Monday, September 29, 2008

DAY 318--ROUTE 666

I was kind of surprised by this 2001 offering from director William Wesley, expecting it to be the same brain-frying, derivative idiocy that usually lurks on video store shelves. Don't get me wrong, we're not talking THE SEVEN SAMURAI here, but ROUTE 666 is the kind of horror film that's becoming increasingly rare: admittedly lightweight, allowing you more time to contemplate another bowl of popcorn than its plot, but provides enough twists to keep it consistently entertaining.

Wesley, who also directed the little-seen 1988 shocker SCARECROWS, spins a tight, action-oriented horror yarn: Lou Diamond Phillips and Lori Petty play a pair of U.S. Marshals sent escort a mob informant on the run (THE X FILES's Steven Williams) back to California for his testimony; when gun-toting thugs show up to take Williams out of the picture, the three leads--along with a second carload of victims, er, Marshals led by PET SEMATARY's Dale Midkiff--take off down a deserted stretch of desert road in order to elude them. Of course, if you've been paying attention to the title, you know that bad things lie in wait for them, literally in the road.

ROUTE 666 wastes little time getting the action started, and pauses only to flesh out his characters a bit or build upon its backstory, though a great deal of the action feels like a poor man's John Woo and doesn't work as well as it should. But when it gets all cylinders firing it plays very much in the '80s buddy-action mold (imagine if Romero had directed 48 HRS.), with nice sense of momentum and plenty of back-and-forth banter between the cast. It's pulpy, to be sure, but it still delivers the goods.

Nobody here offers an Oscar-caliber performance, though Phillips and Petty (who've fallen a bit from more high-profiled fare) refuse to phone it in. In fact, it's the fairly well-rounded characterization that makes it better than average; yes, Phillips's past fits into the storyline a little too conveniently and sets up a sappier-than-needed ending, but it's sure beats listening to them talk about their favorite G.I. Joe characters.

Wesley tosses in a couple of novel conceits, such as restricting his undead to asphalt surfaces, and even finds twists in the newer material. Not exactly a gorefest, but enough red stuff gets spilled to satisfy the grue brigade. ROUTE 666 was a good time, and a pleasant diversion from my recent shot-on-video stagnation.

Saturday, September 20, 2008


Anyone trolling video shelves or surfing late-night cable in the early '90s no doubt stumbled across this memorably-titled Troma pick-up. Promoted at the time as featuring a glorified cameo by MTV VJ Martha Quinn, 1991's CHOPPER CHICKS IN ZOMBIETOWN has since become better known as one of Billy Bob Thornton's rent-paying gigs before his SLING BLADE breakout.

Like a lot of straight-to-tape horror flicks from that era, CHOPPER CHICKS is fairly enjoyable with the right frame of mind (or blood-alcohol level), but does little to satisfy beyond the slight requirements of a party tape. Director Dan Hoskins seems to be striving for more than just an undead quickie, but his handling of both the comedic and horrific elements sabotages his ambitions. The humor is ham-fisted and clumsy, and his makes the deadly mistake of playing the zombies for laughs (always a bad sign, and their accompanying music is so irritatingly moronic it makes their minimal presence almost unwatchable). Hoskins also has some serious pacing issues, letting his story get bogged down in domestic melodrama when it should be doling out zombies.

Aside from a couple of hammy performances by character actors Don Calfa and Earl Boen, the acting isn't too terrible, given the material, and a surprising number of the actors on hand have gone on to respectable, if not high-profile, careers. Quinn's slide into pop culture obscurity has rendered her blip of an appearance even more miniscule (honestly, I had trouble picking her out after all these years), but it's Thornton that most people will be curious to see. Shortly before getting trapped in his rednecks-n-retards pigeonhole, he comes off in CHOPPER CHICKS a little like Kevin Costner in his prime, albeit more low-key and kinda dorky.

Though technically competent, it's still inarguably a stupid and juvenile picture and should be approached with caution. I can't say if the younger generation of horror fans would even get a derisive laugh out of it (it seems somehow best appreciated, if that's the word, strictly by us Gen-Xers), but it'll do to pass a slow liquor-fueled night.


Can it be true? A fan-oriented, student-made zombie comedy that doesn't have me reaching for the nearest bottle of cyanide capsules? Yes, I'm happy to say one exists, and it's called I RAN FROM A ZOMBIE, a 2008 short from writer/director Matthew Hatchard.

While it's not terribly original, borrowing heavily from the established cannon of undead classics--especially SHAUN OF THE DEAD--it sets itself apart by being genuinely funny. You won't be in any danger of gut-busting or side-splitting, but this what-if scenario in which a trio of pub-dwelling blokes discuss what they'd do in a zombie outbreak will get a few honest-to-Romero chuckles out of you. It's one of the few non-professional shorts I've encountered that successfully understands the use of repetition in humor, the actors are likable and charming, and many of the jokes are still funny even when the punchlines are telegraphed. Even its ending, which is nothing new, serves to sharpen the short's edge and close on a resounding note.

Undoubtedly the product of a fan's appreciation, I RAN FROM A ZOMBIE echoes its inspirations without coming off as geeky. There's even the novelty of the use of a historic fort that rises it above most home-bound productions.

A pleasant surprise, and I can't wait to see what Hatchard and company come up with next.


Better known stateside under the less poetic title CEMETERY MAN, Michele Soavi's 1994 release DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE not only stands as one of the best horror films of the 1990's (zombie or otherwise), but marks the end of the classic Italian zombie-film era. It's a fitting end note, a meditation of life and death, of unrequited love--the title itself translates to OF DEATH, OF LOVE--that works as both an entertaining zombie film and an expression of artistic beauty.

Rupert Everett, a few years before becoming known as Madonna's trophy gay buddy, stars as Francesco Dellamorte, a most unusual type of cemetery caretaker. Accompanied by his grunting, Curly Howard-lookalike sidekick Gnaghi, Dellamorte's duties include dispatching Returners, the flesh-hungry zombies that arise seven days after burial. Yet despite the frequent appearances of the living dead, Dellamorte's job is still a grind, a routine so all-consuming that, much like Dante and Randall in CLERKS, he finds his life passing him by. But things change when he meets a beautiful young widow (the stunning Anna Falchi).

Soavi mentored under Dario Argento, and as an actor worked with Lucio Fulci; their influence is unmistakable in DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE, as are those of Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock (there are glaring homages to CITIZEN KANE and VERTIGO, and the ending recalls the reality-bending denouement of THE BEYOND). Although it works well enough as a zombie movie, with plentiful helpings of gore and a healthy sense of gallows humor, Soavi's stylistic and thematic underpinnings elevate the film beyond a Peter Jackson-esque splat-stick.

Many of you have noticed I'm relatively quiet when it comes to good or classic films, and usually it's because those movies (say, THE EVIL DEAD or DAWN OF THE DEAD) are so well-known that a detailed analysis would most likely be redundant. I'm also hesitant to extol a movie to much, lest the movie get lost under a sea of hyperbole, and I'd rather just tell you, See this movie, it's really good and you'll like it. That probably makes me a poor film reviewer, but so be it.

I'm taking the same approach to DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE. Take a look if you haven't, and be sure to pay careful attention to that just below the surface. It's a beautiful, rewarding experience you won't regret.

Monday, September 15, 2008


The near two-hour running time for GHOST LAKE, director Jay Woelfel's 2004 shot-on-video feature, told me the movie was going to be rough going even before I watched a single frame. As I've learned from previous films--and what a painful lesson it was--DIY filmmakers rarely have the breadth or scope requiring an excessive length. Usually it means they lack an understanding of pacing or script economy; GHOST LAKE is no exception.

The movie, a potentially interesting marriage of the living dead and traditional ghost stories, reveals its amateurishness by saddling its very first scene with an inordinate number of flashbacks. It's an egregious misstep that kills any confidence one has in Woelfel's storytelling abilities; if a director doesn't understand the dangers of an exposition dump at a time when he should be hooking the audience, how will he handle the further development of his plot? As GHOST LAKE progresses, it justifies that fear.

That's not to say Woelfel's made a complete bomb; he makes effective use of a bucolic rustic setting, his film's solid on a technical level (though I could've done without the pointless use of split-screen), and he's got the makings of a good ghost yarn. But the mistakes he makes sabotages GHOST LAKE into becoming a cobbling of could've-beens. His choice of heroine is glaringly inappropriate, and not simply because she's a rather weak actress (all the performances are a bit undercooked across the board); she's supposedly haunted by a selfish error of judgment--she could've prevented her parents' death if she hadn't been hooking up in the backseat of a car--which makes her obligatory romantic subplot icky and more than a little cold. And though he mostly handles the spectral aspects of his story well, maintaining a suitably Gothic atmosphere, Woelfel blows it whenever he has the dead rising from the titular body of water to claim their victims, sequences that resemble a ZOMBIE LAKE remake.

It's this kind of creative inconsistency that makes micro-budget cinema so frustrating. Woelfel almost delivers a striking climax with an undead uprising, but fumbles by giving his zombies distorted electronic voices and tacking on a syrupy ending.

Fans of quiet supernatural horror may take to this more than zombie fans, given its less than visceral approach, but even they might be turned off by GHOST LAKE's late emphasis of walking corpses over spirits. Though displaying a few flashes of competence, it suffers too much under the weight of its considerable flaws.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


Boris Karloff starred in a number of mad scientist programmers concerning the resurrection of the dead, and the 1939 example THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG is no better or worse than any of them. It is what it is, a studio B picture that straddles the mystery and horror genres, buoyed by the lead performance of a name actor.

Karloff stars as a doctor working on an experimental mechanical heart, which he believes will help prolong life. With an unusually game lab assistant, who volunteers to be put to death in order to test the heart, Karloff finds himself facing a murder rap when his nurse interrupts the procedure and causes the assistant to die before the heart can be fitted. (I don't know what medical protocol was like during the '30s, but Karloff could've saved himself a world of trouble if he'd gotten his lackey's consent in writing.)

Dismissed as a murderer and not the visionary groundbreaker that he sees himself, Karloff is sent to the gallows by a typically closed-minded jury. But thanks to the help of a colleague, who uses the prototype heart to bring him from the dead, Karloff will be able to settle the score.

The biggest problem with HANG is that it's all build-up with little pay-off; Karloff doesn't even see the noose until past the mid-point, and even then it's conveyed as a series of news headlines. Once Karloff begins his revenge we're told six jurors have been found hanged, but all of this potentially interesting material is transmitted secondhand. (It doesn't help that director Nick Grinde presents the film as visually unremarkable as possible, keeping the production half a notch above the average Poverty Row potboiler.)

What the film chooses to dramatize is the remaining members of Karloff's trial being called to his mansion for the culmination of his revenge. It's supposed to feel like an Agatha Christie mystery, but the action is too awkwardly staged and more than a little silly, not to mention incredulous. Karloff's vengeance lacks bite, and the drawing-room antics are over before they gather any momentum (topped with a schmaltzy ending that probably had 'em groaning back in '39).

Though I'm glad vintage horror films are getting a new audience on DVD, it's a shame that lesser movies like this one are getting released over more accomplished fare like THE WALKING DEAD (a much better living dead/mad scientist movie from 1936 also featuring Karloff). Too tame to entertain horror fans, and too straightforward for mystery audiences, it occupies a strange middle ground that will please only Karloff aficionados or undiscriminating fans of classic cinema.


When George Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD became an international success it quickly became one of the most imitated films of its time, copied by filmmakers the world over (in fact, most of the fun of watching something like, say, HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD is seeing how shamelessly it "borrows" from DAWN). Now, as the new millennium brings us a new DAWN OF THE DEAD it also brings us a new barrage of DAWN rip-offs; and if director Stephen C. Miller's 2008 offering AUTOMATON TRANSFUSION is any indication, the movies replicating Zack Snyder's film won't be quite as entertaining.

Shot on digital video, TRANSFUSION plays like a student film that inexplicably got picked up by Dimension's Extreme label. Derivative and hollow, it's primary concern is superficial gore and nominal thrills--a dumbed-down, splattery redux of Snyder's DAWN, moving the action from the mall to a college keg party--and even with such lowly goals it fails. Miller sticks with the fast zombies and rapid-fire editing, though in keeping with Snyder's style his end result is washed-out and cheap-looking, belying its amateur origins.

And while the film's visuals are lacking, they've got nothing on TRANSFUSION's screenplay, which trots out cliches from both zombie and teen films without a care for their staleness. Populated with stock characters you either want to see die or could care less if they do, it's a falsely kinetic slog through 75 minutes' worth of commonplace tropes, capped with a climax that consists of tired, trite exposition (and a return to the ol' undead super-soldier concept--you guys will never learn, will you?).

Oh, and if AUTOMATON TRANSFUSION wasn't punishing enough, it ends on a bullshit cliffhanger complete with a "To be continued . . ." title card. Yeah, I'll be waiting with bated breath for that one.


Something I'll never understand about certain filmmakers--be it a high-profiled director like Rob Zombie, or any of the myriad do-it-yourselfers toiling in the straight-to-DVD market--is their tendency to completely emulate their favorite movies. I'm not even talking about the Tarantino-esque method of mashing disparate elements into a singular whole, but walking an audience from Point A to Point B through films that already exist.

I loved DAWN OF THE DEAD. When I want to share my enthusiasm for it I invite some friends over, order a pizza, and watch the movie. But apparently for micro-budget filmmakers (and to be fair, a lot of higher-scale "professional" producers are guilty of this, too) when they want to espouse a particular film they must recreate it with amateur casts and crews, overlooking the inspired creative spark that drove their beloved picture in the first place.

Director David J. Francis loves zombie films. It's obvious from the very first frame that he's just as fond of Romeroesque end-of-the-world scenarios as the rest of us. But while his 2003 shot-on-video feature ZOMBIE NIGHT conveys that affection, it is absolutely no different than any dozen zombie movies made in the last twenty years.

Folks, there isn't a single solitary thing in this movie that is fresh or original. Even if you've never heard of it, you've seen it: survivors of an abrupt zombie epidemic hole up and alternately bicker with each other and fend off the approaching undead; there's even a Ken Foree stand-in. And though I've said the same thing about other movies before, with ZOMBIE NIGHT it's especially troubling because Franics shows a glimmer--not a lot, but it's there--of talent.

ZOMBIE NIGHT is competently filmed and edited, with a non-professional cast that turns in tolerable performances and decent, if unexceptional, gore. Yet it hews so closely to the apocalyptic-zombie formula that any enjoyment is nil. Francis tends to write fairly generic dialogue, the kind of time-killing banter these DIY productions thrive on, but he seems like an a respectable enough screenwriter. I'm sure with the right encouragement, and the proper ambition, he could've turned out something that wasn't the 1473rd variation of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

Francis made a follow-up in 2006 called AWAKENING, which I'll probably pass on. Nothing in ZOMBIE NIGHT cried out for further exploration, nor do I have any faith it will break new ground. As love-letters to the genre go, I've seen far, far worse, but it's nonetheless too undistinguished and derivative to be worth your time.

Sunday, September 7, 2008


If you've ever found yourself watching bondage porn and thought, This would be better if there were zombies being killed , then the 2008 film JOHNNY SUNSHINE might be just the thing for you. On the other hand, if coherent storytelling is more your speed you'll probably be better off checking elsewhere.

In a "bizzare" future rampant with "necropheliacs" (apparently bad spelling is an aftereffect of the zombie apocalypse) porn star Johnny Sunshine supplements her income as a zombie-killer for hire. And while her violent part-time activities heightens her hardcore profile, to the pleasure of producer Max Maximum, she soon finds herself as part of conspiracy hellbent on starring her in the snuff film to end all snuff films.

The most surprising thing about JOHNNY SUNSHINE is, despite being released by Brain Dead Entertainment, isn't an astonishingly bad pile of goat droppings. Unlike most of the tripe that gets foisted onto the public under this label, it actually has a fair amount of low-fi style. Director Matt Yeager gives SUNSHINE a distinct look, almost like a graphic novel come to life, proving that a paltry budget can still allow a little flair.

But the trade-off (and I've come to find there's always a trade-off when it comes to stylish micro-budgeted films) is SUNSHINE's inert plot. The story never feels as if it's progressing, hampered by an incessant and unnecessary voice-over that directly states what should be conveyed naturally through dialogue. Fetish fans may appreciate the leather-bound trappings, but most viewers will be left bored, wondering why an interesting concept like the zombie porn industry is left unexplored.

Performances are what you'd expect, though actress Shey Bland lives up to her name as the titular character. While I always appreciate a take-charge heroine, Johnny Sunshine's tough exterior is simply eye candy, a substanceless veneer that exists solely for male enjoyment.

As much as I didn't care for JOHNNY SUNSHINE, I really hope this marks a change in Brain Dead's acquisition habits (we've seen more than enough run-from-the-zombies backyard flicks to last a lifetime). It's not a good film, but at least it's a step in the right direction.

Friday, September 5, 2008


Director Thom Eberhart's NIGHT OF THE COMET had somehow eluded me in the years following its 1984 release, despite earning a decent cult reputation due to heavy rotation on late night cable. Having finally caught up with it I can't say I'd been missing much.

COMET is certainly quirky enough to garner an underground following, juggling elements of science fiction, comedy, and horror and drawing inspiration from everything from post-nuke films to George Romero. Even it's premise, in which a passing comet reduces the world's population to piles of red dust, rampaging zombie mutants, and a handful of survivors, sounds like a can't-miss. But it's what it does with these elements--or rather, what it fails to do--that kept me from getting sucked into its story.

Perhaps it was because of budgetary restraints, but Eberhart doesn't do much with his end-of-the-world scenario. The zombie-like creatures, easily the most interesting aspect of the plot, are kept largely off-screen, used mostly for cheap shock effect when utilized at all. There's some humdrum involving a vaguely scientific group that includes Mary Woronov and Geoffrey Lewis that eats up an inordinate portion of the running time; it's bad enough the movie slams to a halt each time this subplot recurs, but the heart of the film's plot lies in this interminable material. And though the film tries to attempt some sort of commentary (and has plenty of material to work with, given the vapid SoCal leads), the best it can do is a feeble remark on consumerism set in a mall as the protagonists go on a shopping spree. Might this sound strangely familiar?

NIGHT OF THE COMET can't help but feel a bit dated, especially in the music and wardrobe departments, but this nostalgic quality kept it from being totally worthless. Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney are an appealing pair, and not just for the obvious reasons, preventing the film from going completely under with energetic performances. Still, even their particular brands of effervescence can't save a movie that has all its best moments in half-assed dream sequences.

Best reserved for a case of '80's withdrawal.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


ULTIMATE ZOMBIE OUTBREAK, a 2007 short film that's so much like every other homemade zombie film previously written about here, I decided to review it in haiku.

slow Saturday night
cavorting backyard zombies
wasting precious tape


Softcore shenanigans from 1965, ORGY OF THE DEAD marked Edward D. Wood Jr.'s transition from low-budget sci-fi/horror to the less reputable realm of the smut trade. Directed by skin-flick baron A.C. Stephen, it's a harmless piece of fluff with enough monsters and bare breasts to entertain fans of all ages, a far cry from the less-amusing hardcore pics that defined the twilight of Wood's career.

Though Wood is relegated strictly to writing duties, adapting the screenplay from his eponymous novel (!), his stamp is all over this picture (the dialogue spoken in ORGY could have sprung only from Wood's typewriter). Opening with a Criswell introduction (who looks like he slugged half a bottle of cough syrup shortly before filming) that cribs from similar scenes in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE and NIGHT OF THE GHOULS, it's consistent with Wood's particular brand of delirious ineptitude. I was waiting for Bela Lugosi to show up with a roll of dollar bills.

A hack horror writer and his girlfriend Shirley (played by William Bates and Pat Barrington, the latter of whom performs double duty as a dancer) stumble across the moonlit strip show being put on for Dracula-caped Criswell. Emceed by Vampira stand-in Fawn Silver, the show consists of a procession of "undead" exotic dancers come forth and jiggle their goods for Criswell (who plays some type of effeminate deity), who determines their eternal fate. If he's judging solely on talent, my guess is they're all damned to Hell.

Bad movie fans will undoubtedly get a kick out of ORGY's many shortcomings (the asinine conversations, the blatant day-for-night continuity errors), but even they will be put off by this somnambulant film. The Wolfman and the Mummy show up, serving mostly as window dressing for the main attraction, which is of course the succession of bare-chested ladies.

Now, I wasn't expecting SHOWGIRLS, but this has got to be the stupidest display of striptease ever captured on celluloid. Performed with a monumental dearth of skill, these numbers would be of interest only to those who've never seen a topless woman before (if I had to pick a winner, I'd say the girl hopping around in a ratty cat costume). Most "dances" are comprised of a few repetitive moves, and go on for far to long to be worth a glance; I'm sure the fast-forward button would be your friend.

ORGY OF THE DEAD, despite its cruddiness, will probably prove itself irresistable to bad-movie fanatics, but make sure you've got at least a gallon of your favorite alcoholic beverage on hand before partaking.