Wednesday, March 5, 2008

For Your Consideration: A Zombie Western

It's March and I can't frickin' stop myself from thinking about zombies. Those damn undead things. I finished 'World War Z' and now I want to revisit every zombie movie ever created. I watched Day Of The Dead yesterday and want to watch Diary Of The Dead soon. AND IT'S MARCH!!! I should be thinking of flowery shit and pink teddy bears and butterflies and new dew dropping from emerging flowers. Instead I'm thinking of rotting flesh and worm holes and plagues. Maybe its this shitty weather that won't go away, I don't know. But here I am, talking again about zombies. So bear with me and maybe this will pass soon so I can write about unicorns and pillows with really inspirational sayings on them. But until then, here's death and decay.

It's no secret that John Carpenter is a fan of westerns. More specifically, a fan of Howard Hawks westerns. One of his first writing gigs was for a student movie titled The Resurrection of Broncho Billy. He would later write El Diablo and Blood River for TV. But probably his greatest tribute to the western genre would have to be Assault On Precinct 13, Carpenters second feature film. A film about an L.A. gang descending upon an abandoned police precinct in the middle of nowheresville. Switch out badges and tattoos for cowboy hats and war paint and you've got yourself a regular western. There's no doubt it's written from the white-mans point of view. The gang members are a faceless menace without care or feeling. It's a very traditional and shortsighted take on the enemy and could easily be chalked up to pure homage to the genre. Looking at it again though different glasses though, Assault On Precinct 13 is not only a modern-day western, it's one hell of a zombie movie as well.

Early in the film, a frantic father kills a gang leader in retaliation for the death of his daughter and then retreats to the abandoned precinct to seek protection. The gang trails the father and declares that they will stop at nothing to get revenge. From here on out, we do not see faces, only shapes that scurry between cars and surround the precinct in an attempt to destroy any living human inside without discrimination. True, there is not the scary makeup, no flesh eating to speak of, but these killers are without emotion. Without fear. They are machines: one goes down and there's another climbing over the body to fill his place. Not unlike every other zombie movie ever created, the living are a mixed bag consisting of cops, a couple of secretaries and a few inmates. But unlike every other zombie movie the enemies are truly the gang members, not the survivors themselves. Staying true to the western genre, Carpenter is not interested in distention within the ranks. The internal squabbling is kept to a minimum as the group bands together to take a stand against the endless stream of enemies led by Ethan Bishop and Napoleon Wilson, Carpenter's version of two modern day John Waynes. One by the book and the other an outlaw.

The movie is not without its flaws. The dialogue is atrocious at times and the acting is mediocre at best, but Assault On Precinct 13 is not about its parts, but the idea itself. As a hint of things to come in his future films, Carpenter traps his characters in close quarters and asks them to scratch and claw their way out. When I first saw this film, it was terrifying to me that such a large mass of people could attack a structure without anyone noticing. The gang uses silencers and approaches the precinct behind abandoned cars that they use a stealthy shields. When an outsider comes by, everything is as it once was. The cars are back in place and no one is to be seen for miles. It speaks to the strength of Carpenter as a director that you can take away the scary makeup and the spooky lore of the undead, and he can still scare the bejesus out of you.


Adam Ross said...

It's been said before, but Ethan Bishop bears a resemblence to John Wayne's Sheriff John T. Chance from "Rio Bravo." Both men know they won't be getting any outside help and seem pretty content with it.

And what about the western Carpenter DIDN'T make, known 'round these parts as "Big Trouble in Little China." Carpenter says in the commentary how it started off as a western but it was too expensive. Would Jack Burton have been a locomotive engineer? Tantalizing possibilities.

p.s. I'm sure your family is thrilled about your undead state of mind.

MC said...

Do you know what else makes me think of a zombie movie... the noises the gang makes when they get close to the heroes.

Piper said...


I don't get that thinking. As if Westerns are some epic pieces that cost hundreds of millions to make. That's why Carpenter made Assault as well, because a real western would be too expensive. Hmmmmm.

GFS3 said...

Wow. I'm on a zombie kick to because of "World War Z." Great book.

Revisit the remake of "Dawn of the Dead." While it lacks the subtle sophistication of the original (did I just write that?), it works better as an action horror flick.

The first 10 minutes knock your socks off -- although the escape scene at the end disappoints.

Great blog you got going here.

Fox said...

I love the score to this film. Just Carpenter playing 5 little notes on his keyboard. Great.

And if you watch that scene where the girl gets shot, you can see her blood pack burst before the gunshot.

Sheamus the... said...

"Carpenter traps his characters in close quarters and asks them to scratch and claw their way out"

This is why I love zombies and why I love Carpenter.

I agree with you on the Zombie Western. A friend of mine wrote a Zombie Western script. Dead Indians atart crawling out of the hills and into town. It was pretty tight.

Mrs. Thuro said...

I had a couple of friends who wrote a play about zombies set during the Civil War. They put it on in Memphis around Halloween last year. It was pretty entertaining. I would like to see it become a low budget zombie flick someday.

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