Zombies, Vampires, etc.

A few weeks back, there was a call for papers posted for a panel on “The Undead in the West,” and since then, I’ve been on the look out for items that might fall into that category. One of the ways the western as a genre has survived is by combining with other genres, and perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising to find examples of horror westerns, or western horror, which is visible across a range of mediums.

There’s a new comic book series called American Vampire, with Stephen King as one of the authors.

The first issue (May 2010) takes place on two timelines, one in the 1920s (primarily on the set of silent film) and the other in Colorado in 1880 (and this part of the story, “Bad Blood,” is based on King’s script). In the Colorado narrative, a notorious outlaw named Skinner Sweet, who has been captured by Pinkerton agents, is being transported by train. One of the bank executives turns out to be a vampire, and after Sweet’s gang halts the train and frees the captive, the bank exec does what a vampire does, creating all sorts of havoc, and apparently turning Skinner Sweet into one of the undead in the process—and thus the vampire cowboy outlaw.

According to Scott Snyder (another of the writers—the comic is drawn by Rafael Albuquerque) in an editorial in the first issue, “The central question of the series is this: What if vampires evolved over time? Meaning, what if every once and awhile, when a vampire turns someone new, the blood makes something new: a new kind of vampire—with new powers, new strengths, new weaknesses?”

As  Crevecoeur asks in Letters From an American Vampire Farmer, “What is this new man? This American Vampire?”

Skinner Sweet, it turns out, has undergone a kind of Turnerian transformation on the western frontier. As Snyder describes him, Sweet does indeed “become a new of vampire—the first American Vampire, tougher, meaner, born of the American West, with a new bag of tricks.”

So the first book in the series, with its mixture of bank robberies, outlaws, Turnerian frontier philosophy, and vampires, is pretty entertaining.

I also finally caught Zombieland, which came out recently on DVD. Starring Woody Harrelson as a cowboyed-up zombie-killer, Zombieland is an example of the post-apocalyptic western horror farce buddy movie romantic comedy genre. It’s got a little bit of everything, but is especially heavy on the blood and the gore and on putting on vivid display the truly disgusting eating habits and generally poor table manners of zombies.

The zombie virus has spread throughout America, and few humans remain who have not been zombified. An otherwise hapless college student (played by Jesse Eisenberg) has survived by adhering to a strict set of rules. He and Harrelson team up as the film’s mismatched buddy pair. Eisenberg has his rules, and Harrelson just likes killing zombies.

This was actually the first of the post-apocalyptic westerns to open in theaters last year (followed by The Road and The Book of Eli). And if the other two films had come first, you’d swear Zombieland was as much a parody of them as it is of zombie films. Again, we have a Man With No Name. Or men and women with no names. “Stop,” Harrelson states on first meeting his sidekick, “No names.” Instead, they go by their destinations, Columbus and Tallahassee.

The film begins in Texas, and initially the nameless men are planning to travel on eastward to their destinations. An encounter with two sisters (too complicated to explain) results in teaming up the traveling pairs and heading West, to California, to the Pacific Palisades Amusement Park, in search of an innocence the two sisters once knew as children while visiting the park.

But, really, in Zombieland, America has become one big amusement park, and this group of humans crossing the American West has a great time shooting things, knocking stuff over, and breaking stuff. When they finally get to the amusement park, and are surrounded by zombies, it’s all a big game, with multitudes of zombies as targets in a bigger than life arcade. Unlike The Road and The Book of Eli, in which the apocalypse is a disaster to be lamented, the zombie apocalypse turns out to be quite fun, especially if you have a scenery-chewing Woody Harrelson along.

If you’re in the mood for a post-apocalyptic western horror farce buddy movie romantic comedy, then check out Zombieland. It really is fairly entertaining, if also over the top in both its use of gore and its silliness. And there’s a nice moment when Harrelson is trapped alone inside a souvenir hut, surrounded by zombies, with nothing but his guns (his many many guns) and his wits. The scene is simultaneously a parody of the western’s Heroic Last Stand (especially The Wild Bunch) and of the famous scene in Night of the Living Dead when the zombies start ripping apart the cabin where the humans are sheltering. There are lots of slow motion shots of stuffed animals getting the stuffing ripped and shot out of them. Imagine The Wild Bunch with teddy bears.

And there’s even more to come in terms of the undead west, including a forthcoming movie adaptation of the “weird western” comic book hero Jonah Hex.

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Book of Eli, End of the World, and the Western

Having now recently watched The Road and The Book of Eli, the two big post-apocalyptic movies of the holiday season (that time of year when families get together and think warm thoughts about the end of the world), I can see that I’ve learned a couple of things about how to prepare for the apocalypse from Hollywood films. So, there are two things I need to do before the end of the world as we know it arrives:

First, I need to stock up on color film and film stock. In the post-apocalyptic movie, there is no color, or what color there is faded, muted. Things are covered in gray ash or dust.  Even the sky in The Book of Eli is colorless. In order to replicate the real conditions of the loss of color film stock after the apocalypse, the filmmakers in both Eli and The Road clearly decided to film the movies as if we’d already run out of color film. In one of the early fight scenes in Eli, our hero Eli (Denzel Washington) is filmed in silhouette taking on a gang of desperadoes,  and there’s not even gray left in the color palette, just black shadows dueling, one with a machete, the other with a chainsaw. Yes, this is the kind of film that not only has a machete versus chainsaw duel but also films it in silhouette (and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing).

So, stock up on color film now— it will be a hot commodity when the end of the world as we know it arrives.

Second, I need to go to dental school. Judging from The Road and The Book of Eli, the apocalypse is really bad for your teeth. And whatever happened in The Road, it was much worse for dental hygiene; perhaps the dentists died first in that world. There are some characters with good teeth in The Book of Eli (such as Eli himself, but he’s blessed by God, and, really, that’s not the kind of thing you can depend on), but there are plenty of people in need of someone with some dentistry skills.

So, learn basic dentistry. When we come to the end of the world as we know it, you’ll be glad you did, as your path to survival will be assured.

The basic plot of The Book of Eli, is that Eli (whose name we don’t learn until the end of the film) is in possession of the only surviving Bible. After the war, and the flash that “tore open the sky,” all the Bibles were burned (because, some say, the Bibles were the cause of the whole conflict). His quest is to carry the Bible to the promised land, to a place where a small group of believers await his arrival.

The film seems to take place about thirty years in the future. Eli, in addition to a Bible, also has what must be the world’s last iPod (and listening to Al Green is as much a holy ritual—as it should be—as his nightly reading of the Bible).

Despite it’s sci-fi post-apocalyptic trappings, The Book of Eli is almost purely a western, as much so in its references to other western genre films and its use of western motifs as Appaloosa (perhaps the most recent western to use an “old west” setting). Much of the film was shot in New Mexico, and it makes extensive use of that western desert landscape. When someone asks Eli where he is going, he simply replies, “West.”  When someone asks him who he is, he replies, “I’m nobody,” a line referencing Clint Eastwood’s Man Without a Name character in the Sergio Leone westerns. The film ends with one of the heroes striding off into the sunset.

The film also references the mise-en-scene of John Ford’s westerns shot in Monument Valley. But, rather than a sublime natural landscape, it’s the wreckage of civilization that visually echoes those Monument Valley landscapes: towering bridges, partially destroyed, shot from below, dominating the skyline; abandoned cooling towers of a decaying power plant, echoing the shape of rock formations in Monument Valley.

Eli’s path takes him through a newly established town, a frontier community constructed on the wreckage of a formerly abandoned and nearly destroyed city.  Although a barely legible sign may read “J. Crew,” the facades are clearly modeled after the western town sets of classic westerns, as is the saloon set where some of the action takes place, and, thus, it comes as absolutely no surprise that there’s a shootout on the main street in front of the saloon.

The film also has its sci-fi allusions, including a nice shout-out to the film A Boy and His Dog (based on Harlan Ellison’s classic post-apocalyptic short story), via a faded poster on a wall; there’s also a poster for A Clockwork Orange. And, at the end of the film, Malcolm McDowell shows up (aging, but still handsome)! If only they could have found a role for Don Johnson (who played the boy in A Boy and His Dog). In general, though, the casting of the movie is quite fun. Not only do we have Denzel Washington (who is excellent in the film), but also Gary Oldman (as the villain), Mila Kunis (That 70s Show), Tom Waits (as the guy that recharges Denzel’s iPod), a couple of wizards (Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour from the Harry Potter films), Jennifer Beals, and Ray Stevenson (Titus Pullo of Rome).

So, if you’re looking for a good western-post-apocalyptic-sci-fi adventure, The Book of Eli is highly recommended.

More thoughts on “The Road”

From Neil Campbell:

Watched The Road this afternoon in a post-apocalyptic Derby, UK (or, at least, rain swept).  After this film, the world, actually seems a whole lot brighter, whatever the weather. I have read the novel – which I thought magnificent – and the film is a pretty good ‘version’ (for that is what it is).  Mccarthy’s novel is more severe, more Gothic (the cannibal foodstore House scene, for example).  Anyway, I’m thinking about it as a Western … did my eyes see a map showing the Pacific Coast (or was I wrong?)  Are they heading ‘South’ but to the west coast?  The film has Viggo Mortensen in flashback as a ‘cowboy’ (with check shirt and horse the first time we see him) – PERHAPS. The gun (as Michael says) adds to this – plus the echoes of McCarthy’s own work – the ‘kid’ in Blood Meridian journeying across a brutal landscape of the west and the boys of the Trilogy.
The film – as Michael suggests – has a kind of intertextual quality re-connecting to Deadwood – AND also to John Hillcoat’s wonderful Australian Western The Proposition whose ‘feel’ and brutality is mirrored here (as well as Guy Pearce’s brief cameo as the ‘saving’ man at the end) – a filmic space where landscape works absolutely with character to portray a naturalist nightmare.

Still thinking …

William Carlos Williams understood The Road:

‘History, history!  We fools, what do we know or care?  History begins for us with murder and enslavement, not with discovery … the ghost of the land moves in the blood, moves the blood’ (In the American Grain).

… and the film’s deep iconographic history is exquisite too –  its images create the spectrality of a ghostly landscape: the abandoned TARGET; the last Coke in America; Del Monte Fruit Chunks; Cheetos; the Amusement Park; the twisted Freeway; two bullets in the revolver. As Derrida puts it, ‘like all inheritors, we are in mourning’ (SoM, 67) as we watch the film slide away.
— ‘Certainly, the cinema is inhabited increasingly by spectres’ (196, Laura Mulvey, Death x24 a Second (2006).

— The film resonates with the ‘palpable absence and sense of loss’ of promise contained in what Zeese Papanikolas has called ‘American Silence’: ‘a kind of longing, a sense of something lost, lost perhaps even at the moment of gaining it, and possibly irretrievable’ (2007: 19). The dreams of the small farms we see throughout the film; of the broken cities; of families scattered (and eaten):  A cold world ‘more poignant, and the wound fresher’ since one is conscious always of the ‘utopian possibility that we just missed’ (ZP, 21, 22) – created via the memories of Papa (Mortensen) – as much as tries desperately to erase and block them out.

One for The Road

At last, The Road, the new film based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, has made its long and winding way to Maine.  I caught a matinee performance today, and, somewhat eerily given the film’s subject matter, I was the only one in the audience for this screening of The Road. The bleak mid-winter in Maine can have a post-apocalyptic feel at times anyway, but, ten minutes or so into the film when no one else had appeared to join me in the audience, well, it was a little creepy.

So, the end of the world is big at the box office these days, from Zombieland to 2012 to the forthcoming Book of Eli. “The end is near” is the message coming from Hollywood, or, at least, Hollywood seems to be perfectly willing to tap into the national mood of anxiety and fear.

I haven’t read McCarthy’s novel, but I’m assuming that the film follows it fairly closely.  There are, of course, specifically cinematic touches. At one point, the Man (Viggo Mortensen) comments in voiceover that “every day is more gray than the day before,” and this is a very gray film. In part, that’s because we’re in a world covered in ashes, but even in those sections of the film that do not show everything under a layer of ash, we’re still in a world devoid of color. The grayness is particularly effective when contrasted with surprising splashes of color (crayons in the Boy’s hand, the bright label on a can of fruit).

The basic plot of the film is that our two main characters, a man and a boy (otherwise not named other than as “Papa” and “son” when speaking to one another), are on their way toward the ocean, and roughly heading south in search of other “good guys” like themselves. Through flashbacks, we learn that the boy was born shortly after whatever unnamed cataclysm destroyed civilization as we know it. His mother, weary of trying to survive in the post-apocalyptic world, kills herself  by walking out alone into a snowstorm (another eerie reminder of Maine in winter). How much time exactly has passed between that moment (when the family still seemed to be living in their home) and the present of the film isn’t clear, but our protagonists are wandering through a blasted landscape, trying to survive, avoid roving gangs of cannibalistic humans, and foraging for food and shelter on their way to the promised land (or to the hoped-for better place at the end of the road).

As a fan of classic horror film director James Whale, I tend to see references to Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein everywhere, and as much as I try to suppress the temptation to compare every film I see to Frankenstein, the visual allusions in The Road seem so clear that I can’t ignore them. Although shot in color, the grayness of The Road makes it seem at times a black and white film. The early shots in the film of a rolling landscape of trees shorn of their branches is astonishingly evocative of a scene in Bride where the Creature, pursued by angry mob, is fleeing through a similar blasted landscape. Several off-kilter camera frames, a shot of the man and boy pushing their shopping cart, hunched over, against a backdrop of fire and smoke, all are evocative of the Whale films, not to mention the moment when a group of men carrying torches hunt for them in the woods. Similarly, multiple Frankenstein scenes with tilted gravestones or askew crosses are echoed early in the film by similarly askew telephone and electrical poles (which likewise suggest crosses). The Man’s sometimes shambling gait (he seems to have an injured knee) and those moments when he’s reduced by exertion or illness to a kind of wordless grunting and heavy breathing also recall the physical form and muteness of the Creature.

The film is also interesting as a quasi-western. Viggo Mortensen is the last good man on the frontier, the cowboy down to his last two bullets.  He’s even shot with an arrow at one point. However, the film is careful to erase any clear connection to a particular region (or even to any specific American places). We see a nearly destroyed amusement park that could be Coney Island, but when was Coney ever spell with two “N’s” (the partially-destroyed sign spells out “Conn   Is” )?  That sense of being in a world that is all regions and no regions is indicated by the shooting locations, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Oregon. In this post-apocalyptic world, the frontier is everywhere.

For the most part, the film is harrowing, and it conveys the emotional bond of father and son effectively. However, there were a few goofy moments as well, some of which come about through recognizing well-known actors (good lord, is that Robert Duvall beneath all that hair?), which can bring you out of the film world pretty quickly. And, this particular post-apocalyptic world is partially and somewhat oddly populated with former members of the cast of the HBO series Deadwood.

The first to pop up is Garret Dillahunt, who played several roles in Deadwood (Jack McCall, the man who shot Wild Bill Hickock, among them).  He also played the imprisoned man who Seth Bullock sees is properly hanged rather than taken by vigilantes in the opening episode of the series. Dillahunt in The Road survives about as long as the imprisoned man in the Deadwood opening, shot in the head by Viggo in one of the earliest scenes in the film. Dillahunt plays a member of a cannibal gang, which is exactly the sort of role he seems to play a lot these days—the kind of guy who ends up dead and you’re not sorry to see him killed.

This is also the only film I’ve ever seen that lists someone in the credits for “Prosthetic Teeth.”  And I hope the credited artist had a team of dental assistants, because if he was making all those nasty-looking teeth himself, he was certainly overworked. And, after a while, the more I started noticing the prosthetic teeth, the more that particular element of the film seemed to be a bit overdone. Granted, in a postapocalyptic society where human culture has devolved into wandering gangs of cannibals, there’s probably not going to be a whole lot of flossing or dental hygiene in general going on, but, given that the cataclysmic event couldn’t have taken place more than ten years into the film’s past (given the age of the boy), how is it possible that decades of orthodontia could go so wrong so quickly? Rotting and decaying teeth I can understand, but what has happened to cause so many mouths full of crooked teeth?

Still, despite the bid to win the Oscar for prosthetic teeth, the film is certainly affecting.  [WARNING to those who have yet to read the book or see the film: SPOILERS TO FOLLOW] And, certainly, Viggo’s final death scene is a tear-jerker sure and true. Stephen King has written that the scene is so affecting that he could hear the projectionist sobbing [I can’t say the same, as I’m not even sure there was a projectionist in that empty theater–I was left to sob alone].

I don’t know how closely the film’s ending follows the book, but I was bit surprised by the unlikely coincidence that ends the film. The boy leaves his father’s body behind and starts walking. He meets another man,  and, it turns out, all this time, this man and his entire family have been following the boy and the man, and only now do they reveal themselves and invite the boy to join them. Not only is there a mom (or Motherly Woman as listed in the credits), but also a brother and sister (this for our lonely boy who has longed for companions), and, to top it all off, the family even has a dog! As we know from Harlan Ellison’s classic post-apocalyptic story “A Boy and His Dog,” a boy loves his dog, and that the boy of The Road not only finds a family but a dog to call his own was a bit much for me.

And all this seems fantastic enough given the bleakness of all that came before, but even more amazingly, the Motherly Woman is Molly Parker, another Deadwood alum, the lovely laudanum-addicted Alma Garrett. I’m a big fan of Molly Parker, from early work on the Canadian sit-com Twitch City to her work in independent film to Deadwood. And, I’ve got to say, any end of the world scenario that involves hooking up with Molly Parker, well, that’s a helluva silver lining for the apocalyptic cloud!

So, I’m not sure what others think about the end. Even aside from the thrilling presence of Molly Parker, the ending seemed abruptly optimistic and unlikely. Why couldn’t they have joined forces with the man and the boy earlier on?  I think I would have preferred to see the boy going on,  still carrying the fire inside him, but alone, at least for the foreseeable future. Such an ending to me would seem more in keeping with the rest of the film.

The Road and Theorizing the Post-West

From Neil Campbell:

Theorising the postwestern

I’m interested in David’s comments on the ‘post-West’ and felt moved to include a brief extract from my work-in-progress on Post-Westerns. It begins (at least in this section) to comment on and define how the term might be applied.
EXTRACT: “The problem of the meaning of the prefix ‘post’ is critical to this discussion of what I am calling ‘post-Western’ cinema for contained within the debates surrounding it much is revealed about the relationships of the Western to its ‘past’ , ‘present’ and ‘future’.  Commenting on the use of ‘post’ in post-colonialism, Stuart Hall argues for it as a continuum, as ‘not only “after” but “going beyond” the colonial, as post-modernism is both “going beyond” and coming “after” modernism, and post-structuralism both follows chronologically and achieves its theoretical gains “on the back of” structuralism’ (Hall 1996:253).  A similar logic can be usefully employed to discuss the relations and tensions between the Western and its ‘post’ forms as both ‘going beyond and after’ its earlier ‘classic’ structures and themes. To borrow the phrasing Hall uses, ‘It is because the relations which characterised the “colonial” [read classic Western] are no longer in the same place and relative position, that we are able not simply to oppose them but to critique, to deconstruct and try to “go beyond” them’ (ibid.:254). The ‘post’ never just means the ‘past’ as in the term ‘post-Western’, but rather ‘a process of disengagement’ from the system it is in tension with, in the full knowledge that it is ‘probably inescapable’ from that system as well (ibid.:246).  Thus Westerns and post-Westerns ‘never operated in a purely binary way’ but always interact, overlap and inter-relate, as argued earlier, in complex dialogical ways.”  This may help in moving closer to how the post-Western functions – certainly in texts like ‘The Road’ (maybe) or, in my case, in films like ‘Down in the Valley’ or I’d argue ‘No Country for Old Men’ (with its irony and deep yearning and loss).

Anyway enough … the post-western ideas are in my ‘Journal of the West’ article on Down in the Valley (Post-Western Cinema: David Jacobson’s Down in the Valley; Winter 2008) and forthcoming elsewhere … the book is in process …

[Editor’s Note: I moved this from the comment section into a post for easier access and reading]