A pleasant surprise, this one, thanks in part to different expectations. Director Elza Kephart's 2003 film sounds a lot like several of the raunchy zombie sex-comedies that've popped up on this blog: a frumpy nurse becomes bitten by a zombie and turns into a sultry sexpot as well as the living dead, enabling her to fulfill the fantasies she was too afraid to pursue in life. But this quirky Canadian production is much more than that; influenced by such disparate sources as vintage science fiction, arthouse films, and silent cinema, GRAVEYARD ALIVE is a refreshingly subversive indie, even with its flaws.
Broken into nine chapters, complete with their own headings (usually the herald of an unbearably pretentious filmmaker--but not the case here), ALIVE chronicles the romantic misadventures of dowdy Nurse Patsy (Anne Day-Jones), who pines for the dreamy Dr. Dox (Karl Gerhardt); but, alas, the handsome doctor is already engaged to Head-Nurse-to-be Goodie (as in Two-Shoes, played by Samantha Slan). Kephart seems to realize her silly, pun-based humor doesn't exactly work early on, so she abandons it for a more-or-less straight-faced parody of old soap operas. At least until a bite from an infected patient turns her into a flesh-hungry sex kitten out to take what she wants.
The film plays well, demonstrating that the soaps of yore weren't all that different from sci-fi pics of the same era; the performances capture the wooden earnestness, and the story has the same steady build-up of a creaky monster programmer. The zombie angle is introduced fairly early, with a Van Helsing stand-in who establishes the rules with a unique twist: "The only known method of eliminating a zombie is to drive a knife of 100% sterling silver through the third eye of the centre [sic] of the skull." Different, sure, but also remarkably similar to vampire lore, no? At times like this, or when Day-Jones must prey on the living to keep from decomposing, that Kephart feels like she can't decide what kind of monster she wants, though her indecisiveness never detracts from the plot.
GRAVEYARD ALIVE excels aesthetically at the expense of its narrative, but is the trade-off ever worth it. The concept of zombie-transformation-as-empowerment is nothing new, but Kephart's approach certainly is, eschewing the typical fuck-and-eat scenario for a much more subtle and nuanced route. Sure, there is a sampling of gore (which meshes unexpectedly well in the film's retro look), but Kephart throws in some eerie dream sequences and an increasingly surreal atmosphere that recalls CARNIVAL OF SOULS and the early work of David Lynch. The movie moves much slower than its 81-minute running time suggests (and there are times when the story practically crawls on its belly), but the engaging look and involving plot carries it along.
It's not a perfect film, but still one I recommend searching out. Kephart deserves credit for doing something different with the zombie genre, as well as a lot more attention (I imagine I'm not the only one who overlooked this film). For additional fun, invite some film theorists over and really mess with them.