Thoughts on SAVAGELAND
Spoilers for this film and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD follow. You've been warned.
Here's the trailer for SAVAGELAND:
I don't know if you know this, but I'm usually a big fan of zombie flicks. At least when they're done well. And I'll tolerate them, to within certain boundaries, even if they're not done well. If they spill over in to straight gore-porn or push the lines of thoughtlessness (or are simply a carousel of misery, such as THE WALKING DEAD) then I usually punch out.
One day, I'll write the takedown of THE WALKING DEAD and its spin-off show that are so brutal that everyone involved will just have to nod their heads in agreement and shut off the money pipes and end the show. That's how brutal it'll be. Until that day, just imagine. Brutal.
I was tipped to the film SAVAGELAND by Ernest Hogan, a writer (in particular of HIGH AZTECH and some other titles that you could toss into the alternate future category). And it checked the boxes for me. Zombies. Horror (and this is not necessarily a given). Setting (rural Arizona and the border). Okay. So let's do this thing. I've got Amazon and I just hooked Prime into the TV set upstairs. Let's roll.
So, first of all, SAVAGELAND is not a traditional horror film. It's a documentary slash found-footage hybrid affair. Normally found-footage films drive me right up a wall and only a handful of them have succeeded for me (BLAIR WITCH comes to mind, even parts of Romero's uneven DIARY OF THE DEAD which I should probably revisit). Most of these films fall in love with their conceit, figuring that this will carry them when writing won't. It also excuses amateurishness in both the writing and construction. It's a fine line to work within. I know reality is messy and try to capture that in my fiction at times, but there's times that it just messes with things. Additionally, the found footage isn't really even footage, rather a canister of 35mm film. Just 36 pictures.
Now this is an interesting, and I wonder if it's a deliberate, callback to Patient Zero of the modern zombie movie, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. That film itself has been (rightly) lauded for its documentary feel, the intimacy of the horror and the grounded feeling of the setting. Everything has a weight, everything feels real even though the situation itself is insane. One of the notable moments of the film comes at the very end, where one of the characters we've followed since the beginning is killed (by a very human posse of gunmen out to put down the living dead). His ultimate fate is not conveyed in moving pictures, but in a series of still images that read like newspaper photojournalism. Not film. And this has extra bite, given that in 1968, this was still the majority presentation for news in America. Sure, we watched our televisions, but we'd really dig into things in the newspaper, with a handful of images setting off the text.
So having the story of SAVAGELAND orbit around these thirty-six photographs, all night-lit and suggestive, rendered in grain and impressionistic blurs, was a genius move.
I'm probably ahead of myself. Let's break the situation down real quick.
SAVAGELAND tells the story of the murder of the town of Sangre De Cristo, Arizona. Over a weekend in April in 2011, fifty-seven people were murdered. The apparent killer is Francisco Salazar, an undocumented/illegal (and this becomes critical) immigrant who was a resident of the down. He is found several miles outside of town, covered in blood and scratches, bearing only a camera (it comes out that he was an amateur photographer.) He is withdrawn and uncooperative in his own defense. His trial is quick, and he is found guilty of capital murder. During the automatic appeal (in such capital cases), the canister of film comes out, but is suppressed as evidence. His final documentary does not save his life.
His story is that he was attacked by a teenage boy (whom he knew), defended himself (killing the boy). And then the boy "wasn't dead anymore" and attacked him a second time. He fled, seeing figures coming at him from the hills in the south.
No one says the word "zombie." This isn't a meta-commentary movie where some smart guy turns around and shouts "They're just zombies! Shoot them in the head!" And while I'm here, if you write a character doing that, you're no longer in a horror movie. You might be in a second-rate SCREAM if you play your cards right. But you're not in a horror movie. Horror is about being overwhelmed by the situation and environment, not about judging the boundaries of the genre. Digression ends.
But, by extension, since nobody says the word "zombie," there has to be another explanation for what's going on in the images and reconciling that with events. The local sheriff passes them off as photoshop work. A combat photographer (played by writer Len Wein of all people) assures us that they're real, but doesn't say "zombie." He's left with an absence of explanation other than *something* happened. As a lifelong consumer of all things cryptozoological and UFO-minded, I was delighted by this. The still frame is powerfully suggestive and maddeningly incomplete.
Nobody is sure of what happened, but for the State. An investigative journalist is certain that it was a massacre of a primarily Latino town by a posse of locals or corrupt deputies. Only they would have the resources to fake something like this. The only one who seems to come close to a "truth" is another independent investigator, a Border Patrol agent. But even he can't bring himself to say the word. He can say "attacks," and even tie them to events beyond the town of Sangre De Cristo. But he can't say "zombies" because he doesn't know what they are. Even Salazar doesn't, and he was right there in the middle of it.
This is the essence of horror. It is inexplicable. It cannot be nailed down. It defies your puny human explanations. It is an event that you live through; its only reward is trauma and death for those around you, should you be lucky enough to survive. And the world, our world, the one we know, will fumble for reality-based explanations that will suffice as a club to wield in whatever political argument you wish to undertake: "He was a murderous illegal", "it was a KKK-style purge", or "The Devil was in him." The horror doesn't care how you try to explain it. It simply is. It is uncanny, as a friend pointed out to me once.
However, working SAVAGELAND's narrative threads as a documentary, or more appropriately an autopsy of past events, makes for hugely compelling viewing. Engrossing, even. And by being miserly with horror in motion, can pick and choose more carefully what it shows. The horror is made both dreamlike (in the black and white night exposures) and incandescently mundane (in brightly-lit digital crime-scene photos). This isn't something that could have been done in traditional narrative (which even BLAIR WITCH adheres to, if not only by suggestion.)
I don't want to spoil anything else, so I'll keep the rest of the commentary general. SAVAGELAND succeeds where a lot of other films working this vein simply fall short. It's a wonderful exploration of the border region, the nature of photography, the essence of horror and the inability of institutions (and counter-institutions) to comprehend a visitation from a murderous Unknown. It's beautifully-constructed, held together by an atmospheric music track by Zoviet*France (which was a delightful and ominous surprise.) I'm quite sure that most zombie fans will disregard it at best, actively loathe it at worst (both for its political facets and staunch refusal to cave to expectation). SAVAGELAND may be documentary, but it is anything other than boring.