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.