Birdemic: Shock and Terror

The self proclaimed "Master of the Romantic Thriller," James Nguyen is some combination of madman, huckster, stand-up comedian, and performance artist. He makes claims about his love of Hitchcock but is really a contemporary Ed Wood, complete with a similar self-delusion about his work. It's hard to figure out if Nguyen is pulling our collective legs with his pretensions about this film or if he's actually serious. Does he realize that the film's popularity stems from its epic badness? Does he even know that the film is so incredibly inept that it almost has to be inept on purpose? And yet, it's so randomly inept that no ordinary mind could ever conceive of such a thing. It's simply awe-inspiring and jaw-droppingly funny. First of all, Birdemic: Shock and Terror has little shock OR terror. It actually has little sense at all. This is the kind of film where things just happen randomly. People just do things and then other things that only barely relate...and then one day...there's this sudden attack of terribly animated digital eagles and vultures. When I say sudden, I mean SUDDEN -- from peaceful establishing shots of a sleepy town, the screen fades to black. When it fades back in, the screen is filled with dive-bombing avian predators who appear to explode into balls of flame when shot (don't ask) and seem to have the ability to make things blow up. When I say "dive bombing," I mean that the computer-generated birds come complete with sound effects of a B-52 bomber! When I say "blow up," I mean like explosions which are superimposed shakily over the action. Like the cheapest Saturday morning cartoons, the same shots of these clip-art birds are repeated over and over in cyclical patterns. The compositing with the live action is so incredibly (and wonderfully) bad that it makes Mary Poppins look like a realistic documentary on chimney sweeps who dance with cartoons.

So, what's the story? Basically we have two separate movies going on, held together by a very intentional environmental "theme." The main story is indeed a romance, which explains the "romantic" part of Nguyen's supposed mastery. Rod (Alan Bagh) is a software salesman living the good life in the Silicon Valley when one day he meets Nathalie (Whitney Moore), an up-and-coming model. The next 40 minutes or so chronicles their courtship, interrupted from time to time with odd news reports about global warming. (Birdemic may be the only film inspired by both Alfred Hitchcock and Al Gore.) The master of suspense once said that "The Birds Is Coming," but Nguyen almost makes you feel as though these birds will never come. We are presented instead with the daily life of Rod at his software sales startup, talking about his stock options, scenes of him and Nathalie eating at various restaurants, an occasional pumpkin festival, and Natalie's bustling career as a photo model. None of these scenes have any conflict at all. This is a movie about people without problems, and on a purely formal level, that's not a movie. Both Rod and Nathalie are successful in their career, fall in love without question, and are about to live happily ever after...if it weren't for those pesky birds.

The bird aspect of the film is obviously funny. What is completely surprising is the content of the rest of the film. The dialogue is read in a manner which makes everyone sound as though English was their second language. This is made twice as strange since the dialogue as written is clearly some kind of faux English. Nguyen also depicts life in ways completely foreign to most people. When Rod and Nathalie first meet he asks for her number, and instead of writing anything down, they exchange business cards as though it were some standard greeting among men and women.

It's really easy to make fun of everything in this film, but the question remains as to why it has become a cult film. There are many movies that are just as inept. What they are not is earnest. Birdemic appears to be completely sincere, an attempt by Nguyen to make a serious and moving work of art. So what if it moves us to tears with laughter? Severin Films has done an amazing job with this DVD. It's like the bad movie version of a Criterion release. Of course the image quality is nothing special, nor the sound, but that's to be expected from a film that cost less than $10,000 to make. Suffice to say, this is the best Birdemic can ever look.

The DVD has almost every extra feature you could imagine. From short featurettes on the Birdemic tour across the country (with Nguyen traveling in a van adorned with birds and emblazoned with the logo "" -- that's right, BIDEMIC), to a local interview with Nguyen on San Francisco's cable access show "Movie Close-up," which includes clips from his first two films -- also impossible to decipher and seemingly without conflict. There are two deleted scenes with optional commentary. These scenes are as random as anything else in the movie, and I have no clue as to what Nguyen thinks may actually be extraneous. A profile of Nguyen that is like a campaign video for a presidential run, and the original trailers round out the extra content.

On the commentary front, Severin Films has included two separate tracks. The standard director's commentary by Nguyen is like some kind of Andy Kaufman routine. It's impossible to know if Nguyen is for real, but he seems genuinely sincere and like a nice guy.

The second commentary is more fun in a way. It's a moderated talk with stars Alan Bagh and Whitney Moore, and there is such good humor and wonderful confusion displayed by the two of them that they end up genuinely endearing. They were both very committed to helping Nguyen realize his film, even when they had no clue as to the content of the movie. Random direction like "the forest is now on fire, run!" and an insistence on sticking to every line in the odd script explains much of the surreality on display. More than anything, Bagh and Moore seem to get that Birdemic is an extraordinary film, one that can never be imitated or replicated. At least until Nguyen makes his next film, which apparently is going to be Birdemic 2 -- in 3-D!

Special note: For those of you who just cannot get enough of Birdemic, you can download a commentary by the Mystery Science Theater 3000 gang at their Rifftrax website right here.

As for the high star rating, remember that this is not The Godfather, Citizen Kane, or even The Birds. This is an extraordinarily bad movie. An incredible achievement in awfulness.