Friday, May 15, 2009

Falloujapalooza (2004)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, MAY 15 - This originally ran in Punk Planet 62.


Of the many sad chores of adulthood, not many are as poignant as the trampling of one's childhood terrors. If you were ten during the Carter years, for example, you may have been traumatized by twin taboos known as "The Sex Pistols" and "Dawn Of The Dead". Both hung from the overhead adult world as unexplained anomalies, obscene in their impenetrability. What kind of adults trafficked in such weirdness? None that I knew. Blink and suddenly it's 1997 and I'm clapping like a rube at the encore of a Sex Pistols reunion concert in San Francisco. Blink again and it's 2004 and I'm in a theater full of teen-agers, wondering why I just shelled out $9 to see the remake of "Dawn Of The Dead". In the bland hands of Jeep commercial director Zack Snyder, DOTD '04 is only barely distinguishable from the trailers before it, one long, expensive fart of explosions and rap-metal and ugly people doing wretched things.

Except for those first ten minutes. The first ten minutes of this movie scared me. A lot. The action is straightforward enough. Actress Sarah Polley wakes up in her suburban home, escapes her freshly dead boyfriend and emerges onto her front lawn to discover that civilization has fallen apart. For such an abusively crummy flick, this first scene seems spliced from the phantom world that lurks just below the post 9/11 universe. One day you wake up and things are burning and people are trying to kill you. "If I had done the opening 10 minutes and opening credits of the Dawn of the Dead remake," Quentin Tarantino recently told the LA Weekly, "I’d be very proud."

Maybe it's a stupid observation, but there's less fantasy here than I'd like. For Rwandans, dawn of the dead fell on the morning of April 7, 1994, when Hutus, mobilizing after the plane crash of president Habyarimana, began killing their fellow Tutsis. There is a western view, I think, of that genocide as a rural affair. But its mechanics were at least as urban (and faithful to the logic of bad nightmares) as those first ten minutes of the "Dawn..." remake. Writer Phillip Gourevitch probed the '94 massacre from four years in the future, and his description seems cinematically familiar;

Neighbors hacked neighbors to death in their homes, and colleagues hacked colleagues to death in their workplaces. Doctors killed their patients and schoolteachers killed their pupils.

Kurt Cobain was found dead the next day. I'm writing in April, so his death anniversary is still fresh on the magazine racks. I'm not surprised that there's been more coverage in 2004 of Cobain than the Rwandans. And I don't think it's necessarily selfish of Americans that Kurt Cobain made more of an impression the deaths of 800,000 + people in central Africa. That's how life works; the death of our next door neighbor moves us far more than the death of someone three blocks away we never met. What does surprise me is my own narrow frame of reference. In the last ten years, I've met a lot of people who've intersected Cobain's life. But I have yet to meet anyone with even the slightest connection to Rwanda. Except for a crew of surly Nigerians who worked at a Cranston, RI Dunkin' Donuts I used to frequent, I don't think I've even met anyone from the entire continent of Africa. That's a large gray zone.

Unwanted introspection of an insulated life is only one on a long list of dreads this movie picks at. There is fear of crime, fear of loss, fear of death, and being eaten, and of the apocalypse. If one can accept that there is some brutal interior to the human brain that makes people write computer viruses and kill seals, then it's not so hard to accept that there may be an even further reptilian inner core of brain matter that reduces people to wheezing cannibals (or at least compels them to butcher their neighbors with machetes, grenades and something called the masu, which Gourevitch explains is "a club studded with nails").

It's been a month, and I keep thinking about this stupid movie. At least once a day I find myself sizing up survival scenarios in the dressing room at the thrift store, in parking lots, at the supermarket. Last month's newspapers made hash of the "fast zombie" phenomenon in modern movies, as if this had some deep cultural significance. But most newspapers didn't bother to review the movie. The LA Weekly never covered the film and the New Yorker listed it only as a one liner in the 'Now Playing' section. These omissions seem ominously suspicious as I lay awake at night, pondering some wider conspiracy, listening for barely audible scrapes and shuffles in the back yard, police helicopters swooping over my neighborhood, searching by spotlight for other anonymous intruders.

Helicopters: when I moved to California in the last century these were a nightly occurrence, circling in lazy swoops over my neighborhood. Two years ago the 210 freeway extension was completed three miles to the north. I and the missus drove up for the inauguration and walked on the clean, empty lanes and took some zombie photos with a disposable camera and red food coloring. When the freeway was opened for cars, the helicopters stopped. Perhaps the tides of meth pulled dealers and clandestine lab operators towards the least clogged freeway. Only this spring have the helicopters returned, in force. Their drone and searchlights set a tone of dread each night. Why are they back? Who do they seek in the dead of night?

These are familiar question marks. In downtown L.A., it's hard to not cross through the "homeless containment district" in skid row, passing the "zombies" that shuffle and beg and sleep under tarps, like corpses. At the train station last week, sizing up platforms and nearby lots for zombie escape routes, I overheard two guys talking about their sons in Iraq. This month's photos from Fallouja are more grisly than anything in the DOTD remake. The administration has invented its own motiveless killer responsible for the current carnage in Iraq; the "Baathist dead ender". When I read about KBR contract truck drivers being paid a hefty sum by Halliburton to risk being killed and mutilated, I have to think of Sarah Polley and her small gang driving their doomed trucks through crowds of undead antagonists. In the newspapers, Iraqi opposition fighters are usually blurred in flight. On the DOTD remake poster, the zombies are faceless ciphers. What is this "Green Zone" - that walled off section of central Baghdad, bordered by the Tigris on one side and feet of blast-proof concrete on the other- if not the classic compound of all zombie films?

On DOTD's gravest charge - that humanity is doomed- the crystal ball is murkier. Everything is doomed in the long run. Last year, British astronomer Martin Rees gave people 50/50 survival odds for the 21st century. Aren't those at least better odds than we had during the 20th century?