Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Beginner's Guide to Zombies

I made this as a Netflix top ten list, and thought I'd post it here along with a little bit of additional commentary. Maybe it's irrelevant now, since zombies are a sort of waning fad, but most lists I've seen online just cover random selections of "best" zombie films. I've tried to compile a list of films that encompass the whole breadth and history of the genre without taking my personal opinions into account too much. I do happen to like all of these films, but chose them for this list because each represents a significant milestone in zombie film history.

1. White Zombie (1932)

Zombies have their roots in Haitian voodoo which is the topic explored in this film. A zombie is a reanimated corpse brought to life and controlled by a "zombie master." This film was directed by the Halperin brothers, who got their start in silent films, and released this just a few years after "talkies" became mainstream. While it doesn't have the strongest plot, it does have Bela Lugosi, and it's important to know your roots.

2. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

This is the film that redefined the notion of zombies. When you think "zombies" you probably envision relentless hordes of the walking dead. George Romero was the first to subtract the controlling force of the zombie master from the equation and give his zombies an inexplicable hunger for human flesh. He doesn't offer any explanation for why the dead rise, but that's not what matters here. The horror of being attacked by a mindless violent mob is what characterizes zombies more than anything, and this is what Romero captures perfectly in this film.

3. Dawn of the Dead (1978)

This is another Romero film, but it ups the ante as far as scope, gore, intensity, and social commentary. You can read it as a statement on consumerism or just a straight-up survival horror film. Either way it's considered by many to be THE classic zombie film.

4. Zombie (1979)

It wasn't long after the Romero films gained popularity that the Italian exploitation directors jumped on the bandwagon and began making knock-offs. Lucio Fulci was arguably one of the best Italian gorehound directors of the time, and several of his signature touches (including graphic eyeball trauma) are present in this film, which was banned in several countries for its gratuitous violence. The plot borders on nonexistent, but plot isn't really what this movie is about. This is probably the only film you'll ever see where a zombie fights an actual shark.

5. The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

The eighties brought with them a slew of terrible horror films infused with comedy, and this is one of the best. Concieved as an unauthorized sequel to Night of the Living Dead, this film follows a group of teenagers who unwittingly release the agent that caused the original outbreak of living dead from the original film. For some reason, these zombies can talk and hunger specifically for "brains..." (To my knowledge, this is where the moan of "braaains" originated.) It's lots of fun provided you don't take it too seriously.

6. The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

The voodoo roots of the zombie genre didn't die out completely with the advent of the Romero films. Wes Craven directed this film which is based on allegedly true events. While it's not a graphic gore-fest like some of its predecessors, it manages to maintain a high level of tension and a surprisingly strong plot throughout.

7. Braindead (Dead Alive) (1992)

This semi-obscure film is from director Peter Jackson (yes, that Peter Jackson) who got his start making low-budget B-horror films like this one. What it lacks in production value, it makes up for in gross-out comedic genius. With camera angles and characters that could have come straight from Terry Gilliam and some of the most disgusting slapstick ever recorded on film, this one slowly builds up to a climax so intense that you won't know whether to laugh or puke.

8. Resident Evil (2002)

The recent popularity of zombies owes significant debt to the presence of zombies in video games - notably the Resident Evil series. If you can't get your hands on the games, this movie can serve as an adequate stand-in. It captures the frenetic action of the games without forgetting that it's primarily a horror film.

9. 28 Days Later (2002)

One of the coolest things about zombies is that on a large enough scale they inevitably lead to the end of civilization. The post-apocalypse genre goes hand in hand with zombies, and the two have been blended since the early days of Romero. No other film does it quite as well as this one though. Its apocalyptic landscapes are eerily quiet and deceptively peaceful until you realize that they're just interludes between brutally violent scenes (not all of which are due to zombies).

10. Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Peter Jackson's zombie-comedy was a little too extreme to make it into the mainstream, but this British film was a surprise hit on a scale that nobody anticipated. It's the perfect blend of comedy, horror, and romance (which I suppose makes it a zom-rom-com) that pokes fun at all the zombie tropes while simultaneously utilizing them to satirize the mundanity of modern life. On top of that, it maintains its humor long enough that you might not realize it's building up to some genuinely horrific scenes.

These films really just skim the surface of the zombie genre. There are loads more films out there, which unfortunately vary widely in quality. For me though, some of the fun of zombie movies comes through sifting through the really bad ones. Wikipedia provides this nearly inexhaustible list.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Things in Library Books

I was at the library today looking for something to read and while I was browsing some cheap fantasy novel, I found a bookmark (not really out of the ordinary).

It was clearly made by a kid - it's just a piece of laminated construction paper that's been written on with pencil. On the front was the name "Gabe" up at the top, and a list of what are presumably character traits belonging to Gabe. See the picture below.

I'm not sure why that smiley face has so many teeth. I flipped it over to the back, expecting to see more stickers or decorations, but what I found instead was this:

That reads: "as long as you keep going you will survive the world we live in."

What? A little more morbid than what I was expecting. Good luck Gabe, whoever you are.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

My Magnificent New York Karaoke Concert

So this one time last April I was in New York with two fellow rockstars. We were hanging out in swanky lounges and the like, brushing elbows with famous people and casually giving ridiculously large tips to the waitstaff. We laughed at the pettiness of everyone else around us and were just about to call it a night and head back to the apartment to freebase some botox, when I heard four magic syllables float through on a warm breeze...


A FIRE grew inside my chest as my heart swelled and my vocal chords filled with vitality. KARAOKE was about to begin and once heard, this siren's song of a word was not easily resisted. I ran to the street, stood in front of a cab to stop it, then pulled the current passengers out so that my friends could enter and we could begin the magic.

We arrived at SING SING KARAOKE and were quickly ushered into a private room. Many audience members have passed out and/or died during my past karaoke performances, due to heart conditions, brain conditions, pregnancy, alcohol consumption and/or illegal drugs, exposure to sonic frequencies outside the normal spectrum of human hearing, etc. I am many things, but I am not a doctor, so it's not my place to speculate on the fate of these souls. Needless to say, I respect the staff of SING SING for allowing us to occupy a private room and can with some confidence say that it allowed the few patrons who did find their way into the room a distinctly more intimate performance.

The setlist of the performance is listed below:

1. Starman - David Bowie
2. Thong Song - Sisqo
3. Sweet Caroline - Neil Diamond
4-?. A medley which may have contained, among other things: Tom Jones, Sir Mix-A-Lot, Britney Spears, N*Sync, or some other unconscionable mix of pop songs. The air had begun to thicken and bend light in odd ways and I can safely say that nobody present fully remembers this part of the evening.
? (Encore). Carolina in My Mind - James Taylor

We were asked to leave by a waiter, but it was at that exact moment that my ego burst out of my chest and ran rampant through the streets of New York like Godzilla, toppling buildings and stepping carelessly on innocents and taxicabs, crushing all that stood in its path.

Hey Brazil

Google analytics tells me that you guys really liked the list of karaoke songs I posted a while back. Thanks for bumping me up to #5 on the google search results for the phrase "magnificent karaoke." The next post is for you.

This site is so dead it's not even funny, but you know, it's times like these (1 am on a Monday during the summer) when it's just the kind of thing that keeps me entertained.

And apparently I'm huge in South America.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

My Favorite Books of 2008

I like keeping track of the books I read. I've done it for at least ten years, and it makes me feel like I've accomplished something when I look back at the list after a while. In no particular order, these are my ten favorite from the 51 that I managed to read this year.

The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

This novel puts a gothic twist on a story set in the dark aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. The novel starts in a fairly straightforward manner, but then falls into stories within stories that reveal the secret histories of characters. While nothing truly supernatural occurs in the novel, you're left with the feeling that truth can sometimes be just as mysterious and terrifying as reality.

Naked, by David Sedaris

After reading all of Sedaris' books early in the year, I can say that this is hands-down my favorite. The title only slightly refers to the story about Sedaris' adventures in a nudist colony, but really alludes to the way in which he completely exposes his past, his family, and his inner thoughts, embarrasing flaws and all. The honesty in the stories is what makes them so memorable. Reading this is like listening to the inner monologue of someone who never fails to find irony and adventure in everyday life.

Into the Wild, by John Krakauer

What might otherwise be an interesting paragraph in a news story becomes a cross-country odyssey across America in search of meaning in modern life. Krakauer chronicles the life of a young man who decided to wander the country on foot and eventually venture into the wilderness to meet his death.

The Books of Blood, by Clive Barker

I thought I was pretty familiar with all of the conventional horror tropes until I read this. Barker's stories are disturbing on a visceral level and focus on themes of bodily transformation as transfiguration. They're also written with more style than any horror I've ever read.

Wastelands, ed. by John Joseph Adams

Post-apocalypse stories are very in vogue at the moment, but this collection proves that there's more to the genre than the survivalist narratives of the nuclear age. Ranging from traditional plague stories (King's “The End of the Whole Mess”) to bleak post-cyberpunk (Lethem's “How We Got In Town and Out Again”), the stories in this book reassure you that there's still a lot of life left after the end has come.

The Course of the Heart, by M. John Harrison

Magic is strange. Fantasy stories tend to use magic more as a plot device rather than focusing on how absolutely bizarre it would be if it truly existed. This story follows three protagonists through the aftermath of a magical experiment gone wrong and the way in which they cope with their supernatural experiences. Harrison portrays magic as something that is terrifying, alienating, and more bizarre than we can truly imagine.

Y: The Last Man (Whys and Wherefores), by Brian K. Vaughn

This is a fitting ending to one of the best comic series I've read in a long time. Yorick Brown is the last man left on earth after a man-killing plague spreads across the world, and in this volume he is finally reunited with his fiance. Vaughn keeps it realistic, ties up all the loose ends in the series, and doesn't settle for easy answers or solutions.

Dead Beat, by Jim Butcher

The Dresden Files are pretty formulaic urban fantasy novels that are made memorable by the snappy conversational narration of wizard-for-hire Harry Dresden. In every Dresden novel, you can count on two things: Dresden is going to get his ass kicked, and he's going to kick some ass. This one is no exception, but also manages to grapple with questions about loyalty, duty, and sacrifice along the way. Also, two words: zombie dinosaur.

Scar Night, by Alan Campbell

This is probably the most flawed novel I've read in a while. The characters are flat, the point of view never really gives us a main character we can become invested in, and the writing tries really hard to be stylish. Despite all this, the ideas were too cool to pass up: a city suspended on chains above a giant abyss, a bloodthirsty god in charge of a subterrainian army of undead, the mastermind behind a government-sponsored genocide gaining control of an ancient starship – there's a lot to like here. Maybe I'm just having flashbacks to Perdido Street Station, but this book had me hooked while I was reading it.

The Stand, by Stephen King

I'm a sucker for post-apocalypse stories, and while this novel didn't really bring anything particularly new to the table, it did one thing that most don't: show you the apocalypse from the beginning to end. King calls this book a tale of “dark Christianity,” and there's no doubt that there's a harsh and unforgiving old testament god lurking behind the scenes here. The scale is epic, and it's a blast following the characters through their multiple trials to redemption or damnation.

I'm kicking off the new year by finishing a couple of books I had started earlier: The Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks, and The Living Dead, edited by John Joseph Adams.