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.


Friday, 27 January 2017

Prison of the Dead - review

2000 (USA)

Contains spoilers.

There's really not a lot to say about this appalling turn of the century low budget zombie snore-fest. Resembling more a tepid amateur high school project that any kind of sincere or mature production, it's inconsistent plot and drawn out dialogue heavy narrative, is matched only by its strict intent to demonstrate no originality, content merely to rehash all and every outdated and hokey horror trope without a care. Quite what director David DeCoteau (tellingly listed under pseudonym Victoria Sloan) and writer Matthew Jason Walsh were trying to achieve in this hour fifteen car crash I'm not quite sure. Neither comedy, drama or a horror with any real teeth; Prison of the Dead plays like it wants to be a cult and edgy young adult, possibly self-deprecating, Return of the Living Dead wannabe but comes across more as a bland, silly and rather insulting episode of Goosebumps, save with excessive bad language.

If I asked a group of junior school pupils to describe the setting and atmosphere for a haunted horror I don't think it'd be far removed from that of Prison of the Dead. A gloomy, derelict and isolated funeral home built over the long abandoned ruins of a medieval dungeon that once held witches and warlocks. A bleak and stormy night with owls hooting, billowing fog and complete with thunder and lightning. Four weary friends, two girls and two buys, reuniting to pay their respects to an old friend, and more than happy to send their driver away, and open an old creaking door to their inevitable doom. Now there can be a time and a place for cheesy nostalgic homage, and revisiting old myths and stories, but Prison of the Dead isn't it. The derivative setting isn't tribute or cute; it's lazy and easy; and the story isn't an inventive twist on the familiar but a wearisome and altogether incoherent set of musings from a team that clearly didn't care.

Brought together by Kristof St. Pierce (Patrick Flood), a spoilt, rich, occult obsessed man-child and also the recent heir of Hawthorne funeral home, the group soon realise the late Calvin (Sam Page) isn't actually that dead and their reunion is all actually part of some ill-conceived plan to bring the old scooby-doo clique back together to speak to the dead, unearth some mysterious lost key and solve an ancient mystery. All well and good if they'd just get on with it; yet the vast majority of the film is the group, plus three additional well-groomed locals seemingly intent to spoil the party for shits and giggles, happy squabbling and bitching to one another generally over how they don't want to be there. For a film that spends pretty much all it's time bogged down in character dynamics you'd have thought too, there would have been some effort to make the characters more interesting and agreeable. Whether a design decision or inexperience, Calvin, Kristof, Rory (Michael Guerin), Kat (Alicia Arden) and Michele (Debra Mayer) are played dryer than the Atacama Desert  (I looked it up; this is the driest desert). Even when people do start dropping; or glazing over and chanting the Latin (I think) beyond the grave mantra the predisposition is always stoical and the responses nonchalant and mostly self-absorbed. I'm all for the odd dry and unlikable character but when the lack of interest, care or any urgency is shared by all it's really hard not to end up sharing in the apathy.

I say, when people start dropping. Noting the eighteen certificate, the cover and presentation, and the horror credentials one would assume adult content. Nada. Okay the zombies initial appearance; skeletal medieval axe, scythe mace wielding long dead executioners sombrely and menacingly clambering from the soil is promising, and delightfully old school, reminiscent of all our old continental favourites, especially the blind dead. Yet, for the number of deaths that are eventually perpetrated there's a ridiculously low quantity of blood, next to no gore and no actual on-screen horror to actually speak of. As the film progresses each and every unlucky soul is suddenly, and arbitrarily taken by a spasm of shameful CG, a moment of possession as one of the so called long dead witches takes control before one of the zombie executioners pops out from nowhere ready for the camera to pan away, them to slash, and someone to throw something red and wet over the lens. I'm not advocating that all horror needs to be in your face and wall to wall torture porn, but this is tame for convenience sake and detracts totally from what I believe was being aimed for. In fact the only adult content I'd argue would be the copious bad language; even the token contrived sex scene seemed to mandate modesty, and with the f's and blinds dialled down I'd honestly, save for the fact it's so god damn awful, have no qualms letting my children watch it.

With more effort and energy with the action and a good rewrite of the script focusing on the transitions between the various sequences, and imbuing the characters with some charm and reason to care at all for them, there's a movie here that could probably match the reasonably competent directorial and camera work. Though not a lot more if we're all honest. Sometimes one just needs to call it as it is; that Prison of the Dead was probably a bad film before the ink was dry, and quite how someone thought an amateur budget, cast and production was going to imbue it with the necessary life and savvy to stand out was baffling to say the least. There's very little to recommend in this seventeen year old miss, and it's not one you'll be doing yourself a disservice for skipping, even if like me you want to watch them all - 2/10.