Any movie that sets a slime-filled bloodbath to Air Supply’s “Every Woman in the World” cannot be entirely ignored, although it is this very humor that brings Slither to the brink of disaster. Ironic, tongue-in-cheek horror has become the standard these days, but such a turn has pushed too far into the realm of the self-aware; so much so that we half expect assorted zombies and murderous demons to burst into song. To be sure, the horror genre needed to step back from the somber seriousness that traveled too close to the joyless, but now it’s become the sort of joke that no one can take back. And when a film even pretends to take its chills seriously, it is mocked and scorned back into its cage. If we’re not in on the fun, able to wink and nod at the obvious artifice of it all, then the director is accused of high-minded pretension; or at the very least taking too seriously a style of filmmaking lacking all substance. As we now “know” that horror is inherently silly and lacking cinematic heft, we don’t mind a heavy dose of the ridiculous with our moderate goose bumps. And these scares are becoming fewer and fewer by the film, as they’d rather pummel our senses with the sort of CGI gore that turns every frightfest into a pus-filled orgy. They’re willing to be nasty, but without speaking to the deeper issues of what brings about such dread and terror.
Slither is, really, what we now deserve as audiences of this trash; a delightful romp through the backwater of the undead that goes for the laugh first and foremost, but achieves its camp value through deliberate conquest, rather than finding it accidentally through cheerful incompetence. No effort is made to be even remotely terrifying, as the aforementioned song will attest (that is, unless you find ironically titled gay anthems scary). This is a play for the moron in all of us, where we all know the score and check off the standard points of order. Loudmouthed mayor? Got it. Dippy hot chick? And how. The type of small Southern town where everybody knows one another, yet harbors a terrible secret? What else? One could twist and contort the film into a pretzel of satire (any movie set in South Carolina always holds possibilities), but it simply refuses to go that extra mile into the truly inspired. Mindless meat eaters with a taste for death are always suitable stand-ins for the cracker class, but it seems too obvious at this point to be anything pointed. George Romero seems to have had the last word on this subject anyway, for what else needs to be said after he indicted us all as stumbling consumers in search of the eternal bargain, even beyond the grave? We’ve been over this ground many, many times before, and while the South deserves each and every slam against its ignorance, apathy, thinly veiled racism, and religious dementia, the argument must develop beyond simple finger-pointing.
Still, as a mindless, Friday night indulgence, one could do worse than a B movie about alien worms from outer space who crawl inside the mouths of victims, attack the central nervous system, and create a race of the undead. It’s not original in the slightest, but at least we’re not asked to sympathize with these people. They exist to be laughed at, which is much preferred to the prevailing wisdom that poor saps below Mason-Dixon are the salt of the earth. Heads are smashed in, limbs are torn, and yes, even children feel the pinch (automatic applause for any film — even in jest — that kills children), but a much-sought-after subtext was wholly absent. It doesn’t help that the opening hour wanders about, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t check my watch from time to time. Films like this need to be wall-to-wall insanity; grotesque, unrelenting, and bottomless in their hideousness. Michael Rooker (as the improbably named Grant Grant) does the best job of sustaining this mood, though, and it’s a treat to watch him move from unsympathetic lout to even less sympathetic pile of ooze. As he’s the center of things (all zombies seek out his gurgling blob to “join” him as a single, massive growth), he achieves a certain grandeur, as we half believe him when, despite looking like a walking and talking case of genital warts, he continues to plead for his wife’s love.
We even get a young tart in the tub, although she is not presented fully naked – a curious development indeed, given the R-rating. But she has a bloody fight with the little buggers in the bathroom that, for my money, could have lasted even longer. After all, when is it not a good time to watch a scantily clad young woman pull long, squirmy things from her mouth? The fate of the afflicted also becomes a source of mirth, as they scream and groan about their insatiable hunger for meat. One woman, when caught munching on the assorted animals that have been kidnapped and stripped for consumption, screams, “Don’t you judge me!” with the authority of the toothless crack whore of your choosing from the long annals of Cops. And so we don’t. I also liked the filthy mouth of the tub girl’s mother, who, as she fights to get inside the truck where she was hiding, roars, “Whore! Slut!” for no other reason than the fact that yes, all daughters need to hear such things from time to time — especially from their mothers. A small chuckle was also earned by the scene where the mayor, now cursed with the disease that will send him into oblivion, asks the hero to kill him, which he does without a second’s hesitation. Clearly, this guy’s wanted to blow the mayor’s head off for years. These vignettes went a long way, to be sure, but there weren’t enough of them to sustain the entire 90 minutes.
Director James Gunn shocked the hell out of my expectations with his delightful (and creepy) 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead (he wrote the screenplay), but here he’s just coasting on the good will built up by his previous effort. Make-up artists earn their keep, but everything is simple cardboard set up for a quick knockdown. Why not pursue the idea that these “space invaders” symbolize the so-called homosexual agenda, and that their “takeover” is what the crackers assume to be limp-wristed liberals bent on gay marriage and the complete destruction of the nuclear family? Why not make the local politician a stand-in for, say, Dick Cheney, and give us a way to see him slashed to ribbons for our unending pleasure? It’s interesting that the film offers these worms as the cause of the dinosaur’s extinction, but outside of a quick “flashback,” nothing else is done with it. What else were they responsible for? Why did they come back at this very moment in our history? And why South Carolina? There’s a lot on the surface waiting for exploration, but instead, Gunn falls back on the expected feast for the senses. Come now; zombies deserve much better than that.