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From the FtY Vault: How I Lost the Zombie Drinking Game

July 11, 2008

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In honor of Jeff Ignatius (a.k.a. Culture Snob) and his gloriously self-celebrating Self Involvement Blogathon, I’m calling his self-involvement and raising with laziness by “contributing” the first of two repostings of FtY classics of self-involvement — and by classic, I mean a post from nine months back that people actually went to the trouble of posting comments and attracted, like, scores of visitors — scores, I tell you. (You can see the original post. originally written as an addendum to Rob Humanick’s 31 Days of Zombie blogathon, here.)¬†


So just what was I, a grown-up person of usually quite moderate habits, doing bombed out of my skull watching (or sort of watching) George Romero’s legendary zombie spectacular, Dawn of the Dead?

I suffer from an ailment that can be most embarrassing for a putatively with-it, genre-loving cinephile like myself: gore-phobia. I like classical horror quite a bit, but have always been slow to see the strongest stuff. It took me decades to get over the hype and finally see The Exorcist — technically not gory, just throw-uppy and weird-makeupy — though I was glad that I did. (And I swear it was just a coincidence that I was in the bathroom during the spinal tap sequence.)

But my problem has always been gore more than horror. I’ve never been one to think that something not shown is more disturbing than something that is shown; I’d much rather imagine a zombie eating a brain than actually see a zombie eating a brain. I’m not like most people.

So, everytime an interesting horror film comes out that also seems like it might have a fairly high gore factor, I’m in a movie quandary. I’ve skipped a lot films I might have otherwise enjoyed, starting with Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, a few odd earlier David Cronenberg films, almost the entire oeuvre of Takashi Miike (I dug his musical black comedy, Happiness of the Katakuris, however.) There are also several non-genre “serious” films , like Irreversible and Man Bites Dog, that I’ve wound up avoiding not because I expect them to be Hershel Gordon Lewis-style gorestravaganzas, but because, after reading scads of reviews, I’m not sure just how far they go and it’s not like having my faith in humanity destroyed is my idea of a fun night at the movies. Well, not usually.

As for so-called “torture porn,” forget it. To me, there’s something inherently wrong with any torture scene that goes longer than a few seconds or minutes. (Anyone remember when the now-somewhat quaint and brief little torture scene in Reservoir Dogs was causing some people to flee screenings?) I even skipped The Passion of the Christ, which I really should see for political reasons — though that’s a special case because, among other issues, its approach sounds about as edifying as spending ninety minutes watching Socrates gag on hemlock.

On the other hand, I’ve seen my share of films that raised hackles over their bloody violence only to be surprised at how un-bothered I was by any of it. Eastern Promises only got a wince or two out of me, and I’m still wondering what all the fuss was about the Turkish bath scene, but that may be because I’ve been working on my gorephobia for years.

During those efforts, I’ve found that alcohol can be an effective tool. That started when I sneaked an airplane bottle of vodka into a (morning) showing of Kill Bill, Vol. 1. The booze helped me get over my initial nerves caused by all the ink its bloody violence had generated. I wound up a fan, give or take a nether-regions impalement and a super-fast black and white plucked eyeball. (Damage to eyes is especially disturbing to me, which I learned at age 14 via The Andalusian Dog.)

More recently, I found I had no problem with the mostly silly-gross parts of Grindhouse after just one of those same airplane bottles. (I had meant to take in three bottles…it’s a long movie!) And, well before that, I had even begun to put my big toe into the deep red waters of the Italian giallo masters Dario Argento and Mario Bava. Lately, I’ve taken to bringing those little bottles into movies even when there was no fear factor at all. It’s not a bad start to watching a movie.

But cannibalism in particular is an issue for me and I wondered whether enough alcohol has been manufactured to get me through the zombie classics. Like Dennis Hopper in the Land of the Dead trailer, those guys really do freak me out. I had to practically be tied into a chair and force-fed beer to watch a mid-eighties MTV broadcast of Romero’s relatively mild (but truly frightening) zombie original, Night of the Living Dead.

But lately this has made me feel increasingly silly. When Manohla Dargis can call 2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake “good zombie fun,” and with cannibal zombies becoming such frequent sources of humor in all types of media, being too scared to watch anything dreamed up by a nice guy like George Romero, even if it’s pretty graphic, seems a little wrong. And it’s not like I’m all that squeamish even when cannibals are involved — sure, I wimped out on Hannibal (Ray Liotta’s brains served up like it’s Babette’s Feast…that may still be a problem for me), but Silence of the Lambs is almost movie comfort food for me.

Besides, parts of the original Dawn of the Dead did sound like my kind of entertainment — combining western tropes, sci-fi, and social satire is very much my idea of a good time at the movies. How different is that, really, from Serenity? Okay, pretty gorram different, but it’s not like Romero makes truly dire video nasties along the lines of Cannibal Ferox or Bloodsucking Freaks. From what I understand, Romero is a master of restraint compared to reputed gore-wallower supremo Lucio Fulci, so how bad could it be?

All this, plus 31 Days of Zombies, added up to a kind of a dare. Now was the time. I had to watch Dawn of the Dead or risk losing all self-respect.

Still, one thing about having a movie as your personal mountain to climb — unlike an actual mountain, there was no reason I couldn’t scale it with the aid of some well administered cocktail courage. Heck, I thought, a couple of martinis — three max — and the thing should be a breeze, I told lied to myself.

How did it all work out? I’ll tell you right after a word from our sponsor.

The world’s scariest carpet.

So, I rented the DVD. Anchor Bay’s edition of Dawn of the Dead‘s features the brilliantly ultra-creepy original poster art, and it’s a “special Divimax edition.” I have no idea what “Divimax” is or does, but improved picture quality is supposed to be part of the deal. I would have preferred a “special Crappimax edition” covered in brown paper and featuring a new digital transfer from an unrestored Super 8 print that’s been sitting in Forrest Ackerman’s garage since 1982.

Though the DVD box was an ongoing taunt in my living room, I figured I’d be okay when movie watching time began. A work out at the gym would give me a nice endorphin rush, plus my stomach would be good and empty — more to speed the effect of the alcohol I’d be imbibing than out of any fear of nausea, though there was always that chance — I hadn’t thrown up since I was 10, but then there’s a second time for everything.

I was wrong. By the time I was ready to watch the film, I felt like I was awaiting surgery, or worse. In fact, I’m convinced that I would have reacted better to actual cannibal zombies in my backyard. I usually sip my martinis like a gentlemen, but now was not a time for gentlemanly behavior (Sorry, Mr. Bunuel). I knocked back two martinis, my hands actually shaking slightly. I tried to wait a minute, but at this point the mere act of placing the DVD in my player seemed too much. Time for a third.

Now I was ready to put the DVD on. Seeing as the good people at Anchor Bay chose to put a desaturated view of the film’s absolute grossest scene on the DVD menu, maybe it was a good thing that I waited. The DVD itself had artwork drawn from the infamous youngish-zombie-with-a-saber-in-his-head shot, which had once left me shell-shocked when some prankster at the L.A. Weekly back in ’79 or ’80 decided it was an appropriate companion for a film review.

I was time for another martini. Then, finally starting to feel a bit tipsy, it was time to press “play.”

Okay, so usually, when I watch a movie, I like the sound to be as high as I can get away without damage to my ears or my relations with others. This time, however, I turned the sound on just loud enough to be audible. Usually, I sit at the part of my couch closest to the television. Now, I stood up behind my couch for the first few minutes, as I watched the film’s pretty brilliant opening sequence in a T.V. station and that ingenious Dario Argento-like opening shot with the scary carpet. (Argento co-produced Dawn and his rock band, the Goblins Goblin, did the alternately ultra-creepy/ultra-campy music.)

The level of acting in the film is decent by grindhouse standards, but perhaps less than Actor’s Studio quality. It doesn’t matter. Romero’s understands how to generate tension by pacing the dialogue and getting his actors to speak with intensity, if not much feeling. I started to get nervous and decided to turn the color off. If I watched Dawn in black and white, that would still count, right?

Time for a boilermaker. And so, as I finally felt calm enough to sit on the couch with my beer, following four martinis (well over 8 ounces of gin) and a shot of whiskey, I suddenly didn’t feel nervous at all. Not one bit. As a SWAT team invaded a housing project, I turned the color back on, leaned back, suddenly very ready to enjoy a bit of ultraviolence.

A couple of hours later, the movie was over and I was fine. I felt a bit icky, perhaps — but that was entirely the alcohol’s doing, not the movie’s. I got up and made a quick dinner — yes, I actually ate. (As Dawn reminds us, eating doesn’t require much higher brain functioning.) I tried to drink as much water as I could to stave off a hangover, and somehow managed to put my dishes in the dishwasher and toddle off to bed. I did not remember that I had been so drunk that I actually had been unable to operate the television for part of the movie. (I’m told that a tolerant, pre-warned housemate came to my assistance. Embarrassing.)

A few hours later I woke up, still pretty drunk, but much more cognizant than before. I’d finally seen Dawn of the Dead…but what did I remember? A bunch of people yelling at each other in a television station, the SWAT raid…well, some guys running around and a couple of zombies taking fairly non-bloody bullets in the head. And some scenes in a mall. That it was it. What I remembered, you can play on the Disney Channel. Well, no, actually, but Spike TV for sure. I slept the sleep of the wussy.


The next morning I was, of course, not feeling too well. I don’t get classic-style hangovers, but its not like I felt my best either. Regardless, I was mostly irritated with myself for my panic. I had two options, declare defeat at the hands of the zombies or watch the thing again…pretty much stone cold sober. Even if I was the kind of person who wouldn’t be embarrassed to cop to drinking martinis at nine in the morning, drinking much of anything alcoholic was the last thing I wanted to do. (Also, I had work to do later in the day. Some guys can drink and write, not me.)

I thought about it and decided I could hack watching the movie again and get it over with for real. I did remember parts of it, which helped. Besides, it was a pleasant morning, the wind and the wildfires had already begun receding, and the world didn’t seem especially scary. Wasn’t it silly to be afraid of products provided mostly by Max Factor, with occasional help from a butcher shop? I could do this thing.

I started the film, again, that great opening scene in the television studio — and what a relief that they aren’t all overrun by zombies right then. That would have been an easy bit of self-reflexive satire and, besides, I was grateful for the respite.

Then, the attack on the housing project. Oh yeah, I remember that exploding head. These days, decapitations and the like rarely bother me, and it wasn’t a particularly graphic exploding head (no chunks that I could see, and I wasn’t about to run it in slow motion to be sure). Still, the tension was getting to me. So I did something I’ve never done before and went the hair-of-the-dog route — which, of course, meant a Bloody Mary.

And then I sat back down. Strangely, I was only a little bothered by the shots of zombies chowing down on dismembered arms and legs. But then, it was time for the boyfriend zombie to bit a couple of chunks out of the girlfriend not-yet-a-zombie. This is done fully on camera, and I have to admit I found it upsetting. I hit the pause button and took a trip to the bathroom, nevertheless determined to return. I noted that there was no particular focus on brain-eating. One must be thankful for small favors.

I came back, sat in the corner furthest from the television and watched the rest of the movie, wincing only occasionally. While I never really relaxed enough to really have fun with it, aside from a few moments of gut munching and that famous bit of head slicing right near the end, my head was pretty much uncovered by my hands.

And what did I think of the movie? Pretty impressive to be sure, but I’m not sure if I actually need to discuss it in detail — it’s certainly been written about enough. I was just happy I’d finally met it head on and endured the entire 126 minute running time. After all, Edmund Hillary didn’t review Everest.

I had made it. Now I find that I actually really want to see Re-animator and I can reward myself with Shaun of the Dead. Zombies are funny — but then scary things usually are.

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