Tag 1980s

Return of the Living Dead, The (1985)

The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

They’re Back From The Grave and Ready To Party!

Two bumbling employees at a medical supply warehouse accidentally release a deadly gas into the air which promptly reanimates a cadaver in the freezer. After their boss arrives and decides to cover everything up, they chop up the cadaver and the trio head across to the nearby crematorium to burn the remains. Unfortunately, the ash is caught in the rain outside and the entire graveyard is reanimated, which is not only bad news for the men inside but also for a group of teenagers partying there.

 

THE original zombie comedy movie, Return of the Living Dead was like a breath of fresh air into the zombie genre in the mid-80s after George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead had spawned a never-ending slew of exploitative Italian knock-offs which had worked the formula to death. Another zombie film like the rest would have been the final nail in this sub-genre. Along came Return of the Living Dead to straighten the score. No relation to Romero’s trilogy despite the title, Return of the Living Dead is a horror-comedy classic which is almost unrivalled in the affection that horror fans have for it.

Horror-comedies are all the rage now and have been for some time but if you think back, there weren’t too many efforts before Return of the Living Dead came along. You’d have to go all of the way back to the likes of Abbott and Costello pairing up with the famous Universal monsters in the late 50s to really find a decent example of a successful horror-comedy teaming. Return of the Living Dead’s success and popularity would prompt one to ask ‘why had that been the case all of these years?’ Surely someone had a decent idea to mix comedy and horror together but it seemed like a no go, especially during the bleak days of the 70s backwoods horror cycle which added a raw element of realism to the previously-glossy horrors of the 60s. However, the 80s provided the perfect decade to dare to be different and so Return of the Living Dead came along, providing the template for horror-comedies for years to come.

Return of the Living Dead is naturally funny. This isn’t a gag reel filled with jokes – the humour is organic and comes realistically from the hysterical reactions that the characters have to what is going on around them. You have a trio of established actors in Clu Gulager, James Karen and Don Calfa who attempt to hold everything together before they burst out laughing. The sharp, witty scripts helps them, their comic timing is impeccable and their deadpan reactions to everything that happens just makes the film a hundred times funnier than it was ever conceived to be. Karen is the standout here and his performance, particularly during the first quarter of the film as he tries to deal with the reanimated cadaver, is hilarious. Coupled with younger actor Thom Matthews, the pair make up quite the comedy duo as their prying around in the basement causes all of this carnage to go off – it’s the slapstick-like visuals and the constant wailing of Karen that really cause all of the laughter.

The bulk of the laughs are confined to the first half of the film and once the full zombie outbreak happens, things get a little more tense and serious. Unlike many horror-comedies, Return of the Living Dead constantly reminds the audience that it is watching a horror film to go with all of the goofing around and manages to tread the fine line between laughs and scares. There are some true scares to be had amongst the hi-jinks and for all of their silliness, the zombies are actually pretty frightening at times. The first appearance of the cult ‘Tarman’ zombie in the basement sends shivers down the spine: a slimy, skeletal monster with a jelly-legged walk, Tarman is an awesome make-up effect. He remains one of the most indelible images of 80s horror, with his oily complexion, jerky movements and cries of “BRRRAAAIIINNNSSS” ringing out onto the screen. Tarman does get to feast on some brains too in a rather icky moment but the film’s goriest (or at least suggestively gory) scene is when half of a mounted anatomical dog comes back to life. I found that more distressing than any sight of zombies eating brains! And I’m no dog lover too!

Writer/director Dan O’Bannon cleverly plays upon audiences preconceptions of what a zombie film is supposed to be – you know, the shuffling flesh-eating fiends with the whole ‘trauma to the head to kill them’ thing – but then re-writes the rules with fast-moving monsters who take more a blow to the head to stay down and can talk and act based on their former lives. The script is set within a film universe where Night of the Living Dead was apparently based on true events and the remains of that original zombie outbreak were hidden away in canisters. That’s about as far as the subtle self-awareness goes as the film was originally perceived as a sequel to Romero’s films before O’Bannon came on board. The characters don’t do too many stupid things to further the plot, the irony here being that everything they end up doing makes the situation worse despite doing what they saw happened ‘in the movie.’

Not only content with twisting around the zombie genre, Dan O’Bannon purposely makes his cast full of punks as a sort of a middle-fingered gesture towards 80s slashers which had casts of faceless stereotypical teenagers. Funnily enough, most of the punks end up being faceless stereotypical teenagers but there are a few memorable characters, most famously Linnea Quigley’s Trash, who strips off on a gravestone and ends up being naked for the rest of the film to fulfil the requisite T&A quota.

Return of the Living Dead also features a great punk rock soundtrack. Whilst I’m not the biggest lover of punk, the soundtrack fits beautifully with all of the carnage going on. The title track ‘Party Time’ by 45 Grave is a head banger and kicks off the zombie outbreak with a real explosive energy.

 

Though this has the 80s stapled all over it, Return of the Living Dead is still as excellent today as it was back then. Brimming with comic energy, overflowing with great set pieces and still managing to provide enough chills and thrills to remind you of its horror roots, it’s the perfect party film to watch every Halloween.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Nightmare on Elm Street, A (1984)

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

If Nancy doesn’t wake up screaming she won’t wake up at all.

Nancy Thompson has been having recurring nightmares about a sinister, disfigured man who tries to mutilate her in her sleep but it’s only when she finds out that her friends at high school have been having the same dreams, that she realises something is seriously wrong. As the physical effects of what happens in their dreams begin to appear on their bodies in real life, and as some of her friends begin to die, Nancy knows that no one will believe what is happening to them and decides to take matters in her own hands.

 

It’s no exaggeration to state that A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of horror’s most famous films. Hell, I could argue that it’s one of the most famous films ever made. Almost everyone has heard of the film and, if not, you’ll have heard the name of its main antagonist, Freddy Krueger. Spawning one of Hollywood’s longest and most financially successful horror franchises, it’s funny to see the rather quaint origins of this global behemoth in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. Made on a low budget of $1.8m, the film brought in over $25.5m in box office (it made its budget back in opening week alone) and firmly established director Wes Craven as the ‘Master of Horror.’ A Nightmare on Elm Street was released at the tail-end of the golden age of slashers in the early 80s. Audiences had become tired of seeing the same formula rehashed time and time again, with a cast of teenagers being subjected to slaughter at the hands of some masked assailant. Craven brought those ideas on board but subverted them in a way that no one else was doing at the time. As a result, A Nightmare on Elm Street stands head and shoulders above the majority of its 1980s horror counterparts.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is almost a ‘How To Do Horror’ for film students and is a testament to late director Wes Craven who was a lot more skilled behind the camera than people give him credit for. His eye for detail, coupled with the cinematography by Jacques Haitkin, is fantastic, using a mix of shadows, blue-tinted lighting and natural light to give many of the scenes a surreal, dream-like quality to them. This isn’t just your typical man-in-a-mask slasher film but something greater and something which plays upon a deeper level of fear than your average horror film. The atmosphere throughout the film is unnerving, bleak and very ominous. Craven builds up great levels of suspense in a number of scenes, from the attack on Tina in the opening ten minutes, chasing Nancy through the boiler room or the race to save Rod. The characters are never too far away from Freddy’s clutches and the whole ‘don’t fall asleep’ plot is just a writer’s dream. How can anyone survive for too long without sleep?

Craven continually toys with the audience, blurring the lines between dreams and being awake, between fantasy and reality, and so you’re never quite sure whether what you’re watching is real or not. Some scenes are clearly dreams, some are clearly reality but there are many scenes in which you believe the characters are awake turn out to be dreams and vice versa. Keeping the audience guessing allows Craven to play with our expectations as he removes the signposted barriers saying ‘dream’ or ‘reality’ for full effect – look at the sequence in which Nancy is taking a bath. Craven flips the sequence numerous times to ensure that the audience remains on tender hooks.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is more character-driven than its contemporaries but that doesn’t mean to say it shies away from delivering the gory goods when needed. The sequels would focus on elaborately cartoonish dream death sequences but here they are played out for full horror effect. Whilst there are only a handful of deaths, the ones that are given to us are highly memorable. The first death, in which a girl is tossed around a room by an invisible Freddy and has her stomach cut open, is still effective in conveying the sense of the supernatural and how the characters are powerless to resist. However, it’s the legendary ‘geyser of blood’ scene where one unlucky victim is dragged into their bed that is the most impressive.

One aspect to the film that is sorely, sorely overlooked whenever people review it is the Otherworldly soundtrack by Charles Bernstein. The main theme begins with a creepy piano number, a little more low key and subtle than other horror films, before the electronic synth kicks in. These slower tracks build up the suspension and unease nicely as you wait for something louder to kick in. Thankfully, the pace of some of the synth tracks picks up during attack or chase scenes. It may be too 80s for some people but the music is just an extra tool that Craven uses to shape the scares. If you’ve got a spare few minutes, head to Youtube and check out the track ‘Run Nancy’ which is one of my favourite film scores – menacing, chilling and building to a nice crescendo.

Finally, what review would be complete without addressing the elephant in the room. A Nightmare on Elm Street gave birth to one of, if not the, biggest pop culture icon of the horror genre – pizza-faced child killer Freddy Krueger. Long before he started throwing wisecracks in the sequels, shilling lunch boxes in TV ads and participating in boxing-style showdowns with Jason Vorhees, Freddy Krueger was not only a sadistic bogeyman but he’s always been a child killer. Confined to the shadows for a large part of the film, Freddy is someone straight out of your worst nightmares. With his trademark red-and-black striped sweater, his fedora and his knife-laden glove, he is a truly iconic horror character who manages to chill you, scare you and even make you laugh (inappropriately that is but comedy is always a good valve release for fear). The first full appearance of him in the alley, with eerie low key lighting and a ghostly blue tint, is still terrifying to this day. Freddy enjoys tormenting his victims, perversely toying with them in their vulnerable sleep state, and taking great pleasure from his acts. However, he still has a raw anger and aggression, a rage which drives him to commit these acts of revenge, boiling underneath the surface. Robert Englund’s portrayal of Freddy Krueger rightly etched him into horror lore. His performance is superb, easily floating between all of Freddy’s emotions at the flick of a switch. Caked underneath layers of superb make-up, Englund is unforgettable in the role and allows his personality to shine through. It’s no wonder he became typecast as a horror villain in the years following.

Equally as good in this film is Heather Langenkamp as Nancy. A nice mix of youthful vulnerability and innocence and sheer-minded determination and strong-headedness, Langenkamp makes for an appealing lead who doesn’t really let Freddy get the better of her. There’s a reason she was brought back for two further sequels. Johnny Depp’s acting debut doesn’t exactly give you a taste of what would be to come in later years but he’s not too bad and has one of the most memorable last scenes ever committed to horror.

If there’s one thing that almost ruins A Nightmare on Elm Street, it’s the ridiculous ending. I’m not sure how Craven ever thought that final scene would give everyone an appropriate send-off. Not only is it confusing but it kind of undermines a lot of stuff that happened before it. I can understand he wanted to throw one last curveball with the whole ‘is it a dream or is it reality?’ double take that had been used so effectively throughout but it clearly is one time too many.

 

I guess it’s a generational thing where you have to have watched certain films by a certain age for them to leave a lasting impression. Horror films of the 70s and 80s still have the raw ability to chill today and A Nightmare on Elm Street did for me for sleeping what Jaws did for swimming for me as a kid. I’m sure teenagers today prefer the awful remake and think that this would be dated and ‘looks fake’ as the case is with most films made pre-2000. But A Nightmare on Elm Street is a fantastic horror flick, equally scary, surreal and sinister with lots of memorable moments, a once-in-a-lifetime villain who just works on so many levels, a great cast who bring to life their characters with relish and a soundtrack which aids the mood immeasurably. Wes Craven’s death was global news when it happened in 2015 and bulletins carried A Nightmare on Elm Street as his main work. Rightly so. It has become one of the most influential films ever made, not only in horror but in any genre.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Sleepaway Camp (1983)

Sleepaway Camp (1983)

You won’t be coming home!

Angela lost her father and brother in a boating accident when she was just a small child. Eight years after the accident, she is still traumatised and has problems fitting in at school. The problems continue when she gets whisked off to summer camp with her cousin, Ricky, where she starts to get picked on by the other girls. However, anyone with sinister or less than honourable intentions towards Angela soon meets their comeuppance.

 

One of the most infamous slasher films of all time, Sleepaway Camp would have been just another face in the crowd and lost amongst the tidal wave of 80s slashers if it wasn’t for its controversial ending. Few self-respecting fans of horror are unaware of the shocking climax here, even if you have yet to see the film. But if you know nothing about it and are watching it for the first time, the finale hits you like a sucker punch to the ribs. You’ll not see it coming a mile away and you’ll still have to go back and double-take to make sure you didn’t imagine it.

The ending. Without giving anything away, it certainly comes out of left-field. Not just for the reveal of the killer but the connotations and implications of the startling final shot, a shot which has been seared on my mind since the very first time I saw it. Sleepaway Camp does hold a special place in my heart as it was one of the three films that I studied for my university dissertation on masculinity in horror films. Along with The Burning and A Nightmare on Elm Street II: Freddy’s Revenge, it provided me enough ammo to discuss the role of the ‘final girl’ and why it wasn’t commonplace in the genre for a ‘final boy.’ The twisted and warped implications of this final sequence in Sleepaway Camp is the exact reason why I chose this film to analyse and support my views. Raising questions about sexual repression, behaviour and how we as a society view and construct gender, I’ve been entirely sure whether the director and writer actually had some deeper messages to send or whether the ending was purely for shock value. Either way, it provided me with enough ammo to absolutely nail my dissertation to a tee.

Sleepaway Camp’s iconic ending works because of the way in which it portrays its protagonist in the run-up. The film does a great job of making Angela one of the most sympathetic leading characters you’re ever going to see in a slasher film. Doe-eyed, reserved and genuinely looking like she’s about to break down with all of the torment she receives, credit must be given to actress Felissa Rose for bringing the character to life in such a way. It’s hard not like her and, because of her quietly-spoken grace, it’s easier to hate those who try to take advantage of her. The fact that she hardly speaks helps matters immensely given the appalling nature of some of the other performances in the film. By default, Rose’s performance is the best by virtue of remaining silent.

The fact that Sleepaway Camp is set inside another dysfunctional summer camp will draw the inevitable Friday the 13th comparisons. Whilst the two films share many of the same low budget qualities and grimy appearance, Sleepaway Camp is more concerned with unsettling its audience with a variety of dodgy-looking characters and secretive sexual allusions. It’s certainly a more ‘dirty’ film than any of the Friday the 13ths, with an undercurrent of filth and depravity running through the whole thing, and it’s certainly more mean-spirited. The adults who worked at the camp are sleazy, perverted and vaguely paedophilic. The rest of the kids there are a messy mix of bitchy girls, borderline rapists and leering sickos. I wouldn’t wish any kid the misfortune of staying at this place over the summer.

Whilst the camp staff are on the receiving end of the lion’s share of the savage deaths, the young campers are not spared either. This adds in an unsettling element especially given that the actors portraying them actually were teenagers rather than over-30s pretending to be kids again. This meant no nudity or sex, something highly unusual for an 80s slasher, and gives Sleepaway Camp another unique selling point. Not only is there a lack of sex but even the gore quota has been reduced. The body count is acceptable and the deaths are fairly decent and creative (death by bee stings, death by boiling water, etc) but it’s not the goriest of displays. You mainly get to see the results of the kills rather than the gruesome acts but the make-up effects are decent here and, what’s worse, is that the camera tends to linger on the bodies a bit, adding to that voyeuristic, creepy vibe that runs all the way through this.

 

Still harbouring that grimy early 80s horror feel, Robert Hiltzik’s seedy slasher plods along rather pedestrianly for the most but it’s only in that final few shots that Sleepaway Camp truly cements itself as one of the greatest. It doesn’t rely on the usual sub-genre tricks to keep its audience entertained. Definitely a film that would never be made today, sit back and enjoy one of the ‘dirtiest’ horror films going. You’ll need a bath after watching.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Pumpkinhead (1988)

Pumpkinhead (1988)

For each of man’s evils a special demon exists…

After his son is killed in a tragic accident involving some dirt-biking teenagers, country store owner Ed Harley enlists the help of a mysterious backwoods witch who conjures up the vengeful monster named Pumpkinhead to destroy those responsible.

 

Make-up man Stan Winston’s directorial debut, Pumpkinhead has always been of those films which every self-respecting horror fan has heard of, and most have probably watched, but never really lists in their top five, hell even top twenty, horror films. There’s a big reason for that – it’s not actually that good. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad. It’s just…average. Despite a hefty dollop of Southern Gothic spread all over the film, there’s very little to Pumpkinhead that you won’t have seen before.

My main gripe is with the notion of who the audience is meant to support here. The whole concept of the demon being summoned by Harley to get revenge for his son’s death is fairly standard issue but has one glaring problem – the antagonist/protagonist dynamic is all haywire and is confusing to really emphasise with a particular side. As a group, the teenagers aren’t actually that bad. Sure, the guy who knocks his son over is a jerk but the other teenagers are remorseful, upset and genuinely shocked at what happened. It’s hard to want to see them get killed for their actions and it’s hard to see them as the antagonists. Given that Harley is portrayed as a sympathetic character, by virtue of conjuring up the demon to kill these teenagers, most of whom were innocent of any wrongdoing, he swaps over into antagonist territory. So where does that leave Pumpkinhead? It’s the monster, so it has to be the antagonist, surely? But then it was summoned by Harley to right a wrong, making it the protagonist? I’m not quite sure. Pumpkinhead’s main problem is knowing whom to support throughout proceedings – Harley, the teenagers or the monster. A few tweaks of the script to make the act of Harley’s son more malicious would have tipped the balance. But hey, this is Stan Winston we’re talking about here, and scripts weren’t his forte – monsters were!

Winston got this gig after his critically-acclaimed work on big budget box office hits The Terminator, Predator and Aliens but was clearly not trusted with a similar-sized budget. Instead, he has to make do with what limited resources he can and certainly does a fantastic job, particularly with the memorable titular creature, though Winston’s input in the creature was limited given his directorial duties. The crew he assembled to make it certainly don’t let him down. Pumpkinhead is a highly-original, towering, malicious creature with huge claws and a ferocious-looking face filled with revenge. The monster walks as fluidly as though it were really alive – it is impossible to spot how and where the model was able to move by itself. Due to the impressive-looking creation, Winston isn’t afraid to show it early and you get a good glimpse of it during the prologue. Opting to shoot the creature in an array of howling wind, eerie blue-tinted lighting, swirling fog and strobe effects, Winston maximises the appearances of the creature so that it comes directly out of the worst nightmare.

It’s a pity it doesn’t really an awful lot. It’s a good forty minutes of the way in before Pumpkinhead finally gets summoned and starts to dispatch the teenagers one-by-one. When it does turn up (surprisingly often it has to be said), all it seems to do is stand around and growl. Whilst other horror films of the late 80s were piling on the blood and guts to try and keep jaded fans coming back, Pumpkinhead doesn’t go down the same route and is a relatively bloodless affair, give or take a few clawings. Most of the kills are telegraphed, with little in the way of shock or suspense to them, and the manner of execution is rather tepid to say the least. I guess there were some limitations to the monster hence why it always seems to have a free run at its victims rather than jumping out at them.

Pumpkinhead’s other great strength is Lance Henriksen as Ed Harley. This was Henriksen in his 80s prime, before he succumbed to a life of playing grizzled old men in low budget horror films, and he is fantastic as Ed. You really feel sorry for him after his son is killed, conveying the right sense of anger and desire for revenge that we all feel after being wronged. He quickly realises his mistake after calming down, which has strong echoes for a lot of people and how they deal with their anger in real life – only whenever you get angry, I’m sure summoning a three metre-tall demon is not high on your priorities! The teenagers are the usual bland array of non-entities simply killing time in the script before their demise. As I’ve already said, most of them are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time as far as Harley’s anger goes and it’s a bit unlucky that they are killed. However, the script does not make them sympathetic in the slightest, it’s just the plot that does that.

 

Pumpkinhead is decent for what it is – an 80s monster movie – but, Pumpkinhead himself aside, sorely lacks that memorable ‘it’ which is so essential in any horror film. It’s neither scary nor particularly exciting and once the novelty of the monster wears off, you’re left with a rather bland film which should have been better.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 (1988)

Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 (1988)

Terrorists steal a secret toxin from a secret military base which infects one of them during the botched heist. He is promptly killed by the army and his body is incinerated. However the ash produced from the incinerator gets into the air and the toxin proceeds to reawaken the dead as flesh-hungry monsters. A trio of soldiers on leave help a group of teenagers stranded in the outskirts of town fend off the zombies. All the while, the army is trying to prevent the spread of the toxin by forming a quarantine zone and killing anyone who comes out of it.

 

Bear with me here. This is a review for Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 (to give the film the name that it received on the UK DVD release that I watched). However its original title is Zombi 3. You see it’s a supposedly a sequel to Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2, which is more commonly known as Zombie Flesh Eaters. And Zombi was the name given to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead when it was released in Italy, to which Fulci’s Zombi 2 was marketed as a sequel. This is all well and good because to throw a further spanner in the works, Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 (this film) has nothing to do with any of the films made by anyone before it and instead seems to be an Italian knock-off of Return of the Living Dead, complete with rock music opening sequence and a zombie epidemic that is caused through the ashes of a cremated zombie. And for good measure the film also includes ideas from The Crazies and The Birds, just to cover all of its bases. So with all of this in mind, it’s time to get cracking with the review.

Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 will never win any awards for the quality of its final output but I have to say that, unashamedly, it’s one of my favourite zombie flicks simply for the fact that it’s a lot of goofy fun. Its uber-trash: terribly-edited, badly scripted, features a random plot which zips all over the place for the sake of creating set pieces and contains some jokey zombie make-up effects. But if you like cheese, including flying zombie heads that stealth-attack from freezers and the US army developing the gas canister which they worrying call Death One, then you’re going to have a field day with this one.

Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 has little plot. Once the virus has spread and zombies are on the loose, then it becomes little more than one chase-and-escape scene after the next as the characters attempt to flee for their lives from the hordes. I guess the writers had a great time coming up with set pieces but having to build a film around them seems like an ask too much. The film generally repeats itself over and over again, as a couple of characters split up from the others, go looking for something and then end up being attacked and eaten by the zombies. Rarely anyone survives whenever they’ve been the focus of the film for the last five minutes! Thankfully there’s a rather generous cast to dwindle down for the finale so you’re never a few minutes away from another flesh feast. And feast you shall because the effects team have a field day with the kills in this one. Aforementioned flying zombie head aside (because it looks rubbish), there’s a whole array of meaty dispatches which happen regularly and culminate with a zombie baby.

The ‘Godfather of Gore’ Lucio Fulci directed most of this but Bruno Mattei took over the reins and finished the film at some point when Fulci fell seriously ill mid-shoot with only fifty minutes filmed. Mattei was asked to devise a secondary plot to pad the film out with new actors and the result is a jarring and blatantly obvious dual-plot film which rarely crosses threads in any cohesive manner. You get the feeling you are watching two films.

It’s pretty easy to spot who filmed what though as Mattei, not noted for his amazing films, apparently just added loads of things that he thought would look good to the film. Fulci’s moments have tension and a sense of atmosphere and dread. His scenes are properly shot, constructed as best as they could be and generally give you the sense that the guy knew what he was doing behind the camera, even if it didn’t translate well in the final film. His scenes include the shot of the zombies waiting outside the hotel with lots of fog blowing around, eerie blue lights back-lighting the figures and a haunting score building up anticipation of the attack. In other words, the best bits of the film. Mattei’s scenes are blatantly hack-job quality, with all the trademarks of his other low brow horror films like Zombie Creeping Flesh (don’t ask what the name is supposed to mean) and Monster Shark in evidence here.

Perhaps this also explains why the zombies act differently depending on the requirements of the scene. Some of the zombies can run, some walk and amble around slowly, some hide away in the bushes or behind walls and spring out at their victims, others just let them walk past without batting an undead eyelid and some pull ninja-like moves. Some of them even start to use weapons like machetes. I think it was George A. Romero who once said that as soon as zombies started to move quickly and act human, then they might as well be any other cinematic monster. Zombies with weapons and running at full pace towards their unarmed and injured victims seems to be a bit of a mismatch in my eyes. I don’t know whether this inconsistency was down to the duel directing but it’s annoying, frustrating and really harms the film.

 

Far too disjointed to be anything but a cheesy midnight viewing with a few mates and beers, Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 is an unbelievably idiotic, incoherent and inconsistent splatter flick that does deserve a lot of the flak it gets from fans of Italian horror – but I can’t help but be entertained by its nonsensical charms. It was one of my first forays into Italian horror and therefore holds a unique place in my cinematic splatter education, becoming one of my favourite zombie films. Plus the soundtrack is rather good!

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Prom Night (1980)

Prom Night (1980)

If you’re not back by midnight… you won’t be coming home.

Four children playing in an abandoned convent cause the accidental death of a little girl. Promising that they would never tell anyone that they were involved and blaming a paedophile for the crime, the group think that everything will be fine. Six years later and on the day of their high school prom, a masked killer targets them for a horrific revenge.

 

One of the earliest of the slasher sub-genre to emerge in the wake of Halloween, Prom Night was released at a time when, even by now, the formula had established itself to such an extent that this is almost derivative and it has gone on to establish itself as one of the more famous slasher films of the 80s. It’s like a weird mix between Halloween, Carrie and, bizarrely enough, Saturday Night Fever. Curious bedfellows especially as disco was in its death throws in the late 70s and early 80s!

If Prom Night only had half the energy and pace of any of those aforementioned films, it would have been a lot more enjoyable. It’s dreadfully dull for the first half of its running time as it spends far too long engaging with the teenage characters and their “will she/he go with me to the prom?” nonsense. It’s not interesting in the slightest to watch characters scheme about how they’re going to get someone back on prom night – the only payback I want to see is of the axe to the head variety. There are a few menacing phone calls and some hints of the slaughter to come but Prom Night is a film which loads up its final third at the sacrificial cost of the quality of its opening acts.

The ‘killer looking to avenge a previous wrong from childhood’ plot device became a popular go-to for a lot of slasher films in the years and decades to come but it doesn’t really work here. Prom Night forcefully throws countless red herrings at the screen including a creepy caretaker at the school and an escaped convict in an attempt to keep you guessing as to who the killer is. However they aren’t really needed to propel the plot further on because the killer wears a black mask for the duration of the film, only revealing themselves at the end and so the red herrings and the police investigation sub-plot are a complete waste of time.

Prom Night does kick in when the prom actually begins and the killer comes out of the shadows. There are some decent stalk and chase scenes through the empty part of the school and there are one or two shock moments to jolt you out of your seat. The good thing is that it’s played serious and so there is a suitably ominous and foreboding mood as you know this person will stop at nothing to get back at the four teenagers. Prom Night is hardly a ‘scary’ film but compared to a lot of other slasher films, the atmosphere is good.

There’s a decent kill count too – they’re not paced out evenly enough to keep things ticking over – and the majority of the kills are confined to this final third of the film. Whilst not up to the same level of gore as Friday the 13th or something like The Burning, Prom Night doesn’t hold back with the blood. One particular set piece involving the unveiling of the prom king and queen, a decapitated head and a catwalk, all to the accompaniment of some outrageous disco music, is highly memorable – actually one of the standout kills from the whole 80s slasher craze. Although if there is one thing you’ll quickly learn from this film is that “It’s prom night…and everything is alright” (lyrics from the only cheesy disco song that the DJ at the prom seems to play).

Jamie Lee Curtis would star in Terror Train and The Fog in the same year, making her quite the scream queen pin-up for 1980. This is arguably her worst performance of the three and she almost looks and sounds bored to be appearing though this is largely down to the script which doesn’t place as much focus on her as a main character than it should do. The less said about the lengthy disco dancing segment she has to complete, the better. Leslie Nielsen is the token elder statesman in the cast, adding some credibility amongst the throng of teenagers, though it’s really hard to take him seriously in a dramatic role so close to his amazing comic turns in Airplane! and The Naked Gun films.

Bizarrely, Prom Night inspired a whole batch of unrelated sequels towards the end of the decade which had nothing to do with this and just coast along under the Prom Night moniker. Prom Night was also remade in 2008 with quite possibly one of the worst remakes of all time.

 

Prom Night is one of the quintessential slashers from the golden age of the sub-genre but I’m not quite sure why it’s classed as one. The standard issue black mask and axe combination means that the killer is hardly the most distinctive slasher going and maybe this is where Prom Night’s problems lie. Everything is perfunctory, just not really memorable give or take one or two moments. Plus the dodgy disco-themed prom dates this film significantly compared to the other big slasher hitters of the year.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Thing, The (1982)

The Thing (1980)

Man is the warmest place to hide

A group of scientists at a remote Antarctic research station find themselves in a terrifying fight for their lives as a deadly extra-terrestrial organism capable of assuming human form infiltrates their camp.

 

Sometimes cinematic greatness is not acknowledged until years down the line once the fallout from a film’s original release had subsided. The Thing had the unfortunate distinction of being the other ‘alien lands on Earth’ film of 1982 behind colossal family-friendly hit E.T. (The Thing was released a mere two weeks after it). The sweet-natured alien with the glowing finger who wanted to be friends with a young boy was a queer bed fellow to talk about in the same breath as a shape-shifting monster whose ideas of first contact were absorbing and killing humans before turning itself into its previous victim. So The Thing didn’t do very well at the box office, derided by the likes of Roger Ebert as a ‘geek show’ and simply branded as a ‘barf-bag’ movie. Not only that but fellow science fiction mega-hit Blade Runner was released at the same time. To say that it was a competitive year was an understatement!

However, thirty years of solid home video viewing solidified the reputation of The Thing. Audiences began to see the levels of detail and the depth to the film, looking far beyond the, admittedly, gross special effects, to see that this was a superbly crafted masterpiece of suspense and tension. In 2008, Empire named it as one of the ‘500 Greatest Films Ever Made,’ a far cry from its early days of derision and detest from the critics. The film was John Carpenter’s first big budget film after a number of low budget successes but since this flopped, he was barely trusted with a large budget again. It’s a big shame as Carpenter is one of the most talented men ever to set foot behind a camera and The Thing is proof.

I can’t think of too many films that have such a bleak outlook as The Thing. From the first twenty or so minutes, the script drip-feeds the audience with a number of clues as to what happened at the Norwegian camp. As soon as the truth is sickeningly revealed, that’s it for the characters. You realise that not one of them is going to have a happy ending. Carpenter proceeds to wring every scene dry of as much tension, suspense and paranoia as possible. This is as remote a location on Earth to set a sci-fi horror film and you know from the opening shots of the desolate Antarctic landscape that these men are on their own. Despite the openness of the wilderness, The Thing is deathly claustrophobic. These men are trapped inside a ramshackle assortment of wooden huts, hardly the greatest protection against Mother Nature and the freezing cold. If they stay inside, the alien will assimilate them. If they go outside, the cold will get them. The situation is hopeless and it isn’t long before some of them accept that fact.

The notion that one or more of the crew could be infected by the alien leads to the escalating tension as they go about finding ways to see who is human and who isn’t. Each twist to the story adds more layers of tension, suspense and paranoia because Carpenter is very crafty when it comes to revealing details. You will never guess who is human and who isn’t and for first time viewers, this is just brilliant to try and piece together. Even on multiple viewings, I find myself trying to work out when certain characters were assimilated and whether there are any hints in there. It’s a masterpiece of storytelling with red herrings, bluffs and twists and turns every scene to keep you guessing – the blood test scene where the surviving characters gather around to test blood to reveal who is human and who is not is one of the most suspenseful scenes ever filmed.

The problem with The Thing is that because the middle section of the film is tense, the final showdown was always going to be anti-climactic and that’s what happens here. Whilst it’s not a bad finale in any stretch of the imagination, it pales in comparison to some of the film’s earlier set pieces – the dog transformation, the defibrillator scene, the blood test, etc. You’ve already been put through the ringer a couple of times and you’ve got nothing left to give. Thankfully Carpenter ends the film on one final dour note, where any lesser director would have sold out and gone for a happy conclusion.

This is an actor’s film but not a starring man film. As good as Kurt Russell is as McReady, he’s not the star of the show. It’s an ensemble piece where every single supporting player contributes an equal amount with fine performances across the entire board. Character actors like Wilfred Brimley, Donald Moffat, Richard Dysart, Keith David, Charles Hallahan and Richard Masur all bring something different to the table in terms of their character, even if the script doesn’t really give them a lot of back story or depth. As they begin to mistrust each other, the script does a great job of seeing personalities clash, egos rise to the top, minds going crazy and tempers flaring. Each characters reacts to the situation differently as an audience, there’s someone for each to us to root for. We know whether we’d be a McReady or a Fuchs or a Blair or even a Norris in this situation….or do we? How do we know how we’d end up, faced with the grim reality of what is confronting them? The characters are real, they react like anyone would react and as a result, the potentially-overblown nature of a shapeshifting alien is never questioned.

The Thing’s previously-bad reputation comes from its gross-out special effects. This was the 80s and body horror was all the rage, where the human form was subjected to all manner of grotesque transformations in the likes of The Fly and An American Werewolf in London. Special effects wizard Rob Bottin subjects the audience to a nauseating freak show of monsters and forms as various characters are hideously deformed and mutated as the alien absorbs and replicates them. Blood, puss, goo, slime…..everything that Bottin can throw into the mix, he does. Some of the most ghastly visuals ever committed to film, The Thing will take a strong stomach to sit through if you’re not a regular gore hound. The best part about it is that even in 2016, the make-up effects have yet to be better on-screen. The tepid prequel relied too heavily on CGI to convey the same level of grotesque but didn’t have the same effects.

I’ve done a lot of talking about the film and haven’t yet mentioned that it’s actually a remake. The Thing From Another World was a classic 50s science fiction film, rumoured to have been mostly directed by one of Carpenter’s heroes – Howards Hawks. Carpenter goes back to the source material, a scary novella from 1938 called Who Goes There? and throws in a number of references to the original as a tribute. Having read the story, I can say that this version is very true to the source material and improves on it in every way. A rarity nowadays.

One last point in this lengthy review – Ennio Morricone’s minimalist synth score sounds like a traditional John Carpenter soundtrack but adds so much to the proceedings that it gets overlooked far too often. Aside from the ominous title track, there is good use of the low, droning synthesiser during a number of key scenes in the film, drawing out every last possibly ounce of tension possible.

 

The Thing is a masterpiece of sci-fi horror and one of the greatest genre films ever made. No one has ever come close to recreating the paranoid atmosphere, the twisted imagination and the sheer talent that combined to create this almost-perfect fright fest. Forget Halloween. The Thing will always be John Carpenter’s best film. An essential part of any film fan’s collection.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Alligator (1980)

Alligator (1980)

It lives 50 feet beneath the city. It’s 36 feet long. It weighs 2,000 pounds…And it’s about to break out!

Flushed down a Chicago toilet, a baby alligator survives in the sewers by eating discarded laboratory dogs injected with growth hormones. Over the next twelve years, the small reptile grows to gigantic proportions and needs more than just dead dogs to satisfy its hunger. Soon enough, human body parts are beginning to wash up in the sewers and the police think that a serial killer may be on the loose. However, it isn’t long before the alligator escapes the city sewers and goes on a rampage.

 

One of the best of the Jaws imitators to come out in the years following Spielberg’s classic, Alligator takes one of America’s classic urban legends – that of pet alligators being flushed down into the sewers and managing to survive there – and turns it into an effective horror flick. It’s a B-movie in every sense of the definition with a little bit of black humour flowing underneath all of the cheap thrills but it stands out pretty easily from its ‘nature runs amok’ creature feature brethren. In fact writer John Sayles was also responsible for Piranha and the similarities between the approaches of both films are evident. Piranha fares a little better in the light-hearted entertainment stakes but Alligator is definitely the scarier of the two.

Alligator is well-paced and, like Jaws, takes time to build up the suspense and tension as we get fleeting glimpses of the creature roaming the sewers.  It’s these scenes inside the sewers where Alligator really shines and has been etched on my mind for years. I remember catching a glimpse of the sequence in which the pet shop owner pushes his trolley through the huge storm drain when I was a child and it stayed with me all of these years until I finally watched the film in full. They’re dark, eerie, wet and labyrinthine – hardly the place you’d want to get lost in with a giant alligator prowling around. The constant welling of the water and the lack of light down there really gives the sewers a classic horror atmosphere which is played up well in the early going.

There are a number of decent set pieces scattered throughout the film and Alligator does try and mix things up so that it’s just not all the same thing over and over again. One particularly memorable scene involves a group of kids playing ‘walk the plank’ in a backyard swimming pool where the alligator has unfortunately found its new home (well unfortunate for the kid who actually walks the plank). In the wrong hands, a lot of these scenes would have come off as cheesier than they are but director Lewis Teague knows when to keep things serious and when to toss in some oddball humour. It’s pretty hard not to unintentionally laugh at some of the things on show, be it for the right reasons or the wrong reasons – the alligator bursting through the concrete sidewalk being a classic bad special effect.

Alligator does fall into some blatant Jaws plagiarising particularly the POV shots from the creature with the accompanying “duh-duh, duh-duh” soundtrack as it homes in on its victims. Some of the model work is a little blatant too – the scenes at the wedding where the alligator has to become more mobile than it has been for the entire film clearly consist of the model being wheeled around on a trolley. There is a bit of miniature work too involving a real alligator crawling around on some tiny sets but it’s forgivable. But the majority of the special effects are decent enough involving a model gator and it’s big enough for the characters to interact with as they are dragged kicking and screaming to their deaths or crushed between its huge teeth. Alligator is gory as a result, with lots of limbs flying around, blood flowing and a decent body count to boot.

There’s also a slackness in the script which kicks in around the half-way point once the alligator leaves the confines of the sewers and starts terrorising the city. There are too many one-note characters floating around to fulfil a number of clichéd requisites and a number of sequences feel forced because “they’re the genre norm” including the obligatory love interest developing between the main characters, the attack on a populated event (in this case a party) and token slime-ball characters getting their comeuppance.

Robert Forster is decent in the lead role and you can see why he’s still getting plenty of work in the 2000s and 2010s. It’s virtually the Chief Brody role all over again – the grizzled cop desperately trying to protect the people he’s paid to serve. Robin Riker co-stars as the female scientist/love interest and is clearly in the Matt Hooper know-it-all school of characters. This leaves Henry Silva to come along as the Quint character and think he has what it takes to kill the alligator. The acting is of a decent standard given the material and Forster does shine with his performance, though it’s Silva who steals the show with his short role as he convinces a trio of local youths to act as his ‘native’ auxiliaries and help him flush out the gator.

 

As far as killer reptiles go, Alligator ranks as one of the best. It’s not perfect and could have been a lot tighter as far as the film pans out but it delivers a huge amount of entertainment for genre fans without crossing over into parody. Killer crocodiles/alligators have never been more impressive than in this one despite special effects coming on in leaps and bounds over the years.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Zombie Creeping Flesh (1980)

Zombie Creeping Flesh (1980)

They eat the living

After a chemical leak at the Hope Centre in Papua New Guinea (an organisation devoted to feeding underdeveloped countries) turns its staff into flesh-eating zombies, a four-man commando squad led by Mike London are sent to investigate. They run into a TV news crew led by celebrity reporter Lea, who are after the same story, but what they discover is that the area is overrun with zombies and the virus is quickly spreading.

 

Known in various countries as anything from Virus to Hell of the Living Dead to Zombie Creeping Flesh (which is the guise under which I’m reviewing this), it makes no difference what title is slapped on the credits, there’s one thing that will never change: this is a terrible film. Coming in the midst of the Italian zombie and cannibal horror boom of the late 70s/1980s, Zombie Creeping Flesh is like a ‘best of’ selection box, featuring all of the hallmarks of this exploitation sub-genre (cheapness, nastiness and violence) and throwing in as much from both the zombie films and the cannibal films it is stealing from.

I’ll give credit to the overall plot idea – that the rich nations of the world have developed a toxin which turns the population of the Third World into cannibals, letting them eat each other so that we can pilfer their resources – but in the hands of cult Italian exploitation director Bruno Mattei, arguably one of the worst directors I’ve had the misfortune of enduring, the overall idea was never going to matter. That’s because Mattei does his usual hack job, helming what only can be called a complete shambles of a production. The narrative is a mess, more so than Mattei’s usual films, and seems to have been stuck together with only the flimsiest of ideas.

Not only does the story make no sense and flitter from scene to scene with little to no furthering of the plot, but Mattei feels the need to add even more randomness into proceedings by splicing in all manner of nonsensical stock footage of animals and the rain forest. Getting bored of a scene between actors? Mattei goes ahead and slaps in some random footage of an owl in mid-flight. Or maybe a monkey flying through the trees might be more suited to your tastes. The stock footage inserts don’t even come during natural transitions – they’re just inserted into the film whenever the editor has either got bored, forgotten to edit properly or made a massive cock-up and had to put something in as a filler. Words alone can’t really describe how bad and disjointed this footage is.

The script continues to baffle the mind the further the film progresses. Despite knowing and being constantly reminded by their crazy comrade that the only way to kill the zombies is to shoot them in the head, the bulk of the soldiers continue to fire away without a care in the world, frustrated at their attempts to stop the hordes from getting closer. The zombies move slowly and I mean slowly. Mostly it’s meant to be for dramatic effect, as hapless victims stand petrified to the spot and allow the zombies to get closer to them, arms outstretched and moaning horribly. But it has the tendency to slow down action scenes to a crawl. It’s an agonising wait for the zombies to catch up to their ‘meals’ and some characters see it as an opportunity to prance around them and taunt them. Not a good move amidst a swarm of flesh-eaters. Some of the zombies have a habit of remaining perfectly still and allowing the humans to walk up on them from behind to see if they’re ok – cue the quick turn and face the camera to reveal the zombie ready and eager to bite! Pretty clever tactic if you ask me but what happens if no one comes up to you?

For no apparent reason, the survivors run into a cannibal tribe in the middle of the rain forest. Well I say for no apparent reason but knowing Bruno Mattei, the reason is perfectly clear – it’s to pad out the running time with a load of copious stock footage of an actual tribe from Papua New Guinea. The footage of the burial ceremony was real and has been lifted from a documentary – kind of a tasteless thing to do by sticking it right in the middle of a tacky exploitation film where the recently deceased is then turned into a flesh-eating zombie. It’s no wonder there’s so little dialogue during the ten to fifteen minutes of screen time that this portion of the film receives. It’s such a distracting sidestep from the zombie carnage that preceded it that you wonder whether the survivors really have a clue what is going on, let alone the audience.

Mattei has also copiously ‘borrowed’ the soundtrack from other films scored by Goblin. I say ‘borrowed’ because apparently the producers allowed him access to the music but it still reeks of cheapness. There are cues from Dawn of the Dead and Contamination in there. Whilst the soundtracks are a little jarring because they don’t really correspond to what is happening on screen, the fact that they’re kick ass soundtracks in their own right means at least they’re getting appreciated once more.

At least there’s one thing you can expect from a Mattei film and that’s copious amounts of gore. The bulk of the film features the usual neck biting and arm chewing zombie action that you’d expect. It’s in the finale where the money shot lies: an awesome tongue-ripping, fist-smashing, eye-popping sequence in which one character suffers a horrific fate at the hands of an off-screen assailant. It’s a great set piece which comes about thirty seconds before the credits roll.

 

Zombie Creeping Flesh is one of the tackiest zombie films ever to come out of Italy, a derivative, badly-made mess which stops and starts as much as one of its walking dead stars. A truly bad movie on every level, there is some enjoyment to be had out of identifying how many other films Zombie Creeping Flesh rips off in some way but even hardened Italian horror veterans will find this tough work.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Arena (1988)

Arena (1989)

For a thousand years no human has been the champion. He wants to be the first.

An intergalactic fighting competition between different worlds has never been won by a human before due to the much larger and stronger aliens that compete. So when human Steve Armstrong falls foul of the corrupt promoter Rogor as he tries to earn money to return to Earth, he must compete in the tournament and attempt to overthrow the system.

 

Cheesy and mildly entertaining, Arena is a bizarre mish-mash of Rocky and Star Wars which tries its hardest to defy its low budget and prove that you don’t really need millions of dollars to make a convincing science fiction film. It nearly manages to achieve its goal. Where else can you see some sort of UFC-throwdown between a human and a giant slug-like alien?

Arena is nowhere near as exciting as it appears to be – it’s a low budget production which spends most of its cash in the fight scenes and so has to make up ground elsewhere. Cue lots of padding between the fights as Steve Armstrong works his way up from nowhere to fight the champion ala Rocky. The story isn’t as riveting as it could be and there’s a predictable narrative which allows Armstrong to win a few and then fall foul of the scheming Rogor. You’ll know how it all ends up and there are boxing flick clichés to write a book about here but it’s not that bad a journey to get there. Arena is rarely dull, though at times it pushes the boundaries a little bit, but you wouldn’t exactly call this a ‘lively’ film and at 115 minutes long, it’s got far too much filler than necessary. There are some amusing moments but it is never outright camp. Arena finds itself trying to corner a niche market that doesn’t exist.

The real joy to Arena lies in seeing how a bunch of filmmakers, evidently without a massive pot of money to dive into, rely on old fashioned techniques to really bring to life this alien universe that the film tries to convey. Think back to Mos Eisley in Star Wars, the first real time we saw a living, breathing intergalactic universe all come under one roof, with fleeting glimpses of multitude of alien creatures and cultures giving us the tiniest suggestions of each of the races on show. Arena does just as good a job as that in showcasing all manner of giant beasts and aggressive competitors to the fighting competition. The fights themselves are dated, hardly slug-fests like Apollo Creed versus Rocky Balboa, but do the job in conveying the brutality of this sport. Particularly pleasing is the fact that the stunt men do get down and dirty with the fisticuffs and wrestling and everything you see is real, rather than CGI’d in a later date.

Credit goes to the effects department who piece together a whole low budget world of unusual aliens with different masks, costumes and even various added appendages. Most of the aliens are just guys in latex masks but one or two of the monsters that Armstrong has to fight are animatronic models which look amazing. It’s really heartening to see a production put so much effort into making everything look as good as possible, despite the obvious limitations. Whilst the costumes may look the part, the rest of the effects in the film don’t look that impressive. The sparsely decorated and overly-used sets are way too small to convey the sense of futuristic scope I’m guessing the director was going for and look like they were made for an old science fiction TV series rather than a full blown film. The outer space shots of the station and various ships flying around look awful too. There’s no mistaking that this is an 80s science fiction film!

The cast is solid. Lead man Paul Satterfield is the weakest link, relying on his tall and muscular physique to sell the part rather than any real acting ability. He looks and sounds like some drugged-up version of Christopher Reeve and spends most of the film fighting in some terrible jock strap-like combat tights. Satterfield’s bland performance is sort of like a black hole of charisma, forcing those around him to appear worse than there are. It’s no coincidence that the film is better when he’s not around, or failing that, talking. Claudia Christian (of Babylon 5 fame) attempts to provide the sexual attraction and is far better than the material she’s given. The bad guys are the ones who have all of the fun and it’s nice to see future Star Trek alumni Marc Alaimo (who went on to play Gul Dukat in Deep Space Nine) and Armin Shimmerman (most famous as the Ferengi bartender Quark in Deep Space Nine as well) ham it up in villainous roles – well it’s nice to see them under copious amounts of latex as per usual. Having watched Alaimo on Deep Space Nine, the man is a great actor, particularly good at roles like this where he is required to emote under layers of make-up.

 

So that’s the 80s nugget that is Arena. It’s nowhere nearly as good as you’d hope it is but you’ll have a hard time hating it. Providing perfect low budget, no frills sci-fi action nonsense with no real pretensions of grandeur, it’s a decent timewaster and, in all honesty, does deserve a bit more fame than it has for the great array of practical make-up effects on show.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆