Zombie Movie Night: March ’14

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I have to admit I have a soft spot in my heart for director John Gulager.  10 years ago, when Project Greenlight was a thing, he was the likeable schlub who won the right to helm the low budget horror film, Feast.  Matt Damon and Ben Affleck chose him because his short film as the contest entry was the best one and not because he gave the worst job interview ever put on film or television.  Both of those things made Greenlight an entertaining season.  Could Gulager’s natural talent overcome his inexperience, social awkwardness and stubborn insistence to cast his family in major roles?  (Answer: it did.  Feast is actually an entertaining little horror romp).  While Feast 2 and 3 were markedly less good, Gulager has nevertheless been able to turn a reality TV show appearance into a modest career as a low budget horror director.  Not many reality shows outside of American Idol can claim they succeeded at their mission statement.

Having a slight affinity for the director made me more enthused than usual to watch Zombie Night.  And as I know I have said before and will say again in the future:  Expectations are a dangerous thing to have on Zombie (Movie) Night.  Worse than being downright bad, John Gulager’s Zombie Night is painfully boring and pointless.

Two things I like about Gulager are that in the Feast films he was willing to try interesting shots even if they ended up not working and secondly, he allowed the comic relief room to breathe so that the films have a campy, fun quality.  I liked the way text messages were presented on screen, but other than that, nothing about ZN was visually unique.  And to the second point, Zombie Night has absolutely no comic relief.  The characters are flavorless cardboard cut-outs and are not developed at all.  It’s barely clear what their relationships are, making a late stage attempt at neighborly tension fall extra flat.  Daryl Hannah, Anthony Michael Hall, Shirley Jones, and Alan Ruck bring some B movie star power, but their parts could have been played by anyone.  They add nothing to spice up their lifeless characters.  It’s so bad, we actually had to debate whether Shirley Jones was supposed to be blind or not.

Hate to say it, but Zombie Night is an “avoid at all costs” dud.  Maybe Gulager’s Piranha sequel I just got in the mail will have more pizazz.  Fingers crossed.  Grade: D.

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Stalled is a low-budget British zombie inSTALLment.  While not an instant classic or even something worth remembering a few years from now, it’s an admirable attempt to overcome its restraints and at that,  it mostly succeeds.  The main character, W.C.,  is a lowly janitor forced to work on Christmas Eve during an office party.  When the zombie apocalypse begins, he finds safe haven in a stall in the ladies’ room.  He forms a bond with another bathroom occupant, a female voice who remains unseen for twisty reasons, (but perhaps not the twist you were expecting).  Together they talk through their issues and try to devise a plan to get out of there.  W.C. has done some truly awful things but he never comes off as unlikeable and the relationship he builds with his new friend gives the story both heart and an anchor.  (Not to mention, it’s really inexpensive and time-padding.)  The film depends strongly on our investment in a rotten guy and a woman we can’t see, so it’s pretty impressive that they pull it off.  There are some weaker parts; the ending could have been better and the post-credits sequence is boring and useless, but overall, it works.  Some laughs, some heart and no strain shown from its limitations.  In the interest of toilet humor, I will give Stalled a SOLID B.

Zombie Movie Night: Feb ’14

After years upon years of Zombie Movie Night, it is finally starting to seem like the pickings are getting slimmer.  Zombie movies are still being churned out, don’t get me wrong.  I’m eagerly anticipating both Cooties, starring Rainn Wilson & Elijah Wood as teachers battling zombie children  (http://www.comingsoon.net/films.php?id=96539#/slide/1) and Zombeavers:

But these sure-to-be cinematic masterpieces are still off in the seemingly distant future.  My brother and I need content now and for that, we have had to turn more and more to “queue clearing.”  Things that have been on the radar for a while and/or collecting dust in the Netflix queue because they just weren’t all that enticing.  So while I wait impatiently for Zombeavers, first we check in with SyFy channel’s zombie craze cash-in from a couple of years ago: Zombie Apocalypse.

The Syfy Channel has become relatively famous for cranking out intentionally low-budget cheesy monster flicks that have a self-aware, campy kind of charm that’s well-suited for blowing up the snarky Twitter-verse.  While Zombie Apocalypse maintains the look, feel and production qualities of this kind of Syfy specialty, it is sorely lacking in the all-important fun department.  You would think that a cable channel that gleefully gives us a shark inside a tornado would be able to wring some humor out of the tiresome zombie genre, but this venture, for whatever reason, is played completely straight.  The result is a movie that is just as boring as its title would indicate.  Well, the idea of a zombie apocalypse certainly isnt’ boring, but as a title, I just imagine Syfy execs ordering a project tentatively called “Untitled Ving Rhames Zombie Apocalypse Film” and then lazily dropping some of those words when it came time to make a title card.

It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly is wrong with this film and while pondering this, I realized maybe that’s actually what the problem is.  There’s nothing great about it, of course, but there’s also nothing wrong with it to make it truly noteworthy.  The actors are recognizable, competent or both.  The script is above average, with a clear mythology, characters with personalities and a goal.  The zombies and special effects are Syfy standard issue so you can’t really laugh at them like you’ve never seen it before.  Zombie Apocalypse is a perfectly cromulent zombie movie with nothing innovative or exciting to offer unless you really dig Syfy’s patented “climactic fight with giant CGI monster animal.”  It’s passable, but that’s not a compliment in this case.  Grade: C

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Next up was the Starz production, Dead and Deader, starring Dean Cain and a veritable all-star cast of vaguely familiar “that guys.”  Cain plays Lt. Bobby Quinn, a special op soldier whose opening scene mission goes horribly wrong when a Cambodian lab that specializes in scorpion harvesting and zombie-making gets blown up.  Quinn arrives stateside in a body bag, but surpises the mortician by waking up full of the all-too-familiar zombie super powers.  Quinn is uinique in that he maintains his mental faculties, but his fellow soldiers are not so lucky.  Quinn escapes custody and uses his zombie super senses to track and destroy the others before they can spread the zombie plague.  Along the way, he picks up a wacky sidekick and a love interest and has a showdown with the evil scientist behind the whole thing.

In stark contrast to Zombie Apocalypse, Dead and Deader doesn’t take itself too seriously, making it the more entertaining of the two films.  It’s impossible to break new ground with the zombie premise, so you had better bring the fun factor.  Even while leaving a trail of gore and destruction, our heroes still crack jokes and keep the proceedings relatively light.  The love interest is a bit of a misstep as she is just too “nerd fantasy perfect” to be an actual person.  She’s super hot, loves movies, wrote her thesis on Dawn of the Dead and talks openly about wanting to find a motel to bang in.  Yeah, okay.  Also, the ending drags a bit as the whole climax is served up on a platter of obviousness, but it doesn’t ruin it entirely.  In the end, it far exceeded my expectations, although after suffering through last month’s entrants, anything was going to be a step up.  Grade: B

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Zombie Movie Night: January ’14

January in Zombie Movie Land has unofficially become Butt Month.  Last year it was Bloodlust Zombies starring world famous Buttwoman, Alexis Texas.  This time around, the first month of the year brought us Zombie Ass: The Toilet of the Dead.  Would it be as well-rounded as last year’s entry or would it slip through the cracks?

In case you couldn’t tell by the bizarre title, Zombie Ass is a Japanese production.  A group of young friends heads out on a camping trip (classic).  The mean girl of the group has the brilliant idea to lose weight by consuming a large parasite they find inside a dead trout.  That goes about as well as you would expect.  Soon enough, the gang is running from zombies, most of which emerge from the business end of an outhouse where mean girl has gone off to squat.  See, I assumed “Zombie Ass: The Toilet of the Dead” was a title that was somewhat lost in translation.  I was wrong.  Soon enough, the kids stumble upon a mad scientist who has been using a local town as a breeding ground for the parasite because consuming them keeps his little girl from dying.  The side effects for everyone else is Zombie.  …Zombies that attack butt-first.

If the title wasn’t lost in translation, then the message of the movie certainly is.  Zombie Ass is obsessed with butts and bodily functions and it eventually starts to feel tedious.  I’m not above laughing at fart jokes, but when you’re still making them in the third act, it’s like enough already.  This film is also a particularly disturbing glimpse into the window of Japanese shame culture.  The main character’s sister killed herself because she was embarrassed by farting in the girls locker room and that flashback is played absolutely straight.  It’s one thing to read about warriors who killed themselves when they lost in battle, but seeing this mindset play out in a twisted modern movie is off-putting.  Everybody poops, Japan.  Get over it.  Grade: C-

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Our second film of the night was The Amazing Adventures of the Living Corpse, which unfortunately makes quite liberal use of the words “amazing” and “adventures.”  After killing his wife and daughter, a zombie is snapped back into consciousness by the pleas of his young son, whom he then impulsively decides to save.   This act of mercy attracts the attention of a guardian of the underworld.  This demon guy leads Living Corpse into a bizarre hidden world that contains magic tunnels to anywhere he might want to go.  LC is only interested in finding his son, who has been shuttled off to a boarding school for orphans of paranormal activity.   LC finds his way to the school, inadvertantly bringing with him a bunch of killer underworld monsters.  After a climactic battle, the story jumps 15 years to find the son, named Taylor, working for a mad scientist who is trying to harnass zombie power to create the ultimate unkillable army.  Taylor helps lure his dad into a trap but it soon becomes apparent that mad scientist is crazy (duh) and everything goes horribly wrong.

It’s very difficult to find any redeeming qualities in this one.  First of all, it’s animated in video game style and it looks terrible.  It’s a 2 hour cut scene of a game you wouldn’t want to play.  Actually, it’s not even video game quality as the character models are clunky and the motions are awkward.  The voice acting might be even worse.  Young Taylor, who is constantly in danger, cries for help with all the urgency of someone who can’t get a pickle jar open.  The story is jumbled and mostly incoherent.  Character motivations vary wildly from scene to scene as needed.  One of the boarding school teachers transforms almost instantly from coward to suicidal lunatic.  Taylor himself never expresses any actual grief or even anger over his dead family but fifteen years later he needs to hate his father for a confrontation to happen and so he does.  This one was so hard to watch, it made me long for the comic stylings of Forest of the Dead’s Jeffy Giuseppe.  Well, Jeffy can now rest Proper! as A.A.ot L.C. has become the new “champion” at the very bottom of our rankings!  Grade: F

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Zombie Movie Night: December ’13

For December, we were able to stick to two more contemporary releases.  While new zombie films continuing to pour out is great for the subgenre and great for the core concept of Zombie Movie Night having sustainability, the fact is that “contemporary” does not automatically translate to “good movies.”

First up was Zombie Massacre, which Netflix credited as being directed by Uwe Boll, but it wasn’t.  Boll has a reputation for making horrible movies, though I have never seen any of them.  Regardless of its credits, Zombie Massacre would fit right in on Boll’s resume.  It’s pretty bad. Yes, some of it is entertainingly bad, but not enough to make it worth the time.

I will try to spend less time going over the plot than the film does (overly long exposition being Problem # 1 to present itself in the early stages).  The US government needs to cover up a super soldier experiment gone wrong so they send in a ragtag team of criminals and mercenaries on a covert operation to blow up a power plant and make it look like the city full of zombies was destroyed by a terrible accident.  The mercenaries get screwed over and left to die so they have to fight their way out before the clock hits 0.  Along the way, they pick up some strays like “daughter of the scientist who regretfully caused the calamity” and “random guy who conveniently shows up to save the day.”

Some of the action sequences are fun and the main actors try their best to make you care even if it mostly falls flat.  There’s a Scottish guy who wrings everything he can from the role, but his death still does not come off as tragic or heroic as obviously intended.  The best part is a brief scene where the US President has such a thick Euro accent, he has to tell his subordinates “I am the President of the United States.”  Actually, it might be worth a watch just for that LOL scene.  Grade: C-

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Next was Zombie Hunter, starring Danny Trejo.  He’s not the titular character despite what some versions of the cover art would have you believe.  His role is little more than a cameo, which might be a good thing since the last time we saw him he was a big part of the problem with Rise of the Zombies.  Here he puts in a much better effort for his few brief scenes.

With America having been destroyed by a new addictive drug that eventually turned its users into zombies, The Zombie Hunter travels across the vast wasteland killing every zombie he sees because why not.  After a car crash, he wakes up to find that he, in fact, is not the last man on Earth.  There’s hot chick, girl next door chick, fat guy, regular guy, creepy/horny teenager, and Trejo, a mysterious man of faith.  There’s little in the way of plot, other than a few interpersonal dynamics and the basic “trying to find someplace safe.”  The acting is mostly acceptable, the effects are, at points, laughably bad but nothing too egregious.  Zombie Hunter is an inoffensive and utterly unremarkable romp that lands in the middle of the pack, destined to be quickly forgotten.

Grade: C+

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Zombie Film Feast 2013

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Yesterday, my brother and I attended half of the 6th Annual Zombie Film Feast presented at Proctor’s in Schenectady.  We attended the first block of three films which consisted of Night of the Creeps, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, and Shaun of the Dead.  The second block was equally good, if not better, featuring Return of the Living Dead, [REC], and Cockneys Vs. Zombies.  We have already seen 5 of these 6 so we chose the block that contained the film we hadn’t seen yet and a classic that we had not watched together and therefore was not in our official rankings.  We didn’t watch BOTH blocks because we are cheap bastards and the seats are really uncomfortable there.  Also, we literally JUST saw the Cockneys.  Anyway, I had a pretty good time.  It’s always fun to watch movies in a theater setting, especially with a bunch of zombie true believers such as ourselves.

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First up was Night of the Creeps.  The only thing I knew about this film going in was that I had seen bits and pieces as a kid when it aired on cable and I was terrified.  I was so traumatized by the idea of a slug going into my mouth that I became afraid of the bubbles in glasses of soda.  Perhaps if I had been brave enough to watch the whole thing in context, I would have realized this movie is actually a campy comedy!  Kids are so dumb.  Being an adult rules.

In 1959, an alien space pod of some kind is launched toward the Earth.  We don’t learn much about the ridiculous-looking pink, naked alien creatures, but they are shooting at one another and one side reveals that this pod launching is not a good thing.  Once on Earth, the pod bursts open and fires a slug into the mouth of the first young man to discover the crash site.

We then flash forward to the present, in this case the mid 80s, where our heroes, a couple of dorky college kids, are looking to score a corpse for a fraternity pledge prank.  The slug-induced zombie madness begins when they break into the morgue, gain access to a secret room and unleash the cryogenically frozen first responder from the 50s.

NotC us definitely a lot more fun 27 years later than I remember it being as a ten-year-old.  The humor holds up pretty well and the 80s fashion sense is not as distracting as I’ve seen it be in other films of the era.  Tom Atkins in particular kills it as a gruff old detective who is haunted by the events of his rookie year as a cop- when he went vigilante on an axe murderer who killed his ex-girlfriend on the very night of the alien pod crash.  The slugs have the ability to bring corpses back to life, so things get messy when they make their way into the murderer’s secret burial site and he comes chopping his way out through the floor of a sorority house.  If it sounds like there’s a lot going on in this film, there is, though it never gets confusing or hard to follow.  The aliens from the opening could have used a little more exposition, but since they weren’t really the point, it’s easy to let it slide.  It’s just interesting that they threw so much at the wall and it all stuck.  I mean, it’s not that complicated to make a zombie movie and the fact that they seamlessly added in axe murderers and aliens is actually pretty impressive. 

Grade: A

Next up was The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue aka Let Sleeping Corpses Lie.  (A wikipedia check reveals this film actually has more than a dozen alternate titles and was originally released in the US as “Don’t Open the Window.”  (WTF))  I didn’t remember particularly liking this one.  I consulted our rankings to try and find the Mendoza Line of rewatchability and I definitely wouldn’t have picked this as the starting point…but…it was okay.  It was less boring and has more unintentional comedy than I remembered.  Here is a reprint of my original review, which I stand by:

(from May 2011) The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue/Let Sleeping Corpses Lie) …the time machine took us …back… and we ended up in England during the swinging 70’s.  Back then, if you accidentally wrecked someone’s motorcycle with your car, you could not only offer them a ride, but let them drive.  And if you were going in different directions, you could just loan them the car and send for it later!  This all happens in the first ten minutes of “Let Sleeping Corpses Lie.”  The title credit lists the name as “The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue” and you can really see the Romero influence.  While not quite a remake or a reimagining, it’s like the makers tried to take the same basic story and twist it into their own message; in this case, that messing with the environment is bad.  Romero never bothers to explain why zombies happen, but this film makes sure you know that it’s because of THAT BIG MACHINE THAT THEY’RE USING TO KILL PARASITES.

The big problem with the film is that it really gets bogged down and boring.  Maybe in ‘74, Night of the Living Dead was still fairly fresh and shocking and LSCL was clearly trying to capitalize on that.  But in 2011, it’s not all that shocking.  We’ve seen it all by now.  Can’t quite recommend this one unless you’re a big Romero fan and want to count the rip-off scenes that don’t work quite as well as the original granddaddy of them all.   Grade: C-

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Finally, it was time for the main event; a rewatching of the instant classic, Shaun of the Dead.  If the Romero films invented the zombie subgenre, Shaun (along with the Dawn of the Dead remake) brought it much more into the cultural mainstream than it had ever been before.  I honestly don’t believe we would have The Walking Dead or World War Z being turned into a major motion picture if not for this 21st century resurgence of the undead corpse as viable movie monster.  Here is a reprint of my original review:

(from Oct 2004)   SHAUN OF THE DEAD

I knew I would like this movie before I even sat down. The tagline on the poster outside reads: “A romantic comedy. With zombies”. Well, two out of three isn’t bad. There’s plenty of comedy and plenty of zombies, but not much romance. It’s not missing entirely, but the movie has better targets in mind and no one is going to leave the theater complaining that there wasn’t enough kissing.

I really hope no one sees this movie expecting an actual romantic comedy or worse, to be really scared, because the film is pure laughs. The zombies are really more of an inconvenience that keeps getting worse as the film progresses. At first, our hero Shaun doesn’t even notice them- in a hilarious extended scene where Shaun does exactly the same thing he had done the previous day, oblivious to the fact that there is blood everywhere and the dead walk amongst him.

Shaun’s world starts out as both monotonous and all-consuming. He is going nowhere as an employee at an electronics store. Even when having a heart to heart with his girlfriend about getting a life, he can’t be bothered to change the scenery from the pub he frequents or tell her friends and his to take a hike while they sort things out. These every day problems keep him in enough of a rut that dire news reports and television warnings to stay inside go unnoticed. I imagine there’s supposed to be some thinly veiled social commentary when even the viewer can’t tell at first who is a zombie and who is not- such is our workaday lifestyle! But the movie doesn’t spend any time dwelling on such observations before amping up both the violence and the comedy.

The movie does resort to the usual horror cliches from time to time. For every hysterical scene like Shaun and his friend Ed trying to decide which of their vinyl records they can part with before hurling them at oncoming zombies, there’s also obligatory horror items such as one of the survivors trying to hide the fact that they will soon be forced to switch sides.

Overall, the comedy is sharp and fresh- even if it wasn’t, the premise alone keeps one from ever being bored. It’s easy to like Shaun and root for him as he finds his untapped courage while battling under strange circumstances. The film should not be frightening to anyone over twelve, but there are a few moments where things do look grim, even for the residents of a zombie “spoof”. The ending is inspired and I believe it is what might really happen if we were ever forced to share the world with the undead.

3.5 stars

(Grade A)

Zombie Movie Night: Nov. ’13

SiriusXM recently launched an Entertainment Weekly channel and every Monday there’s a show called “Entertainment Weirdly” where they talk about pop culture off the beaten path.  So I have those folks to thank for turning me on to my selection for this month, Frankenstein’s Army.  They had me at “zombie with an airplane propeller for a head.”

The story goes that a small group of Russian soldiers during WWII answer a distress call from their comrades and find themselves in a deserted German town…only of course, it’s not so deserted.  Everyone there was either chased off, killed by, or turned into part of the titular “army.”  A Nazi scientist has studied and improved upon the work of  Viktor Frankenstein and can now use a generator to bring his monstrous creations to life.  But these are not just zombies, they are (listed in the credits as) zom-bots.  Reanimated corpses with knives for hands, drills for faces, and, yes, even one with a propeller for a head.  (Love it).

This movie is a wildly entertaining good time as there seems to be no limit to the crazed imagination of the script writer.  If I had to knock anything about it, it’s that it uses the done-to-death found footage technique which is extra distracting because it’s seemingly so anachronistic.  But this is a film where the Russians speak to each other in English and get annoyed by Germans speaking German, so ultimately, it doesn’t really matter.  Also…propeller for a head!  Suspension of disbelief is cashed in at a premium for this film.  But I loved it.  Grade: A+

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Next up was Dead Before Dawn, a zombie comedy about a hapless young college kid, who along with his friends, accidentally breaks the spooky old urn in his grandfather’s occult shop.  Thinking the curse that comes with that is a goof, the friends rattle off a laundry list of bad things that should happen, not knowing that the evil spirits are taking notes.  Later that night, all the things they said start happening, most prominently, everyone they make eye contact with spontaneously commits suicide and turns into a zombie.  If the friends don’t work together to figure out how to undo the curse before dawn, the dire situation will become permanent.

It’s so refreshing to find a zombie comedy that’s actually funny and entertaining all the way through.  DBD gets right a lot of the things that Detention of the Dead got wrong.  Mainly, once the characters realize the stakes at play, they become terrified.  The comedy is built around their appropriate reactions to the situation and there’s no “ha ha our friends are dead” bits that ruined the first half of Detention.  Moreover, this film is simply my kind of humor.  I feel like I could have been in the writer’s room and contributed to the script had I been asked.  A lot of winking, nudging and meta commentary on the events taking place, such as when the characters realize they have been making eye contact with someone trying to help them, they complain “these rules are so complicated!”  There’s even a reference to Nic Cage’s Wicker Man, which, come on, is just a joke that’s after my own heart.  Any film that can make me laugh hysterically while someone is committing suicide is a winner in my book.  Grade: A

 

Zombie Movie Night: Oct ’13, Night 2

We began Part 2 of ZMN anniversary month with a fresher release I was eager to see.  If I were to make a list of my Top 10 hobbies and interests, two things that would definitely make the cut are “zombies” and “British culture.”  Cockneys vs. Zombies, by title alone, promised to be right up my alley.  And it is, paying tribute to both the undead genre and the fighting spirit of the English working class.

Two brothers, in a last ditch effort to save the grandfather who raised them from having his nursing home torn down for an upscale construction project, form a small gang and a plan to rob a bank.  Little do they know, that very construction crew has accidentally unleashed the living dead upon London.  The film then tracks two groups amid the zombie melee: the likeable bank robbers with their impromptu hostages and the grandfather and his merry band of fellow pensioners.  Will the brothers be able to step up and save the day, and can grandpa survive long enough for their efforts to pay off?

CvZ is solid from start to finish.  I’m almost positive I’ve said this before, but at this point, there is nothing groundbreaking that can be done with a zombie film.  The best you can hope for is to make a really well done movie and throw in a couple of moments that might not have been tried before.  In the case of the latter, there’s a great gag where one of the more disabled of the old guys has to use his walker to “outrun” a lumbering zombie in hot…er…lukewarm pursuit.  The film is a comedy all the way, but the characters are well developed enough to make the viewer care what happens to them, even when things start to look bleak.  Grade: B+ 

(I’d also recommend taking 5-10 minutes to look up Cockney Rhyming Slang.  It’s hilariously convoluted and the movie does poke fun at that a couple of times)

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Our fourth and final film was the wretched Dorm of the Dead.  This definitely falls into the category of “welp, we said we wanted to watch all of them.’  It’s not often that I long for the high production values of Motocross Zombies From Hell, but at least that turd had all of its actors in the same room.  That’s right, the most annoying and distracting part of Dorm is that almost every scene is punctured with close-ups of the character who is speaking, and then a cut to the other character speaking.  As one can tell by the framing, varying sound quality and background, no one is in the same place at the same time, even if they are supposed to be having a conversation.  It was clearly borne of necessity but it’s still awful and the most jarring, poor choice in filmmaking I have ever seen.  The budget of this film was the cost of the camera.  The actors are all atrociously amateur and the running time is padded by things like “pointless Lesbian sex scene” and “walking around the convenience store that let us film there” and finally, a head-scratching and unfunny ten minute post-credit sequence of “man making crude sexual come-ons to girl who is just not getting it.”  I’m not going to recount the plot or anything because that would require more effort than this affront to filmmaking deserves.  Grade: EFFFFFF!

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