Thursday, 27 September 2012

Resident Evil - review

2002 (UK / France / Germany / USA)

Contains spoilers

Now if I've read the dedicated Resident Evil fans correctly, I've gone all about this the wrong way. You see I'd watched all the films either on or at least within a year or two of their initial release way before being introduced to the games. I've now played 4 and 5, in the wrong order I might add and I'm very much of the mind set they're two branches of the same tree, complimenting each other and idealistically twinned but not necessarily needing to follow exactly the same rules or tell the same stories. I mean from where I'm sitting the whole RE world is a bit far fetched and incoherent so what's in a bit of artistic licence. 

With this in mind I went back to Resident Evil (1) with some trepidation.  As well as having generally low expectations of it, just as a film, because I'm now more immersed in the gaming side of RE I expected to be outraged at writer and director Paul W. S. Anderson's total betrayal of its origins. However, now I've watched it again, whilst I'll happily acknowledge it's definitely a different take on the universe, I also think the film does work as a worthy tribute to the franchise and is a well written, well acted, bloody good claustrophobic sci-fi action zombie romp to boot.

Under Raccoon City the all powerful Umbrella Corporation conduct highly dangerous and hugely profitable top secret biological, chemical and genetic experimentation. The research facility known as the Hive is manned by 500 people and after the genetically engineered T-virus gets loose, the facility's artificial intelligence kicks in and controls the situation by killing all those contaminated and sealing itself off from the rest of the world.

So to the star of the show; Alice (Milla Jovovich) regains consciousness naked in the shower of a mansion above The Hive with no memory of who she is or what she's doing there. She stumbles into Matt (Eric Mabius) an investigative journalist who's trying to find evidence of The Umbrella Corporation's illegal and immoral work just as a crack group of commandos sent to investigate the situation storm the building.

Taking Alice and Matt with them they infiltrate The Hive, uncover fellow amnesiac Spence (James Purefoy) and explain they work for Umbrella and have been sent to investigate why the computer AI known as The Red Queen has killed everyone and how Alice and Spence have been gassed by the Red Queen causing them to forget they also worked for Umbrella as a married undercover couple protecting the mansion.

After a few mishaps getting past the AI's defences, the depleted group get themselves to the core of the Red Queen and successfully reboot her despite her warnings. With her defences down the depleted gang learn the hard way that she was the only thing protecting them from the effects the T-virus has had on the staff of the facility.

The T-virus is of course the zombie virus and the staff have all been infected. As we're introduced to Anderson's zombies we find they adhere to the established traditional western model; they're mindless and driven by impulse and a primal desire for the sustenance of human flesh, they require severe head trauma (read:  bullet to the noggin) to put them down permanently and they seem to prefer to roam in packs. As we've seen before the T-virus is transmitted through blood so a bite or a scratch and you're in trouble. What's interesting here though is that if treated quickly, I'm assuming before the victim dies, there's actually an anti-virus.

With the zombie threat released the film becomes a battle for survival with the group desperately trying to make their way out before the automatic defences kick in and the facility is locked down for good. On this journey Alice starts to regain her memories and the fact she's not a helpless pretty young thing but actually a kick-ass ultimate fighting champion. As she kicks, jumps, weaves, punches and shoots with pin point precision through many tight action-packed zombie sequences we realise the suspense and horror of the first half of the film has made way for something else but it's no big loss; Anderson seems at home with the high octane stuff and it's meticulously constructed and highly stylised.

Anderson has done a fantastic job of producing a coherent tight claustrophobic sci-fi experience full of suspense and great action scenes. The soldiers are a bit formulaic and there isn't much depth to the characters but there's enough there for the film to get by. From Alice waking alone and confused in an empty house her journey overcoming her amnesia is used to drive the narrative, and the film does a good job of aligning this with the pace of action. A slow intense start builds to a frenetic action based climax and whilst I didn't particularly care for the super-mutant that's pitted against the survivors I didn't actively dislike it and it produced a fist-thumping good ending.

As I've said before I think Anderson has done a good job of paying homage to the franchise as well as crafting a solid zombie survival story that stands up against the genre. I don't see Resident Evil on many top zombie film lists and this is a pity as there's really nothing really very wrong with it. Strong, stylish and a little different, 8/10.


Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The Revenant - review

2009 (USA)

Contains spoilers.

There are many myths of animated corpses terrorising the living. Scandinavia has the Draugr, undead liches guarding treasure and Western Europe, especially Medieval Britain has tales of the Revenant; personal tales of loved ones rising from the grave to spread disease and bring terror to the living. The traditional western zombie originates from Haitian origins where they were often under the control of a master and were portrayed as brainless automatons. Later Romero replaced the puppet master with primal instincts and drives but the premise that the personality and soul of the deceased was gone remained. Revenants are different. They're still reanimated dead with some new quite nefarious desires but they're still the person they used to be. They conscious, autonomous, caring and have the same whims and desires as before; it's just they now require a constant supply of fresh human blood to stop themselves decomposing.

The Revenant written and directed by D. Kerry Prior takes the idea of these revenants for a quirky spin. On patrol in Iraq, Second Lieutenant Bart Gregory (David Anders) is killed after an ambush where he disobeys protocol and stops his truck believing he's run over a child. Finding himself awake and very much alive in his coffin he breaks out and turns to the only person he feels he can trust, his best friend Joey Leubner (Chris Wylde). Coming to terms with his new un-life and not sure whether Bart is a zombie or a vampire Joey concludes that he's actually a revenant.

After Bart and Joey disturb an armed robbery of a local drug store killing the assailant, Bart takes the opportunity to satiate his hunger for blood and  the pair not only become over-night vigilante heroes but they find moral justification for what they need to do and the pair embark on a new life.

The Revenant is a brooding dark comedy with plenty of gore but more importantly it's a buddy film. Two quite different characters Joey and Bart trade humour, blows and blood as they try to make sense and take control of their new found situation. Soon in, Joey willingly joins his buddy as a revenant after a vigilante attack goes wrong and this sees their attacks, reputation and their confidence escalate. After Bart's ex-girlfriend, Janet (Louise Griffiths), discovers he is still alive and what he is, from her friend Mathilda (Jacy King), she offers her blood in return for being let back in to his life. Things go wrong and Bart accidently kills her. The reality of the situation kicks in, Janet's head is cut off before she becomes one of them, Bart and Joey fall out and things rapidly decline to a bleak unforgiving ending for all involved.

Throughout The Revenant there are constant reference to both zombies and vampires and it's hard to pin down exactly what they are. Unlike zombies they aren't killed with massive trauma to the brain. They can be killed if their head is cut off before they reanimate but after their heads survive. They require a constant source of fresh human blood for sustenance but can survive a stake to the heart and can make their way in the day even if they prefer to sleep in the dark. Ever since Matheson's I Am Legend there's always been a bit of ambiguity and in truth revenants are really just another branch of the same dark story. They are what they are and the film works in portraying these undead creatures in a plausible way staying true to their unique origins. It's probably best not to try and shoe horn this film into either category. It's both a zombie film a vampire one and yet it's neither.

Whilst there are many comedic moments the film doesn't go out of its way to be funny. Laughter is born from the absurdity of many of the situation the friends find themselves in and the constant banter between them. Prior paints a moody eerie atmosphere employing a monochromatic filter, reminiscent of Sleepy Hollow to proceedings and this subdues the film helping to make it a close and personal experience. The special effects are subdued and realistic, and Prior maintains this stylised look and feel through to the end which is remarkable given some of extremely graphic and disturbing scenes later in the film.

The Revenant gathered itself quite the cult following on release and picked up many awards for its bleak and different spin across multiple genres. It certainly throws something new into the mix and for the most part works. Andres and Wylde have great onscreen chemistry and Prior captures all the facets of what makes a great buddy relationship tick. The story is interesting and coherent though I found the final subway scenes a little out of place and jarring when contrasted with the personal feel of the rest of the film; but it's a small nitpick. A great addition to any zombie/vampire/revenant collection, 7/10.


Sunday, 23 September 2012

Dead Alive (Braindead) - review

1992 (New Zealand)

Contains spoilers.

Dead Alive, or Braindead as it's known outside the US is the brainchild of Peter Jackson and comes with, now I've seen it, a quite justifiable reputation of being one of the goriest films ever made. I've had a few days mull it over now too, and I'm happy to add: daftest, most ludicrous and outrageously brilliant to this.

It's the 1950's and the film starts with explorer Stewart (Bill Ralston) and his team trying to retrieve a Sumatran Rat-Monkey from Skull Island, very much against the wishes of the indigenous tribes' folk. During the desperate chase out of the country he gets bit and well aware of the danger this puts them all in, his companions take it on themselves to swiftly cut off the offending bitten appendages which ultimately includes his head. Jackson fully embraces the brutality and comedy of the scene with hacks, slashes and a lot of blood on show; if we didn't know what we were getting into we do now.

Anxious socially inept Lionel Cosgrove played brilliantly by star of the show Timothy Balme lives in the prominent house on the hill with his cantankerous totally domineering old mother (Elizabeth Moody). When Lionel attracts the attentions of local shopkeeper's daughter, Paquita (Diana Peñalver), who believes him to be the man of her destiny (as proclaimed by her fortune telling old granny), his disapproving mother take it on herself to follow them on their date to Wellington Zoo where said revolting rabid hairless vicious rat-monkey has been freshly put out for display.

While spying on the young couple the old dear gets attacked and bitten by the monkey but gets free crushing it's head under her boot. As the bite festers she deteriorates quickly and before you know it she's a hideous undead zombie and a sign of things to come. Lionel, the ever doting son, manages to suppress her with the constant administering of veterinary sedative but his efforts are futile and she escapes, kills a few townsfolk, gets hit by a tram and is buried with a funeral. Still believing he can keep things under wraps Lionel is set upon by some local ruffians whilst attempting to dig her up before the last sedative runs out; before we know it she's popped out the grave and the ruffians and the local priest, alerted to the commotion are all dead or undead too.

I normally try and critique how the films creatures fit into zombie myth and canon but I'm going to take a pass this time. The zombies can be sedated, they'll eat food just as much as people, sometimes their separated body parts, including their intestines can reanimate to the point of seeming to have awareness, they can have sex and babies; I could go on and there's not much rhyme and reason to any of it. But that's the point, each new obscenely shocking over the top sequence merely acts to drive laughs and disturb the viewer. Everything about this film is ludicrously over the top; the characterisation, the acting, the narrative, the special effects and puppetry, the music and sound effects, even the directing and production. It constantly ramps up, each scene trumping the one that came before for gore, blood and imagination. It's juvenile, vulgar and deviant; it's like they stuck a white board up in at a drunken frat party asking people to write down their most shocking ideas then decided to include them all.

It all works though. Each scene meticulously slots into place expanding upon what has come before. The narrative never gets lost behind the daftness and you genuinely find yourself wondering what they'll come up with next, and you're never disappointed. It's brilliantly crafted cinema with believable fantastically acted characters and it oozes atmosphere. I bought the US Blu-ray import and despite having a region A only on the sleeve and disc I can confirm it is region free. There aren't any extras on the disc which was disappointing but the picture and sound are clean and for an 80s b-movie it looks great.

With Lionel fighting a losing battle to keep the increasing number of zombies, now including a hilarious zombie baby, under wraps while simultaneously trying to maintain his relationship with Paquita, his obnoxious and self-serving uncle Les (Ian Watkin) uncovers what Lionel has been up to and blackmails him into handing over the house. When Les's friends take it upon themselves to celebrate his good fortune and arrive to party before Lionel can dispose of the zombies in the basement Jackson puts everything in place for probably the goriest, sickest and over the top cinematic finale ever.

Dead Alive knows what its trying to do and goes for it. It holds no punches, nothing is off the table despite how vulgar, obscene or crazy. It doesn't matter if it doesn't make sense or contradicts something else that has happened before; if it works and gets a laugh, it's in. Dead Alive holds the notion that very idea of zombies is absurd anyway; so why not run with this as far as you can. What Jackson has achieved is a remarkable piece of cinema full of imagination and energy; full of memorable scenes and ideas and it's a joy to watch. It is the goriest film I think I've ever seen and I'm not sure I'd show this to my mother but for all this, its lack of seriousness means that it's never really that intense and you'll remember it more for its laughs than the carnage. It's a true farce and I loved it, 8/10.


Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Land of the Dead - review

2005 (Canada / France / USA)

Contains spoilers.

Set some three years after hell shut it gates and zombies swept civilisation aside mankind has survived in small isolated enclaves. One such shelter and the centre for George A. Romero's Land of the Dead is the luxury skyscraper Fiddler's Green, home to the city's ruler Paul Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) and his rich sycophantic friends. Here they sit in their ivory tower eating fine food, shopping in boutique stores and living as if nothing has changed and segregated behind paid mercenaries, the rest of the population live in the slums where Kaufmann encourages vice and uses greed and fear to keep them under control.

From the off though we can see that some things never change. There is no mankind putting its differences behind to work together for a brighter united future; we still find class stratification, greed and a world divided not by ability or achievement but by what you have and who you know.

The film starts with the same old Romero zombies. Shambling parodies of their former selves they walk the same routes and return to the same places they did when they were alive. Mimicking their same old routines, a gas attendant waits for cars and a small bandstand plays host to a hilarious trombone player and his troupe.

Out on his last sortie from the city for supplies, Riley Denbo (Simon Baker) the designer and commander of the state of the art zombie killing bus Dead Reckoning has decided he's had enough, he's sick of the politics, the unfairness and way in which the rich have begun to take the illusion of safety for granted.

Gathering up essential food and medicine to take back to the safety of the city with the zombie horde hypnotised to the nights fireworks he has also noticed changes in some of the zombies behaviour. One such zombie, the petrol attendant affectionately known as Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) even seems to be able to communicate with a grunt to others. Time has passed and the zombies in Romero's world are starting to grow up. Starting with Bub in Day of the Dead, the zombies or walkers as they're referred have started are starting to exhibit self awareness and an ability to adapt.

We've talked about Romero's use of subtext at length before and Land of the Dead doesn't disappoint.  As well Romero's usual and slightly communist use of exaggerated class demarcation, the zombies themselves have an evolved dynamic. Not just the ever constant static fear, the background cinder-keg, there to let the tension, narrative and characters play out, this time they're portrayed as an underclass of their own. Ridiculed and slaughtered without thought, their journey to Fiddler's Green is just as much symbolic of their journey of self-discovery as it is a tense horror story as they creep ever closer, their breach of the city walls and slaughter of the rich just as much symbolic of resistance fighters knocking down their oppressors as it is a good old story of zombie slaughter and mayhem.

On returning to pick up his car he discovers he's been ripped off and with his best friend Charlie (Robert Joy) heads to confront bar owner Chihuahua (Phil Fondacaro) to get his ride out of town. Witnessing the slums fall to a new low with the evening's entertainment a state sponsored zombie murder, he steps in rescues a young lady called Slack (Asia Argento) moments before she's eaten, kills Chihuahua and gets thrown in jail.

Cholo DeMora (John Leguizamo), second in command also thinks that was his last night out on patrol and with delusions of grandeur returns to Kaufmann thinking he'll finally be granted a place with the elite. He comes crashing down to earth as his request is not only reclined but Kaufmann's decided he's had enough of him. Out for revenge, he steals Dead Reckoning just as the city begins to descend into chaos with Big Daddy breaching one of the supply stations outside the city walls, and demands $5m or he'll blow the tower up.

Kaufmann throws Riley a lifeline; if he can retake Dead Reckoning and save the city he'll be free to leave with his friends and with the zombies realising they can cross the rivers protecting the city the story is set for a dramatic and bloodthirsty climax.

And for the most part the ending is as full on, tense and dramatic as you'd want. There's lots of panic, screaming, zombie kills and more blood, guts and dismemberments than probably in all of Romero's other films to this point. The narrative is authentic and strong, the characters believable and the effects staggering. My only complain is that I felt the film ended a bit abruptly, almost as if it ran out of time. As zombies ravage the remaining survivors and the city looks beyond hope, in rides Dead Reckoning, three quick missiles to one stretch of fencing and Slack turns to Riley as men, women and children appear unscathed in the background and says," you saved them". Really? An hour of setting up a massive multi dynamic confrontation, hundreds of organised zombies, mercenaries, civilians and freedom fighters and it's all over in thirty seconds? The missing scenes alludes to a longer more involved resistance including a fight back from the men and women of the slums as the rich in their ivory palace run like headless chickens to their death at Big Daddy and feeling his wrath exacted and with a sense of affinity, he leads his zombies away to find a new un-life.

Land of the Dead is a masterful apocalyptic sci-fi adventure. Using all of Romero's biggest ever budget, some $15m, the action is lavish and much larger in scale than anything we've seen from him before. Expansive overhead shots, explosions, vibrant city scenes; the world is alive and authentic. In many ways this is easily his best zombie film, certainly for the viewer more used to bigger and better effects but it also retains that hallmark Romero wit and use of satire. An interesting exploration of how zombies over time could evolve to almost something one could sympathise Romero isn't afraid to break new ground in a genre that's becoming more saturated. Big, bold, the master is back, 8/10.


Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The Return of the Living Dead - review

1985 (USA)

Contains mild spoilers.

Setting the tone, the film opens on six teenage punks (more eighties youth tropes) strutting down the street, deathrock on the ghetto-blaster off to pick up Tina's (Beverly Randolph) boyfriend Freddy (Thom Mathews) at the end of his first day at a medical warehouse. Piercings, studs, mohawks, leg warmers, white suits, badges, denim and punk paraphernalia;  yes, we're definitely in the eighties folks.

Unbeknown to the gang, Freddy's first day has not really gone to plan. His supervisor, Frank played by one of the stars of the show, James Karen is trying to show off and shock Freddy. He takes him down to the basement to show him some top-secret military barrels that somehow ended up in there due to, what Frank calls, typical military incompetence.  True to form; while inspecting them there's an accident releasing toxic gas through the warehouse reanimating all the bizarre and disturbing medical animal wonders and cadavers stored there. Earlier Frank had spun Freddy the tale that the original Night of the Living Dead was based on true events clinging onto its place as the official sequel but really in temperament, style and its portrayal of the undead that's where the similarities end.

Coming to terms that everything had started reanimating, but unable to suppress and deal with a crazed and quite comical yellow corpse that's running amok, Frank calls his boss Burt (Clu Gulager) and between them they pin it down and hack it to pieces; literally.

This is when we realise that this is just as much a farce as it is a horror film. During it's protracted development, starting off first as a seriously toned direct sequel to George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead with a script written by John Russo. The script was passed pillar to post before eventually being given to writer Dan O'Bannon who was responsible for Alien, Dark Star, Dead & Buried, and who also took over directing responsibilities for the first time.

Adamant his contribution to zombie myth and canon should be totally distinguishable to Romero's, O'Bannon's are no less important. O'Bannon's zombies are totally-reanimated, cut their head off and the body still runs around. Cut the leg off and it still tries to hop. Here we have no brain still ultimately in control with a headshot stopping it in it's tracks, the only way to put one down for good is total incineration; these really are nasty.

They're not blue and they're not shambling. O'Bannon famously quipped these guys can run, they can walk, I don't care, and they do nip about, setting a precedent for films to come. They also retain control of their faculties, they can talk, use radios and reason and whilst they do appear to share a hunger for live human flesh in this case things become a bit more specific and interesting.

In one of the most powerful and disturbing scenes of the film a grotesque rotting  torso tied to a medical table lucidly and coherently answers the group as they desperately seek answers. We find out that being dead is unimaginably painful and the only thing that quells the pain is the consumption of human brains. It's an important moment for zombie folklore and the point where zombie and brains became forever inseparable. Watching the extras the idea is that it's the brains natural endorphins, the natural pain suppressor they're after, and not being able to produce any of their own they turn to the only source they can. It's a bit silly and absurd but it works.

Another brilliant scene is Frank and Freddy's decline. Exposed first hand to the toxic virus and for a while just appearing a bit ill, they slowly start to take on the symptoms of being in a rather dire strait. When two paramedics confirm they have no pulse and they're bodies are at room temperature, one of the finest and most important scenes in modern zombie cinema is played out. They're clearly medically dead but they're rational, conscious, normal and for the time being not in pain and in need of brains. They're not humans and not zombies but somewhere in between. There is no on off switch for O'Bannon's zombies: Alive, ok, Dead, ravenous monster; here everything is more blurred and ambiguous. Zombies retain there higher brain function in a way not seen before and the very definition of alive is called into question. Frank and Freddy slide into death without a fuss; they are alive because their brains are active, but if it's this brain activity that defines whether something is alive or not, surely any reanimated dead are alive again? The deeper they fall into death the greater the pain and the desire for brains until the hunger takes over and any reticence and morality are driven away . 

The Return of the Living Dead is the perfect combination of horror and humour; never straying too far either way it weaves a perfect line. There are many moments of true farce but they never feel out of place and fit perfectly in the dark witty coherent narrative. The teenagers play there hammy stereotypes perfectly and contrast well with the deeper, dryer but no more competent adults of the film. For an ambitious script filmed under over just four weeks with a limited budget, off screen problems and debutant director the production and styling is impeccable and appears professional throughout. The effects are sufficiently over the top without sacrificing authenticity and the film is arguably responsible for the most well know zombie of all time. Tarman, played and puppeteered by Allan Trautman is a grotesque slimy denizen awakened from the trioxin and is a true show stopper responsible for arguably the best brainssssss lines of all time. Like the rest of the film it's absurd, disturbing, memorable and utterly compelling.

This Blu-ray release is brimming with excellent extras from a recently filmed two hour set of interviews with the cast and crew to an interview with the late O'Bannon. Along with the brilliant HD transfer it really is a well put together package.

They tell us it's a fine line between genius and crazy and like the careful balance of horror and comedy O'Bannon has weaved, here too it's perfectly judged; 9/10.


Saturday, 15 September 2012

Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island - review

1998 (USA)

Contains spoilers.

Yep, you read right, Scooby Doo. I originally purchased this not just because I did say I was going to watch and review every zombie film ever, but I fancied something a bit lighter, whimsical and something I could watch with the kiddies. Obviously I got all the light and whimsy I was expecting, but what I wasn't expecting was a genuinely coherent suspenseful and interesting narrative that could easily hold its own with any other film I'd watched, with shocks, real horror and a deep symbolic subtext about the journey from child to adulthood.

The gang are back together, literally. Years after dissolving Mystery Inc. and going their own way, Fred now the producer on 'Coast to Coast with Daphne Blake' decides to bring the group back together for a trip to Louisiana to help Daphne and her goal to find and film a real mystery. Daphne has become disillusioned with how every supernatural mystery always turns out to be just illusion and trickery and some guy in a mask motivated by greed. Velma a mystery book store owner, Scooby and Shaggy recently sacked from an Airport security position for eating all the confiscated food, all jump at the chance to get back onboard The Mystery Machine and they head back out for adventure.

Predictably things return swiftly to how they were before. Villains are unmasked, mysteries are solved and it's as if nothing has really changed; there are certainly no real supernatural shenanigans for Daphne to report on. Until that is, a chance encounter with Lena, an alluring  young lady in New Orleans, who believes she has a solution to their problem and invites them to Moonscar Island and the home of her employer, Simone Lenoir, where she says, they can witness the antics of an allegedly real ghost, the long dead pirate Morgan Moonscar.

So following the Scooby Doo formula we know and love we can hazard a guess the plot will go something like this: they'll arrive at the island, witness all manner of supernatural tricks, Velma will discover a rational explanation for the unexplained and Fred a motive for one of the supporting cast and Scooby and Shaggy after a series of calamitous and comical scrapes will bring the Pirate Captain crashing to his knees for Daphne to whip off his mask and save the day. Right? You couldn't be more wrong...

After a tour of the house, some supernatural warnings telling them to leave and a series of eventful encounters Scooby has with the multitude of cats on the island,  Scooby and Shaggy, separated from the rest of the gang find themselves running for their lives through the New Orleans bayou from Morgan Moonscar and his resurrected zombie pirate gang. Out to rescue them Daphne and Fred manage to snag themselves a zombie and in a then in a sudden whoosh and a whirl everything gets turned around on its head.

It's a profound moment of realisation not just for children but for adults. Try as he might Fred just can't get the zombies mask off. He's the janitor or the old headmaster or the gardener? No, he's a monster and he's real; monsters are real. Everything up to this point had been playful, safe and could be explained and suddenly you realise the gang have grown up and there isn't always going to be a happy ending. They're no longer those meddling kids, they're adults with jobs, dreams, futures and uncertainty and danger. There's a symbolism of the transition from child to adulthood, learning that Father Christmas isn't real and that monsters are, and it's a pivotal moment for the franchise. Nothing can ever quite be the same again; childhood innocence is lost in a second.

Now the illusion is shattered though, anything goes and the writers can play with a narrative that is no longer constrained, where things don't have to be structured in such a way to be explained at the end and the film can embrace a new found freedom. So before saving the day, as well as zombies we're thrown voodoo dolls, ancient cat gods, vampirism, lycanthropy and even a flirt with the idea of romance and relationships. Our gang has gone and got itself all grown up.

An interesting feature of the zombies is actually they're the good guys. They're authentic, shambling, scary looking, definitely dead and would fit neatly into any zombie film and it's a clever narrative twist for a film targeting to children to turn things on their head and make what appear to be the bad guys actually good. Not to break with tradition too much though, later we discover the main villains were under the gangs noses the whole time, just this time there's no masks coming off.

Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island is still a Scooby Doo film. It's an animated box of fun with jokes, gaffs and hilarious set pieces and a joy to watch for both children and adults. It's also easily the best Scooby Doo film I've seen with a narrative and story streets ahead the recent live action films. Whilst the animation is traditional Warner and basic, it's full of warmth and wit, and proves you don't always need an animation team in the 100s and access to super computers to put together a top drawer cartoon.

A great Scooby Doo film and a great Zombie film; Scooby Doo on Zombie Island is dramatic exciting adventure full of all the jokes and scrapes you'd want; but it's more, it's a coherent intelligent narrative and a profound reflective memorable experience, 8/10.


Friday, 14 September 2012

(Zombie Virus on) Mulberry Street - review

2006 (USA)

Contains mild spoilers.

One of the things I most enjoy with this blog is discovering genuinely good films I'd never have come across normally. As I've stated in the past. I've always been a big zombie and horror film fan and I'd watched most the popular films I've reviewed so far before at one time or another, but any film off the beaten track was generally missed through ignorance. What I haven't enjoyed since starting this blog is the marketing deception that takes place to make films seem more than they are. It seems that promoting the idea that the film involves zombies by say, including the word zombie in the title, or throwing a quote with the word zombie or even a picture of an apocalyptic horde of zombies across the cover results in better sales. Now I'm not saying the modern interpretation of the term and idea of zombie that has been broadened to include anything that exhibits frenzied blood thirsty unruly behaviour or a pathological herd mentality is wrong per se, but call me old fashioned, surely to actually qualify as a zombie requires a bit of the old dying and coming back stuff.

So here we have Zombie Virus on Mulberry Street and a cover with said scene of snarling apocalyptic zombie horde. The giveaway clue  if I'd had known, would have been that in the US this was marketed as just Mulberry Street; note the lack of Zombie. Now, we do have a contagious virus that turns people into ravenous crazy monsters with a taste for human flesh, they do seem to have single one track-minds driven by primal instincts and desires and they do seem to be able to take quite some damage, but dying first doesn't seem to be a prerequisite. There is one small caveat however; an early victim of the virus appears at the start of the crisis to be dead who later returns to dispatch one of the early victims, the janitor of the apartment block. This isn't repeated and she may have just been taking a nap but I'm pretty convinced she was supposed to be dead so I'll, and this is with quite some reticence I'll admit, tentatively allow this to be called a zombie film.

Ok, so all that out the way, what about the film? Zombie Virus on Mulberry Street tells the tale of a dangerous contagious rat virus spreads first to the residents in and around a small apartment block on Mulberry Street, Manhattan and also isolated cases in the underground we hear about on the news, then later across the whole of the city. Spread at first through rat bites, the infection turns victims into frenzied mutant rat-people with an insatiable hunger for human flesh. Early symptoms are hairy ears, lethargy and hallucinations with the final stage leads to becoming full blown mutant hybrid rat-human monstrosities with a hunger for cheese; ok I made the cheese bit up.

Mickle does a good job of contrasting the lives of the small group of six in the apartment block with the backdrop of a city slowly falling apart. You get the tight localised picture from main protagonist Clutch (Nick Damici), a retired boxer, his neighbours Kay (Bo Corre) who lives with her teenage son and Coco (Ron Brice) interacting amongst an interesting and varied assortment of characters, and the wider picture from following Clutch's daughter Casey (Kim Blair) journey across New York on foot back home after being released from a military hospital for returning Middle East veterans.

Directed by Jim Mickle builds a tight highly stylish apocalyptic scenario with confident characters and well paced suspenseful action scenes. Given the quite frankly absurd even for the genre premise, it does a good job telling a fluent sincere story never resorting to over the top gore or effects, or parody, as many b-movies do, and because of this it never loses its identity. Many apocalyptic films start from the point of no return or just after, and it was refreshing to watch an attempt to tell the story of normal everyday people and society going through the confusion and carnage of the world falling apart. My only concern would be once going through the efforts to get to the tipping point, with mutants and death on every corner and in every house, Mickle didn't quite know where to take it and the film loses its way a little and turns into a bit of a traditional survival story of a small group holding out against the world.

The frenzied rat mutants are stylish and brutal and the makeup and effect team have done a great job of creating authentic albeit preposterous monsters and whether alone or in groups they never feel amateurish or actually that over the top. Mickle has a real flare for using music and highly stylised cinematography to enhance the atmosphere and isn't afraid to mix and match shaky in-the scene-action camera work with steady artful and even slow-mo shots and in these respects it reminded me very much of Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. Given the limited budget and resources Mickle has done a remarkable job.

A dark brooding story with a slow character driven build up Zombie Virus on Mulberry Street has a lot going for it. If you'd have told me going we weren't going to be concerning ourselves with zombies but with rat mutants I'd have expected a hammy b-movie full of over the top gore and would probably have given this a miss and perhaps this is why they distanced themselves from the premise. What we have though is not hammy or amateurish but a high stylish apocalyptic horror story with a healthy mix of tight close claustrophobic tension and a grander apocalyptic-scale vision of the city going to hell. Tense, stylish and scary despite its ludicrousness, I really enjoyed it, 7/10.


Thursday, 13 September 2012

A bumper delivery - blog

Just wanted to share today's monster haul. You go a week without any deliveries then they all come at once...

A quick panic over Dead Alive was soon alleviated. Before ordering I'd checked various site and established that it was Region free but an inspection of the case and disc and I saw big Region A stamps on both, oops! A quick 5 minute play on my region locked Blu-ray player and everything seems to be ok. So who to believe? I think it must be a region free Blu-ray pretending to be a Region locked one.

I'm still not sure this is a good thing though, as I've said before I'm not particularly a gore for gore's sake person and this version declares it's rated R for "AN ABUNDANCE OF OUTRAGEOUS GORE"... 

Still, we have Scooby Doo to watch to calm everything down.


Wednesday, 12 September 2012

City of the Living Dead - review

1980 (Italy)

Contains mild spoilers

I'll admit to going into this with no idea what to expect. When I began researching what zombie films I should prioritise, which films were pivotal in establishing or writing zombie mythology, or which were the finest examples of what the genre offered I scoured countless zombie film blogs, articles and forums and whilst recognising Romero's offerings and all the usual contenders, I also frequently came across the name of a cult Italian director held in particular high esteem that I'll confess I'd never heard of.

City of the Living Dead (Italian: Paura nella città dei morti viventi, also known as The Gates of Hell) is a 1980 Italian horror film directed by Lucio Fulci and the first part of the unofficial Gates of Hell trilogy which also comprises of The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery. The film comes with a notorious reputation having initially been heavily cut to secure its original 1981 BBFC certification and was only granted an uncut release in 2001. I'd read about gruesome vomiting intestines scenes, a lot of brains and an infamous 'head drilling' and went in with some trepidation.

The premise is simple. Father William Thomas (Fabrizio Jovine) hangs himself in a cemetery in the rural town of Dunwich, New England (a deliberate tribute to H.P. Lovecraft) which lies on a former hotspot of Salem Witch Trial activity and unleashes a great evil on the world. Meanwhile in New York, hack reporter Peter Bell (Christopher George) investigating the unusual death of medium Mary Woodhouse (Catriona MacColl) rescues her from being buried alive and the two of them, after a little explanation, team up and head to Dunwich to dispatch the now undead priest, close the gates of Hell and save the world, all before All Saints Day in three days time, and all as prophesised in the Book of Enoch.

Arriving in Dunwich, they discover a town rapidly spiralling out of control and team up with psychiatrist Gerry (Carlo De Mejo) and his patient Sandra (Janet Agren), and set about finding the Father and his tomb, all the while dealing with a town full of recently deceased citizens running amok after returned as revolting maggot covered brain hungry zombies.

The zombies of City of the Living Dead are fascinating and inimitable and they couldn't be more different to the traditional western shambling undead we've generally become accustomed to. Now zombies have traditionally never been the good looking and these days we're used to exposed flesh and bits hanging off but Fulci's undead are truly disgusting demonic monsters with burnt exposed rancid maggot encrusted faces and praise must be heaped on make up team and desire to do something different.

Romero's zombies are clearly reanimated humans and they behave like people devoid of higher brain function, running on instinct and muscle memory, believably would. It's implied that Fulci's zombies receive their strength, power and reanimation from hell itself and as such they're granted improved strength and the ability to perform all manner of supernatural trickery. They can materialise anywhere at will, levitate and possess a particularly devastating and gruesome psychic attack, which extreme and over the top is a hallmark of Fulci. When locked eye to eye they will first blood to pour from the victims eyes then in an ultimate act of destruction, to vomit out all their organs and insides, and yes, it's really as unpleasant as it sounds.

It's the materialising/teleporting that's the most interesting though. Fulci's zombies don't shamble up slowly (or quickly if you look at more modern interpretations), they appear and disappear at will, they can be sighted as distant apparitions or in the blink of an eye manifest right on top of someone. Now it's never clear whether they're teleporting, suspending time or a psychic manifestations merely in the victims mind and it's all deliberately vague; my instinct leans me towards the latter and I'm looking forward to seeing if this is expanded upon in the two unofficial sequels.

I've seen Fulci described as a horror genius and a talentless hack, his films as wry black comedies and farces, and also genuine deeply dark imaginative visions. I'm a firm believer that thinks are never really that black and white and having now watched City of the Living Dead I'd probably say he and his film are a bit of both. This particular Lovecraftian tale is dark, mysterious, cold and imaginatively told, the characters are interesting and diverse and he's not afraid to allow their relationships to develop in unusual ways. However there's not much subtlety to the narrative and the whole film is always on the edge of becoming a b-movie bizarre parody, with wooden acting especially from the extras, and some quite strange but fascinating directing decisions, like having monkey noises in outdoor urban scenes.

Fulci is also certainly not shy of trying to shock and disgust the viewer though at times the death scenes are so gory and downright gruesome that they're almost comical and distracting, and they quite regularly seem a little contrived and staged. It's as if the narrative and story occasionally bends to accommodate a particularly nasty set piece Fulci has come up with and this is especially true of the drill scene. But would the film work without them? Probably not and the film works in part because of the very absurdity and extremity of the many staged scenes; they're integral to what makes a Fulci's film a Fulci film and without them I'm not sure what we'd have, but I do know it wouldn't be nearly the same.

City of the Living Dead is a fascinating film full of suspense, dread and really unpleasant killings and set pieces. From an interesting if little cliché premise it spins a yarn evocative of Lovecraft and full of the absurdities and excesses that make cult horror films what they are. I do enjoy films that dare to be a little different and City of the Living Dead certainly fits into this category. It's nothing like other films I've reviewed and revels in being esoteric, ambiguous and a ridiculous but never at the expense of appearing disingenuous or insulting. Extreme, upsetting and unnecessary, but brilliant, 8/10.

A quick note about this release. I'd read a lot of complaints with some of the Arrow Films Blu-ray releases but I think other than some grain issues in many of outdoor scenes the sound and picture quality and the number of extras on the disc, it's a very well put together release and shouldn't be avoided.


Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Dawn of the Dead (2004) - review

2004 (USA)

Contains mild spoilers.

How do you go about remaking undoubtedly one of, if not the greatest, zombie cinema experiences of all time and a film that can rightfully say it was there as zombies learnt to take their shambling formative big screen lurches? Ok there had been zombie films before, most notably Romero's own 1968 seminal Night of the Living Dead but Dawn of the Dead marked a turning point securing zombies place in popular consciousness and culture, and cemented much of the zombie canon that we know and love today. This was the task director Zack Snyder set himself and armed with bigger budget, and access all the latest and greatest special effects, to cut to the chase, nearly pulls off.

 An explosive opening set of scenes sees nurse Ana (Sarah Polley) escaping from what has turned into a suburban nightmare. Fleeing from her family home and now homicidal boyfriend, Ana twists and weaves through rows of identical looking houses on identical looking streets as friends and neighbours are being ripped open and torn apart. There's no slow tense thirty minute stack of cards being built up to be knocked down in this film.

It's not long before Ana regaining consciousness after a crash teams up with Police Sergeant Kenneth Hall (Ving Rhames) and the only other genuinely reasonable and level headed member of the group Michael (Jake Weber). Shortly after they bump into Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and his pregnant wife, Luda (Inna Korobkina) who are retreating from the opposite direction. Seemingly cut off from both sides with no place to go the group follows the original film's lead and makes a bee line for a large secure looking shopping mall.

Romero's Dead films always relayed social tensions and anxieties of the time, so whilst set in the same location as the 70's original, the mordant undercurrents commenting on societies fear and the absurdities of commercialism is gone, as perhaps it should be. Without this though the film ends up relying solely on the tried and tested formula of seeing how a disparate group interacts and copes with surviving the disintegration of the rules and norms of society amid the constant backdrop of fear and loss.

 Arguing their way past three stubborn security guards who only grant them entry with big conditions, the disarmed and imprisoned heroes find themselves facing and I've said this before in other zombie survival story reviews, the biggest threat to their survival other that the crazy undead horde knocking on the door, each other.

What makes or breaks a good apocalyptic zombie tale of survival is the choice of characters and the dynamics that spin out, and whilst entertaining and engaging those of Dawn of the Dead are a little cliché and unimaginative. Joined eventually by a rich assortment of extra personalities who arrive dramatically by lorry including wealthy bottle swilling yacht owner (Ty Burrell), the ensemble make a good solid and believable cast and help drive the narrative, but they're all a little obvious, shallow and forgettable, and there's never much room given for twists or subtlety.

Gone are the trademark Romero slow shambling blue undead, and what we have are fast and frenzied and much more lethal looking creatures who have more in common with Danny Boyle's creations from 28 Days Later, who made their appearance a couple of years earlier. The undead of Dawn of the Dead are terrifying, deadly and don't muck about when it comes to hunting down and getting their teeth stuck into any available human flesh. Unlike Romero's slow ghostly parodies of their former selves who rarely seem to pose much threat on their own unless they're in close proximity, there's no room for error with Snyder's blood hungry runners, who don't get distracted or tired, and always catch up. It's here the bigger budget and more advanced special effects show there worth; individually the effects and makeup are as good as you're going to see and there's never a need to suspend disbelief, but en masse I don't think I've ever seen a zombie mobs so dense or mind-numbingly immense. In the original you were always aware of the idea of a vast numbers of zombies swarming round the mall but they were always spread out in pockets but in this new version Snyder has taken the idea of horde to a new level with what appears to be thousands of undead all swollen and packed as one. It's really quite breathtaking.

What Dawn of the Dead does do well is create very well put together, tightly crafted action horror film full of suspense, shocks and drama, and whilst possibly being a bit formulaic like it's characters, it does offer a lot of nice touches throughout and a few genuine moments of originality. The relation the group has with Andy (Bruce Bohne) who is stranded alone on the roof of his gun store, across the zombie-infested parking lot is entertaining and poignant and the climax to the Andre/Luda scenario is shocking and a sharp reminder that outside the relative safety of the mall to what depths the world has fallen. There are just not enough of these moments though and the film treads an all too familiar and safe path too frequently.

Remakes are notoriously tricky affairs and remakes of great films that have ingrained themselves into popular consciousness and the mainstream psyche are impossibly so. Despite this, what Snyder has actually managed to achieve is remarkable producing a film that pays acceptable homage to it's origin whilst spins a high octane constantly enthralling tale in it's own right. The best of the Romero remakes, Dawn of the Dead is a gruesome action packed spectacle with very few flaws. It doesn't have the wit, originality or verbosity of the original but it's a stylish standout testament to the genre. Darker, gorier, more brutal, 7/10.


Sunday, 9 September 2012

Zombie Women of Satan - review

2009 (UK)

Contains spoilers.

Now you either get the juvenile, quirky, twisted and very British humour of Zombie Women of Satan with its ridiculous story, over the top characters, amateurish production and immature banter and effects or, like most the reviewers of IMDb etc, you don't.

Co-written, directed, produced, promoted by and starring Warren Speed as Pervo the clown, Zombie Women of Satan is a satirical exploration into the dehumanising effect of cult worship and a sociological study of morality and what people are willing to do and sacrifice in order to protect the ones they love. Or depending on how you look at it, it was an excuse to tell a story of a bunch of misfit burlesque performers fighting hordes of scantily clad zombies and tell as many knob gags and poo jokes as they could get away with. I'm leaning towards the latter.

Headed by the group's compère Johnny Dee Hellfire (Seymour Mace) the ragtag burlesque troupe and the heroes of our story, Flesharama are a motley assortment of miscreants. Johnny and Pervo are joined on and off stage by rock chick Skye Brannigan (Victoria Hopkins), Zeus the mighty and flatulent dwarf (Peter Bonner), burlesque dancer and ever vain Harmony Starr (Kate Soulsby), and mute chainsaw wielding giant Damage (Joe Nicholson).

Always desperate for publicity, Johnny Dee arranges an interview for the troupe with rising internet phenomenon Tycho Zander (Christian Steel) at his rural retreat where unbeknown to Flesharama, Tycho's father (Bill Fellows) and sisters have been conducting secret experiments to find a cure for their foul mouthed zombie-mother's (Kathy Paul) condition. Offering sanctuary, underwear and physical affection, Tycho has become a bit of a cult leader and has amassed quite the house full of scantily clad pretty girls for his father's literal disposal, and with the troupe's arrival the stage is too well set for something not to go seriously wrong.

Cue the action. A small oversight spreads the demon mother's disease to the girls and before anyone knows it the farm is swarming with dangerous snarling flesh hungry and rather feisty semi-naked zombie chicks. Flesharama find themselves in the centre of the maelstrom, not only fighting to survive but unexpectedly on a rescue mission after discovering Skye Brannigan's sister is being held after falling for Tycho's promises.

The battle for survival is over the top, ridiculous and delivers all the blood, banter, gags and boobs you'd expect to see from a film with 'Zombie Women' and 'Satan' in the title. Speed has crafted a character driven narrative with good confident pacing and uses an assortment of dramatic, shocking and comedy horror and action scenes to let the rich assortment of misfits shine. The mix of incredibly diverse and damaged personalities are allowed to interact with a surprising amount of depth and complexity, with entertaining witty and dare I say intelligently written dialogue throughout; the constant toilet-bowl jibing between Pervo and Johnny Dee is a particular highlight.

For a b-movie with a tight budget and limited resources the cinematography shows some real flare and vision and whilst the special effects, make-up and zombie splats are over the top and hammy it doesn't detract from the film, it adds to its charm. With the gags coming thick and fast Zombie Women of Satan knows what it is and never ever takes itself seriously.  I honestly don't know what people who heavily criticised the film thought they'd be getting especially considering the cover and title, but Speed set out to create a daft fantastical low budget zombie comedy and succeeded majestically. They wanted this to become a cult classic and whilst polarising opinion, I'm very much on the side that says Zombie Women of Satan achieves it, 7/10.


Saturday, 8 September 2012

Fido - review

2006 (Canada)

Contains spoilers.

Well that was different... In an alternate 1950's small town America, life goes on as normal. Men go to work, women cook the dinner and wear nice dresses and children run and play, with zombies. After surviving the zombie wars, when the world was ravaged by interstellar radiation that brought the dead back to life, every day Americans have now, with the help of corporation overlords Zomcon returned to normality. Secure walls protect the towns from the savages of the wild lands and domestication collars have rendered the flesh hungry undead horde docile and subservient.

After Jonathan Bottoms (Henry Czerny) the new head of Zomcon security and his family moves in next door along with their six zombies, housewife Helen Robinson (Carrie-Anne Moss) keeping up with the Joneses buys a zombie of her own very much against the wishes of her husband Bill (Dylan Baker). Their son Timmy (K'Sun Ray), ostracized in school for always asking the wrong sort of questions soon builds up a rapport with the new house pet and names him 'Fido' before anyone else gets the chance.

Fido is played by a very subdued Billy Connolly who snarls and growls his way through the film with subtlety and character. With a permanently gormless expression and no vessel with which to throw his usual over the top personality his casting appears on the surface quite a strange one but it works and he makes the part his own. In fact for a film that I went into assuming a very b-movie amateurish polish, it's remarkably slick and professional with recognisable names throughout . Having never heard of the film I was surprised to read of its reasonably big budget, some $8 million, and a healthy list of production companies including Lions Gate. Somewhere along the way though it obviously lost the confidence of its backers as it was only shown in six screens in the US and netted just a sixteenth of its budget back worldwide, and for such a bold endeavour this seems both strange and a shame. You wonder if it had a big name such as say, Tim Burton, on the cover rather than director Andrew Currie whether its fortunes would have been different.

This is not your typical zombie film. As Fido, much like 'Bub' in George Romero's Day of the Dead, begins to display an increasing amount of affection and empathy towards Timmy, the film pokes and prods at notions of individual rights, pre and post death. In Willard (the town in the original 1968 Night of the Living Dead), once you're dead your body and what's left of your mind is there for the taking, for the right price. For all intents and purposes you forfeit all rights and become a slave to whatever purposes and abuses your new owner deems fit, and the only way to avoid this fate to plan ahead and start putting money aside for your funeral.

For a satirical thought provoking left field exploration of dehumanisation it still has it's fair share of blood and guts with the zombies primal desire for live human flesh bearing it's teeth from time to time in full techno-colour. Fido despite displaying restraint towards Timmy has an early encounter with a pompous elderly old lady who whilst in the process of giving him what for because she thinks he's trying to look up her skirt inadvertently knocks his restraining collar off. The subsequent mauling acts as a reminder that these really are bloodthirsty zombies and also as the strike of the first domino in a spiralling tale of death and lengths a young boy will go to to look after his unlikely friend.

Andrew Currie makes an effort to contrast the idyllic and perfect life in the town, with well tended gardens, polished cars and beautiful people all going on as if nothing was wrong with a savage and very real brutal wild outside. Over the fence it could very easily be the walking dead while inside is the 50's American sit-com in the suburbs; a tale of repressed emotions, alienation and maintaining the illusion.

Fido is a glorious highly stylised and thought provoking kitsch comedy. It's mainstream and deeply dark at the same time and true to the films that influenced it throughout. Billy Connolly has to be seen to be believed as the shambling Fido and builds a believable on screen friendship with Billy and Helen. It hasn't convinced me that we shouldn't shoot zombies in the head and ask question later but it's a fine attempt at exploring the personal rights of the dead in an apocalyptic scenario, and a well told look at the lengths people will go to, and the things they'll be prepared to ignore in order to maintain the facade and fit in. A funny, witty, vibrant dark comedy; you owe it to yourself, the people who produced it, and all the abused and neglected zombies in the world, to get a copy, 7/10.