Jul 9, 2020

REVENANT

Kisolava, Serbia, 1725. Three days after he died, Peter Plogojowitz returned from the grave and showed up at his son's door demanding food. His son fed him, but not the next night. This led to the deaths of his son and several villagers, who all suffered a loss of blood before their deaths. At Peter's grave authorities found him with flush cheeks and blood covering his mouth. He was staked and burned, as were his victims.

Source.

Jul 8, 2020

WYRMWOOD: ROAD OF THE DEAD (2014)


Wyrmwood is exhausting, but not necessarily in a bad way. Though its own marketing is quick to declare it as a combination of Dawn of the Dead and Mad Max, what Wyrmwood seems to owe a lot to, in spite of its vehicular zombie carnage, is From Dusk Till Dawn, a film that was so excited to circumvent expectations that the sheer audacious spectacle of it all pushed its audience to sheer fatigue by the time the Geckos were regretting their pilgrimage to the Titty Twister.

Wyrmwood takes a more restrained approach in scope, as necessitated by its budget, but the frenetic and frantic camera work, the cuts, the quick zooms, the Greengrassness of its execution - it soon becomes an entire carnival of clowns burning with neon-colored fire screaming in your face. What that overextended image means is simply: after a while, you want to scream "enough!"


Thankfully, this in-your-face motif doesn't last through to the end of the first act, but then the film runs into a new problem: going from a hyperkinetic carnage-a-thon to a slower-paced and idiosyncratic walkabout. Jokes happen, sadistic doctors dance to disco - and this in a film where a father is forced to shoot his own daughter in the face with a nail gun. It's unexpected, and the decision to do so feels like trying to appeal to every facet of the zombie-loving audience: those who love goofball humor with their undead, and those who don't.

People like to debate the effectiveness of the zombies from the Romero era versus the post-28 Days Later/MTV generation version, and which of them are superior, and on and on. This debate is generally broken down into the ol' walking versus running ghouls. But what it should be broken down to is the approach to the story - in particular, how the zombies are presented, and what purpose they serve. You'll find that the separation of the old school versus the new school becomes increasingly blurred, and after a while it doesn't matter if the undead are shambling slowly after you or doing an all-out sprint. Soon the only question that will matter is this: are the zombies being used for a purpose, or a plot device? Is there a social message at hand beneath all the face eating, or are zombies in right now so let's open that killer werewolf script you have and do a term-find/replace from one monster to the other?


The biggest hurdle Wyrmwood has to overcome is how completely oversaturated the zombie sub-genre has become. To purposely use a bad pun, the zombie thing has been done to death, and except for the minuscule population who simply can't get enough, everyone else has taken two steps way back from the whole brain-eating affair. Because horror subsists on cyclical genre, the zombie thing is a phase that will soon work itself out and fade back into the ten-dollar budget camp, where filmmakers have no agenda beyond good intentions and a story that hinges on metaphors of cannibalism and consumption rather than because zombies are "in." The slasher craze came and went - twice - as did the "torture porn" phase, which was mercifully short-lived. Zombies, too, will one day fade back away into the dark, unexplored recesses of the genre, and high school teen girls (or their moms) will stuff their Daryl t-shirts into the Goodwill garbage bag and wonder just what it was they were thinking.

Wyrmwood doesn't have a whole heck of a lot to "say," and its tonal shift from dead seriousness to smart-talkin' ironic fun doesn't necessarily come off feeling natural. That, once again, a group of survivors encounter a threat even more dangerous than the growing zombie army - that of the military who have let the power go their heads (which has been done already in 28 Days Later and Day of the Dead before it) - isn't doing the film favors. Its involvement of the Mad Max angle (another Australian production) certainly has a lot of potential to inject new life into the increasingly boring zombie sub-genre, but not nearly enough is done with it to make Wyrmwood stand out from the pack. However, given its easy watchability factor, the solid performances, and admittedly excellent make-up and visual effects, a little bit of brainless entertainment never hurt anyone.


Jul 7, 2020

ZOMBIE 4: AFTER DEATH (1989)


Zombi 4: After Death began life simply as After Death, which explored similar ground but was otherwise completely unconnected to the Zombi series. But, in keeping with the Italian horror tradition, producers shoehorned it into the Zombi series in hopes of making a few more shekels.

Zombi 4 comes to you courtesy of Claudio Fragasso, screenwriter of Zombi 3, but who is most known (and infamous) to American audiences as being the co-writer/director of Troll 2. (I can’t state I’ve seen every Fragasso film, but the ones I have offer a very specific kind of entertainment. Troll 2 isn’t an exception to that rule, but more like an indicator of what a Fragasso film looks and sounds like.) As you watch Zombi 4, it’s clear that the filmmakers were going for something different, as it actually feels more in line (at least at first) with another popular Italian horror franchise, Demons, than the Zombi series. Don’t get me wrong, there are still some pretty lengthy scenes of zombie carnage with ghouls getting their entire heads exploded all while doing the slow-moving, dead-grunting thing, but the film’s opening deals with voodoo priests, hellish concubines, and mythological aspects, offering a bit more gimmickry beyond just “oh fuck, zombies,” which had been primarily the driving force of the series up to that point. (Zombi 3 played around with scientific experimentation being the reason behind the resurrection of the dead, but this whole subplot honestly feels like it’s going down in an entirely different movie, and in Zombi 4 it goes largely ignored beyond one line of dialogue.)


The plot of Zombi 4 is also more streamlined and coherent than the previous, but there’s also not a whole lot of substance, either. Characters end up in a place where they shouldn’t be, get stranded, and begin a fight for their lives as legions of ghouls begin unearthing and very very very slowly coming at them. Continuity is also insanely out the window, not just in terms of logic (characters transport from one environment to another with no explanation as to where they are or how they got there), but also in terms of flatout recklessness. For instance, one character (played by gay porn star Jeff Stryker) bellows that the only way to put the zombies down is to shoot them in the head; however, a little later, he sprays some automatic bullets into the chests of half a dozen ghouls and brings them down, anyway.

Zombi 4 is only slightly less insane than its predecessor, but believe me — that hardly has an effect on its overall level of enjoyment, which is damn near in line. The gore remains, as does the bad dubbing, worse dialogue, and the overall sense of “what IS this?” you’ll be frequently asking yourself. The assault rifle action hardly ever lets up, and when it does, there’s some bad bad dialogue to fill the void. (“When a man’s afraid he’s gonna die, there’s nothing he wants more than a woman by his side…and I want YOU.” ) That the zombies also talk and even use weapons (like the aforementioned assault rifles) only add to the nutsness on which Zombi 4 mostly depends to be worth a damn.

It also has a hell of a soundtrack, featuring tremendous ‘80s synth goodness by composer Al Festa, along with the rocking Zombie 4 anthem "Living After Death," which would have sounded right at home in Rocky 4, had Rocky 4 been a zombie movie.

If you’re in the mood for a curious and somewhat introspective take on Italian zombie horror, Fulci’s Zombie/Zombi 2 seems like the most obvious choice. But if you’re in the mood for something crazier, by all means, skip that one and jump right to Zombi 3 and Zombi 4: After Death. Fans of nutso Italian horror like Demons, StageFright, and Troll 2 (yep, it counts) are about to fill the Zombie voids in their lives they never knew they had.


Jul 6, 2020

ZOMBIE 3 (1988)


Let’s catch you up on the Italian Zombi series, which currently holds steady at four entries, despite the last chapter being titled Zombie 5: Killing Birds.

It all began with George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which was released in Italy under the title Zombi. Following that, horror director Lucio Fulci (The Beyond) made his own unrelated undead ghoul flick, which was released as Zombie in the U.S., but as Zombi 2 in Italy, therefore suggesting it was a sequel to Romero’s film. (It wasn’t.)

Following, Fulci made Zombi 3, Claudio Fragasso made Zombi 4: After Death, and Claudio Lattanzi made Zombi 5: Killing Birds, though, according to that latter’s Wiki page, “…zombies only feature in the last half hour of the movie, and only one character is attacked by birds.”

Meanwhile still, the Zombi films were released in Britain under the Zombie Flesh Eater moniker, which ejected Dawn of the Dead from the canon and reset the numbering scheme (Zombi 2 became Zombie Flesh Eater 1, etc.). Every territory had their own titling scheme, numbering scheme, and even added or dropped otherwise totally unrelated films to make them part of the ongoing series. (One territory added the joyfully nuts Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror, which was the best choice they could have made.) Honestly, it’s all confusing as fuck and probably not worth the effort to navigate, because when you think about it, every zombie movie ever made could be a sequel to the one that came before.

Basically, if you’re a passionate movie collector living in the U.S. AND you have OCD, your complete Zombi series would consist of Zombie, and then Zombi 3-5, and it probably kills you.

Haw haw!


Having recently revisited Fulci’s Zombie/Zombi 2 in preparation for my mini Zombi 3/4 marathon, a film I hadn’t seen for a very long time, I was expecting my newfound appreciation for Italian horror and the film’s ongoing semi-respected reputation to usher in an undiscovered enjoyment of the gory zombie shocker. That didn’t happen. Surprisingly, Zombie is actually kind of dull, relocating most of its action to an island in the Caribbean after a promising opening in which a small boat containing a handful of ghouls washes up in New York harbor.

I’m no big fan of Fulci’s films in any legitimate way (although I sort of adore City of the Living Dead), but despite his very diverging outputs of quality, the man at least had a distinct visual style, which makes Zombi 3 feel so odd. Zombi 3 is just stupidity, featuring flying, biting zombie heads and one action set piece after another. And the gore! So much gore! Sadly, there’s a reason for this. Fulci (who was very ill during filming) and two ghost directors Claudio Fragasso (the film’s screenwriter) and Bruno Mattei (Italian shlockmeister director of the highest order) present Zombi 3 as a more ridiculous and action-packed experience. Whatever sense of mood, or satire, or “moral” Fulci was vying for in Zombi 2 has gone right out the window here (or perhaps was phased out after some of Fulci’s footage was tossed and replaced with new material from his collaborators). Plotwise, Zombi 3 takes somewhat of a page from Romero’s The Crazies with the presence of hazmat-suited soldiers laying waste to anything deemed a threat, as well as Return of the Living Dead, relying heavily on the idea of the zombie scourge spreading across the landscape from the cremation of infected corpses. The zombies are also of the running variety. But Zombi 3 is also much funnier than that beloved zombie comedy, even though it wasn’t trying to be. Hysterical overroughtness tends to happen when you’re dealing with an Italian horror production, usually aided by the overly emphatic dubbing which offers every character a very animated and highly emotional presence.

(And again, flying zombie head.)

Picking on Zombi 3’s lack of plot feels like low-hanging fruit given the Frankensteinian nature of its production, but I’ll go ahead and say it anyway: there’s barely a plot beyond a couple groups of wandering people intermittently finding each other, running afoul of ghouls, and getting eaten. That’s honestly about it.

Zombi 3 is not a “good” film by any stretch, but lordy is it entertaining. It also feels incredibly unlike anything Lucio Fulci has ever done, but with him having been responsible for only 60% of the final cut, that shouldn’t come as any surprise. My second go-around with Fulci’s original semi-classic Zombie will likely be my last. But Zombi 3? I’ll definitely be revisiting this one…much sooner than later.



Jul 5, 2020

DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004)


I wanted to hate Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead merely on principle. 

The brand new remake train had barely been rolling before one of the grandaddy of all zombie horror classics was announced: George A. Romero’s seminal semi-sequel Dawn of the Dead.

The jaws of horror fans everywhere dropped like a ‘70s Tom Savini over a mall banister.

“How dare they?”

By now, the remake of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre had come and gone, leaving behind a relatively positive reaction on audiences and a wildly successful profit. If that was to be the beginning of a remake craze that still hasn't gone away, no one at that moment would know. But when Dawn was announced, Internet considered rioting in the streets before deciding to just stay home and bitch about it on Internet. And, if we’re being fair, the earliest snippets of preliminary information re: Dawn proceeded through the usual rank-and-file motions that most remakes would follow — an untested music video director would helm; there’d be no involvement from its original writer or director; the cast would be relatively obscure (including a then-unknown Ty Burrell).

Oh, and the guy who wrote the Freddie Prinze Jr. Scooby Doo movies was handling the screenplay.

: O


But a funny thing happened: Dawn of the Dead proved not only to be the best 2000s era remake to come down the pike, but it transcended all the remake baggage to become an excellent, vicious, dark (and light) contribution to the horror genre.

The aforementioned screenplay by that Scooby Doo guy (James Gunn, who would go on to write and direct the beloved Guardians of the Galaxy flicks for Marvel) was undeniably clever and whip-smart, and which included cameos from a large portion of the original’s cast. (Ken Foree even gets to recite his infamous line of dialogue — “When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth.” — now with a much bleaker approach.) Even the character of Andy, the gun store owner who has been living on the roof of his store, and who communicates back and forth with our cast via dry erase boards and binoculars, was extremely well utilized, offering an atypical but effective relationship that you’d hope to see in these kinds of films where characterization sometimes falls by the wayside. (And the conclusion of his character is eerie as hell.) The screenplay lacks the commercialism subtext from the original, but as confirmed by participants this wasn’t by accident. Gunn, especially, felt Romero had already done it, and didn’t feel the need to do it again.

Signs of the Zack Snyder to come are present, but still dialed back, offering a sense of a filmmaker establishing a style and oeuvre that would be on more prominent display in 300 and The Watchmen. Though Dawn is incredibly gory in spots, the action elements are rousing and intense; Dawn’s entire first and third acts are nothing but mounting tension and propulsive fight-or-flight scenes, filled with an incredible array of gore gags.


The cast work well as an ensemble, with the only minor weak spot being Sarah Polley, who doesn’t seem entirely comfortable working in such a specific genre. She’s just fine in the smaller moments, especially when we see the adrenaline melt off following the harrowing opening escape scene and letting the reality sink in, leaving her a sobbing mess. But in the bigger, more genre-appropriate moments, she’s not nearly as convincing. Ving Rhames enjoys a more prominent role here than he was getting during this era of his career, playing the prototypical Snake Plissken-ish bad-ass who abides by his rules exclusively, but he’s good at this type of role and easily embodies the kind of part essayed by Ken Foree in the original. (With a clear intent on being deceiving, director Steve Miner cast Rhames as a similarly bad-ass military man in his woeful remake of Day of the Dead in an effort to suggest the two films were related. They aren’t.) A pre-House of Cards Michael Kelly plays C.J., the asshole security guard with a heart of gold who ultimately ends up playing the film’s most interesting character, and the actor subsequently offers the absolute best performance in the entire cast.

Dawn of the Dead shouldn’t be as good as it is, and even if Zack Snyder had gone on to do nothing else notable for the remainder of his career (you’d probably have people out there who would confirm this), he at least proved there is such a thing as doing a good remake, and laying out how to do it: respect the original and its fans, take the concept and do something familiar but new, and leave it all out on the field. (Plus a Tom Savini cameo never hurts.)


Jul 4, 2020

RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 2 (1986)


Like all other horror franchises, Return of the Living Dead eventually lost its way, succumbing to straight-to-Sci-Fi-Channel sequel oblivion stocked with actors you’ve never heard of (and Peter Coyote) and with budgets so low that they made even Night of the Living Dead feel opulent. Some folks who profess to be horror fans don’t actually know there are a total of five films in this franchise. I don’t blame them. After the classic original film, which I consider to be the quintessential example of how to make a horror-comedy, the trajectory of the ensuing sequels were tonally all over the place, vying sometimes for a straightforward horror experience, and sometimes vying for extreme, unmatched, unprecedented stupidity. Return of the Living Dead 2, the only sequel to be financed and distributed by a major studio (Warner Bros.), is desperate to achieve the same magic tonal balancing act as its predecessor but isn’t nearly as successful.

Return of the Living Dead was very much a product of the ‘80s, filled with a bevy of absolutely delightful special effects and make-up, an inspired punk soundtrack, and a gleefully unrestrained Dan O’Bannon, who strived to push both genres to their breaking points. The teenage faction of the main cast were additionally punked out: mohawks, big hair, neon and pastel colors, leather, chains – you name it. It was very ‘80s, but a different kind of ‘80s.


The sequel wisely chose to eschew this particular punky approach (as it would have seemed even more derivative) in favor of another series of ‘80s tropes: the plucky boy hero, aerobics, and Michael Jackson. What results is a movie that feels more like its own entity rather than something sequalizing something else; Return of the Living Dead 2 is part and parcel with many other horror flicks with this sort of tone that pervaded theaters back during this magical decade. Titles like Night of the Creeps, Night of the Comet, The BlobNeon Maniacs, and more offer a very playful tone juxtaposed against creepy imagery, with all kinds of fun violence to boot. I genuinely believe that Return of the Living Dead 2’s reputation would be far more celebrated had it been released under a different title. Compared to its predecessor, it’s not nearly as fun, funny, vicious, or by default, original. But it’s not a totally dismissible effort, either. (That wouldn’t start until Return of the Living Dead 4: Necropolis.) Much of the humor still works, the entire cast is game (including Twin Peaks’ Dana Ashbrook and my longtime childhood crush, Suzanne Snyder), and the gore gags, though somewhat neutered when compared to the original, are still pretty icky/gooey for a mainstream studio release.

In an odd bit of stunt casting and surreal humor, James Karen and Thom Matthews (the doomed warehouse workers from the previous film who most certainly did not survive their encounters with the undead), appear as different characters: Burke and Hare-ish grave robbers who can’t quite put a finger on why their new zombie perils feels so…familiar. It’s a weird gag and sort of groan-inducing in its unsubtlety, but it’s still a delight to have them, and frankly is a joke that should have kept going well into the series.

Return of the Living Dead 2 is an example of a very middle-of-the-road sequel. It harps on all the high points of its predecessor without mastering any of them, but it’s still worthy of attention. I’d even go as far as to call it a highlight of the ‘80s, if you can put aside its lineage and look at it as a standalone brain-munching romp.

Jul 3, 2020

RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985)


Happy Return of the Living Dead Day!

My love for the horror genre was written in the stars long before I ever fired out of my mother. But certain films along the way cropped up early on during my wee-one years just to make sure I stayed on the right path: Don Coscarelli's Phantasm 2 was there to show me that not every battle between good and evil had a happy ending. Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street proved that no place--not even your bedroom--was safe. And Dan O'Bannon's The Return of the Living Dead proved that "horror" could be hilarious.

Rumors suggest that following the bungled release of 1968's Night of the Living Dead, in which the filmmakers lost copyright to the entire film following a last-minute title change, George A. Romero and his partners John A. Russo and Russell Streiner parted ways, each divvying up this potential new zombie franchise to take in different directions. Romero was awarded the partial phrase "of the Dead" for all future "official" sequels while Russo and Streiner walked away with "of the Living Dead" for less official spinoffs. Now, is this true? As Donald Drumpf says, all I know is what I read on the internet. But it sounds so silly and spiteful that I wouldn't be surprised if it were. Having said that, Romero obviously went on to create two celebrated sequels, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, along with...some others...while Russo, Streiner, and Night alum Rudy Ricci would wait to seize on their creative cinematic rights until 1985, which saw the release of The Return of the Living Dead.


Despite all the contributors (ultimately the Night veterans had very little influence on the final product), The Return of the Living Dead is fully a Dan O'Bannon film. Twenty years before Shaun of the Dead brought comedic zombies (or zombies at all, really) into the mainstream, O'Bannon rightly realized that rotting, wailing, running zombies chasing down a bunch of angry punk teenagers was actually kind of funny, and so he played up the humor of the situation to maximum effect. Imbuing his story of the resurrecting dead with a wry sense of humor containing sarcasm, slapstick, and Vaudevillian timing, what O'Bannon does that's even more clever is give the horror aspects of his screenplay real bite (sorry), making scenes of marauding hordes of the dead sprinting--sprinting!--after their victims much more terrifying. Forget "removing the head or destroying the brain"--this time the living dead are wholly unkillable. ("I hit the fucking brain!" Burt [Clu Gulagher] says angrily after putting a pick-axe into a zombie's skull without it doing a thing.) By comparison, Romero's slow-moving, easily killable ghouls were barely a threat. O'Bannon ups the terror, but brings the humor with it. (He claims that naming his two leads Burt and Ernie was entirely coincidental, and he was completely unaware of the duo's long-running residence on Sesame Street, but when two of the film's hapless and doomed paramedics eaten by the living dead are also named Tom and Jerry, you really have to wonder.)

During one scene where they look to Night of the Living Dead to provide answers on how to kill the undead (destroy the brain!), Freddy (Thom Matthews) asks, "What do doctors use to crack skulls with?" Frank (James Karen) answers, "Surgical drills!" at the exact moment Burt re-enters the scene holding a pick-axe. Humor like this seems very broad, especially when compared to today's standards in horror films where someone would stop to ironically muse on the meta of the conflict before continuing on, but it's a sadly extinct, wry sense of comedy that, for anyone who has ever seen or read an interview with Dan O'Bannon, senses was a part of his genetic makeup.


O'Bannon, famously, opted to make his take on this somewhat new zombie universe more humorous in an effort to avoid treading directly on territory he felt strongly was owned entirely by Romero. But at the same time, in lieu of this respect, you get the sense that O'Bannon was also having a hell of a time sending up this genre that, maybe, people shouldn't be taking so seriously after all. (Romero's zombies were flesh-eaters; O'Bannon's zombies seem only interested in braaaains, which they shout while chasing down a victim.)

Despite the slight misinformation in the above synopsis, it's during a routine training session where Frank unleashes the zombie-resurrecting 2-4-5 trioxin from barrels stenciled with Property of the United States Army, which douches himself and his new hire, Freddy. This is part of the overall palpable sense of distrust O'Bannon shows toward the American military throughout, beginning with Frank refuting any inference that the barrels containing infected corpses might leak (even though they do), and ending with the very downbeat and cynical finale which sees the military dealing with their "missing Easter eggs" with the only way they know. And in between, brief scenes with Colonel Glover (Jonathan Terry) present him as a dry, bitter, and disillusioned man who orders nuke strikes like other people order pizza.

But even out of this anger comes further opportunities for humor. When Freddy asks why those tanks of diseased bodies ended up in the basement of a medical supply warehouse, Frank smiles slyly and says, "Typical Army fuck-up." It's the word "typical" that gives his response its meaning, as if it were part and parcel among the many other Army fuck-ups worth mentioning. After shit hits the fan and one character logically suggests that they call the number stenciled on the side of the tank, Burt looks besides himself as he demands, "Do you think I want the goddamned Army all over the place?," as that would be worse than the recently resurrected corpse screaming and pounding on the inside of the walk-in freezer.


The Return of the Living Dead's use of somewhat dated and primitive techniques for special effects is the thing--among many things--which make the film so lovable and enduring. Seeing the Tar Man or the female half-a-corpse strapped to the table opening their mouths once, but somehow emitting multiple syllables, of course doesn't look all that convincing. It makes no sense that their very tongueless and lipless mouths can emit 'S' and 'P' sounds. But it somehow goes along with the spirit of the film, which leans heavily on, "Fuck it, let's just have fun."

After all, have you seen the poster?

They're back from the grave and they're ready to party!

Calling The Return of the Living Dead the greatest zombie film of all times feels like an insult to George A. Romero, being that its existence directly stems from his 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead, but also because O'Bannon avoided doing a more serious-minded zombie film, as he felt it would tread too closely on Romero's territory. However, where Romero was able to carry respectability through his zombie series up to and including Day of the Dead (which was pulverized at the box office the same year by O'Bannon's film), multiple attempts to sequelize The Return of the Living Dead--either maintaining the humor or not--proved that it wasn't so easy. Inspired by what came before, The Return of the Living Dead was still lightning in a bottle, made from a perfect combination of sensibilities, willing performers, and grisly special effects.