Wednesday, 7 September 2016

I Survived a Zombie Holocaust - review

2014 (New Zealand)

Contains mild spoilers.

After recently lampooning Cooties for offering little to an ever increasingly crowded genre, I feel a little two faced liking director and writer Guy Pigden's equally crowd pleasing zom-rom-com as much as I did. Just as farcical, slap-stick, easy to watch and dare I say whimsical, on the surface there's little, save Cootie's bigger budget and recognisable stars, to be able to call one out. Though perhaps, there's the rub; Cootie's was a deliberate cash-in; a contrived commercial venture that ticked all the right boxes because someone literally had a list of boxes that needed to be ticked. I Survived a Zombie Holocaust, in future referred to as I Survived, feels like it ticked the boxes naturally; purely by virtue of having a well-conceived and relatively simple script and vision, and the ability and enthusiasm of actors and a production crew to see it through. Nothing is forced and while the jokes, for the genre, are just as obvious and the farce tinted homage plays out just as predictably, there's a delightful authenticity and self-awareness, and you feel more you're invited in, than cajoled along.

I Survived is what I've started to refer to as a post-zombie zombie film. What I mean by that, is there's no pretence that zombies aren't a known thing, that The Walking Dead phenomenon didn't happened, and even the remotest of New Guinea tribesmen don't know the best way to deal with a shuffling corpse is a spear through the head. For most zombie films this doesn't equate to reduction in tension or build up; but rather a getting to straight to it, once anticipation makes way for survival, saving us all from ten minutes of rather awkward and contrived action re-establishing all the ground rules. Not only does I Survive wear this post-zombie t-shirt, but it's ballsy, or confident enough to actually try and go one step further. You see, there's no pretence; not only is their world our world; their zombie reality and heritage our zombie reality and heritage, but the film relies on all this for the narrative to make any sense at all. 

Wesley Pennington (Harley Neville), fresh from film school, has arrived on set as a junior runner for the zombie b-movie 'Tonight They Come'. Quickly brought into line as the shoot's dogsbody; he's also unwittingly one of the first to realise that parallel to the watered down zombie schlock being filmed, there's a very real undead threat, literally just around the corner. It's a fun, intelligenty thought out and original premise which serves to simultaneously give licence for shots at both b-movie films and b-movie film makers. SMP (Andrew Laing) the director cum dictator of Tonight They Come leads the rather formulaic and exaggerated production crew, with a sociopathic zeal through forty odd minutes of surprisingly entertaining and witty parody until zombies meet zombie extras and it's every bit all the running, screaming, carnage and death we've come to love.

Setting itself up the way it does, I Survived is almost a self-aware parody of a post-zombie film, and probably now I'm thinking about it, a hard film to pull off without coming across derogatory and insulting. I'm probably over complicating it all, save to say, I Survived isn't demeaning or dumbed down, and that's the point. It's clearly the work of people who get it; people who love the genre and have something genuine and original to say. Zombie rom-coms, are a great phenomenon but dangerously close to over-saturation, but Pigden et al. know it; and as said, it's this self-awareness that, elevates it from the crowd. Even though I Survived is every bit a a member of the genre and guilty in huge respects of all the things its parodying, it somehow works precisely because it itself is in on the joke. It's refreshing, honest and playful yet respectful; it's the comedian that gets away with all the offensive material because first and foremost he's the butt of every joke.

I've also seen comparisons made with Peter Jackson's eighties over-the-top slaughterfest Dead Alive (Braindead); what with Wesley's demeanour similar to Lionel's, the copious gore, and the same New Zealand badge of honour, but I think it would be doing both a disservice. Jackson's splatter masterpiece was a unique cinematic experience; audaciously stupid and excessive all for the sheer hell of it. Pigden's I Survive forges its own path, and whilst abundant in bad-taste and zombie-excess, it's less about gore-shock and one-liners and more about fitting in coherently with zombie-lore and providing its own subtler narrative. If anything, playing with the post-zombie experience the way it does its closest in style and substance to perhaps Mimesis, but with an added laughter track and a lot more innards.

I Survived a Zombie Holocaust took a risk and in my opinion it paid off. It is yet another modern rom-com but it works precisely because it knows it, and is happy to play along. With some genuinely funny moments, some stupid jokes, a witty, unpredictable script and perfectly pitched performances that played along it ticks all the right boxes for a fun zombie night in. Sure it's not without fault; I'd have preferred it if the real zombie threat had arrived a good ten or twenty minutes earlier, and I'd have liked them to have even pushed the b-movie parody just that little bit harder; but over-all I felt they got it pretty much spot on. Perhaps it also worked for me because unlike for most zom-rom-coms I feel as a hardcore zombie film fan I am this time the target audience; appreciative of the genre call-backs, the clever and satirical side swipes at not just the b-movie film making but b-movie zombie films themselves and the rich and dark humour. I often accuse zom-rom-coms of dumbing down so as to branch out and attract a wider audience and whilst I Survive can't shake this off in its entirety, the fact that it appears to know it, and play with this with such confidence and success is commendable - 7/10.