Reflections of an indie writer on 2017

It is customary at the close of a year to look back and reflect on ones accomplishments and ones failures. As writers, we think on the things that made us rise to an occasion and what we utterly fell flat on. What worked and what didn’t, so to speak, in our ongoing quest to put imagination to word and word to pen and pen to MS Word and MS Word to our hopeful next bestseller. Despite the fact that I’ve only been publishing since late 2014, I feel as if I have grown in leaps and bounds as a writer. No, not that I’m some huge bestseller. I’m talking real growth, the kind that counts (for me anyway).

In some ways, there has been some real growth for me as a writer. While dealing with personal issues, such as having my day job taken away due to a plant closure and struggling with almost constant depression and stress and doubt, I was still able to produce 4 novels, 1 collection, 4 audiobooks, and participated in 3 anthologies. And lined up projects for early 2018. I’m not trying to toot my own horn here, but when you’ve done something you ought to be proud of, there should be no problem looking back every now and then and giving yourself a little high five. We writers do this so seldom (well, most of us).

I’ve also learned more this year than any other that no writer is an island. The moment we think we’re alone is the moment we begin to question ourselves over every little choice and decision. This is very critical in the indie world as every independent writer naturally goes it alone. I think maybe because of this natural habit we have to be secluded is what drives a good many batshit crazy, making them feel like they can’t write simply because they can’t sell. More on this in a moment. The point of this paragraph is that even in the indie world, survivability typically follows ones ability to do two things: evolve and humility. Evolution, being able to keep a curious eye on how readers are reading and the technology that follows. Humility, being able to ask for help.

While being able to evolve with technology and market trends is helpful, being humble is way more important. Being able to reach out to a trusted circle of friends and fellow writers, bouncing ideas, and/or just plain ole venting has been super critical in my own survival as a writer. This year has been super hard for me (and a great many other writers). Both in my personal life as well as in my book sales. I don’t think there’s enough data to explain why book sales were rough for many indies this year. Much like the sea, everything is in a state of flux. Could be due to political reasons. Could be the weather. Could be a great many things. The problem I’m seeing, myself included, is that some of us indies got a little taste of success as writers and when that slipped away we started to doubt everything we were doing or why we were even writing in the first place.

Be it traditional or indie, being a writer must fundamentally come from the same place, this incarnate need to tell stories, to be that old man or old woman by the camp fire who gets tickled at the prospect of spinning a tale. Admittedly, this year I spent too much time looking at my own book sales and trends and allowing those to govern my belief over if I was a good writer or not. And what a horrible way to cultivate soil that ultimately should be enriched in imagination, hope, and joy. This year alone, I witnessed some of my best sales and some of my worst. If I was to base my success as a writer on sales alone, could you imagine how that effected my work? Or my ego? Or my pride?

Looking forward, there are some things that I want to improve upon in 2018. I want to continue reaching out and depending and likewise helping my circle of trusted friends…to remember that I am not alone. And I would also like to STOP looking at book sales, or at least limit how often I am. Once a week sounds a lot better than several times a day, right? And lastly, I want to write, and not just on what I think will sell, but on what I want. Zombies overdone? Who cares, I think it’s neat to imagine worlds with the undead. Vampires are an old hat… Whatever, I think vampires are cool. What the hell is a rainbow blob monster? Does it matter, as long as it was super exciting to write?

This coming year, above all, I want to have fun again.

Beautiful Ugly and Other Weirdness

While everyone is getting drunk on turkey today, I thought I’d bring to the table an announcement of which I am very very very excited to make. My latest collection of short stories titled Beautiful Ugly and Other Weirdness is now available for pre-order on Amazon!!!

Some of the stories within this new collection include:

Gone

Happiness

The Abigail

Ultrasound

The Witch of Staunton County

Marrow

The Ascension of Henry Porter

Apocalypse Meow

The Foree Farm Massacre  

Beautiful Ugly

The Philosopher

This collection has hints of Cronenberg-ish body horror, mad science, and otherworldly terror. Some of these stories were originally published in various anthologies NOW brought together in one collection.  Beautiful Ugly is the title story and one of the more bizarre tales I’ve written to date.  Marrow is the original story that was later adapted for PLANET OF THE DEAD, but I thought it would be neat to show how it looked before. The Abigail is my most hardcore science fiction story with a few nods to some of my favorite sci-fi horror movies, including Aliens and Event Horizon.

And much more…

Book cover by the always impressive Michael Bray. Published through Shadow Work Publishing. Releasing on January 23rd, 2018. 

You can pre-order YOUR copy now for just $0.99!!!

BEAUTIFUL UGLY FINAL

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Veterans Day Memoir

It’s that time of year again, folks. The day we honor our nations soldiers, marines, airmen, and sailors. The day we recognize those who have served and put themselves in harms way. For those who know me personally will understand, talking about Veterans Day is not an easy task for me. I have been celebrating Veterans Day very differently for the past…what…dang, almost ten years since my enlistment ended back in February 2008. It has not been an easy journey, opening up about my experiences of serving 3 tours in Iraq has been a very slow process. But I have found the support of loved ones and writing has greatly helped me adapt. With this in mind, let me tell you a little but about my story.

I enlisted in the U.S. Army in Sept 2001 and was honorably discharged in February 2008. Roughly seven years of service, including three tours in Iraq, 2003-2004, 2004-2005, and finally 2006-2007. The last tour was probably the hardest, not only was my deployment extended for the great 2007 Iraq War troop surge (Operation Arrowhead, I think), but I took more hits than in any of my previous two tours, and on top of that, I had someone other than my parents waiting for me at home. My wife and I had just met a few months before I deployed. She stayed with me the entire deployment. We wrote dozens of letters to each other, we chatted on the phone and on the internet, and that’s if circumstances made it possible.


She supported me, with more than just care packages, but by giving me focus, reminding me that I was more than just a soldier. Being away from her was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Let me say, I don’t mean to sound callous towards my parents, I love my parents very much, but with my wife it was different. For the first time, I couldn’t imagine myself dying and not being afraid. Not just for the circumstance (bodily suffering) but for the recompense of leaving her behind (emotional suffering). I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want to be robbed of this imagined life we could’ve had together. I didn’t want to lose that. And I didn’t want her to suffer for my loss.

In 2008, after being pushed by family to get into college, I finally agreed. I’m glad I did. College helped with more than just furthering my career. Slowly, through the course from 2008-2014, I began to open up. I didn’t really want to at first, again, back to the “glamorization of war,” I feared any attempt to recount my experience would be a cheapening of it, a cheapening of other veteran’s experiences by attempting to sell my own. I didn’t want to do that, but I felt drawn to write something.
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My first attempt was during a creative writing class into my second semester at San Jacinto Community College. The assignment was to write a short narrative story. I wrote, “There will be Ghosts,” which was my ode to both my experiences and the Tom Cruise Vietnam movie, “Born on the Fourth of July.” From there I dove head first into fiction-writing. I began a little science-fiction piece which never came to fruition, and probably never will. I consider these first works to be a learning curve, not something I’d want to see published. A dabbling, if you will, in the creative cosmos, finding my voice and all that fun stuff. When I left community college to enter the university (University of Houston-Clear Lake), I had to put my fictional writing on the back burner and focus almost exclusively on my history studies. While this may seem like a setback, I do not see it that way. In fact, I believe these two years of hardnosed historical study gave me an element lacking in my previous fictional-writing attempts. Dedicating myself to my studies gave me a depth I wouldn’t have been able to include in my work otherwise. My studies focused on 20th century Germany, namely the Weimar Republic and Nazi eras. I also took  Vietnam War history classes, Texas history, and the Civil Rights Movement, each class taught from the ground-up. This is a somewhat relative new way of teaching history. Traditionally, history is taught from the top, that is, from famous generals and presidents or other such impressive folk. From the bottom-up, history is taught from the Joe-Shmoe perspective, the everyday lives of everyday people. It was fantastic. A new way of looking at our world and the people that fill it by giving them relevance. In 2014 I graduated from the University of Houston-Clear Lake with a Bachelor of Arts in History…now what?

 

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Suddenly I found this huge pocket of empty space. My mandatory studies were over with nothing to keep my mind focused on. I decided to get back to fictional writing no longer for term papers, but something that would keep my mind busy, keep me sane, and present a challenge. I wrote two short stories soon after graduating. “Hobo: a horror short story,” and “Are you hungry, dear?” Later I write Reinheit, my first novel. And from, the rest is history, so to speak. Today, I continue to write stories that draw upon my experiences, and I try my best to be a behind the scenes advocate for future veteran writers. Getting other veterans to open up through writing. Even if they do not want to publish, writing can be a great source of therapy, it has been for me.

As my way of celebrating today, I’ve decided to make a special announcement!

Today I am officially announcing the first two book releases for early 2018. The first book that will hit stores globally is a passion project of mine, steeped in classic monster lore and filled with fantastic history called THE HELLFIGHTER. No cover art…yet, this has been slow going due to the amount of research and information that’s packed inside the novel. I don’t want to spoil it by talking too much about the book, but it is a period piece that has settings in 1917, 1930s, 60s, and 2044 (not a typo). This story is part dystopian, part historic fiction, part mystery, and all horror. See below for the working synopsis.

THE HELLFIGHTER
THOMAS S. FLOWERS

In the year 2044, reporters from the Public Relations Ministry gather at the home of Benjamin Harker, the last surviving member of the Harlem Hellfighters. At the age of 144, he is the oldest recorded man alive. Hidden among them, Clyde Bruner is looking for a different kind of story. Across the United States, despite the Great Secured Walls and patrol drones built by President Adams to keep America safe, something has found its way in. And now towns are vanishing during the night. Entire populations, gone. Only to return after the sun sets, different, changed, and lethal. And whatever this evil is, its spreading west. According to a bedtime story Bruner’s grandfather told him when he was a boy, Benjamin Harker has seen this before. He’s faced this scourge. Fought them. Survived them. Killed them. From the trenches of the Great War to the sands of Iraq, Harker will share his story. But as each city light extinguishes across the country, is there no time left to stop what’s coming? 


The second book announcement…well, I actually have less information on but will be released before THE HELLFIGHTER. This release will be my next collection of short stories called BEAUTIFUL UGLY: And Other Weirdness. Michael Bray has agreed to the task of creating the book cover, so I should have some art to show to you soon. My aim is to have BEAUTIFUL UGLY ready for pre-order in December 2017 for an early January 2018 release. There are reprint stories from past anthologies and brand new ones, including the title story, Beautiful Ugly. I know it’s expected for authors to say this about all their books, but it’s true, I am really excited about this collection. In my first collection, The Hobbsburg Horror, I focused on a blend of classic Universal and Lovecraftian monsters. In this one, I rolled up my sleeves and got real weird with it including both storytelling and interior art.

Until then, thanks for reading and Happy Veterans Day!

Them! (1954)

One of the most foreboding titles among the many horror and science fiction movies, besides perhaps IT or They (which is just a cheap knockoff of the more impressive film we’re about to discuss), is 1954’s Them!. Among the many different creature features, be it swamp critters or critters from space or super mutant hybrids, bugs freak me out the most. As defined by the omnipotent Wikipedia, “Entomophobia (also known as insectophobia) is a specific phobia characterized by an excessive or unrealistic fear of one or more classes of insect, and classified as a phobia by the DSM-5. More specific cases included apiphobia (fear of bees) and myrmecophobia (fear of ants).” Now, that being said…I think my “fear” can be measured by mass. The smaller the insect, the less I get “freaked out.” Hence, small little pests like flies and mosquitoes are simply put…pests, easily swatted or shooed away. But on the other spectrum, the bigger they get, the more I’m apted to run away screaming. If someone were to make a monster movie with the intention of provoking the mass amount of fear from yours truly, Them! would be the quintessential experience.

But it cannot be done in a silly way. If you want a serious reaction, the movie will need to have a serious undertone. Them! is a perfect example of this. As a fan of most dubbed “classics,” basically timeless pieces of cinematic history, be it 1930s or 40s or 50s or 60s or even those in the Silent Era, I took double pleasure in the fact that this now 63 year old movie can still capture that tension, that wonderful feeling of dread so fantastically. Them!, not too sound too fan-girlish, is utterly amazing. By modern standards, Them! easily tops what producers consider to be blockbusters in not just storytelling and characterization, but also special effects. It makes me curious what original audiences thought when they first sat in their parked fin-tailed red and chrome Chrysler’s at the local drive-in, WITHOUT having been desensitized by years of modern computer generated graphics.

 

For those who have not had the pleasure, here is a quick synopsis of Them!

“The earliest atomic tests in New Mexico cause common ants to mutate into giant man-eating monsters that threaten civilization.”

Boom. You don’t really need anything more than that, do you? Needless to say, IMDb isn’t wrong. In a nut shell, those are the stakes. A mutated strain of ants are multiplying in the New Mexico desert and could very well threaten civilization. And not just any mutated ant species, but a mutation of the Cataglyphis genus, better known as Desert Ants. These sand dwellers are among the most aggressive of ant. The perfect bugs to supersize for a horror/science fiction movie, right?

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One of the fun aspects of Them! is how the movie starts off and is treated more or less throughout the entirety as a “detective” story. The movie opens with a patrol car doing their normal patrol and pickup a little girl, no more than six years old, strolling through the desert alone dressed in a nightgown and cradling a broken doll. They try talking to her but she is catatonic, speechless, staring blankly out at the brown sand. That feeling of dread we talked about begins to weave slowly into the movie and as the policemen investigate a nearby trailer, finding it mostly destroyed, pulled apart from the outside (they deduce) the tension builds even further.

The next scene certainly adds to not only the mystery but also the horror when police sergeant Ben Peterson’s (played by the very awesome James Whitmore) partner “disappears” off screen investigating a strange sound. He get’s off a couple of shots and then screams, that kind of scream that sends chills down your spine. The sound the officer investigates permeates throughout the entire movie. A familiar nature melody for anyone living in suburbia or out in the country. The sound of cicada or crickets singing in trees or in tall grass. Come summer, that sound is still quite pleasant to me, despite this film’s attempt to ruin it. Though, there is a lingering feeling of “what’s really making that sound? Are they, Them! watching me?”

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And I love how, despite the excellent movie art on the poster, knowing there will be giant ants in this movie, the story stalls the BIG reveal, forgive the pun, until the absolute right moment. And that moment, much how the newly brought on character, FBI agent, Robert Graham (played by man’s man James Arness), to its frustrating conclusion through the “comic relief” of sorts Professor Harold Medford (played by Santa himself Edmund Gwenn) and his “if a boy can do it a girl can do it too” daughter Dr. Patrica Medford (Joan Weldon). The Dr. Medord’s are not really that comedic, the old man is sort of how we might think brilliant old men are, a tad absent minded to every day tasks, but a genius in their preferred fields of study. And the female Dr. Medford, despite her strong grace of femininity, wasn’t overpowering or preachy. She was meek but smart and willing to go places most men wouldn’t dare go. In a decade before feminism really took off in America, it’s hard to place the purpose of her character. Regardless, I was and am very pleased with her performance, second to her father perhaps, how she was not the ditsy romance how most other movies place actresses. Harold may have been love struck, but everyone else called her Pat, a genderless name, and I prefer it that way.

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The reveal was perfect, as I said. A sandstorm kicks up and everyone’s goggled and stumbling around for clues. Somehow Pat get’s separated from the group. That chilling buzzing, ringing, clicking cicada sound starts again, getting louder and louder, and everyone is looking around wondering what that noice is and where it’s coming from. Above Pat on a dune, emerges a large black head with giant orb eyes long furry antenna and large sharp looking mandibles. She screams, alerting the others who begin opening fire, destroying the ant’s antenna (to the suggestion of Dr. Medford). The ant is killed and while the others are staring at this impossible horror, Dr. Medford makes a statement, the inspiration and message of the entire movie, I think. He says, “We may be witnesses to a Biblical prophecy come true – ‘And there shall be destruction and darkness come upon creation, and the beasts shall reign over the earth.’” He says something very similar towards the end of the movie, stating, “When Man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What we’ll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.”

The Atomic Age…

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Full of sparking large logos and flashy gadgets and a new generation of fast food and drive-in theaters and modern jazz and rock-in-roll, but this was also an era of uncertainty. Hiroshima and Nagasaki awakened something in humanity. Something more than just awe and dread. Something darker and more pious than religion. The Atomic Age was this new fear of the bomb. Uncertainty over world powers, the growth of the Cold War, and a horizon in modern science to which many did not understand. Not knowing is the greatest fear of all, at least according to H.P. Lovecraft. The Atomic Age also gave birth to unnatural monsters such as Godzilla and Them! movies better known as Creature Features.

Them! acts as a cautionary tale. Be warned, what will await us on the other side of the door. Will science bring upon us destruction and darkness? Will man’s ignorance? Them! isn’t about the dangers of real giant bugs, its about consequences. That in everything we do or strive to bring about, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, as Newton had once said. Its a message every new generation hears, right? Cautionary warnings from the old folks rocking on the porch, talking about how things used to be.

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The rest of Them! takes on that similar detective story we were introduced to in the beginning. They hunt down the hive and destroy the giant ants with poison, only to discover a few queens had escaped prior. Now the once localized investigation turns into a global event. Hush hush, of course, to avoid widespread panic, the team with the added benefit of the military and select government officials quickly work to destroy Them! But the movie doesn’t end like some monster movies with the creatures being destroyed…there is a feeling of uncertainty, astute given the era, and we are left wondering if perhaps there are more giant mutated ants out in the desert thanks to atomic weaponry. And as Dr. Wedford said, “nobody can predict.”

If you have yet to see Them!, please please please do so!

Book Insider: FEAST

Characters are extremely important. Situational development is also equally important. Without solid believable characters or situation all you have is scenery. Pretty scenery combined with poetic languid soliloquy could do the trick for some novels. For others, its detrimental to show the story through the actions of others. Teaching something, questioning something valuable whilst simultaneously entertaining. I suppose it really depends on the kind of book you’re writing and what type of writer you are. Stephen King is a great example for character development. He doesn’t mix prose, he gets you into the heads the players in his stories. While Erich Maria Remarque draws in his readership with extremely well painted scenery and descriptively constructed prose.

What kind of writer are you?

What kind of reader are you?

Personally, I enjoy both styles of storytelling. I love getting inside the heads of the characters in the books I read. And I also love being painted a scene. I respect anyone with the talent for words that ensnare the mind and bewitch the imagination. What I read typically inspires what I write. I understand the importance of realistic and sympathetic characters whilst also keeping languidity in the back of my mind. What I write ought to be enjoyable to read, not some chore. If its a chore, good god what am I doing here, right?

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This past summer, inspired by one of my favorite Shakespearean plays, Titus Andronicus, I set out to create just that: to bewitch my readers with real people juxtaposed with expressive situational scenery. Maybe a bit twisted to admit, but I had a lot of fun writing this book. Twisted due to the nature of the play…and its very gruesome developments. The story and the characters that came out in this book pushed me into worlds and internal thoughts I have not dared to imagine before. While I do enjoy conjuring fantastic monsters, FEAST reminded me of the most horrifying of all horror monsters, humanity. Big shout out to my friend Travis Eck who came up with the design for the cover. I simply gave him a concept and he ran with it. Producing his own creation and artwork. Totally blew me away, as always, with his work and talent. He also did the cover for Reinheit and PLANET OF THE DEAD. Thanks is in order for Jeffery X. Martin for editing my blasphemous use of the English language. And shout out to my favorite Canadian author and friend, Duncan Ralston, for not only helping me with the formatting of this book but also inspiring me to delve into this subgenre (sewer) of horror I have only previously flirted with.

Some of the characters that will (hopefully) ensnare you…

Titus Fleming is the owner of Big Butts Bar-b-que and a father of three sons. His restaurant and “brand” is highly successful and a popular hot spot among the residents of Bass and Sat. But when one of his son’s commits a horrendous crime, the legitimacy of his name and business comes under question. He’s a simple east Texan struggling to keep both his buiness afloat and his relationship with his transgender son.

Tamora Lange is the mother of two nitwit sons and a daughter. She’s what you would consider to be a “gold-digger.” And her sights have been set on Titus’s Big Butts Bar-b-que kingdom. She’ll do just about anything to get her way including manipulation, seduction, and perhaps even murder…

Lavinia (Luke) Fleming is the son (daughter) of Titus Fleming. He (she) struggles with his own identity the responsibility his father thrusts upon him after the deaths of his (her) brothers. He hates the notion of gender but is forced to make a choice between being who he really is and who his father wants him to be.

Aaron works for Tamora and is secretly both Lavinia’s and Tamora’s lover. He hates both families without prejudice and would want nothing more than to see both houses burn.

Darren is Titus’s longtime friend and lawyer. He wants to help his friend grieve for the loss of his two sons while at the same time protect what’s theirs from greedy parties.

Chad & Drake Lange are the homophobic sons of Tamora and are both equally horrendous. They loath the Fleming family, especially after what Titus’s second son had done to their sister. And are appealed when they hear of the proposed arranged marriage between her and Titus’s surviving freak son Lavinia (Luke). They are more than willing to do what needs to be done in order to please both mama and their own murderous appetites.

The Mayors of Bass & Sat are the political heads of two feuding towns on a cross roads between Big Butts Bar-b-que. Bass is made up of nothing but farmers and bankers, while Sat is suburban and more populated. Both claim a stake in the barbecue enterprise and will do what they deem necessary to keep their residents’s bellies happy.

Here’s what reviewers are saying about FEAST:

“Two crazy red neck families fighting over a Barbecue business leads to a bloody, backwoods Texas battle, resulting in carnage and mayhem. Gruesome, bloody, and sadistic, and written like something Herschel Gordon Lewis would release at the drive-in, this is a colorful, entertaining, and fun read. I loved it!” -Randy Bates.

“Knowing that this book is based in ‘Titus Andronicus’ by Shakespeare I was already expecting a gruesome tale, but I have to say that there was even more gore than I expected. The rape scene was one of the crudest I have seen in books, even though, some details were skipped” -Amazon Reviewer.

“Flowers gives us a slightly absurdist take of the classic tale of two devastated families hell-bent on revenge…not only fantastically, horrifically violent, but also graphically sexual. I think Shakespeare would’ve enjoyed it” -Lydian Faust.

“These individuals and families might be from a tiny patch in rural Texas, but their currents run very, very deep…I expect I will have nightmares for quite some time. What a story!” -Haunted Reading Room.

FEAST is available on eBook, paperback, and audiobook on Amazon.

Feast by [Flowers, Thomas S.]

eBook…. $4.99 paperback…. $5.99 audiobook…. $14.95 free on Kindle Unlimited

OR free by subscribing to my newsletter!

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KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017)

Okay, seriously…have you seen the new Kong? For starters though, i’ll admit I’m rather late to the party. However, as I had the gumption to finally watch the latest of Kong movies, Kong: Skull Island, I felt compelled to write down some of my thoughts regarding said movie. There are no spoilers here, per say. Kong holds no mystery that hasn’t already been shown in the many previews and trailers that came out prior to the movie’s release. So, I don’t feel bad talking about it. 

Here’s a synopsis provided by Vudu:

When a scientific expedition to an uncharted island awakens titanic forces of nature, a mission of discovery becomes an explosive war between monster and man. Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John Goodman, and John C. Reilly star in a thrilling and original adventure that reveals the untold story of how Kong became King.

The purpose of all synopsis’, be it book or movie, is to give the would-be audience a small taste of what’s to come without revealing a whole heck of a lot about what they’re about to get into. But as far as synopsis’ go, the one provided by Vudu isn’t too shabby. Filled with awesome action-ny moments and silhouettes of the famed beast. What it doesn’t reveal though is the personal stories that are wrapped up in the (forgive the pun) monster of a movie. Allow me…

Skull Island opens in the year 1944. The world is still at war for the second time and we watch as an American jet fighter comes crashing down to earth while the pilot parachutes not far away. But he’s not alone. Crashing into the sand a moment later, and parachuting as well, is a Japanese pilot. The two had been apparently dog-fighting in the skies above the island and are ready to finish the job, except neither of them are any good at killing the other. The battle ensues over a cliff overlooking a wondrous jungle that looks like something out of Jurassic Park. The death duel is interrupted by the arrival of the star of the movie, Kong.

This opening scene is important, but we’ll get back to that…

Rolling along, the timeline jumps as the opening credits is filled with historic film clips from Truman to Eisenhower to Kennedy to LBJ to Nixon, juxtaposed with scenes of scientists  working around the clock to bring us modern miracles. With dashes of civil unrest to spice things up. Basically summarizing how great humanity is and how far advanced we are, despite the fact that we still end up in wars trying to kill each other.

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Following the credits, the year is now 1972…or 74, I can’t quite remember. Bill Randa (played by the always wonderful John Goodman), along with scientist Houston Brooks, convinces a Senator to fund an expedition to a recently discovered island. As we quickly discover, Randa is a bit of a wash out, having worked for this particular secret sector within the U.S. Government since after WWII, but having yet to produce any evidence, nothing of empirical data to show that he’s not some crack pot. You can understand the motivation he would have to prove he isn’t insane. That he when he was a young seaman had seen something unexplainable. And you might even empathize, a little. But for me, while I will always enjoy seeing Goodman on screen, I didn’t totally get his character. Strangely enough, while Goodman’s character is truly the catalysis that sets things in motion, his story isn’t the message playing out.

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In the midst of the deal with the Senator, Goodman requests a military escort to the island…for, you know, exploration and shit. As the year is 1970-something, you can safely assume he’s going to get a platoon of badass Vietnam War soldiers. And not just any ole soldiers. He’s getting the modern cavalry, the mobile infantry, Air Cav, baby. AND, not just that, but he’s getting Lt. Colonel Packard (played by the very ageless Sam L. Jackson) who’s simply not ready to hang his awards on the wall, so to speak. The war, as he says, was not lost but abandoned, thus being assigned to this “expedition” mission is just the thing he needs to keep the dream alive. Packard reminds me a lot of a mix between Kilgore from Apocalypse Now and Captain Ahab from Moby Dick.

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Kong isn’t without its overused tropes. Tom Hiddleston’s character (Capt. Conrad) as the gristle tough guy specialist feels very overplayed and it doesn’t take a much more handsome fellow such as myself to figure out why Tom’s even in Kong in the first place. Hiddleston is a popular actor who’s no doubt willing to spread his acting wings away from Marvel whenever he can. He’s not without his charm, I’ll give him that. And he does bring some value to the plot, as a former solider who lost his father in another war went to war to find answers and walked away empty handed only to be recruited for a very bizarre mission. Yup. He also has a line later on in the movie that caught my attention as being actually deep and meaningful. He says:

“No one really comes back from war, not really.”

Its a sentiment that I’ve struggled with personally as a Iraqi War veteran. Did I come back from war? Conrad’s not just talking about lost father’s, the ones that physically never returned, he’s also talking about the one’s who did make it back, but not in the way they were before. Something about them is changed. War changed them. And sometimes letting go of that war is the hardest thing a solider can do. Somethings cannot be let go. I’ve been very fortunate to have the support of my wife and family, and the use of writing to help me cope with the trauma of living without a war…because that’s what it boils down to, right?

Anyways, back to our review…

Another annoyance I found with the movie was how the “Skull” island had remained undiscovered. Surrounding it is a perpetual storm, an never ending hurricane. Ships don’t go there. The ones that do, never return, etc. etc. Its a cool effect, for sure, but felt very unrealistic. Yes. Yes. I know. We’re talking about a movie starring a giant mythical gorilla-like creature. Still…there has to be some anchoring of reality to pull off the spectacular and I felt the way they shielded the island was kinda tacked on and quickly skimmed over. Maybe I missed something, but I think they could have done something a little different and not so strangely dramatic. Couldn’t the island had been simply uncharted?

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What really works is the pacing. Kong doesn’t allow for too many pauses. There isn’t some huge build up of searching the island for this mythical creature. He practically shows up within seconds of the squad of helicopters flying through the canopy dropping “seismic” bombs. And when Kong arrives, he is really pissed. Smashing whirley-birds until none remain. The survivors are spread out and quickly try to regroup. Some never do. As Kilgore, I mean Packard collects the dog-tags of his fallen men, his course of action swiftly evolves into a mission of revenge. The rest just want to go home, but as good soldiers, they’ll follow their commander to the bitter end.

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As this is a spoiler free review, I’ll let you find out the rest on your own. However, I do want to touch on John C. Reilly’s character as the thirty-something year marooned fighter pilot. In the previews they show a snippet of him, but in the movie he actually has a huuuuge part. With the snippets I feared he was going to be an over the top obvious comic relief trope; he’s not. Yes, he’s strange and silly and Reilly plays the part perfectly, but there’s something more to him. It’s part of the message that has been building up throughout the movie. In the last scene (the after credits scene doesn’t count as its just publicity for the growing franchise), as the end credits roll, Reilly, after thirty some years on Skull Island, is finally reunited with his wife and son. There’s no dialogue here, you just…watch. And its fantastic. Some never return home from war, but he did.

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There’s a trinity to this message. Packard represents the extreme right, that is the solider unwilling to “let things go.” Reilly’s character (the marooned Hank Marlow) is the extreme left, wanting nothing more than to “let things go.” And then we have Captain Conrad, Tom’s character, as the solider seeking answers. Its a classic method of storytelling and it works extraordinarily well in the movie. And its kinda surprising too, to find this level of metaphor and message in a movie about a giant ape.

There is a lot more that was left out here, but why ruin the experience? Go and find out what’s really going on on Skull Island for yourselves. It’s probably not what you think. For me, it was a highly enjoyable period piece with a deeper core message than most give credit. Oh, and there are giant creatures that wreck shop with stunning graphics and loads of action.

My rating: 5/5 

DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978)

Francine Parker: They’re still here. 
Stephen: They’re after us. They know we’re still in here. 
Peter: They’re after the place. They don’t know why; they just remember. Remember that they want to be in here. 
Francine Parker: What the hell are they? 
Peter: They’re us, that’s all, when there’s no more room in hell. 
Stephen: What? 
Peter: Something my granddad used to tell us. You know Macumba? Vodou. My granddad was a priest in Trinidad. He used to tell us, “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth.” 

Dawn of the Dead is among many things a very quotable movie. The scene above is probably everyone’s favorite, and some other more selective scenes to nibble from. Scientists arguing on what remains of the news broadcast. The SWAT incursion of the Philadelphia apartment building. The refueling scene, the dock scene, the shopping montage. The raiders and ensuing firefight. There are plenty. And if you were to ask me, I can’t really say if I personally have an all-time favorite scene, I mean let’s be honest here, there are so many to choose from. From the very beginning, Dawn of the Dead lures you in and keeps your attention rooted into the story. The pacing couldn’t be more perfect. 

But before we delve any further, let’s get one of those sweet sweet IMBd synopsis’:

“Following an ever-growing epidemic of zombies that have risen from the dead, two Philadelphia S.W.A.T. team members, a traffic reporter, and his television executive girlfriend seek refuge in a secluded shopping mall.”

Okay, well…not bad. Not bad except for one fundamental thing. This synopsis violates one of the Laws of Romeroism. Also, btw, Romeroism is basically as it sounds, the rules or laws set in pace by George A. Romero (Night of the Living DeadDawn of the DeadDay of the DeadLand of the DeadDiary of the Dead, and Survival of the Dead) as the originator of the “zombie” sub-genre as we know it today, that is the undead consuming the flesh of the living. Please see the following link for a complete detailed list of all the Laws of Romeroism. So which “law” did the synopsis violate? In Romeroesque zombie movies, the zombies are never called zombies…except for that one time in Land of the Dead when Dennis Hopper’s character says, “Zombies…they freak me out, man.”

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Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. The round-about point being that Dawn of the Dead was Romero’s second film, the one in which he began establishing the rules for his “zombies.” In Night of the Living Dead, he had (at the time) no idea that he was creating an entirely new sub-genre in horror, that his “ghouls” would eventually become more popular than that of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Creature from the Black Lagoon (Gillman), and the Invisible Man, the pillars of horror themselves.

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Dawn of the Dead was also the first “dead film” in which Romero wrote and directed without the help of his friend and partner from Night of the Living Dead, John Russo. I’m not entirely sure what caused the split, but in an interview with Lee Karr in 2009, this is what George had to say regarding Russo:

“I love John, I still love John. John is the most practical guy – you can have a conversation with John about anything, politics, movies, whatever. Anything he says you may not agree with it, but he’s got a practical approach to it…and there fore you can never defeat his arguments, even though you would like to! I just wish John would cut a couple of chords and loosen himself up a little bit. I think he is too strict on himself and he chooses a business approach. I think he could have been a superstar, but he took the safer route. He bet the red-black, instead of ever putting it on number 17.”

Looking back at Dawn of the Dead, one can see the amount of risk George A. Romero put in to make this film. Dawn remained independent yet upped the budget that Night of the Living Dead had from 114,000 to 650,000. And Dawnwould go on to gross over 5 million at the box office. Not only was Dawn a “home run” in terms of investment, but over the years it has remained in the hearts and minds of fans worldwide, earning itself a place within the lexicon of cult classics. Even infamous critic Roger Ebert said Dawn was, “one of the best horror films ever made — and, as an inescapable result, one of the most horrifying. It is gruesome, sickening, disgusting, violent, brutal and appalling.”

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Watching Dawn of the Dead, one cannot escape the lure of the story. From the very get-go, we want to know what’s going on. The first scene opens with a shot of red carpet and leading lady Francine Parker (played by Gaylen Ross) waking from a nightmare into a more literal nightmare. She’s at a news-station, and the news ain’t good (is it ever?). People are frantic, running every which way, barely holding on to whatever discipline they have left. Most have fled, as Stephen (played by David Emge) quips, “someone must survive.” Francine seems determined to do her duty, and that is to broadcast as long as possible, but in the end let’s go on the career she undoubtedly worked hard to build. 

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From the news station, we cut to an apartment building in Philadelphia (really in Pittsburgh) as a SWAT team readies to raid and dispose of the collected “dead” the residents have refused to hand over to the “proper” authorities. Martial law has apparently been given and the order stands that all “dead” must be properly “disposed” of. But as it seems, some still honor the dead, as I think Peter (played by Ken Foree) says later on during the raid. The most startling moment here is not when the brown makeup faced “Puerto Ricoian” comes running out only to get gunned down, but the small cracks in the demeanor of some of the SWAT members, most notably when “Woolie’s gone ape shit, man.” There’s also a more foreboding scene with the one-legged priest, as he says:

“Many have died, last week, on these streets. In the basement of this building, you will find them. I have given them the last rites. Now, you do what you will. You are stronger than us. But soon, I think they be stronger than you. When the dead walk, señores, we must stop the killing… or lose the war…”

What is the priest talking about here? Just the undead in the apartment building, or something more? See, this is when horror really shines, when it forces audiences to ask the questions they typically avoid asking. This scene takes about less than a minute to play out, but the ramification of what was said are everlasting. And there are more questions that will be asked as Dawn of the Deadcontinues. From the apartment building, we’re taken near the docks where Stephen and Francine prepare the News Helicopter for their impromptu escape from the city. If your watching the Uncut edition, there are some added scenes here. As Stephen radios, the “post has been abandoned.” But not everyone had fled. The couple have a close shave with another party who have thoughts of running. A group of surviving police, as it would seem, with a notable actor who will make a return appearance in Day of the Dead, though not as the same character, are poised to take more than their share, giving Stephen a “hard time” for taking “company” fuel. Luckily, Roger and Peter arrive and chase the “bad men” away.

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Our group escape the city unscathed and as they are flying around looking for refuge, they pass over another group of what we might imagine from the end of Night of the Living Dead, a hodgepodge collection of military, police, huntsmen, various first responders and country locals, all banded together. One might feel safe with them, as the saying goes, there is safety in numbers, right? Except for the odd sensation, the way they treat the dead or undead, playing around with them, wrestling with them, lynching them up in trees and using them as target practice. What does their actions say about the human condition? That we demonize our enemies and thus become demons ourselves, perhaps?

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After another close shave fueling up, the group passes over an abandoned mall. They’ve been flying for hours now and are in need of rest. There’s an upstairs area that seems isolated from the rest of the mall and so they decided to make camp. But after spending some time there, thoughts of looting and pillaging consume them, all but Francine who wants nothing more than to continue north. The boys get a sort of consumerist fever, that everything in the mall could be theirs if only they had the gumption to take it. And they do, they plan how to cut off the flow of undead from coming into the complex and work at removing those already inside. Roger (played by  Scott H. Reiniger) is bitten during an episode he has, cracking up just like Woolie had at the beginning. And it really forces the question, was it all worth it? Sure, they get the spoils, there’s even a fun little montage of them enjoying their hard fought gains. Eventually the fun wears thin and after Roger passes away, comes back, and is killed again, the sting is felt on the faces of the characters. As Francine says:

“Stephen, I’m afraid. You’re hypnotized by this place. All of you! You don’t see that it’s not a sanctuary, it’s a prison! Let’s just take what we need and get out of here!”

Eventually raiders stumble upon the mall and more deaths follow. In the end, the mall is abandoned and we’re left wondering was it worth it? Stephen could have listened to Peter and just let the raiders take what they wanted and go, but no. He became possessive, hypnotized by the lore of stuff, of ownership, even though they never really owned any of it. And what good did any of that stuff do? What could they do with it? Trade? Barter? What hole did the mall fill for those characters? Looking at the mall from a survivors perspective, it certainly had a feeling of security, four walls and all and plenty of space to run and escape. But as proved by the raiders, the mall is a high target. Protecting a bunch of stuff they can’t even really use seems pointless, why not just take what they need and continue north as Francine wanted? What was the attraction of staying?

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Personally speaking, I think it was the normalcy the mall offered. Stephen and Peter both quipped that the reason why the undead were coming to the mall was because it was a place of importance to them, something they “remembered.” Yet, there they were too. For shelter, at first, yes. But they stayed for another reason, to “play house,” as Stephen said to Francine when he was trying to convince her why they should stay at the mall. The mall had “everything they needed…” but did it really?

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Dawn of the Dead was selected as the last film to be reviewed for this year’s zombie themed Fright Fest because it is the fundamental “be-all” for a zombie movie. Fighting words for some, I’m sure. But few can deny the impact Dawn has had on the sub-genre and the continuingly growing culture surrounding the film. Dawn of the Dead is my personal favorite horror film, second only to John Carpenter’s The Thing. Why? Well… Romero didn’t rush the progression of the story, clocking in over two hours of gory storytelling, which I favor. The length and pace to me feel natural and wonderfully nihilistic. Not only giving us horror fans all the blood and guts we could have want for, but also giving us something else to chew on, all the various questions raised concerning humanity and concerning ourselves.

My rating: 5/5

Originally publishing on MachineMean.org

Fright Fest 2017

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