Phoenix Island

There has been a great deal of hype surrounding this, the debut novel from John Dixon.

It was optioned for (read that as: it inspired) a CBS TV show before it was even published, which is quite the impressive feat. Now, because I believe in honesty above all else, I shall take a few lines to give you a brief flurry of thoughts on Intelligence, the show inspired by this novel.

I watched the pilot, actually about 26 minutes of it, before I called it a day. I was so excited, having finished the book, but after seeing what the network delivered I was annoyed. By “inspired,” the creator really means “Hey, I think the idea of a super chip we plug into someone’s brain and it makes them superhero-y is badass; I’m taking it and writing an anemic show about governmenty spy-like action crap and giving it that NCIS pallor, and then I shall sit in my trailer and count my anticipated millions. Muwhahaha!”

I found that disheartening. The incredibly drawn characters and tension notched up with painful precision is gone, replaced with CGI effects and stiff acting. So yeah, I didn’t like the show.

I loved the book, so let me clarify why I choose to air my possibly unpopular view of the show as a preface to my book review. It’s because the book is THAT good and it deserves to be read and win your heart on its own merits. If you watched Intelligence and bought the book expecting to read that sort of pap, you’ll be disappointed. Well, unless you happen to also have taste, then you’ll probably be wisely won over. Or if you bought the book, read it, and then tuned into the show expecting to have your ass handed to you a week at a time. Guess what? More disappointment.

I do this as a measure of disclosure. The show might be good if you like that sort of thing. I don’t. I’m not a fan of much in the way of modern TV shows. The book is great. It deserves to be known as that. Enough ranting. Now, about Phoenix Island

The novel starts with the grim introduction of young Carl Freeman, a boy with a lot of problems but a big heart. He does the wrong things for the right reasons and finds himself on the other side of the judge’s bench.

Through further mishaps and circumstances, Carl finds himself sentenced to time on Phoenix Island, a sort of military boot camp from hell/juvi prison. He and the other troubled youth are subjected to degradation and horrific mental tortures under the guise of toughening them up, which really is a device for weeding out the stronger personalities.

As the story progresses, friends are made as well as enemies. There is brutality and dissension. There is fear and realization. And by the time we reach the stunning climax (think Lord of the Flies meets the first forty minutes of Full Metal Jacket) there is serious emotional conflict.

I have been purposefully vague about the major plot points, mainly because when put up against the depth and realism of the characters and the human progression of their journey, I feel the less you know going in, the better the experience will be.

I will, however, give you some things you have to look forward to: fighting, pigs, sharks, bugs, fighting, bad jokes, sweat, fighting, medical experimentation, fighting, and growing up, in more ways than one.

Phoenix Island is one heavy book. The prose is tight and smooth. Very real and easy to read. If this is Dixon’s debut, sign me up for anything he puts out.

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Patient Zero: White Zombie and Where the Dead Walk on Screen

If one were to examine pop-culture today and determine where exactly zombies and the undead stand, it would sort of feel as though they really do walk among us. In recent years, AMC’s hit series The Walking Dead, with now three seasons under its belt, has left zombies with an undeniable stamp on the medium of the screen.

Already in 2013, two films, Warm Bodies and World War Z, have graced audiences with two very different perspectives on, but nevertheless feature, beings that are neither dead nor alive. Countless upon countless horror films centering on zombies have been released over the decades that they, in fact, have spawned their own genre. The ‘Zombie Horror Film’ is now an immortalized subgenre of the horror flick but it goes even deeper than that as the folklore of zombies in North American culture is always being spun into more complex and varying webs of subgenre upon sub-subgenre.

Before one delves into the legend that continually grows, it is important to discover where the dead first began to walk the earth on screen. When we think of the origins of the ‘zombie,’ George A. Romero’s 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead, is certainly a movie that comes to mind and although this is partly true, it being the origin for zombies as we know today, the source goes back a bit farther than that, in fact, over 30 years back whilst in the midst of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

The term ‘zombie’ has roots reaching back into Haitian and African religion, where a zombie is someone who is an animated corpse or hypnotized into doing one’s bidding. Through voodoo and witchcraft it was believed to be possible to turn someone into a zombie. The living dead as we know them today, who rise from graves, is a little more of a recent concept. Rarely nowadays do movies that contain zombie subject matter actually depict them as traditional victims of witchcraft or voodoo; however, this was not always the case. Known to be the first ever full-length feature zombie-horror film, White Zombie is the motion picture which sparked the rise of what was to be a zombie take-over in North American horror.

White Zombie was directed by brothers Victor and Edward Halperin in 1932. The film stars the infamous horror virtuoso Bela Lugosi as well as Madge Bellamy, John Harron, and Robert Frazer. The setting of the plot actually takes place in Haiti and pits Lugosi’s character, Murder Legendre, as the voodoo master with a sugar mill full of his very own zombie slaves. Lugosi puts on a fantastically creepy  performance as the antagonist. His signature stare that garnered him so much respect in 1931’s Dracula curdles your blood and is ever present in this film. The atmosphere that the film evokes is undeniably scary and the blank expressions given off by Lugosi’s zombies are eccentrically eerie and truly void of any signs of human existence. Although at times the film is a little goofy (but are not all horror films from that time a little bit so?) and the acting also sometimes cringe worthy, there is a certain amount of charm that this independent horror gem carries along with itself.

Filmed in only 11 days, White Zombie was first released to the public in 1932 in New York City, where it faced less than positive reviews. Critically, the film was seen as a joke and as a laughable parody of what ‘true horror’ could accomplish. In retrospect, though, the film is seen as a pivotal piece in the growth of horror and is seen as the first film to introduce the term ‘zombie’ into mainstream media. For that alone it is certainly worth a watch, if not for Lugosi’s stellar performance.

After White Zombie, not many other zombie films saw zombies from the Haitian perspective and after the huge success of Night of the Living Dead, it would seem that for now, that perspective of zombie has all but been lost and forgotten. The hypnotism and voodoo magic is gone and in its place now stands bloodthirsty, flesh-eating, usually repulsively gory undead. However, after White Zombie there were still several zombie films that came out before George Romero ever got his start, and these included: The Ghost Breakers (1940), King of the Zombies (1941), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Plague of the Zombies (1966). None of them were hugely successful but each had their own little role in expanding and building upon zombie mythology in film.

With zombie-horror as an entire subgenre, it now appears as though sub-subgenres are expanding out of that as well. When you first want to create some sort of zombie-related flick, you have to ask yourself, what sort of zombies are we dealing with? Will the zombies simply rise from the dead or is there a virus involved? Do you need to be bit or is being scratched good enough to turn? Do the zombies specifically need to be shot in the head to be killed? Are they fast, jumping, and sprinting or are they slow, cumbersome, and lumbering? These questions and many, many more have to be answered and determined before one creates anything zombie related nowadays. When talking about zombies and zombie films, I will find myself asking questions like, “Are we dealing with 28 Days Later zombies or Dawn of the Dead zombies?” The list of characteristics that go into creating your own version of the undead is just so expansive, almost overwhelming now, that depending on which sort of zombie you wish to take on, chances are it will be very similar to some films while also very different to others, thus, the creation of a zombie sub-subgenre is created.

Infesting more than just the big screen, zombies are everywhere. Books, videogames (especially videogames), and television all host very successful zombie-related material and although some see the zombie genre as redundant and repetitive, it has been going on for roughly 80 years now and I am sure that zombies are here to stay. You can now have zombies attacking your garden on your iPhone in Plants vs. Zombies, watch Brad Pitt fend for his life against hordes of zombies in World War Z, and even read up and prepare yourself for the impending zombie apocalypse in Max Brooks’ best-selling book The Zombie Survival Guide, but just remember where it all came from; from a little Haitian plantation at the hands of a devious voodoo master practicing witchcraft and a spellbinding Bela Lugosi back in 1932.

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Sunday Digs: On Last Words, Coven Trailers, and Halloween Horror Nights

Here are a handful of goodies from around the Internet that we found interesting this past week.

The State of Texas has been apparently saving the last words of every death row inmate since 1982. Most claimed innocence, apologized to their victim’s families or thanked their loved ones for years of happiness and good memories. Others were not so poignant—such as a 1999 inmate that said, “Adios amigos,” before asking to be taken away.

I love the American Horror Story trailers. They’re almost creepier than the actual show.

Nick Carter is making a horror movie. Before you go Google who this new director is, I will confirm that it is boy band Nick Carter, from Backstreet Boys. I would love to see some reactions on this.

If you’re in the Orlando, Florida or Los Angeles, California area, pop into Universal Studios for the Halloween Horror Nights from September 20th–November 2nd. The park will feature haunted houses, mazes, street attractions, and shows from films like American Werewolf in London, Cabin in the Woods, and Evil Dead.

There is a movie adaptation of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five in the works. Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Then I found out today that Universal is courting Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) to screenwrite. I geeked out so hard I nearly passed out.

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Warm Bodies In the Flesh

Isaac Marion’s debut novel, Warm Bodies, was a breakthrough in 2011, a beautifully written genre-bending horror romance about an undead named “R” who falls in love with a living girl, Julie, after he eats her boyfriend’s brain. He even saves her from being devoured by his friends. So sweet and considerate, right? I was intrigued by the premise and bought a copy on Kindle, expecting a fluffy, easy read. Instead, I found a complex love story from a very unconventional point of view. What impressed me immediately was Marion’s prose and the fluid skill he used to give R a voice that many, dead or undead, could sympathize with.

The move adaptation last year opened to an 80% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. After loving the book so completely I went into the theater with a bowl of popcorn and a cup of skepticism, expecting watered down emotions and overblown special effects. The trailer looked good, but don’t the trailers always look good? I was pleasantly surprised that Jonathan Levine stayed true to the novel, with help from Marion, and preserved the innocent, Edward Scissorhands-like persona of R and his journey to connect with Julie and become human again.

This past month, advertisements began running every fifteen minutes for a new BBC America miniseries, In the Flesh, from debut creator and writer Dominic Mitchell. The first episode premieres tonight, June 6th, which happens to be two days after the DVD release of Warm Bodies. Some have said that BBC is attempting to imitate Marion’s romantic tale of undead meets girl, but from the clips I’ve been able to watch, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Although, without it’s predecessor, I doubt a zombie drama could have been greenlit. What the BBC has done, like Marion, is use an overdone horror trope with a fresh twist to tell a meaningful story with new perspective.

The trailers and sneak-peaks from BBC reveal a much starker zombie apocalypse than Warm Bodies, although both divert attention from the traditional monsters and create villains from apathy, prejudice and ignorance. The stories don’t focus on humanity surviving among monsters, but instead take the more complex approach of humanizing the traditional villain and exploring the darker side of the human condition. In these stories, the “rotter” can be the good guy. Although zombies in both periodically eat their neighbors, they feel conflicted about it, and doesn’t that count for something?

The undead of In the Flesh, called PDS (Partially Deceased Syndrome) sufferers, could be a metaphor for the mentally ill or any other group with societal stigma that are feared and alienated. Two characters, Kieren Walker (Luke Newberry) and Rick Macy (David Walmsley), are not only dealing with PDS prejudice from their community, but are exploring their connection to one another and struggling with the possibility of additional rejection from their parents and friends. They’re “partially deceased” and coming to terms with their own sexuality, a dual conflict which will make for multi-layered storytelling. Without going into each one, most of the characters of In the Flesh, both human and PDS sufferer, are equally as complex and compelling.

Although Isaac Marion has said he is not a horror writer and will not return to the genre, if the BBC series becomes even a moderate success, the market for similar zombie fiction can only grow exponentially, especially coupled with ratings boon The Walking Dead. However, I’m burnt out on the traditional zombie tale offered by Frank Darabont and company, and will be supporting In the Flesh by watching it tonight, June 6th, on BBC America at 10PM EST/9PM CST.

If you don’t have cable and can’t join, go pick up a copy of Warm Bodies, out on DVD as of June 4th.

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A Conversation with Grimm’s Russell Hornsby

Russell Hornsby has acted in films and television for well over a decade, appearing in shows like Lincoln Heights, Grey’s Anatomy, Law & Order, and movies such as Meet the Parents and After the Sunset. He now appears weekly on NBC’s Grimm, a show that is kind of hard to explain.

Matt Betts: I don’t want to be cheesy by starting out quoting IMDB, but I’m going to be that guy anyway.

Russell Hornsby: Okay, go ahead.

MB: According to IMBD, Grimm is an “American police procedural television drama series.” And they also categorize it in the genres of fantasy procedural, horror and mystery. Grimm is a pretty hard show to pin down and describe, isn’t it?

RH: Yes. I have a tough time myself and I don’t know if I always get it right. I’m glad someone is able to do it.

MB: Well, there’s just a little bit of everything in it. There’s action, there’s horror, there’s fairy tale, and it is all blended together so well.

RH: I think, as you said, they do it so well and I hope, sooner rather than later, that it would just be its own genre. You know what I mean?

MB: Absolutely. With all of that in mind, what made you want to take the role of detective Hank Griffin?

(more…)

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