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October Music Roundup: Pokey LaFarge, Haunted Halloween, and the new U2 album


Pokey LaFarge, Riverboat Soul
Last month, I liked the Pokey LaFarge song from the “Now Hear This” compilation so much that I downloaded a whole album from emusic this month.  The songs on this album are all pretty similar (the way most bands are), but that’s part of what makes them great.  I particularly like the upbeat positivity of “La La Blues” and “Daffodil Blues,” the jaunty speed of “Hard Times Come and Go” and the remix of an old classic in “In the Graveyard Now.”  I was also glad to hear their cover of “Old Black Dog,” a song from Koerner, Ray, and Glover that I enjoy.

Various, Haunted Halloween, Vol 1
This album has 25 tracks, many of which are clips from trailers or old horror movies.  The rest are classic monster-themed songs.  They all have the same goofy feeling as that most-classic of monster songs, “The Monster Mash.”  My favorites are “Jam At the Mortuary” and “The Mummy’s Bracelet,” both of which are weird narrative songs, and “Wombie Zombie,” a great dance number.  There are some real misses as well, particularly: most annoying and misogynistic is  Ivan’s “Frankie Frankenstein” and Jan Davis’ “Watusi Zombie,” for it’s jungle sounds that recapitulate the worst parts of the 1940s zombie movies. Weirdest is Don Hinson’s “Riboflavin-Flavored Non-Carbonated Polyunsaturated Blood,” about a scientist who manufactures a fake blood that’s better than the natural stuff — True Blood, in essence.

U2, Songs of Innocence
I generally like U2, so when their new free album showed up in my iTunes, I figured I’d give it a shot.  It’s a fine example of late U2, as far as I can tell, but it didn’t have much impact on me in the listening.  I like “Volcano,” “Song for Someone”, and “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” but not a lot more than the other songs.  I guess my main review here would be: meh.

Compilation, Now Hear This! – The Independent Music Awards 11th Annual Winners (part 2)
It’s always hard to write about compilations, because the song styles are so diverse as to make any statement about the album itself pretty useless.  (I wrote about the first half of this album last month). That said, I liked this album alright.  Highlights are:

  • “Singin’ in Tongues” by Bleu – a pretty good rockin song.
  • “North Side Gal” by JD McPherson – sounds like a song from the Otis Redding / Wilson Pickett era.  In a good way.
  • “Mockingbird” by Spring Creek – a great, bouncy bluegrass song with a bluesy notion.
  • “Brother” by The Soul of John Black – a great blues song.
  • “Roller Coaster” by Kira Willey – a great family song with a zip-zip-zip theme.


“Head to Head (With the Undead)” by Chas ‘n’ Dave – a goofy, catchy song from the movie Cockneys vs. Zombies.  It’s great.

Garfunkel and Oates, three from Music Songs – “One Night Stand” and “Silver Lining” are both great, funny and positive.  But “As You Are” stands out as a great friend/love song.

Pete Seeger, four from American Favorite Ballads – “Oh, How He Lied” is a silly, fun song that’s just DEPRESSING.

Spike Jones, four songs from (Not) Your Standard Spike Jones Collection –”Yankee Doodler” is another of Jones’ jingoistic weird songs with a verse about the Japanese returns to the ol’ racism, as does “Down in Jungle Town” with its ‘African Rhythms.’  I can see why Dr. Demento was relatively restrained with the number of Spike Jones songs he played.  Yikes.

The Wayfarers (ten songs from Music from Around the World – Australia) –”The Australia’s Cup” is all about a team of sailors trying to win the America’s Cup; “The Last Keg on Earth” revisits the old Australian concern with always having enough to drink (viz “A Pub with No Beer”).

Modern Jazz Stylings of Blue Canue Records – four songs that are about what you’d expect.  Still makes me thing of my friend John Chapman, who played jazz bass in Florida, and whom I went out to hear play once or twice.


A guy dropping a box of bees

A Guy Dropping a Box of Bees

Image from page 226 of “The Ninth New York heavy artillery. A history of its organization, services in the defenses of Washington, marches, camps, battles, and muster-out … and a complete roster of the regiment” (1899)

This image was right next to the narrative about the company’s activities on November 5th, 1864, which included no reference to a guy dropping a box of bees.  The company was on patrol at that time, and would, in a few days, help re-elect Abraham Lincoln: “The momentous presidential election of 1864 came on the 8th of November, just as late as possible, and it is not improbable that the movement of the Ninth was delayed till after the voting was done.  Our men gave Lincoln a large vote, as might have been expected.”

The images on this chapter are from Hard Tack and Coffee, 1897, and were used with permission.

The Zombies of Mora Tau – not quite the worst zombie movie…

Zombies of Mora TauThere’s a moment in the short-lived show The Middleman where Natalie Morales’ protagonist argues with her love interest that Zombies of Mora Tau is the worst zombie film ever made, and a great palette-cleanser between viewings of good zombie movies.  First, I’d suggest that you don’t need a palette-cleanser between zombie movies, as the aftertaste of one usually makes the next better (Eww!).  Second, and more importantly, it’s not the worst zombie movie ever made.  But it’s pretty bad.

We follow a crew of intrepid diamond hunters who have gone to Mora Tau to dive for a famed lost chest of diamonds which, they learn later, are guarded by the ship’s crew, animated but not rotting, and not particularly dangerous though menacing.  A few thoughts:

  • Like White Zombie or I Walked with a Zombie, this film begins with outsiders coming to a remote tropical place where the locals know about zombies and the outsiders ignore them to their peril.
  • Unlike most zombie movies of the era, the Mora Tau zombies are a horde of greed zombies, awakened to protect a hoard of diamonds they stole from an African temple.
  • These zombies sleep in a tomb, and rise simultaneously like vampires only at night.  It would be creepy if it weren’t so campy.
  • Our intrepid heroes discover that the zombies are afraid of fire, so they use that to protect themselves.  But oddly, they don’t try to kill the zombies with either fire or dismemberment.  They shoot them once or twice and decide the zombies are unkillable.
  • The close-up scenes in the diving sequences are hilariously bad cut-aways to an obvious prop of a man standing in a diving helmet against a blue background, rather than the diver in situ.

Zombies of Mora Tau is probably worth watching for the completist, but there are so many other movies to enjoy, I don’t think it’s worth watching otherwise.  A few that will scratch a similar itch:

  • The King of the Zombies – slightly silly zombies in a tropical setting
  • Dead Snow – greed zombies being much more menacing
  • The Creature from the Black Lagoon - the terror of unknown depths and diving
  • I Walked with a Zombie – Family drama with a background of old timey zombies
  • I Eat Your Skin – a similar dashing hero, with a little more comedy and some cheerful misogyny.

As for the worst zombie movie ever made, I’d still put Johnny Sunshine or The Dead Hate the Living in that slot.

Revival: A Rural Noir and a great zombie comic

Revival Vol 1 Revival vol 2 Revival Vol 3

Revival vol 1, 2, 3 by Tim Seeley and Mike Morton

It’s winter in rural Wisconsin when the dead come back to life.  Neither mindless nor totally right with the world, the zombies in the story are struggling with being alive again.  They can’t feel things the same way they did, they have some memory blackouts, and they hear weird voices from ghastly figures haunting the woods around Wausau.  Add in the family and friend politics of a small town, a murder mystery, and the pressures of the rest of the world wanting to know just what happened on Revival day, and you’ve got a great comic.

A few more thoughts:

  • Cheers to Seeley and Morton for creating admirable, interesting female characters to headline their comic.  Well done, sirs.  In fact, double cheers around the fact that the denizens they’ve created for the city are all fleshed out people, complicated by their choices and interesting in their interplay.  Even without the zombies, this would be a good story.
  • It’s interesting that they’ve called this a noir story, despite its zombie theme.  In fact, it does fit better as a crime drama than as a story of the undead.  That’s just a dark part of the tale.
  • Seeley and Morton have also done a good job capturing the “trapped in a small town” aspect of King’s Under the Dome.  ( I haven’t seen the show, I’m referring to the book.)  The fact that everyone knows each other makes for a great ratcheting up of the tension as one person’s mistake has ramifications for another person’s troubles.
  • Morton’s art works great for the story — it’s realistic and firmly drawn, which makes the horror scenes work very well.  Most compelling are the moments when the zombie characters become overwhelmed with grief and they begin crying black goo.
  • I also like the balance between small story arcs being resolved and little pieces of a larger tale emerging as the story goes along.  Excellent.

From The Revival, ch 13

Definitely worth reading if you’re a fan of noir comics or zombie comics.  If you, like me, occupy that sweet spot in the middle of that particular venn diagram, you ought to read Revival right away.

Tweets from 2014-10-26 to 2014-11-01

Jolly Hallowe’en

Jolly Hallowe'en post card  (from the New York Public Library Collection)

Jolly Hallowe’en (from the New York Public Library Collection)

I love the note at the bottom: May Fortune Smile On You.  Hear! Hear!

In which I say zombies represent the “downfall of civilization”

All About zombies (Delaware Online)

I was interviewed by Delaware Online for an article about zombies.  Check it out:

It’s a scary, uncertain world: Ebola, ISIS, road rage and home invasions. No wonder we find comfort in zombies, ghosts and creatures of the night.

Zombies represent “the downfall of civilization,” said Brendan Riley, an associate professor of English at Columbia College of Chicago, who teaches an intensive, three-week winter session course that covers the evolution of zombies in film. “We see society falling apart … I find that pretty chilling.”

Yet zombie fear is fleeting. We know – or are pretty sure – the nondead aren’t real. The same isn’t true for ghosts. (link)

I notice the reporter (who was very nice) had to paraphrase me a lot.  I need to remember to speak in short, pithy phrases.

Cabins in the Woods

Last week, after watching Cabin Fever, I started to think about this particular subgenre, and wondered how it would be to watch some of these films side by side.  I discovered that four of them have very similar run-times, check it:

The CabinThe Evil Dead, 1981, 85 min
Cabin Fever, 2002, 92 min
Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, 89 min
The Cabin in the Woods, 95 min

How would these movies be if next to one another?  What would they look like if they played at the same time?  This got me to thinking about the subgenre in a larger way, and I discovered that the Internet doesn’t do a very good job of defining or refining it.  I suspect there is some scholarship that does — something I haven’t looked into yet — but I thought I’d start by making a list of the movies I know fit the genre, and ones I think border it but would be excluded.  (Note, I have not seen all the movies mentioned here, so corrections/opinions welcome; I’ve designated movies I haven’t seen with an asterisk.).

Continue reading ›

JFK on Halloween

Halloween Visitors to the Oval Office

Halloween Visitors (JFK Jr and Caroline) to the Oval Office, 10/31/1963

Here’s JFK in his office on Halloween, 1963.  At first I just included this image because I enjoyed it.  But then it occurred to me to wonder what else happened around that time:

  • That day JFK signed into law the Community Mental Health Act, meant to restructure the way we mentally ill patients.
  • JFK met with J. Edgar Hoover for the last time.

And outside the White House:

  • Ed Sullivan saw the Beatles and their fans at London airport
  • A propane explosion at a Holiday on Ice festival in Indiana killed 74 people.

Just over three weeks later, Kennedy would be assassinated.



Consent, entitlement, and zombies (Deadgirl, part 2)

Trigger Warning: this post discusses sexual assault and harassment.
Spoiler Alert: this post discusses plot points in Deadgirl in detail.

This is not a review of Deadgirl.  For that, you can see this post.  Instead, this post reflects on some resonances I see between the ideas at work in the film and recent flare-ups of misogyny we’ve seen in the last few months, particularly with regard to #GamerGate.

First, I’ll lay out a few scene descriptions.  These are awful, but without them it’s hard to make the leap to the next argument.

1. Upon finding a tied-up zombie girl (without significant decay, so looking more like a drugged girl than a corpse; I use the term ‘girl’ here because that’s what the boys call her–it’s unclear how old she’s supposed to be, but I would suggest late teens to mid twenties), a group of boys argue about what to do with her.  The first encounter ends with Rickie objecting to JT’s intended rape of the girl, but leaving the JT to it rather than objecting more forcefully.  At this point, Rickie believes the girl is alive (not a zombie).

2. Over the course of the film, three more boys will find the zombie girl and of the five, only Rickie refrains from raping her.  The last two boys do so specifically because they’re prodded into it.  The group clearly operates on a mix of bravado, machismo, untethered morality, and peer pressure.  They’re also significantly guided by a strong-willed sociopath who quickly leads them into the most depraved acts.

3. Late in the film, two of the boys decide the zombie girl has become too decayed to continue raping, and they decide to kidnap another woman and turn her into a zombie girl.  At this point, clear lines have been drawn between the ‘good’ characters and the ‘evil’ ones, but the sliding scale of that morality is slippery and fungible in the film.  Of particular note to the discussion here is JT’s final speech to Rickie, suggesting that they were destined for a life of poverty and denial from the women they want, and suggesting that taking what they want is the only way to proceed.

At the heart of the new misogyny, particularly the MRA and PUA communities, lies an assumption of entitlement.  It’s a suggestion that men have a right to women who will sleep with them, and that feminism is a plot to deny men that basic right.  At its heart, it’s a philosophy that imagines women not as individuals with equal rights, but as objects that exist to serve men.  When a toxic community–like PUAs–foster these ideas for one another, they drive one another ever further into that mentality.  The boys in the film go from tentatively touching the bound zombie girl to desiring another and planning to kidnap a woman to make her into one.  It feels intensely similar to the ‘techniques’ shared by Pick-Up Artists who believe sexual relations to be a game, and who cultivate a disregard for womens’ humanity as a basic part of their rhetoric.

Indeed, consent stands as the unspoken issue in the film.  The seemingly-drugged state of the zombie girl gives JT the opportunity to rape her, and their discovery that she is, in fact, dead gives them the excuse to keep doing so.  But aside from Rickie, the characters seem to attach no interest at all in whether what they’re doing is wrong.  In fact, the girl’s nudity implies, to these boys, consent.  By the end of the film, this sense of entitlement has grown such that they’re willing to kidnap women to get what they want.

The film also raises a point that resonates with the argument made by anti-porn and anti-media-violence advocates — that familiarity with a trope decreases sensitivity against it.  In other words, treating women as objects regularly conditions us to treat women as objects.  In his essay from Zombies, Vampires, and Philosophy, “Zombie Gladiators,” Dale Jacquette argues that even in a world of zombies, it would not be in our best interest to kill zombies for sport or entertainment.  Because zombies resemble humans, the regular exposure to their brutalization would inure us to the brutalization of other humans who aren’t zombies.  We see this theme throughout zombie cinema — people who spend a lot of time killing zombies become more willing to kill regular people who get in their way.  (The Walking Dead turns significantly on this idea.)  Deadgirl suggests that the misogynistic and exploitative relationship the boys have with the deadgirl taints their ability to relate to all people, making them cavalier about life and willing to, as I mentioned above, kidnap another woman to get a new “deadgirl.”

As I watched the movie and saw the way the sociopathic leader could taunt and cajole his followers into acts of incredible depravity, I couldn’t help but think of the slavering attack hounds of #GamerGate who pile abuse and hatred on women in gaming.  Like the boys in deadgirl with the zombie, #GamerGaters have stopped seeing their critics as human beings, they’ve lost control of their moral compass, and they’re reveling in the debauchery they’ve wrought. Like Rickie, they’ve failed to sever ties with the awful human beings they’re associated with, and they continue to try and salvage the situation.

The real question is what to make of the people who still imagine #GamerGate can productively be about anything else. When I read the continued defense from #GamerGaters of the movement, claiming to decry the behavior of their colleagues, I can’t help but think of the final sequence in the movie:

After JT stabs Joann, Rickie tries to drag her to safety.  He holds her, telling her he loves her.  Joann coughs blood in his face and groans “Grow up.”

The psychopathy of teenage boys: Deadgirl

DeadgirlTrigger warning: this post explores issues of sexual assault.

Deadgirl is one of the most disturbing movies I’ve ever seen.  I knew, from what little I’d read, that it would be hard to watch, but the film’s surprisingly believable dive into the torments of unbalanced teenage boys cuts to the core.  It’s awful, and stunning.  I want to wash my brain out with soap.

The film revolves around two teenage boys (Rickie and JT) who find a zombie girl tied up in a secret room in the back of an abandoned asylum.  Their struggle about what to do with her (including using her as a sex toy) becomes the center of the movie.  The main moral force–and the central viewpoint–in the film, Rickie, wavers in his willingness to keep the dead girl secret when she seems to be looking at him, sometimes expressing distress, but then devolving to the growling animal state of the conventional movie zombie.  Add to this the growing problems that come from hanging out with zombies and you have a compelling film.  A few thoughts:

  • The early sequences of the film involve the struggle among the friends to decide what to do.  At play are the bonds of lifelong friendship and the peer pressure of teen groups against the meagre moral compass of one of the characters.  The story complicates quickly as they discover the girl is, in fact, a zombie and thus less human in the eyes of some of the boys.  The early sequences feel like they are about frat-house rape, in which the victim has been drugged and the boys cheer one and egg one another on.
  • As the film progresses, it shifts into a fiasco movie, with the boys finding themselves in more and more trouble as the secret horror they’re trying to keep becomes harder and harder to contain.  This results in some lighter scenes in between the extremely dark sequences that make up the bulk of the film.
  • We also come to the horror trope of the mildly-villainous person who goes mad with power as the story goes along.  JT’s descent into madness works very well, and reminds me of 2006’s Slither, which revolves around Grant’s increasing mania (though to be fair, JT is just an amoral bastard rather than being controlled by an alien slug like Grant).
  • The cinematography is this film is particularly well done. Harris Charalambous composes shots that walk the border between voyeuristic and creepy (though lean toward creepy), giving the audience Rickie’s perspective (the curious teenager who hesitates) rather than JT’s (the more willing to break taboos).  As the film progresses, the girl becomes less sexualized and more brutalized, even as the boys around her are becoming degraded and debauched by their continued association with the zombie.  Few movies have used visual metaphor to represent moral taint so effectively.
  • Last, the film effectively explores issues of entitlement and detachment that sit at the root of the modern misogyny.  The attitudes expressed by the boys in the film sound all too familiar for people paying attention to the rampant rise of public sexism and harassment culture, particularly among young men and boys. (I will explore these more thoroughly in a later post.)

There are a few movies that ponder what obligation we have to zombies as beings.  Day of the Dead tackles the idea of zombie-as-person in the Bub storyline, and the extras on Dawn of the Dead include a sequence with a bunch of frat guys trying to rape a zombie (it doesn’t end well for them).  Romero’s films regularly feature stomach-churning sequences in which humans descend into depravity by torturing zombies for amusement — hanging the zombies up for target practice, etc.  Dead Alive also approaches the question of the zombie-kept-alive from a different angle, the one of filial obligation.  But as far as I know, this is one of the only films that wonders about zombies as sex slaves (setting aside porn or soft-porn movies, of which a brief google search suggests there might be many; I did not click any links from that search, so I leave that to one of you, intrepid readers).

I didn’t want to watch Deadgirl.  It’s an unpleasantly horrific movie.  But much of its horror comes not from the debauched and vile things the boys in the film do, but the all-too-believable psychology behind why they do them.  As to whether you should see it?  I really can’t say.  I knew I wouldn’t enjoy it, but I also know it will stick with me for a long time as a crucial and disturbing zombie film.

Tweets from 2014-10-19 to 2014-10-25

Movies you missed me not missing – one sentence reviews (part 3)

xmen-days-of-future-past how-to-train-your-dragon2 snowpiercer the-nut-job Captain-America-The-Winter-Soldier-IMAX-Poster guardians-of-the-galaxy

During my hiatus from blogging, I saw a bunch of movies.  And I didn’t review or mention them here.  I know, you’re crushed. So here I continue a series of one sentence reviews of most of the movies I watched between 2 December 2013 and 5 September 2014.

  • X-Men: Days of Future Past – A pleasant and fun addition to the X-Men series, as long as you don’t think about how the stupid time-travel tale works.
  • How to Train Your Dragon 2 – A well-meaning addition to the franchise that was, to my mind, too “talky.”  It’s supposed to be about dragons, not feelings.
  • Snowpiercer – A pleasant and fun scifi action film with an Asian feel (the axe fight felt like The Raid or similar films), as long as you don’t think about how the stupid train is supposed to work.
  • The Nut Job – Squirrels on a caper: about what you’d expect.
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier – The best of the Marvel superhero movies thus far, with solid character development and a real plot.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy – A great team up action scifi movie directed by James Gunn, the genius behind Slither.

Apocalypse Z: The Beginning of the End – A zombie novel you’ve read before

Apocalypse ZApocalypse Z: The Beginning of the End
by Manel Loureiro

When the zombie disease spreads throughout the world, a lawyer in Spain finds himself trapped in his home, with just a cat and his blog (later, his journal) to keep him company.  As society falls apart, our protagonist learns to deal with the dead, working his way across the zombie-infested landscape, looking for a place to hide from the plague.  Written in an epistolary style, Loureiro’s zombie novel is a decent addition to the genre, but it has very little new to offer.  A few thoughts:

  • Loureiro’s zombies follow the same rules as Max Brooks’ zombies, and this could very well be subtitled “a novel of World War Z.”
  • Unlike most zombie novels, the narrator never really gets very good at killing zombies.  He makes it sound very difficult, and dangerous every time.  The only effective tool he has is his spear gun, and he keeps having to leave the spears for fear of infection or lack of time to retrieve them.
  • The zombies in the novel are a weird mix of overwhelming and stupid.  I like his assertion that they can sense life, more than just see or smell it (though before we really get into that part of it, we’ve finished the novel).
  • One lesson we might learn from this is the way governments would likely exacerbate a zombie outbreak by refusing to share key information about what they are and how to stop them.  One imagines that had the first government to encounter the outbreak properly shared the techniques for dealing with it, there would have been no novel to write.
  • Of course, Mira Grant’s FEED imagines that many people in our world would be saved because we’ve seen zombie movies and would know what to do.  Loureiro fails to address this question, putting Apocalypse Z in a nearby alternate universe where no zombie movies exist.

Overall, Loureiro’s Apocalypse Z is an amusing tale, but one wholly within its genre, bending few rules and breaking none.  If you haven’t read very many zombie novels, it might feel like a fresh story, but for the more experienced reader, you should give it a miss.

Cabin Fever is not a zombie movie, but it feels like one

Cabin FeverCabin Fever

I knew the early Eli Roth movie Cabin Fever is not a zombie movie before I watched it, but it comes up in the recommendations and mentions of such films that I thought it would be a nice change of pace.  The story tells the tale of five college students who travel to a cabin in the woods and … mayhem and madness breaks out.  Only instead of it being because of a zombie outbreak or a spare copy of the Necronomicon, this one happens because of a flesh-eating virus that makes people a little manic and a lot infectious.

A few thoughts about the film (somewhat spoilery):

  • The beginning of the film is too knowing, quite aware that it’s playing into the usual genre but at the same time not twisting it enough.  Watch this film next to Cabin in the Woods to see how pastiche/bricolage can effectively become satire.  This movie is too close to the genre to work well as commentary on it.  This reification of the genre expands in its characters, a cartoonish set of characters that model quite overtly the five archetypes in Whedon’s film.
  • Where we see a change is in the way the characters themselves behave.  Early on, we think maybe the kids going to the cabin are enjoyable avatars for ourselves.  Not so — very quickly they become the worst, abandoning one another, stealing and lying and generally dropping all their humanity at the first sign of trouble.  But this makes their eventual demise in the second half more enjoyable.  We don’t want to see them punished for sex or partying, but for being awful people.
  • The ending which sets up the sequels nicely.  I will certainly watch at least the first, as these are likely to be enjoyably stupid as well.
  • Not surprisingly, the movie consistently reinforces the urban/rural divide, marking the rural as a dangerous place where urban folk had best not go.  On the other hand, the city folk seem deserving of all the ire heaped on them, and the clever reversal of the old shopkeeper’s racism works as a good overturning of the original split.
  • Last, while the movie fits many of the tropes of the horror genre, it’s just as much as fiasco movie (like Blood Simple or Fargo), with the flesh-eating virus destroying people just as effectively as greed does.

Better than I thought it would be, but not really a horror movie, nor a zombie movie.  But it feels like part of a conversation about them.