Friday, 28 February 2014

Dawn of the Living Dead (Evil Grave: Curse of the Maya) - review

2004 (USA)

Contains spoilers.

Writer / Director / Producer David Heavener's Evil Grave: Curse of the Maya aka Dawn of the Living Dead is not a good film. Let's not mince words; it's god awful and I could easily concentrate the review on tearing it a new one, but maybe I'm mellowing as I get older as I'm instead going to focus on the few interesting things Heavener does bring to the undead party. For all the woeful acting, turgid dialogue, incoherent, laughable narrative and technically poor film making I'll concede the zombies themselves are actually ok, and the hokey mysticism that lies at the heart of the story is actually curious and almost refreshingly original.

The most ill suited couple I think I've ever witnessed on screen, ageing Dr Jeffrey Morgan (Joe Estevez, the poor man's Martin Sheen), and his much younger fiancée Renee Summers (Amanda Bauman, who must have been the best actress they could find that could both semi-act and semi-take her clothes off) have purchased a dilapidated murder house (off eBay) on the California / Mexico border. The peace and solitude of the desert, Dr. Morgan believes will help Renee recover from her various mental illnesses brought on by the death of her daughter who had been taken off her because of her various other addictions. No sooner have they started to make home though, Renee meets Michael (David Heavener), a local wind turbine engineer, and sleaze, who she immediately strikes a rapport with, and she starts having dark visions and dreams about the family that used to occupy the house before, and how they were killed.

I'm going to spoil the story not in so much as it's rambling, full of cliché and badly presented but I don't think anyone would really care, and I kind of need to, to look at the Mayan zombie family in any detail. We learn through flashback, they were murdered and not given the proper burial their Belize traditions dictated. So as is the South American way, ahem, the idea is they've risen from the dead with an insatiable hunger for five suns, before the Mayan death gods get to suck them through a cosmic tornado to Xibalba, the Mayan underworld. Their only hope is that Renee can utilise her visionary 'gifts' to understand what's going on and perform the relevant ritual to get them into the cosmic cornfield and heaven first. It's a bold idea and certainly adds some colour to the normally drab b-movie zombie narrative (looking at you The Asylum) but unfortunately it's all bit too much hokum and laughably far fetched, than dark, sinister and supernatural.

Now I've read a little about Xibalba and it wouldn't be a stretch to believe the Mayan people had sophisticated death rituals especially for those who had been unjustly slain, but in my admitted frugal research I've not seen any reference to men, women and children pulling themselves out the earth to chase, play with, and ultimately gorge themselves on any and everyone in the vicinity. I'm guessing Heavener had a semi traditional idea based on Mayan folklore and granted himself some pretty broad licence to play. The Vasquez zombie family are a motley group, well presented with a primal, demonic and down right nasty appearance and set of behaviours. They're arrival is almost always met with Renee hearing the voice of the young daughter cry out 'momma, help me' and the camera panning Sam Raimi style to a first person perspective and all the guttural grunting you'd find in Evil Dead and the effect still works. I'd also go as far as saying other than the comically bad zombie grunt conversation between daughter and family near the end their arrival is always a highlight and one area Heavener clearly has a film making understanding of.

Until some of the final exposition I was starting to see the little critters as revenants back from the dead to wreak vengeance on the living but as the hunger was explained more as a passive act I'm not so sure. The unborn embryo brought back as a baby zombie by the lords of death to bring final vengeance at the end might well classify as revenant but by this point the whole film had degenerated to such a total and utter farce I didn't know what to think.

Despite laughing uncontrollably on more than one occasion and quite frankly in awe at the awfulness at what I was watching, in no way could this be classified as a comedy. Even during the ridiculous fifteen minutes too long finale I couldn't help but think Heavener's decision to play this whole film mostly dry was a little ambitious given the obvious finite resources and talent. The baffling inclusion of a wandering posse, half way through, just to provide a half hearted striptease and then have an opportunity to have a few zombie killings demonstrates the struggle Heavener was undoubtedly having with the films identity and its lack of content. It is dry but at times farce and the forced topless scenes were included no doubt at a moment of crisis when all involved realised just how bad things were going and were desperate to add something that might sell a few copies. I'm in no way going to recommend this even as something to drink too and laugh at for it's failings. It's as I've said a bad film, that outstays its welcome even with the main story finishing at the hour mark and little to no redeeming qualities. There's plenty of better awful b-movie zombie films out there so don't be tempted by the cosmic corn, 2/10.


Monday, 24 February 2014

Nightmare City (City of the Walking Dead) - review

1980 (Italy / Mexico / Spain)

Contains mild spoilers.

One thing Umberto Lenzi's silly little sordid orgy of gore is not, is dull. Now I've watched all manner of continental eighties zombie madness but nothing had quite prepared me the no nonsense, frenzy of violence that spilled so quickly out of the unannounced Hercules military aircraft, and marked the start of a good hour or so of audaciously unapologetic in your face bloody fun. Where was the good hour of faintly trite and badly acted build up? The slow belief / disbelief back and forth and small scale micro control of the situation so that it only effected a small band in an isolated setting?  They land a plane in broad daylight at the main airport, they spill out with camera's rolling and a full military presence and not a single fuck is given. It's as full on as it sounds, it's Nightmare City; and one has to applaud Lenzi for it.

Don't get me wrong. It's still a low budget bastard horror of the eighties with a mixed bag of acting, effects and dialogue. For every brilliantly staged and shot axe to the head or naked boob sliced off (yes really) there's all manner of quite frankly half hearted amateur knife attacks or neck sucks. Also for every semi-coherent, semi-well-delivered reaction to the unfolding carnage there's an excruciating over worked line about radiation and hyper tissue regeneration.

Television news anchor Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) just happens to be at the airport when it all kicks off. He's there to meet a professor who can shed light on a recent nuclear accident (hence the radiation) and when the airport alarms go off he can't help but stick his reporter's nose. There really isn't much more to the narrative. He has a wife Dr. Anna Miller (Laura Trotter) who works at the hospital that soon joins in the tsunami of destruction, and there's a military presence which whilst keen to contain the situation are just as interested in avoiding a more national panic, and that's it. The narrative, such as it is, is the vehicle to allow the irradiated sick and depraved zombie like blood suckers to reek havoc on all and sundry, and for Lenzi to fashion a competent video nasty for a market that couldn't get enough.

I should mention the faint esoteric pseudo implied clairvoyance ramblings from Sheila Holmes (Maria Rosaria Omaggio), the wife of one of the Majors, and the equally daft and confusing existential ending but I didn't take any of this too seriously and suggest it was added more as an after thought than as a central idea. Dellamorte Dellamore or The Beyond this is not.

It's also worth mentioning despite all the unsavoury blood shed and dark themes it never really comes across a horror film but more of a disaster one, and the zombies reflect this. Their first appearance is sudden and all consuming. They stream from the plane like deranged mad-men throat slitting, stabbing, shrugging off shots to the body and clearing the soldiers and airport staff like a tidal wave of death. What's also clear is we're not in Romero's world. There's no slow gait, no shuffling and groaning and no 'walking dead' approach. They're fast, they're seemingly intelligent, if now entirely lacking a moral or sympathetic compass and they also appear to react to physical pain. It was during this initial attack, watching one of the attackers pull away from biting his victim only to wipe the blood from his mouth with the back of his hand I realised all was not straight forward.

Fortunately for us, all is actually revealed during a scene of such unashamed, unnecessary and over complicated explanation to become laughably brilliant. High levels of radiation have caused hyper-tissue regeneration to render the victim's indestructible and "abnormal strengthening of the cells vital qualities has increased their direct genetic capacity" granting increased physical capabilities, with a caveat that this is all at the expense of the efficiency of their red blood. It's a load of old tosh but it's good earnest tosh. Basically, they're alive, indestructible apart from the old noggin, they're strong, fast, they retain the memories to shoot guns, cut phone lines and they're singularly driven to replace the red blood cells they're rapidly losing. Lenzi himself didn't necessarily see them as traditional zombies, but with the loss of conscious will, the lack of 'self awareness' and they're unquenchable hunger they're zombie and a dangerous one to boot in my book. Add their faster turn of pace, their influence on the genre shouldn't be dismissed either, and it's hard not to see their impact in zombie's that came much later, with Boyles' infected top of the list.

In your face carnage and bloodshed from the get go, unwavering pace, gratuitous gore and unnecessary nudity; it has everything one would want or expect from an eighties video nasty. Lenzi's zombie opus is unapologetically rough and obnoxious but it's a delight to get swept away in. Big scale with limited resources undoubtedly brings with it problems, but if one is able to ignore all the background faux pas, the occasional excruciating exposition (the anti-nuclear monologue near the end is especially bad) and wooden acting there's a corking good b-movie here to whoop along to. A surprising gem, 7/10.


Friday, 14 February 2014

(Zombie) Death House - review

1987 (USA)

Contains mild spoilers.

Death House or Zombie Death House as it was renamed when given a new cover when it came to VHS is an overly complicated, confusing, exploitative, low budget, badly acted shambles of a film. Put together in the US and starring and directed by John Saxon, it's an Italian 80s gore laden gratuitous pile of nonsense yet not actually Italian, but American, and missing that special European surrealist something that somehow lets the likes of Zombie Flesh Eaters, Hell of the Living Dead etc. get away with it. It's not a bad-bad film, and it's hard to list exactly what it's not doing in comparison, but it just doesn't really ever light much of a fire.

Dennis Cole is Derek Keillor, a purple heart Vietnam veteran who desperate for work has agreed to work as chauffeur to mob boss Vic Moretti (Anthony Franciosa). In a convoluted and quite frankly unnecessary preamble to get Derek incarcerated on death row (the death house) there's a long winded tale of treachery, murder and infidelity, and there's car chases, shooting, fights and boobies. It's not that bad, but it does drag on far too long detracting somewhat from the main reason one would watch such a film: slobbering death munchers and total carnage.

Being on death row, it turns out, is not the worst thing in store for Derek. The heart of the film is about a highly experimental and morally dubious behavioural modification program being run at the prison where inmates act as guinea pigs for special privileges, namely, and I quote, booze and pussy. Wanting to try something a bit more risky, strong, but extremely misguided patriot Colonel Gordon Burgess (John Saxon) convinces the prison warden to inject one of the inmates with the highly dangerous and untested HV-8b which, you guessed right, has some quite severe and unexpected consequences.

It's all a bit of a slow ride to be honest. By the time Adams (Earl Johnson), the second inmate injected (yes, the first thing one would think to do after a person's skin starts falling off and they need to be double sedated and double straight-jacketed to stop them wanting to kill everyone is inject a second person) starts his rampage we're nearly half way through the film. It doesn't stop there either. For every head crush, arm severing, throat slashing, decapitation and pick axe through the chest there's a tedious amount of fannying about from characters you never find yourself invested in. The gore is good, don't get me wrong, it's strong, unashamedly over the top and in keeping with the Fulci and Italian shock tradition. It's also well presented and every bit as uncomfortably funny as you'd want, it's just surrounded by too much mediocrity to hold the film up on its own.

Now we come to the big one. Up until the last ten minutes I'd written the inmates off as deranged but alive and not actually that zombie-ish in any traditional manner. Yes they're skin's peeling off and they've taken leave of their senses to become homicidal manic killing machines but they're still very much alive; also remember the word zombie was only added to the title of the film on its VHS release. Yet, ten minutes to go without previous suggestion, the super-soldiers on mass decide they are in fact interested in eating one people, hunting in packs and shuffling about with Saxon suddenly fully invested in full on traditional iconic (albeit a bit too iconic at times) zombie imagery. It's good stuff, if a little late and a little incongruous with what we've had to put up with for an hour and twenty.

(Zombie) Death House is as bad as it sounds, yet has a bizarre kind of charm that those who are drawn to off the beaten track quirky low budget gratuitous cinema will somehow get some joy from it. A zombie / gangster / prison / government-conspiracy narrative mash-up makes watching it for story reasons hard work, yet it's too invested in said narrative for the shock-horror to take the focus and make up for it. What we're left with is something that rarely works as horror or a drama; an acquired Italian delicacy with Monterey Jack instead of Parmesan. It's hard to recommend yet I feel it's one, should you get the chance, you ought to indulge in, 4/10.

Steven @ WTD.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl - review

2003 (USA)

Contains spoilers.

I was in two minds as to whether to review this film in full or not. One, it has that unfortunate quality of being so damn popular and so damn old everyone who was ever going to see it has done so and already made their mind up as to whether it's a bit of harmless swashbuckling family fun or tepid piratey flotsam and an insult to ol' Edward Thatch. And, two, strictly speaking the cursed zombie-like crew of the Black Pearl captained by Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) aren't actually zombies or even really that dead. Still, there is a little ambiguity and I have gone to the trouble of watching it so I might as well throw my thoughts out.

I'm on the side that the film itself is actually quite good, and arguably the best of the series. Sumptuously shot by director Gore Verbinski with great stunts and effects it flows effortlessly with an interesting albeit not particularly taxing narrative and is everything you'd really want from a big budget family blockbuster. It was far better than I remembered it and I would certainly recommend it to those on the fence on whether it's worth going back to.

The story? You'll remember all this when I tell you. There's some Aztec gold and Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) of the Black Pearl as a scruffy unscrupulous villainous pirate, decided he wanted it. However on the way, his equally scruffy villainous etc, first mate Barbossa and crew decided to mutiny, leave him marooned him on a small desert island and take it for themselves. This wouldn't have been such bad plan if the gold wasn't cursed.

It's Tales of Monkey Island, high jinx on the high seas, a traditional pirate story if you like, yet with a supernatural twist and a highly eccentric screen stealing performance by Johnny Depp. It's great, honest, and I'm not going to spend any more time on the film. You've seen it anyway. What interests me is the cursed not-zombie kind-of-undead crew.

Positives? The curse made Barbossa and the crew immortal. Negatives? They're now in an undead stasis appearing as ghastly skeletons under moon light. To be honest I'm not so sure it's such a bad trade off. I mean, if they just showed a bit of imagination I'm sure they could come up with a plan that balanced looking a bit macabre and sinister after hours, against the benefits of being impervious to injury and living forever.  Anyway, it seems their loved ones weren't too taken with the whole thing so they've decided they're now on an eternal quest to return all the 882 gold coins of Cortés in Isla de Muerta's treasure and make the blood sacrifice necessary to rid themselves of it. How they knew what to do to rid themselves of the curse is never explained and the whole thing is all a bit convoluted and contrived, but it does provide a semi-coherent narrative to drive the action and mayhem and it does provide a great excuse for brilliant and provocative edgy family horror-lite shenanigans.

They're not zombies in that they're not really dead, they're more cursed to appear dead, but just at night. They're still fully in possession of their souls, their personalities, dreams and desires. They can eat, drink, sing and rape and pillage to their hearts content and there's no revenant drive to seek vengeance; they are evil little oiks, but then they were before. There's no deadness, no loss other than probably being sexually shunned by everyone other than most dedicated Goth; also there's absolutely no eating anyone. There is a bit of The Blind Dead to proceedings, in the skeletal appearance, not strictly being zombies, and all the ships, but I don't feel it's especially intentional. 

With the curse lifted (sorry spoiler) they revert back to being fully alive, mortal and vulnerable once again to being killed. They're undead state was just that, a temporary state, a minor inconvenience.

So, not a zombie film but great family entertainment with a good bit of supernatural and some interesting playing with the alive/dead barrier. Set in the Caribbean it's easy to think Z, and later in the series with On Stranger Tides, which is also a highly recommended book by Tim Powers, we do get see some traditional voodoo walking dead but they're not here just yet. Great effects, great acting, there's nothing here to really complain about, though nothing that really sets the world on fire. Nonetheless it's nigh on perfect, well crafted Disney family fun, like I said, you've already made mind up about, 8/10.


Saturday, 8 February 2014

Zombies (Wicked Little Things) - review

2006 (USA)

Contains mild spoilers.

"Who's been sleeping in my bed?" asked Emma Tunny (Chloë Grace Moretz), the young daughter of newly widowed Karen Tunny (Lori Heuring) after she is forced to take up the residence of her late husband's family's old dilapidated mining house deep off the beaten track near Carlton, Pennsylvania. The answer of course, is a hundred odd year old zombie kid who, along with some friends, has been cursed to roam the hills at night enacting brutal and rather bloody vengeance on all who happen to find themselves out for a stroll. If that doesn't sound nice, you're getting the right idea of what Wicked Little Things is all about.

It's not your usual zombie story, but in what has unfortunately become, at times, quite a tired stale genre, a bit different is more than welcome.  Let's be clear though, Director J. S. Cardone's Wicked Little Things or Zombies is a zombie film. The little kids are absolutely, one hundred percent dead and reanimated soulless little shits that like eating the living, and they're not the same sweet little tykes they once were before the accident.

I say accident. Cruel mine owning Mr Carlton didn't mean for all the imprisoned and exploited little children to be crushed to death but he sure didn't do anything to ensure it didn't happen. Also he was quite happy to give the command to blow the next charge regardless of sweet little Mary's (Helia Grekova) precarious position. Well, the spirits of the kids, or the land, or some primordial super deity also didn't see it as an accident, hence a hundred years on the hollow eyed walking shells are up and about and still really, really pissed off.

We'll call it 'ancient curse' that drives the children and in many respects that makes them more European revenants than zombies in any Romero, Matheson or Fulci mould. They're back for the singular purpose of enacting vengeance, and the blood-lust and cannibalism just happens to be how they go about it. They seem to be drawn to the living, yet they also appear at times to hear and react to sensory stimuli, they don't talk, they use weapons/mining tools quite effectively and they seem to be able to somewhat intelligently work situations to their advantage, i.e. go for the tyres of a vehicle first. They are fired upon at about the three quarters point and they are impervious and although we're left wondering whether a head shot would be able to put them down for good my instinct this time would probably say not. So there's a little ambiguity but that's not a bad thing and fits the mysterious and enigmatic ambience. I also liked that the younger characters have that post modern zombie aficionado's knowledge and can pick a f'ing zombie out when they see one. It's the noughties now and pretending no-one has heard of the walking dead just doesn't wash with any credibility any more.

There's very much a Children of the Corn creepiness to using children as the protagonist. They come across cold and detached, both in their appearance, with hollow eye sockets and expressionless faces that makes them at times appear like mannequins, and through the way they go about sadistically slaughtering their victims. The effect is intimidating and strong. Allied with at times a rather unsubtle score it reminded me at times of 80's slasher flicks especially Jason's killings in Friday 13th.

There's a lot to admire in Wicked Little Things. It's genuinely eerie, full of tension and full of small subtle and well crafted jumps and disturbingly dark scenes. The narrative makes sense, albeit if you're happy to go along with the small off the beaten track trope that in a hundred years no one's really asked too many questions why so many people who visit these woods go missing. The pacing is strong, the cinematography flawless and it all holds together well. A macabre creepy tension-oozie horror full of disturbing ideas, eerie scenes and gratuitous and sadistic bloodshed, recommended, 7/10.


Monday, 3 February 2014

(Bruce Campbell vs.) Army of Darkness - review

1992 (USA)

Contains spoilers.

I hate reviewing old cult films. It's not that I don't have an opinion or said opinion is divisive or controversial and will unleash the proverbial internet army of darkness on me. It's just hard to really offer anything vaguely original or garner much interest in a review of a film everyone and their dog made their mind up about a long time ago. It's also hard because I too have old opinions and fond memories though it must have been twenty years since I watched it and there's always the inherent dangers of returning to something after so long.

Talking of a long time ago, (apologies for the awful segue), Army of Darkness marks quite the change in direction from the quite similar in style and story prequels. Right from the start, as wise cracking Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) crash lands along with his 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 (thanks wiki) in 1300AD medieval Europe and is seized by Lord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert) and his band of sword wielding superstitious knights it's clear that Evil Dead part three is to be more fantasy and high jinx than the claustrophobia and brooding of its namesake.

The Evil Dead 1 and 2 are farces of a sort but they're still, in my mind anyway, unquestionable horror flicks full of provocative vision, disturbing ideas and gratuitous bad taste. They're comedies but dark, quite nasty and definitely for adults. Army of Darkness for all the imagination and dark undertones never quite achieves the same level of nastiness or malice and I'd almost use the word tempered. Yes there's still possession, bloodshed, dismemberments and yes Ash still wields his chainsaw hand with manic desperation but it's all rather fantasy horror comedy and The Goonies, than unrepentant and unapologetically dark and The Exorcist. This isn't to say this is a bad thing and does allow Raimi off the leash and able to explore is undoubted talent in a more expansive and extravagant sandbox; it's just the shift in tone half way realised in Evil Dead II is more acute.

Bruce Campbell stole the show in The Evil Dead and quite rightly was thrust front and centre for Evil Dead II. For Army of Darkness he's again, given full permission to leap and bound about with all the goofiness and slapstick that makes his performance so endearing. Yet, such is the overt grandeur and now seeming invulnerability of his character it maybe loses some of the impact it had in his previous outings when the lines and behaviour was more in reaction to the events that were unfolding. This is Bruce Campbell vs. Army of Darkness, not Bruce Campbell getting beat up and driven insane by the Army of Darkness. Ash's confidence was born from being placed in the centre of the an inescapable maelstrom of horror and death, and somehow finding the strength and inner-madness to fight back. Suddenly thrown into the eternal conflict that is the living and the dead some 700 years in the past, he doesn't show any of his previous insecurity coming across perfectly at ease as the one man slaughterhouse and complete hero / anti-hero. Arrogant, uber-confident with the perfect one liner for every occasion he slaughters all who oppose him with ease and precision. It's not all bad, far from it and Bruce Campbell is a delight to watch it's just I think I prefer it when Ash is on the back foot instead of coming across invulnerable and over-cocky.

Zombies. There's much debate whether the Evil Dead films could ever be considered zombie ones and I'm still kind of on the fence. Evil Dead 1 and 2 contain possessed living and dead; taken over by evil spirits unleashed by someone reading from the necronomicon. Army of Darkness has possession, reanimated corpses and skeletons that seem to have a will, consciousness and dare I say personality each of their own. They're a bit of a mixed bag of well made and choreographed live actors, and jerky stop motion Jason and the Argonauts animated figures. Such is the playfulness of proceedings it's never overly distracting, even when jarring and obvious, and it's not something we'd want to start worrying about anyway or we'd soon be over run with questions, like exactly how does a bag of bones talk and laugh without lungs. 

So, it's full of the reanimated bones of the dead, the possessed dead (and alive), and ever some rather ghoulish looking recently exhumed live actors that do indeed look rather zombie but there's no head shots, no viral blood transference or ever any desire to try and take a bite out of someone. It's an army of the dead trying to kill living; why? Because. Also, Raimi et al called them deadites pushing distance between them and Romero and all things Z and I'm not going to argue semantics.

Army of Darkness is brilliant Sam Raimi yet again and a joy to watch. Full of imagination, skilful, playful directing and cinematography it flows from scene to scene with grace and confidence. Taken for what it is though, a goofy action adventure with a slightly darker undertone than Spielberg would try, it's an incredibly fun and rewarding ride and always entertaining. Bruce Campbell also quite rightly has his name emblazoned proudly on the cover as this is his show and it is him, not Ash from the prequels, that's up against the undead horde. Brilliant, wacky, proudly b-movie-esque and cheesy, and replete with some of the best (and worst) of one line quipping, I still love it, 8/10.