Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Portrait of a Zombie - review

2012 (Ireland)

Contains spoilers.

Portrait of a Zombie is the story of young, but dead Billy Murphy. Now Billy isn't like other zombies. Yes, he's a cannibalistic gut-munching serial-killer in waiting, with rotting flesh, blood-stained hair and clothing and quite the unpleasant aroma. What makes Billy special, is the love of his family, especially that of a mother who will quite literally do everything to carry on her role to both protect him from an outside world that wants to put a bullet in his head, and her state of denial that keeping a delirious inhuman monster chained up close to your other loved ones is quite frankly seriously mentally deranged, never mind negligent. It's also the story of amateur documentary maker (played by Todd Fletcher) and his increasingly desperate and actionable efforts to capture the situation in a way that will see him attain stardom and fortune.

Now, brush aside the low budget, a purported £100k, look and feel of the film, and also brush aside the interesting shall we say, directorial style, which I believe was more forced on them, to move from the standard 'b-movie' composure, to a mockumentary hybrid, with the story exposed both through interviews and the traditional vantage, which at times feels at odds with each other. What director, co-writer and co-producer Bing Bailey has attempted here should first and foremost be applauded. Portrait of a Zombie is ambitious, genre-breaking and making, and both disturbing and interesting; and for the first thirty minutes captivating and coherently assembled. The family lead by the delightful Lizzie (Geraldine McAlinden) and Danny Murphy (Rory Mullen) are full of sincerity, the set-up whilst already stretching does hold reasonably together, and the use of the film crew with their interviews is the perfect vehicle to present the insular working class Dublin suburb narrative. It's all good, if a bit slow, competent low budget film making.

So where does it all go wrong? All of Portrait of a Zombie's problems stem from trying to keep up the pretence; the implausible plausibility of a set-up that's been so carefully built. I could just about grasp some level of responsibility and ownership of a child that's become a zombie; to wrestle with grief and the acceptance that at some point this dangerous shell would have to be let go of. I could also just about go along with the idea that the authorities could possibly be taking a while to catch up to a new isolated, extraordinary and limited condition, and putting together a legal framework to challenge a guardians rights of responsibility, could be causing a few head scratches. Where it all started to go wrong for me, wasn't when additional zombies starting appearing, killing and eating en-masse, it was the fact that not one soldier nor so much as one bobby-on-the beat thought it prudent to even show up. Also, with a backdrop of death and gut-spewing carnage, even after Billy has eaten his pregnant girlfriend, do his ma and pa think to agree to the wishes of the entire neighbourhood and rid everyone of this clear and present danger.

The 'But he's ma son', card is just played too many times and whilst Bailey could have turned it more into the black comedy, than keeping straight, there are just never enough laughs, nor does it start down this path early enough to think it was ever an option; all of which makes late scenes such as an unfathomable sequence with a newly stumped camera-man acting as if it was merely a nuisance, Monty Python Black Knight-esque, and the uncomfortable and drawn out self-mutilation mother and son moment the more incongruous and desperate.

Now I've read the contrasting reviews, which seem to swing from scathing, or refer to it positively as the next coming, which it could be said actually occurred one year later when Channel 4 brought the series In the Flesh to screen. Like Portrait of a Zombie, at least to start with, it spun things round, but unlike Portrait, it actually held it together with a brilliant narrative and believable structure; all bonded with an extra level of professionalism, gravitas and depth. The truth, as always, is somewhere in between. No doubt hampered with budgetary concerns, the ideas and undoubted talent that were clearly present here were not enough to pull it all together into a coherent or persuasive whole. Also, despite other smaller issues; the zombie back-story and identity is firmly and well established, the zombie kills (zombies on humans) were well presented, and the acting always coherent; which if the narrative had managed to match might have actually made this quite the feast the cover (another cheap re-release with a cover that has no connection to the film) alluded to.  4/10


Friday, 22 January 2016

Extinction: The G.M.O. Chronicles - review

2011 (Germany)

Contains mild spoilers.

A cross between the character driven soap opera that is The Walking Dead, the prosaic long-winded survival yawn that was Autumn (Dead Men Walking) and the highly-stylised, highly-imaginative but audaciously preposterous Resident Evil franchise, Extinction: The G.M.O. Chronicles, is not for the faint of heart. By that, I don't mean it's a non-stop pulsating adrenalin fuelled roller coaster of terror, with excessive gore and sadistic shock; in fact quite the opposite. Writer and co-director Niki Drozdowski's zombie opus is so ambitiously and mundanely epic that unless you're the sort who's happy to sit down for the best part of two hours for full-on zombie survival indulgence; as Joe Averages bumble between fights, cheer each other up, and work out where to put the new sofa, then I could easily see you bailing out before it gets going (which it never really does). Make no mistake, this is a film for post-apocalyptic zombie lovers and absolutely no one else; and I mean no-one. Whilst at a stretch Zombie Flesh Eaters might pull some b-movie nostalgia strings on a date; though still risky, Extinction would be a guaranteed way to have the evening end with you as alone as star of show Tom Keller (Daniel Buder) also pondering how it all went so wrong.

This is the story of surviving when pretty much everyone has either died or turned. And I'd add we're not talking The Walking Dead; we're talking a total world-wide pathogen and extinction level event, 0.00001%, I Am Legend, hope you're an introvert and comfortable with your own company level shit. An engineered virus developed by Toonsman Industries (anagram of Monsanto) called Ranch Hand has gone rogue evolving past it's shut-off inhibitors and jumped species, turning all but the very few immune into vacant shells of their former selves and hungry for human flesh. Things aren't good; I'd even say things are positively very bad; though fortunately Tom has a few things going for him. One he's ex-special forces, two he used to play at an abandoned, though well-fortified army base that's nearby, as a child, and he knows it intimately, and three he had his wits enough about him to get there unscathed, armed with a gun, satellite phone and laptop. His good fortune also continues as rather then ending things rather than face a lifetime alone, he decides to see it out, and is rewarded on day 14 on a run to get supplies, having already acquired food, water and generator, to find three  survivors one of whom is a hot-chick (Luise Bähr as Lisa Sattler), and one of whom is an American NSA agent with a contact who knows a bit more about what's going on.

Extinction isn't the awful story of being forced to scavenge and scrap over the few scant provisions that are left, of hiding silently for weeks in small claustrophobic holes, and learning to collect rain water in your underpants. Everyone's dead so there's food, there's tins, water, chocolate bars, there's police stations with guns; there's everything you really need to live quite the comfortable, if rustic life, especially as said, if you happen to occupy a remote double fenced and expansive army base. It's also all easy to get because the walker zombies don't actually come out at night; well they do, but they're in sleep mode and easily navigated around.

Extinction has a single pace that is measured and methodical. The four survivors eventually becomes five, then seven, there's some internal conflict, then they're forced to leave, then there's a rescue, some fights, a damn, then a final castle siege. Extinction could be labelled pedestrian, measured, dare I say tedious, but one thing it can't be called it empty, and certainly not badly paced. The reason it's full and not merely a two hour character drama, and also the narrative reason for the group to eventually do something other than cook, jog and think about home improvements is the walker zombies aren't the only threat. Owing something to both Resident Evil's fetish for mutation and Left for Dead's penchant for mixing it up, the walker gang are soon joined by runners, jumpers, then later blind-shriekers and even a big daddy boss. 

Rather than being incoherent and breaking the finely woven world Drozdowski has forged, the additional and increasingly audacious zombie shake up somehow not only slots right in, but feels necessary and inevitable. Each mutation while raising an eyebrow, especially the screamer, is also taken so matter of fact by the now tight-knit survivor group that one can't help going along with it. The action sequences are handled in a similar way. Being chased by twenty runners? Just phone ahead to get people to open the gate, no need to panic. And that lack of threat or urgency transfers to the viewer with a film that while constantly interesting, enthralling almost, maybe could never really be accused of ever exciting. 

Extinction is an A to B movie; there's no narrative circles or satisfying conclusions. It's a budget German Lord of the Rings without Sauron or anyone owning a ring; it's the Walking Dead-lite, yet as said I found the thing all rather charming and engaging, even if it never particularly raised my heart rate. It's also worth noting that the cinematography, shot composition, scripting, and performances are quite faultless and from a directing and production point of view, as a budget movie with big desires it's quite the accomplishment. A hard one to score; 6/10 and do watch; yet on your own.


Thursday, 14 January 2016

Zombies of Mora Tau (The Dead that Walk) - review

1957 (USA)

Contains spoilers.

'In the darkness of an ancient world - on a shore that time has forgotten there is a twilight zone between life and death. There dwell those nameless creatures who are condemned to prowl the land eternally - The Walking Dead."

Director Edward L. Cahn's oldie worldly African adventure presents somewhat of a dilemma. Undoubtedly an important milestone in zombie cinema, ambitious with a remarkably high body count for a film of its time and ilk, and well-presented and put together, there's a lot to admire. Yet as a whole it just doesn't quite hold together, even taking into account a three-quarters of century shift in cultural appetite. Firmly a serious horror-action adventure the film gets straight to the point, the zombies are front and centre occupying plenty of screen time and action, and deaths come quick and fast; the film does everything right even by today's attention-deficit standards. But this is perhaps it's failing. With a narrative that feels harried, and interaction that while often delightful, more often feels forced and presumptive; the films comes across as just trying that bit too hard without the requisite nuance or subtlety. A scene to scene action film can work but the script has to be tight, cohesive and constantly self-invigorating and sadly The Zombies of Mora Tau fails on all three counts.

It's deepest darkest colonial Africa; not quite Conrad's Heart of Darkness but certainly a jumping off point. Just off the lake shore, a stone's throw from widow Grandmother Peters (Marjorie Eaton) grand colonial house sits the wreck of the Susan B, its cursed diamond treasure, and what should be the corpses of the twenty or so souls that perished as it was returning its ill-gotten gains to the new world. Except the scuttled ship lies uninhabited and the souls who perished aren't at rest. As the preface informed us; they're the walking dead, condemned to prowl the earth and waters, in this case to protect the diamond cargo and punish all who try to claim it as their own.

This is of course is where captain and mission underwriter George Harrison (Joel Ashley) and his crew fit in, as they intend to complete what all else have failed. It's a good story; Harrison, his coquettish wife Mona (Allison Hayes), the target of her wayward affections, lead diver Jeff Clark (Gregg Palmer) and African archaeologist Dr. Jonathan Eggert (Morris Ankrum) take refuge in Granny Peters and her recently returned granddaughter Jan's (Autumn Russell) house, and start to unravel the mystery. Along the way Jan gets carried off into the jungle by a zombie, Mona runs off into the jungle and the men drink brandy, do breakfast,  squabble about who should have what, and and forge ahead regardless of all the warnings.

The zombies are the walking dead, some seven years before The Last Man of Earth, some eleven years before Romero and a full half decade before its namesake series debuted and changed zombies and popular culture forever. Whilst voodoo is mentioned, here though there's no life and death ambiguity, nor, no priest or priestess enslaving the living as eternal servants; the walking dead are dead, are-no-more, ceased-to-be... They don't breathe, have no pulse, have no free-will and no morality. They are shells, echoes of their former selves and one of the first instances of the zombie untethered from another's will. As with other zombie films, there is still of course a guiding drive; though here it's not hunger, reproduction or blood-lust but the curse to ensure the diamonds aren't taken away, which in many ways makes them more akin to draugr, ancient ghouls tasked with protecting their treasure, and a mythology more Norse and Germanic than African. Also, it's the 1950s so there's no gouging or teeth sinking and certainly no unquenchable hunger for human flesh in the efforts to carry out their calling, so the zombies have to resort to strangling, stabbing and punching, though in a way that's still for its time quite dark and edgy. There's also an imperviousness to gun-shots, and other physical damage, with only a weakness to fire, again rather forward thinking.

An important and rather unheralded part of the zombie story, The Zombies of Mora Tau plays around with many tropes that eventually become main-stays. Yet while certainly not a bad film, the effects haven't weathered the passage of time, the script and acting, especially the role of the women of the film; primarily as hysterical victim, wanton floozy or doting or grieving wife all seems rather uncomfortably outdated, and, or hokey. With a set-up, story and narrative that had the potential to be gripping, enthralling and immensely original, that it ended up feeling so laboured, forced, repetitious and most disappointingly, merely adequate is a shame; especially for something so pivotal - 5/10.


Tuesday, 12 January 2016

The Zombie Farm - review

2009 (USA)

Contains spoilers.

What do you get it you cross the modern brain munching zombie with one hundred year old voodoo ritual, subjugation and plantation work, and present it as a Mexican soap with likeable characters, romance, drama, intrigue and social commentary worthy of someone who's just finished their first semester in Sociology and has something they really want to get off their chest. Well, you get director and writer Ricardo Islas's odd little tale from the crypt 'The Zombie Farm', which despite looking like it was filmed in the eighties direct on to VHS tape, is quite the endearing if flawed zombie short if one can stomach all the character build-up.

I say short with disingenuous motives as at ninety minutes it can hardly be accused of being presentationally-stunted; it's just that had they, the director and production team, decided to tighten the preamble, rein in the racial, class and gender dissections and not insist on exploring the depths of the main characters psyches then the story could easily have been told in the half-hour slot provided by the aforementioned popular long running TV series. The thing is though, and this has weighed heavy on me since finishing, is I actually quite enjoyed the utterly superfluous extras and the actors do a very good job of making the vapid and banal narrative feel real and important.

Ana Maria (Monika Munoz) has an abusive husband and no way out. Fortunately for her there's a local voodoo priestess, with intimate knowledge of the dark arts, access to the toxins in the liver of puffer fish and has a strong desire to zombify non-white locals. Preying on Ana's vulnerability, and desperation, she provides her with a potion which she duly administers but, but rather than being rewarded with Prince Charming, she ends up with a psychotic undead marauder hell bent on revenge. This is where Roque Santero (Roberto Montesinos), a fraudulent yet good hearted spiritualist, and his new best friend, reporter wannabe Adriana Cataño as Pilar Franco come in; at first involuntarily, then later as keen investigators, up for thwarting the sinister plans of the evil witch and saving the day.

The title of the film is Zombie Farm, and without giving too much away there is a zombie farm, though it's not as you'll picture it, if you've spent any time looking at the cover, of this 2009 re-release. The thing is, the late Antonio (Khotan Fernandez), and his whole being rather pissed off and not wanting to leave Ana alone, while an interesting yarn in itself, on inspection not only doesn't really fit with the wider narrative, but rather shows itself up as a forced vehicle to get everyone else to where they need to be. The farm which finally brings some darkness and tension, and one feels is the real focus of the story and the ultimate pay-off for the all the build-up, is at odds with his behaviour, motives and actions despite him still having a rather large part to play. There's narrative disconnect between the two, and maybe his role feels bigger than it should because he has so much screen time and attention; stumbling from one place to the next (with magical or convenient location finding skills and timing) causing carnage and mayhem in his wake; and the farm arrives far too late in proceedings to feel meaningful. And it's not the only incoherence.

There's a strange mix at work with the zombies. On the one hand, it's Brazilian, old tribal Africa and ritual and belief, mixed with Christianity and the new world;  a la voodoo, as we last saw in The Serpent and the Rainbow. The priestess administers a toxin, the victim displays all the traits of being done for only to later be revived and taken as a mindless somnambulist servant ready to obey her will. This is even hinted at with her line when all is revealed that they're 'not really dead'. Yet there's the position throughout that they really are dead, most notably in an early scene, where Roque clearly shoots Antonio clean through the noggin. Then there's the general hunger for human flesh and an actual mass zombie gut munch later on; something that seems at odds with the whole 'hypnotised but very much alive'. This lack of cohesiveness doesn't detract from a film already heavily focused non zombie things, yet it's a laziness that does irk, after all the trouble they'd seemingly gone to, to play with voodoo credibly in the first place.

At its heart, Zombie Farm is a good story well told. It's full of inconsistencies and strange choices but it somehow binds together to provide an entertaining, interesting and altogether not too unpleasant experience. Also while the characters first come across as a little too divergent from the norm, and the actors amateur and unsuited, Islas grounds everything and brings an assuredness to their performances and dialogue, and has them complimenting each other remarkably quickly. Not a zombie for film for the purist, nor a non-zombie film for the undead-averse, and also not by any stretch a good film; The Zombie Farm still manages to satisfy an uncanny void one never knew was there - 5/10.


Thursday, 7 January 2016

Zombeavers - review

2014 (USA)

Contains spoilers.

Two things are clear coming away from this b-movie delight. Director and co-script writer Jordan Rubin, and all those responsible not only 'get it' but obviously had a riot doing so. Zombeavers is old school monster-farce, with ludicrous puppets and poor animatronics; it's The Evil Dead / Friday the 13th, with vacuous, though pretty young expendables ready to take their tops off and ready to be picked off; and it's American Pie, chock full of puerile humour you'll feel guilty about enjoying so much, but oh, you will. It's crass, sleazy, stupid, utter nonsense, and yet; and yet, it's all you could ever wish for and expect from a film about ferocious undead nocturnal, large, semiaquatic rodents and their sudden insatiable hunger for human flesh.

The reason it all works; if I can get ahead of myself. Is the perfect juxtaposition between the shameless amateurism of narrative, jokes and foremost the beavers, and the absolute dry and serious way in which the six college kids approach proceedings. Whether it's Bill Burr farcically setting things in motion with the classic zombie accidental and totally avoidable highly dangerous barrel- falling-off-truck-into-water-source trope, or the inventive opening scooby-doo cartoon montage or the delightfully fake beaver duo chuckling away as toxic green zombie-juice sprays over them; the bad is so bad it's good, precisely because we know it can only be this bad, if it's supposed to be.

Then suddenly it's all Friday the 13th and a Cabin in the Woods, literally. Mary (Rachel Melvin) and Zoe (Cortney Palm) are consoling their sorority sister Jenn (Lexi Atkins) who's recently been cheated on, by bringing to her to a relatives secluded lake-house for a weekend of pyjama fights, cookies and talking about boys, or what-ever it is college girls do. True to form too, knowing three doesn't make a claustrophobic death-orgy, douche-bag jocks, and boyfriends Sam (Hutch Dano), Tommy (Jake Weary), and Buck (Peter Gilroy) arrive just in time for the party. Boys meet girls, and it may all the complication of teen-romance, way-too-tight shorts and first world problems, but they're very earnest about it all, and convincing. And like the aforementioned Friday the 13th saga, which if we're honest didn't try much harder, the repartee and character banter does what's needed, providing the albeit temporarily, sanctuary and veiled sanity, against what we know is coming.

Forget cute furry woodland creatures. These beavers are bloody ferocious little shits who'd no sooner look at you, than slap you on your arse with their great big tail and gnaw your privates like they're a quaking aspen. There's no real exposition or reason how after the toxic barrel they've found themselves the almost-invincible toothy fiends, and why they have such a desire to cry havoc with these six socialites in particular; there's also no rhyme or reason to their NOTLD stand-off with the cabin after they've clearly demonstrated their ability to reduce it to saw-dust in minutes. There's a hint they might be practical jokers, I'm thinking in a Gremlins kind of way, but I'm really not going to spend any time trying to perform a high level dissection of their behaviour relative to zombie-canon. Other than perhaps to say as the zombeaver-virus / pathogen / thing adapts and jumps to other species, namely humans and yes bears, I couldn't help but be reminded of Zombie Virus on Mulberry Street and it's zombie-rat-people, and that however preposterous an idea, the fact is someone will probably have already come up with it first.

Foremost though, Zombeavers is a riotous comedy. Whether it's Buck emerging from the lake clutching his foot, comedy claw marks on the sabotaged phone line, or an extended whack-a-beaver sequence, Zombeavers is full of inventive ideas and witty, albeit mostly throwaway humour one can't help but whoop along with. Okay the actors are clearly older than the young nubile characters they're supposed to be portraying but they always over the top, sober or obnoxious as called upon, in both an exaggerated and yet coherent way. The highly polished script too pushes a narrative at perfect pace as to not rush, nor hold back the insanity.

Honestly, I don't really know how someone could criticise Zombeavers. You read the title, you chose to watch it and it's precisely what you got. It's funny, it's smart and it's entirely non-patronising; letting the viewer share in the in-jokes, the meta-humour and self-deprecating quips. It also does a remarkably good job of not only keeping what could easily have been a one-gag feature feeling fresh, but even open to a sequel. Crazy, stoopid, but entirely satisfying. Zombeavers 2 anyone? Anyone? 7/10.