Monday, September 18, 2017

"Are You Still Interested in a Pituitary Gland?" - The Chilling (1989)


Our next film is 1989's The Chilling, a variation on 1985's Return of the Living Dead but with an additional layer, a fascinating moral dilemma. The dilemma is whether cryogenically freezing bodies is good or evil. (Spoiler: it is evil.)

While The Chilling is a modern classic in my universe, the influential IMDB reviewers of your universe are less convinced of its quality. For example, Coventry writes, "Even in spite of the low budget available, they could have done better. The set pieces, make-up effects and costumes are pitiable." Uriah43 writes, "Everything—the action, the suspense and the horror—seemed tepid. And as a result I can only recommend it to 'zombie' and/or 'animated corpse' enthusiasts. Whichever the case may be." Paul Magne Haakonsen writes, "For a horror movie, then "The Chilling" is really boring and uneventful. And I am sure for a 1989 movie, it wasn't even really scary back then."

These reviews, needless to say, are incorrect. Let me correct the record and attempt to raise The Chilling to its rightful place among the zombie movie pantheon.


The film begins with scrolling educational text, always the mark of a high quality film (see also Rats: Night of Terror). In the case of The Chilling, the text is even more educational than most scrolling texts. It informs the audience that cryogenic laboratories all over the world hold dead people, including Walt Disney, Theodore Roosevelt, and Howard Hughes.

The text ends thusly: "The story you are about to see could occur in your own community...and what if things were to go wrong? The moral and technical dilemmas are obvious. We ask you...would God approve; or is this Satan's work?" The word "Satan" is in red text. Compelling!

Universal Cryogenics, Inc., as the name would imply, is a company that freezes and stories bodies for future revival. We see a body being pumped full of green cryogenic fluid, which replaces the blood. The body is then wrapped in aluminum foil.

Outside the Universal Cryogenics building, a group of picketers is marching. "Stop cryogenics," they chant. One of the protesters says, "Stop freezing humans. They never come back." One of the picket signs says, with great accuracy, "People Are Not Popsicles."


The head doctor at the lab, Dr. Miller, played by Troy Donahue, explains the procedure to a recent widower. "A newly discovered cryogenic freezing fluid, green in color, when injected into the body helps to protect the cells and organs indefinitely. However, the fluid is highly conductive to energy sources, so we have to be careful we insulate all of the patients." This explains the aluminum foil wrapping the bodies.

The doctor's assistant, Mary Hampton, played by the redoubtable Linda Blair, shows the widower around the facility.

On Halloween morning, we watch as a group of thugs in a seedy motel plan a bank job. Even the planning goes wrong, as one of the thugs knifes another one, killing him. "Let's go," says the knifer. Two men leave the motel and get into their car.

They pull up to Kansas City National Bank. Three men get out of the car, leaving a driver inside. The bank robbery goes bad as security guards shoot all the robbers.


The only survivor is the knifer from the previous scene, who is rushed to the hospital with a gunshot wound. "Let's rush this one to ICU," the ambulance driver decides when they reach the hospital.

It turns out the comatose bank robber was Joe Davenport, the son of the recent widower who cryogenically froze his wife. The father rushes to the hospital to inform the doctor that Joe will be put in cryogenic suspension.

The Scottish doctor is concerned. "I feel that cryogenic suspension truly goes against the laws of nature. This frozen suspension that you speak of makes no sense to me and I've never heard of any scientific facts that suggest its possibility."

Nevertheless, a helicopter picks up Joe's comatose body and transfers it to Universal Cryogenics while Ms. Blair's assistant character, Mary Hampton, has coffee with Joe's father. Ms. Blair has a flashback explaining she is living with a drunk man who lashes out at her shoulder and a box of Kleenex on the counter.


Ms. Blair seems to be flirting with the older gentleman.


Troy Donahue's Dr. Miller, meanwhile, is happy a young, unharmed man is arriving. His happiness is due to the fact that he is selling the organs of his cryogenic clients over the phone. "It's a young, healthy specimen...Well, that's just fine, then. We have lots of buyers just waiting for some young hearts and kidneys. Are you still interested in a pituitary gland? Perhaps a cerebellum?"



Mr. Donahue's acting choice is to deliver every line in a slow monotone, as if his character is in fact the one who is "frozen."

As Mr. Donahue explains the procedure, again, to Joe's father, a lab technician named Jerry is removing Joe's organs. The explanation and the operation are intercut skillfully by the film's directors, Jack Sunseri and Deland Nuse.


We are next introduced to Vince, the night security guard played by Dan Haggerty. He and Ms. Blair talk about Halloween, and Mr. Haggerty's desire to dress as Freddy Krueger, though he will be working tonight, which is Halloween.


At night, a thunderstorm rages while Mr. Haggerty and his bespectacled junior security guard play cards. Mr. Haggerty wins every hand, and when the other guard folds and gives up, Mr. Haggerty says, "You make my heart feel good."

A lightning strike cuts the power and fries the backup generator. Without power, the frozen bodies will soon defrost. Thinking logically, Mr. Haggerty decides they must move all the cryogenic containers outside, where it is much colder than inside.

Due to a mixup in labeling the cryogenic tubes, one of the occupied tubes is left inside the building.

To make matters worse, lightning begins striking the tubes outside, coincidentally hitting all of them, and some multiple times. The lightning has two immediate effects. The first is turning the tubes green.


The second is reviving the cryogenically preserved bodies and releasing them as zombies.


The zombies look very poorly preserved, contradicting Mr. Donahue's previous assertion that the green fluid is an effective preservative.


When the guards see a hand grab the edge of a door, Mr. Haggerty--his security guard training obviously kicking in--immediately slams the steel shut, cutting off the hand, which falls to the floor.

The zombies are on the loose, and instead of dispersing onto the streets of Kansas City they enter the cryogenic lab.


Both the guards and the filmmakers ignore the fact that these are cryogenic patients. For unknown reasons, the patients become movie zombies, growling and biting their victims. Perhaps this is due to the fact that their organs have been stolen.

Confusingly, there is another security guard either at the cryogenics lab or a neighboring property. This man wanders among the empty cryogenic tubes and is killed by one of the zombies.

Two men from the power company arrive and search through the empty laboratory for the transformers. One of them walks through miles of industrial corridors adorned with hundreds of chains hanging from the ceiling. A zombie drops athletically from the ceiling and puts the unfortunate power company employee in a judo hold before snapping his neck.

Meanwhile, Ms. Blair and Joe's father return to the cryogenic lab after a pizza date in the man's white limousine. They too explore the miles of industrial corridors with hanging chains.


Also meanwhile, Ms. Blair's drunk boyfriend drives through a tunnel searching for Ms. Blair and her new, aged paramour. As the boyfriend drives, he mumbles drunkenly and jealously, "My girlfriend leaves me on Halloween! Bitch! Her so-called clients trying to get the trick and the treat. When I get to the 'cryenic' lab, I'm gonna give that bastard a real good seeing-to."

A seeing-to is given, but not the one the boyfriend intended. He confronts Ms. Blair and Joe's father in the lab, but Joe's father clocks the drunk boyfriend, leaving him among some unoccupied tubes.

Next, Ms. Blair and Joe's father confront Troy Donahue, who immediately admits to selling human organs for profit, and almost as immediately is attacked by one of the zombies.

Ms. Blair's drunk boyfriend recovers consciousness and runs from the zombies. "It's the devil's work!" he cries to nobody in particular. "It's the devil's work and we're all gonna go to hell!" (This is clearly the "When there's no more room in hell..." speech of The Chilling.)

Everyone continues to run from the zombies, who evolve from making gurgling noises to screaming like dying cats. Mr. Donahue runs to a file room to obtain incriminating files, and he takes one of two ornamental swords from the wall. The other sword is taken by Ms. Blair's drunk boyfriend. The sword proves useful as Troy Donahue skillfully decapitates a zombie.


Mr. Haggerty reemerges after a long period to rescue Ms. Blair and Joe's father with a forklift, in a very impressive stunt.


With further impressive stuntwork, Mr. Haggerty, Ms. Blair, and Joe's father attempt to escape in a car covered with zombies. However, the characters do not escape the parking lot and decide to return to the lab.


The audience finally receives some explanations courtesy of Mr. Haggerty and Joe's father confronting lab tech Jerry at the end of a shotgun. "I want to know how to kill them, that's what I want to know," says Mr. Haggerty.

Joe says, "All I know is you gotta reverse the process. Somehow recreate them."

"That wouldn't work, would it?" asks Joe's father.

"It's all I can think of. As long as they stay warm, they're alive."

"So that's why they ate my partner," concludes Mr. Haggerty logically. Then, apropos of nothing, he says, "You know, you remind me of a wart I had on my hand one time. The doctor burned it off with liquid nitrogen."

"Nitrogen would work," says Jerry.

Jerry stumbles outside, where he has a Western saloon-style fight scene with a zombie, knocking it out with a well-timed punch.


A revived Joe becomes the leader of the zombies. He acquires a sword from Ms. Blair's drunk boyfriend and leads the others through the lab.

The heroes manage to use liquid nitrogen to freeze a handful of the zombies, but the effect is only temporary.


Meanwhile, Mr. Donahue carries his incriminating paperwork through a door conveniently marked "Roof-Top Chopper."


Before he can reach the chopper, however, he is pulled down a staircase by the zombies and then, in a delicious irony, he is pushed into a cryogenic tube and frozen by a zombie who understands how to work the machinery.

The zombies' voices have now evolved from the screaming of cats to the high-pitched nattering of elderly women.

By the end of the night, Joe's father has killed Joe and the lab has been set on fire. And Mr. Haggerty has pulled his dog from the flames, though from a black-and-white flashback it appears the dog might be dead.

In a final twist, we see that the limousine driver has turned green. Presumably, the limo is being driven by one of the zombies.

After the end of the film, the audience is treated to summaries of what happened to the characters after the events depicted in the film, as in all high-quality biopics.

It seems Ms. Blair married the older gentleman and they had a child named Joe, Jr., which was of course the name of her husband's first son, the thug who became a zombie.

Additionally, Mr. Haggerty's character moved to Colorado and befriended a bear, a subtle and sly reference to the actor's most famous character, Grizzly Adams.

We are left pondering the freeze-frame ending with the zombie limousine driver, which appears to have had no consequences on anyone's life, as the end credits, which last nearly five minutes, roll.



The Chilling shares an interesting similarity with another Senseless Cinema classic, Grotesque (1988), in that it pairs Linda Blair with a 1950s heartthrob. In the case of Grotesque, Ms. Blair was paired with Tab Hunter, while in The Chilling she is paired with Troy Donahue. Such inspired casting truly raises the quality of these two films into the stratosphere, even when the 1950s heartthrobs have only a handful of scenes, and even if at times the heartthrobs in question do not appear to be, let us say, fully invested in their characters.

Based on The Chilling, I must say my opinion about cryogenics has taken a turn. Previously, I had not thought much about the practice. Instead, I believed it to be an unproven but potentially successful method of preserving living things, and that deciding whether or not to take advantage of this method was a personal choice for people to make. After viewing this classic film, however, I now believe cryogenic preservation to be uncontrovertibly evil due to the potential for attracting lightning as well as the potential for turning ordinary frozen corpses into mindless, violent zombies.

I must say I was also unaware that President Theodore Roosevelt was cryogenically frozen. In fact, I was unaware that anybody who died in 1919 could be so preserved, due to the fact that the first cryopreserved person was reportedly James Bedford in 1967. In addition to being thrilling and morally upstanding, The Chilling is also an invaluable educational film.

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