Tag: zombies

The Night Eats the World

The Night Eats the World (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

In a sea of modern horror films that are loud and over-the-top, “The Night Eats the World” sticks out like a sore thumb. Based on the novel by Pit Agarmen, this limited but proficient undead picture utilizes silence both as a tool for survival and a setting for one’s own psychological warfare. Coupled with a nearly wordless performance by Anders Danielsen Lie (who continues to take on interesting roles), what results is a highly watchable piece in which, despite some contrivances like having to chase after an animal down a zombie-infested street, its restraint becomes its most effective weapon. Here is a film that is aware of its constraints and turns them into strengths.

It is successful in putting the audience in Sam’s mindset, particularly the crippling isolation he feels after having woken up and nobody alive is around. The screenplay by Jérémie Guez, Guillaume Lemans, and Dominique Rocher (who also directs the film) bothers to detail the every day ennui that presses on and eventually comes to possess our protagonist. Like peeling an onion, we observe Sam struggling in a completely new world in which he must either adapt or perish. As a musician, for example, he can no longer create music because loud noises attract the flesh eaters. He must sacrifice his passion in order to survive and so it begs the question: Is survival the same as truly living? Is Sam, too, like the undead—the main difference between them and himself is that at the moment he is in control of his own faculties?

The story takes place in an apartment building in Paris. A chunk of the picture involves the main character checking out every apartment in order to determine if there is any immediate or viable threat. Fallen bodies must be disposed because they rot and create a stench. When he does come across a living dead, he marks the front door with an X using a white chalk—a warning not to enter there again. Doors are locked, but we grow paranoid of the possibility that, like the Velociraptors in “Jurassic Park,” the zombies, too, learn how to open doors eventually. The director employs dark and cramp hallways to create a constant foreboding feeling. When a faintest sound is detected, especially at night, we are conditioned to look down the hallway or under the doors’ crevices for a hint of moving shadows. Perhaps it is a good idea to sleep in an area that functions like a hiding place. You can never be too careful.

Naturally, the protagonist does not always make the smartest decisions. It can be argued that this is a necessary trope because it creates suspense. Maybe the point is to inspire viewers to yell at the screen either to give instructions or to chastise. I enjoyed that the screenplay is able to establish that Sam becomes so desperate for human connection, it is almost as though he has developed a death wish. Weeks pass by, perhaps even months. Sam goes to the roof and observe the once busy-buzzing Parisian streets fall completely silent. He wonders if he is the sole survivor.

Here is a zombie picture that offers no answer to the disease’s origin or what is being done about it. It simply is and, in this case, it works. It is not about the virus but the effects of the apocalypse to one specific person. Most may hastily criticize the final moment. Some will say it is too obvious, others will claim it is too vague. But I think it is the correct decision since its trust is placed in those who have watched closely.

The Return of the Living Dead

The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Let me ask you a question, kid. Did you see that movie ‘Night of the Living Dead?’ …Did you know that movie was based on a true case?”

You know a horror-comedy is not going to hold back its punches when right from the opening title card there is already a joke. It dares to claim that the events and people found therein are based on truth. Its self-awareness is sharp, fresh, and pointed; writer-director Dan O’Bannon is clearly a lover of not only undead pictures but of movie-making that incites overt reaction from the audience. “The Return of the Living Dead” can be enjoyed when alone on the couch. But it is preferred that it be experienced as a group as the collective fever of laughter fills the room.

This is not just a movie that offers terrific special and makeup effects. Given that the premise involves a chemical leakage from a U.S. Army tank which houses a zombie from the “actual” case that inspired George A. Romero’s 1968 classic “Night of the Living Dead,” the work makes a statement about how we treat our environment, specifically the waste we put out there for the air to spread and for the soil to absorb. Everything comes from the ground—yes, even the air we breathe. (A prime example is the water cycle—which, to my surprise, is incorporated in the film in a most humorous fashion.) And so wastes we put out there make us sick and eventually kill us. Hence, zombies rising from the Earth, taking over, and eating our brains.

The picture uses every trick in the horror manual—except for CGI—to create grotesque, gross, curious, horrifying, and morbid imagery, from mannequins and old school puppets to animatronics and people sporting masks or heavy cosmetics. Not one technique used comes across as perfect, but there is an infectious joyousness in how they are utilized and framed. I enjoyed that it is almost always not enough to show a disgusting or unusual image and pass that off as entertainment. These images are often accompanied by an auditory gag, shocking acrobatics, or reference to other zombie movies. It feels like a love letter to undead films that came before, but at the same time it has two goals: to turn expectations inside-out and to push the sub-genre in new directions. Either way, it strives to make us laugh throughout.

I enjoyed all the characters here, from the medical supply warehouse foreman named Frank (James Karen) giving a tour to new recruit Freddy (Thom Matthews), who is a bit dim, to the punk rockers (one of them Freddy’s girlfriend played by Beverly Randolph) hanging out at the cemetery—which is right next to the warehouse with the zombie tanks sitting in the basement, which is so not a coincidence. The picture jumps back and forth between the two locations. Energy builds on top of one another until the two groups are required to meet at some point. Every person has a personality… even the undead.

These zombie are no slackers that lumber about waiting for food to walk by. They run. One is already a threat. Facing a horde is terrifying. But a noteworthy trait: These reanimated corpses can speak. “Brains!” “Send in more cops.” “More paramedics.” And another: They have the ability to plan an attack. Because the zombies possess intelligence, we believe that the living running away from them truly are in danger. And if that isn’t enough: Killing them is much, much harder in this film. A harsh blow to the head or a gunshot to the brain isn’t enough. Nor is beheading the zombies. It changes the rules. Not just because it can.

Because its purpose is for us to consider: What is the undead’s relationship to the overall message of the story? More specifically, environmental issues are solved not by one, or two, or five solutions. It is not enough to recycle. Or plant trees. Or manage output of industrial plants. It requires putting politics aside and doing all that we can on every front we can come up with—in an efficient, consistent, and reliable fashion. “The Return of the Living Dead” is progressively pro environment, demanding that we take responsibility for our the betterment of our home through action. It is also riotously funny, stylish, and deeply entertaining.

The Evil Dead

The Evil Dead (1981)
★★★ / ★★★★

Windows magically being repaired two or three scenes later, decaying flesh along the hands and arms looking like modified gloves in order to minimize time and effort in reapplying makeup, and the fog sitting so thick in one area of the screen that one could practically pinpoint the precise location of the fog machine are only some of the myriad “mistakes” (read: charm) in Sam Raimi’s horror classic “The Evil Dead.” And yet the movie stands the test of time because it is propelled with unbridled passion for the work. Love can be felt in every square inch of this movie—flaws and all. One does not have to wonder why it has such a strong cult following.

The characters may not be smart nor do they undergo compelling development, but the writer-director is consistently one step ahead. Notice his vision right from the opening sequence in which five university students (Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor, Betsy Baker, Theresa Tilly) drive toward the isolated rundown cabin in the woods. Editing is swift and generous: we are placed inside the car one moment and out in the woods the next. Both places are alive: the chattering of youth who are excited to begin their weekend getaway and the hunger of the spirits in the woods waiting to possess their next victims. There is energy in the push and pull between natural and supernatural forces. Although apparent that the film has low budget, it cannot be denied that it is filled to the brim with purpose.

Its purpose is to entertain. Nothing else. In modern horror films, it takes at least telling a third of the story until the main players get on the same page and recognize that something bizarre or horrible might be happening. In this movie, the cellar door bursts open on its own during the first ten minutes. There is no room for stupid questions like, “What’s going on?” “Is this really happening?” “Should we call the police?” These unsuspecting victims are thrown right into the mouth of hell; we expect most of them to die in gruesome ways (and they do) and for one to survive. And all this is before they find the dreaded book with human skin as its cover.

Campbell has the face of a hero, but the practical special effects is the star of the show. Here is a movie that shows viewers dismembered human body parts but because the person—or what was once a person—had been possessed by evil, the chopped up limbs remain to tremble on their own. It is a terrifying image even by today’s standards.

Think about it: most violent horror movies settle for showing hacked up bodies—which shows the aftermath of violence—but special projects, those that go the extra mile, tend to highlight the horror after the fact. And because they do, these types of images tend to stick in the mind. This is just one example. Another is the scene involving a woman being attacked by trees in the forest. It sounds amusing: plants attacking a human being. But the way it is shot in addition to the extended duration of the attack, it feels like we are watching a woman get raped in slow motion. (Her desperate screaming for help adds further urgency to the scene.) We are meant to be horrified, uncomfortable. Perhaps we might laugh precisely because doing so is cathartic. Isn’t that the point of horror stories: to provide catharsis?

“The Evil Dead” is no generic horror film. It is kinetic, smart, daring, and atmospheric. It can be enjoyed on a superficial level: college students get more than what they bargained for after a voice from an old tape recorder utters phrases in Ancient Sumerian. Or it can be enjoyed as an experience: how sounds of demonic voices (which changes depending on the person possessed) taunting never let up, how the camera remains dead still when showing a body part being torn off, how the enthusiastic writer-director juggles suspense, jolts, and horror with seeming ease.


Cargo (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Although dramatic horror-thriller “Cargo” offers an intriguing premise involving a father who must find a safe haven for his infant child during a zombie apocalypse, the work is neither particularly moving nor exciting. For the most part, it is repetitive in that it involves a lot of walking, sometimes in circles, across beautiful Australian desert lands. I found only modest entertainment out of it outside of moments when the undead lunges and goes for a bite.

The screenplay is written by Yolanda Ramke, who co-directs with Ben Howling, and it is clear that she is going for a more character-driven piece. The desperate father, Andy, is played by Martin Freeman who is suitable for the role. However, the character does not possess much depth to him other than his level of determination to provide safety for his kin. He is thrown into difficult situations, like clashing with an opportunist (Anthony Hayes) who makes an outpost at a former gas plant, but we learn he is not especially strategic or cunning when necessary. We get the impression eventually that he survives thus far simply because the plot requires that he does. I found the character boring at times.

At least the zombies possess curious behavior. Symptoms are bizarre and creepy, particularly when they feel compelled to dig a hole and put their heads in it. Nothing is explained and so we consider the possibilities. Do they feel the need to hide or protect their heads from heat, light, sound, or something else? A brown, viscous substance comes out of their eyes, noses, mouths, even open wounds. These are details worth seeing in a zombie flick because they have not been introduced within this context before. It leaves plenty to the imagination which helps during the film’s slower moments.

Also worth thinking about is the inclusion of an Aboriginal cast. I am not well-versed in the history behind Australia’s ancient people and white men introduced to the island, but it is apparent that there is social commentary about the two groups and infectious diseases. There are beautiful images of indigenous warriors covered in paint slaying the hordes of the undead among the smoke. There is a dream-like quality about it that is almost poetic. I was more interested in getting to know these warriors than the man who wishes to save his baby.

Although the film introduces new elements to the well-worn sub-genre, I found “Cargo” to be tolerable hike rather than thoroughly absorbing as a character-driven dramatic work that just so happens to have horror elements. It cannot be denied that it has ambition, but I found that, as a whole, it is a bit dull and it offers minimal tension. If bitten, victims of zombie attacks have forty-eight hours before they become one themselves. There were moments when I wished to speed up the countdown.

Day of the Dead: Bloodline

Day of the Dead: Bloodline (2018)
★ / ★★★★

There should be a rule for every remake or reimagining: strive to be better than the film from which the project is inspired by. Here is yet another zombie picture that goes on autopilot, devoid of any intrigue by the fifteen-minute mark. In the middle of all the flesh-bitings, arguments amongst survivors in an underground bunker, and long periods in which nothing of interest ever happens, I wondered how it received the green light to be made. A mediocre episode of the early seasons of “The Walking Dead” is better than this drivel, certainly better at establishing a specific mood and unhurried pacing.

If the dearth curiosity or intrigue doesn’t get under your skin eventually, the terrible dialogue ought to do the job. Without failure, notice that in just about every other scene someone must describe exactly what he or she is feeling or thinking. Couple this with the inexperience of some of the performers, it is deadly. As a result, we do not feel inclined to look more deeply into the characters. What is the point of it when their motivations are laid out for us like a welcoming mat? There is a way to write dialogue, especially in horror films, so that the viewers wish to know, to observe the various personalities like a hawk, to understand what makes them tick, to anticipate a potential betrayal when things do not feel quite right.

There is neither suspense nor thrills. Part of the issue is a lack of understanding regarding which type of editing and pacing should be utilized in order to maximize a sense of discombobulation. It is very quick to go for the jugular, so to speak, rather than taking its time to bait us, to allow us to consider whether a setup might be heading toward a false alarm or about to unfold into a genuinely horrifying experience. For some reason, it is shot like an action film just because there are guns in it. It comes across as confused regarding what type of movie it wishes to be.

Even in pictures like Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” and its high-quality sequel, sure there are guns and manic editing is employed at times, but there are variations in the way scenes play out. We get long stretches of silence where we cannot help but anticipate what is possibly hiding behind the shadows. Only because there are variation in setting, mood, and pacing, perhaps then that the best ten- to fifteen-minute section involves a trip outside of the bunker in order to acquire medicine for a little girl (Lillian Blankenship). Specifically, Zoe (Sophie Skelton), being trained as a physician prior to the virus outbreak, and others with military training (Marcus Vanco, Atanas Srebev, Mark Rhino Smith) must break into a medical facility despite the place being infested with zombies—referred to in the film as Rotters. This is not enough to elevate a material lacking freshness.

The dead may be on the run in “Day of the Dead: Bloodline,” directed by Hèctor Hernández Vicens, but it is potential audiences who should be running away from it. As someone who works in a lab, it got so boring at times that I couldn’t help but wonder about the brands of pipets, microscope slides, and centrifuges; whether the actors were holding laboratory equipments the right way, whether they were wearing personal protective equipment.

It Stains the Sands Red

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.

The Horde

The Horde (2009)
★ / ★★★★

Benjamin Rocher and Yannick Dahan’s “The Horde” is yet another uninspired zombie apocalypse picture in which characters constantly argue while supposedly struggling for survival, but not one of them manages to offer a compelling angle. What results is just noise—screaming matches between the participants, sudden booming of the score and soundtrack, and the screeching, rabid undead from afar. Each passing minute is as unbearably subpar as the last.

The first act shows a glimmer of promise when four Parisian cops sneak into a rundown high-rise to get revenge on drug dealers who killed one of their own (Jean-Pierre Martins and Eriq Ebouaney portraying leaders of the police and drug traffickers, respectively). However, the opposite groups are forced to put aside their differences when they learn that the dead have risen and the building is already surrounded by the undead. At first, it appears that the filmmakers have an eye for action. It gets us from Point A to Point B with escalating tension. It knows how to employ silence and then break it at the right moment.

This promise, however, dissipates the moment hungry flesh-eaters are revealed. Despite excellent makeup, realistic-looking blood, and flinch-inducing violence, it is especially difficult to become enveloped into the reality of the characters’ circumstance since the screenplay lacks intelligence. For example, there is more than one occasion in which characters observe that one way to stop a zombie completely is to shoot it in the head. And yet there are numerous instances where they get trapped and start shooting the zombies at just about every place except the head—it is no longer scary, it turns silly and laughable. When characters are stupid, audiences tend to see right through the facade and it leaves a foul taste in the mouth.

There is a lack of variation amongst the personality of the characters. All of them act tough and hard—yet not one of them is especially smart, or sensitive, or commands a special will or knack for survival. Their differences are painfully superficial. There is no protagonist worth rooting for, but the writers decide it is necessary to create a final survivor simply because it is expected from the subgenre. The problem is, anyone could have predicted the identity of the last person standing from the moment a certain detail is revealed. We simply wait for everyone else to get picked off.

“La horde” offers nothing new to the table. It suffers from too many inconsistencies. For instance, early in the picture, one zombie commands such superhuman strength that not even three people are enough to take it down. Later on, however, a horde of zombies are unable to climb to the roof of a relatively small car to acquire their next meal. Not even zombie flicks are immune from having to establish certain rules and follow through such rules so that its universe makes a whiff of sense.

The Rezort

The Rezort (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

The “Jurassic Park” meets “The Walking Dead” premise might sound ridiculous at first glance, but “The Rezort,” written by Paul Gerstenberger and directed by Steve Barker, proves able to rise above its premise, offering a tension-filled, consistently entertaining, gory good time. At least during the first half, it makes an appealing case to visit an island northwest of Africa so one can have the opportunity to kill as many undead as one wishes, as if it were some sort of a sporting event. The final act dares to make a political statement relevant to many countries across our increasingly modern world.

The setting is quite inspired. The story takes place several years after a zombie apocalypse. But instead of a bleak future, here, the living has won the battle against the zombies. However, there are people out there, like our heroine, Melanie (Jessica De Gouw), who survived the war but unable to move on since she is haunted by what had happened when she was a child. She hopes that by going to the zombie resort and summoning the courage to shoot a zombie in the head, it will help resolve the trauma that plagues her. Unbeknownst to her and her fellow guests, however, the computer system designed to keep the flesh-eaters restrained is about to go horribly awry.

Perhaps not on purpose, the inconsistency between slow-moving and fast-moving undead works to the picture’s advantage. Since the material moves fast—coupled with a real eye for framing—especially with its kills—and tight editing is utilized during chases, such an inconsistency manages to create a wonderful surprise. With each encounter in every new location, we wonder whether the characters are about to come across the slower moving, less threatening kind or the rabid ones that bring “28 Days Later” and “28 Weeks Later” to mind.

It is expected that the group of survivors contain colorful characters, but it is uncommon that just about each one actually has an interesting story to tell. For instance, take note that Lewis (Martin McCann), Melanie’s boyfriend, who is so kind and caring before the outbreak slowly turning into the person that he was during the zombie war. Even the annoying teenagers, Jack (Jassa Ahluwalia) and Alfie (Lawrence Walker), are given a curious backstory: they won an online shooter/video game competition and having done so has granted them to shoot real guns and shoot at real (former) people. When one of them dies eventually, I was surprised how much I ended up caring for the fate of the other.

The special and visual effects are well-done and well-executed. As usual, my favorite moments involve the camera being up close to fresh bites, deep gashes, and mortal wounds. Even the viscosity of the blood is just right; I have a problem with horror films where the blood is so thick, they look more like corn syrup mixed with red dye. Here, the color and thickness of the blood usually looks something like I would get from, say, a nosebleed. In some scenes, I could almost smell that sort of metallic taste or smell that blood emanates.

“The Rezort,” also known as “Generation Z,” offers a handful of fresh ideas that make us want to take it a bit more seriously than its less ambitious contemporaries. Zombie movies are about survival, and this story offers more than one group’s attempt to survive.

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

“Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse,” written by Carrie Lee Wilson, Emi Mochizuki and Christopher Landon, is a horror-comedy that so desperately wants to share the same royal bloodline as Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead” but ends up becoming a weak knock-off, its bastard. Although it offers a few chuckle-worthy moments, not one attempt to make us laugh is particularly clever or memorable whether in terms of its dialogue or its images. The picture will not be remembered twenty years from now.

Part of the problem is it wants to have the cake and eat it, too. It tries real hard to appeal to the masses with its elementary-level comprehension of the undead and in between moments of sickeningly ordinary splatter-fest are naughty jokes that we’ve all seen and heard of during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Thus, the writing here is not only superficial but also dated.

The plot revolves around three high school students (Tye Sheridan, Logan Miller, Joey Morgan), rejected by their peers because they are scouts, who wish to have chance at being cool. Their skills just might separate them from the pack, however, when an infection begins in a research facility and quickly spreads around their hometown. Although the premise sounds promising, it is clear that the writers have no idea about—or have since lost track of—how it is like being an outcast, especially in high school.

The three protagonists are cardboard cutouts with nothing interesting to say or do. The emotions they express are false, only reaching highs and lows when the plot requires them to become less static. We are given no understanding as to why the three are friends in the first place other than they shared a childhood interesting in scouting. We never shake off the feeling that we are watching three actors reciting lines.

The zombies look convincing and it is a good decision to make them move fast because it injects some adrenaline in a film that has otherwise flatlined. Some amusement can be taken out of the extras clearly having fun with all the crazy makeup and simply being a part of a movie. I felt more freshness from looking at the background than I did looking at the foreground—an observation that occurred to me once I was convinced that the picture would offer no redeeming value.

Directed by Christopher Landon, “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse” will charm some due to its spirited nature and willingness to impress. But more observant and experienced viewers will notice its over reliance on CGI—which takes away the requisite edge a movie of this type ought to have—and its negative view of women, with the exception of a character named Denise (Sarah Dumont). Watching her put a smile on my face because I felt as though she is a close cousin of one of the tough, trash-talking women from Quentin Tarantino’s highly underrated but supremely entertaining “Death Proof.”

Life After Beth

Life After Beth (2014)
★ / ★★★★

Grief-stricken by the sudden death of his girlfriend, Zach (Dane DeHaan) spends most of his time and energy with Beth’s equally devastated parents (John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon). Several days after Beth (Aubrey Plaza) is buried, Zach takes a peek through the Slocum’s window and sees his girlfriend walking around. Convinced that her “death” is only an elaborate hoax because she did not want to break up with him, Zach is determined to get an explanation from Beth and her family.

“Life After Beth,” written and directed by Jeff Baena, has a tolerable few first few minutes but it only gets increasingly bad as it goes on. Already light on horror compounded with barely any comedy in its bones, the picture is stuck in soporific limbo, relying solely on its potentially amusing premise to barely get by. This is another movie that proves the horror-comedy genre is tough act to pull off well.

It should have covered a spectrum of emotions. The first act could have worked as a drama given that the characters are in mourning of a life taken too soon. The middle portion could have been an effective romantic comedy that allows us to get a complete idea of how Zach and Beth were like together before her transition. And the final third could have worked as a horror-comedy, somewhere along the lines of Ruben Fleischer’s “Zombieland” and Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead.” Alas, the screenplay relies only on behavior to tell its unfunny, far from amusing “jokes.”

The material appears to have no understanding of what grief is really like. There is not one character here written to respond like a human being after he or she has lost a loved one. Reilly and Shannon look as though they are aware they are in a spoof. DeHaan does not stand a chance because Zach is written like a walking checklist of someone who is clinically depressed—not someone who is grieving. There is a subtle but important difference.

DeHaan and Plaza share no chemistry, but the bigger concern is the screenplay not allowing the two of them to have a genuinely sweet moment. It is important that the audience be shown or are inspired to imagine how the couple are or might be like if the whole premise involving one coming back from the dead had been taken away completely. The relationship being grounded in reality is the only way we grow to care about the characters even if the performers do not emit spark together.

There is a subplot involving an apocalypse which is completely mishandled. It is anticlimactic instead of thrilling, quite bland and boring instead of exciting. We never get the impression that anything remotely bonkers can occur at any time so we sit in our chairs feeling confused as to why the writer-director has chosen to go down such a path. Maybe he ran out of ideas and felt compelled to attach a third act—any third act just to have one? Or it is possible, since it is his first feature film, that Baena had too many ideas but chose the wrong ones to put into celluloid.

Either way, “Life After Beth” does not work. The horror-comedy genre tends to work if functioning under extremes: It is either so funny that we welcome—and eventually crave—the unsuspected scares or so scary that when the comedy does arrive, we are not sure whether to laugh or label the situation as cruel or dark. Falling between the two extremes, however, tends to invoke frustration, anger, and boredom.


Pontypool (2008)
★★ / ★★★★

It is Valentine’s Day and Grant Mazzy’s (Stephen McHattie) first day on the job at the local radio station in a small Canadian town. He used to be a big radio star but his abrasive personality has gotten him into trouble. While on the way to his job, he encounters a woman who speaks of strange things that do not make sense. He brushes it off, blaming the weather as the source of the occurrence. While updating the public on local news, the field reporter, Ken (Rick Roberts), claims that something really weird is happening in town. People are in the streets naked, mimicking sounds, and eating each other. Grant, Sydney (Lisa Houle), and Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly) are advised by officials to stay indoors.

“Pontypool,” directed by Bruce McDonald, has an interesting take on zombie movies, but it takes a while to take off and unspool its ideas. The first thirty minutes largely consists of Grant and Sydney, the producer, butting heads in terms of what the radio personality may or may not say while on the air. It turns old rather quickly because if I wanted to listen to acerbic opinion with something surprisingly meaningful to say about humanity’s state of decay, I would watch or listen to Oliver Stone’s “Talk Radio.”

The first third is frustrating because there is something big happening outside of the radio station’s walls; we want to know more about the mystery but the possibility of attaining information is often distracted by Grant’s bloated ego. While understandable that the point is for us to use our imagination first before seeing the horror, the pacing does not have to feel stagnant as it rinses and repeats the clashing personalities.

Fortunately, the film picks up when a family is invited to sing on air. One of them is infected by the mysterious virus. To reveal the actual nature of the infection will be unfair on my part considering how creative it truly is, but suffice to say that the symptoms are deeply unsettling. When a person about to “change,” usually within seconds, he or she starts to use words incorrectly. For instance, a sentence like “I would like to have lasagna for breakfast tomorrow” would turn into “I would like to have laser for breakfast marrow.” The host of the virus realizes, at first, that what he had said is incorrect. As he tries to correct himself, the person loses his train of thought and eventually keeps repeating the incorrect word. I have worked with people inflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease and they tend to do something similar. That is what makes it so creepy: the situation is tethered to what can happen in actuality.

There is a memorable scene when an infected tries to slam her body against a sound proof glass multiple times without showing any sign of exhaustion or pain. She does it until her face starts to fall off and blood, with small chunks of flesh, is smeared all over the formerly immaculate surface. We observe from the side she desperately wants to get into.

Based on a novel by Tony Burgess, “Pontypool” is a horror film that forces us to think and listen. Although it does not start strong, it becomes entertaining about halfway through. With so many zombie flicks in which the horror depends on how much flesh is bitten off a victim, this one is depends more on the insidious symptoms.

Die-Ner (Get It?)

Die-Ner (Get It?) (2009)
★ / ★★★★

Rose (Maria Olsen), a lonely waitress in a diner during a graveyard shift, was regaled by Ken (Joshua Grote), a guy with a friendly voice, interested tone, and modest looks. Because Ken was so engaging, Rose found herself being comfortable with the stranger… until he revealed that he was a serial killer. After Ken killed Rose and the cook, a couple facing marital problems walked in. Kathy (Liesel Kopp), ordering water, didn’t want to talk about it because she claimed to be tired. Rob (Parker Quinn), ordering coffee, insisted that they discussed the problem immediately. Meanwhile, the waitress and the cook, looking dead, somehow got out of the freezer and lumbered toward Ken. Written and directed by Patrick Horvath, “Die-ner (Get It?)” began so promisingly but ultimately disappointed. There was a certain romanticism in the interaction between Rose and Ken as she informed him of her origins and how she ended up working in the middle of nowhere. Olsen wasn’t classically pretty but I loved looking at her and the way she delivered her lines from when she stood until she sat down to be on the stranger’s eye level. It was appropriate because I consider diners to be a romantic place, a haven of sweet-smelling pancakes and steamy mashed potatoes where all sort of strangers gather, eat, converse, and leave–a place of transition. I enjoyed the way it turned very dark as the waitress realized that the man she just started to trust turned out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. There was horror in the way her expectations were played with and crushed. But from the moment the zombies were shown, my level of frustration toward the material climbed to a boiling point. While I appreciated that the characters knew what a zombie was, it didn’t make sense that they did not seem to have any background knowledge about them. For instance, they tried to kill the zombies but not one was quick to suggest to put a bullet in a walking dead’s head. If the script allowed its characters to recognize a zombie, why not also make them be aware of their weaknesses according to pop culture? By doing so, it would’ve given its own twists more power and impact. The zombies were not the only threat. Naturally, Rob and Kathy considered Ken to be a big danger after he admitted that he murdered the diner’s staff. The man with the gun, Ken, was shown as not always the one in charge. It was a good decision because it gave us hope that there was a possibility of escape for the couple. There were times when Ken was hit on the head and lost consciousness for a few minutes. However, this was around the point when I started to yell frustrations at the screen. Why didn’t Kathy and Rob make sure that the murderer, once he woke up, could never again get the upper hand? Personally, and it’s understandable if you don’t agree, I would have shot one of Ken’s kneecaps. Once I knew he would not be able to come after me, if none of the cars parked in the parking lot worked nor had keys in them, I would run toward the freeway and find help. It was unfortunate that the writer-director put too many limitations on his characters, as if the zombies had already eaten their brains. With movies similar to this, it’s so difficult to root for someone who doesn’t seem to have an instinct for survival. It is absolutely understandable if a character chooses to turn to savagery in order to preserve his or her life. It’s much better than watching a character running around like an idiot, just waiting to be killed. “Die-ner (Get It?)” was neither scary nor darkly amusing enough to pardon its glaring weaknesses in logic and entertainment value. At least it didn’t mistaken gore for horror.

Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies

Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies (2012)
★ / ★★★★

Operation Big Shanty, a key move created by the Union designed to capture Fort Pulaski and gain great advantage against the Confederates during the Civil War, was a failure. Out of thirty men assigned to execute the undertaking, only one managed to survive. However, it turned out that prior to his rescue, he was bitten by another human that resembled a corpse, equipped with great strength and seemingly indestructible. Unbeknownst to him and his caretakers, it was only a matter of time until he turned to one of them. Abraham Lincoln (Bill Oberst Jr.) had encountered the living dead when he was a child. Having had the experience and the knowledge of how to kill them, he felt it was his duty to lead twelve men to Fort Pulaski and secure it for the sake of the country. Based on the story by Karl T. Hirsch and J. Lauren Proctor, “Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies” made the mistake of taking itself too seriously, adopting the pace of a three-hour period drama but without the heft nor the complexity of one. What it should have focused on was delivering creative ways to kill zombies as well as the side characters intent on getting blood on their hands. Each time the camera braced us in front of Lincoln and a zombie, there was an undeniable and all too momentary excitement mixed with glee because there was something very silly at the idea of our late president being able grip a scythe, slice someone’s head off, and not feel bad about it. For him, every undead meeting a true death simply had to be done for the good of the nation. He saw the corpse problem as a virus and he would do anything to contain it. Unfortunately, the screenplay by Richard Schenkman, felt the need to introduce an unnecessary romantic angle between Lincoln and Mary (Baby Norman), a woman the president met many years ago, for the sake of padding. As they learned that their feelings for one another were preserved as if they were the same people back then, their backstory was written and executed sloppily to the point of tedium. Oberst Jr. and Norman shared no chemistry. At one point, I grew so tired of their interactions that I wished a zombie was able to successfully sneak behind Mary and eat her so that the action would recommence. Further, the situation that the men were in were not especially interesting. It was disappointing because the fort housed Union and Confederate officers. Another critical misstep in the screenplay was passively allowing the zombies to be the stars, which didn’t make sense because aside from the fact that they were hungry, they were literally unable to do–let alone say–anything interesting as they lumbered from one spot to another, and the human characters went on autopilot, playthings to be chased and eventually trapped in a corner. It would have been great if there had been one or two scenes when a solider was allowed to speak of, for example, how this war against the undead was similar or different to the war against the living. I wanted to know if they felt there was a difference in killing a walking but unthinking corpse–which still resembled a human being–as opposed to killing a person who was as aware and as willing to kill. Directed by Richard Schenkman, while “Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies” was not without occasional humor because of acting that either felt too forced or completely detached, it was still a limp piece of work considering what great fun it could have given us. At times the mood had gotten so somber, I wanted shout, “But it’s Lincoln killing zombies!” at the screen.

City of the Living Dead

City of the Living Dead (1980)
★ / ★★★★

Mary (Catriona MacColl), during a seance, was bombarded with images of a priest (Fabrizio Jovine) who committed suicide. This act opened up the Gates of Hell, caused deceased individuals to rise from their graves, and brutally kill whoever was around. Peter (Christopher George), a reporter, teamed up with Mary to find the town where the priest practiced, now a zombie with psychic powers, and stop him before All Saint’s Day. Written by Lucio Fulci and Dardano Sacchetti, “Paura nella città dei morti viventi,” also known as “City of the Living Dead” and “The Gates of Hell,” mainly relied on gore to disgust instead of building genuine tension to scare us. However, I was mostly able to overlook that particular shortcoming because I was in the mood for blood. The special effects, like having too much fog accompanied by a soundtrack which signaled that something scary was happening, and the visual effects, like the a appearing/disappearing priest hanging from a rope, ran rampant. It was just too much that it came off as though Lucio Fulci, the director, did not seem at all in control of his material. While some of it was creative (when was the last time you saw a movie about a zombie that could kill by staring intensely at its victim?), most of it was campy, not helped by the terrible dubbing especially in the beginning. There were three scenes that stood out to me. The first was when a corpse suddenly appeared in Emily’s kitchen. Emily (Antonella Interlenghi) thought she was going crazy so she called her psychologist (Carlo De Mejo) to make sure that she wasn’t just seeing things. When the psychologist came over, it turned out her mind wasn’t playing tricks on her at all. They left the body for minute and when they got back, it was no longer there. There was an unexpected comedy because when they realized that the body was gone, instead of running out of the house like normal people would, the two actually discussed their options: either the body was dragged away (which suggested there was another person in the house, most likely dangerous, who liked to play sick jokes) or the corpse walked away on its own. The second and third scenes were kills. The first was when the priest used his mind to force a girl to regurgitate her internal organs. It was disgusting and unbelievable but it was also quite amusing. The second involved a father who found his daughter with a boy (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) in suspicion of murder. Having no evidence whatsoever that the boy was a killer, the father took the boy’s head through a power drill. What I liked about that scene was, unlike most of the other scenes the film offered, it actually had tension. “City of the Living Dead,” at times unnecessary and mean-spirited especially with its extended scene involving a boy being terrorized by zombies, for better or worse, was an over-the-top interesting mess. At least the zombies didn’t go “Err… Oof… Grr!”