Tag Zombies

[REC] (2007)

[REC] (2007)

One Witness. One Camera

A reporter and her cameraman are trailing a crew of firefighters during a night shift in Barcelona when they’re called to an incident at an apartment block where an old woman is trapped inside her flat and is screaming. However once inside the building, the group, along with the residents, find themselves being quarantined inside by the military who refuse to allow them to leave. Its not long before they realise that they are locked inside the building with a horde of zombies.

 

I’ve been hard on found footage films in the past, slamming them for being a one-trick pony which, by the old mantra, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Let’s face it – The Blair Witch Project did everything that these films do back in 1995 (though you can go back to 1980’s brutal Cannibal Holocaust to see an early prototype of what this sub-genre would become) and the rest of the bunch have been simply happy to rehash the same tropes time and time again. Can anyone honestly say there’s any difference between the Paranormal Activity films? But that was until [REC] came along. I’d hasten to say that this was the finest found footage film that has ever been made.

There’s nothing unusual about the setup – a zombie flick set inside a building hardly sounds like the most original idea – but it’s the manner in which the material is presented which works brilliantly. After a nice slow build, meeting the reporter and firefighters and arriving at the building, everything seems to be going along swimmingly, with a suitable build of uneasy tension. Then there are sudden explosive bouts of savagery and violence which puncture the atmosphere and come out of nowhere to throw the viewer off-guard. The claustrophobic tension is unpalpable at times and the viewer feels like they’re stuck inside the apartment block along with the characters, as the narrow corridors and dark rooms really allow for things to appear from nowhere – and they do! It almost seems as if everything is happening in real time and because of that, there’s no let-up in the tension. Even when the characters appear to be safe in a room, you know that they’re not.

From the moment the first zombie attacks right until the last shot of the film, the mix of slow-burner shocks and out-of-your-seat jumps will keep you on your toes throughout. The fact that none of the actors were known to Western audiences makes this more effective as we don’t know which actors are ‘named’ or not in Spain. There’s a realism and unpredictability that comes with that, keeping you on the edge of your seat and not being able to work out who dies next or when. Allegedly co-directors Juame Balagueró and Paco Plaza kept some of the scares secret from the cast to draw actual screams and reactions from them during filming – it works! Unlike a normal film where scares can be telegraphed, there are a number of moments here which don’t happen in the centre of the shot: things popping in from the left or the right of camera or happening in the background where you don’t get a clear view. There’s lots of the usual found footage shenanigans including the camera not working at convenient moments and shaking whenever the user is running, forcing you to miss some key things that will either annoy you or intrigue you. But that’s where [REC] is genuinely frightening. The nauseating movements of the camera combined with the knowledge that anything can happen at any time really make this a thrill ride you’ll not forget in a hurry.

A lot of people will be familiar with [REC] via its American remake counterpart, Quarantine, an equally impressive piece which virtually covers this shot-by-shot. But there’s something about the rawness of this Spanish language version which gives it that extra edge. Forget the subtitles – you don’t need to read them to get the full effect of this masterpiece. The actors, including the fantastic Manuela Velasco, do an admirable job of conveying their panic, their fear, and their frustration without the need to understand what they’re actually saying. You can see what they’re up against – snipers with orders to shoot on sight stopping them from getting near the windows, and hordes of red-eyed, snarling 28 Days Later-style zombies prowling the apartment block looking for their next victim. But it’s potentially the final five minutes or so of [REC] that shift this into the upper echelons of horror – an intense, unnerving cat-and-mouse game of hide-and-seek with something even more malevolent and deadly than the ravenous monsters below, and with a sucker punch ending that leaves a dry taste in the mouth lingering long after the credits have rolled.

 

One of the best horror films to come out of Europe – heck, the world – in the past thirty years, [REC] is a fantastic rollercoaster of thrills, chills and spills. I’d thought modern horror films had lost the potential to scare an audience so accustomed to the methods used by filmmakers, but I was wrong. This should be essential viewing for any true horror fan: a near flawless exercise in sustained tension and genuine fear.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Mr Vampire (1985)

Mr Vampire (1985)

Master Ko, a Taoist priest, is asked by a struggling businessman to oversee the reburial of his dead father in the hopes of rekindling his family’s good fortune. Ko’s two bumbling assistants stumble onto a bad omen before leaving the remote graveyard. Deciding to take the corpse back to the mortuary, Ko suspects the dead elder suffered a wrongful death. The priest and his students soon find themselves up against supernatural forces and a very powerful vampire.

 

If you’ve never heard of Mr Vampire then you’re missing a real treat, though actually getting access to it over in the UK is problematic. Like many Asian films which have been big successes in the Far East (Godzilla films, I’m looking at you), there doesn’t seem to be much interest in releasing them over here and whilst Mr Vampire did receive a DVD release a few years ago, the sequels and rest of the sub-genre that it spawned are nowhere on the radar. It’s such a pity as Mr Vampire is one of the best horror-comedies that the 80s put out and because it’s not Anglo-centric, it opens up a whole new world of mythology, superstitions, beliefs and magic that we, in the West, are totally unfamiliar with.

Sammo Hong’s Encounters of the Spooky Kind in 1980 had set the precedent for this horror-comedy-kung fu hybrid genre, but it is with Mr Vampire where this niche genre really struck gold. It’s a ridiculously madcap film that balances the slapstick comedy with plenty of frenetic kung-fu action and makes sure that the horror elements are not left on the back burner. The physical humour has not dated in the slightest, made more absurd by the crazy situations in which the characters find themselves facing. Nothing is lost in the translation between East and West – if anything, the film is all the better for having an element of the exotic and the unknown as it makes things more interesting than your generic Western horror-comedy. Mr Vampire is still relatively unknown to a lot of Western audiences. The Hong Kong horror-comedy-kung fu hybrid was such a success back in the 80s, it became a cultural phenomenon in Asia, much in the same way as something like Ghostbusters did here in the West.

Ko and his assistants have to deal with some Jianghsi. And if you don’t know what they are, then the film does a decent job of covering the bases. These Jiangshi, hopping vampires from Chinese folklore, are not like our Western vampires in the slightest (no dressing in smart suits with cloaks, changing into bats, being scared of garlic, etc). Some audiences may find the sight of the ghosts decked out in 1600s Qing dynasty era clothing, arms outstretched and hopping along in lines to be rather comical but there’s nothing funny about how deadly these things actually are. Whilst Mr Vampire plays up on the comedic aspects of the vampires, they can kill you in many different ways and are a lot tougher to beat than Count Dracula and co. It is this unveiling of Chinese folklore to those not familiar with it that will be one of the biggest appeals to Anglo horror fans – it adds unpredictability to the narrative. You’re not quite sure how the threat will be dealt with but are introduced to all sorts of magical papers, chicken blood recipes and sticky rice methods which are the Asian equivalents of your wooden stakes and garlic to a vampire.

It takes a good thirty minutes or so for Mr Vampire to really kick into action gear but it doesn’t stop from that point onwards. You could argue that the film is little more than a series of kung fu-comedy set pieces and I couldn’t really disagree. The narrative is a little wonky at times, with the main premise being too thinly-written to really stretch out over the whole feature length time. There is a slight deviation throughout Mr Vampire, no doubt to boost up the running time, featuring one of Ko’s assistants falling in love with a ghost and Ko having to break the curse. Whilst this doesn’t add anything to the narrative in the slightest, it isn’t an unwelcome side-track as there is plenty of comedy to be had watching Ko attempt to save his assistant. From then on, the madcap film just goes in a crazy ride through a number of sequences which perfectly blend some fantastic choreography alongside a number of real laugh-out-loud moments. Nobody seems to take a breath either

Lam Ching-Yang made an appearance in the aforementioned Encounters of the Spooky Kind but here he gets a leading role and makes it his own. Lam is fantastic in the role, trying to deadpan most of what is going on but getting bogged down in the madcap stupidity of his assistants in the process. He can handle the stunt work perfectly and has the role of the Tao priest down to a tee – it’s a role he felt typecast by, but the film gave him his big break and he starred in no fewer than eight sequels and knock-offs of Mr Vampire. Both Ricky Hiu and Chin Siu-ho are hilarious as his bumbling assistants and the three make for an effective trio. The stunning Siu-Fung Wong is also a nice addition to the cast as the ghost who bewitches one of Ko’s assistants.

 

If you’re worried about indulging in something as far away from the streams of watered-down Western horror-comedies as you can possibly get, then Mr Vampire is your answer – if you can obtain a copy. A relentless, hilariously entertaining mix of kung-fu, horror and comedy, made with real enthusiasm and zest, it’s definitely one of the best films to ever come out of Hong Kong. The fact that it is so little known in the West is both a travesty or a well-kept secret, depending on your outlook.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Burning Dead, The (2015)

The Burning Dead (2015)

Death will engulf the world

A sheriff must rescue an estranged family from a mountain during a volcano eruption and fight off a horde of lava-filled zombies brought to life by a curse.

 

Originally titled Volcano Zombies, The Burning Dead is the latest in the fad of making horror films so outrageously ridiculous by combing trashy bog-standard horror sub-genre entries to make something a little sillier and nonsensical. Sharknado is the obvious example, but you’ve got stuff like Piranhaconda, Lavalantula and Zombie Shark to stink up the joint. The Burning Dead is just the latest entry to a wave of films which only bring a wry smile to my face when I read the title and see what ingenious Frankenstein-like creation the producers have come up with. The films are generally atrocious however, and The Burning Dead is no exception.

It’s not worth discussing the plot because it’s virtually non-existent – volcanic eruption prompts locals to evacuate and zombies appear out of the flaming lava to kill off the stragglers. I mean what is wrong with just having the zombies rise-up out of some graveyard on the mountain side? Why the need to add the volcano? Oh yeah – ‘high concept’ idea. There’s far too many gaps and questions with the plot – the most blatant one being why are the zombies so perfectly preserved in the lava rather than being incinerated to a crisp? But I just opted to ignore this and watch the carnage unfold as it’d break my brain trying to figure it out.

Overlong prologue aside, it’s a good thirty minutes in before we even get a hint of the zombies turning up. I won’t tell a lie, but the resurrection sequence wasn’t too bad, with the zombies rising out of the ground reminding me very much of some old Italian horror film. The make-up effects are decent for something so low budget and there’s a nice red glowing effect added to their eyes with CGI. Aside from their usual modus operandi of biting necks and clawing at intestines, these zombies are also able to drip holt molten rock from their mouths (don’t ask me why the rock immediately burns things upon impact yet doesn’t seem to burn the zombies from the inside, or the ground they walk on, or anything else for that matter – just human flesh) which makes for one or two moments which are different to the usual zombie attacks. But the effects are crude and unconvincing. The film is bloody during the attacks, but the gore looks really fake and these are some of the most elasticated-looking intestines of all time – the zombies spend more time chewing on guts than they do brains. The less said about the volcanic eruptions and the lava flows, the better. Whoever thought the CGI looked half-decent is just as idiotic as the person who decided they should show it as often as they do.

Usually this type of flick features some C-list actors but even The Burning Dead struggles to round out the cast with anyone you’ll remember from elsewhere. Danny Trejo is plastered all over the front cover of the DVD like he’s the main star or something, but he’s got a tiny cameo role, used for a couple of wraparound scenes that could easily have been left on the cutting room floor. Trejo has become a caricature of himself nowadays – he stars in roles that are just him doing his schtick. The only other notable cast member is Jenny Lin, solely for the fact that she provides the token nudity for the film in the most pointless sub-plot ever put to horror.

 

I’m even struggling to write something worthwhile about The Burning Dead, something unusual for me. It’s pretty darn awful from beginning to end and given how many zombie films, TV shows, video games and books are out there right now, its sheer madness to think anyone would give this the time of day.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988)

Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988)

Just when you thought it was safe to be dead.

Two canisters of Trioxin, the ‘zombie gas’, fall from the back of a military convoy as it passes through the town of Westvale. There, a group of kids accidentally open one of the canisters as part of an initiation. The gas quickly spreads through the graveyard and soon the town is overrun as the dead start coming back to life, seeking the brains of the living.

 

Following up what many people believe to be one of the best zombie films of all time, not least one of the most entertaining horror-comedies ever put to the screen, was always going to be an impossible task. And it’s a task that director Ken Wiederhorn sadly fails at in Return of the Living Dead Part II. Return of the Living Dead was a fresh, exciting take on the zombie genre which combined some hilarious comedy with some truly effective scares and atmosphere and managed to perfectly balance the two together with a punk rock mentality to go with it. Return of the Living Dead Part II doesn’t manage to get the balance right and is all the worse for it. Though this can easily be attributed to the loss of Dan O’Bannon, the director and writer of the original, who didn’t return for this one. His input is sorely missing here.

Bizarrely, Return of the Living Dead Part II comes off more like an inferior remake than any true follow-up and it significantly tones down the violence and gore. With the combination of a kid in one of the main roles, something suggests they were targeting a younger audience who clearly enjoyed the lure of the video cover of the adult-orientated original in the rental store. In place of the violence and gore is a more comedic approach, which barely works. Too much slapstick and not enough smart writing is this film’s main problem, though that comes down to a director who is obviously not comfortable with the comedy material he’s been presented. Ken Wiederhorn previously directed atmospheric Nazi zombie flick Shock Waves so he’s got the horror credentials, he just lacks the finer touches of the funny bone to go with it. A dancing Michael Jackson-esque zombie and a severed hand which gives someone the middle finger are among some of the cheesier moments I can remember. They’re just not particularly funny and come off as a little desperate to make the audience laugh.

Return of the Living Dead Part II isn’t scary as a result. There was something genuinely terrifying about the situations the characters in the original found themselves in, from the paramedics getting mobbed by zombies to a guy having to throw himself into a crematorium to avoid turning into a zombie. There’s nothing even close to that here, despite the characters finding themselves in tricky life-or-death situations, and the feeling of repetition from the original just continues to dominate proceedings here. Only a different finale, involving the surviving characters luring the zombies to the electricity plant with a fresh batch of brains, gives the narrative any sort of new life and direction. By that time, it’s too late.

James Karen and Thom Matthews, arguably the two breakout stars of the original as the bumbling employees who caused the entire outbreak, are back but as totally new characters. Whilst the dynamic between the two isn’t as good in this one, as the script is weaker, they do share a few decent moments. As before, Karen is by far the funnier of the two and his incessant whining is funny, even if it’s a bit overplayed now. There’s a few nods to their prior roles – “I feel like we’ve been here before. You… Me… Them!” – but these characters just stand out as much. Only Phillip Bruns as a barmy doctor makes any sort of impression from the new characters, with Michael Kenworthy’s young Jesse being one of those annoying know-it-all kids who frequently popped up in the 80s.

The zombies look more cartoony than scary – even the famous Tarman zombie looks like a cheaper knock-off costumed version. From some weak-looking puppets to a bunch of extras wearing some low rent Halloween masks and make-up, these zombies don’t look like they’ve been rotting in the ground for too long, with the majority of them all still nicely suited-and-booted in their Sunday best. The gore is virtually non-existent here and what little we get is far too timid to be effective.

 

You almost want to like Return of the Living Dead Part II more than you do because of it being a sequel to the original but any sort of originality and novelty value that the original had has simply been frittered away here with some poor choices of tone and direction. It’s not overly terrible, but if Return of the Living Dead Part II didn’t want to be compared to the original so badly, it should have tried to do its own thing rather than recycle the same thing.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Crazies, The (2010)

The Crazies (2010)

Welcome to Ogden Marsh, the friendliest place on earth

Ogden Marsh is a small town in Iowa which is suddenly plagued by a series of spontaneously brutal acts of violence committed by its residents. A mysterious toxin has contaminated their water supply and with the infection spreading, the military is drafted in to quarantine the town. A band of survivors must escape through the area of the epidemic, dodging both the crazy infected residents and the trigger-happy military.

 

The original The Crazies was one of George A. Romero’s first post-Night of the Living Dead films and it shows with the similarities between the two – raw films both in the sense of the style in which they were made but with the social commentary that Romero was exploring with them. Despite the Romero connection, the original The Crazies is little known and rarely mentioned outside of the genre, so this makes it perfect material for a 21st century update.

However, this remake bears more similarity to Zack Synder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead than it does the original The Crazies – a more polished and refined effort which stays true to the original but isn’t afraid to throw a curveballs and sucker punches along the way. Whilst lacking in the hard-hitting social commentary of the original, The Crazies ramps up the shocks, the violence and the sheer scale of Romero’s 1973 film. It’s not fresh material in any stretch of the imagination – one whiff of the nightmarish quarantine scenario will have you thinking about everything from 28 Days Later to TV series Fear the Walking Dead – but it’s delivered in a way that makes it appear to be the first time you’re ever seen it on the screen.

Part of this is down to the transformation of the infected citizens from being merely crazy people using weapons to what appear to be slightly more intelligent zombies. With this transformation comes along a whole host of familiar zombie tropes – the quick collapse of law and order when the problem starts, main characters slowly turning into zombies and hiding it from others, groups of armed vigilantes hunting down the infected rather than the military, etc. As I’ve said, The Crazies is not exactly original but the way in which these common tropes are delivered is successful. With the infected being able to think rationally and use weapons, it adds a new element of danger to the film.

The Crazies is effective in staging some tense set pieces thanks to the energetic screenplay by Scott Kosar and Ray Wright which keeps the narrative straightforward and moves with pace from one predicament to the next with ease. In one, a woman strapped to a gurney is forced to watch as one of the infected slowly works his way through the rest of the helpless ward with a pitchfork. Another one involves the same woman being tied up in a chair, with a loaded gun pointed at her head whilst her husband is getting strangled to death right in front of her. There’s also a great scene involving a car wash which keeps the excitement flowing and the odds stacked. Rarely does the film become bogged down with exposition, though a couple of scenes are thrown in purely to explain everything that is going on and despite the constant situations the survivors seem to stumble from, it never gets repetitive.

The Crazies is not afraid to pull punches either, as the indiscriminate shooting and immediate torching of potentially infected victims shows. The violence is punctuating and visceral when it happens, yet the film isn’t as gory as you’d expect it to be. The nature of the aggression on screen is enough to disturb the viewer and so the need for graphic blood and guts isn’t there. But don’t expect to get through unscathed – there are plenty of sudden surprises and some jumpy moments which come out of nowhere. As always with the zombie/post-apocalyptic genre, it’s the earlier scenes of the outbreak slowly taking over and the citizens realising what they’re up against that are the scariest, with the later scenes providing the bulk of the action as things get out of control.

I’ve already mentioned the script and how this keeps things pacey and exciting but also worth mentioning is the characters it develops. They’re likeable and realistic enough to root for and get behind. Timothy Olyphant is more used to playing more unhinged characters but he’s great as the straight-up hero in this one as the local sheriff forced to take matters into his own hands to protect those he loves. Radha Mitchell does what she can as his pregnant wife, but the role is clearly designed to put her in peril due to the pregnancy. It’s Jon Anderson as the increasingly-paranoid deputy who Olyphant is most able to fire off and the two share a decent chemistry which nicely conveys the relationship the two colleagues have apparently built, adding some emotional impact later in the film when tensions between characters begin to appear. Not having too many main characters to focus on gives the ones you get plenty of room to breathe, making the events that happen all the more believable.

 

The Crazies is a lot darker and more depressing than the 70s original, improving upon pretty much every aspect of Romero’s vision to deliver a quality remake which is definitely worth watching. There is too much of a reliance on jump scares and the film does attach itself to the zombie sub-genre a little too much for comfort, but these are nit-picks – The Crazies is a slick, effective shock machine.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Dead Meat (2004)

Dead Meat (2004)

It’s not what you eat, it’s who you eat!

Helena and her boyfriend Martin are driving through rural Ireland when they hit and kill a man on the road, only for the body to come back to life and bite Martin in the neck. Running to a farmhouse for help, Helena is attacked by zombies and is only saved with the assistance of local gravedigger Desmond. It appears that an outbreak has been caused by humans eating meat infected with Mad Cow Disease, which causes the dead to rise and feed on the living.

 

Zombie films have always been the go-to for budding filmmakers to break into the big time. Easy to make, cheap to produce, relatively simple to create a story and with enough familiarity for audiences to know exactly what they’re getting. Sadly, because every person with a camera, a few friends and bucket of tomato ketchup can make one, zombie films tend to vary in quality like no other sub-genre of horror and so finding a decent one is like playing Russian roulette. With the lure of the ‘Mad Cow Disease’ element and potential that the film would feature killer cows (much like Isolation), I was tempted to go for this one over a rather pitiful selection of films, many of which have ‘….of the Dead’ in the title.

Thankfully, Dead Meat avoids a lot of the pitfalls that many a low budget film would do, but it doesn’t do enough to fully shake off the shackles of its humble beginnings. It’s clear that writer-director Conor McMahon likes his horror films, particularly zombie films, and peppers the screen with plenty of nods to his inspirations. The film is pacey and features plenty of set pieces, although perhaps too many similar zombie attacks for its own good. Within the space of the first twenty minutes, I counted no fewer than three attack scenes which could have been spaced out a bit more to build up the atmosphere and characters a bit. Sometimes less is more and that definitely should have been the case for Dead Meat. At a slender seventy minutes, there’s no need for the film to continually bombard the audience with zombies – we all know what they are and what they can do, but it takes a little bit of the steam away from some of the more original action moments. Too often, the narrative is episodic, as if McMahon had an idea for a set piece, and just sticks it in there with little cohesion supporting it. The flimsy plot is simply a Macguffin to get the zombies moving – once the exposition has taken place, you’ll pretty much forget that this outbreak was caused by cows.

The major weakness that Dead Meat has is that it looks like a low budget production with how it’s been shot on video. The hand-held night time photography is extremely difficult to fathom out and aside from a few voices, sometimes it’s indistinguishable as to what is going on in the film. There’s plenty of grain during the day time scenes a lot of changes with the colour balance – coupled with some miserable days when filming took place, the film is not a pretty one to look at. Can I reiterate how annoying the night time scenes are? It’s so frustrating especially given there are some potentially effective scenes involving the zombies ‘sleeping’ as the survivors slowly walk through the field, ruined by the fact you hardly get to see anything. And yes, I did adjust my brightness to see if that helped!

Dead Meat threatens to get funny at times, particularly with the introduction of Eoin Whelan’s foul-mouthed, hurling stick-wielding coach, but it never fully embraces some of the lighter elements. I think it missed a trick here. Scenes involving eye balls and vacuum cleaners shouldn’t really be played straight, nor should images of a children’s party gone wrong, but Dead Meat does play them straight. Whilst extremely gory for such a little production, a lot of it is highly unrealistic which kind of kills the ambiance. Silly gore like this needs a tongue-in-cheek approach to work, in much the fashion as The Evil Dead or Bad Taste, but due to the seriousness of the film, the gore here is very jarring, with dismemberments and decapitations all being brought to life with practical FX rather than CGI. It’s also nice to see a zombie film where there is a distinct lack of guns to pop off a few headshots. The characters here are forced to use anything they get their hands on to fight off the zombies and it makes for a more realistic survival situation.

 

Every time Dead Meat does something right, it also does something silly to counteract it, which is a big shame as there’s potential here. But given how many zombie films are doing the market right now, it takes something special to stand out. With a bit more focus on making the absurd moments deliberately more comical, Dead Meat could have raised it’s a game. There’s a lesson there for McMahon if he makes something similar in future.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Beyond, The (1981)

The Beyond (1981)

Behind this doorway lie the terrifying and unspeakable secrets of hell. No one who sees it lives to describe it. And you shall live in darkness for all eternity.

In Louisiana’s Seven Doors Hotel in 1927, a lynch mob murders an artist named Schweick, who was in the middle of finishing a grotesque painting which could open one of the Seven Doors of Death, allowing the dead to cross into the world of the living. Several decades later, Liza Merrill, a young woman from New York, inherits the hotel and plans to re-open it. Renovating the hotel activates the hell portal, and she contends with increasingly strange incidents as the dead begin to cross over into the real world.

 

It was extremely difficult narrowing the plot down to such a small synopsis, but I think I’ve done a decent job in simplifying a narrative which doesn’t really have much else to say than ‘weird stuff happens because of a portal to Hell.’ The Beyond is Italian horror at it’s most infuriatingly strongest – some stomach-churning gore set pieces but without a coherent narrative to link everything together in an acceptable form. The second in director Lucio Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy (along with City of the Living Dead and House by the Cemetery), The Beyond is yet another case of the ‘Godfather of Gore’ going for broke where his strengths lie but failing to keep it all glued together when he isn’t dripping the screen with splatter.

The Beyond can be best described as a vivid nightmare, filled with bleak and depressing images, an oppressive and brooding atmosphere and a general sense that things won’t turn out the way we’ve come to expect from a UK/US horror. This is where the film’s strengths lie – because you have no clue what is going on, thanks to the fractured narrative, just go with the flow and expected the unexpected. Chances are, that’s the only way you’re going to survive this because trying to predict what will happen next is largely impossible and will just lead to frustration. I first watched this about ten years ago, hadn’t got a clue what was going on, became bored and disengaged. My recent second viewing at least allowed me to see it from a different angle and it was all the better for it, rather than trying to piece together the story and make some sense from it. Amidst all of the randomness and copious use of drawn-out shots, there is some decent cinematography and a few bits where the film threatens to fulfil it’s promise. There’s an effective score from Fabio Frizzi which adds to the ambiance and with all of the zombies, supernatural goings-on and ghosts present, Fulci certainly covers all of the bases. It’s a shame that the zombie finale is so bland and low-key and seems to have been tacked on simply for the added-on value of zombies.

The Beyond was originally on the UK’s ‘Video Nasties’ list in the 1980s as one of 33 films which were never prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, but which could have led to the police seizing the film from retailers if they felt the material in question was in breach of the Act. The Beyond was dropped from the list when the BBFC realised they had already made cuts to the cinema version. Nevertheless, the uncut version remained elusive until 2001. I guess everyone got their knickers in a twist back in the 80s because The Beyond isn’t any less gory than a number of other big horror releases from the time period. If you think you’re going to survive a Fulci horror without seeing one of his ‘eye-popping’ gore effects, then you’re mistaken! You’re also in for a bonus treat as eyeballs are both scraped out from the front in one scene and pushed out from the back of the skull in another. Try making it through any of these moments without squirming – eyes are the killers for me as far as gory effects go and any sort of trauma to them just brings out the wincing. Another trademark Fulci gore sequence, the throat ripping, is also present as one woman is on the receiving end of a dog’s bite. Bodies are also dissolved in lime and acid, with various levels of effectiveness. In some scenes, the gore is cartoonish and so obviously a dummy/mannequin head or prop being used. Whilst some of them don’t look convincing nowadays, you’ve got to give them some credit for trying to create something out of virtually nothing (as far as budget goes). This is definitely not a film for the squeamish, regardless of the varying quality of the effects.

Fulci favourite Catriona MacColl returns in an unrelated lead role again, doing her utmost to make some sense of the nonsensical script. Not only is MacColl an attractive lady but she’s a bit of a prototype for the strong feminine lead roles that would come later in the genre. She’s not the helpless, screaming damsel-in-distress type but a character who works almost equally with the male lead, David Warbeck, to get to the bottom of the mystery. This isn’t a character-driven film and it’s to their credit that both MacColl and Warbeck do their best to hold it together as Hell rains down upon them.

 

Some say it’s Fulci’s best work and though I can understand the reasoning behind that, I much prefer Zombie Flesh Eaters (to give Zombi it’s UK title) or City of the Living Dead. Sometimes surreal, sometimes crazy, always gory and other times just plain ridiculous, The Beyond is a nightmarish film which will drive you insane with it’s lack of logic and story progression but sicken and repulse you with it’s visceral punches. If you’ve never seen it before, my advice is to watch it twice before coming to a final judgement.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Return of the Evil Dead (1973)

Return of the Evil Dead (1973)

Scream… So They Can Find You

Five hundred years after they were blinded by fire and executed for their unholy crimes, the Templar Knights rise from the dead to take revenge on a small Portuguese town during its centennial celebration of the executions.

 

No, this is not related to Sam Raimi’s infamous low budget classic, rather it should be titled Return of the Blind Dead as this is a sequel to 1972′s Tombs of the Blind Dead. Not many people have heard of the Blind Dead series. I hadn’t until a few years ago when I came across the box set on eBay. A series of Spanish-made horror films about undead, zombie-like Templar knights, the films were a big success in Spain and have gained cult status in the genre. But they’re little-known to anyone without a keen interest in the genre and it’s a big shame because the imaginative monsters are some of the most nightmarish creations to come out of films since Boris Karloff donned the Frankenstein make-up back in the 30s. Commonly lumped in the Euro-zombie explosion of the 70s and 80s, the Blind Dead films were far more than gratuitous splatter flicks, crafting themselves into fine Gothic horror pieces with a focus on atmosphere, mood and dread.

Despite being a sequel, Return of the Evil Dead doesn’t have any links to the original, especially with the open way that Tombs of the Blind Dead ended. Instead, it opts to re-tell the tale of the Templars by putting them into another location (the next two sequels would also follow this same stand-alone logic). Everything we learnt about them from the original is essentially ditched, save for their appearance and blindness. It is the iconographic appearance of the Templar knights that is one of the reasons this series has found such a strong and devoted following. Looking like skeletal Grim Reapers with remnants of hair still clinging to their cracked bones, the knights are the wizened, decayed stuff of nightmares and virtually impossible to stop or escape from. They’re slow but relentless. Once you cross them, you know that they’ll get you no matter how hard you try to prevent them. The question of whether their faithful steeds are undead is answered is this one as well.

Return of the Evil Dead does what many sequels do and that’s up the ante and the scope to try and outdo its predecessor. The undead Templars are back in force this time around and are not content with hanging around derelict towns in the middle of nowhere waiting for people to stray into their domain. This time around they’re out for vengeance and assault the town itself. Whilst it took an eternity for them to rise from their graves in the first one, Return of the Evil Dead sees them jump the gun and get a good head start, making their moves only a quarter of an hour in. It’s this change of approach that benefits Return of the Evil Dead, casting aside some of the sluggish pacing problems of the original. Having said this, the attack on the town has little real direction and seems to go on for too long, as if Ossorio just kept the camera rolling. It’s only when the survivors escape and shack up in the church that the film finally settles down into something with a bit more direction and focus. The creepy way that the Templars just silently hang around outside the church, waiting for someone to come out is a marked contrast to the usual slamming and banging zombies trying to break through doors.

With the Templars coming for revenge this time, the gore ante is upped tenfold. Heads are lopped off, arms sliced off and hearts ripped out. Ossorio was clearly influenced by George A. Romero and Night of the Living Dead when he made Tombs of the Blind Dead and he’s been even more keen to use some of Romero’s ideas in the sequel, namely the fact that a group of survivors barricade themselves up in a church as the Templars surround the place, unable to get in. The results aren’t as effective but still provide the cast with a bit more to do than running around screaming. There are a few good performances here actually, notably Fernando Sancho as the slimy mayor who will do anything to stay alive, including sacrificing one of his henchmen and even persuading a little girl to distract the Templars whilst he runs away! Horror films need more weasels like this guy! The ominous Gregorian soundtrack returns once again (thanks to the same composer) to crank up the atmosphere and tension a few more notches.

Return of the Evil Dead is not without problems though. Lots of stock footage of the Templars rising from their graves is lifted from the original and the same slow-motion shots of them riding their horses are back to annoy us every so often. These scenes bring with them some day-for-night continuity errors with the new footage and are slightly off-putting. As the case is for many Euro horrors, make sure that you check out the original language version as opposed to the international/American cut, which has been cut quite severely and is missing lots of footage, mainly of the juicy bits!

 

The Return of the Evil Dead is a solid follow-up which doesn’t do the original any harm at all and actually adds to the menace and scare-factor of the Templars by giving them more to do and more people to kill. Some consider this the best entry in the series though in all fairness, every single entry has its strengths and weaknesses.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

They won’t stay dead

A group of strangers find themselves trapped inside a farmhouse when the dead suddenly come back to life, hungry to feast on human flesh.

 

Sometimes reviews are hard to write because the film in question is just such a landmark film that every man and his dog has seen it at least once. Night of the Living Dead is one such landmark film, a monumental horror outing which every self-respecting horror fan should have seen, and any real connoisseur of film should have too. For every thousands of films made, few have as much significance on their genres as George A. Romero’s 1968 classic did. That may be a grandiose statement but it’s so true.

The horror genre around the late 60s had grown stale. Hammer’s popular British monster franchises had lost their appeal and the old Gothic horrors had grown quaint, with audiences preferring more contemporary settings. A number of controversial psychological thrillers were released such as Peeping Tom and Hitchcock’s Psycho but failed to really spurn a new sub-genre, or at least a popular mainstream one. In America, producers were struggling to get away from the cheap and cheerful William Castle-style shockers from the 50s, tacky Vincent Price vehicles, or even detach themselves from the 50s sci-fi monster movies. Horror was very much suggestive, with lavish costumes, cardboard sets and evil mad scientists providing everything that the audience needed for cheap and cheerful chills like you’d find at a fairground. But a red line was always drawn and rarely crossed as to what a filmmaker could get away with. The genre needed something different and along came George A. Romero to not only walk over the red line but run about as far over it as he could.

Night of the Living Dead represented an entirely new direction for the horror genre. Visceral, in-your-face and not afraid to land some hard-hitting social commentary at the same time. It was everything that horror films had not been – the classical conventions of the genre were completely obliterated and re-imagined in one swoop. Audiences just did not know what to expect. The premise is simple, and something that has become somewhat of a staple ingredient for a zombie film as a group of strangers find themselves trapped inside a building with the zombie hordes gathering outside trying to break in. You don’t an overly convoluted story if you focus on developing the characters and getting audiences to associate with them. Night of the Living Dead is surprisingly talky, though its essential for the viewer to witness the disintegration of society, captured perfectly with this bickering group of strangers from all ages and walks of life. Don’t worry though – no one is safe. The horror genre had been a safety-first playground, where major protagonists rarely succumbed to the threats they were up against, but Romero changed all of that, removing the safety blanket and common knowledge security that audiences had grown up on. It was now everything goes and anyone dies, adding much needed unpredictability to the genre.

Despite the fact that zombies originate in Haitian folklore and there had been cinematic depictions of zombies long before Romero came along, it was Night of the Living Dead which really etched our modern interpretations of what we have now come to think of (and let’s face it, love) as the zombie. Slow, shuffling, monsters with only one thought process going on – to feed. From the opening scene with Bill Hinzman’s famous cemetery zombie to some of the unique zombies that attack the farmhouse later on, Romero always had an eye for giving them some personality. Not really a threat on their own to any relatively strong or quick human, the problem comes when the zombies increase in number. This is where they can do their damage, and damage they do!

The stomach-churning gore scenes were vile and outrageous for their time, though admittedly they have lost some of their impact nowadays after wall-to-wall zombie overload for the past twenty years. With the contemporary setting, coupled with the black-and-white photography, the gore sequences come off as documentary-style news reports, much like the TV screens were filled with real images from the war in Vietnam back in the 60s, giving the film much more of a gritty realism. This wasn’t some mad Victorian scientists creating Frankenstein-like monsters a thousand miles away in some random Eastern European country setting – these were the next-door neighbours, horribly disfigured through the zombie virus and attacking and eating you and your family. There is no reasoning with them. No real way to stop them all. It would have been a chilling thought back in the 60s.

Romero was never one to shy away from political commentary and his first directorial effort would include some of his most powerful and thought-provoking critiques. Casting Duane Jones, a black man, in the lead hero role back in the 1960s was not something which Romero thought about – he was the best candidate for the role after auditions and there’s no mention of his skin colour at all throughout the film. But having him holed up inside a house full of squabbling white people and to be on the receiving end of some rough justice in the shocking finale, it’s not exactly rocket science to see what sort of message Romero is transmitting – deliberate or not, given the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Jones is excellent in the role, a real calming sense of logic and reason who does the best in the conditions he’s faced with. Karl Hardman, as his opposite number Cooper, is equally as good in his role, though he does overplay the character a little bit. With the white and black male characters bickering at each other and vying for alpha male dominance, the female characters are relegated to little more than screaming background fodder. The sense that this rag-tag group of survivors, so desperately trying to cling together in the face of such horrific opposition, is on the verge of collapse at any moment is symbolic of American society in the 60s, where the optimism of the 50s had been replaced with pessimism, anger and attitude. Romero’s later zombie films would come to embody this sentiment: the main threat has never been about the zombies, but how quickly people turn on each other in the struggle for survival and self-preservation.

 

Fifty years after it’s original release, Night of the Living Dead still has not lost its potent impact to shock and terrify the audience. Whilst we may have been subjected to more gruesome zombie outings, none have quite matched the intensity and shock value that this would have had on audiences back in 1968.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

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.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★