Friday, June 19, 2009

Population: 1 (Rene Daalder, 1986)

The greatness of a nation when extolled by a citizen of the very country being glorified is jingoism at its most obnoxious. On the other hand, when an outsider is doing the extolling, the results can be electrifying in their profundity. Such is the nationalistic situation that arises with Population: 1, Rene Daalder's psyche vaporizing chronicle of the United States of America. A Netherlander doing a punk and new wave infused musical about the history of America, as filtered through the imagination of the last American on earth, is one of the most subversively constructed ideas to ever land squarely on my optical dinner plate. Making one misty-eyed over the idea of America, Rene Daalder has cobbled together a strange tribute to the world's most powerful republic. Sure, it's a tribute to a country that's been completely destroyed in a nuclear suicide pact and left with only a single resident, but it's a tribute nonetheless. How did things get so dilapidated and underpopulated so quickly? Well, you see, the government estimated there would be around thirty million causalities. However, there was obliviously a bit of a miscalculation on their part and the whole shebang up in smoke. Ironically, Mr. Daalder uses footage of cities the U.S. had a hand in flattening and its own urban decay to represent its destruction. Left to fend for himself, Tomata du Plenty, the world's last American, spends his days locked in a subterranean bunker equipped with all sorts of electronic doodads. Filled with a heightened sense of purpose, the scrawny du Plenty sees this isolation as an opportunity to commemorate America by forging a musical ode utilizing the memory his beloved Sheela (Sheela Edwards) and anyone else his cerebral cortex can conger. And if that means a twelve year old Beck playing the accordion and a torch carrying Vampira getting swept up in a flood, then so be it.

Combining my unfathomable devotion for all things post-apocalyptic, bizarre musical numbers, measured approaches to being goth in public, garishly chromatic costumes, synthesizers run amok, and anything sporting a tinge of the surreal, the extremely agile endeavour is the epitome of aesthetically pleasing.

Call it new wave pornography, call it juicy nectar for the flamboyant soul, the film rises above its high-minded premise and bursts forth with creativity, as snippets of vintage nudity, newsreel clips, flashy animation effects, and uncomplicated dance choreography commingle to make one seriously messed up movie. Actually, the head twirling during "Nervous" seemed pretty complicated (keeping your head still while simultaneously moving it looked rather difficult).

Along with the aforementioned Beck and Vampira, the eccentric supporting cast includes: Penelope Houston from The Avengers, Tequila Mockingbird (the "Door Tongue" from Dr. Caligari), Carel Struycken (Lurch from The Addams Family), K.K. Barrett (production designer for Cheerleader Camp and Where the Wild Things Are), and Nancye Ferguson (Rockula). They all linger in the background and give the proceedings a vibrant edge.

Not lingering for a single moment, however, is the up-front forcefulness of Tomata du Plenty as the solitary American. Aggressive in a punk rock sort of way, yet sporting a new wave playfulness, the lead singer of The Screamers is deranged and charismatic from get-go, and gives an unrelenting performance as the pugnacious sole survivor. The unbalanced vocalist also handles the film's many pro-American monologues with a sincere flair. It's true, some of the dialogue has a hint of European snarkiness. But I thought Tomata balanced these two distinct attitudes excellently.

Boasting a cracked front tooth, a mop of electrified black hair, and enough goth-based moxie to make Lydia Lunch and Nina Hagen feel grossly inadequate in the female weirdness department. Sheela Edwards is an under championed revelation as Sheela, the lost love of Tomata du Plenty. Her wonderfully shrill voice does a wonderful job of attacking a multitude of musical genres explored in Population: 1. Whether she's spewing blood during "Jazz Vampire" (her animated fangs were to die for), or swinging out on "10 Cents a Dance," the exquisitely pale Sheela sings with an enthusiastic brand of gusto.

The black and white photography (there's a great shot of the New York City skyline) and overall decayed temperament of film's opening number, "Armies of the Night," did a tremendous job of accentuating Sheela's unique allure. I also liked the mismatched stockings and scratchy film stock; very film school-like, but quite chic.

The thought that permeated my mind throughout Population: 1 was: "Why hasn't this film been hailed as a bohemian classic by the demented elite and their midnight movie attending allies?" I mean, it has all the ingredients of a cult film. Well, for one thing, it's a musical, and secondly, it was made during the 1980s.

These two things alone should qualify it as a must-see hunk of underground cinema, but the fact that it's saturated with such a wide array of so-called "out there" moments (the image of Tomata being harassed by his bathroom appliances immediately springs to mind) and features one kooky mix of a supporting cast should guarantee its place alongside the likes of Forbidden Zone (colour version) and Liquid Sky.

I don't know what a simple peasant like myself can do to make this film the next Rocky Horror Picture Show (the sight of audiences showing up in mismatched stockings, carrying red barbells, and wearing old school army helmets isn't that far-fetched), but I will do my best to increase its profile.

video uploaded by CultEpicsDVD



  1. Wow. "New Wave pornography"? I'm sold, simple peasant!
    I've never heard of this movie until now. Sounds like it should have been a Night Flight staple!

    Oh, my other half and I bought one those satellite radio thingies, and man, there is Canadian content galore! CBC Radio 3, Iceberg 95 (advertised as Canadian Adult Alternative Music), CBC Radio 1, Radio Canada International, CBC Sports en français, and about three other Québécois stations.

    Oh, yeah, there's also the Playboy Channel. Playboy on the radio? What's the point?

  2. I wholeheartedly agree. This is a really wacky, subversive little "cult" item.

    I got to know Mr. Daalder over a period of a couple of years and enjoyed his unique point of view very much.

    I'm a big fan of 'Massacre At Central High' and his 'Habitat', too. His 'The White Slave' is quite bizarre.

  3. Karim Amir: Rene Daalder does mention (on the DVD) that parts of Population: 1 (the disco segments especially) did air on the pre-MTV music video shows that existed in the early days of the medium. So it might have aired on Night Flight.

    Congrats on your recent influx of Canadian content.

    I haven't listened to the radio in years. *slight sniff* I did, however, just view my 20,000th video on YouTube (I don't need help).

    I hurt my brain trying to figure out what a Playboy radio station would sound like.

    Did Mike Weir win a green blazer yet? I heard he was doing well.

    Phantom of Pulp: I'm genuinely surprised it hasn't caught on with the whole 80s retro/cult movie crowd. Though, to be fair, it's only been available since Oct. 2008.

    Mr. Daalder comes off as a likable guy on the Population: 1 DVD.

  4. I'm gonna go look for this one right away! AND its soundtrack! Wonder if I'll find it, though. Any leads? Looks very much like something Sayadian would have come up with.

  5. I swear my Wish List on Amazon has doubled since I found this site. Thanks, Yum to the Yum!

  6. Finally got this and watched every screaming minute of it - Great Stuff! So many good things about this, but for me the fact it's another document of that brief period before Punk & New Wave had formed factions, is the best. I've now undertaken the cause of promoting this film too. Thanks again Yummers.

  7. It took you awhile, but you finally did it. :) Which reminds me, I need to take a look-see at all them fancy extras on my Cult Epics 2 disc DVD.