Flesh Freaks (2000)

I’ve recently become enamored with the carefully curated Blu-ray releases of the Toronto-based Gold Ninja Video, which is positing itself as a boutique physical media label for low-end genre trash & D.I.Y. oddities. From bargain bin Brucesploitation titles like The Dragon Lives Again to backyard filmmaking curios like Impossible Horror to a Criterion Collection-level art cinema treatment for Matt Farley’s Local Legends (one of my favorite films of the 2010s), Gold Ninja Video has been consistently extraordinary in their dedication to unearth & uplift otherwise ignored castoffs from genre cinema’s furthest reaches. That impressive track record prompted me to take a chance on the label’s recent Blu-Ray release of Flesh Freaks, an amateur shot-on-video zombie flick from the late-VHS era. Flesh Freaks itself is—to put it mildly—not great, but when considered in the context of Gold Ninja’s catalog of discarded low-to-no-budget relics I do find it fascinating as a kind of historical document. This sub-professional, juvenile zombie flick is an artifact from a bygone era when that kind of novelty could land legitimate VHS rental store distribution instead of being directly uploaded into the digital void on platforms like Vimeo or YouTube. In the 2000s, Flesh Freaks qualified as a Real Move – one that even secured a Fangoria Magazine blurb on its Clip Art promotional poster. If released today, it’d be an easily ignorable YouTube preview window that remains forever unclicked.

The reason I’m dwelling on all this extratextual background info is that it’s far more fascinating than the actual onscreen content. When considered outside the context of its time or finances, Flesh Freaks is a dutifully mediocre zombie flick, one that’s only saved from total dead-air tedium by its spectacularly violent third act – a delightfully grotesque practical effects showcase (that unfortunately arrives too late to fully justify the long stretches of mediocrity that precedes it). The story goes that unscrupulous archeologists accidentally uncover an ancient curse from Mayan ruins in Belize, conjuring zombie-like creatures who slay everyone at their dig site – except one lone survivor. Once home at the University of Toronto, the survivor struggles to explain the horrors he encountered in Belize to his impatient, curious friends. He also—shocker—has carried the Mayan zombie curse back with him, unwittingly unleashing a full-scale outbreak on his college campus. This Torontonian back half of the film is both more fun to watch and more technically accomplished than the opening stretch in Belize. Yet, the film dwells on its Belizean travelogue opening for as long as it can manage, emphasizing its importance so drastically that the film feels rigidly bifurcated between the two settings (rather than the Central American portion functioning as a place-setting flashback the way it’s intended). It turns out that, like all things in Flesh Freaks, that decision is much more forgivable & interesting when considered in the context of how the film was produced & distributed.

Flesh Freaks is the passion project of Torontonian horror nerd Conall Pendergast, made when he was still a pimply teen. Pendergast stars in the film himself as the contaminated traveler, of course, which is the tell-tale sign of a young aspiring filmmaker playing around with a decent camera for the first time (usually out of financial necessity). He first conceived of the project while traveling with his archeologist parents to their actual dig site in Belize. Bored and isolated in a remote, foreign location, Pendergast made the shrewd decision to utilize his stunning deep-jungle surroundings as easy production value for a Real Movie. Only, his zombie-outbreak footage merely amounted to a mediocre short film, one that would need to be heavily embellished to approach the length of a proper feature. Once Pendergast got around to assembling this “extra” footage back at the University of Toronto, he had more time, experience, resources, and collaborators at this disposal – resulting in much stronger, more distinct work despite the pedestrian locale. As a result, it’s the Belize travelogue footage that registers as the film’s runtime-padding, not its college campus epilogue. By the time Flesh Freaks stages its handmade gore spectacle in its climactic final minutes it feels like the emergence of a fully formed filmmaker, one we’ve been watching gradually evolve out of the shot-on-video ooze the entire film. While most bored teenagers were playing video games and spending their pocket change on ditch weed, Conall Pendergast made a Real Movie, one with distribution that reached far beyond his local social circle. That is in itself a genre cinema miracle, even if the actual film is a standard, paint-by-numbers zombie cheapie.

Since Flesh Freaks is more substantive as a cultural artifact than it is as a feature film, its recent Blu-ray release from Gold Ninja Video is still a recommendable purchase for curious genre nerds even if the movie’s reviews are generally unenthusiastic. All the context required to consider the film as a fascinating, unearthed relic is easily accessible in the disc’s overloaded special features. Deleted scenes, filmmaker introductions, commentaries, essays, as well as bonus feature films & shorts from Pendergast are all included on the disc. It’s as if this were Criterion reviving some long-lost Bergman classic instead of a small indie label publishing heavily padded excerpts from a nu-metal era horror nerd’s vacation footage. There are some beautifully sculpted D.I.Y. creations in the film’s zombie-swarmed climax, but for the most part Flesh Freaks is nothing especially remarkable when considered on its own. If anything, it’s the kind of movie you’d usually pick out at random on Amazon Prime only to bail five minutes in for a more promising option. Gold Ninja Video doing the work to highlight why it’s important & exemplary of its era is the real story here. They did a great job uncovering this lost artifact.

-Brandon Ledet

Daughters of the Dust (1991)

threehalfstar

The lateness of some political milestones can be horrifying to realize once you put them in temporal context. There are people alive now who lived through a time before women earned the right to vote in American elections. In 1964 The Beatles gave birth to modern pop music the same year The Civil Rights Act (legally) ended racial segregation. The Supreme Court made gay marriage legally binding in 2015, less than 15 years after it officially decriminalized sodomy in 2003. I’m always bewildered (and more than a little horrified) by how late in the game these kinds of milestones arrive and my most recently discovered example on that note is the case of Daughters of the Dust. Daughters of the Dust was the first feature film directed by a black woman to earn a theatrical release in the United States. In 1991. That’s madness. The same year Silence of the Lambs swept the Oscars, the Internet was first made available for commercial use, Nirvana’s Nevermind made punk popular again, and Rodney King’s assault & arrest were caught on video tape, the first film directed by a black woman to be theatrically released in the US landed a political milestone that should have come decades, if not almost a century sooner. I can’t get over that.

One of the best things about Julie Dash’s history-making crown jewel is that it is fiercely, unapologetically black. Typifying pop culture Afrocentrism of the early 90s, the film depicts several generations of a Gullah family of slave descendants as they negotiate on what level they’d be participating in the modern world. Isolated on an island off the American coast near Georgia, the Gullah people thrived as free outsiders with their own unique culture, language, and customs. The threat of rape, exploitation, and enslavement looms over them, but is kept entirely off-camera as the film focuses on a very specific moment early in the 20th Century as younger generations long to leave behind old religions to join a modern world they’ve only seen in photographs while their elders cling to culture & tradition. Rhythmic African percussion, folk art, and meticulous food preparation (including what looks like a life-changing gumbo) drive the film’s apparent concern with preservation of culture in the face of a world that seems determined to colonize and homogenize. For all of Daughters of the Dust‘s fretting over staying still vs keeping in motion and reminders to “Respect your family. Respect your elders. Respect your ancestors,” it doesn’t at all play like an academic exercise in anthropology cinema. Besides being a vivid record of a highly specific black cultural experience, Daughters of the Dust also feels deeply personal and resoundingly poetic.

Written, directed, and produced by Dash herself, the film boasts the art film obfuscation that often gets called “dreamlike” or a “tone poem.” The negotiations (mostly between women) over who will and who will not be returning to mainland America after the film’s climactic feast provide a very basic structure for the story Daughters of the Dust wants to tell, but a lot of its narrative is expressed through the feelings evoked in its imagery. Floods of wild horses disrupt island calm. Purple steam rises from wooden cauldrons as women process indigo dye. Characters languidly drape themselves on immense trees like sentient moss. The whole story is narrated by a bodyless spirit billed as Unborn Child in the credits. Dash’s film is a sometimes impenetrable, but often beautiful evocation of a mood & a spirit. It may first appear from the outside to be a historical work about the Gullah people on the precipice of the modern world, but Daughters of the Dust strives to be something much grander & harder to pinpoint than that reductive description and it’s near-impossible not to admire the film’s ambitions even when its individual moments aren’t wholly successful.

I’ll admit that at times during this film I had found it to be more interesting as an artifact than as a moment to moment experience. Much like the films of similarly image-centric auteurs like Nicolas Winding Refn (who I love) and Terrence Malick (who I loathe), this is the kind of work where you have to find its rhythm early or else get left behind. Besides my personal lack of interest in narratively loose, intentionally obscured modes of filmmaking, an occasional choice in home video-era frame rate or embarrassingly dated soundtrack cues threw me off in specific moments where I lost the rhythm of what Daughters of the Dust was trying to accomplish (and, to be fair, those were likely editing choices, the one area of production Dash didn’t handle herself). I did, however, continuously find the film fascinating & wondrous to behold as it presented a culture and a set of images rarely evoked onscreen. Having watched the less than stellar Kino-released DVD of the film, I’m very much interested in seeing the restored version of Daughters of the Dust that’s currently making the rounds (having just played at New Orleans Film Fest last month). Not only was Dash’s film a far too late cultural milestone for black female directors, it hasn’t been well treated or remembered in the decades since its release. After being cited as a major influence on Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade, though, it seems that it’s finally getting the respect & recognition it deserves and I’d love to see how vivid the film’s powerful imagery is in its latest, most well-handled incarnation, so I can fall even further under its spell.

-Brandon Ledet

Into the Inferno (2016)

EPSON MFP image

fourhalfstar

When I heard that there were going to be two Herzog documentaries released this year, I was pumped. I knew one was going to be about the internet. You may remember my review about that and enthusiasm. Then I found out that the second one was about volcanoes, which, if you can think of the internet as very in our control and of our creation, volcanoes are a destructive force of nature, out of our hands, and very capable of shutting down mankind’s creations.

Lo and Behold was very theoretical, nebulous, and introspective for a movie about how the internet has connected us all and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Volcanoes, while not 100% predictable or understood, are still well studied and more predictable than the future of technology (look at any science fiction novel that tried to predict what the year 2000 was going to be like). The great irony is that Lo and Behold had an actual theatrical release, whereas Into the Inferno was distributed by Netflix, a service that is almost entirely streaming over the internet at this point.

For Into the Inferno, Herzog teamed up with vulcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, whom had he met on the set of Encounters at the End of the World. They made a good team. Oppenheimer is a lovable volcano nerd whose exuberance and enthusiasm make the technical descriptions engaging. Herzog is himself, which is to say that he’s very interested in the small, very human details. Every documentary he helms ends up being just as much an anthropological work as it is art. Together they vowed to explore aspects of how volcanoes effected human culture, no matter how weird it gets. The result is a portrait of how nature has helped build and destroy humanity from the very beginning. And it also gets very weird, as they explore volcano based cults, North Korean mythology, and sift for early hominid bones with paleo-anthropologists in the Awash Valley, Ethiopia.

This is also one of the most beautiful movies of this year. It is just full of astonishing shots of rolling mountains. There are amazing scenes of visible magma inside calderas, just popping and bubbling up. The only sounds are the dangerous grumbles and the splatters. It’s as inside the inferno as many of us will ever get, which is really, truly amazing. When the camera isn’t on the volcanoes, there’s incredible footage of unique cultural practices, dances, and villages.

Into the Inferno is vast and beautiful. We are blessed to live a year with two feature length Herzog documentaries. This is a nature documentary but more so a cultural one. It covers so many parts of the world in a way that many of us will never get to experience and we shouldn’t, lest we destroy them.

-Alli Hobbs