Monday, 2 October 2017

Here Alone - review

2016 (USA)

Contains mild spoilers.

Zombies have shown themselves to be quite the versatile narrative tool. At one end of the spectrum there's absurd farce and brainless splatter action, at the other, drama, romance and even deep philosophical discourse. Zombies disturb the natural order; they blur the demarcation of life and death, and that makes them instantly and intrinsically perturbing yet curious. In response to the scares and jumps there's always the need for disdain, ridicule and the need to reduce the threat, and it's why zombies are as equally at home with comedy and farce as they are in most gruesome and grizzly cinematic spectacular. But if we're willing to subdue the uncomfortable laughs, and turn away the horror to face the silence and darkness with sobriety, they can force us to confront what it is to be human and alive, and they can provide the perfect metaphor for some serious reflection.

Ambitious in its simplicity, Here Alone; directed by Rod Blackhurst and written by David Ebeltoft is one such attempt. It's a film that puts life, more-so, subsistence and survival at any and all cost, front and centre, then pushes from this to explore morality, relationship and hope as basic human conditions. Yet it never insults, as often films that take themselves too seriously do, by actually trying to answer the questions it poses. People are human, and humans err. We're complex, broken and driven by our own desires, wants and obsessions; and we will act irrationally, wrongly and we will be faced to deal with the consequences. Here Alone embraces the chaos of life, warts and all, and spins a survival story that presents a what-if world with brevity and honesty.

As the film begins Ann (Lucy Walters) paints a sorry figure watching her scrape mud and excrement from her emaciated naked body is a harrowing vision of survivalist truth. It's not the apocalypse from a beach front paradise, shopping mall utopia nor even safe secluded, yet barren and simple, forest shack. She's humanity stripped to the bare bones; the embodiment of sad and desperate, cold and broken. It's not shall I have the can of beans or soup tonight; it's how many beans should I have to be alive tomorrow.

Here Alone is Ann's personal story. From flashbacks to a time before the world fell to the violent, rabid zombie viral pandemic, to her own haunting journey of loss, to stark sober lessons from her husband Jason (Shane West), on survive in the wild, her story of is one of loss, redemption, and ultimately of recovery and the renewal of hope. But it's a long harrowing journey, and one more of narration and implication than ever visceral or obvious. 

In fact I think there are only a handful of scenes where the zombies actually make an appearance, and even fewer where they're actually the focus. Yet, they're actually as intense a threat, and as utterly terrifying as any zombie out there. One can point to the modest budget, and short (23 day) shooting calendar, but Blackhurst's decision to push the zombies to the periphery works extremely well. Here Alone positions the zombies as the utterly final unknown assailant, and Ann and her two eventual companions, Chris (Adam David Thompson), and his teenage stepdaughter, Olivia (Gina Piersanti) as inevitable victims. Each encounter oozes tension and dread, and each is memorable and full of impact. 

Here Alone won't be for everyone. As said it's not a horror, though there are some tense jumpy moments, and it's neither excessively gruesome nor an action spectacular. It is however a thoughtfully presented and intelligently constructed personal, intelligent and haunting tragedy that's both well acted and satisfyingly both complete and in many ways incomplete, and left open. It's a snapshot of how miserable and truly difficult life could be if the walls did actually come tumbling down, and a reminder to cherish what and who we have. Poignant and brave, Blackhurst's take on the apocalypse is bleak but captivating 6/10.


Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter - review

2016 (UK / France / Germany / South Africa / Canada / Japan / Australia / USA)

Contains mild spoilers.
Well it's been a long ride for Alice (Milla Jovovich). Resuscitated with memory loss, attacked without mercy by the scourge of the undead and their corporate overlords, then over the decade hunted and beset by all the increasingly monstrous and depraved super mutants that director Paul W. S. Anderson could conceive. She's been shot, stabbed, sliced, diced and blown from the sky. She's been cloned, watched good friends die, learnt the dark secrets of her past and witnessed the world she knew torn a sunder. To say she's due a break is an understatement but with this instalment, it would appear Anderson might just be finally letting us, and her, enjoy some kind of rest to the madness.

Over the ten years and six chapters we've slowly but surely witnessed a profound cinematic transition to style over narrative, characters, or any real attempt at substance. It's as if someone gave control of the crazy dial to a young excitable boy and then kept ploughing him with coke long after he'd definitely had enough. From a gritty, claustrophobic and earnest debut, success turned into cash, then into budget, and finally unfettered approval to bring life to the most fantastical scenes and effects, and thus did story, congruence and any concerns for character arcs, in turn, fall to the way side. Part five was the epitome of action surplus; a cacophony of battles and over the top and never-ending lunacy that failed utterly to actually be engaging or rewarding precisely because of this deficit accrued. With The Final Chapter I'd argue that while the giddy young fella seems relieved from his sugar purgatory, this is for all intents and purposes the grand finale, and as such, why is there a want to temper things now. Whilst one can see a whisper of desire to return with Alice and the entourage to Racoon City, and to the intimacy and cinematic authenticity of where and when it all began, there's too much water under the bridge; too much superficial silliness to ever really think they could.

By now we understand that it's not the gold star action and cinematic wizardry that will let a Resident Evil film down but the downtime, the moments of peace between the double back flip, the Matrix style kung-fu, or the triple barrelled shot gun into the giant toothy flying mutant of doom (I think a Kipepeo). Yet I've seen The Final Chapter come in for a lot of criticism about how it's all been cut and spliced together. Ultimately I think it comes down to personal taste, as I didn't mind the frantic and chaotic shaky cam approach; in many ways recognising it as a nod to the perils and confusion of war. The fact that so much of it was shot in near darkness however, I did, especially as Anderson to his credit does manage to return the simple un-mutated zombie back to the forefront for a large swathe of the film, and it would have been nice if we could have really seen them in all their glory.

Another recurring problem I have by now, is Alice's invulnerability. I'm all for the epic hero, the Thor or Beowulf blessed by the Gods with incredible fortune as well as strength, but as all about her fall and as buildings tumble, one never get the feeling, not for one second, that's she's actually in any real danger. The problem with winning the no-win scenario, is how do you follow it but with an equally implausible one. It's the magicians conundrum. Day one it's escaping from a box, Day 100, it's escaping from a box suspended over the Grand Canyon, on fire with a rat in your underpants. Watching Alice, yet again dancing with the big Resident Evil brute +1, or the next CGI enhanced video game inspired super boss, there's nothing really new, never any real tension and no tangible threat. Yet again, dare I say, it's all a tad stale and insipid, and no, adding another rat or maybe a cat to the pants won't ever really fix the fundamental problem.

The Final Chapter isn't as bad Retribution but that would have been a hard thing to have accomplished. At least here there is a semblance of a narrative to make sense of the carnage, even it deviates on what we've been told before, and makes a mockery of all the heroes and villains that have come together to give her a final send-off, with what in effect are short meaningless cameos. Through in truth, if anyone is really watching Resident Evil for any semblance of a coherent narrative or intelligent by this point, they're way off the mark. With action this undeniably good I'd be hard pressed to say there isn't something of merit watching Milla's perfect death bringing choreography, or any of the big picture perfect explosions; and I did find some nostalgia in the final scenes despite them ending up an insulting mockery. So as I said, better than the last, but I had very low expectations - 4/10.


Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Train to Busan - review

2016 (South Korea)

Contains mild spoilers. 

Hype always makes me nervous. It raises expectations and thus investment; and it raises the bar such that any wrong step can feel like betrayal. It also makes it harder to be impartial as the mob has already ruled, and laid a pejorative marker against any who might disagree. It makes it hard insomuch that one doesn't just want to be seen going along with the herd, and the herd are very much on the side of Director Yeon Sang-ho's Train to Busan. Edgar Wright of Shaun of the Dead called it the "best zombie movie I've seen in forever", and professional accolades and plaudits have been thrown by dozen. Well hands up; sometimes the herd can be right. I'll say upfront, Train to Busan, is arguably one of, if not the, best and most complete zombie film ever made.

Twenty or so minutes in I could feel it. There's a moment near the start of every great disaster movie, before the horror, action and actual catastrophe, where all the trepidation, anxiety, fear and excitement you know is soon to come is tantalisingly tangible. It's like being seated on a roller-coaster, slowly rising up towards the first hundred-mile-an-hour gut-wrenching plummet that you know is coming, yet can do nothing to stop. Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) and daughter Soo-An (Kim Su-an) have boarded the early train for Busan, some 453km away. Fleeting and fragmented phone calls and news flashes point to some greater and more expansive violence and confusion in the inner cities. And a lone very poorly woman stumbles quickly onto the train unbeknown to the guards and crew. It's as near a perfect application of the genre; the passengers embark and settle down for the long haul, and it's impossible not to lean forward with sweaty palms, heart racing and a grin from ear to ear. It's the zombie trope, but Sang-ho proves why tropes are tropes; if done properly they can be beautiful and timeless.

Then it begins. To say the ride is relentless would be putting it mildly. One becomes two, then three, four, and before anyone has any clue, the train is a claustrophobic maelstrom of screaming, running and blood. The following hour and forty is a barrage to the senses; perfectly paced, unremitting in its savagery and able to totally subsume the viewer so that there's a coming together to share each high and low as one. It's as finely crafted a zombie experience as I can recall. The train is the perfect vessel to constrain the tension and the roller-coaster is the perfect analogy. There's no escape, no  getting off; just helpless surrender to the ride ahead.

The few confused and desperate passengers that survived the initial onslaught are shaken and desperate, yet as a disaster movie and into the chaos, the experience is ultimately only as good as how they respond. An action horror spectacular it is, but Train to Busan is also an emotional narrative on good vs evil, of self-serving vs self-sacrifice. The zombies are at the end of the day quite neutral; they're automated killing machines driven entirely by instinct to spread the infection and never actually conscious and therefore responsible for their actions. To call them evil would be to call piranhas evil; they're nippy little shits yes, but they're just doing what they're designed to do. 

It's the passengers and the conscious decisions they choose to make in reaction that defines, in this instance, morality. This self-serving; looking after oneself at the expense of all others, versus, sacrificing oneself, or putting oneself in harm's way is the recurrent theme throughout the feature. It's deliberate that Seok-woo has a career that's perceived as selfish and his charge, Soo-An, is a small girl with a huge heart. It's also no coincidence one of his first decisions is whether to pull shut a door guaranteeing the safety of his daughter, or risk everything to let Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok), a working man who ultimately comes to be Seok-woo's moral gauge, and pregnant wife Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-mi) through. His becomes a journey of discovery, of redemption, and the narrative an overarching exploration contrasting the best and worst of what it is to be human. 

Impersonation is the sincerest form of flattery and World War Z should be proud that Train to Busan has adopted their vision of the zombie and, other than their own origin stories, I could easily see each sitting comfortably in the others universe. Both share the upgraded 28 Days Later zombie for velocity and ferocity. Both share the rather demonic and inhuman veined appearance, and irregular and violently fitful movement model. And both imply the same viral contagion, where it's all about the infection wanting to spread with as much virulence as possible and not actually about anyone eating anyone else. Brad Pitt may have spent a purported $190m, but Sang-ho with his $10m easily keeps up, and watching each and every new vicious and rabid frenzy of anger and teeth scream to life, ready to join the hunt, is always exhilarating, and never gets old.

I don't recall a movie, never mind a niche zombie one, that so consistently got so much right. An action spectacular, a tense disaster drama, a human tragedy; it convinces on all fronts. Yet still at heart it's a fearless zombie film, unashamed to wear the crazy undead gnasher loud and proud, front and central. Yeon Sang-ho has given the tiring genre a more than welcome shot in the arm with a visual and audio feast that, as said, is just about as good as you're going to get. And yet for all these plaudits, it will be the friends you've made, and the friends you've lost, that you'll mostly recall when thinking about it. It is complete and masterful storytelling that excels in all areas and a privilege to watch, 10/10.


Sunday, 3 September 2017

Fear The Walking Dead Season 2 - review

2016 (USA)

With Season 2 and the group forced to flee a ruined Los Angeles up in flames, it's back to more familiar The Walking Dead ground. I say ground; as led now in part by Victor Strand (Colman Domingo), a single minded entrepreneur for want of a better word, the group are actually out seeking misadventure and intrigue on the high seas.

Setting the heroes on a boat and not on land was an inspired writing choice differentiating the series at the earliest opportunity from the mid-country claustrophobia of The Walking Dead. That being said the narrative is the same; with the companions dealing with increasingly maladjusted and dangerous situations, all the while picking up the skills they'll (some of them) no doubt need to survive into seasons 3 and 4. I say some; not everyone is made for the end of the world, but it's not as obvious as before, with all characters more closely vying for ineptitude and naivety.

The first eight episodes very much take over from the first series. Theirs is a discrete road (ok boat) journey of discovery; both literally to Mexico, and metaphorically, as they're actually forced to come to the conclusion that the shit-show is real, and there's not likely to be some magic paradise at the end of it. It's good post-apocalyptic drama, well presented and written, though now, out of the apocalypse into the post-apocalypse the characters aren't quite enough to keep things feeling as original or fresh. The journey being a tad too linear and the trials and douchebags on the way a tad too familiar. Then just as I was starting to worry, bang!

Whatever the reasons for what appears to be the huge injection of confidence and cash, the second half of Season 2 literally explodes in scope and ambition. Scattering the characters and their aspirations across a suddenly complete and city full of communities, power-play and danger, Fear The Walking Dead turns the dial up a notch and the results are stunning. The Mexican city of Rosarito and its surrounding area makes a great playground for the characters and also differentiates itself from The Walking Dead, with what appears to be lower population density; and hence fewer zombies, and an entirely different culture and landscape. The Americans too are the outsiders, itself creating a new dynamic in the story.

I've always been surprised how quickly and efficiently zombie survivors adjust to bashing in skulls and sticking sharp things into eyes and ears. One minute it's doing chores or revising for a mock history exam, and the next it's slicing and dicing like a seasoned killer; and to say the group's young'uns Alicia Clark (Alycia Debnam-Carey), Christoper Manawa (Lorenzo James Henrie) and aforementioned Nick haven't adjusted to the bloodshed would be an understatement. Then again, stories are told by the victors; those that did survive for them to be told. Just mulling over my own existence and all the coincidences and wins that would have to have occurred to each and every ancestor, however big or seemingly insignificant, is it not plausible that the survivors of zombie dramas such as this, could be as capable, or fortuitous as they are? Take Nick; the guy who stuck poison in his veins in Season 1, and the guy who thought he could walk with the zombies. The odds of him not only surviving all the things thrown his way in both Seasons, let alone come out of it all with a girl on his arm, is astronomical and it could almost be too glaring; too incredible; yet Fear the Walking has the feel of a great epic and it doesn't seem too much at all.

Finishing Season 2, I feel here is a show that's finally found its confidence. With a more expansive playground and seemingly larger budget the already well developed characters have found their post-apocalyptic strength, and yet still haven't succumbed to the despair and resignation that seems to be main ongoing trait for Rick and his gang. Also, yes, other humans did once again rise to take centre stage, and that's a small pity in my mind, but it's still top tier zombie story telling with huge promise and mammoth potential - 8/10.


Saturday, 2 September 2017

Fear The Walking Dead Season 1 - review

2015 (USA)

2015 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment Blu-ray R(Free)

Contains mild spoilers.

Say what you will, as to whether AMC and Robert Kirkman should have ever gone ahead with yet another unapologetic heavy post-apocalyptic zombie drama at a time the phenomenon was beginning to show signs of consumer fatigue. Then also perhaps overlook the rather trite moniker. The fact that we have got yet another big budget and meticulous zombie spectacular, no less, right back to the beginning, with all the confusion, discovery and false hope this brings, is a joy to behold. Where-as it's big brother is now nearly a constant slog of dark and bleak, but no less agreeable, with other humans the increasing major threat, it's refreshing to have the zombies once again front and centre. Also whereas Rick and the gang are now, with their years of weary survival drudgery, most definitely the definition of the walking dead, here it's still early days and, though yes it's not exactly all the fun of the fair, optimism is still tangible and ok, and the walking dead are still the ones with the gnashing chops and lumbering shuffle.

This again is not to argue that it's some watered down teen sideshow; a Return of the Living Dead Part II. It's just that this is still a world where it's ok to have inner moral conflict; where maybe people can be given the benefit of the doubt and perhaps strangers should be welcome with open arms rather than be suspected of owning an automated cannibal murder factory. Ok, for Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis) and his extended family, innocence won't last forever and by midpoint second season the same cynicism and, some might say, realistic sobriety has finally made its point and been taken on board. But I get ahead.

The Walking Dead didn't go right back to the beginning. It started with the apocalypse in full swing, and the dead out numbering the living a fuck-tonne to one. Fear doesn't just fill in the missing weeks, but goes one further, back to the minutes and hours most people thought things might still actually turn out ok (cue the laughter).

First time it was to see whether the cable audience would take to prime time zombie horror, and with its record cable audiences and Golden Globes, we know how they did. This time, I'd argue the six part teaser / trial was to see, first off, if people were ok with more of the same, and second if people would take to more disjointed and delicate, but more realistic and normative characters, and with a tighter, more insular family driven story.

Rick Grimes was, from the start, the gun toting, self-reliant larger than life comic book character and his companions and nemesis on the journey complemented the excessive story telling that became such a phenomenon. Without the comics central to the narrative, writers Kirkman and Dave Erickson present, with Fear, quite the different, more subtle, to start with anyway, world. If we're honest, from Rick to Shane to Daryl to Michonne or even The Governor, characters had identity tied to role and purpose. Yes there's character development, but true to its roots it's more caricatures with either something to offer or some deep flaw.

The Manawa / Clark family immediately offers something different. There's quirky dynamics, unspoken tension, complicated logistics and everything you'd expect in a modern mid-American family set-up. Ok, it helps to secure the characters before everything's extreme and everyone's under pressure, but even looking to The Walking Dead's flash backs, it's not hard to argue there's far more depth and ambiguity to the relationships even in these earliest moments. I don't think I was alone in taking some time to warm to them all; Travis was a bit stiff, Madison Clark (Kim Dickens) too sullen a matriarch and as for the rest I struggled to remember names or what they were really for; and it was precisely because they weren't as discretely defined.

It was Nick, (Frank Dillane), the brilliantly cast son of Madison who broke me though. The difficult junkie drop-out, and first to witness the return of living dead, is perhaps the gateway drug, easily type-cast, his demonstrable nuance as he deals what he's seen, and struggles with what he should do, amid his heroin come down craziness, and the way this permeates through the family brought everything together. I stopped seeing the characters as isolated identities but as social and broken beings and it all came to life.

Fear also packs the zombie punch, delivering all the highly polished horror goodness we'd expect from the now seasoned production team. The end of the world is brilliantly crafted and by the end of the series perhaps I grasped the Fear bit of the name I initially frowned upon. The undead are scary again, even on their own. They're not yet, anyway, just the obstacle, the problem to solve, but the unknown and incongruous other. They're also in this first series a temporary devastation; because of course things will get better and return to order. The world has yet to fully fall and the full consequences are yet to be grasped by minds that are clearly not ready to process such information. And it's engaging, surprising, both heart-warming and despairing, and utterly enjoyable as one would expect - 8/10.


Thursday, 24 August 2017

Ibiza Undead - review

2016 (UK)

Contains mild spoilers. 

If I was to be critical of writer / director Andy Edwards' shameless and rather trashy drunken and debauched Ibiza zombie party, I'd be doing not only him, but you the reader, a disservice. Ibiza Undead is neither high-brow drama, or a pseudo-intellectual exploration of life and death; and it's certainly not high-octane action, or horror, or indulgent romanticism. It's exactly what it claims to be; a cheap, crass, brazen, coming of age party flick that wears it's love of boobs and booze loud and proud. It is, of course, fully aware of what it is and what it's doing. It's as professional as the next, but it's at the party, as well as hosting, inviting the viewer to jump in and share the good times while never trying to judge or preach. That's also not to say Ibiza Undead is perfect either. It has its fair share of issues; but trying an unabashed uncouth The Inbetweeners zombie film isn't one of them.

Setting the film on the Mediterranean number one party island, and focusing on three horny young British chavs on a mission for alcohol and 'pussy', one would hope the viewer would know exactly what they were letting themselves in for. The three are lewd, expletive spewing, penis driven British lads in the best The Inbetweeners way, and just like their hapless cinematic cousins, and probably for the best for all involved, they're just as woefully ill-prepared their pursuit of the opposite sex, what with the charm, maturity and approach of boorish, obnoxious teenagers suffering from Tourette's. They're also delightfully likeable. The instant chemistry the three speak about having off camera, in a short making of documentary, is clearly evident from the first awkward airport scene. Clearly not in an airport departure lounge; Big Jim (Ed Kear) leads Alex and Az (Jordan Coulson and Homer Todiwala) in effortless, effervescent and incredibly puerile and silly banter, and somehow it doesn't really matter. Ibiza Undead is all about the characters; and though there's a lot of them Edwards maintains focus and each has their role as the zombies arrive and trouble begins.

The zombies of Ibiza island are slooooow, and disjointed as if their bodies are aren't entirely connected; and they're being controlled via semaphore, or some distant puppeteer on dial-up. I actually can't recall a zombie quite this comically lethargic or unwieldy, and though the Night of the Living Dead's turn of foot wasn't exactly blistering there wasn't the same un-gamely limb ballet show accompanying their gait. Effort has gone in though, and they are well made-up, uniformly asymmetrical, and compliment the comedy well. In a more serious zombie feature I'd be quite critical, but in Edwards silly little, yet entirely coherent, post zombie outbreak world; with the infection contained and zombies seen more as a myth and not that real or dangerous they work perfectly.

As said, one can't fault Ibiza Undead for all the things it's probably going to be mostly criticised for. If anything it should be applauded for sticking to its guns and keeping up the juvenile humour right to the closing credits. The constant barrage of sexual objectification pejoratives, does get a tad uncomfortable; though it's probably quite accurate, and it's not just limited to the boys with Alex's older sister Liz (Emily Atack), her best friend Zara (Algina Lipskis), and ex Ellie (Cara Theobold) all happy to throw them about. Saying this though it never truly offends, as it's the boys themselves that look weak and silly with each and every barb, with the girls always coming out on top.

Yes it's a film that if we're overly critical about could easily open itself up to accusations of being rather light and lacking in actual substance. It's also definitely a film which uses the story and narrative to set up all the funny little scenes and jokes, rather than the small incidentals acting enrich a grander tale. It also at times utterly fails to hide it's obvious budgetary constraints, with some lacklustre CG and distracting scenery and asides. Yet; and I may take flack for this, none of this really matters. It's a character driven buddy comedy that's authentic to its ideas, well delivered and fashioned with love and care. The making of the film was clearly a party in of itself and this can't help but shine through. Crude, rude and offensive, Ibiza Undead is an antidote to serious and clever, where there's no lesson to be learned or message to be worked out. It's shameless, throwaway fun, and sometimes, that's just what one wants - 6/10.


Thursday, 17 August 2017

The Rezort - review

2015 (UK / Spain / Belgium)

Contains mild spoilers.

Veteran (in so much he's done it twice before, with Outpost and it's sequel) zombie film director Steve Barker's The Rezort is everything you'd want from a modern, action horror, sublimely crafted walking dead experience. An original set-up, interesting main characters that shock:horror actually show some signs of development; well-paced build up, well maintained tension, with the odd scare; and oodles and oodles of zombie mayhem, carnage and death in both intimate and more grandiose scale. So where's the but I hear you ask? Well, there was a moment a short way after the set-up and outbreak, suddenly watching a slick, contemporary highly stylised zombie narrative turn into a rather generic and formulaic run, shoot, ensign expendable dies, breathe, rinse, repeat trope, that I worried. It was a short lived concern though, and having got the group from a to b to c the things were soon back on point, for a second half, that while maybe doesn't quite live up to the seeds initially sown, nevertheless delivers on its promise, as said, of a well-crafted modern zombie experience. I've noted it didn't review that well; nor that badly, and this is perhaps it's only crime; to be in a genre that's starting to stagnate due to excess.
Jessica De Gouw (Arrow / NBC's Dracula) as shell shocked Melanie Gibbs heads a surprisingly strong cast, of characters that for one reason or another have turned to The Rezort for answers, some seven years after the Chromosyndrome-A pandemic decimated mankind. With two billion dead, loved ones lost and society forever changed, some seek revenge, some seek escape and some like Mel, supported by boyfriend Lewis (Martin McCann) seek closure and catharsis by coming face to face, or more accurately gun to face, with those responsible

One thing I do know though about any and all attempts to control and constrain is best summed up by Jeff Goldblum as Dr. Ian Malcolm in that other rather more famous theme-park death-experiment. "John, the kind of control you're attempting simply is... it's not possible. If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously…" Okay, zombies aren't alive per se, but the same chaos theory still prevails. How The Rezort's CEO and caricature evil capitalist big boss Valerie Wilton (Claire Goose) thought she could make her fortune exploiting an island of undead gut-munchers (un)fortunate to find themselves the only place they weren't quashed, in spectacle and sport, without thinking at some point something might go awry is baffling. I mean, hasn't she watched Jurassic Park, West World, etc...

Dr. Ian Malcolm: "Oh, yeah. Oooh, ahhh, that's how it always starts. Then later there's running and um, screaming."

When the proverbial shit does hit the fan things turn bad with breath-taking speed and ferocity. One second a computer glitch, the next, the operative has had his lungs ripped out and is making a rather more sinister move on the second female operative one seat to the left than usual. It's full on zombie madness, bloody, brutal and a delight to watch. I'd perhaps, with a health and safety hat on, make the point, that for a billion dollar enterprise built on a rather dangerous foundation some additional isolation steps would have been expected, it still sets and steps up the action for the small group left out in the field. One thing Barker does understand is zombie carnage and as expected in 2017, with an entire industry dedicated to making them look and sound good their look and choreography is faultless.

As stated, it's once out in the field the film openly declares itself a bit of a by the numbers, honest to goodness, zombie action one. Mel and the mixed bag of survivors, now under the assumed leadership of the conveniently placed ex-military sharp-shooter Archer (Dougray Scott), they begin their dash from camp to fence to lookout post hoping to escape the island before the rest of the world responds to the alarms and razes it to the ground. 

While action and narrative can be accused of being a tad trite and stale, the same can't be said for the overall vision Barker, with writer Paul Gerstenberger has realised. In the midst of refugees and a world desperate for identity and healing, that a five star resort can pop up, primarily for the rich and bored to play God is quite relevant and cuttingly satirical. Employees inwardly sighing at the sight of rich playboys stroking their automatics and egos with all the danger and effort hidden is clever and I'm sure Romero himself would approve. 

A well-crafted, more than competently executed The Walking Dead zombie narrative that delivers exactly what it promises and I'm not sure what there is to complain about; it's one of those films one should know exactly what they're getting themselves into. Cinematically and musically the Ibiza island vibe is delightfully fresh and stylish, the zombie frolics when they get going deliver the tension, head-shots and bites when needed and the pacing is positive and fresh. Jessica, Martin and Dougray present strong individuals who interact and evolve naturally to the point I would be invested in the idea of a sequel (with those that might have survived.)  A brilliant British zombie feature, with few bells and whistles; but you know what, maybe what with all the zombie comedy satire of late, a faultlessly fashioned back to basics survival thriller is, for us true zombie fans, bloody marvellous - 7/10.


Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Bride of Re-Animator - review

1989 (USA)

Contains spoilers. 

I've no doubt that in Herbert West's (Jeffrey Combs) mind, he really isn't such a bad guy and all the slap-dash and irresponsible murder, carnage and surgical mischief is justifiable when the goal, to unearth the secrets to life and death, is so monumental. Watching the blood flow, the body parts mount up, and new increasingly nightmarish mutations come to life, one might not fully side with his calamitous unethical scientific methods or agree with his health and safety record, but one really can't help but love him for all the chaos he brings.

Brian Yuzna's Bride of Re-Animator; the sequel to the glorious dark, bloody and riotously inappropriate Re-Animator couldn't really fail. Ok, that's not strictly true but, as with Evil Dead and Bruce Campbell, just casting Coombs as the same irrepressible and eccentric West, and fashioning another slap-stick b-movie with cohesive yet equally eccentric side characters, vulgar and unnecessary bad taste skits and a hokey story to surround him, was sure to work. And despite some small missteps; mainly the result of what Yuzna tells of limited pre-production time, the film is undoubtedly another huge success and a worthy successor.

The film opens with an explosive flashback then flash forward to events eight months after the Miskatonic Hospital massacre that ended the last film in a highly memorable magical b-movie maelstrom of death and chaos. West and his companion cum enabler Dr. Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), the only survivors, are following up their unethical experiments, now in the safety of the Peruvian jungle with the front line of civil conflict as cover. There stay is short lived however, but long enough to set the scene and inform us that West has certainly not learnt from his mistakes. Then with another flash and a bang we're all back to Arkham and the place of their earlier misadventures, though by now the hope is that everyone has forgotten the carnage, and moved on...

West carries on his highly questionable experimentation with Dr. Cain fully on board with the promise he can somehow bring his late love Meg back. West's nemesis Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale who begged to be part of this sequel), now a severed head, is reanimated by a rather too curious pathologist (Mel Stewart as Dr. Graves), and begins his singular mission to seek revenge. The story ticks all the b-movie boxes; an increasing implausible and insane story, eccentric characters getting more stressed and desperate, and an abundance of excessive and unnecessary blood, guts and carnage, with Coombs, the meticulous conductor always the centre of the storm. And while one can understand, and almost forgive much of the collateral damage that results from West's fight with the established scientific world, forced as he is to work on the fringe where norms just can't apply, it's harder to argue the case for someone who just wants to tie an arm to a dog or a leg and bring it to life just to see what happens, whatever the consequence. It's these scenes that solidifies West as the larger than life personality and defines Re-Animator as an exceptionally good bad-movie rather than an average to rotten bad-one.

Yuzna isn't one to shy away from a bad taste idea, however disturbing, and in Bride of Re-Animator increasingly bizarre surgical experimentation is free to come to the screen however off the wall the idea. From twitching feet, to bat wings sown to a head, to a finger and eye-ball homage to every great disembodied hand since Thing, watching for each new increasingly unfettered experimental monstrosity is as much a part of the experience as the story. Also for the most part they're all perfectly realised, given the low budget, with enough sinew and blood to cover the cracks; and though not perfect; it's eighties, it's b-movie and cracks are all part of the charm.

I'd be hard pressed to describe West's creations as zombies in any traditional or even contemporary sense. If anything these Frankenstein's meat slabs intimate of life returned; of consciousness, id, ego and will all back alongside breath and a heart-beat. It's b-movie mumbo jumbo of course; of primordial ooze extracted from the amniotic sac of the cuzco iguana and stuff about consciousness not residing in the brain but any of the tissue but the short of it West has found a way of reanimating flesh; the rest doesn't have to make much sense. There is enough ambiguity, and some of West's lesser successes, and remnants from the first film, certainly appear zombie with decay, mindless behaviour with hints of hunger and violence, and towards the end of the film appearing to be controlled by the will of another, all in good old pre-Romero Caribbean style. I'd also be hard pressed to say any of West's returnees are exactly corpus-mentis.

If I was to nit-pick, it could be argued the story is a little disjointed; more a mash-up of sub-narratives and ideas that happen to overlap rather than a grand singular story. It's also under critique rather light on substance with many of the more excessive and memorable scenes rather throwaway and unnecessary from a narrative point of view; included, the b-movie aficionado would argue for the shits and giggles, but for the cynic, perhaps to fill and because gore always sells. Still, they do fit with the insanity and as said they're really just as integral a part of the whole experience as the increasingly incredulous plot. Bride is another riotous Re-Animator chapter allowing both Coombs and the supporting ensemble to shine. With a lively, whimsical sound track and good pacing, it's perfect goofy, excessive and shocking b-movie entertainment, and this new Arrow Blu-ray release; packed with every extra you could hope for, does everything it can to bring it to life - 7/10.


Friday, 3 March 2017

Legends of Tomorrow S2 Ep4 'Abominations' - review

2016 (USA)

Watched on Cable TV.

Contains spoilers. 

I'll start by focusing on the whole show Legends of Tomorrow; the bastard stepson of the DC's two successful TV series  Arrow and The Flash, and why I'm continually concerned and confused as to why I watch it. Ok, it's not all bad but Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim, Andrew Kreisberg, and Phil Klemmer's time travelling, fantastical and increasingly preposterous action / adventure / buddy / romance spectacular misses the mark way too many times to really ever provide a satisfactory scratch to the in vogue super-hero itch. In many ways doomed to failure, as laden with all the characters deemed superfluous from the above mentioned series, and having a core narrative that is laughably incoherent, the series requires of the viewer a near infinite reserve of perseverance and tolerance for what is in reality scant reward. The writers have also managed, against all the odds, to cobble together a narrative that makes both a man hit by speed-force lighting, and the playboy turned invincible archery bad-ass of Starling City look reasonable and believable concepts with the viewer expected to suspend disbelief to the point of insanity to get anything from it at all. As said, if it wasn't that I feel somewhat invested in the universe I really wouldn't be able to handle the levels of schlock at all.

'Abominations' itself plays out like an average Syfy channel / The Asylum tongue in cheek zombie direct to tv spectacular. Effects are good, the zombies are coherent to the established walking dead trope, and the time travelling troupe's meddling in the civil war undead apocalypse is every bit as self-referential and both deferential and at times glib as you'd want. The team pick up a time aberration, head back to save General Ulysses S. Grant, and as usual somehow fudge their way through to a half-arsed conclusion that saves the day but leaves the larger war; a struggle with the tired and second-hand Flash and Arrow's Eobard Thawne and Damien Darhk across time to find the spear of destiny (the one that stabbed Jesus on the cross); more than hanging. As a discrete episode while it's probably above par it's still really just more Legends of Tomorrow filler, all rather formulaic and strained. As a cheap zombie hour it's not all bad as the undead are presented confidently and the acting is more than up to the job. I guess it all depends how much you liked Abraham Lincoln vs Zombies - 4/10.


Thursday, 2 March 2017

The Living Dead Girl (La Morte Vivante) - review

1982 (France)

Contains spoilers. 

As with most low budget eighties euro nasties I'm torn. Undoubtedly, from acting to script to effects it's easy to pull Jean Rollin's effort apart; yet as has happened before, dare to peer beneath the rather mediocre, sleazy and derivative surface, and it could be argued there's perhaps quite the deep, brooding and entirely engaging angst ridden depth to sink ones teeth into. On the surface a tale of one child hood friend aiding and abetting a seemingly broken and damaged other with increasing disregard for laws or morality, it would be easy to dismiss the film as a cheap slasher with enough escalating violence and nudity to satisfy the braying mob. Yet I think, as is the way with European horror, to make the most of the film is to not bemoan and critique every minute detail, but to focus on the allegory and to ponder a deep and brave philosophical tragedy.

Take for instance the all rather by the numbers opening sequence; of toxic waste, incompetent handling and the inexplicable resurrection of star of the show Françoise Blanchard as Living Dead Girl Catherine Valmont followed by all the gory, excessive and highly choreographed blood shed you'd expect from a continental eighties video nasty. It has a certain nostalgic charm but its amateurish, shoddy and all rather derivative to the point of being easy to dismiss and deride. But I'm going to come to its defence. If one posits, as I do, that film is only really about Catherine, her child hood friend Hélène (Marina Pierro) and their increasingly twisted and morally transient relationship, it's ok that the background is grey and maybe deliberately immaterial and poor. Maybe I'm thinking too deeply, and too forgiving of the rather cheap and throwaway extra characters (especially US model Carina Barone as Barbara Simon and her lover Mike Marshall as Greg) and all the awkwardly drawn out superfluous scenes and sequences, but the core philosophical narrative encourages deeper thought, and it ensures the poignant story isn't lost in all the blood soaked noise.

Catherine and Hélène are more than best child hood buddies. With a blood oath theirs is a friendship that will defy and survive even death. Thus when Catherine reaches out and Hélène comes running it's only a matter of time until she's happy to be complicit in all that it takes to satiate the dead girls gruesome demands. For a fan of the genre the film is a fascinating study in deadness in a physical and hunger driven sense and deadness in a conscious ethical framework. Catherine comes back from the dead as a blood hungry zombie without will, conscious checks and balances and I'd argue no cognitive ability other than when the time is right to recognise her one true love (though I'd argue she'd have even attacked her the moment she returned.)

Hélène contrary, is alive, human, and fully reasoning, yet has her own issues, as drawn to Catherine's side she's immediately forced to make increasingly morally dubious snap decisions, in a surreal whirlwind of emotion and consequence. Their relationship, and the philosophical conundrum the film presents, is that with each brutal death and feeding, Catherine regains some of her will and self. Her memories, consciousness and conscience begin to return bringing with it an existential crisis and internal moral conflict as she comes to terms with the monster she's become. Counter to this, Hélène close to having back the friend that was lost; is increasingly desperate and single minded to the extreme in her determination; but she's also increasingly numb and ambivalent from and to the pain and death she's responsible for. I'm sure there's a fitting quote from Nietzsche I could use here, something about monsters and the abyss; save to say by the end Rollin's exquisite moral tragedy had come together with resonance and ambiguous devastation.

Living Dead Girl will perhaps be remembered for it's extremely graphic and shocking ending; a drawn out scene of zombie cannibalism more excessive and sobering, yet emotional and heavy than anything else I've seen. It will also be remembered for its ample nudity, though I'd argue it's not only rather more tastefully handled than Rollin's other films, notably Zombie Lake, it's even aesthetically and narratively coherent. For most it will probably be remembered but ultimately dismissed for all the above plus its amateurish eighties euro trash credentials; of poor acting, bad effects and awkward dialogue. However, I'd personally like it to be remembered for the audacity of Rollin to try and play with humanity, love and death in a deeply nuanced, respectful, unique and beautiful way - 8/10.


Tuesday, 7 February 2017

The Girl with all the Gifts - review

2016 (UK / USA)

Contains mild spoilers.

Just when I was starting to think the modern zombie love affair was over, all bar the bell, along comes a film (and book) that just for a moment reminds me that all might not be lost. With a clear, brave and original vision, great determination, and exquisite competence, The Girl with all the Gifts instils hope, and acts as to remind, if we needed it, that the zombie is a timeless metaphor, reflective and responsive to the fears of each new generation and both malleable and submissive to always be open to change. It's that admission that The Walking Dead post-apocalyptic survival slog, and the jaunty, flippant and entirely throwaway zombie-comedy might not be the only games in town; that rehashing the same narrative, or telling the same joke with minor cosmetic change might not be the only way to draw genre fans back time and again. Yes we're reliant yet again on brave independent film makers with a modest budget but maybe what with all the critical acclaim there's always the chance some of this fearless and avant-garde spice will rub off on the big boys; and also I for one would be happy for keen enthusiasts to once again take point even it does mean the number of films released takes a massive hit.

Okay; perhaps I'm guilty myself of going overboard whenever the next shiny new zombie story arrives, as British director Colm McCarthy's zombie's look and feel borrows heavily from Danny Boyle and the 28 Days Later phenomena. Also the story, without spoiling too much, of a new hybrid / evolved species potentially rendering the old extinct and redundant, shares more than few parallels with I Am Legend. Yet there's enough ingenuity and nuance in the weave performed by writer M.R. Carey, and more than enough skill and style in its transition from words to picture that I'm happy to overlook any complaints of imitation or derivation. Anyway; aren't there really only seven stories in the world?

Glen Close may be the name that grabs the box office headlines but it's 12 year old Sennia Nanua as Melanie that will certainly garner all the acclaim when the dust has settled. Her portrayal as the innocent, bright eyed but ultimately cursed inmate is nuanced and faultless, and contrasts perfectly with the cold, stark utilitarian lead scientist Dr. Caroline Caldwell played by Close. Along with sympathetic and intensely conflicted teacher Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton) and hard line Sgt. Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine) they perfectly capture the absurd, contradictory and desperate end of the world moral maze the story presents them with. Melanie is a human / zombie aberration torn, not born, into the world from infection in the womb. She shares the same vicious hunger to kill and eat, and yet she's also born with not just cognisant and rational thought, but perhaps, and this is the journey for both us, and the characters, the ability to control it.

Us zombie fans can be awfully annoying at times; stubborn and dogmatic that there's one way to do something; there's one zombie and he's dead, slow and Romero's prodigy. I still see pointless debate as to whether Boyle's not dead but infected are somehow not zombie, as if pulse alone dictates deadness forgetting that zombies were around and breathing well before the undead movement took them as one of their own and Romero finally applied the final death-nail. McCarthy's 'hungries' are vicious, flesh eating, fast, extremely dangerous and alive. They're also, and this is defining trait, utterly devoid of the humanity and more importantly self-awareness and cognisant empathy that made them who they were. They're rabid animals; actually worse; they're destructive entirely reactive automatons driven by insatiable hunger and nothing else. So they have a pulse? So what. McCarthy also isn't afraid to shock and disturb by presenting the zombies with a brutality that reinforces the no-win quandary those enforcing the imprisonment and experimentation are actually in. 

The Girl with all the Gifts certainly does better when the story sticks to the confines of the bunker / school, and the contrasting and clashing moral maelstrom of fear, necessity, desperation rubbing up against those small slithers of hope born from love and believing in the human condition. The action once the compound is breached and the group are forced to set out across the stricken over-run wasteland still shows signs of flair and originality, never content to becomes another derivative zombie survival yarn, yet it won't be what the film is remembered for. The Girl with all the Gifts is that shining ray of light in unending darkness, both as a narrative trope, and also as innovative and thoughtful movie in a plethora of mediocre. I loved it and perhaps the cinematic zombie might be quite safe after all - 8/10.


Tuesday, 31 January 2017

The Returned - review

2013 (Spain / Canada)

Contains mild spoilers. 

It's probably not coincidence, what with the explosive re-emergence of zombies and the rise of the right wing political agenda, that two independent teams would come up with a near identical twist on post-apocalyptic story telling. Okay, BBC's In the Flesh is working class Northern Britain, and The Returned is urban middle class America, but the idea of a recovered and functioning post-zombie world as a backdrop to tell a rather relevant moral tale of a castigated minority dealing with that seemingly inescapable human and political condition, of hating and attacking what we fear; is remarkable in its similarity. Both present a modern bruised but stoical world soldiering on as normal despite a recent history, that's implied, certainly did play out more like what we're used to seeing from the genre. Both have as a focus a young and innocent victim, now survivor, burdened with a manageable but less than ideal medical treatment plan. And both paint a distinctly un-rosy picture of how society would likely react when forced to reintegrate thousands of gut-munchers in waiting back into their everyday lives. Both too, are poignant, insightful and tragic portrayals of how easily a small but vocal set of voices can garner power, and most importantly tacit approval, when fuelled by a narrative that's predominantly all about fear and security. They're both, it could be argued, liberal agenda, politically correct and unrealistically idealist and romanticised, and both could easily switch out 'zombie' for another conservative threatening medical ailment or idea; but for both the choice of using the undead in all their bloody rawness works remarkably well to highlight and contrast the polarised positions as well as providing a tense, entertaining and quirky movie experience.

There are differences of course. Big ones. In the Flesh is mostly Kieren's story where as in The Returned, as much as the film is concerned with Alex (Kris Holden-Ried) and his condition, the film is really about Kate (Emily Hampshire), his partner and a doctor on the front line, dealing both with the practical recovery of the 'returned', and in securing funding for, and pushing awareness of the treatment plan. 1981 saw the first outbreak and the global zombie pandemic really did seem to be as nasty, indiscriminate and prolific as one would expect with one hundred million deaths, a second wave and a full five years needed to contain it. It's five years since Alex was bitten, contracting the infection and  though he's managed to maintain his daily injection and hold down his guitar tuition position he's pretty much chosen to keep this part of his life hidden even from best friends Jacob (Shawn Doyle) and Amber (Claudia Bassols). Though people are aware that the 'returned' are moving and operating about the city and country, there are constant signs of dissent and though the truce is successful and legally maintained those infected are rightfully wary of publicity. Kate and Max's story is both a beautiful tale of unconditional love and support, and a harrowing journey of fear and hatred as public confidence in the program wanes as chatter starts to surface of issues with the stock of the protein which keeps the dormant zombie at bay; and peaceful protest turns to retribution and violence.

As would be expected, other than a few flashbacks and one particularly gnarly incident at a gas station the violence and threat comes from the anti-returned humans who seek the eradication of all those infected, treated or otherwise. And one of the problems is, as despicable their thinking and behaviour increasingly becomes, the actions of Alex and Kate as the contrast; isn't if we're honest that virtuous and really not much better. The whole argument of the anti-returned is how can we trust thousands of time-bombs to religiously adhere to their daily program without supervision or tracking; when one missed dose could easily lead to a multiple deaths and another mini-outbreak and the thing they kind of have a point. Yes there's the libertarian view that people shouldn't be monitored and their treatment shouldn't be tracked; yet we're not talking about a condition that if personally mishandled would affect one or two people; we're talking about something that with the slightest mistake could set off a exponential tsunami of death. Add to this Kate abusing her medical position to acquire 'other peoples' medication and Alex who's happy evading any and all official scrutiny in that it might threaten his personal liberty and freedom and their moral position starts to unravel. There's a lack of subtlety to proceedings and it's ultimately hard to have as much sympathy for the couple as I believe was hoped.

One thing that is brilliantly unsubtle though is each cameo arrival of an actual zombie. Snarling, rabid, 28 Days Later infected though not dead, they're every bit the down right cannibalistic psychopaths the non-returners have argued the state really ought to be worried about. There's much left deliberately ambiguous as to the state of the world outside the city. One hundred million dead is an awful lot and whilst people are driving about, shopping and working with time on their hands to learn guitar and protest, I couldn't help but think about the state of the wider world, not picturing for one moment how more poverty inclined countries couldn't still be having problems. 

A good idea, great characters brilliantly portrayed, effortless and evocative filming and production, it's a shame that writer Hatem Khraiche and director Manuel Carballo's vision ultimately fails to pull together to either provide a satisfying conclusion to the highly charged personal story, or a fitting end to thea wider political and ethical discourse. At no point do any of the characters feel as powerless or as heroic as they ought with Kate's increasingly unethical and brazen attempt to circumvent the rules for personal gain a constant thorn in the story. To counter this and retain their position as the true baddies of the piece, the anti-returners have to be even more extreme in their actions. Not content with pushing the quite reasonable agenda of basic surveillance and some form of accountability; it's all a bit black and white villainy with guns and killing and spilt blood stained teddy bears on the hospital floor. Still, a nice little film that my nitpicking aside does deliver both on its emotional and poignant promise, and is a tight dramatic experience that should appeal to both zombie fans and those less undead enamoured alike - 6/10.