Saturday, March 12, 2011

Movies: There's no cannibalism in the champagne room.

How can you tell when a trend has lapsed into decadence? Some might suggest that the widespread use of sub-genre formulas is a good sign post. When the creative petrol of a movement is spent, the modern cultural industry, with its accountant's heart and its rat-like aversion to the new, ensures that a trend can coast on the fumes for years. Still, some of the best genre entertainments boldly and sincerely embrace the predictable elements of their genre. Besides, genre works pull so deeply from archetypal forms that it's something of a fool's game to try to separate out laziness from profundity.

The inevitable lapse into self-parody? It is one thing to deploy humor, but the idea of a lapse into self-parody is one did it unintentionally because the restrictions of a genre left you nowhere to go but Stupidsville, U.S.A., and you bought that ticket thinking you were going to Awesome Town. To use a non-horror example, Airplane isn't a lapse into self-parody. It's just a parody. Day After Tomorrow's "we're outrunning cold" scene: that's self-parody. This seems like a no-brainer. When the possibilities of a genre have been so thoroughly explored that any existing avenues basically require that you're an idiot to make or consume the product, then it's time to smack the trend on the ass, say "good game," and tell it to hit the showers. Problem here is, outside of the genre, almost all of the genre looks like self-parody. I don't know whether this is because connoisseurship is prerequisite to genre understanding or whether genre fans are simple too close to know when they're shit's become retarded. Is it that you need a deep and nuanced understanding of zombie films to truly grasp the brilliance of Survival of the Dead or have a small group of true believers convinced themselves that Romero's late career disaster is not a cinematic abortion?

When no systematic approach is available, then the best you can do is pick an arbitrary point and map out the trajectory of the waning trend from your specific frame of reference. So long as you admit your frame of reference is singular, you'll allow others, each observing the same phenomenon from their distinct frames of reference, to make whatever calculations to sync up the observations. Applying this pragmatic solution to the problem, I'm defining my frame of reference thusly: A trend is creatively bankrupt when, within a single year, you get two films mashing-up the trend with strippers.[1] This sounds like a pretty clumsy tool for sorting out the messy field of tropes, but applied correctly, you can really get some fine-detailed results. Take, for example, Robert Rodriguez's 1996 crime flick vampire Holocaust flick, From Dusk Till Dawn. Here two trends, vampires and dead-pan pomo crime flicks, ran up against a stripper in the shapely form of Salma Hayek. There would be no other vampire stripper movies that year, leaving the vampire flick plenty of room to further evolve. The dead-pan pomo crime flick, on the other hand, was also caught slipping Jacksons into the garter of Demi Moore in that year's Striptease. It was the first step on the road to Truth and Consequences, N.M..

From that frame of reference, the year 2008 was officially the year the zombie thing hit intellectual and creative rock bottom. That was the year horror fans were afflicted with Jay Lee's Zombie Strippers and Jason Murphy's Zombies! Zombies! Zombies![2], two films boasting the same log line: zombie outbreak traps survivors in a strip joint.

In the defense of both flicks, the two-stripper-flicks-a-year thing isn't meant as a value judgment. It's simply a law of the universe. The same way the impersonal physical facts of a black hole are imbued with no ethic aspect past vast cosmic indifference, these stripper/zombie movies weren't made to kill of zombie films nor is there something so bad about these films they somehow fatally compromised an otherwise healthy sub-genre. Both films are pitched as nothing more than tasteless horror-comedies. And if you haven't seen worse horror films than either of these offerings, then you simply don't watch many horror films. Nevertheless, despite the manic relentless drive of each of these pics at their best, there's something exhausted at their core. One imagines them personified as one of the strippers they feature so prominently: torn between giving their umpteenth by-the-numbers lap dance to any slob-ola who will fork up enough cheddar and roaming the back of the club listlessly, hoping to run the clock out and remain relatively unmolested until closing time.

Of the two films, Zombie Strippers is the better flick. Admittedly, this is a bit like asking which would you prefer: a punch in the crotch or a kick? The answer is a punch, of course, but it will suck big time either way. Even if we restricted ourselves to comparing production values, name casting, and the willingness to show naked breasts, we'd have to give the dubious title of "Best Stripper-Containing Zombie Film of 2008" award to Zombie Strippers. After an oddly low-rent opening action sequence, ZS manages to find some visual pizzazz despite its tiny budget. This is in part because Lee sporadically embraces a color-saturated minimalist aesthetic that gives the absurd proceedings a pop-art feel that 3Z lacks. The visuals of 3 Z are deeply indebted to the "late American indie broke" aesthetic. From the cheapie visual effects to the sheer number of shots that take place in a set the script must of described as "External. Parking Lot where there's nothing in frame that could cost us any money," the movie is what happens when the limits of imagination and budget don't act as a spur to creativity.

But, honestly, the money issues aside, what gives ZS the edge up is its surprising taste in inspirations. ZS really has two stories going on at once. There's the bog standard Beau Geste plot of hold survivors fighting off a horde of zombies, and then there's the plot actually involving the zombie strippers: a plot that owes less to horror film tropes than classic show biz melodrama. And that weird blend is what gives ZS whatever kick it can claim.

The plot of ZS ain't rocket science. In a no longer applicable near future in which Bush was elected four times and launched wars against pretty much every country in the world, in the town of Sartre, Nebraska (the film's first joke in what my wife calls the "Oh, you've read a book" vein of "humor"), a lab experimenting with reviving dead soldiers to further usefulness has a mishap. Of course, the zombification experiment escapes the lab and infects the dancers and patrons of a local strip club (in this alternate future, Bush's 12-year-reign has given the religious right enough juice to make strip clubs illegal and they're something like speakeasies, only pedaling sexual frustration instead of booze). The club, the Rhino, run by one Ionesco - hammed up by Robert "Freddy" Englund; credited and refered to as Ian; and the second "oh, you've read a book" joke of the film - is basically the sole set of the flick. It's the films world and the isolation adds to the pop-art comic book feel of the proceedings. As the virus spreads, two narrative threads unfold. Inexplicably, getting zombified makes one insanely hot as a stripper. I say inexplicably because, visually, zombified strippers get just as rotty and grotesque as any zombie you'd care to cite. (In the world of this flick, zombie stuff impacts men and women differently - in a wonderfully daffy jab at scientific validity, a lab coat states that this has something to do with XX and XY chromosomes - with female zombies maintaining a significant portion - speech, motivations, memory - of their mental powers, and men becoming mindless types.) But, like the mauled sensualists of Clive Barker's many works, we're simply given to believe that being dead somehow give you insights to levels of the erotic that living people somehow miss.

Smartly, ZS doesn't drink it's own Kool Aid on the whole massive-bodily-trauma-equals-hottie thing. In this sense, it links up with the remake of Night of the Demons in presenting Barker's bizarre elevation of fetishization as a goof. Once the strippers begin to zombify (which, by the way, is recognized as a word by my spellcheck), the story bifurcates: one plot involves the zombified strippers fighting for male flesh as a commodity: male attention is the currency that buys one a place in the stripper hierarchy and male flesh is the fuel that keeps the women running. The second plot involves the the pure strain humans fighting for their survival against the zombified byproducts of the strippers' civil war. Sadly, the second, less interesting plot takes up most of the screen time. The movie is most alive when we're watching the strippers go at one another. The strippers live in an almost completely female world: they exist as characters entirely in relation to one another and the crisis of the plot basically gives the diretor/writer and the actresses the ability to literalize every conflict and play it out. In the moments in which this is happening, the film is strangely captivating.

In his infamously honest essay about the "talented tenth," W.E.B. DuBois metaphorically the self-destructive impulse of an oppressed community as a bucket full of crabs. When one crab thinks it can make a break, the others, in a panic, grab hold of it and keep in the bucket. I don't know how many readers have ever actually seen a container of live crabs, but DuBios description of the mad swirl of armored and weaponized limbs is brutality correct. At one point in ZS there's a scene in which two zombie strippers fight for the role of queen of the roost. They literally rip one another apart. At one point, one uses her vagina against the other as weapon. It was meant, no doubt, as a gross out joke, but that doesn't make it any less horrible true. When one reads some trash talk article from Jezebel or the Broadsheet about a femme apostate, you can pretty much imagine that fight from Zombie Strippers as the metaphorical equivalent. In that sense, Zombie Strippers is one of the few real feminist horror films in the sense that it makes a horror story out of women-centric relationships where men are reduced to something like a unit of exchange.

That said, Zombie! Zombie! Zombie! is genuinely more interested in its strippers as people. There's a great line in 3Z in which one of the strippers, on being invited to a post-show grub session, says she has to study for her finals and begs off. The idea that a stripper might have a life outside of stripping would be completely alien to the weird hothouse environment of ZS. There's another delightful bit when, on the occasion of one stripper sheepishly mentioning that she has a child, the other stripper launch into stories of their own children. For all it's faults - and they are legion - 3Z is has lucid moments of sincere sympathy with real humanity. There's a nice bit, about 30 minutes in, when, after a panicked crowd flees to the strip joint for safety, two members of the crowd get into a a lover's tiff. It isn't dramatically important, but it feels so correct as to make one wonder if it is improvised. I don't want to overpraise 3Z. This is a flick whose idea of dialog includes the clunker: "Them ain't crack whores! Them bitches is crack whore zombies!" (Not quoted from memory - Netflix has truly revolutionized film scholarship.) Still, it would be unfair to deny the flick its moments of strikingly real interaction.

One of the weirdest aspects of 3Z is a strange conflict between the strippers of the film and a group of prostitutes who ply their trade outside in the clubs parking lot. I'm assuming it's the club's parking lot; most of the film's first half hour takes place in nondescript parking lots. For all the nuance the film allows the strippers, the whores are jokes. Their pimp is a buffoon and they are all grotesques. There's a surreal scene in which the strippers and the whores dine in the same greasy spoon and viewer gets to see the differential treatment of the two classes of women. The strippers have shown up to grab a bit of post-work protein, but the whores have shown up to celebrate the anniversary of one year of a certain prostitute's chattel-slavery to their pimp. The celebration of the whores is treated as a lampoon. Do they have children? Are any of them in school? Who cares? 3Z couldn't be bothered. The film posits some weird scale of nobility where stripping is a fine, perhaps even noble profession, but prostitutes are scum. Which is weird, 'cause it's otherwise a remarkably sympathetic film.

[1] This raises a problem: What if the genre trend is strippers themselves? If we're trending narratives about strippers, then every film in the trend features strippers mashed-up - figuratively or literary - with strippers. So is trending strippers like dividing by zero? Not exactly, the idea here isn't that nature abhors a stripper. The question is not the existence of a trend, but whether the trend is crap. Provided the films in our hypothetical stripper sub-genre never came out faster than once a year, we could, theoretically, have a vibrant sub-genre dedicated to the fine art of removing skimpy outfits for money. If, however, the films come out at a rate of two or more a year, we still get a numerically significant trend of stripper flicks. This trend, however, will consist mostly of vapid, junky, dumb flicks.

[2] There's no strictly textual guidance as to whether the title of Mr. Murphy's film should be bellowed, with echo effects, in the style of radio announcer advertising a monster truck show, or does it have more of a plaintive, whiny Jan Bradyish quality. "Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!" or "Marsha! Marsha! Marsha!"? Personally, I alternate between the two styles in response to thematic demands. I leave it as a matter of the reader's taste and conscience.


Jenn said...

" Zombie Strippers is one of the few real feminist horror films in the sense that it makes a horror story out of women-centric relationships where men are reduced to something like a unit of exchange."

Yes! I was more interested in the stripper relationships and how they dealt with the males than the whole zombie angle. The strippers here aren't total bimbos, either, rather they know exactly what they're doing and why, before and after their zombification. Which is all cool by me. I love a damn stripper :)

Great analysis, as usual. You're the only person that can work in W.E.B DuBois in a discussion about zombie strippers that I know :) And that's a good thing!

Gene Phillips said...

Ditto; haven't seen the films yet but the analysis alone makes me want to.

Adam said...

So this post got me wondering if we could validate this theory more systematically. So I wrote some scripts to trawl through wikipedia. The answer is: sort of.