While past cultures have sought to preserve their bodies for the afterlife, such as the ancient Egyptians, in today’s society, that obsession for preservation has shifted to finding ways to remain forever young. The truth is, there is not a fountain of youth. And the sad reality is that as we grow older, there is a certain amount of exclusion and lack of respect towards the maturing generation, effectively minimizing their voice and value in society.
In 2002, a little comedic horror film went on the road and garnered an audience appreciation that elevated the film to cult status. Based on a Joe R. Lansdale novella by the same name, which was adapted by Don Coscarelli into a screenplay, Bubba Ho-Tep showcases the acting talents of Bruce Campbell as Elvis Presley impersonating Sebastian Haff (an Elvis-impersonator) switching places with and impersonating Elvis, and Ossie Davis as “Jack” or President John F. Kennedy who claims to have been dyed black after Lee Harvey Oswald attempted to assassinate him back in November 1963. Both men reside in the Shady Rest Retirement Home in Mud Creek, Texas, that happens to also be the hunting ground of a soul-sucking re-animated royal Egyptian mummy, King Amen Hotep, in western wear. It’s a quirky, over-the-top story that blends the horror of a monster with the horror of growing old.
The crux of the film, however, resides in its poignant commentary about the "silent generation" (the elderly) from the perspective of Elvis and Jack. Through internal monologues and interactions with many of the other characters, Elvis ruminates on the basics of life – “food, shit, and sex” – as well as lost opportunities in his relationships with Priscilla and Lisa. In one early scene, Callie, whose father has recently passed away, shows a lack of interest as she quickly flips through her father’s old photographs, Purple Heart, and other effects before tossing the lot into the trash bin. A lifetime of memories and sacrifices are lost on one’s children revealing a lack of interest or respect. It is as though age and wisdom have no value. Even Jack, who mentions having a visit from family and lives in a nicely furnished room at the home, remarks that they [relatives] “get us out of the way until we die.”
There are a couple of reasons that this movie resonates for me. First, the retirement setting is a reminder of when I worked at an assisted living/retirement home for about a year. While it was not dilapidated like Shady Rest, the halls were gloomy and the reproduction artwork was cheap and uninspiring. Some residents were still mobile and rather independent, but there were a number of them that seldom had visits from family; they were alone and isolated from their own home and loved ones. One valuable lesson I learned was that little things mattered: taking time to have a conversation, play a game (Bingo was a favorite.), or sharing meals with the residents in the communal dining room. The job was more than just managing accounts; it was about caring about the residents, showing respect, having interest in their welfare, and, most importantly, believing and showing that they still had value.
Secondly, now that I am in my fifth decade of life, like Elvis, I occasionally feel a sense of melancholy wondering where the years have gone. Wrinkles have begun to show, my body responds with aches and pain in reaction to things I used to do in my youth, and some days, I sag from the weight of the years I have lived. It doesn’t help that our media is saturated with images of youth, riddled with unrealistic obsessions to recapture our youth. Even though Bubba Ho-Tep paints a bleak existence, there are some glimmers of hope. Elvis finds a sense of belonging and that he cares about his friends at the home, enough so that he is willing to go do battle. He and Jack both realize that as they prepare to face death, it is not the time for regrets, but to acknowledge they did the best that they could. Even one of the hearse drivers comments how fleeting life is; in other words, don’t squander life – live the moment, as it could be your last.
Bubba Ho-Tep addressed important themes about aging and, thankfully, since 2002, I believe there has been a shift with regards to the acceptance and representation of the mature generation in media. Regularly on the small and big screens, we see Rob Lowe, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, George Clooney, Denzel Washington, and Kevin Costner; however, as an aging woman, I am encouraged to see Diane Lane, Marisa Tomei, Julianne Moore, Angela Bassett, Sigourney Weaver, and Helen Mirren in the limelight, as well as shows starring women over fifty, such as Cougar Town, Veep, Orange is the New Black, Downton Abby, and Grace and Frankie. The last show, in particular, does not hesitate to explore topics of aging; we have come some distance from the halls of Shady Rest to the SoCal beach house of Grace and Frankie. Obviously, we need more media representation, but in the meantime, I am thankful that weathered faces and bodies are being seen more and more, and that twilight voices are being heard.