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.

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