Month: May 2011

Making Peace with my Zombies: A Personal Narrative

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My husband and I have really been enjoying HBO’s new fantasy series, Game of Thrones. In fact, it’s the perfect show in that it bridges two of our most divergent TV tastes; he loves costume dramas and anything set in a castle (which I normally hate) while I love a show with an impending sense of doom (“Winter is coming!”). But one thing threatens to destroy our shared television bliss: zombies. Of course, none of the many enticingly-edited previews leading up to the April 17th Game of Thrones premiere led me to believe that the series would include zombies. No, that little surprise happened in episode three, “Lord Snow,” when young Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), bedridden after being pushed out of a tower for seeing something very, very naughty (it rhymes with bincest), asks his nurse to tell him a scary story. Old Nan complies and tells Bran, a “summer child,” all about an endless  winter that happened thousands of years ago. During this winter the sun disappeared all together and mothers smothered their babies rather than see them starve. And, during this winter, the “white walkers” came. These white walkers ate babies! Babies , for crying out loud! Upon hearing this story I was all “Hell to the no!” because I had really fallen in love with Game of Thrones and I did not want to give it up just because it had a few zombies in it. You see, I have an intense zombie phobia. And like all phobias, this one is threatening to take away something I love. So I’ve decided to use this blog post to revisit my zombie phobia and to try to understand it’s hold over me. I hope you don’t mind the indulgence.

Me and my brother, at the lake.

This story begins with my older brother, Adam, and his obsession with horror films. The early 1980s was a golden age for the horror film. There were numerous teen slasher film franchises, including Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, Wes Craven), Halloween (1978, John Carpenter), and Friday the 13th (1980, Sean S. Cunningham). But my brother was into a very specific kind of horror film: the splatter film. In conventional horror films, like Dracula (1931, Tod Browning) or Frankenstein (1931, James Whale), the monster is foreign and threatens the characters’ way of life. Yes, there is the threat of bodily harm, but these films (due to the restrictions of the Production Code), rarely dwelled on the destruction of the human body. Victims screamed and then drifted out of the frame. Nice and clean.

"Boo!"

But the horror of the splatter film comes from its focus on the systemic destruction of the human body. This horror cycle is preoccupied with the faithful recreation of blood, organs, skin, and bone so that it may later rip these replicas of the human form to shreds.

I kind of hate you, Tom Savini

The splatter film takes what is usually on the inside of the body —  safely contained within our skin —  and reveals it to the outside. What is especially important about the splatter film is not the high body counts (leave those to Rambo), but the obsessive focus on death itself. Victims are rarely shot with bullets or forced to ingest poison. Instead, the destruction of the human body must take place at close range with weapons — clubs, machetes,  knives, fingernails, teeth (shudder) — that require the killer and the victim to have intimate contact with one another. The messier, more prolonged, and more painful the death is, the better.

He's going to feel that in the morning!

Yes, these were the kinds of horror films that my brother always seemed to be watching in the mid-1980s. And, naturally, as a younger sister, I wanted to be doing everything my older brother was doing. If he was going to watch Day of the Dead  (1985, George Romero), then damn it, I was going to watch it too. I asked my brother about the fateful day that changed everything for me — the day we watched Night of the Living Dead (1968, George Romero) on VHS in our family den. He thinks it was somewhere around 1986, which means I would have been 10-years-old and he would would have been around 15-years-old. And while I distinctly remember him coaxing me to watch the movie by telling me that it really wasn’t that scary, my brother remembers it differently: “I don’t recall forcing you to watch it, you were into it like any kid looking for a thrill would be.” Doesn’t that sound exactly like something a drug dealer would say? Regardless of how it happened,  there I sat, for 96 minutes, and watched as a series of reanimated corpses cornered and ate a houseful of people. Including a little girl, just like me. WTF, George Romero?

"What? I wasn't eating my Dad. He was like this when I got here."

Looking back on this phase of my pop culture upbringing, I do wonder where the hell my mother was. The film professor in me appreciates that she didn’t do much censoring of television or movies — my brother and I pretty much watched what we wanted to watch. My Mom only started to get concerned about my brother’s horror movie fascination when Fangoria magazine began to arrive in our mailbox every month. Those covers freaked me out.

 
"Hey, 10-year-old Amanda, can you go get the mail? What do you mean, 'the mail is scary?'"

But by that time, it was too late for me. The deep damage to my psyche was already done. And the real problem? I liked zombie movies. They scared me more than any other horror film and I really liked being scared. Zombie movies combined all of my greatest fears: dead bodies (I still have never seen a dead body), being chased by an unrelenting enemy, painful, prolonged death, and the possibility of being turned into a monster. So I continued to watch zombie movies with my brother. And like any older brother worth his salt, Adam pinpointed my fear and discovered clever ways to exploit it. For example, after we watched Dawn of the Dead (1978, George Romero) together,  my brother came up with a great tormenting device: he would chase me around the house pretending to be a zombie. He’d put his arms out in front of him, cock his head to the side, and hum the Muzak that was playing in the mall for most of Dawn of the Dead (see YouTube clip below). This horrible chase would always end the same way — with me locking myself into the nearest available bathroom and waiting, panting and terrifed, for my brother to get bored and lumber away (just like in a real zombie movie). To this day, when I hear generic-sounding Muzak, the muscles in my stomach tighten up.

Due to the combination of watching zombie movies at an age when I was too young to process their terrifying images and being chased around the house by my faux-zombie brother over and over again, I was plagued, for decades, with zombie-themed nightmares. In these dreams I was plunged, in medias res, into the climax of an epic zombies versus humans battle. The battle would conclude in one of two ways: either I was holed up in an old house with a group of survivors — sometimes I knew them, sometimes I didn’t — and we would bide our time, waiting for the moment when the zombies would finally  burst through our hastily constructed barricade. Or (and this was the worst scenario), I was by myself, being chased by a horde of hungry zombies who were always just inches behind me. At some point during this recurring nightmare I would recognize that I was dreaming and I would have to make a decision: continue to flee the zombies (and thus, prolong the feeling of absolute terror) or allow the zombies to attack me (which would allow me to finally wake up). Neither option is really an option, you dig?

The turning point for me and my love/hate relationship with zombies happened in 2002, when I went to see 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle) with my friend, Coral.  After the movie, Coral was going to drop me off at my empty house; my boyfriend (now my husband) was out of town. But I knew that sleeping alone in my empty house was going to be an impossibility. So instead I ran inside, grabbed my toothbrush and my dog, and hopped back into Coral’s car. As I lay there that night on Coral’s futon, painfully aware of the inanity of a grown woman having to sleep over at a friend’s house after watching a scary movie, I came to a decision: no more zombie movies. And I’ve kept to that, mostly. I lapsed in 2004, when I rented the remake of Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder) (which, by the way, was great). I did this when my husband was out of town and I paid for it with a night of insomnia. I haven’t watched a zombie movie since. And now I only have a few zombie-themed nightmares each year. I still get sad though, like when a group of my friends all went to see Zombieland (2009, Rubin Fleischer) and I had to say “Sorry, friends, just can’t do it!” And I know that AMC’s The Walking Dead is supposed to be great, but I’ll never know its pleasures. Instead, I try to view my zombie phobia the way a lactose-intolerant person views ice cream: you can have a sundae, but your ass is going to pay for it later.

Which brings me to the present day and Game of Thrones. Except for a brief glimpse of a blue-eyed little girl with a bloodied mouth (who I am assuming is a white walker?), no zombies have appeared in the series. But, as Ned Stark (Sean Bean) keeps warning us, “winter is coming” and with it, zombies. When they arrive, I might have to abandon this great television series, or risk giving up my dreams to the undead once again.

So, am I alone in my zombie phobia? Is anyone else out there zombie-intolerant? Or is there another movie monster that plagues your nightmares? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.

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BRIDESMAIDS, Will You Be My BFF?

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A few months ago I made some New Year’s resolutions. Not the kind in which I vow to be a better person or promise to call my mother more (sorry Mom). Instead, I made some popular culture New Year’s resolutions. Number 2 on my list was a promise to see more films while they are still in the theaters. I do eventually get around to seeing all of the movies that I’m interested in, once they are released on DVD. But certain films are just better when viewed in the theater: special effects-laden science fiction and action films, horror films, and comedies. The big screen and surround sound provided by the movie theater offer the ideal setting for the  visual and auditory spectacle that is the raison d’être of science fiction and action films. The second two genres — horror and comedy — are all about the affect they produce in the viewer: horror films aim to horrify you and comedies aim to make you laugh. When you see these kinds of films in the theater, with an audience of  excited moviegoers who are very much interested in being horrified or being amused, just like you, then the viewing experience is greatly enhanced. I scream a little bit louder and laugh a little bit harder when I share the movie experience with a group of strangers.

Although I had no one to accompany me to the Greenville Grande on Saturday night (for those keeping track, that is the Greenville movie theater that does not smell like pee), I decided that I really did need to go and see Bridesmaids. I’ll be out of town this weekend and given Greenville’s track record with films that don’t contain talking animals or exploding spaceships, I was worried that Bridesmaids might be gone before I had a chance to see it (it is a “chick flick,” after all). It was important for me to see this comedy in the theater, so I went alone. Before you start feeling bad for me, going to see a movie on a Saturday night all by myself, let me assure you: I had a great time. I am not yet in crazy cat lady territory — at least not until after the kids go to college.

When I walked into the theater, I saw that it was packed. This is key for a comedy. The more people who are in the room, the better. Also, I quickly discovered that the gentleman sitting behind me was an unapologetic movie talker. I used to really hate movie talkers. I would sit in my seat and fume away, wondering why this jerk was out to ruin my viewing experience. But now that I have two young children, going out ot the movies is a rare treat (hence the New Year’s resolution), and so I have come to appreciate all the fine nuances of the movie-going experience. And this young man was a real pro. He didn’t modulate his voice at all — his comments were as loud and clear as if he were sitting at home, watching the movie on DVD. And his commentary was completely banal. During the scene in which Annie’s (Kristen Wiig) nutty roommate, Brynn (Rebel Wilson), begins pouring frozen peas over her sore tattoo (as opposed to placing the entire bag on the swollen area), he declared “That chick’s so dumb, man!” Later, when Annie’s crappy little car finally breaks down, he informed the theater, “That car’s a beater!” Yes, Movie Talker, that car sure was a beater. Thanks for the head’s up!

With a comedy I think it’s important to set the tone early, so the audience knows what to expect. So it was fitting that Bridesmaids opened with Annie and her rich, emotionally unavailable “fucky buddy,” Ted (Jon Hamm), having very active, very unsexy, sex. I think it’s a testament to both Kristen Wiig’s and Jon Hamm’s comedic abilities that they were able to take something so inherently sexy — naked Jon Hamm having sex — and make it cringe-worthy and awful. The next morning Annie asks Ted if he wants to start dating. He shoots her down (and the tone of the conversation implies that the subject has come up before) and tells her to head home. The scene culminates with Annie leaving Ted’s opulent home and scaling the large gate at the end of his driveway (she is too much of a doormat to go in and ask him to open it for her). Once she reaches the top of the gate, straddling it like a big, white pony, it begins to move — Ted’s cleaning lady has opened it from the other side. So Annie is forced to ride the gate, in what has to be the ultimate “walk/ride of shame.” As this scene built to this wonderful visual gag, the audience was roaring, and I knew I was in for a good night.

What I liked best about Bridesmaids was the way that it mixed together different kinds of humor. Yes, it gives us Annie straddling an electronic gate, shame and humiliation radiating from her small frame. Yes, it gives us Megan (Melissa McCarthy) making fat jokes at her own expense, inviting us to laugh at her body and the possibility of its sexuality (I had some problems with this character). And yes, we see Lillian (Maya Rudolph), the beautiful bride-to-be, decked out in a gorgeous vintage wedding gown, just so that its many layers can hide her uncontrollable diarrhea. Which she makes in the middle of the street.

Beyond this easy humor (for the record, I loved the vomit/shit scene), the movie also offers humor based on the realities of women’s lives. As a mother, I enjoyed hearing bridesmaid Rita (Wendi McClendon-Covey) deflate bridesmaid Becca’s (Ellie Kemper) rosy illusions about motherhood. When Becca, a newlywed, gushes about how s “beautiful” motherhood must be, Rita enlightens her: “The other night I was making a lovely dinner for my family, and my youngest son came in and said he wanted to order a pizza. I said ‘No, we are not ordering a pizza,’ and he said ‘Mom why don’t you go fuck yourself.’ He’s 9.” Later in the film, Rita begs for a bachelorette party in Las Vegas so that she can get away from her children and wear her new “tube top.” I too have a tube top in my closet that never gets worn. Yes, this movie was definitely written by women. By funny women.

I also loved this film because it offered a great protrait of the friendships of women in their thirties — friendships that have endured so many of life’s successes and failures. In particular, the first scene between Annie and Lillian, where they sit eating brunch post-workout, reminded me of so many of my female friendships. These friendships are loud, funny, and often a bit crass. While I was a huge fan of Sex and the City and its brand of “loud/funny/crass” women,  their conversations usually just reminded me that I was way less fabulous than Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda. I could covet their clothes and their apartments, but I was not one of them. But in their brunch scene, Annie and Lillian imitate a penis (brilliant!) and spread black cake on their teeth to make each other laugh. They also confide in each other and offer good, reassurring advice.

I loved this friendship and that’s what made Annie’s increasingly bizarre behavior throughout the film make sense. Annie has lost her business, her boyfriend, and her self esteem — her friendship with Lillian is the only great thing she has left. No wonder she becomes threatened when Helen (Rose Byrne) tries to step in as Lillian’s maid of honor and new best friend. I’m not saying that her freak out at Helen’s Parisian-themed bridal shower wasn’t over the top: but it was a little bit cathartic for anyone in the audience who has looked around at a wedding celebration and thought “Seriously?”

A few more highlights:

* We learn, early in the film, that Annie hasn’t really baked anything since her cake shop closed down. But we get one scene in which she painstakingly creates a cupcake masterpeice. We see her rolling out the marzipan, cutting and fashioning it into delicate petals, and then painting each leaf. The finished product, a single, perfect, flower-topped gem, is gorgeous. Annie stares at her masterpiece, without any sense of triumph or passion … and then shoves it in her mouth.

* While I was a little frustrated with the character of Megan (why must the plus size woman play the most buffoonish role?), I did adore the scene on the plane in which she interrogates a man (Ben Falcone) whom she believes to be a federal marshall. It’s not that their conversation was all that funny — they were discussing the pros and cons of concealing a weapon in one’s butt — but I loved that the man (played by McCarthy’s real life husband) was clearly amused, rather than annoyed, by Megan’s paranoid theories. Rather than angrily dismissing her, he engages her and asks questions about how a gun concealed in the butt could actually be practical. The scene could have been absurd, but it was playful instead. Someone could have actually had that conversation on a plane.

*Finally, Annie’s love interest, Rhodes (Chris O’Dowd), was  just wonderful. I believed that a girl like Annie would fall for a guy like him (and if she didn’t, well, that would be okay too. The movie’s success does not depend on Annie’s heterosexual coupling). When Rhodes and Annie finally get to make out, after lots of sexual tension, he is so delighted that he declares, mid-kiss, “I’m so glad this is happening!” That scene made me feel happy for Annie.

In conclusion, it is very clear not just that women wrote this movie, but that jokes based on the specific experiences of women, are funny. So go fuck yourself, Christopher Hitchens. No really, go fuck yourself Christopher Hitchens. The reason why there aren’t more great, funny, female-focused films out there has nothing to do with the inherent unfunniness of women. It has to do with fears within the industry that a female-centered comedy will die at the box office. So I beg you, people: go see this movie. Show Hollywood that this is the kind of film that everyonenot just women, wants to see.

For more great reasons to see this film, check out Annie Petersen’s post here.

I’m also interested in hearing your thoughts: did you enjoy Bridesmaids and why? Or do you feel its overrated? What are some other female-centered comedies or female comedians who make you laugh?