Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Let's start with the premise, as outlined on the back of the DVD: the Angel of Death has impregnated a mortal woman, and as an apparent result, the dead have come back to life. They don't want to eat the brains of the living, though: they just want to get back to their lives. The trouble is, of course, they have no lives to get back to. In the meantime, those who are still alive have to deal with their dearly (or not-so-dearly) departed suddenly showing up on their doorsteps. The living are unable to deal with the problem simply by arming themselves and attacking the dead, George Romero style... since the dead don't die even when you shoot 'em in the head. It isn't long before the dead figure out that the best way to bring the living to their point of view is to, um, hasten the inevitable.
There is the potential for a great film to be made on this premise. Shatter Dead is not it. In fact, Shatter Dead is so far from being a great movie that it makes me bitter to think about it.
The problems start at the very beginning. The very first image we see is of two women having sex, doggy-style (evidently one of the women is either wearing a stap-on, or is a hermaphrodite; we're never told which). Just as we begin to think that we've picked up an amateur porn film by mistake, the woman on the top reaches her climax... and snow-white wings unfold from her back.
OK. I applaud the idea; it's the execution I can't stand. If we hadn't read the DVD blurb, we'd have very little idea what was going on, or what it had to do with the rest of the film. I understand that part of the point of the film is to remove the mystery from death... to take the common idea of Heaven to its extreme, and show what a terrible, dreary place the world would be if the dead really rose into Eternal Life. So I can also understand why the momentous coupling between Death and a human woman would be shown in such a (you'll excuse the expression) deadpan manner. But the film doesn't tell us what's going on, even though in this case the action has one definite meaning. When the film refuses to provide either a context or an explanation for it, it creates a riddle rather than an image, and that's a big disappointment.
A title card informs us that it is now seventeen months later. We see deserted city streets; we get a sense of desolation. Eventually, we see a tired-looking woman emerge from a store, carrying a bag -- we think: the stores are open?. As she walks down the street, we suddenly see that there are quite a few people on the street. We think: where were they a few moments ago?
There appear to be a number of homeless people squatting in doorways as the woman passes. Before we have a chance to reflect on how unhealthy some of these people look, we see the sign one of them holds: it says (among other things) that he is dead. The woman ignores the undead street people, until one who is in particularly bad shape refuses to let her pass. He tells her that he got work as a crash test dummy to support his (living) family, until his body deteriorated too far for him to ever go home.
(I am perfectly willing to overlook the very poor makeup effects, here and through the rest of the film. I'll even give writer/director Scooter MacCrae credit for introducing things very well in this scene: it even takes us a moment to realize that the woman is carrying a rifle on her back. But there is still a contradiction: why does the city seem so empty when it should be overcrowded with aimless, hopeless decaying bodies?)
The woman -- we find out later her name is Susan -- pauses to put her bag of groceries into her car. We see that she has a small collection of firearms... perhaps I should say a collection of small firearms, as these appear to be replicas which are not to scale. Anyway; the woman goes off to make a phone call, but finds the line is busy (we think: the phones are working?). Returning to her car, she catches a dead man syphoning gas from it. She runs after the fleeing ghoul, cornering it in a playground. When the dead man pleads to be left alone, the woman shoots the gas can, causing the man to erupt in flames.
But not to die. No; not to die.
Susan goes back to her car and drives out of town. On the radio, she hears a discussion about the phenomenon of the rising dead. It seems that masses of living corpses are gathering in cemeteries to dig up their loved ones and ancestors... the problem is getting way out of hand. And then, in the middle of nowhere, the woman's car runs out of gas. This comes as a surprise to her, in spite of the fact that the woman just immolated a zombie who was stealing the gas from her car. All right: I'll give the movie even this point, since Susan looks convincingly exhausted. She may be too tired and distraught to think clearly.
Still, we shouldn't discount the possibility that she's really stupid.
Suddenly, out of the shrubbery comes a crowd of living dead. They surround the car in a menacing manner... one of the dead is holding a dripping fragment of human skull. This I didn't understand: if the dead weren't eating the living, why is he carrying this thing around? (Maybe it's a relative: the dead can't be killed, and this head is complete enough to have an eye left in it... it may still be functioning!) Out steps a middle-aged man in a floppy hat and a trench coat: he is The Preacher, a leader of the undead. He claims the car in the name of "his people" (there's apparently a scheme they have to steal the gas out of cars, then rob the living people once they run out of gas. Evidently the living are significantly dumber than the dead). First he orders his dead followers to attack the woman in her car; then he changes his mind and orders them to let her go.
We see quite a bit of The Preacher through the film. He has some of the more groan-inducing lines. He's not as ridiculous as the dead guy in the superhero costume, who has the film's most memorable line ("God hates you!"), but he's still an inconsistent character. One moment he's in control of a New Order of Humanity... the next moment he's running in panic. One moment he's in total control of the situation, with his quarry at his mercy... the next, like a villain in a James Bond movie, he has other things to attend to, and the hero has a chance to break free... (and I thought this was supposed to be alternative cinema!)
Now that she's been delayed in getting back to... wherever it was she was trying to go... Susan finds herself at a sort of safe house for refugees of the new social upheaval. The proprietor of the safe house is a young woman known (perplexingly) as Grandma. Grandma is heavily pregnant. Now, the actress who plays Grandma looks an awful lot like the woman who got knocked up by Death in the opening scene... it may even be the same person, in fact... which led me to wonder how she could stay pregnant for seventeen months.
The established residents of the house look on the new girl with suspicion, but she's finally led upstairs to a room. There she finds her new roommate doing some yoga exercises. Our heroine isn't much in the mood for socializing, though, so she goes off to have a shower instead. She disrobes before the leering camera and steps into the stall (taking her gun with her). The girl doing the exercizes pauses to sniff herself a little, then steps into the bathroom... where she comes face-to-face with Susan's pistol. The other girl (whose name is Mary) is anxious to share Susan's soap, since soap has become something of a scare commodity (we think: why doesn't she just go to the store, the way Susan did?). Susan lowers the gun warily, and now it's Mary's turn to disrobe before the leering camera (you saw this coming, too... right?).
But don't get too comfortable with your low expectations: instead of giving us the expected lesbian shower scene, the film does something genuinely, gloriously shocking. Mary drops the soap, and as she turns and bends down to retrieve it, we see the unmistakeable lividity in the backs of her legs. Mary is a walking cadaver.
Susan is tempted to use the gun, but Mary points out that it wouldn't make any difference. She still wouldn't die. Mary then attempts to explain why she is perfectly comfortable being undead. Now she will stay young and beautiful forever, instead of growing old and infirm... yet still ending up a zombie. In fact, she had chosen to die young for this reason: she committed suicide after the dead began rising. To Susan's way of thinking, this makes her a traitor; a collaborator with some unseen, undefeatable enemy. But all Mary wants from Susan is her bar of soap, since the smell of her dead flesh is the only thing that spoils the illusion of youth and health.
This is easily the best and most though-provoking part of the film, but even this is not very well thought out. First of all, Mary looks too damned healthy for a woman whose blood has ceased to circulate. Next: why isn't she rotting? Why aren't any of the dead visibly decaying? Oh, some zombies look pretty rough, but that's usually explained as a result of some terrible pre- or post-mortem injury, which will never heal. No: not only have the dead stopped dying, putrefaction also seems to be arrested. So why does Mary smell so bad? And why does she think that mere soap can take away the scent of death?
But the real head-scratcher involves the method living people use to identify the dead: they hold a mirror under a person's nose to see if they're breathing. OK: if the zombies aren't breathing, how do they talk? The dead do almost all the talking in Shatter Dead, and once they get started, they never seem to shut up. It's not easy to talk without breathing; neither is it easy to sigh, or pant with exertion, as the dead all do. It's also impossible to smell without breathing... so how does Mary know she's suffering from that not-so-fresh feeling?
Susan is too exhausted to straighten any of this out in her own mind, so she sinks into a fitful slumber. Mary sits down at the harmonium (which somehow turns into a pipe organ on the soundtrack), and begins to play
<double-take>what the HELL??!</double-take>
the Bach f-minor Chorale Prelude... that's right, the same one Eduard Artemiev adapted for Tarkovsky's Solaris (One more time, for those low-budget film makers who haven't heard: it's always a bad idea to remind your viewers of other, better films...). The music continues as we cut away to a badly framed, badly lit closeup of the Preacher, who blathers on far too long about the coming New Order. He urges his undead followers to do the Lord's work: to increase their congregation by forced conversion of the living.
Susan wakes up from her nap just as the undead go on a shooting spree downstairs. Though the political zombies shoot the guy who was wanking while peering through the keyhole at Susan and Mary, they fail to find Susan... and that may be a good thing, since Susan has rediscovered her sense of purpose and put several large, bloody holes in Mary. Mary can't die, even though her brains have been blown out; but her dreams of eternal youth and beauty are permanently destroyed.
The last section of the film deals with the end of Susan's journey home. She has another, nearly fatal run-in with the Preacher and one of his less presentable minions. Even as she puts a bullet through his head, you have to wonder: doesn't she get it yet? This has apparently been going on for 17 months. What good is the gun really doing?
Anyway, Susan gets back to her apartment, only to find things have gone badly wrong there. Her boyfriend had gone quietly nuts in her absence, first hearing and then later imagining the endless phone calls from dead friends and relatives. This bit also strikes a resonant chord: imagine all the people you'd learned to live without, imagine all the grief and loss and despair you'd ever had to cope with, coming back to confront you. Imagine getting on with your life, and then suddenly being faced with everyone you'd left behind... all needing you to be the person they remembered... all desperately anxious to go back to the way things were... Even worse, imagine the futility of being one of the returning dead. In his attempt to escape from the first situation, Susan's boyfriend has ended up forever in the last. He's slashed his wrists in the bathtub, and now he shambles around the apartment, bloodless.
Except... again, he looks far too healthy to be drained of blood. Wouldn't it have been wonderful to have Susan come home, only to find her boyfriend pale blue, emaciated, and gibbering, the shock of his rebirth having pushed him over the edge into permanent undead insanity?
(In case it hasn't sunk in yet: it's taken Susan 17 months to come home from shopping. At least that's how it appears. It's as though McCrae really didn't plot his timeline very well, or explore the implications of his story in any great depth.)
Susan's boyfriend expresses his remorse for having done what he did the way he did it, and the conversation leans in directions already explored in the scenes with Mary. However, the boyfriend has a more definite plan for bringing Susan around to his way of thinking/being: while she isn't watching, he puts a lethal dose of something in her milk. Before the poison can take effect, Susan suggests they have sex. Her boyfriend points out that without blood, he can't get an erection. Susan shrugs this off. She ties her pistol around his waist...
"Mother Superior jump the gun..."
-- John Lennon, "Happiness is a Warm Gun"
Things come to a bad end, as Susan realizes what her lover has done to her. The meaning of the title finally becomes clear to us, in a spectaculatly messy if unconvincing scene (which seems to suggest the human body is made of Jell-o). The end credits add a further layer of unreality to the experience, as we see names in the cast and crew such as "Stark Raven", "Flora Fauna", "Marina del Rey" and "Bob Ferapples"1. What chance do we have of taking this movie seriously, as it seems in so many ways to want to be taken, if the writer/director, cast and crew are constantly undermining the effort?
"Stark Raven" herself has to carry most of the film, and in many respects she's a good choice for a heroine. First of all, she looks tired to the point of collapse. Next, she carries herself with the sort of grim determination you'd expect of a woman fighting off living corpses as she struggles to get home. The trouble starts when she opens her mouth. It's bad enough that she has to say things like, "Don't fuck with me, dead bitch!"; the girl just can't act.
The gore effects are generally pretty poor, though this in itself is not a serious drawback. One of the most laughable shock-misfires is the famous "shotgun abortion" scene, in which the disembowelled "Grandma" pulls her fetus out through the hole in her gut and raises it to her breast. On paper, it probably sounded like a good idea. In practice, we get to watch the actress pull out an obvious plastic Kewpie doll soaked in red-dyed Karo syrup.
The "shotgun abortion" is a classic example of what happens when you try for a shock scene the budget simply won't support. You run a very great risk when you go for something spectacular like this. If the Baby in Eraserhead, for example, had been less convincing, the whole film would have been ruined. On the other hand, you have a film like Jean Rollin's Living Dead Girl, which has no special effects at all to speak of (aside from some stage blood here and there), and nevertheless has a tremendous emotional impact. Thinking of misguided shocks, we have a different problem when we get to the gun-fuck: very few people outside of the film's intended core-audience would even make it this far through the film, and those who are still watching by this point are (I believe) unlikely to be truly disturbed by the scene. It strikes me that McCrea is utterly sincere in trying to make a good, subversive film, but it also strikes me that he misunderstands the true value of the shock. The real challenge is to come up with imagery that will disturb even the people you think will be drawn to your "underground" film in the first place.
There is a good movie to be made about the dead coming back to life in the world as we know it. Once again, this is not it. There's even the skeleton of a decent film hidden beneath the rotting flesh of this particular shambling ruin of a movie. But like the undead in its screenplay, the movie is trapped by its own futility. If you want a much more rewarding experience, with the same general theme -- i.e., that without death, we can make little meaning of life -- then go read Wallace Stevens' incredibly beautiful poem, "Sunday Morning". The poem has no zombies in it, naturally, and no bloodshed, so if that's what you're looking for, you'll be disappointed. Then again, in that case you're likely to be disappointed by Shatter Dead, also. But if you're more interested in the ideas Shatter Dead at least pretends to be concerned with, you'll probably find Stevens very rewarding. It doesn't deal directly with the political subtext of Shatter Dead -- the depiction of a culture that has not only embraced stagnation, it enforces it with firearms -- but there is a broader theme which underlies the movie's political message, and that is certainly echoed in Stevens' poem: an indictment of that denial of life which comes from the denial of death. Here's a longer sample from Steven's work that should give a better idea what I'm talking about:
1. The actress who plays the Angel of Death is credited as "Candy Coster", and I have to admit that this made me very interested in seeing the film. Candy Coster is one of the pseudonyms used by Jess Franco's lead actress Rosa Maria Almirall, also known as Lina Romay. Sub Rosa video has released a couple of Jess Franco films featuring the real Candy Coster, but this is not one of them: Barbara "Candy" Coster is somebody completely different.