Tag Zombies

Trench 11 (2017)

Trench 11 (2017)

Violence Is Contagious

Towards the end of the First World War, a group of Allied soldiers are sent to investigate reports of a secret German bunker where an officer called Reiner is alleged to experimenting with various chemicals and diseases in an attempt to find a weapon to turn the war in Germany’s favour. However, none of them are prepared for what they find deep below the surface in Trench 11.

 

Swapping the traditional Second World War/Nazi approach that most war period horrors take to the lesser-utilised First World War, Trench 11 is a psychological horror film that promised a lot more than it actually delivered. World War One is a time period we don’t see too often in films, particularly horror films, and so Trench 11 was able to come at the genre material with a slightly new spin. I can only think of Deathwatch which has taken the Great War for its backdrop – everything else features the Nazis conducting experiments during the Second World War. This should mean the story feels fresh and exciting, right?

Trench 11 has lashing of atmosphere and an ominous setting but literally does nothing worthwhile with it. For a start, the period setting is completely believable. Uniforms look top notch. Facial hair and dialogue are very much stiff-upper Brit worthy (check out some of the old school moustaches on show). The sets are decorated with glorious antiquated details so clearly a lot of time has been spent in recreating the era. The tunnels look great: really dark, claustrophobic and unnerving. So why on Earth does the film do so little with them? Trench 11 plays like a traditional war film for too long, without any real shift to the more supernatural and horrific elements, but even these elements seem only for show, as if the filmmakers wanted to say “Look we are different, this isn’t a World War 2 horror flick.” Take out the obvious period elements and the film could have been set within any other period, era or even location with the same results. It doesn’t help that there is far too much exposition to begin with, the plot virtually told to the audience in the first ten minutes, and then once the action and horror starts to kick in, there’s virtually no plot. The balance is all wrong.

You see, the Germans have left behind a parasite which completely takes over its victim, turning them into something resembling a zombie. There are shades of The Thing here, with the confined paranoia of the survivors threatening to erupt more than any non-human menace does. But that’s all it does – threaten to erupt rather than fully exploding. When the parasites are seen during a certain autopsy sequence, let’s just say you won’t want to be eating noodles or spaghetti any time soon. Like everything else in the film, this particular element to the plot isn’t really developed to its full potential and is simply an excuse for a horde of German zombies to start trashing the place during the film’s more action-orientated sections. We never really get to the bottom of just what these experiments were and how they work but the film isn’t bothered about that once the German soldiers are wrecking stuff up. The special effects and make-up department do a commendable job in making the creature-based stuff so creepy and effective; you just wish the film would have done a bit more with it as there’s no way the stuff on offer, particularly the blood and guts, will satisfy any serious gore hounds.

This is a recurring theme throughout Trench 11 – potential but failure to capitalise on it. It goes so far and then seems to stop. Trench 11 never really pays back the audience’s faith and time investment with any worthwhile resolutions. Characters are killed off suddenly after the audience had spent time getting to them and with their arcs still yet to be concluded. Ideas like the virus and the worm-like parasites are given centre-stage as the film’s main threat, only for it to be over-shadowed by the human villain in the film’s finale. With the shift in focus, Trench 11 loses a lot of its suspense and atmosphere and becomes more of a standard issue Allies versus Germans showdown.

Rossif Sutherland, son of Donald and half-brother of Kiefer, stars in the lead role and does a decent job but this is a very much a whole cast of characters affair. Scene-stealers involve Ted Atherton as Captain Jennings, the embodiment of the ‘I know better than you’ attitude of so many entitled officers back in the war, and Charlie Carrick as the doctor. It’s unusual to see so many decent characters being constructed in a low budget film like this but credit to the script for giving them time to flesh out before they get put through the ringer. Even slimy Robert Stadlober, as the German scientist Reiner, is able to do more than just ham it up as the token German bad guy.

 

Trench 11 mixes a lot of stuff together and the final product is decent, if not completely satisfying. It’s not a full-on horror film, nor is it a pure war film and the result is something which doesn’t quite sit well in either genre. It delivers a few nasty scenes and a few memorable moments but nothing which will linger in the mind.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

28 Days Later (2002)

28 Days Later (2002)

Day 1: Exposure – Day 3: Infection – Day 8: Epidemic – Day 15: Evacuation – Day 20: Devastation

When animal rights activists break into a medical research laboratory to release the captive chimpanzees inside, they inadvertently unleash a highly contagious rage-inducing virus which spreads via blood and saliva and quickly infects living beings. 28 days later and Jim awakens in hospital after being in coma to find London completely deserted. Meeting up with a pair of survivors, Jim discovers that the virus spread quickly among the populace, resulting in complete societal collapse, and the group attempt to find sanctuary to escape from the hordes of infected roaming the streets.

 

Between 1985 and the early 00s, mainstream zombie films were few and far between as they had fallen out of favour. Much like the slasher film fell by the wayside at the same time, the humble zombie film had become oversaturated and on the decline. But then in 2002, a low budget critically-acclaimed horror from Trainspotting director Danny Boyle was snapped up by an American distributor and the rest is history. Largely credited with totally reinvigorating the zombie genre and bringing it back to the mainstream, 28 Days Later was the first zombie film in years to receive a widespread cinematic release and became a big hit across the world, scoring over ten times its budget back in ticket sales.

28 Days Later is still fundamentally just another zombie film that we’ve seen before, only with some nice reinventions on the sub-genre tropes (don’t call them zombies for a start!). The story still has to weave through the same conundrums for the characters to conquer: searching for food, water and a safe place; suddenly learning how to survive after being brought up in a modern society; trust issues with strangers they encounter; realising there is more of the infected than there are survivors; and dealing with loved ones once they’ve become infected. 28 Days Later addresses all of these issues with a sense of stark realism – there isn’t going to be a happy ending for many people in the film.

Shot on digital video to give it a grimy, bleak appearance, 28 Days Later introduces a fantastic post-apocalyptic vision within it’s opening five minutes – the empty streets of London (a nice early 4am shoot to get the desired effect) looking eerily like they’ve never looked before. This isn’t some burnt-out, buildings collapsing wasteland but just the same old London without people. It’s an uncanny effect. The main character, fresh from hospital treatment and unsure of what has happened (potentially in a nod to The Day of the Triffids in which the main character follows a similar post-operation trauma without realising the Earth has been overrun with killer plants) staggers around the place, looking bewildered and disorientated. It’s this disorientation which helps to channel the narrative because there’s little exposition to fill in the gaps. Not knowing just what has happened and how quickly adds to the panic and fear.

It’s the realism and down-to-Earth nature of the film which helps 28 Days Later keep a strong bond with the audience. There isn’t a reliance on gore or even standard issue ‘boo’ moments to throw out a few cheap thrills and spills. 28 Days Later has a generally calm atmosphere with a strong underlying sense of dread where you know that something bad could happen at any moment but the characters have accepted that and tried to put it to the back of their minds. The film punctures this false illusion of security every so often with some shocks and Boyle wants you to remember the sudden shocking outbursts of violence, making them more effective in the process as you’re kept on the edge of your seat. Although there are relatively few action sequences in the film, the ones that are here are memorable enough to make you think you’ve seen more. An opening chase from a church and a thrilling sequence inside a tunnel are memorable purely for the speed and frenetic energy they’re presented in, rather than their length.

Whist not quite zombies by the usual definition, the infected certainly fall into the same category given there’s no real alternative nametag. Boyle’s rage-infected humans charge forward in a hyperactive, frenzied state, able to sprint, leap and do things that the usual slow-moving shuffling walking dead can’t do. It gives them a unique presence, something that Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake was quick to capitalise on a few years later. The scenes with the infected work far better than they should, given Boyle’s preference to shoot a lot of the film with an eerie peace and tranquillity. After all, why would there be a lot of background noise in the world when pretty much everyone is dead? The snarls and roars of the infected are made twice as scary when they pierce through the silence – you might not see them, but you can hear them coming. They also don’t need to eat brains either, which just turns them into savage killers with no rhyme or reason for doing what they do.

Cillian Murphy went on to do a lot better after this, starring in films such as Batman Begins, Inception and Dunkirk, and probably most famously now as the lead role in BBC TV show Peaky Blinders. He’s great in the lead role here, pretty much stumbling around in confusion and not having much of a clue as to what is going on. Strong support comes from Naomie Harris and Brendan Gleeson. Christopher Eccleston, who would go on to star in the revamped version of Doctor Who, appears just over half-way through as the leader of a bunch of soldiers holed up in a country mansion for protection.

It’s at this point where 28 Days Later is let down by its final third, as the story heads off in a slightly different direction to everything that came before it. I guess Boyle thought he needed to up the action ante in the film’s climax as the narrative becomes the generic men with guns vs ‘zombies’ shoot-out and all mayhem comes to the fore as the walls of the mansion are breached. Given this is what happens in a large majority of zombie films towards the end, 28 Days Later is hardly in unfamiliar territory, especially with the whole ‘humans are worse than zombies’ undercurrent. But we do care about the main characters by this point and, some plot armour moments aside, you will be rooting for their survival.

 

28 Days Later has become something of a modern-day standard bearer by which recent zombie films have been measured against and there’s a good reason for that – it’s one of the best to come out of the genre for a long time. Though far from perfect, Boyle’s horror film is full of moments of peace and tranquil beauty, juxtaposed with kinetic energy and raw savagery, keeping tension and suspense high and audiences on tender hooks. Bleak, pessimistic and a whole lot of perverse fun for genre fans.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★☆ 

 

 

Masters of Horror: Dance of the Dead (2006)

Masters of Horror: Dance of the Dead (2006)

In a post-apocalyptic American society, the population has been decimated by nuclear terrorist attacks and flesh-dissolving nuclear fallout. Amidst the aftermath, a naive young teenager gets involved with a drug-stoked biker and his friends, against her overprotective mother’s protests. The teens hang out at the Doom Room, a punk rock nightclub, where re-animated corpses from the nuclear attacks perform courtesy of electric-charged flows and experimental drug-injected shots.

 

Based on a short story by Richard Matheson and adapted by his son, Richard Christian Matheson, Dance of the Dead was the third episode from the first series of Masters of Horror. I started covering them on the site a while back as they’re basically mini-feature films, with horror stories condensed into an hour-long episode format and helmed by a number of famous horror directors. Tobe Hooper is the ‘Master of Horror’ for this episode and directs a rather pedestrian entry, pretty devoid of any real meaty narrative. Though you could argue that was Hooper’s calling card for the majority of his career. After hitting it big with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Hooper made a few passable horror films (I really like The Funhouse) before descending into pure rubbish for many years as he tried and failed to recreate his past glories. Dance of the Dead isn’t going to enhance his reputation though it was better than most of his recent efforts.

With the episodes running under an hour each, time can’t be wasted but that’s precisely what Dance of the Dead does, spending far too much early on pottering around as if this is a full-length feature film. What’s worse, the script doesn’t go into any major exposition about what happened to cause the problems facing humanity, nor does it explain the current state of affairs, though there are lots of pointers and suggestions about how life is in this not-too-futuristic society. It gets the audience working their brains a bit more than usual, though if you’ve seen half as many post-apocalyptic films as I have, you’ll easily be able to join up all of the relevant dots. This is a nihilistic world, full of depravity and indulgence – it’s not clear just how quickly and why society has taken this turn for the worst, particularly with the teenage generation.

Hooper puts too much focus on the production values of the episode to appeal to a younger audience, perhaps trying to tap into a vein of rebellion, with the drugs, drink and fast cars showing a decadent lifestyle a lot of idyllic teenagers would grab at. I’m a rock and metal fan and love the music loud and heavy but Dance of the Dead’s soundtrack frequently just comes at you from all sides. It’s the same for the visuals, almost as if Hooper had been given access to a load of new filters and crazy plugins for his editing software and he goes overboard with them during the club scenes, adding frenzied cuts, strobe lighting and lots of unnecessary ghosting moments. It’s a pity because for every overblown effect, Hooper throws in some truly unsettling images, including the sight of still-twitching ‘zombies’ being dumped into a skip before being set alight by two laughing henchmen, and the club’s owner engaging in some kinky shenanigans with a naked zombie.

Dance of the Dead does feature some solid performances. Jessica Lowndes, as the innocent Peggy, not only looks gorgeous but manages to transform her character from being weak, naïve and curious to strong and independent by the end of the episode. Jonathan Tucker also manages to play off an odd combination of character traits, as the drug-addicted biker who sells blood to dodgy dealers but who is also heroic and chivalrous when dealing with Peggy. It’s a weird pairing but it works well to sell the story. Robert Englund does his best to save the episode from oblivion with his sinister MC lauding up the applause in the club, winding up the crowd with insults and creepily making out with zombified girls in the back room. Englund can go over the top and he ventures too far over the line a few times here, but the ‘showman’ scenes contrast with the shady businessman moments and this is where he reigns it in. He’s the best bit of the episode by a long shot.

 

Dance of the Dead isn’t a great Masters of Horror episode, with Hooper failing to recapture any former glory and laying down his persistent weaknesses for all to see. It’s loud, depressing, and above all, not very scary or exciting. It’s not like the source material, from acclaimed writer Richard Matheson, was bad, it’s just mis-handled by someone who left their horror legacy back in the 70s.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Dead Pit, The (1989)

The Dead Pit (1989)

Drop In Anytime.

A renegade doctor is shot dead and entombed with his fiendish experiments in the basement of an abandoned wing of a mental hospital. Twenty years later, a mysterious woman is admitted with amnesia, and her arrival is marked by an earthquake which cracks the seal to the Dead Pit, freeing the evil doctor to continue his work.

 

That is only a half of the madness on offer in The Dead Pit, a cheesy 80s horror fest which goes by the letter of that decade’s genre output. Projecting itself across video store aisles with some classic 80s poster artwork of a zombie doctor appearing to lead an army of zombies behind him, this was the type of film young horror buffs, not old enough to rent it themselves, would have dreamt of watching as kids: gore, nudity, and violence in abundance. Of course, being young horror buffs, we would have had little awareness of everything else that makes a good film and so it’s nice to see how these films stack up in adulthood.

What The Dead Pit lacks in plot and coherent story, it makes up for in gore and fun. There’s so much more on offer here than just your generic zombie film. The script chucks in everything but the kitchen sink, sometimes too much for its own good, and tries to keep things from becoming too routine. Not sure how to resurrect the mad doctor from a twenty-year absence? Simple: just have a random earthquake. How are you going to kill zombies without resorting to the usual tropes? Simple: have a nun in there firing off holy water at them all. There are about a hundred and one questions you’ll have whilst watching and, whilst the film tries to answer a few as well as throw in some nifty twists, for the most part you’re better off ignoring them and going with the flow.

First time director Brett Leonard certainly does his best to belay the $350k budget and really crafts a decent mood and atmosphere, using an actual mental hospital for filming and making the most of some neat 80s-style red and blue lighting effects shining through the windows whenever some supernatural shenanigans is going on. The smoky green dead pit of the title, appearing during the finale, is also effective, as is the trademark 80s synth score, combining to give the impression that you’re having some lurid hallucination. Leonard gets to grips with some of the horror movie techniques such as having things pop up outside the frame of a shot, really making the most of every shot to craft suspense and a feeling of unease. Leonard would go on to direct The Lawnmower Man and the similar style and mood is evident there, just with a bigger budget.

The zombies don’t show up in the film until well over half-way through, so until then it’s just up to the mad doctor to provide the chills. With glowing red eyes and fairly tall and imposing, Dr Ramzi makes for a decent villain and starts to kill off a few of the orderlies and nurses walking around the hospital in the middle of the night. Ramzi likes his patients alive and kicking whilst conducting improvised surgery and so expect to see plenty of syringes into skulls, scalpels across throats and, in one of the film’s most impressive set pieces, a nice bit of scalping and cranium removal. The film is surprisingly gory for such a low budget flick – heads roll, faces melt, people are ripped apart, and the aforementioned surgery. The zombies don’t do as much damage as you’d expect them to do, nor do they look particularly ‘zombie-like’ having been rotting away for twenty years, but they pose a few problems for the survivors in the finale. Sadly, Ramzi’s unnecessary one-liners water down the character a bit, like some sub-par Freddy Krueger – the comedic tone is out of place.

Cheryl Lawson is the lead female and, in her first feature film, spends the majority of the running time parading around in the teeniest of white cut-off tank tops and knickers (and without a bra too), baring all and providing the requisite nudity – I’m not too sure whether her outfit is standard issue for an asylum though! It doesn’t hurt that she’s gorgeous and has a decent pair of lungs but she’s too inexperienced to hold the fort whenever the carnage goes away for a bit. That said, no one else in the cast really does anything to help her out. You’ve got a load of standard issue low budget horror performances, with some blandness, some droning, some hyperactivity and some overacting all visible. The cast all play it straight, with the exception of

 

The Dead Pit is a cheap schlocker, designed for some cheap chills, thrills and spills and nothing more. But there’s a little more substance to it than most of its ilk: it’s atmospheric, graphically gory and surprisingly-well shot for such a low budget genre offering.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

[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.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆