It's funny, but few films dealing with the end of the world look at it from the everyday perspective. True, envisioning the final moments of the planet may not require a routine examination. But unless we are immediately wiped out by a series of nuclear blasts, the world will not die instantaneously. Instead, whatever the reason for the impending apocalypse, the various factors will be small at first, mere blips on the cultural landscape. By the time the real danger has arrived - indeed, by the time the media has picked up the story and created their expensive computer graphics logo to oversell it - the end will be a pragmatic certainty. Still, what would those news reports look like, and who will be determining what news we see? If a plague of some sort hit our world, killing us off one by one, how would that information arrive to us - and how trustworthy would it be?
These are just some of the fascinating questions poised by Trent Haaga and Richard Griffin in their new film Feeding the Masses. Working within the parameters of the zombie movie (yes, AGAIN!) to tell their story, our intrepid writer (Haaga) and inventive director (Griffin) try to grapple with the notion of how to best inform the public of the oncoming epidemic of living dead cannibals. On the one hand, we have ambitious reporters and their loyal camera crews. On the other hand, we have frightened government officials, bureaucrats that realize that widespread panic means a lesser chance of containing the outbreak. And as usual, somewhere in the middle are the people themselves, unsure of what to do, desperate for information, and glued to the disgustingly addictive glass teat like the brainwashed consumers they've become. Griffin and Haaga fill their film with lots of interesting ideas and satirical touches. That it doesn't work 100% of the time is fine, since there's enough good stuff here to more than make up for the missteps.
The world has been overrun by flesh eating zombies. The government has traced the problem to a contagion, similar to the bubonic plague, which is rapidly mutating and evolving. At first, individuals could only become infected after being bitten by one of the living dead. But now, the virus appears to be spreading through non-invasive means, and is threatening to go airborne. Once that happens, the planet is doomed. A local Rhode Island TV station has been on the story for days, but now the government has stepped in.
In place of hard news about the reality of the cannibal holocaust, the Feds want upbeat stories, lifestyle shows, and reruns of Dragnet to appease the people. That way, they will be more willing to accept the misinformation they intend to put out. Hoping to combat the powerful propaganda machine, cameraman Torch, field reporter Shelly, their military escort Roger and in-studio technician James take to the streets, hoping to give the public the real story. It will be hard, though, since determined agents will make sure that it is the Establishment, and not some rogue branch of the fourth estate, that is Feeding the Masses.
It's tough coming up with a new angle on the zombie film. Like the Western in the 60s, or the action film in the 90s, the living dead have been literally done to death. So hats off to writer Trent Haaga and director Richard Griffin for finding what is perhaps the last novel way of dealing with flesh eating fiends. Take a little bit of Wag the Dog, a helping of Robocop, toss in some completely indirect nods to Network, and cover the entire concept in shades of Romero and Fulci, and you've got something that is both scary and satirical, fabulously funny and yet fraught with some significant flaws. While Feeding the Masses doesn't measure up to other cannibal cinema the filmmakers have been involved in (including Griffin's work on the excellent The Stink of Flesh) there is still a lot here to love. After all, it's not every zombie apocalypse film that has the nerve to make jokes at the expense of both the heroes and the horror.
What makes Griffin and Haaga's approach so unique is that the zombies are really ancillary to the story. Certainly they provide the blood letting and throat garroting that gorehounds get wood over, but they really aren't the villains here. Instead, it's the government with its Big Brother mentality that becomes the antagonist to our heroes' loftier goals. Some could even see this as a companion piece to Stink, since it deals with similar themes like power run amuck and how extreme circumstances bring out the baser in individuals. Drawing another comparison, Feeding the Masses is like Signs. Somewhere off in the distance, the real battle for the fate of the planet is going on. But in little Providence, Rhode Island, all we get is a glimpse of the raging holocaust. In reality, the town is trying to live within the zombie plague, and some have even come up with a few highly implausible ideas to make money off the dead returning to life.
Indeed, when Feeding the Masses delivers these hilarious sidebars (including a commercial for a "recapture and reburial" service and a dead-on parody of the classic nuke war educational film "Duck and Cover") the movie transcends its topic, becoming a true social commentary. Haaga and Griffin understand what backwoods bumpkins the general population becomes when something scary and unknown fudges with their ritualistic lifestyle. This material, as well as moments at the television station where "business as usual" means treating people to really perky cooking demonstrations, make this movie better than you're average no budget fright flick.
Of course there are times when Griffin indulges his whacked out whims a little too much (the entire "pot is cool" montage, with its cornucopia of clichéd cannabis imagery is overdone) and other instances where he doesn't know when to go further (there should have been more shots of the townsfolk mindlessly drinking in the media's mixed message). When he does pull out all the stops - like in a wonderful scene where a character reveals a psychotically kinky side to his personality - Feeding the Masses emerges out of the shadows of the skin-eating cinema it mirrors.
But about an hour in, the filmmakers lose their way. It's almost as if they simply ran out of interesting ideas, concepts to parody, and shocking sexual content, and just decided to kill some time before the big finale. We end up with scenes that go nowhere, conversations that don't really payoff, and exposition that comes out of a laptop situated squarely in left field. In particular, there is a sequence where our befuddled government agent busts down the control room door, only to find a videotape playing. The recorded message rambles on, taking its time getting to a point before we arrive at a patented scare-shock moment. But it really isn't necessary to the narrative. Instead, the speech seems inserted to give the actor playing the technician James a substantive scene that requires some manner of performance, not just the usual wide-eyed reactions. The arrival of the 'Party Bus' at the end also seems incredibly random. Instead of playing out the final broadcast, Blair Witch style, building up the tension and the suspense, we get a special effect faux free-for-all that doesn't really add very much to the movie's message.
Indeed, it's this strong missive about media manipulation and government control that consistently saves Feeding the Masses. And it's all the more potent because Griffin and Haaga make it completely authentic. We don't get psycho spitting bureaucrats rambling incoherently like just released serial rapists, or hard faced hired goons doing anything and everything above and beyond the call of dignified duty to make sure the propaganda flows freely. The filmmakers just rely on the actual fear involved, the notion of looking for safety and sanctuary in the most uncertain of times to justify their agent's actions. And it works, since we can easily place ourselves in the position of the characters, all of who are just looking for a knowledgeable guardian when events larger than themselves threaten their lives. Buying into the pre-prepared partyline and towing the government position is not a new idea (War in Iraq, hello?) but using it to forward a zombie-based narrative is. Had our filmmakers stayed focused on this idea, and kept the secondary situations to a minimum, Feeding the Masses would be a winner.
Instead, this is just a very good, often underdeveloped outing that earns major merits for trying something new with a basically bankrupt genre (sorry my undead brothers). If the pace keeps up as it is, the zombie movie will be played out long before the fixation with Asian horror has dried up and blown back East. While it's true that, once you've seen one reanimated flesh eating corpse, you've basically seen them all, it's nice to think that movies like Feeding the Masses, The Stink of Flesh, and others are not just novel, but soon to be the norm. We can only take the gore-drenched decadence of traditional cannibal corpse cinema for so long before the bloodletting grows tired. While it's not the most perfect or pristine example of the genre's possibilities, Griffin and Haaga have found a unique way to bring other moviemaking elements - drama, satire, comedy - to a subject that is slowly eating itself to death. Feeding the Masses has its flaws, but it also illustrates that all zombie horror needs is some imagination to experience its own rise from the grave.
Griffin was the director of photography on The Stink of Flesh, winner of this critic's award for best looking independent shot on digital homemade movie EVER! Thankfully, while using a lesser tech spec, his work with DP Andrew Vellenoweth on Feeding the Masses is equally evocative. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image betrays big budget intentions, but it is also often limited by certain practical barriers (read: actor/location woes). Still the colors are excellent, the details crisp, and the random jumping between the "film look" and actual video feeds helps the film's already ripe authenticity.
Unlike other digital domain directors, Griffin is not enamored with every local nu-punk metal band that sends him a CD. Instead of filling his film with overdoses of this hardcore rock hokum, Griffin goes the ambient route. The musical score by Daniel Hildreth evokes dread, hope, helplessness and the sinister with sensational ease. In combination with Griffin's careful consideration, and a wonderful Dolby Digital Stereo mix, the auditory elements here are quite good.
Ei and Shock-O-Rama do a decent job of fleshing out the DVD release of Feeding the Masses, giving us lots of production and behind the scenes features. The biggest bonus is the full length audio commentary with director Richard Griffin and actor Billy Garberina. A combination of self-deprecating criticism and glowing back slapping make up the majority of this alternate narrative and it's a really enjoyable listen. Every actor gets their props, production nightmares are readily discussed, and occasional narrative continuity errors are explained away with a decided nod to the limited budget. Aside from the sometime silly way they treat the subject matter (Billy can be a bit of a card at times), we still learn an awful lot about outsider filmmaking.
Similar sentiments flow from the Making-of documentary. Following the film from Day 1, we see how certain shots were captured, where improvisation was needed to save a scene, and how CGI was used to create convincing gun effects. Add in some trailers, a recap of Shock-o-Rama's release year, and two unrelated short films by Duane Graves and Justin Meeks (Voltagen and The Hypostatic Union) and we have a complete little package. While the mini-movies are interesting, they can't compare to the more epic vision on display in Griffin's work.
T.S. Elliot was right when he wrote in The Hollow Men that the world will end "not with a bang, but with a whimper". All the larger than life battles, the overwhelming acts of devastation and/or heroism will not darken our door. Instead, in the one room where everyone becomes equal, we will sit in front of the television and purposefully ponder our fate. We will see the tide turning, the chances for salvation diminish and the last ravages of the normalcy we once knew disappear in a fog of uncertainty and despair. Or we may not see anything.
Even as the Four Horseman ride up the road near our home, preparing the way for the final Judgment, someone in a position of power might just determine that this is "too much" for us to handle, and purposefully mislead us. Instead of hard facts, we will see sloppy propaganda pieces and glorified "good news". The truth will be twisted until it sounds right, but it won't offer the terror it actually contains. Indeed, what those in charge want most of all is order - even in the End Time. Feeding the Masses makes this notion abundantly clear. It is also a reason to recommend the film. Sometimes, we need our eyes opened, and as usual, it takes someone outside the mainstream to make it happen.
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