Wednesday, 6 April 2011

#13 Plan 9 From Outer Space: Why Do We Love Crappy Movies?

Over the last few weeks I think we’ve made a good case from the zombie genre being full of examples of good art. Whether we’re talking about the stark political or social commentary of Night of the Living Dead, Pontypool or 28 Days Later, thoughtful dramas like The Walking Dead (Soon coming to Channel 5 for those Brits who haven’t resorted to undisclosed means!) or comedies like Shaun of the Dead and Braindead, these are works that are technically and creatively great works of art. Talking to people who work in the genre, it’s clear that these are people who care about the work they, do and put a great deal of thought into the implications of what they produce.

Of course, it shouldn’t be a surprise that there is also an awful lot of shit out there. I’m talking about vacuous, overproduced wipe-clean crap like the Resident Evil movies, the actually-pretty-okay-until-they-pointlessly-fucked-up-the-ending I Am Legend movie, and the zombie killing segment of the rape and lobotomies pop video extravaganza that is Sucker Punch. Zombies have been big business for the last decade, which means that people are queuing up for space on that increasingly overcrowded bandwagon, and not all them give that much of a shit about quality- that’s understandable.

But there is a third category of movies. Movies made with inexpert hands, using fallible production values and for not necessarily pure motives. This is where we find Flight of the Living Dead: Outbreak on a Plane, Billy Bobby Thornton’s heroic debut in Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town, and anything after the first Return of the Living Dead movie. These are not, by even the most charitable measures, “good movies”, many of them aren’t even trying to be. And yet there is something undeniably fun about them. These are the movies frequently known as “So bad it’s good”. So where does their appeal lie?

The obvious answer is that the people who enjoy these movies are drunken idiots. However, here at Chris Writes About the End of the World we don’t automatically accept the obvious answer. Not until it is backed up with experimental data.

In this case, what we needed to test this claim was a drunken idiot. I know some of our more comedically gifted readers will be suggesting I put myself forward as a test subject, but I can’t be a drunken idiot- I’ve had a book published. Drunken idiots can’t do that.

So I automatically went to the next best thing- Tom Harvey. You may remember Tom Harvey as my backstabbing, traitorous co-player in my Left 4 Dead review. Tom’s incredibly poor spatial awareness and understanding of team dynamics not withstanding however, Tom is still pretty stupid. Tom is a member of the band Hello Bear, of which he is the bassist- a word which comes from the Latin for “Can’t play guitar”. We are talking about a man so stupid that he once tried to hit a watermelon with a sledgehammer- and missed.  I rang his mobile and after he’d tried to eat it, stick it up his nose, and run it along the floor pretending it was a toy car, he answered the phone and agreed to help with the blog, so long as I told you all that he has a single coming out in a couple of weeks.
And Tom Harvey has this picture in his CV as one of his proudest achievements
 So, we had our drunken moron. Now we needed a movie, and for me there was only ever one contender. I am talking, of course, about Edward D. Woodward’s brilliant, iconic, amazing Plan 9 from Outer Space, that incidentally, beat Romero to the first zombie apocalypse movie by 11 years.

Take it away moron:
Plot-wise I quite enjoyed it, which doesn't necessarily mean that it's a good plot, just that I'm easily pleased. The basic premise of the movie is that aliens are reanimating the dead in a bid to convince the human race of their existence, having been covered up by the government thus far. These zombies kill other people occasionally, or just scare the shit out of them. It ends with the three heroes (an airline pilot, a police detective and an army lieutenant) finding an alien ship and setting it on fire, after a minor scuffle, causing it to explode, killing two aliens.
Believe it or not- this was not done with CGI

Now that plot isn't the most complex in the world, by any stretch of the imagination. It is made entertaining, however, by the general haplessness shown in all aspects of the film. A general misunderstanding of basic science was the standout part for me, something which generally will have me bubbling up with disproportionate rage. Strangely, this film is so ridiculous that even the general mumbo-jumbo spouted throughout added to its entertainment factor, By the way, never use your electrode gun on the pineal gland of a dead person, it makes them a zombie, over whom you have sole control. I mean it. Seriously. If you make a zombie horde how will I take over the world with mine? Be fair!

So here we make our first discovery- the shittiness of the production actually makes it more enjoyable for the idiot! Maybe this allowed his small, fudge-like brain to experience novelty feelings of superiority?

This is certainly borne out by Tom’s other observations: Understandably, the special effects weren't up to much, but general continuity errors such as scenes going night-day-night were pretty common, and the acting seemed a tad on the "6 year old doing a nativity play" side.

Yet, despite the general craptacularishness of the script, special effects and acting, there is a lot to love in this film. The film’s narrator, a television psychic known as The Amazing Criswell (That’s the actor, not the character) actually gives bloody good narration, which our pet moron describes as “like the bastard love-child of Lloyd Grossman and Jeremy Paxman”. He delivers, with absolute sincerity, lines like “And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future.”

That sincerity runs right through the film. Okay, so the cops may be using their guns to point to each other or pick their ears (Apparently this was part of a running dare to try and make Ed Wood order a second take. It didn’t work). But the alien leader, Eros’s big speech about how dangerous mankind was seemed genuinely heartfelt, if mostly ripped off from the Day the Earth Stood Still. Admittedly, he seemed just as heartfelt calling the humans “Stupid! Stupid” over and over again, but that just shows how committed to the part he was. The title sequence with the names appearing plastered across tombstones is so iconic it’ll be recognised by anyone who’s seen a Simpson’s Halloween Special.
It's a worthy legacy
And while it’s easy to point out the strings on the flying saucers, the make-up and casting of professional Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson as a police inspector turned zombie is actually genuinely impressive, even by today’s standards.
Seriously- does he not shit you up?
I think that part of the joy of these films is digging out stuff like that, finding these pearls of brilliance mixed in with all the shit.

More than that, I think the film has to mean it. One of the popular names in the so bad it’s good genre is Uwe Boll, who has produced a bunch of videogame licences including House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark and Blood Rayne. The only film I’ve seen of his is Dungeon Siege: In The Name of the King. I watched it with a friend, got drunk, laughed at the fact that Jason Statham and Burt Reynolds both agreed to be in it, then promptly forgot about. But Uwe Boll has kept going. His latest film is called Blubberella- and its selling point is that it features the world’s first fat female superhero (No it doesn’t). The film reuses sets, props, costumes and cast members from Bloodrayne 3 (Which as near as I can tell has exactly the same plot, except in that film it’s a hot leather clad woman fighting Nazis, as opposed to a fat one).

There is no fun to be had in these films, because you get the feeling Uwe Boll knows that he’s churning out shit, but doesn’t care. Ed Wood genuinely believed he was taking on Orson Welles.
In other words, the so bad it’s good isn’t a genre you can get into on purpose. You can only stumble in there by accident. It’s like Narnia in that way.

Drinking rules-
The zombies are walking dead (One Shot) who move slowly (One shot) but never get referred to as zombies (Two shots). Mankind is the real monster (One shot- "Stupid minds! Stupid, stupid!”) Are the people coming to rescue you incompetent or more dangerous than the zombies? If the general standard of gun safety is anything to go by, take two shots for that. 


  1. "I’ve had a book published. Drunken idiots can’t do that."
    Martin Amis.
    Most Beatniks.

  2. I'd argue that most of the people on that list are just drunks.

  3. I think he has you on that one Hannah. :)