"If you think you're free, there's no escape possible" - Ram Dass

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

10 Reasons DOOMSDAY (2008)


Every blood moon or so comes a movie I seem to be in the minority of calling great. I'm happy to time and again sacrifice my free hour or two on the altar of their DVDs. And for them, the ten reasons: 10 Reasons GHOSTS OF MARS ; 10 Reasons TERMINATOR 3 and 10 Reasons THE THING (2011)

The 10 Reasons -- an idea whose time has come... And so... DOOMSDAY. En garde! 


After the critical and commercial success of his 2005 sleeper hit THE DESCENT, Neil Marshall was Brit-horror's golden boy. Given a big budget for his next project, Marshall chose to go all out and make a big John Carpenter-George Miller-Walter Hill post-quarantine plague semi-apocalypse action thriller. Critics found it muddled and derivative. I never would have found it all had not I checked IMDB to see what he'd been up to a few years ago.

I'll confess it looked terrible from the outside, like just another RESIDENT EVIL-style video game adaptation. But turns out this is a film aimed directly at ME, or my demographic, the type who grew up shaped by the same great 70s-80s films that shaped this, Marshall's gonzo masterpiece. First, let's examine three films which are perhaps DOOMSDAY's main influences:

1. John Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981): JC had scored two big back-to-back hits in HALLOWEEN and THE FOG. He was now a brand name, associated with launching the slasher boom, a sub-genre he had no interest in. So he took his rep and profits and went all out with this gonzo adventure story. His own hero, the maverick iconoclast Howard Hawks, regularly did the same thing, switching genres with impunity and mixing comedy with tension and vice versa. And Carpenter found a cheap source of post-apocalyptic urban wasteland in downtown St. Louis, which had been devastated by a terrible fire and was yet to be rebuilt. He basically had the run of the place and the result are huge marvelous sets, deserted streets, a gigantic train station, etc.
2. George Miller's THE ROAD WARRIOR (1982) 
MAD MAX hadn't made a big dent here in the US, but was a four alarm fireball in the rest of the world (AIP -the American distributor- insisted on dubbing the voices to get rid of the Aussie accents), so Miller had real money for the sequel and it's all onscreen. And he found a cheap source of post-apocalyptic urban wasteland in the Australian outback. We kids didn't quite understand where the Outback was in relation to the rest of Australia... but we sure do now. The idea of needing speed to survive in the wasteland is now totally clear - that vast flat desert emptiness makes the whole continent like one big drag strip. 
3. Walter Hill's THE WARRIORS (1979): Hill found a cheap source of graffiti-covered urban wasteland in 70s NYC, which was then at its most gang-accursed days since the days of the Dead Rabbits. Crime was so rampant the city cried for a vigilante, and got Bernard Goetz, the Guardian Angels, and (onscreen), Charlie Bronson. In THE WARRIORS, taking the subway line from the far heights of Pelham Bay Park all the way back to Coney Island was (and still is) an Odysseus-style journey. We all wanted to be Ajax (James Remar) and laughed at the seriousness and narcissism of Swan (Michael Beck). It's still the quintessential New York movie, and those heady days are returning thanks to our mayor Bill "Cyrus" de Blasio.
I've already written of how my own life was changed the Halloween night in the early 80s when my mom rented us both WARRIORS and ESCAPE and had them waiting when we got back from trick-or-treating. We saw them back-to-back high on our scored candy, the sense of edgy urban danger bringing us higher and higher... and were never the same again. I would never have believed I would ever be crazy enough to want to live in NYC after those two movies, let alone for 20 years. And I've seen all three of the above enough times that this whole blog and my whole life flows with quotes from them - Look at yourself, Max, you're a mess. See what you get, Warriors? See what you get when you mess with the Orphans? You're the Duke! You're A number one. The Ayatollah of Rock and Rolla... you always were smart, Harold. And, to that outfit that had such a hard time getting home, sorry about that, guess all we can do is play you a song.

What a puny plan.

Maggie... he's dead. Come on...
Losers! Losers wait!
I'm gonna shove that bat so far up your ass you'll look like a popsicle...
Keys, map of the bridge, hey! hey! Hey!
We're the Lizzies...
Just walk away... just walk away...

I think DOOMSDAY was in the end undone by one of the most derivative titles and posters that ever haunted a great trashterpiece: the biohazard tattoo and crossed sword-anarchy hybrid symbol, the face tattoos and the graphic novel-esque three color style, along with the tag "Mankind has an expiration date" tag. So banal by then.  I remember seeing this poster outside of a theater and thinking "oh brother, again with the Neo-Pagan post-apocalypse warrior chicks engaged in endless slow mo CGI blood-splattering combat" and the whole RESIDENT EVIL, UNDERWORLD, SUCKER PUNCH, KILL 'EM ALL vibe, all the 360 whip-around slow-mo camera CGI shots of CGI carnage and ammunition expenditure and zero count characterization or giving a damn. Even the Imdb.com main film description is lame. Who needs another "futuristic action thriller where a team of people work to prevent a disaster threatening the future of the human race."?

In short, it looked like yet another adaptation of a manga based on a FINAL FANTASY-style rotoscoped CGI animation TV show based on an arcade game, rather than a moody analog return to the 80s Carpenter-Hill-Miller heyday, a loving homage to a more visceral time. Instead of promoting it as kind of retro Tarantino-esque throwback/homage they banked on the idea we'd be intrigued by graphic novel illustrations of body mods and homemade weapons. Imagining yet another incoherent parade of overused CGI and SIN CITY high def black and white graphic novel cannibal combat, my demographic bravely stayed away. They all but redubbed it into 'American.'


I only hesitatingly Netflixed DOOMSAY in the end because of seeing THE DESCENT yet again a few years ago and checking up on Marshall's imdb page to see if he'd done anything new. Like that Halloween night long ago in the 80s, I knew I'd never be the same. So here they are, 10 reasons with SPOILERS... so beware.


1. Rhona Mitra as the one-eyed Major Eden Sinclair: She lost her eye as a child at the border between England and Scotland (the latter the site of an unstoppable plague) and was the last civilian to make it out, thanks to a compassionate soldier who traded his seat on the last chopper out. Sure it's familiar - but I like the idea that she basically stays with the Special Air Service (SAS) like an adopted mascot (though this isn't clarified), since she takes the place of one of their own, and now has no mom or family. Growing up to the rank of major while her home country disappears behind a robotic machine-guarded quarantine wall, she narrates as the world turns its back on Britain for being so cold to Scotland, basically turning it into a no-fly zone quarantine prison, killing anyone who tries to escape. The eye she loses near the wall melee is replaced by a detachable camera orb that can record images to tiny discs in her watch. Very cool idea. And I like that there's no 'Eden grows up' montage, just her voiceover detailing the ensuing 'gone dark' status of Scotland.


And Mitra plays the Major dead straight - neither macho nor comical nor boring nor sexualized, instead possessed of smartly British esprit de corps. Bob Hoskins is great as her de-facto father figure, who perhaps was even there during her rescue but at any rate has clearly come to regard her as a kind of daughter but not in a corny way. She's Snake Plissken as a military officer. That she winds up in charge of a mostly male insertion force is never a cause for snickering or her needing to prove herself, and there's no romance, nor sex, consensual or otherwise, in the film. No boyfriend, no spark-baiting. It's glorious.


2. Malcolm McDowell and his younger punk son Sol as the bad guys  (in two separate chapters - they're never seen together) and the levelheaded daughter ('the cure'). Dad is living in a castle and reverted to Medieval basics (including torture devices and gladiator combat), while Saul (Craig Conway - one of the monsters in THE DESCENT!) is more a mix of Cyrus from THE WARRIORS and Wes (Vernon Wells) from THE ROAD WARRIOR. It might be hard to imagine why they'd practice cannibalism when fields of cows are just a few miles away, but there you go... it's ceremonial. I like that Sol doesn't try to get rape or torture porn-ish when he has Sinclair trussed up. For these folk, it's all about the spectacle. And Conway is a little much at first, but by the end we're glad he's around. The dude gives every hiss and sneer 110% and his lean muscular body looks like he's actually doing lots of hard work and exercise -they're not gym muscles like a juicehead drinking whey, they're frickin' punching guys in the mosh pit muscles, i.e. not 'sculpted' all uneven based on what he's doing in the real fucking world. Go get 'em, Sol.


As for the father, whose crowned himself king of a new era of medieval barbarism, Malcolm gets a few good scenes but barely has time to register aside from a few CALIGULA at the coliseum-cum-field of honor-style gladiator arena moments. His steel blue eyes glowing in the shadows of the actual castle location look great though.


3. The crazy cannibal feast scene and Lee-Anne Liebenberg - which meshes punk club antics with cannibalistic orgies, ska shuffles, Satanic strippers, fire eaters, bikes, the captured soldier dinner trussed up on the front of a vehicle like the captured townsfolk strapped to the gang vehicles in THE ROAD WARRIOR. It's funny (the showmanship involved made me think of similar scenes in IDIOCRACY), electric, and gives everyone a time to shine, especially Lee-Anne Liebenberg, who makes such a good impression as Sol's 'first lady' she wound up on the poster (and the top image). Her part is small but that crazy look in her eyes, pierced tongue fluttering like she's devouring the captured soldier's terror as he watches her light up the grill below him, is a great glimpse of someone dancing in the flames of raw Pagan madness rather than the usual 'actress trying to look scary.'


4. David O'Hara (THE DEPARTED) as Canaris - his "thinning the herd" mentality and gravel-voiced iron hardness makes a great gravitas-enriched parallel to Malcolm - three separate bad guys! And his is a much better comeuppance than Snake's pulling the tape out at the end of ESCAPE to screw over the president (Donald Pleasance).


5. The ROAD WARRIOR-style car chase climax -minus one demerit for cheesy addition of a 90s Siouxie and the Banshees (?) song that I think you need to be British to deem appropriate. Imagine if George Miller put some Men Without Hats song over the climax of THE ROAD WARRIOR, Neil! Yeah, now you know how we feel. Otherwise, sublime. And the cars and trucks are so badass you can't even begin to appreciate the detail the first viewing -- as in the human skeleton hand holding the rearview side mirror above.


6. Scotland - it's like an EMPEROR JONES of Scottish history - the troupe traveling (in DAMNATION ALLEY-style assault trucks) through the fields and highways first to TRAINSPOTTING punk rock Pagan Glasgow back to BRAVEHEART-era castles and knights on horses, before returning to the modern highway, and eventually to Eden's intact and untouched aside from dust childhood home.


7. The Time Window - They only have 48 hours to complete their mission, 'otherwise there'll be no 'back' to come home to, as the plague has broken out in London. It means they can't slow down for a second, which explains the crazy heedlong wild weekend racing to catch a train vibe. It's not clear why Canaris would come on so menacing--arriving in a giant combat helicopter--when she finally delivers the cure, and she's so stand-offish, and then two seconds later he's saying "come with us" as if there's no reason she would. Well, why wouldn't she be returning with them? They sent her! Did she miss the window? Is it because the PM--the presumed good guy-- her boss (Hoskins) trusts and works for is dead? Hoskins still works there after all. Are there script revisions that don't quite cohere? Well, all the above referenced movies have similar problems, and who cares? It rocks.

8.  Ingenious 'collapse of the real' art direction and set decoration- rewards close notice (i.e the 'souvenir shop' signs in the castle - ironically now a sign of ancient history rather than vice versa), all the great body mods and other details. It didn't have to be so rich. But it is. Just take a look at Liebenberg in the top image, look closely and notice the white ink biohazard tattoo on her shoulder. Savor the rich tribal detail.


9. Another moody score by David Julyan - I wish it had pulsed with analog synths more, but I love its subliminal checks and nods towards scores by Carpenter (ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13), Tangerine Dream (SORCERER), Vangelis (BLADE RUNNER), Bart De Vorzon (THE WARRIORS), just to let you know the references are lovingly intentional. Rather than doing the helicopter score bit, Julyan deftly acknowledges his references rather than dictating audience emotions. The result is a score that's largely invisible in that it never draws too much attention to itself (except in the above-mentioned Siouxie incident)


10. The great ending The way first Sinclair 'breaks' as she finally gets back to her childhood home in Glasgow, to find a picture of her mother --it's not corny since she's been so stoic all the while.

And then the superb "have a piece of your friend!" last line with the head and the punks. Why didn't every great post-apocalyptic movie end that way? Do I stand up and cheer every time and wish for a sequel that will most likely never come?

I do. 

6 comments:

  1. Oh man, I have this one in my collection and hadn't seen it in years, I guess the bad taste I got from the first watch left a lasting impression. So anyways, I popped it in again to see if I indeed hated as much, and yest I do....it's just so difficult to watch. The dialog is just atrocious...it doesn't come off as real....and that dancing sequence, with all the crazies gathered around the fire feels so forced...I had to shut it off again, until I feel merciful again and totally bored...Doomsday remains stashed in my "will watch someday" pile.

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  2. Sir, I am SHOCKED. Did you even see the right DOOMSDAY? There's like 20. I don't remember dancing around a fire.

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  3. Bring on the sequel, ESCAPE FROM GREAT BRITAIN... !!

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  4. This movie was just, frickin great.

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  5. Yeah baby!...yeah Luv it, it's just enough pure foolishness 2 actually be Good! No OSCARS R gonna be handed out EVER 4 THIS ONE...I was glued 2 my seat & I'm not by any means EASY!!!!

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    1. Totally - saw it again on... Cinemax? yesterday; reminding me so much of that golden 81-82 era, watching Warriors, Escape and The Road Warrior, Conan, and Blade Runner almost nonstop every day after school, over and over. It's to that golden badass stream what say Stranger Things is to Stephen King, both homage and restructuring, savage satire and bizarro deja vu

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