Sunday, January 29, 2012

555 (1988)

Directed by:
Wally Koz

One of the original direct-to-video gore flicks, 555 pretty much typifies no budget 1980s shot-on-video product, with bad acting, even worse dialogue, a silly plot, porno-level sets, visible boom mics, techinical boo-boo's right and left and buckets of blood. As an added bonus, this throws in five topless scenes. It was made by Wally Koz and his Chicago-based, one-shot King Video Productions and was a family affair, featuring contributions from others in the Koz clan. Just scanning the credits, you'll see that Linda Koz was the associate producer, first assistant director, production manager and assistant editor, Roy Koz wrote it, was the still photographer, provided props and plays one of the victims, Sophie Koz was in charge of wardrobe, Walter Koz Sr. was the location scout and "mom" was the caterer. In addition to directing, Wally produced, edited, came up with the original idea and even provided the voice of the police captain. The VHS was (probably self-) distributed through a company called Slaughter House Entertainment. This was their only release and must have been a small one because no video store in my area even carried this title. In 2011, the film got its first official DVD release through Massacre Video.

After opening credits on a gaudy pink background, a young couple are preparing to get it on at the beach at night when they're surprised by a psycho who promptly decapitates the guy and leaves his girl writhing and screaming as blood is flung onto her nude body from off-screen. Hearing the commotion, retired army colonel Peter Wayne (Charles Fuller) gets there just in time to catch a glimpse of the killer; a long-haired hippie in a flowered shirt and bell bottom jeans. At the police station, while he's filing his report, he's all but hassled by Sgt. Conner (Greg Kerouac), who is instantly suspicious of the colonel's story and quick to try to pin the blame onto him. His partner Detective Haller (B.K. Smith) and district attorney Ralph Kennedy (Greg Neilson) are also assigned the case. Everyone is annoyed by the presence of pushy female reporter Susan Rather (Mara-Lynn Bastian), who's sleeping with Ralph and not above doing whatever it takes to get the story as we will later see.

The next night a couple making it in a van are killed. A coroner's report shows that both female victims had been sexually assaulted after being tortured and killed. Since all four of the murders have occurred within close proximity of Colonel Wayne's home and a subsequent investigation uncovers a collection of swords and knives in his den, Conner is more convinced than even that he's the killed and decides to "nail that sick-o son-of-a-bitch." Before they can, the killer sneaks up on a pot-smoking couple in an abandoned "casket factory," chops off the guy's fingers and decapitates him, then stabs the woman in the back, slices up her torso and (leaving his pants on) rapes her corpse. The following evening, a guy is stabbed through the throat and his girlfriend (who is clearly laughing and simply lays in bed and covers her head up with a sheet when the killer comes after her) gets it, too. That's eight murders in four days. It all matches the m.o. of other crimes over a 20 year time period across the eastern United States. Every five years a killer has claimed ten victims over a five day time period then goes into hiding for five years before striking again. It's happened in Baltimore, Springfield, Buffalo and St. Louis... and now it's happening in Chicago.

The film goes to such ridiculous lengths to make you think the killer is poor Col. Wayne (placing him at the cities on the crimes for the past fifteen years, uncovering that he was a POW subjected to physical and psychological torture, etc.) that you just know that he's not really the killer. As an added cheat, the killer is played by a completely different actor than the one eventually unveiled as the killer! At one point, reporter Susan shows up at Colonel Wayne's home, makes out with him and even lets the elderly man feel her up (!) to try to get information from him. The Colonel goes into hiding and when he's finally apprehended, Sgt. Conner - who is driven batty working on this case - tries to force him to confess to the crimes by sticking a gun in his face. But it isn't the cops who uncover the psycho, but our pesky reporter. When Conner shows skepticism on Susan's findings, she shrieks "Listen to me you stubborn Irish cocksucker!" And yes, there's even more beautifully written dialogue to be found within; such as when Sgt. Conner and Det. Haller are sitting around pondering the case...

Detective Haller
We got six victims; three male, three female, all between the ages of 18 and 25.

Sgt. Conner
They were all making love when attacked...

Detective Haller
Yeah. Do you think this guy feels this is the only way her can get a piece of ass? Bad, huh?

Sgt. Connor
They were all college students... or looked like students.

Detective Haller
Look, if this jerk is going to kill every college student looking for a piece of poontang then the colleges around this country are going to have a real attendance problem!

And at a crime scene, two coppers are staring at two bloody bodies under bedsheets...

Officer 1
Where do you wanna go eat after we get out of here?

Officer 2
I don't know, uh, how about some spaghetti?

Officer 1
We did that last night. What's wrong with you? Every time we see a chopped up body, you've gotta have Italian!"

Officer 2
What's wrong with you?

Half of this is set at the police station with the cops sitting around discussing the case. Since there was no budget, the police station is actually just a puke green room with a desk, filing cabinet and couch. Placing this in context of when it was made and comparing it directly to films of the same budget range, there's more nudity and gore than usual. The bloody fx were done by Jeffrey Lyle Segal, who at least provides one decent-looking decapitation, which the filmmakers clearly realized was the best thing going on here since they repeated it twice and decided to put it on the VHS cover. The mystery aspect is pedestrian and ridiculous, and the characters are all pretty obnoxious. The final nail in the coffin is the finale, which is about as unexciting and pat as they come.


Return of the Living Dead, The (1985)

Directed by:
Dan O'Bannon

A comic spin on George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) based - at least in part - on contributions from several Romero movie alum; Night co-writer John A. Russo, Night co-producer Russell Streiner and Rudy Ricci, who co-wrote Romero's romantic comedy THERE'S ALWAYS VANILLA (1971), this managed to carve its own path and proved to be pretty influential in its own right. Originally slated to be directed by Tobe Hopper, O'Bannon got the job instead and did a major re-write on the project's previous materials; adding most of the humor to the film himself. It also happened to be released the same year as DAY OF THE DEAD (1985), Romero's third installment in his "Dead" trilogy. Upon release, instant and perhaps unfair comparisons were drawn between the two films, with Return clearly coming out on top. Being the #1 box office draw the week it debuted, it not only managed to pummel Day (a flop by comparison) at the box office but also received a much-warmer reception from both audiences and mainstream critics. Roger Ebert, for instance, awarded Return with a 3 star "thumb's up" while Day received a discouraging 1 1/2 star "thumb's down." Regardless of the initial reaction nearly thirty years ago, both films have gone on to become very popular and respected films within the genre.

Though I like both movies a lot, I might even have to agree with the general consensus that Return is the more successful of the two, but I only say that judging both by what they were intended to be, not by directly comparing them. Day is a serious, apocalyptic horror tale, whereas Return is a comic spin on zombie films. Romero's film is bleak, gory, claustrophobic and dialogue-heavy. It has some very interesting ideas and is a thoughtful and entertaining film, but suffers from an uneven cast, with several key players giving grating, distracting, over-the-top performances. On the other hand, Return does an impressive balancing act, delivering plenty of laughs (more prevalent in the first half) that somehow never manage to compromise the horror content (which take an increasingly tighter hold as the film progresses). Return is also inventive, clever, well-paced and benefits a lot from the casting of three veteran character actors (Clu Gulager, James Karen and Don Calfa), usually support players all, and giving them each a chance to shine in their respective roles.

Frank (Karen, giving a terrific comic performance here) runs the Uneeda Medical Supply Warehouse in Louisville, Kentucky. After his boss Burt (Gulager) heads out for the Fourth of July weekend, Frank starts showing new employee Freddy (Thom Mathews) the ropes. Down in the basement are several metal drums, accidentally sent there by the military and each containing a shriveled corpse that Frank claims used to be living dead (Frank also claims that - wink, wink - Night of the Living Dead was based on a true story). One of the drums springs a leak, spraying Frank and Freddy directly in the face with a chemical called Trioxin, which knocks them both unconscious. When the two finally come to, they're deathly ill and notice that things in the warehouse that were dead before have miraculously been brought back to life... including a cadaver they have stored in the freezer! They, with help from Burt (who's called back in to help), dismember the corpse with a hacksaw and get nearby mortician Ernie (Calfa) to burn the remains in his crematorium. With the evidence now gone, everyone breaths a sigh of relief... at least temporarily.

The fumes from the crematorium head straight up into the sky, where they cause a sudden thunderstorm. The rain (which contains traces of the toxic chemical) coats the ground at neighboring "Resurrection Cemetery" and bring the dead crawling out of their graves. Freddy's girlfriend Tina (Beverly Randolph) and some other friends just so happen to be there hanging out and end up getting in the middle of things. Unlike most earlier zombie films, the zombies here can talk, are clever enough to lure victims into their clutches (one even uses a police radio to call in more paramedics and cops at one point) and are not so much interested in eating humans as they are feasting on human brains. After all, "It hurts to be dead." Return is also noteworthy for featuring fast-moving, agile zombies who don't just shuffle around, but actually chase after victims. (The number of people who run around claiming that 21 DAYS LATER... [2002] created "running zombies" - and these are people who should know better - is insane!)

Eventually, the military gets wind of what's going down in Louisville and decide to do exactly what the military probably would do in real life if something like this were to occur.

Of the cast, Karen gets most of the laughs (my favorite bit is when he starts beating a revived "split dog" with a crutch!), though both Gulager ("I hit the fucking brain!") and Calfa have their moments. And when the film becomes more serious in tone, all three actors adjust accordingly and smoothly to the material. Another standout in the cast is Linnea Quigley. Playing the role of a morbid punkette named Trash, she does a memorable dance atop a cemetery crypt, is killed and returns from the dead as a zombie... all the while sans clothing. This role turned Quigley into one of the most beloved female horror stars of the last thirty years, though she would seldom get such a high profile movie as this one. Another of the actresses, Jewel Shepard, also used this film to launch her career as a "Scream Queen," though to date she's amassed only a handful of genre film credit and never the lead role. Others in the cast include Miguel A. Nunez Jr. and Mark Venturini (who both had roles in FRIDAY THE 13TH V the same year), John Philbin and Brian Peck.

Some of the zombie make-up is a little minimal and forgettable (every once in awhile a non-made up zombie extra can be spotted amongst the crowd), but the featured effects are solid. The oily, skeletal "tar man" zombie (who escaped from the broken military canister) and a rotten half woman zombie are especially good. There's also a great soundtrack, featuring songs from The Cramps ("The Surfin Dead"), The Damned, Roky Erickson, SSQ and others. Debuting director O'Bannon had already scripted the huge hit ALIEN (1979), and even had some prior experience with zombies, having written the sleeper DEAD & BURIED (1981) a few years earlier. It's a shame he hasn't had the opportunity to direct more because Return and his next effort, the Lovecraft-inspired THE RESURRECTED (1991), are both well above average.

As with all successful horror films, a handful of variable sequels followed. The awkwardly-titled RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, PART II (1988) had some great zombie make-ups and brought back Karen and Matthews (playing different roles), but the humor was mostly obvious and juvenile and the characters were irritating. Brian Yuzna's surprisingly good RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD III (1993) was a serious, tragic love story punctuated with black humor and loads of gore (some of which caused ratings problems). The dreadful RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 4: NECROPOLIS (2004) and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 5: RAVE TO THE GRAVE (2005), which were filmed back-to-back in Eastern Europe and have more in common with brainless action-oriented zombie movies such as RESIDENT EVIL (2002) than their namesake, put the final nail in the coffin for this franchise.

Laurel Entertainment's Richard P. Rubinstein filed an unsuccessful lawsuit to try to prevent the filmmakers from using "Living Dead" in the title. A longer workprint version was unearthed in the early 90s, which ran 24 minutes longer than the theatrical release. In 2011, the two-hour retrospective documentary MORE BRAINS! A RETURN TO THE LIVING DEAD was released and featured interviews with nearly the entire cast and crew.


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