Belly Up to the Bar with Joelle Charbonneau

The Seven Stages War left much of the planet a poisoned wasteland. Humanity survives in the United Commonwealth, where the next generation’s chosen few rebuild civilization. But to enter this elite group, young candidates must first pass The Testing.

Cia Vale is proud to be among the chosen like her father before her. But his warning to Trust No One steels her for the toughest challenge, to decide who is her friend and who will do anything to pass The Testing.


Tom Pluck Beer Welcome to Belly Up to the Bar, Joelle. What can I pour you?


Joelle Well, I’m mostly a diet Pepsi kind of girl.  But let’s live dangerously.  Pour me a Sauvignon Blanc and let’s walk on the wild side!


Tom Pluck Beer I loved THE TESTING. It reminded me of Ender’s Game, the post-apocalyptic Fallout video games, and the Tripods series by John Christopher. Tell us a bit about the protagonist of THE TESTING, Cia Vale:


Joelle Wow!  Thank you.  As someone who read and loved Ender’s Game when I was just out of high school, I am stunned and amazed to be compared to that story.

Cia Vale is a young girl who has just finished her high school education.  Despite the fact leaving home will mean leaving behind the family whom she loves, Cia wants nothing more than to be chosen for The Testing so she can sit for the examination that determines those who go to the University and become the next generation of leaders.  Cia comes from the smallest colony of the newly recolonized United States (now United Commonwealth).  She has pushed herself to learn as much as possible so she can help rebuild the world the way her father has.  But though she is well-versed in physics and calculus, coming from a community where everyone wants the best for everyone has in many ways made her unprepared for the sometimes less than cooperative spirit than exists in other parts of the country.

Tom Pluck Beer Cia and Tomas make a great team. They’re both skilled and smart, with their own strengths and weaknesses. Cia can handle herself and knows machines, which is refreshing for a heroine in any genre or reading level. But Tomas isn’t dead weight either. I also enjoyed the puzzles and challenges Cia had to get through, which make the SATs seem like a breeze. What was your inspiration for the book?

Joelle  For the last decade, I’ve worked closely with my private voice students as they navigate the testing, application and audition process required to be accepted into college.  The pressure on our high school students is greater than ever before. The need to be better and brighter than the other applicants has never been more keenly felt.  Students are hyper aware that every answer they give could impact the quality of their future. Trust me when I say that I get a lot of phone calls from my students during these months. The teacher and parent in me is worried that the benchmark of success has risen too high and that the tests we are giving are not the type of measurements we should be using to judge our students.  The writer couldn’t help but wonder how much worse the process could become and what tests a future world might want to institute in order to select the next generation of leaders.   And I think it’s safe to say I truly hated taking the SATs.  It was one experience in my life that I’m glad I never have to repeat.

Tom Pluck Beer I see a lot of parallels to education today in the book, which I think will resonate with readers of all ages. How “the right school” makes all the difference, the importance placed on standardized tests, and the tough decisions we make as children, like whether to cheat or not, or whether to team up or look out for number one. Do you think school is a lot tougher for kids today?

Joelle  I do think that school is tougher for kids today.  More than anything I think that our education has changed in the past fifteen years and not necessarily for the better.  There is so much emphasis on test taking.  Teachers are hamstrung by the need to structure their classes in order to achieve high scores.  The problem is that the true measure of a student is not who gets the best grade.  Sometimes those that learn the most do so because they have been challenged, fail that challenge and then are forced to pick themselves up and face the challenge again.  We need to allow our students the chance to fail in order to give them the tools to succeed.  I think that is often forgotten in the midst of judging students by the number they get on a standardized test.

Tom Pluck Beer Your books are known for their humor. The frisky grandpa in Skating Around the Law, and Paige in the Glee Club mysteries. Was it tough to go life or death in a forbidding future for THE TESTING?

Joelle  Ha!  I love Pop in the Skating books and Paige is a great deal of fun to write.  But strangely, while writing a darker themed book was a different challenge, I didn’t find it that it was any more difficult to write.  Perhaps because I wrote the first book for me.  I didn’t know anything about the young adult side of the publishing business.  I just had an idea and I wrote hoping that I could bring the world in my head to life.  For me, writing something not funny was an exciting chance to push myself without having to worry about anyone’s expectations.

The Testing’s book trailer

Tom Pluck Beer I admired the world-building in THE TESTING. The future is familiar enough- post World War 3, with all sorts of weapons of mass destruction laying waste to the Earth- but also refreshing, in that the civilization that has risen up isn’t led by mohawked bikers, it’s smart people banding together. There is something sinister behind the United Commonwealth, but it’s not obvious at first. I hope it was as much fun to write as it was to read. Is science fiction a genre you’d like to return to?

Joelle Thank you again for such a lovely compliment.  I had a wonderful time exploring the world of The Testing throughout the three books of the trilogy.  I think that all societies have a balance of good intentions and bad execution.  The circumstances that forced the creation of the United Commonwealth government also created the need for the leaders to advocate for the advancement of science.  If you can’t drink the water or eat the food you can’t live.  The choices that are made to continue the advancement of society under those conditions can be difficult to make and feel sinister.

Until writing this trilogy, I was a fan of science fiction, but was never certain I could effectively build a world from the ground up.  Turns out, I love the challenge and I am hoping that I get to turn my hand to a new science fiction story in the very near future.  Fingers crossed!

Tom Pluck Beer The Testing trilogy is also your first foray into YA fiction. I recall on Twitter that you said you enjoyed the freedom that writing YA gave you. Care to go into detail now that you have more than 140 characters?

Joelle I did say that!  To be completely honest, I didn’t set out to write young adult.  The story idea I had required a teen protagonist in order for it to work.  The story also required suspense, relationships, science fiction world building, a bit of mystery.  There is also a bit of a romance and who knows how many other elements that are typical hallmarks of different genres.  As writers, we often hear that the first question a sales or marketing department asks about a new book is “Where does it get shelved?”  For that reason, it can often be hard for a new author to combine elements from multiple genres.  There can also be restrictions based on how much or low little violence, explicit language should be in various adult genre books.  But Young Adult isn’t divided on shelves by category distinctions and while some young adult books shy away from violence or explicit words, other books use them liberally.  The only rule is to create the best story possible.  Which I think is a rule all writers and readers can appreciate.

Tom Pluck Beer Last but not least, being a dystopian novel that puts young people in a challenge, it will be compared to Battle Royale and The Hunger Games. While those books put the kids on a murderous reality show, The Testing is set in a more dangerous world, which reminded me a little bit of Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, where the earth has turned against us, and the stakes are much higher. Have you read any of those books, and what would you say to the fans who pick up yours?

Joelle I will say that I have read both Battle Royale and The Hunger Games.  Both are very strong books which some similarities, but funny enough I found the purpose of those books to be very different.  Dystopian or post-apocalyptic novels have a great deal in common, but I am hoping that readers of other dystopian books will find The Testing to have a story that is compelling and characters that make them want to keep turning the pages.

Tom Pluck Beer I said that was the last question, but this is for extra credit. You are about to be cast out into the wasteland outside the Commonwealth. You can choose one last piece of music to listen to, a book to bring with you, and one last meal before you go. What are they?

Joelle EEEK!  Just one song and book?  Okay, well, if I only get one song it will be One Day More from Les Miserable.  And the book would have to be The Stand by Stephen King.  As for a last meal – well, I’m thinking Lasagna.  If for no other reason that it would be a good idea to carb up!


Tom Pluck Beer Thank you for dropping by, Joelle. I truly enjoyed the book and wish you great success. I found it smart and entertaining, a little more Star Trek than an explosive science fiction tale, but just as much fun.


Joelle Joelle Charbonneau is a former opera and musical theater performer turned author of funny mysteries and not so funny young adult novels. She lives in Chicago with her husband and son. THE TESTING will be published 6/4/13 by Hought-Mifflin-Harcourt.

BW Beer Mug

The Hunger Games
I can see why this is so popular, and I enjoyed it very much. Excellent protagonist who is very sure of herself in some ways and not in others; Katniss Everdeen makes for good company, and I’ve always been a fan of YA dystopias (back in my day, the Tripods books by John Christopher were awesome).
It’s a thriller through and through, and once the games begin it ramps up again and again. Collins learned from Spillane to sell the next book with the last page. I’m very eager to read book two, but I have many more in my TBR pile and I’ll wait for the next movie’s release before I spend an afternoon reading it.

Collins paints characters well, though don’t expect more than archetype for those on the sidelines. This lives up to the hype and I look forward to seeing the post-apocalyptic world fleshed out in the rest of the trilogy. I enjoyed this more than many recent thrillers written for adults, and while some are iffy on questioning government authority when they agree with who is in power, it is always a good subject for readers of any age.

Highly recommended.

© 2012 Thomas Pluck
I post on Twitter as TommySalami ~ My Facebook Page


If you need a dose of immature potty humor and ’80s metal nostalgia, or if you don’t, check out my story “Not With a Bang, But a Squeaker,” finally published in fully unexpurgated form at the beautifully designed Schlock Magazine‘s Apocalypse issue.

They got Marco Attard to draw a stunning tableaux of our four heroes and their dark lord before they embark on the metalest armageddon ever. Meet Carl, Arf, Eddie and The Incredible Hersch as they bargain with the devil himself to become The Four Horsemen, which they only know about from the song on Metallica’s first album.

And check out the whole issue, they did a great job…

© 2011 Thomas Pluck

movie compactor

To conserve paper, I have reviewed 5 recent movies in one post. With one week to the Oscars I still haven’t seen a few. I’m hoping to see The White Ribbon this weekend. Gonna skip Crazy Heart, as much as I like Jeff Bridges, because I saw Tender Mercies. But these are worth seeing:

Big Fan
Patton Oswalt as “that guy,” the face-painting home team obsessed freako who lives in mom’s basement and stays up late to rant on the local AM sports talk radio show. Oswalt once again shows his enormous range (you thought I was gonna say ass, didn’t you?) by totally becoming this role. Written and directed by the screenwriter of The Wrestler, we know to expect him to be a busted up shell of a man filling a hole in himself with his fanaticism. He sees his team’s quarterback one night and he and his buddy follow him to a strip club, and work up the guts to approach him. Things happen and he gets assaulted, and must decide just how much he’ll suffer for his home team. It’s a bit weak in the third act and ending, but as a character study it’s pretty gripping. This is one of the better films of last year that was sadly overlooked, and a fine first directorial effort for Onion alumnus Robert D. Siegel.

4 face-painters out of 5

Big Fan on Netflix

The Blind Side
This movie’s getting a lot of hate. Straight up: I enjoyed it. I think we’ve become accustomed to discounting uplifting fare as inherently shallow, and while it may be a stretch to nominate this for Best Picture, if Avatar is up there this has every right to be. The Hollywood take on Michael Oher’s rise to football stardom, this is a sports story with a deeply human element that is unafraid to tell us what we’re supposed to mean when we say “Christian charity.” The Tuohy family is rich; Mr. Tuohy is a former basketball superstar who now runs a gaggle of fast food franchises. The film obliquely points the finger at our millionaire sports heroes to perhaps give a little back, as Mrs. Tuohy- played with organic brilliance by Sandra Bullock, in what will hopefully be a controversial Oscar-winning performance that will bump Marisa Tomei’s win for My Cousin Vinny as the film snobs’ “least deserved award” category- decides to do the right thing and bring the practically-orphaned “Big Mike” Oher under her wing. This is old-school Hollywood storymaking, not unlike Slumdog Millionaire without Danny Boyle’s directorial strength. John Lee Hancock does a workmanlike job. He also wrote the screenplay, which to the real Michael Oher’s chagrin, makes him a sort of football oaf to begin with, when he was rather skilled by the time the Tuohys helped him. The real story is how they overcome their fear and saw Michael as a person, and shared their abundance of both the material and the emotional to make him part of their family. So what if it’s couched in a tale written for the demographic where both sexes love football from birth? It’s uplifting without being smarmy, and isn’t as simple as its critics claim it to be.

4 out of 5 ladies who lunch but also give back to their community

The Blind Side on Netflix

The Road
Adapting Cormac McCarthy is difficult but obviously possible; No Country for Old Men, anyone? This one’s not so easy, as much of the story is internalized. The screenplay veers from the source at times, to give us a female character to please the bean counters; I felt this was a distracting mistake. The story is simple- an unknown disaster has cut the shackles of civilization and returned man to his more bestial state, and a father resolves to protect his son from the ravages of cannibals and nature, so he may “carry the fire” of humanity, and bring hope to the bleak future. How does the world end? In this version we know it’s a bang, when it was left ambiguous before. Does it matter if it’s a whimper, or fire or ice? Not really, in the grand scheme of things. Humanity is consuming itself, literally. What the movie gets right is showing how the father- Viggo Mortensen- loses hope. How can he carry the fire when it has gone out inside him? Like Frank Darabont’s similar take with The Mist, the father’s protective drive has corrupted him. I found this a little too spoonfed, and I didn’t care for the flashbacks to the mother, though I see the parallels and contrasts director John Hillcoat (The Proposition) was making. My suggestion: see this first if you haven’t read the book yet, and let the book expand on it.

4 out of 5 long pig banquets

The Road on Netflix

Everybody’s Fine
Robert DeNiro plays a retired widower, who Harry Chapin was singing about in “The Cat’s in the Cradle.” He drove his children to be ambitious and worked hard while his wife handled family matters, and now that she’s gone, no one has time to visit. It surprised me by shifting alliances, showing the old man’s own flaws and how past wounds run deep. This one rises above the standard tearjerker, but never goes much further. Bobby is always endearing and is perhaps the perfect image of that sort of hard working family man who was always too tired to really give to his family, but I never really felt his sadness, like Jack Nicholson managed in the similar film About Schmidt. This was based on an Italian classic from the 90’s entitled Stanno tutti bene, starring the unequaled Marcello Mastroianni, and the new script has some nice touches. Bobby made PVC casing for telephone wires, and only talks on land lines (rather like Paulie from Goodfellas); his children are well played by Drew Barrymore, Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale. At first they seem like the usual busy, ungrateful kids but bloom into real people. It’ll do well on cable.

3.5 out of 5 million miles of wire

Everybody’s Fine on Netflix

Food, Inc.
Are you eating? Might want to read this later. This should be for the modern food industry what Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was for turn of the century sausage factories, but I doubt many people saw it. Like the lackluster dramatization Fast Food Nation, this documentary exposes the industrialized network of factory farms and how it accepts disease and death among us, its customers, to serve its bottom line. I bet you expect the FDA to protect you from this, but the fact is they were created to promote and protect “farmers” and “cattlemen,” who are now mostly large corporate conglomerates benefiting from government-sponsored local monopolies. We see the victims of E. coli poisoning from “undercooked” beef- which would be perfectly safe if it wasn’t contaminated with, you know, shit- and E. coli tainted vegetables infected from manure runoff, since these county-sized slaughterhouse operations can’t dispose of the cow shit, which could probably fill one of the Great Lakes. Don’t criticize them too loudly, for they are protected by Federal Law (just ask Oprah, who was prosecuted for saying she wouldn’t eat beef until we tested all our cattle for Mad Cow disease, which we still don’t).

Genetically Modified foods are explored as well; they concentrate on Monsanto, not for abstract fear of “frankenfood” as some call it, but for how they have patented life, cornered the market on soybeans, and made it illegal for farmers who purchase their seed to … plant the seeds that were naturally produced. Plants produce seeds; but you can only plant the ones you buy from Monsanto. Your food now comes with a service agreement. It’s an eye-opening documentary, and while I found The Cove important, this is more so. If you wonder why a McMuffin costs less than a head of broccoli, rent this and find out. And wash and cook your food thoroughly. To quote Fast Food Nation, “everybody has to eat a little shit sometime.” Dig in.

5 out of 5 grass-fed free range organic strip steaks, hold the E. coli

Food, Inc. on Netflix

© 2010 Thomas Pluck.

The Mad Max-a-Thon!

Movie Nights With Milky

Last week Milky and I decided to watch all three of the Mad Max movies. Some of the best of the post-apocalyptic genre, the movies that catapulted Mel Gibson to stardom, and some of the best car chases ever. However, it was a bittersweet moment. As a child of the ’80s, Milky was too young to watch the first two, and grew up on Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. He recalled it fondly, reciting Max’s line of “I’m the one who keeps Mr. Dead in his pocketses!” You could watch his heart break as his nostalgic memories crumbled. Unfortunately, they follow the Star Wars Trilogy formula of: First movie is fun, Second movie is brutally awesome, and Third movie is a cash-in to attract kiddie audiences.

Mad Max exploded out of Australia in 1979- a bastard son of the biker exploitation flick, violent cop thriller, depictions of society’s breakdown straight from the ’70s zeitgeist. It recalls such classics as A Boy and His Dog, which the creators cite as an influence, Electra Glide in Blue, the motorcycle cop character drama, Westerns and revenge films. It was shot on a budget so low that they kept repainting the same police cars- the Ford Falcon XB sedans, the “last of the V8 interceptors”- and only Mel Gibson, then unknown, actually got to wear a real leather jacket. The smaller cop parts got vinyl. The plot is simple- Max Rockatansky is the cool as Steve McQueen member of the Motor Police, as society breaks down and the roads become more and more dangerous, with roaming biker gangs and maniacs joy riding. After he takes out a psycho called the Night Rider, his friend Toecutter, leader of an outlaw biker gang, vows revenge on the police.

Toecutter and his fearful flunky Johnny the Boy trap Goose in his flipped truck and burn him alive, which sends Max over the edge. The cops have to play by the rules, and the bikers don’t. Rather than go psycho and become “one of them,” Max takes his wife and infant son on a road trip vacation, but Toecutter and company stalk them and take their revenge. Now Max has nothing to lose, and takes his V8 interceptor, a sawed off shotgun, and his wits to finish off the gang. The crashes are particularly realistic and brutal, owing to the remote stretches of Australian highway and some excellent or very lucky stunt work. We see cop cars explode through mobile homes, vans twisted like tin foil, bikers explode like meatballs against tractor trailer grilles. The infamous ending, where Max handcuffs Johnny’s ankle to a burning wreck and throws him a hacksaw, making him choose whether to cut steel or flesh before the gas tank explodes, is one of the most brutal and memorable avengings ever filmed.

Today, the low budget of the film is quite evident in some of the make-up effects, the sound quality, and how some scenes are edited, but it still holds up very well. First time actors abound, but they are among classically trained fellows. It takes time to introduce us to the character of Max Rockatansky, as if the film makers knew he’d be coming back. Sure, some of his cop pals like Fifi- a big bald guy who wears a silk scarf- evoke some chuckles, and the lawyers who get Johnny Boy off are hilarious stereotypes, but as a whole this remains one of the best revenge pictures of the 70’s. So much that it would be released in the states with an American overdub to save us from Aussie slang and accents! I urge you to watch the original, it’s available on the Special Edition DVD.

Goodbye, Johnny the Boy!

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior was inevitable after the success of the first film, and unlike most sequels, it is superior in every way. It’s a marvel of concise film making, depending on a short introduction with narration to recall Max’s tragedy in the first movie, and the complete breakdown of society that transpired shortly afterward. It’s intentionally vague: “two mighty warrior tribes went to war and touched off a blaze which engulfed them all.” It never mentions nuclear Armageddon, and I prefer to think that oil dried up and society devoured itself. We meet Max again on the road in his Interceptor, modified with huge gas tanks, booby traps, roll cage and supercharger; he’s got a Blue Heeler along side him. A Man and His Dog. With marauders in pursuit of his sweet ride and its tank of precious juice…

The bikers have gone full tribal, guns and ammo are scarce, so they wield bludgeons and crossbows. Reduce, re-use, recycle. A mohawked maniac named Wez gets shot in the arm by friendly fire, due to Max’s superior driving skills, and a silent feud begins between the two. They will meet again. The mood and theme of the story are told perfectly in this opening scene as Max faces off the wounded biker, antsy as he watches a bad guy’s car spilling fuel on the roadway. He’ll risk his life to sop up a few more ounces of the gas. For anyone who remembers the lines around the block at gas stations during the oil embargo, it hits home.

Coolest dog ever!

Max is as cool as they come, eking out a lone survival with his dog at his side. He barely speaks a word for the first half hour of the film. He comes upon a gyrocopter in the desert, with a poisonous snake guarding its fuel, but he’s fast enough to grab it before it strikes. Borrowing heavily from The Man With No Name of the Clint Eastwood-Sergio Leone films- he’ll actually be called this in the next sequel- Max is a little more human and vulnerable. It’s one of Gibson’s best roles, because he lacks that cocksure star power that sinks most action stars. I could recount every scene of the movie, because it’s that good, and so many are memorable. But if you haven’t seen this, it holds up incredibly well. Max takes the gyro captain prisoner, and they see the bikers Max fought earlier, surrounding a walled encampment around an oil refinery. They can’t escape, and the bikers can’t get the gas. Enter Max, who found a tractor trailer, that could haul their tanker of gas to freedom…

The leader of the bikers, The Humungous, is as iconic as they come. A masked, musclebound freak who looks like Jason Voorhees crossed with Arnold Schwarzenegger, his growled, Germanic taunts make him instantly fearsome. His men strap the wounded enemy to their vehicles as human shields. Inside the compound, the last vestiges of humanity are led by Papagallo (big chicken?) with flamethrowers, bow wielding warrior women, and feral children with razor-bladed boomerangs. Max is in between, mistaken for a marauder at first. He works a bargain- he’ll get the truck, for as much gas as he can carry. They want him to join them, but he refuses. Just the deal.

In post-apocalyptic films, children should not speak, but be spoken to

The set pieces with the tanker truck are still some of the best car chases on film. First, Max has to get the bobtail into the compound, and he plows through the biker camp like a juggernaut. Director George Miller- who’d oddly enough move on to 3D features like Happy Feet– inserts quick comic shots, like a tent being pulled away to reveal a naked couple, to keep the mood from becoming as brutal as the first film. He manages just the right balance. I told Milky that the Feral Kid isn’t annoying like Short Round because he can’t speak, and I hold fast to that statement. There’s a camp sense- one of the baddies drives a pink Chevy Bel-Air and has a pink beard- but it never gets smarmy or silly, as in the final chapter.

Once Max returns the truck he leaves alone, and loses everything once again- only the Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence, the Mouth of Sauron among many other roles) manages to save him. So he decides to join up and help them escape, driving the tanker. Why? Because it’s suicidal; Max doesn’t want to be human again, even if he’ll never sink to the lows of the Humongous and his ilk. But a last mad dash through a swarm of psychos appeals to him. And the final chase remains a thrilling, insane update to Buster Keaton’s locomotive stunt film The General and has yet to be topped. It may also have been inspired by Race with the Devil, where cultists chase Warren Oates and Peter Fonda in an RV, and countless Westerns where Indians chase stagecoaches.

The stunts were incredibly dangerous, and the infamous ass over teakettle biker flipping through the air was an actual accident that broke the stunt man’s leg. The driver of the tanker was told to not eat for 12 hours prior to the crash stunt, in case he had to be rushed to surgery. Some of the footage is sped up a bit, but most of the road chase is at good speed, and the tanker demolishes many, many vehicles. What’s surprising of Mad Max 2 is that no one is safe; nowadays you know the paralyzed mechanic, and the hot chick are going to survive. Nuh-uh! They die horribly this time. And our hero is gets a very cynical trick pulled on him. It makes for a very memorable ending, and a “second entry” that stands on its own.

The Tanker Chase

The third time around they had a huge American-style budget and unfortunately, for the clumsily named Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, they tried to broaden the appeal by making it PG-13 and included a funny midget, a Lord of the Flies in the Outback, and Tina Turner as Auntie Entity, a name which makes no sense. The Humongous was obvious; he was … humongous! Toecutter, well I guess if you cross him, your toes would be cut. But Auntie Entity… say it three times fast, and if you’re a 12 year old boy you’ll be … tittering. Heh.

This one is half a reboot, because while Max is older with straggly gray hair, and a herd of camels are towing his truck, guns are more plentiful, radiation is mentioned, and when the Gyro Captain shows up, they don’t recognize each other! Oh, it’s infuriating. But the movie isn’t awful and does have its charms, especially if you fast forward from when Max is sent to the Gulag to the chase at the end. That leaves out the whole second act, the Lord of the Flies homage, which is utterly contrary to the mood of the series. The Airplane Kids are the Ewoks of the Mad Max world, and it’s a shame only one of them dies. It really would have been better if they all died in an explosion that sent Max into a murderous rage, but what can you do. It was 1985.

No, Pinkbeard doesn’t return for Thunderdome, sadly.

The Gyro Captain (cough, I mean “Jedediah the pilot”) steals Max’s caravan, so he tracks them to Bartertown- an aptly named place where people go to trade. Also, for the first time, Max encounters people without Australian accents. Must’ve been tourists before civilization collapsed, I guess. Max barters his skills as a killer, showing off his stuff by blasting the headdress off a knife-swinging tough with his sawed-off. Very Indiana Jones. The fat merchant who decides who can enter, The Collector, sees promise in Max for a sinister plan, and introduces him to the supposed leader of Bartertown: Auntie Entity. Played by Tina Turner in a chain mail dress, she’s actually believable and quite good. She shows Max why they need him by taunting the leader of the city’s underworld, Master Blaster, into putting the town’s pig-shit fueled power supply on Embargo, and her lip quivers with the sting of acknowledgement that she is beholden to the little man’s power. And she’ll kill to be free of his fetters.

To avoid strife, she wants a stranger to do it- so Max is recruited to pick a fight with the hulking two-headed behemoth, a helmeted giant with a midget on his back barking orders. Master is played by little person Angelo Rositto, who’d been in Tod Browning’s Freaks and the ’70s midget crime caper Little Cigars. Unfortunately, he speaks in broken English, spouting things like “him brain broken! my vehicle. You… pedestrian!!” This makes him a bit too twee for a guy who orders his giant to strangle people, and fight in the Thunderdome with chainsaws. But nevermind. Max wants his car back, and Master Blaster has it, so he picks a fight, and all disputes are settled in the Thunderdome. You know the story. Two men enter. One man leaves.

Max fights, and learns Master Blaster’s secret- that the murderous giant is mentally challenged. The score by Maurice Jarre swells with pathos as we look at his face, to make us forget that just moments ago, he stabbed someone with a spear and was trying to cut Max in half with a chainsaw! It does this twice, and it’s really sickening. Thankfully, Auntie’s men can’t hear the soundtrack, and shoot him with crossbows, put Master in tiny chains, and subject Max to the Wheel of Fortune. Break a deal, face the wheel. The possible outcomes on the Wheel are: – Death – Hard Labour – Acquittal – Gulag – Aunty’s Choice – Spin Again – Forfeit Goods – Underworld – Amputation – Life Imprisonment. I was hoping for “Lose a Turn” but no such luck. Max gets… Gulag.

Gulag is especially ignominous, because not only to they tie you to a donkey and shove you off into the desert, put they also put a humiliating Mardi Gras head on you. This way, if anyone sees you, they’ll be too busy laughing to rescue you. And it almost works. But as Max’s donkey dies of dehydration and is swallowed by quicksand, he is found by a wandering nomad. A child, who drags him back to her oasis. She thinks he is Captain Walker, the airplane pilot who abandoned them years ago. She and her Lord of the Flies tribe of cutesy-talking kids want him to take them to Tomorrowmorrow land, the place they’ll finded after the pockyclipse. Yes, they really talk like this. Between them and Master Blaster, there’s way too much baby talk in this movie for it to be a Mad Max story.

If only dingoes had eaten them all as babies!

And this sequence drags on forever, as Max refuses to lead them, and they go off on their own, and he has to save them, and then they’re so close to Bartertown that they just up and decide to free Master. To be generous I’ll say Max wants to steal Master away to destroy the town’s power supply and stick it to Auntie for crossing him, and this leads to what should be the best car chase of the series, but it’s just a rehash of Road Warrior on train tracks. Not horrible, but we’ve seen it before. And guess who shows up at the end? Bruce Spence as Jedediah, who captains a little cropduster instead of a gyro these days. And he has a son like Feral Kid, except he talks. He lives conveniently at the end of the line, so they can escape on his plane. I could have forgiven this vegemite ex machina if Max and Jed recognized each other. He could have just said “You again!” but no, another opportunity lost.

Now, I’ve complained a lot but it’s not that bad, despite being overlong and toned down. The Bartertown sequence is quite memorable and has become part of popular culture, at least on the nerd quadrants of the internet. It’s not quite an offensive end to the trilogy, but like Jedi, seems crafted to appeal to kids. Vernon Wells, so memorable as Wez the mohawked marauder, was busy playing Bennett in Commando and the evil biker in Weird Science and did not return. I wonder if they asked. Other than Max, he’s the most iconic star of the series.


World War Z

Personally I think zombies are a little played out. Romero had a good little run up until ’85. The remake of Dawn of the Dead, and the subsequent “fast” zombie movies like 28 Days Later… and [Rec] (full review) were good; I enjoyed the recent, tongue in cheek Nazi zombie flick Dead Snow (full review) as well. Shaun of the Dead and Fido made us laugh at them. But I think the last zombie movie for a good long while should be the adaptation of Max Brooks’ excellent novel World War Z.
Taking inspiration from Studs Terkel, the master of American oral history, the novel is written as the personal, unedited memoir of a U.N. historian tasked with writing the facts known of the zombie epidemic that nearly wiped out humanity. It’s strikingly effective, and while Brooks- son of comedy master Mel, and author of the previous cult hit The Zombie Survival Guide– isn’t quite as developed a writer as he may one day be, he manages to craft a gripping narrative by knowing what to include and what to leave as mystery. Some of his characters are a little cliché, but he hits the mark more often than not, and the ones that work really sink their infected unliving teeth into you.

He models the epidemic- the true roots of which are never fully explained- on the influenza virus, which slaughtered millions in the previous century. The tendrils of globalism that link every nation, legitimate and illicit, work against us. And he models the reaction of various nations somewhat on the “War on Terror,” fought in the background by our militaries to keep us free to shop, bereft of any sacrifice. And as the title promises, all hell breaks loose. Brooks is quite imaginative and comes up with many unique and clever scenarios that a living dead menace can provide. Zombies on ships, tossed overboard, walk ashore months later. And continue to long after the war is “over.”
Because really, are zombies scary? Lumbering, stupid, slow. You watch a mediocre zombie flick and wonder how anyone is dumb enough to get killed. Well, Brooks makes you scared. The infamous Battle of Yonkers, where conventional warfare faces an onslaught of millions of New York “infected” is brilliant in crafting a real sense of terror about the creatures. Because “smart bombs” aren’t smart enough to hit ’em in the brain. As in Dead Snow, what happens when they freeze in winter? Each spring spawns new terror for the survivors.

Brooks did a lot of research into everything from weapons, epidemics, geopolitics, and war plans before writing the novel. Having read Terkel’s excellent history of World War 2, The Good War, I could see it was a major influence. He talks to different sides and his characters have different viewpoints. Sometimes he wears his heart on his sleeve a bit, but he manages to create a believable apocalyptic future. If you’ve read so much as a Crichton thriller, this is for you. Don’t dismiss it as “science fiction,” or “horror,” or whatever genre pigeonhole you like. It’s a damn good novel, and hopefully it will be a damn good movie. But honestly, unless it’s as gritty as Children of Men I’d rather it remain a book only. Mr. Romero, we thank you for bringing zombies into popular culture in 1968; but your last few films tell me that you’d best serve as a consultant, or even just a dedication in the credits. This is not your zombie movie.

Carriers may actually get released

My cousin Lou’s latest movie in post hell is Carriers, with Piper Perabo. A horror movie directed by the Pastor brothers, the title tells it all- after an apocalyptic virus pandemic, a group of friends find out why they ain’t dead yet: they’re carriers! It’s been held up for four years, and looks like it may be going straight to DVD. I’ll see it of course, it’s too bad it didn’t make it to theaters. If stuff like The Haunting in Connecticut (full review of that turd) can get its weekend in the sun of naive teenager money, a post-apocalyptic horror flick sure should.

Bloody Disgusting has some more news. I miss the days of tasteless filmmaking when this would’ve been released during the height of the swine flu panic. I found out about it over at Tractor Facts where they were goofing on the poster, which looks like some sort of zombie softporn: