Ask The A.V. Club - March 21, 2008
Sometimes They Come Back Cooler
Perhaps you could help me with identifying a movie. In the late '70s, my brother and I used to watch Saturday-afternoon horror movies on the local UHF station. As you can probably guess, these movies were the typical low-budget fare that was popular at the time. One of our personal favorites was a biker horror movie in which all the bikers started committing suicide, and then came back from the dead. As far as B-movies go, this one was at the bottom. Most of the movie was hysterically funny, but there were one or two moments that were genuinely scary. My favorite part was when a very overweight biker (Meat Loaf?) jumped off a bridge to join his undead friends. In the next scene, at his funeral, he drives out of his coffin on a motorcycle. I would love to get a copy of this movie, but have no idea how to find it. Any help would be greatly appreciated.
Chris Mincher lends you a hand:
"Ride With The Living Dead!" read the tagline of 1973's Psychomania, an English flick with a generic title that did little to prepare viewers for the suicidal zombie-biker mayhem that was to ensue. Though a little obscure here in the States, the movie is a genuine cult classic in Britain, especially for anyone fascinated with the true horror on display in the film: Austin Powers-esque '70s-era British fashion. (Go-go boots, bad interior design, hot pants, etc.) Hell, I'd want to kill myself, too.
The gist of the plot: A biker gang, a skull-helmet-wearing posse called "The Living Dead," spend their time wreaking havoc on a small town, but that's not good enough—they have to make a pact with the devil, too. Believing they're set up for eternal life, the oddly articulate members of the crew follow their leader by killing themselves one by one. This in itself proves entertaining, as the enthused Satanists do everything from drowning themselves with chains to riding their bikes into furniture vans (and, yes, jumping off a bridge) to complete the task. The payoff: Each returns as an indestructible zombie that terrorizes the town—at least, until their undoing via a bizarre frog-worship ritual. (At that point in the plot, making sense is no longer a priority.)
There are two ways to view the film: straight kitsch, or an exploitive attempt to play off fears that bikers and hippies were a threat to society. The scene you describe seems to back theory number two: The main biker guy is buried on his bike—all bikers should do this—then, after a bunch of hippies sing a folk song about biker-life, he bursts from the ground ready to fuck shit up. Ahhhh! Killer-zombie-creating folk songs! Somebody shut up Bob Dylan right this minute! (The soundtrack, overall, is a guilty-pleasure collection of slick Brit-rock.) Weird trivia: Oscar-winner George Sanders (Best Supporting Actor for All About Eve) had a bit part in the film, his last—he killed himself before the movie was released. Shrewdly, he wasn't buried on a motorcycle.
Ask Another Special Guest Star
In commercials, films, and TV shows, I'll frequently hear what sounds like a familiar, much-beloved song, but then there's a slight change in the melody, indicating that the producers of that ad, movie, or show were not able to secure the rights to the original song, i.e. a recent KFC commercial that almost sounds like "Sweet Home Alabama," or Lewis Black's intro music on The Daily Show, which almost sounds like "Back In Black." I'm seeing the same thing with the stars of commercials, too: an ad for high-definition programming with a woman who almost looks like Alanis Morissette (or Courtney Cox, if you're my girlfriend), a pizza commercial with a gentleman who almost looks like John Cleese, a men's shampoo commercial with a guy who almost looks like Harrison Ford. I understand the reasons behind these choices—if you can't get "Sweet Home Alabama" or John Cleese, get the next best thing—but is there a name for such a technique? And are there musicians and performers out there who make their entire living not by impersonating the work of AC/DC or Alanis, but simply coming close enough to being them?
J. Tyler Webb
For the word straight from the horse's musical mouth, Christopher Bahn went to a musician of his acquaintance, Mike Ruekberg, who works for the advertising industry when he isn't pursuing his own projects. Here's his response to your letter, J. Tyler:
Sadly, this is a large part of what I do for a living. I'm not sure if there is a formal name for it, but terms I've heard and used include such obscure insider jargon as "rip-off," "knockoff," and "copy."
It's really as simple as it seems. Ad agency likes a popular song or artist, wouldn't dream of spending the huge money required to acquire said song or artist, hires a music house (or lone music dude) to, uh, approximate the style of said song or artist. Are there musicians who make their entire living this way? Yes indeed! I myself make a decent (though not my entire) living singing jingles in the style of whatever artist I'm asked to approximate. My own specialties range from '70s soft-rock-style singing to full-throated AC/DC-style screaming. And back when I used to write jingles full-time, we were always hiring singers based on whether they could "do a good Aretha," or "a great Tom Waits," etc.
Obviously, current musical trends play a strong role in what music houses are asked to approximate. Back in the late '90s, every agency was asking for ad music that sounded like Fatboy Slim. Then everything had to sound like Alanis. Then a few years ago, you couldn't avoid endless rip-offs of the "Lust For Life" drumbeat. Then it was Coldplay, especially "Clocks." I've noticed that every TV spot from the last few months seems to be ripping off the innocent-yet-melancholy acoustic music from the Apple iPhone TV spots.
And of course, the goal is to come close to the style without getting so close that you end up in court. Which does happen once in a while.
Side note: In the past, artists might have also refused to license a song to an advertiser to avoid the stigma of "selling out," or because they didn't want their song to conjure up images of potato chips in a listener's mind. Now that radio airplay has gotten much more difficult for brand new artists or older, less timely artists, TV commercials have become an important way for artists to get exposure to a large audience. Artists from venerable (The Who) to new (Feist) are lined up around the block, desperately trying to license their songs for TV commercial use. Therefore, it's gotten cheaper for ad agencies to license songs. All of this, of course, is depressing on dozens of levels.
Oh, and I forgot to mention one important thing: I must say, in total, unironic honesty, that I totally love and enjoy the art/craft of singing and/or writing in the style of other artists. It is great creative "exercise," I always learn lots of things in the process, and it brings me a pathetic amount of satisfaction and joy. In my humble opinion, any "artist" who thinks they're above the occasional "tribute" to another artist is simply being arrogant and snobby, or is trying to hide the fact that they don't have the skills to attempt such a thing.
(Not) To Be Confused With George Orwell
I'm trying to figure out the name of a movie or miniseries I saw on PBS in the late '70s or early '80s. Here's what I remember:
1. male protagonist with curly hair
2. he somehow had the power to reshape the world with his thoughts
3. to make the world a better place, he wished that everyone was the same color, and everyone became gray, except maybe him
4. his good intentions turned the world into a dystopia
5. one of the only things left from the "old world" was a 45 of "With A Little Help From My Friends" by the Beatles, which was played at some point
Any clue what this was? Thanks,
Tasha Robinson is clueful:
Joe, you're thinking of the 1980 TV adaptation of Ursula K. LeGuin's Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel The Lathe Of Heaven. In LeGuin's novel, a psychiatrist in a dystopic future learns that one of his patients, George Orr, has dreams capable of altering reality. So the psychiatrist builds a machine to boost his abilities to the point where they can change the entire world, and he uses post-hypnotic suggestion to control what George dreams about. Alas, in the manner of all matter of classic tales about monkey paws, deals with the devil, magical wishes, and favors granted by demons, the psychiatrist's meddling with the world invariably makes it worse, due to factors he failed to predict.
I've never seen the adaptation, but I recognized the plot just from items #2 and #4 above, and the IMDB trivia from this adaptation makes it eminently clear that this is the film you recall: Apparently the presence of "With A Little Help From My Friends" became a copyright issue and kept the film from being re-aired for many years, but these days, it's available on DVD, apparently with different music in the relevant scene.
It's The Final Countdown
When I was in fourth or fifth grade, my class watched a movie that haunts me to this day, and not in a good way. Here's the problem: I can't recall the film's title, but I'm pretty sure it was "Absolute Zero" or "Countdown Zero" or something with the word "Zero."
The film—which wasn't very long—involved a family living in the future. I assumed it was the future, because they had clocks that would announce the time, along with some sort of pleasant instructions, such as, "Five o' clock, five o' clock. Time to relax, time to relax." I remember a scene where little kids played in the front yard, and talked about how they were building a spaceship.
Then, the movie's mood shifted from contentment to screeching terror. I believe that the little daughter successfully built something portal-to-hell-like in the garage or attic. In the final scene, the parents faced a closed door, screaming in horror and grasping one another, as intense light, wind, and drill noises poured out from the other side of the door. The door finally opened, but all the audience saw was the little daughter, smiling, who turned around and said simply, "Peek-a-boo."
Please, A.V. Club, can you find out anything about it? What was it called? Who made it? Or did I really dream the whole thing?
Tasha Robinson is in your dreams:
When I first read this letter, Sarah, I immediately thought of Ray Bradbury's "There Will Come Soft Rains," a haunting short story from The Martian Chronicles. It's a sort of day in the life of a robot house that's survived a nuclear war, and that ticks on happily throughout the day, making meals and disposing of them, cleaning up after and attempting to entertain its long-dead owners. The house has a bouncy, repetitive speaking pattern that sounds exactly like the one you're describing ("Tick-tock, seven o'clock, time to get up, time to get up ") but no other part of the story matches up.
The rest of your story, however, is pretty clearly from another Bradbury story, "Zero Hour," from the anthology The Illustrated Man. In that story, a little girl plays a game she calls "Invasion," occasionally dropping hints to her initially oblivious mother about how the world will change once her friend Drill gets through his portal from Mars. And so it does. (There's a fairly creepy radio script version of the story here, with a lot more detail.)
There was a 1955 TV adaptation, apparently, but depending on when you were in fourth grade, it seems more likely that you were shown the 1992 adaptation made for the TV show The Ray Bradbury Theater. I haven't seen the episode, but I can't help but wonder if Bradbury, who wrote the script, incorporated his chatty clock from "There Will Come Soft Rains" into that episode, since it doesn't look like "Rains" was adapted for the show at any point. And I'm not sure why else you would associate the two, unless you ran across both stories somewhere else at some point.
A.V. Club intern Elissa Pociask contributed research to this week's column.
Next week: HBO musings and kung-fu. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.