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.
★★★ / ★★★★
I love zombie movies because I’m fascinated with the idea of the dead taking over the world of the living. (Did I mention I have nightmares about zombies?) Not to mention zombie flicks usually have social commentaries which were not absent in this little gem. “Zombieland,” directed by Ruben Fleischer, stars Jesse Eisenberg as Columbus, who wants to make his way to Ohio to be reunited with his parents. On the road, he meets Woody Harrelson as Tallahassee, a man on a mission to find Twinkies; Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin as Wichita and Little Rock, respectively, sisters who initially look innocent but turn out to have a knack for survival. The very “28 Days Later”-like gathering of very different people was smart because all of them yearned for that rare human connection in a world full of flesh-eating monsters. All four of them eventualy head to Southern California in order to find refuge with other humans. I love this movie’s self-awareness. It seemed to know its strengths which were highlighted in the beginning of the film as Eisenberg described his survival guide. It was done with such craft because the jokes were genuinely laugh-out-loud funny so the realization that it was all a gimmick later on became insignificant. The flashback scenes were done well, especially how Eisenberg’s character reflected on how much of a loser he was back when humans still ruled the planet–staying in on a Friday night playing video games, not socializing with people, and not getting enough attention from girls. A lot of people compare him to Michael Cera but I think there’s an important difference between the two. I think Eisenberg’s awkwardness is edgy and his characters usually have a certain toughness. Cera’s awkwardness, on the other hand, is softer and cuter–the kind that makes you go “Aww” and maybe pet him afterwards. That awareness was also highlighted via pop culture references from Russell Crowe, Facebook to Ghostbusters. Comparisons to “Shaun of the Dead” is inevitable because it is a horror-comedy about zombies. But I think “Zombieland” is a little scarier because the characters didn’t stop to analyze a zombie, imitate, and make quirky comments about them. All of that said, I had one problem with the film. I thought it slowed down a bit somewhere in the middle because it spent too much of its time showing the characters bickering on the road. It got redundant and such scenes could have been taken out and instead added terrifyingly slow suspenseful scenes. Lastly, I thought the final showdown at the carnival was inspired. The movie was able to find ways on how to kill zombies using the rides or the characters using the rides to their advantage. It made me want to ride a rollercoaster right then and there. I’ve read audiences’ reviews about how surprised they were with how good the movie was. To be honest, right after I saw the trailer for the first time, I had a sneaky feeling that it was going to be good. It certainly didn’t disappoint and in some ways exceeded expectations. If you love zombie movies, blood and guts, cameos, and pop culture allusions all rolled into one, then see this immediately. It’s total escapism and it has the potential to get better after multiple viewings.
★★★ / ★★★★
Having seen and being impressed with the remake called “Quarantine,” I just had to see the original. I think both are very effective even though they pretty much had the same scenes. In “[REC],” astutely directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, it had less exposition but the audiences quickly cared about the reporter (Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman. The reporter had a certain spunk and enthusiasm and what the cameraman saw, we saw so there was an automatic connection there. Everything starts off pretty light as the reporter interviewed the firemen about their every day happenings. Things quickly went for a darker turn when the firefighters got a call from an old apartment complex. At first, they thought it was just an old woman that fell and needed help. But when she started attacking and biting people, everyone pretty much knew that something more sinister was going on. People started dying in gruesome ways in the hands of zombie-like infected people and they get quarantined by city officials without an ounce of explanation. What I love about this film was its natural ability to build tension after each scene. There were moments when I thought that if I was stuck in the building with them, the exact same thing could happen so I was definitely more than engaged. “The Blair Witch Project” was undoubtedly this picture’s biggest inspiration but it managed to tilt just enough to have an identity of its own. The best part of the movie for me was the last fifteen to twenty minutes when they finally made it inside the apartment on the top floor. Such scenes revealed to us that it had more to it than “28 Days Later”-like zombies. The disease had a history and I wanted to know more about it. (Maybe a sequel?) But, of course, the scares did not end there. I felt like I was in that dark room with them as they tried to use the night vision option on the camera. I tried not to blink because I was expecting those “shock”/”jumpy” moments. But even then I was surprised and things popped out of nowhere. If one is a horror film fan, this is a must-see. However, this is definitely not for those who dislike shaky cameras in order to add some type of realism to its craft.
★★★ / ★★★★
This horror-comedy cult classic is about a medical student (Bruce Abbott) and his newfound eccentric roommate (the scene-stealing Jeffrey Combs) who brings people back from the dead. I think this being a low-budget film actually worked in its favor. There are only two locations in the film: Abbott’s apartment and the hospital’s morgue where the two lead characters work. By the end of the film, those places look completely familiar to the point where I felt like I’ve known those places for years. Another thing is that it consistently tried to push its limits–whether it’s the question of what would happen if we brought people back to life or just showing us impressive special effects such as blood, guts and severed body parts. Stuart Gordon, the director, should be commended because he was able to balance images of horror with situational comedy. I thought he did a neat job showing the audiences how far a doctor will go to complete his experiment, completely neglecting the ethics and moral conundrums that should be faced by a man of science. Gordon also had enough time to comment on the dynamics in the scientific community–that it isn’t any different than other jobs. In fact, jealousy is abound because pretty much everyone wants to discover the new best thing and some are willing to kill for the discovery. But one thing did bother me, though. I know it’s not meant to be realistic because it’s a zombie film but I couldn’t get over the fact that the decapitated head could control his own body. If the brain is not connected to the spinal cord, the body will not be able to move because the source of electrical signals that may trigger certain chemical signals that control everything else will not be present (such as muscle contraction). I cannot help but get a bit distracted whenever something is glaringly incorrect even for films that do not exactly scream realism. Still, if one is a fan of horror-comedies with interesting premises, campy and has a plethora of gore, “Re-Animator” is a must-see.
★★★ / ★★★★
I was surprised by the quality of this little horror film. Directed by Toby Wilkins, “Splinter” is a story about a couple going camping on their anniversary (Paulo Costanzo and Jill Wagner) and are ambushed by an escaped convict (Shea Whigham) and his girlfriend (Rachel Kerbs). Initially enemies, the two couples had to team up right away after running over a creature that feeds off human and animal blood. Not to mention that it can take over its host after it feeds off the host’s blood. I was horrified because of the way the body moved when the creature was controlling its victim’s bodies. It reminded me of the possessed girl in “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and those rabid zombies in “28 Days Later” and “28 Weeks Later.” Even though this is a small film, it was surprising how much gore it has. It goes to show that a script with smarts and a creative director can go a long way. I was also impressed by the acting. Even though I liked the “good guys” right away because they were cute and funny together, I also found myself feeling for the “bad guys” because of their circumstance. Another thing I liked about this film was that it didn’t even bother to explain where the creature came from. Most creature-feature films fall for the trap of having to elucidate why and how a monster came into existence. I was glad that this one did not. If one is a fan of horror movies where the characters are trapped in one place (in this case, in a gas station), the characters are smart but not above being silly, and there’s a plethora of effective thrills, “Splinter” is definitely the one to see. I couldn’t help but shudder (and maybe even squeal a bit) during some of the most intense scenes.
American Zombie (2007)
★ / ★★★★
I thought this mockumentary about zombies started off really well. We get to see zombies being friendly, having jobs, falling in love and establishing institutions so that society can view zombies as a part of them. But as the film went on, I thought it had one joke which gets bad to worse to egregious after its first twenty minutes. Grace Lee’s direction (playing herself) could’ve been effective if the script had been more focused. Instead, her initial friendly portrait of zombies turned sour after Lee’s crew visited a zombie festival where they gather in order to celebrate who they are. Instead of keeping the zombies under a positive light, the zombies became monstrous and ravenous by the end of the picture just like other zombie movies out there. And that’s the problem: It’s obvious that Lee wanted to do something different but she ultimately made a generic flesh-eating picture. I thought the best part of this mockumentary was Suzy Nakamura’s character, a zombie who has “hopes and dreams” (coming from her own words) adn eventually falls for a living human. There was a certain sadness in her character because she doesn’t accept being a zombie. She surrounds herself with the essense of living or being alive such as pictures of people getting married and abstaining herself from eating meat. Whenever Lee confronts her regarding how she feels about being a zombie, she shrugs as if she doesn’t want to talk about it. In a way, I saw Nakamura’s character as someone who rejects her own race and wants to conform to what white America considers as the “norm.” Those scenes are so well-done but the rest of it was weak and uninvolving. It has great ideas about exposing subcultures in a different way and it does relate to how other minorities are marginalized. The fault is ultimately in the script and the execution. If those two elements had been fixed, “American Zombie” would’ve been really good.
★★★ / ★★★★
This movie genuinely scared me. It is comparable to “28 Days Later” and “28 Weeks Later” because of the zombie-like creatures that are fast and extremely menacing; “Cloverfield” comes to mind because the entire picture is seen through a hand-held camera. Despite the content of the film, without Jennifer Carpenter (“White Chicks,” “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” “Dexter”), this movie probably would’ve failed. Providing a character that’s real, good-natured, and one of the boys (established during the amusing first fifteen minutes), we ultimately care about her when the creatures roam about the apartment complex. She really amazed me during the last few scenes because not only can she scream and look good doing it, I wanted to reach out into the screen and help her escape. Another stand-out is Jay Hernandez (“Hostel,” “Planet Terror,” “Lakeview Terrace”) as a firefighter who is both strong and approachable. I wish he and Carpenter had more scenes together because when they interact, the movie feels more alive. As for the scares, a lot of them are memorable: whether something is moving in the background, strange noises coming from a dark room, or bodies falling from above–all of it worked because the characters are trapped in one place. Danger is always around the corner and it doesn’t let go until the credits appeared. I thought the use of lighting is excellent. Most of the time, it makes me want to look closer because the “thing” that we’re supposed to be looking at is shrouded in darkness. Therein lies the trap because once you look closer, something pops out–your heart starts beating and your eyes try to look for an escape. This is one of the better horror films to come out recently and I’m glad to have seen it in the cinema with a friend and enthusiastic horror fans.