Thursday, 25 September 2014

The Boneyard - review

1991 (USA)

Contains spoilers.

I'll put my hands straight up. Director / writer James Cummins' 1991 zombie horror yarn is delightful, dark, gory, intimidating and full of tension. The zombies are macabre menacing little shits that make you feel uncomfortable and the set-up that enables them to torment the small disparate group that find themselves stuck in the same cramped isolated morgue is inspired and gripping. It's zombie horror as good as you'd hope for and though maybe it could be accused of being a little ham fisted and cheesy at times, this doesn't detract, in many ways adding to the retro charm. There is the issue of the last twenty minutes though, and I'm still not quite sure exactly what I think of it, though I know I enjoyed myself. On the one hand I've got to applaud Cummins for his audacity and insanity. On the other, I've got to question the decision to turn sinister and brooding into farce and stoopid in such an abrupt and in your face way.

There's a good zombie story. Lt. Jersey Callum (Ed Nelson) and his partner Gordon Mullen (James Eustermann) recruit the reluctant psychic, Alley Oates (Deborah Rose) in help them solve what appears to be the grisly murder of three children found in the cellar of mortician Chen (Robert Yun Ju Ahn). Under questioning Chen tells a fantastical yarn that the children are actually an undead master-race, called the kyoshi, and that he and his ancestors have been protecting mankind by feeding them fresh human flesh keeping them dormant for the last three hundred years. Dismissing the story Jersey, Mullen and Alley head straight off, at night I'll add, to the boneyard (the colloquial name the staff have given to the city morgue) to check the bodies out and see if Alley's special gifts can unravel what's really going on. And wouldn't you just know it Chen just happened to be telling the truth; cue reanimating dead, running, screaming and dying.

Cummins' does a remarkable job establishing a coherent and believable reason for the small band of victims / survivors to find themselves in an inescapable claustrophobic survival / slaughter-box combating the forces of evil. There's no big gaping narrative hole or anyone acting in an overly stupid manner to get themselves in the trouble, as the evil begins to rise one isn't distracted by thoughts of what they should have done. Okay, there's not much sense to Dana (Denise Young) the young suicide who happens to not actually be dead, but the motley assortment of morticians along with the police and psychic make for some interesting dynamics as they seek to stay alive.

Romero zombies these are not. It's possession / reanimation / demons and ancient curses, and the three gnarly putrid little kids are disturbing, quick, smart and terrifying. They can climb, leap, hide and a headshot won't cut it. The make-up and effects team have done a great job with them and whether they're chasing, harrying or playing with their next meal or tucking into a cannibalistic all you can eat spare-rib buffet the young gut munchers are always the uncomfortable star of the show. Someone at some point comments that their weakness is the heart, i.e. vampire, but as they're final deaths come down chemical spills, electric blasts, concentrated bullet fire and being blown sky high I can't confirm; there's also the point that if it's so easy why didn't Chen or his grand-pappy stick a stake in years ago while they were asleep. So maybe a bit vampire, maybe possessed, maybe a bit straightforward zombie, they're evil, they're dead, they're hungry and they're deeply unpleasant.

Okay it's time to address the finale. With twenty minutes to go The Boneyard shifts gear up from fourth to crazy and goes all Dead Alive (Brain Dead) - a year before it I'll add, Resident Evil and super-mutant with some of the most ridiculous prosthetic costumes and animatronics I've seen. Whilst there was a hint things were at some point going to go loopy, with Alley finding loose pipe bombs in the record office and Mullen equipping some kind of experimental machine gun, I wasn't at all prepared for how the kyoshi curse would manifest itself in those infected. Shortly before wilting away into a large pool of green slime, one of the zombie children manages to shove a large handful of its own brains / skin into the mouth of Miss Poopinplatz (Phyllis Diller) the feisty, impudent morgue receptionist. At first it's groans, fever and decidedly looking a bit peaky, but minutes later it's eight foot prosthetic madness, large bulbous eyes and not only cackling laughter from her, but raucous bellows from myself.

As said, up till now it was tense survival horror and suddenly here was a large daft boss fight and a wholly unrealistic model flailing its long arms at all and sundry. I'm not sure whether there were doubts at whether the taut atmosphere would make the distance, whether there was suddenly a budget for more special effects or whether it was all meticulously planned but the result is a change in direction that takes your breath away. Also it's just the beginning as now firmly down the rabbit hole Cummins has only one place to go, turning his attention to Miss Poopinplatz's yappy little poodle and some scenes that will never leave me.

My wife commented once that she really doesn't like horror with children in and I can understand her disquiet. The zombie kids are disturbing, wholly unnatural and thus a brilliant construct, brutally realised. The survival horror sequences are a delight; scenes are well-constructed, well-shot and believably acted by people who bring authenticity to proceedings by not standing out. The action flows effortlessly from one scene to the next, everything feels cohesive and the film is thoroughly absorbing. The crazy prosthetic super mutant zombie climax is what it is. I can't say whether the film would have been better or worse if it hadn't decided to take such a left turn, all I can say is when it does it's a hoot. None of it makes any sense, the action is audaciously stupid and inexplicable but it's god damn entertaining. A zombie horror riot both despite, and because, of twelve foot zombie poodles, 8/10.


Thursday, 18 September 2014

Aaah! Zombies!! (Wasting Away) - review

2007 (USA)

Contains spoilers.

Writer and director Sean Kohnen's Aaah! Zombies!! (aka Wasting Away) is film built on a single quirk. It's an inventive, imaginative quirk allowing for some brilliant scenes and set pieces; it drives the action, it dictates the humour and it also, almost manages to sustain momentum the whole ninety minutes without get boring. Playful with the zombie medium Kohnen's take is unorthodox and unusual but respectful, and though not particularly funny, or scary, or atmospheric relying solely on the twist this is most definitely still a zombie film, and one that's well worth watching.

I'd better explain what the 'thing' is. In full on The Return of the Living Dead parody mode a bungled experimental super-soldier zombie chemical transportation goes wrong, the hazardous serum ending up mixed in some beer flavoured super soft ice-cream and yadda yadda yadda zombies. This isn't all that interesting, but what is, is everything during the set-up is presented in black and white with the green of the serum the only colour, Schindler's List style. Pulling himself up from the floor Tim (Michael Grant Terry) and his three co-conspirators with the colourful green serum now coursing figuratively through their now coloured bodies are now in Oz and empowered with their own shared reality. The use of colour, for Kohnen becomes the defining metaphor of juxtaposing how those that have taken the serum perceive the world, with those who haven't. In the black and white 'real' world Tim, Mike (Matthew Davis), Vanessa (Julianna Robinson) and Cindy (Betsy Beutler) are perceived as ponderous decaying gut munchers, but in their shared world, presented in full on Technicolour they are still cognisant, compassionate and unaware of their external appearance.

It's a powerful imaginative idea and works if one doesn't think too hard about it. In their reality nothing has really changed, they can talk, laugh, feel though they may be starting to display some unusual traits and appetites. In the other reality they're incomprehensible, macabre, indestructible; zombies and it's speed, specifically their lack of, that becomes the defining characteristic and the butt of the humour. 'Real', non-infected people appear sped up in movement and speech, and with the camera switched to black and white so we're looking at them as everyone else would the group are full on Romero lurchers. Which perspective / reality is the true one? It doesn't really matter; all that does is the back and forth play when the perspectives do clash.

Despite the inventiveness of the contrast, the actual set pieces and jokes do all too often feel a little laboured or obvious. The guy who's so drunk he can actually communicate with the zombies is a fun throw away idea but to not only repeat the joke but make it the centre of an important ten minute sequence two thirds of the way through has the feel of a writer struggling for ideas and this is the films main problem. I never felt Kohnen fully knew what to do with the great set up he'd come up with; the narrative jump to survival action, zombie-rights three quarters of the way through is most indicative of this. 

We're not talking big budget so constant contradictions like background noises being the right (or wrong) depending on perspective speed I was happy to let slide even though they were a little distracting. My biggest grumble was the back and fro regarding the groups conscience. We're supposed to go with the fact that even though to the rest of the world they appear as gut-munching zombies they're really still the same people with empathy and compassion, and their behaviour, dialogue and even the whole ending of the film relies on this. Yet, there's also times, usually implied and off camera, they do actually go full zombie with all the cannibalistic slaughter, gouging and gut munching their appearance assumes. I think we're supposed to either suspend disbelief or assume death comes with a loss of guilt and remorse; but it's never particularly fleshed and it all feels a incongruous.

Narrative to one side, the whole self-aware, compassioned, autonomous beings on one level, ponderous, flesh hungry groaners on another idea is presented and fashioned well. They are zombies. They're dead, they need severe head trauma to really stop them and they like brains. There's some more The Return of the Living Dead homage, playing with body part reanimation. In colour they not really zombies at all, more people who happen to be without pulse and a taste for things they shouldn't. Whether black and white or not things always look good and the film has been put together well, effects are strong and make-up realistic. Ok, the bodiless head is a bit slid into place, but it doesn't spoil things. One last thought. Going by my definition which equates zombie with deadness, irrespective of pulse, perhaps they're not actually zombies at all as they are still self-aware and autonomous? I'm in a pickle to be honest, though as it's mainly down to me over complicating things I'll move along, and I did say it was just a thought...

"The most unique zombie flick I've seen', is one of the choice quotes on the cover and breaking with tradition which says one can't agree with anything if it's in big letters on the front of a DVD, especially a low budget zombie one, this time I think I might make an exception. The narrative as a whole may well not live up to the premise and some scenes feel laboured but there's enough jokes and ideas to keep things fresh and entertaining throughout. The romance such as there is adds to the cocktail but this is no Warm Bodies which I'll will add shares more than one idea with this earlier film. I'll finish by adding the acting is well above what one would expect from a low budget piece, especially from the four leads, and the pacing is good with the film flowing by quite nicely. It's unusual, quirky and fun and for all my complaints I really quite enjoyed it, even though I feel it's been made in a way that makes it far too easy to dismember, 6/10.


Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Lifeforce - review

1985 (USA)

Contains spoilers.

This was another one that wasn't really on my radar. It was only seeing it chosen by Dominic Brunt (Director of Before Dawn) as one of the headlines for the 2014 Leeds Zombie Film Festival that put it on. Having now watched it I'm still a tad uncertain. Sure the final fifteen minutes, depicting a ravaged London overrun with snarling cannibalistic monsters is zombie all the way and the victims of the space vampires are for the most part unwitting slaves incapable of imposing their own will on their actions. But, it's energy vampires. Both Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback), the only survivor of the ill-fated deep space explorer and Dr. Bukovsky (Michael Gothard) chief medical scientist of the European Space Agency and Thanatologist (the study of death) say so, and it is really all about three intelligent bat like creatures camouflaged as pretty wee things who are sat at the top of the food chain.

The first fifteen minutes or so are pure eighties space indulgence. The HMS Churchill out in the deep beyond on a mission to explore Halley's Comet discovers a hundred and fifty mile ancient space relic in its tip. Inside as well as the desiccated remnants of hundreds of human size space bats they find three perfectly preserved and perfectly naked humans caught in some kind of suspended animation and decide to bring them back on board.

The lead naked, and that's a word I'll be saying a lot, space person, is played by Mathilda May and as I'm watching the splendid new Arrow Blu-ray transfer of the original 116 minute cut, which is fifteen minutes longer than the theatrical cut the US audience had to watch there's an awful lot of it; not that I'm complaining. Brought back to Earth by the US Columbia which finds the HMS Churchill gutted and burnt out and the crew dead, it doesn't take long for those investigating the disaster to realise it might have something to do with honey lips and perhaps they're in a spot of trouble. Finally alone with a young doctor sparks fly, both metaphorically as lips meet lips, and literally  her first victim has his lifeforce zapped out of him before moving, naked, through the complex like an electric maelstrom escaping out into the wider world.

The young naked space girl with ulterior motives beguiling poor innocent men who just can't say no when presented with a willing bosom is a trope that's been done to death. It's a good, neigh, great excuse to show copious flesh with a semi-legitimate excuse, though in this case I'm not quite sure whether to applaud director Tobe Hooper or not, for the audaciously long time it takes for him to decide she should cover up. While Lifeforce doesn't go down the Species road making this trope the be all and end all of the film it does make up a large part of the story, and to be honest when if does decide to stray playing with alien possession it does unravel a little becoming unnecessarily convoluted and complicated, almost making one think it might have been better if they had.

There's a lot going on with the space vampires and while it's possibly all a bit over contrived it's fun, thought out and for the most part cohesive. They're energy vampires capable of draining the lifeforce from people. They can beguile people, making them fall so deeply in love, both spiritually and sexually, that they can't resist and they can also transfer their consciousness / soul / being into another person assuming motor control and suppressing the host's will. Also while they don't always drain all the lifeforce from a person when they do, leaving them a dehydrated lifeless husk, they do also leave a nasty surprise.

Two hours is the magic number in several ways. Firstly it's a two hour alarm call that springs the mini-vamps / zompires back to life, pulse racing with an insatiable hunger for some lifeforce of their own, else they'll explode. Secondly should they drain the next victim before they pop, they've only another two hours until they need to feed again. This idea of brainless primal hunger, the constant need to feed and the exponential spread of the disease is zombie all the way. These zompires, especially during the last fifteen or so minutes certainly look the part snarling goring their way through the streets of London and the effect as they leap on cars and chase the view remaining survivors also certainly looks zombie and they're a good enough fit in my mind. And let's not forget writer Dan O'Bannon's next film was The Return of the Living Dead, so this is a man well versed in the genre.

A solid script if a little convoluted and farcical, Lifeforce is a good film though not a great one and for such an over the top premise I felt it perhaps played it all a little safe. Peter Firth leads a strong cast who do well with what they've been given, and one can't help watch Patrick Stewart being wrestled to the floor and later orally explode with blood, without a wry smile. The pacing is good for a long film, and there's never a dull moment but it just as we too were coming near  the two hour mark and the finale, I felt it just hadn't elevated my heart rate to the to the same level as those on screen. A fun hokey sci-fi, tame-horror with a lot of nakedness that will leave a smile on your face, if nothing more, 6/10.


Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Stalled - review

2013 (UK)

Contains mild spoilers.

In the world of generic, lazy and very serious expansive and over ambitious zombie survival stories, and farces that don't respect the medium or just aren't that funny it's always a delight when something low budget comes along that not only understands the constraints but exploits them to produce something delightfully original that feels cohesive and entirely sure of its self.

Written by Dan Palmer and directed by Christian James, Stalled is a dark comedy and zom-rom-com with an intimate and claustrophobic twist. The film centres on office janitor W.C. played by the same Dan Palmer, who finds himself stuck in a ladies toilet cubicle on Christmas Eve at first wanting to escape the many obnoxious, drunk and half-naked girls that are coming in fresh from the office party on the floors above, then later wanting to survive the full blown zombie outbreak that's exploding all around. What's important, and what distinguishes Stalled from other films that at this point probably sound awfully similar, is that the four walls of the bathroom are for an hour and twenty minutes the only ones he, or us will see (not quite true but go with me.)

Limiting the film to the single personal setting and presenting it all, though third person, from W.C.'s perspective imbues the film with a feeling of intimacy like that of a drama or play, and not that of a feature film. It's twenty odd minutes before W.C. speaks, the only other non-zombie that's on screen for longer than a minute never shows her face and the action and jokes are measured and constrained; there's a lot on paper that could have gone wrong. Thankfully a deep well fashioned main character full of moral ambiguity and complicated drives, and an actor who can do him justice, combined with a well-paced, inventive and intelligent script and story enables Stalled to pull it off. 

The zombies exhibit that mixed behaviour we see in all main stream pop culture flicks picking and choosing heritage tropes to satisfy the vision of the film makers. The film does a good job setting the scene with subtle revelations rather than relying on any long winded and obvious exposition; there's a dead rat, a 'rapey' pizza guy who gets a bite in, and an implied non-airborne infection. Whilst the infected don't actually appear to die before becoming groaning single-minded cannibalistic gut munchers, once shuffling and hungry they're capable of withstanding quite the pounding with only a good old fashioned heavy trauma to the old noggin capable of putting them down. They're nicely presented and cohesive; the make-up and effects are excellent as is expected post TWD. There's a little too much one minute Romero slow, next minutes Boyle snarly and fast but it's not distracting and the zombies aren't really the main focus as they're really there as the vehicle to enable the character development and personal interaction to flourish, and to provide a few laughs.

Well thought out and confidently constructed Stalled comes across as a film that came out exactly as planned. It's tight, intimate, claustrophobic and personal precisely because that was intended. It's not hampered by the restraint of a small budget but at one and empowered by it. As a small tight single set zombie drama I honestly don't think it could have been done much better. I'll mention that just as Stalled is tight in vision, it's tight in length bringing an end to proceedings after a mere hour and twenty minutes though it gets away with it, and I suspect had it tried to go longer it may have suffered. I could also see how in the wrong mood or state of mind the film could labour with some of the jokes missing the spot and scenes lingering but approached in the right way, maybe without any beer there's a lot on offer. Something different, something intelligent, something witty and absorbing, Stalled is a great piece of film making and recommended, 7/10.