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zombie ufo varmint

I’m not going to bury the lead on this one. Here, in this auspicious post, you’ll find maybe the internet’s best read yet on that upright sneaker in the movie Nope (2022). I feel like i’m the only one who can specifically connect it to the main plot. That’s right, come one come all! And beware! As always, i’ll spoil the movies and books i write about.

Before i claw into all that, here comes an appreciation of the horror western, a subgenre i apparently really like. To my surprise! Westerns, without the horror: really not my thing. Despite how greatly i enjoy horses, homosexual costumes, melodrama, and heavily implied sodomy, and despite the fact i’ve already written about a western movie, Ravenous (1999), in this very blog. Maybe to enjoy westerns all i need is some of those gory macabre setpieces i so crave.

Aside from seeing this summer’s hot new movie, Nope, i’m thinking about the horror western because i finally read Justina Ireland’s sequel to the very very good Dread Nation. This shequel’s called Deathless Divide, a title i love because it takes a sec to parse that it can be read as a roundabout and alliterative way to say “eternal conflict.” Ireland’s novels transplant a zombie apocalypse into civilwar-era (un)united states of americana. You may think that’s a gimmicky premise, but this is no Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Ireland fits in the tradition of filmmaker George Romero (who also made a zombie western, but that didn’t look good so i never saw it). Like Romero, Ireland casts her ravenous undead as a background threat, a piece of setting for the true villany (of society!) to play out against.

Her duology mostly concerns the precarious lives of two central protagonists, the fiery Jane and girly-fancy Kate, as they escape catastrophe and social collapse in the varied places they try to call home. In the first novel, most of the action takes place in Miss Preseton’s School of Combat, where young black girls are taught how to most effectively mow down zombies. The postgrad goal and expectation is to go on to work for rich white people as bodyguards protecting them from the undead.

The second novel opens up into western travels, as our heroines flit from an ill-fated frontier town to various spots around the fabled, utopiaized California. Home as an impossible ideal is a central theme of these novels. Especially in the first novel, Jane idolizes a vision of home based around her lost mother. I love how Ireland handles their reunion near the end of the second novel. Jane’s mom annihilates her daughter’s dream of her, revealing her flawed human self as incapable of offering the stability and protection Jane desires.

You see, what i really hate about the western is its optimistic depiction of the homestead. There’s usually some glorified home under external threat. Home is safe and obtainable, all it requires is protection. Ireland instead shows how homes are undone by internal threats. The zombies don’t destroy the various communities Jane and Kate (briefly) inhabit. Well ok, technically they do. But! They have the opportunity to conquer because of powerful people exploiting the fears and biases of the masses. Jane can always see solutions but whenever she voices them she’s dismissed. There’s a wonderful passage in Deathless Divide about Jane’s “hopelessness” and “rage” that almost everyone listens to egomaniacal white men while “continually ignoring girls like me.”

Before I stab deeper into these ideas, I want to log some miscellany from these novels that i simply adore. First of all, let’s have a round of applause for Ireland, folks. She did it! Since the 1970s, people have struggled to find a better word than “zombie” for describing the type of monster from Night of The Liviing Dead (1968). From “ghouls” to “the infected,” nothing really felt right. Ireland, though, has invented the best yet alternative terminology for zombies: everyone calls them shamblers in her books. Just perfect. It sounds old-timey and spooky and i love it. AND it evokes the word “shambles,” which is what society is reduced to, so, yeah, that’s some cool pun logic for ya.

Ireland also gifts us effective social commentary up the wazoo. White society tells the “convenient lie” that black people can survive shambler bites because “once bitten a body is no longer human” and they can have no rights under the 13th amendment. Recalling how in the 1800s criminality was considered a disease, and Romero-style zombies always evoke viral contagion, this can be read as a parallel for contemporary exceptions to the 13th amendment. Is it not a convenient lie that people forfeit their human rights if they disobey a law? Convenient lies are a timeless white people thing.

On a more personal level, though, i loved the character stuff. Jane and Kate begin their relationship antagonistically, their personalities opposed between the rugged badassery of Jane and debonair fashionability of Kate. But they develop their contrasts into a prickly best friendship. I’m always a fan of that dynamic! Also! There’s a killer unexpected death of a real one in Deathless Divide. And it happens by decapitation no less. Decapitation by sickle! That’s another wonderful detail: Jane kills shamblers with sickles.

Jane becomes increasingly consumed with killing, particularly in the sequel, and in that one she becomes laser focused on offing a scientist that’s wronged her. Her bloodlust is so powerful she sometimes requires Kate to bring her back to her humane side. One of Kate’s good lines regarding this: “We can survive without being cruel to one another, I refuse to believe we have to be like those we hate in order to carry on.” I think this is an underexplored aspect of the zombie subgenre. Wouldn’t it mess with your head to need to murder creatures that look and basically move like a person? Especially in a lot of modern zombie flicks, survivors dispatch shamblers like it’s nothing (unless it’s someone they know).

Around halfway through Deathless Divide, chapters begin to open with excerpts from fake folk sources writing about Jane in a wild west pulp style. Ireland parodies the western, showcasing how it robs Jane of her nuance, especially her mercy. She’s made into a shallow, entertaining vigilante, quick and eager to kill not just shamblers but crass, cruel lowlifes too.

Now to smoothly transition to Nope (because i’m all about a smooth transition), writer/director Jordan Peele also plays with western cliches to showcase the horrory rot beneath the surface of the genre. There’s an external threat to a home in Nope, sure. Maybe the most western of all possible homes at that, a horse ranch. It’s a westernish external threat too: there’s a varmint on the ranch (a cosmic horror varmint but still). Potentially, Nope is as dull to me as most westerns. Even with the cool monster that resembles a flying saucer, and even with the satiric takedown of the entertainment industry, if it’s simple as a good ol home under siege by a baddie it’s not my thing.

The satiric element of the movie is memorably broadcast by the subplot, which features physical and psychological trauma endured by child actors. That’s an especially relevant detail considering it’s been the summer of Jennette McCurdy’s I’m Glad my Mom Died, her memoir detailing the abuses she endured as a preteen Nickelodeon star. I know i’m shoehorning this in but i wanted to quickly rec that read.

Anyhoo, Nope opens with a bible quotation about spectacle, which has led many viewers to fashion a spectacle-centric read of the movie. But i’m not one to let the bible guide my reading on anything! To me, this is a movie about our relationship with storytelling, and the private stories we construct in our minds are just as important as the public stories we tell with spectacles.

A major breakout star of Nope is of course that opening shot of a blood speckled and impossibly upright balanced tennis sneaker. Great image surrounded by scary noises of a showbiz chimp’s meltdown violence on a sitcom set. We see this through the perspective of a young actor named Ricky, who’s hiding beneath a table and watching the trained chimp go rogue and pummel (and chew) a fellow child star nearly to death.

On its own, the image is easy enough to explain. We later see the adult Ricky has constructed a museum exhibit based on the sitcom infamous for this attack. There’s a lingering shot on our bloodied sneaker, set upright in a display case. So there’s a reason why it’s upright in the beginning: in trying to blunt the impact of his traumatic memory, Ricky has tamed the wild moment into a staid museum. It’s believable enough that all his time in his exhibit has effectively changed this one small detail as it exists in his memory: he can no longer recall where/how the shoe actually landed strewn about with the other detritus, so he imagines it the way he sees it in his display case.

But how, i’m sure you ask with bated breath, does this connect with the main plot of Nope? Because most of Nope isn’t about levitating footwear. It centers on the Haywood siblings, brother OJ and sister Emerald (or Em). Their ranch is a family affair in questionable standing after the varmint kills their pa. The surviving Haywoods are attempting to preserve their familial homestead (and legacy) by capturing perfect footage of a UFO that is in actuality an extra large extraterrestrial (as i’ve already spoiled, it’s a great second act twist tho).

Before they deeply consider their safety or some kind of self-defense plan, they’re trying to make a spectacle of the varmint. Same with adult Ricky, who incorporates it into his western themed amusement park by making it the star of a tacky horse show. At the cosmic horror critter’s big debut, it ends up eating him, his family, and his scant audience (in a delightfully glorious sequence that culminates with blood rain). Even after the Haywoods learn the UFO is a carnivorous beast, their mission remains to film it, not self-protection. I don’t think killing it isn’t even brought up.

And when Em does end up destroying it she does so almost as an afterthought.

When OJ realizes the UFO is essentially an animal, he says “it thinks this is its home,” noting its territorial behavior. Like in Ireland’s novels, home is a significant theme. But where Jane and Kate are searching for a place to call home, OJ and Em are struggling to maintain theirs. Before the alien upends everything, the sibs are selling their horses to the neighboring Ricky’s amusement park.

OJ and Em don’t acknowledge it, but they’re really set in a competition with Ricky. What if instead of killing a bunch of tourists Ricky’s show had become a success? Then he, instead of the Haywoods, would have gained fame for showcasing the wild alien, and his cowpoke park would likely expand into Haywood land. Even if it didn’t, the Haywoods would move. Ricky would be cowboy king of the alien desert.

Oh yeah, i almost forgot to mention the purpose of the Haywood horses is for use on movie, show, or commercial sets. There’s a lot i want to go into about the hardscrabble fight for existence on the fringes of an entertainment industry that exploits children and animals, the purest of all the good lord’s creations. There’s so much well done stuff in this movie i would like to gush about. Does it have oscar buzz? It should! If i could i would have thrown oscies at the screen for this thing. It’s brilliantly acted, written, filmed, shot, and the sound design, oh my god the SOUND DESIGN. But i don’t have the time or energy to hash out specific examples. I need to get back to that shoe!

Nope ends on an ambiguous note, which i think is best understood in the context of its opening shot. In the final act there’s all this business involving a final film shoot of the varmint. We reach our emotional climax when OJ seems to sacrifice himself for Em, distracting the creature to allow his sis time to escape on a motorbike (self-sacrifice-for-love scenes always make me cry, and this one gets bonus points for a great callback). Em makes it out and manages to both photograph and destroy the varmint. Shortly after she does, we see she sees her bro in the distance, riding horseback like the last time she (and we) saw him. From here we cut to the title.

Aside from the fact that we don’t know how he could have survived his last close encounter, there’s a lot suggesting that OJ is dead and Em is hallucinating him. For starters, there’s that title cut. There’s also the tantalizing fact that he’s on a horse named Ghost (the same horse his pa died on). And if Em is hallucinating him, it would fully connect the main plot to the opening shot. If the upright sneaker indicates how we attempt to defang traumatic moments in our memories, amending details of the reality as we frame it into a story, then Em seeing her impossibly alive brother would be a more crucial, devastating example of that.

Considering her association with Hollywood, it’s probably not coincidental that Em/Emerald is named after both the city and the auntie of The Wizard of Oz (1939), that most Hollywoodish of Hollywood movies (in that it’s an idealized lie of a vision made possible by child abuse). “There’s no place like home” is practically the mantra of Hollywood wishful thinking. While her and her brother were caught up in defining home as the ranch or their dad’s business, they overlooked that home is each other. They never should have tried to milk glory from the varmint. If they prioritized their lives more than their idea of a homestead, they probably would have hightailed it on outta there together.

But i’m not saying that OJ’s dead! Just because Em’s hallucinating him doesn’t mean he’s dead! Besides, when ambiguity is done right, the ambiguity is the point. Peele puts us in the position of accepting the wishful, Hollywood happy ending or facing the brutal but more likely interpretation. We have this choice because his movie is about storytelling as a tool to smooth over harsh shit. The Haywoods have their family story: their business pitch involves bragging about their ancestry stretching back to the unnamed black man riding a horse in the very first motion picture a million years ago, glossing over how their family must have struggled (and continue to struggle) to gain credit and respect in amerikkka. And Ricky obscures his sad and horrifying experience with a Gordy by reducing it to his mini-museum and references to banal sketch comedy about the event. He allows himself to forget the innate danger of other creatures, believing he’s such an expert wrangler he can oversee a UFO rodeo.

I got to say, i’m not sure how i feel about this post of mine. Seems dryer and more strained than the way i usually write in my blog. This is supposed to be fun! My next post will be a fun one, hopefully about lesbians again. I’ve been meaning to write more about scary lesbians for like a year now. Look, i’ve been busy. It’s hard out here for the gay aunties. I’ll end with a little detail i appreciated in Nope: literally everyone in this movie has an air of sad exhaustion about them, which is very relatable for our times. And very relatable for me right now. I’m feeling so not ready for a hot girl hawt-umn.

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