The Mask of Satan/Black Sunday (1960, Mario Bava)

I know there’s a rule that Italian horrors need a minimum of three titles, but I don’t see why this is mainly known as Black Sunday when The Mask of Satan is its original title and far more descriptive. I believe this is my first Mario Bava movie unless we’re counting Danger: Diabolik on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Fun camerawork, great lighting and atmosphere, and mixed effects (swell zombie makeup vs. rubber bat on a string). Opening titles are unintentially funny (The Mask of Satan, produced by Jolly Films).

Wide-eyed Barbara Steele (of 8 1/2) is the resurrection of a murdered witch from the 1600’s, killed by nailing a devil mask onto her face. In present day, a stumblebum professor (Andrea Checchi, hotel detective of The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse) pauses between clumsily destroying ancient relics to purposely remove the mask, and then I get confused because the witch is reborn but also has a doppelganger descendant living in the castle next door. The professor gets himself possessed, so his student (John Richardon of Torso and One Million Years B.C.) becomes our hero. He wrestles the devil in a hallway and wins! I’m used to rooting for resurrected ghosts to take revenge on the families of their murderers, but this movie makes it hard, the zombies all rotting and horrid with no vampiric panache. It also takes its Christ vs. Devils thing very seriously, and the townspeople with pitchforks and torches are the good guys.

Anyway, if I ever move into a castle, first thing I’ll do is measure all the walls House of Leaves-style to check for hidden passageways.

World War Z (2013, Marc Forster)

Better than I’d heard. From one deliciously tense action scene to the next, it’s a million times more fun than Contagion.

I recognized Davis Morse playing an inspirational madman and Peter Capaldi as a world health organization doctor (get it? WHO Doctor?). Pitt’s wife Mireille Enos stars on TV’s The Killing Remake and I think Daniella Kertesz played the short-haired Israeli soldier whose zombie-bitten hand Pitt severs. Between Stranger Than Fiction and this, Forster made Machine Gun Preacher (tough white guy saves African child soldiers), The Kite Runner and a James Bond flick. Supposedly based on the Max Brooks book, but I hear it’s not really. Credited writers include Matt “Lions For Lambs” Carnahan, J. “Changeling” Straczynski, Damon “Prometheus” Lindelof and Drew “Cabin in the Woods” Goddard. That’s a lot of writers for a special-effects movie.

John Dies at the End (2012, Don Coscarelli)

Feels like it’s trying too hard to be a cult hit, and the pacing is often weird, with our somnambulist hero Dave always moving and speaking slower than you’d expect, and its universe and logic seem simultaneously under- and over-developed (maybe since it’s an incomplete adaptation of the source comic), but overall a damned fun flick, unlike anything else out there, and a welcome return to weird-movie-making for Coscarelli ten years after Bubba Ho-Tep.

Attempts at plot summary would be ridiculous, but here are some people and things.

Tall Man as dark-eyed priest:

Basement meat monster summoned by Obscure Object snake girl, destroyed by Dr. Marconi phone call:

Paul Giamatti as viewer-surrogate reporter:

Good weapon:

Glynn Turman as evidence-destroying, hero-threatening rogue cop:

Church of Dave & John: clothing and masks optional

Dave nearly falls into pit of Korrok before monster is destroyed by humanity-saving suicide-bomber dog:

City of the Living Dead (1980, Lucio Fulci)

“If those gates are left open it might be the end of humanity.”

So it’s called City of the Living Dead and arrives the year after Zombi 2, a semi-sequel to Night of the Living Dead, so you’d think it’d be a follow-up to that one. But the internet says it’s instead the first part of a trilogy with The Beyond and House by the Cemetery. But I’ve seen all those movies and this doesn’t seem to have anything to do with them. However, it’s one of the best Italian horrors I’ve seen, up there with Suspiria.

In Dunwich (which “was built on the ruins of the original Salem – the village of witches and heresy… and evil”), a priest (Fabrizio Jovine of Fulci’s The Psychic and Contraband) hangs himself in the cemetery, opening a gate to hell. Meanwhile in “New York,” Mary is in a seance circle screaming “I see the dead” until she drops dead herself. I can see why Catriona MacColl was cast as Mary – she’s quite a committed screamer, and unafraid of taking an axe to the face in the name of filmmaking, as we see later when crabby too-good-for-this-movie Christopher George (Enter the Ninja, The Day Santa Claus Cried) hears her screaming and grudgingly rescues her from a coffin. Oh also when the cops are called to the seance circle, a dubbed detective interrogates everyone about drugs while a guy (who is definitely not an actor) stuffed into a cop suit stands awkwardly in the background, all of which I found unaccountably wonderful.

Mary, doing what she does best:

Back to the movie, if the gates of hell are gonna open and we’re gonna have a city of the living dead, we will need lots of victims, so Fulci gives us a bunch of indistinguishably dubbed zombie-fodder characters, along with extreme close-ups on all their eyes.

Future victims Bob and Emily:

Sandra (Janet Agren of Red Sonja, Eaten Alive) is seeing psychiatrist Jerry (Carlo De Mejo of Un homme est mort) when Emily (Antonella Interlenghi of The Birdcage 3) totally barges in without knocking to announce that she has to see Bob (Giovanni Radice of Cannibal Ferox, Cannibal Apocalypse) that night. Bob is the local maladjusted deviant, just the kind of person a young hottie in an Italian horror movie should be hanging out with. But Bob doesn’t kill her, exactly, just pushes her aside to escape when the hanged priest appears and smears wormy grime into her face. Not the coolest death scene in the world, but they make up for it with the coolest death scene in the world, when Daniela Doria (who spent her whole acting career playing victims in Fulci movies) and Michele Soavi (star of Demons 5 & 6, then director of Demons 3 & 4 – oh Italy, you have no respect for sequel continuity) are making out in a car when the priest appears and stares at them until she silently vomits out all her insides while bleeding from the eyes, then grabs the boy and pulls his brains through his skull with her bare hands.

Meanwhile Emily’s dad finds out she’s dead, goes looking for Bob, then drills a hole in his head. Emily later returns as a zombie to haunt and kill her family, but her little brother escapes and meets up with the psychiatrist and the blonde. Oh also there are three guys in a bar who are always afraid of zombies and gates to hell, but never do anything or leave the bar, until they’re finally all killed in the end… I can’t figure if that was supposed to be humor. And an undertaker at “Moriarity and Sons” (got an extra “i” in there) funeral home is eaten by a corpse.

The hanged priest with a handful of wormy grime:

All of our protagonists (Jerry the beardie psychiatrist, blonde Sandra, resurrected Mary and bitter newsman Pete) meet up in the graveyard looking for the dead priest, then an evil wind machine blows a million worms into the window of their hotel room. From the DVD extras I learned that Fulci’s effects looked so good because they were real: he really swung an axe a half-inch from Mary’s face, truly made Daniela Doria vomit up sheep guts, and he sure enough blasted a million worms into a hotel room right into the screaming faces of his stars. In case you didn’t figure it out on your own, crew members also tell us that Fulci hated actors.

The killing method of choice from now on will be squeezing the brains through the skull with one’s bare hands – first dead Emily does Sandra, then dead Sandra does the reporter (yay, he is finally dead).

The beardy psychiatrist (why does he get to be the hero?) stabs the priest in the balls with a cross, then he and Mary climb out of grave. The kid (with two cops) sees and happily runs towards them. They’re happy at first but then Mary is afraid, yells nooo, freeze frame, black tendrils across picture. What was that? What happened?

Movie was partly shot in Savannah, which is exciting to me.

Buy from Amazon:
City of the Living Dead [Blu-ray]

Survival of the Dead (2009, George Romero)

Romero is just making mediocre genre movies and putting zombies in ‘em now. This one’s a dumb 80’s actioner (buncha dudes act tough and spit bad dialogue punctuated by explosions) crossed with a silly-ass Irish family-feud revenge drama… with zombies in it. Shamus Muldoon is warring with Patrick O’Flynn on a small island off Ireland Delaware. One wants to kill all the local zombies, the other wants to keep ‘em around attached to chains, like the last few minutes of Shaun of the Dead turned into a pretend-serious idea… “pretend” because whenever the drama threatens to get heavy, the movie throws in some cartoony business to show it’s all in good fun. The comedy destroys the drama since the drama wasn’t so good to begin with. At least Land of the Dead had new ideas (the zombies starting to communicate and organize) and kept some of the satirical edge of the first three. The last couple have felt like GA Romero’s Cash-in of the Dead… funny, since they barely played theaters (but they look cheap as hell so surely still made a profit for someone).

The O’Flynn gang:

Oh yeah, so a four-man army-deserter group are in search of money (why?), team up with a mysterious teen (who turns out not to be mysterious), and follow an exiled O’Flynn back to the island (of the dead) to look for his twin daughters and fight Muldoon, who’s trying to make the dead learn to eat animals instead of people (why?). At the end, the lesson (told to us in voiceover) is that people fight each other for stupid reasons.

The only shot I really liked:

More than one actor in this was also in Boondock Saints II and the Saw series. Mysterious Teen appeared in Land of the Dead and played Rodrick in Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Our beardy hero was also in Land, and I’m pretty sure there’s a plot reference early on to Diary, but any connections to the other films seem like an afterthought. In competition at Venice, either because of that European tendency to fake-appreciate poor American genre flicks, or because they hadn’t seen the finished product when they allowed it in.

Hilarious cartoon explosion-aftermath:

Hilarious cartoon burning-head-used-as-cigarette-lighter:

Buy from Amazon:
Survival of the Dead Blu-ray

Zombieland (2009, Ruben Fleischer)

From the acclaimed director of Girls Guitar Club and Between Two Ferns, and the writer/producers of a reality prank show. Supposedly there was uncredited script doctoring by the writer of Dreamcatcher. So it wasn’t going to rival Shaun of the Dead for quality, but it was lightly amusing.

I’m not familiar enough with recent teen-sex comedies to recognize stars Jesse Eisenberg (Adventureland) and Emma Stone (Superbad and The House Bunny). I might’ve known Jesse – he’s the older brother in The Squid and the Whale, someone or other in The Village and the main dude in Roger Dodger – but mainly he just reminded us of Michael Cera. Jesse is our nerdy rule-following narrator who meets badass Woody (really a sensitive guy who has experienced loss, and who loves Caddyshack) and then scam artist sisters Emma and Little Miss Sunshine (of Little Miss Sunshine). The movie’s world is impressively empty – no other packs of survivors except for a lone Bill Murray (and incidentally, I haven’t seen a celebrity-playing-himself get shot to death in a comedy since Harold & Kumar 2) and a cameo by Mike White in flashback.

Buy from Amazon:
Zombieland DVD
Zombieland Blu-ray

I Walked With a Zombie (1943, Jacques Tourneur)

I was skeptical of the IMDB’s claim that the plot was based partly on Jane Eyre, but after Katy summarized the novel for me I can totally see it. Weird. It’s a Val Lewton super-production, with director Jacques Tourneur (Cat People), editor Mark Robson (The Seventh Victim), and writer Curt Siodmak (The Wolf Man, Robert Siodmak’s idiot brother per Shadowplay).

Frances Dee (Little Women, Of Human Bondage) is Betsy, who travels to the exotic west indies to work as private nurse for an extremely dysfunctional household. The man of the castle is Paul Holland (Tom Conway who I recognize from The Seventh Victim, also in Cat People and some MST3K flicks), a rich sugar plantation guy. His wife Jessica has been in a sleepy trance ever since getting caught having an affair with Paul’s half brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison of a pile of 30’s westerns). And the boys’ mother (Edith Barrett of The Ghost Ship the same year) lives with them, dabbles in voodoo secretly on the side, may be responsible for Jessica’s zombie condition.

At first I thought hunky Rand would be the love interest, not the withdrawn husband full of dark secrets, but it’s the other way around – Rand is the wormy drunk little brother who eventually pays for his crimes, chased (slowly) by awesome lead zombie Carrefour into the ocean, holding recently-murdered Jessica in his arms. We know Betsy will be okay since she is narrating the movie from The Future. Lovely little bit when she first arrives, hears drums in the distance and one of the men says “the jungle drums… mysterious… eerie,” then demystifies it, telling her it’s the work drum at the sugar mill. Purposely deflates the spooky foreign atmosphere the movie is trying to set up, reassuring her that it’s not as spooky and foreign as all that. And then of course it is.

More movie mythology: the workers at the mill and house servants are ex-slaves, who “for generations found life a burden. That’s why they still weep when a child is born and make merry at a burial,” says Paul. Ritualistic and zombie-raising or not, it’s good to see black actors with speaking roles in a 40’s film – mainly head maid/nurse Alma (Theresa Harris, tiny parts in The Big Clock, Out of the Past and Angel Face) and plot-device troubadour Sir Lancelot.

Sir Lancelot with Betsy and Wesley:

Carrefour:

William Castle double-feature

Shanks (1974)

“The town drunk with a shrew for a wife and a deaf mute for a brother-in-law”

The movie has silly, cartoonish music by Alex North which belongs in a goofy porno comedy, just a few years before North’s lowest low point in Wise Blood. He was oscar-nominated by the tin-eared academy, but fortunately they awarded the great Nino Rota the honors instead.

Shanks (Marcel Marceau) is a ridiculed mute puppeteer hired by rich Mr. Walker (also Marceau!) to control dead people using a three-button remote? I don’t remember why. Honestly, it was late at night and it was a very silly movie and I watched it while assembling Ikea furniture. But here are some notes I took:

The miracle of bringing dead animals to life is achieved cinematically by using live animals
Suddenly an underage love interest named Celia.
The drunk gets killed by a reanimated chicken in slow motion
Flowery intertitles

Wife is hit by a car – I’m not giving murderous Marceau credit for that one
TV laugh track during sinister scenes
He makes them do an awful lot with just three buttons

Mr & Mrs Barton is the couple, mute is Malcolm
Perverse to star a celebrated mime but have all the other actors play fun reanimated dead people [this was before I realized Marceau also played Mr. Walker, the first to be hilaiously reanimated]

Silly-ass music

“The outside world of evil,” says a title card which burns away revealing… youth on motorcycles. Still the greatest threat to society in 1972: mustache dudes on motorcycles.

Mata Hari is the bad girl
Good girl is killed and, let’s face it, probably raped. Typical 70’s.

Closing title card unsubtly tells us “Good versus Evil,” but I wouldn’t exactly call Marceau “good,” just maybe in comparison with the others in this movie. He’s also shown to be a better fighter than the leader of the bike gang. Needless to say, he reanimates the dead girl at the end and makes her dance with him, because he is a dangerous creep. Mata Hari never wakes up and calls the cops, like she should.
First rom-zom-com? Look out, Shaun of the Dead.


Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

“London, 1880″
Castle doesn’t really look like John Goodman, but he is just as cheesy.

What was this about? Robert goes to Sardonicus’ castle to surgically fix his death-grimace face, supernaturally obtained when Dr. S tried to rob a winning lotto ticket from his own father’s grave, but Robert’s science is unsuccessful. There is intrigue involving Dr. S’s wife, I believe. I’m pretty sure I liked it better than Shanks, or maybe I’d just been drinking more.

Sir Robert is a handsome physical therapist with right-hand man Wainwright
Much is made of the invention of the hypodermic needle
He has a photo-locket that speaks to him in flashback-voiceover
One-eyed hunchy Krull [Oskar Homolka of Ball of Fire and Sabotage]

A scene ripped off from Dracula when he arrives in eastern europe
Also no mirrors in the castle
Ana has leeches on her!

Nice to see a castle servant who’s intelligent and well-spoken
Maybe Sardonicus is meant to sound like sarcophagus, but it looks more like sardonic
Toulon! [Sardonicus is played by Guy Rolfe, Andre Toulon in Puppet Masters 3-7]

Henryk [Vladimir Sokoloff of Baron of Arizona] was his dad. I actually thought it was Oskar playing a different character. Elenka is his first wife
Comically over-explainy, like in MANT

Buy Sardonicus from Amazon:
The William Castle Film Collection

Pontypool (2008, Bruce McDonald)

“What we need is a flamethrower.”

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Apparently this played in one theater for one week before going to “VOD” (whatever that is). I don’t know anyone who has this “VOD,” which was also the rumored resting place of Maddin’s My Winnipeg, and where all Soderbergh’s movies are said to be sent the same day as their theatrical releases. Is it something you watch on those portable playstation games? Is it a website? Can I get an invite? Not willing to buy a satellite dish or a fiber-optic link to hollywood or whatever I’d need, I borrowed a copy of the movie from a connected friend to close out this year’s successful SHOCKtober season. Sorry, Mr. McDonald, but rest assured I’ll be buying the movie and the book as soon as I figure out how.

“Mrs. French’s cat is missing” says a sinister voice as a blue waveform bounces across the wide screen, before the title breaks through in a blue vortex, each letter appearing from the inside out until it spells TYPO a few seconds before PONTYPOOL. What with the movie’s play with language, that can’t be accidental.

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Next half (or more) of the film has fallen big-city talk-radio DJ Grant Mazzy in his sound booth, with his producer Sydney Briar (great names) and assistant Laurel Ann sitting in the main room. It’s snowing and damn cold outside, it’s early morning, and Grant is trying to show off his “take no prisoners” attitude and start rumors. The camera is always gliding at a constant speed, which kinda bugs me though I can’t think of a more pleasing alternative offhand. Gradually we start to hear of a disturbance in town, “herds” of people banding together and murmuring, breaking into buildings and tearing residents apart. The descriptions get weirder, until Grant is saying things like this on the air: “That was our own Ken Loney interviewing a screaming baby coming from Mary Gault’s eldest son’s last dying gasps.”

The actions outside are so disturbing and unbelievable, that by this point characters and viewer are dying to break out of the radio station and walk around – but we never do. Instead the herd tries to break in, preceded by the slightly loopy Dr. Mendez who may know how the whole thing started (he tells us it’s a virus infecting words in the English language) but is never given enough time to explain himself because Laurel Ann becomes infected. They stay in the sound booth, depriving her of language to feed off, until she explodes.

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More word games, and then Grant (who, as a popular talk radio host, may have been helping spread the virus all morning) comes up with a cure that doubles as a last-minute romantic ending, defamiliarizing the infected word, changing its meaning. “Kill is kiss, kill is kiss” makes me think of Killer’s Kiss.

I wasn’t aware of Stephen McHattie though I’ve seen him before. He went from playing James Dean in a 70’s TV biopic, to Canadian thrillers in the 80’s, to a ton of TV and voice (no surprise) acting, to A History of Violence and The Fountain to major roles in Hollywood action flicks (300, Shoot ‘em Up, Nite Owl in Watchmen). McDonald is known for a handful of cult road flicks and the interesting-sounding The Tracey Fragments, and also directs a ton of TV. I’d only seen his short Elimination Dance, but will be seeking out more.

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McDonald: “Zombies are undead and these people are not. They’re people who have difficulty expressing themselves. It’s a very common, very modern virus.”

AV Club:

Primarily though, the film works as a tour de force for McHattie – a veteran character actor making the most of his character’s long, fluid monologues – and as a sly commentary on journalistic responsibility. At first, McHattie seems to enjoy anchoring a broadcast that’s drawing international attention, but throughout, his conscientious producer Lisa Houle pesters him about whether it’s really appropriate for him to be goosing the drama, as when he urges the station’s field reporter to get closer to the monsters. There’s a lot of subtext in Pontypool (and some of it isn’t so “sub”) about how meaningless conversation can be a kind of plague. Yet the greater evil may be the words that sound meaningful, but are really just diverting.

from D. Cairns short but essential interview with the director:

DC: The very idea of a “war on terror” is a very Pontypool idea, the war against an abstract concept or word.

MACDONALD: Right. So our ideas naturally come out about the manufacturing of fear by the American media […] the co-opting of certain words by the media, to label people or things. And it’s in a very sly and damaging way, often. “Pedophile” is a popular word, as a weapon, you know. To suddenly hint at that, you could destroy somebody. With something as simple as “You know, I heard he was a pedophile…” It just shows how powerful certain words are. Language is so loaded with great shit, it’s almost an embarrassment of riches for us, to know how to place some of these things. And there’s kind of a cultural thing too, like when the BBC guy comes on, everybody’s like, “Oh my god, we’ve got the real guy on!” you know? It’s like these backwoods colonial guys listening to the real deal. It’s such a cultural thing, with the French-English in Canada. And suddenly these sovereigntists or separatists become “terrorists,” that easy slip, how easy that is… “Oh, I’ve never heard the French ‘Quiet Revolution’ referred to as ‘terrorists’ in Quebec.” But you could…

DC: And a violent riot becomes an “insurgency.”

MACDONALD: Yeah yeah. So you start to see how just choice of words, there’s a certain WAY that the media talks, to create a drama, to create an ongoing story. … Myself having worked in the media for so long, you have an inside view of how these things go on.

Good news:

May 16, 2009
Acclaimed director Bruce McDonald returns to the director’s chair with Pontypool Changes, a sequel to his highly anticipated psychological thriller Pontypool. Producer Jeffrey Coghlan confirmed rumors in Cannes today that the Pontypool sequel is scheduled to lens in early 2010, reuniting McDonald with Pontypool screenwriter Tony Burgess, who adapted the original from his book “Pontypool Changes Everything”.

Author Tony Burgess shares a name with the author of A Clockwork Orange, another sci-fi novel interested in language.

From Bruce’s interview with Twitch:

- Let’s talk about the after the credits scene, the cookie.
– That used to be end of the movie, but before the credits. And people thought, what? What? Too much confusion. There is a tradition now where you have something at the end of the credits where you have an outtake, or hint of a sequel. The existence for it is sort of buried in there, well the title of the book sort of suggests it, Pontypool Changes Everything, and one of the things I’ve always love about the notion of this, is that the virus could affect something as abstract as the English language. It can leap into reality itself, change the fabric of how reality is perceived.