“Look what's living inside your television.”
With Mom and Dad delayed overseas, siblings Zoe and Jeff are forced to move into their new home all by themselves. Unfortunately, no one bothered to tell the new tenants that the previous owner was brutally murdered after mistakenly receiving a television slated to be delivered to the Institute for the Studies of the Occult. Jeff, of course, immediately locates the TV in the attic and moves it into his bedroom for some late night viewing, only to find that it picks up nothing but an old B&W movie titled Zombie Blood Nightmare. Jeff is shocked when one of the women from the movie appears in his room and attempts to seduce him, only to be yanked back into the television and slain by a frumpy old man who calls himself The Garbage Collector. The Collector warns Jeff that by turning on the set he has accidentally unleashed The Video Dead into the world and is now responsible for returning them to the other side. As the undead horde begins to slaughter the neighbors, Jeff, his special new friend April, and professional zombie hunter Joshua the cowboy try to round them up. Unfortunately, the zombies are too clever and manage to kill everyone, leaving only the disbelieving Zoe to try and discover the method of sending the Video Dead back where they belong.
(WARNING: This atypical review is in response to a reader’s question which prompted a whole series of posts over the past two weeks. As such, this over-long rambling contains scenes of intense navel gazing which may be unsuitable for the weak of stomach. If you’re considering skipping a review, this might be the one.)
In September of 1976 JVC started selling VHS players in Japan, eventually bringing the machines to the United States in June of 77. Later that year, while most people were still obsessing over the release of Star Wars, a guy by the name of George Atkinson started renting out his personal collection of 50 video tapes in the want ads of the Los Angeles Times. (You can’t really blame him; the things cost between $100-$200 apiece new.) This venture proved popular enough that Atkinson opened what is generally considered the first video rental store, the Video Station on Wilshire Boulevard. After clearing some legal hurdles regarding the rental of copyrighted material, he expanded the business into a 400+ store franchise and helped jump start a national craze. It wasn’t long before even the smallest town had a store with a decent video rental section. It was right at the start of this period that my family got its very first VCR, a 15+ pound monstrosity with (I crap you negative) wood panel accents. It was a thing of beauty which I refused to part with for almost a decade.
The reason I treasured the thing is simple. It’s near impossible to underestimate the impact of the video store on my generation of movie hounds, especially those (and by those I mean, of course, me) amongst us whose taste veered towards the mondo end of the viewing spectrum. Movies we had only read the barest description of in homemade fanzines, stuff we figured we’d die without ever seeing, were suddenly lining the shelves of stores run by nice old folks who looked like the couple in the American Gothic painting. It was like Christmas every day and some people (and by some I mean, of course, me) started renting movies just about every night they were home. The problem with such a voracious audience, however, is that even with the glut of titles to choose from, the stores couldn’t get enough new stuff in to watch. So, in 1985, the inevitable happened. Customers walked into their favorite video outlet and saw a garish box for the first ever direct-to-video production, Blood Cult. I won’t waste any time talking about Blood Cult, it was wretched in just about every way you can imagine. But it rented like mad. And so, the flood gates were open once more as everybody with a camera, a jar full of change, and a few days to spare started cranking out ultra-ultra-low budget movies that would barely qualify for the last spot on an all night drive-in movie marathon, but were guaranteed hits at the video store.
The Video Dead was one of those. Now, cheap doesn’t even begin to describe this thing. There’s a very noticeable lack of star power. About the closest thing to any name talent you’ll find in The Video Dead is Jennifer Miro, lead singer of the late 70s punk band The Nuns. (I’ve never heard Ms. Miro sing, so I can’t comment on that. However, after watching this movie, I can truthfully say I’ve never seen her act either.) As for the other thespians involved, well, at least they have some memories and a worn VHS tape they can occasionally pull out and say, “Look, Daddy was in a movie once.” Robert Scott, as a first time director, doesn’t embarrass himself too badly, managing to cut the camera on at the proper time and keeping most of the boom mikes out of frame. (He would go on to bigger things like being the third assistant director on Fatal Instinct and the second second assistant director on Dracula: Dead And Loving It. I’m at a lost as to what degree of difference actually exists between those two job titles, but regardless, work is work.) Unfortunately, Robert Scott, as a first (and only) time writer, embarrasses himself pretty bad. People die screaming in one room while their spouses in the next room hear nothing. Characters spout inane dialog about stuff like poodles getting turned on by skunks. The Garbage Collector, a major character central to the plot, is introduced in one scene, and then disappears entirely from the film. It’s a mess.
And yet, for the most part, horror fans from the VHS era seem to look back fondly on The Video Dead. Part of the reason has to be that Iron Maiden lookalike box art. No self respecting horror fan was going to see that beauty on the shelf and pass it by. And it helped that you got exactly what the cover promised (not always a sure thing even now); bunches of zombies crawling out of a TV and doing that voodoo that they do so well. Better yet, considering the fact that the zombie effects were in all likelihood created by some kid whose only credentials were that he once checked out a copy of Tom Savini’s Grande Illusions from the library, the makeup is actually pretty good in a Goosebumps sort of way. But mostly it’s the little bright spots in an otherwise dismal script that makes the Video Dead so memorable for us genre nuts. For instance, rather than just lumber around and hope to bump into their victims, the zombies do stuff like hide out in a washing machine, jump out at whoever opens the lid, and laugh about it with each other afterwards. And then there’s the scene in which our heroes try to set a trap for the zombies by hanging the teenage boy from a tree like a piece of bait. Rather than get suckered in, however, the zombies find the whole thing amusing and just stand around chuckling while they poke the dangling boy with sticks. Best yet is the method of defeating the zombies. The typical bashing in of the skull is useless against these guys. Instead, they have to be locked in a room with a mirror and forced to look at their own reflection. For some reason, gazing at the reality of their ‘deadness’ is just too much to bear and so the Video Dead retreat back to the television. That’s right, the zombies are brought down by an existential crisis. How great is that? I know the movie as a whole is undeniably inescapably bad, but c’mon folks, this is good stuff!
People like me are often at a loss of words (hard to tell by this post, I know) to explain to someone who isn’t a fellow ‘bad’ movie fan why this kind of movie is so enjoyable. But Stephen King, a fellow who rarely has trouble putting words on paper, decided to take a shot at it in his novel length essay on horror Danse Macabre. “Once you’ve seen enough horror films” he writes, “you begin to get a taste for really sh***y movies. Films that are just bad… can be dismissed impatiently, with never a backward glance. But real fans of the genre look back on a film like The Brain From Planet Arous… with something like real love… A film like Alien or Jaws is, for either the true fan or simply the ordinary moviegoer who has a sometime interest in the macabre, like a wide, deep vein of gold that doesn’t even have to be mined; it can simply be dug out of the hillside… The true horror film aficionado is more like a prospector with his panning equipment or his wash-wheel, spending long periods going patiently through common dirt, looking for the bright blink of gold dust or even a small nugget or two… You sit through a lot of schlock, and maybe-just maybe-there is that frisson that makes it at least partially worthwhile.” What I think King is getting at, and which I believe to be true, is that while most people can watch MST3K and enjoy laughing at ‘bad’ movies, to truly find real enjoyment within the movies themselves a person (and by person I mean, of course, me) basically has to have been overexposed to the things.
And therein lies the crux of the question which has occupied this blog over the past two weeks. It’s not that watching movies, in and of itself, presents a moral dilemma for the Christian. We took note how Pope Pius XI, right from the birth of the art form, acknowledged that movies are a legitimate form of relaxation and entertainment. His only concern was the potential moral pitfalls some films might contain, so he wrote an encyclical which, among other things, encouraged local bishops to point out content which might be potentially offensive by Christian standards. The bishops still do so to this day, but ultimately leave it to informed adults to decide whether or not to watch a particular film. The Church rarely calls for the outright condemnation of any particular film because, as it has done throughout history, the Church encourages us to recognize the good in all human endeavors, even the non-Christian ones. Not too many years back The Church itself did this with movies when The Vatican released its own list of the 45 most important films of all time, a list consisting mostly of motion pictures depicting actions which in and of themselves could be considered morally offensive. The Vatican applauded the merits of these movies while being careful not to endorse every single thing depicted in them. Of course, this doesn’t mean a Christian should just go out and watch ANY film. As Pope Paul II pointed out, there are some movies which “distort the truth, oppress genuine freedom, or show scenes of sex and violence offensive to human dignity.” Those are movies to be avoided and, as I acknowledged (admittedly with tongue firmly in cheek), I do my best to avoid such movies around these parts. Oddly enough, three decades after the introduction of the VCR, I once again find that there are movies out there I will likely die without ever seeing. Only this time, because of my convictions, the situation is voluntary.
No, rather than the watching of so-called ‘bad’ movies and their sometimes questionable content, the main question (finally) being considered here is one of time. Given St. Paul’s admonition to keep our thoughts on those things which are excellent or praiseworthy, is this hobby of mine really time well spent? (FINAL WARNING to avoid extreme navel gazing; there’s no turning back from here.) The only answer I can honestly give is that I’m doing my best to make it so. You see, I’ve understood from the very start of this blog that my little experiment here is iffy. As I said then, “Really, when you stop to think about it, this is probably doomed from the offset. I readily admit the seeming incompatibility of the teachings of a 2000 year old religion with movies whose subject matter is most often confined to what Joe Bob Briggs called the three Bs: Blood, Breasts, & Beasts. But, I'm stupid enough to try anyway.” That bit of self depreciation aside, there is, believe it or not, a method to my madness, an underlying purpose to what I’m doing here, a raison d'être. I’m doing it for the children.
What!?! I’m serious. As I’ve mentioned from time to time in the comboxes, I am a volunteer catechist at my local parish assigned to run a debate style class with high school juniors and seniors, many of whom are antagonistic to a lot of the Church’s teachings. It can be a tough room. If you want the Church’s side to be heard and understood amidst the chaos, it helps if you can be quick and concise. That sounds great until you actually try it. Sometimes all that doctrine and philosophy you carry around in your head makes perfect sense until you hear yourself trying to explain it out loud to someone else. In his book On Writing, Stephen King (that guy again) suggests that “no one is exactly sure of what they mean on any given subject until they have written their thoughts down; I similarly believe that we have very little understanding of what we have thought until we have submitted those thoughts to others who are at least as intelligent as ourselves.” Now apply that notion to catechesis, filter it through my particular personality disorder, and voila, you have the B-Movie Catechism. In its own bizarre way, as nutty as it sounds, this blog makes me a better teacher.
I suppose the question could be asked as to why I couldn’t accomplish the same thing using a different frame of reference other than crappy movies? Believe it or not, I’m not sure I could, at least not right now. In the introduction to his book Movie Megacheese, Mike Nelson (MST3K & Rifftrax) contemplates his own relationship with this stuff. “Why do it at all?” he asks himself, “Certainly there are other things to write about… I can only tell you that for me, not writing about bad movies is not an option. Or rather, not not writing about bad movies isn’t not an option. I guess what I’m saying is that not failing to not not write about bad movies isn’t not a lack of being an option.” What he said… I think. You see, God found me sitting in a sticky-floored stale popcorn smelling auditorium, and that’s where He’s dealing with me right now. One day the lights may come up, the curtains may close, and the Spirit may tell me to move on to something else (Have I mentioned my large collection of art history books?), but that time hasn’t come yet. Until then I’ll keep watching and trust you guys out there to keep me honest. Bad things coming out of a TV set to cause harm needs to stay the plot of a bad movie, not become my life story.
Well, I’ve explained what I get out of doing this. However, judging by the comments I receive, most, if not all, of the people who read this blog are already familiar with the religious teachings I discuss. In other words, I’m pretty sure nobody is coming here to be educated. But for whatever reason is bringing all of you here, thanks for dropping by, it’s unexpected and gratifying.
And that’s about all of me I can stand. We’ll be back to normal next time around. If you want to call Sean Connery in hot pants normal that is.