Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, October 21, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 20

Burial Ground (1981)

Like most every horror dork my age, I went through a zombie phase. Even a relative pleb like me was aware of Romero's then-trilogy of living dead films. Yet, thanks to the internet and a hunger for undead films rivaling a zombie's hunger for living flesh, I became aware of all sorts of weird shit. There was a time when I wouldn't shut up about Lucio Fulci's “Zombi 2” and its related films, even though I wouldn't see that movie for a little while longer. I was insufferable, I'm sure. Anyway, among the various titles I was reading about at the time was “Burial Ground.” I've encountered the trailer in various reels before and have certainly heard about how sleazy and cheesy the movie is. Until now, I hadn't seen it. Time to change that.

“Burial Ground” is usually paired with the clunky subtitle “The Nights of Terror.” This is despite the film taking place over one night. In the early morning hours, an archaeologist uncovers an ancient Etruscan tomb. This seems to disturb a curse placed on the area, causing countless zombies to arise. Later in the day, a group of the professor's friends arrive at his spacious manor. It's a romantic getaway for many of the couples. They practice shooting. They have picnics. They have lots of sex. Michael, the one woman's son, fosters a creepy interest in his mom. When the zombies arrive, things get bloody really fast.

I watched “Burial Ground” on Severin's pristine Blu-Ray. Despite looking the best the film has ever looked, “Burial Ground” is still incredibly greasy. A fine layer of cheesy sleaze encases the entire movie. The plot is minimal. Honestly, after the zombies are awoken and the couples arrive at the mansion, the screenwriter's job was done. “Burial Ground” quickly degrades into a series of gut-munching encounters with the living dead. The characters are incredibly stupid. More than once, they stare in dumbstruck awe as the zombies approach them. The dubbing is hilarious, especially the little boy given a grown man's voice. The direction is shaky, full of rough zooms and lingering close-ups. The musical score, ricocheting between synth drones and improbable soft jazz, is distracting. Despite being objectively terrible, “Burial Ground” moves quickly and never ceases to baffle, entertain, and amaze.

A core component of that enjoyment is the special effects. The zombies in “Burial Ground” are unlike any other seen before or since. It seems the make-up artist built the zombie's appearance over store-bought Halloween masks. This leads to protruding teeth, plastic eyeballs, and drooping facial features. One zombie, specifically, appears to have been built off a Frankenstein mask. As cheap as this approach is, there's something oddly charming about it. The earthy, dirty, squishy zombies are distinctive, if nothing else. The zombies are also pretty creative. One death scene has zombies hammering a woman's hand to a window. They then slowly decapitate her with a scythe, the body dangling from the hook. Later, the zombies force a face into a circular saw. There's lot of chomping on human flesh, accompanied by plenty of fake blood and stringy guts.

The copious gore, low-brow effects, and threadbare plot isn't the only thing “Burial Ground” has going for it. It's also, maybe, the sleaziest zombie movie I've ever seen. All the characters seem preoccupied with sex. Boning is the only form of character development anyone gets. After arriving at the house, everyone pairs off and starts banging. One of the female characters dresses up in lingerie for no damn reason. The sleaziest manifestation of “Burial Ground's” pervy side is the subplot involving the boy and his mother. For no damn reason, during the zombie attack, little Michael – played by a 25 year old dwarf – kisses his mom too deeply. He then begins to paw at her legs and chests. After being turned into a zombie, Michael goes to his mother again. This time, she willingly offers him her nipple! Naturally, the now-zombified boy tears it off. Jesus Christ, where else are you going to see fucked-up shit like this but in an Italian horror movie?

In other words, “Burial Ground” is exactly as delightful as I've always heard. It's completely stupid, relentlessly pervy, creatively violent, endlessly cheesy, and one-hundred percent entertaining. Director Andrea Bianchi would also direct features with lurid titles like “Cry of a Prostitute” and “Strip Nude for Your Killer.” Clearly, this kind of nonsense was his forte. Unsurprisingly, like every Italian zombie movie, “Burial Ground” was released in some territories as an unofficial sequel to Fulci's “Zombi 2.” If you dismiss the movie as gore-for-gore's-sake dumbassery, you wouldn't be wrong. That is exactly “Burial Ground's” appeal. [7/10]

Roadgames (1981)

And I'm back in Australia. I swear this wasn't intentional. It seems like a lot of the films on my watch list this year originated in the land down under. “Roadgames,” sometimes spelled with a space between the two words, is probably most notorious as the last horror film Jamie Lee Curtis starred in during the eighties. (Though, as you'll soon read, it's status as horror is debatable.) It was directed by Richard Franklin, who previously made “Patrick.” This film would get him the job of directing “Psycho II.” That's fitting, as Franklin was a huge student of Hitchcock, having even talked with the master personally during his film school days. In fact, “Roadgames” is an extended homage to “Rear Window,” taking the story of a man and a woman tracking a possible serial killer on the road.

Our hero is Patrick Quid, a trucker hulling pork carcasses across the Australian countryside. While sleeping outside a hotel, he sees a man in a green van pick up a female hitchhiker. The next day, he sees the same man leave bloody trash bags outside. Quid next sees this man burying something in the desert. He quickly comes to believes this stranger to be a serial killer. Around the same time, Quid picks up a female hitchhiker he nicknames Hitch. She gets quickly gets wrapped up in the mystery, helping him track down the supposed killer. But is something actually going on or has Quid just gone a little crazy on the road?

The most Hitchcockian element of “Roadgames” is not actually its serial killer antagonist or story of self-doubt and perception. In actually, it's the quasi-romantic relationship between the two leads. Stacy Keach plays Quid as a highly erudite figure. He listens to classical music, plays the harmonica, has philosophical debates with his dingo-dog, and pointedly does not consider himself a truck driver. Curtis' Hitch, meanwhile, dresses in high fashion and is eager to play along with Quid's games. The two make quite a pair. Their relationship never becomes outright romantic, hovering just around that level. Keach and Curtis are both excellent, with a fantastic rapport. The characters lived detailed, lovable lives. You would happily follow these two anywhere and it's “Roadgames'” greatest strength.

I've heard “Roadgames” referred to as a horror movie but this isn't an entirely accurate description. The film keeps most of its violence off-screen, merely suggesting the serial killer's murderous acts. Despite this, the film is effectively suspenseful. A great sequence cuts between Quid cornering the killer in a public bathroom while Hitch searches his van. That scene ends fantastically, with the best kind of jump-scare. This sense of misdirection and hinting at the unseen is best utilized during a later moment, where Quid is investigating an odd noise in his trailer. Nothing much happens in this scene but it's still hugely exciting. The film climaxes with a similarly tense moment, Quid's truck following the van into increasingly smaller alleyways, his rig eventually getting stuck.

Franklin clearly knew what he was doing. “Roadgame” features quite a few cool, visual tricks. There's an outstanding scene, of Quid in a roadside diner, attempting to inform police about the killer. The camera rotates around the entire room, showing the patrons' reaction to Quid's speech. The serial killer's first appearance is an atmospheric scene, involving a piano wire being stretched taunt before a surprised face. During a long, night-time drive on the road, Quid's thoughts begin to overlap, the narration drowning each other out. He hallucinates wide-eyed creatures on the road. This is a pretty clever way to visualize an exhausted mind, attempting to keep himself awake.

As I said, “Roadgames'” classification as a horror film is debatable. Yes, there's a suitably macabre before-the-credits shock. Yet the film is more humorous and light-hearted than you'd expect a story about a serial killer traveling Australia to be. Take a listen to the adventurous, romantic score if you don't believe me. It's a lot classier than the likes of “Prom Night” or “Terror Train.” Despite that, I still found it to be a highly likable film. This is mostly thanks to the great lead performances, Franklin's clever direction, and a story that keeps you guessing. [7/10]

Invader ZIM: Halloween Spectacular of Spooky Doom

I'd hope the Nickelodeon producers knew what they were getting when they signed Jhonen Vasquez, famous for a comic called “Johnny the Homicidal Maniac,” to create a cartoon for them. “Invader ZIM” managed to get away with a lot of twisted, weird shit. Like that episode where Zim is eating kids' organs or a Christmas episode featuring a massive, insane Santa-monster. Or the eloquently entitled “Halloween Spectacular of Spooky Doom.” The episode concerns Dib, Zim's human arch-enemy and amateur paranormal investigator, accidentally crossing over to a nightmarish alternate universe. Leaping between the two realities, he manages to grab Zim and drag him into the other world. The two have to begrudgingly team up if they want to get home and prevent the nightmare demons from crossing over into our world.

Nickelodeon has aired some messed-up crap over the years but I still think “Halloween Spectacular” has to one of the most grotesque programs to ever cross the channel. The opening, with Dib catching glimpses of a horrifying alternate world, recalls “From Beyond.” The mutations Dib meets on the other side are genuinely weird looking. Such as a red, muscly creature wearing leather bondage gear, topped with a huge, toothy mouth. Or a monster composed of other creatures, fused together. Or a walking prison, who sucks victims inside with an organic tube. A big moment near the episode's end involves the nightmare version of Dib's teacher bursting out of her own skin, turning into a giant insect like monster. Even the heroic moments are kind of creepy. After activating the portal inside his brain, Dib folds his own body up into the opening. There's a lot more perverse body horror here then you'd expect from a kid's show.

Despite the nightmarish setting, “Halloween Spectactular” is still full of the show's trademark, manic humor. A good gag at the beginning involves Zim being terrified by benign Halloween costumes, like a bunny rabbit or a TV. This follows a lively debate among the kids about the difference between crazy and weird. Later, trick-or-treators descend on Zim's house like zombies, in a deliberate shout-out to “Night of the Living Dead.” The nightmare monsters are often ordered to enter the Realm of Eternal Screaming... Which is also the Realm of Restlessness. As always, the dialogue is highly quotable, with lines about activating the crazy collar, para-science, or eating corn. I love a lot of little gags, like the nightmare version of Dib's sister drinking from a branded “Dark Juice” juice box. Or a background demon proclaiming his vocal love of Dib's giant head.

As always, the animation and design work are both brilliant. You can tell the character designers really had a lot of fun with the various monsters. Even a simple straight-jacket is turned into a writhing, living creature. Maybe this one gets too carried away with being as gross and weird as possible, as it ends up distracting a little from the comedy. Yet how can I not love something this weird and abrasive being put in a time slot meant for seven year olds? No wonder this show has such a huge cult following. [7/10]

Night of the Slasher (2015)

Here's another horror short that the internet recommended to me. “Night of the Slasher” follows a quiet young woman with a nasty scar across her neck. She's invited a boy over for a night of drugs, alcohol, half-naked dancing, and premarital sex. She is intentionally performing this behavior, in order to lure out a masked serial killer. Naturally, the maniac – wearing a Spock mask, by the way – appears and starts to do his thing. At this point, we realize the girl is seeking revenge on the killer and a fight ensues.

Pointing out the cliches of the slasher subgenre is no longer clever. As soon as the heroine reveals a checklist of bad behavior, we can guess where this is going. However, “Night of the Slasher” is still a fairly amusing riff on these well-worn ideas. The heroine downs four beers in one minute, in a decent gag. Her male friend says the other kids at school make fun of him for looking like he's thirty years old, a decent jab at older actors appearing in teen roles. There's also an absurd gag, concerning slasher villains ability to walk away from any injury, no matter how fatal. When the guy appears to be having an orgasm, he's actually moaning from a knife wound. That's a clever moment. The musical score is spot-on and pauses for comedic emphasis. Honestly, the bit that made me laugh the most in “Night of the Slasher” is easy to miss. While the girl crawls away from the killer, the Spock-masked maniac crab-walks after her.

“Night of the Slasher” has another catch, beyond its meta story. Director Shant Hamassian claims to have shot the entire film in one shot. I'm doubtful that this is true. At first, the continous shooting is a nice visual approach, providing the short with a good energy. Once the fight with the killer starts, it becomes an overstated gimmick. The fight scene is overly stylized, in a way befitting a kung-fu movie more than a slasher flick. When the killer and the girl stop attacking each other, for the sake of a dramatic pause, that struck me as the wrong kind of silly. Despite some qualms, “Night of the Slasher” is still reasonably entertaining enough to justify the twelve minutes it'll take to watch it. [7/10]

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