Thursday, 25 August 2016

The Walking Dead Season 4 - review

2013 (USA)

Contains mild spoilers.

By now we know what we're getting. It's The Walking Dead; it's the triumphant pinnacle of post-apocalyptic survival story telling. With brilliant emotional, nuanced and brave writing, confident acting and sumptuous triple A production and presentation it's everything the ardent zombie fan, like myself could hope for. It's also becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate each season from a review position, and perhaps this is why on the cusp of season 7's highly anticipated return I've only just got round to looking at season 4 again. While it may have taken season one and two to establish its identity, now some 51 episodes in, its increasingly difficult to discern or separate episode from episode, never-mind season from season. The Walking Dead is what it is; season 3 was nigh on perfect zombie fun, as is 4, as is, and this is jumping ahead of myself 5 and 6, and no doubt 7 ad infititum if they get their way, will be. Each season is now an iteration of what we all know just works; and as long as the formula is stuck to then what could go wrong?

Maybe with season 4, the Walking Dead formula has never been quite so obviously adhered to. There's the quiet period; the day to day survival and down-time; if dealing with deadly plagues or work-place accidents like having a helicopter crash through the ceiling or having your leg ripped off by a ravenous flesh-eater, can be considered down-time. It's a character driven survival narrative that's thoroughly engaging and beautifully polished, if maybe at times a little meandering and by now a tad rehashed. But it's all really about creating a foundation upon which the various writers, directors and producers can build up tension to a big climatic explosive, and inevitable pay-off. It's brilliant, it works and once invested you can't not see it through. The thing with Season 4 though is it does it twice to meet the demands of a now established mid-season TV break, and for the first time I felt the very deliberate design was, well for want of a better word deliberate, and all a little fabricated. I'm not sure it really detracted from the show and the pay-off in both episodes 8 and 16 was perfectly executed, and some of the best television I've ever watched. It's just I'm just not sure how strict adherence to a formula like this can benefit artistic licence and aesthetics long term, and there's always, as with any long running show the problem where over-adherence to safety, stability and repetition ultimately leads to monotony, predictability, dullness and an audience turning off.

While the focus of the character development and narrative again focuses on the established key personalities of Rick, Carl, Carol, Dwayne, Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman) and Glen and Maggie, Season 4 introduces some much needed fresh faces in the feisty but vulnerable Tara (Alanna Masterson), the subdued Rosita (Christian Serratos) and the instantly appealing double act of Eugene (Josh McDermitt) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz). As is the way, The Walking Dead isn't afraid to reduce the cast too; though one gets the increasing feeling that the main gang of seven, as mentioned above, are treated with a certain invulnerability able to constantly scrape by, while all those around drop like flies. There seems an ever increasing reliance on new characters, or throwaway one episode wonders, to provide that feeling of hopeless futility, and carry the weight that is the inevitably of death the original cast were entrusted to before. This all being said, the writers aren't scared to do some pretty horrible things with and to, all those involved with some quite harrowing, brave and thought provoking episodes. Moral ambiguity and dissonance has always been a staple of the Walking Dead experience and the theme of at least trying to be good in a world that no longer adheres to any kind of moral rules is still central to the narrative. While Rick's internal journey hasn't quite fully resolved, its Carol this time that's central to the groups moral struggle, adopting Shane's pragmatic position, albeit almost to the point of pathological, to challenge Rick's reaffirmed (though Hershel) belief in a categorical imperative. All this leads to some and highly charged emotional confrontations, intelligent characters development and great drama.

 Despite possibly being easily accused of having an overarching, rather formulaic design; the writers and production team with season 4, demonstrate a greater confidence not being afraid to deviate from the normative linear narrative structure. Both the episodes focused solely on the Governor (David Morrissey), and the sequence of six tight little self-contained moral tales after the mid-season climax while mostly successful, allowed the writers the freedom to play with dynamics that would not have evolved naturally and opened up the characters in ways that were both fascinating and emotional. The Walking Dead season 4 is every bit the same breath-taking, engaging, high-octane modern survival zombie brilliance we've come to both expect and with such a fervent weight of expectation, probably demand. With Robert Kirkman now firmly established as one of the executive producers, even writing two of the episodes, the franchise's future is almost firmly assured, guaranteeing the same uncompromising grit and gore as its comic book inspiration. The benchmark - 9/10.


Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Zeder (Revenge of the Dead) - review

1983 (Italy)

Contains spoilers.

There's (zombie) films to drink beer and shout along with, there's films for screaming, cowering and recoiling from; there's comedies, parodies and musicals, and there's even the odd delight that, at a push, could make it to Netflix and chill. Zeder aka Revenge of the Dead as it was re-titled a few years later for a US home video audience that needed a more noticeable title isn't really any of the above. It's an odd little number; a thinking man's zombie film anomaly, with nuance, sophistication, ambiguity and a dialogue and narrative heavy story. It's also not really like anything else save maybe Dellamorte Dellamore with its surreal dream-like approach to the veil of death; or maybe Pet Sematary with the same penchant for macabre spirituality, subtle, minimalist yet disturbing presentation, and story full of dubious and detached morality.

The story rather plays out like a good H. P. Lovecraft investigative short, with a nefarious well funded organisation / cult and forces and powers they couldn't possibly hope to either understand or control. There's also the innocent and unsuspecting bystanders that become embroiled, ignoring the myriad of warnings to fall truly down the rabbit hole. Here it's writer Stefano (Gabriele Lavia), our films hero, and his discovery of a disturbing but curious letter on an old typewriter ribbon gifted to him by girlfriend Allesandra (Anne Canovas) that sets the wheels in motion, as well as affirming the main narrative thread.

Zeder refers to the late Paolo Zeder; an occultist and hierophant who posited that the world was dotted with ancient places of antiquity and power called k-zones. Forged through great acts of spirituality and death, these hubs act as permanent zero-state zones where binary boundaries like life and death become blurred and insubstantial and thus of great interest to those with the money, curiosity and moral duplicity to exploit. The film begins in one such k-zone, a flashback to 1953 and the unearthing of Zeder by cult member Dr. Meyer (Cesare Barbetti) who uses the psychic prowess of his protégé; the young naïve, innocent and quite unwilling Gabriella (Veronica Moriconi) to track down the physical corpse of perpetrator of recent grisly murders. Thirty years on it's an old abandoned children's home, now abandoned unfinished hotel near the necropolis of Spina and the burial of Zeder's own neophyte and spiritual successor Don Luigo Costa (Aldo Sassi) that has both the death cult, and increasingly obsessive Stefano's focus.

Italian director Pupi Avati's story telling is slow, rich and refreshingly fluid and respectful. There's never any hand-holding or forced exposition; the viewer is treated with intelligence and expected to piece together the mystery alongside Stefano, experiencing the same esoteric incoherence and confusion. The result is a film that while could easily be accused of meandering along with a dull, over-complicated story, does offer tension, suspense and constant intrigue as long as one is prepared to invest the time and energy to keep up. If one is willing to make this investment though, Avati's story provides a mystery with ramifications that are truly terrifying and a final ten minutes or so that are perhaps some of the most deeply, brooding and disturbing I've watched. 

Inside a k-zone death as a concept is unbound from any expected linear or normative paradigm. So while the zombies, when they do eventually make an appearance, can and do walk about as much a murderess flesh eater as the next, they're also simultaneously buried and very much deceased. Also detached from the confines of both their actual corporeal home, and any absolute conditions like space, they're able to appear appear and disappear seemingly at will. There's also an almost playful manner in which they view those constrained with living; an exuding confidence and power akin to a cat with a mouse. By now our brains have almost come to accept the traditional zombie; by constraining it with semantics and understanding; with viruses, possession or aliens we're not quite as scared as it fits, albeit still with absurdity, into our linear paradigm. Zeder's zombies successfully reopen Pandora's box, challenging our very foundations and provoking our primal fears with true uncertainty and discomfort; nothing is answered because nothing can be answered; like the boundary of death itself, any answer is beyond reason and understanding.

I can see why many new horror and especially new zombie fans would baulk at this narrative rich Italian eighties obscure and eccentric horror. The Cthulhu investigative story that constitutes the bulk of the film despite being well intentioned, coherent and engaging is perhaps overly elaborate, laboured to the point of legitimate complaint. It can also at times be a film that's difficult to follow; being deliberately and unapologetically incongruous and irreconcilable. Also whilst there is a fair amount of screaming, chasing and dying, many of which are quite gory in nature the actual pop-shots so to speak are predominantly off camera, resulting in a film that's extremely gore-tame not just by modern standards, but the whole Italian Giallo and zombie scene one may have expected it to also occupy. Yet it's for these very reasons I enjoyed Luigo's story telling so much. It's serious, it's brooding, it's baffling and disturbing and unlike a lot of popcorn flicks I did have a lot to think about and you know what, I coped - 8/10.


Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Zoombies - review

2016 (USA)

Contains spoilers.

Zoombies is not a good film. In fact I'd be happy to argue that it's possibly the worst film I've looked at with a lazy nonsensical story, laughably bad effects and a general eye for detail Ed Wood would have been proud of. The Asylum are certainly setting themselves up as a modern day Troma willing to churn out any and all audaciously ridiculous idea as cheaply and amateurishly as possible. Actually that's not quite accurate and a little disingenuous to Troma; with Troma one at least feels there's some passion and pride in the all stupidity. With The Asylum one increasingly feels that not giving a damn is part of the process and that somehow actually not going to any lengths to hide production incompetence is best practice. One can also argue however, that you know exactly what you're getting when you sit down with a The Asylum 'straight to DVD'. For as bad as it will be, and it will be, just perhaps there's a small part of you that will embrace the chaos; will laugh as earnest actors sincerely try to make it work; and as a viewing party, as The Asylum films are not meant to be watched unaccompanied; support will be required; savour each and every new unashamedly cheap and awful idea and its delivery.

Everything you need to know about director Glenn Miller's Zoombies is delivered in the first ten minutes. There's an unopened zoo, some plucky kids on a zoology college internship, some earnest staff lead by Dr. Ellen Rogers (Kim Nielson), a man in a gorilla suit and some unknown highly contagious inter-species zombie virus. Let hilarity commence. Not that it probably matters but there's no real attempt at making the outbreak coherent or logical; some monkeys are sick, one has seizure, goes into cardiac arrest is given some epinephrine or something and comes back to life (we know this as the heart monitor that was never on the monkey starts beeping) as a rabid homicidal little shit on the extreme offensive. It's to the point, visceral and entertaining, if for all the wrongs reasons. Things soon escalate, as is the zombie way, with the addition of five or so other monkeys released from their cages and also inexplicably infected; there's screaming, killing and copious quantities of awfully fake CG blood and before you can say Sharknado 5, zoo security respond to the alarm, break the carefully controlled quarantine and let the carnage spill out to the rest of the zoo.

The film ultimately becomes one of cat and mouse; or what-ever painfully awful CG or prosthetic zombie animal insanity all involved best thought should drive the next round of hiding, screaming and falling over, and an ever-decreasing number of exaggerated disparate ill-suited Jurassic Park-esque survivors. There is an attempt at a larger narrative; of saving the world by stopping virus from reaching the aviary but this just leads to more confusion and head scratching; as wouldn't there be native birds around the park? And also I thought for a moment there would be some deeper narrative with the trio of Dr. Ellen Rogers, her daughter Thea (La La Nestor) and Kifo the Cross River Gorilla comically performed by Ivan Djurovic and some possible cure or empathetic break-through but any and all notions here were quickly dropped. In many ways Zoombies once it got going played it remarkably safe and dare I say, especially in the second half a tad derivative. Always silly, but always a tad lazy and obvious.

As said, if I was to stop, dissect and critique the film in any coherent or meaningful way things would soon turn ugly. Each and every scene always had one moment that flied in the face of logic and reason, and there were so many jaw dropping moments of disruptive cohesion with one scene directly contradicting the one before, that it would be easy to dismiss the whole thing as insulting and farcical. Even the virus itself asks more questions than it answers; like why it should be able to so quickly and virulently transfer between such differing species, yet leave humans unaffected? As I say though, looking at the film this way is nothing but an exercise in frustration and futility, though maybe there's another.

Sure it's laughably bad, sure it has CG effects that make your eyes bleed and a story that falls apart as soon as you give it any thought, but you know what; throughout the film I increasingly found myself looking forward to the next comedy star-trek bridge fall or unbelievable zombie animal. Whether it was the hilarious glass tapping parrots, the preposterous gorilla, the CG elephant ride, or even the intern falling hundreds of feet to his large explosive death; Miller does manage to somehow tap into that so bad it's good experience that it's almost impossible not to find some enjoyment. Also the main actors do a commendable job, able to not only retain straight faces but actually make the audience believe in them and give a damn as they face down each increasingly absurd situation. Look, I'm never going to say Zoombies is a good film, nor one I'd even recommend, but as a throwaway frivolous extremely silly and self-deprecating beer fuelled party flick perhaps there's enough to warrant a look - 4/10.


Friday, 5 August 2016

Daddy, I'm a Zombie 2: Dixie Saves the Day! (Mummy, I'm a Zombie / Dixie and the Zombie Rebellion) - review

2014 (Spain)

Contains mild spoilers.

I may not have been the target audience for the cutesy zombiefied animated coming of age drama Daddy, I'm a Zombie, what with its focus on girlfriends, boyfriends and the hardships of teen life at a time the world was moments away from total undead subjugation. But it was hard not to acknowledge the tight cohesive moral story, the imaginative but respectful adaptation of the zombie trope for children and the solid if not spectacular production. It was what it was, and as a rainy school holiday movie treat it satisfied my zombie urge and delighted the littlens, and you can see why they moved for a sequel.

Daddy, I'm a Zombie was a complete story; threads weren't left hanging, the moral message was delivered, the foes metaphorically and physically if one believes Dixie Grimm's (voiced in English by Kimberely Wharton) dream was real were vanquished and everything was left happy ever after. It was always going to be a hard task to fashion a second outing that provided the necessary fan service and call backs, as well as an original and coherent story so perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised Daddy, I'm a Zombie 2 (UK title) aka Mummy, I'm a Zombie (USA), aka Dixie and the Zombie Rebellion as it was titled everywhere else (trans. Dixie y la rebelión zombi) does indeed ultimately struggle.

Daddy, I'm a Zombie followed a simple formula. Dixie has an accident, enters a self-contained dream world, has an exciting quest, and in the process learns some things about herself; it's a successful, intelligent and effortless The Wizard of Oz retelling. But just because something works once doesn't mean it will again. From the start Daddy, I'm a Zombie 2 has that feeling of a film at odds with itself. A film that doesn't really know what it wants to be, content to stutter and trip its way through a convoluted and incoherent premise and story, through to thoroughly unsatisfying ending, that was probably as much a relief to all involved as it is the viewer. And that's the main crux. Daddy, I'm a Zombie 2 has that feel of a film everyone thought would easily fall together but which became increasingly strained and difficult to work with. It's like someone jotted down a rough story and a few ideas which all agreed would probably be good enough, then realising things weren't going so well kept hammering at it till what was left was an incongruent mess; utterly unidentifiable.

Dixie's accident is now a contrived emergency appendix operation and the anaesthetic her gateway back to the zombie-land, her story some convoluted lazy rehash of the first, of the evil Nebulosa (Karen McCarthy) and a quest to recharge the Azoth stone, and the moral message some missed opportunity to do with authenticity and superficiality. I say zombie-land; for some reason directors Ricardo Ramón and Beñat Beitia have decided to ditch the rich alien world instead opting for the real one, but allowing the zombies, skeletons, ghosts and ghoulies of the first free reign to move back and forth. They've also allowed Dixie to remain alive and human, disappointingly overlooking one of the delights of the first film; that shared journey with her slowly learning and accepting she was not only a zombie but probably dead. It's like the easy option was taken each and every time; and though if I'm being kind I can see what they may have been trying to achieve, the film loses much of its identity by not having the clear demarcation and by not exploring her subtle and nuanced struggle with mortality. I'll briefly mention a real zombie bite and infection, and an interesting escalation in the safe child friendly proceedings which could have had deeply exciting and curious connotations if explored, which again was squandered.

Now it would be very easy to brand Daddy, I'm a Zombie 2, a cheap cash-in; an effortless insipid direct to DVD production put together by committee with no real passion, but I do have to remember I'm not the target audience. Garnering the thoughts of my two willing co-conspirators didn't help its case though; the youngest providing neither a thumbs up or thumbs down and the eldest lampooning it for its insultingly inconsistent and simple plot. For a film about authenticity and having the courage to be honest, it's ironic too, that its biggest weakness was incorrectly diagnosing adherence to the formula as the franchises strength, rather than Dixie's real and identifiable personal and emotional journey, and thinking as long as it superficially forced this, all would be good. A real missed opportunity - 3/10.


Monday, 1 August 2016

The Omega Man - review

1971 (USA)

Contains spoilers. 

In 1964 directors Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow brought us The Last Man on Earth and Vincent Price as Robert Neville, a broken lonely figure forced to deal with the mundane realities of existence and subsistence by day and the real threat of attack by night. Their adaptation Richard Matheson's I Am Legend wasn't without fault; preferring a rather more traditional action packed finale than the more nuanced origin of evil twist of the book and thus rather missing the point, but over-all I found it quite the poignant post-apocalyptic vision. It was also, with its slowing and dumbing down of Matheson's vampires, a rather important part of the cinematic zombie story, with Romero even citing its crucial influence. The 2007 Will Smith blockbuster I Am Legend further blurred the vampire and zombie lines and with its theatrically released ending perhaps even further missed the Legend point; but I unashamedly enjoyed it for the big budget action packed spectacular that it was. In between though there was this other adaptation, and the cover exalting Charlton 'from my cold dead hands' Heston's automatic weapon prowess I think best illustrates the direction I felt it ultimately took.

To be fair Heston paints a performance worthy of Vincent Price's legacy and taken in isolation from its peers director Boris Sagal, and writers John William Corrington and Joyce Corrington, have fashioned quite the accomplished post-apocalyptic yarn. Los Angeles is captured hauntingly empty and Heston is every bit depressed, bereaved, despairing and unhinged as a person would be having to deal with not just the mundanity of surviving during the days, the existential angst and ennui of existing in a world without purpose, but the very real threat to his life every night. The 'family'; the Omega Man's vampires present themselves as an interesting and subversive, if a little incoherent and comically pathetic adversary, and though the infected and new order Ruth, is replaced with Lisa and a gun toting group of disparate survivors, in quite the departure from the book, it does open the way for a traditional and entertaining, if safe, action oriented plot.

And that's primarily what The Omega Man is; a glorious post-apocalyptic promise that doesn't quite deliver. But one that also doesn't actually fail. If anything it's that post-apocalyptic film trap. Set up a destitute, lonely, introvert inspiring world with gorgeous expansive cinematography that leaves the skin tingling, add a struggling hero one can empathise with, then fumble around rather unsuccessfully struggling to maintain all the built-up atmosphere and ambience when it comes to actually doing something with it. Watching Heston stumble and bluster around the city is as funny as it is tragic. Clearly broken from his two year exile, his life now the permanent contradiction of retaining dignity and humanity in a world where there's no accountability or obligation to do so, is perfectly realised; and summed up beautifully with each new bitter and utterly helpless sardonic quip. Then enters the family, Lisa and her gang in a tidal wave of high speed action, explosions and the film becomes something else; that certain je ne sais quoi gone.

Whilst the zombie case could be made with The Last Man on Earth and I Am Legend with their ambiguous vampire and infection fusion; the nocturnal albino protagonists of The Omega Man despite their physical and psychological changes are a more difficult proposition to argue for. Clearly alive, clearly cognisant and clearly rational, does a radical change in world view, a clear over-night about-turn in how one perceives and interacts with reality constitute zombie-esque irrationality, delusion and surrender to a singular hunger? Not at all I'd argue. The theme of The Omega Man, and one it does assume correctly from Matheson's source, is the question as to whether it's the family that's delusional and dangerous, or as they posit actually Neville and the old order that's got it all wrong. A perfectly reasonable and congruent position is still a position even if it's different. A person banging their head and waking up with a different personality is still a person; even if they do now want to set you on fire.

The one thing I would add before dismissing the zombie case all together is perhaps the point that they are infected, and their final change does seem to coincide with loss of empathy, social intelligence and individuality. The family are also driven by a counter-culture dogma, and structured as a cult like with a zealot leader Jonathan Matthias (Anthony Zerbe) who enforces his new bastardised ideological stance with violence and an inability to compromise. Maybe they're not quite as free-willed in their new state of mind as they intimate? I'll leave it open save that though there's probably enough to argue they're not zombie in any classical sense but there is ambiguity, that zombie discussion in relation to cults, drugs, mental health, and any impairment of the neo cortex doesn't seem to be going away, and the film does come with enough heritage to deserve to be not ignored.

As said, taken for what it is, The Omega Man is a rootin' tootin' post-apocalyptic action film with much to admire. Whether tearing the streets or removing his shirt to single-handedly dominate both because of and despite of the fact, Heston provides the lines, the action and the presence to ensure each sequence and scene is a success. Under scrutiny it may not hold together, nor do justice to Matheson's legacy; why for instance, armed with semi-automatic weaponry and a whole city of devices, technology and information can Neville not deal with a foe who want to tackle the situation as if in the Stone Age? But as said, looked at as an albeit of its time fun, action sci-fi, it holds up well with a coherent and interesting story, solid film making and decent effects. It also should be commended for one of cinemas first interracial romances. So, not really zombies and not the best I Am Legend adaptation it's still worth watching if for Heston alone - 6/10.