It Came From The …Wait, What?

SPOILER ALERT – ARTICLE MAY INCLUDE SPOILERS, BUT SINCE I’LL BE MAINLY TALKING ABOUT FILMS FROM THE 50s IT’S YOUR OWN FAULT IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THEM!

A series on monsters wouldn’t be complete without a quick look at an often overlooked side road. So this article will examine the wild animal and the alien as monster. The obvious examples are films such as the Jaws series, about some seriously pissed off Great White sharks, but it is in fact a venerable sub-genre with many precedents.

"Um...Maybe we should go the other way."

The first proper creature-feature (as they came to be known), and an iconic moment in cinematic history, was 1933s King Kong. This was a ground-breaking film, with stunning (for the time) stop-motion animation by Willis O’Brien and secured Fay Wray’s reputation as the original ‘scream queen’. Many people forget that Kong was a sympathetic creature, who took Wray’s character back to his lair instead of killing her (as was intended by the villagers). Once he was captured and taken to New York, he was chained and mistreated, before breaking free and again seeking out the object of his love. As Robert Armstrong’s character observes in the closing moments of the film, “it wasn’t the airplanes, it was Beauty killed the Beast”. Merian Cooper’s film is rightly seen as a classic, despite Kong’s reputation as a mindless monster.

King Kong spawned a rash of sequels, spin-offs and imitations, but the creature-feature explosion was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. Monster movies in this period were more reliant on tried and tested supernatural horrors that could be tied in to the Nazi menace: vampires, werewolves and mummies. But at the end of the war, something happened that changed the monster movie: America dropped two A-bombs on Japan, and the Atomic Age began.

"Is nobody thinking of the ants?"

In the 1950s, a new trend emerged with the testing of the hideously powerful H-Bomb, with over a thousand times the destructive capability of the A-Bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a new understanding of the horrors of radiation sickness. Movies were suddenly infested with creatures mutated by atomic radiation, somehow growing huge and developing a taste for human flesh, rather than growing tumours and developing weeping sores. These movies are fairly well represented by 1954s Them!, in which the evils of nukes cause giant ants, that’s GIANT ANTS, to rampage through a New Mexico town, eating people called ‘Gramps’ Johnson and Alan Crotty. It’s actually nowhere near as appalling as it sounds. It contains some genuinely tense moments and some good performances, including some seriously moving death scenes. Gordon Douglas’ direction is solid and his storytelling is well-balanced, as one would expect from the man who would go on to direct They call me MISTER Tibbs! in the 1970s. It was well received on its release and has been referenced and copied many times, with such ’50s classics as It Came From Beneath The Sea (which starred a giant, radioactive octopus and Howard Hughes’ one time lover, Faith Domergue), Attack Of The Crab Monsters (an early Roger Corman attempt with some frankly appalling rubber ‘crab monsters’), and Tarantula (starring Leo G Carroll and a really big spider).

Up from the depths!
Thirty stories high!!

The Japanese, certainly no strangers to the horrifying effects of the Atomic Age, came up with a long-running series of films centred around a man in a dodgy rubber suit stomping through a cardboard Tokyo. Released in the same year as Them! (1954), Godzilla (or more properly Gojira) was a landmark in Japanese cinema that led to nearly thirty sequels, remakes, a pair of cartoon series (one by Hanna-Barbera in the late ’70s, the other a Fox TV anime in the late ’90s), a poorly received American movie remake and a planned reboot! This makes it arguably one of the most successful film franchises ever. Godzilla is a classic example of the monster as a representation of atomic destruction. He is released by atomic testing, is radioactive, has ‘Atomic breath’ and is effectively immune to conventional weaponry. In fact, an early design of the suit gave him a mushroom-cloud shaped head. A huge number of the monster films of the 1950s and 1960s use the monster as allegories for a variety of real or perceived dangers: nuclear weapons and Communism are typical, although underage sex, alcohol, ‘un-American activities’ and other immoral behaviours are also targeted. The Godzilla franchise flourished in the 60’s, dominating cinema with films depicting the titular monster as a (kind of) defender of Tokyo against an ever-increasing horde of rubber suited stuntmen.

Other giant monsters crawled from the woodwork in the ’50s and 60s. We had scorpions (The Black Scorpion), locusts (Beginning of the End), man-eating slugs (The Monster That Challenged The World), venomous shrews (The Killer Shrews – Hollywood was really running low on ideas at this stage), large scorned ladies (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman) and even jelly – or Jell-O to our transatlantic cousins (The Blob). Basically, anything that film-makers could recreate with some foam rubber suits, trick photography or the talents of Ray Harryhausen, would walk, stalk, slither or ooze across cinema screens for a couple of decades. Even plants got a look-in, in the shape of British sci-fi/horror The Day of the Triffids, adapted from the book by John Wyndham. The Triffids of the title were (in the film at least) semi-sentient alien invaders, ambulatory sticks of killer celery that were, rather conveniently, allergic to sea-water (which rather begs the question “Why did they choose to invade a planet whose surface is about 70% covered in the stuff?”).

Aliens were also a common feature of monster movies. The development of rocket technology had nations looking spaceward once again, and a rise in tensions between the political ideologies of East and West gave film-makers the perfect excuse to make a large number of alien themed movies with cookie-cutter communism-inspired antagonists. The Red Menace was sneakily inserted into a range of movies including The Flying Saucer (1950), Invaders From Mars (1952) and, of course, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). These films show the insidious nature of the Communist threat, how it can sneak unnoticed into your neighbourhood, brainwash and indoctrinate people you have known for years. One film that specifically targets the insanity of Cold-War paranoia is the timeless classic The Day The Earth Stood Still. This amazing 1951 film explores how a defensive and paranoid humanity reacts to an other-worldly visitor, who is quite clearly a stand-in for Christ, with his amazing powers, resurrection and message of peace.

Om nom nom!

In 1975, the movie monster changed. An adaptation of Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws was unleashed on the public. Directed by Stephen Spielberg, the movie has a number of completely iconic touches: the triangular fin cutting the water, the shark’s haunting tuba-based leitmotif, the boat-based camaraderie of the three male leads, Brody’s warnings being ignored by those in power. It is an almost perfect monster movie, let down a little by the fairly poor (even by the standard of the 1970s) rubber shark. I first saw this film at a very young age and loved it, apart from the very end, when Quint (played to perfection with grizzled, Hemingway-esque machismo by Robert Shaw) slides helplessly down the deck of the listing boat and into the shark’s waiting maw. His desperate struggle against a force of nature sum up the film in that brief moment: man vs fish, and the fish is winning. It is a creature perfectly designed to survive in its environment, an environment that humans are playing around in. Jaws spawned a handful of sequels, none of which managed to match the intensity and excellence of the original, but it also changed the way that the average cinema-goer and critic thought about monster movies. They were no longer B-movies; they could be blockbusters.

Not all films lived up to this benchmark of course. A large number of cheap creature-features continued to be churned out by Hollywood studios, such as the largely unknown Joan Collins vehicle Empire of the Ants (which is worth digging up, if only for the hilariously bad special effects). Rather better known, as well as better production and better acting, is the Burt Lancaster and Michael York version of The Island of Dr Moreau in 1977. Although by no means flawless, it is a solid adaptation of the H.G.Wells classic, with a truly creepy Lancaster as the disturbing (and disturbed) doctor. It attempts to turn the genre on its head, in suggesting that the hideous ‘man-beasts’, the results of Moreau’s twisted experiments, are less monstrous than the dark soul of humanity, represented by the doctor. It is only by shedding their humanity and embracing the animalistic side of their natures that York and his love interest, Barbara Carrera, manage to escape.

In 1978, another creature attacked humanity, or rather lots of creatures. But these were not giant, irradiated creatures. No, these were slightly more everyday: bees. Or, to be more specific, a swarm of African killer bees. The Swarm stars Michael Caine, Katherine Ross, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia De Havilland, Slim Pickens and Henry Fonda. Oh, and a shitload of bees. It was directed by Irwin Allen, producer of such classic TV serials as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Time Tunnel, Lost in Space and Land of the Giants, and the film was adapted from a novel by well-known (at the time) science-fiction author Arthur Herzog. An impressive pedigree, wouldn’t you agree? Apparently not. The film bombed. Badly. It was pulled from cinemas after a pathetically short run (in some places as little as two days) and was unable to even make half its $21 million budget back at the box office. Michael Caine is not alone when he describes it as one of the worst films he has ever made.

Bees. Apparently not that scary.

The next true landmark in the monster movie did not arrive until 1979, with Ridley Scott’s science-fiction horror masterpiece, Alien. Sold to the studios as “Jaws in space”, the movie brews a heady blend of tension, shocks and gore, with genre-defining visual effects courtesy of the deeply disturbing and undeniably sexual artwork of H.R.Giger. The alien is a shadowy menace, truly an unknown quantity, with a (pretty unlikely) life cycle of egg-crab/spider-chest bursting penis-huge shiny black cock with teeth. The sexual subtext of the movie has been commented upon before (many, many times), but if you are unconvinced, take a long hard look at this concept art for the xenomorph:

Um, yeah.
I've got nothing for this one.

If you can’t see that this is a picture af a massive penis, there’s something wrong with you. Add that to the fact that Kane (played by John Hurt) is orally impregnated by the face-hugger and ‘gives birth’ in a terminal shower of gore from his ribcage. The writer of the screenplay, Dan O’Bannon, has explicitly stated that the Kane scenes are a metaphor for male fears about pregnancy and childbirth, and has explained the alien as embodying elements of male rape, payback for the countless female victims of horror movie monsters and serial killers. The only survivor is Ripley (Sigourney Weaver in the role that launched her career and one that she would return to three more times so far), a woman who is in a masculine, industrial environment. She is not refered to by her first name, only her surname, which has the effect of clouding her gender. The film is about sex, but it is also an excellent horror movie, dark and moody with a perfect, iconic and terrifying antagonist.

Alien also signaled a turning point in the creature feature. Films moved away from ordinary animals turned evil (either by radiation or otherwise) and focused instead on extraterrestrial or supernatural horrors. Dream monsters (A Nightmare on Elm Street), alien hunters (Predator), ghosts (Ghostbusters 1 & 2) and gremlins (Gremlins 1 & 2) were the order of the 80s, and things didn’t improve much in the following decade, with only such paltry offerings as Mosquito and Anaconda (I really wouldn’t recommend either, but if you must, go for Mosquito, if only for its knowing nods towards its B-Movie roots).

The new millennium gave film-makers the chance to make ironically bad B-movies (following from the cult success of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead), and this gave audiences such wonders as Eight-Legged Freaks, featuring some toxically mutated spiders and a lot of screaming. It is a mixed bag of B-movie tropes and tongue in cheek dialogue, but the basic premise (monsters attacking a small American town) has been done before and done better, notably in Tremors six years earlier. Other 21st century offerings include a couple of Anaconda sequels (somehow worse than that first one), the fabulously titled (and apparently gloriously awful) Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus and its sequel Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus, Sharktopus and Mega Python Versus Gatoroid. These films revel in their B-movie credentials, deliberately using exaggerated monsters and over-the-top violence to titillate their audience.

Heads or tails?

Cloverfield, directed by Matt Reeves, was hailed as a new breed of monster movie and is told through the use of ‘found footage’, home-video style film of events of a monster-induced disaster. From a relatively tiny budget of $25 million, it made a massive $171 million at the box office. Its suggestions of terrorist attacks (the subtle reminders of 9/11 run right through the movie) gave it an intensity that most creature-features lack and it was met with high praise from critics and movie-goers alike. Again, the choice to show little of the creature served the film well, heightening the tension and creating the faceless menace to support the subtext.

Is the creature-feature dead? Replaced with endless movies about aliens destroying our cities? Or is this just a phase, and, like the changes in the 50s, we are due a new revolution? A new way of looking at the world around us? Maybe this has already started. Contagion attempted to tap into our collective fears of infectious diseases, following on from the real-life scares of SARS, Bird Flu and Swine Flu. The film didn’t capitalise on its own premise, but the portrayal of the emergency protocols and procedures slowly grinding into motion was interesting: in the world of Contagion there is no quick fix. So maybe the creature we will be scared of next are the ones that we really can’t see, rather than the ones that the film-makers keep hidden.

Sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite…

Sweet dreams!

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Blood-sucking Parasites!

[WARNING – CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS – And a mention or two of Twilight. Sorry.]

For the second in my series on monsters, I’ve decided to look at what is arguably the most popular of all of them: Vampires. Unlike zombies, who are still basically the same as they have always been (aside from speeding up a bit, and different ways of creating them), vampires have undergone a succession of major transformations over the centuries. Legends of blood-sucking demons have existed in almost every country and culture, from ancient Assyria, through India, Africa, the Americas, Greece, Rome, and all the way to the Eastern European legends that most of us associate with ‘modern’ vampires.

Vampires get people in a flap

Modern vampires really get their wings in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This followed a couple of centuries of increased belief in vampires, occasionally flaring up into bouts of mass hysteria, with corpses being dug up and staked or beheaded, police and government officials filling in reports specifically naming vampires as the cause of deaths, and entire villages swearing that a dead neighbour has returned from the grave to drink the blood of the living. With the creatures of the night so firmly in the public consciousness, vampires began to infiltrate literature in the form of the writings of Stagg, Shelley and, of course, John Polidori. Polidori was an associate of the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” poet, novelist and all-round degenerate Lord Byron, and it is assumed that he based the main character of his novel The Vampyre (1819), Lord Ruthven, on Byron himself.

The Vampyre is the first appearance of the suave and charismatic vampire in literature, so is arguably the birthplace of the modern vampire myth. This fusing of the romantic and the macabre became known as Gothic literature, famous for such classics as Frankenstein (1818) – written as part of the contest between Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori and Mary’s husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, that also produced Polidori’s The VampyreThe Fall of the House of Usher (1839), by Edgar Allen Poe, and, obviously, Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker, probably the most famous of all vampire novels.

Gary Oldman pimpin' it as Dracula

Soon after the release of Dracula, vampires began crawling onto the silver screen. The most notable of these early vampire films (if not the first) was Nosferatu (1922), FW Murnau’s rip-off of the Bram Stoker classic that somehow became a completely different take on vampirism. Max Schreck’s portrayal of Count Orlok is monstrous, a twisted, inhuman predator (the film is often accused of anti-Semitism due to Orlok’s appearance being so similar to the stereotyped look of the Jew), although the character clearly has strong sexual overtones, being destroyed by feasting sensuously on the virginal Ellen Hutter until the sun rises.

The 1930s gave us the Universal Studios version of Dracula (1931) with the iconic performance of Bela Lugosi as the opera-cloak wearing vampire gentleman. His ‘Transylvanian’ accent would slip into the collective unconscious as shorthand for ‘vampire’ for decades to come. Again, Dracula is portrayed as a sexual predator, suave and handsome, albeit with some monstrous features and habits!

Later still, Britain’s Hammer House of Horrors version of Dracula (1958) introduced the world to another iconic performance, that of the great Christopher Lee. His imposing six foot five frame created a physically powerful vampire, as well as sexy, despite his supernatural powers being reduced to immortality: he could effectively resurrect himself endlessly – handy for a run of sequels. Again, this vampire was a strong sexual predator, feasting on a succession of scantily clad and buxom wenches.

This subtext of sex has run through the vampire legend since those early Romantic versions, surfacing again and again. The original vampires were monsters, attacking and killing, feasting on the blood of the living to sustain their damned half-life. When Polidori used Byron as a model, sex couldn’t have been far behind. After all, Byron famously had affairs with Lady Caroline Lamb (wife of the 2nd Viscount Melbourne), Jane Harley (wife of the Earl of Oxford), and Augusta Leigh (his own half-sister, although this affair was only a rumour, possibly spread by the obsessed Caroline Lamb). Vampires feed by biting their victims, the most vicious and primitive sort of attack, but the mouth is also sensuous. Love bites and kisses, especially on the neck, are hugely intimate and sexy. In addition to this, we have the penetrative aspect of those fangs, and the passion (not to mention the menstrual connection) of blood.

Vampires are creatures that we love. But why? What is it about them that we find fascinating? Dr Belisa Vranich, clinical psychologist, suggests a number of reasons, including the simple fact that vampires are loners. According to modern sources, vampires either live alone or in hierarchical packs, led by a single, powerful vampire. Dracula had his vampettes, Max had his punk son and his friends, Jesse had his crew. They are outsiders, unaffected by human values, morals or laws. Often, things fall apart for them when they accept a new human into their ranks – Dracula fell for Mina and was killed as a result, Max told David to ‘turn’ Michael so he could get his fangs into Lucy and was killed as a result, Mae ‘turned’ Caleb and the whole crew died as a result. The outsider archetype is a strong one, especially in American literature and film. The outsider is strong, self-reliant, driven by their own code. They typify the ideal of the American West, of the outlaw. Near Dark (1987) was pretty explicit in this regard, having Jesse (Lance Henrikson) played as a veteran of the American War of Independence, in which he “fought for the South…We lost”.

Near Dark: Rebels without a pulse

Near Dark also used sex as a weapon of the vampires. Vulnerable and elfin vamp Mae seduces and ‘turns’ farm boy Caleb, inducting him into their psychotic road crew of killer vamps, including the aforementioned Jesse, his squeeze Diamondback, leather-jacketed, fun-loving crazy Severen and old-man-in-young-boy’s-body Homer. They are played as anarchic serial killers, driving the endless highways in a series of stolen vehicles and feasting from losers in roadside bars. Love ultimately wins out over sex, and the vampires go out in a blaze of glory (literally).

The Lost Boys (1987) also presented the vampires as rebels, this time apparently led by the superb blond mullet of a young Keifer Sutherland. It echoes the ideas of half-vampires suggested in Near Dark, and runs with the ideas of juvenile delinquency. Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (Corey Haim) move to Santa Carla, the ‘Murder Capital of the World’ and soon find it under the sway of David’s (Keifer Sutherland) gang of teenage vampires. Less sex, although Michael is attracted to the gang by Star (Jami Gertz), and more drugs and rock-and-roll, The Lost Boys is a cult classic for good reason. It isn’t hugely innovative in terms of the vampire mythos, but it does add a heavy dose of cool, which, like Near Dark, made the vampire something that a certain breed of movie-goer would relate to.

A film that took the myth in a different direction was Tony ‘brother of Ridley’ Scott’s The Hunger (1983). Although it features a sex scene between the vampire Miriam (Catherine Deneuve) and Sarah (Susan Sarandon), the film approaches vampirism as an addiction. Miriam feeds on clubbers, extending their life span as a result, only to leave them to rapidly age and die when she moves on. David Bowie gives a surprisingly strong performance as John, Miriam’s dying ex-lover, suffering the painful symptoms of withdrawal. The sensuousness of the film is almost an expression of a drug-induced ecstasy, rather than the fulfilment of sexual contact.

In 1976, Anne Rice published the first in a series of vampire novels, in which she explored the curse of longevity. Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Interview With The Vampire (1994) introduced the world to Tom Cruise’s Lestat and Brad Pitt’s Louis, as Louis wandered around New Orleans bemoaning his fate, while Lestat (for some bizarre reason) refused to let him leave. It ignored many of the traditional vampiric weaknesses (garlic and religious symbols) although sunlight could kill them. The ‘Vampire Chronicles’, as the books became known, sold very well and influenced a large section of the Goth community. They also had an influence on the role-playing scene as well; White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade owes a great deal to Rice’s portrayal of vampiric society.

"Look me in the eye, Tom, and tell me you aren't standing on a box."

There is no way I can talk about vampires in pop culture without at least a passing reference to the long-running (six years) television series Buffy The Vampire Slayer. What began as a tongue-in-cheek tale of an air-headed valley girl being chosen to fight the forces of evil developed into a surprisingly detailed world of monsters (both human and otherwise), love, sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, death, rebirth, family, friendship, school, life and on and on and on! Originally created by Joss Whedon, it was written with wit and a deep understanding of the trauma of high school. The characters were engaging and the storylines solid. It gave us the evil vamp forced to turn good (Spike), the evil vamp turned good by love (Angel), and every type of truly evil vamp you can think of, from the one shot monsters to the sneaky evil geniuses. It was a cool update to the mythos, and introduced a whole new generation to vampires and the supernatural.

Vampires became rich and powerful in the last years of the 20th century, but were hunted down by the brutal martial-arts stylings of the Daywalker. Blade (1999) featured Wesley Snipes as the titular half-vampire, high-kicking his way through the ranks of Stephen Dorff’s minions. The film takes a pseudo-scientific approach to vampirism, seeing it as a disease, although the pounding soundtrack, sick moves and black leather detract from that somewhat. It’s an action movie that spawned a handful of less successful sequels, but the original is worth a watch. The vamps here represent a kind of neo-Roman decadence that the uptight Blade fights against as he struggles to rebel – but this time the rebellion is against his own vampiric nature.

"I really hate that Stephen Dorff. Oh crap. He's right behind me, isn't he?"

In recent years, we have seen a slight return to the animalistic predator form of vampire in movies like 30 Days of Night and I Am Legend (although the source novel presents them in a very different light), but we have also seen the sexual type flourish. I am loathe to mention the Twilight series, but feel my hand is somewhat forced. The popularity of this teeny-goth best-seller is all about the sex. It’s the longing for the sensitive and moody emo type, represented here by concave-faced Robert Pattinson. However, it’s about NOT having sex. Oh yes, Stephanie Meyer’s first book showed a clear Christian message, with family values and their strength coming from what they believe in (some sources suggest a veiled metaphor for Mormonism – not having read them or seen the films I’m not sure how accurate these accusations are. Please tell us in the comments if you know!). This is a direct contrast to the savagery of the 30 Days of Night/I Am Legend style vamp. These are inhuman looking, with super quick reflexes and little in the way of social skills. These are the monsters under the bed; no sexual subtext here, just the innate fear of being eaten alive. Television shows like Ultraviolet (sadly short-lived) presented vampires as secretive, trying to live within human society and manipulate us, controlling the way we think in subtle ways. If nobody believes in vampires, surely that just makes it easier for them to move among us, undetected.

So the vampire presents us with a dichotomy. On the one hand, they are virtually unkillable predators, repelled only by the glory of God (holy water, consecrated earth, sunlight), out to drain our life’s blood to sustain their night-time half-lives. On the other, they are sexy, strong, charismatic and eternal. They ooze sensuality, leave you begging for more, turn you into a desperate addict. They are cool, turning their backs on a repressive human society and living by their own rules, taking no shit off anybody and killing anyone who pisses them off. Or they are the elite, sitting at the top of human society, breeding us to be ignorant of their existence, like cattle, ripe for the taking.

Which is it? Well, maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s all a matter of perspective. We like them for all the same reasons we fear them. We created them millennia ago as blood-drinking demons that came in the night. We have turned them into the beautiful, sensitive loner, powerful and magical.

But they still don’t bloody sparkle.

When There’s No More Room In Hell…

This is the first in a series of blogs about famous monster types from literature, film and folklore. I thought I’d start with a common creature that mostly appears in movieland: The Zombie.

"Anybody got a Band-Aid?"

As you all know, the name ‘zombie’ originates from Haitian and West African traditions of Voodoo (or Vodun, or Vodou), where a zombie (or zonbi, or nzumbe – thanks Wikipedia!) is generally regarded as a re-animated corpse, brought back from the dead to do the bidding of a practitioner. Some have argued that zombies are the result of pharmacological compounds, consisting of pufferfish venom among other things, but this is generally dismissed by the medical community. Although the word is linked to Voodoo, the creature appears in many different cultures, fulfilling different niches in folklore. The draugr (recently seen in Skyrim) are the living dead from Norse mythology that guard the burial chambers of heroes, while revenants are European spirits that return from the dead in physical bodies, mainly to pick on their living relatives or take revenge on their killer. The German nachzehrer (basically ‘devourer from the afterlife’) was linked to deaths from epidemics, predating recent ‘infected’ zombie types.

Zombies have gained popularity over the last few decades, mainly down to the stirling work of film-makers like George A. Romero, Sam Raimi and Edgar Wright (as well as the less stirling work of a veritable horde of others). There are a number of takes on the zombie, ranging from the shambling, groaning undead (the ‘classic’ movie zombie) to the sprinting and leaping ‘infected’ (the ‘new-wave’ zombie), but they all have a relentless hunger for human flesh – and often brains – in common. A zombie can be created by a disease, often spread by bite or other bodily fluid, by magic or by radiation, as well as a range of other possibilities, so it seems that the existence of zombies is of far greater importance than what caused them. In fact, this is often the case with these movies – ‘where did they come from’ is far a less important question than ‘how the hell do we get away from them?’

So why are they so popular? Why do they make such a good monster?

Well, firstly it is a force of numbers thing.

The queue for the new iPhone was getting out of hand

The idea is that there is an endless supply of hungry, angry, cannibalistic corpses. On its own, a single zombie isn’t that much of a threat – it’s slow and stupid – but they don’t tend to attack on their own. As the great bard himself said, “When zombies come, they come not in single spies, but in battalions”. And because they are technically already dead, it’s a bit tricky to actually kill them. In movieland, the destruction of the head is usually the way forward – sever the connection to the brain and the body will die. This leads to a series of cool special effects as zombie skulls are exploded across the screen in a variety of inventive ways and bloody showers of gore.

Of course, if the horde does get its hands on you, it’s a painful and violent death. We have an in-built horror of being eaten by something – it triggers a primal fear in us – and zombies are an embodiment of this fear. They keep coming. They have no remorse. They will eat you alive. It’s a predator/prey thing.

Om nom nom

Typical zombie films consist of a group of – usually mismatched – strangers banding together for protection as they try to find a safe place to escape to. This gives the film-maker good scope to include the frictions between the disparate characters as well as the stress from thousands of relentless killing machines bearing down on them. Themes of racism, sexual politics and growing up are common in these films, although the learning is often interrupted by someone’s intestines being pulled out through their anus, followed by hysterical screaming and a lot more running away.

The image of the zombie horde has lodged itself so firmly in the collective consciousness that the internet is full of sites dedicated to the creatures, from artwork to fan fiction, from (de)motivational posters to scholarly – and not so scholarly – articles on how to survive a zombie apocalypse. Even The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has posted an article on what to do in the event of an outbreak of zombies in your town. Admittedly, its tongue is firmly in its cheek, but it raises some good points about general emergency preparedness.

Are you prepared? What would be essential kit for your zombie survival kit? Let’s see if we can get a definitive kit worked out.

An Entirely Arbitrary Top Ten Movies

This is my list of the top ten movies that I think are excellent at this moment in time. I fully expect you to disagree with my list, to hurl abuse at me for not including x,y or z. Good. This is in no way going to represent the movies that I think are the best ever. I may not even give satisfactory reasons for my choices. I am going entirely on instinct and allowing that to guide me. I’ll probably look at this list tomorrow and ask myself what I was drinking.

That is the beauty of movies. One day, a film will be everything you need to see, to hear, to experience. The next day it might seem to be a total piece of crap. Ever seen a film in the cinema and thought it was great, then got it on DVD and realised that it was actually a bag of arse? I certainly have.

So, in no particular order, let’s get started.

Number 1: Fight Club dir. David Fincher (1999)

What can be said about this gem? The Chuck Palahniuk novel was masterfully adapted into this violent, funny and intelligent actioner, with star turns from Edward Norton, Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter (among others). Its simplifying of male relationships and masculine aggression is satisfying without dumbing down, and the ‘twist’ (such as it is) is handled well. The film explores consumer culture without being preachy, using the source material excellently. It is dark and stylish, cool without trying too hard, touching without being saccharine.

If you haven’t seen this film, where have you been for the last thirteen years? If you doubt Brad Pitt’s acting ability, you need to see this film. If you’ve ever shopped at IKEA, you need to watch this film. If you’ve ever wanted to destroy something beautiful…well, you get the picture.

Number 2: High Fidelity dir. Stephen Frears (2000)

A lesser known John Cusack vehicle, with supporting roles and cameos from Jack Black, Todd Louiso, Iben Hjejle, Tim Robbins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joan Cusack, Lisa Bonet, Lili Taylor, Sara Gilbert and Bruce Springsteen. Quite a cast, I’m sure you’ll agree, and they are all excellent choices for the roles they have been given. The movie is adapted from a novel by Brit author Nick Hornby, and the story is transplanted from London to Chicago, but the director and cast handle it really well. The novel focuses on the whirlwind of emotions stirred up when Rob (John Cusack) is dumped by his girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle). This prompts a bout of navel-gazing and soul-searching as Rob seeks out his Top Five, All Time, Most Memorable Break-Ups in order to discover why he keeps getting dumped.

Most of the story revolves around Rob’s record store and his love (or obsession) with pop music. Everything is described in terms of the emotions in music; the soundtrack supports this with tunes from Dylan, Elton John, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, Al Green and a marvellous version of Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On performed by Jack Black.

If you like music and feel that it has had a profound effect on you, or if you’ve ever been dumped, or in love, watch this film. It’s one of the few films that actually brings a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye.

Number 3: The Shawshank Redemption dir. Frank Darabont (1994)

So the third film in my list is another adaptation, this time from Stephen King. Tim Robbins plays Andy Dufresne, a banker sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of his wife and her lover. He is sent to Shawshank, where he suffers the usual prison unpleasantness, but he befriends the prison ‘fixer’, Red Redding, played by Morgan Freeman. Dufresne uses his skills in accountancy to get on the good side of the guards, led by the sadistic Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown), and eventually helps Warden Norton (Bob Gunton) to embezzle funds from an inmate labour scheme.

Despite everything that happens to Dufresne, he never gives up hope, and that is the message of this movie: they cannot take your hope if you don’t let them. The Shawshank Redemption is a beautifully uplifting movie, helped by remarkable performances, stunning direction and excellently crafted story. The film is narrated by Freeman, with his instantly recognisable inflections, and spans several decades, showing the institutionalisation of the characters as they spend the best years of their lives behind the walls of Shawshank.

This is a wonderful film and deserves a place in every film fan’s collection.

Number 4: Raiders of the Lost Ark dir. Stephen Spielberg (1981)

I was born in 1975, so I was probably 8 years old when I saw this film. I challenge any 8 year-old boy to watch Indiana Jones buckle his swash across the Egyptian landscape without immediately wanting a brown leather jacket, dusty fedora and bullwhip. Jones (Harrison Ford in one of his finest roles) is the ultimate action hero: he is as flawed as he is brilliant.

The plot is a glorious blend of pulp action, Nazi bad guys, biblical occultism and rocky romance. It even has a monkey. What more could you ask for? The cat-and-mouse game of chase with the Nazi antagonists is genuinely fun, high praise indeed. Klaus Kinski famously turned down the part of Major Toht, calling the script “moronically shitty”, but the $384 million box office would suggest that the audiences disagreed.

Raiders… is a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but wears its enthusiasm proudly on its sleeve. It is a true romp, with actors that really seem to be enjoying themselves. The villains are stereotypical; sneering, perverse Nazi torturers, brilliant and amoral French archeologists. The heroes are equally stereotypical; Jones switches between bookish nerd and stubbly action man with aplomb.

As a film, it is simple and wonderful. I could watch this every day for the rest of my life and I probably would never get bored. It deserves a place in every film fan’s DVD collection and is the only film on this list that I will allow no disagreement. If you don’t like Raiders… you don’t like films. Simple.

Number 5: Blade Runner dir. Ridley Scott (1982)

The first science fiction film on the list and the second Harrison Ford vehicle, Blade Runner tells the story of Rick Deckard, hired to chase down and ‘retire’ four androids (known as replicants) who have returned to Earth to try to extend their short lives. The film has had several incarnations, culminating in the Final Cut in 2007. This version was the only one that Ridley Scott had full creative control over, removing the noir style voice-over, altering the unicorn dream and many other little tweaks.

Personally, I quite liked the voice-over, despite the fact that it was mainly used to highlight the important plot points for the hard of thinking. I felt that it gave the film an old-school noir feeling, reminiscent of the detective films of the 40s.

The changes made to the film go some way towards answering the question of Deckard’s existence: Is he a replicant himself? Scott has made his opinion clear, but ultimately it is down to the individual viewer to decide on their own.

The film is based, albeit loosely, on Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? but is far more coherent. Dick was a renowned drug user and his novels often reflect that aspect of his life, questioning ideas of humanity, paranoia, authority and so on. The film entertains some of these notions, but does so in a far more controlled way, showing Deckard as a man haunted by his own life, emotionally involved in the fate of those he is tasked with ‘retiring’.

The most outstanding feature of the film is the look of it. From the smoky, dimly lit interiors to the stark silhouettes of the cityscape, the film looks futuristic, even thirty years after its release. The lack of CGI lends a gritty realism to the world, making it far more believable than modern attempts at the genre.

Overall, Blade Runner is a wonderful film, fantastically acted, brilliantly scripted, beautifully shot.

Number 6: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope dir. George Lucas (1977)

Originally released as plain old Star Wars, this is the one that started it all. Spawning two sequels, three prequels, two spin-off movies, Tv series, video games a-plenty and more merchandise than it is possible to recount, Star Wars genuinely changed the world of film forever. The cast were mostly unknowns, with the exceptions of Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan and Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin, and the story fantastic. Harrison Ford again features, this time as the smuggler Han Solo, with Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker and Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. The film also features arguably the most iconic movie villain ever, in the six-foot six form of Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith and Emperor Palpatine’s right hand man.

I will accept that A New Hope is not the best of the films, but it is the one that came first, and it introduced me to an astounding universe of adventure, laser swords, bizarre creatures, beautiful princesses, charming rogues, spaceships, other worlds, epic battles and robots. I will never forget the way I felt as I watched the film for the first time, aged four. It began a lifelong love affair with science fiction (and was ultimately responsible for my feelings of betrayal when Phantom Menace was released), and will always hold a special place in my heart. It is by far the most innocent of the six movies, and although the storylines are not completely worked out (Luke kissing his sister ‘for luck’ is possibly one of the more creepy moments when viewed in retrospect) it is still a wonderful experience to watch.

Number 7: The Big Lebowski dir. Joel and Ethan Coen (1998)

The Big Lebowski stars Jeff Bridges as Jeffrey Lebowski, AKA The Dude, LA’s finest stoner and bowler. The plot centres around a case of mistaken identity and kidnapping, as Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid), the wife of disabled millionaire Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddlestone), disappears. Dumb hijinks ensue, but really the plot of the film is not important, despite the many twists and turns that the Coens shoehorn into the two-hour runtime. The real joy of this movie is the way in which the Dude drifts from one disaster to the next, ably assisted by his best friends, the Viet Nam veteran Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and the put-upon Donny (Steve Buscemi).

The dialogue and character portrayals are excellent, with some scene stealing turns from Lebowski’s aide Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Jesus Quintana (John Turturro) and the Stranger (Sam Elliott), and really the dialogue is the main reason to watch the film. Bridges and Co. really create the sense of reality despite the bizarre situations, and it is hard to watch without laughing out loud as long as you don’t get caught up trying to follow the plot. It is a film in which very little of importance happens, much like the Dude’s life, which centres around bowling, driving around and the occasional acid flashback. Walter’s ‘Nam inspired rants and inability to accept defeat are endearing rather than annoying, and Donny, despite rarely being noticed by the other characters, is genuinely sympathetic.

I have perhaps been a little harsh on the plot. It isn’t that the plot isn’t important, more that it is merely a vehicle for moving the main characters around and allowing them space to indulge in conversation. This is a truly character driven movie and would be just as enjoyable if the main characters weren’t seeking compensation for the Dude’s soiled rug, or chasing the missing $1 million around LA. One of the Coen brothers best films.

Number 8: Watchmen dir. Zack Snyder (2009)

I know that this is going to annoy fanboys across the internet, but I don’t care. I liked this movie. I am also a huge fan of the graphic novel, and I was really quite worried when I heard that it was being adapted for the big screen, especially when I heard it was being directed by Zack ‘300‘ Snyder. I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, it is different to the graphic novel; of course it is. Alan Moore’s comic is unfilmable. The version that finally made it to the cinemas is a good attempt, and works very well as a stand-alone story.

The plot follows the investigation into the murder of retired hero, The Comedian (played with eerie menace by Jeffrey Dean Morgan). The investigation is led by sociopathic vigilante, Rorschach (a wonderfully unhinged Jackie Earle Haley), complete with voice-over extracts of his stream-of-consciousness journal.

The action is heavily stylised, as one would expect, which fits the tone of the film well, and the lighting, set design and soundtrack all add up to a stunning spectacle. The denouement is well handled, with genuine pathos, unusual for a superhero film. There are some drawbacks, of course, but these are minor compared to the positives. Richard Nixon (Robert Wisden) looks far too much like a caricature, rather than the actual ex-president, and Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup) spends a disturbing amount of time being all blue and naked, but other than that the whole film is a satisfying watch and a very good example of the superhero genre.

Number 9: X-Men dir. Bryan Singer (2000)

The one that arguably started the craze for comic book adaptions, X-Men stars Hugh Jackman as fanboy favourite Wolverine, as he is inducted into Charles Xavier’s team of superheroes, the X-Men. The humans are discovering that mutants walk among them, capable of incredible feats, and they are rightly scared. Xavier believes that humans and mutant can live together in harmony, but his old friend Magneto (Sir Ian McKellen) is a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, and he knows what the dark side of human nature can lead to. Therefore, the film has three distinct groups, none of whom are typical bad guys. The humans are largely unrepresented in the film, except by the bigoted Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison), who changes his tune of hate and begs forgiveness from equally bigoted Storm (Halle Berry).

The story is solid, supported by talented actors and assured special effects. The influence on the genre is unarguable too, with this film spawning two sequels, one prequel and a spin-off (so-far), as well as triggering a surge in comic book movies, from Iron Man, Spider Man, Superman, Batman, Hulk, Thor, Green Lantern, Captain America, John Constantine, Kick-Ass, Scott Pilgrim and on and on and on. This popularity shows little sign of slowing down, with big budget movies for The Avengers, Spider Man, Judge Dredd, Batman and Superman all due for release in the next few years. Good news for geeks!

Number 10: The Usual Suspects dir. Bryan Singer (1995)

So, for the last film on my list, I have gone for another Bryan Singer helmed project. The Usual Suspects is a cleverly constructed whodunnit, told by Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) to Special Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) in the office of Sgt Jeff Rabin (Dan Hedaya) of the NYPD. Kint was arrested after a boat was destroyed in San Pedro but has FBI protection. Kujan is desperate to get to the truth as he is obsessed with finding and arresting Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne).

The film is genuinely incredible, with strong performances from the ensemble cast, and an engrossing, well told story. The shadowy antagonist is alluded to throughout, and served as one of the advertising tricks for the film: ‘Who is Keyser Soze?’ – a question I won’t answer here, on the off-chance that you have not seen it!

The Usual Suspects was not a huge commercial success on its release, but its relatively low budget of $6 million did mean that it began to make its money back reasonably quickly. Since then it has gone on to become a massive cult success and gained a strong mainstream following as well.

This film demands a second viewing, if only to see all the clues that you missed first time round, and the denouement of this film is second to none.

Right, that’s this list of random films completed, and I’m already thinking of films I should have included. So here is a quick list of the top ten films that didn’t make it:

1) Casablanca

2) It’s a Wonderful Life

3) Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers

4) Clerks

5) Mad Max

6) Reservoir Dogs

7) The Dark Knight

8) Ocean’s Eleven

9) Unforgiven

10) Akira