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 retarded, 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.