Friday, June 20, 2014

#184: The Alien Dead (Fred Olen Ray, 1980)

Fred Olen Ray, the director of Scalps, Commando Squad, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Beverly Hills Vamp, Wizards of the Demon Sword, Dinosaur Island, Witch Academy, Bikini Hoe-Down, Invisible Dad, Billy Frankenstein, Emmanuelle 2000, Thirteen Erotic Ghosts, Super Ninja Bikini Babes, Girl with the Sex-Ray Eyes, Bikini Jones and the Temple of Eros, Christmas in Palm Springs, and 118 other projects, hasn't let the slow death of drive-ins and VHS stop him from churning out the schlock at a Fassbinder-if-he-were-still-alive-and-not-an-artistic-genius pace. (He directed seven films in 2012 alone.) Long before this extensive list of dubious credits, Ray was a newbie working on his second film, The Alien Dead, the 1980 followup to his 1978 debut, The Brain Leeches. What he came up with was something, to say the least.
The Alien Dead is an accidental masterpiece of delusional amateurism. It is not, in most senses of the term, "good" or even "competent." It is, however, mesmerizing, hypnotizing, and compelling in its lack of relation to what is usually recognizable as filmmaking, both conventional and un. I loved it. If you love it, too, you are someone I can trust with the spare keys to my home.
Of course something this strange was filmed in rural Florida. And this stretch of rural Florida swampland has a problem. It seems the gators have disappeared. No one has seen a single example of the once-flourishing gator population in months. This doesn't sit too well with Mr. Griffith, a poacher and master coaxer of gators. Mr. Griffith takes Mrs. Griffith (this is how they refer to each other) and his small boat out to the swamps in the dead of night to get himself a gator. Only something gets Mrs. Griffith, and that something is not a gator.
That something turns out to be many somethings. One night several months earlier, some rural Florida coeds were partying on a houseboat, drinking booze, listening to bluegrass, and whacking each other with balloons (that classic staple of Florida houseboat parties) when something came out of the sky, exploded, and crashed into the houseboat, decimating it. The space junk turned the coeds into killer zombies, whose victims turned into zombies as well. Soon, the swamps are teeming with space zombies, looking to add to their ranks. Unlike your average zombie, these zombies can run and breathe underwater.
Our ragtag team of heroes -- a college-boy journalist at his first job on the small-town newspaper, a sexy backwoods hillbilly woman in cutoff short-shorts and weird blonde wig, her gun-nut father who is obsessed with nonexistent giant possums, and the county game warden -- fight off the deadly zombies as best they can with no help from the incompetent sheriff, played by former Olympic swimmer and movie star Buster Crabbe, and his even more incompetent deputy. Crabbe is an elderly man who has trouble remembering most of his lines. We know this as an audience because these mistakes are not edited out of the film. He seems to be having a good time anyway, as do the rest of the cast and the filmmakers.
Ray has the oddest sense of pacing, camera placement, shot composition, continuity, and dialogue I've seen in many years. It's pretty hard to describe, and also pretty hard to stop watching. We get daylight, nightfall, and daylight again in the same scene, a gratuitous nude scene in which a woman takes off her shirt while in the water, swims around with it in her hand a while, then realizes it makes no sense to have disrobed while in the water and crumples it up and tosses it aside, and another great moment where a grocery store cashier can't make it through her ridiculous scene without breaking into laughter twice.
The soundtrack is genuinely good, with several high quality country and bluegrass songs from The American Bluegrass Express and Paul Jones & Sugar Lee (Florida locals?) and weird electronic noise from Franklin Sledge and Chuck Sumner. This is also probably the only movie that ends with a freeze frame of a zombie poking his head out of swamp water to a catchy bluegrass tune, though if there are any others, please let me know. In short, this was a great way to spend 73 minutes of my goofy life.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

#183: Contamination (Luigi Cozzi, 1980)

Also known as Alien Contamination, this Italian cheapie rips off a couple of things from the previous year's Alien (the alien eggs/pods, exploding stomachs, and the eggs being covertly taken back to Earth) and stretches those ripoffs to feature length. This is one of those international cast/dubbed dialogue/low-budget exploitation cash-ins I have a soft spot in my heart and head for, and this one satisfies with its mixture of cartoonish violence, ridiculously stupid dialogue, and comically wooden acting. I enjoyed this film but can't really recommend it to anyone who's not a sucker for this stuff like I am.
Contamination begins in New York City, with two men in a helicopter flying over the harbor. They spot a ship coming in that's going way too fast with no sign of a captain or crew on board. ("Look at how fast that ship is going. It's breaking every rule in the book," says the helicopter pilot. Apparently the rule book contains only that one rule about the speed.) They notify the authorities, who are able to stop the ship. When they enter, no one is on board. Fearing foul play or epidemic, they contact the police and health officials. The team includes a doctor, some government officials, and, in his own words, "simple Brooklyn cop" Lt. Tony Aris (Italian actor Marino Mase, who, considering he's worked for Luchino Visconti, Marco Bellocchio, Jean-Luc Godard, Dario Argento, and Francis Ford Coppola, is really slumming here). A thorough search of the ship leads to the discovery of the dead captain and his dead crew, all with their stomachs exploded.
Tony is a bit disturbed by the dead bodies, but what really bothers him is the logo on the boxes of coffee the crew were transporting back to New York. The name of the coffee distribution company is Cafe UniverX, and the "X" is in a different font than the rest of the name. This bugs Tony so much, he remarks upon how the "X" is even stranger than the exploded guts. That Tony, what a character. We get a lot of great dialogue like this in the scene, including this exchange: "There are more dead bodies downstairs, with a trail of green gunk leading to them." "Green gunk?"
As if a logo with two separate fonts wasn't insane enough, one of the boxes of coffee has fallen over and come open, and four large green eggs/pods have spilled out. The men helpfully point out that these eggs aren't coffee (thanks, guys), but speculation about what they are includes such items as avocados or "some kind of a mango" except that, you know, they're really, really huge. One of the eggs has rolled away from the box and is under a steam pipe, which has caused the egg to become transparent and emanate a pulsating yellow light. This seems like a perfect time to pick the egg up, one of our geniuses decides. "Be careful," the doctor tells him, but he responds, "Ah, don't worry about it." Of course, the guy breaks the egg, which shoots out a yellowish-greenish acid that makes everyone's stomach explode except for good old Lt. Tony, who is standing far enough away to avoid the spray.
Soon, the ship and section of the harbor are quarantined, and the government bigwigs come in to investigate, led by Col. Stella Holmes (Louise Marleau). She helpfully points out that they don't know anything about the eggs or where they came from, but they can say, with absolute certainty, that freezing them will neutralize the acid. They freeze the eggs, bring them back to the very weird, very cheap lab, and start doing some tests. Soon, a ragtag team is assembled to get to the bottom of why the eggs are here. This team includes Col. Holmes, Lt. Tony, and disgraced former astronaut and bitter drunk Ian Hubbard (Ian McCulloch, not the Echo & The Bunnymen singer) who told everybody about seeing the eggs on Mars in a frozen ice cave but of course they all thought he'd lost his damn mind, especially Col. Holmes. But he was right! He was right! This investigation will lead them to an unnamed country in South America (these scenes were filmed in Colombia and Florida) and the factory of Cafe UniverX. I won't spoil the rest. Okay, I'll spoil a little bit. The adventure involves gunfights, alien telepathy, cyclops hypnotist Martian aliens, plane crashes, and some of the best damn coffee in the world. Also, a possible love triangle develops, with both men on the team developing crushes on Col. Holmes. Lt. Tony, who considers himself a Lothario, tells the colonel she's the only woman he's ever met who never let him past first base. The only one. How does this guy get any work done, with his constant makeouts and fingerbangs?
If you've seen a ragtag international coproduction exploitation movie from the late '70s and early '80s, you know what you're getting here. Director Luigi Cozzi (billed here under his Americanized pseudonym Lewis Coates) isn't much of a visual stylist or director of actors, but he knows how to party. (His filmography includes the Godzilla movie with Raymond Burr, Star Wars ripoff Starcrash, a couple Hercules movies, a couple erotic-awakenings-of-a-nymphette brand of sexploitationers, and the sixth installment in the Demons franchise.) This is a classic bad movie night/midnight movie/drive-in staple of the kind they just don't make anymore, which sends a little pang of grief and nostalgia to my bitter heart.
There is one unexpectedly poignant moment near the film's end, however, that sent a little chill down my spine. Col. Holmes looks up at the sky and wonders aloud at what dangers are up there, waiting to come down and get us. The camera then glides slowly down the length of the World Trade Center and onto the city streets. Cozzi is no Nostradamus, but that's some seriously creepy, unintentionally sad stuff, and it ends the otherwise goofy as hell film with a bit of a sucker punch.