October 26th, 2009

BEING THERE (1979) *** ½

Peter Sellers stars as Chance the Gardner, a guy who is clearly a few sandwiches short of a picnic, if you catch my drift.  When he isn’t tending to his garden, he’s obsessively watching television.  One day, his benefactor dies and Chance must leave the house for the first time in his life.  Through a set of somewhat contrived circumstances (which is fitting I guess, given that his name is Chance after all), he becomes best friends with a dying billionaire (Melvyn Douglas), romances the sick dude’s wife (Shirley MacLaine), and becomes a top advisor to the President (Jack Warden); all because he constantly spouts gardening advice that people mistake for life-changing metaphors.


I will admit right up front that I am not the world’s biggest Peter Sellers fan.  While I loved him in Dr. Strangelove; the Pink Panther movies were definitely not my cup of tea and his performance in Lolita was downright irritating.  In Being There, he defied the odds and gave me a pretty great performance.  I thought at the beginning he was going to get on my nerves, but his performance became endearing rather quickly.  


What can I say?  I’m a sucker for a good Idiot Becomes a Hero Movie.  Just like Corky Romano, this Chance guy will say something dumb and the people around him misconstrue what he says as wisdom.  The whole premise asks (allow me to quote Obi-Wan Kenobi for a second) who’s the more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him?  It’s a pretty good message and fortunately, director Hal (Harold and Maude) Ashby doesn’t beat us over the head with it.


Sure, the film has it’s share of problems.  It’s overlong, has a couple of half-baked subplots (like the FBI and CIA trying to look into Chance’s past), and the pacing is spotty.  I still say that any movie in which Shirley MacLaine (looking like a fox) masturbates is top notch in my book.


AKA:  Chance.

DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979) ****

To me, reviewing movies like George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead can be somewhat of a difficult task.  I mean what can I tell you about this movie that you already don’t know?  Everyone knows how great it is.  Everyone knows that this flick is the most influential zombie movie ever made.  Everybody knows that this is the movie that made Tom Savani a household name (at least in my household).  Everybody knows that this was the crowning achievement of the splatter era.  Everybody knows the immortal line, “When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth!”  What more needs to be said?


All I can really tell you is this:  I FUCKING LOVE THIS MOVIE.  Is it better than Night of the Living Dead?  Hmm… I don’t know if it’s BETTER but I love them both for vastly different reasons.  Night is atmospheric, dark, and scary.  Dawn is energetic, bright, and fun.  I love the first four of Romero’s zombie epics just about the same (yes, even Land of the Dead), but I may have to give this one the edge.


You know the plot:  Survivors hole up in the Monroeville Mall in Pennsylvania and fend off an army of blue-faced zombies.  Lots of zombies get shot in the head and eventually, the group turns the mall into a sort of paradise.  When a group of vicious bikers break in to the mall for some plundering and pillaging, one of our heroes forgets what is really important (survival; not material things), which leads to their downfall.


Much has been made about Romero using the zombies in the mall as a metaphor for consumerism.  I think that message is there for those who want it.  Critics like Roger Ebert for instance, always bring this point up.  As if they needed some reason other than the tons of gore and action to praise this movie. 


The scenes where the survivors take the mall and claim it as their own are exhilarating; and not just from an action standpoint either.  It’s the practicality of it all that makes it exciting.  (As one character says, “One stop shopping!  Everything you need right at your fingertips!”)  I tell you one thing, if there ever was a zombie outbreak, the mall would be the first place I’d go. 


But there are so many other terrific scenes and wonderful moments throughout the film that make it a classic.  There’s the tense scene where a National Guardsman goes nuts and starts blowing away people in a ghetto tenement.  There’s Ken Foree’s encounter with two zombie rugrats.  There’s the awesome scene where the helicopter blades take off the top of a zombie’s head.  There’s the montage showing zombies stumbling around trying to walk on elevators while Muzak plays.  We even get the world’s first zombie pie fight.


Then of course there is the gore, which is truly awe-inspiring.  Savani’s special effects are as much fun to watch thirty years later as they ever were.  Often imitated and never duplicated, Dawn features more memorable gory set pieces than you could shake a severed body part at.  Throughout the course of the film we get:  a spectacular exploding head, a screwdriver to the ear, and lots and lot of bullets to the head.  (Savani’s generous use of Red Crayola tinged blood is astounding.)  The biker attack finale in particular is a non-stop jamboree of orgiastic gore, guts, and fun.  There’s the immortal machete to the skull, decapitated heads, disembodied hands, a knife in the neck, and the requisite gut ripping.  Romero also gives us a funny little scene where a guy stupidly checks his blood pressure while being attacked by zombies and they leave his arm in the machine.


I guess you could make an argument that the film goes on too long.  At over two hours, it’s probably the longest zombie movie ever made.  (The director’s cut is even longer.)  Some people say you can get too much of a good thing but when the thing you’re getting is this good, why complain?  While the film does have some slower passages (like when our heroes become so desensitized to their surroundings that they start resembling the storefront mannequins), I didn’t mind one bit because Romero is clearly having fun fleshing out his apocalyptic vision.  That vision would grow increasingly darker with his next zombie picture, Day of the Dead.


Dawn of the Dead ranks Number 4 on The Video Vacuum Top Ten Films of 1979, right in between Apocalypse Now and The Warriors.


AKA:  Zombie.  AKA:  Dawn of the Living Dead.  AKA:  Zombie:  Dawn of the Dead.


<Tomorrow’s Horror Franchise Movie:  Day of the Dead (1985)>