Birdemic: No One Sets Out to Make a Bad Movie

Birdemic1There’s a scene near the end of Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s hilariously touching ode to the grade-Z “worst director of all time,” where the title character (Johnny Depp) is seated in the balcony during the Hollywood premiere of his 1959 sci-fi opus Plan 9 from Outer Space. As Wood sits there, mouthing along to his dialogue and watching the audience, he says to himself, “This is the one. This is the one I’ll be remembered for.” It’s a wonderful moment (albeit, as with several in the film, an historically inaccurate one), but it does demonstrate a point that moviegoers in this age of instant blog reviews and pseudo-ironic commentary sometimes forget; There are precious few, if any, filmmakers out there who get into the business because they want to shoot crap. Everyone I can think of, from D.W. Griffith, Alfred Hitchcock and Ed Wood to George Lucas, Quentin Tarantino and, yes, Michael Bay, did what they did because they they had a vision…financial as well as artistic, perhaps, and maybe a bit blurred at times, but a vision nonetheless.

The reason I bring all this up is because two weekends ago I was one of the attendees at a Center City Philadelphia midnight screening of the 2008 nature-run-amok “romantic thriller” Birdemic: Shock and Terror. Made for about $10,000 by James Nguyen, a Vietnamese-born computer software salesman-turned-writer/director, Birdemic has in a relatively brief period of time achieved near-Plan 9-like status as not just a bad and badly-made film, but perhaps one of the worst ever. Since Nguyen drove a blood-spattered van decorated with a fake eagle (and with the name of his labor of love misspelled “BIDEMIC” on the side) around the streets of Park City, Utah at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival–which, by the way, rejected the movie–it became an word-of-mouth sensation through showings at bars and Internet postings of footage and its trailer (see below). The online publicity led to newspaper and magazine articles, including the New York Times and Entertainment Weekly; segments on network news broadcasts; and a distribution deal with Severin Films for the aforementioned nationwide midnight tour and eventual (we can but hope) DVD release.

As you can gather from the preview, Birdemic is no ordinary low-budget loser. This compellingly inept mix of The Birds and An Inconvenient Truth (both of which get referenced one way or another in the course of the action) boasts a script that ham-handedly works an environmental subplot into its avian vengeance theme; a clunky romantic storyline in which Nguyen makes his hero a computer software salesman; a seeming disregard for editing or composing scenes, or knowing how to end them; enough wooden performances to fill a lumber yard; and computerized bird effects that are laughably out of scale and seem to feature the same few eagles and vultures, duplicated, hovering like hummingbirds over their would-be victims.

Now, all that being said, I’m not going to offer a straight-up of review of Birdemic; We already have someone here at Movie FanFare who handles pictures like this one. And I’m certainly not about to defend it on any artistic grounds. I’d just like to address an idea that’s been floating around that Nguyen, rather than being a serious filmmaker who is simply and hopelessly over his head, is actually a canny genius who planned his fine feathered fowl-up to be a laughably shoddy cult favorite. It seems, to be charitable, pretty unlikely that a relative neophyte like Nguyen (this was his third feature to date) could have pulled off such a feat with his budgetary and cast restraints, and the film lacks the tongue-in-cheek tone of such genre send-ups as The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra and Psycho Beach Party. The director himself said in the Times article, “If it was perfect, in every angle and the visual effects and everything, maybe it wouldn’t be where it is today.”

Over the last 35 or so years the “so-bad-it’s-good” camp aesthetic has evolved into a whole cinematic subculture. Midnight screenings of Pink Flamingos and The Rocky Horror Picture Show at rep and college cinemas led to the “Golden Turkey” books by Harry and Michael Medved and such magazines as Film Threat and Psychotronic Video, while the TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the omnipresence of the Internet have raised up a generation of film fans (many of them frustrated would-be moviemakers themselves) eager to uncover and dissect, as snarkily as possible, the latest find, from Manos: The Hands of Fate to Troll 2 to The Room. There’s certainly nothing wrong with getting a laugh out of these works (MST3K creator Joel Hodgson once said, “It’s like a really weird-looking kid, where you just go ‘Wow, he’s just cute.’ There are elements to his face that don’t work in any other place but on that face.”), but it’s easy sometimes to lose sight of the original creative endeavour, however misguided it may have been, that someone undertook to bring said work to life. As Birdemic’s proud papa put it, “That’s the risk that I take in making a movie…to be judged, to be reviewed: the good, the bad and the ugly. And so be it.” It may not be as funny as some of the lines in his script, but it’s certainly food for thought.