Thursday, 28 July 2016

Wyrmwood (Road of the Dead) - review

2014 (Australia)

Contains mild spoilers.

It just goes to show what be achieved with a bit of ambition, a lot of effort and no excuses. Writer and director Kiah and writer and producer Tristan Roache-Turner's high octane, highly-styled Mad Max meets Night of the Living Dead is not just a triumph of independent film making but easily one of the most refreshing, vibrant and original zombie films released in the last few years. With meticulous attention to detail, both the script and film's composition provide a tight, and believably personal zombie experience presented in a hyper-real, hyper-violent, audaciously confident comic book style. There's probably a name for the cinematography adopted by the brothers; akin as it is with the aforementioned Max Max, Travis's Dredd, and going back even further the Matrix trilogy; but with erratic and unique use of speed and angles they've successfully applied the formula, producing a film that feels compellingly modern and fused with energy, yet evocatively disquieting and uncomfortable. 

One of the ways Roache-Turner's story telling works is to keep everything tight and localised, and yet also allude to a further reaching, possibly global level catastrophe, without resorting to derivative radio and television reports. It's clever and something a cosmic, earth-affecting event such as the meteor shower used here allows; and maybe something Romero wasn't given enough credit for back in '68. Also like Romero's Night of the Living Dead the whys and wherefores are also deliberately vague. The meteor shower is Wormwood the great star from John's Revelation, summoned from the Angel's third trumpet call to make bitter a third of all the water on Earth, bringing death to mankind. Then again it could just be some freak virus or bacteria infecting all but those whose blood type isn't A negative. Either way, it doesn't really matter; there's now a great airborne infection, and only if you're lucky enough to find you're immune, and you're also able to survive the fact the person next to you isn't then you're good. Barry (Jay Gallagher), car mechanic and our hero is; unfortunately his daughter and wife aren't.

One can't help but see the parallels with Mad Max. The broken hero in a broken world; fundamentally decent and nice, yet forced towards increasingly violent means and methods just to survive. There's also the cars and his mates as Wyrmwood is both a road movie and buddy one. Teaming up with Benny (Leon Burchill) and Frank (Keith Agius) they fashion a good post-apocalyptic vehicle and a quickly fashioned, yet touching, temporal and authentic understanding with one another. They then head out, first with the plan to survive, then later to rescue Benny's sister Brooke (Bianca Bradey) who in the nearby town of Bulla, Victoria is having quite the adventure herself.

Wyrmwood's zombies are gnarly, gritty and every bit the modern post Romero / Boyle gut-muncher; docile by day, ferocious by night and in quite the numerical ascendancy they really do pose the threat. As much as Roache-Turner's have adhered to the template however, they're not averse to having a little play. The whole day / night cycle is driven by the fact that zombie's blood and breath have become for want of a better phrase, the Earth's new fossil fuel; at night they keep the energy-juice to power themselves and during the day they kind of power down, with it allowed to leak out allowing others to capture it to say fuel engines and whatnot. Put like that it all sounds quite the ridiculous and far-fetched array of b-movie ideas yet Kiah and Tristan have the respect and talent that the viewer feels he or she is with the characters discovering and unveiling in its natural course; things are never forced with obvious or insulting exposition. I've not even mentioned Brooke, Queen psychic zombie and her ability to warg (Game of Thrones) / borrow (Discworld) into and control the slightly less cognisant dead yet; but safe to say again her abilities feel a coherent part of the new world as plausible / implausible as idea of the zombie itself.

Whilst hard to fault; Roache-Turner's exquisite debut is not completely without fault. In my opinion the Doctor and the military goon squad are all played a little faceless and their motives a little too unfathomable. Also with a post-apocalyptic narrative that wasn't yet into its second week I couldn't quite come to terms with a character quite so eccentrically sadistic, flamboyant and well, unconventional. These interludes rather than cementing a coherent world vision, tended to act as distractions, diversions and even though they were always entertaining and disturbing, in a good way I felt they could have been handled better. It's a small nit-pick, and I don't want to use it myself to distract from what is a sumptuous riotous pummelling-paced thrill ride. Wyrmwood stands out as a breath of fresh air in what is becoming quite the stale cinematic wasteland. For a reported $160,000 what Kiah and Tristan Roache-Turner have produced is quite magnificent; especially given that there's no redundancy; not a single wasted shot or surplus moment. With zombies and effects that would still be commended if they have ten times the budget, a tight well-crafted, minimalist script and narrative with actors who unanimously do it justice; it's a labour of love that deserves every zombie fans full attention - 8/10.


Saturday, 23 July 2016

Day of the Dead 2: Contagium - review

2005 (USA)

Contains spoilers.

I'll cut to the chase. Ana Clavell and James Dudelson's unofficial sequel to Romero's seminal Day of the Dead is a long winded, incoherent, uninspired and quite frankly shoddy piece of film making that should come with an apology. Make that two; one for actually thinking it was ok to release what can best be described as meandering, pointless and confused soap opera cross cum episode of the x-files in that state, and two, to Romero, for trying to take advantage of a fan favourite's namesake, instead tainting its legacy forever by association.

So what's wrong? Let's start with the zombies. You'd think at the least; given the blatant lack of effort, competence or savviness of all involved, that they'd be able to follow the Romero undead template, given, you know, the whole sequel what-not. But no. Never have I come across such a convoluted incoherent miss-mash of ideas; that maybe if part of a zany silly zombie spoof might have had some merit, but here, acting as the central narrative pillar in quite the serious zombie melodrama it's incredulous. First there's a soviet spy plane, a crazy Russian pilot with vials of a highly infectious recombinant virus of unknown origin, a memorial hospital, an outbreak, then a thirty year gap. Then there's a new age psychiatric doctor out with four patients enjoying the peace and tranquillity of a grass verge, the discovery of a lost and forgotten thermal flask and the lack of foresight to not open it. We've come to expect a certain level of contrivance and naivety in the precursor to a main story and recognise that it's all part of the great zombie hyperbole; so as daft and convoluted as all this is I'm kind of ok with it. It isn't really what I'm talking about.

It's the zombies themselves. Clavell and Dudelson's nonchalant attempt to explain the disparities, as a side effect of each hosts differing reactions to the DNA tampering virus ultimately fails and the multitude of undead we're left to make sense of is nothing but confusing and insulting. There's Isaac (Justin Ipock), Emma (Laurie Maria Baranyay), Doctor Heller (Andreas van Ray) and the gang who were first exposed and these guys are kind of cognisant mutating-larvae zombies with a kind of shared consciousness and meta-physiology. They're hungry gut-munchers and dead, but they're self-aware even able to demonstrate restraint. Then there's Marshall (Joe C. Marino) the warden who was bitten by Emma; he changes quickly into a b-movie monstrous mass of sinew and muscle hell bent on dishing out as much indiscriminate carnage and death as possible. Then there's everyone else and they're kind of just normal zombies albeit some shuffle, some run, some jump and some spasm about like defective crabs. It's all a perplexing mess and makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, which is a major problem as the slow unveiling of all this is pretty much the entirety of the narrative.

That's not quite true. There's, a good old Italian 80's inspired army vs undead slaughter-fest to start things off and while it doesn't hold up to any kind of scrutiny it definitely possesses the so bad it's good vibe. Then there's the ending; an almost comical explosion of violence and carnage that swings between audacious farce and serious Romero-esque satire without any conformity, and again there are moments I found myself quite enjoying what I was seeing. What we're talking about, and the problem is all the stuff in-between; a vast vacuous meandering lazy meh. A drawn out hokey b-movie cum soap opera with a single-story thread, that as said above is bafflingly incoherent and just tedious.

By far and away not the worst film I've reviewed it's still quite the all-round disappointment with a bewildering narrative, perfunctory if we're being polite, effects and make-up, and a music score that does nothing but mock and deride the action I believe it was commissioned to flatter. What occasional good performances there are; and there are some, are lost behind the all too many that are not, and if we're honest were ultimately doomed with a script that does nothing but fill for well over an hour.  A lazy production you'd be doing everyone a favour with if you just pretended didn't exist - 2/10.


Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Outpost II: Black Sun - review

2012 (UK)

Contains mild spoilers.

I'd been led to believe I shouldn't expect too much from director and co-writer Steve Barker's 2012 sequel to his 2008 dark Nazi horror Outpost; stick with the first, the original I was told; forget the rest, but I shouldn't have listened. I did really enjoy, if that's the right word, the first. It was gritty, real and nasty, and oozed palpable heart-thumping suspense at every corner. Full of memorable firefights, gory and gruesome deaths, as well as intelligent and coherent character design and development, it wasn't without fault, but things were easily overlooked and it came to be quite the claustrophobic and sadistic little favourite of mine. The first thing that sprang to mind coming away from this sequel is how Barker's hasn't chosen to deviate; it's just, if not more, dark and brooding and that's what made outpost tick, and constantly challenge my bowels, is all still there. Barker had fashioned quite the nightmare world, and Black Sun has every right to belong as part of it

Armed with a larger budget, though still modest if I've read right, Barker has definitely dialled the notch up though. The cat is out the bag so to speak. Following straight on from the rather fatal antics of the first, everyone from NATO through to, let's say slightly more nefarious parties, are now acutely aware of the rather small bunker in Easter Europe and the rather dangerous and intimidating trans-dimensional zombies and their plan to usher in new a thousand year Reich. Physicist Hunt and his British no-nonsense military mercenaries of the original didn't really help if we're honest. Ok, they brought the not so late Brigadeführer Götz and his army of super soldiers to the attention of the world, but in doing so somehow armed him with not only additional ambition but the ability to act on it. It's here with a rapid NATO response force desperately holding back the relentless and inevitable tide of terror that our story begins.

Black Sun is quite relentless and ambitious, opting for a more expansive story over the subtle claustrophobic driven narrative of the first. It's a film that tries to cram a lot in; perhaps a little too much with far larger scale zombie death, carnage and mayhem over-exposition and build-up pretty much from the start. I'm not complaining; though maybe Barker could have started with a little more insight as it took me longer than he probably intended to get fully behind Lena (Catherine Steadman), the Nazi war-criminal hunter and even longer, her relationship / acquaintanceship with physicist Wallace (Richard Coyle). That being said watching grand NATO skirmishes with the putrid zombie horde was truly delightful and I'm not sure I'd trade...

The rag tag gang of British soldiers that Lena and Wallace get caught up with compliment the narrative of the original whilst offering something both new, and coherent with the story as Barker is trying to tell it. Whilst they at first they come across a bit one-dimensional and peripheral to the core pair, Barker once again weaves wonders unveiling and unravelling each and every back-story, so that by the time, inevitably, this is Outpost remember, they're killed off in increasingly sadistic, brutal and pointless ways, they're looked at with appreciation and even fondness. Even the token gobby Scot who f's, blinds and threatens with the best of them eventually knocks at the friend door demanding to be cared for.

One thing Black Sun could perhaps be accused of is trying a little too hard; with maybe one of the producers or co-writer Rae Brunton (sole writer of the first) telling him to cut down on the sugar intake during filming. We're not by now talking about the whole trans-dimensional stuff and Klausener's Nazi experimentation to shift soldiers outside space and time Philadelphia Experiment style. We're talking about human machine integration; cyborgism and the ability to expand electro-magnetic-fields as a consequence, strange electric lightning ray powers (a la the Emperor from Star Wars), a strange Nazi zombie hag (Medeiros girl) and predominantly the end of the film. It doesn't all ruin the film but it does hamper it from being quite as coherent as it could; and did tend to spoil the ending. I also couldn't help notice the zombie trans-dimensional ability seemed to be more focused on invulnerability over jumping about in space-time. I can understand this provided the means for the more linear and coherent narrative which wasn't removed entirely; but the zombies of Black Sun in many instances lost that fear factor they had from literally being able to be around any corner. The introduction of EM pulses as a means to actually defeat them also detracted from that utterly undefeatable aura they had in the first. Don't get me wrong; they're still, in action, quite formidable and the nastiest group of undead psychopaths you're ever likely to see but it's just all a lot more traditional zombie; albeit stabby, stabby not bitey, bitey.

Barker has taken two of our most popular conspiracies and run with it, fashioning an unashamedly perverse alternative world history that for as prosperous as it all sounds makes for a remarkably serious, coherent and cohesive duo of films. A rare zombie film that not only embellishes and compliments its predecessor but leaves them intact as unique experiences, I can do nothing but praise. Ok, as said, the ending wasn't great and Barker could have shown better composure with pacing and some, shall we say, improved discernment over some interesting but out of place ideas, which could easily have reduced all the good work to farce. The hellish nightmare vision Barker presents though, does ultimately hold together and thoroughly entertains - 7/10.


Friday, 15 July 2016

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies - review

2016 (USA / UK)

Contains mild spoilers.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is exactly how it sounds. It's the iconic, sumptuous, slow paced, dialogue and costume heavy intricate maze of 18th century high society, with deep complex characters clashing over honour and duty, marriage and love. Presented as a dutiful BBC adaptation with lavish locations, an array of amazing acting talent and grand cinematography, it's a stunning adaptation of the classic with all the good and bad that brings. Then there's the undead elephant in the room. It's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and it's not a metaphor or aesthetic analogy; they're real, they're gnarly, decaying and dangerous, and they're also a deeply entrenched and accepted part of the Bennet sisters world.

Author of the book this was adapted from, Seth Grahame-Smith described the process of inserting the zombies akin to micro-surgery. Whilst I wouldn't agree that surgery is necessarily the right word and his intervening somehow fixed something, I'm more than happy to agree that what he walked away from somehow, inexplicably given the magnitude of what was added, doesn't show any scarring or evidence that it's been tampered with. It is Pride and Prejudice; it's dances and balls, with afternoon tea and courtships, where ladies need a chaperone and men need another chance to lose money at whist. It's just that it's also a world where London has fallen to the zombie mass, ladies have several years in the far east learning ancient martial arts and Colonels like Darcy (Sam Riley) carry jars of carrion flies in case they're ever called upon to unveil any dead masquerading as alive.

And it all works. Whether down to Grahame-Smith or director Burr Steers, the film somehow, and inexplicable as it sounds, tells the Austen story without accusation of complacency or dumbing, with the zombies a recognisably coherent and integral part of it all.  Jane Austen unapologetically took aim in 1813 at a high society built on a duplicitous standards; there was what one could talk about and what one actually did, and her own opening remark about unmarried men came to serve as the irony soaked truth of the generation. Now I'm not going to pretend with the addition of the zombies, the combat training of the Bennet sisters, and a country on apocalyptic lock down, the changes aren't obvious and quite blatant. It's just that the world Steers has helped fashion comes across just as coherent and believable as a back drop to tell the story as the original does. It's 18th century England, there's zombies, what of it? 

So what of this Pride and Prejudice interpretation? Well, truth be told, I don't really know what I'm talking about. I've never read it, never watched a film or TV interpretation. In fact I'm a little out of my depth; but fortunately I have an in-house expert; Mrs WTD who I've persuaded to give her thoughts… (I added the pink)...

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is true to the spirit of the original Austen work, and to the more famous set-piece dialogue. And, well, it's loads of fun and I can't help thinking Jane Austen would have approved. Most of all it's true to the characters. The Bennet sisters are feisty young things who challenge the patriarchal and class status quo - check. And they are highly trained marshal artists who kill zombies - HELLA YEAH! Mrs Bennet and Mr Collins retain the same comedic qualities as in the original, and as for Wickham... Well, I knew they'd got him right when half way through the film Mr WTD declared "Poor Wickham, he's the real good character here, that Darcy is a complete git!" The exact same reaction I had to the book age 14, BOOM! And yes, Burr Steers, all we ladies of a certain age did notice the call-back to the Colin Firth wet shirt scene, thanks for that. It's a romp, so's Pride and Prejudice, but this romp has zombies in it. It's all good!

In the post Walking Dead world it's no real surprise to find the zombies particularly gruesome and bloody, but it was interesting to find such a detailed, alternative and fleshed out sub-narrative. As the film progresses the binary them and us / alive and zombie demarcation starts to collapse. Already aware zombification takes time, with one's will and self eroding slowly, we later start exploring through Mr. Wickham (Jack Huston) a strange in-between world and state, with the undead able to ward off their final surrender by substituting pigs brain for human. However it's here we can be most picky; as just as quickly are these themes introduced they're painfully abandoned as if being saved for a sequel we're unlikely to ever get, or the bumpy ride the film went through (four directors and script writers) finally took its toll. Maybe Burr Steers who rewrote it again, remarking he had reinserted 'all the Pride and Prejudice beats' saw all this as too off track, which begs why it was here at all?

Ultimately whether Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is for you, is the same as asking if Pride and Prejudice is; as blood and guts aside for vast periods of time you'd not be mistaken for thinking they are really one and the same. The second aspect to take into account is whether you're for or against the whole zombie thing, though this isn't so pertinent in my eyes as you are here on a zombie film blog. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a truly unique parody film; running as it is with an audaciously silly premise, yet played sombre and dead-pan with its sophisticated humour tied in with its heritage and not exploited because of. Brilliantly conceived and sumptuously presented; it's a meta-farce (if that makes sense) that works precisely because it owns its own palpable irony. It's a walking talking unspoken contradiction; it's Pride and Prejudice and fucking Zombies, and just like Mr Darcy, Elizabeth Bennett and all, we're just supposed to accept it. Madness I tell you! -  7/10.


Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Cooties - review

2014 (USA)

Contains mild spoilers.

Now whilst I personally don't feel we're quite witnessing the end of our collective unconditional love affair with the zombie, I think perhaps we're definitely moving to a period where the relationship will be tempered and better defined. The Walking Dead bubble whilst strong in its centre has definitely shrunk and the great zombie experiment that pushed the undead gut-muncher to an increasingly new and mainstream audience is definitely showing signs of decline. Fads are cyclical; the modern zombie zeitgeist was always doomed, not to fail, but to be replaced with something new. While you may ponder that this a strange thing for a zombie film fanatic to say, I'll add I think it's not only a healthy thing but a necessary thing. The zombie isn't going to go away; it's a disturbed metaphor that transcends era and I believe as long as life and death and all their intrinsic paradoxes are played with then they will always have a place at the media table. The thing is, and I think if we're all honest we'll agree, the time has come for discernment, for less. We just don't need yet another zombie first person shooter, nor do we need yet another derivative SyFy survival bore-fest; and we certainly don't need yet another gleeful, glib and by the numbers zom-rom-com.

Now I almost feel sorry for the big movie executives and decision makers sat atop their mountains of cash watching The Walking Dead craze run amok and not knowing how exactly to join in and exploit it. Horror is a difficult beast to tame and best left to those who truly get the dark and twisted. A gritty and serious endeavour needs vision, a really great script, and the nerve of a director to stay on course, which leaves the safe bet. I all too often come away from a zom-rom-com with the feeling I've watched the brain-child of someone who knows a little of the modern zombie but does understand the rudiments and formulae of how to make a romantic comedy; and that as long as the audience leaves somewhat satisfied and entertained; which they undoubtedly will, then all is good. The thing is, drowning as we are in a plethora of zombie content, one can't just rely on them anymore to carry a film by their mere presence. Each iterative offering sees their impact diluted, so consequently the rest needs to be better. Maybe I'm jaded; I certainly sound jaded, but that's the very problem with director Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion's Cooties. Strip away the shock of the zombie school children, and the rom-com that's left doesn't particularly hold up to any kind of scrutiny.

Avian influenza; bird Flu, and the constant battle to quell the next great cross species pandemic makes for a great zombie backstory, and here the obvious yet effective satirical swipe at intensive food processing, chicken nuggets and cheap school dinners starts Cooties off, well on track. A single infected girl oozing in class with all that unlocked horror potential then boom! A no-nonsense zombie outbreak, kids running, teachers being eaten; blood guts and black humour; things were good, nay great, and I could even overlook, for a while, the rather obvious and rambling one dimensional characters I soon realised I was going to be stuck with. To be fair to the actors they do actually do some justice to them, though how much they could actually do with the presumably one-line character synopsis they were given is debatable. Clint Hadson (Elijah Wood) is a failed writer come back to live with mum and sub at the local elementary school fifteen years after leaving. An hour and a half later, I could perhaps add he's a bit of a dick with some creepy crush on an ex he hasn't seen since leaving, but did stalk. I could tell you even less about said crush Lucy McCormick, (Alison Pill) a teacher already there; or her boyfriend the stereo-typical sport teacher Wade Johnson (Rainn Wilson).

It just all feels like a film by committee with little to no focus or emphasis on fleshing out or developing likeable characters with, instead, an over confident reliance on the highly designed interactions with the zombie horde to see things through; seven producers and co-producers seems to argue that this is the case. There is the argument, however that this nearly works and Cooties is, for all I've criticised it, still a great zombie film with sumptuous set pieces, some tense zombie hide and seek, copious and undiluted, taking into account their children, violence and gore... So what am I trying to say? Just before we start going round in circles; that Cooties is a fun, well produced zom-rom-com, but one that just doesn't stand-out with zombies no longer on their own able carry a disjointed narrative and vacuous characters.

I've accused many a film before of not really being about the zombies; that they're more the driver to tell a tense character driven story. Here the film bets all on them and it nearly pays off, with the snarly ferocious little shits, especially young Cooper Roth as Patriot, pulling off a younger utterly convincing and terrifying version of Donald (Robert Carlyle from 28 Days Later), genuinely stealing the show. It's a virus that's mutated from some rotten chicken and jumped species; it's incredibly virulent, transferring through the slightest scratch or bite and it's incredible keen, almost immediately killing off parts of the brain turning the subject into a single-minded rabid cannibal. Despite being children, Milott and Murnion aren't scared to have the teachers deal with their foe with extreme prejudice; and guts, gore and combat are always in your face and imaginative. For all that the film is comedy, there are times, especially in the latter phases that the action is darker and more serious and with the children impeccably made up to look and behave terrifying it made for some genuine uncomfortable viewing; which was a delight. Unfortunately they're sporadic and randomly placed, again pointing to a production that seems haphazard and confused.

If I sat down to watch just one zom-rom-com this year, and this was it, then I'd perhaps feel differently. Then, the riotous interplay of ridiculous characters, set-ups and jokes all brought together in a maelstrom of silly action, inappropriate violence and gore, and teen level romance; by recognisable actors in a more than competent way, all with fantastic zombies would have me jumping for joy, and I'd be inclined to overlook its many short-comings. The thing is, it isn't and the zombies alone, this time, can't forgive it's failings. An almost film, that for all it entertains and titillates, ultimately disappoints - 6/10.


Friday, 8 July 2016

Dead Rising: Watchtower - review

2015 (USA)

Contains mild spoilers.

So let's catch up. It all started with the small town of Willamette, Colorado, a photo-journalist called Frank West, a rather convoluted zombie origin story involving cattle production, wasps and parasitic larvae, and a lot, and I mean a lot of zombies. It was also a cracking sandbox video-game; universally praised and another great, fleshed out Capcom zombie franchise. Memorable for its lavish boss fights, highly imaginative and varied weaponry and its ability to churn out never before seen quantities of onscreen undead, it delivered quite the satisfying zombie experience, getting the balance between tension / horror and goofy humour just about spot on. Dead Rising 2, set some five years later, introduced former motocross champion Chuck Greene, who’s turn it was to quell the undead hordes and save the day; though here there was no government conspiracy, merely a sophisticated and ambitious robbery gone terribly wrong. And whilst not really adding to the story, its focus on even more lavish game-play and those elements that set aside the first made it a sure fire hit; though maybe forever entrenching the franchise's position as wacky and fun over tense and dramatic. This is not only where and when director Zach Lipovsky's live action Dead Rising: Watchtower comes in, but also clearly presents him with his biggest challenge.

Jesse Metcalfe is Chase Carter; another reporter, this time investigating the sudden out break and quarantine of the town of East Mission, Oregon. Seemingly under control by F.E.Z.A. (Federal Emergency Zombie Authority) what initially seems like quite the non-event, as is the often the way, soon explodes with all the running, screaming and dying we love to watch. Desperate to escape the carnage, Chase runs, teams up with the much more on the ball Crystal O'Rourke (Meghan Ory) and the grieving (though in denial) Maggie (Virginia Madsen), and together fight their way through quite the intricate, surprisingly rich, full and satisfying zombie survival story.

Dead Rising: Watchtower is stylish, modern feeling and sumptuous to watch, and when it gets it right, it really does. The problem Lipovsky seems to have had though, was how to play proper homage to the films video-game roots whilst also providing said post Walking Dead zombie satisfaction, and here it falls down coming across conflicted, disjointed and incongruous with its identity. On the one hand there's a quite the dark and brooding, quite serious zombie apocalypse story, with conspiracy, intrigue, sadness; and it's really rather good. Then on the other hand there's a wacky and farcical video game film full of irreverent humour and call-backs someone who's not familiar with the franchise would find confusing, and one who is, would just not find funny or that welcome. The killer clown, the biker gang, even to a certain extent the effort and attention to the assembly and use of elaborate zombie dispatching weaponry, whilst all a tad obvious and contrived, I could kind of live with. What I struggled the most with however, and the biggest example of the split personality, comes from Frank West (played by Rob Riggle) and his interviewer scenes with their incessant need to continuously interrupt the action with vapid, corny and entirely unnecessary wittering. As the film progressed I found myself increasingly irritated by this need; this design, to pull me from the entirely engaging action just to have me watch a puerile, and increasingly desperate bit of comic relief; which really only acted to break immersion and hamper the pacing. Coming in just under the two hour mark too, it's criminal that there wasn't the confidence to ditch something that could easily have shaved off a minute or ten, as I refuse to believe these points weren't gleaned during post-production.

The wasps, the larvae, the incubation and all the highly contrived Dead Rising back-story appears to have been brushed aside in favour of quite the more traditional and safe zombie virus / infection one. People are bit, the zombie virus is transferred and unless one can get their hands on a dose of zombrex, a targeted anti-viral, before the change then it's shuffling, groaning and goodnight Vienna. A more traditional origin story does simplify things though, and I'm probably a lone voice even mentioning wasp queens and all the added complexity that comes with them. Though to be a stickler, a little more adherence to the accepted long incubation period after contracting the virus would have been welcome; for consistencies sake. Still, the undead gut-munchers of Watchtower are everything one would expect of a modern well-funded zombie thrill ride, with coherent and consistent choreography, sumptuous make-up and perfect to the point of actually noticing things, continuity. Lipovsky also isn't afraid to push the boundaries of taste and decency, with children, the physically disabled and even babies on the wrong side of gratuitous and excessively good gory munches. This ain't no dumbed-down and sterile family friendly feature.

With a good edit to tighten everything up and the removal of all the Frank West fluff I'd argue Dead Rising: Watchtower could be up there as one of the best modern, good looking, well though-out and expansive zombie action spectaculars. Then again, maybe if it had played the video game trump card, goofing everything up with lavish bosses and full-on invested Campbell-esque language, humour and set-pieces, it would again, have worked just as well; though as a significantly different beast. As it is, this half way house just doesn't quite work which is a huge pity. I'll be honest I didn't approach this title with high hopes but I also didn't expect to come away angry and disappointed over a couple of strange piddling directorial decisions which detracted from what was / is fundamentally a brilliant film. Aarrgghh! As they say. - 6/10.


Thursday, 7 July 2016

(Black Zombies from) Sugar Hill - review

1974 (USA)

Contains spoilers.

History tells us that revenge is a dish best served cold; and for Diana 'Sugar' Hill (Marki Bey) what could be more cold than the decaying hand of a reanimated corpse?! Sugar Hill, re-titled Black Zombies from Sugar Hill, when it was cut and aired on television, is an American blaxploitation master-piece, full of funk, soul, seventies American street slang and the universal adoption and acceptance of the afro. Oh, and it's also primarily the cinematic story of the systematic and total slaughter of a group of white folk at the hands of black; albeit they kind of started and deserved it.

Sugar Hill might well be a quaint, quiet rural homestead out in the Texan bayou but the Sugar Hill of the title most certainly refers to it's occupier and natty dresser Diana 'Sugar' Hill. And her story is quite straightforward. Finding her true love Langston (Larry Don Johnson) beaten to death and tossed on the street 'like a piece of garbage' over his refusal to sell his nightclub 'Haiti', she opts to call on her families voodoo heritage and settle the score with the perpetrator, local thug and opportunist Morgan (Robert Quarry).

It's a very simple premise, on the surface. Diana is the very real, very helpless victim of corruption and violence, Mafiosi Morgan and his gang of henchmen the seemingly untouchable perpetrators, and voodoo and violence the only tool she has to strike back. In truth it's all a lot more complicated. Now one can argue back and forth whether the blaxpoitation genre empowered a suppressed minority, or irresponsibly perpetuated racial stereotypes at a time calm was needed. Whilst I generally feel where there's two such vocal sides there's probably more than a grain of truth to both, I also kind of feel some cinematic venting after hundreds of years of actual exploitation, apartheid, slavery and god knows what else is not only expected but probably justified. Though by saying that, I'm in the very danger of legitimising the very thing they're now venting against. It's chicken and egg; blaxpoitation was born from a legitimate anger against a world that had let it down, and yet can itself be accused of the same stereotyping and insensitivity. It's a tricky one I won't get further bogged down in; but I will note that not for the first time, that this is often where the zombie can emerge; as a metaphor made cinematic flesh; symbolising a binary paradox at a troubled time.

The original voodoo zombie was all about suggestion, symbolism and blurring the perceived boundaries of life and death; and this was best illustrated in the 1988 pseudo-documentary The Serpent and the Rainbow. Over the years physical deadness became more categorical and substantive, eventually consuming the metaphor, entirely but before independence and the drive to feed came with Romero, the will of a puppet master was still required, and this is where Sugar Hill fits in. Diana wants violent retribution, priestess Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully) agrees, and it's the summoned voodoo god Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley) who summarily provides the undead army, enthusiasm and strings to pull it all off.

With big vacant glazed silver bug-eyes, white paint used to accentuate the bones and adorned with rags, leaves and cobwebs, on paper the zombies of Sugar Hill don't sound the most convincing, or frightening. However, as a voodoo tool, which here is being played to full exaggerated effect, their look, demeanour and behaviour is a perfect fit. Sometimes playful, sometimes intimidating, each increasingly elaborate and violent murder is joyfully staged, with Diana, dressed to kill (literally) pronouncing judgement, the Baron the gleeful chortling observer and the zombies the perfectly scripted tool to enforce it. Also of note, that however increasingly contrived and staged each execution is, executions they still are; there's no flesh ripping, no innards out on display; it is a zombie film but we're back to a time they were more autonomous foot-soldiers than homicidal flesh eaters, and also gore-wise, where the mantra was definitely less is more.

Certainly a film of its time, I actually enjoyed the exaggerated performances, the theatrical killings and seventies street jibe probably way more than I should have. Putting aside all the blaxploitation stuff, Director Paul Maslansky's Sugar Hill is an extremely confident, perfectly paced and coherent revenge story that weaves in the myth and colour of voodoo to produce something truly unique and memorable. And more importantly, it's fun, from start to finish somehow maintaining a perfect balance neither being too serious nor too asinine,. Finally, that Maslansky has succeeded in fashioning a film where bad guys suffer, in particularly bad ways, satiating some perverse primal satisfaction I probably should feel some shame for, should be applauded. Recommended - 7/10.


This German DVD 4:3 picture is more than adequate and comes with both the original English and German stereo soundtrack.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Erotic (Sexy) Nights of the Living Dead - review

1980 (Italy)

Contains spoilers.

Let's address the obvious. Notorious Italian Director Joe D'Amato's Erotic Nights of the Living Dead is a hard-core pornographic feature, with full penetration, oral, girl on girl and pop-shots, and we're not just talking about the original and now infamous scene with a bottle of champagne, and this factor alone is going to dictate to most whether this is a film for them. Well it is and perhaps it shouldn't. You see there are two versions. There's the 'uncut' one with all the aforementioned explicit squelching and twelve minutes of extra rudity, and there's a 'general' release without, and now having, ahem, educated myself with what one would be missing I can make the case that one would actually not only be not missing that much, but they'd perhaps actually be watching something that benefited directly because of it. Getting right to it, which is coincidentally, exactly what eighties Italians seem to do; unless you just have to watch pretty tame, lethargic and drawn out amateur vintage euro porn then the film benefits immensely with faster pacing, stronger cohesion and identity and a more consistent narrative for not being interrupted with it every five minutes. Don't get me wrong it's still wall to wall tits and arse but it's not quite so distracting.

It's a film about a zombie island and the trip to it, and we'll start with this. Larry (George Eastman) owns a boat. John (Mark Shannon), who made me think of Ron Burgandy, wants to hire the boat so he can scope Cat Island for a potential holiday resort, and Fiona (Dirce Funari) wants to take her clothes off. Larry, Mark and Fiona also like sex; a lot, and let's say they're all quite unreserved with who they have it with. It's your usual Zombie Flesh Eaters (Zombi 2) inspired, Italian styled drawn out zombie nonsense with dire legends and warnings, except here with a lot, and I mean a lot more nudity. There is a small zombie cameo, which acts as a small amuse-bouche for the action that will arrive a lot later; but it's a bit leveraged and never taken anywhere.  What we really have is a good hour of badly acted, terribly dubbed, nothingness, that's somehow entirely watchable and absorbing, perhaps both for its awfulness and a terrible voyeuristic perversion just to see what, and you just know it'll be next to little, reason Fiona will find to strip down to the altogether.

Arriving at the island they're met with more warnings, this time in person from mystic and teller of sooths Luna (Laura Gemser - Black Emanuelle) who by remarkable coincidence is also more than happy to get down and jiggly with it, and her grandfather, but instead of listening to tales of an evil zombie master cat, and certain death, choose instead to sunbathe, smoke, drink and frolic in the sun. And honestly, when the zombies start emerging and the weird monkey totems have been summarily cast aside, I had no sympathy for all the screaming, chasing and dying that occurred.

The best way of describing the zombies is 'mixed bag'. There's an attempt at the full fetid, maggot crusted Fulci undead; and they get close on occasion with elaborate make-up and prosthetics, but all too often it's just some fella with some rags and a vacant expression (all the zombies are male). For every confident, dark and uncomfortable, and some of them truly were, zombie sequence with raggedy soulless denizens crawling out from their shallow grave or the ocean forcing our now slightly less sex-obsessed survivors back like an endless surge; there was some guy with a night-shirt jumping out with his arms outstretched like a pathetic slightly uncertain panther. Overall though, and taking into account again that this film was one part zombie to two parts tits-out, the thirty or so minutes when the zombies do matter were surprisingly entertaining and bafflingly strong. Again though, for all the wrong reasons; as if the script and narrative were to be dissected in any way it would be found severely wanting in coherence, competence and substance.

Joe D'Amato's Erotic Nights of the Living Dead is truly wanting, even when put up against other early eighties European horror, and that in itself is quite telling. And yet as a film and feature it's not as bad as it could have been; somehow providing enough intrigue to see things through. For as much as I can, and will, criticise it from top to bottom, from premise to production, I can honestly say I was never truly bored; enjoying the ride like a spellbound slightly uncomfortable voyeur watching a horrific multi-car pile-up, except where everyone was naked. I also found myself strangely forgiving of the obvious sexploitation as the women were not only always in control, but more often the ones with the perceived power, dictating the terms and timing of each sexual encounter, as if the men were just randy little teens always on standby to perform to command. And yes, it's a zombie movie; a real one, and not some half-hearted pornographic satirical swipe at the genre, with an earnest and revered attempt at getting things right. I'm neither going to recommend or reject this odd little Italian sleaze; more suggest it's not totally and summarily dismissed out of hand for, as I stated, the obvious reason - 4/10.