The Dead Do What The Dead Do, Dude

George A. Romero had a way with zombies. His first three zombie films, the trilogy if you will, stand as a testament to the whole zombie genre of filmmaking in my eyes. Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead were not only horrific tales of the dead rising from their graves(or from wherever they may have dropped dead initially), but there was real biting(no pun intended) social commentary within those two films.

Night came out at a time when the civil rights movement, Jim Crow, and segregation were all still very much in the forefront of social and political discussion. He mixed old school horror, new school gore, and very real race issues into a one of a kind late night drive-in flick.

Dawn took a small group of survivors(including two from a news channel and two soldiers) and dropped them in the relative safety of an abandoned mall to attempt to rebuild their lives. It really spoke to a time in the late 70s when malls were becoming all the rage and on some existential level a place where we felt at home. A one stop shopping experience where we could buy clothes, appliances, semi-automatic weapons, jewelry, and grab an Orange Julius while we were at it. As our protagonists found out, no matter how many amenities we may have, life and living can’t be created out of thin air.

So that leaves us with the third film, Day of the Dead. It is obviously the lesser of the three. It had the potential to be another amazing horror film, but the budget was cut drastically which caused Romero to cut down the screenplay significantly which caused his story to lack. Here’s the thing, I think that may be partially true. There’s a feeling that Romero had a lot more to say about the militarization of the country in an apocalyptic situation such as a zombie invasion. And I could see a case for science vs soldiers. These could have been really interesting topics to explore had their been the money and proper resources for Romero to work with. As it turns out he took a 200 page script and cut it down to an 88 page script. I would’ve gladly sat through a 3-hour epic story about zombies, soldiers, scientists, and the battle to save civilization. What we got was a movie with a lot of overacting, scene-chewing, lots of yelling, a strong female lead, stereotypes, misogynistic soldiers, and some of the best gore from the 80s.

So many characters over shot in this film; in-particular Joseph Pilato as Capt Henry Rhodes, Anthony Dileo Jr as Salazar, and the gruesome twosome soldiers under Pilato’s Rhodes. There was just so much chewing of the scenes here that it made it hard to even concentrate on the well done acting that was going on(Lori Cardille, Richard Liberty, and Sherman Howard were actually great in this.) I’m not against hamming it up a bit for the sake of fun, but the crassness of the soldiers towards the female doctor was just a little over the top for me. I think it would’ve been more effective for the misogyny to take a backseat to more existential dread of being stuck in an underground base for all eternity.

Despite all that I still love this film.

I recently grabbed the reissue of John Harrison’s excellent score courtesy of Waxwork Records. Putting this on the turntable I was reminded how much I really liked the music in this film. When it starts playing I’m instantly taken to those scenes. The opening scene of Dr. Sarah Bowman’s nightmare, to the title sequence with Tom Savini’s handiwork, to the scenes with Bub re-learning to be human again; the score was a very visceral experience for me. It’s the sort of thing that hits you like something locked away in your subconscious for years that’s set free at the drop of a needle.

Before I oversell this thing, let me first say it’s definitely a dated score. The film came out in 1985 and the soundtrack shows. There’s lots of 80s keyboard tones here. Some of these motifs could have been stand ins for 80s network TV melodramas, but don’t judge it on that. It’s all well done. Harrison made a career out of working with George Romero, having been a Pittsburgh guy himself. He seems to have locked into what Romero needed for his films. As well as Day of the Dead, he scored Creepshow and Tales From The Darkside: The Movie, as well as serving as executive producer on Romero’s Survival of the Dead. He had a lifelong connection with the king of the Dead, so he added just the right touches to Day. It’s a very warm score; human, even. It goes a long way to help add humanity to a lot of living characters that come across as dead inside as the zombies they’re hiding from.

Though Day of the Dead didn’t turn out the way the late master of Horror wanted it to, it’s still a solid chapter in the zombie canon of George Romero. It also has some of the best gore from any film in the 80s thanks to Tom Savini. It’s also got one hell of a score by John Harrison.

October is finally here. Let the horror(of the cinematic variety) begin.

Wanna Fight?

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives has to be one of the most divisive films to come out in some time. It came out with a mountain of expectations crushing it, almost making certain there would be a mob of folks claiming its worthlessness. I mean, when you’re having to follow up a film like Drive its hard not to fall short on some levels. Plus, Refn had been working on a gradual ascension over the years in the world of independent filmmaking with great and visually stunning flicks like Vahalla Rising and Bronson. And to be certain when Only God Forgives hit three years ago it was bashed and battered by most as gratuitous and lacking any real depth of character. I watched it at home that summer on a Saturday afternoon when the family took off somewhere. I had a few hours to myself and rented Only God Forgives while it was still in theaters(one of those on-demand deals or something.) Anyways, while Only God Forgives is indeed a perplexing film and has the feel of a wandering art house flick at times, it’s far from bad. In fact, I found it an absorbing, dream-like fable. It was more a fever dream of a movie that took on elements of revenge, dysfunctional families, crime noir, and a good heaping dose of oedipal complexes. It is gratuitously violent, but when you’re dealing with a character that rarely speaks with words and more through his fists, and a police chief that prefers a katana to a pistol, you’re bound to end up seeing some blood here and there.

IMG_2011I’m not going to go into details about the film, other than to say Refn is a master of visuals. I think Drive is one of the best noir films I’ve seen in years and it has just as much to do with Refn’s direction and keen eye than it did the fine casting of Ryan Gosling, Bryan Cranston, Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, and Ron Perlman. Another huge factor in the overall genius of that film was the score by Cliff Martinez. Martinez has been working as a film composer for almost 30 years, working with Steven Soderbergh quite a bit over those nearly three decades. He first came into my view with Soderbergh’s Kafka. I found a used copy of that soundtrack on CD and listened to it nearly every night going to bed. There was something both peaceful and eerie about that score. It definitely felt like bedtime music to me. But Drive was the one that solidified my love of the guy’s work. That score fit like the glove on Ryan Gosling’s bloodied hand. Heavily electronic with lots of deep, dark synth, that score was as much a character as any hired actor.

onlygodcreditsSo like he did with Soderbergh, Martinez has formed this symbiotic relationship with yet another revered director. He continued as film composer on Only God Forgives, and while he still occasionally visits those electronic undertones, there’s more tension this time around. With a piece like “Ladies Close Your Eyes”, Martinez seems to be going in Brian Reitzell territory with a blitzkrieg of strings and percussion giving you the vibe of anxiety. But at the end it falls into the spell of what feels like a dark lullaby. There’s also plenty of culturally diverse sounds on this as well, as Martinez works in the sounds and feel of Bangkok where the film takes place. “Bride Of Chang” is a pulsating rhythm and feels like a post-modern take on the spaghetti western theme. Pretty great stuff. Like Drive, Martinez’ Only God Forgives score is an absolute tour de force. It compliments Refn’s vision perfectly. It’s dark, moody, colorful, and downright existential at times. The dream-like vibe of film bleeds into the score…or vice versa. It’s hard to tell where one begins and the other ends.

Only God Forgives is pretty light on dialogue(with the exception of the deliciously frightening Kristin Scott Thomas), so this movie feels more like beautifully shot scenes of excess, beauty, and gore. So in some respects Refn’s film feels more like set pieces designed to accentuate the music…even though it’s the complete opposite. Though there’ not much chit chat happening, I feel the Refn is more of a visual guy. He’s a master at framing a shot and filling our eyes with glorious colors and shapes. I’d recently read that Refn is color blind and can only see overwhelming color, which would explain his knack for filling the screen with such vibrant hues. Only God Forgives is that and then some. Cliff Martinez is the perfect partner for Nicolas Winding Refn. He seems to get exactly what Refn is after musically. After working together since 2011 they seem to get each other’s artistic ticks quite well. Creative shorthand. Drive is one of my all-time favorite film scores. While Only God Forgives isn’t one I can put on all the time, it’s still a strikingly stunning piece of celluloid music making.

On a side note: I am currently anxiously awaiting the arrival of Martinez’ newest film score: The Neon Demon S/T. It’s yet another score for a Nicolas Winding Refn film, and one I’m chomping at the bit to see. It looks like yet another druggy, dream-like film beautifully shot and gorgeous to look at. It’s also another critically maligned film. It seems it’s either understood and appreciated for what it is or it’s been called pointless and vapid. I’m sure I’ll love it, and from what I’ve heard of the score its like a Euro techno nightmare. So I know I’m gonna love it!

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Gone Girl Gone

I didn’t find myself a fan of Nine Inch Nails until around 2005. Before that I always felt that the nihilism and angst was too overwrought. I couldn’t get into Trent Reznor’s techno/industrial dirges, even when he had a line in a song like “I want to fuck you like an animal/I want to feel you from the inside”. With a line like that I  thought for sure I’d dig it. Turns out, nope. But in 2005 something changed. NINs With Teeth connected with me. I dug the live feel of the record. I dug Reznor’s more clear-eyed vision of anger. He didn’t seem to be submerged in a pool of self-hate anymore. He seemed to be aiming that anger outward, into the world. I could appreciate that. The following year he dropped Year Zero, a little electronic classic in my book. He was aiming directly at the Bush administration and their turning the country towards a “Big Brother”-like future. That very next year Reznor put out Ghosts I-IV. This record was a double album that was a series of soundscapes, presented as little vignettes of music. It truly came across as a score to some long lost movie.

13576319_1033705853403327_465641357_nI think Ghosts was Reznor and Atticus Ross getting their feet wet in the idea of film scoring. In 2010 that idea came to fruition when Reznor and Ross scored David Fincher’s The Social Network. That score was a heavy dose of synthesizer and cinematic techno. It’s a stunning score, and one that helped to move that film along wonderfully. With Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo I wasn’t as impressed. A well done film, but the Swedish original was a much better portrayal of Stieg Larsson’s novel. And Noomi Rapace captured Lisbeth’s analytical and methodical personality better than Roony Mara. The Reznor/Ross score was good, but as a standalone it was a rather repetitive listen. Fortunately Fincher worked with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross again with 2014s Gone Girl. For my ears, it’s the finest work Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have done thus far. It was also one hell of a movie.

So just a quick aside about David Fincher. I had been on board with Fincher ever since I saw Se7en in the theater back in 1995. I felt it was a masterful film; dark, taught, and suspenseful as hell. Andrew Kevin Walker’s script helped, but Fincher’s vision came through. I loved The Game as well with Michael Douglas and Sean Penn. Then in 1999 he laid on us Fight Club, a tour de force(at the time) of gutter violence, jet black humor, and a biting social commentary on conformity and commodity. So then a few years later, after the wife and I had a couple kids, we pop in the Fight Club DVD one night for shits and giggles and I got maybe 35 minutes into it and realized I absolutely hated that film. At first I thought I’d lost my taste for Fincher, but I realized it wasn’t him but the source material. Chuck Palahniuk’s novel left a nasty taste in my mouth. Maybe I was getting too old for that much snarkiness or the sharp sarcasm just wasn’t getting through my brain anymore, but I’d just as soon line someone’s litter box with that movie than watch it again. Fortunately Fincher got me back with Zodiac. Then from The Social Network on he’s been back in my good graces. With Gone Girl he seems to have solidified his visionary style. The story, without giving anything away, is about a husband and wife who’s marriage and lives crumble when the wife goes missing and the husband is the prime suspect in her disappearance. The story is told in various flashbacks that tell differing views on their marriage and relationships together. It’s one of those movies that grabs you by the short and curlies and never lets go.

13576437_1033705830069996_864947323_nBesides the film itself, the score by Reznor and Ross is understated, sometimes minimal, and ever evolving. Listening to it today I’m reminded of so many different composers’ styles. Unlike their scores for The Social Network and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl is an understated piece. There’s more space in the pieces that allow it to breathe and stretch out around you, slowly filling in the nooks and crannies. Musically it’s like a cross between John Cage, Philip Glass, and Thomas Newman. With Reznor you always get Reznor. He’s never trying to be anyone else but himself. He hides beautiful melodies under the moaning of distortion, feedback, and drone. Ross takes the individual elements that Reznor gathers and turns them in a sonic tapestry. One of my absolute favorite pieces on this double LP is “Like Home”. It’s this slowly building piece of agonizing beauty that as it moves along begins to be engulfed by a sonic howl, until the mournful synth melody that opens the piece is completely devoured. For me, this piece sums up the whole feel of the film itself. A quiet turmoil that ends up swallowing itself.

While I’ve come to appreciate the older work of Trent Reznor and NIN, I’m still more partial to his later output. In particular, his work as a film composer has made me a super fan. His Gone Girl S/T is one of the best film scores I’ve heard in a long time. It’s a great standalone piece as well, and it’s enjoyed many spins on my turntable since I first picked it up(and it will probably continue to get spins for some time.)

Editor’s Note: I’d only recently watched the film Gone Girl. I’ve had the score quite some time before the movie made its way to my Blu Ray player. This is actually a good way to approach a film score. If you can listen to it on its own before you see the film you can come to appreciate its place in the film far more than had you never heard it going into the movie.

Just my geeky opinion, folks.