After graduating from college I found myself a lot of free time and a new job located next to Family Video.
If you've never heard of it, it's a rental chain that has probably the best rental deal ever: For a dollar, you can rent two movies for five days.
Granted, these aren't the NEW movies (those'll cost you) but most things fall to those shelves after 9 months or so.
One night after work, I wandered over to the store and discovered a magical utopia filled with things I wanted to see. That would cost me fifty cents each.
Things like Brain Dead. And Troma's War. And Escape from New York.
And Dawn of the Dead.
If you've never seen or heard of the movie, the setup is pretty simple. Three men and one woman try to wait out a zombie invasion by hiding in a mall.
Gradually, things go wrong.
Granted, that sounds like a fun film, as long as you're somewhat into zombies. But the thing that interested me about this movie was:
Critics like it.
Really, they do. Robert Ebert gave it four stars.
And among fans of the horror genre, this was considered one of the greats. So I had to see it.
Here's the amusing thing: It took me three nights to get through it.
Now, it's not a dense movie. But it is a long one. It runs over two hours, in a world where most trashy horror films run about 80 minutes, most studio horror films run about 90, and a horror film that actually cares about its characters might push you to 100.
But for various reasons (late work schedule, other obligations) I kept starting and stopping the movie, finally finishing it up one evening.
I'm not going to say that the movie knocked me out right away, but I found the movie impossible to shake off. It was a film with ideas in it, some subtle, and some not.
LESSON: MAKE A MOVIE WORTH TALKING/THINKING ABOUT.
Mostly what struck me was how many quiet moments the movie had. At one point, one of the men and a women just sit in bed next to each other, saying nothing. She's pregnant. He's the dad.
And the world around them has fallen totally apart.
You can read a lot into their faces, if you so choose. You can decide that they realize they're stuck together, and they don't like each other much. You can decide they're afraid for their baby. Or you can decide that now that they're safe, they're coming to realize that even during an Apocalypse, life can be really boring.
The point is, the movie lets you think about these things, and decide for yourself, instead of having verbal sparring to no real end.
The movie also has satirical elements, with lines like (in reference to the mall):
Francine Parker: What are they doing? Why do they come here?
Stephen: Some kind of instinct. Memory, of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.
Now, you could read that as a straight line, and I'm sure people have. But it's also a pretty outstanding joke, and a sad statement about our culture.
LESSON: IT'S OKAY TO INSERT SUBTLE MOMENTS INTO BLOOD-AND-GUTS HORROR MOVIES
Time passed. The movie finally came out on DVD. I bought it, and watched it again by myself. And then again, with friends.
And I realized something. Yeah, it's a thoughtful movie, to be sure. Lots of people die, but when George Romero, who wrote and directed the movie, wants you to care, he slows right on down and makes you care about a death.
But at the same time? It's an action movie, and a fast-paced one at that. There's a little talk at the beginning, and then some soldiers try to clean out a ghetto. Some people fly off in a helicopter, and have to fight to refuel. They find a mall, then have to fight to get supplies. Then they fight to keep the mall protected from more zombies.
Action sequence after action sequence after action sequence. Even at over two hours, the movie rarely feels like it's going to pack all its story into the non-action sequence moments.
LESSON: YOU CAN WRITE AN ACTION MOVIE AND HAVE A MOVING STORY CONTAINED IN IT.
When I went to write the movie up for my upcoming book, But the Third One Was Great, I got a fourth chance to really learn about the flick. And a little research told me that the movie didn't end the way it originally did.
In the ending everyone's seen, a couple of people live. And you can view what happens to them with hope (they'll be okay!) or with dread (they aren't going to be okay!). It's up to you.
In the original version, however? Everyone dies.
Romero went to that well with the original, Night of the Living Dead, and frankly, it was haunting. But this time around, he ended in an ambiguous way.
And you know? The movie was better for it.
LESSON: IT'S POSSIBLE TO WRITE AN ENDING THAT LETS YOU HAVE IT BOTH WAYS.
Is that always possible? Probably not always. But it's something to strive for.