Monday, 19 October 2015

Trick or Treat?

I've been rather treating myself since my return with some cracking zombie horror, and thought it only right I should pop again to the bargain basement to take a look at some of the films that, shall we say, weren't generally as well received.

One can kind of get carried away with DVD sales, especially when one is a bit bored and the debit card has been left unattended…

So my bumper haul and strategic plan of action (which I won't stick to) is the following:

Undead or Alive
Mimesis - Night of the Living Dead
Dead and Deader
Gangsters, Guns & Zombies
The Dead 2 - India
Zombie Driller Killer
The Zombie Farm
Portrait of a Zombie
Zombie Fight Club
Dylan Dog Dead of Night

I've not listed Zombeavers as I'm leaving it as a wild card to cheer me up?


See you on the other side…

The Last Days on Mars - review

2013 (UK / Ireland)

Contains spoilers.

That escalated quickly. One minute there's a tight soap-opera, with space weary astronauts and scientists, anxiously and frustratingly riling each other as they prepare for their long haul back to Earth, knowing they've been unsuccessful in their mission to find life on the red planet. The next, there's a crazed homicidal zombie battering the airlock with his gaunt black skinned face hell bent on death, carnage and really spoiling the going away party. And that's the thing. As much as I enjoyed début director Ruairi Robinson's claustrophobic little zombie survival story there's just not enough subtlety and nuance to proceedings. The result, while competently put together with a strong narrative and its solid cast, is never more than its constituent parts; it's all rather bland and safe, and it's a bit of a pity.

Their timing is atrocious. Okay they would be arriving back at Earth without plaudits, their mission deemed a failure, with a new crew already well on the way to scientific immortality, but one more day, nineteen hours to be precise, to stay out of trouble and they'd still be alive. We've watched enough horrors by now though to know it only takes a little over-extending, a small bending of the rules and a tiny bit of deceit by one self-centred idiot to put in motion a series of events that leaves most, if not all, others in a world of pain. And in The Last Days on Mars it's Marko Petrovic (Goran Kostic) the eight person crew has to thank, who on the eve of evacuation decides he'll break protocol and lie to take one final trip out to a site he believes may contain fossilized evidence of bacterial life; though instead of bringing him fame and fortune, it brings him a bad fall and a nasty case of dead and zombie.

The action is gripping, the effects lavish and production polished it's just the ensuing hour of good quality zombie shenanigans is rather formulaic and by the number. A fight here, a siege there, another fight here, a bit of betrayal and a last ditch plan to survive it's good manic fun but just all a bit derivative and predictable. It's also all rather in your face with little play with suspense or ambiguity. Marko lies dead in an alien pit, Lauren Dalby (Yusra Warsama) is left alone to stand guard while the rest of the crew lead by Charles Brunel (Elias Koteas) go get the body-in-alien-fungus-hole-retrieval-kit. On returning they're gone but there's some obvious tracks leading back to the base, which the film cuts to just in time to see them arrive, in full-on no-nonsense zombie siege mode. There's really no pause for breath, no time to gather thoughts, establish motivations, build tension. They arrive, they get in, they start bashing heads and drilling stomachs and we're expected to go along with it all.

There's no mention of zombies on the box and it could easily have been a film I overlooked, but it's as zombie as you can get. The black veined oxygen deprived gut munchers are very much dead in the human sense with total loss of self and identity. They're highly infectious, they're driven with an insatiable hunger to kill, and possibly eat their victims and they really look the part, though with a c. $7m budget I'd expect them too. It's the alien bacteria that's responsible for all the trouble and the film adheres to the tried and tested trope that dictates blood exposure to lead to slow painful death then death to zombie, and there's not much in the way of dubiousness. Though for mindless homicidal brutes they're pretty nifty with all the tools, machinery and explosives they use to use, which maybe opens some coherency issues, but really it just cements their credentials as 'A' tier zombie bad assess one should not want to trifle with.

The Last Days on Mars is a solid action oriented space horror that doesn't really do much wrong other than not dare to be a more intelligent and passionate. With little emotional depth to the characters and some rather sombre performances the atmosphere of peril and dread you feel should be pervasive and consuming fails to appear, and the pain, anguish and ultimate deaths of the crew fail to carry much weight. This is no more exemplified than with star of the show Liev Schreiber as Vincent Campbell, hero and lone survivor, and the deliberately left-open final life and death scene, and my genuine lack of concern and enthusiasm towards its outcome.

With fighting scenes that are nicely choreographed and look great there's a simple uncompromising action horror here that will entertain, and Mars does make a beautiful back drop for full on zombie fun; it's just, like the red planet itself, lacking in atmosphere, and all rather flat and lifeless - 6/10.


Saturday, 17 October 2015

State of Emergency - review

2011 (USA)

Contains mild spoilers.

State of Emergency has its faults but writer and director Turner Clay, and brother and producer John Will Clay should be immensely proud of their low budget 28 Days Later inspired little zombie opus. Relying a lot on character interaction / development, and long moody shot construction, for a film of an hour and a half not a lot actually happens; yet as a complete work throughout it was utterly gripping and genuinely provocative. While I can understand some of the criticism this film has received, personally I feel the slower pace and more artistic direction lends the film its ever present atmosphere of foreboding, and makes the moments of action and horror far more terrifying for it.

State of Emergency has a very clear and cohesive identity. The Clays dramatize the down-time; with focus on the relationships and needs of those lucky enough to find themselves still alive in a sanctuary that appears to offer them some semblance of the safety of the old world. Then there's outside; outside the shelter means death. The world has gone to hell, the people they once called neighbour are now savage, deranged, and mean to kill and eat them. Inside the feeling is closest synonymised with that feeling as a child that all is safe with the covers pulled high and as long as you can't see the monsters they can't see you. The dichotomy the Clay's have produced is convincing and tangible and it makes the later infringements more disturbing. It's that play with binary conditions and inherent contradiction that also lies at the heart of the zombie concept; that is something that is neither alive or dead. We humans like one thing or another, clear lines, and when they cross the result is uncomfortable.

Fear works when the unpleasant inevitability is postponed. We know the monster WILL jump out, all the cues are there; one finds oneself wishing they would just get it over with. State of Emergency is a masterclass not only in building and maintaining heart pounding suspense but actually making good the promise of delivery. Are they zombies though? At this juncture I think it's quite naïve to demand actual physical deadness from the being that's now clearly no longer the being they were before. The people of Montgomery County exposed and not immune to the fallout from the explosion at the bio-chemical facility might not be physically dead but they're the perfect encapsulation of inhuman, unpredictable and uncomfortable. It's the monsters from 28 Days Later somehow made to seem more savage, more scary when juxtaposed against the frailties and vulnerabilities of real people who really are terrified of them. Like their confusion, their fear transfers through the screen, genuinely becoming palpable to the viewer.

This playing with deliberate vagueness and ambiguity, whether narratively or stylistically lies at the heart of the film. Like the survivors one doesn't ever feel in control of knowing what's going on. Obviously there's going to be a bit of confusion when faced with a county wide viral pandemic that's turning the vast majority of the population into primal homicidal cannibals; but here's its more. The Clay's deliberately embrace the notion that less can be more. There's no laboured exposition, past stories are handled with well-paced flashbacks, no need to fully dissect the zombie identity with long drawn out contrived sequence. We're there, we know as much as they do, yes there's lots of holes but its this that's driving the tension and maintaining the atmosphere.

Tense, gripping and enthralling throughout, this small claustrophobic horror placed a huge burden on a small cast who delivered tight authentic performances that matched the great direction and production. Special mention must also be made for the sound; whether it faint distant sporadic gun fire, close intimidating thunder or smothering silences matching compliment the vision and narrative beautifully.

State of Emergency is a zombie film that's more than the sum of its parts. While it could be argued by some its more style over substance it’s this very deliberate decision and vision that enables it to work the way it does; there's a very clear identity and a confidence to stick it out, and this has to be respected. The apocalyptic world the Clay's have constructed is both cohesive and coherent, and to be honest I'd have loved to have seen a second instalment, with slightly bigger budget to enable them more room to play with their undoubted vision and style, and this says a lot. Recommended - 7/10.


Thursday, 15 October 2015

Bio Zombie - review

1998 (Hong Kong)

Contains spoilers

Bio zombie is pretty much everything you'd want from a comedy zombie film. Witty dialogue, dark and dirty zombies and carnage, a delightful buddy pairing in Jordan Chan as Woody (Invincible as he's credited) and Sam Lee as (Crazy) Bee who are helped to shine by interesting complementary characters, and a director who clearly understand pacing and delivers when called upon. Honestly if you think Shaun and Ed (Simon and Nick) mixed with Dead Alive (Braindead) staged like Dawn of the Dead given a bit of video-game touch up, you'd be on the right track. Add that it's not doing any of these zombie 'A' list films a disservice by association and you'll get an idea how good I think this forgotten and overlooked gem is. Okay, if we're picky one could say it does take a good hour to really get going, and I would possibly have to own up, that should I watch it again I'd probably fast forward much of the dialogue heavy pre-action; but once dialled up, it really does deliver.

Woody and Bee remind me of Bill and Ted, yet slightly more rounded and authentic for two down and out chancers interested only in booze, drugs and getting laid; this due in part by not being restrained by any PG film rating requirement. When not ripping young geeks off, harangue local traders and female shoppers and generally larking about causing mischief, the two scallywags pretend to run a small video store in the New Trend Plaza shopping arcade for their boss. Now, it was on one such errand for their boss, the minor manner of collecting his car from the garage that they also became responsible for the rather more serious disruption that's the focus of the film.

Now I say they're responsible; but really, following the tried and tested zombie outbreak trope that contrives to deliver the actual highly secret and dangerous compound or toxin; and ultimate seed of universal armageddon into the hands of ignorant and usually quite naïve and curious passers-by, I'm not sure quite sure how much responsibility they should take. I mean covertly trading the bio-zombie bio-weapon in a Lucozade bottle with minimal security in a warehouse close to a residential and retail centre, alongside a test subject who's gotten rather aggressive and hungry, is kind of asking for trouble. Again though, Woody and Bee did choose to take the fleeing dying soldier to the mall, force feed him the soda then forget about him so they could play video games; then realising their error not raise the alarm on finding a zombie cocoon, missing body and hearing a monstrous moan, so maybe they should shoulder some of blame for the consequent death, carnage and mayhem.

Director and co-script writer Wilson Yip's pacing if a little slow to get going, is nigh on perfect once zombie-soldier man turns into zombie soldier and zombie-police man, then into zombie-soldier, zombie-police man and zombie-sushi man ad infinitum. The initial undead encounters which tie the main characters, whom we've already bonded with, together are full of charm and laughs; the subsequent ramp up of danger is legitimate and measured, understanding the zombie threat's need to develop and grow in parallel to the survivors' ability to deal with it. And though there are moments of poignancy and seriousness, especially the final ten minutes or so, where you find yourself feeling uncomfortably challenged waiting for a punchline that doesn't seem to be coming, Yip still understands that he's putting together something that wants to play with the absurdity of an enemy that's neither alive or dead. Once on the scene there's no contrivance and pretence to explain what they are; we know what they are, Woody, Bee and Rolls (Angela Ying-Ying Tong) know what they are and we're all together in understanding their strengths and their shortcomings.

Obviously taking their influence from Dawn of the Dead the blue tinted zombies stumble and groan between each new and tasty meal. Though slightly more frenetic than their Romero cousins, it's still all about an enemy that relies on maths to eventually win; the lone zombie easily circumvented or dispatched with a satisfactory amount of blood and ingenuity. Yip also allows himself a little more licence than Romero to play, allowing for zombies to demonstrate certain amounts of self-awareness and recall, either to aid the narrative or just for the lols; for example, the security guard knows to hit a switch to close the main shutter doors removing our heroes one perceived exit, and Sushi Boy / Loi (Emotion Cheung) who retaining his crush for Rolls, as an obvious Warm Bodies influence, tries to distract other zombies from her by serving them actual finger-finger-rolls.

Overflowing with energy and confidence Bio zombie is also a very human film, full of warmth for characters you do quite quickly invest in and care for. Yip may provide the perfect canvas but Jordan and Sam (Woody and Bee) had still to deliver, and do so with a genuine killer buddy performance that's pretty much as good as it gets. As said once in full swing it's all the bit the great relentless zombie gore fest, yet it's the first hour with it's witty, sharp script, top delivery and deep character development that sets it all up to be so good and as such shouldn't be so dismissed. A Hong-Kong pop-subculture horror / comedy / action mash-up, Bio zombie is an overlooked zombie great - 8/10.


Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Lust of the Dead - review

2012 (Japan)

Contains spoilers.

You know what you're going to get when you watch a Japanese film titled Lust of the Dead or in full, Zombie Rape: Lust of the Dead; well at least I hope you do. Amateur effects, sets and acting, an inconsistent story that unravels into farce, and enough low budget and totally inappropriate sleaze that it leaves you walking away wanting to wash your eyes out with bleach. And yet; somehow, there's always the chance that the crass and vulgar will make you laugh, the absurd and ridiculous will entertain and the fan service will either titillate or be shrugged off as harmless. It's a tall ask though, as the for every Zombie Ass: Toilet of theDead or Troma flick that's at its brazen best, there are scores of titles that fall so low that merely uttering their names leaves one feeling unclean.

As probably imagined, I really want to throw Lust of the Dead with its rape agenda, its dangerously age inappropriate nudity and its penchant for the systematic objectification of all women, firmly in the latter pile; and for a good hour I was definitely planning on doing just that. Then somehow, it managed  the impossible. Somehow despite the good hour of obsessive breast focus and panty flash and the umpteenth gratuitously shot brutal rape or gang-rape, all I believe totally justified by director and co-screen writer Naoyuki Tomomatsu's ludicrous testosterone fuelled zombie origin narrative, it managed to demonstrate that tiniest spark of self-awareness; like it could actually, maybe, be more than it was.

Don't get me wrong. It didn't try too hard and by elevate itself I'm talking a 3 not a 1. I mean listening to Kanae (Asami Sugiuri) shouting 'Women are not sex slaves for men!' while battling the hordes of horny undead all managing to pull at her kimono until her breasts were free for audience to ogle and the extras to grope, even if she does manage the last word by blasting them all to kingdom come, is, if as a last minute attempt to redress the balance, woefully missing the point. Yet it could be argued it is at least trying, and the five minutes or so of high octane OneChanbara-esque fighting preceding it was head and shoulders better than the sporadic and quite lame scuffles that had come before.

It's normally at this part of the review I start delving into the pertinent zombie origin story, though here I don't know quite where to begin. The Ozone hole, GM crops, space radiation, the Shinto Japanese myth cycle are all cited along with some stuff about bacteria, the origins of oxygen based life and the need for constant evolution. What we do know though, is, dokyun men (think high testosterone, sports, naturally rapey) have all turned into insatiable sex mad zombies driven solely to strip, grope and rape women. I say dokyun men, as the seemingly only alternative is otaku or stay-at-home manga / anime loner men who say they are happy to remain sexless though as we find out the slightest provocation and these guys too turn. So it's kind of all men and as stressed in one of the laboured TV cut-in debate interludes maybe what's wrong with rape anyway as it would begin to redress not just an imagined gender imbalance but all societal, wealth, nature and power imbalances as well; so why differentiate one man from another, we're all as bad or all as entitled...

Lust for the Dead is soft porn pretending to be a zombie film pretending to be soft porn; not only just managing to stay the wrong side of appropriate throughout but on occasion really stepping over by playing that creepy, last seen in Attack Girls Swim vs The Undead, scene that suggests that the those on the receiving end of a right good rape might in some way be grateful for the sexual stimulation. Yet, for all I've just said, it did just enough in its final few throes to stop me from totally hating both it and myself for buying it. Once the North Korea death nuke hits, the zombies suddenly become more interesting in the sense they're really probably quite dead now, even finally looking the part. Also the surviving female companions appear to have found some sudden depth, maybe on screen for more than having their blouse hang open, or to have a clumsy lesbian make-out with a new best friend.

The cityscape they find themselves in too, suddenly has a beautiful yet eerie post-apocalyptic vibe, giving the film an expansiveness not felt in the first hour or so that had them stuck in the same four walls nostalgically flashing back to pre-zombie sexual inappropriateness. I'll whisper this final bit, but the final scene had almost a Zombie Flesh Eaters (Zombi 2) feel; also it would be hard not to mention David Cronenberg's Shivers which too played with the idea of non-dead sexually charged men and women who are so driven their higher self begins to deteriorate though in that instance in with entirely different style, substance, skill and subtlety.

Overall, Lust of the Dead is distasteful misogynistic fantasy; playing with rape and sexpolitation in a really creepy way that not only feels uncomfortable while thinking about the characters but spills over into thinking about the young actresses who had to work with the myriad of older Japanese men who seemed more than comfortable simulating gang-rape, and squeezing and jiggling their breasts at every opportunity. It's a film that some will really enjoy, as gore, zombies, fun and boobies can make a good mix, yet for me, despite thinking it was poking both genders, it's just not enough and I'm left feeling like I need a brain bleach, though I better hold off as there's parts 2, 3 and heaven help us, 4 too - 3/10.


Tuesday, 6 October 2015

The Ghoul - review

1933 (UK)

Contains spoilers.

The story of The Ghoul's release, preservation and eventual VHS / DVD release is perhaps as interesting as the film itself. After the film's theatre release in the UK in 1933, the US in 1934, then one final reissue in 1938, the film was for all intents and purposes lost. Not even a trailer existed. In 1969 a virtually inaudible but subtitled version was uncovered in Czechoslovakia, and though it was missing eight minutes of what would have been considered at the time, excessive brutal savagery, it allowed fans to actually get to see Boris Karloff strutting about in his prime. Finally in the early 1980s behind a forgotten Shepperton Studios door a perfect negative was found, The British Film Institute was able to make a clean new print and we're all now able to appreciate this 1933 gothic horror in all its glory.

Director T. Hayes Hunter's The Ghoul is a low budget film of its era. The story is hokey, full of cliché and a little convoluted, the acting stilted, with dialogue on more than one occasion forced and exaggerated. Scene by scene it would be easy to pick holes, yet as whole entity The Ghoul still today, in all its black and white glory, oozes atmosphere and style, with a narrative that stays remarkably on point, pacing that feels unforced and at ease, unlike many horrors of the day, and the myriad of twists and turns does keep the film feeling fresh and interesting.

It's all about The Eternal Light™. Esteemed Egyptologist and soon to be dead Prof. Henry Morlant (Boris Karloff) wanted it, his solicitor Broughton (Cedric Hardwicke) when he discovers how much he paid for it, wants it, Egyptian Sheik Aga Ben Dragore (Harold Huth) wants it back, Ralph Morlant (Anthony Bushell) and cousin Betty Harlon (Dorothy Hyson) want to inherit it, Nigel Hartley (Ralph Richardson) wants to steal it; heck, even the police know about it and want to return it. The thing is servant and most trusted confidant, Laing (Ernest Thesiger) has it and the person this has most annoyed died earlier that day.

It maybe tries a little too hard with the ambitious number of characters all vying for control, and okay, the film does labour a bit over the first thirty or so minutes as it contrives to fill the back story, introduce and give reason to get all the interested parties to Morlant's late night Egyptian slumber party right on time. But once in attendance, and with Morlant ready to make his grand after-death appearance the film flows, with characters and action bouncing off each with spirit and finesse; and it's the perfect vehicle for Karloff to once again work his screen presence.

Morlant wants The Eternal Light™ because he believes it will ultimately grant him eternal life. On his death bed he instructs Laing to wrap the gold-gem-broach-thing to his hand ready for him to be buried in his newly constructed faux-Egyptian tomb where, when the next full moon's light reaches the door, the hand of the nearby statue of Anubis will, if he's done well, clasp it and transfer immortality. Should however The Eternal Light™ be missing he informs him, he will come back to kill! Morlant may be a heathen and a bit self-centred, spending all his inheritance unscrupulously acquiring  the light, but he is at least a man of his word.

Now Morlant wasn't looking great before he died. With heavy eyes, broken deteriorated skin he certainly possessed the right zombie face to immediately fit straight in should there have been a sudden modern outbreak. Up and about, he appears angry, desperate and increasingly gruesome with both deteriorating body and mind. Now, it is suggested near the end that rather than actually being returned from the dead (back to life is a term never mentioned) he was in fact suffering from catalepsy. Whether or not right, there's still a lot of ambiguity. Morlant on returning never speaks, his cognitive functioning appears to be degrading and he appears to possess unnatural strength. His compulsion to reacquire the Light is also all consuming with parallels to the Draugr / Revenant mythology; undead creatures returned from the dead to protect their ill-gotten treasure. Yes he's not the Romero or modern zombie, with memory, and ability to function and interact with the world, but he's not the Morlant that died in bed demonstrable and absolute.

A middle quarter aside that rather drags out and convolutes the set-up, The Ghoul is tight claustrophobic death house gothic horror that remarkably, some 80 years after being made still retains charm, style, atmosphere, and the ability to surprise. Egypt and curses is a trope that's been done to death, but here there's a real early play with the ambiguity of the zombie, or the walking-dead; a play with the life-death dissonance that resonates uncomfortableness on the viewer. Surround this in a solid crime drama with interesting characters all vying to win the prize, and even a bit of light comedy, with the eccentric and exaggerated Kaney (Kathleen Harrison) and the film is a very solid early horror treat that should be sought out. Whether Morlant is a zombie or not, that'll have to be up to you, 7/10.