Sunday, 28 July 2013

Deadgirl - review

2008 (USA)

Contains spoilers.

Lets not mince words; Deadgirl written by Trent Haaga and directed by Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel is a dark film.

Ask yourself what would you do if you found a beautiful naked girl (Jenny Spain) bound and gagged in a hidden room deep under an abandoned psychiatric hospital? On inspection you discover the reason she's shackled and locked away is because she's incapable of being killed and also given the opportunity she'd quite happily attack and eat you. If you answered anything other than keep her as a personal sex-toy for you and your friends to use and abuse of course, then you can breath a sigh of relief knowing that you're a better person than high school senior J.T. (Noah Segan).

J. T. and best friend Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) are bunking off school to hang out and drink beer. It's a hot day so where best to get some shade that the towns old ramshackled nut house. A little drunk and scared by a loose threatening looking dog, that's never quite explained, they run, get lost and find themselves in the moral pickle I've just laid out. While clearly from the start you're expected to question the ethical veracity of these two, I mean they're 17 year old testosterone fuelled high school drop outs happy to break into and vandalise a private building but the speed in which he concludes they shouldn't immediately do the right and obvious thing is something to behold. Now I've watched people make questionable decisions, whether well intended or not, and I've watched films where people drunk on power or whatnot go seriously off the rails so to speak, but J. T. and later his friend Wheeler (Eric Podnar) descend to levels of douchebaggeryness on a scale and at a pace I've never witnessed before. Despite protests from Rickie J. T. is clear from the off, that the bound somewhat foetid piece of meat laid out in front of him is an opportunity and not something he's willing to part with easily.

Rickie's moral battle knowing what he ought to do, but putting himself very much at odds with his oldest bestest friend is the main narrative drive of the film and it only works if you can accept J.T.'s extreme sadistic ethically bankrupt narcissism but it's a close thing. As you watch Rickie squirm and wrestle his internal demons you also realise it's a coming of age story and, albeit under slightly more forced and extreme conditions than normal, that battle all adolescents face when they realise they're now ultimately responsible for their actions and they are able to challenge the world view as provided by friends and parents.

Now what she is and how she ended up getting like she is, is never explicitly explained but we can deduce quite a lot. She's definitely dead and her body is capable of sustaining the sort of damage that would certainly smart without batting an eye lid. She's feral and very much interested in biting people and when bitten, like Johnny (Andrew DiPalma), boyfriend of Rickie's ex and teenage obsession Joann (Candice Accola), she passes something fatal on making them like her. There's enough on display in my book to say she's a zombie though it is with a few caveats. She seems to consciously spare Rickie at the end with an apparent understanding that he meant well implying some kind of moral rational thought process, and she survives what looks like J. T. stabbing her through head. With her location, it's kind of implied she could be the product of some mad scientist experimentation but it's all left very deliberately ambiguous though the look and feel definitely made me think more of Rec and demons than viruses or anything natural.

Despite being a bit of a one trick pony with a story driven by a simple single controversial idea and something that could have easily been wrapped up as a ten minute short, it manages to play around with it enough and add new characters and ideas to hold up for the full hour and a half. Constantly uncomfortable viewing it builds the tension and feelings of dread nicely to reach a pretty lively, gory final fifteen minutes just at the right time wrapping it all up with a flourish. For a low budget indie film with a host of characters that are utterly unlikeable the acting is strong, the dialogue punchy and the production never amateurish. Also despite the controversial and twisted story things are never presented quite as gratuitous or graphic as they could have been and camera work is full of subtlety and restraint.

Sarmiento and Harel weren't scared to take a pretty disturbing idea and run with it. It's dark, it's deviant and has a fundamental central thread that many would argue is in such bad taste it probably shouldn't have been made. This being said I do like films that question just where the edge is, and push taste, decency and boundaries to raise debate and challenge conception. The deadgirl, naked, mute, and bound is woman as totally objectified and reduced as possible. It's powerful and shocking imagery but is handled relatively responsibility and none of the male characters come out of the film with a shred of honour or respect. Whether intended or not Deadgirl is a complex film. On the surface it's a decent horror film, look deeper there's social commentary on the modern teenage male dealing with the moral and sexual ambivalence and dissonance born in the age of easy access porn and detached reductionist/ objectification imagery. Gripping, thought provoking but not something I'd want to watch with my parents, 8/10.


Thursday, 25 July 2013

Zombies of Mass Destruction - review

2010 (USA)

Contains spoilers.

I love going into a film with no preconceptions and genuinely no idea what I'm letting myself in for. What's even better is when the film actually turns out to be rather good.

It's the usual slow pre-zombie show stacking up the cards to knowing they'll be knocked down later. Pan across the idyllic picture perfect Port Gamble with pristine gardens and hedges, people happily greeting each other on the street and little girls skipping or if you're one of its returning sons and daughters, the little insular narrow minded bigoted hell you grew up in.

American Frida Abbas (Janette Armand) has returned to her Iranian cafe owning father after dropping out of Princeton University and Tom Hunt (Doug Fahl) a six-figure earner from Wall Street is visiting his mum with his partner Lance Murphy (Cooper Hopkins) to finally come out. Unknown to these returnees and the town at large though a putrid corpse has just washed up on a nearby shore and is rather animated and hungry.

Zombies of Mass Destruction is in many respects just an extremely well done zombie film in the best traditions of Night of the Living Dead and The Return of the Living Dead. The feeling things are about to turn rather sour permeates nicely alongside some far better than expected dialogue and acting for the first half and hour, there's enough time to get a nice list in your head of those you can't wait to see killed and when the first attack occurs it's executed with amazing affront and brutality; so far so good. I'll say from the start, director Kevin Hamedani isn't afraid to shock and there are some great up close and personal graphic scenes full of gore and blood and many truly oh-shit scenes in the best grind-house tradition. The story, such as there is one, is really as old school as it gets; it's survive or be eaten and that's pretty much it. It is all pulled off with great panache though and there is something else going on...

Before watching I'd assumed the absurd title was just to help this low budget film stand out and didn't think for one minute it actually meant anything, but I was wrong. Hamedani has, in true Romero style, managed to weave in a stinging anti-Muslim, homophobic subtext showing off US small town ignorance, fear and prejudice at its worst. The announcement that the zombie outbreak is actually a Muslim terrorist attack is the green light, as it was when it was reported Saddam had hidden weapons of mass destruction, to many, to abandon common-sense and restraint. Across town another group lead by reverend Haggis (Bill Johns) and Mayor Burton (James Mesher) see the outbreak as the Christian Armageddon and vindication of their homophobic and anti-abortion agenda. It really is all a stinging rebuttal of the right wing political agenda where it's ok to label and attack whole minority subgroups and while Hamedani has picked these two it could have easily been any one of many more. This political agenda really does drive the narrative and dialogue and the zombies are somewhat pushed to the background for the second half but I can see how it was needed for what they were trying to accomplish. I can also see how the liberal agenda might not be for everyone and the right wing figures are portrayed as somewhat one-dimensional extreme nut-jobs without redeeming characteristics but zombie films often play with extreme tropes and they do make for good baddies you really, really want to see killed in as brutal a way as possible.

The explanation for the zombie outbreak is deliberately left open, perhaps a natural virus, a mutation or maybe the reverend was right, though I doubt it. For a very low budget zombie film the effects are good and the zombies all obey a uniform Romero slow shuffling template. The action does go over the top, and full on zombie-farce at times but it all adds to the charm and the light hearted comedy horror template that underlies the heavier political message. An old school guttural synth score perfectly accompanies the action and the whole thing comes together quite successfully. 

Surprisingly good acting and witty dialogue, a coherent narrative that stays on track and some great zombie deaths helps propel this zombie film from merely average to good and I'd heartily recommend it, unless though you're a regular Fox News viewer or subscribe to the Daily Mail then it's probably best you pass it by, 7/10.


Wednesday, 24 July 2013

(Tim Burton's) Corpse Bride - review

2005 (UK/USA)

Contains mild spoilers.

Well, the summer school holidays are upon us again so I'm afraid there will more than likely be more films about Evil Fluffy Bunnies than the Evil Dead the next few weeks, but still, we'll muddle through.

First up on the family friendly roster is to give it it's full title Tim Burton's Corpse Bride. An animated fantasy horror from 2005, it was the third stop-motion film produced by Burton, and the first he directed and as such it exudes confidence in the medium. Sumptuous looking and full of his trademark gothic, dark quirky look and feel, it's classic Burton at the top of his game

It's the late 1800s and the title-less but nouveau riche Van Dort family have arranged the marriage of their son Victor (voiced by who else but Johnny Depp) to the cashless daughter of the Everglot family, Victoria (Emily Watson), who can provide the title and social boost they crave.

Causing calamity at the rehearsal but very enamoured by Emily, he escapes to the woods where practicing his vows he inadvertently places the wedding ring on the very dead finger of Emily (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter) which was protruding from her grave mistaken for a branch. Loosely based on an old Jewish folk tale, Victor by completing the wedding ritual has actually betrothed himself to Emily, the corpse bride and an eternal unlife honeymoon in the land of the dead.

Victorian England is a drab and miserable place and always displayed through a colourless monotone lens. The land of the dead however is colourful and vibrant, full of a motley assortment of skeletons, zombies and jazz. It really is quite the contrast and an interesting choice. If anything Burton has chosen to portray the characters in the land of the living as those that are actually doing anything of the sort. Overly burdened with money, rules and titles they've all lost sight of what is actually important and this is never more true when Victoria is quickly re-betrothed to the con-artist Lord Barkis Bitter (Richard E. Grant) at the first sign Victor might not come through. It's a children's film so there's usually an underlying moral message and I like this one, if it is in fact what was meant, it's a little deviant, a little un-respectful and totally anti-establishment.

Is she a zombie and is this a zombie film? Well, she's definitely dead and reanimated but like many children zombie films she's still totally self aware, likeable and never once mentions wanting to eat anyone. She is however blue (a nod to Romero or at least the genre perhaps?), she is missing some flesh on her arm and cheek and is maggot infested even if said maggot is her friendly companion who guides her conscience (Enn Reitel imitating the ubiquitous voice of Peter Lorre). The undead are hotchpotch of walking, talking, music playing skeletons and zombies who all go about their business in the land of the dead with a smile on their faces and a certain amount of aplomb. There is the subtle suggestion they're here because they've left unfinished business though this is never explicitly expressed, but overall they're portrayed in such a way to suggest their colour and life has come from being freed from the superfluous burdens that come with living.

The dead do eventually get their chance to invade the land of the living and Burton does that tried and tested children's tease that the dead are going to go on a murderous rampage but pulls back at the last moment to reveal them as kind and cosy old relatives and more interested in being reunited with their loved ones than eating their brains. It's been done before but I still enjoyed it.

Corpse Bride is a fun, quickly dark humoured tale but maybe one for the slightly older child. Emily is not the perfect dead silhouette of her alive self, she really is a dead rotting corpse. Other denizens of the land of the dead have dangling eyeballs and unsymmetrical bones and faces that things can fall off, and skeletons are never perfectly white. In some ways this isn't an animated film for children with some appeal to adults but maybe an adult movie that has been filmed in such away to still be suitable for children. Either way Victors trips to the land of the dead are always full of imagination, fun and small subtle jokes and flourishes, but it knows never to go too far. Underlying all this is a beautiful score by Danny Elfman, great voice acting from well known actors, and some highly enjoyable musical interludes. 

Both a fantasy horror and moral reminder of what is really important Tim Burton's Corpse Bride is a magical yarn for both young and old and as with most stop motion films, it doesn't embellish or drag out scenes, to move along at a fast, but never forced pace. Ironically his drab portrayal of 19th century England is a little too authentic making for some dreary viewing in places but overall it's all more than made up for by the story being spun. Dreamlike, eerie, with dark humour and depth this is another Tim Burton triumph, 7/10.


Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Zombie Flesh Eaters (Zombi 2 / Zombie) - review

1979 (Italy/Mexico)

Contains mild spoilers.

I know, I know, this has been long overdue. To have a zombie blog and not have a review of the one of the zombie founding cult classics is a crime, but I'm happy to say I'm ready to put this right. It also makes it a Fulci review double bill having just finished The House by the Cemetery and with it the Gates of Hell trilogy which he went on to because of the success of this. They're not for everyone but over the three films I came to understand and respect his particular style of fanciful esoteric story telling and his use of shocking avant-garde gore and effects and expected Zombie Flesh Eaters, with its cult acclaim to be more of the same, but better.

This review is for Zombie Flesh Eaters, another sumptuous Blu-Ray remaster by Arrow Films with frame by frame touch ups, a second disc brimming with extras and its UK release name. In the US it was called Zombie but in Italy it's where the naming gets interesting. It's original working title was Gli Ultimi Zombi (The Last Zombie) but this was changed after the huge critical and commercial impact of Romero's Dawn of the Dead which was re-scored, re-edited and released there as Zombi. An obvious cash in, Zombi 2 has no real connection to its namesake predecessor though an attempt to create some direct connection was added after the film was first cut by adding the now iconic opening and closing scenes in New York.

Zombie Flesh Eaters was originally thought of as an action adventure and in many ways this is what it is. Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow) is questioned by the police after an officer is killed on her fathers boat which was found drifting in New York harbour. With tale of shambling rotting murderers, reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch) stumbles into Anne, they discover the boat last sailed from the Island of Matool in the Caribbean and they decide to team up on an adventure to discover the truth.

After a flight, a bit of sailing on Bryan Curt's schooner (Al Cliver aka Pier Luigi Conti), a bit of naked scuba diving from his companion Susan Barrett (Auretta Gay) and one of most ambitious and downright crazy brilliant zombie scenes of all time with a zombie and shark going at it, the gang arrive to find the island cursed and the dead risen and hungry.

It really is return to the pre-Romero zombie with a story full of magic and voodoo. On the island they find Richard Johnson who plays the physician Dr. David Menard fighting a losing battle trying to make sense of what is happening. The doctors makeshift hospital is a truly horrific place full of islanders at various stages of zombiefication and despite Menard ruling out virus or bacteria there are definite signs of infection before death and reanimation. A single bite definitely hastens the process but there is also the Romero zombie ambiguity that implies reanimation of the dead is just as likely to occur regardless. Also, while the recently deceased do share much in common with Romero's creation; a slow shambling gait, a subtle blue tinge and a primal drive to sink their teeth into the living, Fulci is far more at ease when it comes to upping the ante. Gone is the always relatively fresh look with Fulci quite prepared imagine just how wretched  a cadaver would be if it had been left to decompose in the heat for quite some time before rising up. They are really some of the most gruesome deformed well made up monstrosities I've yet seen; full of foreboding, totally devoid of humanity and perfectly realised. Where-as there's a tendency to play with the ideas of a cure or redemption in many atheist, american zombie films, and indeed Romero plays with such ideas in his later films, here Fulci's mythology is full of southern Europe Catholicism and belief. Without the union of body and soul the reanimated are unholy, human-less, demonic and utterly unredeemable.

This eye for the disgusting and nasty is also brought to film with all the gruesome and excessively gratuitous gore scenes we've come to expect. One of the founding reasons there was a UK video nasty banned film list the film is full to the brim with over the top and highly scripted deaths and mutilations. On the surface it could all seem quite unnecessary but to get Fulci is to understand that to shock and disturb is a deliberate ploy and in keeping with the traditions of French surrealist Antonin Artaud whom Fulci deeply admired.

As said it's very much the action adventure horror story and not the horror mystery thriller that we had with the Gates of Hell trilogy. It's quite the contrast in narrative style; gone is the very European existential and surrealist tone, the esoteric dreamlike ambiguity or Je ne sais quoi. Zombie Flesh Eaters plays out in quite the linear Western fashion. Dialogue is dry and obvious, there's no real mystery and the story quite predictable and in many ways it feels like a backward step; like a return to an older adventure style of movie making without all the subtle nuance I'd come to expect and admire.  After my first viewing I was left a little deflated by the linearity of it all, remarking how I preferred the bigger thinking and vision of say, The Beyond and it was only after watching it again, a day later I actually came to appreciate it for the tight action adventure it was; full of vision and all Fulci's subtlety and daft-brilliance, it's just you have to look a little harder for it.

I did like Zombie Flesh Eaters, but I can fully understand that it's a bit of an acquired taste. The pace is quite slow, the dialogue a bit trite and the acting on the whole wooden but it still has a charm and panache that make it a delight to watch. Also there could be quite a strong argument the film is quite exploitative of women with the female cast only in it to scream or take their clothes off but they do it all rather well, ahem. Zombie Flesh Eaters is possibly carried by a few truly iconic scenes but as an influence on what zombie culture was to become its place is priceless. A mesmerising piece of zombie cinema no doubt, but those who wax lyrical may be slightly more nostalgia fuelled than they'd care to admit, 8/10.


Friday, 19 July 2013

The House by the Cemetery - review

1981 (Italy)

Contains mild spoilers.

Lucio Fulci's The House by the Cemetery is the third and final slice of his surrealist Lovecraftian blood splattered Gates of Hell trilogy; although it's only really a trilogy in name and in so much as it's another horror film with Fulci named as director, and I had high hopes. The Beyond is one my favourite films full of imagination, totally over the top deaths, ambiguity and style and I hate to say this up top but this pales somewhat in comparison.

The House by the Cemetery is the run down Oak Mansion, situated off the beaten track in New England. Professor Norman Boyle has received a commission to finish the work of his ex-colleague, Dr. Peterson, who murdered his mistress before committing suicide and is taking his wife Lucy (Catriona MacColl, who also appeared in both of Fulci's other films) and son Bob (Giovanni Frezzi) with him. Not long after arriving and after finding indoor tombs of a previous Freudstein family Norman is subject to a quite brilliant but utterly daft bat attack sequence after opening the nailed shut cellar door and they decide enough is enough and it's time to get out.

Before they have chance to get away though, Norman discovers that not only was Peterson looking into the late Dr Freudstein but that he'd discovered the late Victorian doctor was conducting horrendous and very illegal medical experiments in the basement just before his end and he rushes home just in time for an evening of carnage.

It's slow, full of suspense and tension, and just as much a thriller as a horror. In fact I'd argue if you added the true moments of horror all up they'd probably make up less than 5% of the film and it does suffer for this. The Beyond was chock full of deaths and extravagant iconic sequences and everything moved along with purpose. Here everything kind of plods along and there's far fewer actual scenes where I'd argue anything meaningful happens. It does feel Fulci had less time and money for this and looking at how quickly this came out after The Beyond I think we know the answer.

It still has all the Fulci slightly incoherent and yet cohesive, surrealist plot design that keeps everything scary and foreboding throughout. The characters are complicated and deep, the plot if anything is slightly tighter and more easily follow-able than its predecessors, the trademark video-nasty scenes are as good as we'd expect and you're left scratching your head in a good way. Fulci is still the master of mystery with unexplained psychic bonds and unanswered questions that gives each of his films an airy dream like feel and by now you know whether you love or loath him for it.

There is but one zombie, yes just one, and we really don't get to see much of him until near the end but he's well worth waiting for as he's one of most putrefying sinister reanimated chunks of flesh you're likely to ever see. Lacking any humanity he's a sadistic ghoul who uses fresh bodies to reinvigorate his blood (so perhaps he's not dead... tell you what, let's not go there...) He's not quite so ambiguous as the undead in The Beyond as we kind of understand his origin story but there's still much left to the imagination. As a beside my daughter on seeing his picture (call social security!) said he looked like the sandman; make of that what you will.

The Blu-ray transfer is sharp and the sound and picture are clean but whoever was responsible for the dub needs to hang their head in shame at Bob. I'm not sure whether they changed voice actor but it doesn't match at all and sticks out like a sore thumb. Not good, not good at all.

I hoped for more blood, more deaths, more zombies, more of everything but while it does have all the trademark atmosphere and daft sequences and it is scary it's in all honesty a shadow of its predecessor and I think this is born out in the fact I've mentioned it every other paragraph. Less ambitious and less intense it's still Fulci; it's just all too tempered and somehow lesser, which is a great shame, 6/10.


(George A. Romero's) Survival of the Dead - review

2009 (USA/Canada)

Contains mild spoilers.

I really don't know what to make of this. I understood going in, it wasn't his best effort; heck who am I kidding, everywhere I looked I could see everyone calling it his weakest. I recently watched Diary of the Dead and for all it did right it was still a far cry from the giddy and provocative first trilogy and this I read, was supposed to be worse. Having now watched it I'll agree it's not likely to win any awards but I didn't think it was as bad as all that...

Survival of the Dead or to give it its full title George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead; already a sign they didn't have a lot of confidence in it, is the sixth and currently last instalment of the dead series he started way back in 1968 with the game-changing Night of the Living Dead. After the relatively big budget and mainstream Landof the Dead (which I actually really liked), Diary of the Dead was an attempt to reboot the franchise, and return an indie look and feel to the franchise. With a equally modest low budget Survival of the Dead is a direct sequel with the same world, the same problems and even some of the same characters.

The bulk of the film is set three weeks after armageddon. Colonel 'Nicotine' Crockett (Alan van Sprang), disillusioned with the armed defence has deserted with three of his troopers deciding his best chances of survival are out in the sticks, alone with a heavy emphasis on 'whatever it takes' and 'to hell with everyone else'. Here the soldiers run into and dispatch a sadistic group of red-neck hunters, pick up a young lad we never hear the name of (Devon Bostick) who shows them an internet video (more of this later) from a Captain Patrick O' Flynn (Kenneth Welsh) who comes across a bit Captain Birdeye, who promises an undead free paradise on Plum Island.

Cutting to the chase, Crockett and his troop end up on the island with the previously exiled O' Flynn and right slap bang into the middle of a feud with the islands rival family lead by Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick). The reason for this latest spat they learn was a differing opinion on how best to deal with the sudden rise of the dead and buried.

Romero has never shied away from divisive political or cultural ideologies fuelling his films with racial, consumerist, military and media subtexts. I've written much on the topic but with Survival it's harder to pinpoint exactly the metaphor is, or whether there really is one. O' Flynn is the pragmatist. He believes in survival and safety and favours killing the dead at each and every opportunity whether their loved ones agree or not.  Muldoon is the idealist, steadfast that how ever difficult it might be, it is it up to them to protect the dead from harm and pray and wait for a cure or salvation. Both are dogmatic in their views and prepared to kill the other to see their ideology played out. Over the length of the film we get to see that both are right and wrong, and perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle but either way both are wrong for trying to force their single world view onto everyone. Perhaps it's the pitfall and inherent (self)destruction in staunch dogmatism that's Romero's message, or perhaps I'm just reading too much into it the whole thing (quite likely). Either way it's this clash of ideologies and personalities that forms the backbone of the story and after O' Flynn returns a violent clash was always inevitable.

They're shambling, they're brain-dead, they like human flesh and they like to hang out with the like minded in big groups. Romero's zombies have rarely been that threatening or vicious and even though the film is still full of trademark over the top kills and violence never before have I seen zombies, when on their own so unassuming and dare I say pathetic. Many of the imaginative ways Sarge 'Nicotine' and his troop find to dispatch the undead come from the sheer amount of time they find themselves with to set them up.

Despite this though, at other times, when it's one on one and mainly when it's one on one with a side character, it all seems rather easy and convenient for the zombie to overpower their victims and get a bite in. The contradictions aren't isolated to the zombie kills either. On the one hand the premise is that the majority of the worlds population have turned into zombies; it's the end of the world, hell on earth, etc. Yet, on the other we're still being told there's electricity, wireless internet, comedy talk shows and those survivors that are left don't seem to be that overly worried about the whole thing. Romero's films have always contained a little humour and parody but here it's all a bit too jarring and dare I say farcical.

In many respects, and I'll probably get lynched for this, Survival of the Dead isn't that much different to Day of the Dead. The characters are wooden and a bit cliché , the dialogue is generally quite trite and the zombie deaths are over-staged. Whilst I'm not going to honestly go as far as saying it is as good, they're really not as different as the internet seems to alude. Both are heavy character driven narratives with characters you never really care about and both really only use the zombies to drive the interaction and conflict. The one big difference though is in Day of Dead the zombies in the background always pose a credible threat and their persistent presence weighs heavy on the group increasing the tension. You never feel this in Survival; the zombies are herded around like livestock and never feel particularly threatening. Even during the big finale you kind of feel those who are actually killed only have themselves to blame and could have probably avoided getting bit if they'd just been a little less careless.

Survival of the Dead isn't a bad film, it's just not a particularly good one. Whilst it still has signs of the trademark Romero imagination for the most part it's quite mundane and feels like its really just going through the motions.  Despite all the flaws though, which are many, a mundane Romero zombie film is much better than many others. The story is original, the over the top Romero zombie kills are a feast for the eyes and there's still enough here for the zombie disciple to get his teeth into, 6/10.


Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Spending again - blog

My last big splurge for a while... (if my wife is reading this, honest luv!)

I've finally got over my disappointment of Rec2 and I think I'm ready to return to this crazy demon zombie world; also I saw a trailer for 4 so thought I'd better catch up.

Next something that's long overdue.. Zombie Flesh Eaters. I have vague recollections of watching this 20 years ago after a lot of beer but don't remember any details. I see it appear highly on every zombie list and as I'm now quite the Fulci fan it just had to be done.

The Demons 1 & 2 Steel Case was half price so I could hardly say no and as I'm away for a little while with only a DVD player I grabbed the Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things / Dead of Night (Deathdream) double pack if I get 5 minutes to myself.... doesn't everyone pack a zombie grind-house double bill for their holiday?

I've not checked any reviews, and I don't, but should I expect anything good from Abe Linc, Zombies of Mass D, or Bloodstorm?


High School of the Dead (Gakuen Mokushiroku Haisukūru obu za Deddo) - review

2010 (Japan)

Contains mild spoilers.

Now I like a good animated film, I like a good Japanese video game and I love zombies so this should be right up my street, and for the most part it really, really is. It's Z-day 1 and trouble has reached the gates of a typical Japanese High School. Troubled teen Takashi Komuro (voiced in English by Leraldo Anzaldua) acutely aware of the trouble everyone is in, pulls his ex girlfriend Rei Miyamoto (Jessica Boone) out of class moments before all hell breaks and the school is plunged into the full on zombie spiral of carnage and death. As they attempt to escape the school they team up with three other mismatched high school kids and the enormously breasted school doctor and embark on a highly stylish, highly personal zombie survival story across Tokyo, full of pace, action and teenage angst.

Now you may be wondering why I made reference to the doctors breast size, and I wouldn't normally think twice to but with HOTD it's important. I'd been forewarned of something called fan service and I think we need to discuss it up front. For those that don't know (I didn't), fan service is how it sounds; servicing the fan by intentionally adding superfluous shots and sequences specifically included for the target audience. Sounds OK so far, but, and here it is, common within anime and manga, and specifically in HOTD, this audience I can only assume are hormone bursting, immature heterosexual fifteen year old boys and the fan service we soon discover, consists of constant gratuitous and totally unnecessary crotch shots, bouncy boob cams, inappropriate outfits that leave little to the imagination, and constant innuendo and suggestion. I'll be honest I wasn't really prepared and though it is a little amusing I generally found it all a bit weird and off putting. It also does also seem to steadily get worse, starting with occasional unusual camera angles before building up to two particularly over the top episodes that don't even try to hide their full on pervie intentions. It does temper down again somewhat after these though, and by the end of the series I'd even say, strangely, I'd kind of got used to it all. Whilst I wouldn't argue it actually benefits the show in-any-way-what-so-ever, and can certainly distract from what's going on, I can't argue that it doesn't add something to the unique adolescent Japanese charm and feel on show.

Each episode is short, compact and individually themed, and book-ended with its own quirky upbeat custom pop song performed by Maon Kurosaki with a short scene after that sets things up for the following episode. It's all very well paced and you'll find yourself saying just one more all the way through to the final twelfth episode before you know it. Director Tetsuro Araki, who I understand has quite the accomplished anime pedigree really does have an eye for the artistic with some beautiful poignant sequences interspersing the action and tension and a great score not afraid to mix and match. It really is great animation with lively action sequences, slower more aesthetic panning shots and stop-start all used with impeccable precision.

It also has a very post modern feel too. Set in modern day the students are well versed with zombie mythology and the popular zombie zeitgeist. They know all the right language with which to frame the apocalypse and understand the threat they face as the grown-up all around get themselves killed either through inaction or denial. They 'get' they're dead and not diseased, they know not to get bitten and there's no dilly dallying when it comes to calling them by the z word. It's refreshing and youthful and I wish more films would copy the approach

The gang are very much the  'breakfast club' too; before the end of the world brought them together they were all living different lives in different cliques. HOTD, like many good zombie survival stories understands the need to throw a disparate group together, ramp up the heat and see what stews; add the adolescent coming of age sub theme and one thing I will say the character development and interaction is never dull.

The zombies themselves are the modern Romero stylised sort shambling and dumb though when they need to be and nasty and intimidating. Taking it a little further though and adding a bit to the mix we learn that whilst they have an insatiable hunger for flesh and acute hearing, they're blind with dead senses so if you're really quiet you can sneak past and even brush up against them. In truth they don't really totally stick to this all the way through but it's interesting to note.

Constantly entertaining, stylish and fun HOTD is fresh and enthralling from its first episode to its last. Thematically rich and not afraid to play with some quite dark post apocalyptic topics it's almost as good as it gets for the survival style zombie story. The characters are quirky, their relationships surprisingly deep at times and the English dub is bright, strong and well edited to make it all more relevant for the Western audience.

The story and action is relentless, it's surprisingly gory and violent when it needs to be, and it's full of imagination and intelligence. Maybe if I was going through puberty again it would have been the perfect zombie survival; but unfortunately that was a long time ago, so I'll have to knock a couple off, 8/10.

Unfortunately since buying this Blu-ray Manga have released a new version complete with an additional episode called OVA Drifters of the Dead which is highly acclaimed. It's only on DVD and isn't dubbed but it would be nice to have seen it all. At some point I'll try and upgrade and post my thoughts. WTD


Monday, 15 July 2013

Dead & Buried - review

1981 (USA)

Contains mild spoilers.

Now I've accused many zombie films of late of being a bit boring, safe and derivative (looking at you Zombie Apocalypse) and one thing I will say up front is Dead & Buried is certainly none these things. Directed by Gary Sherman and co-written by Ronald Shusett and Dan O'Bannon (who wrote Alien and in 1985 wrote and directed The Return of the Living Dead), Dead & Buried is original, tense, stylish and a genuine attempt at a plot heavy horror film; oh, and it kind of has zombies in. Actually, this isn't right and there's no kind of about it, they are zombies and there's a lot of them. it's just that what they've done with them isn't really what we've come to expect and certainly bears no resemblance to the fashionable Romero template of the time or anything that ever came later.

Dan Gillis (James Farentino) is sheriff of the postage-stamp size New England coastal town of Potter's Bluff where everyone knows each other and nothing ever happens. Married to Janet Gillis (Melody Anderson) one of the town's school teachers, his sedate peaceful life comes to an abrupt halt when he is called on to investigate a series of brutal and suspicious deaths befalling anyone unlucky enough to be paying the town a visit.

Unbeknown to the sheriff we know that the cause of these increasingly brutal and sadistic slaughters is actually the happy go lucky men and women of the town. When not going about their day to day chores and life they've taken it upon themselves to corner, trick and mutilate anyone travelling through, filming and photographing it all for sadistic posterity.

It's dark, brooding and full of suspense. You never feel you know what's going on or who is involved and you fully empathise with Dan as his investigations and suspicions become increasingly paranoid and fanciful. As he falls deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole we, like him, learn about black magic, voodoo and reanimation and start to share the same predictions and concerns as to where this all might be going.

The undead in Dead & Buried, while quintessentially the White Zombie voodoo worker soulless slaves, are a little more convoluted. Yes they have a master who has found a way to reanimate them, but to rid them of their soul, it's intimated, he's had to remove their hearts. As said, there's no instinctual drives or hunger for flesh and they're entirely at the will of their master, yet they're still not shambling or mindless automatons of previous voodoo films; though actually they kind of are and I'll explain. While they've been wiped clean of their memories and soul their master has somehow found a way to get them to perfectly imitate their previous selves and blend in unnoticed. It's almost as if he's found a way to give them access to their memories without actually letting them become the person with those memories. It's all a bit like they're possessed by aliens or parasites, or hypnotised, except here they're definitely dead and zombie. Like I said, I don't think zombies have ever been fully defined like this before; it's the traditional voodoo zombie tall drink with an extra large sci-fi wedge to the side.

Oh, and while I don't want to give it all a way, and this is a bit of a spoiler, I'll add he's also master of make-up and cosmetic recovery the like of which I've never seen, with the ability to hide the most heinous wounds or damage perfectly. All of this is a bit over engineered and you do come a way from the film rubbing your chin, but it mostly holds together and it does help retain the films generally cohesive single narrative structure.

The death scenes in Dead & Buried are brutal and graphic and earned it the 'video nasty' moniker and ban in the UK back in the early 80's. They in many ways remind me, in style, of the deaths in Fulci's films with that over-staged feel though they're never quite as long or extreme. Like all effects of the time when put up against today's they look quite tame and clearly artificial but they are sadistic and imaginative enough to evoke a feeling of unease. Shocks aren't really what the film is about though and it's the atmosphere, tension and confusion that really drives the fear.

This is a horror film first and foremost with the possessed townsfolk coming across more Invasion of the Body Snatchers than Night of the Living Dead, but dead and reanimated they are, so it holds a rightful place on a zombie blog. It is also, if I'm honest, all a bit too convoluted with an ending that tries a little too hard to tie up all the ambiguous narrative threads, leaving as many questions as it answers. Still, in a medium and genre filled with deliberate ambiguity to avoid making these kind of mistakes, and over simplified narrative it was refreshing to watch something so plot heavy that didn't hold back.

Dead & Buried is a fascinating film genuinely offering something different. I thought the narrative was highly original and strong, I though the characters were interesting and the direction oozed atmosphere and suspense from start to finish. With a first rate cast, including Jack Albertson in his last film role, as the coroner/ mortician William G. Dobbs, and many other well known faces with the great acting all round it was a nice surprise, 8/10


Friday, 12 July 2013

Daddy, I'm a Zombie (Papá, soy una zombi) - review

2011 (Spain)

2012 Lionsgate HomeEnt DVD R(2) - watched on Netflix

Contains mild spoilers.

When my ever supportive eight year old told me she'd found a zombie film on Netflix and could we watch it together I was at first a little alarmed. I needn't have been though, as the film in question turned out to be the totally family friendly animated Daddy I'm a Zombie or in it's original Spanish Papá, soy una zombi. Never one to disappoint my family I could hardly say no so we dived in.

Daddy, I'm a zombie, is a low budget animated Burton want-to-be, fantastical adventure story about a little girl dealing with the trials and tribulations that come along with adolescence. 13 year old Dixie (voiced in English by Kimberely Wharton) lives above a mortuary with her divorced Dad. She wears black clothes, listens to death metal, has no friends and a crush on an unobtainable boy, and is full of teenage angst and depression that of course no one else could possibly understand. This film might have the word zombie in the title but let's be clear, this is a teen-flick and wasn't made for 39 year old grey haired gits like yours truly.

Dixie reluctantly agrees to go to the local fair with her Dad and is tricked by some mean girls from school to go into the ghost/fun house where she sees her supposed best friend making out (I believe is the term) said  boy of her dreams. Running away distraught and in tears she screams out that she wishes she was dead and it unfortunately comes true.

She wakes up in a cemetery face to face with Isis (Ratana) an Egyptian mummy who explains she's in the land of the dead and she, like her is now a zombie. This land of the dead is a place outside space and time where souls of the departed rise up as sentient undead if they left unfinished business when they died. There is however, conveniently, a way out. Isis explains that there's a magical item known as the Azoth that can open a portal back to the land of the living and in the forest there lives a crazy old man called Vitriol who knows just how to do it.

Luckily for Dixie, she is the chosen one and has the Azoth on her. Unluckily, outside the protection of the cemetery the land is ruled by evil zombie queen Nebulosa who has captured all the other zombies, sucked out their souls and is preparing them as an undead army to invade the living world once she gets her grubby little mitts on the Azoth. So begins a journey of friendship to save the world, or something like that with scrapes, adventure, fallings out and redemption.

Like I said, this is fantasy and adventure and it doesn't matter that mummies are zombies or that that Nebulosa's goon hit men are minotaurs. It's a children's story and takes full advantage of the fact that things don't have to strictly speaking make much sense. It's free and bit silly but all in a good way. Isis tells Dixie that zombie food is bugs and worms and Dixie moans she's a decaying corpse and looks terrible but there's no real rotting flesh, blood or gore. It's all been tamed and all what we expect in a children's family cartoon, and it's ok. Still, it's not all unicorns and roses and there are moments where it lets itself get a little dark and tense, and some of the themes and ideas are definitely aimed at the slightly older children. It also manages a few winks and nods to it's horror heritage and I swear I saw the silhouette of a brain at one point which is nice.

Now I'm not an animation expert but even I can tell it's no Disney or Pixar, more that computery cheap animation you see on Saturday morning television. All the colours and lines are sharp and saturated and panning is always done from a fixed point. It's all a bit cheap and garish but it's adequate for what it is and my kids didn't seem to mind. The English voices are great and story for all over the place fantastical nature is actually pretty cohesive and it paces along quite nicely. I'm not sure why it's called what it is though, as at no point is Dixie a zombie in the real world nor does she ever come out, so to speak to her dad.

Daddy, I'm a Zombie is a coming of age flick taking advantage of the current mainstream obsession with all things Z. It's a well intentioned morality tale about learning to be more positive, trusting and nice to others and as said while clearly not targeted in my direction I still enjoyed it for what it was. It's bright, quirky, a little deviant (always a good thing in my book) with some imaginative ideas and a reasonably strong story. I'm really not sure how to score this one though. I'd probably give it something like a 5 and when asked my daughter gave it a 10, so we'll meet somewhere in the middle, 7/10.


Thursday, 11 July 2013

DeadHeads - review

2011 (USA)

Contains mild spoilers.

Five minutes in you'll either know you're going to enjoy the quirky, dumb humour of DeadHeads or that it just isn't for you. Taking its lead from a long succession of stupid over the top dark zombie comedies such as The Return of the Living Dead, Undead and even to an extent Dead or Alive, it's full of cliché with constant nods both blatant and subtle, to heritage horror and cult favourites.

Ridiculous stories, over the top performances, cliché characters and gratuitous blood and gore are all zombie 'b' movie staples and I'm a firm believer that the reasons we see so many films copying this template is that it's probably just easier and safer with a limited budget. DeadHeads doesn't quite follow the formula though; for all the absurdity of the premise, which we'll get onto shortly, the stupid banter and constant barrage of ridiculous ideas and knob jokes, writers/directors Brett Pierce and Drew T. Pierce never let the film turn into a full on farce. Instead if anything, by maintaining a strong cohesive narrative and never quite throwing the towel in and going stupid stupid, they've produced something that in many ways is quite mainstream.

At heart DeadHeads is a buddy road movie/rom-com but it all starts very much zombie dark comedy. Mike Kellerman (Michael McKiddy) wakes confused and disorientated attached to medical tubes. With no memory how he got there he pulls himself free and falls out into the living dead nightmare. Frantic, desperate and afraid he stumbles into the sentient zombie Brent Guthrie (Ross Kidder) who is overjoyed to not only find someone else who isn't a shambling brainless corpse but is also the same as him. From the start we know we're not to take this all too seriously. It's ground zero and a Night of the Living Dead parody but it's fun, quirky with constant throwaway one liners and a film to relax back to and switch off higher brain functions.

Taking Cheese (Markus Taylor) a big dumb zombie that comes over as a cross between Nick Frost as he was at the end of Shaun of the Dead and Sloth from the Goonies, as a goofy companion for the ride they fortuitously manage to hitch a lift from Cliff (Harry Burkey) a retired Vietnam veteran. Cliff is driving across the country to scatter his late wife's ashes and takes to our buddies helping them break the quarantine and make it from location to location pursued by seasoned zombie slayer Thomas Jeremiah (Thomas Galasso), the lone survivor from the now quelled outbreak, and the chuckle brother duo McDinkle and Gillman who represent 'the company'.

It's light, it's quirky and it's fun with each scene filled with good one-liners and sharp witty banter between complimenting characters. It's a crazy story, three zombies travelling across America to be reunited with a girlfriend that's probably forgotten him and if she hasn't, would probably have grave misgivings about dating a zombie but it knows it. Even self referential at times the narrative stays on point, the characters and their relationships develop and it never loses the focus that it's first and foremost a character film. 

So Mike and Brent are medical specimens and the result of a secret military project. They've been reanimated for study and something has happened causing the non-sentient, non-autonomous traditional flesh eating zombies to break loose and cause a bit of trouble for the small local community unlucky enough to be near the lab. It's never really explained and I guess it doesn't really matter. The zombies are zombies, they're shuffling Romero parodies, everything we'd expect and quickly disposed of. It's Mike and Brent that are interesting. They're dead and reanimated but they're still very much who they were. They have memories, full control of their faculties and even though, as Brent proves, they're flesh eaters, they have the ability to ignore their urge and instead feast on beer, burgers, pop-corn and marijuana. I also noticed that unlike the white cloudy eyes of their brainless brethren their's are normal with colour. They also seem to feel the discomfort of injury, if not the ongoing pain and they definitely share the same weakness to extreme brain trauma. I'm really reading too much into this all though and none of it really matters. It is what is and it all works as long as you let it.

I don't know, maybe I just like Big Dumb Fun (tm), but I really quite enjoyed DeadHeads. The banter between the characters was believable, never strained and at times emotive, the acting was excellent and it got quite a few smiles and laughs. The pacing was good with the old plot switcheroo of zombies being the good guys and military/government the bad driving the narrative, and it had some memorable scenes. It was as cohesive and compelling as you'd want from a popcorn flick. It does go a bit schmaltzy rom-com towards the end, though I think this was intentional and worked for me, and the jokes are often stupid, obvious or throwaway but taken for what it is it's all quite fun. As McDinkle would say, I don't know why everyone's being such a whiny bitch about it, 7/10.


Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Zombie Apocalypse - review

2011 (UK / USA)

Contains mild spoilers.

Well somebody got the big bumper book of derivative zombie tropes for their birthday didn't they? A low budget Syfy/The Asylum co production Zombie Apocalypse is a no messing about, as straightforward as you can get zombie survival story, interweaving several groups of desperate men and woman as they overcome hordes of the undead to reach a fabled nirvana that they believe to be free from threat. It sounds great on paper; there's no tricks or gimmicks just good old fashioned survivors vs zombies, and it's a welcome sight, but there's a problem. In playing it so safe, the result is probably the most derivative, bland collection of ideas I've yet seen, not helped with having mediocre characters, bad acting and amateurish effects and production.

In an opening sequence ripped straight from Dawn of the Dead 2004, we're introduced to the world. We learn that virus VM2 has conquered the globe. Eventually reaching US soil it has eliminated 90% of the population and to combat this a desperate military has thrown everything at it, including EMP orbital nukes to disable the countries electronics. Now I'm no expert but wouldn't disabling  all electrics, i.e. cars, communications, missile guidance systems kind of hinder those left alive and kind of give mindless zombie flesh eaters a bit of a boost? Still it's a handy plot tool to explain the lack of technological solutions used in the film...

Anyhow, out of this post apocalyptic graveyard we meet our main three survivors. Ramona (Taryn Manning), Billie (Eddie Steeples), and Kevin (Gerald Webb) who explain in a conversation very much engineered to fill us the viewer in, that they have been holed up in a nearby safe house for six months, but have had to leave to find food and hopefully some answers. Totally unprepared (as if this is their first zombie encounter), they get attacked and mostly saved by a second more worldly wise gang consisting of Henry (Ving Rhames), Julian (Johnny Pacar), Cassie (Lesley-Ann Brandt), and Mack (Gary Weeks). This group then proceeds to inform them, handily for us viewers again, on all the finer details of the threat they're facing, how to combat them and where they ought to be heading.

The group then journeys from one derivative location another, each time encountering and fighting the same old zombie horde (literally, as I swear I saw the same extras time and again) before being pushed on. And that's the plot in a nut shell. Often survival stories attain greatness not from the story or backdrop though but, from the intensity of their relationship and their interactions. I'll say this, if there is any depth or complexity to these guys they've managed to hide it well. I think we learn Cassie is married and thinks her husband might still be alive and, err, well, I think that covers it. They're the most derivative, shallow and unexciting bunch you're ever likely to encounter. Conversation is tedious and obvious and I honestly think if I'd have ended up with these guys I'd have ended up screaming all the time. On paper it's not a bad bunch of actors too but their screen rapport whether it's entirely the banal script and dialogue just never gets interesting or exciting.

I'll commend Zombie Apocalypse for not mucking about though as our undead friends make an early appearance and the zombie vs. survivors action sequences make up a good deal of the film.  For all the action though, it's all still a bit safe and unassuming and there's never any real flare for the dramatic. With zombies streaming in, time and again on mass and often in tight claustrophobic environments you never feel there's any real danger and there's certainly very little tension. Survivors get swarmed but seem to have time to push, chop and shoot and when they do get caught out it ends up feeling very orchestrated like it was time for that particular character to die.

Like everything else the zombies aren't great if I'm honest. Even putting aside the poor effects which varies from obvious masks and self applied make-up the behaviour and style of the zombies seems to be a right mish-mash of genres and ideas without any continuity or uniformity. They try to explain it all in character dialogue, how there are older Romero style shamblers, and newer more sprightly Danny Boyle runners,  but it just comes across as a mess and the feeling Nick Lyon just said 'move like a zombie' and each extra make it up for themselves. At some point though they obviously felt the need to add something to spice it all up and included first a fight with a big zombie brute/crap RE Executioner copy that bounced about comically then later something from Kinectimals but animated back in the 70s. Proving you can't please all people all of the time too, and despite me picking up that I liked this film for its lack of gimmicks I actually enjoyed both these scenes too much, or maybe they just woke me up. I'll quickly mention the CGI too. It's overdone, always obvious and really very bad.

I didn't expect much going in to Zombie Apocalypse and despite me tearing it apart I actually liked it more than I thought I would. I thought it would be really crap and in truth it's merely a bit rubbish. Totally derivative and stale, I can't really recommend it, 4/10.