With the Internet’s stranglehold on the pop culture zeitgeist, it’s incredible that a good old-fashioned cheesy film can still become a cult classic. But no matter how many fucked up viral videos we’ve collectively seen or how desensitized we’ve become to high weirdness, the rowdy New York midnight premiere of writer-director James Nguyen’s self-proclaimed “romantic thriller” Birdemic: Shock and Terror proves that there’s room—alongside Ed Wood’s entire oeuvre—for one more in the pantheon of beloved trash-terpieces.
The buzz (squawk?) has been building since last year, when Nguyen drove a bloody bird-covered van from San Jose to the streets of Park City during the Sundance Film Festival. Between his absurdist guerilla-marketing scheme, a jaw-dropping teaser trailer that was picked up by genre film blogs and G4’s geek-friendly Attack of the Show!, and the frightening power of Twitter and Facebook, more mainstream press followed. By the time last Friday’s screening sold out, forcing the IFC Center to open up a second screen to accommodate the flock lined up outside, Birdemic had already been endorsed by Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times, and ABC News. Not too shabby for a film whose actors perform so terribly that you can’t even put a finger on what is wrong with these people?
“It’s like everyone in the world escaped from that lodge in Twin Peaks,” suggests comedian and Big Fan star Patton Oswalt, who became a Birdemic supporter after seeing the micro-budgeted mess early last year. “The cars behind them and the clouds in the sky move at a regular pace, but they’re not moving at a regular pace. It’s at odds with reality.”
For most of its first half, Birdemic isn’t actually about birds. Alan Bagh makes his awkward screen debut as a Northern California software salesman (43-year-old Nguyen is exactly that in real life) who reconnects with a former classmate, a perky blonde fashion model played by first-timer Whitney Moore. It’s a fantasy meet-cute, or at least meet-strange, as neither performer has much of a grasp on space, rhythm or delivery—Bagh gives the false, but not at all intentional, impression that English might be his second language.
The couple’s anti-rapport certainly isn’t helped by the peculiar editing: establishing and transition shots are held too long, dialogue chopped off, and the sound is allowed to cut out intermittently even when the soundtrack plays on. An onscreen TV news report comes with a Getty Images watermark, the leads never react to any real-life birds in the background, and Bagh is so untrained that even walking across the street comes across as a losing battle with concentration. In its technique or lack thereof, the film resembles nothing else in cinema except maybe the softcore cheapies on Cinemax at night: the too-sunny California exteriors, depressing low-budget interiors, and stilted exposition filling time in between the allotted number of dry-humping sequences (though Birdemic‘s are chastely clothed).
OK, back to the story: The winged creatures still nowhere to be seen, Bagh’s sales pro inexplicably becomes a millionaire through stock options. The CEO’s boardroom announcement of the billion-dollar buyout, which peaks with a seemingly never-ending sequence of applauding employees, had the entire IFC Center audience clapping in unison. Is this how The Rocky Horror Picture Show got its start?
Soon enough, though, there will be birds: poorly digitized, flapping clones overlaid on the movie as if there were an invisible wall of glass between two isolated 3D planes. In an accidentally brilliant reveal, with no suspense and little forewarning, a montage of placid panoramas (“Shhhh, shhhh,” hushes the crowd, as if already in the know) is interrupted with explosions! Shrieks! Ca-caws! Eagles and vultures have turned on mankind, death from above! No part of the actual ur-demic can rival this initial thrill. Our heroes end up on the run with new friends and small children in tow, and Birdemic crosses the line from off-putting love story to straight-to-video monster movie. Though the lo-fi genre joys do begin to lose their appeal, the film’s hypnotic charm remains through Nguyen’s secret weapon: sincerity.
“There is no winking at the camera,” Oswalt agrees. “It’s that great feeling you get with weird stuff like The Room and Plan 9 From Outer Space. It’s almost like the filmmaker has implied, ‘Yeah, I know I’ve done something pretty amazing. You’re welcome.’ You can tell there’s no irony in this guy’s daily life, so why would it be in this movie?”
Beyond a heartfelt desire to honor his favorite filmmaker, Alfred Hitchcock, and plain old artistic expression, Nguyen cops to having one agenda. Introducing last Friday night’s premiere with a coat hanger in his hand to ward off birds, Nguyen claimed his three biggest inspirations were The Birds, Apocalypse Now, and… An Inconvenient Truth. Throughout the film are oblique references to the climate crisis and the need to live green, with random appearances from a hippie who lives in a tree house perched high in the redwoods, an elderly ornithologist who condemns human behavior, and even a solar-powered accessories salesman.
When I asked Nguyen whether he believed a film called Birdemic: Shock and Terror could actually impart an environmental message, he noted the audience’s applause when the bird expert calls man the most dangerous species on Earth. He did not note that they were applauding while doubled over in laughter. Nguyen may not be in on the joke—even though he created it—but with a Severin Films distribution deal and increasingly more sold-out screenings, perhaps Birdemic is an actual soapbox.
One question, though: If a better planet is his ultimate goal—why birds? “It could be eagles and vultures attacking man, but it could be Hurricane Katrina,” Nguyen answers. “Giant jellyfish showed up in Santa Monica Bay, or jumbo squid in Japan. Just watch the news. If you hear something unusual happening with animals, to me, a lot of that has to with global warming. It’s a metaphor, the birds of prey, for what could happen if we keep living the way we are.”
Whether it’s an effective metaphor remains to be seen. But one thing’s for sure: We’re telling all our friends to go to the next screening, and to have a few drinks first.
Birdemic: Shock and Terror will screen at the IFC Center this Friday and Saturday night at 11:55 p.m.