Sunday, November 11, 2012

#144: Laughing Dead (Patrick Gleason, 1998)

Laughing Dead does a lot with its very low budget and is so effective at setting up its dark tone that I can forgive its serious flaws. The film's first half is substantially better than its second half, the acting is amateurish and stilted, and the film never quite gels as a cohesive piece, but it has invention and atmosphere to burn. Writer/director/star Patrick Gleason doesn't have the budget to get all his ambitious ideas off the ground, but what a great first half.
The film opens with a man named Hunter (Gleason) washing up exhausted on a beach. He has little memory of who he is or where he came from. He does know that he's sick from withdrawal and needs a fix. He also quickly realizes that the world he's drifted into is, to quote many characters in the film, "fucked." This is a vaguely New York-ish post-apocalyptic wasteland, but it seems the apocalypse was gradual. There are fleeting references to past overpopulation and environmental disaster, but some infrastructure is left. The survivors live in shacks and dilapidated high-rises where they shoot up a heroin-like drug extracted from a black slug-like insect and watch the few channels still broadcasting on television. These consist of nightmarish images of horror, violence, and creepy clowns, laughtrack-heavy sitcoms, and live coverage of lottery winners presented with their winnings -- "tickets to paradise," Eddie Money not included.
The streets are not good places to hang out, and the people on the streets are in search of drugs, televisions, or prostitutes. A mutation in the population has caused some humans to turn into flesh-eating zombies, while others seem to have some sort of leprosy, limbs falling off and skin rotting away. White trucks comb the streets in search of people, and when they find them, "milkmen" carry them away to a mysterious gated compound. An ominous man in a limousine rides the streets, hitting some people for sport, and then returning to that same compound. Also, giant animals resembling rat/wild boar hybrids roam freely, inspiring my favorite line in the film: "Fuckin' street pigs, man." Also, vampires! Shit is, indeed, fucked.
Our protagonist finds himself sharing a shack with two vaguely lesbian women (many things in this film are vague), Joy (Nancy Rhee) and Lisa (Fern Finer). They ask him to get them some drugs and a television. He wanders the streets, collapses, and is sold by a male prostitute to a large, creepy man in a nice car. Following a street pig attack, Hunter is rescued by another man in a car, Phinneas (Rico Cymone), who gets him up to speed on all the ways shit is fucked after realizing the extent of Hunter's amnesia. Phinneas is an interesting character who is dropped from the film halfway through, for no good reason. The film seems to set him up as a revolutionary activist, battling the mysterious man in the limo and his strange compound, but never follows through on this storyline. Hunter finally gets his TV and brings it back to the women, but is soon brought into the orbit of the mystery limo man.
This first half of the film is exciting, creepy, and fun, and Gleason does a lot with very little money. The snippets of unsettling television programs, the street pig, the zombies, the bleak apocalyptic wasteland. All that stuff is awesome. The film's second half bogs down by leaving a lot of these elements and focusing on the relationship between Hunter and the limo man, Vincent (John Hammond). Hammond gives a wooden, hammy performance, and his incessant repetition of the phrase "little brother" quickly begins to grate. The exposition-heavy dialogue in this portion of the film does its actors no favors, though the final scene ends things on a high note.
Laughing Dead is Gleason's only feature film as a director and actor, which is too bad. He showed a lot of potential and is the strongest actor in the cast. I'd like to see what he could accomplish with more money and better actors. I hope he gets another chance, but the 14 years of silence since this film was released don't indicate we'll get another Gleason movie. To add insult to injury, Laughing Dead is hard to track down. I couldn't find it in any local video stores or on Netflix, so I purchased a used VHS copy online. A DVD has never been released in this country, though a UK DVD is available. As you can see from the stills illustrating this post, images from the film are hard to find online. Laughing Dead has a lot of problems common to ultra-low budget independent films, but it deserves better than that. There are some great things in it.

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