Film Review – War of the Dead

‘Living Dead Director Dies,’ was how one newspaper chose to report the passing of George Romero, as if finally settling a paradox. Although he made many other films (including one about killer monkeys, apparently), it is this trilogy, in which he single-handedly invented the concept of modern zombies, which people remember. Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead set the blueprint for all zombies which followed: an outbreak occurs, infection is spread orally (something Michael Douglas can no doubt sympathise with); and through trial and error it is discovered that the only cure is an opportunistic head shot (I don’t know – Tulisa?). Without these there would be no Walking Dead, no 28 Days Later.

Of course Romero wasn’t content to leave it at that, and, after twenty years of silence, chose to follow up with another trilogy of frankly terrible films. Land of the Dead with its belated discovery, never again referred to, that zombies were sensitive beings worthy of sympathy, featured heavy-handed allusions to the Iraq war. Diary of the Dead showed an embarrassing enthusiasm for the found-footage format which audiences had long realised was rubbish, the screen equivalent of your mate’s dad who likes the Kaiser Chiefs. Survival of the Dead features an elderly Irish man with long white hair, given to saying things like ‘Bejasus, Patrick,’ while drinking from a hip flask. Romero’s bold attempt at rewriting the rule book on the depiction of Irish people on film was possibly too bold a departure for audiences. It is perhaps for this reason that scheduled follow-ups, including Holiday of the Dead, Pets of the Dead and Death of the Dead, never got made. So Romero’s other legacy was this affixing of the words ‘of the dead’ to any abstract noun to give viewers the impression they are watching an adequate zombie film.

War of the Dead is one such film. The blurb for the film – war, zombies – leads the viewer to await a film better than it actually is. Spoiler – the film is not better than it actually is.

The film begins with a written explanation, or justification of its existence. In the early stages of the war, it says, the Nazis were carrying out ‘antideath’ experiments on captured Russian soldiers. (The fact that this was two years before Germany invaded the USSR just serves to advertise the spookiness to follow). The Nazis abandoned the experiment and disposed of the test subjects, but now an elite force of American soldiers have been sent to assist Finnish soldiers in destroying the bunker, for a reason which is so obvious it doesn’t require any further clarification. This text helpfully provides some context, which is useful as the remaining 85 minutes of noise and dim lighting make no attempt to do so.

The Finnish and American soldiers – including Jim Carver from The Bill – get into difficulty with enemy soldiers on their way to the bunker, and on falling back are set upon by a scarier army. The dead have risen again and are no respecters of uniform, Americans being bitten by their fallen comrades. The survivors flee the massacre and bump into a mysterious Russian soldier who has knowledge of what is happening and offers his help.

By this point Jim Carver has disappeared, to an unknown destination. In the bad old days this would have meant to the nearest pub or Wine Rack. Being demoted from CID back to uniform triggered a personal crisis whose solution Jim felt could only be found at the bottom of a bottle, more likely several bottles. Many a time he was turning up to work drunk, to the annoyance of close colleagues who respected him too much to inform on him.

And then there came a strange episode in which he went on a quasi-Shakespearean journey of redemption among Sun Hill’s vagrant community, from which he emerged with a resolution to quit the drink.

Not that this was the end of his troubles. Later on he married one of the Avelines from Bread, in what turned out to be a very volatile relationship, sober Jim Carver falling victim to domestic violence.

The Finn, the American and the Russian move from one dark place to another, while shooting at whoever the enemy are. Into this situation are thrown the added complication of German soldiers, still insistent on fighting their conventional war. ‘Goddammit, we should be fighting these things together,’ the American captain says, and thus an American soldier learns about the futility of war. The Germans beaten, the captain takes the opportunity to fight off dozens of zombies entirely on his own while the others search for the radio room in order to send a message for help.

Once the message has been sent, a call for the destruction of the bunker, the Finn and the Soviet try to make their escape topside, in the course of which the kindly Russian falls to his death among the undead horde. The Finn gets to safety, shortly joined by the American, who has successfully punched a hundred zombies in the face. They witness the bunker being destroyed by some impressively bad CGI, before surrendering to an unidentified army who creep up on them.

Anyone drawn to this film by the last three words of the title – and to be fair, that’s literally everyone who took the time to watch – may feel short-changed by the paucity of zombie action. Battle of the Dead might be a better title. Skirmish, Fistycuffs. Moral: never steal another’s clothes to garb your substandard zombies.

 

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The Most Disgusting Story I Have Ever Heard About Dogs

Historians of the future – if there will be such things in those no doubt troubled times – may come to regard 2010 as the height of humanity’s misguided indulgence of anthropomorphism.

This was when Andrex ditched real dogs for the easier to handle and longer lasting alternative of CGI hounds. In this advert dogs drive cars, fly on planes and live in houses like real people do. And the story the advert tells is of a woman dog flying home to see her man dog husband. The husband, a typical lovably bumbling advert man, prepares for her arrival by tidying the house, baking her a cake and arranging some flowers in a charmingly inept manner. (Incidentally, you can tell which dog is which by the fact that the female wears a flower behind her ear and the male wears a watch – just like humans in real life).

 

But it is just as the lady dog is arriving home that the advert throws in its final and worst play at anthropomorphism. This:

Screenshot_2017-07-13-21-15-15

Yes, the dog man has folded the end of the toilet roll into a triangle, like they do in hotels.

Now, even the biggest fan of dogs will be honest with you: dogs can be sickening creatures. They know that for the dog it is only a short crawl from the gutter to the end of the owner’s bed, and will not prettify reality for the sake of a loved pet. A dog would do many things, but a dog would not fold the end of a toilet roll because dogs are not that prissy.

Even the average person who has had no time in their life for dogs knows one ugly fact about them: they eat their own vomit. They are famous for this. But I heard a story about dogs once in which the eating of vomit was far from being the most disgusting element. Even the most experienced dog owner might not know the next fact, if dogs are all they have ever kept.

Dogs love eating cat excrement. They will eat it at any opportunity. It is a special treat for them, like expensive cheese or fancy crisps to normal people. Something in it, some as yet undefined element draws them in, and would make them risk all for its sweet taste.

And so a dog I knew once, living with a cat, availed itself in a stolen moment of the cat’s leavings. Perhaps equipped of a dainty constitution, this dog then felt its stomach rebel, and coughed itself empty onto the carpet. At this point another dog, perhaps feeling left-out over the cat bum bounty, chanced by and ate the shitty vomit mixture left by the first dog.

This is the reality we are dealing with. This is what they do and what they are.

Matt

One Sunday we were onto the second round before we realised there was an empty seat at the table.

‘Where’s Matt then?’

‘I thought he was coming with you.’

‘I thought he was coming with you.’

We phoned him and there was a bit of noise and a voice cutting off.

‘He’s on a train, he says.’

‘A train? What’s he doing on a train on a Sunday?’

‘The berk.’

‘The twat.’

We let it pass as one of those things.  But the next Sunday we were there again and could not help but notice the gap at the table denoting an absence of Matt.

‘Where is he then?’

We phoned him, only to be told that he was on a train into town for some family event.

‘A train?’

‘He bloody loves being on a train on a Sunday.’

‘”Matt, are you free to come to the pub?” “I don’t know. What day did you have in mind, only I can’t do Sundays as I’ll be on a train.”‘

‘”Sorry, can’t come out on Saturday. I’ve got to be up early to be on a train.”‘

“‘No can do, vicar – that’s my train day.”‘

For his birthday we had a t-shirt made with a picture of a train and the words ‘Is it Sunday? Then I must be on a train!’ We set up a Facebook group called ‘Matt loves being on a train on a Sunday’, which he refused to join. I was best man at a wedding, and in my speech I congratulated the bride and groom on their choice of date for the event. ‘Good thing you chose a Saturday. If you’d gone for a Sunday Matt wouldn’t be here. He’d be on a train!’

Matt was shot dead on holiday.

Lost Dog

In the park I saw a man stapling laminated posters to trees, telling of his lost dog.

‘That’s an unusual name,’ I said.

‘It is,’ he agreed. ‘I have no imagination when it comes to naming pets. I would have been happy to call him Dog, but my wife was against it. As a compromise we spelled it backwards, and called him GOD.

‘We welcomed GOD into our lives and we were happy. He made himself at home straight away, and it soon felt as if GOD had always been there. He brought joy and purpose into our world, cheered us on our dark days and enhanced our celebrations with his unconditional love. For three years our home was blessed with the presence of GOD.

‘But then two days ago GOD disappeared. He wasn’t in any of the usual places I looked for him. He wasn’t on the hearth where he was usually to be found. He wasn’t in our daughter’s room, keeping watch over her cradle. I went into the garden and called for him. ‘GOD! GOD! Are you there?’ I went to the woods nearby and cried out “GOD! Oh, GOD! Where are you, GOD?”

‘I told every dog walker in this park that I was searching for GOD and asked if they knew where I could find him. I knocked on door after door to ask if our neighbours had witnessed GOD recently. No one could give me a clear answer. Everywhere I look GOD is not to be found. The world abounds with places GOD should be but is not. I look for GOD but his face is hidden from me. I call out to GOD but he doesn’t hear me.

‘And maybe it sounds ridiculous, but the first thing I notice when I get home is the unmistakable absence of GOD. And the three of us alone, all alone in the universe without a GOD to throw sticks for.’

I saw him again a few days later, tying posters to lamp posts. He looked tired and defeated. I wished him luck, and he thanked me with good grace.

Some Issues Raised By Quantum Leap

In its attempts at predicting the future, sci-fi has generally tended to focus on the big things, rather than the smaller stuff. Writers imagined space travel but not mobile phones, far more influential at the individual level. It was all well and good envisioning life on other planets, but no one ever foresaw ordering a pizza online and following each step in the process. Many have pictured an authoritarian regime which suppresses dissent by means of all-pervasive entertainment, but no one ever guessed that visitors to the Pets at Home website would be leaving reviews of insects.

Much safer then, for those who don’t want to see their predictions embarrassed by the passing of time to go in the other direction. The past is all pretty much known, and barring late revelations (such as the feathered nature of dinosaurs not being discovered before a big-budget film about a dinosaur park), there is less scope for error. Rather than use potential technology to explore the world to come you can send today’s science back in time

Though technically set in the future – the impossibly futuristic-sounding 1999, with blinking lights and handheld computing devices – the series Quantum Leap took this safe approach to time travel. ‘Theorising that one could time travel within his own life time, Doctor Sam Becket stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator – and vanished’. Sam finds himself in various past times, leaping into the body of someone at a critical point in their life. With his hologram friend Al – and Al’s temperamental Lego device which acts like a very specific Google – Sam realises that the purpose of each leap is to correct a mistake made in the past, to allow his hosts to live the lives they should have led.

The seriousness of the situation was bound to be lost on the target viewer at times, specifically those times when Sam leaps into the body of an attractive young woman. As an adolescent boy watching this I knew I would have had a laxer work ethic than Sam. I would not have been in any hurry to sort out the problem, instead being much more likely to just spend the whole time sitting naked in front of a mirror. To be blunt, I would have been too busy wanking to even think about ‘putting right what once went wrong.’

“Sam, this thing’s about to happen.”

“Yeah, give me a minute, Al.”

This phenomenon of leaping into women’s bodies (as it were) raises an obvious question: how does Sam wee? When he looks in a mirror he sees the person whose life he is inhabiting, but does this apply also when he looks down at himself? If he were to use a urinal there are two possibilities which could play out. Would anyone standing nearby see an upright woman miraculously directing an arc of urine into the porcelain, or would Sam just be standing there confused as to why he’s dribbling onto his shoes?

This issue was clarified in the fifth episode of season one, known to fans as The Piss Episode. In a long and needlessly graphic scene Sam demonstrates this whole enigma to Al, who then puffs on his cigar, says “well that explains a lot”, and hits his Lego thing until it makes that noise. This episode was only screened once in Britain, and a power cut on that night meant that viewers in South East England missed the entire thing.

When not urinating, Sam has the task of applying social attitudes of the late 90s to various times from the preceding decades. Thus when confronted by racism, misogyny or homophobia he wisely points out everyone else’s errors, in the interests of promoting understanding. So as well as showing off his knowledge of the future – things he knows about by virtue of having been born decades later than all the people around him – he also smugly shows off his right-on attitudes, as if his liberal outlook didn’t come to him fully formed, inherited from the struggles of previous generations.

This pattern continued for a surprising five seasons, by which time they had long since exhausted all the possible years the programme could visit. In the final episode Sam finds himself in a mysterious mining town, populated by people he recognises from previous leaps. When he looks in the mirror, for the first time in years it is his own face he sees. The metaphysical allusions of the series are fortunately touched on lightly. Whatever force is propelling him through time to correct the little mistakes of history is never defined in any sense which could end up a cop-out. He is given the choice of going back to his old life, or to continue as he has been doing. Excessively good guy that he is, he chooses the latter.

This of course leads to a logical problem. Sam has been travelling for years now, and though for him time is a complicated subject, for the him who stays behind it continues to pass as before. Assuming he is still at the do-gooding business there is almost two decades’ worth of time which he knows nothing of. As a time traveller, he is surely aware that everything he knows is bound to be trumped by generations still to come, who might look back at the futuristic days of 1999 with a similarly forthright and paternalistic attitude. There is nothing to stop the quantum leap accelerator sending another traveller from the future back to meet Sam, to flesh out his incomplete knowledge and tell him where he’s gone wrong.

In one episode, for example, Sam travels back to the time of the Cuban missile crisis, and is accused of being a Communist sympathiser due to telling children that the Russians are just like them. ‘They’re not bad people,’ he says, ‘they don’t want war.’

At which point the traveller from 2017 could appear and say ‘Actually, Sam…’

In that same episode Sam reveals himself to a teenage girl (not in a bad way). ‘Wow! What’s the future like?’ she asks. ‘Are The Beatles still around?’

When Sam goes silent she gets upset. ‘Oh no – it’s John, isn’t it?’

‘Actually, it’s George as well now. Plus Ringo’s a bit of a cunt. That’s technically opinion rather than fact, but …’

And in another fifty years what’s to say that Sam’s dearly held liberal values won’t come to be viewed with squirming embarrassment by our degenerate grandchildren?

‘Sam, I know you’ve been spending days trying to save this black man from prejudice, but I’m from further in the future and I have to tell you that racism is actually good and correct. Sorry, but I’m going to have to take over from here.’

The programme clearly views time as a robust thing. No harm ever comes from Sam’s interference, no knock-on effects which change the future dramatically. But although he is presented as a force for hope, making the world (or America) a happier place one ordinary life at a time, there is still something gloomy about it. However much time Sam spends leaping through lives the task is never ending. And what is in the interests of one person might harm those of another. Years and years down the line, when he has sacrificed a substantial part of his own life, will he realise some mistakes should not go corrected? And wish he’d spent more of the time just sitting naked in front of a mirror?