Occasionally, I just go way overboard. It usually happens when a movie far surpasses my expectations... in either direction. In this case, the movie was so pleasantly surprising that it made me a little crazy. It put me in the mood to rhapsodize; once again feel free to skip the blather and get to the movie itself.
One of the most wonderful things about any work of imagination is its capacity to mean something totally different to different people and different generations.
Note that I don't say "work of art". If I start talking about "art", then I leave myself open to all sorts of arguments about quality and artistic intent, and that would only distract me from my point. I once worked in a museum which had a substantial collection of regional folk art, and one of its prize displays was an eight-foot tall tin chicken. The chicken had originally been placed on top of a roof, on a roadside egg stand; once it had even lit up! What was conceived as an amusingly tacky rural advertisement was now an art object, and a strangely moving one at that.
In the realm of High Art, it's been said that every generation has its own Hamlet. While it's certainly true that conceptions of Shakespeare's prince have changed radically over the years, it should also be pointed out that many scholars insist that Hamlet is not one of Shakespeare's better plays. One of my teachers, Camille Paglia, insisted that Hamlet and Lear pale by comparison to Antony and Cleopatra. This may be true on a basis of pure artistic success, but the fact remains that Antony and Cleopatra has never captured the imagination of such a wide range of people, the way that Hamlet, Shakespeare's "lesser" play, has. There's something at work in the play which transcends even Shakespeare's poetry, and when we've reached the end of the mystery, the play will be forgotten.
Film, our newest art form, is a medium of images above all, and pure images are independent of meaning. Of course, there are attempts to nail these images down. For example, film critics love to insist they know exactly what's going on in cinema. For a while, they used Freudian interpretations, and then, as scientists began to question the value of some of Freud's methods, the critics turned en masse to Lacan and Derrida and the French deconstructionists and semioticians. It got to the point where Maitland McDonough, in her book on Dario Argento, attempted to explain away one of Dario Argento's knife-wielding murderesses in purely linguistic terms.
For another example, some people try to see a simplistic connection between images and actions in the "real world": violent cinema leads to violent society; sex on TV leads to promiscuous sex in suburbia. Get rid of the images, some say, and the problem will be greatly decreased. But there has always been violent entertainment, and it could be argued that a civilization is as clearly measured by its pornography as by its greatest artworks or military victories. In order for ideas to take root in a culture, social conditions have to be right for them to flourish.
Ideas and images arise in the minds of the creators, whether for the noblest or basest of reasons; but once those images are given expression, they take on lives of their own. There is no way to control the way in which a person internalizes an image, try as you might. Sure, a serial killer might be fascinated by Texas Chainsaw Massacre; though anything he's liable to glean from the movies is likely to be mere ornament on a much deeper problem. Yet it's easy to pick on movies like Saw, because the expression is so extreme. Consider the way love is represented in movies, in music and on television: why does no one suggest we should be more careful about the way supposedly positive emotions are conveyed? I believe a horrendously ill-considered movie like You've Got Mail poses a much more insidious danger to impressionable minds than any graphic horror film. And the fact that You've Got Mail gained mainstream acceptance just reinforces me in my belief: movies aren't very good at telling us how to live -- they're better at telling us how we choose to live now, if we're wise enough to watch them carefully. If imaginative expression comes too close to some terrible aspect of our lives, then I suggest it is our lives that deserve careful scrutiny.
The value of a work of imagination is impossible to measure, because it is continually changing. It has very little to do with technical quality, although good craftsmanship does increase a work's chances for survival. A failed work can take on new life, acquiring meanings its creator never intended: witness the posthumous reputation of Edward D. Wood. On the other hand, look at the amazing work of 20th century painter João Miró: hailed (justifiably) as a great artist and innovator during his lifetime, his work is best known today as the prints that "go so well with the sofa" in living rooms all over the world. Miró opened up new avenues of expression; unfortunately, those avenues now have housing developments on every side.
But I suggest it's good that everything changes this way. It's a means of constant renewal, a way for us to keep track of where we've been at the same time as we try to figure out where the hell we're headed. Even when the changes represent an impossible desire to recreate or retreat into the past -- take the Original Instruments vogue in music performance -- the results can still be fresh and new, and give birth to whole new possibilities for the future.
These thoughts kept occuring to me as I watched Dead People for the first time. As I watched, I kept finding myself on the verge of cheering at some astonishing image, or odd turn of phrase, or particularly pointed metaphor. I couldn't remember when I'd last enjoyed a movie so much. I loved Dead People's consistent ability to surprise me -- not so much with its Night of the Living Dead - cum - Carnival of Souls plot, but with its real command of imagery. The writing and direction were absolutely unified, and the result was far more than a low-budget horror film: it was Real Cinema.
And I realized that when Dead People originally came out, in the aftermath of the Viet Nam conflict, it must have been intended as a political allegory. But what kind of message did it convey? I could see several different possibilities, each of which cancelled the others out. But above all, I realized that it meant something entirely different for me, something unintended by its creators, and something which could probably never have been foreseen by anybody. I see it as a prophetic statement on the fate of the horror film post-NOTLD. I see it as the ultimate post-modern horror film, in an age when "post-modern" has come to mean simply "stupidly ironic". I see it in this light because the movie could never have been planned this way: it has had the gift of prophecy thrust upon it. Overwhelmed with enthusiasm, I found myself shouting:
Ahem. Excuse me... Where was I?
OK. Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz directed Dead People in 1974. It was the first time in the director's chair for each of them, though they had already achieved some success as writers. They had previously written American Graffiti, and would go on to write movies including More American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Huyck went on to direct a few other movies, but his directorial career came to an abrupt end in 1986, when he co-wrote and directed Howard the Duck.
Dead People's story is deceptively simple. A woman name Arietty comes to a small California town looking for her father (Royal Dano), a prominent artist. Pulling into a service station just outside town, Arietty is astonished to see the attendant firing a pistol in blind panic, trying to fend off something unseen and barely heard in the distant dark. The attendant tries to pretend nothing is wrong as he attempts to convince Arietty not to go into the town.
A pickup truck pulls into the station from town. It's driven by an expressionless albino, who demands two dollars of gas. As the attendant fuels the truck, he happens to glance into the bed of the truck. What he sees there horrifies him. Refusing Arietty's payment, he insists that she get away -- NOW (Before the night is over, something awful happens to the attendant).
Arietty's father's beach house, which is itself one of his artworks, is empty when she arrives, except for the painted figures on all the walls, staring blankly out at Arietty from grey trompe l'oeil cityscapes.
In the morning, she goes to search for her father. First, she runs into a blind gallery owner. Next, she finds a mysterious stranger in white, a Bob Guccione wannabe who babbles about art and fine wine while fondling the gold chains around his neck (apparently his name is Thom -- that's right, with an 'h' -- but I refuse to call anybody that). With the man in white are two companions: one, Laura (Anitra Ford), is a pretty Eurasian girl, and the other, Toni (Joy Bang! Wow!) is, er, jail bait. When Arietty meets the group, they are taping a conversation with a street person called Charlie (Elisha Cook, Jr! Yay!), concerning a local legend: when the moon turns red, an evil presence will rise again from the ocean, and set about corrupting the world.
Arietty runs into Charlie afterwards, and he warns her that she must kill her father when she finds him -- if she wants him to be at rest. But, he adds, she must not bury him: instead she must burn his body. Afraid he has revealed too much, Charlie rushes away, leaving Arietty disquieted.
The man in white and his two companions invite themselves into Arietty's father's house. When the man makes it obvious he intends Arietty to be another of his "companions", Laura grows despondent and leaves the house. On her way out of town, she attempts to hitch a ride. Up drives the albino in the pickup truck. This time, the truck bed is full of people sitting straight up, staring with unblinking eyes at the night sky. They don't even notice Laura. In the cab, the albino is listening to the overture to Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger. He offers her a lift.
Laura accepts the ride, as the music changes to the Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin. The ghastly albino asks her if she likes Wagner, which he pronounces American-style. He further asks if she was at the beach ceremony with everyone else. Even the little creatures were out tonight, he notes. When she doesn't understand, he explains by producing a tiny rodent from his pocket. And what does he do with the mice? Laura asks. The albino shows her, and Laura elects to get out of the truck immediately.
There follows the justly famous supermarket scene. Laura wanders through town, trying to find anyone on the nearly-deserted streets who will even acknowledge her existence. Following a silent woman into a market, she is horrified to find a crowd of pale, silent townspeople devouring raw meat out of the packages. When they see her, they decide it's time for some fresher food.
Another famous highlight of the movie involves Toni's ill-fated attempt to relieve her loneliness and boredom by going to the movies. The marquee advertises the film in huge letters: KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE. As Toni enters the theatre, the marquee lights go off.
It turns out the movie being shown is actually Gone With the West, a Western starring Sammy Davis, Jr. which wasn't released until the year after Dead People. As Toni settles in for the dreadful movie, pale townspeople file in one or two at a time. Though the theater is nearly empty, they tend to sit in the rows just around Toni. They're very polite, though; they don't interrupt the movie until Toni becomes aware of their presence, when the film is just about over. Toni is torn to pieces as she stands in the glare of the projector.
The tall guy, realizing his companions have stumbled into the dreadful story he came to document, wanders through the deserted town. On his way, he runs into a frightened woman who begs him for help. To his horror, she begins bleeding from her eyes -- it's too late; she's one of them. The tall guy hides, and watches as two frightened policemen open fire on a menacing crowd of zombies. Suddenly, one of the policemen turns on his partner, and joins the townspeople in devouring him.
Meanwhile, Arietty is gradually losing all feeling in her body. She burns her fingers badly at one point, but doesn't notice . Tears of blood drip from her eyes. The painted faces on the walls look on blankly as she reads and re-reads her father's journals. He, too, fell victim to the creeping numbness, and the cravings he dared not name.
Arietty's father is apparently found dead on the beach by the police. I don't want to go into too much detail here, because the situation is rather deftly handled. I have to point out, though, that Arietty does come face to face with her father again. He seems almost to emerge from his painted landscapes. He tells her a story of a tall man -- in black, not in white -- who arrived in town about a hundred years before. He was a survivor of the infamous Donner party. But it was not a human being that came back from that snowbound pass in Colorado. It was a bearer of a terrible curse, who spread disaster and death before disappearing into the ocean, vowing to return when the time was right. Now he had returned, bringing the curse back with him to eventually spread acrosss the entire world.
Arietty resists her father, who flies into an animal rage. Destroying his paintings left and right, he smears his face with blue paint, then throws a vivid splash of red paint across a long, bone-white wall. He also manages to soak himself with turpentine, allowing Arietty to set fire to him.
Old Charlie's warning has served its purpose -- though he has died a nasty death offsceen earlier in the movie.
The tall guy in white returns to find the house filled with acrid smoke. Arietty, panic stricken, attcks him and wounds his shoulder. Together, brokenly, they try to make their way out of the house; but the shadows and paintings of the oddly decorated house seem to come alive, as the zombie town folk break in. I've already said too much -- see the rest for yourself.
Watching this mid-70's film, I was convinced that it had been made in response to the recently-concluded war in Viet Nam. But I couldn't be sure what it was trying to say. On the one hand, the movie could be seen as an allegory of the creeping complacency which allowed the nation to get embroiled in a pointless war, at the cost of thousands of young lives and much of the nation's stability. When Arietty's father goes on a rampage in red, white and blue, the message could hardly be clearer. The evil man in black had certainly picked the "right time" to return and sow havoc.
On the other hand, the film could also be interpreted more hawkishly, with the zombies representing the spread of communism. The tall man in white, the stereotypical swingin' 70's pseudo-sophisticate, appears to be played by the same actor who plays the man in black, who is seen in flashback (you never get a good look at the Evil One, which creates a delightful ambiguity). He could be a symbol of the "corruption of the Nation's Youth": he's a hedonist, a liberal, an intellectual, a subversive... insert your own epithet. The man in black came back from participating in an atrocity, and he brought with him a dreadful craving.... possibly a reflection of the anxiety felt by many people as the soldiers came back from Viet Nam, poisoned by drugs and the memory of terrible acts committed by both sides.
Back in the 70's it might have made a big difference to someone, somewhere, which of these different possibilities the film makers had in mind. Today, the fact that it can be seen from almost any point of view, or that in can be seen as a successful horror movie without any political subtext, means that Dead People has aged better than many other "important" movies of the time. And it's still a deeply disconcerting movie. In many ways, it's an even more disturbing film than Night of the Living Dead; certainly it's more cinematic, using color cannily enough to create a better atmosphere than NOTLD's stark black and white. Dead People's zombies remain recognizeably human, even after the corruption has set in, and this makes them even scarier than NOTLD's flesh-eating ghouls.
NOTLD has a better ending, though. There are plenty of weak spots in Dead People, especially the ending -- if only because it's telegraphed from the beginning. The whole movie is a flashback from a foregone conclusion. To make matters worse, there's a another prologue before the prologue, a useless suspense-builder in which a terrified man tries to get help from a sweet little girl... who ends up cutting his throat. The film would be a lot stronger without the two introductions, and without the incongruous love song that plays over the credits.
But there's an eerie prescience about the movie. In spite of the fact that Dead People has remained little-known and rarely seen, it seems to have anticipated later genre films to an amazing degree. The image of the spider in the girl's mouth was repeated in the advertising for John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness; and if you want a real shock, watch Dead People and In The Mouth of Madness as a double feature. The bleeding eyes suggest Lucio Fulci's City of the Living Dead. The supermarket scene clearly foreshadows Dawn of the Dead.
And most astonishing of all is the message that crept up on me as the film played on. I saw in it a prophecy of the shape of Bad Horror to come. I saw in its gradually desensitized zombies, who bled from the eyes, a metaphor for horror audiences of the post-NOTLD era. When Royal Dano paints his face blue and splahes the walls with red paint, it made me think: here's a mocking symbol of the zombie film of the eighties. The spectacle of Elisha Cook, dirty and bedraggled, sitting next to a television in a motel room, telling a creepy story into a tape recorder, gave me the feeling that this film foresaw its own fate in brutal detail. It's this odd prescience that makes me consider Dead People the ultimate metamovie: a film that goes so far beyond its makers' intent it might as well have been made without human intervention. What makes it all the more interesting is that unlike the majority of metamovies, it was reasonably well-made
I'd really like to know why Anchor Bay video hasn't picked up this movie yet. It's done an admirable job with the Italian horror series, and released excellent editions of a number of American movies that have never been accorded much respect -- Maniac, Hell Night, Thou Shalt Not Kill.. Except, to name only a few. It's also been quick to pick up interesting, offbeat and underrated films from all over time and space -- so where is Dead People? If ever a film cried out for re-mastering and re-release, it's this one. So if anybody out there is listening, PLEASE: join me in writing, begging, pleading, lobbying your Congressman to get this movie in widescreen DVD.
Information on the IMDB for Dead People