Monday, 26 September 2016

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest - review

2006 (USA)


Contains spoilers.
  
One bloody monkey. That's all it took to dictate whether or not Gore Verbinski (director) and Jerry Bruckheimer's (producer) second hokey Pirates of the Caribbean adventure would make for a zombie movie review or not. One bloody monkey. You see, I don't think Davy Jones's crew, though gnarly, dark and ugly, really make the zombie cut. I know they're century old degenerates, in both mind and body, and forced to an eternal servitude of murder, rape and pillage across the high seas, but for the most part they're cognisant, and seem pretty enamoured with their whole predicament. Now, like in my review of the previous film there's certainly some zombie ambiguity to the crew what with all the immortality and curses, and it is the Caribbean and voodoo with priests with funny bones and what-not; but there's just not enough groaning and mindlessness. It all comes down to one bloody monkey and you probably, like me, even missed his zombification at the end of the first film, where the long credits fade and it's Barbossa’s pet back with the cursed gold coins of Cortés in Isla de Muerta's. A thirty odd second bit of throwaway fun with the little shit stealing a piece, and wham, a zombie-monkey and here we are.

What to say about the film? It's every bit the triple-A bombastic multi-million pound spectacular it's billed as. It's Johnny Depp , Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley all doing what they're paid audaciously stupid amounts of money to do. It's wall to wall ridiculous and jaw dropping effects; an extravagant non-stop roller-coaster of fun, and a tremendous way to spend a family Sunday afternoon. It is perhaps a tad long, at two and a half hours and it's also perhaps a little more contrived and forced than the first; but the high jinx high-seas tale of treachery, redemption and friendship is strong and competent enough to deliver every bit the perfect level of low brain escapism.

It's also every bit the part of something greater. You see, Dead Man's Chest is part one of a two film story arc shot simultaneously with the third PoC instalment, At World's End. As such I've seen it compared to The Empire Strikes Back; an unresolved journey movie that leaves more questions than it answers. Whilst Davy Jones's heart is turned over to the East Indian Trading Company's Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), and the Kraken is overcome so that Elizabeth, Will and the crew can make their escape the film is chock full of hanging threads, none more so than the fate of Captain Sparrow, last seen being dragged to the depths of the sea. We could also, if we wanted to be cynical, strip the film down and argue that there's actually very little meaningful content, and that the film is really just a rather drawn out two and half hour long tease for a climax we'd have to wait another year to get. Also, that a great many of the long elaborate sequences, such as Captain Sparrow's capture and on the island ruled by cannibals, or the extended three-way in-fight on Isla Cruces are rather unnecessary contrived filler, and if merged with the second film and given a rather frugal edit they'd both benefit. I'm not sure though, for as much as the critic in me agrees with all this, I did actually enjoy all the superfluous goofing about and maybe that's what the film is ultimately all about.

So this zombie monkey. As I stated in the previous film's review, the curse is actually more about looking undead than actually being undead, and though appearing as a ghastly ghoul when the moon is out might not be everyone's cup of tea, the immortality and a imperviousness that comes with the condition probably more than compensates. So perhaps he's not quite a zombie; but Jack clearly calls him undead and demonstrates his unique selling point with a close quarters gun shot during a trade with obeah priestess Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris) to discover the location of the Flying Dutchman. And its crew? Not really zombie either, with looks more akin to undersea creature hybrid mutants, and temperaments closer to the particular nasty and uncouth pirate crew their reputation alludes to. And also while they may well be under the command of Davy Jones, as said, they don't seem particularly upset about carrying out his wishes.

So not really a zombie film and even the undead monkey is perhaps probably a bit zombie suspect; still ambiguity is at the heart of zombie myth and Barbossa has come back, albeit briefly at the end, from a state that was most definitely dead. It's also the Caribbean and voodoo; and as I've said before, part four, On Stranger Tides does promise no question gut-munchers (well maybe not quite, as remember this is Disney and family friendly fun), and we're now at least one closer. Fully deserving of its accolade as fastest film ever to gross over $1 billion in the worldwide box office at the time, and fully deserving of all the popular plaudits I can't really fault it as a great pop-corn action spectacular, and recommend it wholeheartedly for a family treat. Albeit as said, have At World's End sat ready in the wing to finish the story, which I'll be no doubt doing too, and also hoping that bloody monkey has done one so I can skip another nearly zombie film - 7/10.

Steven@WTD.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Navy Seals vs. Zombies - review

2015 (USA)


Contains mild spoilers.
  
It was only after learning first time director Stanton Barrett's resume included stunt work, Nascar racing and obviously all the serious head trauma that entailed, that Navy Seals vs. Zombies renamed Security Guard Navy Seals: The Battle for New Orleans for Netflix made any sense. Now I don't mean make sense in terms of narrative or actually what happens; Navy Seals vs. Zombies is about as obvious and in your face as a brick in yogurt. What I'm talking about is make sense, as in casting old overweight men as the best of the best, in the field present them generally inept at making the right calls and surprisingly fragile, and actually release a feature clearly unfinished with so many jarring goofs to make Ed Wood's own efforts appear exacting and polished in comparison.

Ed Quinn as Unit commander Lt. Pete Cunningham obviously has some bills to pay as why he voluntarily agreed to not only take part, but take a lead role in this strange, raw, simplistic military action film is beyond me. He does a good job though, as do all five of the Seals, competently and believably pulling off all the military jargon and close quarters room by room manoeuvring. Also the two tag along reporters, Amanda (Stephanie Honoré) and Dave (Massimo Dobrovic) extracted with the vice president, who then choose to accompany the guys to their second target, too pull off their roles with sincerity and enthusiasm. So the blame clearly can't lie here. Also the basic premise sounds good on paper; and highly experiences Navy Seals are sent right into the centre of an emerging zombie shit-storm to rescue a high profile figure makes a welcome change from Joe average's quickly learning to swing a knife. I'd even go as far to add that an obvious low budget and direct to TV look and feel can be managed with a little imagination and some careful planning. So where does it all go wrong?

Some attention to detail would be a good start. Such was the number of times cars could clearly be seen going about their normal every-day on the edge of shot, or people could be seen pottering around in the background of a city that was being pushed as totally and utterly post apocalyptic, that I stopped counting. Also at 1:32:02; and yes I paused, rewound and went back in slow-mo in disbelief; a sound or effects engineer was clearly in shot, knelt down with the Seals actually having to manoeuvre around him to get into a room to look for the lone survivor. Also, even when there aren't these distractions the film is full of continuity mistakes and terrible and baffling story decisions that are impossible to go along with, none more so than having us believe they'd send just 5 troops and one helicopter to deal with the full scale collapse of a large American city, or have us believe the single scientist who might offer some hope of a cure would have spent the ensuing carnage and maelstrom of death patiently sitting in her hidden top secret CIA lab twiddling her thumbs. A certain level of amateurness I can deal with; the level of neglect and care on display here is criminal.

There wasn't clearly any budget for make-up or effects. Actually that's a lie; the odd zombie did have a small spot or two of blood, or a gnarly smudge of eye-liner; and there was a single interesting demonic rise from the dead zombie moment near the start that actually had me smiling. Explosions were all obvious and poorly implemented computer graphics, as were all the strangely mooted gun shots, and all the big aerial pans shots, and military footage was clearly stock and fiddled with. If I hadn't known I'd have easily thought this a bad SyFy special from ten years ago.  

Look I know some of the carnage is fun, some of the military antics will excite the little boy in all of us and pointing out obvious goofs can feel rewarding but Navy Seals vs. Zombies is not a film that really deserves even a modicum of credit. Maybe Stanton Barrett is our new Ed Wood, and maybe people will refer to his only directorial feature film as a cult classic in years to come; but I doubt it. Plan 9 from Outer Space had kitsch born from not just its atrocious production but from the legacy of all involved, and Navy Seals is just a cheap cynical cash-in laughably constructed by people who clearly couldn't be that bothered. Look, maybe I am being a tad hard and as said Ed Quinn, and all, did put in a shift. Also, even though there wasn't an option to translate the various news banners used back to English on this German Blu-ray, it looked and sounded great with the full English 5.1 DTS soundtrack; though thinking about it, perhaps we've finally stumbled on the films biggest problem; that with a clean crisp full HD transfer there's nowhere to hide the warts; the short-cuts, or the clear acceptance of mediocrity 3/10.

Steven@WTD.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Humans vs Zombies - review

2011 (USA)


Contains spoilers. 

Laboured, derivative and predictable, amateur in composition, story and acting; writer and director Brian T. Jaynes's low budget genre-bandwagon Humans vs Zombies isn't going to win any awards. Then again it's somehow also nowhere near as bad as it could, or should have been. I'll also hold my hands up. It was only after checking IMDb afterwards that I learnt that Humans vs. Zombies; the popular college campus high-jinx referenced was actually a thing; a combination of a UK University and the Nineties, had this one pass me by. I'll also keep my hands up to admit if it had been a thing I'd have undoubtedly joined in with James (Jesse Ferraro) and the nerd-gang pretending to keep the streets safe from the undead scourge.

Before I go into the gaming meta, I'd like to reiterate that Humans vs Zombies, the film, is an entirely safe, entirely done-to-death zombie holocaust survival story. There's a biotech firm, fluorescent goo, an awkward beach scene encounter between a hunky guy without a shirt, his girlfriend in her underwear and a zombie in a hazmat suit, and an entirely avoidable and terribly derivative accident that's soon spreading out of control. Add to the mix a narrative where all but a fortunate few students succumb and the local campus, town and countryside is rapidly overrun, and it's a scream, run, hold-up, repeat template all the way. As said it's laboured, full of inconsistencies, and for all it does do right is entirely hampered at all times by the obvious budgetary constraints. Yet it does do somethings right, and there were moments where clever dialogue, polished acting and delightful gore and effects had me believing I was watching something entirely less amateur. Unfortunately these moments were always followed with reminders I wasn't.

A play on the school-yard live action phenomenon, Humans vs Zombies the film for all the geek references and call-outs doesn't perhaps play with the video-game nerds become heroes and save the day trope as much as it could. Sure James is called out to finally put his extensive zombie know-how and first person nerdship to good use but it ultimately doesn't do much good. If we're honest it falls to the other survivors; his room-mate, non-gaming football player, Danny (Jonah Priour), girlfriend of five minutes  Amanda (Melissa Carnell), comic-relief Brad (Chip Joslin) and Frank, a gun toting campus police officer, gulf-war vet and paranoid conspiracy nut to step up to the plate. Add in gaming-know-it-all, and stream-princess Tommi (Dora Madison) who again falls apart when things get ugly and real and it's almost if Jaynes didn't really care much for the gaming origin.

As with everything else, for every gnarly authentic looking zombie and gratuitous and glorious gut munch or head-pop spectacle there's the inconsistent friends of the shoot drafted in to get a sense of scale once the carnage had spilled out onto the street. It's never terrible; there's obviously been some good editing, it's just never good. There's also some terrible and baffling story inconsistencies and decisions, like leaving a relatively well fortified campus police facility to run across in broad daylight to a flimsy hardware store, and once there abandon the plan to board it up, preferring to sit around depressed, maudlin and horny till morning. Even the zombies themselves; a traditional virus infected fast post 28 Days Later; are suddenly and eccentrically thrown docility if they can't feed and a lack of hunger for those ex-soldiers who've been exposed to chemical weapons. It's almost as if with half an hour to go and struggling, any and all ideas were ready to be looked at.

By no means the worst film I've watched there's just not enough originality or real substance to Humans vs Zombies to really make a recommendation. Above average acting and dialogue, and intermittent moments action and story clearly over-perform is not quite enough to sustain interest in a film that despite only lasting an hour and a half easily outstayed its welcome. Also how Jaynes turned what should have been the obvious and derivative bio-chemical origin story-line into the convoluted and confusing mess is really something. It was only after some incoherent conspiracy ramblings about the Illuminati, secret bunkers and an entomopathogen (insect-pathogenising fungus) engineered from ants to eat oil and wipe out humanity that any of the opening aerial shots, zombie virus news interviews and foreboding radio shows made any sense. It's just not a particularly good film; and despite not nearly being as bad as first impressions promised, clearly financially restrained and with fleeting moments of greatness, it's just all a bit shallow, repetitious and ponderous to stand out - 5/10.

Steven@WTD.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Big Tits Zombie (The Big Tits Dragon) - review

2010 (Japan)


Contains spoilers.

Now either Big Tits Zombie, or The Big Tits Dragon, or Kyonyū Dragon if we're to look to its manga source and original Japanese title, is a remarkable spaghetti zombie mash-up, perfectly capturing this particular goofy horror soft-porn niche to deliver an audaciously explosive hour fifteen of in your face unmissable fun and frolics; or it's possibly the most vacuous pile of bafflingly incompetent tosh I've had the misfortune to sit through. And though I can certainly appreciate writer and director Takao Nakano's enthusiasm in his two minutes introduction, and his wish for us to sit back and mindlessly laugh our way through his 'zombies fighting a sexy girl with a chainsaw' (his words) epic, I'm definitely leaning towards the latter position.

I do have a problem though. Despite all the short-comings; the horrendous effects and choreography, the random, entirely superficial and inconsequential story, the puerile jokes and infantile school boy obsession with boobies, I did have fun. It's also, given its title, not quite as bad as I expected with less of the obsessive fan service and none of the age-inappropriate exploitation I've come to expect. Sure leading ladies Lena Jodo (played by Japanese adult film star Sola Aoi) and Ginko (Risa Kasumi) share two scenes where tops are lost and cameras zoom in, and it's all bikinis, hot pants and tight tops; but really, I was expecting a lot more and I'm thinking the scenes as they are, were just probably in to satisfy contracts. This review is going to give me a problem.

There is an attempt at a story but I'm not sure Nakano, the actors, actresses, and for that matter us viewers were ever to take it that seriously. Lena joins a backwater strip bar and together with Ginko and three other girls they uncover a strange door that leads to forgotten cellar, the Well of Souls and The Book of the Dead. Maria (Mari Sakurai), one of the dancers, with a darker temperament and gothic leanings decides to take it on herself to dive into the 16th century medieval tomb, read a few incantations and open up the gates of hell for a new global age of the dead. Already some forty minutes in, and remember this is only a 73 minute film, it then falls to Lena and Ginko to single-handedly kick, punch, slash and swipe their way through the undead horde and save the world.

Neither Lena or Ginko or the actresses playing them have obviously ever thrown a punch in their lives. The distance between thrust and each zombie extra's dramatic collapse is comically large and exaggerated; yet moments later armed with chainsaw and katana we're suddenly expected to believe they possess the swordplay prowess of Alice, some three films in. I get it's all rather silly and in truth none of this matters; cohesion and integrity were left formally at the door; it's just all a bit overly amateurish. It's all also not helped by the fact that other than few tight skirmishes, what we have in truth is a single location zombie shindig recut and rehashed three times; once at the start and twice near the end. Add some vagina fire breathing, a goofy tentacle zombie mutation scene complete with obvious string, and a bafflingly eccentric supporting cast including Blue Ogre, a department manager from Hell and I really felt the film became more absurd and surreal the longer it went on; as if Nakano and all involved increasingly gave less of a shit how it all turned out.

BTZ is a comically atrocious film; but the thing is it not only knows it, but it does play it up. I think anyway; I could be wrong but that would be truly terrifying. As said, it's b-movie film making at its brazen best, with no redeeming qualities other than to be infuriatingly enjoyable. Not immensely enjoyable, but enough that despite telling yourself repeatably you will turn it off in five minutes you'll suddenly find yourself staring with disbelief as the credits roll. Look, it's a rubbish film but from the title and cover you already know that; you should also be under no illusion about exactly what sort of film it's likely to be, and I'll reiterate, yes, it's every bit as bad. And yet, sometimes a film is fun because it's so bad; so audaciously stupid you can't look away; I'm still torn and I'm sure I'll take some flak for this but… 5/10.

Steven@WTD.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

JeruZalem - review

2015 (Israel)


Contains mild spoilers.

If this was an advert for google glass, I'm sold! The ease in which they not only recorded Sarah Pullman's (Danielle Jadelyn) Israeli adventure, but dealt with all the knocks, crashes and intermittent wifi issues that come with a full on holy apocalypse was remarkable. Also, Jerusalem might well be one of the world's oldest cities, with heritage and significance second to none, but my god do they have good internet. Immediate non-pixelated Skype calls, near instant facial recognition with Facebook profile integration, and hd music streaming available 24-7; when do I move? They also make for a genuinely credible reason for recording all the carnage, chaos and death that comes with an end-of-the-world level event; and maybe we finally have the answer to the headache which dogs all first person found footage films; that of pulling off authentic justification for not putting the camera down with all around going to hell and where self-preservation clearly dictates it would at least help.

Sarah is not having a good time of it. Mourning the passing of her brother she's decided on a short getaway to Tel Aviv with her bosom buddy Rachel Klein (Yael Grobglas). On the plane they're quick to befriend Kevin (Yon Tumarkin), a young, affable religious-apocalypse scholar and future love-interest who persuades them to come to Jerusalem with him first. Not long after and checked in to a local hotel / hostel run by soon to be willing city guide Omar (Tom Graziani) they're out, hitting the sites, the bars and partying without a care in the world. There's a long build up before it's all running, screaming and trying really hard not to die, but writer and directors Doron and Yoav Paz do such a magnificent job of bringing Jerusalem to life that you can't help but we swept up in the girls' enthusiasm. It also gave them chance to flesh out the four main characters such that when it does all kick-off there's genuine emotional investment in their fate.

Now just because it's clearly wings and demons doesn't mean it's not zombies. I was a little worried (if that's the right word) coming into this that there wouldn't be enough to warrant an examination but I needn't have been. It may well be the holy apocalypse; last judgement; Yawm al-Qiyāmah; the final and eternal judgement by God of the people in every nation; but other than the torn bat-like wings, in all ways it positively screams traditional modern zombie. Now I've read Matthew and Luke; I've even read me some Revelation, Daniel and Isaiah, and I'm not sure it was ever intimated that judgement would come in the form of flesh eating zombie demons and a transmittable transforming infection. Strip away religion and that's primarily what we have; an extremely virulent infection that's passed primarily through bites; foul, fetid, hungry and pretty angry undead who can only be taken out with a headshot and an exponential headache. Still, at least it makes a change from mad scientists and incompetent chemical spills.

What it gets right, is gets right really well. The build-up, characters and outbreak; the genuinely expansive feeling, end-of-the-world city siege; the demons' appearance and behaviour, and the general atmosphere of dread, foreboding and oozing evil. I even loved the opening found footage; a short clip from 1972 with priests of all religions desperately calling to their Gods in order to exorcise a young woman in the throes of a zombie-demon transformation. What I'm not sure it does get quite right however, is the whole golem / Pacific Rim size throwaway background shenanigans and a rather rushed and cheap feeling final fifteen minutes, with the gang returning to a previously used location, Solomon's Quarries, in order to flee the city. Rather than act as the tense and claustrophobic conclusion, it rather felt like they'd run out of ideas and money. I'm also not convinced with the story line that sees Kevin fall apart and get quickly shipped out to the local loony bin the eve his lifelong obsession might actually be relevant.

The [REC] franchise is the easiest and most accurate comparison I can make for JeruZalem. Again it's demonic forces, the devil, possession, zombies, found footage and there's a very natural feel and some truly terrifying moments. Freed from the apartment block the Paz brothers have a whole city to play with and do a good job telling what is quite the depressing, biblical apocalypse story on a grand scale. Perhaps not as coherent, nor scary, JeruZalem is still an extremely solid found footage horror that clearly benefits from its location and the unique zombie origin story so as hide what perhaps is quite the derivative and predictable story. Still, given its small budget, its unique selling points and its genuinely tense and brooding atmosphere it's quite an accomplishment, recommended - 7/10.

Steven@WTD.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Doctor Blood's Coffin - review

1961 (UK)


Contains spoilers.
  
I'm going to approach director Sidney J. Furie's rather tame and rather lame Cornish Frankenstein-retelling in two ways. Firstly I'm not going to hold my punches, despite undoubted charm and nostalgia, from a film that rather snoozes along with a repetitious and vacuous story that takes way too long to deliver. And second, I'm not going to underplay the significance of Paul Stockman's decaying, macabre, soulless and homicidal zombie performance, some 5 years before Plague of the Zombies, some 7 years before Bill Hinzman in Night of the Living Dead and most comparably, some 18 years before Zombie Flesh Eaters (Zombie / Zombi 2).

Peter Blood (Kieron Moore) has returned home to the small Cornish and fictitious village of Porthcarron to a spate of strange disappearances, and several break-ins to his father, Robert's (Ian Hunter) clinic. Offering his skills, as a medical practitioner and biochemist, the case soon takes a dark and more sinister turn as local drunk and tin-mine expert George Beale (Andy Alston) is kidnapped on the eve of searching the coastal tunnels looking for the missing souls. What we have in many ways is a quaint and intriguing famous five mystery with a bumbling local bobby, Sergeant Cook (Kenneth J. Warren), an old drunk but harmless mortician, an earnest Doctor and the ever smiling and ever helpful nurse Linda Parker (Hazel Court) who, if we needed any reminder this is a film from the late 50's, early 60's, utilises her medical education to make coffee, carry boxes and act as chauffeur and love interest for the returning Peter.

People have been abducted, there's some old tin-mines, a mysterious syringe with an unusual compound that drags Dr. Robert to the big city for analysis and all it's really missing is Fred, Wilma, Daphne, Shaggy and Scooby to unveil the faceless evil master-mind and save the day. The thing is, given the title, the obvious similarities to the young over ambitious and morally duplicitous medical student scolded and thrown from his Vienna scholarship in the opening scene, then seen bounding the Cornish coves and heather, and the whodunit is all a bit of damp squib. Furie at least seems to recognise this though, revealing Peter as the mad scientist before the pretence becomes unbearable. 

Sure the acting is solid, the dialogue coherent and the scenery beautiful, it's just that for all intents and purposes the film is one long drawn out hour of incompetent police work, lacklustre chases and unconvincing romantic courtship. Not only does nothing really happen, but the not-muchness that does happen is painfully drawn out; an example being Peter's chase of the crawling George who's somehow shaken off his paralysing drugs, back and forth over the Cornish cliffs a good ten minutes or so too more than is necessary or wanted. It's also hard to suspend the necessary level of disbelief that not only can no one can put two and two together to even suspect that the returning stranger with the medical background, and the strange vials of South American neurotoxin might be behind the stolen syringes and abductions, but also put him in an unchallenged position to cover each and every track. 

At least after some intense dates and some major red-flags, the proverbial pebble drops leading Linda to a really rather terrifying confrontation where Peter's now rather entrenched and pathological position is provoked to increasingly desperate ends. An hour and ten, is a long time to wait to be honest, for any kind of pay-off despite how good it ultimately is, and I'd be hard pressed to recommend the film other than for the fact the decaying, long dead person brought back to life, through Peter transplanting a beating heart, is easily one of earliest depictions of what we'd consider the modern zombie. Dark, foul, rotten, and explicitly soulless and violent, the creature is clearly not the kind late husband Linda spoke so fondly of, and is clearly not happy to have been woken from its slumber. Furie is even good enough to provide some origin; as during the argument that proceeded Peter's twisted actions she confronts his extreme secular and utilitarianism position that brilliant men should be allowed to live at the expense of bums and paupers, with religious and moral prediction and warning. Tampering such as he is with life and death, she vehemently argues, is inherently wrong, evil and fraught with danger, and only God alone is capable of creating life. She tells him anything he, or science brings back will be flesh only, without a soul. It's a brilliant twenty minutes or so, well thought out, and I'd argue well ahead of its time. It's just such a pity it took so long to get there.

Light on content and laboured, this low budget British horror isn't without some redeeming qualities. Kieron Moore convinces as Peter Blood cavorting around the beautifully captured Cornish coastline every bit the crazed and rejected scientist, desperate to prove his father and contemporaries wrong. Also individually many of the incidents in the build up to the confrontation in the cavern are engaging and foreboding; if, as said, all that bit drawn out and sporadic. As a 60s British horror I'd be remiss not mention the hammer horror vibe which it has with abundance, and also remiss not to at least mention some of the rather glaring mundane distractions such as the drawings behind the windows of the internal sets, or the clear chroma-keying utilised for the driving scenes. But it's not these that ultimately detracts, and older films come, in my opinion with certain visual leeway. Doctor Blood's Coffin is ultimately a victim of its own failings; not brave enough to apply a thorough edit, and too content that thirty minutes of good content stretched to become an hour of okay, with a twenty minute brilliant crescendo would be good enough, which unfortunately it isn't -  4/10.

Steven@WTD.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

I Survived a Zombie Holocaust - review

2014 (New Zealand)


Contains mild spoilers.

After recently lampooning Cooties for offering little to an ever increasingly crowded genre, I feel a little two faced liking director and writer Guy Pigden's equally crowd pleasing zom-rom-com as much as I did. Just as farcical, slap-stick, easy to watch and dare I say whimsical, on the surface there's little, save Cootie's bigger budget and recognisable stars, to be able to call one out. Though perhaps, there's the rub; Cootie's was a deliberate cash-in; a contrived commercial venture that ticked all the right boxes because someone literally had a list of boxes that needed to be ticked. I Survived a Zombie Holocaust, in future referred to as I Survived, feels like it ticked the boxes naturally; purely by virtue of having a well-conceived and relatively simple script and vision, and the ability and enthusiasm of actors and a production crew to see it through. Nothing is forced and while the jokes, for the genre, are just as obvious and the farce tinted homage plays out just as predictably, there's a delightful authenticity and self-awareness, and you feel more you're invited in, than cajoled along.

I Survived is what I've started to refer to as a post-zombie zombie film. What I mean by that, is there's no pretence that zombies aren't a known thing, that The Walking Dead phenomenon didn't happened, and even the remotest of New Guinea tribesmen don't know the best way to deal with a shuffling corpse is a spear through the head. For most zombie films this doesn't equate to reduction in tension or build up; but rather a getting to straight to it, once anticipation makes way for survival, saving us all from ten minutes of rather awkward and contrived action re-establishing all the ground rules. Not only does I Survive wear this post-zombie t-shirt, but it's ballsy, or confident enough to actually try and go one step further. You see, there's no pretence; not only is their world our world; their zombie reality and heritage our zombie reality and heritage, but the film relies on all this for the narrative to make any sense at all. 

Wesley Pennington (Harley Neville), fresh from film school, has arrived on set as a junior runner for the zombie b-movie 'Tonight They Come'. Quickly brought into line as the shoot's dogsbody; he's also unwittingly one of the first to realise that parallel to the watered down zombie schlock being filmed, there's a very real undead threat, literally just around the corner. It's a fun, intelligenty thought out and original premise which serves to simultaneously give licence for shots at both b-movie films and b-movie film makers. SMP (Andrew Laing) the director cum dictator of Tonight They Come leads the rather formulaic and exaggerated production crew, with a sociopathic zeal through forty odd minutes of surprisingly entertaining and witty parody until zombies meet zombie extras and it's every bit all the running, screaming, carnage and death we've come to love.

Setting itself up the way it does, I Survived is almost a self-aware parody of a post-zombie film, and probably now I'm thinking about it, a hard film to pull off without coming across derogatory and insulting. I'm probably over complicating it all, save to say, I Survived isn't demeaning or dumbed down, and that's the point. It's clearly the work of people who get it; people who love the genre and have something genuine and original to say. Zombie rom-coms, are a great phenomenon but dangerously close to over-saturation, but Pigden et al. know it; and as said, it's this self-awareness that, elevates it from the crowd. Even though I Survived is every bit a a member of the genre and guilty in huge respects of all the things its parodying, it somehow works precisely because it itself is in on the joke. It's refreshing, honest and playful yet respectful; it's the comedian that gets away with all the offensive material because first and foremost he's the butt of every joke.

I've also seen comparisons made with Peter Jackson's eighties over-the-top slaughterfest Dead Alive (Braindead); what with Wesley's demeanour similar to Lionel's, the copious gore, and the same New Zealand badge of honour, but I think it would be doing both a disservice. Jackson's splatter masterpiece was a unique cinematic experience; audaciously stupid and excessive all for the sheer hell of it. Pigden's I Survive forges its own path, and whilst abundant in bad-taste and zombie-excess, it's less about gore-shock and one-liners and more about fitting in coherently with zombie-lore and providing its own subtler narrative. If anything, playing with the post-zombie experience the way it does its closest in style and substance to perhaps Mimesis, but with an added laughter track and a lot more innards.

I Survived a Zombie Holocaust took a risk and in my opinion it paid off. It is yet another modern rom-com but it works precisely because it knows it, and is happy to play along. With some genuinely funny moments, some stupid jokes, a witty, unpredictable script and perfectly pitched performances that played along it ticks all the right boxes for a fun zombie night in. Sure it's not without fault; I'd have preferred it if the real zombie threat had arrived a good ten or twenty minutes earlier, and I'd have liked them to have even pushed the b-movie parody just that little bit harder; but over-all I felt they got it pretty much spot on. Perhaps it also worked for me because unlike for most zom-rom-coms I feel as a hardcore zombie film fan I am this time the target audience; appreciative of the genre call-backs, the clever and satirical side swipes at not just the b-movie film making but b-movie zombie films themselves and the rich and dark humour. I often accuse zom-rom-coms of dumbing down so as to branch out and attract a wider audience and whilst I Survive can't shake this off in its entirety, the fact that it appears to know it, and play with this with such confidence and success is commendable - 7/10.

Steven@WTD.