Gilbey on Film: horror at the box office

Is Zombie Undead the lowest-grossing film on record?

I've never been much of an industry-watcher, which is why Charles Gant's box-office digest in Sight & Sound magazine, and online at the Guardian, is so valuable. As well as being a witty read, there's the secondary but entirely pleasant sensation that someone else is doing my homework for me; Gant gets on with all the number-crunching so that this two-time maths flunkee doesn't have to.

There are usually some interesting stories in the figures, as it transpired recently when a friend emailed me to draw my attention to a striking detail in the UK box-office chart. Way down the list at number 89 in the tally for the weekend of 29 April to 1 May was something called Zombie Undead, a British horror movie which had passed me by.

What makes it so distinctive, apart from its tautological title (aren't all zombies undead?), is that it took just £10 during that three-day period. It didn't even have the excuse that it had been hanging around the charts for several weeks or months: we're talking £10 on its opening weekend, £10 from two screens. I'd love to find the two people who rushed out on that first weekend, almost as much as I'd like to know which cinema charges a mere £5 for a cinema ticket.

Perhaps it wasn't two people. Perhaps it was the same person seeing the film twice. Was it the director, or one of his friends, relatives or pets? If you're reading this, and either of those Zombie Undead opening-weekenders was you, or -- even better -- if both of them were you, please do get in touch. I'd love to know what you thought of the film.

A cursory look at some of the reviews suggests that it may not figure prominently in next year's Bafta nominations. Total Film called it a "no-budget, no-brains outing." Time Out found it "laughably inept" and singled out the "uniformly, enthusiastically dreadful" cast, while conceding that the film boasted "a small handful of . . . so-bad-they're-hysterical moments." But, hey -- any publicity is good publicity, right?

Most of the newspapers, as far as I could tell, didn't review the film. A search on the Guardian website asks me: "Did you mean Bobbi Undead?" Woah, I think to myself. Did I mean Bobbi Undead? What on earth is Bobbi Undead? That sounds intriguing. A vision of Bobbi Flekman, the "hostess with the mostest" who presides over the Smell the Glove launch party in This is Spinal Tap, materialises in my mind's eye. Except that now Bobbi is a blank-eyed zombie, foaming at the mouth and carrying a severed arm between her teeth. (Somehow this image is more comforting than the real, non-zombie Bobbi Flekman, of whom Tap's guitarist Nigel St Tufnel later said: "If she hadn't been a cheat, a liar and a bitch, she would have been a great girl.") So I click on Bobbi Undead. Disappointingly, it returns 0 results. Guardian website, you are such a tease.

I'm sure someone will rush to correct me if I'm mistaken, but it looks very much as though Zombie Undead could be the lowest-grossing film on record. Certainly it appears to have taken less at the box-office than the previous record holder, the 2006 thriller Zyzzyx Road, which starred a pre-Knocked Up Katherine Heigl alongside that Hollywood scandal magnet Tom Sizemore (who was arrested for violation of parole shortly before filming began), and boasts the tagline: "What happens in Vegas . . . gets buried on Zyzzyx Road." Entertainment Weekly has the full, gruesome story (and it's a good one) of why and how the film came to take just $30 after being seen by six people during a week's run in Dallas:

One of those paying customers was Sheila Moore, a Dallas-based make-up artist who had worked on the film. "I thought it was a little odd," she says of the film's debut. "I thought it was a joke at first. Yeah, right, of all places they're gonna premiere this in Dallas, so far from where we filmed it? I figured they'd do it in Los Angeles." Moore and a friend were the only people in the theatre. "We got popcorn and a drink from the same lady that took our tickets," she says. "It was kind of surreal. She looked at us like, 'You want to see what?'"

That film achieved notoriety for a time, helped no doubt by the fact that Heigl went on to bigger if not always better things. The best that the makers of Zombie Undead can hope for is that the same fate befalls their work. So-bad-they're-good pictures are a niche market in themselves, notable "successes" in the field including Plan 9 from Outer Space, Battlefield Earth, Gigli and the recent Birdemic: Shock and Terror. Much rarer is the so-bad-that-nobody-goes-to-see-it movie. If I were overseeing PR for Zombie Undead, I would recommend an immediate theatrical re-release -- except that there's always the chance it might jeopardise the low takings which currently represent the film's USP.

Zombie Undead is released on DVD on 30 May

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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