Tag Zombies

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.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 (1988)

Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 (1988)

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Zombie Creeping Flesh (1980)

Zombie Creeping Flesh (1980)

They eat the living

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Night of the Living Dead (1990)

Night of the Living Dead (1990)

There IS a fate worse than death.

Barbara and her brother Johnny are visiting their aunt’s grave where they find themselves attacked by a violent man. Barbara escapes with her life and runs to an old farmhouse nearby where she takes shelter. Shortly afterwards, a man named Ben arrives and tells her stories of what is happening across the state. It appears that the dead are returning to life and attacking the living. More survivors are found but it isn’t long before tension begins to rise amongst the group as to the best way to proceed. Soon the group find themselves trapped in the farmhouse by an ever-growing number of zombies outside.

 

Long before Hollywood ran out of decent script writers and decided to just remake everything under the sun, legendary horror director George A. Romero set about remaking his classic 1968 horror hit. Brought about in part due to the fact that Romero saw little profit from the original due to copyright issues (the copyright wasn’t issued and so the film is in the public domain meaning he gets no royalties) and that other studios were looking to do a remake, Night of the Living Dead works far better than it has any right to do given that it’s a very faithful remake. Dismissed by almost everyone upon release, Night of the Living Dead has since gained a cult following – maybe it’s due to the fact that the majority of remakes these days are terrible and so this stands out a country mile! Or maybe it’s due to the fact that the majority of people who were involved with the original were involved here too, adding that extra heart and soul into proceedings.

Night of the Living Dead is an excellent remake which updates the story to a more contemporary setting for a whole new generation to fear. Sticking fairly closely to the original’s narrative with the introductions of Barbara, Ben, the farmhouse and the impending zombie apocalypse, there are some new twists and turns thrown in to keep things fresh. It’s nowhere near as creepy as the original, no doubt its effect watered down considerably given the vast number of zombie films that have been released over the years, but there is still an overwhelming sense of dread. Even though, as hardened horror fans, we know what to expect from a zombie film, the shuffling flesh eaters still pose quite the menace and threat. As time passes through the night, the tension and suspense really ratchets up a couple of notches as the characters become more stressed and the zombies become greater in number. Regardless of whether you’ve seen the original, you’ll know that things aren’t going to turn out well for the survivors. The sense that no one knows what is going on also adds to the confusion and I’m glad no explanation is added to the zombie apocalypse. You don’t need to bother about the why, just the fact that it’s present.

Make-up effects legend Tom Savini made his directorial debut for this one and he does a good job of keeping everything flowing. The pace is good and there’s not an awful lot of filler, though some of the scenes involving the verbal conflict between Ben and Harry tend to drag out a little longer than needed. Ironically, it’s in his speciality field where the film fails to live up to usual expectations. There’s not a lot of gore on show here, though this was down to the special effects team wanting to keep things restrained out of respect for the original. The zombie make-up is the stand-out, with a number of featured zombies looking the part, particularly the memorable cemetery ghoul and autopsy corpse at the beginning.

Romero’s changes to the original script come mainly in the form of the characters, ably portrayed by a solid cast. Patricia Tallman is decent as Barbara, though in this post-feminist world the script has changed her character from frightened, screaming girl-in-distress to Ripley-esque wonder woman who learns how to shoot and take care of herself in no time at all. Tony Todd stars in the role of Ben, a character who caused a bit of a stir back in 1968. Much focus was given to Duane Jones’ appearance as Ben in the original – a black actor being cast as the hero was not exactly something new at the time but if you read any academic literature that talks about Night of the Living Dead, then this is always highlighted as important. Jones was cast because he was the best person for the role, not because of his skin colour. Likewise, Tony Todd has been cast not because of the colour of his skin but because he’s a great actor with a powerful, commanding voice and a towering, somewhat menacing, stature. He beat off some stiff competition for the role including Laurence Fishburne and Ving Rhames. Todd’s first appearance in the film sees him wielding a ‘hook’ in his hand – foreshadowing his iconic portrayal of the title character in Candyman two years later.

 

Night of the Living Dead is an overlooked horror classic. With enough homages and certainly more than enough changes to keep audiences anticipating the next twist, it adds a modern slant to the original and brings Romero’s nightmarish vision of the zombie apocalypse right up to date.

Shamefully, I have to add that I saw this version first and so wasn’t coming in with any preconceived notions about what it should be. Both this and the original are, on their own merits, excellent horror films with enough shocks, scares, suspense and satire to keep any horror fans happy.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Dead and Buried (1981)

Dead and Buried (1981)

It will take your breath away… all of it.

In the small coastal town of Potter’s Bluff, a number of tourists are being sadistically murdered. Sheriff Dan Gillis begins to investigate but finds it strange when the victims seemingly turn up alive a few days later. The events seem to point to eccentric local mortician William G. Dobbs who treats his corpses as works of art and takes great pride in making sure that they remain beautiful after death.

 

The advent of DVD in the late 90s and early 00s really allowed a lot of obscure titles to be brought back to life and exposed to new audiences who hadn’t lived through the 80s home video boom. I remember seeing Dead and Buried when it was released on DVD back in 2008 to little fanfare and being pleasantly surprised. Now I’ve made the upgrade to blu-ray and found that the film is even better than I remembered it to be. Originally banned as a ‘video nasty’ in the UK during the 80s, it was not one of those prosecuted and was eventually released uncut in 1999. It is almost ludicrous to look back and see the bedfellows that Dead and Buried found itself with: there’s no comparing this to Cannibal Holocaust or SS Experiment Camp. This is a near-masterpiece of horror.

It’s hard to write a really in-depth review without giving too much of the plot away – Dead and Buried works best when you have no idea what to expect. Mixing elements of Night of the Living Dead and Invasion of the Body Snatchers as well as having a distinct slasher-vibe during the murder scenes, the film does a superb job of creating a sense of paranoia. Just what is going on in Potter’s Bluff? The well-paced narrative provides enough clues as you go through the story to ensure that your attention is consistently hooked. Not skirting over the fact that we know just who is responsible for the murders from the opening scene, it’s amazing how well the film keeps this mystery peddling – we become focused on the ‘why?’ rather than the ‘who?’ This goes all the way from the opening scene right up until the finale where even then there are still a few questions.

The excellent atmosphere and mood is one of Dead and Buried’s key successes. The dimly-lit, grainy cinematography oozes suspense, foreboding and the feeling that something is not quite right about Potter’s Bluff. The washed-out, classic ‘ghost story’ visuals reminded me of John Carpenter’s The Fog. Likewise, the small town setting and otherworldly goings on really hammer home the comparisons. This is truly a drab place where you wouldn’t want your car to break down and have to be introduced to the eerie locals. Director Gary Sherman and cinematographer Steven Poster deserve high praise for their work here. They know what type of mood they want to portray and they succeed in doing that. It’s a pity that Sherman didn’t try his hand in the genre again after this one because he has a keen eye for detail.

Another of Dead and Buried’s strengths is the visceral violence which punctuates the morbidly serene nature of the rest of the film. People are burned alive, have syringes stuck into their eyeballs, are melted with acid and have rocks smashed into their heads. The film doesn’t glorify the kills but they are shocking because they happen so matter-of-fact that it’s almost a natural occurrence for the town. The killers just look on with little emotion and watch their handiwork come to fruition. Late special effects maestro Stan Winston was the man tasked with the job of keeping everything running smoothly in the practical effects department and he does sterling work, particularly in a number of effects late on in the film. Again, to explain more would be to ruin the film.

Jack Albertson will forever be known to movie lovers the world over as Grandpa Joe from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory but his creepy mortician character here is as far away removed from his cuddly, lovable character as is humanly possible. It’s a great casting choice against type and really enhances the mood of the film. He steals every scene that he is in here, particularly the one in which he gives a stunning soliloquy on his ‘art’ of making dead people look beautiful again. James Farentino makes an excellent lead man, slowly coming apart at the seams as it appears everyone in the town is involved in these murders except for him, or so he believes! Robert Englund has small role as one of the townspeople.

I said ‘near masterpiece’ in the introduction and Dead and Buried comes close to going all of the way. However, the final third is where the film begins to lose steam and focus and it becomes a tad messy which was a real shame as the preceding two thirds were superb. A number of plot twists are introduced which in turn reveal a number of a plot holes. It’s not exactly going to ruin your enjoyment of the film but it does stop the film from becoming an all-time classic. Apologies for the sketchy details but Dead and Buried’s strength lies in not having the faintest clue what is going to happen during its running time. It’s hardly a one-watch film as it stands up to repeated scrutiny. But that first viewing is a real doozy.

 

It’s a travesty that Dead and Buried is not as widely known or regarded in the genre as it should be. A near perfect horror film with a great cast, nearly water-tight script and an atmosphere that is second-to-none, it’s the type of great quality horror film that they just don’t make anymore. If Carpenter gets a load of praise nowadays for The Fog, then Sherman deserves to share the podium alongside him.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★☆ 

 

 

Zombie Flesh Eaters 3 (1989)

Zombie Flesh Eaters 3 (1989)

The dead rise again

A group of scientists in a remote island are trying to find a cure to cancer. Unfortunately their work angers a voodoo priest on the island who raises the dead. The scientists are wiped out with the exception of one little girl who manages to survive. Years later, she ends up back on the island along with a group of mercenaries and finds that the living dead are still roaming the island.

 

As was the case with the previous film, Zombie Flesh Eaters 3 is a standalone Italian horror flick which was rebranded under the Flesh Eaters umbrella for release overseas. Originally titled After Death, the film has no connection to the previous entries (though laughably it struggles badly to make connections between scenes in its own film let alone a prior entry!) and was rushed out the same year as Zombie Flesh Eaters 2.

Claudio Fragasso, who took over duties from Lucio Fulci in the previous film after the director had a stroke, gets the chance to helm his own zombie film here and does a reasonable job – though having watched this, it’s easy to see which parts of Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 are his work and which are Fulci’s. Fragasso has little style and here his film is a mess of ideas, poor editing, sloppy script and awful dubbing. It shamelessly rehashes the usual zombie tropes in abundance, as well as throwing in some half-baked The Evil Dead-style book reading which is supposed to reanimate the dead through voodoo.

Consequently, none of this matters as there are people on an island filled with zombies but a little bit of effort could have been made to make the story make some sense. I mean the girl wasn’t that old when she survived the original massacre so for her to forget everything within the space of twenty years is a bit far-fetched given the traumatic nature of the incident. There’s a secondary story about a trio of explorers looking for the old research lab and come across the book that raises the dead – even though they’ve already been raised and have been walking around the island for years. Nothing makes sense from scene to scene so just sit back and go with the flow and see what other crazy stuff happens.

The characters are your token issue bunch of military types and college kids, complete with some awful dubbing jobs. As is usually the case, the dubbing adds a certain level of comedy to proceedings and the performances of the voice actors are laughable.  As I recall, one character aggressively shouts “don’t waste any ammunition” as a bunch of the guys stand their ground outside a cabin each armed with assault rifles. No sooner had he just said those words, everyone starts unloading their magazines like they’re in a Rambo spoof. And just how did they know to shoot them in the head? It’s a well-known rule but one which every zombie film needs to establish early on in its own little universe (unless you’re in a semi-spoof like Zombieland).

Someone skimped on the zombie make-up for this one and the extras are forced to dress up in black rags, looking like lepers from an old Biblical film rather than intimidating monsters. The zombies, I assume to be sick of boring eye-gouging, throat-ripping and stomach-tearing methods of dispatch, don’t act like traditional zombies in this one. Sprinting around the forest, hopping and leaping around for their hearts content, and even talking, these killing machines have been given the ultimate upgrade: the ability to use firearms! Yes, these flesh-eating friends are happy to pick up an assault rifle and give as good as they get! Like in the previous film, Fragasso has selective memory when it comes to presenting the threat – if the scene requires them to move slowly like the traditional walking dead, they do that. If he requires them to move like ninjas, then they do that as well. Trying to keep track of continuity is a nightmare. Almost every close-up of a zombie features it spewing a load of green goo out of its mouth.

One thing you can always count on is that the Italians always liked to get messy in their zombie films. Whilst the zombies themselves are shambolic representations of their usual deadly selves, the damage that they inflict is still as gruesome as ever. Faces get peeled back. Chests smashed out from behind. There’s plenty of grim stuff in here for gore hounds though a little bit restrained from earlier efforts. With a lot of the stuff on display, its only half-hearted commitment to the usual zombie conventions. Boxes are ticked off and the generic twists and turns are all met – Fragasso’s heart is in the right place, but it’s a pity that he didn’t have the talent or budget to back it up.

 

Like the previous film, Zombie Flesh Eaters 3 is almost totally inept but has an innocent, goofy charm which is almost impossible to hate on. A grand Z-grade movie which is good for laughs and seeing how far the film can dazzle you with its ludicrousness, it will not win any awards for quality but has bags of a different kind of entertainment.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Zombies: The Beginning (2007)

Zombies: The Beginning (2007)

When the dead first walked, they had no time for appetizers.

The sole survivor of the treasure-hunting group who become stuck on a zombie-infested island, no one believes Sharon Dimao’s story about what happened. That is until the shady Tyler Corporation approach her a few months later and ask her to return to the island with a team of soldiers. The corporation had sent a team to the island to experiment on some subjects but they have now lost contact. Reluctantly, Sharon agrees to go back but on the island they find that the corporation has been attempting to breed a new species with human subjects…with disastrous consequences.

 

Cult Italian exploitation horror director Bruno Mattei’s final film, Zombies: The Beginning, is a sequel of sorts to Island of the Living Dead which goes off on an even more bizarre tangent than simply revisiting the zombie formula again. I mean, does the above plot sound familiar to you? A sole female survivor, scarred by a previous encounter with a hostile lifeform, is coerced into going somewhere with a team of soldiers to face down her fears on behalf of some shady corporation. Mattei, producer Giovanni Paolucci and screenwriter Antonio Tentori have literally ripped off the entire script for James Cameron’s Aliens. And I don’t even mean the plot, I mean pretty much everything! It’s virtually a frame-by-frame re-run of the sci-fi horror classic only with zombies in place of aliens. Considering Universal threatened a lawsuit over Enzo G. Castellari’s Jaws rip-off The Great White for being a blatant copy, you’d have expected 20th Century Fox to have done something similar here.

The great thing about this is that Aliens is a fantastic film and so by copying the format scene-by-scene, you shouldn’t really go wrong – unless you had the budget and talent of Mattei. The pace and the flow of the film is great once they’ve figured out what happened to the scientists. I guess the ‘fun’ with Zombies: The Beginning is to try and watch it with Aliens running through the back of your mind. Remember how Cameron’s classic pans out and try and see how closely this follows it. See how they’re literally aped some scenes shot-for-shot. See what they’ve substituted in given that we’re not dealing with xenomorphs but zombies and weird mutant kids with large heads. See how some of the well-rounded characters like Hicks and Hudson appear in cheap Italian knock-off form (Hudson’s ‘replacement’ is hilariously bad in this).

Not only is the script directly lifted from Aliens but the explosions are stock footage and there’s even a copious amount of footage from The Hunt For Red October as a submarine heads to the island to rescue the survivors. Allegedly you can briefly see the likes of Viggo Mortensen and Denzil Washington but I wasn’t paying full attention to the film at the time. Mattei also recycles some zombie dream footage from the beginning over and over and over and over again to the point of nausea. In a consumer world where we are continually encouraged to recycle to save the planet, Mattei was taking it to new levels in his filmmaking.

It’s hard to get rid of the thoughts of Aliens when watching Zombies: The Beginning but the actors do a good job in trying to make us forget. Just like in the previous film, the acting is appalling and the dubbing is even worse. The actors deliver their lines unnaturally, with stilted tones and plenty of stops and starts – it’s just not a natural way of talking. Characters shout certain lines when they don’t need to. They whisper others when the situation calls for the opposite. Clearly this is not the total fault of the actual actors, though their mannerism and facial expressions don’t exactly match the situations they’re in, but of the voice over artists who did the dubbing. The worst offender is Gerhard Acao, who plays this film’s equivalent of Pvt. Hudson – his absurd over-performance actually enhances the film. It’s like he channelled the spirit of Bill Paxton whilst doing an enormous amount of cocaine before shooting began.

With the Aliens script providing predictable plot turns (for those who have seen Cameron’s film that is), the film runs like clockwork for the most. However, it’s the finale where everything goes bonkers in Zombies: The Beginning. We’re introduced to this film’s version of the alien queen, a gigantic brain, along with her mutant zombie-hybrid children, and their enslaved horde of pregnant women giving birth to zombie babies in incubation machines (which is pointless given that zombie bites turn people into zombies – so why the need for babies?). I’m not sure what Mattei was smoking at this point but whatever it was must have been strong because this finale is just absurd and a complete deviation from everything that had gone before it. It is still fun though because it’s finally unshackling itself from the Aliens script, albeit slightly and temporarily.

 

You’ll have more fun with Zombies: The Beginning than a lot of Mattei’s films. Whether it’s the shameless way he pulverises Aliens into the ground or just the fact that there’s a lot of gore and mayhem to keep you entertained throughout, Zombies: The Beginning is a fitting epitaph to a man, and a whole genre, that provided bucket loads of splatter nonsense without much fuss.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Dead 2: India, The (2013)

The Dead 2: India (2013)

The Feeding Continues

The zombie infection that has gripped Africa reaches India and starts to spread rapidly. Nicholas Burton is an American engineer who has come to India to build wind turbines and has an Indian girlfriend, Ishani, whose fiercely protective father wants him to stay away from her. When he finds out she is pregnant on the day the zombie onslaught reaches their city, Nicholas sets out across fifty miles of hostile, zombie-filled terrain to rescue Ishani and their unborn baby.

 

The first ever international zombie movie set in India, The Dead 2: India follows on from 2010’s sleeper hit The Dead, a rather routine zombie flick which had the novelty factor of being set and filmed in Africa (Burkina Faso and Ghana to be exact). Amongst the never-ending undead hordes that have graced DVD and cinema almost weekly for the past couple of years, The Dead received a whole host of positive reviews. For what it was, The Dead was a solid, if unspectacular zombie film, which ticked all of the right boxes but didn’t really get the pulse racing. Switching continents across to Asia, the Ford brothers were clearly hoping to recreate the same success with The Dead 2: india.

The first thing that has to be said about The Dead 2: India is its excellent cinematography. Filmed on location really adds something different to the tried-and-tested zombie formula. This isn’t just some small town, a shopping mall, a big city or any of those other Western settings that filmmakers tend to set their epidemics in. Capturing the beautiful landscapes of the Indian countryside in one breath and then unleashing an atmosphere of dread and terror within the next, the film does a great job of selling the natural splendour of the expansive vistas and also the desolation and feeling of helplessness that being stranded in the middle the desert with a horde of zombies heading your way. The rich reds and oranges of the landscape give the film a unique look amongst zombie films and a lot of early scenes bask in the background glow of the countryside, in particular a shot where Nicholas is hanging from a wind turbine watching a farmer being attacked by a zombie in the distance.

Aside from the novelty of the Indian location, there’s nothing remotely original about The Dead 2: India. The narrative is very flimsy – basically a road trip movie where Nicholas must get from A to B to save his girlfriend from the zombies and along the way he encounters different survivors and, of course, lots of zombies. Since he doesn’t get to talk to a lot of people, there’s not a lot of dialogue for a lot of the running time and so these endless scenes of him running into and then escaping from the zombies quickly become tiresome. Even then, his character isn’t the most developed main character to grace a horror film and we know little about him and are given little reason to care for him.

He’s not the only one though and across the board the characters are thinly-sketched and rather bland. When you don’t feel a connection with characters, you don’t really care about what happens to them on the screen and we get that a lot here. The acting is pretty bad too that’s to be expected from the bunch of Indian supporting actors who destroy the English language with their soap opera-like performances. It’s no surprise to see that two years after this was made, both Meenu Mishra (Ishani) and Sandip Datta Gupta (her father) haven’t starred in anything else. The family-orientated sub-plot that they are given to work with is terrible and the human drama seems contrived and forced. Given that there’s a zombie apocalypse on the way, a father arguing about his pregnant daughter having a relationship with a white man should be the least of his worries.

The zombies themselves are of the old school Romero variety which means that on their own, you could easily outpace one. However the problems arise when you become trapped or surrounded by dozens of them who overpower you. The make-up is decent, better than I was expecting in all honesty, and the gore effects are adequate. This isn’t a film where every character is going to be ripped apart on-screen every few minutes but the few attack scenes are effective in delivering the necessary threat. The zombies are at their most effective when they’re lurking in the background, slowly approaching the camera as the human characters struggle to deal with a problem. In particular a scene in which Nicholas attempts to rescue a woman and her child from their car is fraught with peril as the zombies slowly but surely close in for the kill.

 

If you think that in 2015 a zombie film will offer anything more than the same old entrails that have been served up and reheated time and time again, then think again. The Dead 2: India does exactly what it needs to do to pass the time but we’re all too familiar with the flesh-eating material to fully invest in it.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆