Feeding the Masses

At a recent convention, I picked up Feeding the Masses for five bucks. Besides the price it had one major appeal: it was a zombie film, whose title reminded me of Jonathan Swift’s brilliantly biting satirical essay, "A Modest Proposal." Looking at the box, I saw that Trent Haaga had scripted the film. At the same convention I’d also bought Lloyd Kaufman’s nonfiction book Make Your Own Damn Movie, without knowing Haaga had co-written it, or that he was a product of the Troma school. Forearmed with this knowledge, I watched Feeding the Masses expecting it to be an outrageously crude, yet enjoyably over the top piece of exploitation madness. Unfortunately, Haaga aims for much higher ground here, and fails.

The movie starts off in a studio, as a cooking show is being filmed. Enter cameraman Torch as he does combat with his producer, Fran. The Lazarus virus has befallen the city of Pawtucket, Rhode Island (the actual filming location), turning its residents into zombies; Torch thinks the cynosure of everyone’s attention should be the end of days, instead of mundane efforts. But Torch destroys all credibility when he: a) comes onto a waitress in the next scene, b) spends a full scene getting high, and c) attacks a hippie zombie so he can rob the walking corpse of his pot. Other characters include a soldier whose pursuit of the reporter he’s been assigned to protect leads him to a snuff club, where he vigorously masturbates; the reporter, who’s more concerned with face time and career aspirations than the end of the world; the production assistant, a self-proclaimed "wuss;" and a shadowy government official with a thick Boston accent. Unfortunately, each is a product of the Generic Stereotype Generator. Had the characterizations been individualized and fleshed out, perhaps it would’ve made the film’s satire sharper. And the satire is where the problems begin.

Satire is probably the hardest style in which to write. To be effective, it must be cunning, biting when the audience least expects it. When it hits, it must be honed and pointed. The more outrageous its suggestion, the more logical the writer must make it appear to be. In "A Modest Proposal," Swift waits nearly halfway through his essay before he springs his trap; his argument for fixing starvation in Ireland has a bizarre yet pointed rationale to it, even at its most demented. Haaga, on the other hand, starts his film off with a close up of a blade slicing meat. The knife is sharp; the suggestion couldn’t be more blunt. Nor could any of the subjects the film scrutinizes. Though I enjoy the double meaning of the word "feed" (serve food, live news feed), everything else in this film is too broad. Restraint and subtlety in acting and scripting could’ve honed Haaga’s argument. Instead, the cartoonish performances and dialogue detract from it.

As for the subjects of the satire, they’ve been done to death, and even they are too obtusely drawn: The media is manipulative, and the government is the enemy. I understand that social commentary always comments on contemporary events, but I didn’t really need this film to tell me these things; turning on the news or picking up the paper would do the same, and more persuasively. I have to give Feeding the Masses credit for one thing, though. It addresses many of the same concepts that George Romero attacked in Diary of the Dead, another failed commentary on the misuse of the media, years before Romero touched on these.

Further hurting the film are several bits of media spread throughout, that stretch credibility to the breaking point. Am I really supposed to believe that a government-produced video, meant to allay the public’s fears in the media age, would have the look and tone of a 1950s family sitcom? Would any protesting organization, marching on a government building, really allow a picket sign that read, "STOP the endless SLAUGHT?" Does anybody reading this review buy into a militia in Rhode Island?

And then there’s the vehicle for the satire, the zombies themselves. Their makeup is inconsistent and generally unconvincing; mostly, they look like people in white face. There are some decent gore effects, but these attacks are so generic, they could take place in any of a hundred other movies. So many zombie films get lazy when it comes to the kills, and this is one more.

For a low budget film, Feeding the Masses is stocked with extras. First up, Shock-o-Rama provides a commentary track with director Richard Griffin and Torch himself, Billy Garberina. This thing is loaded with ridiculous praise; everybody’s great, and everyone loves everyone. I cannot stand tracks like this. The only good thing to come from it is how the two address some of the cheats of low budget filming. There’s also a 30 minute documentary, in which just about everyone but lead actress Rachel Morris talks. There’s plenty more happy talk, even when a homeless psycho tries to steal the camera. It repeats many of the stories from the commentary, and does little to hold interest.

Shock-o-Rama also presents the theatrical trailers for this and seven other films. "A Year of Shocks" is a four minute commercial boasting about the company. Two short films also populate the disc. "Voltagen" and "Hypostatic Union" run about 13 minutes combined. They’re trashy little throwaway pieces made by Duane Graves and Justin Meeks. Each is available with commentary, a sure sign that the company takes great pride in its product. If only these shorts or the feature itself had deserved such a luxurious treatment.

Trent Haaga started off as a scribe for Lloyd Kaufman, and with Feeding the Masses, he wants to write a film like George Romero. Sadly, he is neither as outrageous as Troma’s godfather, or as pointed a social critic as the godfather of the modern zombie. Had he veered more sharply toward either Tromaville or Pittsburgh, this film may have succeeded. As it stands, it’s just another zombie movie, one that may be worth five bucks, but not much more.

–Phil Fasso

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