Zombos Says: Fair
It came to this; a setting sun lingering at the warm edge of approaching night, watched from three rocking chairs indecisively teetering back and forth on their compass tips, saddled by three bored and restless riders of the stiff-slatted pines.
In between a dot and a dash rode Zombos, Lawn Gisland, and me, to nowhere in particular as we traded silences and hiccups on the terrace. The footfalls of summer could be heard bounding up the steps, bringing with them the sizzle of barbecues, giggly splashes from pools, and the monotonous drone of air conditioners humming through hot, molasses-sticky, nights where forgotten candy bars melted in jean pockets, mosquitoes danced to the crackling of ice cubes in sweaty glasses of lemonade and iced tea and soda, and texting fingers Keystone Copped their slippery grasp on hot cell phones.
"I am not looking forward to estivating by the seashore or anywhere near a barbecue," said Zombos, absently swirling the iced tea around in his glass.
"Mind chewing on that a bit more for me?" asked Lawn Gisland, lazily swatting a fly off the pitiado floral rose on his right boot. He yawned larger than a barn door opens and stretched his long legs out in front of him. Former movie cowboy and now traveling circus rodeo star, he was never one for estivating in all his long ranging years.
"Pass the summer," explained Zombos. "Estivate means to pass the summer."
We stared off into the waters of Long Island Sound as it grew dark. Zimba brought us another round of iced tea. Lawn took the half-lemon, cut just for him, and squeezed it between his massive fingers. We often joked that if he wanted so much lemon in his iced tea he should be drinking lemonade.
"Oh, I almost forgot, this came today," said Zimba. She held up The Burrowers DVD.
I jumped up faster than Zombos. "Last one in is a really bad egg!" I said, snatching the DVD. Zombos and Lawn quickly followed me as we hurried to watch this Western horror tale.
Lurking monsters spoil the tranquil Western Plains in J.T. Petty's The Burrowers; an almost refreshing mix of creature-feature, saddle-sores, and the American Old West. I say almost because, while Petty mines the bitter social climate between Indian and settler after the Trail of Tears and the demise of the bison—a once plentiful food source for the Indians—he doesn’t dig deep enough into his characters or embellish their actions to make this a definitive terror on the range Wild West story.
Homesteaders are massacred during the night. A search party is quickly formed to go after the Indians who everyone assumes butchered the men and kidnapped the womenfolk. While you may be tempted to draw comparisons to John Ford's The Searchers, that would be a bad trail to follow. Ford composed an emotionally-charged journey that eventually forces one man to confront his prejudicial demons, and shot it against sumptuous vistas of sky and land where the deer and the antelope play. While Petty uses his budget-lens quite well to show the desolation across vast distances and makes his assembled posse just as calloused with similar prejudices, its riders and their intentions pale in comparison. No one worth a tinker's damn stands out from the tumbling tumbleweed to take the bull by the horns or, in this case, the ugly as a mud fence Burrowers by their withers through his shallow direction.
Clancy Brown's tall and sure character, John Clay, is not given enough dialog or motivation to sink his spurs into. The brash relationship between the slow moving cavalry, wanting to treat every Indian as hostile and hang them high, the lovelorn Coffey (Karl Geary) wanting to move with more urgency to get his kidnapped fiancé back, and Clay's impatience with the cavalry's youthful commander never heats to branding iron hot in this story. And as soon as the riding gets rough, the Indian-hunting cavalry and the more determined group of rescuers, led by Clay, go their separate ways after a brief confrontation, splitting the tension, but not intensifying it. Also left behind is any hope of recalcitrance, growth in characters, or mighty clashes of egos to move this period piece beyond the more contemporary getting picked off, one by one, formula.
Petty makes the horror palpable through brief glimpses of the hungry quadrupeds skulking in the bushes, waiting for the cowpokes to fall asleep. The way in which the Burrowers paralyze their victims, bury them, still conscious, in shallow graves to ‘season the meat’—you will know what I mean when you watch the movie—and then chow down after a few days wait is gruesome. But he never moves beyond the lazy horror movie tempo of stalking and dying. If you have watched a few contemporary horror movies, you know how often it always seems to boil down to one frenetic encounter after another, leading to one victim after another being killed, with emphasis on how creatively or gorily that kill is done. For Clay and his search party, you can break it all down to when an attack will take place—at night—and who will be next; place your bets on the annoying guy who can’t shoot straight. This approach fills the running time; suspense and chills don’t, even when the rescuers find their bullets aren’t effective in holding the Burrowers at bay.
In-between encounters, the cowboys learn a little more about the Burrowers, who mysteriously show up every twenty years, chow down hardy, and then disappear until the next time. When Clay and his party hear that another tribe of Indians knows how to fight these mysterious Burrowers, they go looking for members of that tribe to help them. The method that tribe uses, however, is not quite what the rescuers had in mind, which leads to the only nail-biting showdown with the Burrowers. If only the rest of the movie could have shown more of this.
At one point I hoped the cavalry would show up with a Gatling gun; but maybe the budget squelched such ideas.
After the initial attack on the homestead in the opening minutes, the pace becomes leisurely with little verve to distinguish the proceedings from the usual horror movie situation. When a young survivor from another attack is dug up, she's quickly packed up and sent away with Dobie (Galen Hutchinson), a young man whose mom sent him along with the search party hoping it would make a real man out of him. Not much happens between the paralyzed girl, who can only wiggle her toe against her boot, and Dobie after he is sent back with her, hoping to find a doctor who can help; except for an encounter with the Burrowers that ends on the expected down note.
Eventually you start to wonder how many people are buried in shallow graves lying a few feet away from the riders as they make their way along the trail. At one point, a horse's hoof breaks through the ground—and something more—but Petty keeps his riders moving unawares. The beautiful views of the Plains take on an ominous tone after this, especially when you realize the Burrowers bury their living victims close to where the attack takes place.
The Burrowers fails to use, play with, or dance around the wealth of tropes, clichés, and thematic conventions most of us are familiar with after watching Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Unforgiven, Dances With Wolves, and many other Western shows and movies.
While not exactly a hanging offense, it would have given the story more true grit.