Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 6: Drug Traffic/ A Dead Girl Named Sue
So, despite my reservations from my look at Episode Five being equaled or topped by this Season Three Finale, Creepshow delivered. And it delivered with power.
There is a bit to unpack here, thematics aside, and I can’t promise that I will be able to talk about everything. These Commentaries, like most of what I write, focus on what truly stands out to me. Certainly, many other articles and commentators will examine exactly the elements that I want to look at here, and I feel like — at best — I will just look at the impact that it has on me as a viewer, and a student of horror. That is the best you will get here, and all that I am willing to promise.
First, we have “Drug Traffic”: a story by Mattie Do and Christopher Larsen, with the teleplay written by Larsen, and the entire segment directed by Greg Nicotero. I just want to talk about the monsters here, to be frank with you, but the only way I can do that is to go a bit into the context: into the situation with which we are presented.
An American politician is riding what seems to be a Greyhound bus with various people, many of them ill, across the border to Canada so that they can get proper medical treatment. This fact, in and of itself, is a commentary on America’s terrible medical care system for those who are not upper-middle class, or generally privileged ethnically or racially as well as a look at how people will use this issue — under the guise of moral outrage — to gain power, or reinforce their own sense of moral superiority while not giving a single damn of the people truly affected by these forces.
The politician, and the border guard symbolize both of these aspects. The politician running for higher office wants everything recorded, including him making a show of using his power to challenge this guard and his systemic discrimination. But the guard is intelligent and has his own left-of-centre views: calling the politician out on quoting Karl Marx, and blaming his posting on this outward border on his own views. Further, he does perform his job to the letter of the same system in which the politician wants to elevate himself, and he will detain and go so far as to handcuff someone in order to prove a point: whether someone else’s life is at stake, or not.
I am not sure which one of these people I dislike more: the politician is at least honest or transparent that the ordinary people he is escorting to the border to make a point about the terrible condition of the States’ medical program that they have to leave the country — claiming to want to make reform should he get his votes — are tools to that end. The border guard goes out of his way to say he is an ordinary man, and has the audacity to moralize to a woman he handcuffs and denies her daughter seemingly life-saving medication: claiming she is carrying more than the allotted amount of unknown drugs out of the country to another, and that her taking her daughter to another country for treatment is just a short-sighted solution for the greater problem that is America.
Meanwhile, that Asian-American woman is giving her visibly and chronically ill daughter Mai pills to keep her stable. And by stable, I mean in her body, and not detaching her head and neck to hover, and feed off the flesh of human beings.
And that was when I realized, I’d seen this before. The Far East Asian woman with the head that either elongates, or detaches all together is something you would see in, at least within Japanese folklore, as a member of the yokai or youkai: specifically a Nukekubi. Yet I also wondered, when I saw this, especially when I realized the medication the mother was giving Mai had information in a Chinese dialect. And this made me look up more information: to see if these beings existed in other places aside from Japanese mythology. And, as it turns out, there are beings called hitōban, or rakutō: though the former already has a line around its neck, and the latter’s body remains resting in its bed while its head roams. They feed off of blood and human flesh, but they also need to ingest vermin and lamp oil of all things. There are many different depictions of these beings in Far East Asia, and South-East Asia, but one interpretation states that if you move their bodies, their heads can’t reunite with them, and they will die accordingly.
Mai seems to be, based on her entrails remaining under her hovering neck, a Laotian variant of this kind of being: a Phi Kasu: at least according to Ryan Thao Worra’s article Japanese yokai: The Rokurokubi on his Blog On the Other Side of the Eye. She doesn’t have to sleep for the condition to manifest either, but she does require feeding or a bloodbath will happen.
My personal thought is that those pills Mai’s mother was feeding her, to suppress her hunger for human flesh and blood, contained specialized animal matter, or even something like lamp oil though there are issues with this concept because neither of these are illegal, or potentially illegal substances. There is also the possibility that it is brine in those pills, which is used apparently to reduce swelling in the organs so that their heads can safely return to their bodies, again according to Worra in his article The Phi Kasu: Supernatural entities of Laos on the above Blog. Certainly, Mai doesn’t need sleep for this condition to happen, though it tends to manifest at night: which seems to occur as she and the other passengers are detained by customs, and her body expels her — or her head leaves it — explosively, with only gore behind.
I am not a cultural expert in this field, though it fascinates me to no end, but there is a folkloric antecedent for the brilliant practical effects rendition of the being that is Mai, this cross-cultural counter on a border between the East and the West, but there is an even greater precedent for how she, and her mother are being treated in this story: especially with regards to American land border crossing. I’ve taken Greyhound Buses before, and there have been a few instances where families or groups, usually non-white, are detained for a while as customs officials question them: delaying the bus from going further. Profiling exists in the system. Mai’s mother is Far East Asian, perhaps Laotian, but neither the politician nor the border official seem to bother to want to make these distinctions. Certainly, she has every right to take offense when she’s asked to read the Chinese on the packages of the medication involved that even she doesn’t know the contents of: as if just by being Far East Asian, even Asian American, she should automatically know the language.
It’s true that Mai does look suspiciously sick — perhaps in withdrawal, or overdosed — and her mother is carrying a lot of drugs beyond the allowed amount, but I suppose I thought that the politician’s campaign was more publicized, and there was this implication that Mai was chronically, or terminally-ill. But the system is a failure: there are no Asian-American representatives at the border facility, no medical experts or even First Aid apparatuses. The guard is the only personnel there that day, and there is some obvious understaffing and underfunding going on despite the really fine waiting room everyone else sits in which I have never seen at a border station before. And, as i said, the official immediately wants to make an example of Mai’s mother just to spit in the politician’s eye.
It could have been a completely avoidable situation, but instead it escalates, everyone else dies, and the politician and border official end up hacking Mai’s body up with an axe while her mother screams out for her, chained to a table, helplessly. And the sad thing is: Mai isn’t a terrible being. She doesn’t immediately try to feed on someone. She isn’t mindless. She is willingly taking the medication, and she almost loses her inhibition only when her mother is taken from her: and even then, one of the politician’s guards scares her away. She then tries to get candy from the vending machine, and looks in the official’s fridge to find food of any kind, and fails.
Mai can’t help her hunger. I have no idea what kind of aid she expected to find in Canada compared to America for her condition, which is what it is in folklore: she isn’t part of another species, but rather it is an affliction, or a curse … or at least another state of being. Maybe her mother wanted to get her better medication that she doesn’t throw up, or a food she can safely ingest. We will never really know, unfortunately, as her mother cuts off her own head with glass so that Mai can take a new body.
And what happens at the end? What happens when the official destroys Mai’s body “for her own good,” and the politician admits he isn’t going to change the system, says racist shite about immigrants, and callously doesn’t seem to even care about his dead and eaten wife as they both drink some beers? Does Mai kill them?
No. Mai takes her mother’s broken body and staggers back to the bus … to be let on by the Creep. He does this sometimes, in some of the segments. He will interject himself at the end of stories, and break that fourth wall, and in this case — despite the animated skit of him holding her head joyfully out of the window — he is actually the good guy here. Mai is given the chance to live. She chooses to live despite everything that happened to her, and her mother, and the Creep takes her out of a narrative where she is doomed to make other minorities and sick travelers from the States suffer, to hopefully a better one with no further loss, and perhaps somewhere where she can get help, and be accepted.
It’s like what they say about Frankenstein: the Monster isn’t Frankenstein, but Victor Frankenstein is the monster. And the Monster isn’t a monster, but the Creature. And Mai is only a monster in a system that hates sick people that can’t pay for their right to live, and placed in a system that is actively hostile towards her in a kyriarchal manner: for being disabled, female, and Far East Asian. At best, she is like what I’ve read of the rokurokubi magic tricks in Japan: where she is a minority token of exoticism to prop up a white American male politician’s career, and at worst a foreign abomination that needs to be exterminated, and an example of what “not to let into the country.” And I find it fitting that while the politician barely mourns the wife that Mai killed, she grieves for the mother who sacrifices her life so that she might live: an exchange of heads, of glances, on the floor of sterile governmental bureaucratic brutality in a parody of that Japanese magic trick that allows her to live, and flee the land of the free and the home of the brave that claims to want the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, and the wretched refuse of another’s teeming shore.
I intimated that the politician and the border official are cynical and exploitive, and well-meaning and self-sanctimonious monsters respectively but they are just symptoms of a greater social justice system twisted and horribly wrong: creating disasters. And it is a theme that continues into “A Dead Girl Named Sue.”
It is a black and white production, with a few exceptions. At first, I thought what we would be seeing is a homage to Serling’s Twilight Zone, or Hitchcock’s Psycho. But the clues are there. It is all black and white, and the date is 1968 during a time of upheaval. “A Dead Girl Named Sue” is written by Heather Anne Campbell, and directed by John Harrison. A small town police officer is confronted by a group of citizens, Black and white, who want to find a young man who has been committing atrocities, the son of their Mayor who has been escaping justice, and take the law into their own hands.
The segment has a slow creeping reveal of events worthy of George A. Romero’s ghouls. And at first, I wondered: were they really going to go there?
And they do.
By god, they do.
In the background, we hear about attacks. And it’s clever. At first, you think it might be Race Riots. Certainly, the timeline as when Romero’s creation was released, would line up with that. But then you hear reports of half-eaten victims, and news reports. And then went there. By god, they go to that place. I recall being disappointed by “Skeletons in the Closet” and wishing that Sentinel from the previews would be used in a story that was an outlier set in the dreamscape of Phantasm, just as the Deadites and the Necronomicon were flat-out introduced in “Public Television of the Dead.” Certainly, Night of the Living Dead” was also referenced towards the end of the Creepshow Season Two finale segment “Night of the Living Late Show.” I never even considered it.
Yet here we were. Here we are, for that matter. We have basically something like a “Times is Tough in Musky Holler” situation, but I would argue it is more immaculate as you aren’t sure at first where it will go. The officer denies vigilante justice, even as they claim “the law won’t matter tomorrow” which is another clue as to what is going on. He instead goes to find the young man who has been committing these crimes, and arrest him again. This is where, at his place, he finds an old woman with parts of her gnawed off and the back of her head blown off as well.
At first, you might think that the officer and the criminal have to band together and fight off the legions of the undead in this isolated place. But this officer isn’t Ben, and he sees something on the floor: a blue ribbon in this black and white world. He also notes the bed and the chains and the blood stains around them, which the criminal claims to be from “breaking his dogs in.”
What we see is something truly beautiful.
The officer arrests the criminal. The young man is belligerent. He thinks that his father will just bail him out again, that he will just escape another trial, and the officer will be punished. It is methodical, much like Romero’s ghouls using tools to bring into a house, or slowly take some bodies apart from which to feed. The police station is still whole. The officer’s subordinate is still there. The townspeople are alive as well.
By the time a large, silent group of people walk down into the cell where the criminal is being held, you almost think they are — if you will pardon the reference to a spiritual descendant — the Walking Dead. But they are not. They are all the townspeople that this man wronged: everyone who lost someone they loved to this madman who has Daddy protecting him.
He is given a chance to admit to his wrongs, but he refuses. This is when the sack is brought downstairs: the squirming, shrieking sack. You see, there was a girl named Sue who had gone missing, and had been killed. This terrible person did it, but the coroner who could have done forensics on her body conveniently went on an all-expenses paid vacation to a resort courtesy of the criminal’s Mayor father. The problem is that standard procedure was to remove the brain, and put it in a jar: something that didn’t happen as the coroner was already gone. Sue reanimated, and well …
Sue and the criminal are reunited. You see a brief flashback, as you look at her very red ruby ring as she crawls towards him in that cell, of how he lured her to him, chained her … and let’s just say, I strongly suspect that her viciousness towards him, biting chunks out of him was more than just the ghoul need for flesh.
By the time it is over, the officer admits to everyone as they ask him why he changed his mind, why he gave into vigilante justice, that if these are the End Times, where the dead are rising to plague the living, they probably deserved it. I would had him say something along the lines of:
“If these are the End Times, then let this be Judgment Day.”
The story ends with the officer and the others going to get the Mayor, to let him join in his son’s fate as society crumbles all around them. So fucking satisfying.
As I finish this write up of the Season Three of Creepshow, I have to note the following. The finale comes almost right before not only Halloween weekend, but Joe Bob Briggs’ Last Drive-In Walking Dead Special on Shudder, and it couldn’t have been timed better. We live in uncertain times of socio-political unrest, of chaos, and this episode hits harder than a double-tap to a zombified skull. And I am all for it.
Perhaps Season Three started out ambling, but it finished off strong: with the power of a broken system that needs destroying. And yet, that is the question: when this is done, what will we see after it? The Horror Doctor doesn’t know. But we will continue to find out. We will continue to write about it, and with both dread and anticipation, I intend to do so. And I need to watch more of Romero’s ghoul movies. All of them.