Wednesday, April 21, 2004

"Tonight I'm just gonna help you get rid of these bodies..." 

Johnny Dynamite: Underworld is a blast. It's the kind of book that makes me want to recite the James Ellroy "perverts, pederasts, and panty-sniffers" routine (which I know by heart, scarily enough). It makes me want to soak in some bad 50's monster movies. It makes me want to crack open some Mickey Spillane, and maybe swing a gold watch by its chain while I do it.

And, strangely, it makes me want to watch From Dusk Till Dawn. While you read the plot summary, see if you can figure out why.

Like any decent detective story, it all starts because of a dame. She's blonde (of course), she's leggy (duh), she's a soiled dove with a heart of gold (natch.) This particular blonde is an old fling of the titular private eye, now starring in movies funded by Vegas mafioso Tony Mal. Tony Mal beats her, she runs to Dynamite, Dynamite runs back to Mal, takes care of business, comes back to the girl, finds out she's dead, takes out Mal, and takes out Mal's boy what killed the blonde.

Or so we think...

In a truly twisted, truly memorable sequence, Mal's hitman (Freddie Faust) wanders the desert Dynamite dumped him in, gutshot and dying, until he stumbles upon a nightclub tableau worthy of any bar in Hollywood, circa 1955, bartended by none other than the Lord of Darkness. Faust, because it's in his goddamn name, cuts a deal with El Diablo -- near-immortality and a clean slate to work his dastardly mob magic. Faust gets the know-how to create an army of zombie mobsters to do his bidding, Tony Mal's old empire, and two caveats to all of this: Don't use supernatural muscle overtly, and be careful of the one man who can kill you.

No points for guessing who that is.

What follows is a cofidently spun tale of mobster shootouts, zombie attacks, blonde beddings, and good old-fashioned hardboiled PI narration set to the soothing lines of Terry Beatty's so-50's-you-could-choke artistry. That said, I've got to agree with Johnny Bacardi's assessment of the occasional stiffness of Beatty's work; you get the sense of mannequins posing in some panels, rather than smooth, natural human motion. For me, this is a minor problem. Except for a few semi-sloppy two-page action sequences early on, Beatty does his part in storytelling in a pretty conventional but completely mastered style. Max Allan Collins has complete control over the pacing of his story, moving along at a steady pace neither zippy nor plodding. Combine those two talents and you have a hell of a spine to build a story on.

I got a lot of joy out of this book. I rather liked the parallels between the genre clashings presented, and that every blonde bombshell in the story worked on movies that had pretty much the same material; and maybe it's just the schlock horror fan in me, but damn if the mobster-zombie elements weren't done in a pretty competent and, in this story's own rules, completely convincing manner.

It all comes back to that nightclub scene in the desert, for me. A ninety-degree turn in genre like this one has can be death for a narrative, but the sheer oddity of the tuxedoed Satan and his pitch is such an amusing (and ballsy) spectacle that you can't help but keep turning the pages, if for no other reason than to see what the hell Collins has up his sleeve next. And before you know it, you're seeing mobster zombies and nodding your head, like it makes sense or something.

And damned if it doesn't, too.

Rating: Buy it right the fuck now. This bad boy's only $13, and I'd gladly pay $20.

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