Monday, August 13, 2012

History's Mysteries: Abraham Lincoln and the Undead

Warning: Spoilers! ( case you care that much about movies featuring Abe Lincoln fighting monsters)

About a week or so ago, my fiancee and I went to see Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The movie, if you're not aware, is about Abraham Lincoln being a guy who hunts vampires. Hence, you know, the title. For those of you who have not seen it, I don't want to spend too much time on it, so I'll post the trailer and a few bullet points summarizing my experience.

  • So. Much. CGI.
  • They take a few...liberties with Abraham Lincoln in the general attractiveness department.
  • Also, with Mary Todd Lincoln.
  • The fact that, halfway through the film, Abe had killed several vampires and STILL didn't realize that anyone walking around with pale skin and sunglasses was a vampire stretched my already taught suspension of disbelief a little too far.
There now. Phew! It feels good to get that out there, you know? Especially since I didn't really want to talk about that film.

Oh no. I want to talk about Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies.

As glorious as it is real.
Made by the production company The Asylum (purveyors of fine films like Transmorphers and Battle of Los Angeles), Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies is a direct-to-video movie that, coincidence of coincidences, just happened to come out the same year as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Yes, it is real, and yes, it is available to watch on Netflix. And yes, I watched it.

Are you wondering how this film could possibly be good? Listen to this brief plot synopsis:

A young Abraham Lincoln enters his house to find his mother tied up in a bed (obviously zombified). His father, covered in blood, announces that he can't kill her, and that Abe needs to. Abe picks up a scythe and, while saying "I love you Mama," cuts her head off.

Cut to the White House. PBS-style Abraham Lincoln visits with a more historical looking Mary Todd, who worries for his safety; he is, at this time, planning a trip down to Gettysburg to give a certain address there.

Mary Todd in Vampire Hunter

Mary Todd in vs. Zombies
Actual Mary Todd
But no time to waste with his wife! Abe is called away to visit an infirmary, where he learns the sole survivor from a secret mission is being held. Abe recognizes the young soldier as having been infected with the zombie  virus, and after a scuffle with the desperate monster, determines that he must lead a band of soldiers down to Savannah, Georgia to destroy the rest of these creatures.

Along the way, Abe stops for a brief discussion on the Anaconda Plan and Grant's victories before heading into an abandoned Confederate fort. The fort, it turns out, is actually still home to none other than Stonewall Jackson, who is convinced the zombies are nothing more than innocent (albeit sick) civilians and soldiers.
Believe it not, neither the beard nor mustache are real!
Knowing the truth, however, Abe investigates the town with his soldiers, including an oddly untrustworthy former actor named John Wilkinson--a name that doesn't ring any bells whatsoever. While there, he discovers an enclave of survivors made up of his former lover (and current hooker), her hooker daughter, an expendable blonde hooker, and a young Teddy Roosevelt.
"I'm sorry we don't have a spare weapon for you. Here.
As you go, walk softly, and carry this big stick."
--Actual movie dialogue
 Now, this is where the film takes one of its few artistic liberties--Teddy is shown to be around 12 years old, when he should, of course, be only 5. And asthmatic. And living in New York.

In any case, Abe and company fight through hordes of shambling zombies until they reach the very walls of their fort. Once there, the film takes a turn for the unexpected when expendable blonde hooker gets bitten! Knowing full well the import of his action, a soldier shoots her in the face. This is met with great resistance by Teddy, who kicks and screams, "You left her out there to die!" Or...killed her outright. One of the two.

I'll bet you're thinking, "Well, Brett, that description sounds like the best two hours of movie time since the very golden age of film!" Well, rhetorical person, you're both right and wrong--it's actually the best thirty minutes of movie time. Yes, a plot-driven film like this can't afford to waste a single moment of its 96 minute running time.

All throughout the film, I was especially taken with the performance of Abraham Lincoln. There was something about him, I just had to see if he'd been hired because he was a Lincoln lookalike. Instead, I discovered that IMDB had these two interesting tidbits to tell me about Bill Oberst Jr. (the actor who portrayed zombie-slaying Lincoln):

"Bill's torso is nearly twice the average length for a male his height. His prominent ribcage and exposed bone structure have branded him 'that guy with the creepy torso' in numerous dark & shirtless film roles."

"Toured the country with an interactive portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth for 10 years to houses of worship of all denominations."

Huh. Assuming he posed on the cross while touring as Jesus, and that he did so shirtless (as traditional), that must have been the most bizarre and unsettling "interactive portrayal" ever.

"Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the son
of Man hath not what to cover his unsightly torso."
Well, this brings us to the biggest question of them all: how did this compare to the bigger-budget Abraham Lincoln film?

I'll let this last picture and caption answer that for me.

"Emancipate this!"
--Actual movie dialogue


  1. I'm still trying to decide what I think the zombies might be a metaphor for in this film--in other words, why pick zombies in a historical setting besides another threatening monster like vampires, werewolves, or some sort of beast gone wild like in Jaws or Lake Placid.

    From what I've heard (from Movie Bob at Escapist Magazine) the choice of vampires in the bigger budget film has some clever irony embedded in its premise. The Southern Confederacy is so interested and invested in maintaining the institution of slavery because they have been infiltrated by vampires. The metaphor of vampires--demonic humans who feed on the life, blood, and flesh of other humans--is directly used as a commentary on a culture invested in exploiting black bodies through slavery. Given America's long running and continued tradition of maintaining the edibility of the black body metaphor (see Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima), it's quite the clever nod; but it sounds like an ironic turn you can build a book on easier than a film--especially if you throw in bad CGI smoke and horses.

    So for the cheaper film, why zombies? Zombies are usually stand-ins for laziness right? Is it simply the South was lazy and that's why they wanted slaves. Southern gentility = zombies who feed on the flesh of others. That would seem to perpetuate the stereotype of Southerners not as a calculating, educated, and aristocratic gentility (vampires) but as country bumpkins who can't seem to grasp the basic concepts of how liberty applies to everybody--those poor, slow, dimwitted Southerners that shuffle through life looking for their next corpse to feed on.

    The only problem is that the Southerners in the film are depicted as decent fellows with courage and honor. Stonewall Jackson is a hero by the end as he carries a CGI torch into a dangerous situation.

    I'm trying to imagine now what it could be like if Abe Lincoln needed to defend the Union against werewolves. What might such creatures of the night say of the South? What if he had to fight giant bunnies like in the Night of the Lepus (not to be confused with the Night of the Lupus which is what I originally--a far less funny and more devastating/heart-wrenching idea for a horror film)?

    And my biggest question remains: why is Teddy Roosevelt making a cameo in this historical depiction? Why was he in Georgia and why was he being raised by prostitutes?

    Some say the sign of great literature is that it leaves you with more questions than answers. Perhaps the same might be said of film.

  2. I've read that zombies reflect liberal fears of conservative America (unthinking consumer hordes!) and the reverse is true of vampires (debauched bloodsuckers!), so I can only conclude that these two films in fact represent a dialogue over Lincoln's influence and impact on the American political soul. The inclusion of Teddy Roosevelt is deeply symbolic: conservative, progressive, militant, peaceful; a way for Lincoln to peer into the future and see himself, his legacy, and his very nation as it is and aspires to be. It forces Lincoln and the viewer to ask "Do I embrace moderation as the mean between fluctuating extremes of the self or as a true path of temperance, and is such a thing even possible or desirable with (metaphorical) zombies/vampires on our very doorstep?" Truly this is art of the highest caliber.

  3. ..... Well I just thought the vampires thing was alright because the book uses the idea that the vampires need slaves on which to feed, and they intend to basically enslave everyone. Of course then it twists Lincoln even more because he's fighting for his own freedom--not that of black slaves. Then the zombies one comes out at the same time hoping people will confuse the two movies on a regular basis.