Sunday, October 30, 2022

Bonus Halloween Zombie Treat

Valley of the Dead (Malnazidos)

Today we have a bonus Zombie Movie Church because I wanted to give this film a break. It had a rough time.

 Valley of the Dead (Malnazidos), a Spanish film, premiered on October 8, 2020, at the Sitges Film Festival. It was scheduled for a wide release in January 2021, but COVID-19 postponed its debut until September of 2021, then postponed its debut again to March 2022. This release, too, was canceled and the film never received a theatrical release. It went to streaming, including Netflix.

Valley of the Dead is set in 1938 during the Spanish Civil War, though it isn’t completely historically accurate -- such as the part where the Nazis experiment with biological warfare by turning people into zombies. (I don’t remember Stephen Ambrose or Cornelius Ryan ever mentioning the Nazis' zombies in any of their World War II books. Of course, they kept pretty quiet about the Nazi search for the Ark of the Covenant as well.)

Something I appreciated about the film is that characters on both sides of the War, the Republicans and Francoists, are portrayed sympathetically. In addition, both sides include rather evil characters, though the worst are the Franco supporters who collaborate with the Nazis.)

The film opens at a church (boding well for this blog) as bells ring in celebration of a wedding. All seems joyful until Nazi soldiers appear wearing gas masks. They machine-gun the wedding party and spread a strange gas. It seems all attendees of the wedding are killed (but, we learn later, the bride survived).

In Franco’s military headquarters we see a lawyer commissioned as Captain Jan Lozano (Miki Esparbe), and given a dangerous assignment to cross enemy lines. A young enlisted soldier, Decruz (Manel Llunell), is assigned as his driver. As they drive, Jan asks the young soldier why he joined Franco’s army. 

Decruz rambles in what seems a pointless way, talking about the wonderful puff pastries made by the nuns of his small town, but then he explains he was afraid the Reds would capture or kill the nuns.

This seems rather extreme until the two are captured by Communist opposition soldiers. A woman soldier, Matacuras (Aura Garrido), is called “the Priest Killer” by her fellow soldiers. This nickname seems to be spoken with admiration. Eventually, she tells Jan about dealing with a priest in her small town who had abused her sister. Since then, her reputation as a killer of clergy has put her in good stead with her unit.

The Communist sergeant (Luis Callego) berates Jan and Decruz for “believing in nuns and priests.” Jan responds that nuns and priests do, in fact, exist. The Sargeant continues, “You believe God died and rose from the dead three days later in Bethlehem…” 

Jan tells him, “That was Jerusalem, and it was Jesus, not God.” Here I think the Sergeant was correct on the more important point -- but enough Christology.

The entire company is soon attacked by zombies and the group must work together to fight them. Brodski (Segio Torrico), a Russian, recalls that in the Motherland, “They say the demon possessed come back from the dead.” Brodski also says, “My grandmother used to say, ‘When hell is full, the dead will walk the earth.’” 

Which I though was just part of the Dawn of the Dead marketing campaign, but maybe it predates that. 

Someone wonders about similarities between zombies and the Ressurection. Someone else responds, “When Jesus rose from the dead, he didn’t start f**** eating people.”

They seek shelter in a barn, where they encounter a nun and fighters from Franco’s army. They agree to an uneasy peace to battle the zombies. The nun, Sol Flor (Maria Botto), says “God guided our steps to here.” She treats the wounds of one of the Communist soldiers. When one of the men is killed by zombies, Sol says, “Though he is a Red, may God embrace him in His glory.”

As the battle with the zombies continues, Sol takes part. They find that the Nazis are hiding out in the church we saw at the beginning of the film, perhaps with a cure for the zombie plague. Sol is bitten by a zombie, meaning she will eventually turn into a zombie herself. She arms herself and says, “I am going back to the church. Someone needs to care for their poor souls. I have work to do.” She takes extra bullets which she calls her “consecrated hosts,” and gives her life to help others. (We apply our John 15: 13 rule here. Other things being equal, clergy giving up their lives for the sake of others earn our highest Movie Churches rating)

So we're giving Sister Sol Flor (along with those fine puff pastry-making nuns) a Four out of Four Church Steeple rating.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Sewer-Dwelling Zombies


I was working at a movie theater when C.H.U.D. came out back in 1984. It was playing at our sister theater down the street, so a group of us ushers went to see it, because who could resist a film about “Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers?”

I know, many of you reading are saying, “I could!” That’s not the point. We couldn’t. Or at least didn’t. And we all thought it wasn’t very good.

But while researching for Zombie Month, I was reminded of something I’d forgotten about the film. One of the leads, Daniel Stern, plays the Reverend A.J. Shepherd, manager of a soup kitchen (and yes, “Reverend Shepherd” does seem rather redundant). For your sake, I did a rewatch after nearly, but not quite, four decades.

This was the only feature film that Doulas Cheek ever directed (though he did a TV documentary on the Apostles Peter and Paul, which we here at Movie Churches are interested in now).  The screenplay was written by Parnell Hall (though rumor has it that Daniel Stern assisted). The story takes place in New York City, where people are vanishing.  A police officer, Captain Bosch (Christopher Curry), interviews Shepherd -- who apparently was not always the director of a mission.

Bosch greets him with “So, you’re a Reverend now? What kind of scam is this?”

Shepherd says that he has been with the Mission for some time, and says, “This is my family, my flock, my congregation. My regulars.” Shepherd tells Bosch that a number of his people have vanished as well, particularly those who live in the tunnels and sewers below NYC. (Incidentally, NYC isn’t the only place the homeless live underground. I recently read a very interesting book, Dark Days, Bright Nights: Surviving the Las Vegas Storm Drains by Matthew O’Brien).

Shepherd explains that some of those who live underground come to the surface for soup from the Mission, and those people have seemed scared. He tells Captain Bosch that they’ve started looking for weapons, for guns and knives. The Reverend asks Bosch why the police are finally paying attention to the plight of the homeless. 

Bosch tells him his wife is missing and Shepherd expresses sympathy.

Government agencies try to cover up the whole situation, but Shepherd threatens to make it quite public if people aren’t helped. Bosch and Shepherd work together to solve the mystery. Soon, they encounter the strange zombie creatures they call C.H.U.D. (Later we find out that those initials stand for something even more sinister than Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers. But not nearly as cool.)

The Reverend explores underground and helps his people. Eventually, he's threatened by a government official who tries to run over his friends with a truck, and Shepherd shoots the man. Usually killing someone damages our rating for clergy, but this is self-defense and defense of his flock.

As someone who works in a Mission, I appreciate Shepherd’s dedication to his work and his people, but he doesn’t use the most important tools of ministry: prayer and God's Word. Still, we’ll give him a Three Steeple Rating (out of Four).

Oh, and as for the film itself? Four decades later, C.H.U.D. is still not very good.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Double the Zombies

 (1992) and Brain Dead (2007)

This week we’re looking at two zombie films, 2007’s Brain Dead and 1992’s Braindead (aka Dead Alive). We will not be looking at 1990’s Brain Dead with Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton or the 2016 TV Series, BrainDead. I wanted to clarify this, because the 1992 and 2007 works have clergy, and clergy and churches are what we talk about here. 

Now we have that clear, I have to mention what a difference that space in the titles makes. The film without a space in the title, Braindead, was the work of Oscar-winning filmmaker Peter Jackson, creator of the acclaimed Lord of the Rings films (and the not-quite-so-acclaimed Hobbit trilogy).  Braindead is rather unhinged, but it's considered a cult classic. Brain Dead (with space between the words) is a rather sleazy zombie film dependent on gratuitous nudity and violence to attract viewers. Rotten Tomatoes is far from infallible in its ratings, but the 1972 film has an 87% audience rating while the 2007 film has 27%.  I think it's fair to say there is a gap in quality between the two films.

Braindead is Peter Jackson's first film with a creature taken from Skull Island (the second is his remake of King Kong). Zoologists capture a Sumatran Rat-Monkey (half tree monkey and half plague-carrying rat) and bring it to the Wellington Zoo in New Zealand. Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme) takes his date, Paquita (Diana Penalver), to the zoo. They're followed by his jealous mother, Vera (Elizabeth Moody), who is bitten by that Sumatran Rat-Monkey. Vera becomes ill and then violent, and Lionel is forced to tranquilize her. Vera dies. (Maybe.)

At the funeral, Vera doesn’t act very dead. Though her body is decomposing, she is animated and strong enough to attack the mourners who came to celebrate, I mean mourn, her death. Lionel tranquilizes her again, and the funeral starts on time. (Side note: Have you ever noticed that funerals tend to start on time while weddings always seem to start late?)

Father McGruder (Stuart Devenie) delivers an odd, rather pompous sermon at the funeral, “The theme of today’s service is the sacredness of motherhood.” (I’ve conducted a number of memorial services and have never felt the need to find a “theme,” but maybe things are different in New Zealand.) “Vera had an abundance of motherlove," Father McGruder continues. The point of the sermon seems to be that Lionel should feel even guiltier than he already does. Eventually, the priest gets around to some theological content. He says, “Anyone who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ will be resurrected,” (Just a thought: Vera’s resurrection seems to be of another kind.)

In the evening, Lionel comes to visit Vera’s grave. On his way, he is assaulted by a group of young thugs. The ruffians then go to Vera’s grave and she rises up from the dirt and attacks them. A melee breaks out between these ne’er-do-wells and zombies with Lionel caught in the middle. Father McGruder shows up and demonstrates prodigious kung-fu skills against all parties. He tells Lionel, “The devil is amongst us. Stay back boys, this calls for divine intervention. I kick ass for the Lord.”

Sadly, the pastor is bitten by a zombie and becomes one himself. Lionel takes it upon himself to keep Father McGruder, his mother, and a number of other zombies from rampaging, but as one might guess, this doesn’t go well. Father McGruder is in no way pastoral for the remainder of the film, but one could argue it is no longer really Father McGruder. (In fact, Zombie McGruder is even played by a different actor, Stephen Papps.)

2007’s Brain Dead was written by Dale Gelineau who also wrote ... an episode of Moonlighting. The film was directed by Kevin Tenney, who directed a number of films I have not seen. Brain Dead tells the story of a couple of escaped convicts, a couple of sorority sisters, and a pastor accompanied by his secretary. They're stranded in an isolated country cabin and attacked by zombies. (The zombie plague in this film is instigated by a meteor from outer space, not that it really matters in these things.) We will, of course, focus on the clergyman and his co-worker.

We first see the Reverend Elton Farmsworth (Andy Forrest) driving on a country road accompanied by his secretary, Amy (Cristina Smoots). Unfortunately, Reverend Farnsworth is leering at Amy’s bosom rather than watching the road, and he nearly crashes into oncoming traffic. He pulls to the side of the road. Amy tells him he should have never fired his driver, but the Reverend tells her, “I wanted this time to enjoy our fellowship.” 

The Reverend kisses Amy and she flees the car.

He calls to her, “Sister Amy! Please understand, I do love my wife. But ever since the Lord saw fit to extend her from a size six to a size twelve I have been unable to express my love physically. But then God brought me you. Ever since He brought you into my life I have been unable to rid my mind of your intense loveliness. My every waking moment is filled with impure thoughts of you. A man must have a clear mind to minister to the faithful.”

Somehow, Amy is not repulsed. Instead, she says, “I have dreaded this day for so long, but I now see this is God’s will that I relieve you.” And she pulls down her top.

But this, um, love scene is interrupted when they realize that the reverend had left the car in gear without applying the brake, and the car goes rolling down the hill. It crashes into a tree and becomes undrivable. The two wander to the previously mentioned cabin.

At the cabin, the Reverend is quite judgmental of the other occupants. He calls the sorority sisters harlots. And he calls the escaped convicts crooks, which they are, but still… One of the prisoners recognizes the Reverend from the television. “Two million viewers and growing every day,” the Reverend boasts. The other prisoner wants to treat him with some kindness because a prison chaplain had been kind to him, helping him to write letters and getting him extra food.

Eventually, after a zombie attack on the cabin, the Reverend and Amy decide to go out on their own (against the advice of the others). When zombies attack Amy, Farmsworth leaves her to save his own life. He returns to the cabin and refuses to say what happened to Amy. Eventually, Amy makes it back to the cabin, alive but bitten by a zombie, so sure to eventually turn.

The Reverend eventually shows a bit of courage, going out to retrieve a gun. A convict tells him, “You might as well go, you’re the one who believed in that afterlife crap.”

Amy and the Reverend, along with most of the others eventually die. One would think in such a situation, a pastor should be able to provide some hope and encouragement, but Farmsworth is so obviously a self-righteous hypocrite, no one listens to anything he has to say. (Even Amy isn’t much of a fan after he deserts her.)

So between the two ministers in these two films, at least Father McGruder in Braindead isn’t a coward. We’ll give him a Two Steeple Rating while the Reverend Farmsworth of Brain Dead gets our lowest rating of One Steeple.

Thursday, October 13, 2022

1930s Zombies

White Zombie
(1932) and The Ghoul (1933)

I really hoped we could have a 1930’s zombie film double feature, but only one of the films I found truly qualifies for a spot here at Movie Churches. It's disappointing. 

I feel confident calling 1933’s The Ghoul a zombie film, but it doesn’t actually have a clergyman. In this British film, Boris Karloff plays Professor Henry Morlan, an Egyptologist (this was after he played the mummy in The Mummy) who believes the god Anubis can bring him back from the dead. Since this is a horror film rather than a mystery pretending to be a horror film, it works. So this is a zombie film with a walking-dead man wreaking havoc.

After Morlant dies, a number of treasure hunters and grave robbers go to his mansion to steal his valuable pieces of Egyptian antiquity. One of those men, Nigel Hartley (Ralph Richardson) pretends to be a clergyman bringing comfort to Morlant’s friends and family. He pretends disdain for Morlant’s fascination with the Egyptian gods (“I can’t believe you would willfully encourage Paganism,” he says), but he’s really just after loot. Unfortunately for him, Morlant the Ghoul comes back from the dead to protect what is his. (Well, maybe not really his. Much of what he has should arguably be returned to Egypt, but we’ll leave that to the international courts.) So I guess this film doesn't count and we don't have a double feature. 

Thankfully, 1932's White Zombie has both a legitimate clergyman and many, many zombies. This film is believed to be the first feature-length zombie film, and it probably couldn’t have been made a few years later after the advent of the Hays Production Code. Even the ad copy was rather racy; one poster read, “She was not dead…Nor alive…Just a White Zombie performing his every desire.”

And that isn’t too far off from the film's plot. A young woman, Madeline Short (Madge Bellamy), arrives in Haiti with plans to marry her fiance, Neil Parker (John Harron). They visit a wealthy plantation owner, Charles Beaumont (Robert W. Frazer), and he falls in love with Madeline. Beaumont hires the voodoo master, “Murder” Legendre (Bela Lugosi), who controls a crew of zombies working a local sugar cane mill (keeping labor costs quite low). He wants Legendre to turn Madeline into a zombie who will obey Beaumont’s every request. Madeline is tricked into drinking a potion, turns into a zombie, and agrees to marry Beaumont. 

Neil goes to the local missionary, Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn), for help. Bruner is at first baffled by Neil’s story, saying, “I’ve been a missionary here for thirty years and I don’t know what to think.” He has heard of zombies, though, and tells Neil that the legends trace back to ancient Egypt. The missionary had thought the stories were superstition, but he begins to wonder if there is truth to the stories.

He tells Neil that Madeline is in danger of falling into the hands of the local voodoo practitioners, “Better dead than in the hands of natives.” When the missionary sees Madeline in her zombified state, he's outraged. “If I can get my hands on the devil that did this, I’ll make such an example of him every witch doctor on Haiti will be shaking in his sandals.”

Beaumont, on the other hand, regrets seeking Legendre’s assistance and asks him to reverse the process. Legendre refuses and instead zombifies Beaumont, too. He takes Madeline to his fortress. Neil and Dr. Bruner go to rescue her.

Legendre tells Madeline to kill Neil, and she approaches him with a knife. Neil is afraid he has lost Madeline, crying, "The soul is gone, I can’t stand those empty staring eyes. Forgive me, Madeline, forgive me!” Dr. Bruner grabs Madeline, though, and forces her to drop the knife. Legendre uses his mental powers to make the zombies attack Neil and the missionary. When Bruner knocks Legendre unconscious, the zombie spell is broken, and the zombies go over a cliff. Beaumont, also freed of Legendre’s spell, fights him by the cliff, and they both fall to their deaths.

Neil and Madeline are reunited and embrace, but before they can kiss, Dr. Bruner, holding his pipe, asks them, “Have you got a match?” 

The End.

For fans of classic horror, this is a must-see for its place in history. But here at Movie Churches, we appreciate a missionary with common sense and a willingness to risk his own life to save others. He’s not always culturally sensitive. Most disappointingly, Dr. Bruner never prays or refers to Scripture, which keeps us from giving him our highest rating. Nonetheless, he still earns Three Steeples.

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Zombie Month Begins

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
You'd think it would be difficult to find a film to make the transition from our month of rather high-toned literary films to zombie films. A difficult, perhaps impossible task? But no. This film links the subjects perfectly.

When Mr. Bingley appears on screen with his two sisters (rather than one as in the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice), my wife wondered if this might be a more accurate version of the tale. 


Pride and Prejudice and Zombies takes more liberties with Jane Austen’s work than any of the other film versions.

Much is the same in all the adaptations of Pride and Prejudice (including this one, notwithstanding the zombies), They still all have the Bennet family, with five daughters wanting husbands. Every version has Mr. Darcy, the rich man who eventually ends up with daughter Elizabeth; and Mr. Bingley, who ends up with Jane. There’s always a man named Wickham (my mom’s maiden name) who’s really awful (sorry, Mom) and a man named Collins. In most (but not all) versions of the story, he’s the Rev. Mr. Collins. In every version, he wants to get married and he’s more than a bit of a twit.

In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Collins (Matt Smith) is a clergyman (which is why we can include the film in this blog), but he is unique in some ways. Though the Bennet sisters are well-trained warriors prepared to battle zombies, Parson Collins wants his wife to be a homemaker and expects Elizabeth (Lily James) to give up her sword for an apron.

This really didn’t make sense to me in some ways. In all versions of Pride and Prejudice, Collins is devoted to his patron, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, played by Lena Headey in this version as the greatest swordswoman in England and a prolific zombie killer. Why would he want his wife to be so different from his patron? And if you are surrounded by deadly zombies, wouldn’t you want help dealing with them?

We don't get to see Parson Collins ministering in any way until the end of the film when he performs a wedding competently enough.

But there is a church in this version of Pride and Prejudice that's not in any other version of the tale. St. Lazarus is a church attended by zombies who eat pig brains in order to keep from eating people. The sermon is, not surprisingly, from John 11 where Jesus raises His friend, Lazarus, from the dead. I kind of wonder if that's the text every week. Maybe the parishioners hear, every week, “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.’”

In ministry, it's a real challenge to know whether there are people some churches are unable to serve. Some churches won’t, for instance, allow convicted sex offenders to attend their church in order to protect other people in the congregation. Should churches have policies against sex offenders? Or zombies? (To be fair, I’ve never encountered a church with a non-zombie policy.)

Elizabeth visits this church and comes out safely enough. But these zombies eventually turn against people. In the world of this film, the Anti-Christ will lead the zombies against the humans, and Wickham is the Anti-Christ. Wickham thought of going into ministry, but the anti-christ business is a ... different way to go.

I’m going to give Parson Collins two steeples, but sadly, St. Lazarus only gets one.