Feeding the Masses

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On the day this review is being written, the following events have taken place: the death toll amongst American soldiers in Iraq has topped 1800 to say nothing of Iraqi casualties. Hundreds of videotapes detailing the treatment of detainees since Sept. 11 have been withheld. The new Iraqi government has hit delays in their Constitution thus prolonging our involvement even while critics say a hasty retreat may come back to haunt us years from now. And confrontations with anti-war protesters are turning ugly, as the mother of a slain soldier is being called everything from a traitor to a whore. But more than anything in that elaborate run-on sentence, or even the Gaza Strip pull-out, I continue to hear endless fluff pieces on P. Diddy's new name and Madonna's horse riding accident. I know more about the ethics committee investigating Paula Abdul than the one investigating our next Supreme Court Justice. As societies go, this one is absolutely insane. One almost wonders that if there were a zombie apocalypse, how long would it even take us to notice?

Taking several cues from the way our government and media outlets operate these days is FEEDING THE MASSES, a new zombie film in which the zombies are secondary to a much more intense and subtle plague sweeping the nation.

The opening feels like a polar opposite of Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD. The world is still in the middle of a crisis in which the dead are returning to life. But instead of broadcasting the news, a Rhode Island television station instead goes on with its normal programming, at least until one of the crew calls the station on its own bullshit. The world is in chaos, but the media has fallen under the self-important idea that it is not their job to report the truth as it is to be the mouthpiece of the government. We should not be surprised that the government does not want their countrymen feeling insecure, at least not unless it's in their best interests. To avoid chaos, they feed news releases which are actually just subtle cheerleading propaganda. They discourage accurate news reporting with an always convincing gun to the head.

The core news team is getting sick and tired of the lockout. Most vocal in his disgust is a cameraman nicknamed Torch (Billy Garberina - THE STINK OF FLESH). He motivates his like-minded co-workers, namely the up and coming investigative reporter, the video technician and the deceptively sympathetic military escort, to confront the network brass. But it is all for naught as their boss doesn't want to make waves. He is the type of person who utters lines like, "I don't get what the big deal is. It's just a few more guards."

Things really hit the fan when a few reporters go out to the center of town for a press conference by the governor. The gov assures everyone that the area is secure and within 24 hours, people should feel safe going about their business. The problem with this is, it's all bullshit. The governor himself is actually broadcasting on a monitor, "from an undisclosed location," we're told (How's the heart, Dick?). Plus, mere seconds after the gov declares "Mission Accomplished" (alas, no rented flight suit), the entire block erupts in a chaotic massacre as hungry zombies, paranoid xenophobic militia types and military personnel all start killing one another. Not that anyone will actually get to see it. The news footage is confiscated and besides, there's no way the network would allow the truth to be broadcast if it doesn't give people at home a rosy outlook, right?

Obviously, FEEDING THE MASSES is a social satire. How exaggerated is it? Well, let's just say I wish it were a bit more exaggerated. The fact is that we cannot trust the news media anymore. One 24 hour news network is notorious for their never-wavering political agenda and the network that used to be "the most trusted name in news" has resorted to cheerleading, pundit bickering and fluff pieces. As for local outlets, they just want to avoid having to transcribe their White House briefings from C-SPAN, so no burning bridges there. At one point, Torch exclaims, "I know the news is mostly crap, but I can't remember the last time we flat out lied about shit on purpose." Really? I can.

It is no one person's fault. The whole system has fallen on hard times, just as seemingly every other major public facet of the country - politics, arts, etc. And remember, this is no outsider talking. Although I was admittedly very low on the food chain, I worked in this business and may again one day. Even before the lay off in 2001 (a victim of the company getting steam rolled by better equipped and higher-budgeted competitors), things were going downhill fast. September 11th was such a tragic and cataclysmic event that I'm afraid most of us, myself included, took leave of our senses.

FEEDING THE MASSES wraps it's arms around the throat of this controversy. They show the balance between those who have gone crazy in their panic, the folks who try to get rich off of tragedy and most of all, the media's "head in the sand" approach to journalism. One "Duck and Cover"-like segment assures people the best way to avoid getting eaten by zombies is to "Just Play Dead." And of course, that is exactly what the government would like everyone to stop doing.

Even the blue collar techs at the television studio aren't noble in their cause however. Everyone has their eyes on a prosperous future, or at least a brief moment of notoriety. There is a great deal of power in knowing that what you choose to shoot and edit can effect thousands of people's perceptions. Hence, the inherent arrogance of the news media is also lampooned. And those who think there is no arrogance on display need only to look at Dan Rather and Geraldo Rivera's showboating to Bill O'Reilly who actually told former POW John McCain that he was ignorant and unamerican in considering the rights of the prisoners at Abu Gharib. Let's see you hang by your knuckles in a shit-infested cell for five years and find out what your world view is, Bill. Hell, I'll pay room and board.

By now, a lot of people reading this are sick of my politics. Tough, I'm sick of your apathy. FEEDING THE MASSES is also completely lacking in subtlety. It is a horror film, sure. But the zombie outbreak is really just a smokescreen for its razor-sharp lampooning of this dangerous and uncertain place we call the 21st century. And while the film may seem very left wing at first glance, know that no one gets away from this one clean.

Director Richard Griffin (also responsible for the upcoming RAVING MANIACS) put this one together beautifully. He doesn't have hardly any budget to work with, so it is surprising to see such good results. There are a few scenes in which the constraints were far too obvious, unfortunately. Much like Dave Parker's THE DEAD HATE THE LIVING, a few moments of CGI reveal their low-rez roots. Simple effects like muzzle flashes from the automatic weapons look good, but flame or explosion shots really fall short.

Probably the biggest asset to the production is writer Trent Haaga, whose script is dead-on for the entire duration. Haaga is a longtime Troma vet, who I first noticed in films like CITIZEN TOXIE. He also pops up in Lloyd Kauffman's MAKE YOUR OWN DAMN MOVIE book to refute Kauffman's dismissal of DV and occasionally tell Lloyd to go fuck himself. He has showed up in a number of other low-budget titles, including KILLJOY 2, DR. HORROR'S EROTIC HOUSE OF IDIOTS and DEAD & ROTTING. But most will probably know him from Jon Keeye's great SUBURBAN NIGHTMARE. Haaga does not act this time out, but hopefully this will cast some light on a truly surprising new writing talent within the genre. While not an out-and-out comedy, this is an absolutely hilarious satire. And yet, FEEDING THE MASSES has it's moments of dark comedy interrupted by some jaw-dropping dramatic moments, like when Torch relates what may have happened to his family to an overall feeling of apathy that seems all too common.

The horror works in perfect conjunction with the social commentary. There are plenty of jolts and shocks and an overpowering feeling of dread as things continue to get worse instead of better. Zombie fans, especially those who bow at the feet of Romero, should be plenty pleased. The story takes a lot of unexpected turns along the way. People surprise you when their true motives and weaknesses are revealed. All in all, a great film.

And let's give a round of applause to the cast. Of particular interest is Billy Garberina in the role of Torch. He completely conveys a guy on the edge, someone who is trying to rally the troops while saving his own ass. He also has a killer timing. All in all, the entire character seems to recall Roddy Piper's from THEY LIVE (Incidentally, that was the previous quote on the main page. Can't believe we finally have a new one up.). The performances given by the protagonists work well enough to forgive a few moments of indulgent overacting.

Also of note is William DeCoff, playing government goon Agent Barnes. Picture one of the spooks from THE MATRIX crossed with a Bush-humping New Englander and you're on the right track. Not only is his Barnes perfectly believable and deadpan, but one gets the shaky suspicion that even if Barnes weren't being fed from the propaganda machine, he would swallow the lies he is spoon fed with glee. It's funny, since DeCoff has had me on his mailing list ever since I reviewed an earlier film of his, OLD MAN, for CultCuts. I mistakenly confused DeCoff with another actor in that review, one whose performance I didn't care for - whoops. Hopefully, he'll be happy that I got his name right this time. But still, this isn't correcting old mistakes, but giving credit where credit is due. DeCoff does a fine job in one of FEEDING THE MASSES' main antagonist roles.

And so, the best zombie film of the year is... still LAND OF THE DEAD. Nevertheless, FEEDING THE MASSES is much more than your typical zombie pic, and definitely worth your time. These days, I find myself escaping to the world of horror when the real world becomes more terrifying that anything Argento ever dreamed. FEEDING THE MASSES is a fine independent horror for any fan to sink their teeth into. This isn't just a horror film, it's a wakeup call.

Reviewed by Scott W. Davis