Saturday, 31 August 2013

Tombs of the Blind Dead - review

1971 (Spain/Portugal)

Contains spoilers.
Betty Turner (Lone Fleming) has had a bad week. Her best friend and old school roommate with benefits is murdered and mutilated, her new male friend without benefits gets his arm chopped off and dies in her arms, she's chased and harried for miles by an army of immortal medieval undead horse riding knights who want to drink her blood inadvertently bringing the whole zombie gang with her to the local town where they'll probably start their brutal slaughter and oppression of the whole planet, and if she does eventually get to return to her mannequin business, she'll find that burnt to the ground too. As I said, bad week; oh, and I didn't even mention she was raped.

Tombs of the Blind Dead or Revenge from Planet Ape, yeah seriously as distributors tried to spin it to a US audience that a) seemed to really like monkey apocalypses and b) they thought were really quite gullible, is a 1971 Spanish horror from esteemed director Amando de Ossorio and the first of four films all focused on the same blind dead knights, and it's rather good. Virginia (María Elena Arpón) bumps into her old roommate Betty, introducing her to her friend Roger Whelan (César Burner) who suggests they all take a trip out the city get some fine county air for a day or two. Things turn sour on the train ride though as Roger's amorous and reciprocated moves towards Betty unnerves and upsets Virginia. She concludes that as two's company and three's a crowd, the best thing to do, obviously, is throw herself from the moving train and to take up residence at the local ruined medieval town and graveyard of Berzano.

It might sound a bit ridiculous when put like this, but it never comes across as such. Victoria, like all the characters are successfully presented as complex multifaceted individuals with depth and back story, and her actions leading her to spend a night in the dilapidated spooky abandoned fort, whilst from the comfort of the sofa seem ill-advised, does manage to avoid appearing unduly convenient or contrived. It's this ability to present the far fetched and implausible as coherent and authentic that elevates Tombs of the Blind Dead above other low budget hammy horror films of the time. Yes, the pacing is slow, the dialogue thick and the makeup and effects a tad weak if we're honest, but the atmosphere is constantly brooding and the narrative always interesting.

Are they zombies though? De Ossorio didn't think so going so far as objecting to the use of the word. He saw them more like mummies with intelligent malevolence rather than shambling reanimates without reason or sense. I personally think there's enough room to manoeuvre; yes they're skeletal and yes I recently said reanimated skeletons like those in Jason and the Argonauts, didn't really count, but these guys aren't magical boney puppets controlled by the will of another, they're reanimated long dead corpses, reacting and moving independently. Heck it's dangerous ground I know; one could argue that zombies originated as the puppets of their voodoo master and I'll have to write some thoughts down on zombies and control at some point. Anyhoo...

There were these knights, you see, that six hundred odd years ago returned from the East with treasure, a new found interest in the occult and witchcraft and the whimsical notion that sacrificing virgins and drinking their blood could give them immortality. The powers that be didn't think much to any of this so they captured and executed them, leaving their bodies hanging from trees to dissuade others from thinking it was a good idea. The story goes that whilst dangling some crows took a particular interest in their eyes hence the idea of immortal blind dead knights and the tagline/original-quirk for the franchise. Unlike Romero and Fulci, de Ossorio provides a clear origin-story and ok it's far fetched and sacrificing virgins is by today's standards all a bit cliché and silly, but yet again it all manages to come across authentic and plausible. 

So are they zombies? Well they're definitely dead and reanimated and they still like the taste of fresh blood. Ok, they can ride horses, but they were trained riders and even Romero isn't against letting that bit of residual muscle memory remain as seen in Survival of the Dead. We also have undead Virginia to think of too, who's up and about because she's been bitten. I understand de Ossorio decided not to repeat this more western Romero style zombiefication of victims in later films but he did here and while there's certainly a bit of zompire ambiguity with her going for the neck and blood I do think it's all leaning quite hard towards the Z as she shuffles about arms out front.

Tombs of the Blind Dead is a brooding, moody intelligent horror full of 70's continental European flair, surrealism and eccentricity. Complex characters are allowed to take centre stage in an intelligent creepy and extremely atmospheric horror film that oozes macrabre style and atmosphere. It also contains several, even by today's standards, quite shocking and disturbing scenes without ever being overly exploitative. With constant great scene composition and the ambition to mix it all up with slow-mo de Ossorio has crafted a brilliant undead film that really stands the test of time. As if things can't get any better it's also all accompanied by a hauntingly good score. There really is very little to complain about and I'd recommend this without hesitation, 8/10.

I managed to get my grubby mitts on the Blue Underground coffin box collectors edition and the quality of the transfer is nigh on perfect and if anything might actually be slightly too good showing the low budget 70's effects and animatronics up somewhat. With both the original Spanish with excellent English subtitles and English Dub version on the disc this is the version to get.


Friday, 30 August 2013

Region Free Goody Bag - blog

Now I've acquired a region free DVD player I've finally been able to help myself to all manner of gubbins previously off limits.

First up is Amando de Ossorio's Blind Dead Collection which came in a nifty coffin box. I've watched most of Tombs of the Blind Dead and review will be up soon and I don't want to spoil it, but I will say I'm quite taken.

I've reviewed Attack Girls' Swim Team vs. The Undead, one of the three films included with NiZombie and really wasn't enamoured with either the b-movie action or juvenile eroticism; surely the other two can't be worse? We'll find out soon.

The others were mainly picked up because they were all cheap and I happened to be looking at them whilst bored and on amazon (a bad combination) and I'm not expecting much if I'm honest. Still, it keeps me off the streets.


Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Zombie Lake - review

1981 (France/Spain)

Contains spoilers.

Director Jean Rollin thought Zombie Lake so bad he tried to hide his role in it and used the pseudonym J.A. Laser, and he ought to know. And I actually didn't mind the whole thing for thirty odd minutes or so. The gratuitous and totally unnecessary exploitative ten minute (well it felt that long) naked skinny dip was at least pleasing to the eye, the first couple of zombie deaths were amusing and original, and the picture of a small rural French town physically and psychologically recovering from the occupation and what they had to do to resist was taking shape. Oh, I'm not for one minute going to say what I was watching was good. The acting was wooden, the narrative pedestrian and the zombies bizarre and unconvincing with appalling make-up and the death of the second victim resembled more of a zombie slobber than a gore but it had a certain European low budget je ne sais quoi. The problem with Zombie Lake though is that this was as good as it was going to get.

With the other hour or so watched I can frankly say I honestly don't know what Rollins who I understand only arrived on set a fortnight before filming, the writers and the crew were thinking when they put this drivel together, but I wished they hadn't.

There's a dark secret to the so called Lake of the Damned town mayor (Howard Vernon) tells reporter Katya (Marcia Sharif) looking for the inside scoop on the bizarre tale of ghosts and the spate of recent disappearances. The dark secret we learn through a convenient if not entirely convincing flashback, was an ambush, ten years earlier by the local resistance on a back peddling patrol of Nazis, with their bodies thrown in the water. For an oppressed persecuted nation I'd hardly call it a dark secret and more a reason to hold a yearly festival; but anyway, this isn't the whole story. We also learn that one of the soldiers (Pierre-Marie Escourrou) was in love with local girl (Nadine Pascal), who nine months earlier had thanked him for saving her from a mortar strike by taking her kit off in the hay barn and letting him impregnate her with a daughter he briefly gets to learn of before being shot.

Ok and I hear you. What does this all have to do with zombies coming out of the water at night to prey on the towns ample more attractive lady folk? Well nothing. But... and this exemplifies Zombie Lake for the incompetent, incoherent, farcical, convoluted nonsense that it is, a few centuries before all this, and apparently this wasn't important to know until near the end, and in fact I get the feeling no one involved in the writing had any inkling either, the 'Damned Lake of the Damned' was actually the site of black mass, sacrifice and all manner of satanic jiggery-pokery and souls thrown into the water were condemned to eternal damnation or something or other. The undead soldiers you see, are up and at 'em because of the combination of all these things.

I don't care to be honest. It's all nonsense and it doesn't come together in any reasonably coherent fashion. The zombies are rubbish, the acting is poor, the music sounds like someone with extreme epilepsy had been put in front of a glockenspiel and they'd turned the strobe lights up to 11, the pacing is all over the place and the story as mentioned is a babbling brew of bunkum and baloney. I understand Rollin isn't adverse to a little titilation but the constant nudity on show here is feeble, contrived and unnecessarily gratuitous. Multiple times the use of the lake is exploited with excessively objectifying up-facing underwater shots concentrated a little too much on the girls crotches with their heads not visible above the surface to be comfortable or ever erotic. I really don't know what Rollin was aiming for as the narrative ends up being an incomprehensible horror, thriller, love story all wrapped up as a European-art house, soft porn Benny Hill style, grind-house/exploitation mess. It never at any time aludes to a singular identity and switches its narrative and presentation style frequently with no reason or consistency and its portrayal of the zombie as the protaganist is no better.

The first thing I took from Rollin's interpretation of the now reasonably established zombie, was the fact they were incredible-hulk comic-book coloured green. Ok, they'd been under the lake for ten years so it could be algae or something but they weren't exactly fetid oozing bloated pustules of slime. There is an attempt to present some of the background undead as a bit dirty and fetid but on more than one occasion, either the love-forlorn main hero-zombie or the zombie nazi commandant made an appearance with clean well tended hair, a dry well pressed uniform and spray on green tan that didn't completely cover all his wrists or neck. The second thing was what a large incoherent mish-mash of ideas were being played around with. From the first zombie emerging from the watery grave to successfully skulk, stalk and take down his prey, to the esoteric uncomfortable zombie-daddy daughter love pact resulting in zombie on zombie wrestlemania, to the random, brazen full-on sieges of the town, there's never any convincing or cohesive reasons for why any of it happening. They're mindless dead thirsting for flesh and blood, they're loving and protective, they're taking order off their old leader, they're sharing a bucket of blood, passing a bowl knowingly between themselves, they're a bit of this, a bit of that and a right bloody cacophany of ideas from people who didn't know what they were doing.

I could honestly go on criticising Zombie Lake all night, really I could. A real stinker of a film with little to no redeeming quality I'll probably only remember it for the out of place nudity and terrible green make-up. The Redemption Blu-ray is clean and crisp though, if the sound is a tad muffled and muted at times, and presents all Rollin's daftness as well anyone would want. Whether anyone would want it though is another question, 2/10.


Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Evil Dead II - review

1987 (USA)

Contains mild spoilers.

I'm going to start by extolling the virtues of this film. It's manic, hilarious and gratuitously over the top; a none-stop entertainment thrill-ride with a virtuoso slap-stick acting performance from Bruce Campbell, and it oozes style and vision at every turn. Honestly it's probably the best horror/comedy ever made and if you don't like it there's something wrong with you. Yes, I quite like this film.

Ok it's basically a rehash of the first, with a weak attempt at a recap, Ok Ash is more the crazed manic hero than the cowardly oddball reluctant survivor, and Ok the effects are still hilariously bad compared to the hyper-realistic stuff we're now used to, but honestly none of this matters a jot. Also is it really a zombie film? Probably not but I'll go into this in a bit and I still think has a place on a blog such as this.

Sam Raimi is still a genius. I loved The Evil Dead declaring it probably as good as it gets horror. Stylish, ambitious, an eye for action and suspense, and perfectly paced. Always on the edge of turning into a full on over the top farce, it trod quite the precarious line. Gratuitous gore, shocking sequences and hammy dialogue were all present but I always felt it understood restraint; knew when to pull back, and more or less, it stuck to a horror narrative. With Evil Dead II Raimi and Campbell haven't showed such restraint, fully embracing the slapstick humour and ridulous nature that was present in the first, but never fully allowed to flourish or take centre stage. Bruce Campbell was always a bit of a clown exaggerating his actions and behaviour but here not only is he allowed to throw himself about with as much gusto and abandon as he can, he has a script and director that go out of their way to positively encourage his antics at every opportunity and it all comes together flawlessly.

From probably the best chase sequence ever put on film to the ludicrous 14th Century climax the pacing is relentless and like its predecessor the cinematic aesthetic ambitious and audacious. This is a film with a true identity, understanding what it is, what it's trying to do and executing it all with breathtaking ease and simplicity. Nothing ever feels forced, action and dialogue flow and each increasingly over-the-top sequence merges into the next with ease and comfort. There's also no trying to push an ensemble cast, who do a sterling job of not being totally eclipsed by Campbell, as anything other than shallow parodies there to meet unfortunate ends. It's brilliant, cohesive and authentic.

Evil Dead II like its predecessor is a possession film which turns people into zombie like monstrosities. It's not a clear cut die, reanimate sort of story and I don't think you could ever call them zombies per se. The Evil Darkness unleashed by reading from the Book of the Dead takes peoples souls and possession of their bodies, and whether they're dead or not is irrelevant. They're puppets to be controlled and thrown about; they can not only shrug off being shot, stabbed smashed, but severed heads can still taunt and mock and like in The Return of the Living Dead severed limbs scuttle about with a life of their own. There's no undead rabid drive for flesh or vacant soulless instinctual reanimation, these are bodies fully alive with the sentience and will of their possessor and bestowed the ability to levitate, reanimate and metamorphose into fantastical monsters. Zombies? Only really in that they're still active and possessed even after death, and the way to shut them up is the traditional, tried and tested brain mash.

Evil Dead II, is bloody good ride; a relentless farcical rush into the bizarre and twisted. A showcase for the brilliance of Bruce Campbell, Raimi and Co. took the over-top of the first, and put it front and centre creating a seminal horror/comedy that I can't praise enough. Brilliant, entertaining and stupid, 10/10.


Sunday, 25 August 2013

The Zombie Diaries - review

2006 (UK)

Contains mild spoilers.

The Zombies Diaries is a gritty suspenseful zombie survival drama. A UK low budget affair with the quirk of having its narrative split into three distinct first person shaky cam diaries in a kind of junior World War Z (the book not the film) way. It's an ambitious original zombie drama, presented pretty well clearly respectful of zombie cinematic tradition and all that comes with a small budget. It really does an awful lot right: the post-apocalyptic survival plot is cohesive and coherent, the characters are mostly authentic displaying the right amount of confusion, terror and irrationality and the zombies are good solid synchronised gut munchers. Unfortunately though it does have its fair share of problems, and if I'm honest they're mostly all self-inflicted.

Written, directed and produced by Kevin Gates and Michael Bartlett Zombie Diaries is an attempt to convey the terror and confusion of the zombie apocalypse through three distinct and personal first hand accounts and kind of get them to converge as a singular overarching narrative. Three different stories, settings and sets of characters are all united in being set in roughly the same part of the English countryside, and all are dealing with the fact virtually everyone is either dead or undead, the government and authority seems to have collapsed and food and water are diminishing rapidly. All three groups are also united in two other ways though. All three, have some doofus more interested in documenting their increasingly desperate and strained survival, and all three have their share of acting that unfortunately ranges from mere-average to awkwardly strained and poor.

While it makes a valiant attempt, especially earlier on of avoiding that common docudrama pit-fall of having the audience question why the camera is still rolling as the proverbial shit hits the pan, the further the film progresses the more it all starts to unravel. It's the problem with this style of film and while it's easy to provide an acceptable rational as the tension builds up it's definitely harder to get the audience to accept why it's still so important to carry on filming when people are scrambling for their lives or zombies have actually started gorging on your own insides, though by this point in the film Gates and Bartlett had obviously given up trying.

The zombies are surprisingly effective working just as well as a ghoulish abominations stumbled upon in the dark and designed to scare, and shuffling relentless Romero-esque sleep-walkers deserving of both pity and stress. The make-up is convincing and their presentation gritty, foul and unpretentious. They're well synchronised, which I always look for, and uniform but, and maybe it only bothered me, they're a bit too stationary for my liking. The undead of Zombie Diaries move with the sort of speed that if you saw one a hundred foot away across say, a farm courtyard you could realistically go for a shower, freshen up, change and have bite to eat before they'd pose any credible threat. I'm all for sticking to tradition but Romero's slow gait undead worked because they at least moved at a gentle stroll and I'm not condemning the film because of their lack of urgency, it's just I found myself thinking on more than one occasion, how could something so mind-numbingly pedestrian have successfully and with such expedience have wiped out most of humanity. Ok, I know the virus was supposed to have initially been air-born/water-born or something; an Asian bird flu pandemic, but it's further passed on with a good old fashioned zombie nosh and it's certainly implied this is now the primary danger.

What it does do well is present a solid post-apocalyptic survival plot with an ability to build pulse-racing and highly effective suspense and deliver on it. Gates and Bartlett certainly have a knack for setting up quite frightening sequences that genuinely made me jump. With some clever subtle monotone music accompanying you'd not think was there if you weren't looking for it there's plenty to commend. I was also fairly happy with most the survival gubbins, though I can understand why many felt it was all a bit too fillerish and mundane.

Zombie Diaries also isn't afraid to play around with quite dark ideas and imagery and the whole film takes quite the turn for the last fifteen or so minutes and I'm not wholly convinced it was the right idea though it did bring some unexpected conclusion to the film. All in all a good low budget zombie apocalypse film let down by some unconvincing acting and dialogue and unable to overcome the very limitation that acts as its main trick. A bit full of cliché and safe, seen it all before zombie action, and it rather plods along at times it's hard to really recommend. One probably for the zombie aficionado only, 5/10.


Friday, 23 August 2013

Attack Girls' Swim Team vs. The Undead (Undead Pool) - review

2007 (Japan)

Contains spoilers.

A swimming costume if you think about it, is quite the sensible choice when it comes to zombie dispatching apparel. Hold on, I've just done that gag...

What the hell did I just watch? No really, I don't know. I'm sure it wasn't a zombie film. It's the usual infected but not dead scenario, though I think they'd have liked to have them pulse-less if they'd had 'the', actually 'a', budget, especially as Sayaka (Yuria Hidaka), the mad scientist behind the chaos does throw away a comment that he has discovered the secret to resurrect the dead. I'm also sure exposing and exploiting leading swim-girl Aki (Sasa Handa's) titties as much as possible was obviously the film's main focus, driving the story and narrative. But beyond this I'm fucked if I know.

Aki is the new girl on the block and her first day at high school is also the penultimate days training session for the girls' swim team. It's also significantly the day a doctor and his assistant turn up with an immunisation to save teacher and student alike from an all new and dangerous virus that is on the loose.

The thing is, and this will be a little spoilerish, there's no airborne virus to be worried about and it's the injection itself that's the problem, turning all those that received it into crazed killing machines. Fotunately though, in the maelstrom of flesh gorging and severed limbs, Aki and the swim team realise that they alone are unaffected, something to do with chlorine, and they're going to fight back.

If you're interested at all in the rambling incoherent and frankly ludicrous story you're watching the wrong film. At heart it's a highly questionable soft-porn low budget horror; a cheap sexploitation movie with a fetish for the systematic and brutal rape of the dangerously close to age-inappropriate. As bad taste goes, it's right up there. Now I don't mind the contentious or the questionable and thoroughly admired Deadgirl for how it played around with a dark and extremely bad-taste narrative; the problem with Swim Team though, is it fumbles at it all like a thirteen year old boy. Shower scene? Why not two. Two girls alone? Let's have them clumbsily grope at each other in a drawn out scene that totally outstays its welcome, all the time hinting they might actually be long-lost biological sisters. Flashbacks to a secret past? Let's have her naked and abused in an appalling manner but add some stuff that makes it not only look like she's actually not too upset by it all but might even be encouraging or enjoying it.

As the film progresses so does this need to degrade and demean, culminating in a set of final sequences that epitomises all that is wrong with this films approach to titilation as Aki is rendered immobile then stripped naked and threatened with death and rape. I'm sure the baffling vagina-death-laser finale was supposed to symbolise a feminist triumph over male oppression and make everything better but actress Sasa Handa is still fully in shot, naked with the camera taking every advantage.

The story is contrived to enable the film to move from one soft-core but dark and exploitative scene to another, and another reason for Aki or Sayaka, or both to lose their top. The zombie outbreak is the contrivance to enable some weak blood splatter and gratuitous but cheap deaths. And the zombies are a mish-mash of styles with those in the background obeying either the Romero or Boyle trope and those at the forefront behaving more like deranged sadistic serial killers than primal rabid undead monsters. There's no rhyme or reason to any of it; it never makes sense and I don't really think there was ever any desire for it to do so.

It really looks like Director Koji Kawano had little to no budget with effects consistently as amateurish as the cinematography. Clearly artificial limbs are thrown into frame, blood is squirted from bottles just out of shot, and infected make-up is clearly dots of blue mascara or something. All this in itself isn't a game ender though. I'm all for a bit of a farce and with a bit more work and less of a need to work Aki's clothes off every given opportunity, I think there could have been a cheap but funny zom-com somewhere here.

Attack Girls' Swim Team vs the Undead is contrived nonsense with laughable special effects, amateurish film making and awkward acting. While some of the fighting and gore scenes are so bad I actually found myself enjoying them and I'd be lying if I said I didn't get some enjoyment from watching two unquestionably attractive ladies cavorting around in next to nothing, it's not enough to raise my opinion of the film. A cheap sleazy film truly deserving my first 1, but for introducing me to the concept of a vagina-death-laser I'll give it 2/10.


Thursday, 22 August 2013

Chanbara Beauty (OneChanbara) - review

2008 (Japan)

Contains mild spoilers.

A bikini if you think about it, is quite the sensible choice when it comes to zombie dispatching apparel. Plenty of freedom to move and react, it's easy to notice if you've inadvertently received a bite or scratch and it's got to reduce the laundry workload, what with all the blood and gore. Aya (Eri Otoguro) thinks so anyway and after watching her in action I'm not going to argue.

Aya is a zombie slayer extraordinaire. A samurai sword wielding slaughterhouse she slices and dices her way through the ravenous hordes with poise, surety and a breathtaking array of moves. As she leaps, spins and somersaults, passing her sword through the undead as if they were made of butter what is clear from the chaotic and action packed opening, is that director and co-writer Yohei Fukuda is not going to stray far from its video game roots. Make no mistake this is comic-book stuff, pure Japanese fantasy; her moves are exaggerated, her and her sword are magical and the undead are not going to follow any arbitrary established set of rules.

The world of man has fallen and zombies have taken over. It says so, right at the start. Aya and her cowardly, useless, comedic side-kick Katsuji (Tomohiro Waki) are searching for their sisters. Unlike Katsuji though, Aya isn't looking for a heart-warming reunion, she's looking to avenge the death of her father, which Saki (Chise Nakamura) was responsible. Aya and Katsuji are joined on their mission by the equally proficient zombie-slayer Reiko (Manami Hashimoto). Reiko is tight-leather wearing shot-gun wielding death dealer and another broken soul on a mission of revenge.

It's a thin and tacked on story in all honesty. An afterthought to move the narrative from one lavish action sequence to the next. It's well executed and competent enough and gives Aya and Reiko a bit of back-story and the film some semblance of depth but it's not something you're going to particularly care about or remember. What we're here for is the zombie fights.

The zombies are actually the deranged creation of Dr. Sugita (Tarô Suwa), the text-book evil villain and are a total hodgepodge of genre and type. Out on the streets the zombies shuffle and groan, when they fight they go all fast and gnarly, then there's the somersaulting weapon wielding ones and the myriad of zombie bosses each with their own super-weapon and quirky identity. It's pure video game nonsense but not without it's charms. Aya and Reiko go about dispatching them, as said, with video game speed and agility and a barrage of CG explosions and slices, as if we're actually watching star wars and they have a blaster and a light-sabre; Fukuda even has the audacity to include power-ups. It's explosive, well choreographed and actually quite fun, if a little repetitive at times.

It's hard to be too critical of Chanbara Beauty. It is what it is. An absurd, over the top comic book adventure with a director not scared to just go for it. I recently reviewed another sword fighting zombie film and they share the same lack of actual content, but at least Chanbara at least tries to keep a smile on our face. Also despite the emphasis on Aya's attire the film is never tacky or cheap with it, treating it more like fanciful cosplay than fan-service. Not a film I'd recommend to the purist but as cheap over the top video game thrill ride it wasn't too bad. I've also found out there's a sequel, Chanbara Beauty: Vortex though I don't know if this excites or scares me, 5/10.


Wednesday, 21 August 2013

I Am Legend - review

2007 (USA)

Contains spoilers.

I've never hidden the fact that reading Richard Matheson's 1954 zompire novel was heavily influential in my decision to look a little closer at zombie cinema and ultimately create this blog. As well as a bloody good post apocalyptic yarn I couldn't help notice that despite the fact the protagonists were clearly labelled as vampires their behaviour and the setting were remarkably modern zombie and their appearance was some ten years earlier than Romero. Before Matheson zombies were inexorably tied up with voodoo and magic; but his novel and The Last Man on Earth adaptation were the catalyst that allowed for the all new zombie of Night of the Living Dead. It was the green light so to speak to talk in terms of infection, virus, pandemic and move on from the Caribbean and the drums. The Last Man on Earth adaptation was almost perfect but let down by feeling the need to include a more action packed, but against the grain, gun-toting finale, which leads us nicely on to this film. Ultimately how one feels about the use of such artistic licence, will determine whether I Am Legend is a legitimate success, or an abomination that should never have seen the life of day.

This 2007 big budget block buster adaptation has A-list Will Smith as Robert Neville, this time a virologist and Lieutenant Colonel smack bang at ground zero. From the off it's clear we're in for a much more frantic and cinematically ambitious ride. Helicopters swoop, bridges explode and we get to witness society on the brink of collapse on a larger scale with more ferocity and finesse than ever before. It's dazzling and breathtaking but it's not the I Am Legend I'm used to.

The novel was written in 1954 and The Last Man on Earth ten years later. The mainstream cinema audience today are a far more demanding bunch with bigger and more grandiose expectations. I don't think cinematic ambition has altered, it's just now, with multi-million dollar budgets and modern technology, able to throw off limitations on a scale previously unimaginable. All director Francis Lawrence has done, is take the central premise of the story, the characters, the message and thrown 21st Century film making at it, and you know what, half an hour in I was thoroughly enjoying myself and starting to respect what I was watching. I Am Legend as it was had been done, successfully I might add, why not take a few liberties?

First thing first, and the most important in my mind. The infected of I Am Legend aren't dead. Obviously heavily taking influence from Boyle's 28 Days Later they catch the bug and go a bit loopy but they don't die and reanimate, they can't take death-shots to the body and they can't be called undead. As infected humans they also get to keep their abilities to run, climb and leap in quite the manner juxtaposed to the original vision, and as such the action sequences are noisier, more frantic and more explosive. 

There's two ways to look at these liberties / differences; yes on face value they're poles apart but underneath there is much that is similar. Lawrence could have made them out and out zombies or vampires but he didn't. They're ambiguous, a hybrid of sorts, there's still the nod to vampirism as they burn on contact with UV and have the insatiable thirst for blood, but there's still the pack mentality, the lack of will with the rabid instinctual behaviour associated with zombies, and like the book there's an attempt to ground it all in science. There's also the nod to the idea they're possibly regaining some higher brain function, as an evolved effect of a new species-state, and this is all linked to an appearance of sorts of Neville's old neighbour Ben Cortman with one particular darkseeker (what Neville calls them) showing particular curiosity.

The rest of the narrative changes are cosmetic in my eyes. Yes he starts with his dog instead of finding him but what is important, their relationships ability to convey Neville's loneliness is just as poignant. Yes Ruth becomes  Anna and Ethan, and scenes and sequences are all different but the books essence is still very much alive. As for the ending, and it's this which provokes the biggest backlash, yes it's at odds with the book. Neville doesn't become the 'legend' as the last of a now extinct race, this time he now becomes a 'legend' as the man who saved the human race and yes I know it misses the point, but I'm going to take it for what it is and happily say I can live with both.

As for the film. New York City adorned in post apocalyptic splendour is feast for the eyes. With fauna abound untamed, and smashings of urban decay and destruction Lawrence's vision is an unparalleled success. Long silences raise Will Smith's performance to one of greatness and help transmit an authentic picture of a man fighting the pain and despair of chronic isolation. I found his portrayal reminiscent of Tom Hanks in Castaway, full of paranoia, insanity and changeable mood, and dare I say just as convincing as Vincent Prices was. One small grievance is the CG of the darkseekers themselves, which I felt came across a little jarring and bit too artificial. It was the one let down of the film though wasn't quite enough to spoil the ride.

A breathtaking roller-coaster ride, lavishly presented and perfectly paced it's a stunning piece of cinema. Poignant, moving and in my opinion as legitimate a modern re-interpretation as you're likely to see. Will Smith is immense as Neville and captures the essence of his character with all his imperfections and Lawrence truly delivers a post apocalyptic cityscape that feels at once boundless and claustrophobic. If you want an authentic pound for pound vision, The Last Man on Earth is the closest thing and the one for you, if you want something new and shinier but with the same soul though, you won't be disappointed. A majestic film, alas, just not a zombie one, 8/10.


Tuesday, 20 August 2013

I Walked with a Zombie - review

1943 (USA)

2009 Manga Films DVD R(2) - Yo Anduve con un Zombie

Contains spoilers.

The modern zeitgeist associates the zombie with blood, carnage, gratuitous gore and world ending apocalypse, but we know that's not the whole story. Before Romero, Fulci and Matheson zombies were a gentler more sedate proposition; they were folklore and whisper from the dark new world, no less frightening and mysterious, just of a time someone didn't need to have their stomach ripped open and their intestines feasted upon to get the heart racing.

I Walked with a Zombie is a movie of such a time. A refreshing palette cleanser from all the horror and gore I've recently indulged in, director Jacques Tourneur's atmospheric vision of life in the Caribbean is a beautiful reminisce of when getting dressed for dinner, never arguing in front of a woman, and using the term mental case to describe someone with was the acceptable behaviour.

Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) is the narrator; young and wistful, she recalls the time she accepted a position as nurse for the wife of wealthy sugar cane plantation owner, Paul Holland (Tom Conway) on the (fictitious) island of  St. Sebastian and got more than she bargained for. Paul's wife, Jessica (Christine Gordon) you see, is a zombie. A severe illness left her without will; lifeless and unable to communicate. She's still very much alive so to speak, with a heart beat and pulse, but the wife Paul remembers is gone and only a shell remains.

Producer Val Lewton was given the studio-dictated title and together with writers Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray came up with a Jane Eyre / Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca inspired West Indies mystery/love story, capturing the essence of post-colonial island life; of social stratification and a people emerging from slavery. On the surface the Holland's island life seems idyllic and successful but Betsy soon starts seeing through the cracks; Paul believes his temperament dark and destructive and blames himself for Jessica's malaise, Paul's half-brother Wesley (James Ellison) is melancholic and envious, finding solace in the local rum and all the time their mother (Edith Barret) has removed herself from their affairs on a mission to persuade the natives to accept western medecine and doctrine.

The characters and their dynamic is the main drive for the movie. Behind the stiff upper lip is a web of pain, discomfort, accusation and secrets, and Tourneur handles all the complex suppressed emotions with great insight. It's obvious by the end why characters were motivated to do what they do, or say what they say but watching for the first time, the narrative unveils itself with great subtlety and intelligence. It's not all success though, for as much the characters are deep and believable Betsy and Paul's relationship feels forced, harried and quite unnecessary. If anything the film would have worked just as well, if not better, had her motivations not been so contrived. I'm guessing someone pointed out there had to be a love element and they shoehorned it in; a pity.

For all that the film is a complex character drama, it is still a horror, of sorts. Falling for Paul, and thinking it the best way to please him, Betsy turns to increasingly unorthodox methods in her search to find a cure for Jessica, and this eventually leads to a visit to the houmfort (voodoo hounfour  - voodoo temple/hut/clearing). The houmfout sequences are a delight; there's no parody or westernisation, just provocative music and ritual, and it's shocking and alien even to my modern eye. Her visit also sets in motion a darker tone, as the houmfort practitioners convinced Jessica is the walking dead set out to get her back for further study. First they send the towering Carre-Four (Kalfu), the Haitian vodou guardian/demon/Papa Legba Loa spirit of the houmfort to retrieve her then later the ritual leader uses an voodoo effigy to command her. Just as the early scenes were a journey into early 20th Century post-colonial life, the voodoo scenes really are a vision of life over the fence.

There is deliberate ambiguity to the zombie/s. Jessica appears the modern metaphor, yet the later scenes hint of more. Mrs. Rand confesses to placing the curse on Jessica as she partook in a voodoo ritual after discovering she was about to run away with her younger son though this is dismissed, and the effigy magic does appear genuine.  It's a heady mix of traditional voodoo hypnotised, with something far darker and we're not ever offered a final explanation. Carre-Four is a dark menacing figure who also feels entirely unnatural. In fact I'd kind of assumed he was a zombie before researching his role as the vodou crossroads and his actions shuffling across the Holland's estate, arms raised were certainly evocative of where zombies in the movies went. Ok, neither may actually be reanimated dead but it's heritage zombie and seeped in voodoo, magic and ambiguity and it doesn't matter.

The version reviewed is the Spanish release Yo Anduve con un Zombie and the only R(2) copy I could find on DVD. It's a passable albeit noisy black and white print though this was to be expected and doesn't detract from the experience. It has a a clear English audio track alongside a Spanish dub and has aged remarkably well. 

A brooding gothic drama of repression and lies, capturing a way of life now consigned to history this is a great film irrespective of its place in the zombie story. The fact it's also a zombie pioneer with an undoubted place in establishing the zombie movie template make it an important film for anyone interested in Z-history. With deligtful cinematrography and memorable intelligent narrative and pacing it's a black and white moody masterpiece that holds up extremely well. Recommended viewing, 7/10.


Sunday, 18 August 2013

Knight of the Dead - review

2013 (USA/UK)

Contains spoilers.

A group of mercenaries led by a priest retrieve the holy grail, rescue a damsel in distress annoying a local big-wig, stumble through a cave into the cursed valley of death, fight off a shed load of zombies and pretty much all die. I've watched some films light on story in my time but Mark Atkins' Knight of the Dead takes the proverbial fucking biscuit. One thing I know though, is narrative is often relinquished to cement an aesthetic, and slow pacing, lingering shots and moody artistic cinematography can still make quite an effective a movie. I'm guessing this was Atkins' aim; style over substance so to speak, the problem is though that this aesthetic isn't altogether that successful and doesn't really hide the film's many other issues.

Saying Knight of the Dead is bleak is putting it mildly. Set during the time of the black death in the 14th century, with a third of the whole worlds population dead or dying and pestilence rife, and filmed in the sparse barren welsh hills in winter and the rain, Atkins decided this wasn't enough and the film is entirely composed with an additional blue/grey/take-what-remaining-colour-there-is-out filter. The result isn't entirely unsuccessful and I certainly found a calm beauty in Atkins' gentle sweeping aerial pans across the rain-lashed heather but it's not a film that could ever be accused of being cheery.

Leuthar (Feth Greenwood) leads the rag-tag ensemble. A warrior-priest steadfast in his beliefs and in his mission to transport the relic he has been entrusted with. Calon (George McCluskey) is the local lord of the manor and all-round bad guy and bully who chases the group into the valley of hell. The actors do a reasonably adequate job of delivering dialogue as sparse and grey as the ambience, though in truth the drab and weary conversations act as mere filler between the well choreographed and reasonably authentic medieval combat sequences that I presume they were really signed up for. They eventually meet up with the only surviving refugee Badriyah (Vivien Vilela) who I can only presumed was added for an entirely inappropriate and nonsensical later scene, where she gets to take her top off, and the film tries make sense of the narrative by explaining the valley is actually Gehinnom (Gehenna), and the zombies were the suicides and possessed souls deemed beyond the hope of salvation as prophesised by Daniel. It was nice of it to try I suppose, but it's all too little, too late and too forced. The reality is that the film is really just a series of elaborate zombie sword fights interspersed with fluff to drag it all out.

The zombies are a mixed bag. Shuffling, staggering, lifeless souls they resemble grubby peasants more than the demons the group labels them. Ok, I can respect not going down the lots of make-up and effects route, I mean Romero started this way but those in Knight of the Dead are an unsynchronised hodgepodge, basic and not particularly convincing. Also whilst putting early effort into establishing the head-only-trauma trope they must have either run out of fx money or the will to live, either way as the troupe face wave after wave of zombies they somehow dispatch them quite successfully with slashes, gashes and stabs to the body. And the film is full of inconsistencies like this. They're slow, they're groaners, they're brainless and quite rubbish on their own yet the first they encounter is a young girl who somehow knows to retreat, hide on the ceiling like a possessed demon and throw herself half way across the room.

The bloodshed effects aren't bad though there must have been a discount on intestines at the gore-emporium and as said the swordplay is nicely executed but like the story and dialogue it just all falls a little flat. For all the criticism, I did find a beauty and appreciation for the sweeping harsh landscape and I can understand the aesthetic Atkins was striving to achieve. The bleakness and pace certainly paint a picture but it's not enough to save the film. I've read some pretty harsh criticism regarding the plot, or lack of and it's entirely founded. Lacklustre characters, adequate acting and distinct lack of content denigrate the few good things it does firmly entrenching the film to the lower ranks. 3/10.


Friday, 16 August 2013

Bong of the Dead - review

2011 (Canada)

Contains mild spoilers.

A surreal zombie grind-house buddy road trip comedy, book ended with lavish extravagant comic-book sequences and all enveloped in a post production drug haze. One thing writer, director, producer, score composer and artistic lead Thomas Newman can't be accused of is playing it safe. An original idea he claims at the end of the credits was actively thwarted at every opportunity Bong of the Dead is the very epitome that belief and perseverance can win out however crazy and possibly misguided the dream.

At its heart Bong of the Dead is a buddy film. Edwin (Mark Wynn) and Tommy (Jy Harris) have survived the end of world by maintaining a consistently high state of shit-faced-ness. The embodiment of stoner buddies they witnessed the demise of civilisation from the comfort of their own self induced tranquilised euphoria, their only real concern where their next hit would come from.

Edwin, a life long grower searching for the ultimate hit stumbles upon green-goo fertiliser made from dehydrated zombie brain but the army has done such a good job of ridding the safe zones from the undead, the brainless duo are forced to take a dangerous road trip to source more. The films success, much like Shaun of the Dead which Newman cites as an influence, hinged on whether Edwin and Tommy / Mark and Jy could form an on screen partnership and while it's a bit of a slow burn, I definitely warmed to their inherently dislikeable narcissistic personalities and quite endearing bro-mance. They're dope heads so the dialogue and jokes are never going to be sharp or witty, but they're a likeable duo and their slapstick interaction plays well. They're eventually joined by Leah (Simone Bailly) who adds a timely third pivot at a time there was a danger the joke would run thin and the three play off each other well through to a explosive and ridiculously over the top finale. Like the guy's addled and easily distracted train of thought, and as with all good road trips, the guys do off piste and the storyline all goes a bit daft, but it's fun and bad in the sense it knows it is and knows how to make it still work. 

I've read Newman shot the film on a single camera over fifteen days but then spent the best part of three years alone on a Mac in post production, adding his own score and FX claiming the film only cost $5000. If this is indeed the case, the results are nothing less than spectacular and puts larger budget efforts to shame (looking at you Troma / The Asylum). Add to this some downright guttural, gory, grubby and extremely authentic  zombies made-up by effects wizard Mike Fields, and a quantity of blood the likes of which I've not seen since Dead Alive (Braindead), for a low budget film it's quite the cinematic tour-de-force. With stylish directing, the ambitious comic-book production and the confidence to give the film a post production grind-house sheen, Bong of the Dead offers a genuinely original and unconventional aesthetic befitting the narrative.

The zombie origin is deliberately ambiguous and obtuse. Meteors struck, there was something alien inside and green gas that infected those were first on the scene causing boils, deformities and a particularly nasty cannibalistic hunger. They're slow, cumbersome and destroying the brain is the only way to destroy them. Newman hasn't been afraid to play around with our friends and the film is chock full of absurd zombie deaths and parody. It's sick and quite often in extremely bad taste jarring against a central narrative that despite the outlandish main premise tries at least to maintain a degree of cohesiveness, but it all adds to the films unique charm. There's also the play some zombies retain, or regain their self awareness, while keeping their hunger for flesh and deire to see the demise of the living. It's not explained but it doesn't need to be.

This film holds the esteemed title of holding the lowest IMDb score of any I've reviewed; yes a whole one point below Osombie and I find it hard to understand why. I like my zombie films to have good zombies, check, an interesting and original take on the end of the world, check, convincing acting, check and most of all a degree of authenticity and respect that makes me feel those involved cared about what they were doing, and this has that in abundance. Look, I'm not saying it's the best zombie film either. It does have dub problems (the actors had to rerecord all their lines post-production), and pacing is too slow at the start and too rushed at the end, but it's individual style and identity, memorable and convincing acting, and stylish direction certainly warrants you give it a go. A daft, gratuitous, doobie smoking, zombie bro-mance, that as long as you don't take too seriously, man, is quite the fun ride, 6/10.


Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Night of the Living Dead (1990) - review

1990 (USA)

Contains mild spoilers.

Why? That was the question I asked slipping the DVD in. Romero's 1968 Night of the Living Dead was nigh-on perfect; the quintessential zombie masterpiece responsible for setting in motion a modern undead obsession that shows no signs of abating. Capturing the prevalent fear and paranoia of a country lost and disillusioned after Vietnam and several prominent assassinations, with a subtext playing with the idea the enemy might be within rather than faceless and on foreign shores, it was a great metaphor for its time and couldn't help but question why there was a need to do it all again.

I'm well versed with Romero remakes. Acquiring one of the iconic names instantly adds gravitas and a seal of approval to your project and whilst I've seen it both abused, as with Day of the Dead (2008) I've also seen it work. Dawn of the Dead (2004) took the setting and premise of its processor and fashioned a perfect action horror film, honouring its heritage whilst forging something new for an explosive-expecting younger audience. Both have one thing in common though; they're new stories with new characters and a new direction.

Night of the Living Dead (1990) is different. It's the same story, albeit subtly edited, the same production team, though directing this time was handed to Tom Savani who worked on Dawn and Day, and it still has George A. Romero pulling the strings. It's a remake, almost scene for scene and word for word.

A combination of the copyright bungle that robbed Romero and production company 'Image 10' of thousands and rumours another Texan outfit were preparing a remake of their own might have provided the financial motivation to remake it, but I'd also like to think there was another motivation and that perhaps they thought they could actually do it better. Now, I'm probably going to upset a few people here, and I understand this view will be one of my more controversial ones but having just finished it, I kind of think, if this indeed was an aim and motivation, they were right as they pulled it off.

Ok, I know I said it was an identical remake, and on the surface it pretty much is, Barbara (Patricia Tallman) escapes an attack on her and her brother Johnnie (Bill Moseley), finds her way to at an abandoned farmhouse where she meets up with Ben (Tony Todd). They clear the house, join up with another group who were hidden the basement, then fall out on how best to combat the bloodthirsty undead army knocking at the door. We know the story, it's straightforward, simple and a modern trope and Romero has on the surface done nothing to really to stray.

But there are differences and it's these very differences that seem to have attracted the most criticism; Barbara is no longer the wilting flower, there isn't quite the same racial subtext, the zombies are too zombie-ish and the ending, oh, the ending. I'm of the opinion however, that if you acknowledge the differences for what they are and realise they're actually there as part of an attempt to tell a slightly different narrative, then it's just as compelling and rewarding as the first.
In the original Barbara soon deteriorates into a semi-catatonic state and early dialogue with Johnnie in the remake, and hysteria and hesitation when she first gets to farm house intimates the same repressed suffocated character. However, rather than letting the situation overcome her, Romero in this remake has the conflict actually galvanise and free her to become arguably the strongest survivor, and the one most likely to see the night out. As the men scramble futilely for patriarchal dominance she alone seems to possess the cold detatchment necessary to truly read the situation, pointing out the undead are so slow that they should just walk past them before they're overrun.

On the surface she's just another action female lead, but it's Romero, so it's more subtle and interesting. The tension between Ben and thug Harry Cooper (Tom Towles) is still there but the racial subtext is no longer as biting or relevent as it was in 68, so subtly moving the subtext from racial to gender repression and emergence is compelling and valid.
The other main difference is visually. With Savani in charge the zombies are for want of a better phrase, more zombie like. With a far larger budget and freedom to play, the undead are visceral, nastier and more demonic than in Romero's previous outing. They still behave very much like those of the original and brilliantly and uniformly obey all Romero's trademark idiosyncrasies shuffling around looking for living to consume but are now far more in keeping with what we'd expect to see some 22 years on with blood, deformity and gore galore. There's still the same ambiguity as to the reason they're up and at 'em, with emphasis on space radiation but still the same insinuation hell might actually be full as they rise whether bitten or not. There are also small nods to Romero's later films as if they could perhaps have some semblance of awareness, as they combine to drag a corpse out a fire and share a meal of bugs. 

Narrative differences aside, Night of the Living Dead (1990) is brilliantly realised. There isn't a bad line delivered or a scene not compelling or convincing. Savani and Romero perfectly capture the feeling of despair and futility as the zombies keep coming like a relentless tide. I don't think I've seen the Romero zombie so perfectly realised or felt an atmosphere so imbued with the inevitability of death. The eerie score accompanies the build of tension brilliantly and the pacing I'd argue is stronger and more assured that the original with zombies more of an ever present threat. 

One of the last zombie films before Boyle and Anderson heralded in the a faster, more immediate and visceral frenzied zombie Night of the Living Dead (1990) is the perfect imagining of the slow relentless tide the Romero zombie symbolises. The experience of working on Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead shows, and Romero and Cavani actually managed to take something that was let's be honest pretty darn good, shake it about it to produce something that in my opinion easily stands up alongside them. It was still a strange choice, if I'm honest, to do the same thing again, but I'm happy they did and there's enough different to warrant owing and enjoying both. I really don't think it needs to be an either / or. 

I do think those who have written this off as a quick and dirty remake of the original, pointing to the ending as evidence have missed some of the other more subtle changes and are doing it a disservice. With the changes in narrative and the focus on Barbara the ending works; it's a different message but no less provocative. A worthy Romero film, as poignant a metaphor for fears and feelings of individual ineffectiveness as its predecessor, and as good as anything else he's had his hand in, this is now one of my favourite zombie films and I think it might just edge the first attempt, 9/10.