Friday, October 2, 2009

Dawn of the Mummy (1981): or, That's a Wrap

Riddle me this, horror geeks: mummies. Are they or are they not a form of Zombie?

One the one hand, signs point to "yes." They are reanimated corpses that stalk the desert lands, slowly delivering bloody death to the unfortunate living who happen to cross their paths. They're typically slow-moving, often in an advanced state of decay (in desert climes, dessication would count as decay, I think), and not generally possessed of a discernable personality, leaving aside Boris Karloff's Mummy-as-Dracula performance and Naschy's Mummy-as-Alaric de Marnac interpretation. Sounds like a zombie to me!

On the other hand, they don't usually eat brains, flesh, or food of any sort, preferring instead a liquid diet of Tana Leaf Tea. They're usually the magical instruments of a supernatural curse, concerned more with protecting their tombs than with spreading contagion across the world. And of course, the mummy's victims don't typically sprout dusty bandages and become mummies themselves. So by those criteria, NOT a zombie, right?

For Egyptian-born director Farouk "Frank" Agrama, however, the point is moot. His 1981 film Dawn of the Mummy blurs the line between implacable revenant and flesh-eating ghoul, which I have to admit is a pretty cool idea. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, the idea falters badly in its execution.

Don't hate her because she's beautiful.

In a strictly by-the-numbers pre-credits sequence set in 3000 BC, we see the Pharaoh Seferaman riding majestically across the dunes with his royal guard, getting ready to ruin some poor villagers' day. There's kidnapping, whipping, and general Ancient Egyptian cruelty, all meant to show the Pharoah is not a nice man.

The dust has hardly settled before we cut to a funeral procession. It seems in the jump-cut from desert to temple Seferaman has kicked the ol' coptic jar, and is all laid out on the altar ready to be mummified. (Get used to this jump-cut plot development--the movie seems to have been edited by a fez-wearing monkey with ADD.) We get a little organ-removal footage (though why they wrap him first and THEN cut through the bandages to get his innards out is a subject for Unsolved Mysteries), and high priestess Xena pronounces the standard curse on anyone who breaks in and steals the Pharaoh's loot.

Another jump cut takes us to the present day, where ugly American tomb raider Rick (Barry Sattels) has discovered the tomb of Seferaman via explosive charges. Rick's strong Bronx accent and entirely unnatural line readings are far more entertaining than his two henchmen's "comic relief" stylings, but he knows his stuff: warning his Stooges that the ancient Egyptians used to poison the air in the tombs to thwart grave robbers, he advises them to let it air out for the night. Unfortunately a couple of passing thieves don't get the memo, and they go in and meet death via ancient chemical warfare. (Mustard Gas was apparently an ancient Egyptian invention.) Oh, and the modern reincarnation of Xena shows up to give Rick the old Moby Dick prophetic warning thing, which is important.

"Why yes, I *am* a model! How'd you know?"

Another jump cut, and we're in New York City, treated to a montage of street scenes full of nondescript citizens. We have no way of knowing at this point, but many of the principals are introduced here, lost in the shuffle of Manhattan's seas of humanity. The only ones we KNOW will be important are photographer Bill and supermodel Lisa--they take center stage in an all-too-brief roller disco photoshoot. No time to dwell, though--another jump cut and we get stock footage of a jetliner, with an agent's voice-over telling us a group of models are on their way to Cairo for a shoot, and next thing you know, we're back in Egypt!

I could go into all the ins and outs of the plot, but that would be trying for both of us. In summary: not wanting to shoot by the pyramids, since that would be cliched, Bill takes the girls out to an oasis that just happens to be close to Seferaman's tomb. This puts a crimp in Bill and the Stooges' style, but for some reason they allow the group to shoot in the recently-opened tomb. The lights warm up Seferaman's corpse sufficiently to bring him back to life, along with 20 or 30 of his buried-alive servants. There's a lot of back and forth between the oasis and the village, a lot of mummies standing around growling menacingly as people walk by, and a lot of expendable extras go down before the film goes foot-dragging toward its climax.

Humidity was high in the desert that year.

The climax is where Agrama lets loose and turns his mummy movie into a zombie movie. Seferaman's undead servants descend on the village (where a rockin' wedding ceremony is taking place, complete with belly dancers, a female fire-breather, and copious ululation) and cause massive panic, killing whoever they get their hands on and subsequently eating their flesh. It should be noted that the undead servants are NOT mummies proper--only Seferaman himself was mummified--and while the Pharaoh does kill several of the would-be graverobbers, he does so largely via traditional Mummy MO: strangling and neck-ripping decapitation. (He does off one of the Stooges with a well-placed cleaver, showing he's not a one-trick monarch. Also, his blood is acid, for some reason.)

Dawn of the Mummy is kind of a mess, and the pacing is not what anyone would call scintillating. Until that final action-packed climax, the undead Egyptians seem in no hurry at all to complete the whole "vengeance from the grave" thing. Perhaps this is because of the big-picture point of view such creatures must necessarily have--let's face it, when you've been hanging out watching the world go by for over 3000 years, it probably alters one's sense of urgency. The editing is bad, as mentioned, and the gore scenes and zombie make-up are nothing to write home about either, which is a shame.


There are joys to be had if you're desperate for them, though. The on-location shots by the Great Pyramids add a lot of production value and look great. Also, the movie seems to have been entirely post-dubbed, which leads to some hilariously incongruous line-readings, an over-reliance on "talking to myself" exposition, and truly confusing foley effects. (Listen for the Camel Groans as recorded by Chewbacca.) The one-keyboard score is very overbearing, but cheese-tastic. The plot machinations are also good for a few chuckles--the Americans never seem to worry about ANYTHING in this movie, pushing their way into the tomb despite the fact that Rick and his men were shooting at them mere moments before, shrugging off the half-dozen dead bodies they encounter in their three-day shoot, and not even getting visibly concerned when one of their horses ends up with its throat ripped out. ("Probably a wild animal," they say--well, maybe, but even so, shouldn't that make you a little nervous?) The script is laughably bad wall-to-wall; I also smiled when the supermodels formulated a plan to kill the mummy using some conveniently stashed dynamite, and at the sudden reappearance of one of their group just after the ensuing fiery cataclysm.

But most of the little enjoyment I got out of the movie came courtesy Barry Sattels as Rick, who seems to be channeling both Indiana Jones and Peter Lorre as he searches for gold in the tomb. He gets some extremely evocative crazy faces going on, and his EPIC FREAKOUT when he discovers one of his henchmen dead at Seferaman's hands is worth fast-forwarding to. (One of the models also gets a hilarious freakout as she runs from the flesh-eating ghouls, which made me wish there'd been more of that.)

Rick: Excited!

Rick: Crazed with Gold-Lust!

Rick: Terrified!

Rick: Wait, it's Gold-Lust again!

Rick: Le Morte du Crazyface

Agraman was obviously working under some tight conditions here--not only was budget a factor, but because of strict Egyptian censorship he could not show as much sex as he wanted to (according to his largely boring and technical-centric commentary), the addition of which could only have helped. However, I'd have expected a little more from an Egyptian-made mummy/zombie bloodbath, and Dawn of the Mummy largely fails to deliver. 1.25 thumbs.



Alexi Frest said...

This movie is older than myself AND is still classic!


Where do you find these interesting films? I thought I knew about a lot of odd little titles.

Also about the whole mummies vs zombies thing?

I wouldn't get too wrapped up in it.

(see what I did there?)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the heads-up, Vicar. I’ve checked this one out at the video store more than once due. That eye-poppin’ cover does get your attention. Thankfully, I’ve never taken it home. (There’s an allegory to the dating scene in there, but I won’t be-labor it.)
Who knew you could bring a mummy to life just by warming him up? Where d’you figure the “Mummy” setting on a microwave would be? Between “Steamed Vegetables” and “Popcorn”?
And where can I score one of those Rick wigs?

Dan said...

Agree that this one is more miss than hit and I can see why detractors call it YAWN OF THE MUMMY. But I did enjoy parts of it and when the zombies attack the wedding party almost all is forgiven. Looking at the great Rick photos (totally agree that he's the reason to see the flick) I think they need to sign Bradley Cooper for the Barry Sattels biopic!

JamiSings said...

Well, to be fair in the "Are Mummies Zombies" debate - zombies are actually suppose to be people controlled by voodoo magic. They can be living or dead, I suppose. Best example I can think of is the movie White Zombie with Bella Lugosi. That is the traditional and "real" zombie.

The brain eating kind are really just "animated dead." Not real zombies per-say. Mummies are closer to true zombies then the zombies we're used to are.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Mina Jade--thanks for commenting! Even though I didn't dig the movie so much, it's nice to know somebody got some joy out of it--I'm sure Agrama is pleased!

@Al Bruno III--suffice to say I have *sources.* As to your debate response...*groan.* ;)

@Geo--if I ever find a microwave with a "mummy" setting, I'm buying it immediately! I may never use it, but it's better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. ;)

@Dan--I hadn't thought of it, but you're absolutely right about Bradley Cooper! If they remake DotM, he should definitely star! In fact, why DON'T they remake it? Try to improve a bad movie instead of fucking up a good one, for a change. ;P

@JamiSings--thanks for the comment! I see your point about the original definition of a zombie, and on a strictly technical level you're correct--however, I think it's clear that in the years since Night of the Living Dead, the term "zombie" has taken on a somewhat broader definition, or at least now encompasses more than one type of creature. (Subspecies of zombie?) Although to your point, even Romero called them "ghouls" instead of zombies originally.

In any event, I think we've settled it--mummies are not zombies. Next case! :)

JamiSings said...

Well, if you want another debate there's two I can propose - such as:

Who Would Win In An Undead Dance Off

DJ Bobo's vampires?


Michael Jackson's zombies?

Plus there's my own personal favorite - "Can Dracula take on and win against today's Hollywood slashers such as Freddy Kruger, Michael, and Jason?" I say "Yes, yes he can." Everyone else says, "Shut up, Jami, Freddy VS Jason was bad enough, don't give Hollywood any more ideas."

But really, FVSJ gave us the comic book Freddy VS Jason VS Ash - and how can anything with Bruce Campbell goodness - even if it is a comic book version - be bad?

Don't mind me, I'm a bit of a weirdo. I'm going to see if or have been updated and stop bugging you for a bit.

db said...

I thought a bit about the zombie/mummy thing and posted my thoughts here. Sad to hear Dawn of the Mummy doesn't really deliver, as it certainly seemed promising.

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