Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Zombie Hood - review

2013 (UK)

Contains spoilers.

Director / writer Steve Best certainly knows how to fashion an extremely good and stylish zombie cinematic experience. Full of tension, imbued with hopelessness and with arteries a plenty ready to be ripped open by well thought out, coherent believable gut munchers there's plenty to commend; especially given the extreme budget. I'm always ready to be somewhat lenient with amateur productions, especially those of a UK origin. For all the good acting performances there will always be times where someone, or some sequence will come across as less than convincing. Special effects need to be tempered somewhat and there's always the possibility that scenes that should really be cut end up being left in just because they were shot and there's no time for something else. Yes all this is applicable to Zombie Hood and no, it doesn't detract from what is an earnest attempt at a serious traditional zombie survival story; but, and it's unfortunately quite a big but, its main problem is not encompassing all the aforementioned zombie carnage in a good honest narrative.

It all starts well. Actually it all starts extremely well. Best is quite the cinematic artist and the myriad of distinct scenes that help set up the apocalypse are imaginative, stylish, shocking and constantly well put together. The crowded Nottingham nightclub makes an effective ground zero, though it reminded me somewhat of the opening sequence from Blade, and the no nonsense introduction of our undead friends is tenacious, vicious and commendable without excess dalliance. There's a great zombie attacking a girl in a bath scene, there's plenty of carnage and panic, lots of blood and guts and though I soon came to realise the survivors who were to be our main focus were going to be another deplorable set of morally deplete forgettables, as I watched them escape the city I was still enjoying myself.

Now I can understand with the world falling all around that running around like a headless chicken may be unavoidable, for a time, but really, that's all Best seems to be able to envisage the rag tag miscreant band are capable of once out of immediate danger and surrounded by trees. Whether it's Rik (Richard Lee O'Donnell) with his incessant need to goof about, make small talk and eat crisps, Sam (Tom Murton) the token bad boy gleeful in the groups misfortunes, or old Bill (Harry Keeling) and his ever ready bag of Werther's Originals, none of the group seem able to come up with any kind of plan other than to wander around in circles. The group stumble from car to pub to forest, to car, to forest, to car back to forest without I'm guessing much more of an idea why, than Best did when an hour into writing / film production he realised he needed another thirty minutes to fill. It's all a bit a shame really as he is an undoubted talent and when focused on what on what works; blood, gore, tension and its scene construction the film shines.

The white eyed, pale skinned, snarling death muchers of Zombie Hood are well crafted Romero / Boyle modern infected. A tag, you're it, you die, you come straight back up, and the person you once were is gone and you're ready to get started on your new cannibal way of unlife. There's some ambiguous insinuation that when freshly turned the dead are fast, almost Boyle 28 Days Later fast, and as the body adjusts to death they slow down to a Romero gait. It's a new idea and one I could get behind; but other than that, and the confidence / audacity / bad-taste to include a lot of children, it's really what we've come to expect. Best has done a great job with makeup, making sure the zombie extras behaviour is uniform and coherent, and what the film lacks in effects budget he more than makes up for with intelligent, highly stylised off camera, blurred and implied sequences that still pack a punch.

With only a purported seven thousand pounds to play with Best has worked wonders putting together an earnest somewhat convincing medley of ideas and scenes that works as a celebration of the modern zombie zeitgeist. The great start is let down with a pretty drab and meandering last two thirds but it never fully unravels, maintaining its semi-interesting survival sub-narrative. However without any attempt at fashioning a focused narrative spine and without any real character development to speak of, the film really just runs out of steam; its blistering sprint start ending with a rather limp and lifeless stumble way too early. Certainly above average, it's an amateur zombie endeavour well worth watching and supporting, and if it could only have sustained its heady take-off could have been right up there, 5/10.


Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Map of the Zombies

A bit over due this one. I was fortunate to come into contact with the extremely talented Jason Thompson of fame because of a very interesting kickstarter he was running to, in his own words, produce a 'vintage medical illustration-style poster identifying over 350 different zombie types from movies, books, games & more'.

He was very gracious to cite my little ol' blog here as an influence so how could I possibly not back it too.

Anyway, it came a few weeks ago, it really is as awesome as it sounds and in the end included a good deal more than the 350.

It'll be framed by the time you read this and it's well worth any zombie aficionado's pennies.

You can get one at Mock Man Press.


Monday, 14 April 2014

FleshEater (Revenge of the Living Zombies / Zombie Nosh) - review

1998 (USA)

Contains spoilers.

I've got to begin this review with a confession. You see, I really enjoyed FleshEater, though I know, deep down I shouldn't have. It's amateurish lazy film making, badly edited with campy b-movie acting and dialogue. It's embarrassingly exploitative, delighting in baring the young titties of every girl on cast at every opportunity. It's also painfully derivative with director / producer / writer and chief ghoul Bill Hinzman happy to brazenly steal narrative and genre staples from all and sundry but mainly the film that gained him his notoriety in the first place. It's a bad film with little to objectively praise it except… and here it is; it's a hoot from start to finish. It's constantly entertaining, there's plenty of gore and blood and seeing cute young things bare themselves is never dull however uncomfortable one feels it should be. FleshEater is another of these zombie bad-good film that you can't but help smile along to.

Bill Hinzman is the eponymous zombie that depending on how you look at it kind of started the whole thing off. His macabre shuffling towards Barbra in 1968 devoid of the influence of voodoo, master or divine power marked a change in direction that came to have not only a profound influence on the genre, but possibly the whole modern zeitgeist. Now one could argue that Romero's creation was inevitable with society hurtling from religion and superstition towards a world of science and objectivism, and Matheson amongst others with I Am Legend had already challenged the entwined notion that undead should be linked with mysticism, but it was Bill Hinzman, flesheater with his autonomous hunger and primal drive that firmly planted the flag.

It was with all this in mind, that an eyebrow was raised when his black suited ghoulish frame was introduced to the screen with the breaking of an ancient magical seal and a warning not to. Still, with the cast of young amateur and extremely unlikable misfit kids out on a Halloween hayride to drink, cavort and obviously die it was obvious I really wasn't supposed to be taking it all that seriously. The film almost plays out as one would expect. Teenagers do what teenagers do, Flesheater does what a flesheater would and before you know it half the kids are dead and back up staggering about and the few little brats that survived are running about and screaming for their lives. It's lively, the blood and gore is gratuitous and if you're not over critical, the acting and dialogue, whilst hokey is quite agreeable. 

It almost plays out as one would expect but Hinzman obviously has ambition, or at least delusions of. Thinking I was watching a zombie Friday The 13th wannabe it soon turns into Night of the Living Dead with the group holding out in a nearby deserted farm house complete with nails, hammer and wooden boards (ridiculously close to hand) and all the same interpersonal conflict and fisticuffs. The transition wasn't smooth if I'm honest but it's low budget and Hinzman is at least trying. There's also another scene with more miscreant kids having a Halloween party in a barn, and a totally gratuitous and unnecessary (though this could be debated) urban house shower sequence. It jumps around and there's no real rhyme or reason to any of it, as if each scene was penned before they had any idea how they would stitch it together; but it's lively and fun, and as a series of camp entertaining gory death rooms it achieves its goal with aplomb.

Never really able to shake the tall gangly non-descript role he only received for being a camera man in the right place, at the right time, with the right old suit, Hinzman died in 2012 with Night of the Living Dead, a few other b-movie parts and this plus one other feature film as director to his name. Here, aged 52 he struts about chasing and chomping with vigour and panache; like a man who understands how to play a zombie, yet while he's never dull to watch, I couldn't help but feel a little sorrow that after all this time here he still was staggering about snarling with his arms out stretched in a rough b-movie as if he could never escape the undead road Romero started him on. Still, in some ways I'm glad he is, as sure, the film is a bit of confusing mess throwing ideas around, and baring boobs, like an angry teenager, but it's light, lively and trashy in an enthralling and hilarious way, and it's all down to Bill. A masterfully bad great zombie film, 6/10.


Thursday, 3 April 2014

Resident Evil: Degeneration - review

2008 (Japan)

Contains mild spoilers.

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with Sony's CG animation departure from the increasingly over the top on screen antics brought to the big screen by Paul W.S. Anderson. If anything being a return to the franchise's video game roots Sony should be applauded. It's no longer the Milla Jovovich show instead going back to a time of feisty and moody young heroes battling geopolitical greed and corruption and trying to protect a world from big baddies with some really nasty biochemical goodies. I've read the film is ultimately fan service, written for those invested in the deep convoluted story arcs and quiet suppressed sexual tensions; Resident Evil 4.5 without the game-play. Now I've played through RE4, 5 and 6 and respect the film for playing out as an elongated cut scene, but this is ultimately the heart of the film's problems too.

The thing about video game cut scenes is they're intrinsically, and I may be opening myself up for some heat here, boring. Good cut scene design is to keep it brief and to use them as extremely satisfying rewards and momentary respite for completing a particular intense sequence of game play. You make it through the airport finally scurrying outside to be rescued just before the zombies catch up; cut scene of shooting guns, the survivors hugging one another, a bit of exposition to set up the next chapter, then back to shooting zombies in the head. The problem here is the interspersed interactive game play between each cut scene is more cut scene. There's still the 'BIG' dramatic cut scenes but the action in between that you feel you should be playing is played out for you. It's not you running to the doors, it's you watching someone else running towards the doors. And there's a problem with this.

I wanted to like Resident Evil: Degeneration, it played with some nice ideas, the action scenes were entertaining, the dialogue pretty crisp and coherent, the voice acting good and the animation competent; it's just whatever I tried, namely coffee, opening all the curtains, opening a second screen on my lap with saucy pictures of Milla on, I just couldn't keep my eyes open. I'll freely admit that it probably didn't help that I'm not au fait with the full RE mythology, having not played 1-3 and if I'm honest I didn't pay too much attention to the cut scenes and story of 4,5 and 6, and as such maybe the film just isn't for me. 

Putting aside the question as to whether Resident Evil: Degeneration is deserving of automatic praise because it stays true to its origins against Anderson's bastardisation, my main problem with it is that the story is incredibly bland and tiresome. Derivative narratives can work to a certain extent in video games because they're not the main focus. For most action titles the story is there to enable some amazing fire fights and set pieces; take it out and critique it in any serious way and most likely it'll all fall apart. With some pretty uninspiring whingey characters, cookie-cutter villains and weary locations there's never any moments to really get excited about and even the final boss fight, which lasts a good half of the film never gets the heart racing, which is a shame as there's not an awful lot wrong with the presentation.

After the constant drive from Anderson to move away from telling anything resembling a good old zombie survival story there's a lot commend in director Makoto Kamiya's decision to focus on a small group of survivors versus a plane load of t-virus traditional zombies, at least for the first half of the film anyway. The action also comes thick and fast as snarling, blood thirsty, ambling undead ankle biters demonstrate how easily they can replicate given a good food source. There's a bit too much deliberate and obvious visual exposition to teach us how zombies work (head shots, biting, they're not human, alive or nice); I mean c'mon it's 2008, but at least they do stick to the rules. As said with the second half and the introduction of the g-virus RE does what RE does and goes a bit manga and implausibly excessive. It's just even with buildings exploding, rockets being fired and people being batted about like paper balls it was just hard to get too excited about the whole thing, though I think I know why.

Watching someone else play a video game is generally quite a dull experience, especially when the danger that they might actually do something wrong or die has also been removed. Add to this a story that's safe, derivative and really feels like it's dragging the whole thing out to come in longer, and you end up with a film that wholly flat; competent yes, but incredibly dull. As said, and reading the many positive reviews this has got, I can see an appeal, to some, of a fairly safe resident evil fan film that doesn't deviate too far from what is required; yet to the rest of us and as a film in its own right, zzzzzzzzz, 4/10.


Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Plan 9 From Outer Space - review

1959 (USA)

Contains mild spoilers.

Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space comes with such a weight of nostalgia / infamy / reputation and anti-hype to really be above objective criticism. There's no doubting it's a bad film; a truly awful cinematic experience that deservedly languished in obscurity for two decades before being thrown once more into the limelight in 1980 when Michael Medved and Harry Medved happened to champion it as the worse film ever made. Overnight its mediocrity became something to celebrate and it became more than just a film, more than the sum of its parts; and possibly forever un-reviewable in any normative way.

As the subject of in-depth cinematic analysis, and even a fantastic film directed by Tim Burton, I can only repeat what a thousand other reviewers have said. The acting, the dialogue, the special effects, the story, the way in which it's all so haphazardly thrown together in the most amateurish and insulting to the viewer manner it's easily, as a film, as bad as made out. Yet as an entertaining spectacle to watch with friends these very qualities make it highly watch-able and dare I say it, delightfully light and somewhat self-satirical. Whether consciously, subconsciously or most likely neither, Ed Wood has somehow fashioned a parody of all things 1950s sci-fi, Mccarthyism and b-movie and it's genuinely hard to believe he and all those involved didn't know precisely what they were doing and weren't in on the joke.

Some very human looking aliens who travel the cosmos in awkward looking spinning silver saucers have focused their attention on us Earth folk believing they need to interfere in our affairs before we harness the power of sunlight and create doomsday weaponry that could destroy the entire universe. Having being spurned by Earth authorities (I'm guessing 8 times) their Ruler (John Breckinridge) has agreed to Plan 9; a last ditch and somewhat slightly more aggressive approach that entails resurrecting the Earth's dead and having them march on the worlds capitals.

There are three zombies. The first, in the credits as Vampire Girl Vampira, (Maila Nurmi) is a long nailed Elvira-esque goth. The second, her grieving, much older husband who passed away a day later, is both the same repeated stock footage of Bela Legosi (taken from some filming he'd done three years earlier on a different project) or Tom Mason, who was uncredited and spends the entire film with a black cape draped across his face. The third, and most interesting where we're concerned is the late Inspector Dan Clay (Tor Johnson), a towering brute of a man who stomps and staggers around, arms out stretched, eyes vacant with all the hallmarks of the voodoo zombies of stage and screen from the previous forty years, yet a full five before Richard Matheson removed religion from the pot. Before I give Ed Wood too much credit in the zombie story though, in truth it's perhaps more Frankenstein, than instinctual, soul-depleted Romero gut munchers. Still, credit where credit is due; there is a whack to the head at one point and while they are under ray gun control (which is never really explained) there is a moment the gun fails and the zombie, just for a moment does act a bit dangerously out of control.

The epitome of bad b-movie film making. A paranoid rambling incoherent shambles of a film it's watchable precisely because one is always fascinated by the car-crash. As a film it's utter garbage, a 1/10, yet as an experience it's highly agreeable and worthy of 7 or 8/10. Part of the zombie story? Undoubtedly and perhaps not given as much credit as it's due. Final thoughts? Bafflingly brilliant, captivatingly bonkers and cinematically special, Plan 9 From Outer Space is a bad film but perhaps not the worst I've reviewed. Put up against such drivel as KFZ or many of the Asylum's attempts it's at least earnest, honest and most importantly entertaining. Ed Wood was hack but he was keen and invested in what he was doing, and people are still watching his films some sixty years on which I'll wager we won't be doing in their case. "Future events such as these will affect you in the future", indeed; 8/10.

I actually watched a restored HD and colourised version of this film which I'm not sure was necessarily the best way to fully immerse myself. Still, it was clean, crisp and didn't look as dated as it is. I'll note, the Blu-ray is region free too.


Friday, 28 March 2014

Damned by Dawn - review

2009 (Australia)

Contains spoilers.

It would feel a bit mean to be too critical of this earnest, atmospheric horror indie. The build-up is strong, the acting half decent, especially the girls, and the narrative interesting and reasonably coherent if one doesn't think too hard about it. All in all, writer and director Brett Anstey has fashioned a competent little horror story with an original hook and has demonstrated enough talent in his directorial abilities, to warrant future larger budgets. Unfortunately where it does kind of fall apart is exactly due to said lack of experience, finance and perhaps lack of confidence in the good old low budget mantra, to keep things tight and that less is sometimes more. There's a little too much forced exposition at times, the story is strong but does end up rambling, losing its plausibility, and the brilliantly built up, evocative and subtle atmosphere and effects does head a bit too much into b-movie territory where ambition should have been tempered.

Claire (Renee Willner) with her boyfriend Paul (Danny Alder) has returned to the old family farmstead after receiving a mysterious old urn through the post and has learnt from her old da' (Peter Stratford) and younger sister Jen (Taryn Eva) that Nana's not well. Now, it's hard to pick who's most to blame for the events that unfold that evening as Nana (Dawn Klingberg) takes her final breath. On the one hand Claire does push the Banshee that appears, to herald her passing, off the balcony impaling her and thus committing her family to death and eternal damnation. But on the other hand Nana has had nearly seventy years to prepare for the events that would unfold and has done a damn fine job of not getting everyone up to speed. Either way; a curse on the O'Neills line means that on their passing, a Banshee will appear, wail quite a bit and everyone should leave her alone. What they shouldn't do, under any circumstances, at all, absolutely not, is interfere, accost her, or say, push her off a balcony. Ooops.

The Banshee, or "woman of the sídhe" or "woman of the fairy mounds", is a female spirit seen as an omen of death and a messenger from the underworld (thanks wiki). With bloodshot eyes from crying out for centuries the 'keener' or fairy woman, according to Irish legend, appears in a white gown to lament (Irish: to wail) the passing of one the six great Gaelic families, of which the O'Neills is one. Played by Bridget Neval she's mysterious and frightening, her wail unearthly and harrowing and her appearance is haunting and coherent. Like many films that begin with an old legend the writer / director soon decides to deviate from folklore however, and that's probably where the film starts to also deviate from plausibility and starts trying a tad too hard.

I've now read quite a bit about Banshee's (at least two articles) and everything so far fits. The thing is, and I do understand the need for artistic embellishment in film making, I've not really found much reference to an army of the undead being awoken and her going on a blood fuelled rampage should her wail be disturbed. After being re-killed the undead spirits she summons from the ground are skeletal which is ok, as I can go with the fact they've been buried a long time. They all also seem to have scythes to wield which again I guess is fair enough, as they were probably farm hands. The thing I couldn't really get behind though, was the fact they were flying. It's jarring, a bit daft looking, and it's made considerably worse with the poor CG and effects that make them about as coherent and cohesive as a brick in a yogurt. Admittedly they're not that much more artificial looking than the bonies in Warm Bodies or even the zompires in I Am Legend but they're so jarring in a film full of subtlety and nuance that they come very close to breaking the whole illusion on their own.

Zombies? They're reanimated skeletal remains under the control of the Banshee so probably not in any strict sense. Paul however, back as a staggering cockroach infested corpse out for revenge most definitely is, in a revenant kind of way anyway. The sister too makes a return, albeit extremely briefly, gurgling blood in a zombie way and even the grandmother makes a reappearance as a possessed Evil Dead / Exorcist potty-mouthed cantankerous old hag (though she may have been like this before she was damned). There's lots of ideas and it all looks good and helps the film entertain but if I'm honest it feels a bit thrown together as if with twenty minutes to fill they weren't quite sure how to deliver the shocks they'd been building towards.

I liked Damned by Dawn. I actually watched it twice, and even enjoyed it more the second time. It's competent, has some great build up and scares and an interesting premise that's well played around well with. The plot does meander and lose its way somewhat, but the central story arch does get back on point and it does hold interest. Anstey certainly has an eye for suspense and build up if not necessarily the ability to deliver on it. Constant corner of the eye, shadow, snapshot imagery and the subtle and clever use of sound deliver a truly spooky experience and I found myself often cowering behind a cushion or momentarily bereft of skin, and if he could have kept to what he undoubtedly does best all would have been well. The thing is, ultimately when it comes to delivering on all evocative teasing, the big action scenes feel tragically forced, immodest and even a little incongruous. They never not deliver; it's just things never feel quite right. Would I recommend it? Sure, why not? You'll be promoting low budget horror production and you'll be in for a well-produced jumpy hour and a half's fun; just brace yourself for hover-zombies, 5/10.


Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Shivers (Orgy of the Blood Parasites / They Came from Within) - review

1975 (Canada)

Contains spoilers.

If you'd asked me whether this film would have made my zombie blog a couple of years ago I'd emphatically responded with a no. I'd feasted on the diet of rotting flesh supplied in abundance by Romero then maintained as a familiar western trope and was fully invested that dead meant dead. Today? I've come to embrace the notion that deadness is so much more than not having a pulse and being a great home for maggots; that the fundamental attribute of zombie is loss of will, of self, of control. That the concept is fluid and necessarily ambiguous and can be reasonably applied to all manner of people and situations where a new almost external hunger drives the host to behave in a way that's less than who they authentically are.

In 1975 a young Canadian film maker with a penchant for body dysfunction, infection, parasites and the blurring of psychological with physical released his first feature film with partial funding from the Canadian Government. David Cronenberg's Shivers (aka Orgy of the Blood Parasites, aka They Came from Within, aka Frissons) was met with a mixed reception but also announced to the world the arrival of a daring and exciting young film making talent who wasn't afraid to challenge taboos or court the controversial.

Shivers is an exciting film full of avant-garde ideas, striking and disturbing images and real depth, yet the premise on the surface sounds simple and almost laughably b-movie. The brilliant yet disturbed Dr. Emil Hobbes (Fred Doederlin), has had an epiphany or total psychotic break down, depending on how you look at it, and has utilised his years researching parasites to cure mankind of its swing from flesh and instinct to rationality by introducing a cleverly engineered foreign organism into the wild.

The film begins with a brutal and disturbing scene of Dr. Hobbes attacking and overpowering his teenage concubine, stripping her, then slicing her open to pour (Hollywood) acid on her internals before taking his own life. The act seems malicious yet we learn it's the actions of a desperate man who has come to realise the parasite he has let loose actually does it's job too well turning them into sex crazed monsters and he needs to kill it before it spreads. This is cinema though, so of course he's too late.

Despite no corpses pulling themselves from the earth Shivers has all the hall marks of a zombie film. There's ground zero, there's the slow but exponential spread; there's confusion, screaming, violence and in the end total pandemonium and inescapable hopelessness. The parasite, a combination of venereal disease and aphrodisiac, on symbiotic infection consumes the host with an insatiable psychosis to procreate so that it can itself procreate. Those infected lose that which made them who they are, and are now for all intents and purposes mindless zombies driven by forces not of their own will. They retain their memories and knowledge, but that which stops from them acting against increasing physical and moral degeneration has gone. Sexual coercion turns into rape, rape turns into attacks, attacks turn into murder and cannibalism as the new hosts give in to deeper and darker primal desire, free from all conscience and societal consequence. Under Cronenberg's control the journey is dark, disturbing and utterly compelling. Never is it farce or amateurish but always tight, tense and intelligent.

Stylish, sumptuously crafted and always provocative and interesting. Characters have depth, relationships are complicated and dialogue is well crafted. There isn't a central story as such; Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton), the tower block's locum, his work colleague and lover Nurse Forsythe ( Lynn Lowry) and the accompanying ensemble are there to ensure the story is told and things are revealed at the right pace. There's no real heroes or villains and it doesn't matter. The narrative is the degeneration of the people of the tower and it's brilliantly realised. For a first time director with no real insight into how films were made Shivers is full of iconic imagery (the bath scene alone is timeless) and expertly crafted nuance and subtlety. Gritty, sophisticated, compelling and a triumphant début, 8/10.