Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Sunday, September 02, 2012


"The person you put there isn't the person who comes back" 
- Jud Crandall (Pet Sematary)

Aunt Cecily: "Do you believe...the dead can come back to life?
Bob Hope: "You mean like the Republicans?"
- The Cat and the Canary (1939)

Like a bad dream of Republican 'small government,' Pet Sematary (1989) depicts the return to a simpler, more 'Christian' lifestyle, marred by slight problems like the non-regulation of big business, i.e. Paul Ryan's ideas of 'limited government' is behind, no doubt, the unregulated road in front of the family house, whereon trucks go speeding past sidewalkless residential streets without speed limit signs, cops, or punishment. The heavy toll in run-over pets and children is a small price to pay when the alternative is welfare socialism! Limits mean sacrifice: once you're run over, mutilated in war, deformed from disease, or otherwise unassimilable into the Norman Rockwell ideal it's only natural that you become abject and ostracized, shoveled under the loamy carpet or kept hidden in a back room and spoon-fed oatmeal by the terrified child who will grow up to be the mom in Pet Sematary. This is the deal of small government, warts and all means, inevitably, all warts.

Boys do love trucks...
Like the bankrupting of Medicare and Social Security via ever-longer life spans, Pet Sematary shows how the idealization of a 'real' America is continually undone through denial of death. King's motifs come tumbling out of America's chock full-o-skeletons closet in this film way more so than in most all other adaptations of his novels: population control (here in the form of animal spaying issues --the run-over cat is unable to get to heaven as he's 'incomplete'); child mortality (the run-over infant comes back to gleefully kill off the cast, all because dad can't handle the pain of losing him again); assisted suicide (that old invalid aunt twisted up on spinal meningitis, praying for a death which the doctors prevent); lynchings (neighbors once torched the house of a zombie and its dad); Native Americans (burial site desecration), and so on. The graveyard bringing whatever you bury there back to life, but with a demonic streak of voracious homicidal ill will, makes a nice right wing nutjob analogy to sending your good Christian-raised kid off to college and having him come back an angry vegetarian pothead feminist.

All this deep red state subtext doesn't mean (the film) Pet Sematary is somehow not bad. It is truly bad. But its badness is perhaps why it's able to deal with these skeletons straight on. If the film were any better it would have to deep-six the abject subtexts, simply because too many guys in suits would be watching, ensuring nothing controversial came back to bite them. Instead it seems like even the director wasn't paying much attention, so all the gooey truth stays intact, a bit like one of my favorite awful films Godsend, which is also about the horrid deals grieving parents might be willing to make in order to allay their grief. When there's nothing you can possibly to do to bring your dead son back, you can relax and know that--funeral expenses aside--no one's going to drain your bank account in for monkey's paw resurrection service. Since it's impossible to raise the dead, we can surrender to grief's kiln-like heat and be suddenly made pliable. If we have any other alternative we have to take it, and thus the medical community and its ancient burial ground kin make wheel-of-life spoke-jammers of us all.

As in Godsend, Sematary's small cast, low budget, bad acting, poor spelling, flat lighting, unimaginative camera movements, and clunky dialogue swirl combine to help the movie achieve "the sort of shallowness that brings depth" (1). And while in Godsend it was the shrill over-and-underacting of Robert De Niro and Greg Kinnear that made it all so unintentionally Ed Woodsian, in Pet it's the culminating glory of seeing a zombie demon kid attacking an old man like a rabid Baby New Year at the stroke of midnight (above). Any horror is leavened as the kid is clearly just having fun making mean faces. Grrr. 

"President Obama's promise is to begin to slow the rise of the oceans (pause for laughter) and to heal the planet (more laughter). My promise is to help you and your family."  --Mitt Romney (RNC 2012 acceptance speech)
The bodies must be burned immediately. People will have to forego the dubious comforts a funeral service will give." - Newscaster, Night of the Living Dead (1968)
When I heard the above unabashedly anti-environmental attitude from presidential candidate Mitt Romney, I instantly thought of it as the inverse of the announcer in the original Night of the Living Dead, telling viewers to "forego the dubious comforts a funeral will give." Romney would be announcing the reverse: "The health office insists we forego the comforts of funerals in order to halt the spread of this epidemic, but I say your deceased family comes first!" It matters not if Mother Earth dies while we're eating her, as long as we get a big enough piece before its all gone, because we have to share that piece with our family. Unwashed hordes of illegal Mexican zombies are already gnawing upwards from Mother's toes! Arabs are pulling out her entrails! The Asian markets are scooping up her brains. If we don't drag the carcass away from them fast we'll end up not just hungry but looking weak to our enemies, which is far worse. Don't they know we're tough? Grrrr!

For all our strength we're still a very, very young country
Not to say that's what the Republican ticket and Paul Ryan's Ayn Randiness necessarily represent. One must make allowances for bloc baiting, but it's interesting because we have to go back to the Monkey's Paw's 'careful what you say' word choice of our wishes, and avoid 'getting everything we want' which would mean either (for them) a return to a Handmaid's Tale kind of fundamentalist American patriarchal religious oppression or (for us), an overly permissive socialist Welfare State. Neither side really wants either of those options and so we must preserve our state of conflict at all costs. The trick is to realize this and move into a state of conscious awareness, like the Buddha of professional wrestling - it's just a fight. We need to remember that the fight is just for show, that we need the fight, need the show, for balance. A total victory would mean the end of the match, and riots in the crowded streets, so drag on, lads, drag on...

Both sides have forgotten that the real enemy is the media, whose obsession with repetition and bottom lines and computer game tie-ins has led to the idea that zombie movies are just heads blowing up and armies shambling through stairwells ala RESIDENT EVIL. Romero's films, and King's, on the other hand, understand that without the issue of family and the 'right to undie' or the 'right to unlife' there's no 'meat' to the story, which is why RES EVIL is--for all its mega budget and gloss and nonstop action--so uninvolving, and PET SEM is--for all its low budget badness--so trenchant. We have the mom letting her daughter gut her with a trowel in Romero's first film; the girl in the ghetto protecting her zombie husband from 'the man' and getting bit for her trouble in DAWN; and in Romero's most recent installment SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, an old patriarch fighting for the idea that life is sacred even in death, that every dead baby has the right to crawl out of the earth and hunt its parents. These aspects are what matter, what lingers after the endless shots of exploding heads have faded from our minds, and which is why 99% of non-Romero zombie films suck so bad. 

Shot in 2009, SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD is less a sequel than a 'concurrent' story to the first two films: it takes place several weeks into the original zombie epidemic, and society is still in the midst of its collapse. Two crotchety Irish-American landowners occupy a small farm-based island off the New England coast, wrestling over the abortion-encoded issue of whether to shoot the undead or to just chain and train them to deliver mail or rake leaves. The poster girl for it all (above) is Kathleen Munroe, a hot Irish brogue-sporting lass in sexy black riding coat with sexy black riding gloves, long flowing hair and blazing blue eyes staggering around a lush green corral with a beautiful black steed she's supposed to eat instead of peoples --and both sides of the argument watching her, hoping she'll take a bite out of this gorgeous black creature. It's a great, twisted National Velvet of the Living Dead moment. The zombie movie has evolved here into something a bit more aesthetically pleasing than we expected, at least in this one image, until the bites start.

Another key in SURVIVAL and PET SEMATARY is the use of intertextual imagery - namely portraits and paintings which 'come to 'life' like the once-buried loved ones now unburied. Portraits are, as we learn from John Berger's "Way of Seeing," the proprietary gaze writ large, the establishment of a permanent record of one's existence and property, meant to last beyond death and age, the way stars in films of the 1930s still look vibrant and young even after their corporeal forms have long since turned to ash or moldering bones. There's a fine line between wanting to return to past glory and mere fear of death, and zombie movies are that fine line's ultimate erasure, the frozen preservation of impermanent flux. Cinematic mortality's dawning self-awareness is the ultimate compromise between the 'undead' photograph of a loved one coming to get you (Barbara) across the graveyard of memory and the real of our cursed plane with its spatial existence ever-threatened both from interior growth-decay and exterior dangers. To live you need to kill and eat smaller creatures and avoid being killed and eaten by bigger ones. But, in the movies, all death goes up onscreen, and so we, floating in the cheap seats, can live, even if for just this 90 minutes, in perfect freedom from bodily concern, bathroom breaks aside.

A key scene marking Romero's film as a critique of the conservative mindset involves the 'mixed race lesbian' from the National Guard who winds up abducted and forced to have dinner (prepared by a zombie wife [below left] literally chained barefoot to the kitchen stove) with the pro-(undead) life patriarch, who poses next to his John Wayne-ish portrait and end table filled with old photos of dead relatives (the old school tradition of 'post-mortem photography') and tries to woo her and her niche demographic over to his side, so maybe she'll extend an ankle for a shackle all her own one day. The dead people in the photos are great metaphors for the conservative slavishness to past cultural mores, the PET SEMATARY-ish longing to return to the land of rose-tinted exhumation. The patriarch here has almost no room in his heart for any living person at all. In death they are infinitely more receptive to the message of reverse-progress. Necrophilia is, in the end, all about control. An alive girl is nice and all that but...

"Sometimes death is better."

And yet, if once it all goes black you can go back, what returns? Babies, zombies, remakes, sequels --is that all there is? "Corporations are people, my friend," and corporations ruthlessly pursue self-interest, therefore successful films must be remade, and man must kill again and again just to eat the same meal he enjoyed last week. That's understandable. What's not is the assumption that grabbing it all for yourself is somehow a good thing for America. Demanding to be adored by the masses for your greedy self interest only seems ironic if you're not a rich insecure scion who's mad because he still lacks the nerve to tell the ghost of his dead father how much he hated him. That may be the ultimate irony of bipartisanship, that both sides are really angry at someone else, who's gone, and only their damned vampire photograph remains, and it can't bite back.

1. a compliment Godard once paid to 40s poverty row films from Monogram and PRC, which this film resembles -- See my piece on Monogram's Voodoo Man (1944)


  1. I just wanted to take a minute to tell you that you have a great site! Keep up the good work.

  2. I believe I posted a comment on here, too, but I don't see it. Great post.

  3. Thanks Doug, I wish you had. That lonesome spam for burial insurance was all I got. I kept it, since it seemed a grisly sort of irony. Then I re-edited it, thinking I may have angered God with my jaded death drive ambivalence. This morning tornadoes in Brooklyn... The Flesh Eaters on IFC... Deadly Women on Investigative Discovery, it all adds up.

  4. On the anniversary of Evel Knievel's ill-fated Snake River Canyon jump, no less.


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