There was a rash of films being removed from Netflix coincidental with the turn of the calendar to February. Too many, in fact, for me to watch them all before they were gone. Besides Touch of Evil, I managed two comedies. Well, I started one and then watched another.
I started watching Whatever Works but I couldn’t manage to finish it. It is a newish/old Woody Allen picture. Newish, as it was released in 2009. Amazingly, that only puts it among the last dozen “new” Woody films. It is also old, however, because it was made using a script written in the early 1970s. Allen created the project with the intent to star actor Zero Mostel, of Fiddler on the Roof and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. When that was no longer possible, the script was shelved.
On-line reviews of Whatever Works were mostly flat. The biggest complaint was that the main character, played by Larry David, was unlikable. I’ve long been a fan of Woody Allen films (although I’ve mostly stopped watching his stuff made after 1990) and it doesn’t sound too different than a lot of his work. It sounded like a complaint from, perhaps, a younger generation who couldn’t quite appreciate Woody’s style. The problem is, they’re right. The main character is just so unpleasant as to be, not simply an exaggeration of the Allen New York archetype, but an absurd and unrealistic characterization of the ultra-liberal, ultra-intellectual, Queens denizen. It becomes hard to tell whether it is supposed to be caricature or what Allen imagines someone really smart would say if he weren’t held back by societal norms.
The character (Boris Yelnikoff, for what its worth) finds a beautiful 21-year-old (played by Evan Rachel Wood) on his doorstep and she moves in with him. As she is from the deep South (Louisiana and Alabama), she is morbidly stupid and takes everything literally. Once again, Allen seems like he might have been trying to say something about cultural clash but decided that rural, Southern culture equates simply to “dumb.” Naturally, the girl falls in love with the geriatric Yelnikoff. I turned it off before they got married.
It all seems so self-indulgent.
Next, I went to another film that’s been on my watchlist for nigh on fifteen years.
Back in the 2002 time frame, a new generation of zombie movies began coming out. Up until that point, I had never gone for the shock-horror genre and so had never watched any of the original Romero films. The first of the Resident Evil movies and 28 Days Later (both 2002 films) marked a resurgence of the genre. Predictably, I had no interest in Resident Evil, both because of the horror genre and due to an utter lack of interest in video-game-to-big-screen conversions. I did, actually, put 28 Days Later on my watch list and soon-after rented it, based on its positive reviews. The other positive review I read around that same time was for Shaun of the Dead. Very positive, in fact. It also went onto my list, but I never managed to watch it.
When it eventually game out on Netflix streaming, Netflix’s algorithms determined that this was a film that would be a must-see for me. In this case, I figured they were probably right but somehow still never got around to watching it. Not until, that is, they decided I would no longer get the chance.
They were right. It is funny. It is also clever, particularly in the core gag wherein the characters repeatedly don’t notice that the zombies are not alive, because, who can tell the difference these days? It also has no trouble holding up after 15 years and 2,000 intervening zombie movies.
So, why Zombies?
Past generations had few qualms about making movies with stock enemies. Frontier Indians, Mexican bandidos, Nazis, Zulus… whomever needed to be cast as villains could also be dehumanized on the screen without a second thought. In the current environment, however, it gets harder and harder to demonize a stereotype. Russians, maybe, still can be cast as criminals and gangsters (and I’m sure Donald Trump’s shadow can keep that going for another decade or so). North Koreans might do if you’ve accidentally cast some other Asian nation and need to backtrack. But, frankly, we’re running out of bad guys.
George Lucas suggested pitting us against masses of robotic soldiers and, in doing so, demonstrated its stupidity. Why would flesh-and-blood creatures engage in a war of attrition against mass-produced machinery? Makes no sense. Peter Jackson raised the bar, somewhat, with his Orcs – still mass produced (per the film, at least) but nevertheless a foreign race competing for our living space. At the same time, they were a foreign race whom it cannot be “racist” to discriminate against because they’re evil. Kind of like MAGA hat-wearing Catholic School teenagers. But unlike the red-hatted masses, they’re pulled out of the realm of fantasy and so limited in both their allegorical potential as well as their suitability in a large number of film genres.
Enter the Zombie. The Zombie is human and, indeed, is (much like our ideal society) a wonderful mix of gender, ethnic group, body type, and sexual orientation. At the same time, they are obviously “the other.” They can be immediately identified as not-one-of-us and also have absolutely nothing that engenders sympathy. But being human, they can easily (and as subtly as necessary) be stand-ins for whatever fellow humans we consider the new enemy. They also, if films are any indication, likely to spring up at almost any time for a wide and wild variety of reasons.
Mindless, slow witted masses are perhaps something we all feel these days. Don’t we all fantasize about taking the world back from them?