They say that art imitates life, and while there are those that will certainly argue otherwise, in the case of director Wyatt Duvall‘s zombie thriller The South Will Rise Again let’s hope that isn’t the case. Long since banished to the dusty DVD bins at dollar stores, Duvall’s 2009 film begins with a situation that is eerily similar to the events of the past few days.
Following a long and contentious debate upon the floor of the S.C. Statehouse, the men and women of the mostly white General Assembly vote to take down the Confederate battle flag from its position of prominence in front of the capitol building after a German car company threatens to leave the state over the controversial symbol. Money talks, of course. But this one vote has unintended consequences: it awakens the thousands of Confederate soldiers who are buried across the Palmetto State.
Of course, our victims initially have no idea that the world in which they live is about to be upended by a living dead horde of slow-moving zombies in Confederate grey. And for a good portion of the film’s running time — a rather measured 45 minutes — nary a walker is to be seen on the screen. Instead Duvall focuses on the characters that will propel the philosophical underpinnings that gird the loins of The South Will Rise, a decision that is at once didactic to a fault and absolutely necessary to carry the grand themes that the director of such schlocky fare as Debbie Does the Living Dead and Were-possoum Versus Meth-headasaurus Rx is aiming for.
Following the opening credits — a Southern mythology menagerie of Confederate memorabilia and old slave auction posters — the film properly begins inside the studios of WWTF, a conservative talk radio station in Charleston, S.C. And the man at the helm during the morning drive hour is none other than Bruno Balboa, a sausage-bodied Italian-American blowhard from New York City who has a serious hard-on for all things Johnny Reb and a penchant for laughing at his cringe-inducing “politically incorrect” jokes.
When we first met Bruno (a woefully miscast Jeff Fahey) he’s in the middle of a rant defending the Confederate flag. Oddly enough, he’s such a dolt that he believes that the best way to do that is to point out that not only were there some black Confederate soldiers but also that some blacks actually owned slaves. He does all of this via an imaginary conversation between a black rebel and a house servant — complete with cringe-worthy impressions the likes of what haven’t been heard since Amos and Andy. And he does this while sitting across from his guests, a former African-American rodeo star turned country singer turned up-and-coming Republican state representative named Tom Pitts and a looney black Neo-Confederate named Robert “E. Lee” Roberts who champions the “heritage not hate” movement dressed as the superhero Captain Confederate.
Most shocking of all, neither man appears to be fazed by Bruno’s bigotry. In fact, “E. Lee” (Wesley Snipes, looking his most haggard) is laughing right along. The legislator (played by Cuba Gooding Jr.) is eerily calm, as if ignoring these kinds of indignities is a skill that he mastered long ago. And with that blank stare alone, Gooding Jr. manages to trump his Oscar-winning performance in Jerry Maguire, but given the Academy’s distaste for horror films, it was no wonder he wasn’t nominated again. Such a shame.
The next 30 minutes of “The South Will Rise” is filled with misinformed nuggets of knuckle-dragging revisionist history and Fox News, Rush Limbaugh-esque anti-black demagoguery. From food stamps to welfare queens, thugs to the apparently lacking verbal communication skills of the average black college football player, all manner of racial bigotry is defended, sometimes even by Pitts himself. Is it out of a fear of that he will be ostracized by his fellow members of the GOP or because he has already been ostracized by the African-American community? That question is never answered.
And then somewhere along the way all hell breaks loose. The trio flees the studio, with female Indian-American gubernatorial candidate Mindy Salley in tow. Salley’s a rather strange and unnecessary addition to the group at first, but her consistent unreciprocated flirtations directed towards Pitts hint at another reason for his blank demeanor.
As for the zombies themselves, ace makeup artist Tom Savini has topped himself once again by providing a type of zombie we haven’t seen before: one that is so fragile that it could break at any moment. It’s almost as if Duvall is suggesting that the arguments which the pro-Confederates use are flimsy at best and nearly non-existent at worst. One stiff wind and these zombies would truly be gone with the wind.
However, like the best zombie movies, the leads have more to fear than just walkers. They have their fellow man.
Enter the League of Confederates, a group of middle-aged flag-wavin’, Nascar-lovin’, right-wing radio listenin’ rednecks who meet each day at a local dinner to discuss exactly how they’re going to take this country back from the Mexicans, the Jews, and the queers. Even though each of the men is well below retirement age, it’s clear from their conversations that they don’t have jobs and no prospect of landing new ones. But it’s also clear that the majority of their woes are self-inflicted. These are men that in many ways the world has left behind. And so when the zombie apocalypse happens, they hide among the living dead and begin to take out those who they have branded their enemies.
Which leads us to the most important moment in the film, and the one that will go down in Gooding Jr.’s career as his most lasting. In one of the most impressive — and intense set pieces — in The South Will Rise Again, the stoic Pitts uses his skills with a lasso to rope a zombie who is about to pounce on Salley. As he throws the rest of the rope over a limb and begins to pull the walker up, he realizes that the zombie is not a zombie at all, but a flesh and blood human, more specifically a member of the League of Confederates. In that instance, Pitts’ look-the-other-way facade melts away as the years of anger come to the surface. It’s the most terrifying moment in a truly terrifying movie.
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