Friday, 31 August 2012

Dead Snow - review



2009 (Norway)


Contains spoilers.

A Norwegian zombie horror/comedy directed by Tommy Wirkola, Dead Snow for one half follows the clichéd horror staple of a group of teenagers alone in an isolated cabin getting picked off one by one by an initially unknown predator. The second half sees the film turn into a kind of goofy Bruce Campbell-esque bad-taste splatter parody / Shaun of the Dead zomcom mash-up. As a film it has a lot of charm but in trying to be all things to all men it's in danger of losing it's identity; anyway, I get ahead of myself.

Dead Snow opens with a young woman getting chased across the icy tundra near Øksfjord, Norway, by a couple of snarling menacing nazi zombies, establishing early on as if we weren't aware from the cover what we'd be in for. The film then cuts to our seven plucky students off to an isolated frozen cabin retreat for Easter vacation lead by Vegard (Lasse Valdal) the boyfriend of who we now know to be the late Sara (Ane Dahl Torp). Arriving on foot the film makes great efforts to reiterate to us that they really are miles away from civilisation, that there really is no phone reception and that they really are isolated, which I think I got. The film does have the confidence to self reference this horror cliché, but a cliché it still is.

First night in, cue a wise old hiker dropping by to tell them the uncomfortable and unsettling story of the region. How during World War II, a force of Einsatzgruppe, led by Standartenführer Herzog (Ørjan Gamst), occupied the area, abusing and torturing the citizens, and generally getting up to no good. At the end of the war attempting to abscond with the all the town's gold and valuables the townsfolk fought back en-masse killing many and driving the remaining soldiers with Herzog out into the tundra where the cabin now sits, to their icy death.

So to the first half of the film. Our seven intrepid heroes in true horror fashion are slowly stalked with the outside toilet a prominent location throughout. It's also during these early scenes that the group discovers a box of the lost Nazi gold and jewellery and the focus for all their troubles. Firmly entrenched in Scandanavian mythology, the undead Nazis in Dead Snow are draugr rising from the dead to protect their treasures and if only the students had worked this out sooner they could have avoided all the hell that was about to break loose. So with 45 minutes on the clock and the group in full realisation mode that something really is very wrong, Wirkola starts to change the film's direction from a slow, jumpy tense horror thriller to an action centred zombie slaughter-fest starting with a full on siege of the cabin.

So onto the second half of the film. With the siege over, our remaining shocked and scared survivors do what all good horror victims do and split up. Two head out for the car with two remaining behind to wait for Vegard who had left the group on his snowmobile before the trouble started to search for the missing Sara. Obviously with fresh snowfall obscuring the tracks back to the car the two girls heading for rescue get lost and consequently are chased all over the wasteland by the surprisingly fast and quite nimble zombies. The film is still quite tense and serious to this point but a scene where Hanna (Charlotte Frogner) wrestles a Raven to death giving her away her position up a tree signals the change of pace the film was about to make.

After accidently setting fire to the besieged cabin with a Molotov cocktail, the two men, Martin (Vegar Hoel) and Roy (Stig Frode Henriksen) who stayed behind flee and find themselves in the heavily equipped tool shed that happened to be next door. Arming themselves up to the hilt with scythes, hammers and a chainsaw and with new found confidence they turn their attention to the incoming zombie waves. Here the film changes to the Bruce Campbell-esque comedy zombie splatterfest I mentioned in the first paragraph. The now seemingly less invincible zombie horde are cut down with swagger, precision and a lot of blood and it's during this full-on undead pagga that Martin gets bit and confident in his medical-student education answers the eternal question of how one would cut one's own arm off by severing it one-handed with the chainsaw and cauterising it in a freshly constructed small fire. Soon joined by the returning Vegard who has had quite the adventure of his own the group cuts, hits and shoots down the remaining undead under the direction of Herzog and then turn their attention to the leader himself.

Distancing itself from the Romero zombie, the undead in Dead Snow are seemingly being guided and controlled by their old leader, the also undead draugr Herzog, who is him (it)self is driven by the re-acquisition of the stolen gold found and tampered with by the group. They mindless horde are able to use weapons, binoculars, and to a certain degree demonstrate cunning and guile. Whilst they also seem to able to work together in teams to attain their goals they're still also very much guided by zombie canon in that they are also driven by a desire for living human flesh and the only way to halt their progress is to destroy the brain.

...And what a lot of brains get destroyed. Despite obvious budgetary restrictions the zombie-gore comes thick and fast and Wirkola and his team have produced a polished production that never feels like a b-movie. It especially looks crisp and clean on Blu-ray and they've done a remarkable job putting to shame many big budget releases. With the screen constantly filled with hacks, slashes, disembowelments, gouging and brains, I'm not sure I've seen a film with so much red in quite some time and it's not a surprise to read that supposedly 450 litres of fake blood were consumed during filming. Those that like a good bit of over the top cringe-worthy gore won't be disappointed.

As I said from the off, Dead Snow is fun and enjoyable but struggles to establish a firm identity. It describes itself as a horror comedy but I'd argue for the first 45 minutes or so there's no laughter at all and the film is a quite tense traditional jumpy horror narrative. With a slow build-up the first true scares only come after many nerve-wrangling teases, and the comedy and genre parody only appears once the film is very much in its stride. Unmemorable acting and a few continuity mistakes aside this is definitely one for the collection with some memorable scenes and a different spin on the zombie story set against a beautiful crisp backdrop. Absurd, scary, gory, 7/10.

Steven@WTD.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

The Walking Dead Season 2 - review



Contains spoilers.

Hot from the explosive finale of season 1, season 2 sees us rejoin Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and the reduced number of survivors on the road leaving the CDC and all hopes of salvation in ruins.

Leaving Atlanta behind the group set off in convoy towards rumours of some semblance of resistance a hundred odd miles away at Fort Benning. With the roads strewn with debris and low on supplies the weary survivors make slow progress and when Dale's (Jeffrey DeMunn) RV finally splutters to a halt while manoeuvring through a car park of abandoned vehicles  the group decides to stop and scavenge for supplies.

After the commercial and critical success of the first season, AMC saw fit to reward The Walking Dead with a significantly increased number of episodes for season 2. This allowed a new writing staff the opportunity for a slower deeper narrative and, whereas season 1 could be seen as a sequence of events moving Rick from the hospital through to his reunion with Lori(Sarah Wayne Callies) and Carl (Chandler Riggs) and eventually the CDC, season 2 seizes the opportunity not only tell several interconnected stories but to weave all this within an over-arching narrative structure exploring moral ambiguity under extreme conditions.

A central story for much of the film is the search for Sophia (Madison Lintz), the daughter of Carol (Melissa McBride) who becomes separated from the group after the convoy is attacked. It is during one of the subsequent searches that Carl, out with Rick and Shane (Jon Bernthal), accidently gets shot by Otis (Pruitt Taylor Vince) out hunting and the group and story move to the location that becomes the main focus for the season, Hershel's farm.

Contrasted with the rest of the world, Hershel Greene's (Scott Wilson) farm is an oasis of calm. Life continues, crops are tended, cows graze and grace is still uttered before dinner. Hershel is a trained veterinarian and takes care of Carl.  Many of the survivors take to the respite and start thinking that the place could become a permanent home. Hershel see's the situation quite differently though and is firm in his stance that the arrangement should only last while the lad is recovering and Sophia's search continues.

A theme through season 2 is Shane's disintegrating relation with Rick and his inner struggle justifying the morality of decisions he feels he alone is clear in having to make. Constantly at odds, and constantly rebuked by Rick the situation flares after Glenn (Steven Yeun) discovers that the source of Hershel's reticence in letting the group stay is a refusal to acknowledge that his friends and family, now undead and in the barn, aren't beyond a cure. With Rick's apparent refusal 'to do what must be done' he openly defies his leadership and the massacre that results splinters their friendship, the group and its relationship with the residents of the farm.

The battle between Rick and Shane can be seen, as well a struggle for the affections of Lori, as a clash between utilitarianism; a quantitative and reductionist approach to ethics embodied by Shane constantly arguing that he is the only one capable of making the hard decisions necessary for the groups survival, versus Rick's deontological position that good doesn't need qualifying, it simply is, and the group should strive to follow a doctrine of good at all times despite the consequences. This all leads to some fantastic existential wrangling as the viewer is at once sympathetic to both courses despite misgivings.

With their relationship beyond repair, Shane does ultimately, and for those readers of the comic belatedly, overstep the mark leading to a tense and traumatic end to their friendship. A central theme for The Walking Dead is sacrifice; that attempting at all times do the right thing and abiding by a doctrine of good costs, and for Rick, this time, it's his best-friend.

Season 2 of The Walking Dead knows what it's doing and accomplishes it with supreme maturity and confidence. Whilst the story at times is slower paced that the first, the action is tense throughout and constantly moving. A relentless and remorseless ride, the survivors are punished for any moment of complacency and the reality that they're pretty much alone in a bleak unforgiving endless apocalypse is never lost despite the tightness of the key locations. Authentic to its origin and immaculately acted, written, directed and produced, The Walking Dead spoils the fan of zombie survival fiction and is a must see, 9/10.

Its IMDb page is here.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Cockneys vs Zombies - pr


A slight departure from the reviews this, but thanks to Taliesin meets the vampires we've got our grubby mitts on some PR gubbins for the upcoming release of the UK film Cockneys vs Zombies.



Synopsis:

A bunch of east-enders fight their way out of a zombie-infested London, led by an unlikely gang of amateur banks robbers and foul-mouthed plucky pensioners .
Starring Michelle Ryan, Honor Blackman and Harry Treadaway. 

You can watch the opening credits sequence created by Gianluca Fallone here:  




WTD thinks this is definitely one to keep an eye on, and I'll try and get to a big screen and get a review up.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Dawn of the Dead (1978) - review


1978 (Italy / USA)


Contains Spoilers.

Now this gets serious.

George A Romero's Dawn of the Dead, a sequel to the 1968 Night of the Living Dead and part two in his Living Dead trilogy is the seminal zombie survival masterpiece. There had been zombie films before but Dawn of the Dead was to leave a wound so deep it would not only shock and galvanise a generation but leave a scar so prominent no zombie film would or could ever be the same again.

Unlike the tense tight situation the survivors of Night of the Living dead found themselves in this time the world is facing true global apocalyptic collapse. With no more room in hell the dead are up and walking about en masse sweeping through the cities and countryside leaving no one alive, and swelling their numbers exponentially. It's in this cinder keg of despair and confusion that WGON television studio traffic reporter Stephen (David Emge) and his executive producer girlfriend Francine (Gaylen Ross) decide to escape the spiralling pandemonium of Philadelphia in Stephen's helicopter while they still can. They are joined by their SWAT friend Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) and his companion disillusioned Peter (Ken Foree) who've also realised the futility and inevitability of trying to keep some semblance of order.

Without a plan the group head West and after a few tense encounters whilst looking for extra fuel find and take refuge in new large out of town mega-mall in Monroeville to take stock of their situation and ultimately wait for salvation. After securing and clearing the powered mall for themselves the survivors are now safe to enjoy what it has to offer 

Dawn of the Dead perfectly captures the playful excitement of what it would be like to have a whole open shopping mall, with restaurants, ice rinks and free access to satiate any consumerist itching one might have perfectly. But taking a satirical swipe at American consumerism, an especially pertinent issue of the late 70's, as racial tension was in the 60's when Night of the Living Dead was released, the film fully understands how ultimately shallow this consumerist experience is and engages this theme throughout. When Francine asks 'What are they doing? Why do they come here?', Stephen's reply 'Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.' perfectly jibes the anti-consumerist sentiment, pulling together parallels between the mindless and the undead shopper.

Safe, secure and with everything they could wish for the film now turns from the survivors facing the direct threat of zombie attack to the more subtle risks of boredom and lethargy. With communism very much in the cultures consciousness the film challenges the consumerist capitalist notion that through acquisition fulfilment and happiness can be achieved; that ultimately living vicariously through things is unrewarding and dissatisfying. As Stephen and the other consumers try ever harder to affirm themselves by consuming more stuff, ultimately they're only becoming more alienated and living less authentic existences. Marx's theories of Entfremdung, alienation, are very much relevant here.

Ultimately this existential wrangle is halted by an attack from a surviving ruthless biker gang. Caught up again with the acquisition of money and objects of value the gang bring chaos back to the mall and whilst in the end and at great expense they are fought off, the idyllic peace and sanctuary of the place is destroyed for good. The film ends with the remaining survivors moving on, not only because the mall is now overrun by zombies again but understanding then need to do so for their own sanity.

Much like the zombies from Night of the Living Dead, Romero's Dawn of the Dead zombies are slow, ambling and without the decaying flesh and horrific make-up and effects of modern zombie film could be seen as quite human like in comparison. With a grey or blue tinge to their skin they are obvious to pick out however, and whilst Romero does paint a picture in which one or two on their own could seem almost easy to avoid and a little harmless, as a pack they still appear terrifying, dangerous and overwhelming.

These two films certainly set the zombie themes and rule-set for all that came after. Zombie packs and herds, the hunger for eating flesh, following autonomous patterns and the idea that muscle memory partially survives reanimation, that biting transfers the disease and shooting them in the brain destroys them; Romero established or cemented the zombie gospel for all that followed.

Being shot with a modest budget in 1978 the scope and expansive feel of the film is easily comparable to  more modern zombie films and Romero has captured the sense of apocalyptic dread and absurdity. Obviously when put up against modern zombie films Dawn of the Dead is showing it's age a bit when it comes to make-up and effects but the illusion is never shattered; the dead feel authentic and the action and effects are just as visceral and mesmerising. It has the pace to drive the story and it never loses its focus or narrative grip; Dawn of the Dead knows what it's doing and delivers.

Dawn of the Dead is a true horror film in that it not only successfully scares us with a believable vision of a future gone very wrong but also with the challenge that perhaps as consumers we're akin to mindless autonomous zombies already. A cinematic masterpiece, stylish, terrifying, absurd, and epic, deep and multifaceted in scope, this was when the genre got serious 9/10.

Steven@WTD.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Zombie Strippers - review


2008 (USA)


Contains spoilers.

I think I've been spoiling myself so far with some of the best and most iconic films the genre has to offer, so I thought it was about time I brought myself back down to earth. I mean we all know by their very nature zombie films are the best films ever, but if I'm honest I'm also all too aware that the medium has produced its share of stinkers along the way, and with that in mind I went into Zombie Strippers with low expectations...

Zombie Strippers is a film about zombies and strippers and zombie strippers. Throw in a specialised army dispatch squad, a well known name, Robert Englund, some famous porn stars such as Jenna Jameson and a light farcical plot and we have a film that on paper sounds at once both awful and fantastic.

Claiming to be based loosely on Eugene Ionesco's classic play Rhinoceros, loosely being the word, Zombie Strippers starts by following team Z, a specialist military containment unit brought in to manage a zombie outbreak at a secret military facility in Nebraska. In a satirical, farcical and over the top opening montage, setting the standard for what was to come, we are introduced to idea that under George W. Bush's fourth term in office the US are engaged in so many wars that they're running out of personnel to fight them. It was while researching a virus that could re-animate dead Marines to send them back into battle that the test subjects got free and things got out of control.

During the battle to retake the facility new recruit Byrdflough (Zak Kilberg) is bitten and decides, seeing the no risk approach his comrades take, that his best course of action is to flee. A very short time later and he finds refuge in the underground strip club 'Rhinos' run by Ian (Robert Englund) a fastidious strip club owner whose only motivation is money and the Blavatski (Carmit Levite), the retired Russian madam who handles the girls.

And to the meat of the story, the girls strip and the punters throw them money, Byrdflough bites head girl Kat (Jenna Jameson) turning her into a zombie, with the result that she's now not only a better stripper but the crowd are willing to throw even more money at her. Ian whilst initially hesitant gets on board once he sees this money and the only downside, the zombie strippers' insatiable appetite for human flesh which they indluge between dances, is dealt with by locking the zombies victims in a cage in the cellar.

A rather strange decision throughout was unlike the zombies at the facility and the victims of the strippers who behave like any good Romero zombie should, the stripper zombies can talk, dance, argue, read and possess apparent super-human strength and agility. For the film to work this decision was probably the right one and the interplay between zombie and non-zombie strippers is a good dynamic that leads the narrative for the second half of the film. Constantly painting the strip club audience as the real mindless horde, Jay Lee plays with the idea that once they've seen zombie strippers, regular strippers aren't enough to sate their appetites any more and this leads to stripper politics and bitching with some of the girls deciding they want to be zombie strippers too. More stripping, more killing and more carnage and, how shall we put it, a lively and inventive, on stage confrontation between the two head zombie stripper rivals later and things get totally out of control.

When sticking to what it does well it actually works quite well. The  zombie gore scenes are cringe worthy and in bad taste, and the action and humour ensure the film moves along at a good lively pace. The acting is hammy but fits in well and whilst I wouldn't exactly be dishing out any special awards I did find myself quite caught up in the experience. As stated before though, at times though the film tries just that little too hard as if Jay Lee got cold feet at just how shallow the whole might be perceived, and it's these serious moments of philosophical reflection that ironically seem the most shallow as if someone thought that quoting a few passages from the ladybird book of philosophy would suddenly elevate audiences' opinion of what they were seeing.

For the most part Zombie Strippers knows what it is and plays to these strengths. Unlike other zombie comedies like Shaun of the Dead and Juan of the Dead, it knows it's a farce and shouldn't be taken seriously and when doing what it does well is a fun over the top zombie bad taste popcorn flick. For what it's worth I quite enjoyed it, 5/10.

Steven@WTD.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Juan of the Dead - review


2011 (Cuba / Spain)

Contains mild spoilers.

'Juan de los Muertos' or Juan of the Dead is a comedy, action, buddy, zombie film set on the Caribbean island of Cuba and plays with all the historical and political struggles the people have endured since Christopher Columbus claimed the island for Spain back in 1492.

Written and directed by Argentinean Alejandro Brugués the film follows dead beat Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) and his best friend Lazaro (Jorge Molina), good hearted petty thieves who spend their day drinking and making the best out of having nothing. Filmed in Cuba the movie is a real eye opener to life under a communist regime with mass poverty and desperate people but also the immense pride they have in their heritage and what they've already survived.

It's whilst coming up with a new business opportunity alongside Lazaro's mature son Vladi California(Andros Perugorría) who is following very much in his dad's footsteps and rival duo transvestite La China played by Jazz Vilá and his big muscle partner El Primo (Eliecer Ramírez) who faints at the first sign of blood, that Juan is introduced to the idea that the next big struggle is upon them. Playing with the poverty and ennui of a nation that endures and survives more than really lives, Brugués constantly pokes fun by contrasting Havana before and after the outbreak and how one needs to look extra hard to notice anything different.  It's in these early scenes that Juan comes to terms with the fact that not only is there something wrong but that it's not just the usual political kind of wrong.

After a government sponsored protest rally demonstrating Cuban solidarity against this new dissident threat goes horrendously wrong, and mass slaughter and pandemonium is brought to the city streets, Juan starts to take the whole thing seriously and his thoughts go to the only thing he actually cares for, his daughter Camila played by Andrea Duro who is over from Spain visiting her Grandmother.

Playing with the notion of constant revolution and upheaval, and how the Cuban's have shown they are capable of surviving anything the world throws their way, Juan sees the zombie uprising as not only 'just the next thing to deal with' but as something he as an established and well practised Cuban survivor can rise up against and profit from. So in scenes reminiscent of Ghost Busters, Juan and his gang embark on a enterprise to rid people of problematic friends, neighbours and loved ones, for a fee and there phone never stops ringing.

The action moves along at a frenetic pace  and there is never any filler. The action and zombie scenes are tense, bloody and downright over the top just when they need to be and they are unique and memorable throughout. The comedy is always tight, from constant socio-political satire at how the zombies are actually perceived by the people and government as dissidents and sponsored US agitators to numerous playful slapstick moments. The film is respectful to its roots and whilst there are some truly staged and absurd zombie scenes it's never parody and it never gets it wrong. The characters remain sincere and authentic and I don't think I've laughed so hard at a movie for some time.

Juan of the Dead captures Cuba with fantastic expansive urban scenes set against a beautiful tropical island background. It never feels like a b-movie with substandard effects, acting or cinematography and feels like a breath of fresh air with a lighter but no less deep approach to the genre. Authentic to the end, Juan of the Dead has risen to top of the pile and I can't recommend it enough. The casting and characterisation, which is so important to the genre, has no weak links and one of the best onscreen friendships I've enjoyed for some time shines throughout. Cuban Juan of The Dead offers something considerably different to traditional western zombie narratives, whilst retaining all the things that makes them great.

Stylish, hilarious, memorable, 10/10.

WTD.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Night of the Living Dead (1968) - review


1968 (USA)


Contains spoilers.

This is when it all got serious. There had been zombie films before but with Night of the Living Dead George A. Romero and John A. Russo stuck a giant undead flag in the ground proclaiming a new era for the genre and dictating how zombies would behave for a generation.

Night of the Living Dead follows the fortunes (or misfortunes) of a small band of disparate survivors brought together in cramped conditions having to cope with the highly confusing and ultimately dangerous situation of dozens of mindless killers banging at their door wanting to come in and eat them.

The iconic film opens with Barbra (Judith O'Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) on the annual pilgrimage to their fathers grave when they're accosted by what would arguably become the signature modern cinematic zombie, played by Bill Hinzman. With Johnny overcome the hysterical Barbra flees for her life over roads and fields until she comes across a farm cottage. Here we're introduced to the hero of the film Ben (Duane Jones) who seems to have not only some-idea about what's happening but the ability to act on the knowledge to defend and protect himself and Barbra.

The duo are soon joined by married couple Harry (Karl Hardman), Helen Cooper (Marilyn Eastman) and their injured daughter Karen (Kyra Schon) and teenage couple Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley) who have all been hiding in the cellar. What we end up with is power struggles, disagreement on what they should be doing and petty squabbling all intensified by the pressure. This becomes the template for survival zombie films for years to come; the idea of putting a small mixed band of characters together in an intense volatile life or death situation and seeing how they react and interact, and you can see its influence in everything up to and including The Walking Dead.

Obviously influenced heavily by the US space program and the alien invasion films of the previous few decades Romero and Russo originally came up with the idea that the monsters would be flesh eating humans infected by aliens but ended up with the idea of the dead come back to life; flesh eating still the main trait though. Romero has stated that this was part based on a short story he wrote that ripped off Matheson's I Am Legend, which had vampires albeit slow zombie like ones in it. The space influence didn't get pushed off the table altogether and hints that the cause of undead rising is actually from radiation from a satellite that returned from Venus, though Romero and Russo are keen to point out that this is neither confirmed or denied in the film and the actual cause was left ambiguous.

An interesting feature of the Night of The Living Dead ghouls is their hatred for light and fire and some slightly higher brain functions than the mindless meat-heads seen in later films. Probably brought across from I Am Legend's vampires, these zombies actively smash headlights with rocks, stay away from the house while the lights are on and shun fire.

One failed escape to a government sanctuary later and once the lights and electricity of the farm house go out that the heat turns up on the survivors. This leads to a faster paced action laden final 20 odd minutes with all the gore and scenes that riled up the press back when it  was shown (albeit in a time before certification and to young adults and some children who were expecting a light horror matinee experience), including a quite harrowing scene even by modern standards with a young girl and her mother.

For a film made on a self financed shoe strong budget, the quality of acting and production is quite high, Duane Jones being the pick of the bunch. Casting a black lead at the time and pitting him successfully against an antagonistic self absorbed white Karl Hardman also saw Romero and Russo accused of deliberately creating an anti-racist sub text, but I really don't think they could ever be accused of thinking that hard, he was lead simply because he was a good actor and at most they were happy to cause a little trouble. And ok, one could pick holes in some of the other acting, especially Judith Ridley, but none of it really detracts from the experience.

The viewer should also be careful when selecting a version to watch. The film is in the public domain due to a copy right bungle back in 1968 so anyone is free to make a release. There's quite some debate as to what version to buy but the Optimum Home Releasing Blu-Ray version I've reviewed seems to be the best for picture quality, which I'd testify to but is beaten by the some of the DVD releases for commentaries and extras which this version is sorely missing.

Night of the Living Dead holds up pretty well even today. For a 1968 film , shot on a low budget with b-movie actors and a very slow first hour it's still pretty captivating stuff. Ok there's plenty to laugh at too these days from the special effects to the shambling groaning zombie horde yet it all really still works. It's the formula that's right and there's a reason others stuck to it. A film that inspired a genre, I'm coming to get you Barbra, 8/10.

Steven@WTD.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Zombieland - review


2009 (USA)


Contains mild spoilers.

What do you get if you add a socially inept obsessive compulsive nerd, a fearless kick-ass zombie killing cowboy and a pair of hustling sisters in a post apocalyptic zombie wasteland? A stylish delightfully acted zombie road trip full of witty dialogue, whoop-ass action and unlikely romance and friendship.

The film starts with unlikely hero Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg ), each of our companions is named after the destination they are intending to go to, alone narrating his compulsive rules for surviving from good cardio to always buckle-up. Columbus is in the process of travelling across from West coast to East coast America to visit a family he'd become increasingly distant from because really he doesn't know what else to do.

It's on this journey when he bumps into Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and they decide against each others better judgement to share part of the ride. From the off these unlikely travelling companions become the focus of the film. With a nod to all great comedy companions there is an instant interplay as they attempt at first just to tolerate then later to understand each other and in doing so realise at once how little they really know of each other and also how they're both more alike in being alone and lost than they'd care to admit.

The pair soon run into sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and 12 year old Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). Surviving, as it happens before and after apocalypse day on their and their marks' lack of wits, Wichita and Little Rock outwit the boys leaving them behind with less stuff and on foot. Before long though Columbus and Tallahassee get a break in fortune and find themselves caught up with the girls, pleasing Columbus who has taken a bit of a shine to Wichita. Another confrontation later and despite none of them exactly getting off on the right foot the unlikely two end up an even more unlikely four, sharing a road trip East.

Pre-apocalypse none of the group would have had any time for one another, and the theme that friendship and even family can be found should people be willing to let their guard down even for a moment  runs throughout the film. Columbus' rules might be over the top and far more obsessive than the others but each has formed their own guide for surviving whether they're conscious of it or not, and deviations from it scares them as much as zombies.

Whilst adhering for the most part to quite traditional looking zombies, director Ruben Fleischer set out to craft his own vision and not directly copy the Romero zombie formula per-se. First he based the outbreak on a what-if Mad Cow's disease spread to humans. His zombies are infected but still alive and I hear what you're saying, but as these infected keep going if damaged anywhere other than the brain, therefore in death, I'm happy they comply with zombie code. Also whilst wanting to respect traditional zombie canon he also wanted to infuse a bit more character and colour, and movement and life in to some his creations. This results in nail biting chase and action scenes especially in the films fairground finale, and some comical scenes with clowns, birthday party girls and a quite frankly surreal, hilarious and disturbing five minute cameo with Bill Murray as himself.

I also feel there's a small nod to the Capcom video game Dead Rising too, especially with the clown which appears in the game as a sub-boss, some of Tallahassee 's outfits and the sheer variety and fun in the ways in which the zombies are dispatched, which is a hallmark of the series.

Fleischer has produced a highly stylish and extremely creative zombie masterpiece that never takes itself too seriously. Despite capturing the apocalyptic desolation from sets, to cleverly keeping things tight and focused on the four survivors, he has also managed to produce a film of heart warming friendship and hope. The casting and acting are perfect and it's the subtle, clever interplay as each member of the band pokes and pushes at the armour of the others that guards start to come down, and the human qualities of trust and hope are allowed shine. Like many zombie films these moments of humanity contrasted against death and despair on an unimaginable scale take on extra power and meaning and Zombieland understands this perfectly. I'd recommend you come along for the ride, 8/10.

Steven@WTD.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Dellamorte Dellamore (Cemetery Man) - review


1994 (Italy / France / Germany)


Contains spoilers.

Dellamorte / Death, Dellamore / Love is a European art house film about the philosophical struggle with life , death and love and it's also an absurd, dark b-movie comedy. Yes, it's a bizarre one and I really don't know how to go about the review...

Francesco Dellamorte sublimely played by a very young looking Rupert Everett is the cemetery man, which incidentally became the title of the film for the US audience. By day he manages the burial of the townsfolk of the Italian town of Buffalora with his mute and challenged companion Gnaghi played by François Hadji-Lazaro and by night he deals with the fact that around seven days after burial some of them come back to life and quite often into his onsite house looking for food of the flesh kind. Conscious that should he make a fuss of these so called returners he might lose his job, he dispatches them with a bullet to the head in a very matter of fact way and gets Gnaghi to rebury them without alerting anyone.

Francesco soon finds himself obsessed over a young widow played by the alluring Annie Falchi after burying her late and much older husband. Drawn to each other, Francesco and his obsession, surrounded by death soon fall in love and whilst consummating their bond things take a turn for the worse when her late husband rises and takes some vengeance (or perhaps was just a little peckish and she was closest.)

With her returning from the dead days later and talk of eternal love I felt comfortable thinking I knew the direction the narrative was going. I was wrong. Director Michele Soavi didn't create a closed narrative and all notions of such were soon expelled. It becomes apparent that Dellamorte Dellamore is really an increasingly surreal and absurd sequence of semi-connected events surrounding the same characters, with an over arching but ambiguous narrative of ennui, death and love.

 Annie Falchi returns over and over in different roles but with the same inexplicable and timeless feelings of love for Francesco, and his attempts at recreating what they lost always go disastrously awry. Add some homicidal apathy and increasing attempts at pushing what he can get away with to the mix, an odd sequence with his only friend who'd been covering for him, who is now in a coma in hospital, and an enigmatic, dreamlike farcical ending, and one can see the film is fully divorced from being a traditional narrative story.

Dellamorte Dellamore also never takes itself too seriously and there are some truly memorable absurd twisted, surreal and sickening scenes. Flying gnashing zombie heads, motor bikers emerging from the ground and a hilarious sequence with a bus full of scouts all add a b-movie ambience to the film. Dellamorte Dellamore is cult classic and some of these sequences could possibly be seen as a little much and a little out of place in a movie that in part was trying desperately to struggle with Francesco's apathy at the world and death, and his ability to deal with fleeting moments of love which disturbed it. In many ways it could be argued that this absurdity actually mirrors Francesco increasing mental deterioration;  It's all in his mind anyway?

The Blu-Ray reviewed was the Italian release with Italian and English stereo soundtracks. I've read that both this dub and the picture quality are better than the Blu-Ray German release and it also has the non-cropped correct anamorphic 1:66 to 1 ratio. All the extras were in Italian without subtitles unfortunately and weren't reviewed.

Dellamorte Dellamore can't really be pigeon-holed. It's not a heavy horror film nor a traditional survival story. What we have is a surreal dark-humoured European horror film that deals with the duality of the splendour and grandeur of love and the weight of ennui from the absurdity of existing in a world where death is such an inevitability. Daft and captivating, 8/10.

Steven@WTD.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

[REC] - review


2007 (Spain)


Contains mild spoilers.

With the words 'The scariest film ever' shouted on the front cover I was prepared for a right proper night of shocks and tension but before I answer whether it was successful a quick disclaimer: I'm not the biggest horror fan and this might be a strange thing to say for someone starting a blog concentrating on zombie media. I should clarify. I do like a bit of horror but I'm more into apocalyptic survival than things specifically put together to get me to soil myself.

Rec is a 2007 Spanish zombie flick filmed in the shaky-cam first person made popular by The Blair Witch, Cloverfield etc. After spending time at a Barcelona fire station filming a documentary television series, called While You're Asleep, reporter Ángela Vidal (Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman Pablo(Pablo Rosso who is also director of cinematography) follow two firemen on a routine call  to a small inner city apartment block to deal with a seemingly distressed woman.

Writers and directing duo Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza were so focused on establishing early the authenticity of a real documentary that they cast Manuela Velascoan, already a budding news journalist, in the lead role and this certainly shows during the slow paced, mundane but highly believable opening thirty minutes or so.

Obviously as 'the scariest film ever made' things soon start taking a turn for the worse. The call-out turns a bit dark and confusing as the firemen, 2 policemen and the reporters try to make sense and control the rapidly deteriorating situation of a zombie infection spreading in a tight and claustrophobic setting. With the apartment block quarantined from the outside and a lack of information the routine call soon turns into a frenetic, confusing and downright heart pumping race for survival.

And it's the relentless pace which ramps up from 1 to 10 remarkably quickly and never drops that makes this the film it is. Confusion, claustrophobia and white knuckle fear all work in partnership to provide a genuinely blood thumping experience. Not quite the scariest film ever made but certainly not Mary Poppins.

As to the regular question of whether they are actually zombies. There is a certainly ambiguity here and the film uses infection, possession and religious undertones, pre-death craziness and apparent post death resurrection in a real candy-mix way. One could argue this demonstrates a lack of focused narrative but to me it just added to the general bat-shit confusion I feel the film set out to establish, and in some ways this made it all a tad more scary.

One thing first person films suffer from is retaining a believability as to why the fuck the camera hadn't been turned off and the filming stopped as to focus on more pertaining issues, like not being brutally slaughtered. Balagueró and Paco Plaza for the most part manage to pull this off with plausible narrative reasons at every turn and it's never an issue.

So not the scariest film ever made but certainly the scariest I've reviewed so far. [REC] is a valiant attempt at trying something new within the genre and provides quite the adrenalin ride for its 70 odd minutes. It certainly leaves a lot of questions unanswered too and I'm looking forward to seeing how these are dealt with in its two sequels. It received many accolades and awards on release and made a big enough splash so as to be remade apparently shot for shot in the US as Quarantine. This original is widely regarded as the best version though and I'll award it a heart-thumping 7/10.

Steven@WTD.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

The Walking Dead Season 1 - review


2010 (USA)


Straight off I'm going to tell you I love this series and it was a joy to have an excuse to go back to the beginning and watch the first season again, especially now I've watched to the end of season 2 and read the graphic novel. I'll add I also think I even enjoyed it more this time too. My aim is to try and convey why I like this series so much and keep it as spoiler free as possible.

The Walking Dead started as successful graphic novel series by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard back in 2004 and even if you're not a comic fan (tut tut) I'd still recommend you pick this up especially now it's available in two nice fat compendiums.

It was picked up for a short 6 part season by AMC in 2010 and it was soon evident Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption), a zombie genre fan, who wrote or co-wrote four of the season's six episodes was onto something quite special. Here we are a couple years, and extra 13 episode season later, with a Writers Guild of America Award nomination, a Golden Globe Award nomination, and the record of being the most-watched basic cable drama telecast in history. With videogames, books, fan sites and merchandising and a bigger budget extra long 16 episode season in the works I think it's safe to say the The Walking Dead snow ball is still only gathering pace and for a zombie phenomenon it's quite remarkable.

The narrative is centred on sheriff's deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) who wakes from a gunshot-induced coma a la 28 Days Later, Resident Evil et al. and finds himself in a devastated post apocalyptic world searching for his wife (Sarah Wayne Callies) and son Carl. Lincoln is an inspired choice and with confidence perfectly carries the role of a man striving to do his best in a hopeless situation. The world Rick journeys through at all times feels expansive and alive and you feel each character he encounters has a powerful story to tell. The Walking Dead could really have fallen apart without the spread and depth of these characters and the casting but fortunately for us this is not only an area in which they excelled but it's why the series is such a success.

The Walking Dead is traditional zombie survival story telling at its finest. Referring back to why zombie films make me tick; it's the tension and drama of watching a wide range of different personalities in the cinder-keg of zombie apocalypse. It's survival 101; not only being careful not be eaten, the survivors have to worry about the mundane issues of food and water, laundry, shelter, kids, etc and to top it all off their biggest threat: each other. As some find an inner reserve they never knew they had and rise to the challenge others fall to despair or desperation. There's nothing like a zombie apocalypse to bring out the best and worst in people...

There's something about the apocalyptic condition that allows for rebirth. That thought of being able to start off again and leave any baggage of your past behind. I think this is something that resonates throughout and it's somewhat inspiring watching people re-write themselves even in such extreme conditions; alternatively it's like watching a car crash in slow motion when things are not going so well.

Whilst keeping faithful to the graphic novels Darabont isn't scared to mix it up for the screen and whilst there are many things passed directly across he has not been scared to change, add and ignore bits aplomb. It works.

The six episode season 1 acts as an appetiser before the main course of season 2. Think of it as a small nibble of flesh before getting your mitts on the meat and guts. It's full of suspense, tension, intelligence and sensitivity. The special effects are up there with any triple A big budget zombie film and horror fans will be sated by what's on offer. But there's also plenty to attract the non zombie aficionado with great characters and a well paced, cleverly written story.

Thing is, if you're reading this you've probably already watched this and made up your own mind. A must buy 9/10.
  
WTD.

Friday, 17 August 2012

The Crazies (2010) - review


2010 (USA)


Contains spoilers.

Ok and I promise not to make a habit of this, but I'm afraid to admit that The Crazies isn't a zombie film either. After 28 Days Later this makes two in a row and not a good start for a zombie blog.

It does have a highly infectious virus turning a small US Heartland town's regular citizens into homicidal mindless killers, and it does focus on a small band of survivors trying to escape first the infected's attempts to kill them in as violent and bloody a way as possible and later a gas-mask clad military attempting to contain the pandemic by any means necessary; but no zombies, not one.
  
I think I was taken in by the back cover's description of Sheriff David Dutton's (Timothy Olypant) and his pregnant wife Judy's (Radha Mitchell's) desperate struggle to survive against mindless infected killers and the co-writing and executive producer credentials of George A. Romero. I was expecting more zombie like behaviour which does appear from time to time but for the most part the infected residents' slow decline to this base zombie-like state is where the action takes place and the residents retain much use of their faculties able to shoot guns, hunt in packs, turn electricity on and off etc. So not zombies.

Anyway, I might as well review it and you'll have to forgive its inclusion on WTD based on some thin zombie like behaviour. Ahem. The Crazies is directed by Breck Eisner.  The film is a remake of the 1973 film by George A. Romero, which I haven't seen and was written by Scott Kosar and Ray Wright along with Romero which I mentioned above. Like 28 Days Later the cause of the apocalypse is a man made virus, this time called Trixie, which is introduced to the water supply from a plane crashing in a nearby creek. It reduces people's base functions to that of inhuman mindless bloodthirsty killing machines and spreads like wildfire.

The film did share some similarities to 28 Days Later which I reviewed yesterday. Firstly it spends time contrasting a small fictional town of Ogden Marsh, Iowa and its peaceful community with the burning, desolate hell of what remains 48 hours later. Eisner does a tremendous job pacing this decline, introducing the crazies slowly and building the viewers relationship towards the trials of a small group of some-how survivors. In true horror film style some of the self contained set pieces are gruesome, dramatic and genuinely scary and you're right behind David's early proclamation that they're in real trouble.

The second section introduces the military as a new additional faceless enemy to have to deal with, Eisner even consulting with the CDC on protocol to portray as realistic a response to a major pandemic as possible. Ruthless and inhumane, efficient and ordered all come together when a major crisis is being dealt with in as quick a timescale as possible and there are some intense, confusing and shocking evacuation scenes. The film is from the perspective of the survivors so you side with them but it's hard not to accept, in some way, that such a firm response might actually be the preferred one. Eisner wanted this ambiguity and it's hard not to feel sorry for the soldiers too as their control starts to fall apart.

The main focus of the film though is always on the Sheriff, his wife and their two main companions, Russell his deputy (Joe Anderson) and Becca (Danielle Panabaker) and their attempts to survive and ultimately, believing they're all clean, get as far away from the shit-storm as possible. There's some great have-they/haven't-they got the virus tension and the pace never relents as they deal with one set piece after another, including a truly fabulous car wash sequence. You're never bored, there's no time.

As I've said, Eisner has made and set out to make a horror film full of shocks and it's fear that drives the film and its characters. The survivors fear the crazies and the military, and the military fear the pandemic spreading. Fear motivates the action: the survivors' attempts to escape at all costs and the military's use of any method available to contain it. Eisner even shows us fear is the motivation on the ground for the soldiers too. When confronted, a young infantryman shows he's just as scared and confused as everyone else and only deals with it by obeying his orders; it's a nice touch.

The Crazies isn't a zombie film, it's a well paced, bloody, scary, edge-of-your-seat film that people who like zombie films will enjoy thoroughly. It's not a classic but it's well acted, well presented and recommended 7/10.

WTD.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

28 Days Later - review


2002 (UK)


Contains spoilers.

Let's get 2 things out of the way straight away. The first is easy; the picture quality for a Blu-Ray presentation is as bad as other reviewers have noted. Danny Boyle shot all of the film with a DV camera at a resolution of 720x576 and for this release all they did was scale it up to 1080p; so it's full of noise, pixilation and looks almost like a tape! The DTS HD master audio is tremendous though. With this out the way I'll concentrate on the movie itself and the second issue.

Is this a zombie movie? On the one hand there's been a UK and possibly global apocalyptic meltdown caused through the rapid widespread transference of a blood infection that turns people into savage, single-minded killing machines hell bent on eating the non-infected. On the other hand the infected aren't killed, coming back in a zombie state. The infected are still very much alive, they can be knocked out, they can starve; to stop them they have to actually be killed.

Contrast this with say The Walking Dead where whilst everyone is infected (sorry spoiler) death is necessary for someone to actually transform into a zombie and only destroying the infected's brain actually stops them. It comes down to a virus causing people into monsters on infection, or monsters on infection but after death. The outcome is to all intents and purposes the same; zombies/infected with a hunger for flesh, people getting chased and eaten and doing all they can to survive. I can see both sides of the argument and feel it's down to semantics and how strict one wants to be. Personally I'd call it a film in the zombie genre but I'd counter that the monsters aren't zombies per-se but infected very-much-alive humans.  Anyhow, to the 28 Days Later directed by Danny Boyle and written by Alex Garland...

For me it's a film of two halves. The first half is a highly stylised traditional zombie survival story following Jim's (Cillian Murphy) regaining of consciousness in a secure hospital room 28 days after an apocalyptic virus has been unleashed and wrought devastation on the world. Fleeing the hospital Boyle perfectly portrays the solitude, despair and mental terror of realising  you're alone in a London gone very very wrong and there's some real cinemagraphic eye candy. Stumbling into the zom... I mean infected Jim soon joins other survivors Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley), and later teenager Hannah (Megan Burns) and her father Frank (Brendan Gleeson) who happen to have, but are unable to act on alone, the plot point necessary to get the group to the second half of the film up the M55.

The second half moves the focus from survival against the infected to survival against humans. With what I suspect to be some slightly anti-military and establishment sentiments the companions, or those who are left, on reaching the M55 outpost find themselves not in the hands of salvation but under the protection of desperate, crude, unfeeling misogynists looking to get laid at any cost.  Lead by Christopher Eccleston as Major Henry West these highly trained and regimented band of professional soldiers soon reveal their true intents en masse and Jim finds himself separated from the group, running for his life and once safe ready to stage a dramatic rescue.

 Jim, remember, previously a motorbike courier, now turns into a Rambo-esque merciless efficient killing machine able to successfully infiltrate a secure heavily armed military compound, outfox, out-manoeuvre, and ultimately take out all the soldiers and avoid and utilise the infected. All with his shirt off. He dispatches with manic glee in his eyes and moves with calmness and purpose as if Jekyll himself had risen in place of Hyde. Along with Jim's change I think Boyle's vision was to show how quickly all could be dehumanised when faced with unremitting horror and survival. This is seen in early scenes with Selena, Jim's half time encounter with a young boy, which one could argue acts as the catalyst for his later episode, and then later with the soldiers apparently easy scant regard for anything beyond their own gratification. Despite this theme I still found the speed and manner of Jims change a little over the top and not that believable.

From the extras you can see that Boyle and Garland struggled with this second half as they dabbled with an entirely different ending. The radical alternative ending saw none of these second half events unfold but kept the focus on the survivors and their attempts to find a cure. In a lot of ways I think I'd have preferred to have seen this vision of the film realised but Boyle apparently decided against it because he thought the idea of a total blood replacement as a cure wasn't credible.

There's a lot to recommend in the film. Great cinematography and music, some iconic scenes especially of London and some good action and splatter. There's also in my opinion a lot of problems with it once it's been critiqued and it's not helped by having a central character I never felt I could sympathise with or understand.

Worth having in a zombie film collection and a good film despite having flaws 7/10.

WTD.