HAROLD’S GOING STIFF (2012)
We all know that horror movies can have metaphors, adding depth and weight to a traditionally scary tale. Especially with our zombie friends: George Romero paved the way for our revenant friends to be symbols of consumerism in DAWN OF THE DEAD, Lucio Fulci’s dead depicted Third World masses rising up against colonialism, Edgar Wright made them avatars of postponed adolescence in SHAUN OF THE DEAD, and Danny Boyle’s zombies in 28 DAYS LATER (and yes, they were zombies) represented our short-tempered, attention-deficited road rage-driven modern society (Maybe. Or I could just be talking bullshit).
And now director/writer Keith Wright has found a new metaphor, and with his new movie HAROLD’S GOING STIFF, one of the most unusual ‘zombie’ movies I’ve seen in a long time, and I’m not just talking about the innuendo-laden title.
The film is done in the style of a British mockumentary set in the north of England. A new disease is spreading throughout the country: Onset Rigor Disease (ORD). The disease, which only affects men who have eaten local sausage snack Meat-A-Rino, is a long-term chronic condition which manifests itself in three stages: an arthritis-like extreme stiffness of the joints, and then dementia and, finally, aggression, where they shamble off and seemingly threaten others in a familiar manner.
The disease is widespread, and local health authorities are stretched to breaking point with managing the crisis. The general public and the tabloid media call the diseased zombies, but according to scientists that term is factually incorrect. Not that this stops those bands of self-appointed vigilantes from going out and dealing with the zombies in their own inimitable fashion.
The movie opens on three of these vigilantes, moronic Yorkshire cousins of the rednecks in Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, taking advantage of the situation, taking trophies and making jokes among the ‘zombies’ they put down. And their actions are sanctioned by the local police, who are already overstretched in maintaining public order (one aspect which at first I considered unrealistic, but which changed as I continued to watch). The vigilantes also talk about the Big Prize they’ve loved to bag: Harold Grimble (Stan Rowe) a sort of Patient Zero, the first recorded sufferer of ORD.
We then segue to Harold himself, a widowed pensioner living on his own, managing as best he can in his squalid home. Unlike other patients, the disease has not progressed in him so far as to degrade his mental faculties and make him homicidal. His only visitor is Penny, a genial and cheerful nurse and physical therapist, and someone who’s equally lonely. She goes online to look for love, but as we see her futile efforts and the boorish pricks she encounters, she gradually accepts that her only meaningful relationship is with Harold, a gentleman from an older time, and theirs becomes a HAROLD AND MAUDE style friendship.
When the reports of attacks go on the increase, and the local doctors come to Harold to ask him to submit to an experimental cure, Penny agrees to accompany him. And the cure seems to work. At least at first…
Like many British horror fans, writer/director Keith Wright grew up in the era of illicit VHS copies of the infamous Video Nasties, but the inspiration for his low budget drama was much more personal. “I had a grandmother who had dementia, and over the course of 15, 20 years she became to me zombified. It was in a quite horrific way, obviously, because that’s a real person who disappears. I was really intrigued that it could work for a zombie film, that you could project it onto the genre.”
The nearest equivalent to a movie like this that I’ve seen was AMERICAN ZOMBIE (2007), another mockumentary offering a sympathetic view of zombies. And Wright’s take focuses more on the emotional impact of such a transformation rather than blood and gut-munching. “You see Harold in his world. He is old, he is ill, and this shining light comes into his life in the shape of this nurse,” Wright said. “The horror is about that fear of getting old, of being alone and ill. Those things scare me the shit out of me more than any film I’ve ever seen.”
I did have problems with it. Some of the humour proves unnecessary, even jarring: shots of Meat-A-Rino addicts, the stiffened lab mice, the Stooge-like antics of the vigilantes and even the Monty Python Silly Walks some of the afflicted do. It’s a likeable, poignant enough movie on its own without these, as was proven by the reaction of the fans when it was shown at the Dead by Dawn horror festival in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Some might criticise that HAROLD’S GOING STIFF didn’t need the Zombie tag to it, and you can make arguments supporting that. But I think the movie did need it, to reach out to people that wouldn’t necessarily watch a movie about a nurse carrying for an elderly patient. The movie has a lot to say, about how we see and treat the elderly, those with disabilities and dementia, how we shut them away in homes and treat them like children or animals. The British Government is currently trying to strip disability benefits down to the bone, and the tabloids are painting all the disabled as freeloaders and scroungers, and as a result, violence and discrimination against the disabled is on the increase. Given this, the events we see here don’t seem all that far-fetched.
Director: Keith Wright (and writer)
Plot: 3 out of 5 stars
Gore: 2 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 3 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Derek “Deggsy” O’Brien