Showing posts with label ghouly. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ghouly. Show all posts

Jul 31, 2020


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 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 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


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 22, 2020


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 20, 2020


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


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 16, 2020


If Sugar Hill proves anything at all, it's that the blaxsploitation movement of the 1970s focused much of its attention on angry and sobering concepts, but didn't nearly enough embrace the full-on absurdity that the general exploitation movement had already been doing. When people hear the word "blaxspoitation," certain names immediately come to mind: Shaft, Foxy Brown, and perhaps Gravedigger Jones. Apply that to the horror genre and that's where it starts getting interesting: here comes Blacula, Blackenstein, and the lazily named Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde. Good job on your noticing that they're all "updated" versions of classic myths and literature, but beyond their gimmicky names, none of them felt too comfortable shedding their horrific surroundings and just trying to have a bit of silly fun. (Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde might be the worst offender in this camp, taking a ripe concept for race-relations exploration in which a black scientist inadvertently turns himself into a vampire during a freak experiment - a vampire that just happens to be white - and creating a film that's an utter chore to sit through.) It's easy to laugh at titles like Blacula and Blackenstein, as one might assume that they're hoots and a half, but each film presented a surprising amount of seriousness that one wouldn't expect from their respective posters alone. Despite their not-so-subtle titles, they just weren't stupid enough.

That's where Sugar Hill comes in. 

This 1974 oddball blaxsploitation offering starring the gorgeous Marki Bey as the eponymous heroine just wants to have tons of silly fun, utilizing the "evil white man" component for much more entertaining aspects. The social commentary involved is still just as important, but the film is also totally fine with resurrecting a bunch of cobweb-ridden corpses for the purposes of revenge. (It should be noted that the zombies presented in Sugar Hill adhere more closely to the "myth" of the zombies of New Guinea, in which living people were drugged and brainwashed into following their master; here, the zombies remain resurrected corpses, but are still very much following the orders of their master, not eating a bunch of people indiscriminately, as George Romero's Night of the Living Dead introduced in 1968.)

What may sound like idle praise for Sugar Hill is actually a fair point of commendation, which is the film's refreshing inclusion of something indicative of genuine black culture - more specifically, the inclusion of a New Orleans-esque flavor and the use of spirituality in the form of voodoo as a plot device. Though there are many titles in blaxsploitation canon that are more well-known, and some might argue still heavily referenced in even today's modern pop culture, not many of them relied on a very real and established facet of black culture, relegating many of the more recognizable characters to walk around, listen to funk, and look cool. And that's all well and good as far as entertainment goes, but blaxsploitation was birthed out of the desire to tell stories about strong and suave and sexy black characters, and to have seen such a lack of emphasis on a significant part of black culture is disappointing.

Sugar Hill maintains a fair balance of horror and thrilling action, but if it all comes across sillier than had been intended by American International Pictures (who also released Blacula and its sequel Scream, Blacula, Scream), we'll likely never know. Its own director, Paul Maslansky, would agree that it's not a perfect film, and his commentary track contains a handful of very willing self-critiques, including the nugget, "Look how poorly I framed that shot. He's barely in it. This was a terrible set-up." That right there, kids, is a lesson in humility.

Sugar Hill ain't exactly a film dedicated to charting the black struggle, but it's also clearly not trying to be. What it wants to do is shed minor light on the state of race relations during 1974, though it's wrapped within the very silly undead hands of zombie slaves. It does, depending on your outlook, either fall victim to or maintain certain expectations: the white people are evil, they use the n-word way too liberally, and they pay - oh lord, do they pay - for their transgressions. Everything aside, Sugar Hill is bananas-crazy, and entertaining in the most ridiculous of ways. So long as it gets that right, that's good enough to start with.

Jul 12, 2020

MAGGIE (2016)

Maggie is a remarkable film in many respects, the most remarkable being that it was, for a long time, the little movie that could, and not one that many people took seriously. With several new Arnold films not doing all that well with audiences (in terms of box office), the announcement of him signing on to a zombie film alongside Abigail Breslin, who had already done a zombie film (and a comedy at that), didn't bode well, as right off the bat, it wasn't a project anyone was taking seriously. Talkback sections on the film's announcement were littered with the typical disdain for the actor's legacy and age; quotes from his previous films were appropriated and zombified. "Put the zombie down!" etc. The internet did not miss the chance to be the total cliche that it is.

And then Maggie began making film festival rounds to mostly positive reviews, and even those reviewers who panned the film at least had the decency to rightly herald Arnold's performance. For a long time, Arnold has been less of an actor and more of a superstar celebrity. And that's okay. He's only contributed some of the most entertaining action films on Planet Earth, so in that regard, not everyone need be Daniel Day Lewis. His mysterious "Austrian" accent and subsequent inability to fully articulate through it has relegated him to taking on roles where his subdued and slightly unusual way of speaking didn't inhibit the type of role he was playing, like, say, cyborg, or barbarian, or kindergarten teacher.

It's entirely possible that Maggie director Henry Hobson cast Arnold for somewhat the same reason - choosing someone who once represented the immortal screen superstar to this time play it small, sad, and even helpless. Without being able to rely on muscles or guns or groan-inducing puns, Arnold, this time, has only his performance to contribute. Finally, after all these years, the Austrian Oak has proven that he does have the chops to commit to such a role, relying only his talent without any of his familiar crutches in sight.

Maggie doesn't fully work and its ending may leave the viewer a little unsatisfied, but for the majority of the running time, what does work fully overcomes its weaknesses. Much like George Romero has been doing for fifty years, Maggie uses its zombies as a metaphor, but this time confines it to the family unit - more specifically, to the pain of losing a child to terminal illness. It's about witnessing the slow transformation from living to dying, and feeling completely helpless to stop it. To call the film powerful might be overstepping a bit, but at times it can be deeply affecting, with a roundhouse of excellent performances (including the film's best, which belongs to Bryce Romero [no relation!] as the doomed semi-love interest, Trent) and strengthened by restrained storytelling, Maggie offers the most unique film of Arnold's career as well as one of the most rewarding and unassuming gems of the year.

Hobson designed Maggie's visual presentation with muted and pale colors, as if every piece of surrounding is void of life. Details are finely captured, including Arnold's weathered and craggy face. Background textures of the family's depressed and depressing farmhouse, which contribute to much of the established mood, are also ably captured - they don't so much "pop" as they just exist, in keeping with Maggie's restrained style. From the squeaking and rattling of Wade's truck to the ambiance of burning fields to David Wingo's melancholy score, Maggie's audioscape remains as intimate but present as the film itself. Dialogue is clean and well-presented. Environmental ambiance has been perfectly subdued, wiping away the sounds of birds and other native wildlife, adding to the overall feeling of death that drapes across the entire world. Only the desolate sounds of cicadas remain. 

Strip away all your preconceived notions of just what kind of film Maggie is based solely on the fact that Arnold's face appears on the cover. Not only is Maggie purposely pensive (fans of the quicker-paced The Walking Dead should keep walking), it also plays things 100% serious, perhaps at times to its detriment, but it's still one of the best and underseen films of which Arnold has been a part for a long time. One hopes that Maggie's excellent video release introduce the film to a whole new audience that may have missed it the first time, leading them to embrace the new approach by one of cinema's favorite leading men, perhaps that will result in Arnold taking on more serious films and avoiding studio nonsense like Terminator: Genisys - and that's a possibility we should all take very seriously.

Jul 10, 2020


Max (Anton Yelchin) has a problem. His girlfriend of many years, Evelyn (Ashley Greene), is driving him crazy, and for the longest time he has stalled in breaking things off because he didn't have the guts to do it. One day a bus changes all that - by knocking Evelyn out of her shoes and the life out of her body, allowing Max time to sigh in relief and grow close and cozy with Olivia (Alexandra Daddario), the punky and quirky malt shop owner/operator. Things seem to be going pretty well...until Evelyn inexplicably rises from the grave and returns home, hornier and gooier than ever, leaving Max in an even worse conflict: not only is she back to make his life hell, she's now a member of the living dead. He once promised her they would be together forever, and she was going to hold him to it.

As you can imagine, brains jokes.

Burying the Ex was the third comedy of 2014 to mix teen love and zombies, following on the heels of the superior but uneven Life After Beth and the well-meaning but dull Warm Bodies. Why this is so disappointing is because Burying the Ex is the latest feature effort from beloved genre filmmaker Joe Dante, he of the cult classics Gremlins and The Howling, whose involvement should have resulted in a slam dunk. Though an overused concept, if anyone was going to waltz in and do something unique with it, surely it would have been him, as his sensibilities as a storyteller and talent as a filmmaker have set him off from his colleagues during his entire career. But it's the broadness of the film's comedy and the unoriginality of the conflict that stunts his ability to infuse it with his identity, thus robbing us of a new Joe Dante film and leaving us with yet another forgettable title in the "uh oh! zombies!" sub-genre.

After 2003's Looney Tunes: Back in Action, Joe Dante took a long break from feature film-making, only returning in 2012 for the solid genre effort, The Hole. However, that didn’t mean he was taking all that time off from directing, as he also contributed the episodes “Homecoming” and “The Screwfly Solution” for the short-lived Masters of Horror, as well as a segment in the horror anthology Trapped Ashes. Generally, when a director is missing from the feature-film game for that long, the eventual next output isn’t normally great. (See John Carpenter's The Ward.) The Hole, which played film festivals for a long time, struggled to find national distribution, and that didn’t bode well, either. But The Hole would go on to prove that not only was the film worth the wait, but that Dante was able to buck that trend and prove one thing: time away didn't necessarily mean he was off his game.

Much as it pains me to say, perhaps Mr. Dante should have stayed away just a bit longer this time around.

Burying the Ex just might be Dante's broadest comedy yet (this being a director who's made a Looney Tunes movie), and it's almost entirely the fault of the screenplay, which relies on obnoxious humor, cliched situations, and tired dialogue. When you can sense what line any particular character is going to utter, or guess the punchline to the groan-inducing joke soon to come, you'll know you're in the presence of a story that's not trying to break new ground, nor trying to find new ways to entertain. 

This is probably the most disappointing aspect, as the film's concept alone is well within Dante's wheelhouse, it being a marriage of horror and comedy, and not afraid to get a little bloody. What it is afraid to do is go for earned laughs. Instead, we see the same recycled gags set to a musical score by Joseph LoDuca (the Evil Dead trilogy) that telegraphs ahead of time what you should find funny or pensive, dramatic or horrifying - and it all sounds cheap.

The cast manages to turn in varying work. Yelchin as Max comes off as likable, as he usually does, but there's something about his performance which suggests he doesn't quite understand the kind of film he's making, or the sensibilities of his director. A subdued performance in the midst of this madness causes the audience to constantly reel back, unsure of how they're supposed to be feeling and what exactly they're experiencing. Greene, on the other hand, embraces her role to maximum effect. Even before she's laid to rest, her Evelyn is overly peppy with quixotic expectations - the cause of her and Max's relationship issues in the first place. She's a green-going liberal to the analth degree, quipping about fluorescent light-bulbs and food additives and vegan tofu. It's mildly amusing until you realize the film is cheating by manipulating its audience into disliking her, transforming the conflict from torn young love - a conflict of substance worth exploring - into something akin to "Run, my zombie ex-girlfriend will bite you!" Daddario, perhaps most recognizable from her role as your heart attack in HBO's stellar first season of True Detective, plays the horror-comedy version of Garden State's Natalie Portman, in that she's bubbly and strange and adorable - an outwardly positive and enthusiastic person, and the kind of character with whom you can't help but fall in love, until you realize that a girl that beautiful who shares all your same interests and still has her baby teeth and somehow owns her own malt shop only exists in the movies. Max and Olivia's ensuing romance is the only aspect that drives the story forward and makes it interesting - and this in a film about a zombie ex-girlfriend at home falling apart in the bathtub.

As a director, Joe Dante has always been successful at “the Joe Dante aesthetic,” and it’s something he’s been rightfully exploiting ever since his first major blockbuster, 1984’s Gremlins. He has the ability to create something that, on the surface, seems to appeal to the younger demographic, but offers a bit more bite than that audience might be anticipating. His films exist somewhere in a chasm between children's fare and adult entertainment. In the Gremlins films, you have the adorable Gizmo as that conduit to perceived accessibility, though little mutants are soon shoved down garbage disposals while elderly women are heaved out windows. In The Hole, early-teen characters are facing their fears head-on, some childlike in their appearance, and some based on some very real-world dangers. But Dante isn’t satisfied with just creating something and presenting it to his younger audiences on a platter; instead, he wants to take his concepts and up them, just a little, beyond his audience's normal comfort level. He wants to challenge them, just a little bit, more than his creative colleagues. He wants “his” children to face facts and understand that this world contains real dangers, and though he may rely on typical horror tropes to establish this, that doesn’t make them any less relevant or emotionally affecting - or any less funny, which, as they say, tragedy often is. Burying the Ex is unique in that it's Dante's first R-rated film since 1981's The Howling, which is surprising considering his Masters of Horror efforts are quite brutal...and yet, meanwhile, Burying the Ex is not. In fact, beyond one scene of violence, the rating is befuddling, as the film comes off as rather tame and closer to his line-straddling aesthetic, only this time, instead of a boundary-pushing coming-of-age, it's a somewhat lame and toothless film geared toward, well, no one specifically.

Burying the Ex feels like one big missed opportunity. It's one thing for a film to be disappointing, but that disappointment is worsened when it comes from a filmmaker so highly revered in the horror community and who has consistently proven to be capable of so much better. A new film from the likes of Joe Dante will always bring with it a certain amount of expectation, which has been fully earned, but as Burying the Ex has proven, sometimes an intelligent director can make something without any braaaaaaaains.

Jul 8, 2020


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 5, 2020


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


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.