Friday, June 26, 2009

Low, Low Budgets For Low, Low Times

In honor of George A. Romero and his low budget success, I'm going to do a capsule review of a few films, shot on video for no money, that tackle zombies head-on. They're all dreadful and their creators seem to have no idea why they're terrible. They're painfully average in the preparation and just risible in the execution, but they're independent and there's a lesson to be learned in all this mediocrity. So let's meet the Roger Cormans of this generation, shall we?

Dead Moon Rising
by Mark E. Poole
The only difference between this and your average student zombie film is ther's a snarky narrator telling us things we could care less about. The economy, the weather, a bunch of other shit no one cares about, least of all in a movie that was a total misuse of funds. There's a scene at the end where a lot of extras, most of them bikers, and a lot of zombie extras clash on some Californian street or other. If you had the money to get those people together and close a street down, you had the money for a better camera or a decent idea.

by Julián Lara

There's a tendency in a lot of Spanish and/or Latin American pop culture to base stories around guys in black trench coats shooting enormous guns. That's not really all that interesting. Now add a lame sense of humour, subtract continuity, add some dime budget zombies, and shoot it all in video and you have Deadhunter. I wish there was more to say, but there isn't. No one involved has apparently fired one of those giant guns they're carrying because they misuse them left and right.

Dead Summer
by Eddie Benevich
This and Deadhunter were actually on the same DVD so that should have been a big enough clue, but, when have I ever put 2 and 2 together before? This is actually a step up from most of the Troma films I've seen in that though there wasn't any money or talent behind it, it wasn't a terrible idea. That gag with the bondage was pretty lame, even for a film like this. Ultimately no better or worse than the rest of the zombie films that get made today and go straight to DVD, I just happened to have this in front of me and it bugged me that people keep going completely hackneyed routes so I felt the need to vent.

by J.R. Bookwalter
I had high hopes for Bookwalter after his misguided but grimy low-budget The Dead Next Door. That wasn't a great film, but it had some pretty decent gore effects and a pretty unique idea so I don't think I was the only one who maybe thought Bookwalter would make something of himself. Ozone was his last zombie movie before becoming a part of Full Moon Pictures and Tempe Video's stable of terrible directors dedicated to straight-to-video horror films that cost less than most weddings. Anyway, back to Ozone. Ozone is supposed to a police procedural/zombie film crossover, but unless you really like being bored out of your fucking mind, you'd never know it. Anyway, the zombies are in service to a big, fat drug-fueled zombie. None of it makes any sense and the zombies are just kinda there and do whatever suits the scene; continuity was not Bookwalter's specialty.

The lesson I told you that we were gonna learn is that because you have enough money to make a film, doesn't mean you should rush out and shoot something. Write a script, a good one. Watch a lot of movies and figure out what's been done before and what works. Don't just film everything you can and slap it together and call it a day. Actors are important, a story is important, a good idea of what directing means is important, money enough to afford real cameras and sound equipment and locations not just the thing you shot your brother's wedding on and your buddy's bar. Take your time, talk to friends, do rewrites. Don't just make shit because then nobody wins.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Zombies From Beyond Space!!!

Before George A. Romero rewrote the book on low-budget horror and zombie films they were mostly pretty dreadful. Unless a truly gifted auteur was behind the camera, zombie movies from 1936-1966 were largely boring and xenophobic, in fact many of them were simply thinly veiled excuses to have ham-fisted leads espousing the virtue of government-sponsered hatred. Whether it was communism or simply being black, the targets of zombie films were mostly the territory of Poverty Row production houses looking to curry favor with the American public (not to mention skirting things like thoughtfully written screenplays, decent acting and creative production design) by just having white guys standing in for fatuous and cowardly politicians. Not everybody fell victim to these trappings, but in the states it was more or less the norm. Let's look at two films made before Night of the Living Dead that have nearly identical plots made within months of each other done up two vastly different ways.

It Conquered The World
by Roger Corman
Dr. Tom Anderson (Lee Van Cleef trying hard as ever not to suck as much as the movie he's in) is an entertainer of every half-baked trend in psuedo-science. He's the sort of person you meet at craft fairs who believes in UFOs. He and his wife Claire live in peace in a cabin in the woods and their only contact with the outside world is an eye-rolling scientific community and their friends the Nelsons, Paul and Joan. Paul (Peter Graves who is just as rotten as ever) is in charge of the sciency half of the people involved with the launching of a military satellite. Tom gets in touch with them and tries to explain what a horrible idea that is, stating that this like an earlier satellite launched as a test, will be shot out of the sky. That satellite was burnt up, but it seemed natural enough, so Anderson is given the boot and things go as planned.

A little later on, Tom brings Paul and Joan over for dinner because he's got something he's just dying to share with anyone other than his long-suffering wife. After dinner (and presumably before cigars) Tom shows Paul his latest "crazy fucker of the year" trophy; it's a radio and Tom seems to think he can communicate with something on the planet Venus with it. Instead of backing out of the room quietly like I would have done, he gets in a few words before a phone call disrupts their soon-to-be-very-awkward conversation. Apparently that satellite that Tom said was gonna get destroyed is gone and has very probably been destroyed. When our new Venusian overlords show up a few days later, they send out frisbees that Roger Corman would like us to believe are alien scouts. They latch onto people and start controlling their brains, forcing them into the service of the big malevolent monster from Venus. Looks like Dr. Lunatic will be having that proverbial last laugh. Will Paul be able to stop communism in time to save the world?

I don't like television, I think it's been systematically lowering the attention span of each new generation and desensitizes us to violence against women and champions a criminally negative attitude toward intelligence. That said, I occasionally like to find a show after its made its way to DVD and revel in some rather good writing. Mystery Science Theatre 3000 was my first love as clever TV shows go because it subverted the format of the half-hour comedy show and also offered an education to those willing to pay attention and receive it. You might not learn about Joseph Losey or Raintree County, but you could see how the underbelly of cinema operated; the factory filmmaking system that produced such fascinatingly clueless figures as Ray Dennis Steckler, Coleman Francis, Bill Rebane, Phil Tucker and Ed Wood. On top of being screamingly funny, MST3K ventured into my second favorite subject, that of bad films, and uncovered little gems that were for better or worse historically important. They also introduced me to Roger Corman, first in his terrible western The Gunslinger which also stars Beverly Garland. When I rediscovered the series through the magic of the internet a few years ago, I was given the rundown on the finer points of Roger Corman's directorial credits from The Viking Women And The Sea Serpent on down to Swamp Diamonds. When the MST3K guys did It Conquered The World, they basically captured the feeling of the film by simply replaying Peter Graves' ending monologue three or four times over while they listened to every word that seeps from his mouth.

Roger Corman was never really in touch with popular trends so much as he was nominally aware of what was pulling in money at any given time, which explains why It Conquered The World in no way measures up to the films it was copying, like The Thing From Another World, Creature With The Atom Brain or Invasion of the Body Snatchers. He thought that really poorly written and stodgily delivered dialogue could make up for the fact that his movie was a cheap attempt at cashing in on a subject he didn't understand (in fact he most probably didn't believe half the shit that comes out of Paul Nelson's mouth). There's no drama because the allegory isn't so much an allegory as it is just a lame stand-in. He didn't develop his characters so it means nothing when Paul Nelson has to kill his wife and watch his friends die. That's why Romero's film was so important because it was able to utilize the kind of expert writing that went into red-scare horror films in a totally understated way and support civil rights and distrusting authority, which even in 1968 was still kind of radical and subversive. I don't think Romero expected the counter-culture to pick up on his little film, but it did, proving that the open-minded if slightly pessimistic attitude of the left will almost always find an audience over the 'values' purported by the right. And Corman's gauche method of trying to fix a bad film with a political message is all too clear in that impenetrable monologue at the film's end that the Mystery Science guys play over and over again without so much as a snicker.

And I found it hard especially hard to believe that Corman actually believed his anti-commie nonsense when the military shows up. Pay attention if you care to and you'll see Corman regular Dick Miller in his third ever screen performance as one of the soldiers. Anyway these guys are fucking pathetic, both in the acting and in the writing. They do all but get high as they stumble around the woods looking for some aliens to shoot and then practically fall into the claws of the alien. I also find it hard to believe that the army couldn't destroy the damned thing but Peter Graves and a blow-torch could.
Moving right along. I like British horror films (even some of the very worst) and find the remove from their culture just enough to make some ordinary plots interesting. I like watching films of a certain vintage and seeing them blessedly devoid of so many Americanisms, not to mention they almost always make better use of locations. There's a documentary called Of Time And The City by Terence Davies that I can't recommend enough; one of the things I love about it is that it serves as a reminder that post-war Europe really did look like the beautiful bombed out place it appears to be in Carol Reed films. The look of England as it tried to heal itself is one of the most beautiful things to watch. When you look at Quatermass 2, a film with a story nearly interchangeable with that of It Conquered The World, you can see just how much more cinematic and innovative cheap British films were than their American cousins and why a film that took advantage of its English setting succeeds where others fail.

Quatermass 2
by Val Guest
Professor Bernard Quatermass (more on whom in a minute) is an American scientist working in London who's seen his fair share of the fantastic. He and his team of researchers find themselves entrenched in intergalactic intrigue following a rather dreadful picnic. A woman drives her catatonic boyfriend back from their spot in the countryside with some horrid black mold on his face. Quatermass, who happens to be driving the same road, helps the girl deliver her boyfriend to medical professionals, but funny thing, he disappears shortly after. I shouldn't say disappears, he's disappeared by some frightening looking chaps in full hazmat suits and gas masks carrying guns. We meet these fellows when Quatermass takes Marsh, one of his researchers, out to the field the boy was supposed to have picked up his rash. Marsh touches a strange looking rock and it secretes that same black mold on him. Quatermass barely has time to ask what's wrong before a siren goes off and the men with guns arrive and cart Marsh off some place. Unluckily for those fellows the professor's not going to take this lying down.

The first thing he does is try to get inside the big spooky factory that the men with guns are centralized. The local government has kept inspectors at arm's length and the town it's situated in is full of shut-ins who could care less about what doesn't immediately effect them. As he tries to arrange a tour of the facility, he meets a building inspector by the name of Broadhead whom he knows and they agree to double team the operation; Broadhead is just as curious why they won't let him in as Quatermass is. The tour goes about as well as a bear attack. Quatermass embarrasses the tour guide in front of the two or three people who don't think this is a vast conspiracy with a lot of uncomfortable questions and Broadhead actually sneaks off when the man has his back turned. Broadhead's disappearance puts the facility on lockdown and only Quatermass gets away from the men with guns. Before he leaves, he finds Broadhead coated in the black stuff apparently melting.

Quatermass runs to his connection in the police a man called Lomax. Lomax takes in the unbelievable story and is about to tell it all to his chief, but then he notices a blemish on the man's hand like the one Marsh and the vanished boyfriend had and backs quietly out of the room (see, this is what normal people do). He and Quatermass decide to take matters into their own hands and go rounding up local support. When a reporter called Jimmy Hall is killed reporting to the home office about an abduction (a bar maiden played by Vera Day, who did this sort of thing fairly regularly in the 50s, gets a touch of the black stuff on her and the men with guns show up) in a full tavern, the locals finally decide to come out of their shells and grab some torches and Frankenstein that wretched facility. Quatermass and Lomax use the riot as an excuse to figure out just what that black stuff is and what all of this adds up to.

Quatermass was a character dreamt up by British radio personality Nigel Kneale in 1953. He was effectively the perfect British super hero using science and logic instead of invisibility or flight and favoring a flowing raincoat over a cape. The character had many incarnations including TV and finally film in the 1956 film The Quatermass Xperiment also directed by Val Guest (so called for its X rating, the film is fairly gruesome given its release date). I don't really care for that film because it ruins its hard exterior by facing off against a big puppet squid in the final act. Nigel Kneale didn't like it either; he hated Brian Donlevy as the professor and so do I. Quatermass 2 is another matter entirely. Nigel Kneale came aboard to help write the sequel and all the things wrong with the first film vanished; unsurprisingly the first thing to get the old heave-ho was Donlevy's scenery chewing. Kneale wrote Quatermass as concerned and overwhelmed, making him fit nicely into the story rather than standing out with his ugly American behavior; when you're harder to digest than a big space squid, something's definitely gone wrong. Instead of the hardboiled, serial mentality of The Quatermass Xperiment with its overblown anti-American sentiment the sequel was an extraordinarily understated film which makes all of its reveals much the better. Instead of running roughshod over the law like some kind of monomaniacal villain, Quatermass has to go through local government and the constabulary to get anything done, and even then he is faced with the logical inconsistencies in his story as pointed out to him by Jimmy Hall. In other words, Kneale forced the ridiculousness of the story to face real-world scrutiny and then prevail.

Kneale's involvement also meant that the English setting was much more of a character. Val Guest makes incredibly effective use of the scenery capturing the natural beauty in the same way Terence Davies does in Of Time And The City, especially of the facility when Quatermass races across its grounds both times. The superior pacing also helps us admire the production design and the intricate details of the story. Kneale's contributions, I suspect, are the reason this feels like one of the more realistic and dark science-fiction films I've ever encountered. Its story being so devoid of finger-pointing makes it work as a much better allegory than It Conquered The World or even the first Quatermass film. The film is so concerned with getting to the bottom of the mystery it doesn't spare anytime to talk about what's 'really going on here'. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure there is much of a political message to be found here. England had undergone a pretty huge influx of immigrants in the 1950s but I just don't think that's anything Kneale was concerned about. Let's not forget that the plot to Quatermass 2 was dreamt up as part of a weekly serial, which meant that it was probably thought up at midnight over coffee and a lot of cigarettes in Kneale's office along with the half-dozen other plots due that week, I'm guessing he was more concerned with making a mystery than telling the people what to actually be frightened of. Kneale and Guest wanted simply to spin a convincing yarn that was devoid of scenery-chewing and so made Quatermass 2 one of the best horror sci-fi films of its time.

Oh, I completely forgot about the zombies. The film pulls kind of the same trick by letting you know at the last minute that you've been staring at zombies the whole film, but the idea behind the zombies is pretty much the same as in It Conquered The World, those black stones replacing alien frisbees. In fact the climax is full of a lot of sucker-punch reveals ending with one of the best 50s monster moments not involving a giant insect. In short it all opposed to It Conquered The World where nothing works; America needed George A. Romero, Britain did not but that's not to say they didn't benefit from his art. Everyone wins when the zombies are good; it's a shame that Quatermass 2 is so hard to find.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Little Films With Wicked Hearts

When I watched Dead Snow a little while ago, it occured to me that I had seen that story somewhere before. And I don't mean in a 'this is a ripoff of every other horror movie ever made' kinda way, I mean I had literally seen a Nazi gold zombie film before. The reason I didn't remember it right away was because that film, Steve Barker's Outpost was so forgettable that it had just vanished from my recollection. As its ostensibly a Day of the Dead ripoff but with Nazis, I thought I might as well get it over with and then move on to a much better zombie-type film that is half The Thing tribute and half zombie movie.

by Steve Barker
Some guy hires a bunch of 'mercenaries' who can't seem to figure out how and why they started working together or whether they're cowboys or UN peacekeepers to help him find something in a bunker in the middle of a war ravaged country. I forget which and I just rewatched this last night. Then they get there and something shoots at them from the tree line and gets them all riled up. Then they find a bunch of naked bodies in the bunker, one of which is still alive even if it looks like someone stole his brain. The soldiers all think they're there to steal Nazi gold, but its apparently more sinister. The bankroller guy seems to know that something's up, but doesn't know anything worth knowing, which is to say he doesn't know why there are Nazi Zombies (or ghosts, the film never gets around to clearing that up) killing everybody. The cast thins, the script tries to build tension by introducing truly pointless set-pieces like putting the number of survivors on a flag, and then it ends with everyone dying because you can't kill ghosts.

It came as absolutely no surprise to learn that Neil Marshall was once attached to direct Outpost. This was clearly dreamt up as a ringer for Dog Soldiers in its production design and general feel, but it has none of that film's originality, action or off-beat humour. Steve Barker and most of the supporting cast are british, which may explain why this movie felt like a BBC historical drama rather than a proper horror film: mannered and subdued. Nothing is scary, people die cause that's what happens in horror films, and it feels like Barker didn't want to slow down for too long or people might get the idea that this film is totally pointless. Like Dog Soldiers and Day of the Dead there's a lot of bravado, and Ray Stevens is there doing his 'been through hell' thing but its toned way the hell down for some reason, like they thought depth was going to get in the way of their trying to break the landspeed record for a ghost film (or a zombie film, in fact this next sentence is going to address that question). Ok, so in the ghosts category, we have the indestructible, disappear at will, 60 years old aspect and in the zombies category we have their vulnerability to knives and guns, their decaying personage and that this is clearly a Day of the Dead ripoff which manages to ripoff Dog Soldiers and Shock Waves and that super terrible 13 Ghosts remake in its downtime. So what are they? Who cares.

The only thing I really remember being really worthy of some serious irk is that ghost nazi evaporating machine which should have been more absurd than it was. Ultimately though its the sepia-toned averageness of this film that makes what could have been a loony ride through ripoff town into a lifeless 80 minutes where guys fire guns because the producer paid for a movie with guns, dammit! It's really not worth the money they spent on it and I can't remember much of anything about it. It's a really dull film that makes an absolutely bonkers thing where the African guy has his brains pushed out of his head as if by pneumatic press just seem totally uninteresting.
Ok, on to the good stuff. The next film isn't all good, but its based on a good idea and despite it seeming at times like a video game, I was entertained.

by Toby Wilkins

Seth and Polly are a completely unlikely couple out on a camping trip. Seth is a biologist (HINT!) and Polly is big into the outdoors. Seth would really rather be in a hotel because he's a total nerd who would never have a girlfriend like Polly in ten thousand years and he finally gets his nerdy way when they break their tent trying to set it up. Meanwhile down the road on Plot Convenience Boulevard, Dennis the convicted murderer and his girlfriend Lacey push the corpse of their truck off the road to cover their tracks while they search for a new vehicle. Dennis is a crazy killer with a southern accent and his girlfriend is a drug addict about to lose it; bet this goes well. After commandeering Polly's truck at gunpoint and pointing it towards Canada, a minor accident sets the film proper in motion. Polly runs over what would appear to be a dog or a fox or something; appearances can be decieving, or anyway they have to be because whatever it was popped their rear tire with about a thousand little prickers and cut a hole in the coolant tank. Dennis gets one in his pointer finger by accident.

Lacey chooses now to go thoroughly off the rails and insists that the thing they ran over is some pet or other that must have died a little while ago. Dennis tells her she's crazy, but she insists on dragging Seth at gunpoint to look at the corpse. Her instructions "Save it!" are disconcerting to say the least; apparently his telling her that he's not a medical doctor didn't quite sink in. The spiny corpse of the orange furred animal leaps at them in an apparent reflexive spasm but it scares the bejesus out of both Lacey and Seth. The gang stops at a gas station for food and something to stop the car from overheating further. Lacey runs to the bathroom (to vomit if I don't miss my guess) and finds a man lying face up on the bathroom floor with much bigger spikes coming out of his skin. Before she can convince her boyfriend that what she was in fact not a hallucination, the man, apparently possessed comes out of the rest room and sticks her full of the splinters, killing her instantly. The man then jumps on the hood of Polly's truck and falls asleep while Dennis, Polly and Seth run into the gas station and lock the doors.
Now starts the stuff that feels like it was cribbed from Resident Evil or Parasite Eve rather than just the usual two or three classic horror films. Dennis goes outside to check on his girlfriend and Polly locks him out of the gas station. Seth, being a total pushover, lets him back in when Lacey starts contorting in all kinds of inhuman ways just like the spiky fella on the hood of the car or that dead animal on the road. Seth and Dennis close the door, but cut off one of Lacey's hands in the process, which gets up and walks around for a few seconds before dying. Lacey or whatever's left of her, starts banging against the door like a dog trying to be let in. Seth the biologist begins theorizing. The hand tried metabolizing and each part is in service to whatever it is that's controlling it so he surmises that some kind of fungus is at work. Incidentally, the closest thing to what Seth dreams up is a Cordyceps fungus which literally alters the minds of insects and sends a phallic body out of the insect's skeleton that sends spores into the air to infect more insects nearby. It tells the insect to climb branches to ensure that the spores have a wider range when they burst from the tip of the body. There's one for just about every kind of insect in jungle environs and its the only thing that comes close to matching the description of the splinter fungus. Thank you, Sarah, for that tip.

While Seth tries to understand more about their foe, a cop in a patrol car stops by, presumably drawn in by the sight of a corpse on the hood of a car. She recognizes Dennis by sight (not bloody likely; he's wanted for a minor crime in another state) and doesn't respond to Seth and Polly's warnings. Dennis knows he has only seconds so he tries to convince her to call it in instead of standing outside with her gun drawn. She has enough time to put her finger on the radio before Lacey literally cuts her in half, leaving her legs and the radio on the ground. The handset of the radio is close enough that Seth thinks he can reach it with some coat hangers tied on end and put through the cash slot, but that idea yields nil results. All it buys them is another hand in the gas station chasing them around until they're forced to hide in the freezer. As if that weren't enough, that splinter in Dennis' finger has spread all over his arm and the only answer is cut it off with a box cutter (I know!). That bomb defused, Seth goes back to theorizing and figures out one crucial factoid about the fungus that may save them from spiny bondage. Add gasoline and you've got yourself a riveting conclusion.

One thing I give this film credit for is moving quickly enough that its faults don't seem like faults until after its over. At 86 minutes, writer/director Toby Wilkins keeps the horrific contorting images coming and only slows down to explain the crucial sciency thing or desperate scheme that's going to propel our heroes into the next scene. I was kind of bummed because the only character I thought was realistic and not a total archetype was Lacey and she doesn't make it past the half-hour mark. The shortcomings are mostly in the writing and once they do hit you, they're pretty glaring, but in a fun kind of way. I call it a big coincidence that one third of the crew trapped by a fungal mind beast happens to have the education required to outsmart it. The arm thing was my biggest problem, which is good news when you grand scheme it. Someone cuts my arm off with a fucking box cutter (and finishes the job with a cinderblock), that's game over as far as I'm concerned. No way am I operating fire arms or telling jokes over beer. I was just starting to get over a total nerd like Seth scoring a girl like Polly when they pulled that stunt. And his character was already really hackneyed anyway, the gruff criminal who's really an ok guy with a story to tell and a widow he's going to repay (the final interaction between Dennis and the other two was almost too much sappiness to handle). Granted an impromptu amputation with a rusty box cutter is like David Cronenberg-sick and I was not at all prepared for that. That moment alone makes this film really quite intense and on that bit alone I'd recommend it. Luckily there's some other cool stuff in here, like the monster.

I was excited when I started seeing ads for this cause I thought it was going to be a zombie film and it sort of is, but it's also more than that. A fungus causing the dead to rise is a point in the zombie category, but beyond that we're dealing with a whole new ballgame. It does look nothing like an ordinary human after the fungus gets control of the human host and it also attacks animals, so this isn't your ordinary zombie film. When it's in its final incarnation thrashing around the aisles of the gas station, that's when it's most like a video game monster. It looks like Cirque de Soleil as imagined by Ken Russell in the late 70s and its pretty cool. It, and the film as a whole, owes more to The Thing (what with the jumping hand and monster-person fusion) and a japanese film called Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People (with its fungi-based possession) than a regular zombie film, but undead is undead and for that reason here it is, warts and all.
Splinter is a very fun and unsettling film and its flaws actually help its watchability rather than hinder it. Compare it to something like Outpost, made for easily twice the cost with none of the imagination and the victor is obvious. When the choice is between a group of heavily armed men (or horny teens for that matter) doing anything and two or three average (relative term) characters in a small, realistic setting battling something outlandish and cool, I'll almost always pick the smaller of the two projects. You can always do more when you try to do less; George A. Romero knows that and so does Toby Wilkins. At least both of these films are better than Dead Snow.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Twice-Told Tales

Though remakes were hardly uncommon by 1990, the word ‘remake’ didn’t quite have the connotation it does today. The idea of a modern film that does exactly what some older film did except with different people (usually Americans in place of an originally foreign cast) didn’t really become part of the modern vernacular until 2002 or thereabouts when The Ring showed up and did effectively what it’s Japanese progenitor did but in English and, in my opinion, better. The first film like this though, again just as I see it, was Tom Savini’s Night of the Living Dead. It does exactly what George A. Romero’s 1968 film did with one notable exception. It’s a shame that this film doesn’t measure up in any way to the original because it had a lot going for it including a cast of then-rising character actors and a conclusion that predicts one of the major trends in today’s zombie films.

Night of the Living Dead
by Tom Savini
When I said the plot was exactly the same, I wasn’t kidding. Barbara and her brother go visit their dad’s grave, poor Johnnie gets his head knocked in, Barbara flees to a house, meets Ben and then the people in the cellar. There are news reports, a lot of barricading, a botched gas’n’go, and then things go south at the end. I won’t ruin the only surprise the film has in store for you by telling you what George Romero altered in the script to make this film unique from his original story. And while we’re on the subject of George, let’s discuss my biggest problem with this film. In order for a remake to prove its worth, there has to be a good reason that the producers or the director decided to tell the same story twice. In the case of The Blob and The Thing, they had improved make-up and effects technology to add horror to two interesting stories. In the case of The Ring, Gore Verbinski added a much needed layer of atmosphere to Hideo Nakata’s screenplay and made one of the most moody and perfectly stylized horror films of the last twenty years. But then there are films like Quarantine, the remake of Jaume Bolaguero and Paco Plaza’s [Rec]. That film offered nothing to make the story of [Rec] more effective; the only difference was that Americans did all the screaming. That’s not a good enough reason. If I could ask George A. Romero anything, I’d ask him why he remade Night of the Living Dead.

Night of the Living Dead is a nearly perfect film. Like Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up It's timeless but it's also a snapshot of the time period in which it took place. When it isn't hinting at really important social issues (which this country is still in the process of solving) it's actually legitimately scary. It redefined what horror could do and showed that you didn't need to be a major studio to scare people and direct actors convincingly. The remake of Night is really just a speedy, colorized version of the original film with none of its implications. Ben and Harry argue a lot quicker and a lot more angrily but their conflict doesn’t change in any meaningful way. If anything the script changes just make this film feel more like the B film that the original Night refused to be. I don’t know if Romero’s script called for less convincing delivery or if Tom Savini just isn’t much of a director, but no one feels like a real person so much as they do caricatures of the original cast. I know it wasn’t the fault of the actors because we have the finest low-rent character actors of the day in the important roles. As Ben the always captivating Tony Todd (who you can't avoid if you watch enough horror films. He was the title character in Candyman and shows up in trash like Hatchet in his spare time) does his level best but he does too much shouting for no particular reason. Patricia Tallman who was a few years away from a small cameo in Army of Darkness as a witch and many years from Dead Air, a ripoff of both Bruce McDonald's Pontypool and British mini-series series Dead Set, is fine but her transformation from catatonic to cool feels a trifle forced. Bill Moseley only gets a few seconds of screen time as the doomed Johnnie which is a shame because he does tend to shine in movies like this. Tom Towles, who promptly faded from the public eye after this film, is not quite as good as he is in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer but I sure did hate him so job well done I guess. The real problem is that the film is in over-drive the entire time and no one calms down until most of our heroes are dead. By 1990, no one who was going to see this movie hadn’t already seen Night of the Living Dead and knew the story by heart. So why is everyone in such a big hurry to get to the end, they've got nowhere to go? Tony Todd and Tom Towles run around the house delivering their dialogue at break-neck speed as the movie careens headlong towards a conclusion we already know is coming instead of reveling in what it could have done differently. Tom Savini seemed to understand that the movie was just a rehash and wanted to skip to all the gory stuff and the altered conclusion, which brings me back to my original question.

Tom Savini, for those of you scratching your heads, is or was anyway, one of the most respected make-up men in horror movies. He was a photographer in Vietnam for a short period during the war and saw enough real viscera to know how to reproduce it convincingly. He came home and apprenticed under Alan Ormsby on the films Deranged and Deathdream before meeting George A. Romero. From Martin on, Savini was Romero’s go-to guy for blood and guts. When he wasn’t busy making Day of the Dead look totally sick, he was ladling the innards on slasher films like Friday The 13th, The Burning and Nightmare in a Damaged Brain. Anyway, except for a few episodes of Romero’s TV program Tales from the Darkside, Savini was new to the director’s chair, which probably accounts for the artlessness of Night of the Living Dead. Everything is lit way too much and no one’s acting is ever more than unremarkable. Worst of all, the effects are really pretty lame. Savini’s biggest mistake was delegating the gore to other people. There really wasn’t anyone more qualified to do that job than Savini himself so while he turned his attention to directing, the effects were necessarily going to suffer. Even the zombies in The Dead Next Door were better executed. And actually the ending isn’t all that dissimilar to that films as implications go.

When the film has shown its final hand and the action has run its course, we take a long, slow tour of what the ‘resistance’ looks like. The same rednecks who were content to shoot Ben as if he were a zombie in the original go one step further in Romero’s revised script. We see them tying zombies to trees, hanging them, and wrestling with them in the ring. In essence we have a run-through of the debauchery scenes in Land of the Dead. That coping-with-the-living-dead motif has been a staple of the new school zombie film and has shown up in everything from comedies like Fido to low-budget films like Severed: Forest of the Dead to major studio outings like the upcoming Zombieland. It’s a theme that Romero really loves and has, since failing to do so in the original Night of the Living Dead, brought it out in everyone of his zombie films. That said, I can’t imagine that the reason he decided to sink money into this movie was for a five minute exploration of something he knew he could do better. Nor do I think it was an excuse to put returning cast members Bill Cardille (who reprises his role as a newscaster) and producer Russell Streiner (who played the original Johnny) back in front of a camera.
So while I can’t figure why Romero decided to do it if you’re looking for the stopgap between Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead this is it. I feel like it was compulsory to want to redo Night because there was nothing about the production that screamed “new and exciting”. I’ve seen much better and I’ve most assuredly seen worse, I just don’t know that I’ve seen any quite so workmanlike and purposeless.

Friday, June 19, 2009

What Hath Our Masters Wrought?

If I were throwing a month-long celebration of Sam Raimi (which I just might considering how great Drag Me To Hell was), this film would be at the top of my “missed the point” list. But seeing as how this film owes as much to George A. Romero as it does Sam Raimi (and Ken Wiederhorn, but I digress) I’ll just dive in now and get it over with. Dead Snow or Død Snø is a pretty stupid movie, but its one steeped in influence, that is to say constructed entirely out of its misguided appreciation for other movies, so here it is. I read about this on The Auteurs of all places and thought I’d check it out. That’s the last time I let the art crowd tell me my business. They may know the cream of old French and modern Thai cinema but horror still eludes them. I guess these guys like Sergio Leone and Dead In 3 Days, too, so I really have no one to blame but myself. Anyway, this is something of a landmark, because I believe this is the first Norwegian zombie film I’ve ever seen. For their sake I hope that next time they tap into whatever talent pool Joachim Trier came from, because this may be the single worst showing of any country’s talent I’ve ever seen.

Dead Snow
by Tommy Wirkola
I’ll give them one thing, I’ve never seen "Hall of the Mountain King" used in a zombie film before. Now if only the rest of the film lived up to that inspired goofiness. A girl runs through the woods and gets cut down by a pack of assailants as the song climaxes. Cut to eight medical students who are on their way to a friends cabin to spend easter break. Vegrand is a veteran and seems the most likable of the bunch. Hannah (who has some insidious whitegirl dreadlocks) and Martin are dating and are the least party-oriented. Erland and Kris are gormless and obnoxious, which means they’ll be first to go. Liv and Roy don’t get personalities so they probably won’t be long for this film. Vegrand’s girlfriend is skiing up to meet them, but Vegrand doesn’t hang around long enough to be a third wheel while everyone pairs up. The first night they’re there a stranger wanders up and does the exposition thing. Nazis came through here, sure, trapped in the snow, ok, presumed dead, probably zombies, ok, we’re good. The stranger wanders off after making a total dick of himself and then gets killed in his tent. Vegrand gets nervous and decides to snowmobile after his girlfriend to make sure she’s safe. As soon as he leaves, the guys find some Nazi gold beneath the floorboards and decide to keep it. Do I even need to hint where this is going?

If I could pick three words to describe this film they would be: Lame, lame, lame. Relying on really amateurish humour (much of it stolen) when they aren’t ruining perfectly good untapped set-pieces for the rest of the zombie making community, the makers of Dead Snow really only proved how many movies they’ve seen. Given that piece of information, you’d think that would have enabled them to make a better movie. The screenplay is full of a lot of good-idea-at-the-time bits like a reverse POV disembowelment, tree climbing zombies, and someone biting a zombie  back, but really they just point out how trite the rest of the film is. If you were capable of dreaming up the intestine cliff-hanger, why was it so difficult to write a better screenplay to house your gory sense of humour. I’d also like to say that you’ve ruined the first snow-covered zombie movie, something I’d been looking forward to. In fact they do a lot of pointless ruining. There’s a pretty nifty thing about avalanches that they waste and some stuff about Vegrand's military training that also gets lost in the shuffle; this is one of the most ADD scripts I’ve ever encountered. And I will not resign myself to the “it’s a tribute, take it easy” mentality that so many people have succumb to. The makers of these films seem to think that because only nerds will pay attention that they can just drop a few names and call it a day. Well that’s not enough to please this nerd! Not when there are good movies being made without CGI, crude humour, and the cost of all those nazi props. They don’t even explain how they got be zombies. That’s all some of my friends do, think up origins for zombies. It’s a movie, a lot of money got spent, it could have been ten thousand times better and I don’t want to hear your excuses.
I guess that the villains name was Herzog should have been my first clue because clearly good direction is the enemy. Let me also say this: a Temple of Doom quote is never a good sign. Nor is a fat guy in a Dead Alive T-Shirt. It just means that a lot of gory tedium is about to take place. Case in point: Erland goes to use the bathroom and Kris comes out to seduce him. He’s shitting! Sorry, don’t buy this for a fucking second. Then the filmmakers pull what is easily the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen in a zombie film after that head-in-the-fridge thing from Zombie 3. Kris gets pulled into the toilet by a zombie, which means he would have to have been wading in feces for hours and actually waited for Erlend the fat guy to finish before he made his move. Anyway, when Erlend gets his brain pulled out in a Shaun of the Dead/Dead Alive paraphrase, I finally got what this film’s character was: stupid. You know that guy who shows up at parties that no one invited who keeps making misogynistic jokes? That’s this movie. People are there to be stupid and get killed and the plot better just get out of the way. And the worst part about it is that these guys clearly think that they’re up to Evil Dead standards. What that film has that this one doesn't is a balance of charm, horror and fright. They kept the ‘Boo!’ moments coming, had all manner of slapsticky yet scary demon attacks, and characters we could care about. Today’s films have none of those things but want to be considered on the same level.

This is the sort of film where the lines between paying tribute and ripping off are pretty well blurred. They ‘reference’ Dead Alive, The Evil Dead, Halloween, Friday the 13th, Shaun of the Dead, The Descent, Day of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Planet Terror, Zombie Lake, From Dusk Till Dawn, Dog Soldiers and Shockwaves and that’s before even the halfway mark. In some cases the script tries to make up for it by name-checking those influences before they get around to stealing visual cues from them, but they don’t nearly account for all of them. Nazi zombies, done before, cabin in the woods, done before, chainsaw, pointless and done before, intestine humour, done before, pulled out the window by zombies, done by EVERYONE. I don’t think it’s enough to say “We’re having fun with the genre!” to make up for a totally predictable and brainless movie. Especially when there are a few minor triumphs, like the cinematography, locations and two or three lines in the script. I mean, if you had given the same money, actors, premise and locations to another filmmaker, Greg Mclean or Ti West say, you would at the very least have gotten a film that isn’t so embarrassing.
I never said George’s legacy was all gold, but, at the very least young filmmakers are passing on love to bygone generations. Now if only we could get them to make decent films that also pay lip service to the greats. I can see that it's time to dig out my copy of Evil Dead and remind myself that people did at one point used to know how to make a great funny horror film.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Portrait of the Zombie as a Paradigm

Anyone who's up on their pop-horror can tell you that zombies are very much their own subset of film and alternative culture. They're a genre, a 'paradigm' to quote Stephen King. And while people have caught onto it recently, I could tell you the approximate time that zombies became a paradigm. It was when Joe D'Amato released two pornographic films in 1980 and 1981 that resulted from the same weekend of shooting in the Dominican Republic. One, Porno Holocaust, was unremarkable. The other proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that George A. Romero's creation had taken on a life all its own.

Erotic Nights of the Living Dead
by Joe D’Amato
John Wilson is a tycoon interested in developing a little Caribbean island no more than a mile long called Cat Island. So he goes down to the tropics with Fiona, an associate of his, to look at the land. They charter a boat from local Larry O'Hara and scope the place out. In their downtime O'Hara and a skulking old man (apparently the island's sole inhabitant) fills them in on the local lore about Cat Island - it's supposedly haunted. The locals all believe it and don't want Wilson poking his nose into their affairs, their customs or their curses. A thin woman (D'Amato's favorite female Laura Gemser) appears to the small party and warns them to take off. Funny thing about that girl, she doesn't show up in any of the pictures Fiona took of her. Then she finally shows up one night and makes out with O'Hara in the surf of Cat Island and gives him one final warning while they're watched from the shore. But when those rather undead looking chaps in headwraps start killing folks, O'Hara starts to think that maybe his client can go screw himself, regardless of the women or money he brings with him.

Say what you will about Erotic Nights of the Living Dead, when someone makes a pornographic play on your creation, that is when you've arrived. Erotic Nights was released in 1980, just after Dawn of the Dead and Zombie and that whole mishigas, which makes it both a crucial part of the zombie boom and as I stated above, proof positive that zombies were here to stay. The film itself is, as porn horror goes, actually not half bad. The plot is ordinary but uncharacteristic for zombie films; there are no voodoo ceremonies, no natives dancing, in fact the film actually takes some time out to blame whitey for meddling in the business of locals; the only thing we have that resembles a villain (aside from the titular living dead) is Wilson the capitalist. The hero is the layabout O'Hara (played by the film's writer, frequent D'Amato collaborator George Eastman right around his turn as the villain in Anthropophagous). Laura Gemser is a bit more believable as an apparition than as an investigative journalist because that far-off gaze and skeletal figure are finally in line with her character.
In fact, this porno is actually a much better movie than half of the zombie-come-lately films of the 80s. It's better than Hell of the Living Dead, Burial Ground and Zombie 3 put together and the living dead are actually a little unsettling, as opposed to the goofy zombies that show up in those films. The sex ranges from tasteless to "if you must" and weirdly doesn't really interfere with the plot, which makes this one of the more committed fake movies I've ever seen. Joe's trademark craziness is of course present which makes for some peculiar visuals to be sure (there's a bit with a champaign bottle I'd rather not describe that has Joe's name all over it). Considering this was the ultimate way to both cement Romero's name in the history books and the way to prove that he was the progenitor of filth, we could have had it a lot worse. Just take a look what Joe did with the rest of his Dominican vacation.

Porno Holocaust
By Joe D’Amato

Some researchers (including Eastman and a few other Erotic Nights cast members) charter a boat to test an island for radiation following a series of tests in waters nearby. When they're not having sex with each other, their being hunted and killed by an enormous deformed mutant who used to be a local boy. His weapon: an enormous irradiated phallus. I wish I could say the plot called for more, but I'm afraid this rather lifeless affair was a necessary evil. I think Joe gave all his time and energy to Erotic Nights and then had some leftover film stock so they went back to Cat Island and made this. Weirdly though, of the two films, this is the film that's gotten ripped off. From Devil Hunter to Entrails of a Virgin, the roving sex demon set piece has actually been reproduced a few different times on a few different continents. How's that for piece of mind?

I'd like to take a moment and thank Ruggero Deodato for using the word 'holocaust' in 1979. In three short years following his Cannibal Holocaust, we had a Zombi Holocaust, a posthumous Jungle Holocaust, and a Porno Holocaust - I bet the Jewish Defense League was just as pleased about that as I am. Look, I like Joe D’Amato (why do I feel like I need to take a shower?) and this is not up to his standards. The horror is far from horrible and the sex far from sexy; Porno Holocaust feels entirely too uncomfortable, lazy and burnt-out; it's like it was left in the sun too long. A sex film that feels this forced and awkward should probably never have been made. There isn't even much camp value to be found in Porno Holocaust's 113 minutes. That's right! This film is nearly two hours long, it's called Porno Holocaust and it's dull as sin. There's a conundrum for you. Of course a bigger one might be what kind of person sits still for that long to watch a sex film for academic purposes (like the man who reads Playboy for the articles, I've sat through pornographic films with the eye of a scholar culling themes from Proust for a thesis).
So I finally saw Erotic Nights of the Living Dead. I'm glad I saw it (fucking yikes) and less glad that I watched its snoozefest of a slutty sister film, though I can't say I'll be returning to Cat Island anytime soon.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

George A. Romero: Inspiration To Millions

To celebrate George A. Romero’s impact on the world at large and the world of cinema, I had to keep my nose in the dirt. Specifically I watched a lot of ultra-low budget films that carry the spirit of the old master around with them. I swore off Troma films after finally making myself slag through Redneck Zombies, but I had already taken the time to locate Curse of the Cannibal Confederates and so just took it on the chin in the name of George. I’m glad I did cause at the very least, I liked this better than 99% of all the other stupid things Troma excretes. And, coincidentally enough, it fell nicely in line with my George A. Romero month festivities: It’s a backwoods zombie film about some average joes who have to combat the living dead. Granted the similarities aren’t many following the initial comparison, but blessedly this was an easy enough watch for a laugh.

Curse of the Cannibal Confederates
by Tony Malanowski
Three guys and three girls (including, inexplicably, an Asian woman and her blind sister) are going hunting for the weekend. Wyatt and Bill are good old boys, Mel is the odd man out, feeling a little less rowdy than his friends. Mel also has one of the very worst western PA accents I’ve ever heard; the man could be a Bedminster fire-fighter. Anyway, they all have some pretty astounding facial hair and they’re looking to kill something over the weekend. Wyatt brought his girlfriend Sarah, which bums the other guys out and for some reason Lin and Blind Kiyomi (which is how she’s listed in the credits) tag along too. They do the character development thing for like a half hour before Mel wanders off and finds an old confederate war diary in an abandoned house near a graveyard. He takes it and reads it out loud to Kiyomi. Writer/director Tony Malaowski and co-writer Lon Huber would probably like us to think they’re falling in love, but the film doesn’t have nearly enough energy for that. The dead rise the next day; they want their book back and they’ll kill anyone they have to to get it.

Curse of the Cannibal Confederates or Curse of the Screaming Dead might charitably be called Troma’s tribute to all things George Romero. Between those wretched Western Pennsylvania accents, the boarded-up-in-the-house finale, the affected Asian heroine, plaid-clad men with beards rolling around on the ground wrestling zombies I doubt very much if this film was written in ignorance of George Romero (even if it was directed in ignorance of why his films were successful). In fact I couldn’t help thinking during some of this films boring parts (there’s plenty of time to contemplate your place in the universe during Curse of the Cannibal Confederates) that these guys are perfect examples of the sort of people Romero was poking fun at in that great montage in Dawn of the Dead. Our four heroes ride their helicopter over an unnamed section of Western PA and David Emge says “Those rednecks are probably enjoying this whole thing.” If we were to follow three of those guys and their girlfriends, the result would have been strikingly similar to this movie, if unquestionably more fun to watch.

Like H.G. Lewis' 2000 Maniacs, this film might have something to say about the South, but it sort of gets lost in its messiness and general low-budget behavior. I’d like to refer Malanowski to my remarks on Toxic Zombies: don’t write more than you can reasonably pull off. The whole notion that you’d bring a blind character in the mix is admirable, sure, but Mimi Ishikawa is not blind and you forgot to direct her. She looks people in the eye when she talks to them, for christ's sakes. Christopher Gummer is neither a romantic lead nor much of an actor at all, so why make his Mel the hero and the subject of a romantic subplot? And is he’s clearly responsible for the zombie stuff, how come he doesn’t get punished? Anyway, the film had enough bad-funny moments to help me through its 85 minutes, but its still a terrible movie. What I found most endearing was the fact that these guys couldn’t cover up their regional accents. Some work buddy asked them to be in a film and they’d accept any excuse to drink in the woods, but acting was just not something they were willing to do. It’s pretty hilarious watching Jim Ball struggle with his lines; I suspect they killed him off so he could get back to whatever cleverly named cover band he played for at Smitty’s in Jenkintown. That weird friendship I suspect ran through the whole film is what makes it fun to watch instead of grating like most Troma Team films but I could still think of 100 better ways to spend an evening. Now we move onto a fact-based film with just as low a budget as Curse of the Cannibal Confederates, with more in common than it might seem initially.
Moving right along to a fringe character in the Romero mythology, Roy Frumkes. Frumkes is a strange character in the world of horror films. A one-time aspiring documentarian, he got sucked into the world of low-budget horror, producing, writing and starring in the aptly titled Street Trash for Troma. He wrote the bizarre Danish horror film The Johnsons and then wrote The Substitute and its three straight-to-video sequels. He also designed the title sequence of Zombi Holocaust when it showed up in the states in the early 80s. I bring up Roy Frunkes because his bizarre tenure as a peripheral character in the world of low-budget horror all started with a student documentary he made about George A. Romero while Dawn of the Dead was in production. His documentary is considerably less interesting than its premise suggests, but it still makes for a curious viewing.

Document of the Dead
by Roy Frumkes
I don’t often look at Documentaries, the exception being the cannibal parable Keep The River On Your Right. Document is a look at the work of George Romero; Frunkes and some of his student friends made Document of the Dead as Romero was filming Dawn. The film combines interviews with peripheral characters, Dawn crew and cast including the director, and a look at the other five films Romero had made at that point in his life. The film cuts unceremoniously from discussing the broad themes of Night of the Living Dead and Martin to interviewing Richard Rubinstein about working with Romero. It gets to the heart of Romero’s professional life which stems from a really touching desire to work with family and when you enter his inner circle you become family. Frumkes actually wound up in Dawn for a few seconds as the first zombie who gets a pie in the face, proof of Romero’s avuncular working style. Document has some pretty extraordinary behind-the-scenes footage that would satisfy fans Dawn, but its powers stop there.

There’s a documentary called The Dead Will Walk that comes with the special edition of Dawn of the Dead that was released a few years ago. I’d review that, but it was made specifically for the DVD release, which doesn’t make it so much a movie as a special feature. It’s a much better film than Document and it interviews absolutely everyone involved in the making of the film down to composer Claudio Simonetti (fulfilling a suspicion I’ve long had about the make-up of the band Goblin). In fact the only person that director Perry Martin doesn’t get around to interviewing is Roy Frumkes. The point being that Document was a student film and a painfully average one at that, even if Frumkes did swing a pretty impressive candid interview with George A. Romero. Document of the Dead is really more proof of what student documentary films looked like in 1978 than what an expansive look at the career of a director looked like (if you like to know just how amateurish and studenty it really is, Frumkes and his team lost a whole bunch of footage which in concordance with a lot of other production problems set the release of the film back from 1979 to 1985).

It is not really the incisive look into Romero land you may have been told it was. It is interesting, but as documentary’s go, it could have been a bit more in depth. To see Romero at work, it’s a great source. To see how Dawn got made, I’d see The Dead Will Walk.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Independent Zombies

It's June, which means that 41 years ago, Night of the Living Dead is supposed to have taken place. Today we look at two independent zombie films that don't have much to do with each other. For the time it took for me to learn about this first film, I blame American distributors of DVDs. Zombie Diaries, in case you’re wondering where you’ve heard the name before, is the british film that beat George A. Romero to the reality TV zombie film punch before he could release his Diary of the Dead on roughly the same subject. The difference, the big difference I should say, is that Romero’s film has characters and that Zombie Diaries has people. It’s like the difference between watching a John Sayles film and a Wachowski Brothers film, if that means anything to you. Anyway, the first of the reality zombie films, by all accounts, is a really excellent film because it manages to craft a taut murder story in its down time and both pay tribute to and show up George Romero at the same time.

Zombie Diaries
by Michael Bartlett & Kevin Gates
Our framing story concerns a military unit swarming a building while someone films them. They find a body and there is concern about whether or not its actually dead. Then we start ‘diary’ 1. A camera crew and one anchorwoman are roving about collecting interviews concerning an epidemic of some kind going on in Asia. Nobody in particular is bowled over by the crisis and they plan to go about their daily lives as usual. When the interviews stop, the cameraman starts filming the crew candidly. They go into the studio and a higher-up informs them that New York has just been hit by the epidemic. They don’t have much time to react before they get sent to a little town to conduct an interview with a farmer who’s just been asked by the government to kill all his chickens preemptively; infection is a tricky thing. So they get there and not only does the farmer not come to the door but the entire town seems deserted. They make to leave but their car breaks down; when the producer calls for help when no one in the village seems to be around to help them, he’s told that London has just been hit and that they’re on their own. With darkness approaching, they head back to the farm and confirm the suspicions zombie fans will have had since that poor sucker failed to come to the door; the infection’s hit this small town in a big way. They barely escape into the woods with their lives.

Just as we’re told that they seem to have all survived the attack on the farmhouse, we shift to diary 2. Three people; two active, one holding the camera, enter a small town looking for supplies, killing zombies with a stolen rifle. This segment is a little less memorable and a little more trying because the cameraman feels the need to say what everyone always says in modern zombie films “everything’s dead, what a bummer. How ironic that I spent my life doing X.” Yeah, we've all got problems, pal. Their story comes to no real conclusion, other than to say they’re probably ok before it’s on to diary 3.
Diary 3 is the last and longest of them and is also the one with the most kick to it. A pretty decently sized group of survivors lives in a house in a field away from most life. There are scattered old industrial buildings about, but its mostly woods around (in other words Romero country, British style). Everyone’s in a bit of a huff because the new guy, Goke, is a real hothead. Well he takes his name from a film about an alien who cuts faces open so he can steal bodies, I guess I’d be a little apprehensive about spending time alone with him, too. Things look pretty bleak for these guys; they bicker a lot, three of them get killed during a mission for supplies (all of it is filmed, of course; shockingly, one of them is mistaken for a zombie and shot dead while laughing maniacally at his infected wounds). Where things get really interesting is when two of the survivors go into one of those old warehouse-type buildings on the edge of the woods for supplies. The cameraman tells his friend that Goke was supposed to secure the building yesterday, but he didn’t look in after him. They find a female zombie handcuffed to a wall, naked. This, we’re assured, will not stand. Unfortunately, Goke is a bit more accustomed to shooting first, as some footage from a month earlier tells us, when he and a friend encountered the group from diary 1 just after their escape from the farm house.

I like films with more than one problem. Zombie Diaries gives us not just the ultimate crisis situation, but puts two believably crazy killers in the mix. There are people like that out there and I just know that those assholes would survive the apocalypse. That’s why the law of averages is a dick. And the best part is when we see them trying to assimilate themselves into groups of normal folk, already at wit’s end, just emanating sleaziness. The performances, by our killers and everyone else, are all excellent. I don’t know if it’s just the British accent but something about low budget English films makes them work better than low budget American films. The people in British films just seem more believable for some reason. I guess because I grew up witnessing bad acting done in wretched American accents I’m more aware of what bad acting looks and sounds like when Americans are doing it. In all fairness the people in this film could be acting poorly, but maybe I wouldn’t know it. The only thing I didn’t like were the monologues delivered in act II, but that was more an issue of writing, not delivery. I liked the performances, by and large. It’s tough to reasonably capture that end of the world moodiness, but everyone does a really good job acting naturally, which I can't say for Diary of the Dead which was more an exercise in Romero trying to emulate the voice of a teenager than really capturing someone's voice. I give Romero a pass, though, because there are people who are making great films using his movies as a template; Zombie Diaries is one such film.

The camera work is all really nicely done and of all the reality zombies I’ve seen, this one had the best post-production. What I mean is that when things get bad in the film and the camera may in reality experience some difficulties, the feed gets splotchy, the picture jumps, lines run up and down the screen, etc. It looks like real footage, and they went through a good deal of work to make sure it looked like the real thing. The zombies themselves look great, the first two we see especially. The first of the film’s scares comes when we meet our first shamblers in the bedroom of the farmer’s house; her white eyes and undead moaning are really good. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen the same thing; sometimes scary is just scary. Which is why zombie films may be around until we figure out a way to bring zombies around for real.

So we have decent camera work, excellent performances, believable dialogue, decent effects, a really great use of a three act structure, and no ego to speak of. Not bad for a film that took two years to make its way to the US. Compare that to an independent film made for even less money in the states and it shows our reluctance to accept foreign things. This movie, of course, has an edge, as it’s been accepted into the vast network of H.P. Lovecraft related material. Lovecrafties, man, they’re worse than trekkies. I’m being facetious, but still, this thing hasn’t been even remotely hard to find since it got released in 1999. I’m just saying…we could try harder, people.

Cool Air
by Brian Moore
A young man, Randolph Carter, moves into a cheap apartment building beneath an exiled professor called Muñoz. Muñoz is a queer chap indeed. Carter hears strange things about him from his landlady and one day some odd fluid starts pouring into his apartment from the room upstairs. Carter has a heartattack soon enough afterwards to invite suspicion about the nature of the spill and when he wakes up he’s in Muñoz’s flat. The first thing he notices about the Muñoz place is that it’s freezing; the old man has kept the place at a cool 56 degree temperature. Muñoz is also a gifted physician; he did after all, save Carter from certain death. Naturally our young hero has some questions: what was that liquid? Why are you living alone? And why on earth is it so cold in here? Carter’s about to be very sorry he asked.

Muñoz used to be a big deal in the scientific community until a horrible accident. He now lives alone using his ammonia cooling system powered by a gas engine to see that his health remains stable. What health condition is aided by the installation of a perpetual cold machine? What happens when it stops making things cold? I don’t think I’m ruining a thing when I tell you the doctor is in fact undead and has been for almost twenty years. The cold was just one in a continuing series of temporary solutions to stop him from decaying.

Ok, history lesson: Cool Air is by all accounts the western world’s first exposure to the living dead. Did you hear what I said? That’s a big deal! I except Frankenstein and Dracula and other vampirey type films in this estimation because we’re dealing with three different paradigms here. The Frankenstein monster is made of other folks and needed a lot of assistance from our old friend science before he could get up and raise hell, so he’s not a zombie. A vampire still talks and throws dinner parties and stuff, so we all know he ain’t a zombie. I’m talkin’ a guy who stopped living and then came back to life unaided by the occult. The first time we had one of those was in a short story by that master of the macabre H.P. Lovecraft. Cool Air, the movie, was made by a devout fan of Lovecraft. How do I know this? Cause the movie’s script is the short story verbatim, that's how!
Cool Air is a fine homage to the work of H.P. Lovecraft as its existence is predicated entirely upon the words of Howard P. The problem with this is that the film has no personality, pretty poor acting, very amateurish 16mm cinematography, and a pretty hollow looking California location instead of the original New York setting. It’s unremarkable in just about every way were it not for the fact that it is to date the most successful and important adaptation of the very first zombie story ever published in the English speaking world. I don’t know that that means we forgive it’s shortcomings, which are many, but I do know one thing: a film like this will almost always have an audience despite its being stagey, talkey, and boring. Zombie Diaries, which I really enjoyed, almost didn’t make it across the Atlantic Ocean into my video store. I think we need to open a dialogue about artistic merit in this country and quick because I can still feel the hot breath of the Friday The 13th remake on my neck.