Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Laughing Dead (1989)

Humor is not universal. Mel Brooks once said, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die." He would know. He used to be very funny. However, his statement is true on several levels. Not only is humor subjective, but it's all about the ridiculousness of others' pain. Allow me to illustrate. In college, I lived in a courtyard apartment (nothing like Melrose Place, in case you're wondering) along with a gaggle of friends from my hometown. To say we were uninhibited would be an understatement. One evening, knee deep into a half barrel, one of my cohorts decided it would be funny to tear the screen door off our apartment and smash it to pieces. He thought this was hilarious. I disagreed, but the door's destruction continued and ended with a piece of wood from the frame flying up and smacking me square in the giblets. Had someone with a video camera been around, I may have been a richer man today, exploiting my pain to the masses for their amusement. Instead, I spent a week not sitting right and cursing my pal's name. And yet, had I been bystander rather than participant, I may very well have wet myself laughing (in between bouts of asking if the victim was okay, of course). Se la vie.

Father O'Sullivan (Tim Sullivan) suffers from guilt over having relations with a nun (Wendy Webb) and knocking her up twelve years ago. Nevertheless, he takes his place as host for the annual archaeological tour of Oaxaca, stuffs his misfit assortment of nonentities and types out of Central Casting on the bus, and heads south. Along the way, they pick up the aforementioned ex-nun (Tessie) and her obnoxious, foul-mouthed son, Ivan (Patrick Roskowick). Meanwhile, Dr. Um-Tzec (S.P. Somtow) sacrifices children to prepare for the party's arrival. You see, he's the physical incarnation of the Mayan death god and he is looking to pass the mantle on to the padre so he may retire. The only thing missing is a sacrifice of a certain boy by a certain man during a certain astrological occurrence to complete the transfer.

S.P. Somtow's (aka Somtow Sucharitkul) The Laughing Dead has an interesting take on religion (and this is, I think, a movie more about religion than monsters and zombies). Essentially, there is a struggle going on between ideologies. On one side is the old religion of the Mayans and on the other is modern Christianity. But what's interesting is that the filmmakers don't favor the more popular of the two. If anything, Christianity is portrayed as weak, its disciples spiritually asthenic and prone to giving in to temptation. There is also a take on New Age mysticism that takes part in the proceedings. Wilbur (Larry Kagen) and Clarisse (Krista Keim) are first shown humming comically and playing with their crystals. Yet at the finale, it's their beliefs and trappings that have more effect on the bad guys than anything else. Consequently, the film becomes about Old versus New Age, with traditional modern religion dismissed almost in its entirety.

In that same respect, the film deals with faith, the loss thereof, and rebirth. O'Sullivan has lost all faith in God, and this makes him incapable of resisting his possession by the spirit of Um-Tzec. Of course, this all began with his weakness in regards to his sexual desires with Tessie years ago. This is then reflected in the scene where Um-Tzec's assistant (Lydia Marano) first exposes her breasts to the priest and then pulls out both her heart and his and exchanges them. It's a vivid equation of sex with death, and it further cements O'Sullivan's turning away from his religion. Tessie has already been defrocked because of her pregnancy, and she has kept their son away from O'Sullivan, so the two were not only brought together but also torn apart by their religion. Their spirituality is, for all intents and purposes, dead. It's through their trial against Um-Tzec (which incidentally also mirrors the story of Abraham from the Bible in the sense that he too was asked to sacrifice his child for faith) that they are reborn (not necessarily in a spiritual sense but certainly in a character sense and a sense of knowing what they do believe in). This is made crystal clear at the end when a character states that the Festival of the Laughing Dead is about rebirth as well as death.

Bearing in mind that this film is an extremely dry (there's very little winking at the audience), black comedy, there are still some aspects I found myself puzzled by with respect to whether they were intentional or not. First is Somtow's depiction of his characters. None of them is anything even resembling well-defined, except via stereotypes. Wilbur and Clarisse are presented as New Age dupes until the end, when they realize that karma is just a word until you act upon it. Dozois (Raymond Ridenour) is the ugly American of the group with his ridiculous afro and crude jokes. His traveling companion, then, is the more refined, cane-bearing Frost (Gregory Frost). Together, the two make quite the odd couple (get it?). You will want to strangle Ivan every second he's onscreen. And we spend half an hour or better of screentime on the bus with these people. If Somtow didn't want to flesh out the characters, he definitely should have shortened our time getting to loathe them.

On top of this, every character says whatever is on their mind to people they just met. The worst offender is Laurie (Premika Eaton), and that also goes to her acting chops (she gets the B.E.M. Award for this movie). O'Sullivan makes no bones about telling people that he has no faith and even cries out to heaven in front of perfect strangers for its restoration. I kept thinking that, since Somtow was a writer and musician prior to this stint, his inclination was to tell rather than show what the characters are going through, thus the expositional and overwrought dialogue. However, when looked at as a humorous dissection of horror films (or just melodrama in general), their tropes and motifs, you can see the comedic value of his writing. If that's what he intended. The problem is that the viewer is always left with an uncertain feeling whether they should be laughing at the film for its intentional or unintentional humor. 

The bits of humor that are intentionally comedic do work fairly well. The "giant" monsters at the end engage in what is essentially a slap fight. Our heroes have to engage Um-Tzec's undead hordes in a game of Mayan basketball. O'Sullivan puts a fist through a woman's head in an explosion of grue. A man's decapitated cranium arcs through the air and lands in a basketball net. Um-Tzec comments that he'd like to become an investment broker. But since everything else in the film is played so po-faced (or slyly un-commented-on) it leaves you up in the air. Sure, you're still laughing, but are you supposed to be? Either way, The Laughing Dead is still better than a chunk of screen door to the nards.

MVT: The special effects by John Carl Buechler. They're squishy when they should be and creepy when they should be. Even though they're definitely shoestring level, they make trudging through the rest of the film almost worthwhile.

Make or Break: If you ever wanted to know if zombies could be 'ballers, wonder no more.

Score: 6/10


  1. Sounds incredibly absurd. Mayan basketball tournament? Well of course. Sounds like it might be worth a watch if I'm bored.

  2. Unfortunately, the characters and the acting are grating, but the more bizarre aspects make it interesting, if not necessarily good. Thanks for reading and posting, Hoaks.

  3. Do we ever figure out why it's called the Laughing Dead?

    Decapitated head basketball makes me want to see this one.

  4. Thanks for reading, Kev.

    My understanding is that the film takes place during the Festival of the Laughing Dead/Day of the Dead. It's a Mexican celebration honoring their dead and takes place at the same time as the Christian All Saints' and All Souls' Days. I'm not so sure the Festival of the Laughing Dead is an actual event, but I guess it sounded neat, and the title DAY OF THE DEAD was already taken.