Unrated - Cinema of the Extreme

The fusion of horror and comedy, a highly frequent occurrence has embodied popular American genre cinema of the past couple of decades. Sam Raimi’s first two EVIL DEAD films, as well as Stuart Gordon’s immensely popular RE-ANIMATOR are exemplary products for those into it, as their mixing of genres strikes the correct balance, straddling the line between grue and giggles. The horrific elements don’t nullify the humour, and this very humour allows the scenes of delirious carnage and gruesome spectacle to have free rein. As such, these movies successfully present open-minded fans of comic weirdness with the best of both cinematic worlds. Progressing through the 1980s, this combination dominated, and succeeded in conditioning the expectations of many horror film fans.

During the late 1980s, the appearance of movies such as TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2, FRIDAY 13th PART 6, and the FRIGHT NIGHT series led to a paradigm shift. The dividing line between the two genres became extremely lop-sided; tacky humour became dominant. As such, aficionados of the grisly and macabre were severely disappointed, and horror became a joke. Despite the imminent fade into oblivion, the format was to be deeply ingrained within the collective unconscious of its target audience, and subsequently resurrected, albeit with various modifications. This took place in the late ‘90s, represented by post-modern slasher films such as the SCREAM series, and its various imitators and sequels. Although these films succeeded in bringing the two genres back together again, and placing them into the forefront of popular cinematic culture, their tendency to plunge one into self-conscious, ironic spectacle proved annoying for some. The self-referentiality on display did little more than tell the viewer how many cheesy slasher films its makers had seen, and its inability to take itself seriously compromised the possibility to unsettle or to induce heightened experiences of viscera for various members of the audience. GRAVEYARD ALIVE, then, a recent Canadian film that fits into the zombie comedy category, has a wide range of works to draw on, and we will soon discover whether its generic awareness cuts the mustard or immerses us in garbage.

During a brief prologue, a local woodcutter (Erik Kendrick) has his finger pecked by a little chick that he discovers lying by a fallen tree. For some preposterous reason, the man is seriously infected, and is swiftly seen staggering around the countryside, unwittingly - and obscurely - with an axe in his head. He makes his way to the hospital to receive treatment, and briefly wins the heart of the lonely and unattractive nurse Patsy Powers (Anne Day-Jones). Just as the two begin to get close, the woodcutter’s appetite for human flesh awakens, and he satiates this hunger by nibbling Patsy.

Meanwhile, Kapotski (Rolland Laroche), a former doctor and current hospital ‘maintenance engineer’, just happens to be an expert on the subject of zombies. The deaths of his wife and daughter - which sent him off the rails and into this meagre caretaking job - were the result of a "flesh-eating disease." This zombie film equivalent of Van Helsing dispatches the hungry woodcutter by stabbing his "third eye", basically, a euphemism for ‘stab ‘em in the head’. Patsy, after a brief period of mourning, resumes her earlier activities: she yearns for the supposedly attractive Doctor Dox (Karl Gerhardt), a man currently engaged to the obnoxious Goodie Tueschuze (Samantha Slan). Patsy subsequently begins to feel the effects of the woodcutter’s bite, which causes a couple of major personality changes. She starts raiding the mortuary, but in an unlikely ‘twist’ to zombie film conventions also develops a highly charged libido, with the subsequent effect that she overcomes her former inhibitions and becomes a sexy and voluptuous young woman.

In no time at all, Patsy pursues her two latest interests. Not content to merely raid the mortuary, she begins killing the patients. Her advances toward Dr Dox prove to be successful, too, and consequently her activities overlap, as she turns her boyfriend - a complete twat whose face accommodates no more than one, clichéd mock sultry expression - into one of her species. Shortly afterward, however, Kapotski cottons on to what the protagonist is up to, and attempts to pierce her "third eye," apparently meaning the brain. Patsy, however, is too quick-witted, and does away with the old walking cliché with a surgical instrument.

Because of the burgeoning romance, Goodie begins to get extremely jealous. Frequently spying on Patsy, she soon cottons on to the flesh-eating secret of her nemesis. Goodie alerts her colleagues to the situation, with the effect that she gets herself dismissed, for acting unreasonably whilst being in an envious stupor. When Goodie finds herself confined to a sanatorium, owned by a friend of her father’s, Patsy is free to resume her activities, infecting most of the staff. Goodie escapes, and returns to face the living dead who are prowling the hospital corridors, in a climax that isn’t remotely as interesting as a superficially similar scene in Fulci’s THE BEYOND.

GRAVEYARD ALIVE is an appalling film, a horrible slice of kitsch that attempts to rub our faces in its own, excessive self-referentiality, at each given opportunity. Every character is a cardboard cut-out, sporting extremely forced, cheesy facial expressions, in a self-conscious effort to reassure us that what we are watching isn’t unforgivably bad, but deliberately so. To go with the overstated bad acting, the use of dialogue, too, reinforces the self-knowing impression. After going out on an uninspiring date with a fellow nurse, this same man asks Patsy if she’d like to go out with him on the forthcoming Saturday. She replies with the old cliché "I’m washing my hair". After the man persists, asking her about her plans for the following Saturday, she tells him "I wash my hair every Saturday." The film doesn’t attempt to transcend, or to make interesting situations out of its clichés but is instead content to wallow in it.

The production uses a couple of self-conscious cinematic devices to tell us - as if we hadn’t already figured it out by now - that we are watching a film, and unfortunately the picture fails to progress beyond even this arbitrary statement of recognition. The film begins with a horribly performed newscast telling us about the "terrifying events" that have recently ‘happened’ and which we shall shortly see unfold. As such, given the news report ‘format’, we would expect some half-baked fake newsreel footage of zombie attacks to follow but, instead, the film merely unfolds as a film. This discrepancy between what we expect to see and what we do see further enhances the notion that we’re watching a movie. As a self reflexive filmmaker, Elza Kephart is having great difficulty in getting past this revelation, and it seems that this person has very little, if anything else, to say. Consequently, for those who have not caught the childish ‘nudge and wink’ reflexivity bug, one would wonder why, if the filmmakers have nothing interesting on their minds, they don’t just keep quiet! Other dire strategies include dividing the film into various chapters, delineated by title cards, in a desperate attempt to expose the mechanics of narrative construction. If a self-conscious film were one that appears to recognize its own ‘thoughts’ strategies, forms, etc., then GRAVEYARD ALIVE would seem either to be in its earliest infancy, or perhaps to have a teabag for a brain!

In going with this tendency to make a self conscious spectacle out of everything, almost every situation in the film would seem to be derived from some earlier source. As mentioned earlier, the zombies in the hospital climax recall THE BEYOND. Goodie, prowling around the infested corridors resembles the harassed protagonist of Polanski’s REPULSION. Also, the ugly duckling / bitchy popular girl / hunky man love triangle has been done to death in US TV sitcoms, high school comedies, trashy soaps, etc. As we would expect, this notion is ‘recognized’ excessively, to the point that the movie seems to have a seventh generation, pirate copy existence. When, in the early stages of the film, Patsy yearns for Dox, we frequently see her watching TV medical dramas that play out the same scenario, as well as reading sentimental love stories on her lunch break. And, as with other execrable horror films, in the vein of SCREAM, the depiction of characters as possessing an extensive knowledge of horror genre conventions as represented (more indirectly) in this case by zombie hunter Kapotski, whose expert knowledge of zombies doubles back to the makers of this movie itself, and their supposed generic ‘expertise’.

Many viewers feel that the horror comedy, even in its best form, is a bit of a cop-out, for the genre that specializes in depicting the horrific and the frightening is made safe, its effect is diluted. For those whose attitude mirrors that of VIDEODROME’s Max Renn, a man looking for something "tough", something "that bites", expectations remain sorely unfulfilled. If horror becomes the subject of fun and laughs, in any form, it forsakes the ability to provoke or disturb, or to morally challenge the captive viewer who witnesses inventive sequences of violent or unsettling spectacle. GRAVEYARD ALIVE, as we have seen, is one of the most contemptible additions to the comic horror category. It follows the example of its many US antecedents, stretching from Dan ‘O Bannon’s RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD - a parodic would-be sequel to Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD - through to the unfortunate SCREAM films and the SCARY MOVIE series. It follows an endless simulacrum - a wretched self-conscious copy of a copy - and acts as an alibi to the deadening and cannibalistic state of cinematic culture, in which everything has to be referenced, quoted, alluded to and parodied, in order to impress an undemanding viewer.

In this post-modern era, in which so many films, cycles and genres provide such extensive cultural associations, it is too easy for filmmakers to present hackneyed situations that we’ve seen a thousand times before. It is far simpler to jettison originality, invention and unfamiliarity for something that’s been done to death. It is far less difficult to make a deliberately - and unforgivably - bad film, than a good one, thus delineating a truly slack creative process. However, this excessively arbitrary style of filmmaking - which does little more than require film and viewer to meet halfway in a dopey, jokey recognition of badness - can be very disappointing for those with any kind of high expectations relating to cinematic creativity.

Mathew Sanderson

Directed by Elza Kephart

English language
Canada / 2003 / 80 mins / black and white

A Bastard Amber vhs release

NTSC / widescreen 2.35:1



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