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Better Off Dead: John Cusack shares a mysterious link with other soon-to-be-dead people.

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 life, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

"Bodies. Dead bodies! Oh my God!" cries author Mary Roach, standing atop a short, grassy knoll around which two dozen human shapes--most of them faced down, one or two faced up--are scattered about in every direction. "It's a body farm!" yelps Roach, staring wide-eyed for a few seconds before trading that expression in for a wicked, happy grin as she adds, "But hey, it really doesn't smell too bad."

Thankfully, Roach is only kidding around. The splayed corpses we see are really just the sleeping bodies of sun-soaked recreationists, enjoying a quiet Sunday afternoon in the park. The day is sunny and quite warm, precisely why we've chosen this spot to sit and talk about Identity, a nifty new horror movie starring John Cusack and Ray Liotta.

Maybe it's not too strange that Roach, a San Francisco-based 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 in the rain 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 sensational 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.

In her research, Roach spent time with plastic surgeons as they practiced giving face-lifts to the sawed-off heads of recent body donors, and she visited a very real "body farm" in Tennessee, where scientists study the process of human decay. In other words, Roach really knows her way around the nonliving.

After we've settled down on the grass with our cups of coffee, 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 coin-operated 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. Because of this book, I now know how much a human head weighs. And 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."

"How much does a head weigh?" I have to ask.

"About 11 pounds," Roach replies. "Roughly the same as a bowling ball or a large roaster chicken."

Good to know. But why do severed heads freak us out so much? Even Shakespeare--who could melt an audience with his words--was not above tossing a few heads onstage when a play needed a bit of a jolt in the third act.

"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," she continues, "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?"

"A head is the thing we recognize people by," she says. "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, "is just never going to have that same effect."

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From the May 1-7, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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