Modern Problems at the Zombie Lake: The Movies of 1981, Part 1 [1981 Week]

So, I watched 15 movies for this theme week and write about two of them separately. What about the 13 others? Will they just vanish and be forgotten? I decided to write one article about all of them instead and focus on different aspects. After I was done, it was too much for one article, so I decided to split it in two articles. It's still pretty long, but I really enjoyed this.


This somehow has become the theme of the theme week (besides the year) and I think this mostly came from my movie watching. So many of the characters in the movies I’ve seen are detached from emotions in one way or another.

Max Fielder (Chevy Chase) in Modern Problems receives telekinetic powers through nuclear waste but seems really unfazed by it. He uses them all the time, but he is so little interested in other people and only concerned with himself that he never really changes. No one really notices that, though, because no one cares about anything. The opening scene shows air traffic controllers being bored by their jobs and throughout the movie people simply don’t care about much. One point the movie somehow makes, though, is that this detachment actually comes from the world around them which seems to be failing on all ends. They don’t care because the world doesn’t care. That’s a relatively deep insight for a movie as bad as this.

The characters in My Bloody Valentine aren’t much better. When a serial killer starts taking out members of the town, most of the youths don’t care at all. They are only pissed that their Valentine celebration is cancelled, so they have it anyway. Since they are in turn mostly killed off then, they are somehow punished for their carelessness, for not showing any emotions whatsoever. You’d also think that if they want to enforce a Valentine’s party, they care about love and romance and so on, but no, they just want to party and have sex. They don’t even seem to care about each other very much, as the movie proves again and again. In comparison, Prom Night at least had one couple which professed believable romance.

Mommie Dearest aka Joan Crawford actively teaches her daughter Christina to suppress her feelings, to detach herself from her emotions. It is not important what she feels, she has to do everything her mother wants. The movie takes this concept to extreme (and sometimes ridiculous) lengths, but the core idea is essential for our culture, as we see especially well during this year.

The main character in On Golden Pond, Norman (Henry Fonda, very moving), is known for being detached and distant. He truly loves his wife (Katharine Hepburn) who knows that despite his constant grumpiness. But his daughter Chelsea (Jane Fonda) is less forgiving for being kept at arm’s length by her father throughout her life. She refuses the detachment and complains about it. Norman only gives her complaints only a little room, but shows her a glimpse of his suppressed emotions.

In Stripes, John (Bill Murray, amazing) doesn’t care about his job, doesn’t fight for his girlfriend and generally isn’t interested in anything really. His decision to join the army is more like a joke for him and he convinces his best friend (Harold Ramis) to join him so he isn’t alone there. Whenever he annoys Sgt. Hulka (Warren Oates) or Capt. Stillman (John Larroquette) it’s not really to question their authority but… just because. John has no agenda because he simply doesn’t care about anything. He is one of the rare movie characters who doesn’t change over the course of the movie.

In Michael Mann’s Thief, Frank (James Caan, you can clearly see he loves this role) tries to follow the principles Mann repeated 14 years later in Heat: don’t get attached to anyone if you’re a criminal. Detachment as a way of life. The movie is about him trying to break through that eventually, but anyone he gets close to gets into danger, which is precisely what this principle tries to avoid. It is fascinating to watch how Frank swings between seeking detachment to keep himself and the ones he loves safe and enjoying the company of lovers and friends to not feel alone.

Finally, in the German movie Die bleierne Zeit, two women (Jutta Lampe and Barbara Sukowa) try to figure out how to deal with the aftermath of their troubled past between rebellion and terrorism in the “German Autumn.” As a consequence, they debate and discuss and argue but there is this underlying detachment all the time, their inability to reach the emotions that are hinted at in flashbacks of an oppressive childhood. The movie at times feels like a thesis and not a story about humans interacting. All the passion seems to be gone, as if everyone burned themselves in the previous decades to end up in 1981, empty, tired and aimless. In the opening scenes, a father (Luc Bondy) can’t take care of his son anymore, leaves him at his sister-in-law and goes to the forest to kill himself. That’s what is left of the ideals of the 60s and 70s in 1981.

Women & Sex

Modern Problems has this strange idea of relationships in which Max seems to be an annoying whimp who doesn’t view the relationship in a realistic way. But when he has his telekinetic powers, he suddenly is able to satisfy Darcy (Patti D’Arbanville) sexually better than ever before. It doesn’t make any sense (nothing in this awful movie does), but it is enough for her to keep up with him, even he becomes worse and worse as a person. Is that reverse sexism? There is also Mark (Dabney Coleman) who seems to be very convinced of himself because presumably he has a big penis, which Darcy doesn’t care about.

First Monday in October is a movie about gender roles, unusually enough, because it tells the story of the first female judge at the Supreme Court (which not coincidentally was what Sandra Day O’Connor actually became in 1981). Dan Snow (Walter Matthau) is happy to have a woman at the Supreme Court, but unhappy that it is Ruth Loomis (Jill Clayburgh) because is rather conservative. They clash over freedom of speech (specifically whether porn can be considered art or not, a question the movie never knows how to answer, but goes far enough to show minutes and minutes of a fake porn film) and other issues. Ruth is questioned by others because she is a woman but has convincing answers and acts as a strong female character in that sense. Unfortunately, she is not very likable, which diminishes her effect a little. The movie also isn’t able to really avoid clichés, which hurts its message and the last shot is weird, as Dan enters a building and doesn’t hold the door open for Ruth, to which she reacts… confused? Disappointed? Angry? It is really unclear what this last shot is supposed to tell us, whether it’s that women are still mistreated or that she shouldn’t expect someone else to open doors for her? It’s too ambiguous to say.

The role of women in Quest for Fire is fascinating and shocking at the same time. Since the movie is set at the time of the “Neanderthals”, we get some images of women just used for reproduction at the will of the men. I like that the movie doesn’t try to romanticize anything, but then again how much does it really know? When Naoh (Everett McGill) and Ika (Rae Dawn Chong) grow a bit closer, their relationship changes and becomes a little bit more intimate, although the implication that she treats a wound on his penis by performing oral sex on him is just… odd. Still, Ika is portrayed as a leader and strong-willed most of the time. It is also very refreshing to see the use of nudity in such a commonplace way, which seems necessary for this story but is rarely done with such consequence.

Die bleierne Zeit might be one of the most feminist movies I’ve ever seen. There are men in it, but they never play an important role and everything is discussed and decided by women. They don’t listen to men, who are either ignorant or weak, while the women continue to fight for their ideas as long as they can. As slow and dry as this movie this, this aspect is really well made and cool to see. A political movie about women, directed by a woman, imagine that in 2015!

There is also the other end of the spectrum, of course. Stripes is very often exploitative, using the nudity of women all the time for jokes. The female characters are okay, I’d say, because they seem to be in on the fun, but there are still a lot of sexist jokes here.

My Bloody Valentine also has a weak image of women. The first victims are all women, often after sex and the first scene goes to a ridiculous length at showing that. There is such an obvious phallic/drilling symbolism going on that it is almost a satire. If the movie hadn’t gone on to use women in horrible ways later, it would have worked much better. But no, they are murdered in various cruel ways and while the men are also depicted as horny jerks and eventually are also killed, the women come off way worse. In a final fight between the killer and another male character, there is a shovel lying around. The female character picks it up and instead of actively helping her friend, she just hands it to him and moves back again. The trope of passive women couldn’t be illustrated better.

But nothing compares to Zombie Lake when it comes to exploiting women. Literally. The movie is just garbage, in every regard, as cheap as they come and also as sleazy. The movie opens with a woman going to a lake, undressing for a minute and then swimming naked in the lake for minutes on end. She eventually is killed by a Nazi zombie whose make-up is not even water-proof. Throughout the movie there are sex scenes and nudity, very, very clearly just to keep viewers awake. There is nothing else, no plot that makes any sense, the worst acting and effects, filmmaking that couldn’t even be called amateurish. In the worst moment of the whole film, a group of volleyball players arrive at the lake in a bus, get out and decide to get undressed to swim in the dirty water. Some of them hesitate, looking at the camera as if they are hoping that the director didn’t really ask them to take off their clothes. It is like a documentary moment of actual exploitation that has to make you feel uncomfortable.