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Monday, October 17, 2011

Undead or Alive

Undead or Alive (2007) is a genre blending RomZomCom along the lines of Shaun of the Dead – a romantic zombie comedy for those who liked Brokeback Mountain.  I didn’t expect very much from this movie when I started it (I mean, come on…Chris Kattan is in it!), but I was pleasantly surprised and I laughed out loud several times. 

All the western clichés are present – from the frontier women in long cotton skirts baking pies in wood burning stoves, to the corrupt and mustachioed sheriff, the saloon girls, horses, and six-guns. These common western tropes are combined with recognizable zombie movie chestnuts like the shambling rotting corpse eating the brains of his wife and daughter.   It’s not, by any means, a great movie, but it does deliver all that it promises:  Cowboys and Zombies and not a few laughs. 

But, I should say, my enjoyment of this lighthearted movie was very qualified.

Zombie movies can generally be divided into two kinds based on their explanation for the origin of the zombies.  One says that the dead are reanimated by some sort of bacteria or virus, that is to say, a scientific and natural explanation (however un-scientific it might be).  The other kind of zombie movie suggests that Zombies are the result of a supernatural curse.  Undead or Alive is one of the latter.

The movie’s prologue tells us that the legendary warrior and medicine-man Geronimo, “renowned for bravery in the face of overwhelming odds…was credited with supernatural powers.”  After many years of guerrilla war against the U.S. Army, Geronimo was finally cornered and his final act was to make “the secret medicine known as the White Man’s Curse.” This curse is what causes the white-men to become zombies.

And this is where part of me started to object.

If the curse of the film were cast by any unidentified Apache warrior / medicine man, I could have watched the movie without struggling to maintain my suspension of disbelief.  But crediting it to the famous and historically important Geronimo causes several problems.

Geronimo was indeed renowned for his raids against Mexican provinces and later against US territories.  After a lengthy pursuit, he finally surrendered to US forces in 1886. He was taken as a prisoner of war and lived for many years and became something of a celebrity.  He also became a Christian and urged his people study that religion, because it seems to me the best religion in enabling one to live right.[i]

He didn’t die until 1909 - from complications from pneumonia.  So the history and characterization of Geronimo is far from accurate.  And he’s hardly a character in the movie anyway.  We see him only briefly during the prologue and in a few very short flashes as the curse is passed from victim to victim, so I’m not sure why the filmmakers thought it necessary to attach Geronimo’s name.

But then again, having all but cleansed the old west of authentic “Indian” characters in real-life, why should we expect our films to portray them accurately.  Why bother when we can pit cowboys verses zombies or cowboys verses aliens?

"I was living peacefully with my family, having plenty to eat, sleeping well, taking care of my people, and perfectly contented. I don’t know where those bad stories first came from. There we were doing well and my people well. I was behaving well. I hadn’t killed a horse or man, American or Indian. I don’t know what was the matter with the people in charge of us. They knew this to be so, and yet they said I was a bad man and worst man there; but what had I done? I was living peacefully there with my family under the shade of the trees, doing just what General Crook had told me I must do and trying to follow his advice. I want to know now who it was ordered me to be arrested. I was praying to the light and to the darkness, to God and to the sun, to let me live quietly there with my family. I don’t know what the reason was that people speak badly of me. Very often there are stories put in the newspapers that I am to be hanged. I don’t want that anymore. When a man tries to do right, such stories ought not be put in the newspapers. There are very few of my men left now. They have done some bad things but I want them all rubbed out now and let us never speak of them again. There are very few of us left." - Goyathlay (Geronimo)[ii]

[i] Geronimo, His Own Story. New York, New York: Ballantine Books.   page 181
[ii]  quoted in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown , page 392

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