Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Dead Man Walking (1987)

After I graduated college and still had some faint glimmer of hope of actually getting to work in film or television production (In all honesty, I was entirely too hardheaded to move where the industry is, and the local filmmaking community tended to be even more insular, unless you were independently wealthy and could afford to not get paid for doing pissant work, which I wasn’t and still am not), I received a call from one of my professors (who was also a documentary producer).  He was shooting a documentary centered on his life and the town in which he was born (hint: it’s where the Dorsey Brothers are from and are now buried), and he needed a production assistant.  I liked the man, and I wanted the experience (and said town is about fifteen miles from my own hometown, thus I was familiar with it), so naturally I replied in the affirmative.  

The producer, the cameraman, and myself filmed a lot in a short amount of time, and at some points, I even got to give a little bit of constructive input, so I was like the proverbial pig in shit.  The time came for the interview with the director’s father, who was something of an alcoholic, which meant it was difficult to pry him away from the local watering hole.  Since the producer still needed some shots, and the light was waning, and I was a self-described raging alcoholic myself at the time, I got volunteered to stay in the bar with the father while the remaining shots were (hopefully) procured, and after which, the father would (hopefully) be interviewed.  So I got to drink for free for an evening while working on a film with people whose company I enjoyed.  I have no idea if the film ever reached completion (though I’m fairly positive it didn’t), but I’d like to think that it will someday.  My experience accompanying the producer’s dad put me in mind of poor Chaz (Jeffrey Combs), the chauffeur and (I assume) valet of a wealthy corporate fat cat; not because I felt like a servant during my short production assistant tenure, but because Chaz and I were happy to do what we could for our bosses, and we both got to chaperone alcoholics for an evening or two.  It’s just mine wasn’t Wings Hauser.   

In Gregory Dark’s (he of the classic porn series New Wave Hookers amongst many others, here using the pseudonym Gregory Brown) Dead Man Walking, corporations have taken over control of the Earth (what, again?) after the bubonic plague made a resurgence and the world fell into chaos.  The Plague Zone is where the victims are shunted off to live out their lives in despair and squalor.  Among the plague victims are Zero Men, who are non-contagious but still terminal, and this is the reason why their behavior is described as “erratic” (which is putting it mildly).  Regardless, Leila (Pamela Ludwig), the daughter of Chaz’s boss, Mr. Shahn (John Petlock) is kidnapped by escaped convict/Zero Man, Decker (Brion James), forcing Chaz to enlist the aid of loner/Zero Man, Luger (Hauser), to get her back.

When the world goes to shit, any cinephile worth his or her salt knows exactly who will seize the reins of power: the corporations.  Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with shadowy government cabals (and similarly uncaring bureaucracies), corporations are the go-to bad guys in many a film, and even moreso in the postapocalyptic genre.  While I don’t disagree with this vilification (though I also don’t think that every corporation spends every moment of every day trying specifically to do evil [emphasis on “trying”]), I’m more interested in the relationship between cinematic corporations like Unitus (get it?) and the people opposed to them.  Typically, this is a twofold interrelation.  First, and most obviously, is that there is a distinct line drawn between the good guys and the bad guys.  Still, even people who work for an evil corporation can be good after having a crisis of conscience (or just having scruples in general).  Leila questions her dad’s plan to build a housing project in the Plague Zone, which he characterizes as crowd control, and she characterizes as crowding them all together and working them to death.  While Chaz works for “The Man,” he’s still considered good, because he cares about Leila enough to place himself in danger to rescue her (it doesn’t matter that he isn’t very adept at it and more than a little weaselly, to boot).  Second, and more intriguing to me, is the representation of the struggle between conformity and personal freedom.  This is where the Luger character comes into the mix.  Luger is individualistic to the point that he is set apart even from the other Zero Men with whom he commiserates and plays variations on Russian Roulette.  He does what he wants, when he wants, and doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks about it (including, but not limited to, his quasi-girlfriend Rika [Tasia Valenza], who gets fed up [“Won’t you just listen to me?” “No”], but I guess she likes bad boys, just not enough to stick around for the whole runtime).  Luger has no time for Unitus, and he goes about his days taking massive risks like an adrenaline junkie (his Meet Cute with Chaz takes place over a live timebomb).  At this point, Luger is simultaneously free and damned, since he’s got the plague and is soon heading for death (we even get the telltale cough that all terminally ill characters in cinema let loose, so we know time is short).  To gain ultimate personal freedom, Luger needs a reason to live, not just a chance, and this sets up the juxtaposition between himself and the Unitus-controlled world.

Dead Man Walking has one of the most casual apocalypses ever put to film.  Every character is utterly non-nonplussed by everything in their lives.  Partly, this is to play up the angle of a nihilistic existence where “No Future” has essentially come true and is completely ineffable.  From the perspective of people like Luger, there is the need to flirt with death because any moment could literally be your last.  The suicidal games the Zero Men play is the only way to go out on one’s own terms.  It’s also the only way to feel alive when an assumedly even uglier death from the plague is assured.  By that same token, characters like Leila want to go slumming in the Plague Zone to see what all the fuss is about, but she’s quickly disillusioned, and you get a sense of disappointment that the plague victims don’t live down to her expectations.  After Decker asserts dominance over her body (in a truly disturbing scene), Leila becomes even more dispassionate.  Though she cannot catch the plague from Decker, she gives herself over to the fact that she’s as good as dead in his company, and shuts her personality down (this is not to say she had tons of personality to begin with).  Mirroring the Zero Men, her future outlook is nothing but grim, so she may as long go along with it.  The societal scales are balanced.  Yet, for as much as there is in the film with this theme of finding a reason to cling to life (or not), I never felt like any of the characters were committed to it.  In trying to convey a life of forbidding apathy, more often than not, I simply got the feeling that no one really cared (with the exception of James, who gives it his sleazy, bug-eyed all every moment he’s onscreen).  Even while this is part of the point of the film, and it does come across well enough, Dark and company never got me to care about the characters breaking free of their lethargy.  There’s no tension or stakes, because everyone is so devoted to not caring, and Leila and Chaz’s relationship is never defined well enough that I wanted to see her rescue actually succeed.  The film is an okay way to pass ninety minutes, but the indifference it delineates so well is, unfortunately, just a bit too contagious.

MVT:  The locations in the film do an admirable job of creating a postapocalyptic world.  I fully bought that everything had gone to hell.

Make or Break:  The first scene we get in the Zero Club involves Luger and some guy competing to see who will start a chain-suspended chainsaw first.  A true example of necessity being the mother of invention, I’d say.

Score:  6.5/10      

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