Saturday, August 24, 2013

Undead Again

On that fateful day in May 2012, Cassidy and I sat down to watch this Spanish movie called [REC]. We were both profoundly affected by the experience and that summer we pretty much exclusively watched zombie films, trying to sate our desires for more bloody mayhem.

We tore through Land of the Dead, Zombie Diaries, [REC] 2 and countless others, both good (Dead Snow) and bad (Zombie Diaries 2: World of the Dead). Despite our voracious appetites, we barely skimmed the surface of the fertile fields of zombie cinema and when second semester ended, we set out to plow through even more.

Summer of the Living Dead: 2013

Dawn of the Dead

Year: 1978
Director: George A. Romero
Cast: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger
Run Time: 2 hours 7 minutes
MPAA Rating: X

A group of zombie outbreak survivors holes up in a Pennsylvania Mall.

We waited a long time for this one, having unsuccessfully tried to watch it in late August and again in October. So naturally we opted to open our summer with Dawn of the Dead - only the most critically acclaimed zombie film of all time, at the top of every list and carrying a solid 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. We excitedly popped in the DVD and found it... underwhelming.

Now, I can definitely see why this movie made a splash in the 70's. Tom Savini's gore effects (which later landed him on a little slasher film called Friday the 13th) are decades ahead of their time and the score by Dario Argento's frequent collaborators, the band Goblin, is delightfully weird and off-putting (I thought it worked, but Cassidy found it hilarious).

The satire of American consumerism provides a level of depth uncommon to most undead pictures (and let's face it, the lauded anti-racist undertones of Night of the Living Dead are mostly accidental). It is a good, well-made film in terms of the art of cinema but it features a slate of thoroughly unlikable characters (especially its pregnant heroine) and does not do quite enough to earn its punishing run time. These factors don't totally diminish the film's historical power, but in today's world where we have access to hundreds of other movies like this one, I'd much rather shoot for a film that's less well-made but more fun.

Rating: 7/10


Year: 1985
Director: Stuart Gordon
Cast: Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton
Run Time: 1 hour 25 minutes
MPAA Rating: UR

An ambitious medical student creates a serum that can bring the dead back to life.

About as related to H.P. Lovecraft as a McDonald's hamburger, Re-Animator is nevertheless a loose adaptation of his short story "Herbert West - Reanimator." It is a barrel of campy fun that critics have somehow mistaken for a good movie. Holding a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, this makes Re-Animator rated higher than Dawn of the Dead, Halloween, and The Texas Chain Saw Masssacre. There is no world that exists in any of our manifold alternate universes in which this is true.

Re-Animator is a bad movie. But it is so gleefully, irrepressibly bad that it's a blast to watch. Barbara Crampton (who's featured in my go-to movie of the summer, You're Next) gives a hilariously uneven performance in a hilariously uneven sweater opposite Bruce Abbott's "only hot in the 80's" heartthrob performance and Jeffrey Combs's hammy mad scientist deadpan.

Featuring my first experience with a post-coital Spring-Loaded Cat scare, a German physician named Hans Gruber (3 years before Die Hard, so let's not call it a rip-off), a secretly pretty great severed head performing cunninglingus, a man being strangled with a large intestine, and a doctor's office full of battered silver trophies, I have no doubt why this film became a cult classic.

Top it off with music cues that rip pages directly from Psycho's songbook and an evil doctor that looks exactly like John Kerry whose "acting voice" is so affected that he sounds like Siri, and you've got an A+ B movie on your hands. Gory, silly, and effortlessly cheesy, this is one to treasure.

Champion Dialogue: "He's got a secret folder filled with napkins and hair!"

Rating: 8/10

Diary of the Dead

Year: 2007
Director: George A. Romero
Cast: Michelle Morgan, Joshua Close, Shawn Roberts
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Film students capture an account of the zombie apocalypse on tape.

Ah, Diary of the Dead, the much maligned black sheep of Romero's Living Dead franchise. Being found footage, it didn't find a lot of friends in the horror community at large. However, it is frequently ignored that in the beginning, Diary solves a lot of problems of the shopworn found footage genre. It is made very clear that the footage is edited (by one of the characters, at that) and that she added in some music at crucial moments.

This is not cheating.

Many films like The Last Exorcism, The Zombie Diaries, and portions of the V/H/S anthologies have used multiple camera angles and background score without ever once addressing that the very presence of such things flies directly in the face of the nature of the genre. Romero took that flaw and made it a strength - at least in the relative authenticity of the film itself. Unfortunately this also creates a lot of problems that certainly would not and could not be present otherwise.

The editing is episodic, and after each episode we get a bit of pointless narration to accompany some pointless recapping of previous footage. This sucks, except for in the final moments of the film. If I wanted to listen to a deadpan film student pontificate about what makes us human ("It's us against them... Except... They are us), I'd have taken that summer course.

Also, being film students, most of the characters are supremely unlikable to the point where I actively wished for their throats to be chomped out by hordes of the undead. The main character, Deb (Morgan) has such an acidic personality that she treats even her boyfriend, whom she at least nominally loves like a piece of gum on the bottom of her shoe.

People wander off into the woods, open the doors to strange men, and generally behave like lobotomized toddlers, and I swear if the movie were only this, it would be a dreary mess.

But when it's good, it's good, babydoll.

To start, there's some fabulous gore here including a zombie child stuck to a wall with an arrow, a horde of zombie shot through a hole in another zombie's head, a man stabbing himself in the head with a scythe to get to a zombie who's biting his neck, and a zombie head dissolving in hydrochloric acid.

Huzzah! All we need is the red red krovvy and Romero delivers.

The very best parts of Diary of the Dead are often the weirdest, but that's probably because it is so divorced from any other zombie film or even any of the director's previous work. 

Here's my two absolute favorite parts of the film:

1) When a dude in a mummy costume is driven crazy alone in a house full of zombies. It is unexpectedly sweet and truly hilarious, like Stu Macher's scene at the end of the first Scream.

2) A deaf Amish guy (I know, right) throws a stick of dynamite at a horde of zombies (I know, right?) and then... this.


And the obligatory social satire - this time of the tendency of our generation to mindlessly record events and post them online without considering their real impact - is solid. Honestly, I found this to be one of Romero's most well-developed satires thematically. Unlike some of his other movies, where it comes in fits and starts, it actually feels like a deeply considered thought process.

Champion Dialogue: "He's a state trooper."
"How do you know?"
"His hat is a stupid looking hat."

Rating: 8/10

Now, because Cassidy and I got distracted by unimportant things like work and major life events like Prom Night, we actually didn't get around to as much zombie mayhem as we were hoping. My final review is going to be of a classic, one that we watched ages ago but that I recently revisited with my friend Henri.

Dead Snow (Død Snø)

Year: 2009
Director: Tommy Wirkola
Cast: Vegar Hoel, Charlotte Frogner, Jeppe Beck Laursen
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

A group of young med students decides to spend their break at a secluded cabin in the mountains, but unfortunately a clan of Nazi zombies has the same idea.

Norway, man. Those American-fed lunatics are at it again with a gory romp through the alpine heights, think Cold Prey but instead of the mountain man it's an army of undead Nazis. Due to Norway's seemingly intense fascination with slasher films, we get a fairly straightforward Meet the Meat section when we're introduced to our characters.

The characters are virtually indistinguishable, but as far as I can figure, there's Martin (Hoel), a med student who's scared of blood and thinks smothering his girlfriend with a pillow makes for a fun Saturday night; Hanna (Frogner), his dread-sporting girlfriend; Erlend (Laursen), a movie buff; Chris (Jenny Skavlan), Hanna's cousin who apparently thinks it's appropriate to bang dudes while they're sitting in an outhouse; Roy (Stig Frode Henriksen), the horniest man in Norway; Liv (Evy Kasseth Røsten), who is blonde and nothing else; Vegard (Lasse Valdal), the only reasonably attractive member of the group; and his girlfriend Sara (Ane Dahl Torp), who has the brilliant idea of skiing to the cabin alone. Needless to say, she doesn't make it.

The first act good-naturedly stabs at some meta humor with Erlend pointing out what a common trope a group of teens going to a cabin in the woods is. Unfortunately, the ensuing conversation about movies with that plot prove how very few there actually are. This is only a minor nitpick, but April Fool's Day? That's in a mansion on an island. Friday the 13th? A campground. Maybe their translations are off.

Anyway, it turns out when World War II ended, a squadron of Nazi officers was driven out of a nearby town, left to freeze to death in this very mountain range. And who should come a-knockin' but Colonel Herzog himself, looking for his long lost Nazi gold?

What the film might lack in technical prowess (the lighting is a little flat, some equipment can be spotted along the edge of a couple frames, and those zombies have some awfully healthy pink skin if you peek between the folds of their jackets), it more than makes up for in pure ambition as the second half picks up and transforms the peaceful cabin into a whirling dervish of bloody hilarity.

Heads are pulled in two, a man is separated from his limbs like a starfish, and Vegard hangs off a cliff, using a zombie's intestines as a rope. It's gross, it's fun, and it's a thrill ride that doesn't let up, all accompanied by typically bizarre Norwegian death metal.

Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1863

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