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Heads of Their Time: Ray Liotta (from left), John Hawkes and John Cusack get cut off from civilization and their own bodies in 'Identity.'

Head Games

Corpse chronicler Mary Roach dissects the cadaver-packed fright flick 'Identity'

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Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate postfilm conversation. This is not a review; rather, it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of art, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

"BODIES. DEAD BODIES! Oh my God!" cries author Mary Roach, standing atop a grassy knoll around which two dozen human shapes are scattered about in every direction. "It's a body farm!" yelps Roach, but adding, with a wicked, happy grin, "But hey, it really doesn't smell too bad." Thankfully, Roach is only kidding around. The splayed corpses are really just the sleeping bodies of recreationists, enjoying a Sunday afternoon in the park. We're here to talk about Identity, a nifty new horror movie starring John Cusack and Ray Liotta.

Maybe it's not too strange that Roach, a San Francisco­based science writer with a well-developed silly streak, would imagine that all the sleeping people around us are dead. After all, we've just seen a film in which 10 desperate people stranded at a desert motel take entertaining turns being beheaded, gutted, strangled, shot, smothered and, uh, toasted alive. If that wasn't enough to skew her view, Roach has just spent two years among the dead--whole and in parts--as research for her new book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. As funny as it is, well, kind of creepy, Roach's 12-chapter free-for-all is a study of the ways that dead human bodies, from ancient days to the present, have given their all in the pursuit of important scientific, medical, industrial and philosophical knowledge.

I begin by saying, "First, I want to ask about one specific moment in the film." "The head?" she asks. Yep. The head. Early in the film, the gnarly noggin is discovered as it's going through tumble-dry in the motel's clothes dryer. "I knew it was a head banging around in there--ka-thunk! ka-thunk!" Roach smiles, kind of sweetly. "I guessed it was a head because of the weight. That noise was way too heavy for a hand or a foot. What else could it be? A torso wouldn't fit in that particular large appliance, so it pretty much had to be a head."

Why do severed heads freak us out so much? Even Shakespeare was not above tossing a few heads onstage when a play needed a bit of a jolt. "Heads are difficult under any circumstances," Roach muses. "When I was doing my research, the woman who was setting up the plastic-surgery practice lab--depositing each head in its own aluminum roasting pan--admitted that she only copes with her job by thinking of the heads as wax. The head and the hands, across the board, are what people who work with dead bodies find the most difficult to deal with. The head and the hands are the parts we most often see of a person. It's very hard to make heads or hands impersonal."

"Why," I ask her, "do you think the severed head has become such an effective horror-film cliché?" She replies, "A head is the thing we recognize people by. Remember that scene in Apocalypse Now, when Marlon Brando drops that guy's head in Martin Sheen's lap? 'Here's his head! Here's his face! Auugghhh, it's in my lap!' It's horrifying because a head is the brain, and it contains the personality of a person.

"A severed knee," says Roach, smiling again, "is just never going to have that same effect."


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From the May 1-7, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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