Meeting a classic.

I’m a bit swamped/sick/exhausted right now, so I’m dusting off some old notes–my initial impressions from watching Night of the Living Dead, the original.

I actually only saw it six years ago–I’d read Russo’s novelization, which pretty near exactly follows the screenplay–and it was interesting to note what does and doesn’t show up. The word “zombie” doesn’t appear; they’re “ghouls”, “flesh-eating ghouls”, or “flesh-eaters”. They’re afraid of fire, and dislike particularly bright light, which never really seems to show up later (although the modern The Walking Dead does mention that walkers seem to be more active after dark). They seem to kill you first and eat you once you’re dead, rather than start chowing down while you’re still warm and screaming as in the later movies. They can use tools, crudely–a couple of them pick up rocks to break windows, and a couple pick up a club or a knife (actually, a trowel, but the intent’s there). This, to my mind, is something Dawn and Day did better than Night; the zombies in them don’t use tools, which makes the slow almost-recognition they display towards certain objects much creepier.

Apparently only the unburied dead rise–the radio broadcast uses that particular adjective at one point–which while it’s fairly conventional is something that’s rarely specified in zombie movies (to the point that I for one hadn’t consciously noticed it before). And the first one you see is pretty quick, although his fine motor control is for shit–he’s walking slowly at first, but he manages a shamble that could match a decent jogging speed for a while chasing Barbara. They’re all stumbling around very slowly by the end of the movie, though. Maybe he was particularly fresh at the beginning, or maybe they just can’t see very well in the dark and move slowly as a result…?

A couple of the events in the movie happen very abruptly; there’s a little dramatic build-up, and then a sudden resolution in which the movie generally does not behave the way polite convention indicates the movie is supposed to behave. It’s not quite disconcerting enough for me to call it shocking, but I think it might have been if I didn’t already know how the movie was going to run, and I sure it would have been if I deeply expected movies to follow polite convention. (If I ever get a week to spare, I’ll sit down with a bunch of mid- and late-sixties horror movies to get into the mindset, and then watch Night of the Living Dead and Westworld and anything else I can find that includes scenes which specifically break with the conventions of the time.)

The actual scenes of the zombies eating were much better than I expected. I thought I’d be interested–this is, after all, pretty much the zombie movie–and maybe a little squicked. It was interesting and squicky.

It was also creepy. I did not expect that. I am glad it happened, though. It was fairly standard presentation, I guess–level, detached shots of humans eating human bits, unflinching presentation of girlfriend gnawing flesh off former boyfriend’s hand, clinical and helpless protrayal of horrific events, uncaring universe, etcetera. (Best example I’ve seen of this is still the end sequence of Hannibal.) The scenes were pretty dark, which is a little unusual and probably helped the creepiness factor, putting together a relatively rare combination of indifferent horror with the viewer’s imagination needing to be involved to identify all the elements of the scene.

(Sidenote: dammit, creepy can’t be that hard to produce if they were doing it in ’68. Why am I not getting more creep in my horror movies? Why am I so often stuck with something that gets a twitch or a yelp or a flinch instead of that feeling that my skin is trying to crawl off my spine so it can leave the room where the scary pictures are showing? Come on.)

On a related note: I need to watch a little more of John Carpenter’s stuff. He’s prone, I think, to very static shots with very little movement in the frame, and I’m trying to figure out if it’s just me anticipating that something will happen that makes this disconcerting, or if he’s actually doing something with the composition of the scenes or the pacing of the movie.

Back to the secrets of houses, and the horror therein.

Finally catching up with American Horror Story.  Not tonight’s episode, but last week’s.  Nonetheless, spoiler break, since I have no idea if anyone else is lagging as much as I am.  (Apparently it’s being broadcast later in some places?)

I am rather pleased with how the reveal about Tate was handled over the last few episodes. Continue reading “Back to the secrets of houses, and the horror therein.”

Walking amongst the Dead

Yeah, there’s been more Walking Dead than American Horror Story lately.  The light of my life has laid hands upon Skyrim, and I’m holding off on watching new episodes without him.

Daryl’s my favourite character[1], although I think that’d change if we saw more of Glenn.  Stupid situation or not, something to be said for a guy who manages to lasso a zombie while being in serious danger of being dropped on it.  And is not charging merrily forward on the “OMG sex” bandwagon (pet peeve; have had too many people drop the “if a guy does not immediately jump at offers of (straight) sex, there is something wrong with him” line lately).  And sticks his neck out for utter strangers on a pay-it-forward theory.  And (practical or not) cares about how the formerly living dead are treated…

…okay, now?  Now I’m annoyed we haven’t seen more of Glenn.  Daryl’s cool, and Rick’s decent, but Glenn’s kind, and while I can understand that not being hugely valuable I think it’s important.  (How much has he been around this season?)  It’s not like it’s a case of people just needing to do anything they have to to get over the next hill; there doesn’t seem to be any greater social structure or network left.  If people who are scrabbling for their lives aren’t kind, it’s not as if people who aren’t scared and in danger will pick up the slack.  If people who are scrabbling for their lives aren’t kind, then no-one is kind, and that is a sad sad world.

I confess, in a fit of being horribly unjaded and sympathetic towards people who have had their lives fall apart, I like most of the characters.  Actually all of the group from last season except Carl and T-Dog and Sophie, who really seem the least fleshed-out; they’re watercolour sketches.  (Also I’m disappointed we haven’t seen more of the Greenes yet.)  I’d probably be a lot less sympathetic if I had to deal with the characters (see: Shane), but I like watching them.  It’s easier to put up with and watch their human failings from the safety of my living room.

Andrea makes me the most uneasy–I can see how she’s gone from having something to prove to having explicitly failed to prove it and, having been guilted out of a clean and relatively painless suicide, has sort of given up on these silly things like “group bonding” and “relying on others”.  She’ll still learn from them, which is practical, and I think she might still feel mild affection towards some of them, but in a really fundamental sense she seems to have checked out, and it makes me sad.[2]  And I get being upset–furious–at being guilted out of a clean and painless and easily-managed death.

At the same time… well.  A solid chunk of her is looking to kill herself.  I’m trying to figure out where to stand between the “ohgod I’ve been there, no-one can blame you for wanting this but that doesn’t mean a sane you would want it, please please don’t” and the “you know, even us stressed and crazy people can actually manage to make real and valid decisions about what we want to do with our lives”, and…

Been on both sides of that.  Like I said… uneasy.

[1] “Copperhead Road” ninja.
[2] Actually, looking back on last season, it also annoys me that the characters who chose to kill themselves were two women and one of those edumacated guys.

That? That ain’t no miracle, that’s just the way things are.

I get that zombie stories are usually natural-disaster-survival stories. How far would you go, what would you get stripped down to to avoid getting stripped down to the bone, all this. But it amazes me how throughly that’s integrated into the in-character perspective of the stories, how they’re seen as nothing more than an emotionally charged mechanical threat.

I mean, this is a genre that involves dead people getting up and walking and then (usually) falling over when you damage a particular chunk of their body which by virtue of being dead they are not using for its intended purpose. That doesn’t happen. There is no currently plausible scientific mechanism by which it can happen. Viruses (virii?) do not do that, bacteria do not do that, radiation does not do that… And yet so few people in these stories ever suggest a fantastic explanation, a supernatural or super-scientific cause. The closest you get is the line “When there’s no more room in hell the dead will walk the earth,” and that is treated more as an expression of the unknowable monster we are helpless against. Not as a cause to hit the Orne Library and look up “Property Expansion, Infernal”.

I am not saying this is a bad thing, mind. Around the time you start digging into the exact structure of an archetypal monster, you start off the line of approach that leads to “Ah, well this is just a condition,” and take that too far you get “A misunderstood condition, which in actual fact is manageable,” and then you are telling an entirely different kind of story and a lot of the power to horrify seeps out of the monster.[1] But it’s kind of surprising that the characters never try to attribute causes. “Dead people walking around” is not the kind of thing you would expect people to shrug off with “just a disease”[2]; that’s an explanation that’s so facile and blatantly unlikely…

I mean, you wouldn’t expect people to handwave it with “Just a disease” if everyone who died got up and grew wings and flew away. I know people are probably not up for deep theorizing, what with trying to avoid being eaten, but there are times when the characters have a chance to talk and humans try to explain things. Put labels on them.

I mean, I understand that generally, attempts to explain the zombie apocalypse don’t matter.  That’s a basic conceit.  And yet, in a story about surviving a natural disaster, you could expect to touch on people’s attempts to explain it and thereby cope with it in more contexts than just watching them scrabble for answers while falling apart.

[1] I mean, consider the vampire. Yes, the basic idea of the monster is horrific, but at this point I think some variation of the phrase “he’s not sparkly, he’s a real vampire” would creep into a lot of explanations of that. And when the sparkle gets so deeply associated with the perception of the monster, when it becomes not only familiar but banal, the story-telling power of the tool is weakened.
Of course, you can also say that the association of “destroy the head, and it’s okay” with the zombies is an idea with a similarly neutralizing effect on the horror of the monster. Associates them with a purely mechanical solution, takes the focus away from what they are… And I suspect this shorthand, this taking the focus away from the zombie, is what allows zombie stories to be about people.
Okay. Footnote getting way too long, back to text.
[2] Or radiation from a downed satellite, or whatever.

Missing Cassandra.

Happily rewatching the first season of The Walking Dead, which led to my discussing it when I was out with a friend yesterday afternoon.  And so the topic of zombies in general entered the discussion, and we circled around and back to it a couple of times, as you do.

Something consciously occurred to me which has never occurred to me before.  Back up a bit; I’m going to make a generalization about horror movies, and that generalization is someone knows what is going on.  Someone knows the what, and if people in general are beginning to be aware of the what, someone knows the why.  There’s a spooky caretaker or a horror movie geek who knows the slasher rules[1] or a PTA conspiracy or a brilliant and insane cannibal[2] who knows the secret.

Because there is a secret.

You don’t get this in zombie movies.  There is hardly ever any struggle to figure out what’s happening or desperate effort to explain to people, and when it does show up, it’s a brief thing–a panicked phone call to a disbelieving 911 line or something, lasts maybe forty seconds and then everyone gets back to falling apart or surviving.  Because in zombie movies, the how and the why don’t matter, so the secret has no power.  It has no weight.

This is rare in horror movies.  Combined with the lack of any kind of mystery, you get an utterly mechanical threat–something that is really rare in horror movies.  The only thing you need to know about zombies is to shoot them in the head, and that’s not even the kind of thing that you wouldn’t try if you needed to stop a crazed human attacker.

The light of my life makes a fairly convincing argument that the zombie movie is basically a natural-disaster movie.  I think he’s right, but until the discussion yesterday I hadn’t begun to actually see what it doesn’t have that most horror movies do.  Between the utterly prosaic threat and the ubiquitous spread of same, the element of the unknown is practically non-existent.  It’s seeing the situation for what it is that’s truly horrifying–


How very Lovecraftian.

[1] I love ya, Randy.
[2] Come on, Hannibal Lecter so fits.  I didn’t see it for ages, because the setting is so atypical, but he is absolutely the Spooky Stranger Making Pronouncements who Understands the Nature of the Threat and who can tell the protagonists what they need to know to defeat the monster.

Lest we forget

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned out backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!–An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

– Wilfred Owen

Well my name’s John Lee Pettimore/Same as my daddy and his daddy before

Paying proper attention to the first episode of this season of Walking Dead.  I’d forgotten how bloodily effective Daryl Dixon was.  He’s like some kind of “Copperhead Road” ninja.

It’s been a while since I saw the first season.  I can’t actually remember if there’s been an explanation provided for why some corpses turn into walkers and others don’t.  Clearly bodies staying down is common enough that people open cars with bodies inside as if it’s dangerous but not guaranteed to be deadly–

Come to think of it, I don’t recall if a passive corpse has ever gotten up and started chewing. Possibly it’s the perfectly normal human reaction of getting twitchy around anything that looks like it could get up and start chewing, even if it won’t do it.

The show has the same oddly unselfconscious mood that I remember from the first season.  Walking Dead came out in 2003; the zombies weren’t saturating the media horror tropes nearly as much as they are now.  No-one’s running around talking about how it isn’t like this in the movies, or conversely how it is like this in the movies.  I think that not needing to nod towards the movies and books that everyone’s heard of or seen gives the show a bit more room to develop people actually dealing with the situation, rather than just correlating it to something else.

This isn’t the “You mean the movie lied?” of Return of the Living Dead. This is the “I’m gonna board up that door, and I’m not going to unlock it again no matter what happens!” of Night of the Living Dead.

And having properly rewatched the first episode, am pleased to say that the characters are still being awesome, and flawed, and very reasonably human.

Balancing out.

And having written that title, I immediately want to read it as “coming to a point of balance that involves going out of my current position”. Clearly early-days job stress is still with me.

Apparently I managed to double-post yesterday, due to updating the time setting while I was the middle of writing a post. Will see about updating that when I’m not trying to write from my phone.

Finally got a chance to watch the first episode of The Walking Dead last night, although I don’t think I gave it the attention out deserved. It send to have handled the (unfair, ill-advised) budget cuts pretty well, though, and holy god was that episode grim. I don’t think that killing a kid in horror fiction inherently gets you any cred, but the first instance seemed well-handled and miserably bleak, and the second… I caught myself doing that thing where you go looking for reasons it couldn’t have happened. “But someone would have seen… Dammit, he’s wearing a camo-print t-shirt.” That kind of thing.

I realize he might not be dead – that technically neither of them might be dead – but it was still pretty affecting.

Losing ground

Yesterday morning I finished my first assignment for work; at least I thought I did.  Late this morning I actually got a chance to go over it with people who have been there a while, and it turns out that no, I didn’t.

Some of it is pure detail; I’m used to working in a small shop, so my issue notes were the kind of thing I’d write to myself.  This is fine for me, but since someone else will be taking my notes and going through them to determine what exactly to fix, it isn’t actually very useful.  I managed to rework most of those, and I think the new versions are actually pretty helpful.

Some of it is the hours- and document-tracking software, and that bit was mostly a case of straightening out what should and shouldn’t be done when and where.  Practically speaking, not too bad since I hadn’t had a chance to get formal training.

Some of it is… well.  I look at the work, and I can’t shake the feeling that I’m missing something huge.  I don’t know what it could be, and since the coworkers and supervisors who looked at it don’t seem to have found it I’m not sure it’s a warranted reaction, but it’s very hard to get rid of.

Plus?  It’s code.  So I get sucked in, and I didn’t actually make it outside today.  With the time change, it means Im getting out after dark, and it throws me for a loop.