Monday, May 9, 2011

Review: Undead or Alive

2008, Dir. Glasgow Phillips

In the wake of the highly successful (and lucrative) Shaun of the Dead, it appears that the 'zombedy' has become a subgenre in its own right. And, as is so often the case, the majority of available product is pretty dreadful - and not in a good, horror-related way.

Having said that, this straight-to-DVD movie is a rarity, in that it's actually pretty damned good, mixing elements of Romero zombie flicks with those of traditional westerns and absurdist comedy.

As the movie begins, we're informed via captions that the Native-American guerrilla leader Geronimo, prior to his death at the hands of the US cavalry, just happened to lay down a curse upon a certain area of the New Frontier - a curse that would cause the afflicted to hunger after the flesh of their fellows. Pretty grim stuff. Then the captions go on to inform us that the bit where we have to read these captions is nearly over, and the tone of the movie is irrevocably set. Two lads on the lam team up with a Native-American stunna as they attempt to escape a posse of local lawmen while simultaneously chasing down the regiment responsible for the death of Geronimo, who happens to be the uncle of the stunna. Still with me? Now throw some zombies into the mix, and stand back.

The premise doesn't sound especially promising, but there's a lot here to like: the humour, while fairly broad, is surprisingly low-key for a US production, and - brace yourselves - is actually quite funny. There's also fair attention paid to historical accuracy (often in the smallest of details), some decent acting, dialogue and characterisation, plenty of blood for the gorehounds, and even some genuine moments of creepy tension and a couple of scares. And - just in case you needed more - there's some extremely nice cinematography (including a couple of those brilliant sunset shots that are par the course for any decent western), plus eye-candy in the form of James Denton (from Desperate Housewives) for the ladies and Navi Rawal for the lads.

Sure, there are a couple of plot holes you could ride a lynchin' party through, and - as happens in even the best Romero flicks - the zombies seem to alter the 'rules' of their existence to facilitate the needs of the plot/action. But, all in all, this is a really good, funny, gory, enjoyably silly zombedy.

A word of warning, though: as I've suggested, this movie defies quite a few expectations, and this carries right on through to the very end of the movie. I'll say no more. You'll see what I mean. Enjoy!

(Originally posted to HorrorScope, 2008)

Review: Fido

2008, Dir. Andrew Currie, Starring Carrie Anne-Moss, Billy Connolly, Dylan Baker

I’ve mentioned before how, in the wake of Shaun of the Dead, the ‘ZomCom’ seems to have become a subgenre in its own right. On my last visit to the DVD rental store, I found around half-a-dozen on the shelves, all with ‘funnier than Shaun of the Dead’ emblazoned on their covers. In the case of Fido, the description was ‘Shaun of the Dead meets Pleasantville’, which didn’t inspire confidence. Comparisons are odious, particularly in hindsight when the pitch fails to live up to the reality, and I have to say that – having watched recently some particularly bad ‘funnier than Shaun’ ZomComs – I was tempted to give Fido an extremely wide berth.

Well, thank God for cheap Thursday rentals. Because Fido is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.

I’ll say it again.

This is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, bar none.

I’d be quite happy to leave it at that, and allow the reader to discover the delights of Fido all by themselves. But on my HorrorScope salary (all the brains I can eat), I’m expected to provide a little more content, so here goes:

In Fido, the zombie uprising has come and gone. Circa 1939 (by my reckoning), the dead rose, were fought and contained, and now (in the late 1950’s) have become a social commodity, fitted with electronic collars that subdue their hunger for human flesh, allowing them to be utilized as a cheap, reliable workforce.

America is still the America of the 50’s that we’ve always known and loved – and yet, it’s not quite the 50’s of Leave it to Beaver and Pleasantville. It’s far more realistic than that, with all of the complications and issues of everyday life. Sure, it’s an era of hats, martinis, Hawaiian shirts and educational films. Less pleasantly, though, it’s also an era of sexism, McCarthyism, governmental conspiracies and emotional constipation. Furthermore, extrapolating social developments following the zombie war, it’s an era in which suburbs are fenced in to keep ‘wild’ zombies out, criminals are banished to the unprotected zones, and old people are secured in prisons. Just in case. Funeral plans (complete with ‘head coffin’) are a mark of social status, and primary school children are taught in class how to shoot zombies through the head (although they’re not allowed to actually own a gun themselves until they turn twelve).

It’s this sort of attention to the details of what is, after all, an ‘alternate history’, that underpin the success of this film. The alternate facets aren’t pushed in our faces – they’re simply there, presented as normal aspects of existence. This also successfully sets up the horror element of the film: the sense of horror in most zombie flicks is generated through the introduction of the unthinkable into the midst of ordinary everyday life. In Fido, the unthinkable has become a part of everyday life, and is all the more unsettling for it. Here, the audience is credited with intelligence, and the pay-off is magnificent.

The plot itself is nothing new – it’s essentially the tale of A Boy And His Dog, with Lassie homages aplenty (right down to the obligatory ‘Go get help, boy!’). Average American Timmy Robinson and his Mom and Dad take on a zombie (Connolly, in an unusually ‘straight’ role) to assist with household chores, and a special bond develops between boy and corpse. Bad things happen, and Timmy embarks upon a quest to save his new best friend. However, what could have been a very ordinary concept is raised well above standard fare by some truly brilliant dialogue, and wonderful performances from all the leads. Nothing is overplayed here. The people populating this reality are real people. There are no good guys or bad guys (perhaps excepting the nasty old bitch who lives across the road). Dad is distant and emotionally-retarded, yet thinks of himself as a good father (on being told that his wife is pregnant, his immediate response is: “On my salary, I don’t think I can afford another funeral”). Mom is a shallow social climber who nonetheless demonstrates her commitment to her family’s best interests. Timmy is a sensitive lad with a great deal of sympathy for zombies, yet, like any ten-year-old, is capable of unthinking acts of selfishness and bigotry. Again, none of this is pushed in our faces – it all comes out through dialogue and body language. And, unusually, very little of the comedy – either situational or dialogue-driven – is obviously played for laughs, which gives the film a rich black quality.

Yes, there are a number of messages presented here – it wouldn’t be a 50’s-style film without them – but, as so often happens in real life, we’re mostly left to figure them out ourselves. The characters don’t experience any sudden epiphanies, and the various less-pleasant issues raised are more often simply acknowledged rather than actually dealt with. As Dad advises Timmy in one wince-inducing father/son chat, “Feeling’s not important. Being alive is what counts”.

If you love zombies, romantic comedies or just really good pithy dialogue, you must see Fido. For once, here’s a ZomCom that is at least as good as Shaun of the Dead. Just different.

(Originally posted to HorrorScope, 2008)

Review: Resident Evil: Extinction

2007, starring Milla Jovovich & Oded Fehr

Following on from the events of Resident Evil: Apocalypse, the T-virus has spread worldwide, drying up the lakes, rivers, and continents while infecting the majority of the population. After five years, almost every living creature has become a zombie, and the world itself is on the verge of extinction. Alice, the Umbrella Corporation's greatest bio organic weapon, is now alone in the desert wastelands of the US after learning that the corporation has the ability to track her location via satellite. She has super-human strength and psychic abilities gained from her imprisonment by Umbrella, and the corporation wants her back…at any cost.

I never dreamed, after the major disappointment that was Resident Evil: Apocalypse, that I would actually enjoy Resident Evil: Extinction. And my dream came true. I didn’t.

Stereotypical characters in stereotypical locations find themselves in stereotypical situations, which they deal with in stereotypical ways whilst spouting stereotypical dialogue. There is absolutely no grounding in reality (how the hell can a virus dry up lakes and rivers?), and the audience are credited with not one iota of intelligence (although perhaps deservedly, as this film did pretty damn well at the Box Office). Boring, derivative crud. Oh, and Mr Romero? If you’re reading this, you might be interested to know that much of the plot involves military and scientific forces skulking in underground installations, experimenting with the possible domestication of zombies –

In a nutshell (if you haven’t guessed already) don’t bother. It’s not even ‘so bad it’s good’ – RE:E is just bad, full stop.

(Originally posted to HorrorScope, 2008)

Review: Plane Dead

2007, Dir. Scott Thomas

Okay, here’s the plot: shady scientist-type experimenting with a virus that can resurrect dead tissue smuggles the infected wife of one of his colleagues onto a fully-booked passenger jet, narrowly evading The Authorities who have gotten wind of his unethical scheme. That done, the scientist-type relaxes, because of course – in the best of horror-movie traditions - nothing can possibly go wrong…

Here’s the thing: I do take my zombies fairly seriously, but I don’t take them too seriously, if you know what I mean. Let’s face it, zombie flicks – by their very nature – don’t often stand up to serious scrutiny. The concept of dead folk running around (okay, okay – shambling around) eating the living doesn’t make a lick of sense, and the very best zombie flicks really only get away with the vast hole in logic either by approaching their monsters from a metaphorical/satirical angle (as in Romero’s films), or by showcasing a level of production and scriptwriting that so captures the viewer that suspension of disbelief is achieved (as in Shaun of the Dead).

In other words, good story, good script, good characters, and a bit of realistic gore doesn’t go astray.

Two out of four is not a particularly good result. The story is promising, in a cheesy kind of way, and the production values aren’t bad either. But the script is, quite frankly, dreadful. And the characters -

Oh, the characters!

Here’s a tip to aspiring horror film makers: if you want to engage the interest of the viewer, if you want to genuinely scare them, you must, must, MUST introduce characters that the audience can actually relate to. You know – ordinary folks, with the range of dreams and aspirations we all share. Further, there should be at least a couple of characters that the audience will actually like – otherwise, who gives a damn whether they get eaten or not? And there goes your suspenseful mood…

Maybe it’s just me, but I couldn’t relate to a single one of the characters (read ‘zombie fodder’) on that plane. From the sports star heading for marital breakup, to the two vacuous partner-swapping couples, to the hero and heroine of the piece (their roles made obvious by the fact they are notably less repellant than their fellow passengers, and share an unspoken attraction), not one skerrick of anything other than 2D clichéd personality or motivation was offered to make these folks seem even vaguely real.

Result? Not a great film. Visually, pretty damn entertaining, though – the scene where the nun gets her legs chewed off was a gem, and possibly tells you more about my tastes than you’d prefer to know. In short, I’d recommend it to anyone, as long as they watch it with the Mute control on.

(Originally posted on HorrorScope, 2008)

Review: The Zombie Diaries

Dir. Michael Bartlett & Kevin Gates, Accent Film Entertainment, 2006

The Zombie Diaries is an independent, low-budget UK movie (just released in Australia on DVD), dealing with the variety of zombie apocalypse beloved by George Romero and his ilk. In this instance, it’s all due to a Bird-Flu-like pandemic that sweeps Asia before hitting England, and the movie is constructed from ‘found footage’ shot on video by three separate groups of people struggling to survive the crisis.

On the one hand, this is a pretty good little film. Even without taking into consideration the budgetary limitations, it’s mostly well-shot, and as tightly-plotted as a ‘constructed’ film can possibly be. The atmosphere is extremely creepy, with a nice sense of growing tension from beginning to end. The acting, too, is reasonably good, aided by some (mostly) natural-sounding dialogue and interesting characters.

On the other hand, having picked out this movie solely because it was an apocalyptic zombie flick (a subgenre I’m unapologetically obsessed by), I was rather disappointed to find that it wasn’t really about zombies at all. Sure, there are zombies in the movie, but the movie isn’t about the zombies themselves; rather, it’s about the behaviours people adopt when faced with extreme situations. Of course, previous zombie movies – such as Dawn of the Dead, etc - deal with similar issues; however, in such movies it's the unique nature of the zombies themselves that drives the action and character development (ie – how would you cope having to destroy a zombie that used to be a family member?), whereas in The Zombie Diaries the undead threat could be interchanged with any other extreme situation (war, disease, natural disaster, etc) to achieve the same dramatic effect. Here, the zombies fade into the background as the plot unfolds, and even the occasional gory zombie-attack moments are rendered ineffectual due to shaky POV camerawork and nighttime shooting.

So, in conclusion, a pretty good horror movie, but not necessarily a good zombie movie. Worth watching.

(Originally posted to HorrorScope, 2008)

Review: Dead Snow

Dir. Tommy Wirkola, 2009 (DVD release 2010, Madman)

Eight medical students heading off to a boozed-up weekend in an isolated Norwegian cabin find themselves under attack by frozen Nazi zombies intent upon recovering stolen gold - which has been conveniently hidden under the cabin. Using only their wits and a stash of surprisingly-lethal ski equipment, the students must fight to escape and to stay alive.

It may astound the couple of you who follow my reviews (Hi Mum!), but I don't actually watch many zombie movies, and this is because I (rather foolishly) have the same expectations of zombie movies as I do of zombie novels; they have to be good. Good plot, good characters, and so on. Which means, of course, that I don't watch many zombie movies, and actually enjoy fewer still.

How amazed was I, therefore, to find Dead Snow one of the most enjoyable zombie flicks I've seen in recent times? Extremely. Because, even in comparison to other B-grade horror movies, the plot makes about as much sense as a dancing can of Spam. Normally I'd expand upon that last comment at great length - but I won't, because I do actually want you to go and watch this movie. Why? Because the whole thing is played so tongue-in-cheek and over-the-top (knowing references to - and cliches from - famous horror flicks are peppered throughout), with excesses in gore and WTF? moments that would leave Peter Jackson green with envy, that even a po-faced stick-in-the-mud like myself was able to completely overlook the shortcomings and thoroughly enjoy the ride, laughing all the way. Ho, ho, ho.

So. Watch it. Love it. It's just plain Fun. And the special effects and (as far as I can tell, for all that I don't speak a word of Norwegian) the acting are pretty decent.

(Originally posted to HorrorScope, 2010)

Review: Outpost

Dir. Steve Barker, 2008

In present-day war-torn Eastern Europe, a group of mercenaries are hired to safely escort their client to a long-forgotten WWII bunker. Amid much talk of Nazi gold, the group quickly locate and unseal the bunker – where they are forced to take refuge after being fired upon from the surrounding forest. Once inside, however, things quickly go from bad to worse. Crumbling film spools reveal details of a Nazi experiment to create super-soldiers. Shadowy figures are glimpsed flitting about the darkened corridors. Ghosts? Zombies? Or some time-bending effect produced by the strange machine being investigated by the client? And then the deaths begin.

This is a terrific little horror film, high on tension and fright, low on SFX (although there’s a fair amount of realistic gore). The script is simple and engrossing, and the acting is simply superb, with each and every character portrayed with gritty realism (no clichéd Hollywood soldiers-of-fortune, here). The greatest compliment I can give this production is that, while watching the DVD in the reassuring comfort of my own home, I actually had to walk out of the room during one particular scene in order to steady my nerves.

This is a definite must-see; one of the better horror flicks I’ve seen in the past few years.

(Originally posted to HorrorScope, 2009)

Review: Pontypool

Dir. Bruce McDonald, 2009

Recently fired from a top-rating gig, the only job shock-jock Grant Mazzey has been able to secure is the early morning show at a tiny radio station in the small, snowbound town of Pontypool. What begins as just another average, crappy day soon turns deadly, however, as sporadic reports begin to come in of crowds of locals developing strange speech patterns and evoking horrendous acts of violence. As the station itself falls under siege, Mazzey fights to stay on-air and keep whatever remains of his audience informed. But what if the broadcast itself, or even the act of speaking, is actually responsible for the transmission of this bizarre illness..?

Adapted from the brilliant novel Pontypool Changes Everything (reviewed here) by Tony Burgess (who also scripted the movie), Pontypool is a highly unsettling thriller that is bound to attract a cult following. The lead actors all turn in wonderful performances; Stephen McHattie in particular is terrific, his rich voice giving credibility to his role as a radio DJ. The single-set location, and the fact that virtually all information on the atrocities occurring outside is imparted via radio and phone only, generates a highly claustrophobic and creepy atmosphere.

One of the minor quibbles I do have with Pontypool is that the skillfully-crafted atmosphere is undermined slightly by a couple of (admittedly necessary) verbal infodumps late in the piece, which serve purely to let the audience know what's really going on. Of course, time restraints preclude the script from addressing such issues as organically and satisfyingly as in the novel; by the same token, we're also denied much of Burgess' wonderful literary imagery, internal dialogue and character backstory that simply wouldn't survive the leap from prose to celluloid. That said, Burgess has cunningly skirted the need for such things by not scripting Pontypool as a literal adaptation of his novel, but rather a 'meanwhile, on the other side of town' sidebar to the existing text, and as such the movie stands extremely well as a stand-alone product.

This is definitely a movie that all fans of dark fare should see. The DVD release is currently available for hire in Australia, and makes perfect - if unsettling -winter viewing.

(Originally posted to HorrorScope, 2010)

Review: Zombie Strippers

2008, dir. Jay Lee, starring Jenna Jameson and Robert Englund

(Disclaimer: this review has been carefully screened for puerile smut by an appointed government censor. Any apparent double-entendres are purely a figment of the reader’s imagination).

When an experimental government re-animation virus gets accidentally released (snort!) into an illegal strip-club, there can be only one result – zombie strippers! And as the first zombified dancer begins to demonstrate a crowd-pulling (hoo!) lack of inhibition in her routines, it’s only a matter of time before the remaining girls begin to think about ‘crossing over’ themselves. Now, if only they could control their urges (fwoar!) to eat (giggle!) the patrons...

Hands up (ooer!) if you thought Zombie Strippers was bound (cor!) to be a juvenile piece (fnarr!) of boobs-out exploitation aimed at sad, sweaty blokes with porn addictions? Well, you’d be right. But it’s also a great deal of fun, simply because it revels in its own trashiness. The plot is ridiculous, the acting way over the top, and the jokes (it’s a comedy, after all) are of truly hospital-grade quality. And yet, it works. There is not the slightest hint that anyone involved in this production is taking things (chortle!) seriously, and this is what makes it so great to watch. It’s laugh-out-loud stupid. Additionally, the horror quotient is actually pretty high, with the sort of gory effects you’d expect from a big (oh, stop!) budget fright-flick. And, believe me, the titillation derived from watching nekkid women strut their stuff (narf!) on the screen wears off very quickly once the girls begin to, well, decompose (and if you don’t agree, then there is obviously something very wrong indeed with you, and you should seek professional help).

In a nut(choke!!)shell, this is an extremely enjoyable comedy, a pretty decent horror movie, and a great entry (!!!!) to the zombie flick subgenre. More like this one, please!

(This review originally posted to HorrorScope, 2009)

Review: Dead Set

Channel 4 UK, 2008, script by Charlie Brooker, dir. Yann Demage

When the dead begin to rise and attack the living, when civilisation begins to crumble, a small number of people remain completely unconcerned. This is understandable, however, as these folks are the last remaining contestants in the UK Big Brother house. Safely cocooned from the outside world, and blissfully ignorant of the impending apocalypse, the BB housemates continue to go about their daily, meaningless routines. Then eviction night arrives...

To begin with a possible spoiler, Dead Set is undoubtedly the most dark and nihilistic outing into zombie-apocalypse territory I've ever seen. It's also one of the very best I've ever seen. Shot on a low budget, the five-episode TV series nonetheless benefits from high production values (including some shockingly realistic SFX). The relatively small cast all turn in wonderful performances guaranteed to make the viewer invest in the fates of the characters they play. Scripting is excellent, and the much-touted satirical element of the series is handled with a surprising amount of subtlety; sadly, I suspect that most Australian viewers won't truly appreciate the cameo roles played by UK BB host Davina McCall and various real-life former housemates.

The true genius of the concept behind this series isn't simply the 'unique' location of the BB household: it's the fact that this location allows scriptwriter Charlie Brooker to take the standard zombie-apocalypse plot - small band of mismatched folk seeking shelter in order to survive - and turn it on its head. Our survivors actually begin their journey in the safest place on earth, and rely for their survival upon their ability to not merely get along with one another, but to transcend the fact that they have all been specifically selected to not get along with one another. To put it another way, these are the sort of people who would already have been eaten in the first reel of any other zombie outing, and there's an horrific fascination in watching the usual banal behaviour of Big Brother housemates play out in a manner that has consequences beyond in-house bitchery.

For fans of horror, zombies, or even just a damn good teledrama, Dead Set is required viewing. The DVD is currently available in Australia from most applicable retailers.

(This review originally posted to HorrorScope, 2008)