Tag Archives: vietnam war

Chutes and Ladders (and Demonic Hallucinations)

[This post is part of the 30 dAyS oF cRAzY blog-a-thon happening throughout September at Blog Cabins; you can also read it there.]

Strangely enough, the most obvious place to start with Adrian Lyne’s paranoid horror movie Jacob’s Ladder (1990) is with the ending. (Consider that your blanket spoiler warning.) Because for most of the moviegoing public, myself included, that infamous twist is the movie’s hook: “So it was all a dream!” But, as I was happy to discover when I watched it recently, there’s much more to that dream than just some icky hallucinations and mind-bending ambiguity. Those are present and accounted for, certainly, but the real delight of Jacob’s Ladder comes from seeing a daily routine infected with spurts of diabolical terror. It’s a very uneven, somewhat disjointed movie, to be sure, but it’s made extremely watchable through this scattered handful of wonderfully horrifying moments.

Jacob Singer, played by a scruffy-haired Tim Robbins, is a Vietnam vet and postal worker who’s dealing with some intense PTSD, as well as some back problems. He’s divorced from the mother of his children and is living with the loving, alluring Jezebel (Elizabeth Peña) in a New York City apartment. One day he falls asleep on the subway, has a nightmare about Vietnam, and when he wakes up, things don’t seem quite right. An old lady stares at him blankly when he asks if they passed his stop. A vaguely human thing is sprawled across two seats, its face covered and what looks like a charred penis wriggling between its legs. When he jumps off at the next stop, he can’t get above ground, and has to hop back across the tracks. Another train nearly mows him down; as it passes, a host of blurry phantoms leer down at him from the windows. Only after all this is he able to get back home for some steamy shower sex with Jezzie.

Taken by themselves, these few minutes could make a damn good short film. The subway scene is so creepily suggestive and so without context that it successfully drags the viewer into Jacob’s head. We’re now willing to buy into the figments of his imagination, because his hell is our hell. And his demons… well, they’re really fucking creepy. Lyne gives us quick flashes of the entities persecuting Jacob, but never enough to really get a visual handle on them. He doesn’t get the dignity of a personable, face-to-face attack; instead, they pop out from around corners and disappear before you can tell what, exactly, they are. You start wishing it were just some guy with a chainsaw, because Jacob’s enemies are so vague and ethereal that they could be anyone. Or no one.

The movie’s first act really fulfills the promise of those first few minutes, as Jacob sinks deeper and deeper into the film’s infernal vision of city life. In a way, it’s like a quieter, more subdued version of After Hours – one where Scorsese’s nighttime hysteria has been replaced by the painfully bright slog of mid-morning. Jacob’s persecution complex takes its toll on his job and his love life, and Jezzie’s rationalizations, blaming his fears on perfectly normal urban phenomena, just make everything worse. If this is normal, then what’s bad? Jacob goes to see his old doctor at the VA clinic, but a cranky receptionist can’t find his file. Then, in a truly disturbing moment that comes out of nowhere, her little cap falls off… revealing a little bony growth on her scalp! Eww!

But these freaky intrusions into Jacob’s boring everyday life can’t go on forever, alas, and we must start the slow, awkward transition into conspiracy theory/spiritual metaphor territory that dominates the film’s second half. You see, apparently Jacob’s old doctor died in a car explosion. This’ll have greater repercussions later, but first it’s time for a sexy, hallucination-filled party that ends with Jacob consumed by a life-threatening fever. In a strobe-lit dance floor sequence, we get indistinct visual intimations of seduction, metamorphosis, and demonic possession as Jacob watches Jezzie uneasily. Somewhere in their relationship is a juicy core of psychosexual anxiety that the movie doesn’t fully exploit. But we can’t worry about that now, because we’ve got some mindfucking to do.

And what a mindfuck! Inception has nothing to compare with the moment when Jacob wakes up next to his ex-wife and starts recounting the nightmare he just had… only for us to realize that he’s talking about the entire preceding movie. Has the future folded in on the past? Is each of his lives the other’s dream? Maybe. Maybe not. After saying good night to dead son Macaulay Culkin, though, Jacob wakes up and is back in his real real life (or maybe the real dream), being cared for by Jezzie. Got that? Good. Lyne moves between his realities with admirable versatility, but unlike, say, a David Lynch (as in Mullholland Dr.) or Luis Buñuel (take Belle de Jour), he doesn’t really have anything to do with them. They’re just there, being confusing for its own sake. It’s still good, mindfucky fun, but it’s done in the services of the film’s sappiest, most hackneyed subplot, which is pretty disappointing.

Soon thereafter, Jacob gets a blast from the past: an old Vietnam buddy is experiencing similar symptoms! They meet for drinks, only for that buddy to also fall victim to a car bomb. At the funeral, Jacob chats with the surviving members of his old platoon, and it turns out they’re all suffering these hallucinations. So before you can say “They did something to us in there, man,” they’re off to the offices of Jason Alexander, attorney-at-law, to file suit against the U.S. government. This part of the movie is basically The Deer Hunter meets The Manchurian Candidate, and the filmmakers have no problem with just recycling every cinematic cliché about the Vietnam War, with no new insights of their own. Some government thugs drag Jacob into their car, but it’s way less powerful than the paranoia that consumes the film’s first half, because it’s so much more concrete and, frankly, obvious. The horror of Jacob’s Ladder gets derailed by its own back story.

This becomes even clearer during the last great hallucination sequence, which is a doozy. After jumping out of a moving vehicle and getting mugged by a Salvation Army Santa Claus (admittedly a nice touch), he’s brought to the hospital and, the doctors say, needs to be brought downstairs to be X-rayed. But to get to the X-ray room, we have to take a little detour through Crazyland, followed by a quick shortcut through WTF City. All the mutilated, glassy-eyed cast-offs of humanity are creeping beside – or even hovering above – the stretcher as Jacob’s pushed further along the worst hospital corridor of all time. Then it turns into a slaughterhouse, and the stretcher bumps into some bloody hunks of meat. Then Jacob’s in a fucked-up operating room and is politely informed, “This is your home. You’re dead,” before an eyeless doctor sticks a syringe right into his forehead.

Don’t get me wrong; this is a fantastically executed scene that plays out like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on amphetamines. It’s also a horrific illustration of a hospital patient’s lack of agency. But it also highlights the failings of the movie around it. It gives you the impression that Jacob’s Ladder is more a series of horror set-pieces loosely linked by some plot buzzwords (haunting past, war trauma) than the Chinese box dream narrative it would purport to be. In other words, it’s more Shutter Island than Inception. Jacob is delivered from evil by his chiropractor, an angelic Danny Aiello, who monologues a lot of peculiarly on-the-nose advice at him and sends him on his way. Then we get another revelatory monologue, this time from a one-time drug maker/dealer who was recruited by military brass during ‘Nam to concoct a formula that could heighten aggression. Apparently it was this miracle drug, “the Ladder,” that caused Jacob’s comrades to turn on each other, and that explains his flashbacks!

How can an explanation be so thorough, and yet so dissatisfying? Maybe it’s the gratingly self-righteous way the ex-hippie delivers it. Or maybe it’s in how Jacob’s Ladder insists so strongly that it’s a Vietnam movie that it tricks itself out of being a really good movie, especially since the overarching government conspiracy ends being a moot point. No, it turns out Jacob just went through all this so he could make his peace with dead son Macaulay Culkin and resign himself to his own imminent death. And then he dies! Still in Vietnam! Maybe if his dream hadn’t been so sprinkled with red herrings, then the twist ending could give us an interesting new perspective on the rest of the movie. But let’s not dwell on the many disappointments of Jacob’s Ladder. Instead, let’s dwell on the great, creepy moments! Like that growling voice that says, “DREAM ON!” Or when Jezzie’s pupils get all big and she howls at him! Or those distorted faces looking out the back of that car! Those were seriously creepy.

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My Favorite Movies: Night of the Living Dead

The ghouls march together in George Romero's influential classic

I first saw George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968, viewable here) on Halloween morning during my freshman year of college, but the gruesome image you see above had already been in my head for years, since it adorned the empty VHS case my family once possessed. This illustrates the staying power and the measured gore of Romero’s imagery: shot in grainy black and white, it’s not shocking enough to make you jump (at least, not most of the time). But it can creep into the back of your head like a zombie encroaching on your personal space, until next thing you know you’re waking up in a cold sweat from nightmares of those infected teeth clamping down on your naked shoulder. The lasting fear its visuals create is but one side of this scary, clever film.

The plot of Night of the Living Dead is as simple and as bold as its title: the dead rise to eat the living. News reports peppered throughout the film (giving the crisis an air of authenticity) suggest that the problem is regional and spreading; however, the movie’s own little microcosm is a house in rural Pennsylvania whose occupants (seven, and dwindling) are besieged by a ghoulish horde – at first only one lumbering cannibal, but more and more as night falls upon them, growing into a hungry swarm. Under this set-up, Romero tells of human altruism (and selfishness) under extreme pressures, and the horrors of facing an enemy with a human face who doesn’t think or feel.

The first 5-10 minutes of Night focus on two characters, Barbra and Johnny, a brother and sister who visit their father’s grave site out in the country once a year to lay down flowers. The reason, then, for the film’s first action is death, and its remembrance. This theme continues throughout the film – while Johnny speaks dismissively of his father’s memory, it’s the memory of Johnny that paralyzes Barbra through the remaining hour and a half. And inherent in the film’s governing conceit is the fact that the dead are not buried and forgotten; they’re up and about, ready to terrorize the still-living. This casts some irony on Johnny’s arrogance toward the dead, as well as toward his sister’s (vindicated) fear.

The silent figure of destruction looming over Barbra

The opening scene, right up to the introduction of the film’s driving conflict (who appears as a tiny figure stumbling through the background), also goes from a mundane family outing full of sibling patter – albeit an outing to a cemetery, a location marked for horror – to a scene of sudden, blunt danger, where the normal world is intruded upon by violence and chaos.

It’s especially effective because all extraneous elements are discarded until we’re down to brother, sister, graveyard, ghoul. After some brief foreshadowing – Johnny’s oft-repeated line “They’re coming to get you, Barbra!”, delivered in a haunting voice worthy of Karloff – the ghoul attacks, Barbra flees, Johnny is killed, and it all happens quickly and unmomentously, an initial volley out of nowhere in a war that will expand over the course of the film.

In this way, Night of the Living Dead is a horror movie that’s also kind of a rural war movie – a Battle of the Alamo or Custer’s Last Stand against an unexplained, inhuman Other. Humanity, embodied in three men, three women, and a sick young girl, is pitted against a remorseless, single-minded foe it does not understand, and its back is quite literally against the wall. Herein lies much of the situation’s horror: we have the fact that the monsters are superficially human, yet fundamentally different; they are unwilling to reason and seek only to destroy.

The iconically terrifying Karen Cooper: dehumanization and pubescent aggression

Then there’s the gradually implied apocalyptic scale of the disaster which, although somewhat remedied in the end, still throws a pall over hopes for escape by suggesting maybe there is no escape when our own dead can turn on us. It’s a surprisingly bleak movie that throws open the flood gates of mortality and doesn’t really leave a ray of hope, regardless of whether or not the ghouls are eventually exterminated.

This all-consuming fear and hopelessness is especially stark in light of the fact that Night was originally plotted to be a “horror comedy,” in addition to the satirical elements in Romero’s subsequent work, and the spoofs the film has inspired (including a whole series from co-writer John Russo).

But there’s no mistaking the lack of humor, the characters’ increasing levels of panic and anxiety, and the somber aftertaste left by the finale. This is a horror film that embraces the fundamentals of a nightmare: an internal world where agonizing changes can come swiftly and irrevocably, upheaving the previous sociocultural and even physical landscape.

Wartime disaster amidst supernatural horror

And so, like many great horror premises, Night‘s undead onslaught can be read on numerous levels. The film’s low budget and unrefined aesthetic have frequently led it to be compared to Vietnam War reportage, forming an analogy with the aggressive self-preservation and similarly brutal tactics (napalm, guerilla warfare?) present in the human/zombie conflict. And the beauty of the film is that this reading is pretty legitimate, but the viewer can also dip into several other moral and political cross-currents.

For example, while watching it tonight, I started pondering the zombie: driven but uncreative, ignorant of change, prioritizing its hunger over all logic or ethics, it demolishes whatever’s in its path and breaks down human constructions, but can be warded off through well-crafted barriers or especially crafty killing techniques, like Ben’s Molotov cocktails. The zombies do not appear to communicate, feel, or remember – they all simply share a common goal, namely to eat living humans. They’re an enemy without any real ideology, without any strategy, with nothing but an unstoppable desire to break into the house and kill those inside.

One question that repeatedly popped into my head was the relationship between zombies and fascism. They appear to be entropic creatures, with their bodies as well as any organizational structures around them perpetually falling apart. The zombie threat tears into any kinship between their human opponents, splintering what could have been a cooperative team into a group of (mostly) frightened individuals staring down the amorphous menace outside. But they move as one, with dozens of necrotic hands groping at Barbra through the window as if they belonged to one giant organism. In any case, perhaps this could be compared to my deep fear of swarming insects – locusts, flies, etc. – which are motivated more by biological pre-programming than by conscious solidarity.

A militia, humanity's televised organizational reaction to the epidemic

Regardless of how you view the zombies – as a politicized enemy or cultural/biological foreigner – they not only act as the obvious threat, but also instigate the pressures and anxieties within the human group. A majority of screen time, after all, is devoted not to the zombies, but to the humans. And while the zombies act as one, they are split across several axes: racially, Ben (the most proactive of them) is visibly different, although this tension goes entirely unspoken; in terms of gender, Judy and Helen are largely nonfactors (outside of Helen’s role as a mother), while Barbra’s presence is significant mostly due to her inaction and emotional collapse. Harry, the elder of the white males, asserts himself as the patriarch of the cellar, and is incensed by Tom’s (ultimately fatal) decision to follow Ben outside.

Maybe the easiest moral to draw from this situation is the absurdity of division along petty differences when a much more relevant difference (human vs. zombie) is available; this is akin to the Earth vs. the Flying Saucers-type science fiction films of the ’50s, where national boundaries grow blurry when an extraterrestrial threat appears. But the film is far from moralistic, couching its story in the morally ambiguous iconography of Vietnam-era current events (not just war footage, but school and religious protests, assassinations earlier in 1968, etc.).

So this is the genius of Romero’s film: on the surface, it’s just a cheap monster movie, but dig around and it becomes a multivalent hotbed of political and social discourses. And I think the cheapness contributes to its appeal and influence. With just over $100,000, a few guys with some experience making commercials managed to put together a very scary movie with a compelling story. The zombies don’t have Jack Pierce makeup or anything, but they’re nonetheless genuinely frightening, and their ripped shirts and pustule-ridden faces photograph well in black and white.

Race and systems of power in the face of a zombie apocalypse

Zombies (as a number of films have shown) innately lie on the edge between horror and comedy – the gaping faces and moaning probably contribute – but Romero places his securely in the domain of horror. He never studied under Roger Corman, and his lack of Hollywood roots do significantly differentiate his style from the Corman grads’ early films, but nonetheless there is a shared fondness for fear at minimal cost. In Romero, though, it’s married to a penchant for social observation which I think is lacking in Corman’s grandstanding, happily schlocky films (just compare the acting style of Vincent Price to Duane Jones to John Amplas).

In case my discussion has left any doubt, Night of the Living Dead is never really overtly political. It sticks to its title’s drive-in horror roots. But it’s never dumb, nor does it allow its conflict to overwhelm its characters or ideas. I see it as a great Halloween movie, potent at inspiring fear both from its monsters and from its ambiguities. So lie back, watch it, get sucked into the nervous tension, and remember: they’re coming to get you… Barbra. With its gritty, quasi-realistic style, its frightening end-of-days scenario, and its bottomless pool of ideas about humanity and violence, Night of the Living Dead is one of my favorite movies.

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