Movies

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• Dawn of the Dead • Prophecy • The Last Wave • Nightwing

• Mysteries, thrillers, and tales of the supernatural are particularly numerous this season; they are also on the whole the best films around just nowâ€"which doesn't speak very well for the others. The latest in the series is DAWN OF THE DEAD, an exercise in the macabre that has an interesting enough premise but never quite takes off from there. The premise is that most of the people in the United States are dead of some dread disease and come to life again as man-eating zombies possessed of will but not intellect, wandering about the earth feasting on human fleshâ€"the flesh of those who are not yet diseased, thus guaranteeing that there will be more and more victims. The film, a follow-up of Night of the Living Dead a few years back, concerns the adventures of a small group (three men, one woman) who are not yet diseased and their attempts to survive in a doomsday situation. The development of this theme is mildly interesting if you are not put off by seeing lots of blood and gore on the screen. If you are, don't bother to go, for to enjoy the film at all you have to keep your aesthetic distance high.

• John Frankenheimer is a master of conflict, confrontation, and suspense, as well as an expert old-fashioned storyteller, though sometimes his stories are not as good as his ability to tell them. In Seconds, the two came together to create a film of rare quality. PROPHECY is not one of his best achievements.

Maine Indians, supported by ecologists and the EPA, are on one side of the struggle; economic development, represented by lumber mills, is on the other. Arguments for both sides are fairly given, though the Indians are strongly favored in the filmâ€"and if indeed the facts were as presented in the film (that mercury used in preparing logs for market causes animals and people to have monster offspring), their side would be entirely in the right, at least in demanding the discontinuance of mercury, though not necessarily in demanding that non-Indians give up all rights to the land.

Unfortunately, in the latter two-thirds of the film the monsters take over, and we have a standard monster-mystery film: What will the creatures look like? When will they appear next? Who will be the next victim? This is the season of horror films, and Frankenheimer bows to the demandâ€"which is a pity, for he is capable of much better. Few directors would think to accompany panoramic airshots of the majestic Maine forests (actually British Columbia) with such an appropriate musical accompaniment as the surging slow movement of Brahms's Fourth Symphony and, while continuing the music, cut to its performance in a New York concert hall where we are introduced to the cellist heroine, Talia Shire. Nor do most directors present controversial issues in other than simple black-and-white terms (witness The China Syndrome).

What happens here is that the whole issue is sidestepped: we have the opposing forces dramatically set before us, and we think we're going to get some meaty cinema fare for a change, and instead we get a diet of monsters. What happens to the ecological problems? Do the lumber mills get closed down? Does Talia's pregnancy result in a monster-birth? What happens to the Indians' fight to own the land? In the end, all the themes that the film has led us to be interested in are dropped completely, and the only quarry that gets pursued is monsters, which even in their endless variety in recent filmfare have become a crashing bore.

• It would be easy to dismiss the Australian film THE LAST WAVE as a prolonged piece of mystery-mongering foolishness. Such a judgment, however, would be superficial.

It begins with a set of "coincidences" about waterâ€"constant rain, hailstones where they never fell before, water down a staircase, water flowing from the dashboard of a car. Then the protagonist (Richard Chamberlain) sees in dreams events that are about to occur in reality: people appear before him in dreams whom he has never seen in life but whom he is shortly to see. It is indeed a tale of mystery and the supernatural. But it takes ancient Australian aborigine tribal customs seriously, including the doctrine of real time versus dream time, on which much of the film is premised. It imbues aborigines with prophetic powers, not unlike their counterparts in the later works of the Old Testament. And it pinpoints the conflict between tribal aborigine law and European law as inflicted on the aborigine by white Australians.

The craftsmanship in this film is of a high order. Not since Clarence Brown's superb film version of Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust some years ago has a film been so effective without background music, but with devastating sound effectsâ€"in this case from the primitive aborigine instrument, the didjeridoo. If you are not too picky about the internal logic of a film, you will find this one absorbing and richly textured in a highly original way, which is far from accounted for by the novelty of seeing Australians versus aborigines instead of cowboys versus Indians. Director Peter Weir has done an imaginative job with a prepossessing theme. If the viewer remains somewhat disturbed, this may be because he cannot connect the commonsense world he inhabits daily with the mystical world of the aborigine, while the film is concentrated at the uncomfortable region of their junction point.

• The idea of celebrating American Indian cultureâ€"not as it was, but as it is in the 1970sâ€"is surely a good one, though why not say something about the eminently sensible and down-to-earth Hopi ethics rather than about some of their crazier ancient superstitions? The part of Arizona in which the events take place is singularly beautiful and richly photogenic. The idea of bats coming out of dark caves at sundown arouses in most people the appropriate feelings of mystery and dread. And the thought of blood-sucking vampire bats arouses even more dread in those who have been raised on Dracula plots. The trouble is that, by trying to get all these elements together into one picture, the filmmakers have defeated their own ends by pressing all the wrong buttons together. Vampire bats, Indian tribal customs, and scientific methods of pest extermination don't mix well in the same stew. The result is that NIGHTWING is what in the film trade is known as a bombâ€"more specifically in this case, a stink-bomb.

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