister had the better deal.

 

Zombie Flesh Eaters is one of my favourite Lucio Fulci movies because it has a story, one where things move from A to B and then to C.  Unfortunately, for his next horror movies, Fulci decided that there’d be a common theme.  Each would take place in a locality that, unknown to the inhabitants, rests on top of a portal to hell.  And if you’re on top of a portal to hell, the laws of physics, of cause and effect, of A leading to B and to C, will be suspended.  All sorts of crazy things will happen.  The dead will rise, furniture will levitate, dogs will go mad, eyeballs will bleed, the sky will rain maggots, demonic winds will blow in your windows and satanic spiders will chew your face off.  But there won’t be anything like a logically sequenced plot.

 

Many film fans have applauded Fulci for doing away with such outdated, bourgeoisie concepts as ‘plots’ in his films, but I have to say I find it a cop-out.  This ‘portal to hell’ stuff was just an excuse for him to make things up as he went along.

 

© Medusa Distribuzione

 

First in this series was 1980’s City of the Living Dead, which centres on strange goings-on in a remote American town that, by bad luck, is built on one of those afore-mentioned portals to hell.  The townspeople are soon falling victim to various forms of supernatural mayhem, which are orchestrated by a ghostly priest and a clutch of zombies who apparently have the power to teleport from one place to another.  City is a shambolic film.  Well, what else can you expect when there’s teleporting zombies in it?  But as usual with Fulci there are scenes that really stick in the memory.  I particularly like one where the protagonists explore some catacombs under the local graveyard, unaware that the cobwebby old cadavers there are stirring into life the moment they pass by.

 

A sequence that all viewers of City remember is one where a girl sits paralysed in a car while the ghostly priest leers in at her and, under his malevolent influence, she starts to vomit up her own entrails.  Lovingly captured on Fulci’s camera, those entrails ooze from her mouth in a slow, slimy mass.  The actress who had the honour of playing this scene was starlet Daniella Doria.  She had to sit before the camera with her mouth crammed full of sheep’s offal, which she then slobbered down her front.  People go on about the pain that Christian Bale inflicts upon himself in his quest for cinematic perfection, starving himself to a skeletal husk for The Machinist (2004) or making his weight balloon to play the slobby hero of American Hustle (2013); but I bet even Bale would draw the line at spewing mouthfuls of cold sheep-guts over himself in a Lucio Fulci movie.

 

Daniella Doria made three subsequent films with Fulci and she died horribly in all of them, via asphyxiation, stabbing and slashing.  “She was one of my favourite actresses,” Fulci reminisced later.  “I killed her so many times.”

 

Many rate the following year’s The Beyond as Fulci’s masterpiece and, indeed, its champions include Quentin Tarantino.  But I have the same problems with it that I have with City of the Living Dead.  There’s no rhyme or reason to it, because the action takes place on top of another of those pesky portals to hell.  Again, though, there are some striking scenes, notably, one where heroine Catriona McColl encounters a spectral figure standing in the middle of a straight, seemingly endless causeway.  The figure is that of a blind woman, played by Cinzia Monreale, who turns out to be a ghost.  Later, though, the blind woman dies when her throat is torn out.  Predictably, Fulci never explains how a ghost, someone who’s already dead, can be killed.

 

© Medusa Distribuzione

 

The Beyond also contains the barmy ‘spiders from hell’ scene, during which a lightning bolt knocks a character off a ladder.  He breaks his back and then lies helplessly while giant spiders emerge from the ether around him, converge and start munching on his face.  The spiders – real tarantulas – look creepy enough as they approach during the long shots; but for the face-nibbling close-ups they become phoney bundles of pipe cleaners that Fulci’s special-effects team probably threw together during the mid-morning tea-break.

 

Another problem is the ending.  It seems that Fulci had intended The Beyond, which takes place in a dilapidated Louisiana hotel, to be a haunted-house movie.  However, his financial backers expected him to make them another money-spinning zombie movie.  I can imagine Fulci’s producer grabbing him one day on the set, after looking at what was already in the can, and waving his arms and ranting in a stereotypical Italian way: “Lucio!  Hey Lucio!  Where-za hell-za zombies?!”  So, although he didn’t want to, poor old Fulci had to insert an incongruous climax into the film where McColl and hero David Warbeck have a shoot-out with a sudden and unexpected bunch of zombies.

 

The final instalment in Fulci’s ‘portals to hell’ series was 1982’s The House by the Cemetery, which has a young family moving into the titular house by the titular cemetery and discovering that they’re sharing it with, down in the basement, something horrible.  But sadly, the film lacks those moments of demented flamboyance that distinguished its two predecessors.

 

Meanwhile, between City of the Living Dead and The Beyond, Fulci tried to do something different.  This was filming a contemporary update of the Edgar Allan Poe story The Black Cat and setting it in England.  I’d hoped that the subject matter would reign in the director’s excesses and impose a little discipline on him.  The focus, after all, isn’t on a portal to hell that makes all things possible, but on a cat.  A pretty evil cat, right enough, but at the end of the day just a cat.

 

Unfortunately, like Fulci’s other films of the period, The Black Cat (1981) suffers from having everything thrown into it bar the kitchen sink.  The cat has somehow picked up subconscious psychic emanations from its owner, who’s a paranormal investigator obsessed with contacting the dead and who’s played by the distinguished Irish actor Patrick Magee.  Imbued with the hatred Magee feels deep down for the untrustworthy yokels who live around him in a rural English village, the cat starts acting out Magee’s suppressed fantasies and starts killing the villagers.

 

© Silenia Cinematografica / Italian International Film

 

But the cat seems to have picked up some other things, including super-intelligence and super-strength, for it can hypnotise its victims, sabotage ventilation systems, set furniture on fire, come back from the dead and even, like those silly zombies in City of the Living Dead, teleport.  You wonder why with all these talents the cat ever bothers to scratch anyone, but it does that too.  Still, the film has a few impressively eerie sequences, such as when Magee totters down to the village graveyard after dark and tests out his new contacting-the-dead wireless equipment.

 

Fulci is remembered for one more ‘major’ horror film, 1982’s The New York Ripper.  A serial killer / slasher effort with a self-explanatory title, this was controversial to say the least and led to him being accused of misogyny.  Even if Britain hadn’t been so jittery at the time about Video Nasties, the fact that it appeared soon after the real-life Yorkshire Ripper killings in northern England probably meant it was never going to get a British cinematic release.  The New York Ripper is a gruelling film and, frankly, a pretty bad one.  The killer’s quirk of performing Donald Duck impersonations during the murders isn’t so much deeply disturbing as deeply stupid.  If nothing else, the film serves as a record of the sleaze and dodginess associated with New York in the 1970s and 1980s.  This, of course, was before the city was cleaned up in the 1990s by its mayor, the totally non-sleazy, non-dodgy Rudy Giuliani

 

Thereafter, Fulci’s output tailed off in both prominence and quality due to a series of misfortunes that included a fall-out with his long-term scriptwriting collaborator Dardano Sacchetti and some serious health problems like hepatitis, cirrhosis and diabetes.  Although ‘quality’ is a subjective concept when you’re discussing his movies anyway.  He soldiered on into the early 1990s, his last directorial effort being the poorly received psychological thriller Door to Silence in 1991.  I’ve watched a single movie from his later years, a 1987 teen-orientated horror film called Aenigma that was apparently filmed in the then-Yugoslavia and is a weak rip-off of Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) and Richard Franklin’s telekinesis thriller Patrick (1978).  One thing I’ll say about Aenigma is that its death-by-snails sequence has to be seen to be believed.

 

Lucio Fulci died impoverished, sick and alone in Rome in 1996.  At least he had the satisfaction of attending, two months prior to his death, a convention in New York organised by the American horror-movie magazine Fangoria.  Much to his astonishment, since he didn’t appreciate his popularity beyond the shores of Italy, he was mobbed at the convention by thousands of American fans.

 

Funnily enough, Fulci’s films make me think of Gerry Anderson’s sci-fi-puppet TV show from 1964, Stingray.  Each episode of Stingray would open with a voice intoning, “Anything can happen in the next half-hour!”  That line would make a suitable opening for a typical Lucio Fulci movie too: “Anything can happen in the next hour-and-a-half!”  Especially if the film takes place on top of a portal to hell.

 

© Medusa Distribuzione

Zee-lanka

 

© Navin Weeraratne

 

In the old days, ‘overkill’ was a necessary, even a desirable component of a zombie-holocaust story.  There had to be a large and increasing amount of killing.  This would ensure there was a large and increasing number of dead people, who would then come back to life as zombies.  In turn, this would  ensure there was a large and increasing number of zombies posing a large and increasing threat to the small and decreasing number of human beings who were battling to survive.

 

Unfortunately, as far as zombies are concerned, ‘overkill’ has now taken on a different meaning.  These days there’s just too many movies, TV shows, books, graphic novels, comics and computer games featuring the bloody things.

 

They’re everywhere.  In the movie world alone, they’re in mega-budgeted Hollywood blockbusters, like 2013’s World War Z, and in low-budget rubbish, like last year’s ultra-opportunistic Corona Zombies.  They’re in Scottish movies, like 2008’s The Dead Outside.  They’re in high-school movies, like 2012’s Detention of the Dead.  They’re in musicals, like 2018’s Z-O-M-B-I-E-S.  They’re in Christmas movies, like 2012‘s Christmas with the Dead.  Why, they’re even in Scottish / high-school / musical / Christmas movies like 2017’s Anna and the Apocalypse.

 

Today, in other words, zombies are ubiquitous.  And they’re predictable.  And dare I say it, they’re boring.

 

But having got all that off my chest, I have to admit I enjoyed Navin Weeraratne’s 2018 novel Zeelam, which is about modern-day Sri Lanka suffering its own zombie apocalypse.  The expected story-elements are all present and correct – bites, infections, ‘conjunctivitis-red eyes’, mayhem and lots of blood, gore and grue – but the book is helped by having a strong dose of social commentary too.

 

And social commentary is something I believe all good zombie stories should have.  For example, the first three zombie movies made by George A. Romero, the visionary filmmaker who created the template for zombie holocausts, commented on the civil rights movement and Vietnam War (in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead), mindless consumerism (in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead) and the stupidity of the military (in 1986’s Day of the Dead).  Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) reflected a modern Britain where anger was an increasingly common social phenomenon and terms like ‘road rage’ and ‘air rage’ had entered the popular vocabulary, while its sequel, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later (2007), was an allegory about the post-war occupation of Iraq.  And Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) satirised a twenty-something slacker generation who couldn’t tell if someone was a zombie or just pissed, hungover or stoned.  Carrying on the tradition, Zeelam takes multiple swipes at the institutional and societal shortcomings of modern Sri Lanka.  But more about that in a minute.

 

Zeelam has two main characters.  One is Ruven Daniels, a member of a military response team whom we first see being sent to deal with an incident at Colombo’s posh Hilton Hotel. There, zombies – ‘zees’ as they’ve become known in Sri Lankan parlance – have suddenly appeared during a children’s birthday party attended by rich ‘Colombo 7’ housewives and their pampered offspring.  The ensuing carnage takes place under a PA system blasting out Bryan Adams’ The Summer of 69.  (“I love this song!” enthuses one of Ruven’s comrades.)  The other is Dinuka Fernando, a woman working for an NGO trying to prevent the zombie infections, which are caused by a virus being spread by mosquitoes.  Dinuka is a kick-ass character who goes about her duties armed with a Japanese katana.  Unsurprisingly, that katana is deployed with increasing frequency as the novel approaches its climax.

 

The zombies in Zeelam aren’t the dead-come-back-to-life ones portrayed in Romero’s films.  They’re more in the style of 28 Days and 28 Weeks Later, people infected by a virus that sends them into a terrifying, murderous, red-eyed frenzy.  Weeraratne has his characters hypothesise that the virus was present in Sri Lanka for decades already in a less aggressive form.  Originally, it manifested itself in the country’s high levels of domestic violence, which didn’t receive much coverage because attentions were focused on the Sri Lankan Civil War from 1983 to 2009 – which itself became an outlet for the violence caused by the virus.  But now it’s mutated into something more devastating and its effects can no longer be concealed behind the walls of peoples’ homes or camouflaged by the mayhem of the battlefield.

 

Thus, though Weeraratne’s zombie scenario is imaginary, the context that gave rise to it isn’t.  Indeed, the text is peppered with superscript numbers that refer the reader to a lengthy appendix of endnotes.  Here, Weeraratne provides links to real-life studies, reports and news items about Sri Lanka and its relationship with violence, showing that he’s grounded his ideas in depressing reality.

 

Zeelam is also interesting because the virus is shown to create different types of infections.  These range from fully fledged, ‘berserker’ zombies to asymptomatic people who merely carry the virus around in them.  Most intriguingly, there’s a category called ‘sleepers’, who only show their zombie tendencies at night and are perfectly human-like during the day.  Indeed, among the book’s supporting cast is a character, a government inspector called Siripala Fonesaka, who spends his days desperately trying to cover up the monstrous things he’s done at night.

 

This diversity makes the threat posed by the zombies more hydra-like and difficult to deal with.  Also, it helps Zeelam to dodge the criticism I made at the start of this entry, that zombie stories have become too dull and predictable.  However, I have to say the pedant in me wished Weeraratne had explained these variations in the virus’s effects with the same scientific rigour with which he described the virus’s origins.  How, for example, does sunlight temporarily neutralise the virus in the sleepers?

 

As I’ve said, just as George A. Romero’s zombie movies highlighted the shortcomings of American society, and just as Danny Boyle painted an unflattering portrait of modern-day Britain in 28 Days Later, so Weeraratne spends much of Zeelam taking potshots at the frustrations and annoyances of 21st century Sri Lanka.  These include venal and corrupt politicians – the outbreak at the Hilton Hotel in the novel’s opening pages is the consequence of a seedy MP booking in there with a prostitute – and bungling, incalcitrant bureaucrats, and elements of the armed forces who in their minds have never stopped fighting the Civil War and pose as a big a threat to the public as the zombies do.

 

Then there’s the country’s class system.  Weeraratne doesn’t show the people at the top of the pile in a particularly sympathetic light.  When Ruven’s men cordon off a neighbourhood where an outbreak is in progress, one privileged young asshole rolls up in a fancy car and demands to be allowed to drive through because his father is ‘a judge’.  In a corresponding endnote, Weeraratne describes how he once heard someone say the exact same thing when people objected to him parking on a double-yellow line in Havelock Town.

 

Later, an alumnus of one of Colombo’s prestigious private schools, and thus an entitled member of the city’s ‘old-school-tie’ network, meets a humiliating end at the blade of Dinuka’s katana.  Described by Weeraratne with obvious relish, his death involves, shall we say, the relaxation of sphincter muscles.  This amused me because in the real world the school in question is at the top of my street.

 

114 pages long, Zeelam is a slim volume, and its impact is slightly lessened by a number of typos.  You sometimes wonder what was distracting the proof-reader from their duties — were they struggling against an encroaching zombie infection at the time?  But as an enjoyably gory piece of entertainment that doesn’t pull its satirical punches, it’s still pretty tasty.

 

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