Unrated - Cinema of the Extreme

DEAD CREATURES is a critically acclaimed British horror film directed by Andrew Parkinson. Reviewers have hailed the film’s approach as a unique addition to the zombie mythology insofar as its narrative is entirely concentrated from the perspective of its zombie protagonists. As we will see, this appraisal is way off the mark, but it is a decent, provocative picture with fine performances from its cast. It may also disappoint viewers, for its unlikely approach to the subject matter and its decision to avoid some of the more intriguing philosophical dimensions that the sub-genre has occasionally flirted with. Before scrutinizing this film, however, I will discuss some of its apparent generic precedents for the purpose of context and subsequent analysis.

The zombie is one of the very few antagonists of the genre to be initiated by the cinema, and has been depicted in a number of variable ways; ranging from Romero’s distressing allegories of social failure and apocalypse, to the threat of metaphysical terror featured in Fulci’s maggot-infested bodies without souls. Although the zombie mostly lost its disquieting aura in the 1980s, having been blunted by the pathetic infestation of teenage comedy, the best films depict these creatures as highly insidious and upsetting presences. Not only can these walking corpses reduce a human beings to pieces of meat, they also threaten to transfer their contagion onto others, and with this comes the fear of eternal depersonalization. If you can suspend your disbelief through the running time of a good zombie film, you may find yourself seeing things from the zombie’s perspective, wondering what it would be like to exist as a mindless walking corpse until someone has the common courtesy to shoot you in the head. Or perhaps that’s just one of my personal idiosyncrasies!

A number of films have tried to deal with this discomfiting notion, but for various reasons it is usually papered over somewhat. DAWN OF THE DEAD flirts with the idea, evident during the impending demise of infected S.W.A.T. deserter Roger. As he slips away, Roger tells his pal Peter that he doesn’t "want to be like one of them", and that he will "try not to come back." At this point, director Romero transfers audience identification to Peter, who shoots his now zombified former best buddy. In DAY OF THE DEAD, a squirming victim lays dying on the floor, begging a comrade "Don’t let this happen...Don’t let this happen to me." He is similarly put to death - permanently - with the zombies now posing an external threat, lurking in the mines and gathering around the gates above and outside the military base. The distressing notion is eschewed in favour of straight suspense, as the audience is led to anticipate the later conflict between the living and the living dead. Fulci’s THE BEYOND taps into this fear with far more impact than any other feature, as its protagonists are trapped and condemned to wander the "Sea of Darkness" - in fact a barren supernatural desert - "and all therein that may be explored". The protagonists are now condemned to spend eternity in an inverted hell - cold, empty and agoraphobic - their eyes become blinded and blanked out, the air chokes out of their lungs. It is also an awesome image of existential despair, but occurs at the very end of the film and thus Fulci is unable to pursue its horrific implications.

There is a fundamental reason for this all too brief treatment of a potentially distressing and thought-provoking concept. Cinema is, primarily, a pictorial medium; in the best scenarios, it is about showing rather than telling. Literature, on the other hand, is a medium far more suited to introspection, and consequently has been responsible for the rise of a number of fascinating tales. Clive Barker’s short story ‘Scape-goats’ is a fine example, as it succeeds in telling us much more from the zombie’s perspective, rather than giving us a mere external glimpse of events. Although it keeps with the cinematic tradition of being brief - it happens at the climax of the story – Barker presents us with a vividly disturbing vision of eternal emptiness exemplified by the following extract in which the female protagonist suffers the fate of becoming an underwater zombie, trapped in a literal "Sea of Darkness":

"Ray was holding me too, wrapping me up, pressing his face to mine. There was no purpose in this gesture I suppose. He didn’t know or feel, love or care. And I, losing my life with every second, succumbing to the sea absolutely, couldn’t take pleasure in the intimacy that I’d longed for.

"Too late for love; the sunlight was already a memory. Was it that the world was going out - darkening toward the edges as I died - or that we were now so deep the sun couldn’t penetrate so far? Panic and terror had left me - my heart seemed not to beat at all - my breath didn’t come and go in anguished bursts as it had."

The author then presents to us an icy, unflinching, expressionless catalogue of lingering death: "Now the grip of my companions relaxed, and the gentle tide had its way with me. A rape of the body: a ravaging of skin and muscle, gut, eye, sinus, tongue, brain." Shortly afterward, "Time had no place here. The days may have passed into weeks. I couldn’t know." Then "Relentlessly the tide bears us - sometimes floating, bloated decks for gulls, sometimes half-sunk and nibbled by fish - bears us towards the island." Death is empty, timeless, eternal; it outweighs the wasted faculties of the flesh and is totally without affect or emotion.

As mentioned earlier, the touting of DEAD CREATURES as a zombie film from the perspective of its featured zombies intrigued me. Numerous reviews of the film reinforce this claim, and the filmmakers themselves label this as a zombie film. In spite of this, it must be stated that DEAD CREATURES does not fit comfortably within this sub-genre. If a zombie can be defined as a walking corpse with an appetite for human flesh, this film’s protagonists don’t qualify. The monsters are merely sick people, whose obscure affliction awakens an appetite for human flesh, and who could be more fittingly described as terminally ill cannibals. Also, and perhaps subsequently, some of the more interesting ideas evoked by the zombie mythos - such as depersonalized terror, as well as apocalypse - are jettisoned. Instead, we are treated to what can best be described as a low key drama, from the perspectives of four down to earth women trying their best to pass as normal, cope with various tragedies, eat enough human meat to survive and avoid a melancholy ‘zombie’ hunter. It’s a strange brew, but try and imagine CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE tamed and domesticated by Ken Loach. Fascinating themes have been eschewed and much of what remains is disappointingly reduced to almost TV style dramatics.

In spite of initial dissatisfaction, all is not lost. After viewing the film several times it actually started to grow on me; and it is necessary to judge the film on its own terms, to accept it for what it is and to try to pull out some nuggets. The strong opening sequence sets out various plot strands that coalesce now and again. Reece, a sombre middle-aged man, cruises around Chiswick, abducting flesh-eaters in order to interrogate - and then kill them - in his oppressive BOY MEETS GIRL cellar, complete with dentist chair and bondage collar. Anna, Joe and an extremely sick Alison lounge around in their shoddy flat, forced to flee to another home as they are stalked by Reece; ordinary teenager Sian eyes up a young man in a library and unwittingly sets up a date with a cannibal. This early juxtaposition sets out some of the pros and cons of the film. It crosses the mundane with the genuinely unsettling, the former represented by Anna’s complaints regarding her new accommodation - i.e. "the fucking toilet doesn’t flush properly, the kitchen’s a mess, there’s no hot water, the bathroom smells like an open sewer..." - with the latter encompassed during Reece’s moody, insidious nocturnal activities.

The decision to place the cannibal theme within the confines of social realism causes the film to be an extremely topical one. Various approaches such as the teenage romance and the female bonding tragi-drama are used to confront problems such as the difficulties of finding and living in cheap accommodation, date rape (after her date we learn that Sian was dragged into some bushes, hit on the head and bitten), AIDS (Sian gets infected), and so on. This low-key approach will be a turn-off for many extreme cinema connoisseurs. Instead of being privy to powerful visions from a troubled genius, or distressing concepts evoked through a mastery of cinematic form, we are treated to that staple of Italian neo-realist cinema that mainstream critics seem to love so much: dead time. As such, during many of the quieter moments the film is filled with huge pockets of inactivity: Jo sits around reading J.G. Ballard’s ‘Cocaine Nights’, Anna tells shag stories, the women constantly sit around watching TV, Jo scans through newspapers to look for future housing, Anna rolls a spliff, they visit their friends for a meal... An interesting consequence, however, flowers from this approach. As with the masterful HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, the director does not sensationalize violent and gruesome events. This is exemplified during one of the dinnertime scenes in which we merely see a human arm in the corner of the screen - no close ups, no screaming women, just a nonchalant, regular depiction of a cannibalistic feast. Eating an unfortunate male pickup is about as important as rolling a joint. Consequently, events are rendered even more unsettling because of their fleeting, objective, more readily palatable presentation. It unsettles us; we don’t react strongly enough to that which should be perceived as shocking behaviour.

The film’s episodic narrative contains a fascinating use of repetition and doubling. This works to create some interesting character dynamics: Alison dies, only to be replaced by newcomer Sian; another friend starts to badly degenerate. The plurality of events evokes the futility of their existence. Nowhere is this better evoked, however, than the scene in which Jo is out begging for change and looking for a pickup. We have seen so many cannibals doing their legwork, only to be waylaid by Reece and done away with like cattle in his dingy little hideaway. We then see Reece driving around... Jo, an extremely likable character, is clearly in danger; a sense of foreboding lingers. This short sequence succeeds in being both suspenseful and highly melancholy - it is juxtaposed with Sian’s nocturnal trip to her parents’ house, which she can no longer visit, as she posts a letter to tell them she is OK. Only when we finally witness Reece’s interrogation of Jo, do we discover the enigmatic questions relating to Reece and his motives. The deceased Alison was Reece’s daughter, whom he was searching for; and this is a moment of supreme irony if we consider that Alison was one of the original cannibals, who in her earlier days helped to organize the female flesh-eaters; keeping them together and aiding them in their search for human meat.

The DVD is presented in a very good anamorphic widescreen transfer, and is filled with interesting extras such as a making of documentary and a highly amusing audio commentary.

Mathew Sanderson

Directed by Andrew Parkinson

English language
UK / 2001 / 88 mins

Audio commentary
Cast and crew filmographies
Making of documentary
Fantasia world premiere documentary
SAD MAN, short film by Andrew Parkinson

A Screen Entertainment DVD release

Region 2 / Pal / widescreen 1.85:1 anamorphic / Dolby mono



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