(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2003)
According to the Internet Movie Database, George Romero is making a new film next year, called The Ill. It would be only his second film since 1993 – the other was something called Bruiser, which I’ve never had a chance to see. I don’t know whether this glacial pace is a sign of artistic deliberation or just lack of economic opportunity, but it’s a sign of Romero’s odd status that either seems possible.
Romero has almost always worked in the horror genre, most famously with the zombie trilogy that began with Night of the Living Dead, and his films show every sign of budgetary constraint (particularly the use of no-name actors) and capitulation to genre expectations. But he regularly renders it plausible to believe that he chooses the genre simply because it’s a fitting vehicle for his particular philosophical and thematic concerns. Not that I don’t think he enjoys spattering the ketchup around a bit.
I’ve also failed to see his 1978 film Martin, which many claim as his masterpiece, but of those I have seen, the pinnacle has to be Dawn of the Dead, which I have on DVD. I used to think of it as one of my “guilty pleasures,” but I guess I’m getting too old to be very guilty now. This second film in the trilogy opens on scenes of utter chaos as the zombie plague pushes civilization into the most tenuous of corners. It gradually focuses on a quartet who flee in a helicopter, arriving at a suburban mall where they seal themselves in and briefly settle into a life of parodic consumerist plenty, while the zombies clamour ineffectually outside the doors.
Romero's cinematography is crystal clear, almost gaudy; the zombies are so in our face that the film dares us to laugh at the absurdity of the premise. But they also take on an enormously specific identity, suspended in some godless limbo between what they were and what hell has made of them, shambling ineffectually until they catch a whiff of a live human, when they become crazed cannibals. You realize that the movie’s deadpan aesthetic reflects the dehumanization of the premise, and it becomes way more unsettling than seems possible from the raw ingredients.
Danny Boyle’s new zombie movie 28 Days Later obviously evokes Romero, and Boyle acknowledged that the film’s supermarket scene, where his own band of survivors ransacks a deserted store, is a nod to Dawn of the Dead. 28 Days Later is an effective film, but I guess it must be significant that it made me think about Romero’s film more than about 28 Days Later itself. Boyle’s opening certainly outdoes Romero though. After a prologue where a group of animal activists set free an infected chimp over the protests of a terrified research scientist, we jump via the “28 days later” caption to a man waking up in a hospital, finding himself alone, and then wandering outside into an utterly deserted London. He walks in solitude across Tower Bridge, through Trafalgar Square – only an apocalypse could generate a London like this.
28 Days Later
After some initial encounters with the demented population, he runs into a couple of fellow survivors who tell him that while he was in a coma (after a bicycle accident) a mysterious infection engulfed virtually the whole country. They later find a man holed up with his daughter in an apartment building, then pick up a radio broadcast about a survivor community to the north. They set out in a cab, finding a group of soldiers in a country house, planning how to start things over, but the soldiers’ ambitions conflict with theirs…
Boyle shoots the movie in an ultra-grainy, low-definition hand-held style that frequently plunges into incoherence – the encounters with the zombies are splashes of blood and shadow and movement, impressionistic bursts of darkness that reflect the unknown, overwhelming nature of the new world in which they find themselves. In one scene the taxicab drives past a field of flowers which look like blobs of super-imposed colour. The style is generally effective, but I think it buffers the audience from forging a visceral connection with events. The ads quote someone as saying it’s the scariest film since The Exorcist, but I didn’t detect much fear in the theatre when I saw it. It’s a chilling presence for sure, but the pseudo-documentary style is such a cliché by now that it actually emphasizes the film’s artificiality.
The big picture in 28 Days Later is a bit hard to figure out. The zombies seem to come out mainly at night, but even allowing for that, there aren’t many of them around, or many dead bodies. Since the infection takes hold in a mere twenty seconds, it seems that chaos must have descended with horrendous speed, but it left the streets remarkably clear of abandoned traffic, corpses, debris and suchlike. On the other hand, the movie makes a fair bit of behavioural sense, even if some of the characters might appear to have adapted rather too easily to their new circumstances. It seems particularly shrewd about the troublesome sexual politics of a world where ten men (worse, mostly macho soldier types) coexist with only two women.
On the whole, Boyle seems more cerebral than Romero, which would be an advantage in almost any genre, except maybe this one. 28 Days Later plays effectively on a multitude of fears, but the almost naïve sincerity of Romero’s film ultimately proves more intriguing.
There’s another movie about a destructive zombie in a desolate wasteland – well, no, actually it’s about an embezzling assistant bank manager living in Toronto. Based on a true story, Owning Mahowny tracks the character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman as he embezzles and gambles away over ten million dollars. This kind of movie material is often rendered splashy and flamboyant, but that streak is largely confined here to John Hurt’s grinning-serpent performance as the manager of Mahowny’s favourite casino. The rest of the movie is deliberately drab, mostly confined to colourless interiors, befitting Hoffman’s extremely interiorized performance.
The gimmick is that he’s a world-class embezzler who never really benefits from his crimes – he rates the gambling experience, on a scale of 1 to 100, as a 100, but it sure doesn’t show. The casino and his bookie get rich, the bank manipulates him to better squeeze their clients, even his mistreated girlfriend seems to draw some kind of perverse satisfaction from his errant ways. Receding behind huge glasses and a barely changing expression, Mahowny becomes a virtual commodity, like the mounds of cash that change hands around him. It’s a simple premise really, and the film sometimes seems a bit threadbare and hokey, but it ultimately has substantial wherewithal. The immensely versatile Hoffman really seems like someone who could play any man alive, or dead.