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June 2012

In Defense of Bad Girls

You never watched it. Okay, if you did, you only saw parts of it, in the dim dark year of 1994. It was roundly panned as a "silly Western" because it had four women doing the things that the Young Guns did, and we all know girls don't do that sort of thing. But despite a supremely dumb title, Bad Girls is a surprisingly good movie.

Look, I don't know Westerns. It's just not my genre. And that's largely because I couldn't relate to a silent, gritty Clint Eastwood smoking his way through an incomprehensible plot until he could shoot someone, or John Wayne "acting" as the exact same growly slow-talker in every movie. Women were largely to be murdered (so as to motivate Our Hero), to be captured and rescued (or not) or to beg Our Hero not to do whatever noble thing he's about to do. In other words, window dressing.

So when they say that Bad Girls is a collection of Western cliches, I can't say they're wrong. To me, all Westerns are a collection of cliches. They comprise a romantic view of the Old West, one that bears as little resemblence to the real West as the pirate movies bear to real piracy. Bad Girls is no more realistic and no less silly than Young Guns, but that movie is loudly proclaimed among the best Westerns.

Bad Girls is a pile of fun with a few dark tinges that may have been lost on the all-male reviewers of its time, the ones who panned it as "silly." To me, there was nothing silly about Madeleine Stowe's hard-edged Cody, or what happens to her. There is nothing silly about women surviving terrible abuses and hardships in a world designed to treat them as property, and not very valuable property at that. Yes, it's annoying that there are moments when men act as saviors, but since the antagonists are also all male, I think that balances out.

The point is, Bad Girls is a story about female friendship, about women working together - and they save each other far more often than a man saves them. It's hard not to enjoy Madeleine Stowe's steely gaze and Drew Barrymore's wild ride, and Mary Stuart Masterson and Andi McDowell are enjoyable as the rest of the quartet. In review after review, the male reviewers mocked the women for looking good in their costumes. Because, of course, male heroes of the Old West always had perfect teeth and looked like Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland, Charlie Sheen and Lou Diamond Phillips.

There are some dark corners in Bad Girls, mostly revolving around the realities of women's lives in that time. There is plenty of violence, off-camera sexual violence and hints at rape in Cody's past (statutory and not). The church denies them, society shuns them and the only people who deal with them are the scum of the earth. Masterson sums up their world by shouting at a banker who has denied her land claim, "I was worthless until I married, I'm worthless as a widow. Funny, I had some value as a whore."

It's odd that the people who complained about Bad Girls being unrealistic also complained about the violence they survived, being victimized young and forced into lives where they must be dependent on a man or outcast as unnatural. They felt it was anti-feminist that these women saw their only options to be Madonna or whore, even as the foursome rejected those roles and paid dear prices for their rebellion. Did the movie sin by being unrealistic, or too realistic?

When I go looking for strong female leads, there are damned few in the Hollywood pantheon. Madeleine Stowe cuts a new cloth in Bad Girls, one that I enjoyed watching - even if there were more than a few places where I winced in sympathy. If I've got to watch a Western, I can do a lot worse than Bad Girls.

Dead of Night has a killer bite; with bonus Dead Me!

There's something disconcerting about reading your own demise.

I should know; I've inflicted the experience on many of my friends. But Jonathan Maberry's Dead of Night was my first experience with reading my own death. And strangely enough, it wasn't nearly the most interesting part of the book for me.

The premise for Dead of Night is a step beyond the usual viral contagion or radioactive experiment gone awry. A prison doctor chooses a horrific fate-worse-than-death for a particularly vile serial killer: he injects him with a microscopic parasite that, well, zombifies him. Thirst for flesh, viciousness, totally controlled by the parasite, preserving mental capacity after death, etc. The killer was supposed to rot, still aware, beneath the ground.

Only someone claims the body, a mortician opens the bag and wackiness ensues. Once the bodies fall, they get right back up.

Maberry is one of the modern masters in horror fiction, with stories grounded in intelligent plot and science that, if mostly made up, fakes its mumbo-jumbo very, very well. He also knows how to create a three-dimensional character in only a few short strokes, so that even the mortician who unzips Patient Zero in this particular apocalypse is a human being for whom we can feel compassion. I knew going into this that I was up for a great ride, and he definitely delivered.

The best horror tells us something about ourselves, not just about a boogedy-boo in the woods. The real horror in Dead of Night does not come from the shambling remnants of Stebbins, Pennsylvania. It is in the all-too-realistic actions of police and government, military and medicine. It is the way dispassion becomes a deadened soul, seen not only in the men who make horrible choices believing they are for the greater good, but in our protagonist. It is easy to imagine the Powers That Be making the choices they make in Dead of Night, because it is easy to condemn what you cannot see with your own eyes, to dismiss a stranger instead of a friend.

Meet our heroine: Police officer Desdemona Fox deserves a ranking right up there with Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley and the other, all-too-few brave, damaged women who take up arms in horror fiction. Dez is no prom queen, and she doesn't back into a corner and scream when the bodies sit back up. Neither is she an unfeeling automaton who cannot seem human to us as she goes about her work. She is exactly the kind of character I love to read, and usually they're so rare that I have to write them myself.

The supporting cast is appropriate to small-town America, and their reactions are realistic to say the least. Stebbins has a touch of Pennsylvania grit to it, but it could really be Anytown, U.S.A. It is easy to see the names and faces of your neighbors in the characters caught up in the melee Maberry unleashes on them.

What lifts Dead of Night out of the ordinary zombie screamfest? It's the sense of reality that Maberry wraps around you. None of the government folks making their awful decisions are evil. The prison doctor, the police chief, none of the people are twirling a black mustache. Even Patient Zero had reasons for becoming the horror he became. Maberry doesn't let anyone off the hook; no one is an innocent and no one is the devil. In short, it's just like real life.

Only with bloody teeth.


P.S. The reason Maberry killed me? He asked on Facebook how we'd like to die in a zombie apocalypse. I told him. He liked it. I am honored to die in my preferred manner, and under such a skilled pen. When I see him on tour later this summer, perhaps I shall ask him how he prefers to die...