One of the greatest worst movies ever made, “Birdemic: Shock and Terror,” comes out on DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow (you can also rent it from Netflix). In commemoration of this historic day, here is my feature on the film’s New York City premiere in March of 2010.
A few minutes past midnight on Friday, a man in a gray suit and bright red tie took to the stage of the IFC Center’s Theater One and, to the applause of the sold-out audience, proudly waved a wire coat hanger in the air like an athlete brandishing the Olympic torch. This borderline deranged behavior would only draw an enthusiastic positive response at two places: a Joan Crawford impersonators’ convention or the New York City premiere of “Birdemic: Shock and Terror,” a eco-horror romantic thriller that has been dubbed “the next hilariously great cult movie” by no less an appropriate outlet than Vulture.com.
The hanger-wielding man in the suit was “Birdemic” writer/director James Nguyen, a software salesman by day who boasted that he “went to the film school of Hitchcock cinema” during the introductory Q & A. Arguably, he also could’ve attended the film school of Ed Wood cinema, since “Birdemic” feels far more indebted to Wood’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space” with its blend of ultra-low budget filmmaking and cuckoo bananas ecological message, than anything by the Master of Suspense.
To be clear: I mean that as a compliment. I was laughing so hard that tears were running down my face even before the end of the opening credits sequence, which blends title cards like “Moviehead Pictures Presents… A Moviehead Production” with the most artless, endless and pointless driving scenes since “Manos: The Hands of Fate.” “Birdemic” is the rare film worthy of comparison to “Plan 9,” “Troll 2,” “Battlefield Earth” and “The Room” as one of the best bad movies ever made. A still of any of its laughably unconvincing bird-related special effects would be the ideal illustration in any reprinting of Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’, “ particularly if placed alongside the paragraph that reads:
“In naïve, or pure, Camp the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.”
Ed Wood had aliens threaten mankind for their use of atomic energy. Nguyen has two different characters — an ornithologist and a treehouse-dwelling hippie — deliver subtlety-free pro-environment monologues that pin the blame for the avian chaos on mankind’s wasteful habits. During his introduction, Nguyen cribbed from an old Jack Warner line in his claim that the film was “not here to send a message. If I wanted to do that I’d use a post office.” Yet “Birdemic”‘s shock and terror is rooted in a kind of didactic ecological panic that makes M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening” look relatively cogent in comparison.
My own personal measuring stick for camp movie greatness has five dimensions: poor acting, bad dialogue, enormous plot holes, technically incompetent filmmaking, and inexplicable personal touches indicative of the naïve passion Sontag talked about. “Birdemic” hits them all. It has a leading man (Alan Bagh) who always looks like he just woke up from a nap. It has lines of dialogue like “That was a great movie! ‘An Inconvenient Truth!'” It has characters who make hilariously bad decisions, like stopping for a leisurely outdoor picnic in the middle of a bird invasion. It has a timeline that makes absolutely no sense — in one implausible and very busy week, the hero makes $1 million when his software company is acquired by Oracle, invents a new kind of non-silicon-based solar panel, builds a start-up company around it, convinces a venture capitalist to invest $10 million in his idea, gets a new girlfriend and is attacked by hundreds of eagles and vultures. Finally, “Birdemic” has maybe the worst sound mix of any film that has ever received a theatrical release in major venues around the country. (You know what the last line of the film is? Me neither. I couldn’t hear it over the sound of the wind howling through the microphone.)
And it’s all done in support of Nguyen’s deeply felt and clumsily delivered lefty politics, which come through in the go-green speechifying, the character who repeatedly wears an ImaginePeace.com T-shirt, and a bunch of interminable driving scenes which initially seem to exist only to pad the running time but are ultimately revealed as a poorly chosen stab at social commentary. The characters in “Birdemic” literally drive themselves to death, a clunky Woodian metaphor for the message Nguyen insists he’s not sending. It was just as the director predicted in his introduction. “After they make love,” he told us, “when the eagles and vultures attack, you will understand why the eagles and vultures attack.”
Nguyen was referring to the “they” of Bagh’s software salesman Rod and Whitney Moore’s aspiring lingerie model Nathalie, who’s having an impressive week herself. She goes from a photo shoot in a strip mall film development lab straight to the cover of the Victoria’s Secret catalog. Incredible! Although Nguyen insisted “there’s foreboding, there’s foreshadowing” during Rod and Nathalie’s courtship, other than a few ominous news reports and one dead bird at the beach, there’s no warning of impending birdoom until Rod and Nathalie consummate their relationship in a sex scene that ends with a pan down to the couple playing footsie. The next morning, they awake — she in her underwear and he fully dressed (including his belt!) — to the sounds of birdestruction.
In the resulting panic, Rod and Nathalie run into a couple who, without immediate explanation, just happen to have a bunch of assault rifles in their van. (The infamous wire hangers are the weapon of choice to fend off the birds until they can reach the guns). They flee the birdevastation in their California hometown of Half Moon Bay and stop at a car crash, where they somehow know a boy is hiding inside the trunk of one of the vehicles even though everyone else in the car is dead and he doesn’t make any noise.
Instead of seeking safety somewhere birds couldn’t get them — say, a building with a large concrete basement — Rod and Nathalie’s strategy for avoiding birds is to go to all the places birds like to hang out, like the beach or the forest, and run away from them. Do these people deserve to die? I wouldn’t go that far. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say they deserve to live, either.
Asked what he hoped people would take away from his film, Nguyen said, “After 90 minutes, after good laughs and being entertained, I hope some of you walk away thinking.” The crowd, which applauded, cheered, rhythmically clapped, groaned and laughed throughout “Birdemic” lingered in the lobby long after the film ended, huddled in groups, talking enthusiastically about the experience. At least one viewer walked away thinking something — that he had seen something truly remarkable. And if birds start to kill people, the beach is probably not the safest place to hide.
UPDATE: To promote the “Birdemic” DVD, director James Ngyuen spoke with The Wall Street Journal and mentioned he is working on a “Birdemic” sequel, the awkwardly titled “Birdemic 2: The Resurrection 3-D.” Nguyen told WSJ‘s Todd Gilchrist, “We’re shooting in real 3-D with actual 3-D equipment, and I’ve completely mastered the art of 3-D cinematography.” I would make a joke here, but do I really need to?