How the TV Traumatized Me

As a horror fan, you just have to have a strong stomach. Really. If you had to turn away from the screen every four seconds, well, then how would you enjoy the story between all the bloodshed? And, yes, there are horror flicks with actual narratives. Somewhere.  In any case, I can usually get through a film without cringing these days (provided nothing completely grotesque happens). But, you know, looking back on my childhood, I was a total scaredy cat growing up. Everything frightened me, from Halloween masks to insects to some of the weirder lullabies on this CD my parents thought it was a good idea to buy me.

And what’s funny is that as much fondness I have for the horror genre today, the television and movie screen was a huge source for some of my most frightening memories as a kid. Do you remember that commercial for the board game Perfection? The one with the wacky guy in the yellow shirt singing that weird jingle? Apparently, if you moved too slowly, the game pieces literally burst out of your chest like something out of Alien. I was rightfully traumatized and even avoided the board game aisle in toy stores.

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If his hair doesn’t keep you awake at night, the board game pieces eating his innards will.

But also because of that scene in Jumanji where the kid gets sucked into the board.

There were a lot of movies that freaked me out growing up. There was Toy Story, a heartwarming tale about friendship. Featuring a baby doll head with spider legs. Now, my cousin collected porcelain dolls. And Barbie dolls. And Cabbage Patch kids. And you never knew when one might sprout tentacles and try to eat you.

There was also everyone’s favorite: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Forget kids being subject to horrible forms of torture for misbehaving. What about that scene with the candy boat? And the flashing lights? And footage of a chicken being killed?

But I understand these scenes unnerved a lot of kids. But, look, people, I was also afraid of the character Diesel from Thomas & Friends. I don’t know why. But every time he came on the screen, I ran screaming from the room. And continued to watch the show despite it.

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This is what evil looks like.

But enough about my dysfunction. What “not so scary now” things scared you growing up? What movie villains kept you awake at night? Let me know about your personal nightmare fuel in the comments. Maybe we’ll all feel better about ourselves.

 

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My Top Ten Final Girls in Horror Film History

All her friends are dead, picked off one by one by a knife-wielding maniac in a tacky Halloween costume. But she keeps on fighting. Whether she’s running through an empty house, an abandoned hospital, or a darkened forest, the “final girl” finds herself alone—the only person left alive to take on whatever bloodthirsty monster is lurking out there in the yonder. She’s not always the main character or the most interesting, no, but she is always set apart from the others. Smarter, braver, nicer, more virginal.

Quite a bit has been written about the gender issues concerning this phenomenon in horror films—particularly as it appears in the slasher genre. Why must the lone survivor be a woman? Is it because the audience is more likely to sympathize with her struggle than with a man’s? Is it because the audience wants to see a girl rewarded for hanging onto her purity? Why does the final girl tend to have a more traditionally masculine name than the other female characters? What can we say about her empowering herself with the killer’s own weapon? Emasculation or what?

Huh. Weird, backward sexism in a genre that exists solely on guts and topless women? Surprise, surprise. Either way, we mustn’t neglect that some of these ladies have really kicked butt too. They’ve earned their place in pop culture history along with Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees themselves.  And my list of the top ten final girls combines the most famous with the most obscure—to give you a little taste of just how far this trope extends.

10. Sally (Marilyn Burns) in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

SallyThis timeless tale of five friends coming face to face with a family of cannibals on the Texas back roads has horrified viewers for decades now. Interestingly, Sally doesn’t see much action until the end of the movie, but her climactic escape scene certainly resonates as one of the best. Diving through a window, she manages to evade the clutches of the men who are holding her captive and to flag down a pickup truck, on which she escapes bloodied and traumatized while Leatherface waves his chainsaw about in frustration. Her daring fight for freedom earns her a place on the list.

9.  Alicia (Barbara Cupisti) in Stage Fright

aliciaThis Italian film tells the story of a group of actors performing a bizarre art-house play about a serial killer called the Night Owl. One of the leading players, Alicia, immediately gets the audience’s support. She needs this job desperately, she has to deal with temperamental co-stars and an insane director, and to top it all off, she’s performing through an ankle injury. It’s no surprise that she’s the one to survive when a real serial killer shows up and starts picking people off. Now, Alicia does spend much of the film’s third act unconscious after tumbling down a ladder, but when she wakes up, she proves that she’s cunning enough to evade the killer right up to the end and even has the good sense to go for a gun when the opportunity presents itself (a great feat in a slasher flick, you know) And while Alicia doesn’t necessarily defeat the murderer on her own, being rescued near the end, she nevertheless earns her spot on this list.

8. Alice (Adrienne King) in Friday the 13th

Alice2Why do people bother going to Camp Crystal Lake? Whether a drowned boy or his mother, someone is always stalking the teenage counselors. This film was filmed right here in Jersey—at a camp I stayed at a few times growing up. And Alice earns her spot on this list for just about being a parody of the final girl trope. When we see the young woman and her co-workers are playing strip Monopoly, everyone is in states of half-dress but her, and just as she is about to disrobe, a wind blows in and messes up the board. Purity saved by the forces of nature themselves. Now, Alice is not necessarily the most clever character on this list (when given the choice between throwing a paint can at the killer and a roll of twine, she opts for the twine.) All the same, she manages to behead the murderer with a machete at the end, and that’s pretty cool.

7. Jennifer (Jennifer Connolly) in Phenomena

JennyThis film is about the daughter of an American movie star who is sent to a boarding school in Switzerland—where someone is picking off the students with a spear. There’s also a chimp that hangs around the local entomologist. And did I mention our heroine has the power to telepathically control insects? This bizarre supernatural slasher flick boasts a relatively famous actress in a relatively obscure role. And while the character of Jennifer makes some questionable decisions (accepting medication that turns out to be poison from someone she suspects is the murderer), her psychic powers help her both get revenge on her bullies and survive to the very end. Fun fact, Jennifer and the chimp did not get along on set even though said chimp saves Jennifer in the film’s finale. That sentence made more sense in my head.

6. Jess (Olivia Hussey) in Black Christmas

JessThis movie is famous for its opening sequence wherein a young woman is suffocated with a plastic bag and left propped in a rocking chair undiscovered for the film’s entirety. But Jess is the one who really holds the plot of this slow, haunting thriller together. And that’s because she’s strikingly more complex than most characters in these types of films. A college student with a somewhat crazed boyfriend, she must cope both with her decision to terminate her pregnancy and with the slasher who’s taken up residence in her sorority house. For defying stereotypes and for her mental and emotional strength turned physical, Jess earns her rightful place on this list. (Even if we’re to assume she’s killed off during the credits and all that).

5. Ginny (Amy Steel) in Friday the 13th: Part 2

GinnyAnother heroine from the Friday the 13th series, huh? In other lists similar to this one, Ginny proves one of the more enduring entries, and it’s because she relies on her wits to come out triumphant in the end. With a background in child psychology, she manages to fool infamous serial killer Jason Voorhees (pre-hockey mask) into thinking she’s his mother by wearing the dead woman’s sweater. And so, for proving brains always win out over brawn, Ginny thus earns her rightful place at the halfway mark of this list. And, hell, Alice is killed off at the start of this movie, so someone had to inherit her mantle.

4. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien

RipleySo this movie doesn’t have a costumed killer picking off teenagers, but for all intents and purposes, Alien is just a slasher flick set in space. The crew of the Nostromo is returning to Earth, and because this is a horror movie (no matter what anyone says), it manages to pick up an unwelcome stowaway on its voyage home. Now, in the sequel, Ripley turns into a true action hero, but even here, she displays her massive fighting potential, surviving to the very end with a flamethrower, a grappling hook, a bit of luck, and a lot of drive.

3. Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) in Halloween

LaurieHere she is, the original final girl. Although we later find out she’s Michael Myers’ little sister, here we see Laurie Strode as just a young woman in the wrong place at the wrong time, stalked relentlessly while babysitting on Halloween night. But while she did launch the trope and while this film did start Jamie Lee Curtis’s scream queen career, Laurie doesn’t actually do all that much. She runs around a lot, and she does manage to fight off the masked killer in the film’s climax, rescuing both of her young charges. But, in the end, Laurie tends to be one of the film’s duller characters. We like her, but we like her friends better. All the same, Laurie makes it through quite a few sequels, and that certainly deserves a nod (especially when you consider how much tougher she gets with each one).

2. Sidney (Neve Campbell) in Scream

SidThe original meta horror parody, Scream manages to be as scary as it as amusing, and guiding the series through four movies, Sidney rightfully earns her place on this list. Before outsmarting and outfighting the killers in the original film’s climax, she gets multiple memorable chase sequences, and as things start to come to a boil, the audience really begins to root for her.  And how could we not? She’s tough, funny, and determined, and when she turns the murderers’ own game against them, I always find myself grinning. Therefore, for surviving the sprees of seven different killers, Sidney properly emerges as number two on this list, kicking butt to the very end. But now for the grand finale.

1. Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) in A Nightmare on Elm Street

NancyShe’s just your average teenager, the girl next door who finds herself confronting the crazed serial killer Freddy Krueger, who hunts his victims even in death by invading their nightmares. But what makes Nancy so special? It’s the fact that she’s ready to give her tormenter a fight. Taking to his own uneven playing field, the dream world, Nancy prepares herself to battle Krueger face to face, fearlessly dragging him back into reality. And there, she has a fair shot, luring the killer into the booby traps she has set up before setting him ablaze. And when that doesn’t work, she turns away from him, effectively taking back the power she has given her fears and rendering him helpless to harm her (until that weird epilogue was shoehorned in). All the same, add in the fact that two films later Nancy prepares a new generation of teenagers to defend themselves against the knife-wielding predator and the fact that before dying she manages a final blow on Freddy with his own glove, and Nancy emerges as my number one final girl in horror film history.

And there you have it, folks. Tell me who yours are in the comments. There are a few honorable mentions absent from this list, such as Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) from The Descent, but there’s plenty of others too who probably deserve a spot on lists of your own.

New Jersey Independent Film Spotlight

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New York-based actor, writer, filmmaker, and self-proclaimed “Jersey Boy” Sam Platizky.

This week, I was fortunate to have a chat with Sam Platizky, a New York-based actor, writer, and filmmaker from my hometown of Bayonne, New Jersey. Along with working on multiple independent films and web series, Sam has also self-produced and starred in two of his own original screenplays, both featuring everyone’s favorite movie monster—the zombie.

The horror-comedy Blaming George Romero (Official Selection 2011 Bergenfield Film Festival, Official Selection 2011 Golden Door International Film Festival) tells the story of four film-fanatic friends who jump on the chance to be “survivors” when they think the zombie apocalypse has begun. And Red Scare (2012 Gold Kahuna Award Winner at the Honolulu Film Awards, 2012 Silver Ace Award at the Las Vegas Film Festival, Official Selection at the 2012 NJ International Film Festival, Official Selection at the 2012 Golden Door International Film Festival, and Honorable Mention at the 2012 Mockfest Film Fest in Los Angeles) details American hero Rex Steel’s fight against the dastardly Soviet plot to bring the living dead to our shores.

Talking with Sam this week, I asked him to tell me a bit more about the moviemaking process.

The Faux Phantom:  Can you tell me a bit about how you first got interested in screenwriting and filmmaking?

Sam: I have been acting since the 7th grade, but I got interested in screenwriting and filmmaking shortly after I graduated from college. After seeing Zach Braff’s Garden State, I remember liking the idea that he wrote himself a role because no one else was going to do it for him. I was growing unhappy with not being cast in things and being cast in things that weren’t that great. So, one day, I decided to sit down and write myself roles that I would enjoy playing.

The Faux Phantom: So in addition to Garden State, what other films and people would you say have influenced your work?

Sam: I am always influenced by Mel Brooks. I have been watching his movies forever, and they are near and dear to me. There are no comedies quite like his. I love everything I have seen Edgar Wright do, especially the Cornetto Trilogy, from the visuals to the scripts to the casting and even his style of editing, so I am sure that there is some influence from him and Simon Pegg in my work.

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Blaming George Romero. 2011. Loarina Gonzalez, Robert Lise, Sam Platizky, and Dan Gregory

Kevin Smith, another Jersey Boy who made good on the indie circuit, is another person who I admire. I feel like my first screenplay that was produced, Blaming George Romero, might have been trying too hard to feel like a Kevin Smith movie— in terms of the dialogue, at least. But I just love movies altogether. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t watching movies, so I guess I have been influenced by all of the movies I have seen in one way or another.

The Faux Phantom: So both Blaming George Romero and Red Scare are about zombies. Would you say you’ve taken some cues from Pegg and Wright’s Shaun of the Dead?

Sam: I’ve been a fan of zombie movies for a long time, but I loved Shaun of the Dead. I’d say there are similar themes in Blaming George Romero and Shaun of the Dead: friendship, living vs. surviving, growing up, etc.

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Red Scare. 2012.

Red Scare is its own animal though. It sprang from [Blaming George Romero] but it was really more of an ode to Mel Brooks’ comedies and the 1950’s as a time period.

Zombies are a good tool, because they are basically blanks. They are scary, but they have no real motivation beyond hunger, so they can be put in any situation and they work. Romero used them to great effect in his films, and I’m just trying to follow his great example. I hope I’ve done Romero, Wright, and Pegg proud.

The Faux Phantom: So can you tell me a bit about Blaming George Romero’s conception?

Sam: I had written a big budget zombie horror period piece, and realized I’d never be able to film it at this point in my career, so I sat down and wrote a smaller, more personal piece that would be film-able. I wrote it with 90% of the cast in mind, and that was BGR.

I met with a more tech savvy friend of mine, Brad Resnick, and we hammered out the details of how we could produce a feature length film. We used a crowd funding website called Indiegogo to raise the majority of our funds, and we got to work.

The Faux Phantom: And how was the filmmaking process?

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Red Scare poster by Steven Defendini.

Sam: The actual film making was a wild ride. With few exceptions, no one involved had ever been part of anything like this, so we were all learning as we went. In any group of different personalities you are going to have some conflicts. We did. Everyone was working for free, the conditions and locations weren’t always great, and tempers flared. It wasn’t always easy, but fortunately we kept pushing through and finished. By the end of filming and post production, I was happy that we did it, but I felt like I never wanted to undertake anything like it again. So, naturally, a week after we premiered BGR, I got to work on Red Scare.

The Faux Phantom: And how did the Red Scare process go?

Sam: By contrast, it was much easier and smoother. As a group we had gotten into our groove. We knew what we were doing now. The crew was populated only with people who shared the same positivity and creative vision. In addition, the director, Bill Dautrick, and I shared a nearly identical vision for what we wanted this movie to be. Thanks to all of this, each shoot went much more smoothly/quickly than BGR shoots. Also, the fact that this was strictly a comedy made the mood on set much lighter. It was one of the best experiences of my life, to be honest.

That’s not to say that we didn’t run into our share of problems. I think that on any movie set, some things will go wrong, and not always the things you might think. This time around, though, we knew how to deal with problems a little better, and when things did go wrong the lack of negativity in the cast and crew really made a difference.

I’d be remiss not to mention that there were four people who were there for every shoot with me whose professionalism, creativity, and positivity went a long way towards making Red Scare the success that it was: Loarina Gonzalez, Sean Feuer, Tony Pineiro, and Joey Mosca.

The Faux Phantom: After everything, what would you say the legacy of the two films has been? Both in regard to your own life and work and to the movies’ successes?

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Blaming George Romero. 2011.

Sam: Well, we didn’t make money, that’s for sure. Red Scare won some awards. Both movies are now available on Amazon, and will hopefully be available in more platforms as time goes on. So, its out there and can be seen by anyone who wants to, so that is a legacy of a sort. They got me into the filmmaking side of the business, and I have no plans to quit, so that is another type of legacy.

As far as the future goes, who knows? BGR was released in 2011 and Red Scare in 2012, so it hasn’t been that long. I think both movies touched lives, you know? Both movies will always be a part of the cast and crews’ lives. Whether they go on to bigger and better things, or whether they don’t continue in the arts, the people that were involved can always look back on that time in their lives with, hopefully, fondness. They are their movies as much as they are mine.

But, honestly, what matters most is that I did what I set out to do. I made two movies that I am insanely proud of, and I got to meet and work with some fantastic people while I was doing it. If I never did anything but those two movies, I would be happy.  I think I have left the world with something. Hopefully something that people will enjoy for many years to come.

The Faux Phantom: So what can we expect next from you?

Sam: I just finished shooting a web series called “Lost & Found,” and am in the post production phase of things now. It’s about a group of strangers who find each other after a near tragedy and get together to create a show of their own in an effort to help each other. Beyond that, there are a few scripts that are being tossed around my group ranging from horror shorts to feature length romantic comedies and everything in between.

To see more of Sam’s work, you can visit his official website, and both Blaming George Romero and Red Scare are available for purchase on Amazon— here and here.

Who knows? He’s centered here in Hudson County, so maybe you’ll see a few familiar faces and places on your screen.

Netflix Horror Finds: The Innkeepers

This review may contain spoilers

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The Innkeepers. Dark Sky Films. 2011.

Long, twisting corridors. Rows of identical doors shut tight to the outside world. Disembodied voices floating through the empty hallways at night. And, of course, the distinct awareness that you’re not alone. The others are all around you.

Maybe you catch glimpses of them hurrying down a stairwell or disappearing into a doorway. Maybe you hear them shuffling about above you or banging on the walls next door. Or maybe you get stuck waiting behind them while they fill up their ice buckets. That’s right. I’m not talking about a haunted asylum. I’m a talking about a hotel—the setting of today’s Netflix Horror Find. And while it never really tries to be The Shining, it unfortunately never quite achieves the tension or the lasting impact of Kubrick’s film either.

The Innkeepers, directed by Ti West, (whom horror fans may know for films like The Roost and The House of the Devil) stars Sara Paxton (The Last House on the Left) as Claire, a young employee at the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a historic hotel about to close its doors for good. Other major characters include Claire’s co-worker Luke (Pat Healy) and a former television actress turned psychic healer (Kelly McGillis).

Both Claire and Luke are amateur paranormal investigators who spend much of the film either talking about or hunting for the ghost of Madeline O’Malley, a scorned bride who, according to legend, hanged herself in the building over a century ago. And that’s where The Innkeepers begins to fall apart. There is quite a lot of talking about the ghost. But there are very few scares. And you can imagine how this is problem in a film that’s an hour and 40 minutes long.

The Innkeepers

Claire (Sara Paxton) does quite a bit of wandering through empty hallways.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with slow horror, and West’s own The House of the Devil has already proven that a jaw dropping finale can make over an hour of steady build worth it. But The Innkeepers, on the other hand, never really reaches that level. The climax, like most of the film, is disappointing. And the final few moments of Claire really confronting the hotel’s specters do not make the other long, tedious scenes of her aimlessly wandering about worth it.

And there is a lot of aimless wandering. At one point, our protagonist sits in the laundry room for several minutes trying to catch disembodied voices on her recorder. And after what feels like an eternity, she doesn’t actually find anything.

The Innkeepers (2011) Ti West Sara Paxton Pat Healy Kelly McGillis 18

And the empty corridors continue. Brace yourself for a lot of this.

Now, the old ‘build up and let down’ is a staple of the horror genre. A character slowly creeps towards a closed room, pulls open the door, and finds it empty. We get nervous because maybe just maybe there could have been something on the other side. So when there isn’t, we let out a breath of relief.

But if nothing has happened so far to make me really believe that Claire would hear something on that recording, why should I be forced to sit through a long, boring scene of her doing nothing? Especially when there’s no payoff.

I get what the film is trying to do. It feels almost like a mockumentary, and it does strive for a sort of realistic ghost story. We see a pair of co-workers chasing something which may or may not exist, and their successes, when they have them, are minor. Throw in a setting that’s not particularly grand or isolated, and you have something which feels almost like real life. But can the monotony of our everyday existences really translate well to the movie screen?

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Claire and Luke (Pat Healy) decide to check out the basement.

I don’t know. But I do know that the film, in addition to being tedious, feels somewhat scatterbrained. There are some moments of genuine comedy. But they feel out of place when the darker ghost plot really takes off. And even the camerawork sometimes feels odd. Slow, fluid shots of hallways are combined with slick, swift close-ups, and nothing fits together coherently.

But, despite it all, the film does have its redeeming qualities. Some of the scares are truly unnerving. One particular dream sequence involving a bed sheet comes to mind. And Kelly McGillis really shines as Leanne Rease-Jones, through whom much of the film’s mythology is established.

As for our heroine, Paxton does not deliver a bad performance, but she’s not necessarily a standout either. Pat Healy mostly overshadows her, but in truth, neither is really given much material to work with (beyond broodily walking down empty corridors).

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The film isn’t without scares. But there isn’t enough of them.

Still, at the end of the day, the film certainly had potential. It could have been an eerie, memorable—albeit standard—cinematic ghost story. All the pieces are there— a psychic, a dead bride, a mysterious guest who insists on having a particular room. But instead, we got a tedious film whose slow pace does nothing but make it drag. The scares are too few and far between to make it worth it. And that’s really too bad. Because West is a talented director. All the same, if you want a more impressive example of his work, you ought to look elsewhere.

Final Score: 2 out of 5

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An Ode to the Zombie

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The Walking Dead is arguably the most mainstream manifestation of the modern zombie.

Sometimes I wonder what my friends and I are doing with our lives. I mean, most of us have a pretty good idea about what we’d do in the event of a zombie apocalypse but pretty much no idea what we’ll do once we graduate. But how could we not think about zombies? They’re absolutely everywhere. TV, books, movies, video games—they’re persistent little monsters who have found permanent spots in all of our media. And while vampires have become hip, urban creatures of the night and werewolves have become puberty metaphors, the zombie has more or less been the same mindless hunk of flesh he’s always been. All the way back to Night of the Living Dead in 1968. But why the fascination? What keeps zombies so relevant in our minds?

They’re not aliens from another planet, not demons from hell, not crazed serial killers whose specific circumstances have driven them to kill. No, zombies don’t discriminate. They’re our friends. They’re our neighbors. They’re us. And maybe that’s why we keep them around. It’s the same way we turn to reflexively gaze at our reflection, even for a moment, whenever we pass a mirror. We like to look at ourselves. And zombies can do that for us in a way no other monsters can. They show us ourselves, our social anxieties, our daily lives, our humanity—and, of course, how quickly we can lose it.

I think it’s always been this way. Even back in 1968 when George Romero first defined the current mythology. Night of the Living Dead took the traditional zombie, a poor soul enslaved by a sorcerer in some dangerously non-Western place, and turned it into the monster we all know and love today. And it’s obvious to which primal fears these monsters appeal. A vampire can turn you into a bloodsucker, but you at least get to keep your mind. Zombies, on the other hand, don’t think. They lose their minds. So when we join their ranks, we lose the very thing which separates us from the animal kingdom. And when we lose it, we commit what is arguably the most heinous of all sins, the single most awful insult to human ethics. We eat each other.

But, at the end of the day, every movie monster appeals to some primal, universal fear. Or they wouldn’t scare us. So what makes zombies unique? How do they function on a social level? Well, look at this trailer.

Could audiences look at those static, black and white images and see anything but news reports about the war in Vietnam? What a film. It took the terrors of wartime and planted them firmly in the American mainland. A horror film where no one, not even the hero, survives. Throw in the government’s inability to fight the zombie threat and a daughter who murders her mother and eats her father’s corpse, and you’ve got the dismantling not only of the American system but of the classic family unit. You’ve got just about every social fear of 1968, and as the movie ends, we see that the trigger-happy human mob is just as dangerous as the horde of the undead. We stare ourselves in the face and leave with a bitter taste in our mouths. And it happened again only ten years later.

Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead took the monster and planted it in a shopping mall. And audiences saw the threat of commercialism, saw themselves becoming slaves to a culture of advertising and luxury. And that’s where zombies gain their persistence. They can adapt to any decade, to any widespread social fear, no matter how violent or seemingly trivial.

But what do we fear today? Why do we keep tuning in for the latest episode of The Walking Dead? Is it the threat of super viruses, new illnesses spreading like wildfire, leaving us helpless to stop them? Is it modern technology, new weapons and mounting global tensions making the possibility of a man-made apocalypse a horribly distinct reality in our minds? Whatever the appeal, I don’t think zombies are going anywhere anytime soon. And I think we can all expect them to keep on changing along with the times, adapting to whatever our new anxieties turn out to be in the next ten, twenty, thirty years.

They will forever be our personal mirrors in the horror genre, the lens through which we view ourselves. And we can only hope that once the dead finally do rise and take to the streets, they’re not quite as resilient as they are on our screens.

Netflix Horror Finds: April Fool’s Day

This review may contain minor spoilers.

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April Fool’s Day. Paramount Pictures. 1986.

A group of unfairly attractive college students arrives on an isolated island for a wild weekend of fun. They’re young, they’re hot, and they’re loaded. What could possibly go wrong? They explore their friend’s spooky old mansion, they explore the woods surrounding the house, and, of course…they explore one another’s bodies. Would it surprise you to know a bloodthirsty murderer eventually shows up and starts to pick off these poor kids one by one? Well, if you’ve ever seen an 80s slasher flick, I’m pretty sure the answer is ‘no.’ But that’s the beauty of today’s Netflix Horror Find. April Fool’s Day takes a premise with which we’re all familiar and breathes a wonderful gust of fresh air into it that left this viewer grinning when the credits began to run.

Released in 1986 by Paramount Pictures, April Fool’s Day (directed by Fred Walton, whom you may know for the classic When a Stranger Calls) seems, at first glance, just another “holiday” horror film—in the vein of Mother’s Day, Black Christmas, My Bloody Valentine, or Halloween. The story follows Muffy (Deborah Foreman), a young college student who invites several of her friends to spend spring break at her family mansion on an isolated island off the coast. It’s the weekend leading up to April Fool’s Day, but it won’t surprise the savvy viewer when harmless pranks go awry rather quickly. Characters start vanishing, but who is responsible for the slayings? I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s the film’s single most brilliant feature. And whether you love it or hate it, you won’t know what hit you.

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Little do they know, this party’s not going to last very long.

But the sense of mystery which pervades the film is one of April Fool’s Days greater strengths. Whatever it lacks in gore and memorable murder scenes, it makes up for in good old-fashioned suspense. While the whodunnit element is admittedly somewhat underdeveloped (because it’s really not difficult to figure out who deserves the finger pointed in his or her direction), it does create a uniquely eerie atmosphere that kept my eyes glued to the screen. In fact, if the island plot were not enough, the film constantly and purposefully nods to Agatha Christie’s mystery novel And Then there Were None. So if you’re a fan of the book and want to see an updated take (where Barbie dolls take the place of glass figurines), I highly recommend giving this little film gem a watch.

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Rob (Ken Olandt) and Kit (Amy Steel of Friday the 13th Part II fame) piece together the clues.

As for the characters, they are surprisingly likable and well-developed for a film of this kind. Of course, they’re all attractive white college students, and even if the archetypes are there (bookish girl, sex-crazed guy, final girl), each character has enough of a personality that you will remember their faces and their names. And, of course, get upset when and if your favorites kick the bucket.

Some actors do better than others. Deborah Goodrich and Thomas F. Wilson (whom you may recognize as Biff from the Back to the Future films) are particular standouts. But, overall, the cast as a whole has great chemistry. And that’s where the film shines. Its intentional ensemble-driven comedy (such as one memorable scene where the female characters take a Cosmo quiz) is golden, and I promise you will find yourself laughing along with it even as the body count rises.

But I know what you’re wondering. Is it scary? Unfortunately, the answer is mostly ‘no.’ There is some tension, but a viewer should not expect any sleepless nights following April Fool’s Day. However, if you approach the film as a campy comedy/mystery/horror hybrid, I promise that you will have a good time. Some of the clues to the killer’s identity do get a little obvious as it goes on, and I rolled my eyes a few times. But stick it through to the very end. It makes sense. And like I said, that finale will leave you utterly speechless.

Final Score: 4.5 out of 5

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