Jul 31, 2020

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)


George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead changed everything. And I’m not just talking about the advent of “the zombie” as we know it. I’d go further and argue it planted the seed for the idea that cheap horror films usually destined for drive-ins and double-feature theaters could smuggle in themes relating to the social experience. For anyone who has closely followed Romero’s career, or at least the genesis of Night of the Living Dead, then you already know Romero has spent his entire life modestly dismissing the idea that he purposely cast a black man (Duane Jones) as Ben, the lead, as nothing more than critics reaching for something that wasn’t intended. “He was the best actor we knew,” was Romero’s go-to line, and the film’s “upstairs” versus “the basement” argument — segregated worlds — that reached a fevered pitch between two dominant men of different races, or the hordes of cops and rednecks with their snarling German shepherds, or the very end when Ben is shot down in the house in too casual of a manner, or when his dead body is handled with hooks and chains, was all just a coincidence. Romero asserts that the script was the same during production as it had been before they’d cast Jones in the lead. 

I can take Romero at his word when it comes to all this. I can accept Jones got the job for his acting alone and not for what his casting would symbolize. But I can’t believe that Romero didn’t know, deep down, that audiences wouldn’t walk away from Night of the Living Dead without reading into all of that themselves, anyway. With a grin, Romero would admit he was fine with people calling him a prescient and philosophical storyteller — and if we’re being honest, he was — but he still cast an African-American man in the lead during a time when that wasn’t happening, which was further bolstered by the character of Ben being much more than just “the black guy.”


From a construct point of view, Night of the Living Dead isn’t within throwing distance of polished. It’s hasty, at times disarmingly edited, and offers a few instances of weak performances from its cast (almost all of whom doubled up in other behind-the-scenes production roles). It very much feels like a stolen film — something shot on weekends (it was) with scenes picked up guerrilla style. (Romero and co. having stolen an exterior Washington D.C. interview sequence, with Romero cameoing as a reporter, while the Capitol Building looms in the background, is one of the ballsiest moments of guerrilla film-making I’ve ever seen.) All of this aids Night of the Living Dead’s purposeful design, which was to deny the polished look of other genre films from that era or earlier (Psycho had been released eight years prior, but looked like a newer production) and instead present as newsreel footage. It was documentary-like in its use of a static camera, serving more as a witness to the tension and terror unfolding in that house without ever distracting with its fluid or showy presence. Romero wanted Night of the Living Dead to feel raw and real, and because it was made with the intent of highlighting experience over entertainment, it does.

What’s perfect about Night of the Living Dead is that you, the viewer, can manifest your own allegories about what it’s really about: racial unrest, generational rebellion (the hippie movement was in full swing), a reaction to the Vietnam war, communism, anti-establishment, and who knows what else? In the excellent documentary The American Nightmare, Romero referred to Night of the Living Dead as “one culture devouring another and changing everything,” and while he meant this about the film’s themes, he very well could have been talking about genre film-making in general. Like most genre filmmakers, Romero fell off his game in later years, going back to the same zombie well too many times, but that will never diminish his mark on the horror genre, and it will never change the fact that phenomena like the Resident Evil franchise (film and video game), The Walking Dead (and its spinoff), IZombie, Netflix's The Santa Clarita Diet, and so many other shows and film series wouldn’t exist without him. If the world is just, then, like his own zombie creations, George A. Romero will never truly die.

Jul 30, 2020

THE 'RE-ANIMATOR' SERIES (1985-2003)



In a sort of sequel to my previous write-up for Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight, in which I launched back to my childhood to better explain my affinity for that particular title, I discovered Re-Animator on that same exact mid-’90s summer evening (when my unassuming extended family discovered the hard way that I was a weirdo into horror and gore and everything in between).

Once the closing credits on Demon Knight were rolling and my horrified family were filing out of the room, all while I rubbed my hands together and wondered when I might ever see such genius dummy heads again, my uncle flashed me a mischievous grin and asked, “So you like all that gory stuff, huh?”

“Yup!” I said, the only time in my life I’ve ever said “yup” because doing so makes you a douche bag.

He walked over to a shelf filled with VHS tapes and procured one. He slid it into the VCR, gave me a wink, and said, “Enjoy!”

Re-Animator then happened in front of me, and I've never been the same.

1985’s Re-Animator is silly chaos, but such an unmitigated joy to watch. An ’80s splatter-movie take on Frankenstein, it features two doctors, Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) and Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) experimenting with a serum that has the power to resurrect the dead. Along for the ride are Meg ('80s B scream queen Barbara Crampton), her father, Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson), and Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), the human villain of the flick who intensely hates Dr. West for his arrogance and who also intensely desires Meg in the most basest of ways. Because the concept of creating an elixir to resurrect the dead has never gone wrong for anyone in the horror genre, Re-Animator does not feature people getting their heads ripped off, their bodies torn in half, or every other kind of crimson-spattered gore piece you can think of. Just kidding! One by one, our cast become unfortunately entrapped in the madcap adventures of West and Cain, each of them falling victim to the duo's dripping experiments...and some of them finding their way back to the land of the "living."

Let me tell you: when an eleven-year-old sees Re-Animator for the first time, it feels like magic. Dangerous, filthy magic. It feels like a snuff film or the kinds of films that linger behind the curtain in the local video store below the sign that reads ADULTS ONLY. It feels like you are watching something that you should not be watching. This is how it felt for me. Between all the wonderful violence and gore, which at that time had topped anything I’d ever seen, and the fact that I didn’t recognize a single actor in the film, giving it an additionally “underground” feeling, I basically felt that by watching Re-Animator I was breaking the law, and any minute the Mom Police would kick down the door and beat me with 37 wooden spoons. This unrelenting gore and cadre of unrecognizable actors re-enforced, in my eleven-year-old brain, one very scary notion: everything in Re-Animator had happened for real, and now everyone was dead. For real.

Source.
Being that Re-Animator was a trashy take on the Frankenstein story, it was only appropriate that the sequel follow one of the most famous sequels in film history: Bride of Frankenstein.

Following the bloody, brainy, bony, and heady events of “the Miskatonic Massacre,” Drs. Herbert West and Dan Cain are somehow free and clear of any wrongdoing and continuing both their practice as fledgling necromancers as well as their very odd friendship. Meanwhile, at Miskatonic Hospital, an evidence room is stuffed with the dismembered parts of all the resurrected dead who tore shit up during the massacre, and for reasons unexplained, will not decompose. (This is eight years later, by the way, which makes this extra weird.) There’s also a room containing a fair number of these resurrected dead whom the hospital don’t know what to do with, so they kind of wander around like free-range chickens. As you might suspect, those wacky doctors and their serums of life-givers create another series of conflicts that begin with drooling dead and crawling arms and end with a lot of blood on the walls.

The spirit of Re-Animator resides fully within Bride of Re-Animator, despite the script being very obviously rushed into production. Years before this sequel came to fruition, the original Re-Animator team tried to raise money for another very different kind of sequel. Called House of Re-Animator, this sequel would see Dr. West being called to the White House during the Reagan Administration to, assumedly, resurrect the deceased commander-in-chief, and would've also involved the resurrected Meg. (This script was rewritten in 2006, with the targeted undead "president" being updated to Vice President Dick Cheney, who by then, was obviously the one running the country.) Instead, the script was rewritten from the ground up, and the concept for Bride of Re-Animator was born.

Bride of Re-Animator hits a lot of the same beats as its predecessor, all while throwing in quite a handful of homages to series inspiration H.P. Lovecraft. (“It’s just rats in the walls,” Dr. West says at one point, along with the sewing of bat wings onto a decapitated head, which then flew around the room.) People and limbs still come to life. Female nudity is still firmly on display. But derivativeness aside, Bride of Re-Animator actually nails one aspect and gets a lot of mileage out of it, and it all comes from the title. It’s also the very last thing you’d expect from any Re-Animator film: love.

Every one of our characters are connected to each other because of this, but also happens to cause the most fucked up love triangle polygon of all time. Dr. Cain lets Dr. West talk him into their next challenge — the creation of life rather than just the resurrection of the dead — by convincing him to place his departed love Meg’s heart in the corpse of Cain's recently dead patient (Kathleen Kinmont, Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers). The detective hot on the doctor duo’s trail (played by Claude Earl Jones, Dark Night of the Scarecrow) is on a personal crusade to avenge his departed wife, who ended up as one of Dr. West’s experiments and currently inhabits the free-range chicken room. Meanwhile, there’s Francesca (the gorgeous Fabiana Udenio, who would go on to play Alotta Fagina in Austin Powers), a new love interest for Dr. Cain, and a source of consternation for Dr. West, who seems to want Dan all to himself. And then there’s the undead bride, who loves Dan because she’s got Meg’s heart, but yet West is in love with her because he created her.

See? Love!

Being a sequel, Bride of Re-Animator doesn't live up to the original, but weak script aside, I’ll be damned if it’s not trying at every turn. Directed by Re-Animator producer Brian Yuzna, Bride of Re-Animator feels every bit like a sequel, thematically and stylistically. The returning faces certainly help in that regard (and Bruce Abbott brings along a lot more hair), but the spirit of unrestrained, maniacal gore and mayhem are what make Bride of Re-Animator one of the better horror sequels birthed from an ’80s classic. I was a little hesitant in checking this one out after having seen it (and being disappointed by it) so many years ago, but after an iffy beginning, it easily found its groove. Every bit as gory, goofy, and ridiculous as Stuart Gordon’s beloved original, Bride of Re-Animator is a worthy entry in the Re-Animator series.


Beyond Re-Animator was shot in 2003 under the watchful eye of a returning Yuzna. Though there’s much to criticize about this final sequel, its biggest problem is when it was made: Beyond-Animator is a 2000s sequel to an '80s franchise, trying to exist in the same era as “smart” ironic slashers and PG-13 J-horror remakes. To me, lots of horror franchises birthed during the ‘80s belong to the ‘80s, and attempts to modernize some of them haven’t gone particularly well. (Tsk-tsking right at you, Friday the 13th 2009.) Of course, Beyond Re-Animator should be lauded for trying to launch a franchise comeback and offering some counter programming, but not only does it stick out for this reason, it also sticks out because it can’t afford what it clearly wants to be: unprecedented bodily madness.

Largely funded by Spanish film company Fantastic Factory/Filmax, Beyond Re-Animator was shot in Barcelona and Valencia, Spain, with roughly half a cast of Spanish actors, and right off the bat it makes things feel too different. Normally you might think, “Well, the whole movie takes place in a prison, so it’s not unbelievable that many of the prisoners are Spanish,” but that just makes you a racist. Still, this idea does make Beyond Re-Animator stick out and could have been remedied by acknowledging the obvious Spanish flavor and tweaking the script so that the infamous Herbert West had been hidden away overseas in an effort to continue hushing up his awful experiments at Miskatonic University.

Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West, the re-animator, doesn’t miss a single beat and easily steps back into the ghoul doctor’s shoes — it’s everyone else who don’t seem fully confident in their roles. And as previously mentioned, Beyond Re-Animator, given its more modern 2000s production, is the first entry to try its hand at visual effects. Nearly all of them are a failure, especially when it comes to the evil warden’s decapitated and re-animated…er…member. (Yes, this happens. If you ever wanted to see a dick puppet fight a rat puppet, you’ve reached your final destination.)

Beyond Re-Animator was clearly made in the same spirit of the original, and by film’s end, when chaos has totally overtaken the prison, it’s larger in scope than anything the previous films attempted, and that’s absolutely commendable. But unlike its predecessors, the comedy seems cheap--manufactured only to one-up the series’ previous shock moments, whereas the horror aspect this time around just feels corny. In Re-Animator, a headless corpse lowers its own decapitated head into the nether regions of a naked hapless female. That’s shocking, yes, but it’s also a unique gotcha moment that works as intended because it hadn’t been done before. In Beyond Re-Animator, someone’s dick gets ripped off and then later comes to life. Voilà: a killer wang. Sure, this, too, hasn't been done, but only because it's low hanging fruit of a joke, and that’s pretty much the example of Beyond Re-Animator trying too hard to be shocking: falling back on lazy dick jokes.

Personally, for me, the Re-Animator train stops here. There is a "remake" floating around out there in the world, but one which features zero personnel from the original trilogy, and which seems to have been made either because the writings of H.P. Lovecraft are now in the public domain, or because, like Creepshow 3 and Day of the Dead 2: Contagium (not a word), its rights-holders were cleaning out their filing cabinets and said, “Oh, shit, we own this?”

As for the future, it seems like a perfect climate to resurrect the long mooted House of Re-Animator for a third time. We already have a racist, misogynistic moron in the White House and roughly 30% of the country are okay with this. Imagine the fun that could be had with a resurrected Donald Trump bleeding from his mouth and eating brains on national television and his base finding ways to talk about how he’s still the greatest president in the history of the country. That script, alarmingly and sadly, writes itself.

If that doesn't materialize, I'll take this as a solid back-up. Look at that cast!

Source.

Jul 28, 2020

THE CRAZIES (1976)


The Crazies is unofficially looked upon as a spiritual prequel to Night of the Living Dead, even if it followed on that landmark film six years later. But the idea of a toxen leaking into the earth and infecting the people of a small town and turning them into drooling, primitive monsters seems to go hand in hand with Romero’s already established ghoulery. Take that, add a batch of in-fighting that begins to plague our band of survivors traversing the countryside and trying to survive this radical transformation of their world, and the two films seem very spiritually linked. Whereas Night of the Living Dead purposely kept the potential causes for the zombiegeddon vague, having newscasters speculate on-air about all the different potential catalysts, The Crazies points its finger directly at the U.S. government first, and then the military later. Even if, when compared to Night of the Living Dead, The Crazies doesn’t seem as ghoulish or eerie, it’s a whole lot more angry, and Romero, ever the socially conscious filmmaker, knows what he’s doing.

Romero is most well known for his long-running zombie series, with films like The Crazies (or Season of the Witch, or There’s Always Vanilla — both below) sometimes falling by the wayside. And there’s a combination of reasons why, first and foremost being that his zombie films had a huge impact on the zeitgeist at the time, and attracted audiences who didn’t normally like horror films and tempted them into a theater showing Dawn of the Dead. Except for his non-zombie centric (well, mostly) Creepshow, Romero only seemed to fire on all cylinders when it came to his shuffling undead. 


The Crazies contains that same sense of renegade spirit and a socially important message, but its biggest detractor — the worst you can have in any film, but especially horror — is its languid pace. The Crazies, after a strong opening and slices of now-iconic imagery — all those faceless men in Hazmat suits — meanders from point to point, struggling to find ways to keep this cross-countryside night-time journey consistently thrilling. It’s why — and you won’t hear me say this often — its 2010 remake is actually the superior film. Sure, like the Dawn of the Dead remake, it sidestepped social commentary in favor of creating a more viscerally entertaining B-movie, and considering that was its only goal, it was a success.

As an early Romero effort, it’s interesting to see the early formulation of ideas and his anti-establishment persona, and it’s also neat to see Romero and co. actors pop up with whom he had already worked or with whom he’d eventually work (the biggest probably being Richard Liberty, who would play Dr. “Frankenstein” in Day of the Dead.) These days, The Crazies is looked upon more as a curiosity than even a minor classic, and it’s for good reason. It’s undistilled Romero, and for that alone it’s worth seeing, but it lacks the gut-punch of Night of the Living Dead and the confidence of its mall-set sequel. 

Jul 27, 2020

COOTIES (2015)


Cooties is one of those films that, as you're watching it, you almost start to dislike just because you want it to be better than it is. And that's not to say Cooties isn't good, or very funny, because it is, but it's because the film was nearly there - immortal status - that it starts to suffer for it. The cast have remarkable chemistry, each providing a dose of their own real personalities (the reason they were cast in the first place), with Rainn Wilson's Wade playing an even more exaggerated version of Dwight from The Office, while Elijah Wood gets to show off his rarely seen comedic chops beyond Wilfred, where he generally plays the straight man, anyway. (Him telling his students to read pages from his unpublished manuscript as he sits down, closes his eyes, and places his hands over his smiling mouth, as if he wants to take it all in and bask in the inevitable appreciation of his elementary school students, is unexpectedly hilarious.) 

Much like any horror-comedy, or any comedy in general, some jokes land and some don't, but the ones that do are frequently funny. Co-writer Leigh Whannell (screenwriter for the Saw and Insidious series) absolutely steals the show as Doug, the socially awkward and possibly serial-killing biology teacher who rattles off all the film's best lines (especially during the Breakfast Club-ish confessional scene).


Directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion, in the midst of all the carnage, manage to show off some pretty striking directorial flare, most notably in the slow-motion sequence somewhat reminiscent of another zombie opus, World War Z, in which the audience gets a ground-zero look at how quickly the zombie virus can spread, when a zombified student tears across the playground scratching deep wounds into the arms of other students. The surreal but savage and brutal construction of this sequence, despite it taking place in a cheeky black comedy, wouldn't feel out of place in a more traditional horror film. The tremendous musical score by Bulgarian composer Kreng marries bits of John Carpenter to traditional orchestra and sounds fantastic.

Where the film fumbles is with its use of Jorge Garcia as an acid-dropping crossing guard who spends most of the film isolated in a van hallucinating from the drugs he's taken. While this does mostly come off as entertaining, it also feels like it belongs entirely to its own story; it could have been fully excised without affecting the film, even improving its pace. Cooties also falls victim to a Return of the King-ish too many endings. Once the film embarks on a change of location during the third act (and following a dispatching of a certain character), Cooties feels like it's just around the corner from ending, but when it insists on continuing, it starts to feel dangerously close like overstaying its welcome.


Not since Troma's terrible Beware: Children at Play has a film so unashamedly both put children in danger and made them the adversaries, and thankfully Cooties, despite its very recognizable cast and mainstream release, doesn't relent when it comes to bloodletting and bodily carnage. The nice thing about Cooties is that, unlike Beware: Children at Play (or anything from Troma), you get all the mayhem with none of the desire to take an immediate shower. 

Though the zombie comedy thing has been done to death, Cooties proves that there's still life in the concept yet. It boasts an engaging and amusing story, more good jokes than bad, and a cast whose chemistry is infectious makes Cooties worth catching.


Jul 26, 2020

[REC] 4: APOCALYPSE (2014)


What a weird road the [REC] series has traveled. After the successful release of the first film, which can be fairly described as a modern classic, its directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza were smart enough to realize that to a successful sequel should revisit all the things that made its predecessor so effective: the claustrophobic surroundings of that Barcelona apartment building, the cast of quirky characters slowly transforming into hideous mutants, the emaciated hammer-swinging thing residing in the attic, and most importantly, the inclusion of the found-footage aesthetic. [REC]2, a clever sidequel, posits: say, what else could be going on in that apartment building? And while on paper that sounds like a total cop-out, it worked just fine. Going beyond its ability to strike gold twice utilizing an identical concept, it took things one step further by introducing a rather interesting idea: what if this "disease" being passed from person to person via bite and turning everyone afflicted into bleeding, shrieking, gooey ghouls was, in actuality, demon possession? With this idea in motion, the ghouls of [REC] didn't have to just scream and hurtle at their prey. Now they could sprout wings, or crawl upside down on the ceiling. Now there was the simmering suggestion that it would not be a scientist who could potentially find a cure, but a priest. Now we suddenly had The Exorcist in the back of our minds, and that ain't a shabby association to call forth.

While some factions of the audiences didn't fully embrace this new demonic twist, [REC]was wildly popular, and so it wasn't long before not one but two more sequels were announced: [REC]3: Genesis, and [REC]4: Apocalypse. However, in a surprising move, the co-directors also announced that each of them would be tackling one of the sequels solo, and even more surprising, abandoning the found footage aesthetic that had helped to make the series so far stand out from its flesh-ripping cinematic colleagues. And so, with two solid films already winning over most horror fans, audiences waited to see just what kind of new ideas its creators would bring to the table.

They got their answer: stupid.

Paco Plaza took the first swing with [REC]3Genesis, a film severely hampered by its overly aggressive but laudable attempts to avoid treading derivative ground. While a worthy endeavor, the dropping of the found footage technique, the insertion of constant and too-silly humor, and setting the film prior to the events of the first all led to an entry that was uneven, inconsistent, and lacking in any thrills.

With the long-confirmed fourth and final entry in the [REC] series looming on the horizon, this one under the guidance of a solo Balagueró, audiences once again waited to see if the franchise would go out with a bang instead of a whimper.

It hasn't.

That law of diminishing returns refuses to ever cut audiences a break, so [REC]4Apocalypse eventually arrived, unseating [REC]3 from its very brief record of being the weakest of the series. In what amounts to an even stupider film than Friday the 13th: Jason Takes Manhattan, [REC]4 has our characters running loose on a barge as one by one its collection of military soldiers and doctors fall victim to the very "disease" they have been trying to cure. Manuela Velasco, Spain's own beautiful doppelganger for Marisa Tomei, reprises her role from the first two films as the battered and bloodied Ángela Vidal, who following her nightmarish experience in that demon-infested apartment building has been whisked away to this same barge, filled with the aforementioned military personnel. Very far from shore, and cut off from the rest of the world, she and several others find themselves quarantined by a gaggle of doctors in an effort to figure out what is causing the disease, and how to cure it.


While [REC]is in some ways an improvement over its predecessor, thankfully jettisoning all the cheap cartoon humor and contributing an entry that actually feels like it belongs to the [REC] series, unfortunately it gets nearly everything else wrong. The attempt at series continuity by utilizing Velasco is certainly appreciated, but her character is utterly misused, setting her up as a red herring for much of the film's running time until the third-act twist that, to be fair, is a genuine surprise, but to be fairer, is surprising because of how cheap and shameless it is. The twist "works" not because the film was successful in subtly setting it up, but rather because it was unmercifully lazy - the kind of "gotcha" moment played out in that theoretically non-existent wasteland of Offscreen Land where Balagueró insisted on hiding it like an Indiana Jones relic, because to have seen it play out on screen under the pretenses with which we were already provided would have made the twist obviously lazy.

Say, speaking of lazy, why take the time in having the virus spread from one person to the next when you can just say, "Oh crap, the food's infected," and demonize a whole slew of people at once? And if [REC]suddenly doing an about-face on the whole "demonic possession spread by bite" thing and instead having it spread through some dripped-on lamb wasn't bad enough, a really unnecessary and unintentionally silly adversary has been added to the mix to chase around our human cast: monkeys. And not just monkeys, but badly-rendered CGI monkeys, their "realism" at a level usually reserved for Planters' Nuts commercials.


Director Balagueró seems to miss the found-footage technique he and his co-director had employed on the first two films, but while he doesn't resurrect the gimmick for this go-round, he attempts to bridge the gap between amateur POV shooting with traditional film, utilizing the ever-popular handheld approach that is at best disorienting, and at worst downright nauseating. Occasionally, filmmakers are sometimes tempted to obscure the lack of substance in their film by depending on all manner of disorienting camera techniques to fool their audiences into thinking something dramatic is happening, and here Balagueró is no different. Close-ups of blood being drawn or weathered men standing around talking are shot with all manner of quick zooms by its cinematographer who seems to have swapped out a tripod for a stair-machine. What's supposed to seem interesting and intense is actually quite dull.

Speaking of dull, [REC]takes entirely too long to get going, and once it does, it has no fucking idea where it wants to go. The revelation of demonic possession spreading from one person to the next introduced in [REC]2 is barely a footnote here, as if the filmmakers realized far-too-late they had written themselves into a corner. "Oh crap, if they can fly, then what's the point of quarantining everyone on a ship?" etc. But no wings are sprouted, no ceilings are walked on. And without being able to use, no hyperbole, one of the creepiest and most effective images in modern horror - that of the sickly gaunt Nina Medeiros swinging her hammer blindly in the dark - Balagueró opts for an altogether different path: instead of Ángela running for her life through the dark bowels of a ship, pursued by something so monstrous that the only thing it has in common with mankind is a disturbing depiction of its form, instead Ángela can be found running through the bowels of a ship, being pursued by...monkey sounds. LOUD monkey sounds.


Still, this idea does make for a killer dramatic moment: with the stirring Zimmer-like musical score by the talented Arnau Bataller beginning to mount, Ángela flees her tiny-primate pursuers through the dark, desperately heaving herself through nooks and crannies of the ship, and finally she sees the way out; she throws herself to freedom, screaming, in near hysterics; she surprises another character who happens to be searching for her at that very moment, and before he can say a word, she looks at him with near-madness in her eyes, and in one long triumphant cry of release, bellows, "MOOOOOOONKEEEEEEEEYS!"

[REC]is the fourth part of a once-solid series that lost its way halfway through. It wants to use CGI to ensure a dramatic ending, but it can't afford it. It wants to have a big cast, but doesn't know what to do with any of them, that is beyond having all of them running around in the dark yelling "Vamos!" at each other. It wants to expand on the previously established [REC] cannon, but then...it doesn't. This proclaimed final entry in the series still not only manages to set up a [REC]5, but one that promises this series will still be swinging blindly in the dark.


Jul 24, 2020

DEAD SHACK (2017)


The zombie comedy. People are still making these!

But you know what they say: you can’t keep a chuckling ghoul down.

To its credit as a zombie comedy (a zombedy, if you will), Dead Shack is at least funny. Not consistently funny, with most of its gutter-mouth Superbad-inspired humor landing very flat, but I’d at least say that Dead Shack spends more of its time being funny than not funny. Donavon Stinson as Roger, the family’s patriarch, is hands-down the biggest purveyor of the film’s best humor. His interactions with Lisa, his hard-drinking girlfriend, especially, are tremendously dry and strange and often very funny.

Being that we’re dealing with a zombie movie, Dead Shack is also violent. Very violent. And it’s that wonderful old school practical violence that I’ve really come to miss in genre entertainment. Heads come off, neck wounds spurt geysers of blood, axes fly into and connect with bodies, etc. It’s a joyful romp of gore — this, at the very least, won’t disappoint genre fans.


Since I’m fairly certain I’m not the only one who thinks the zombie market has become saturated, you’ll be pleased to know that Dead Shack at least has somewhat of a unique concept, mostly in the form of Neighbor (she’s never given a name) played by Lauren Holly, who suits up in SWAT gear and corrals the hapless directly into the mouths of her zombified family. It’s interesting in that she’s clearly the villain of the piece, yet the audience develops empathy toward her anyway because she’s clearly not in her right mind and is having tremendous difficulty dealing with the death of her family.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Dead Shack never turns into one of those …of the Dead scenarios where shit hits the fan in the final act and hordes of zombies begin stampeding through shopping malls and underground military bases. Dead Shack keeps things pretty intimate in that regard, though the stakes still remain fairly high.

If you’re a fan of the zombie genre, Dead Shack certainly ranks as one of the better titles you should seek. Lord knows the zombie thing has been done to death (ha!), but every so often there’s a reason to not completely dismiss it out of hand, either. You can thank Dead Shack for that newest slice of redemption.



Jul 23, 2020

CARGO

Stranded in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, a man sets in motion an unlikely plan to protect the precious cargo he carries: his infant daughter.

Directed by Ben Howling & Yolanda Ramke

Produced by Ben Howling, Yolanda Ramke, Marcus Newman, Daniel Foeldes


This is so good.

Jul 22, 2020

THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS (2016)


There is no one on planet Earth more sick of zombies than I am. Even before The Walking Dead premiered to firmly launch both zombies and maudlin mediocrity into the mainstream, Danny Boyle’s “non-zombie” zombie movie, 28 Days Later… (it’s a zombie movie, btw), the Resident Evil franchise, and a thriving direct-to-video market ensured there would be no shortage of flesh-ripping clumsy ghouls. That zombie movies are still being made, not in spite of but directly because of The Walking Dead, has pushed the sub-genre to the stage of saturation, and regardless of well-meaning producers who claim to have done something different, they are all very much the same. A foreign body creates a virus; a virus creates a ghoul; a ghoul creates many ghouls; many ghouls create a ghoul apocalypse; a ghoul apocalypse creates a franchise; a franchise creates exasperation.

Upon the release of The Girl with All the Gifts, based on the novel by M.R. Carey, I’ll admit I didn’t pay much attention. And when the words “dystopian future” and “young lead female character” filtered into my brain, I shut it down entirely, writing it off as yet another film based on an alternafuture young adult book series featuring a strong and plucky girl to lead yet another revolution.


Within moments of the film’s opening, I knew I was in for something different – and not a film ready to rely only on zombie carnage and helicopter shots of a post-human world. Instead, The Girl with All the Gifts is a philosophical, scientific, and at times alarmingly charming new take on the zombie story, looking beyond the cause of the zombie outbreak (called “hungries” here) and at a future where a zombie crossbreed species exists and calls into question the well-worn “us vs. them” concept that has been at the forefront of every zombie movie conflict. Told from the point of a young “girl” named Melanie (an extraordinary Sennia Nanua), one of a dozen special children being held in captivity and studied by what appears to be the last of the world’s military, The Girl with All the Gifts looks not to the far reaches of outer space, a government lab, or to an unspoken cause for all the zombiery on which our characters can ruminate. It looks to the very world we inhabit – something birthed from nature – that brings about the downfall of man. A far less stupid version of The Happening, but with the same basic concept, The Girl with All the Gifts suggests that our planet soon tires of us and relies on fungus – yes, fungus – to bring about the destruction of man.

Director Colm McCarthy, making his feature directorial debut after a long career in television, wants to take this material as seriously as a Vietnam-era George Romero, Danny Boyle, or even Jim Mickle with his underappreciated Mulberry Street, and he does quite handily, falling back and letting the camera linger on intimate environments and small moments between characters. Astoundingly, the audience is thrust into the same confusing environments where Melanie thrives, but where we’re struggling to put together who she is, where she is, and what’s being done to her, she’s instead existing in a place where she always has; she knows nothing else about the outside world, so the cold manner in which she’s treated by the soldiers who point automatic weapons at her face as her shackles are done, or undone, isn’t the least bit surreal to her. That’s been her whole life. 

And this is where The Girl with All the Gifts will begin to feel familiar.

 

At the core of every zombie movie has been the aforementioned “us vs. them” conflict, but always with a suggestion that the “us” had the potential to be far more monstrous than the “them.” Helen Justineau (Gemma Arteron) is the special children’s teacher; someone who shows them kindness and love. Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close) wants to cut them open and look for the cure to the infection she believes to be inside. Sgt. Parks (Paddy Considine) hovers somewhere in between, not allowing his empathy for young Melanie to supersede his purpose and drive to survive. The Girl with All the Gifts tows that familiar line but with new and ponderous ways, leaving you to wonder about the final sequence and what it means – who’s really in charge? And who, really, is the enemy? Us, or them?

The very unusual musical score by composer Cristobal Tapia De Veer, comprised of a chorus of robotic-sounding human voices and something akin to a theremin, sounds both utterly foreign but completely appropriate for the zombie-ridden environment. It also makes for one of the best musical scores of the year. There aren’t too many instances when the audioscape comes alive in the typical blockbuster movie sense, but when there’s carnage, you hear it — so much that it nearly pierces you with its surprising intensity.

Zombie fans unfettered by mass consumption of their favorite ghouligans have no reason not to love The Girl with All the Gifts. Even those, like me, who need a long breather from the zombie phenomenon will find a lot to respect and adore in this latest take on the walking dead. Anchored in place by a preternaturally confident performance by Sennia Nanua, it’s the best kind of horror film one could ever hope to see — something that’s not just horrific, but about something. 

Jul 21, 2020

ZOMBIE 5


If you had told me ten years ago that zombies would not only infiltrate major cable television and make The Walking Dead one of the highest-rated shows of all time, but ALSO become the focus of a multi-million dollar globe-trotting film starring the massively-present Brad Pitt (World War Z), I honestly don't know what I would have thought of you. But, here we are. 

Zombies, for all intents and purposes, are "in" right now. And when I say "in" I mean in movies, television (drama) shows, comics, and feature novels. Not only that, they're invading real life, too.

And that's cool with me, really. Every horror-loving boy/girl loves his/her zombies. Sure, the genre might be a bit too saturated with them right now, but for every ten zombie projects that come to be, a few of them will be decent, and one will be great. To me, that one great project is worth the middling nine.

Beginning with Night of the Living Dead, co-writer/director George A. Romero appropriated the word "zombie" and turned it into his own monster. No, zombies were not always undead flesh-eating, stumbling, mumbling fools. And nowhere is it written in an ancient tome that the only way to kill a zombie is by destroying the brain or removing the head. This isn't common folklore like killing a vampire with a stake to the heart, or killing a werewolf with a silver bullet. Romero started it all. He took the concept of "zombies" - people brainwashed and drugged out of their minds with an assortment of mind altering chemicals and resurrected as slaves by their master - and turned it into what it's become. Everything you see on The Walking Dead was created entirely by Romero. If the world was just, he'd own his own concept of the nu-zombie and be one of the richest men because of it.

Many filmmakers have been "borrowing" Romero's zombie concept for the last fifty years, and because of the world we live in, the more high profile films to gain prominence are the Resident Evil films, which is all kinds of sad.

So allow me to take this time to highlight five particular zombie-infested films with which you may not be familiar. Seek them out should you feel so inclined, and you'll find that these celluloid collections of ghouls just might eat their way into your heart.

Mutants
Should the proposed 28 Months Later, the third part of Danny Boyle's 28 trilogy, never come to fruition, feel free to consider Mutants the honorary Part 3. Not only does this French-set film carry on what was alluded to in the final moments of 28 Weeks Later, but its extreme gore and visceral depiction of the zombie threat (considered more of an infected breed than the actual undead) resurrects Boyle's threat while also borrowing his trademark thrashing-camera chaotic cinema experience, all of which made 28 Days Later nihilistically wonderful. Mutants opens with a jarring introduction to our characters, forcing you to feel as if the movie had begun several months before you ever turned it on. With shit having already hit the fan, three people (two EMTs and an army soldier) are fighting their way through a zombie infestation. The two EMTs, Marco and Sophia, are also lovers, and with Sophia pregnant, the two take refuge in an old hospital and await the rescue Sophia hopes was successfully contacted via her broadcasts over the radio. But with Marco bit and the infection slowly taking over, it becomes a race against the clock as Sophia hopes someone has heard her pleas for help and will deliver to them both the salvation they need.  Oh, and because this is a zombie movie, a bunch of dickhead humans also make things difficult because that's a requirement in every zombie movie: the reminder that humanity is actually worse than flesh-ripping, blood-spitting ghouls.

When you think of the French, do you think of loaves of bread, wimpy men, and an entire nation of people us Americans are pigeonholed into disliking simply because they don't like to go to war? Well, if you're American, that's a definite possibility...but allow me to add one more trait to that list: they make entirely fucked-up and non-apologetic horror films. Between Haute Tension, the absolutely insane À l'intérieur (Inside), and now Mutants, it's clear they relish having bloody chunks rocket across the room. The zombies in Mutants are very threatening and very real. The debate of walking vs running zombies would literally be eaten to death as these things barrell down the street or the hallway and rip chunks out of you like you're the Staypuft Marshmallow Man. 

Pontypool
This strange little film asks the question: what if it weren't noxious chemicals, Sumerian rat monkeys, voodoo, or space dust that resurrected the dead and turned them into zombies...but instead the sound of our own voices? What if a zombie infestation rapidly spread with each single syllable uttered by a human mouth? And could you imagine the Catch 22-ish situation a radio show host would find himself in? How does he help to warn humankind of the threat outside their doors without adding to the problem by sending his voice out over the airwaves?

An interesting premise makes for an even more interesting film called Pontypool, starring the wonderful Stephen McHattie (300, The X Files) as Grant Mazzy, the radio host who finds himself in that earlier-described predicament. Set mostly in the basement radio station run by Sydney Briar (Catherine Keener doppelganger Lisa Houle), the film at first is given legs by various call-in reports from area residents as well as one of the station's newscasters, and in an almost flipped-on-its-ear Rear Window-like maneuver, we can only listen as things outside get more and more intense. We experience most of the terror through eyewitness' verbal accounts described by the confused and the terrified, but after a while, our eyewitnesses begin to exhibit the same strange behavior gripping the small Canadian town of Pontypool. It's through these developments that the threat becomes more and more prominent, and it leads to a rather wacky conclusion that threatens to derail all the goodwill Pontypool has amassed by straddling a line, comprised of an intriguing concept, between distinct and ridiculous.

"Dead Set"
This series from the U.K. takes what just might be two of America's favorite things - zombies and reality television - and marries them to create a fun five-episode saga filled with all kinds of ghoulish carnage. And much to the relief of the found-footage haters of the world, what sounds like an apocalypse captured on home video is actually very traditionally shot, very rarely utilizing amateur footage to tell its story. This fun meta-re-realization of a what-if Big Brother cast find themselves locked into a loft and completely cut off from the outside world, so when a zombie outbreak occurs, they have no idea such bloodiness is happening right outside their door. A young and spunky Big Brother producer named Kelly (Jamie "My Father Is That Bad-Ass From Sexy Beast" Winstone) finds herself on the run from the growing zombie threat, trying not just to survive, but also to find her boyfriend, with whom she hasn't been entirely honest. Like many other films of its ilk, it's not just a story of someone looking for salvation, but redemption as well. And meanwhile, a bunch of people get eaten, ripped apart, and decimated in all manner of fun and crimson-colored ways. Plus someone shits in a trashcan and screams. Good times!

Boy Eats Girl
I saw this DVD somewhere for literally $1 and figured I had nothing to lose in giving it a shot. Despite the terrible title, I found the premise intriguing, and what I expected to be a once-and-done viewing turned into one of the happiest surprises of my bargain bin archaeological digs, and it's a film I've revisited several times. This 2005 flick from Ireland could easily be described as Dawn of the Dead meets American Pie (assuming you consider the latter to be reasonably entertaining), and tells the story of a boy named Nathan, who is madly in love with his best girl mate named Jessica. One night, in an only-in-the-movies misunderstanding, Nathan feels stood up by Jessica, and in a move that would make even the guys from Hawthorne Heights roll their eyes, Nathan goes home, drinks, cries a lot, and hangs himself (accidentally). Nathan's mother brings him back from the dead using an extremely vague spell found in an ancient text, but fails to tell the boy exactly what's transpired. For a day or so, Nathan feels stronger and faster, but his brief time as Peter Parker slowly regresses into a Bub for the Degrassi High Generation.

I realize that everything I've so far described about Boy Eats Girl makes it sound massively dumb, but trust me when I say much of the film is very funny. The lead kids are likable (the ones you're supposed to like, anyway) and while it may sound sugary and lame on my part, there's something refreshing about knowing one of your best buds is slowly turning into a zombie, but you stick by his side anyway. It adds a level of charm and humility to the film and turns what's basically a stupid concept into a movie with heart. Plus lots of flying body parts. I'm pretty sure someone gets run over by a lawn mower at some point.

Zombie Honeymoon
Based on the title and presence of producer John Landis, who has directed some of our most classic comedies, you would think that Zombie Honeymoon is played mostly for laughs. You'd be wrong, nerds. The story, about a recently married couple on their honeymoon encountering a zombie on the beach who bites the man before disappearing back into the waves, is actually very poignant, and very saddening. Sure, there are moments played for laughs, as such a premise cannot sustain without occasional breaks for levity, but what could easily have been another shitty direct-to-video low budgeter actually tugs at the heartstrings a little more than you would expect. A wife for barely a day finds herself caring for her slowly transforming husband, at first thinking he is merely ill...but soon realizes that he is becoming a zombie before her very eyes. The only zombie movie on this list to not feature hordes of zombies running across abandoned streets, Zombie Honeymoon remains a very intimate and isolated story, taking place mostly in the vacation spot the couple has rented to celebrate their marriage. If you're looking for split heads and geysers of blood, look elsewhere, but those looking for something different should check this out.

Jul 20, 2020

THE DEAD NEXT DOOR (1989)


More zombies!

Sick of them yet?

I know I am, and not just because it's Ghouly (say it with me now: Ghoul-Eye) here at TEOS. I've been sick of zombies since the third season of The Walking Dead (the same point at which I quit that show altogether).

But perhaps you remember a time — as I do — when zombies hadn’t breached these pop culture shores beyond the every-decade release of George A. Romero’s revered zombie series. Zombies weren’t emblazoned on t-shirts or kids’ lunch boxes or burned into game apps found on tablets. They were for “weirdos” — ya know, those same “weirdos” who liked horror films in general, and enjoyed seeing heads get cut off or eaten in half.

Made on a shoe-stringiest of shoe-string budgets back over four years, The Dead Next Door finally saw a release in 1989 — another four years after the release of Romero’s own Day of the Dead, which didn’t set the box office on fire. By all accounts, whatever life there had been in the zombie sub-genre was dead. And The Dead Next Door, written and directed by J.R. Bookwalter, wasn’t going to change that.


When compared even against Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which was made for about the price of a half a pack of cigarettes, The Dead Next Door still comes off incredibly cheap looking, so it shouldn’t surprise you that it was made for $125,000. (Okay, to put things in real perspective, Night of the Living Dead was made for about $115,000, and that was in mid-1960s dollars.) When you watch them back to back, The Dead Next Door suffers even more, but even to watch it on its own and judging it on its own merits, it still looks unbearably cheap. Damn it all if it ain’t charming, though. Lousy acting, directing, writing — nearly everything — aside, The Dead Next Door shoots for the rafters but tears the roof off the place with its impressive and unrestrained gore effects. The amount of gore on display puts to shame any of Romero’s most well-known zombie gags, though Bookwalter is obviously going for the outrageous over the cringe-inducing. Numerous characters are named after legendary horror directors — ie, Carpenter, Raimi*, etc. — so Bookwalter is obviously a genre fan at heart, and is trying to make a film akin to the more visceral from those directors’ career. (*And Raimi had better get a shout-out — he ghost-produced the film and helped fund it with whatever profits he earned from Evil Dead 2.)

Low budget films have their defenders, especially in the horror genre, and The Dead Next Door is a beloved title along the same lines as The Evil Dead and Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead (sensing a theme here?). Though it may lack those films’ directorial flair or legendary status, it’s got an awful lot of heart — and it’s flying just past your head along with all the brains.



Jul 18, 2020

OVERLORD (2018)


If you went into Overlord totally blind, from the get-go, you might think you were watching a war-set action film with a moderate amount of action, or a war-set period drama made by people not that indebted to historical accuracy nor dedicated to a sense of meaningful purpose. After an explosive opening, leaving a small squad of soldiers marooned in a small French town under Nazi rule, you might wonder just what the point of anything is, and when anything might happen. That may not sound like high praise, but being that Overlord is actually a horror flick (with action elements), it forces you to reevaluate the pace at which it unfolds. Soon, you’ll begin to respect how it methodically reveals something deeply disturbing and dangerous in the bowels of the old church where a Nazi stronghold has been established, and which a small group of American soldiers must destabilize as their only mission. 

The first act, following its chaotic opening, is dedicated entirely to intrigue, peppered with drips and drabs alluding to what the Nazis are doing in their laboratory/dungeon. During this time, the film allows us to get to know our characters, determine the relationships they share, become accustomed to at least a basic history of World War II, and simply appreciate that we’re being treated to a genre period piece, which never happens in mainstream cinema. If you go into Overlord expecting a horrific spectacle from the first frame to the last, you may be checking your watch, but if you go in knowing that the film wants you to earn that fictionalized horror by making you experience the historical, real-life horror first, Overlord will earn your respect. 


Overlord is very attractively shot , despite all the nastiness that’s soon to come, with the production design going far to make Overlord feel as vintage as possible, while also dabbling with some slight steampunk influences. More importantly, it knows that it exists in the shadows of other classic World War II epics like Saving Private Ryan, and certain character archetypes (including one of their fates) is informed by this. To get into slightly spoilery material, one soldier suffers a fatal spray of gunfire to the chest, and the medic rolls up his shirt to see the damage, revealing too-realistic bullet wounds leaking endless rivers of blood no matter how much someone tries to wipe it away. This is the fate that befalls Giovanni Ribisi’s Medic Wade in Saving Private Ryan, and the scene is purposely staged in the same way, only now Overlord offers a twist…the mysterious serum culled from the Nazi laboratory, and the strange things it can do to dead flesh…

The cast do excellent work, anchored by leads Jovan Adepo as Private Boyce and Kurt Russell offspring Wyatt Russell as Corporal Ford, who finds himself the defacto leader of the squad after…let’s call it a major mishap. Both excel in their roles, with Russell easily stepping into that no-nonsense, humorless tough guy role that Clint Eastwood handily turned into an archetype. (In fact, it was during a pivotal scene during the third act between our two leads that made me realize that, in all this discussion regarding the upcoming remake of Escape From New York, the perfect person to take on the mantle of Snake Plissken would be Kurt Russell’s own son.) And as such, every good horror romp needs a towering villain, and that belongs to Dr. Wafner (Pilou Asbæk), who is monstrous enough simply as a “human being” before his character goes in a very different direction. (As an aside, Avery admits in the supplements that Overlord doesn’t quite follow the history book when it comes to its casting, as he admits there were no African-American paratroopers in World War II, despite casting three black actors in the squad. However, as he was right to point out, in a movie about Nazis creating monstrous super soldiers from dead bodies, the audience should already be in the right frame of mind to allow just a bit more suspension of disbelief.)


Overlord also has substance, vying to be more than just a B-movie style Nazi smash-‘em-up. In the midst of this monster movie, director Julius Avery includes tough questions for the characters and the audience to question, especially during one scene in particular that sees Russell’s Ford very aggressively “interrogating” the Wafner character, whom we have seen commit awful acts on screen. Avery executes the scene so well that this easy idea of black and white starts to go away, leaving us to wonder what’s too far to go to complete a mission, and how low do the heroes have to stoop before they become just as bad as their enemy?

Following the end of World War II, it didn’t take very long for distributors to begin turning to the Nazi as their go-to horror movie villain, beginning with a brief run of exploitation flicks from the ‘60s and ‘70s before transitioning into more straightforward (and sometimes goofy) horror spectacles. The trend continues to this day in seemingly every Call Of Duty installment ever and an array of questionable looking direct-to-video titles. In spite of being a real-life horrifying subject, the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany and their exploration into the dark arts and occultism almost write their own horror-based material. We’ve seen Nazi zombies aplenty over the years, from 1977’s Shockwaves to 2008’s very underrated Outpost (which treads similar ground as Overlord, but on a budget), and the trend will likely continue for some time. It’s doubtful, however, that one will be as well-made, violent, and even thoughtful, while still appealing to mainstream theater audiences, as Overlord.

Jul 17, 2020

SPLINTER (2008)


Low budget filmmaking is tough, especially when it comes to horror. If we're taking on just the low budget medium, a lack of financing can affect the final output. Lesser money can only afford the lesser actors, cinematographers, editors, composers, production designers, etc., and a weakness apart of any of these individuals can severely handicap a project. In the horror genre, you have all of these risky areas, but then in addition, you have the inherent prejudice against the genre for the years and years of cheap imitators, exploitation romps, depictions of "glorified" violence, and on and on. Lord knows I certainly feel this way, and I'm supposed to love this shit. Because they were grandfathered in, it's easy to forget that watermarks in the genre – Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, Night of the Living Dead – were made on the amount of money you found beneath your car seat the last time you dropped your iPhone. Even today, Hollywood approaches to the horror genre – unless of course they're greenlighting a dripping CGI mess of an extravaganza – are apt to keep the budget low. In case you haven't noticed, Hollywood's track record in giving us decent quality horror films (the recent Insidious and Sinister don't count, as they were both made independently) are about on par with those low budget filmmakers who are either genuinely trying to make something good or simply trying to create something stupid they know they can sell for the bottom shelf at the video store. (Oh shit, I just totally dated myself.)

Enter Splinter, a little backwoods monster movie that nearly came out of nowhere and personified how so much could be done with so little.


Polly (Jill Wagner) and Seth (Paulo Costanzo, aka the stoner from Road Trip who believed he was destined for great things) are celebrating their anniversary of sorts in a far less glamorous place than Cancun or Aruba. Instead they're jeeping into the heart of the wilderness with nothing but dufflebags of clothes and some camping gear. Her idea more than his, he attempts to play the role of outdoorsman, but it becomes increasingly obvious he's meant for motel beds and flourescent lighting rather than tent assembly and gazing up at the stars.

Meanwhile, a mile down the road and standing outside a broken-down car, Dennis (the immeasurably cool Shea Whigham) and Lacey (Rachel Kerbs) are on a rendezvous of their own – one that has them fleeing from the law. Tensions run high between them, but Dennis has his sights on getting out of dodge, pronto, and Lacey has her sights on something else – anything else, desperately – as long as it comes in pill form.

Eventually, these two couples run afoul of each other, and at gunpoint, Dennis and Lacey force themselves into the car – and lives – of Polly and Seth. With one half of our on-screen couples taken hostage by the other, the new foursome simply drive down the desolate wilderness-surrounded road...until they run over something strange and suffer a flat tire because of it. Seth and Lacey find the thing they ran over...something covered in unnaturally large splinters...something that most assuredly be dead, but attacks them anyway.

The couples speed off in the repaired jeep, unsure of what they had seen, but Seth, who is currently in the process of obtaining his PhD in biology, attempts to make sense of the very dead thing covered in a blanket of splinters, which seemed to multiply across the ruined piece of roadkill, keeping it alive.

A hissing and smoking radiator has them pulling over at a gas station, where they encounter a former splinter creature victim, and one of their numbers becomes infected. Locking themselves into the gas station to hide from the strange things stalking them, they're forced to rely on their wits, a healthy array of convenience store items, and each other, if they want to survive.

And things get awfully bloody.


What we have with Splinter is a loving homage to creature features that came before it, mixed with zombie films that have directly inspired it. Clearly in love with John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing, George Romero's Dead series, and holy crap, even TremorsSplinter takes the "rules" of the zombie film, marries them to the absurdity of the nature/science run amok sub-genre, and creates a wonderfully clever and at times disturbing resurrection-gone-bad grimy gore fest.

You will find no CGI here; nothing but a collection of unique and imaginative practical effects. A dismembered hand covered in needles crawling across the floor like a spider recalls The Thing (and perhaps Evil Dead II), and the ruined bodies of anyone unfortunate to become infected send-up Peter Jackson's early kiwi splatter romps. Added to this are a collection of camera tricks nearing one hundred years old in their construction and are still just as effective.

The best part of all this? Taking a page out of Night of the Living Dead, there is no explanation – no why – for the events unfolding. A brief, one-second shot of a sign – something about keeping away from an oil company's experimental extraction site – is all we're provided, and we've seen enough of these flicks before to let our imaginations fill in the gaps.

Shea Whigham's presence here is the smartest casting decision. With Denny, Whigham plays a total bastard, but one you know from the start you're going to end up rooting for. Yeah, he's a thief, and he and Lacey are on the run from the law, but his main want for freedom is not to avoid an indeterminate amount of time behind bars, but so he can get his drug-addict girlfriend out of the country and into Mexico, where he'll focus on trying to get her clean. Whigham plays this incredibly well; he is a bastard, but he's also the kind of bastard you'd hope to have around when shit hits the fan. He's got both a cowboy's balls and a thief's unscrupulousness, both of which come in handy as our characters find themselves confined to one place and warding off attacks from the slowly growing numbersof splinter creatures. And wouldn't you know it? Turns out he's a big ol' softy, too, just like the rest of us.

Whigham has done nothing but expand his increasingly impressive career. (Motherfucker's only been in three films nominated for Best Picture over the last two years, as well as appeared in both "Boardwalk Empire" and "True Detective.") Splinter was not one of his first major roles, but rather an interesting stepping stone for him along the way. He was far enough along in his career that he could have easily not taken part, but I'm glad he did, as the film is all the better for it. And despite all the bad-asses he'd already played, and all the bad-asses he'd yet to play, I guarantee he'll never do anything as bad-ass as shooting a shotgun one-handed, since his other arm has long been torn off, tossing it in the air to load another shell, and shooting it again. (Don't get me wrong, Wagner and Costanzo as the kidnapped couple forced to align with a "bad guy" in order to survive do just fine with their roles. But this is Shea Whigham's film.)

Speaking of smart casting, enjoy the appearance of the opening gas station victim, played by Charles Baker. Perhaps you know him by another name: Skinny Pete, from the pop culture phenomenon that is "Breaking Bad."


Toby Wilkins' direction over Splinter is just fantastic. The chaotic camera does a nice job of masking the assuredly cheap and simple creatures while also creating a deep frustration within his audience, because we just want to see this thing – every ugly nook and cranny. And among the many great set-pieces on hand, one in particular – which has one main character, er, let's say impaired, and making his way toward a getaway car – which will literally have you screaming at the screen for him to move his fucking ass. It's a sequence designed explicitly to have you wondering if he'll make it, and it works like gangbusters.

Toby Wilkins, where the fuck did you go? I mean, okay – The Grudge 3 didn't work out, and I don't at all blame you for hopping on board that franchise and working alongside Hollywood heavyweight Sam Raimi, even if the film was always fated to go direct-to-video. And I don't at all fault you for The Grudge 3 turning out kind of...well...shitty. Let's just pretend it didn't even happen. I don't look at such a film and even remotely think "a Toby Wilkins film." At best, I consider it a minor diversion on the road that will eventually lead you back to the world of horror features, where I know you'll once again give us something worth a damn.