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.