Dawn of the Dead (1978)

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Dawn of the Dead (1978)

“You are stronger than us, but soon I think they be stronger than you.” – Old Priest

Rewind almost forty years ago, and you have the first time my (young) eyes fell on this apocalyptic masterpiece. George A. Romero became a hero of mine; an iconoclastic anti-establishment voice of reason, who managed to both scare the crap out of me and yet leave me sensing there was more to this world than I initially understood.

With a cultural premise that seemed light years ahead of our own, entrenched traditions such as grand mall shopping, community shooting parties, deep racial tension and armed response squads were used to define the American way (in Philadelphia at least). It stood as a prescript that ignored human and emotional need, in favour of such wholesome virtues as force-fed violence, ignorance and material greed. By adding a million or so walking dead into that already claustrophobic picture, Dawn of the Dead made for one hell of a ride.

The film initially terrifies and often overwhelms, but keep watching and searching for real substance, and it takes on a completely new form altogether. Only then are you rewarded with intelligent analogies, acute social metaphors and a growing respect for a genre that for my part, has never waned. Moreover, as with many enduring movie classics, the focus ultimately ends up on relationships, both human and otherwise, and so without giving away plot-lines or misleading potential viewers, it is best for me to briefly describe why Dawn of the Dead broke ticket-sale expectations and changed the social landscape of America forever.

In 1978, pretty much anything was possible. If it was plausible that man could fly and land on the moon, then why wouldn’t the dead spring to life and eat the living? In fact, it became the focus of obsession for many underground film-makers of the time, and remains a sub-cultural fantasy today, spawning video games, novels and later, numerous remakes and even a television series (The Walking Dead) that itself seems impossible to end.

It was this creative freedom to speculate which enabled Dawn of the Dead to quickly find its audience, and break down the walls of cinematic expression; always remaining beyond the reach of movie critics and federal censors, while daring viewers to accept such a brutally cold reality; in fact no other horror concept has ever come close to this nightmarish vision since.

Ultimately, I could easily offer reams of reasons why this film is vintage cinema gold, but the many-layered message would then be lost for those uninitiated, and I hardly relish the idea of committing journalistic sacrilege for the sake of bombast. Rather, I end my blog by giving this amazing slice of horror/social commentary/drama my absolute highest recommendation, and note for the record that Gaylen Ross (pictured) was as powerful a role model as Sigourney Weaver in the late 1970s, but sadly never received the praise or recognition she fully deserved.

May God bless her.

First Blood (1982)

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First Blood (1982)

“Don’t push it or I’ll give you a war you won’t believe.” – John J.Rambo

It could easily be described as ‘a tale as old as time’ or a collection of proverbs that serve to remind, (let sleeping dogs lie, never judge a book by its cover etc.) but First Blood is a film that immediately secures its place in movie history despite appearing as a shallow kill frenzy designed to glorify violence. Dig a little deeper than the knuckle-and-teeth clenching and what you find is a tale of camaraderie, brotherhood and one man standing up for his right to exist beyond the misguided aggression that discrimination fuels.

When I first saw this celluloid vengeance vehicle I absorbed absolutely none of those virtues, rather I revelled in the ‘fuck you’ sentiment John Rambo stood for; yet as mother time rolls by and as with many films of its genre, I have wound up looking past the gung-ho brawling and into the eyes and hearts of the men involved.

Lets start with John Rambo, (Sylvester Stallone) the protagonist in this mountainous skirmish. This is a man who after returning home from the hell we now call Vietnam, learns that one of his few remaining friends and brothers-in-arms is now prematurely dead through chemical weapon exposure on the battlefield. With little or no time to process this unexpected loss, he sets off on foot to find a place to rest, refuel and think about what just happened.

Enter Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy), a man who never got the memo when virtues such as manners, integrity and tolerance were handed out. Basing his entire judgment on a facial expression and haircut, this contemptuous buffoon sets about denying an innocent traveller food, shelter and a place to sit; blissfully ignorant to the fact that the visitor in question served his country and risked his life to protect the same liberties he is now being stripped of.

Completing this circle of karma is one Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) the only man capable of helping John Rambo regain his place in civilian life. He is sequestered to this small back wood town not long after events unfurl, only to discover that for absolutely no good reason or justifiable doubt, Sheriff Teasle has both managed to start all manner of trouble (despite his assignment to prevent it in the first place) and jeopardise the lives of everybody within a ten mile radius.

These three narrative elements alone make First Blood compelling to watch, but what really manages to punctuate the underlying message is witnessed in the final moments of the film. Delivering more impact than anything preceding it, a scene of incredible vulnerability between two military figures plays out; a pseudo father-and-son relationship that defies American male culture and achieves more than was perhaps appreciated back in 1982.

It is the power of this closing act that always manages to bring a lump to my throat, as I am sure it does many other men of my generation, and yet that power has nothing to do with bravery or strength, but everything to do with the human condition; to reach out when we need help and to admit defeat when it all gets too much. Those are the moments when we get to grow, flourish and live that little bit longer, and John Rambo may not have been a man of many words, but his character represented many men such as I when it came to the need for understanding and being understood.

St. Elmo’s Fire (1985)

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St. Elmo's Fire (1985)

“Do you believe in pre-marital sax?” – Billy Hicks

I would like to share with you my enduring affection for a seminal coming-of-age film, that while bold enough to emblazon teenagers as decadent archetypes, continues to leave me with a sense of affection for the protagonists, perhaps because they have come to represent elements of my own psyche, therefore its almost impossible to turn away from their plights and tribulations of maturity.

With this I refer no less to the wonderful and much maligned ‘St.Elmo’s Fire’.

So what’s the premise of this subjective classic? Like many others of this genre, the story tells of seven young adults moving from the security of adolescence, into the great unknown we call ‘life’. By life, I mean the now uncertainty of career choices, emotional maturity and discovery of the true self.

“Your movie teaches you what it is, not what you think it is” – Joel Schumacher

Taking each character in equal measure, the story of St.Elmo’s Fire graces us with a journey into the minds and hearts of a black sheep, aspiring lawyer, emotional martyr, politician, socialite, stepford wife and a struggling writer. Despite the aesthetic setting of Washington D.C., the loneliness and angst these youngsters disguise behind their arrogant musings, becomes more visible each time I engage with the film.

Perhaps more notably, the production quality is high, albeit accidental, as the 2:35:1 aspect ratio adds a maturity to proceedings, and I just love some of the exterior shots for their autumnal hues and sense of romantic opulence. The David Foster score also separates this film from its contemporaries, largely due to the classically intellectual feel, and yet you cannot help feeling somewhat ‘pumped’ when listening to John Parr’s ‘Man in Motion’.

For reasons that defy any real explanation, I love this film, I have continued to love it, and even feel a sense of exclusivity because I view it free from popular consensus. In fact, every visit to Georgetown reveals new subtleties and moments of reflection, so I cannot imagine growing weary of this cinematic pleasure.

Perhaps because much like these wonderfully written yet superficial friends, I have also felt the grief that maturity brings, so cannot but hold a candle for the unblemished honesty of youth, and the arrogance we lose as the years accumulate.

Ultimately, St.Elmo’s Fire finds itself a mass of contradictions, torn between humour and drama for drama’s sake, but it’s that flaw which brings me back time and time again, and leaves me feeling oddly fulfilled when the final credits roll.

Because after all, beauty is undoubtedly in the eye of the beholder.

The Thing (1982)

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The Thing (1982)
‘It’s not Bennings’ by Vincent Carroza

“Why don’t we just wait here for a little while…see what happens?” – R.J. MacReady

Outpost 31 was the location, and man was on the menu. Back in the early 1980s, John Carpenter set about making a contemporary tale based loosely on the Agatha Christie ‘Ten Little Indians’, but with one exception – blood and gore galore. The first time I watched it was in my early teens, and it immediately tapped into my mistrust of those around me.

Unfortunately, as I continued to re-watch the movie over the years, I began drawing comparisons to Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’, with a sense of feeling somewhat insulted that a known, albeit left-field, filmmaker would plagiarise an established concept, only to recapture the public’s fear of extra terrestrial life (if there is any). In fact, for some considerable time it put me off revisiting the MacReady rite of passage; but after some purposeful reflection, I realized there was far more to this sci-fi suspense flick than mere plagiarism. As is always my eventual interpretation, the pattern of human relationships began to filter through, primarily through observation of playing one archetype against another, in order to seduce the viewer into false conclusions as to whom the ‘Thing’ had just inhabited.

This in itself is no easy feat, and full writing credit goes to John Carpenter, for using his own skewed view of people to pull it off. However, In addition to the complex storyline is the inventive use of practical effects, an approach so sorely missed today, and hopefully destined for a renaissance sometime soon.

On a personal note, I feel very strongly about the work of John Carpenter, despite some of his less successful outings (perhaps it’s because he is uncompromising in his vision, and because I trust the method in his madness when it comes to conveying messages through film). Needless to say, I now continue to watch ‘The Thing’ probably once, or even twice a year, because I am now firmly convinced that it requires a place in all of our lives, and because ultimately it’s just a damn good film, and a great way to spend nearly two hours in the dark, munching salted homemade popcorn.

If you haven’t taken the time to see ‘The Thing’ then it comes very highly recommended, particularly in its most current format of blu-ray, and for the purists there is the recent Arrow Video release (of which I have a Limited Edition copy, as yet unwatched), just don’t invest your time in the recent prequel/reboot as it only detracts from Carpenter’s craftsmanship and brings nothing new to the franchise.

Jaws (1975)

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Jaws (1975)
‘Jaws Watercolour Painting’ by Paul McPhee

“You’re certifiable Quint, do you know that?” – Chief Brody

If my memory serves me well, I was around six-years old when my mother took me to the cinema. For some insane reason I was able to get in and watch Jaws, a film experience that solidified my fear and fascination for all things shark. As a child, I would spend hours at a time perfecting my sketches of them, ensuring the pectoral fins were in proportion to both the dorsal and tail fins. However, it was not as much about the teeth these predators bore, rather the sleekness of their anatomical design – able to glide silently through the water and be upon you in the blink of an eye.

The zeitgeist of the seventies seemed to revolve around this mythical flick, and I have since lost count of exactly how many visits I have made to Amity Island (or Martha’s vineyard) in search of that sense of impending doom. But as always happens over the passage of time, the fear of one object or threat, changes with a growing awareness of ourselves, and the terrors we project from within.

Writing about Jaws today, the film is a more intimate and in some respects, affectionate affair. Instead of focusing on the beast that lurks beneath, it’s the human dynamic between Brody (Roy Scheider), Quint (Robert Shaw) and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) that resonates most. Every time these three characters are seen pitched against nature and the elements, the camera allows me to observe how fragile, lonely, and in many ways vulnerable, these men are.

In Martin Brody, we had the new kid on the block, the outsider, with no sea legs to speak of, and an inherent fear of the water. Not only was this middle-aged father and husband starting out again, and incidentally way out of his comfort zone, he was forced to confront both his fears and those of an entire island. With little to no support from the authorities assigned his protection, and growing pressure to lie to the very people he needs to win over, I cannot imagine a worse place to wind up.

With Matt Hooper, it is a similar, yet less daunting situation. The wealthy son of an even wealthier family, he has all the toys, but lacks the experience to truly know his worth, despite having a deep love of oceanographic life, and that recognisable need to make his mark amongst his peers. Does he stay and make a name for himself, or hide behind his inadequacies and money?

Quint however, is the real lynchpin of this fable. Plagued by survivor guilt after watching his fallen comrades turn shark bait during the SS Indianapolis disaster, his only sense of existence comes from hunting down and slaying the objects of both his obsession and fear. No matter how many of these abominations he destroys, the nightmares return to haunt him, so what more fitting way to go, other than in the jaws of the biggest shark humankind has ever seen?

When the three of them go in search of this aquatic behemoth, circumstances force them to either pull together, or unhinge from one another, through fear and desperation. However, something quite moving happens instead. Despite their differences in class, age and motivation, these characters push and pull each other to the edge, yet recognize their own need to lean on each other within the third act.

It is sad that Richard Dreyfuss (Hooper) is the last man standing now, and I wonder if he shares the same love for Jaws that many others like me do? I recently bought The Deep (1977), hoping to find that similar feel for Robert Shaw’s character, but I think Quint was bottled lightning, and rightly so. More importantly, I have an admiration for all three actors, and as such, Jaws will always hold a place in my heart, just as it frightened the living wits out of me as a boy.

Ultimately, I really don’t need to ponder those who haven’t yet seen this vintage classic, as it’s been around almost as long as I have, but what I do wonder is what the film means to other viewers, and are they still afraid to go into the water?

As they used to say, “Answers on a postcard please”.

 

Taxi Driver (1976)

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Taxi Driver (1976)
‘Taxi Driver’ by Guy Pellaert

“Loneliness has followed me my whole life.” – Travis Bickle

America is in a decade of political upheaval and nursing the hangover of Vietnam. New York is a city borne from struggle and diversity, and the humble cab driver has become the forced witness to urban decay.

Taxi Driver was never intended to be an easy ride, or even an experience crafted to raise the spirits, but it excelled at leaving the viewer feeling both disenfranchised and yet oddly sympathetic to those searching for love, in what is often a cold and unforgiving world.

The story is linear by design, but director Martin Scorsese never allows you, the passenger, to look away or disconnect; instead he draws the viewer ever deeper into the darker recesses of ourselves, forcibly demanding that the audience engage both with the ears and eyes.

Rather remarkably, this unflinching character study is now celebrating its fortieth anniversary, and yet Taxi Driver remains a stark reminder that we should never judge a book by its cover, or delude ourselves that we are better than anybody else because social culture and the mainstream media tell us so. All of us are wounded to a greater or lesser extent, and it’s those wounds that require our attention, because without the healing power of love, we run risk of slipping into inky darkness until our hearts simply just give out and die.

For those who feel perturbed by the concept of gritty films such as this, my advice is just to have faith enough to take that cinematic ride, while asking yourself to walk in Travis Bickle’s shoes, and you might be surprised to discover just how much you both have in common.

With regard to the latest medium in which to watch this jolting, acrid film, the 40th Anniversary Blu-ray is undoubtedly where it’s at right now, and fortunately it sells for a reasonable price too.

So, if you want to take a trip into downtown America at a time when Robert De Niro was truly at his peak, remember to tip generously or who knows what might happen?