It Stains the Sands Red (2016)
★ / ★★★★
Here is the kind of zombie picture where the heroine falls on the ground for no reason when faced with an immediate threat and we are supposed to believe somehow that this is thrilling rather than silly or downright idiotic. For much of its ninety-minute running time, which actually feels at least an hour longer, the plot fails to take off. Boredom grips the mind and when it finally does get somewhat interesting, the twist is dropped so quickly in exchange for standard zombie film clichés. The material is in desperate need of rewrite.
Directed by Colin Minihan, “It Stains the Sands Red” is set in a universe where the undead has taken over Las Vegas. Molly (Brittany Allen), an exotic dancer with drug addiction, is with her boyfriend (Merwin Mondesir) while on their way out of the city when their car gets stuck on the side of the road. Since they are in the middle of the desert, no help can be found nearby for miles. However, there is a zombie (Juan Riedinger) on the hunt for its next meal and it is closer to the couple than they realize.
Much of the picture involves Molly walking around the desert while being followed by the flesh-eater. Painfully obvious is the fact that the situation is metaphor for the heroine literally being followed by the demons of her past. Writers Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz fail to assume that the audience is intelligent enough to see past the various symbolisms. Instead, the material adopts a repetitive cycle of a small chase between the woman and the zombie, Molly getting away somehow, day turning into night, a flashback into Molly’s life, rinse and repeat. No tension is accumulated because the situation is watered down by various attempts at dark comedy—only the humor is equally predictable as the metaphor.
There is a twist involving a change in relationship between predator and prey that I thought paved the way for an interesting avenue. I wondered that perhaps the film is not supposed to function mainly as a horror film but an experimental think piece. But this proved to be giving the filmmakers too much credit too soon because just when it starts to get interesting, it moves onto a path so uninspired, so oft tread upon, that one wishes for the experience to be over immediately. Right then we know exactly where the movie is heading.
Creating a badass heroine is especially difficult to accomplish. For one, a performer with range must be hired for the job. Second, the writing must be so on point yet so subtle that we believe the evolution without question whatsoever. Third, the story usually commands a standard arc but with enough fascinating pieces added throughout that we do not mind the typical dramatic parabola so much. But the film does not possess any of these qualities. Notice how the movie ends. There is no closure. Clearly, the writers do not understand what the movie is about. If they did, they would have realized that closure would have completed the character’s journey. Perhaps they were hoping for a sequel?
The quality of “It Stains the Sands Red” is captured perfectly with a scene involving Molly attempting to fight a zombie with a rock. Enough said.
Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Nothing much happened in “Resident Evil: Afterlife” other than the fact that Alice (Milla Jovovich) continued on her seemingly interminable quest to shut down the Umbrella Corporation. After hearing a hopeful transmission that promised food, shelter, protection, and no infected individuals, our protagonist hoped to find refuge in a place called Arcadia. But when she reached the promised land, she found nothing but a beach and abandoned helicopters. Meanwhile, off the coast of California, Alice and Claire (Ali Larter) landed their helicopter on a prison where other survivors (Boris Kodjoe, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Kim Coates, Kacey Barnfield, Norman Yeung, Fulvio Cecere) hoped to be rescued as they kept a man (Wentworth Miller), who promised to divulge a secret passage that led outside if released, captive. I didn’t expect the film to be insightful or groundbreaking in any way. But I did expect it to entertain. I wasn’t entertained. I was confused during the first thirty minutes because Alice had the ability to be in multiple places at once. For the rest of the time, I grew impatient as the material delivered the run-of-the-mill deaths from our not-so-colorful group of characters. There was only one scene I liked which involved a duel between Claire and a giant man wielding a massive ax. I was at the edge of my seat because I felt like Claire was in serious trouble considering she didn’t have any superhuman powers. And I think that’s the problem with our main character. Alice didn’t feel human so we couldn’t empathize with her when she had to face danger. She was capable of sacrifice but it didn’t feel like she cared for the people she seemed to protect. It felt like she was more interested in the challenge of shooting as many zombies as possible. The only fun fact about her was she liked to stack quarters on her spare time. But she even did it so robotically. Just because the material was inspired by a popular video game, it didn’t mean that each aspect of the film had to feel cold and calculated. When the characters met their demise, I didn’t care. I thought about who was next to be eaten or shot. I also wanted to talk about the zombies. It’s never a good sign when the zombies from television shows like Frank Darabont’s “The Walking Dead” look better than zombies in a movie. I don’t mean “better” as in more attractive; I mean “better” as in more convincing, more menacing. The franchise had about eight years to master its tone. Not once did I see that Paul W.S. Anderson, the writer and director, attempted to use mood to suspend his audiences in suspense. If Anderson had found a way to balance science fiction, action, and horror (with occasional humor), “Resident Evil: Afterlife” would have breathed new life into the series. It should have stayed dead.
Survival of the Dead (2009)
★ / ★★★★
George A. Romero’s tired “Survival of the Dead” started off with two groups of people on an island with a vastly different approach in terms of dealing with the zombies. Group A, led by Kenneth Welsh, wanted to kill the zombies immediately while Group B, led by Richard Fitzpatrick, wanted to train the zombies to eat things other than humans. The first scene depicted Group A being exiled from the island. Cut to the soldiers (Alan Van Sprang, Athena Karkanis, Stefano DiMatteo) meeting a kid (Devon Bostick) as they attempted to decide their next destination. Some wanted to go North while the other said South but it didn’t really matter because we all knew they would end up on the island. I will always thank Romero for making a big impact in the horror genre for the classic “Night of the Living Dead” but what he needs to do now is to stop making these limp and cliché-ridden sequels. The questions that were posed about the way the living dealt with the dead and fellow living people were painfully pretentious and heavy-handed. The two old men with polarizing opinions about what to do with the zombies felt contrived. At one point, one of them stated that they’ve been rivals ever since the school yard. I thought they were immature, selfish and weren’t as strong or macho as they wanted others to believe. With the amount of arguing they had throughout the picture, I was surprised they weren’t killed off in the very beginning. I found nothing inspiring from “Survival of the Dead” because it simply featured a group people making one stupid decision after another. There was nothing scary about the zombies because they were slow-moving and the make-up was so obvious that it borderlined camp. Furthermore, it did not have a firm grasp on delivering tension that lingers. Too often did it rely on the score to tell us what was scary or amusing and I did not appreciate being spoon-fed what to feel and think. I wanted scenes where we were forced to follow a character in a dark, tight spaces, and all we could hear were silence and the character’s footsteps. It should have given us more scenes we could relate to whether there was a danger of a zombie attack or not. There was not one character in this film that I could root for because it spent too much time tackling trite moral questions instead what it meant for these specific characters to survive in world where hope seemed like a thing of the past. Even more disappointing was the fact that it didn’t even have that much blood. If one is looking for some scares, intelligence and creativity, I suggest to stay away from this generic supposed gorefest.
Zombi 2 (1979)
★ / ★★★★
After I’ve seen zombies that can run like the wind à la “28 Days Later” or “28 Weeks Later,” slow-moving flesh eaters just don’t impress me anymore unless they’re being spoofed like in “Shaun of the Dead.” But I always try my best to put things into perspective because modern zombie pictures wouldn’t be the same today without the classics. A woman (Tisa Farrow) and a reporter (Ian McCulloch) decided to go on an island in the Caribbean to look for the woman’s father. Along the way, they met a couple (Al Cliver, Auretta Gay) on vacation who were kind enough to take them to the island of interest. But little did they know that the island was infested with the living dead. Although considered now as a classic, I believe “Zombie” was a mess. It talked about voodoo being the reason why the dead were rising from the grave but the word was not really explored nor did it touch upon its source. Voodoo has a variety of definitions depending on the culture–did this one involve dolls and pins? Furthermore, characters would ask something like, “What ARE those things rising from the grave?” in utter disgust. And someone would reply he didn’t know. However, after a few seconds the word “zombie” was thrown around like a football. That inconsistency in the script bothered me as much as the characters choosing to make one stupid decision after another. If the characters are as stupid (and as slow-moving) as the zombies, the fun is immediately taken out of the equation. Time and again the character would purposely run into an area where she knew there would be a dead end. I also hated the fact that characters would stand around and wait to be bitten. Horror movie directors should always ask themselves, “What would I do if I was in this particular character’s situation?” Thinking how we would respond and applying that instinct to the characters would not only make the characters more believable, we would be able to relate to them so much easier. If I saw a zombie a few feet away from me, I wouldn’t even think about trying to find the best weapon. Instinct would tell me to run as if I was in a 200 meter dash. And if I happen to run at a dead end and I had no choice but engage in combat, I would fight like I’ve never fought in my life. The last thing I would do was to stand around and say, “Oh, here I am. Bite me.” This was supposed to be a spiritual sequel to George Romero’s original 1978 “Dawn of the Dead.” “Zombie” or “Zombi 2” certainly wasn’t as intelligent or as ambitious as that film. Although I must say that the zombie versus shark scene was pretty neat. Oh, and I suppose I liked the soundtrack, too.
The Crazies (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
A remake of George A. Romero’s 1973 original of the same name, “The Crazies” was about a man (Timothy Olyphant) and his wife’s (Radha Mitchell) struggle for survival when a strange chemical started affecting their friends and neighbors. At first, the infected would have a fever but after two days, they would exhibit strange behaviors which ranged from catatonia to full-on violence like killing their families or random strangers. I was surprised with how good this movie was because most of the reviews I read expressed disappointment. I really liked that this film, directed by Breck Eisner, knew how to build suspense and had a pay-off every ten to fifteen minutes so I was engaged with what would happen next. I loved the way it used tight spaces to its advantage, such as the horrifyingly terrific scenes in the morgue and the car wash. When at its best, it reminded me of the relentless scenes in “28 Days Later” and “28 Weeks Later.” Unfortunately, the film had its drawbacks thirty minutes into it when the military started taking over the small town. Prior to that, I thought the movie was fantastic because it felt personal. The main characters had no idea what was going on and slowly but surely, the safe life they were so used to living was broken by very strange and creepy happenings which started during a baseball game. With the military in the picture, it became cold and impersonal. Having said that, since this was a remake, I knew that it still had to remain loyal to its original source. However, I felt as though the movie could have minimized the military scenes, which they did during the last twenty or so minutes. But maybe this version minimized the politics as much as they could. I’m not sure because I haven’t seen the original. The movie was at its best when the lead characters who were easy to root for were placed in paranoid situations in which they either had to hide from an infected or think that a friend had the virus and it was only a matter of time until they wouldn’t be on the same side anymore. “The Crazies” was fun to watch because when it’s serious, it gets pretty scary, but it had unintentionally funny lines. It reminded me of a hybrid among the zombie pictures mentioned earlier, “The Happening” and the highly underrated “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” back in 2003. It could have used a little more brain and character development but those elements were the furthest things in my mind when the characters were being attacked from left and right in the most gruesome ways possible.
Otto; or, Up With Dead People (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
Bruce La Bruce’s movie about a zombie named Otto (Jey Crisfar) was not something I expected. I thought it would be hybrid of horror and drama because I was aware that Otto was an unhappy undead who couldn’t tap into the memories he collected back when he was alive. I liked the style of this picture: some were in black and white, some were in color, other aspects were told in a linear manner, while some were in split-screen. All those different techniques worked for me because it kept me interested and sometimes the craft matched the lead character’s mood. The second thing I liked about this movie was that it was a movie within a movie. Otto was hired to play a zombie by an eccentric director (Katharina Klewinghaus) who wanted to comment on consumerism, intolerance (especially toward non-heterosexuals), and modernity. Even though there were times when I thought certain ideas were not explored enough, I did appreciate that I tried to achieve something. The third factor that I admired about this film was the main character. When he started to remember the memories he had with his ex-boyfriend, I questioned whether he was really dead. I thought him being a “zombie” was just a front because he would rather shut down instead of dealing with the pain of abandonment and hopelessness. I thought the whole thing was a metaphor for depression and a brilliant one at that. As the film went on, I felt as though he was becoming more alive as he realized that people did miss him and he was not insignificant. But what didn’t work for me was that the director’s ideas were so all over the place to the point where sometimes the messages contradicted each other. I also didn’t get what the connection was between sex and nudity to social contracts and the social problems. If that part had been clearer, especially since the idea took about half of the film to explain, I think this would’ve been a much stronger project. Ambitious ideas are great but one should support those ideas in a clear manner for evaluation and understanding. “Otto; or, Up With Dead People” is definitely not a commercial film because it actively challenges the conventions of storytelling. Most people would see this as pointless and meandering but I thought there was enough brain to warrant a slight recommendation. Its ability to take the zombie flicks upside down, such as the undeads’ ability to speak, think and restrain themselves from eating people, was fun to watch.
★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig, this Australian zombie horror-comedy plays more like a science fiction movie more than anything. Rene (Felicity Mason) goes into a farmhouse to escape the zombies that were chasing her after a meteor shower. In the farmhouse, she meets a few others (Mungo McKay, Rob Jenkins, Lisa Cunningham, Dirk Hunter, Emma Randall) and they must figure out what is happening in the town while trying not to get eaten by the zombies. I didn’t enjoy this movie at all due to a number of things. The characters kept asking, “What were THOSE things? Why are they trying to eat us? Are they dead?” as if they’ve never seen a zombie movie before. Moreover, the characters are very one-dimensional. It would have been so much better if the cops were the cowards and the regular folks would have been the leaders. Taking some of those obvious elements and putting them upside down would have given the illusion that the directors were trying to make a better movie. For a horror picture, this is very light on the scary factor. The zombies are slow enough but did the characters have to be slow as well (mentally and physically)? None of them had actual survival skills and I wouldn’t buy for a second that they would survive if there were real zombies running around. If I see a zombie trying to get to me to eat my brains, I would run so fast, I wouldn’t even think about silly things like leaving something behind. The stupid characters were good at three things: screaming, yelling at each other, and asking redundant questions. Lastly, I’m very frustrated with the fact that there were actual aliens in this movie. It was so random and everything was spelled out for us in the end: why there were zombies and why the aliens decided to visit our planet. What made other zombie flicks so successful (1968’s “Night of the Living Dead” and “28 Days Later”) was the fact that there were questions left unanswered. Even if they were answered, those films left a possibility that the truth lies beyond the given explanation. Overall, “Undead” was a random mess of a movie. It is far from creative and it didn’t have enough enthusiasm to keep my attention. I thought “Zombieland” was far scarier and that was a comedy. That should give you an idea with how lackluster this movie truly is.