Monday, June 30, 2008


2005's THE HOLY DEAD is another student short, this time coming from British director Daniel Ford. A particularly unremarkable film, I gave it a shot based solely on its evocative title, which it fails to explain. Hopefully Ford's professor and I weren't using the same criteria to determine its merits.

It's the same "person encounters zombies and gets eaten" story we've seen ad nauseum, distinguished only by a truly awful newscast opening the film and a bare minimum of filmmaking competence. There's not much in the way of style, and what little narrative Ford does give us never makes much sense, suggesting either a plot twist or character relationship that goes as unexplained as its title.

For some reason it's bizarrely refreshing to see that student films are just as formulaic and ridiculous on the other side of the pond, but it would've been nice to see a different cultural perspective on the same material we've seen time and again. Perhaps we're exporting a drive for lowest-common-denominator filmmaking along with our films themselves.


Those of you keeping up with recent activity will recall my morbid fascination with those overbloated, needlessly long shot-on-video shit-storms that've stumbled across my radar (I don't know if "fascination" is the proper word, since it implies even a base interest). Fans of this protracted brand of amateur cinema--surely there's a few somewhere--will have hit the mother lode with today's entry: the 2005 camcorder epic THE VEIL, which clocks in at an unimaginable two-and-a-half hours. Oh, and did I mention it's in black-and-white, too?

Just gets the ol' salivary glands a' churnin', doesn't it?

Now, a lot of these movies suffer from an inordinate amount of self-assurance on the filmmakers' part, but it's quite a conspicuous act of hubris to ask an audience for a PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN-size investment of time, knowing it's unable to provide a suitable return. (Don't get me wrong, I don't think a long movie must be all eye candy and explosions to be worthwhile, but in a genre like horror that requires a certain amount of stimulus, I have little faith that an untested crew can deliver the goods.) And speaking of chutzpah, check out the below trailer, wherein the filmmakers have the stones to compare themselves to John Carpenter, Sam Raimi, and Peter Jackson (note to director Richard Chance--these guys aren't horror legends because they toiled for years with no money, but because they each broke some sort of ground).

Watching THE VEIL, I couldn't help but wonder if Chance was deliberately trying to challenge audiences to sit through his film. I can appreciate a filmmaker asking his audience to work for their art, but why ask when the dividends are so minute?
The length alone would be enough to turn off most viewers (special thanks go to Mill Creek Entertainment, who slapped this onto DVD without a single chapter break--somewhere around the halfway point I feared it would somehow stop playing, forcing me to go through it all over again), but the film begins with a longer-than-necessary prologue that suggests a preference for style over story, shifting between rapid-fire, incomprehensible editing, blurry photography, and cold-molasses slow motion, before switching from color to black-and-white (for what artistic purpose, I don't know)--a sequence that'll have you begging for the mercy of a brain aneurysm or some other sort of divine interruption.

Chance makes other dubious narrative choices, such as keeping his three leads underneath hazmat suits for almost the entire picture (which muffles the dialogue more often than not), making them more ciphers than characters. It's as if Chance was making an anti-film, reversing all the techniques that draw viewers in and connect to a movie. Again, if there were some greater reward for this, great, I'd be hailing these guys as the daring iconoclasts they think they are, but it's really all just for show.

For a movie that takes great pains in breaking the visual mold, THE VEIL's story is astonishingly routine. Ostensibly about yet another ragtag bunch of military commandos--a deconstruction of the indistinguishable nature of so many of these characters? I doubt it--investigating yet another plague that produced yet another zombie outbreak, Chance stops the ubiquitous head-shooting at every opportunity to focus on characters playing cards, or bouncing a ball to relieve boredom (theirs, not ours), or reading comics--all trapped behind those damned gas masks. I'm not quite sure what higher purpose all these breaks in the story serve, but if Chance wanted to illustrate the monotony and ennui of military service, then mission fucking accomplished. Even the zombie action is the same tried-and-true gut munching we're well familiar with (not only does the monochrome film fail to establish mood, but it blunts the bloodletting's visceral impact). And after making us endure all 150 butt-numbing minutes, Chance dares to repay us with an ending we've seen a million times already.

I could go on about the grainy black-and-white photography that often looks like 7-11 surveillance footage (but not as visually stimulating), or the score that's slightly less harmonious than a mouthful of tinfoil, but that'd just be kicking someone when they're down. THE VEIL is an audacious film, but it's the wrong kind of audacity, the kind of film that thumps its chest and bleats for us to notice, proclaiming to be the Next Great Thing. However, it never realizes that once it's got our attention it has to be the Next Great Thing.

Sunday, June 29, 2008


Perhaps the recent glut of unwanted remakes is clouding my perception, but time has been kind to the 1990 redux of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Conceived not as a typical cash-in (Romero and company made the film in an attempt to collect royalties on the title, having lost any residuals on the original in a bad distribution deal), it benefits from solid direction by make-up guru Tom Savini and a cast of genre favorites, many of whom had their greatest moments ahead of them.

With a film as iconic and influential as the original NIGHT, any remake is going to suffer from a compare-and-contrast analysis, especially when it hews close to its source material. (Its faithfulness, or slavishness if you see it that way, often works against it, preventing any genuine surprises.) The basic structure remains the same, but it's the deviations that Savini and Romero, who penned the updated screenplay, make that keeps it interesting. The gore is a lot more vivid--though the MPAA saw that much of it hit the cutting room floor--and the stock library score is replaced by a more traditional soundtrack by Paul McCullough, but the changes with the most impact are with the characters.

Most notably, the Barbara in this version (played by Patricia Tallman) is no longer an ineffectual, semi-catatonic mess, but a much more take-charge and active protagonist. She's also a lot less feminine than her previous incarnation, eventually morphing into a Ripley-esque zombie-killing machine. I never bought the transformation, as it felt more like a concession to the early '90s action-babe sensibility than a legitimate character development; she's also manages to still succumb to the annoying screechiness that plagued the worst of the horror heroines.

The rest of the cast isn't altered quite so dramatically, though just about everyone brings a depth and weight to their performances. Tony Todd, two years away from his signature turn as Candyman, plays Ben as a surprisingly effective Everyman, meshing well with Tom Towles's Harry Cooper. (Kudos to Savini and Romero for keeping the implicit racism beneath the surface; though color is obviously what fuels their conflict, bringing it out would've been ham-fisted and preachy.) Also worth mentioning are William Butler as Tom, Bill Moseley in somewhat wasted capacity as Johnny, and--if you can spot them--author/illustrator Gahan Wilson and splatterpunk duo John Skipp and Craig Spector as background zombies.

The remake saves its variations for the first and third acts, leaving an over-familiar and rather tired midsection that can't help but drag a little (even more so after having sat through several dozen carbon copies of the formula). Things pick up for its climax, but any real reaction will be from what's been changed than the story's resolution. A prime example would be the scene in which Sarah Cooper becomes a zombie and eats her mother, which plays out exactly the same as the original; here there's no element of surprise, nor is there any sense of shattering taboos that made the scene such a classic horror moment.

Since 1990 wasn't quite the tumultuous year that 1968 was, I really didn't expect Ben's fate to have the same shattering effect, though inexplicably making him a zombie robs the scene of its subtextual meaning (by showing Ben as a "monster," the film plays too safe, removed from the ambiguous nature of the original's denouement). The other major turnabout, when Barbara shoots the cowardly Cooper, was indeed a surprise, but a poor one. While understandable, Barbara's response was too cold-blooded for me. Was this supposed to be the new, improved Barbara, hardened to the realities of her newfound existence?

Savini's NIGHT will always sit in the shadow of the previous model, but it's got nothing to be ashamed of (that'll be saved for the recent 3D version). Ultimately lightweight but harmless, from a time when the phrase "re-imagining" was bandied about, it's a return down one of horror cinema's most sacred halls that's respectful enough to not leave behind too many fingerprints, but also fails to make its own mark.

Saturday, June 28, 2008


There's no reason why ZOMBIE DEATH HOUSE shouldn't have been awesome. The mere fact that this 1987 film remains the supercool John Saxon's sole directorial outing should guarantee it must-see status, so what happened? (Actually, IMDB lists producer Nick Marino--who oversaw some of Fred Olen Ray's more marginal efforts--as co-director, which might've just answered my question.) Though its demerits become quite clear as the film unspools, DEATH HOUSE (its original title) has a workable premise, but lacks filmmakers with the time, money, or inclination to develop it.

After a flashback-riddled opening than confuses more than it illustrates, former beefcake model--and, for the movie's purposes, Vietnam vet--Dennis Cole finds himself working as a limo driver for a shady mob boss straight out of the Stock Caricature catalog (Saxon's TENEBRE co-star Anthony Franciosa, in a performance that suggest he just didn't give a shit). In an incredibly, and needlessly, convoluted set-up, Franciosa discovers Cole's affair with his main squeeze and murders her, framing Cole in the process and getting him slapped with a death sentence. (Let this be a lesson fellas, no matter how delectable a ninety-pound coke whore may be, if she's connected to the mafia, don't dip your wick in her.) Did I mention Franciosa has a brother on the inside, who vows to make Cole's limited life a living hell? Kinda makes the date with the electric chair a moot point, doesn't it?

Meanwhile, in one of the film's many subplots, scientist Saxon toils in the prison laboratory (?), conducting unorthodox rejuvenation experiments on the death row inmates, in an attempt to create an army on invincible soldiers. (Never mind the fact that no one in the history of cinema has ever pulled this off with any success, but wouldn't a corps of undead murderers and rapists be, I dunno, a little hard to control? Did these people set out to fail?)

ZOMBIE DEATH HOUSE spends so much time jumping between the action, horror, and prison melodrama genres that it gives all three the short shrift, yet still manages to cram practically every cliche from each camp into its running time. Watching the film I was reminded of the more recent DEAD MEN WALKING, which also mined the zombies-in-prison vein; like that film, DEATH HOUSE suffers from a too-low budget, with a prison set that's too stagey to be convincing, but it doesn't share the same rabid energy. The miniscule viewing pleasure can be gleaned from its ridiculous set-pieces, like the stupidest electrocution scene ever filmed, or the movie's cave-bound climax, which mashes DAY OF THE DEAD into a third-rate MACGYVER episode.

I don't know the specifics about Saxon's responsibilities behind the camera, but judging from this mess I'm not surprised he never attempted a second directorial effort. Filled with mediocre action and negligible performances, with little in the way of gore to liven the proceedings, it's the kind of mercenary claptrap one wants to be associated with only once.


I'll be honest, I had a hard time figuring just what the hell this was about.

Ed Hunter's 2006 short film DISORDER posits a scenario similar to 28 DAYS LATER, in which a mind-altering virus turns those infected into zombie-like creatures--taking the premise a bit further than the Danny Boyle film and making them closer to Romero's flesh-eating ghouls--and setting up yet another "end of the world as we know it" situation. The story is relayed to us by one of the survivors, documenting recent events into a video camera, committing the short's biggest mistake; it's talking-head exposition delivered in a flat performance alternating between monotone and melodrama, with a few flashbacks of zombie-related mayhem to mix it up a little. Listening to someone tell a story in static close-up is already a questionable narrative choice, but Hunter hurts his cause even more with horribly muffled audio that makes the dialogue difficult to hear.

That's too bad, because from what I could gather Hunter was trying to advance his story beyond a mere survivor-vs.flesh-eaters level. Problem is, once the characters start talking about "the fabric of reality" and that the disorder is an idea rather than a physical or psychological affliction, we're straining so hard to listen we don't know how half-baked these story developments are (I got the impression that shitty sound quality or not, Hunter's asking us to take a pretty big leap).

Hunter shows a keen directorial style, supplying his film with plenty of distinctive visuals, but without a solid plot to anchor them to they remain isolated eye-catching moments. I would've much preferred to see Hunter use his flair for imagery to tell his story in a less passive manner.

Hopefully, Hunter can use his short to drum up a little scratch and try again with a feature (and remember, Ed, ADR is your friend!). Even if they fail--or sound like they might've failed--I'd rather see someone taking the zombie film to new directions than rehashing the same old-same old again.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Filmmaker Fred Olen Ray spends most of his time these days producing Skinemax-ready movies like GIRL WITH THE SEX-RAY EYES and GENIE IN A STRING BIKINI or straight-to-video mediocrities like VENOMOUS under a variety of pseudonyms, but he'll always be best known for his golden days of exploitation pictures during the '80s when he made such memorable pictures as HOLLYWOOD CHAINSAW HOOKERS and BEVERLY HILLS VAMP. Today's entry, 1980's THE ALIEN DEAD, predates those glory days, harking back to Ray's pre-Hollywood era when he made films in his native Florida with largely non-professional crews.

THE ALIEN DEAD--initially titled IT FELL FROM THE SKY, but changed to cash in on the success of ALIEN and DAWN OF THE DEAD--is about a fallen meteor that crashes in a Florida swamp, causing the dead to rise. A reporter named Corman (Ray Roberts), a backwater beauty (Linda Lewis), and the obligatory former B-movie veteran playing the sheriff (Buster Crabbe, this time around) attempt to figure out what's going on, but not before a whole lot of incidental characters are eaten by the amphibious zombies.

Say what you will about certain films of Ray's like ARMED RESPONSE and CYCLONE, they at least had the technical polish of professional films; this looks more like the kind of cheap regional production sicked up by Larry Buchanan or Don Dohler. Whether by accident or design the film recalls other aquatic zombie pics like SHOCK WAVES or ZOMBIE LAKE (though why you'd want your film to resemble that movie I don't know); there's a dash of primitive gore, including a still-breathing disemboweled corpse, and a sprinkling of unimpressive nudity, but it helps little in saving this suspense- and tension-free storyline. Ray does have a few sequences that could've been effective, but they're often ruined by a heinous bluegrass soundtrack that robs them of their potential.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


First, let me get this out of the way: Greatest. Title. Ever.

Unfortunately, this 1964 cult favorite from Ray Dennis Steckler expended so much creativity on its moniker that there was none left over for the movie itself. Oh, it's chock-full of groovy ideas--how could it not, being the "world's first monster musical"--but Steckler never cultivates them, sticking to the run-and-gun method that's marked pretty much every film he's ever made (granted, the miniscule budgets he's had to make do with haven't helped, but to see a potentially cool concept wither on the vine just gets to me).

Steckler, in his hoodie-wearing persona Cash Flagg Jr., stars as proto-slacker Jerry, who gets involved with an exotic dancer named Carmela (who isn't all that exotic, nor does she really dance) and her sinister hypnotist sister Madame Estrella (who keeps a mutated henchman named Ortega in her back room). Estrella uses hypnosis--a black-and-white swirl effect that kept me on the verge on nausea--to turn Jerry into a zombie, sending him on an unmotivated killing spree.

If that sounds a little too . . . I don't know, exciting, for your personal tastes, rest assured that the story barely gets out of first gear. The hypnotism/killing spree element comes in fairly late, following a seemingly endless barrage of stock carnival footage and the most stultifying "dance" numbers ever committed to film (you'd find more spirited performances at seedy strip clubs twenty minutes before closing). Although the movie's general incompetence is good for a laugh--the costumes alone supply more chuckles than those stupid Friedberg/Seltzer parody flicks, as does Jerry's Latka Gravas-esque buddy--but its lack of forward momentum does it in long before the mutant zombie whatsits attack the supporting cast.

Steckler (here resembling the bastard love child between Nicolas Cage and Max Schrek from NOSFERATU) built his reputation as a drive-in auteur with this $38,000 epic, but it wasn't enough to keep from later churning out porno schlock like DEBBIE DOES LAS VEGAS and WEEKEND COWGIRLS. Though apparently enough of a classic to warrant a recent screening on Turner Classic Movies, it belongs more in the Good Title, Bad Movie camp of BLOOD ORGY OF THE SHE-DEVILS and THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


Moving onward with our examination of films stretched beyond necessity (or reason, or belief), we turn our attention to 2005's ABBERDINE COUNTY CONJUROR [sic], a remarkably uninvolving and unmoving shot-on-video travesty from director Jeff Cooper (not to be confused with Geoff Cooper, author of such incredible works of fiction like RETRIBUTION INC.). Cooper apparently had so much to say about backwoods sorcery, imprisoned females, and zombie slaves that he needed two hours and fifteen minutes to tell it all.

To say there's a lot of padding would be a gross understatement.

A more appropriate way to put it would be that it moves slower than a geriatric's first piss of the morning. Cooper takes an unimaginable seven minutes for a prologue in which a girl is chased and subdued by a monk-robed zombie, only to be used in some sort of occultic ceremony--a snippet of information that, with judicious editing, should've taken a third of the time. Hell, Cooper can't even manage establishing shots worth a damn, using roughly forty-five seconds just to reveal the Abberdine County line sign (something tells me the perceived audience for this movie must read reeeeeaaalll sllloooooowwwllly). I might've chalked it up Cooper's total ignorance of pace, but certain portions of the film--like the unending scenes of Cooper, as zombie hunter Sean Steel (somewhere there's a male porn star filing a copyright infringement suit, I'm sure), driving around for several minutes DOING NOTHING!--suggest ol' Jeff might be a bit too enamored with himself as an "auteur."

Yet despite the protracted nature of the story, it's still pretty damned difficult to figure out just what the hell's going on. There's something about a 150-year-old conjuror--in actuality a life-sized puppet, though as inarticulate as it is I'm surprised they bothered to use it--with a small army of zombie slaves. (Said zombies look and act as if the Knights Templar from the BLIND DEAD series starred in the THRILLER video after consuming a shitload of psychedelic drugs.) We've also got a young couple vacationing, a backwater fortune teller, and a whole lot of rituals that involve naked women and bloodletting. I'm sure with so much happening--it's almost as if we're watching three different films spliced together at random--things could get a mite confusing; fortunately, Cooper makes sure there's plenty of wind or running engines near the boom mike to drown out the dialogue, keeping anything from making any sense.

What this movie feels like is a rustic bondage convention with a torture porn theme. Cooper spends so much time dwelling on girls getting tied up that it becomes flat-out fetishistic, playing like those specialty S&M tapes you find in questionable corners of the internet. (So if that's your thing, this might actually be worth your while--or if you thought HOSTEL would be better if it had more redneck stereotypes in it.) At least from a fetish perspective the activity-to-time-spent ratio isn't as severely out of whack.

But for the rest of us boring vanilla folks, ABBERDINE COUNTY CONJUROR is more tortuous than anything committed on screen. (Was anything committed on screen?) It's the kind of interminable DIY shitburger that's ungodly slow even on fast-forward.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


For the first time in this blog, I'm speechless.

I actually stumbled across this 1980 short film while trying to find something else. I know very little about it, other than director Dan Karlok conceived the idea for this zombie-comedy-musical while working for a cemetery (or cemetary, according to the short's header) and that it played on USA's Night Flight back in the '80s; it also supposedly played in theaters before screenings of DAWN OF THE DEAD. Couldn't find much about Karlok, or anyone else involved in this production (though visual effectsman Al Magliochetti, who worked on such films as FRANKENHOOKER and JASON GOES TO HELL, gets a credit).

Yeah, it's dumb, but it's also surprisingly infectious. A lighthearted homage to a classic film, DAWN OF THE NIGHT OF THE DEAD: THE MUSICAL made me smile as much as it made me say "What the fuck?"

Enjoy, and sorry about the crappy quality.


What is it about the anthology-film format that brings out the worst in filmmakers? Has the visibility of TALES FROM THE CRYPT, THE VAULT OF HORROR, and CREEPSHOW caused them to be so ingrained in directors' psyches that they must automatically copy them for their own multi-story endeavors? Perhaps the reason there are so few anthology pictures (a format I personally have a soft spot for) is they inevitably end up carrying on the same morality tales established by EC Comics many moons ago. Such is the case with Brad Sykes's 2002 release THE ZOMBIE CHRONICLES, which puts an undead spin on the formula (well, on two different stories with an awkward wraparound) yet keeps the stale storytelling firmly in place.

The set up this time around concerns a journalist (Emmy Smith) who picks up a mysterious hitchhiker (Joe Haggerty, in a horrendously grating turn) to help her find an unmarked small town. For reasons unknown except to Haggerty--and screenwriter Garrett Clancy, I suppose--they stop at a dilapidated structure so he can spin a pair of yarns.

The first involves a drill sergeant (Clancy, bravely showing his face to the audience) and his wife befalling a sinister revenge plot hatched by what appears to be a GI Clancy had cold-bloodedly killed. Not an entirely bad concept, but the execution consists mostly of Clancy's wife tied to a tree, festooned with explosives, as a disembodied voice barks exercise commands at Clancy (I've seen SWEATIN' TO THE OLDIES videos more frightening than this) until the double "twist" that's as shocking as it is original. The second tale presents a trio of extremely noisome youths on a camping trip who violate the (wooden) gravestone of a long-dead yokel and suffer the predictable consequences; it's a straightforward one-two punch of mediocrity, capped off with a dunderheaded ending. The wraparound--more like the reach-around in this case--resolves itself in such a done-to-death manner that it'd be a surprise only if you've never watched a movie before.

The acting varies from barely tolerable to "And I cast you in this because . . .?" with a plethora of cut-rate splatter effects. The film's look is the same bargain-basement aesthetic of the average shot-on-video release, though give Sykes credit for not reverting to annoying camera tricks or digital effects and keeping the photography fairly solid. (There is a 3D version of this film that's included on the disc I reviewed; I didn't watch it because I don't own a pair of 3D glasses, nor did I see anything in the "flat" version that would've benefited from the technique.)

You're better off with DEAD OF NIGHT, or maybe ASYLUM (hell, or TALES FROM THE HOOD).


It's funny, but considering the horrors of combat--not to mention the fact that Gettysburg is among the most haunted places in America--it's curious that there aren't more horror films set during the Civil War. (There's plenty of fiction to be found, though, from S.P. Somtow's DARKER ANGELS to Dan Simmons's novella "Iverson's Pits;" there's even a whole anthology of stories called CONFEDERACY OF THE DEAD.) George Hickenlooper's 1993 film GREY KNIGHT tries to rectify that, but his toothless approach wouldn't cut it as a Halloween offering on the Hallmark Channel.

GREY KNIGHT is the director's cut of a film initially released as GHOST BRIGADE (and pretty much sank without a trace soon thereafter); the latter was essentially an attempt to be "less arty," reducing some character development and adding a more horror-film type score. Never having seen BRIGADE, I can't say if the trims were effective, but from what I was able to see in KNIGHT, I doubt they'd have made much difference. The film's got some fairly serious baggage, and the soundtrack is the least of its problems.

With a screenplay by Matt Greenberg (who'd go on to pen HALLOWEEN: H20 and 1408), the film stars Adrian Pasdar as a Union soldier investigating the crucifixion-murders committed by renegade Confederates. Accompanied by a mute slave girl and a prisoner of war (Corbin Bernsen, in a strong, uncharacteristic performance), Pasdar and his troops soon discover that the slain men are part of a voodoo curse, and they're forming an army of the living dead.

This sounds like a can't-miss scenario, but Hickenlooper never mines the visceral potential in either the atrocities of battle, nor the supernatural aspects of the premise; not that I'm begrudging him for taking a subtler route, but the film fails to generate any tension or suspense, not even a sense of danger (on the battlefield or off). There's an attempt at a couple of blue-filtered dream sequences, but these too are unenthused and bring nothing to the film; nor does Hickenlooper's decision to shot many of the actors in shadow, which looks like a filmmaker overreaching for technique instead of create any mystery. The battle scenes are unconvincing, a result of a limited budget no doubt but nonetheless, there are Civil War re-enactments at county fairs with more energy and verve than what's found here.

Making matters worse is a plot that unfolds as a series of grave pronouncements than a genuine story arc; much of what we need to know is never presented in a straight dramatic fashion, but muttered in barely-audible dialogue. It's incredibly difficult to follow exactly what's going on, or the significance of most events. And while we're on the topic of delivery, why does everybody mumble and rasp in this movie? The worst offender by far is Pasdar (best known to readers here for the classic NEAR DARK, or to mainstream audiences for his fifteen-minute heartthrob status on the show PROFIT), who speaks so low and garbled he's practically unintelligible; I was waiting for it to be revealed he'd been shot in the throat or something.

The best part of KNIGHT is its cast (even the ones who mutter), if only for its modest roster of stars to be: Billy Bob Thornton has a brief role as a member of the undead army--Hickenlooper would also direct SOME FOLKS CALL IT A SLING BLADE, the short film that springboarded you-know-what--as does David Arquette. (Look quick for Matt LeBlanc as a dead soldier.) But even the best of them phone their roles in, like Martin Sheen's cameo as a Union general. Even the usually-dependable Ray Wise seems grossly miscast as Pasdar's commanding officer, whose screaming delivery is more like an ineffectual middle-manager than a colonel in the military.

If it hadn't kept its more macabre elements on the sidelines, GREY KNIGHT (or GHOST BRIGADE or THE KILLING BOX or whatever the hell you want to call it) might not've disappeared without a trace. A disappointment as both a horror and a war film, it's recommended only to those enjoy any of the above actors.


One thing I'll never understand is when a filmmaker (or fan) will defend a movie by saying, "But it's supposed to be bad!" Now, I certainly don't get why anyone would want to make an intentionally inferior product--with the myriad entertainment choices vying for people's attention, I'd think you'd want to give yourself every creative edge possible--but what really gets to me is the semblance of avoidance behind this logic. If it's supposed to suck, then you can't say it does because the filmmakers beat you to it! It's one thing for a director to have a self-deprecating sense of humor to blunt the edge of ensuing criticism, but this tactic is really just laziness--why bother creating three-dimensional characters, a coherent and consistent story, or coming up with new ideas when you can just throw whatever you want together and call it shit?

Perhaps it's just an understanding of the limits of no-budget filmmaking; when you've got barely any money, a non-professional cast and crew, and stuck shooting on video rather than film, the deck's stacked against you making a good movie. So why not embrace your limitations and cut loose?

This was no doubt the reasoning behind Pericles Lewnes's 1987 production REDNECK ZOMBIES, one of the more prominent entries in the shot-on-video genre of the late-'80s. He reportedly opted for a cheesy, over-the-top gory approach for this Maryland-based production to offset its amateurish nature. But unlike other let's-suck-on-purpose filmmakers, Lewnes brought a warped sensibility to the proceedings in an attempt to make up for its SOV liabilities--and dammit, he almost pulled it off.

REDNECK ZOMBIES's premise--in which a backwoods clan brews moonshine in a 55-gallon drum of radioactive waste, which turns those that drink it into flesh-eating zombies--is really just an excuse to string together a series of hit-or-miss comic vignettes. Though the film's humor is broad enough to nail to the side of a barn, relying on stock hillbilly stereotypes and a decidedly low-brow slant, it's still good for a drunken chuckle or two; some of the best moments have a strange, almost surreal quality to them, like the Elephant Man-resembling tobacco salesman, or a dumb-but-funny TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE parody. It's even entertaining enough to distract from the cheapjack camera "tricks" Lewnes uses to shake up the stagnant videography (the camera tilts enough to disorient Andy Milligan).

But somewhere around the midpoint the movie runs out of creative steam and slams to a halt, its final thirty minutes a slogging, laborious death march to a finish line that seems to never come. Any laughs have dried up and blown away, leaving you with an uninspired parade of gooey gore effects.

REDNECK ZOMBIES took a lot of grief upon its initial release for its video-based photography (which is at least clean and clear--two decades of crappy backyard flicks makes this look like Conrad Hall was calling the shots) and its poor acting (not completely hideous, with co-writer "Zoofeet" standing out as gender-confused redneck Ellie Mae; and Keith Johnson, who plays an asylum attendant, graduated from this to bit parts in shows like HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET and THE WIRE), but Lewnes deserves credit for making the most of a bare-bones budget. If he'd have maintained some kind of creative momentum REDNECK ZOMBIES might have a greater legacy than "This looks stupid. Let's watch it!"

Thursday, June 12, 2008


Here we are with THE OMEGA MAN, the last of the I AM LEGEND adaptations--official, anyway, I still plan on examining the unauthorized rip-off I AM OMEGA--left to review, and I must say I'm tuckered out by them at this point; it wasn't until settling in to watch direcor Boris Sagal's 1971 take that I realized just how sick I am of Robert Neville. (I also wonder how long it'll be before I read Richard Matheson's novel again.)

THE OMEGA MAN has always had a reputation for being almost an anti-adaptation--so unlike its source material to be of any interest but the most ardent completists; Matheson himself doesn't even consider it his story. (Ironic, then, that the 2007 version starring Will Smith is as much a remake of this specific film as it is Matheson's book--small wonder, given they're both Warner Bros. productions.) But for some reason it's been gaining some type of cult following over the last few years; exactly why, I couldn't say, but I suspect it has to do with Charlton Heston's tenure in the NRA, which ups the camp value as his Neville character fires guns with gleeful impunity. (It can also be seen as a metaphor for the gap between conservatives and the liberals; there's a reason why WOODSTOCK's the only film left to watch.)

Though it's severely dated, THE OMEGA MAN is one of the more entertaining versions, simply because it has the most interaction between Neville and its . . . well, whatever the vampires are supposed to be (unfortunately, for this blog's purposes, it also strays farthest from the seeds that grew the foundation of the modern zombie film), though it loses its momentum fairly quickly. It's more interesting to view it in comparison to the Will Smith vehicle, to see just how many plot and character traits carried over. (I wrote several of them down, like Heston reciting dialogue along with WOODSTOCK--a scene which resonates to much greater effect than the comparative SHREK scene in LEGEND--or Neville's tendency to anthropomorphize inanimate objects, an attempt to cling to his sanity rather than a sign of his losing-grip of it, but why ruin all the fun for you? Besides, Neville fatigue's already set in.)

Ultimately, I found THE OMEGA MAN a disappointing film, both as its own entity and as a Matheson adaptation. (Curiously enough, when Heston passed away earlier this year, it was this film I first remembered him for, rather than his more iconic roles in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS or PLANET OF THE APES.) It might hold some value as a '70s time capsule, but it's not much of a drama or horror film.


The second 2005 sequel to RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD that nobody asked for, RAVE TO THE GRAVE is ostensibly a direct follow-up to NECROPOLIS--it carries over the same production team--director Ellory Elkayem, screenwriters William Butler and Aaron Strongoni, and several members of the cast--and a few plot threads (well, a few barrels of Trioxin, maybe), yet still feels far removed from the previous installment. It's also a pretty crummy movie; this is the kind of crap I was expecting when I sat down to watch NECROPOLIS.

RAVE has many of the same problems as NECROPOLIS, and recent zombie films in general--pitiful stabs at humor (aggressively trying to be funny with a variety of misguided comic ploys from language-barrier malaprops to juvenile sight-gags), obnoxious and unlikable characters (I know that today's generation of young people--i.e. this film's target audience--can be an intolerable crowd, but just because you can relate to a protagonist's assholery, does that somehow make them more sympathetic that way?), and an general air of overfamiliarity. There's also too many inconsistencies from the last picture to this--such as reverting Aimee-Lynn Chadwick's character from action-babe awesomeness to a vapid co-ed who can't figure out why local fratboys are demanding brains--that don't make sense coming from the same filmmakers.

The film's overall storyline also has too many flaws, both in concept and execution. The premise--that the last of the last of the Trioxin finds its way into a Ecstasy-like drug--is rich material for metaphor and symbolism, but here remains just another gimmick to kick-start a zombie outbreak. Topics that could've worked as satire, like the campus vegans who get turned into zombies, are wasted for the easiest, most obvious joke possible. And when we finally get to the "rave" (again, I've never been in the loop on such things, but a huge crowd of people tripping to techno music isn't really a rave, is it?) it's more of the watered-down same, with the cornball humor offsetting any chance of creating some genuine excitement. RAVE manages to sneak in a quick "Tar Man" appearance, though he's so underutilized, except for a couple of stupid in-jokes, that it's damn near insulting.

Forget the corpses, it's this series itself that's in need of reanimation.

(You can watch the digression of the movies in this collection of trailers.)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Yet another student short zombie film, this time for a 2007 production class at NC State. According to director Johnny Demarsico, the assignment was to create a two-to-three-minute "narrative film." Well, I don't think Demarsico quite grasped the concept of narrative, since the term implies the presence of a story--something that THE FLESH definitely does not possess. (And don't even try to argue that length was a factor, lest I beat you upon the head and shoulders with a copy of Michael Arnzen's excellent flash fiction collection 100 JOLTS.) I'm just hoping Demarsico's professor graded him on technical and not creative accomplishment, otherwise somebody's financial aid is getting rescinded.

Demarsico shot THE FLESH in 16mm, so at least the film doesn't look like shit, but unfortunately that's really all it has going for it. Well, that and foxy brunette Angela Guinane as a terrorized jogger, but when a character is so oblivious she doesn't notice a zombie RIGHT BEHIND HER not once but three times in as many minutes, it makes you yearn for a real scream queen like Debbie Rochon (who would've torn some shit up, even in a piddling affair like this).

Yet even in a film as complex and profound as a toothpaste commercial, Demarsico manages to screw up the minimal gore (such as a shallow or non-existent arm wound--depending on the angle--that spews blood like a severed artery) and soundtrack; though filmed without natural sound, sparing us from the presumably miserable dialogue, THE FLESH lifts for its score Goblin's DAWN OF THE DEAD theme (which has not only been co-opted ad nauseum by amateur productions, but in this context it's like using Michaelangelo's "The Creation of Adam" for a paint-by-numbers class) and the Cranberries' "Zombie" (a good song, but laughable in its inappropriateness).

Monday, June 9, 2008


You know what I hate almost as much as needlessly long shot-on-video suckfests? Zombie movies that keep its zombies off-screen until the final minutes of the picture. God, that irritates the hell out of me. Like fellow offender THE WOMAN EATER, 1961's DOCTOR BLOOD'S COFFIN is a British film about a scientist out to revive the dead through unorthodox experiments (although unlike that movie, it doesn't require anything as elaborate as a woman-eating tree) that waits until the goddamn end to unleash its living dead. It's also as dreadfully boring as THE WOMAN EATER, drowning the audience in a sea of never-ending conversations. (At least BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT, which literally saved its zombies for its closing two minutes, made up the difference with a wildly busy plot.)

Directed by Sidney J. Furie (who'd go on to direct the IRON EAGLE films and SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE) and boasting one "Nick Roeg" as camera operator, the film stars Kieron Moore as Dr. Blood--an apt moniker for a mad scientist--who returns to the sleepy English village where he grew up and immediately starts using the local populace as unwitting subjects for his experiments. This could've been a good point to start an interesting horror film from, but the humdrum screenplay never goes much further than that, instead devoting more time to Moore's budding romance with Hazel Court than the reanimation of the dead. Even the brief visits to the lab are tame and suspense-free, with Moore's aborted attempts doing little more than fluttering their eyelids; I realize we're quite a ways from David Gale carrying his head around in a medical bag, but would it have hurt to have Blood's victims maybe try to be scary?

COFFIN also relies far too heavily on tired concepts of the mad-scientist genre (even opening with one, as Blood trots out the same rationale for his unconventional experiments). It also throws in a clunky religious debate for its climax, as Court condemns Moore for what he's done--though Blood, like his fellow lab rats, is an arrogant monomaniac driven to achieve greatness by his ego than a commitment to science. (The film tries to demonize Blood further by having him use the expendable working class so that can save more "worthy" people like artists and philosophers, but it's a transparent ploy that comes too late to accomplish anything.)

You're better off sticking with a third-rate Frankenstein film.


It hadn't occurred to me until now, but I can't believe the number of zombie films released in 2005, nor did I realize just how many recent entries come from that year--including John Poague's shot-on-video travesty THE WICKEDS. (I guess we can pinpoint when this decade's zombie boom began to crash.) And just like so many of its contemporary camcorder brethren, it's a stale exercise in patience-testing that leaves its viewers unrewarded.

At least THE WICKEDS attempts to tweak the zombie formula, even if its deviations are to little effect. A pair of graverobbers (led by Ron Jeremy, who seems uncomfortable in what's essentially a father-figure role) steal a magical amulet from the coffin of an Anton LaVey-looking vampire, an act that causes the local dead to rise. Meanwhile, in a nearby haunted house, a group of sniggering fratboy morons and their girlfriends--in a ballsy expression of irony on the filmmakers' part--explore the set of a cheesy direct-to-video horror flick (that presumably left all of its props behind after the shoot). When the living dead start causing trouble, Jeremy and his protoge take refuge in the same house, turning the film into yet another cash-strapped NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD redux, this time with a minor ghostly twist.

Despite the vampire overlords and spiritual possession, Poague still doesn't have enough material for a feature-length movie; too much screen time is spent on the characters' bickering, where they reiterate the same point back and forth. And even with the added elements the film covers the same bases as the movies that inspired it. ("What would Bruce Campbell do?" one of the actors asks. He'd turn this piece of crap off and watch his SPIDER-MAN 3 cameo one more time, that's what.) As usual, the performances are terrible--even Jeremy, who's usually pretty reliable in C-grade sludge like this, phones it in; hell, he delivered a more spirited turn in SNATCH MASTERS 8.

Late in the game Poague tries to get "deep" by asking who the Wickeds really are--the rampaging zombies, or the greedy humans who started the mess in the first place? It's a weak philosophical argument, both within and without the story, a grasping attempt to add some much-needed weight to a disposable horror flick. Honestly, I can't even remember if it answers its own question, though no one in here can compare to the DVD company that foists this mess for sheer wickedness.

Saturday, June 7, 2008


Ah, Uwe Boll, the filmmaker that we (that is, we who enjoy non-sucky movies) love to hate. I must admit, I've managed to avoid Boll's oeuvre, never succumbing to the morbid curiosity that motivates so much of my viewing habits; perhaps its the constant video-game adaptation, which usually turns me off, or that he's achieved some sort of begrudging mainstream acceptance, but if it wasn't for this blog I still wouldn't have watched his 2003 breakout film HOUSE OF THE DEAD. (I did sign the petition that would cease and desist his directing career, mostly because I'm tired of him being called the modern-day Ed Wood. Wood at least gave a damn about his deliriously inept films; Boll's simply a hack with a knack more for self-promotional hucksterism than filmmaking.)

Detailing what's wrong about this silver-screen version of the Sega arcade game would be like describing a root canal--you've been there, you know how much it sucks. Watching it I was struck by how truly awful it really was, not just in the ways I expected--a pedestrian screenplay that serves as a bridge for shallow action set-pieces, phoned-in performances, and an overall air of apathy that hangs over the whole enterprise--but in ways I couldn't even imagine. Sure, I got an easy chuckle out of the so-called "rave" that the characters absolutely must get to (I'm no hipster by any means, but aren't raves supposed to be, like, at night? In underground clubs? Otherwise it wouldn't exactly be a rave, would it? Do people still go to raves anymore? And doesn't it look more like a sparsely-populated Goth cookout with clumsy Sega product placement than the ultimate party headquarters? Have you had enough rhetorical asides?), but what's the deal with the video-game clips that serve as ham-fisted transitions? Does Boll assume we'll keep forgetting what movie we're watching? Sorry about all these questions, but this is basically a transcript of my thought process as I waded through this offal. But while we're at it, just what kind of compromising photos did an actor like Jurgen Prochnow have to be in to get roped into this junk? Clint Howard I can understand, but the DAS BOOT guy? (Actually, I just scanned Prochnow's recent credits on IMDB, and his appearance here doesn't seem quite so incongruous anymore.) And speaking of actors, I don't expect anything remotely resembling a three-dimensional performance in this dross, but dammit if you're going to compare a character to Foxy Brown, you damn well better make her a bad-ass Pam Grier would approve of. Otherwise, why bother?

HOUSE OF THE DEAD is faithful to the source material, if that's your thing, in that it's nothing more characters shooting a procession of pop-up zombies; so faithful, in fact, that most of the actors stroll through their roles with the same passion as a bored kid plugging in quarters. But unlike RESIDENT EVIL or SILENT HILL which at least tried to emulate the game-playing experience, HOUSE saves any direct connection until the end for a gimmicky twist--hell, the movie's halfway over before they even reach the titular house.

And when the characters finally make their way to the house it's a show-stopping, jaw-dropping piece de resistance that rivals nothing I can recall in recent memory--not even TROLL 2 or SHOWGIRLS--for spectacularly bad cinema, a mind-numbing, repetitive "action" sequence with such an abuse of the 360-degree turn-table technique that it makes Jess Franco's zoom fetish look positively restrained. God, just writing about this transcendentally abysmal set-piece is exhausting me.

Coming soon (that is, when I can muster the courage and/or consume a sufficient amount of alcohol) we'll take a look at the Boll-less--no, no pun, too easy!--HOUSE OF THE DEAD 2, but for now I just want to lie in a dark room and wait for the image of Clint Howard in Gorton's Fisherman drag to clear my head.


Moving on with our look at grossly overextended DIY films, we turn our attention to 2005's SWAMP ZOMBIES, which clocks in at just under two hours. (Rumor has it the original cut ran an unfathomable three hours, but have no fear--it still feels that long.) As with other micro-budgeted efforts, the length comes not from a complex script or a large-scale story, but rather languid performances, unneeded talking-head exposition, and a pace with the same urgency as my grandmother tottering out to the mailbox.

I should probably mention at this point my "personal connection" to this film, which was shot in nearby Erie, PA. Director Len Kabasinski is a local filmmaker who regularly churns out backyard-rotgut like this under his KillerWolf Films banner, and though I'm usually all about supporting homegrown talent, in this case I'd say it's time to give it a rest. (Last year our theater hosted the "premiere" of Kabasinski's latest opus FIST OF THE VAMPIRE--i.e. we let him rent an auditorium so his friends and relatives could see his work on the big screen--and as much as I was unimpressed with the movie itself, I was even less so by Kabasinski; dressed in full cliche mode in black trenchcoat that screamed "Desperate Wannabe" and not "Bad-Ass Underground Auteur," and strutting like the ghost of Akira Kurosawa dwelt in his hindquarters, he showed up forty-five minutes early so that we--or I, the thankless projectionist--could properly calibrate the sound and lighting for his little opus. It felt like trying to determine which china pattern and silk tablecloth best complimented a 99-cent value meal from Taco Bell.) I should probably also mention Kabasinski's a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and no doubt takes himself way too seriously, so perhaps I'll digress.

As for the movie itself, it's really two stories in one as a group of college students on a field trip run afoul of the undead; the zombies, as we'll see in the parallel storyline, are the result of a secret experiment headed by scientist Jasmin St. Clair. (You ever notice how incredulous a movie feels when glamorous-but-vapid types play high-powered attorneys and corporate CEO's? Well, it's not nearly as bad as a research scientist played by an "actress" best known for boning 300+ guys at once.) However, neither plot thread is worth much, since in addition to being uncommonly dull--I've suffered through some pretty interminable dreck during this project, but SWAMP ZOMBIES is the first one to actually slow the progress of time--it features the same hallmarks of DIY cinema: shitty sound quality, terrible acting, an implausible script with as much depth and drama as a PBS gardening show, and of course the obligatory generic death metal soundtrack which drowns out the remaining discernable audio.

SWAMP ZOMBIES's specific blunders include non-existent continuity (like, the zombie experiments are conducted only on cadavers with closed-casket funerals--i.e. no recognizable and therefore incriminating features--yet all of the marauding undead have little to no facial damage), a relentlessly meandering screenplay that takes the time to give secondary characters their own flashbacks, and a bevy of punishingly odious original songs (courtesy of one Victoria Galinsky--I'm sure she's got a website or a MySpace page, but I haven't checked for fear of finding it). Even St. Clair's egregiously gratuitous shower scene runs too long and lacks any sense of rhythm.

As far as performances go, they range from laughable to "Are you fuckin' kidding me?" Standouts are minimal, save for the sexy Goth chick whose name I forgot--and I'm not even sure how much was skill and how much was my weakness for sexy Goth chicks--and my good buddy Chad Cozzens as the asshole Rick. (I really wish I could say Chad was as remarkable here as he was in later work, but his inexperience shows far too often--not that he had a real director to guide him away from his awkward stiltedness; though I can safely attest that after appearing in two plays with him, Chad's strength as an actor is growing considerably, and it's amazing to see one hone their talent before your very eyes. Judging from his role here you'd never suspect he'd be pulling off Stanley Kowalski three years later.)

Since co-stars Todd Humes and Monica Piccirillo also hold black belts in Tae Kwon Do, there's plenty of martial arts action, with many of the actors performing their own stunts. (Fans may get a kick out of UFC champ Dan "The Beast" Severn making a brief turn as an ill-fated hardass cop, or wrestling's the Brian "the Blue Meanie" Heffron as a swamp hermit.) Unfortunately, the extensive fight scenes are no better than anything else in the film, running along without any tempo or immediacy, with choreography so bad it'd make Rudy Ray Moore blush.

If I haven't already made it clear, SWAMP ZOMBIES is an unwatchable mess to be avoided, even if you're one of those cine-masochists who feel compelled to watch every turd Brain Damaged Films puts out on DVD. Though it does provide a few guffaws at its own expense, it's way too much of an investment of time and energy to make it worthwhile.

Friday, June 6, 2008


I try to go in blind as much as possible when I watch a movie. Doing this project sometimes requires I read up on a particular film, especially if I'm not sure if it's really a zombie flick, but even then I like to know as little as I can beforehand. Which means that often--more often than I'd like--I find myself with a film that may or may not be a comedy. I hate when this happens, usually because the humor is so faint I can't tell whether or not it's intentional or just a director mishandling his material. Such is the case with Marc Fratto's 2007 feature ZA: ZOMBIES ANONYMOUS, a film so schizophrenic even the filmmakers don't know what it's supposed to be (even IMDB lists it as LAST RITES OF THE DEAD).

There certainly isn't anything humorous about the opening, a harrowing scene of domestic violence that culminates with the murder of a young woman (Gina Ramsden). Despite taking a bullet to the head, Ramsden returns as a zombie (though I don't see how, since her brain was already destroyed) and tries to start a new life among the "mortally challenged," aided by the undead members of Zombies Anonymous.

The problem with ZA is that it can't decide if it's a half-assed horror-comedy, a half-assed girl-power revenge film, or a half-assed metaphor for prejudice. The movie's tone switches literally from scene to scene, and never finds one that works; and though the concept of a support group for the living dead might be somewhat amusing, Fratto never advances his premise beyond the what-if, preferring to mine the comedy of characters puking into wastebaskets. I didn't much care for the faux news footage that sets up the story's backdrop (yes, it's an efficient way to establish a backstory, but I've seen it so many times I'm starting to get sick of it), but what really irritated me was the zombies themselves, conscious beings with the ability to think and reason. (They might be the living dead, Marc, but they ain't zombies.) Of course, if any of the zombies had a modicum of personality I might feel differently, but that's moot now, isn't it?

But by far the worst thing about this movie is its vengeance subplot, as Ramsden gets even with the boyfriend who killed her (Joshua Nelson). Their climactic showdown is such a low-key display of brutality--especially when Nelson pummels her repeatedly--that it can't help but feel ugly and grim, far too realistic a depiction of violence against women to be entertaining and made even worse considering the feeble humor preceding it. (I realize domestic abuse is a vile thing, but if I want to see an accurate dramatization of battered women I'll watch THE BURNING BED.)

One of the most unpleasant viewing experiences I've ever had, ZA: ZOMBIES ANONYMOUS almost had me wishing me for the talent-free preening of WISEGUYS VS. ZOMBIES director Adam Maranovich.

Thursday, June 5, 2008


2005 brought us a pair of back-to-back sequels in the RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD series (the longevity of these films has always intrigued me; being an offshoot/parody/homage of Romero's original trilogy, it amazes me that they've got such legs), but considering the decade-long hiatus following III and their straight-to-DVD premiere, fans didn't appear to be very enthused. It seemed a given that the fourth and fifth installments would make the execrable PART II look like the comedic/horrific stylings of the original (I was even set to call this one NE-CRAP-OLIS).

And while it'll never be mistaken for Dan O'Bannon's classic, NECROPOLIS isn't a totally detestable film. In its favor is a screenplay co-written by fan favorite William Butler (who appeared in such films as 1990's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and LEATHERFACE: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III), as well as having EIGHT-LEGGED FREAKS director Ellory Elkayem behind the camera. (Granted, FREAKS was no great shakes, but at least Elkayem could provide slick, competent escapism.) And quite a few of the movie's setbacks--not all of them, God knows, but a fair amount--can be blamed on the tight budget it's saddled with.

At least NECROPOLIS tries to establish some sense of continuity, however tenuous, to the previous films. Peter Coyote (a long, long way removed from E.T.) purchases in a black-market deal the last remaining barrels of Trioxin in the Chernobyl wasteland (a novel setting, one I'm surprised hasn't been utilized more in horror films), so that he can incorporate it into top-secret experiments (in a laboratory that is totally in the US and not Romania).

Can I interject something here? After two hundred-plus movies I've finally noticed something that doesn't sit right with me: if Trioxin is a gas that reanimates dead bodies, how is it possible for those bitten to become zombies as well? It's not as if Trioxin's a contagious virus that can be passed through physical contact, so what gives? True, using this logic also shoots down the premise of Romero's original film--but has anyone ever tried to explain how this works? Or is it such an accepted part of zombie lore that nobody stops and thinks about it?

Anyway, the thrust of NECROPOLIS's storyline is Coyote's orphaned nephews, who infiltrate the Hybra Tech lab where the experiments are conducted in search of a friend who may or may not have been killed in a motorcycle crash. Where the movie starts to go wrong isn't just the bland, interchangeable cast (the Goonies had more depth and verve than these guys) but the plot's way too flat and routine to really make an impression. And while I can suspend a little disbelief so the gang can make their way through the laboratory (though not as much as it asks me to), there's never any real sense of danger or a genuine threat; Coyote just ain't hacking it, in a mad-scientist caricature as broad as it is weak. What's the matter, Pete, haven't you ever seen John Carradine? Nor does NECROPOLIS feature any stand-out set-pieces a la the Tar Man. (We do get an easy and uninspired "Send more security guards," gag--puh-leeze.)

It does get a little more interesting once the living dead are unleashed, but their lackluster execution (where the budgetary deficiencies are most apparent) prevents the movie from gaining steam. Still, I found myself succumbing to the filmmakers' infectious enthusiasm, even giving up a couple of cheap laughs that it really hadn't earned. (Bonus points should be credited for killing off the prepubescent character, a cold-blooded tactic I hadn't expected.) NECROPOLIS also drops in a last-minute plot twist involving Uber-soldiers, a sort of undead Terminator that ultimately end up being ridiculous; some superpowered soldier, since they last all of two minutes against a group of high-school students--and since when could you kill a zombie with electricity? Aren't they already dead? Oh well, at least it gives an excuse to turn my favorite character Becky (played by Aimee-Lynn Chadwick) from semi-nerdy cutie into full-blown action babe.

Although most of the filmmakers and cast return for the next movie (to be reviewed here soon), there really isn't much of a set-up for a follow-up installment. There is, however, a kinda-cheesy, kinda-cool RAISING ARIZONA-inspired climax, but it drops the ball a little by killing off the Katie character with no discernable purpose, without any genuine impact (perhaps actress Jana Kramer refused to extend her contract). In the end I'm giving this one my own personal thumbs-down, even as I await what #5 has in store. At least the outtakes at the end suggest this movie was a lot of fun to make.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


We zombie fans can usually agree on the merits, or lack thereof, of most films. (I think we can safely say that DAWN OF THE DEAD--good; LAND OF THE DEAD, not so good.) Of course, opinions vary, and that's the beauty of an experiment like this, but I can't think of a film that garnered as many contradictory statements as the 2005 Australian import UNDEAD; from what I'd heard the film was either a supremely imaginative take on the zombie genre or an over-hyped mess that's not as good as its reputation suggests. (The fact that I waited until now to finally see it should tell you which camp was more persuasive.) As it turns out, it's both.

The film--directed by brothers Peter and Michael Spierig, who also wrote, produced, and edited--does display a tremendous amount of creativity, in which the living dead is a by-product of the alien invasion in a quiet Australian fishing village (or is it?). The story's final reveal, which I won't ruin here, is a shining example of a twist that actually works (are you taking notes, M. Night Shyamalan?), closing in a somber note that draws inspiration from previous undead films, but refreshingly deviates enough to be its own animal. Also, the film's extensive digital trickery (supervised by the Spierig Brothers as well) is non-obtrusive and quite impressive, especially taking into account the obviously limited budget.

Unfortunately, UNDEAD's narrative and visual panache are almost smothered beneath its many missteps. The '50s sci-fi vibe that it wants to emulate never quite meshes with the Sam Raimi/Peter Jackson approach of the directors (nor are the few inspired moments of gore sufficient to capture their energy). But the movie's biggest problem is its cast, which--aside from the brief fleshing-out of a couple of principals--is one-dimensional and annoying. They're prone to bickering and yelling a lot, which makes many of the dialogue exchanges well nigh impossible to sit through; when the characters seek refuge in an underground bomb shelter, I wanted to stay above with the zombies (and would have, if I were sharing their predicament). Even the Aussie equivalent of Ash is lacking, probably because of his cliched dialogue and his resemblance to Torgo from MANOS, THE HANDS OF FATE.

Not quite as quirky as it strives to be, UNDEAD is more concerned with throwing out ideas than exploring them (though at least they're good ideas). Though it exercises some sorely-needed imagination, its often grating execution weakens the sharper elements of this production.

Sunday, June 1, 2008


Actually, the hills are alive--with the sound of bad filmmaking.

For a brief moment--we're talking maybe thirty seconds--I thought this 2006 short written, produced, and directed by brothers Dylan and Joseph Conner would be an effective example of backyard cinema. The film begins with a slow, eerie montage of bucolic farm country that brings to mind the opening credits of TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE, capped off with a hand reaching from beneath the ground. I had pretty high hopes that THE HILLS ARE DEAD was going to sustain this level of cost-efficient dread throughout its running time; hell, it even tries to approximate the music from BLOOD FEAST! However, once the story starts to roll it all goes to hell real quick.

I think this might be a comedy. This tale of a redneck teaming up with a pretentious scientist to exterminate the living dead elicits too many belly laughs to be anything but. (How else do you account for dialogue like "On the count of three: three, two, one!"?) I won't spoil them for you, since the film's included below, but the wretched acting and limp storytelling will keep you entertained in a manner far from the one the Conner Brothers intended (and by the way, fellas, better brush up on your movie-making abilities before passing yourselves off as some creative force a la the Coen Brothers). From wrestling the undead to characters who don't notice a prowling zombie in Captain Spaulding makeup until it's right on top of them, THE HILLS ARE DEAD is a laff riot.

Unless you enjoy redirecting liquids through your sinus cavity, I suggest not drinking anything during this short.


Anyone familiar with the career of Wes Craven--fans and detractors alike--will be able to tell you his resume is littered with more highs and lows than the national economy; it's hard to believe that the same creative force behind such groundbreaking classics as A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and SCREAM trotted out mortgage-paying dross like DEADLY FRIEND and SHOCKER. Like many of his fellow titans of terror, Craven ventured into television during the '80s for a quick payday, though even someone with as spotty a work history as Craven should've been able to avoid churning out a frosted dog turd like the 1985 TV-movie CHILLER.

Before I launch into a wholly negative review, let me just add something in fairness to the movie. I purchased the copy being reviewed here for a dollar in one of those free-for-all bargain bins at Wal-Mart, and I don't know how much of the technical ineptitude is poor filmmaking and how much is just a shitty transfer; the picture's frequently blurry, the sound so muddled it's inaudible most of the time. Though supposedly filmed for television, the picture also looks as cramped as a reformatted theatrical movie. So the primary act of simply staring at the television with this thing on is a chore. Nothing within the film itself makes it easier.

Unable to accept the untimely death of her son Miles (Michael Beck), wealthy Beatrice Straight has him cryogenically frozen in the hopes he can one day be resuscitated, much to the chagrin of minister and family friend Paul Sorvino (totally phoning it in here). When a malfunction in his cryogenic chamber suddenly revives him--a rather pertinent plot point that's soon swept under the rug--Straight and her doctors are quick to call it a miracle, unaware that Miles has returned a soulless, unfeeling being. Can Sorvino convince Straight to look past her maternal affections to see the monster her son has become? Will you be able to stay awake long enough to find out?

Photographed, directed, and acted like a soap opera, CHILLER uses the then cutting-edge concept of cryogenics as a gimmick to hang weak domestic theatrics upon. The playing-God angle intimated in the beginning is swiftly dropped in favor of obvious metaphor and possible satire (if that's what this is, it's poorly handled) of the mid-'80s corporate mentality. Running the family company despite being dead for ten years, Miles is a cold, mercenary businessman, focused only on profit margins. Not only does he discontinue charitable contributions that eat into the bottom line, he forces out established (read: old) employees by killing them in dramatically undramatic means (like making them walk up numerous flights of stairs until cardiac arrest) and sexually harasses a female executive (who--in a detail that would send the blood of women and men alike boiling today--freely acquiesces to his advances for the raise and the corner office). He also has an unhealthy interest in underage Stacey (THE STEPFATHER's Jill Schoelen), who I believe is his sister (!).

In the only bright spot of the movie, Beck capably portrays the ruthless, upwardly-mobile yuppie cut-throat, his performance so smug and cold it's almost uncomfortable to watch. The rest of CHILLER, however, remains tame to the point of absurdity, its effectiveness as a thriller blunted by its toothless approach and its emotional core underdeveloped. (There might've been a sense of tragedy if we'd known Miles before his death, though I think the point is that Straight needs to know when to let go.) Slow and drawn-out, as if to prolong suspense that doesn't exist--it's bad enough to make Craven's other made-for-TV howler INVITATION TO HELL look like THE HILLS HAVE EYES.

(Couldn't find a trailer or TV spot, though some helpful wag managed to compile all of Schoelen's scenes for your enjoyment--which is just as creepy as Beck's fascination in this movie.)