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March 21, 2011

Movie Review: The Life of Death

I have been following Kevin Lindenmuth’s career since his first film, “Vampires and Other Stereotypes.” He is something of a pioneer, being one of the first guys to take advantage of digital technology to make very personal low end horror films and get them into video stores world wide. I’ve always respected him, his work, his drive and his dedication.

In recent years he seems to have concentrated on talking head documentaries, like “But You Look So Well,” which dealt with multiple sclerosis. His new documentary, “The Life of Death,” may be his most personal work yet: an examination of death as seen through the eyes of people directly involved in genre films and literature. It’s an odd and slim premise (implying that people involved in the horror genre have some special relationship with the idea of mortality), and reaches no real conclusions, but remains gripping and fascinating throughout – no small feat for a talking heads film with a running time of 117 minutes!

My problem with Kevin’s documentaries in the past has been that they have just been boring; featuring long interviews with often less-than-charismatic speakers. The information was good, but presented so dryly it was hard to stay with them. “The Life of Death” solves that problem in two ways: 1) by using only very interesting interviewees, all of whom have no difficulty expressing themselves; 2) by peppering the conversation with illustrative footage culled from other films (clips from one of my movies, “Hollywood Mortuary,” is used at one point to illustrate talk about a funeral parlor).

The interviewees featured are broadcaster David Crumm, Troma chief Lloyd Kaufman, former actress Sasha Graham, effects man Tom Sullivan, former Fangoria editor Tony Timpone, writer Keith DeCandido, writer Jack Ketchum, writer Bob Fingerman actress Debbie Rochon, actress and Bond girl Caroline Munro, distributor Don May, writer/director Scooter McCrae and writer Art Regner. All of them have interesting things to say, and all are interesting to listen to in their own ways.

The segments are organized around various topics. The first is: How do you want to die? This is the lightest weight section, with everyone pretty much wanting to go peacefully surrounded by their loved ones. Only the ever-edgy Scooter MaCrae (“Shatter Dead”, “Sixteen Tongues”) felt that a violent, painful end might be an “interesting experience.”

The next section is What do you think happens after death? Genre people, it seems, are, generally speaking, of a mind that this existence is it, and that there is no after-life. A couple of the participants here have spiritual beliefs, and come close to my own ideas of the afterlife as a continuity in a vast connected Universe. But refreshingly, the segment is devoid of dogmatic religious explanations.

A later topic is Death and Horror Films. Debbie Rochon (“Slime City Massacre,” “Don’t Go in the Basement”) comments insightfully that generally in horror films the death itself is dealt with, but not the aftermath. “Grief,” she says, “is inconvenient.” Sasha Graham (“Addicted to Murder,” “Gut Pile”)was the only one interviewed who (since the birth of her daughter) finds violent imagery offensive or possibly harmful.
Death, modern society and the media: Don May here claims that since 911 our preoccupation with mortality and violence is more acute than 20 years ago. It seems to me he was being short sighted. Before 911 there was Vietnam, the fear of the bomb, the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Hitler… It seems to me that the human (and media) preoccupation with our mortality is nothing new.

Personal experiences with death: Tony Timpone tells a story about Forry Ackerman which will be particularly resonant for genre fans – and for myself included, having known the man fairly well in the 80s and 90s. It seems that at age 92 Forry decided he didn’t want to go on any more and asked his caregivers to stop feeding him. Tony, with full knowledge of this, paid Forry a visit to pay his respects and see him one last time. Upon time to leave, he found it very awkward to find what words were appropriate to say. Clearly, “get better,” or “I hope you feel all right” and all the usual platitudes were completely inappropriate. I’m not ashamed to say that this section got me misty eyed. I wished I had been living in Southern California at the same time to say good-bye to a man who had meant so much to me as a youngster. And also, I felt glad that I wasn’t forced into the awkward situation of finding the right words to say good-bye.

How do you want to be remembered? This section was interesting because not one of these creative people cared if their worked lived on after them or not. Personally, I would like to think that something I have created will be discovered and looked upon fondly by somebody after I gone. The inimitable Scooter McCrae says he would rather outlive his work than have it outlive him. That is a battle I am afraid he will lose. For better or for worse, our creations have a longer shelf life than we do. Like this lovely movie for instance. He will remain poignant, personal and honest long after Kevin has drawn his last breath.

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