Wednesday, January 7, 2009
The Look That Kills
The trailer for George Romero's latest - and still-untitled - zombie opus is up now and judging from this brief look emphasizing its western-style action, this looks like a lot of fun. Of course, as many an internet talkbacker will point out, it also looks extremely cheap. What's funny to me about this perception isn't that it's wrong - because, honestly, it's obviously a pretty impoverished production - but that it's low budget is considered a negative for so many fans.
While I wish that studios would write people like Romero a blank check for any project they wanted to take on, I find it interesting that genre fans today are so adverse to 'B' movies. I first noticed this attitude when John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars came out in 2001. As soon as the first trailer appeared, the complaints flooded the internet that it looked like some "B" movie. That reaction was an eye-opener for me - I realized that there's a generation (or two) of fans who have been raised to believe that sci-fi, horror, and fantasy are the province of big budget entertainment. This is the T2 generation, the Jurassic Park generation, the Matrix generation. They believe that their monster movies, their zombie films, their space epics should be state-of-the-art productions. If these movies look cheap, if they're not up to par with current technology, then they're not real movies.
I don't believe that every young fan feels this way, but I do believe it's an attitude that exists with the under-25 set in a way it doesn't with Gen-X fans. My generation was the last to be introduced to genre films as B-movies first and then see the big studios gradually make that kind of material their own (well before I saw Star Wars and Superman on the big screen, I saw the likes of Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, The People That Time Forgot, and Empire of the Ants and well into the '80s, it was still common to see B-movies on the big screen along with A-titles).
It used to be a letdown when a big studio would try their hand at horror because more often than not, it would be a bland effort like Ghost Story or The Awakening. Low budget films, on the other hand, had personality. It didn't matter about how slick the film was or what the effects looked like. If a film looked cheap, well, that was usually a good thing. Night of the Living Dead looked cheap - that was how the best horror films ought to look.
But these days, unless they're made with hand-held shaky-cam, modern genre films can't get away with a rudimentary look. They have to be Marcus Nispel's Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Zack Synder's Dawn of the Dead. It used to be the exception - usually an unwelcome exception at that - when a horror film looked too consciously art-directed. Films like Tony Scott's The Hunger, Michael Mann's The Keep, Paul Schrader's Cat People and even Kubrick's The Shining were accused of spending too much time on their stylized looks at the expense of producing any scares. They kept horror at arm's length in a way that low budget films didn't (Ridley Scott's Alien was the rare film to be able to have it both ways - be gorgeous to look at but still be terrifying). But now those films are more in line with the direction that horror films have taken.
Maybe it was just inevitable as technology advanced and audiences became more sophisticated. It also might have something to do with the cost of entertainment. Paying $5 a carload to see a dawn till dawn triple feature at the drive-in is a lot different than paying $10-$12 dollars for a single ticket to see a single movie. Expectations change - people want more bang for their buck. And when they pour hundreds of dollars or more into the latest home entertainment systems, they don't want to be paying that kind of money to watch movies that don't take full advantage of the latest technology. Even if a movie is bad, at least it should look and sound spectacular.
So where does that leave a movie like Romero's latest? This chintzy looking zombie movie? In a better world, it'd be greeted without scorn but in 2009, it can't help but look like an also-ran (I have to wonder if Romero deliberately went with a western angle for this film just to acknowledge how out of step and out of fashion his approach has become). Unfairly or not, a movie from one of the legends of the genre is not even competition for whatever latest teen-oritentated remakes will be screening at multi-plexes this year. To make it as a horror movie today, you have to bring your A-game.
You've got to have a look that kills.