Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Pandemic - review

2016 (USA)

Contains mild spoilers. 

Pandemic, subtitled Fear the Dead has a lot going for it. A gritty, broken and desperately cruel post-apocalyptic world. A complicated and some-what original zombie threat that at times is nail-bitingly scary. A sturdy performance from a cast full of recognisable faces. And a beautiful crisp clean transfer and audio track thanks once again to my European neighbours (though why I'm increasingly reliant on the French, German and Dutch for a Blu-ray version of a film deemed merely DVD worthy for the UK is frustrating to say the least.) Under the helm of director, and co-producer John Suits it's a low budget film that holds it surprisingly together with an energetic first person perspective (POV Point of View) approach that doesn't unravel, and a fearlessness to go outside, with wide, expansive shots and play with huge crowds of extras all at once. It's hard to put a finger on quite why it all doesn't quite work what with all the fine ingredients, and why the final result is when all is said and done, a tad tedious and dare I say quite forgettable.

Rachel Nichols plays Lauren Chase a CDC doctor, separated from her husband and daughter but one of the few who made it into the militarised safe zone. Though more than a little green she's given command of a small team and tasked to head to a school on the far side of Los Angeles to test and hopefully save eighty-nine survivors, and investigate why the crew sent before failed to return. The rest of the crew comprise of Gunner (Mekhi Phifer - Andre in Dawn of the Dead), the captain and muscle, Wheeler (Alfie Allen  - Theon Greyjoy) the driver and Denise (Missi Pyle), the navigator. 

It's all there; hindering their mission are quite the assortment of increasingly desperate and surprisingly well organised survivors, hordes of semi-psychotic crazies, and full blown terrifying zombie-demons you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. Each stop on the groups little tour of downtown LA is full of suspense, action and ultimately maiming and killing, and yet it's also all rather derivative with much of its punch tamed by an aura of invincibility that seems to follow Dr Chase and troupe like a contrived guiding hand. Our heroes are crept up on, grabbed and jumped; and yes I know, small spoiler, they don't all survive, but watching wave after wave of crazy ultra-violent mad men and women chase, surround and swarm the group only for them to yet again make it clear by the skin of their teeth tests credulity and reduces the intensity fat too easily and far too early.

Then there's the infected. Suits really fleshes out a city in turmoil and the multi-faceted zombie threat; yet combined with the seemingly predetermined danger, and their varying contradictions, the many encounters which to begin with are pumped and explosive, soon deteriorate to feel rather forced, and even bewildering. The narrative too suffers from questionable decision making; none more so than going to all the trouble of presenting a dead city with empty streets full of carnage, and a desperate last ditch attempt to find some, any survivors; then suddenly having them drive past swatches of homeless vagrants; one of whom I swear was drinking coffee, with not a mention that they should perhaps stop and enquire how they were doing?

A lot of thought and effort has gone into the films zombie infection, fleshing it out with depth and subtlety. Rather than a generic The Walking Dead binary position Suits has contrived a five phase degenerating condition and made it central to the narrative. It starts rather safely with Level 1 and flu like symptoms and Level 2 and haemorrhaging, before level 3 and black necrotic blood, diminished mental capacity, confusion, and enough extreme aggression to fashion the threat needed for all this to be a thing. But it's levels 4 and 5 where things get interesting. Just when things looked like they couldn't get any worse level 3 patients suddenly go into stasis, hibernating with an extremely low heart rate. Then it's level 5 after some god awful demonic transmutation and it's bonies from Warm Bodies or the vamp-zombies from I Am Legend, and utterly inhuman and genuinely terrifying. The bulk of the action involves the group evading and combating the infected pre this final mutation; they're varying positioned crazy and confused; some desperate for aid, others increasingly violent and random, with even an odd bit cannibalism I think shoe-horned in as some clumsy zombie homage. They're all good; well presented and perfectly choreographed but I would have liked to have seen the level 5's a bit more prominently positioned and introduced a little earlier as their impact certainly elevates the film and once introduced it's hard to go back.

Pandemic has a lot going for it but ultimately struggles because of a few small decisions and characters that offer little to no reason to either empathise with or get behind. Also, John Suits, having managed to do the hard bit and get the first person camera view point to actually work, possibly over eggs it, with scenes that seem overly contrived to take advantage of the success, and as mentioned a zombie threat that gets too close too often only to impossibly be beaten back. An awfully bleak world, an apocalyptic shit-storm; there's certainly a place for films that truly paint the end of the world in a manner where there's no silver lining and it's good to see directors and writers shun the current, and cheap trend to align zombies with lighthearted and flippant. A high-octane zombie horror that's not afraid to bare its teeth, and definitely worth seeking out for a throwaway evening; but also struggles to ultimately hold it together or stand out - 6/10.


Tuesday, 6 December 2016

The Sky Has Fallen - review

2009 (USA)

Contains spoilers. 

Sure, writer, director, producer, chief cook and bottle washer Doug Roos's passion project has its faults; I'd bet my bottom dollar Roos himself could easily provide a list of all things he'd want to improve or change, and sure there are better dark and brooding; for a frivolous zom-rom-com this is certainly not, zombie horrors out there, but I honestly challenge anyone to name me an independent no budget fully-fledged feature with as much character, attention to detail, originality and honesty. The Sky Has Fallen is testament that indie passion and vision, combined with stubbornness, tenacity and energy can produce something that easily holds itself up to far grander and more entitled efforts. At a time when the zombie movie scene is awash with cheap and lazy, that honourable and sincere little gems like this still make it through the quagmire gives genuine hope.

If you're one that believes a true post-apocalyptic landscape would be far from an introverted paradise and self-indulgent playground then The Sky Has Fallen could well be your wet-dream. Roos paints a world of misery, brutality and insufferable despondency. I'm a genuinely glass is half full kind of guy but faced with this alien / zombie nightmare, where the danger isn't just being bitten and going rogue but possibly facing an eternity of the most depraved Hellraiser torture; if you're lucky; I really don't think even I'd be able to muster any positivity or hope. Fortunately it's not down to me though, as Roos has Lance (Carey MacLaren) and Rachel (Laurel Kemper) two strong and driven characters who do seem up for challenging the status-quo and saving man-kind.

The Sky Has Fallen is a zombie film quite like no other. If I were to make connections I'd argue there's a European continental esoteric and ambiguous, yet deeply unsettling vibe akin to Fulci and his Gates of Hell trilogy. Then there's Barker's Hellraiser parallel; of paradigm-disrupting monsters visiting Earth for some gratuitous and sadistic fun and frolics. Then it's still all zombie and a western homage to the Japan's Versus with dozens if not hundreds of slow shuffling and insatiable dead falling to exacting and perfectly choreographed samurai sword-swinging and gun-toting precision. And if all this isn't enough it's a powerful character driven melodrama with forceful performances that resonate and move.

If an airborne pandemic with 100% effectiveness leading to the total downfall of mankind wasn't bad enough, it seems it was merely stage one. No sooner have the few immune survivors started to adjust to a new world alone without the love and support of friends, family or any form of coherent government or society their grieving is brought to an abrupt end by the arrival of real perpetrators; black cloaked, mandible wielding, mind controlling, zombie-fashioning sadistic little shits that seem to see humanity as nothing other than their next meal. And I mean to say this in the same way a cat views its dinner; for as much as our consumption is important, it would also appear sadism is an integral and important part of the process. Whether they're aliens, demons, transdimensional parasites, like their sinister, emotionless barbarism, not understanding or controlling the whys and wherefores all aids the brooding, deeply unsettling atmosphere. Again for a film with under such financial pressure, the handling and screen presence of these masters is fabulously realised, as are the zombies they create and control. And again as we'd expect much of the slicing and dicing is off camera and more intimated than realised, but Roos hasn't held back with some truly awful and appalling (in a good way) and highly effective make-up and close-ups that encapsulates his undoubted fetid and utterly depraved vision of hell on earth.

Ok, I did feel some of the moody and indulgent conversation and reflection did repeat itself and drag proceedings. I also felt whilst brilliantly realised and deliberately shocking, the film did somewhat lose its aesthetic soul with perhaps one too many perverse and gratuitous torture / murder scenes. It's ironic that the Ultimate edition I watched, with eight additional minutes of tinkering over the 2009 release might actually now itself be in need of edit. A fabulous passion project I'd far rather talk about for all it does right though, rather than its inevitable occasional stumble. The world needs visionaries that break moulds and its genuinely inspiring, against the hum drum and mediocre, that films such as The Sky Has Fallen are brought to fruition. A powerful and resonating film that captures the honest and meticulous vision of its own inventor and investor it's a film I can truly recommend, and fully deserving of all the indie plaudits it collected - 7/10.


Tuesday, 22 November 2016

The Hanging Woman (The Orgy of the Dead / La Orgía de los Muertos) - review

1973 (Spain / Italy)

Contains spoilers.

I'd be lying if I said this quintessentially low budget European horror was good. I'd be equally disingenuous if I was to be overly harsh. Director José Luis Merino's La Orgía de los Muertos (translated as The Orgy of the Dead), otherwise known as Beyond the Living Dead (US),  Zombies - Terror of the Living Dead (UK), and finally and most popularly in the US, The Hanging Woman, in truth, is a distinctly mediocre gothic mad-scientist whodunnit dotted with enough distinctly brilliant and memorable moments that it almost fools you into thinking it's better than it is. The story, characters and acting is as equally laboured as It is convoluted and discordant, and despite Paul Naschy being Paul Nashy in his prime, he can't, this time, save the film entirely on his own mainly because his involvement was actually quite limited, due to parallel film commitment.

Serge Chekov (Stelvio Rosi as Stan Cooper) returning to his late uncle's estate for the reading of the will stumbles upon the grizzly scene of, whom he soon discovers to be, his niece's fresh corpse hanging from a tree. Then finding himself the, for all intents and purposes, sole benefactor he's quickly embroiled in a web of scheming and distrust, black magic and murder, in a claustrophobic and isolated backwater mansion with a cast of disparate and quite disturbed figures.

There's Igor (Paul Naschy), the crazy-eyed, dishevelled cemetery caretaker who we learn is also quite the necrophiliac and all round pervert; there's the newly widowed Countess Nadia Mihaly (Maria Pia Conte) who wants Serge to sell and is happy to persuade with sex, satanic ritual and voodoo; there's Professor Leon Driola (Gérard Tichy), the permanent guest of the late Count who specialist research is electricity and the nebulous curtain of death, and there's his daughter, the Countesses maid Doris Droila (Dyanik Zurakowska) who wants Serge to actually keep the estate for her father's sake.

At some point each and every one supplies motive and means to explain the, for at least an hour, rather sketchy, zombie murder mystery, and each and every one provides a discordant sub-narrative with Serge at the centre. And Serge loves it. Making the lead character and hero such an entitled obnoxious cad is either brave film making or suicide, as whether he's taking advantage of young vulnerable daughters or engaged in yet another innocuously provoked fist fight he's incredibly difficult to either empathise with or rally behind. Even as the credits rolled and he'd solved the case, and rescued and won the girl I couldn't help hope there would be some late twist and he'd still get the zombie maul he undisputedly deserved.

The zombies are one of the true highlights of the film and it was a pity it took such a long time to get to see them in all their splendour. Fetid, crusty and decaying, they're the epitome of the seventies walking dead infamously popularised by Fulci later in the decade. Unlike the esoteric mystical nature of Fulci's creation though, these guys have a mad Victor Frankenstein scientist and rational excuse for their reanimation. Spoiler… it was Professor Leon you see, and not any of the black magic or voodoo thrown in to put us of course. As well as learning the secrets of electrical resurrection he's also a whizz with micro-technology, designing and manufacturing a 'capsule' that slots in the corpses brain to both control its actions as well as pick up his thoughts. They're mindless drones incapable of independent thought driven solely to obey their master and the murders were all perpetrated at the behest of the prof who first wanted to kill his partner the count, to stop him using the discovery to amass 'an army of the dead'. The rest of the victims, beginning with the hanging woman, were unlucky dominoes that fell as the ever desperate Leon tried to cover his tracks. An interesting zombie twist to note at the end of the film and starting with the now resurrected Naschy, of a disobedience and demonstration of independent murderess intent, with the professor no longer able to exert control. It lead to a lively and satisfying climax, but as stated all came rather too late.

Naschy, the zombies, the sombre gothic atmosphere brilliantly captured, and the brooding organ music; there are many reasons to get excited over this early seventies continental horror. Indeed, as much as the story was long winded, trite, and discordant, and the characters generally unbearable and difficult to share any sympathy with, the constantly interspersed distractions were enjoyable despite themselves and perhaps for all the wrong reasons. Also one can't help but be charmed with echoes of a more innocent, or naive time when woman always fainted at bad news, it was ok to beat and shoot at the feet of disagreeable servants, and it was right and proper to invade and search a man's property because 'he's a strange sort and could be dangerous'. As charmed as I was though, and as much as I did enjoy the final fifteen or so minutes of zombie mayhem, I have to argue there are much better gothic horrors from this era, and this is far from Naschy's best effort. Yet, it does have a certain something that could warrant a viewing on a stormy night with curtains drawn, lights down low, and goblet of port in hand - 5/10.


Thursday, 17 November 2016

Zombie Killers Elephant's Graveyard - review

2015 (USA)

Contains mild spoilers. 

Let's talk apostrophes. We all get it wrong from time to time, especially when writing, and thought and creativity is more engaged, than say, any desire to satisfy the minutia. It's not Elephant's Graveyard; it's the whole romanticised idea that elephants would collectively travel to some mythical single location to gasp their final breath; there's more than one. It's a small thing I know, but this small lack of attention is quite indicative of director and co-writer Harrison Smith's low budget zombie effort. For as taken as I was with the refreshingly modern and airy look and feel, and enamoured with the highly emotive characters and their story, I couldn't quite shake off all the small niggles and warts that combined to spoil the party. 

So who are the zombie killers? Well, they refer to the rag tag assortment of young waifs and strays tasked with protecting the isolated and fenced town of Elwood. Led with ruthless utilitarian zeal, Elwood under the leadership of Doc (Brian Anthony Wilson), an ex-military medic, has survived the fervent zombie contamination that has taken hold of the planet. For six years, under the sub-command of Seiler (Billy Zane) these young adults have foraged, hunted and risked life and limb outside the safety of the compound to provide for the rather religious and insular group of lowlifes, who as we will discover, would be only too happy to thank them with a bullet to the back of the head should situation or occasion, like not keeping ones space tidy, demand.

For a world ravaged by a multi-species zombie contamination, where society has collapsed, resources are scant and general subsistence has regressed to something akin to the stone-age you'd think people would have better things to do than paint ball or spread malicious rumour because it goes against rather wonky religious ideals. Yet that's what Zombie Killers Elephant's Graveyard is primarily about. It's not a tense or shocking survival thriller but a highly emotive character driven soap-opera where the very real zombie threat plays second fiddle to odd politicking and strange, almost sociopathic adherence to a disjointed dictatorial ideology; and though, as I've stated, it was genuinely refreshing to engage with something with a different take on post-apocalyptic living, it just didn't come together.

I won't spoil the Elephants' Graveyard bit save to say for an ingenious twist on a well-known mythit wasn't the worst idea I've seen, and certainly garnered some much needed zombie attention just when it needed it. It's a symbolically extreme and audacious idea and that's ok. Unfortunately it also marks the point the film starts to fall apart as if there's a sudden shift in narrative to one where anything goes, and coherence no longer matters. Rather than using it as a tool to pull the surrounding narrative together, this tsunami of madness acts as a catalyst for characters to acts out and the story to descend in to farce which was all a pity.

It's a parasitic, toxoplasmosis pandemic that's intimated to be of Proterozoic origin and has been thrown through time with fracking. In a candid and refreshingly glib post-zombie contemporary monologue which opens proceedings, we learn despite the best will of the uniting world, its swept mankind aside without mercy and this small band may well be all that's left. The some slow / some fast zombies are reasonably made up and realised, as would be expected in 2015 and though there's been an attempt to imbue them with fear, it all rather fails due to their rather comic spasmodic gait. As is now staple, it's the derivative bullet to the brain to stop them though as said, with their seemingly unlimited ammo and firepower it's not them one really needs to worry about. 

I can see what Smith was trying to do, and though the contemporary drama wasn't without charm the post-apocalyptic dystopia has fashioned characters that perhaps are just that too emotionally naïve and hyper-realised to feel plausible or congruous. There's an over simplification; a soap-opera immaturity and though Zane leads a cast who do adequately with what they have, all too often their characters behaviour comes across too extreme; either passive or otherwise, to believably carry the story they're central too. Sure I can understand someone contracting the virus, which Doc confirms with a blood sample, being evicted, and sure I can believe some bastardised reasoning, broken norms and twisted values and even eviction for seemingly minor indiscretions, but ruthless lieutenants more than happy to equate said eviction with totally detached murder is all a bit much. It's also all rather hampered by a convoluted soap-story which staggers in a rather derivative manner for an hour, only to spiral rather absurdly, in a way I'd more associate with The Asylum, to an unexpected, hectic and chin scratching finale, that again, doesn't do anyone any justice. So, certainly interesting, entertaining and reasonably well shot, this low budget zombie TV look and feel melodrama isn't nearly as bad as reviews would lead you to believe, but also doesn't particular deliver the cohesive, authentic post-apocalyptic character driven experience early signs hint of - 5/10.


Friday, 11 November 2016

Bowery at Midnight - review

1942 (USA)

Contains spoilers.
Bowery at Midnight is a dark film and I'm not just referring to the multitude of night-time outdoor, and basement scenes that combined with the grainy monochrome print make it hard to discern exactly what's going on. Bowery at Midnight is a dark film with psychopaths, double lives, indiscriminate murder, and we've not even got on to the resurrection of the dead. It's also not often I make the case that I'm not entirely sure what the zombies bring to the film other than a mechanism to turn the rather bleak ending into something altogether more cheer-some for those leaving the theatre.

Bela Lugosi may have received the bulk of his fame / infamy from his portrayal of Count Dracula both on stage in the late 20's and then in its big screen namesake in 1931, and then later when Ed Wood rather infamously pulled him from his drug induced oblivion in the late 50's. During the 30s and 40s when avoiding being typecast he starred in many unique films demonstrating both his unrecognised versatility and without question his star talent. In Bowery at Midnight Lugosi plays Professor Brenner by day; an erudite confident psychology professor with doting wife and nice house. By night he assumes the role of Karl Wagner, a philanthropic soup kitchen owner, known for his unconditional kindness and no-questions policy. What his wife, students and those unfortunates he helps aren't aware of, is he's also a double crossing, jewellery robbing, sociopath who takes a huge perverse pleasure in destroying people's lives; and Lugosi is terrifyingly convincing.

Writer Gerald Schnitzer and director Wallace Fox have fashioned quite the intriguing, intelligent, coherent and yet deeply disturbing story of deception, murder and mayhem. Lugosi as Wagner uses the soup kitchen to spot vulnerable young men who might be open to highly illegal but immensely profitable night time skulduggery. Then once the deed is done, with their skills no longer required he, or his right hand man, then kill the fellow leaving him at the scene; not just as one would think, as a way of decreasing the split, but as is revealed subtly over the movie, because he enjoys it too. As he tires, or begins to distrust his lieutenant, they too are replaced and then with the blood still warm he heads home, as Brenner, to his wife (Anna Hope) with gifts and apologies for being up all night researching his next book.

While I've been rather disparaging of the zombie element of the film, taken in isolation I'm rather taken with how Fox has presented them. Dr Brooks (Lew Kelly), a written-off old quack as well as caretaker of both sides of the soup kitchen has seemingly dedicated his spare time to bringing the dead back to life. It's medicine and science and there's no voodoo or magic which is something in itself given the year it was penned. They're also a hard one to define as they're never the focus appearing only as background to the basement action scenes. They're back from the dead, so alive and not undead, but up until the final scene, which I'll come to, they do appear docile and compliant, and not exactly cognisant or the way they were before. Then there's the way Brooks keeps them locked in a room below the basement, refers to them as his pets, and when they're called upon they're unreservedly violent, tearing, metaphorically, into Wagner as the net closes in on his crime spree. The final scene I mentioned? Well to take the edge off a story where the perpetrator does finally get his just deserves, but on reflection has ruined a lot of people's lives by killing an awful lot of loved ones, Fox ends with the resurrected back as their old selves, as if nothing's happened. It's a contradictory couple of minutes I didn't much care for; totally out of place coming as it does, straight after the savage zombie beat down that really should have ended proceedings.

Bowery at Midnight is first and foremost a crime-drama, a suspense driven thriller; and a rather successful one. What it isn't is a horror, supernatural or otherwise, and it's certainly not a zombie film. If anything the resurrected victims of Brook's nefarious schemes are the one element that threatens to break the coherence, in danger of turning a truly dark, subtle, intelligent, and utterly engaging exploration of one man's detached morality, into a bit of farce. Not only is the throwaway idea of an old doctor on his own discovering a way to resurrect the dead incredulous, but more importantly, it tries to remove consequence and impact from the death and destruction graphically witnessed. Bowery at Midnight has moments that are truly evil and raw, Lugosi's performance as an over confident and out of control serial killer is remarkable, and I really don't want to see its resonance minimised for the sake of some silly resurrections and a happy ending. This all being said, and maybe because I'm conditioned to see corpses walking about, I was able to distance myself from the distractions and marvel at what the film does do right, which is an awful lot. A remarkable piece of war time cinema I'll certainly be returning to - 7/10.


Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Last of the Living - review

2009 (New Zealand)

Contains mild spoilers. 

I've always found it rather ironic that the zombie film medium itself is so keen to follow the herd with derivative narratives, repetitious cinematography and a hardcore audience always the first up in arms at the first sign of deviation. And I was all ready to chastise Logan McMillan's low budget zombie buddy movie, with its constant inconsistencies, rather impoverished zombie action and general amateur look and feel to the proverbial zombie mass grave. Three rather juvenile, irreverent and one-dimensional characters, an apocalyptic nightmare of working electricity, stocked super-markets and rather sad looking undead all too eager to be dispatched in highly contrived ways, and a story that seemed to be more about the bants than any substance; I really thought we were in for yet another well-intentioned but faltering effort. I should have had faith though, as with a little patience to get through the rather forgettable first fifteen or so minutes, and then forgive it the occasional continuity or coherent dalliance and there's both a quite a tight, complete and entertaining zombie story and a sincere and endearing tale of friendship to be had.

It's six months since the apocalypse took the lives of what looks like all but the scant few, and five since lifelong friends Morgan (Morgan Williams) and Ash (Ashleigh Southam) stumbled across rock wannabe Johnny (Robert Faith) and let him join their frat-boy way of living. They may be all alone, and they may all be desperate for female company, but the total and entire destruction of humanity has generally been a good thing though, allowing time off from accountancy and work, to drink beer, eat chips and play video games without redress. Six months in too and it seems the zombie threat is now pretty trivial with the undead more a ponderous nuisance that an actual danger; and it would have to take something considerable to shake the boys from their inertia

Steff's (Emily Paddon-Brown) violent introduction is the moment Last of the Living springs to life. The lads characters and their relationships are believable and considered but they're shallow and they wear real quick. It's the introduction of a young, feisty, intelligent and good looking girl with a call to arms to save the world not only gives the boys, the viewer, and if the rest of the film is indicative, all involved in the films production, the kick and focus they need. The laboured, lethargic action, is soon replaced with up tempo, and more importantly meaningful zombie woop-assing; the banter with the dynamic drastically ripped apart has deeper resonance, and even the humour seems less forced. The result is a highly polished zombie movie with an assuredness and though the story; really just a to b to c might sound light on paper, less can be more, and here it's more than enough to satisfy, and its also pitched perfect to let the characters and their friendships develop.

If we remind ourselves that it's pre The Walking Dead and a time amazing amateur zombie make-up designers weren't ten a penny, and we remind ourselves the production crew are a small group of friends and the zombies are more than likely local passers-by, then we might just about excuse an aspect of the movie that's far from perfect. Never convincing in looks or behaviour, the undead of Last of the Living almost provide an amateur goofiness undermining without trying, and though I think McMillan ultimately realised with more emphasis on the zombies as a presence in the background to drive the characters rather than the focus of jokes they were never fully convincing. As for the dead themselves? They're quite the generic Romero zombie; dead and on the surface so laboriously slow that I couldn't work out for the life of me how they'd pulled off such a categorical genocide. Towards the end though we see that they're only slow because they're six months dead, and fresh and hungry they're more 28 Days Later and it all made sense.

Far more ambitious and successful than its budget should have allowed, Last of the Living once going, provides a tight, fun and authentic character driven viewing delight. Whilst the action often suffers with less than ideal looking and choreographed zombies and the ambitious outdoor cinematography often felt unnaturally sparse, McMillan ultimately works to the film and budget's strengths; friendship and ennui in post-apocalyptic New Zealand, with resounding success. A feature that feels more than the sum of its parts, no less due in part to utterly engaging musical sound track that echoes the story brilliantly, Last of the Living is testament to amateur film making. Sure it's a slow burn and saddled with an inevitable budgetary hangover, but ultimately I'll recall it favourably for its ambition and courage to be different - 7/10.


Monday, 7 November 2016

The ABCs of Death - review

2012 (USA)

Contains spoilers.
I'm quite late to what seems to have become quite the annual celebration of macabre,  grizzly and gruesome nasty experimental film making. The premise was simple. Various acclaimed film makers would be given a letter and told to throw a three / four minutes of video nastiness together; the only limit on their imagination, that there had to be at least one death.

This result is if I'm honest quite the mixed bag. Some are truly fantastic like Marcel Sarmiento's highly polished, highly stylised and original D is for Dogfight and H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion a hilarious stop-gap animation; but very few seem to possess the confidence to go for a complete old school horror tale; all too quickly and cheaply running to shock, vulgar gore-porn, nudity or even surrealist-humour as a get out.

Still it's easy to wait a few minutes for the next, there's definite wheat in the chaff and there were only a couple I really took so little an interest in, that I didn't get something from seeing them through. 

I'll give special mention to our old friend Noboru Iguchi (Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead) who with F is for Fart seems to be continuing his bottom obsession with a quite bizarre and crude existential short that I feel I only appreciated because I'm now somewhat conditioned. There's also U is for Unearthed, a short but generally throwaway pov vampire skit and one of only two that turn to the undead for inspiration.

W is for WTF! (4 mins)

In truth while I'm all for a bit of surrealist humour I really do take a dim view when anarchistic and edgy seems to be nothing more than a seemingly random stream of unconnected ideas thrown together and presented with extreme pretension; that not laughing, or getting it, somehow shows ignorance and lack of enlightenment. I'm not saying playing with the absurd, with juxtapositions and illogical non-sequiturs can't be fun; it's just as with all artistic styles open to abuse and mediocrity; though it's just probably easier to hide.

Directed and written by Jon Schnepp, W is for WTF! unfortunately I feel, falls into the latter camp with an anything goes style designed to disgust and disturb and a series of vulgar and obnoxious ideas that never really comes together. I'm not going to say it never raises a smile or doesn't ever entertain, and it certainly wears its letter loud and proud but as a complete short it feels rather rushed and lazy.

I'm mentioning it solely because one of the so called edgy ideas was zombie clowns; why? For the same reason a flying eye-teeth monster, animated witches and medieval knights, Godzilla Walrus and the cookie monster. Ok, I know I'm being slightly disingenuous and there's some over-arching nonsense about ideas coming to life and a new world reality, but this itself, I suspect, is nothing more than another random story-board throwaway added because why not - 3/10.

So zombies aside, as a modern horror compilation, I'd certainly recommend, though probably as a rental - 6/10.


Friday, 4 November 2016

Shatter Dead - review

1994 (USA)

Contains spoilers.
If you can get past the grainy visuals, the deliberate slow pacing, the stilted, and I'm being polite, acting, grandiose pretension and all that comes from a budget I can't imagine was more than the cost of a cup of coffee, then there's something to be said for director / writer / producer Scooter McCrae's high concept zombies with a twist debut movie. It's a big if though. Winner of best independent film at the 1995 Fantafestival, Shatter Dead is not a family and friends, beer and nachos zombie film, nor is it a hide by the sofa gripping teddy or anything close; it's a film to grow a goatee, eat cheese and drink expensive wine too, all the while nodding along though you're really only vaguely following. There's no doubting, in my mind, there's some quite clever and thought provoking stuff going on with post-life immortality, existential nihilism, modernistic ennui all stirred up with Christianity and God's final judgement, but I also have a feeling all I'm really going to recall a year or so from now is that leading actress Susan (Stark Raven) was naked a lot.

Susan is trying to get home. That much I did work out. Her problems however, seem to stem not just from the fact that the dead are no longer staying dead, but that they seem to be really into car-jacking. So with her car and shopping taken, she does what all young women do when offered assistance by a passing stranger, she checks whether he's breathing with a small mirror and after confirming he's not, beats him into submission and steals his vehicle in return. The world McCrae has fashioned is quite the dark and odd one. It's 17 months since 'The Angel of Death', at least that's what she's called on the back cover, came down, had sex with a woman (yes both women, though the Angel was definitely the dom) and ushered in a new age where the dead just don't die. Other than that, they're still people; cognisant, able to talk, drive, work, but also seemingly downtrodden and destitute very much like an untouchable caste with little to no rights. Before Susan stumbles her way back home to boyfriend Dan (Daniel Johnson) her journey takes her to a doss house where she meets undead Mary, naked in the shower no less, into the path of a gang of new order gun freaks who commit quite the bloody massacre, and also inwards, as she's forced to confront her own prejudice and ideals.

I'm not really sure what all of it means, though after watching a short making of documentary on the DVD I'm convinced that while a lot of the ambiguity was by design, there was an equal, if not larger quantity that came from production not matching story-board so I probably didn't stand a chance. The world is broken and with death no longer an objective position people, both sides of fence, are confused and are all looking for answers as to what to do. That's the question McCrae is fundamentally exploring and though the film stumbles incoherently with a narrative that leaves a lot to be desired he does manage to transfer some of the characters existential turmoil to the viewer, and also thoughtfully touch on many of the ramifications that would no doubt ensue. 

Whilst definitely dead I'm not sure I'd call them zombies. I'm inverted to the position I often find myself where I'm arguing the case that just because a particularly rabid / uncontrolled / mindless zombie-esque human (ala 28 Days Later) still has a pulse it doesn't mean they're not eligible to be called one. Here they're just as human as before, albeit without as said, respiratory, cardiovascular or digestive systems. They don't bite, don't desire human flesh and ok, they're at times rather macabre and foul looking, cursed for eternity with their scars from life and how they died, but they seem just as interested in answers to why this all happened as the living. If anything it's the living, especially Susan that seems the aggressor, more than happy to fire a bullet or bludgeon a pretty young face at the slightest provocation. Again though, I think that's the point.

It's hard to be honest, to see past the obvious problem zero budget and ten days shooting obviously caused. The story too is presented in an artsy, laboured and minimalist way that's deliberately obtuse and difficult to follow. I'll hold my hands up too; I wasn't on board to begin, struggling with the amateurish production and the strained, incoherent narrative. Then as the story, and Susan's relationships became more abstract, hazy and uncomfortable I replaced thoughts about the obvious failings with wider more expansive and questioning ones, as one should when confronted with any existential cinematic art. Considered as art too benefits McCrae when it comes to the copious and full frontal nudity and even the blurred pistol penetration which was cut from my UK release copy (it's 20 or so seconds that doesn't effect the film and can easily be found on-line), which I'd consider all a tad excessive and extraneous otherwise. Ultimately though this is a film that will divide and certainly won't be even palatable by most, though especially by anyone wanting any kind of entertaining experience; which sure as eggs is eggs this isn't. Taken as moustache twizzling edgy mixed bag of existential angst though; and taken as a home movie / art project without any and all frills and refinement, it's worth seventy minutes of your time, but don't say you've not been warned - 5/10.


Wednesday, 2 November 2016

The Dead Hate the Living! - review

2000 (USA)

Contains spoilers. 

Director and writer Dave Parker's low budget, tongue-in-cheek noughties zombie nonsense screams enthusiasm, spirit and passion, and clearly a lot of time and energy has been invested into capturing early eighties Italian esoteric absurdity and mashing it with the high energy pop-influenced horror comedy that proceeded the decades after. And in many ways it works; one moment dark, strange and uncomfortable, only to seconds later shake off all pretence, and entertain with a more literal, whimsical and contemporary look and feel. It's a unique experience, exclaims Tom Savini on the cover, and I can't argue. The thing is, and looking at it as a complete work, this schizophrenic approach has also led to a film that’s undeniably a bit rubbish. Putting aside the poor pacing; a slow start is a given flaw in amateur horror, and the forgettable and generally uninteresting characters, the biggest problem with The Dead Hate the Living! is the disjointed and utterly unconvincing story. At no point does it ever appear Parker knew where he was going with a tale that seems to be built on random and confounding directorial and narrative decisions. Though maybe that's the point and the continental je ne sais quoi I was alluding too; and there's no doubting the feature is quite the experience…

No doubt Parker thought turning the tables on young and naive teens playing at making their own zombie opus such that they themselves become the stars of the show was clever and original. And it is, with the springing of the joke as dramatic, bloody and entertaining as one could hope. It's the bits leading up and the bits after that’s the problem with Parker seemingly struggling to really know what to do other than play it cliché, corny and hope the narrative itself would telegram the next obvious steps.

The first mistake first time b-movie film maker David Poe (Eric Clawson) makes after discovering the hidden, dark and nefarious lab complete with intimidating coffin was to persuade the rest of the vulnerable and remarkably gullible crew to see it as a good thing to incorporate the corpse of Dr Eibon (Matt Stephens) in their feature, arguing who wouldn't want to watch a Night of the Living Dead film with real dead in. The second, was put his body back into the strangely inscribed sarcophagus. The third, and definitely the one with most post-regret resonance would be plugging it back in and getting your leading man to place the nearby medallion back into its central socket all the while shouting about opening the gates of hell. I'm always torn when narrative is so staged, as to whether I feel it's all brilliantly cheesy, or dreadfully insulting; and the truth is probably both. I know a laughable unforced mistake is at the heart of the zombie trope, but this is perhaps going too far, as at no point watching was I ever thinking, heck screaming, anything other than what the f are you doing?

With the zombies out the chamber, so to speak, it's part slasher, part cat and mouse, part traditional low budget zombie, but plenty of the same baffling survival tactics from the survivors, and nonsensical world domination from the now fully locked and loaded zombie master. So there's some back story explaining his wanton desire to see all the living dead because his wife died of cancer and his desperate search to find an answer so he could break the veil. What doesn't quite complete the narrative though is why he'd shove her now successfully animated zombie shell on a slab in the morgue with all the other stiffs to be killed so easily by the now desperate rag tag survivors. Again, I don't think overthinking it would be good for me. What we need to know is he's an undead lord, turning the key didn't just resurrect his beardy arse but threw the whole hospital in to some space time limbo, and a pivot between the real world, and the world of the dead (think The Beyond and Army of Darkness), and he has quite the motley assortment of mutant zombies ready to help him with his scheme. 

Later, with Parker seemingly running out of ideas these towering, monstrosities Barker Hell-raiser inspired zombie-demons are joined from nowhere by a plethora of Romero clones who act and behave according to all accepted traditional tropes, except they're easily fooled by men with the right bit of make-up; which is handy as that's all David and make-up artist Paul (Brett Beardslee) have at their disposal. Refreshingly they both look and act the part, and I can have no quibbles for what was obviously a small budget. Gore and effects are always in your face too, but though it has its moments, it could never be a film that could be considered dark; the light and trite dialogue make sure of that.

What we have again is a baffling little zombie movie that somehow kind of works because one is able to transcend critical analysis to actually find enjoyment in, and despite, obvious mediocrity. The plot, a baffling, incongruous mess is more than often entertaining, the characters, bar Paul and perhaps Topaz (Jamie Donahue) are dry and hard to get behind; yet as vehicles to react to the zombie threat there's merit to their laboured and uninspired presentation. Matt Stephens is undoubtedly the star of the show and his camp and excessive b-movie performance warrants acclaim despite appearing somewhat ham-strung again with writing and directorial decisions that don't seem to want to ever push him beyond what you'd expect. So, an odd zombie film that demonstrates an awful lot of potential yet seems happy to squander much of it by being a little too scared to really stick to the dark recesses itself suggests; instead becoming a half-way safer and more whimsical house, that satisfies neither position. Still, there is fun to be had with some genuinely nice touches, and as Savani said, it's certainly unique - 4/10.


Monday, 31 October 2016

Z Nation - review

2014 (USA)

Contains mild spoilers.
Season 1 Season 2

It was a comment on reddit I think, that had me return to a Syfy original zombie series I'd already written off as tedious, derivative and totally unnecessary. 'The best series you're not watching' it read and then went into detail why. A cursory glance at social media and reviews seemed to back this up so maybe I had been all too quick to pass judgement? Well, I will maintain it really does struggle to get going; episode one especially has more to criticise than to praise, but as episode six came to its dramatic conclusion I realised not only was I seriously emotionally affected with what I'd watched, but I was genuinely invested in the characters, world and the story Karl Schaefer and Craig Engler had fashioned.

If you'd dismissed Z Nation as a poor man's The Walking Dead, as I had, then you couldn't be more wrong. Z Nation is very much its own thing; more self-aware, more frivolous and hyper-realised, and if we're honest all the more imaginative for it, invited to play with larger than life ideas and have more fun with the post-apocalyptic premise. Zombie Tornado? Why not. Zunami (Zombie Tsunami aka large TWD super-herd)? Let's not only dedicate a whole episode but have the idea an intrinsic and coherent part of the world. By not taking itself quite so seriously ideas that would not have made the more sombre and serious zombie cut are not only allowed to be played with but are allowed to integrate without ever feeling forced. It's the z-nation apocalypse and absurdity is very much a part.

Don't mistake this for a light flippant comedy though. Z Nation can still be dark and the post-apocalyptic world presented, is real and well-formed, and really not a nice place to be. Cannibals, mutated and nuclear zombie hybrids, zombie-bears, crazed resurrection cults and the aforementioned Zom-nado. Death is still the only true and singular fate all the survivors can expect and Schaefer and Engler aren't afraid to both wield the axe but to have the characters emotionally resonate to the carnage and misery. They're also happy to throw good bit of blood and gore into the mix, with some truly top-tier cringe inducing moments of excess. The zombies themselves are also excellently presented, as they probably should be by now, I mean it's an industry in itself, and it's refreshing, when compared to TWD as it heads into Season 7, to have the main guys and gals back as the primary post-apocalyptic danger.

As with the story The Asylum haven't been afraid to have some fun with our undead chums. Note, we're not talking full scale zom-com farce but increased license to bend the pre-existing post-Romero / TWD template. They're slow, dead and rotten gut-munchers, yet they're also fast when young and fresh, and there's even some behavioural play with narcotics. Then there's Murphy. Murphy is the corner-stone that keeps Z Nation moving and ensures it doesn't become the usual The Asylum derivative, confused and meandering zombie mess. Episode one sees this complicated anti-hero injected, against his will it should be added, with a highly experimental zombie vaccine moments before he's attacked and bitten. He survives, though in some zombie human hybrid condition that's not been kind to his looks, but has granted him immunity from attack and as the series progresses some kind of power to influence those who he himself infects either via blood or saliva.

In the final episode we learn the rather convoluted origin story with nefarious scientists and a viral cocktail including the flesh eating narcotic Krokodil, a pinch of Ebola, some bio-weapon tech from Kazakstan, and even a sample from some poor Haitian voodoo sufferer; and while the tick-list of all things particularly nasty makes little sense, it made for great television. It was also refreshing to hear the actual term 'zombie' in what I refer to as post-zombie storytelling; rather than presenting a world where the term and concept had never been conceived. 

As episode thirteen concluded and the season wrapped I realised not only was I extremely excited to get to see Season 2 and the outcome of the rather large and painful cliff-hanger, but I wanted to continue my journey with this odd rag-tag motley crew. You'd have been hard pressed, an episode or two in, to make the case that any of Murphy (Keith Allan), Roberta Warren (Kellita Smith), 10K (Nat Zang), Doc (Russell Hodgkinson), Citizen Z (DJ Qualls), Addy (Anastasia Baranova) or Mack (Michael Welch) particularly stood out as anything other than second tier actors struggling with a second tier-script. Yet by the end, each and every one stood tall, emboldened and clearly at ease with their roles; the actors clearly growing alongside their characters. Z Nation surpassed my expectations and I truly feel I need to apologise not just for passing judgement so quickly, biased by past The Asylum / Syfy, zombie, if we're honest, dross, but by my less than favourable throwaway remarks ever since. Z Nation isn't dross; isn't second rate or unnecessary. It's fun, engaging, lively and brilliantly written and constructed post-apocalyptic storytelling, and I'll honestly reiterate, it could well be the best horror TV you're not watching - 7/10.


2015 (USA)

2016 Spirit Entertainment Limited Blu-Ray R(B/2)

Season 2

The first thing that strikes an episode or two into season 2 is that here is a team who truly know they're on to a winning thing. Gone are any doubts or hesitation; in is unbridled passion and enough reckless abandon to really push their zombie comedy / horror / action formula to an all-time high. At a time the genre, and especially The Walking Dead, could perhaps be accused of becoming a tad stale, it's refreshing that there's a zombie program that has but one goal, to entertain, and is happy to throw out all the stops to make this a reality. Perhaps Z Nation works precisely because it timed it's two finger salute to all that was dark, serious and emotionally draining at the right time, but whatever the reason, it feeds the frivolous and openly silly approach to the apocalypse hunger perfectly, and with season 2 happily turning the dial up to 11 I couldn't be more happy.

Zombie aliens, a hilarious nativity spoof, zombie-plant hybrids, radioactive zombies, anthrax-zombies and even an undead cameo from George R. R. Martin; Z Nation has never been scared to play with the let's say more out-there and generally goofy ideas other zombie shows wouldn't dare touch. With Season 1 setting its foundation, Season 2 is off the hook to genuinely do what-ever-the-hell it likes and totally get away with it too. With the again, now secure cast, totally in control of their now seasoned and serious apocalyptic bad-ass characters unfazed by anything new thrown at them, the juxtaposition of their prosaic, stoical reaction to the off the scale stupidity introduced by the writers is perfectly framed. Even when pushed to the absolute limits, as UFOs melt cows, aliens attack, wise zombie men appear complete with zombie camels, and astral bodies float around the room, it's hard not to side with the characters, sigh of course, and just go along with it; though with a huge grin.

It's not without its moments of sadness and poignancy however scattered; it is the apocalyptic wasteland after all. And though characters leave us; Cassandra (Pisay Pao), which I personally felt became an inevitability with what happened at the end of Season 1, and Mack Thompson (Michael Welch), which though sad opens Addy up for better development; new and recurring characters more than make up the slack. With the group and their dynamic established it's good to see there's no let up to their character development, with even the confidence to add some backstory though satisfying flash-backs. A series like this lives and dies with the detailing of its characters and their relationships and Z nation series 2 carries no dead weight. It also lives and dies with its action, gore and witty stories, and here again it never disappoints.

Bigger, louder, brasher, Z Nation Season 2 is triumphant beer induced slap in the face fun and a much needed post-apocalyptic no holds party. Zombie gun-toting silliness with a swagger it's easily worth - 8/10.


Monday, 17 October 2016

Cowboy Zombies (Walking Dead in the West) - review

2016 (USA)

Contains mild spoilers. 

Now, the term 'cowboy' in the UK is more colloquially used as an adjective to mean reckless, wild or unreliable; usually for something that's been shoddily undertaken by someone not fit for the purpose. It's a funny term, that seems to be attributed to John Cleese and Faulty Towers in 1972 when it was first recorded, and here is generally a prefix to builder, or workman. So in many ways renaming director Paul Winters' 'Walking Dead in the West' to 'Cowboy Zombies' for the UK couldn't have been more fitting or honest.

One always starts to worry when the best quote they could get to emblaze the back and really sell the film is 'Zombie Fans Will Enjoy This' as if admitting if you're not, then you really won't, and if you are, we'll attempt some lame headology to convince you in advance that you will. It's safe to say it didn't work; and I'll actually go one further, positing you'd actually have to be pretty desperate and a bit mentally unhinged in your undead love affair to actually get the enjoyment promised, from what is easily the most tedious zombie film I've reviewed. Yes, the daft little wild-west zombie story is kind of ok, the cause of the outbreak laughably bad and confusing, but once it gets going does obey all the rules; it's just that the film is entirely derivative, has absolutely nothing memorable of merit and is so exceeedingly tiresome I'd genuinely consider it the next time I'm struck with insomnia.

It's Arizona 1876 and Marshal Frank Wilcox (played by none other than Paul Winters) has rounded up some dirty outlaws. In the nearby town of Crumpet (I kid you not) Sheriff White (Jean Paul Turgeon) and Preacher Black (Greg Bronson) are hanging two other no-good hoodlums when one throws his lot in to God for a sign of mercy, but instead of salvation gets a cheap sfx clap of lightning and his final judgement for his efforts. That's kind of it; the dead come back, the headshot trope is done to death, Marshall and Sheriff eventually get together with a bunch of uninteresting survivors who tick all the wild-west ethnic, gender and moral stereotypes and The Night of the Living Dead template is abused till it all comes, thankfully, to an early and abrupt end. It's Armageddon, day one, ground zero, the wild frontier where civilisation is tested every day, and everyone is armed, drunk or both. It should be explosions, death and carnage and humanity holding on by the merest thread; not this unapologetically tame, and ponderous, second rate snooze-fest.

For all that it's God's holy wrath; there's lightening after all, it's also an infection. So we have all the dead, even those buried well before all the trouble started, back up staggering about, and we also have bites, dark ugly wounds and sudden extreme personality shifts. It's The Walking Dead regurgitated in the West, and the infection stuff confusion one feels was added just to drive a few painfully forced emotional scenes, where the group are forced to deal with little girls and deputies who are about to turn. The zombies themselves are unfathomably slow and shambolic. As they lurch and spasm about gargling, spluttering and yelping all the time being picked easily off by elderly Sioux or incompetent teens pretending to be able to use utterly fake six shooters, one can't help question how they could they possibly win. There isn't ever a point you feel they pose any tangible threat, and that each tame and generally off-screen kill is the result of baffling incompetence and hesitation.

'Cowboy' Zombies is not a good film. Second tier actors working with a mediocre script that's devoid of all spark; it's a film that drags itself and the viewer along for seventy pitiful and dreary minutes before putting us all out of its misery. I wasn't expecting much but I do normally get something for my trouble; here though, nothing. I've also read murmurings it was also to act as a possible pilot for yet another TV series, and yes Undeadwood with Ian McShane in full-swing, shooting down zombies with explosive expletives would be glorious, but more of this miserable uninspired schlock? No thanks - 2/10