Tag Zombies

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.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Demon’s Rook, The (2013)

The Demon's Rook (2013)

Hell is hungry

As a young boy, Roscoe claims to be visited by a demon friend who eventually takes him away from his family into the demon underground. Dimwos, the demon, raises him as if he was his own son and tutors him in the ways of magic. Around fifteen years later, Roscue emerges from the underground and discovers that the world is under threat from invading demons who turn people into zombies. Hooking up with his childhood pal Eva, Roscoe realises that this was what he was trained for as only he can stop them.

 

A throwback/homage to the 80s make-up effects-driven horror films that were released straight onto VHS, The Demon’s Rook checks all of the boxes that so many of Its forefathers did with a passion back in the glory days of low budget horror. There are practical make-up effects (hardly a drop of CGI in sight and all the better for it), a synthesised music score, eerie artificial lighting (which can illuminate anything to be scary when used right) and plenty of dry ice. I think back to some random films off the top of my head like The Keep, The Video Dead, Re-Animator, Night of the Demons and Prison to name a few and see how many of the above boxes they all ticked.

The problem with so many of these homages is that modern filmmakers are trying to recreate what those people in the 80s were doing using modern techniques. But what they forget to include is the heart and soul – those filmmakers from the glory days of low budget horror films were innovating with what little money they had and had to be as creative as possible. Nowadays, filmmakers think that they can just showcase some corn syrup, a few fake prosthetics, a bucket of entrails and that they have the next big thing. The Demon’s Rook certainly has the nuts and bolts to make a good go of it but there’s something sorely missing – a sense of fun. The Demon’s Rook is clearly made by fans of the old classics but they spend too much time making it all overblown and serious rather than being something tongue-in-cheek and affectionate. It lacks a mischievous edge, something which the older films had and the thing that keeps audiences flocking back to them.

The sketchy plot does little to help matters and there’s hardly any exposition, with the film allowing the images to explain the story. The narrative virtually consists of two side-by-side storylines – one of Roscoe’s re-appearance in the real world and the other of the demons committing acts of carnage. Five to ten minutes of one storyline and the film switches focus onto the other one. It’s a very frustrating approach because we learn very little of the characters and in classic horror form, most of the non-characters get maybe one or two lines in a brief scene before they’re killed off. Whilst it does showcase the excellent gore and make-up effects on a regular basis, these scenes add little to the film except to pad out the running time with more carnage. I wouldn’t mind if these were characters we knew and cared about but seeing the eighth non-character get ripped to shreds doesn’t really affect the audience.

At an hour and three quarters, The Demon’s Rook overstays its welcome long before the credits roll. As I’ve already said, there are plenty of random scenes, many of which could have been trimmed. We also spend too much with Roscoe as he struggles to come to terms with what has happened or see his training through a copious amount of flashback footage. He’s not a talkative guy either, in fact not many people in the film are. There are loads of scenes without dialogue, just music in the background or the demons or zombies growling away. Having more than just two main characters to be invested in, or at least having some meaningful dialogue, would have helped these long, drawn-out sequences.

It can’t be disputed that The Demon’s Rook contains some superb prosthetics. The demon masks and costumes, hell even the zombies, look brilliant in all of their latex glory. The zombies reminded me of some of the best creations from The Return of the Living Dead and the demons looked like something out of, well, Demons. They really look the part and I wished they did a little more than just snarl and growl most of the time. Both the zombie flesh-ripping and the slasher-style kills are effectively brought to life with plenty of realistic blood and guts.

 

There’s a good film in here waiting to come out but unfortunately the finished product of The Demon’s Rook is just not that. Too repetitive, not involving enough for audiences and with a rather bland finale (given everything that had gone on before it), The Demon’s Rook can at least showcase some superb make-up effects work to prove that even if big budget horrors have converted to the dark side of CGI, at least the old techniques are still alive and kicking in the lower doldrums of the genre.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Zombie Holocaust (1980)

Zombie Holocaust (1980)

Tonight, the dead shall rise again

In New York, body parts are going missing from a morgue. It is discovered that one of the hospital orderlies, a member of a cannibal tribe from a small island in the East Indies, is responsible. Anthropologist Lori Ridgway recognises the name of the island and, along with fellow expert Dr Peter Chandler, his assistant George and news reporter Susan, they head off on an expedition to track down the cannibals. However when they arrive on the island, cannibals are not the only problem that they face as a rogue doctor has been experimenting on the dead.

 

Zombies! Cannibals! Mad doctors performing unnecessary surgery! Zombie Holocaust has it all. Coming hot on the heels of the successes (and notoriety) of Italian cannibal films (most famously represented by Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust) and zombie films (Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters), a producer clearly had a quick brain surge and decided that a combination of the two would lead to even greater rewards. The result of this unholy union is Zombie Holocaust, another of the legendary cult classic Italian splatter films of the 80s and made in the same year. Its mixed reputation proceeds it and it is definitely a love/hate kind of film.

For a start, Zombie Holocaust is a mess of ideas so it’s best to just unplug your brain and go with the flow. The film works better as a ‘tribute’ piece to its inspirational predecessors and director Marino Girolami certainly demonstrates that he has seen many of them with a ‘best of’ selection. In between the set pieces, the narrative does its best to keep the thin plot from falling apart…but let’s face it, as soon as the characters set foot on the island you don’t really care what happens because you know they’re going to suffer. The similarities with Zombie Flesh Eaters are obvious – openings both set in New York, Ian McCulloch playing pretty much the same character (and dressed like he’s off on safari), a small group of white folk heading off to what suspiciously looks like the same island, having the same guide and arriving at the same church building for the finale.

The writing is so weak and flimsy that you wonder why they bothered to begin with. How is this mad scientist doing Frankenstein-like experiments in a shanty hut in the middle of an island without any real equipment save for an operating table, some drips and a few scalpels? Why would a doctor and a nurse from the hospital decide to take an expedition to the cannibal island? What were they hoping to accomplish there? Why, when one of the female members of the expedition is captured by the cannibals, do the survivors just shrug shoulders and decide to escape? There are so many questions that this film raises. But the beauty is that by the end of it, you won’t care.

Everyone knows that it’s going to be exploitative but you will never guess at how badly. From having lead actress Alexandra Delli Colli get stripped full-frontal and placed onto a large sacrificial rock (which looks suspiciously like the one Ursula Andress got strapped to in The Mountain of the Cannibal God) to the copious amount of intestines on display, Zombie Holocaust punches for the lowest common denominators to hook its audience. Combining the two bloodiest sub-genres going promised that Zombie Holocaust would be a messy ride and it was certainly that. From open skull brain surgery to a zombie getting a motor boat propeller right to the face, there are plenty of gory set pieces on display. However it is the cannibals who get a bigger slice of the action and they’re very handy when it comes to offing the cast early on. Porters are killed left, right and centre with bamboo traps and such and one of the unlucky Westerners falls victim to a bunch of them who slice open his stomach and gouge his eyes out. Its intense stuff and extremely gory. Sadly, the zombies don’t do an awful lot and only appear for the first time around the fifty-five minute mark. They leave the flesh-eating to the living.

One thing that these Italian horrors usually guarantee is an excellent soundtrack, regardless of the eventual quality of the visuals and composer Nico Fidenco doesn’t disappoint here. He recycles an earlier soundtrack from Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals but the keyboard emits a nice brooding, ominous vibe to certain scenes. The other aspect of the sound, the dubbing, is done reasonably well but it’s easy to see that the actors were there for a holiday and no more. As I’ve said, Ian McCulloch plays pretty much the same character as he did in Zombie Flesh Eaters and stands around looking scared or getting involved in the action as and when he needs to be the hero. It is Donald O’Brien as Dr Obrero who has the most fun, delivering scene-chewing cheesy lines such as “I could easily kill you now, but I’m determined to have your brain!” with so much unnatural depth and feeling.

 

It’s not one of Italian horror’s shining lights of the two sub-genres it straddles but there’s no denying that Zombie Holocaust isn’t a lot of silly, sleazy and gory fun. You’ll be reminded of all of the other films that it is ripping off but the innocent way it tries to stick it all together will have you forget that in a hurry. And if not, the film will drown you in glorious 80s gore instead.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Island of the Living Dead (2007)

Island of the Living Dead (2007)

Where the hungry dead feast on the flesh of the damned!

A group of sea-faring treasure hunters are forced to take shelter on an apparently deserted island when their boat becomes damaged during a storm. Exploring the island whilst repairs are being carried out, the group are unaware that the island is victim to a centuries-old curse which has reanimated the dead and they still roam the place looking to feed.

 

Cult Italian exploitation director Bruno Mattei gets a harsh rep from me most of the time due to some of his 80s hack jobs including the likes of Zombie Creeping Flesh and Rats: Night of Terror. His was a legacy of shameless filmmaking featuring copious use of stock footage, blatant plagiarising from superior films, inane dialogue, awful scripts….and that’s just for starters. Called the ‘Ed Wood’ of horror in some quarters, Mattei was never going to become one of the greats but perhaps one of the most loved. His films are awful but in an entertaining way – the master of the ‘so bad, they’re good’ horror film.

So it’s both amusing and ironic to know that, in a modern era of filmmaking where directors are desperately trying to ‘recapture’ the look and feel of horrors of the 80s, Bruno Mattei was actually still making the same films (up until his death in 2007). It’s like he missed the memo telling him that the era was done and dusted. The end of the 80s brought an end to the glorious era of Italian cinema and the classic splatter fests that we have come to know and love today. Mattei kept on going though, never losing that ‘style’ and, save for the shot-on-digital look to the film, you could have sworn Island of the Living Dead was straight out of the gory Italian zombie flick period.

I suppose this is why I wanted to like Island of the Living Dead more than I should have done (though due to the second half of the film, I ended up hating it more than I should have done!). It looks, sounds and, more importantly, feels like it was from that glory era. The plot is all over the place but finding decent narratives for Italian zombie films is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Some people arrive on an island or remote location, either looking for someone or are stranded there, and they fall prey to the hordes of the living dead. The set-up changed little in the countless Italian zombie films I’ve seen and it starts the same here. The gear change midway where the zombies start talking and explaining what the whole curse is about is confusing and things just go from bad to worse in the final third with a lot of ghostly goings on. This turns the film into a haunted house-like attraction, where the characters walk around looking in haunted mirrors, listening to phantoms playing music, drinking dodgy-looking wine and so on. This is not really that interesting and you’ll be hoping that the zombies get down to business sooner rather than later.

The make-up effects look ok – not exactly believable from a ‘these zombies have apparently been dead for hundreds of years’ point of view but they fit right at home with the traditional Italian zombie look (i.e. a bit of paint and some glued-on oats). The zombie priests look more like something from The Blind Dead films of the 70s than anything from Fulci.  The zombies are pretty useless too, unable to overpower the humans in a number of ten-to-one situations, and allow them to escape numerous times. Perhaps this explains why the gore is so thin on the ground. Those expecting a return to the glory days of the gruesome Italian zombie film will be sorely disappointed at the lack of intestine-rippings, eye-gougings and skull-smashings.

The acting is clearly appalling, even before the audio track has been looped and the characters dubbed. Lead actress Yvette Yzon is great to look at but she and the rest of the cast are mind-bogglingly awful. Literally everything they say is communicated with the wrong tone of voice. People shout when they should whisper. They talk quick and aggressive when the scene dictates a quiet word. This always used to be a problem back in the glory days of dubbing but things seem to have gotten worse now. The captain is the worst culprit, one of the most awful dubs I’ve ever seen but you clearly see that he is really acting this way in the original track by his body language and facial expressions.

 

 

Whilst many of his comrades retired or moved on, Mattei stuck it out till the last and was making these horror films right up until his death. You can’t fault him on commitment. It’s this nostalgia factor which goes a long way to papering over the multitude of sins that Mattei spoils us with. Made on a low budget and with the usual Mattei trademarks, Island of the Living Dead starts off promisingly enough but when the focus shifts away from being a throwback zombie film to the nonsense with the ghosts and talking zombies, it loses its charm factor and rarely manages to capture it again.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

World War Dead: Rise of the Fallen (2015)

World War Dead: Rise of the Fallen (2015)

To celebrate the centenary of the First World War, a TV documentary team travels to the Somme to put together a ratings smash about new mysteries relating to the famous battle. However, what they unearth is far from a new story of those that died one hundred years ago but an army of the undead.

 

It’s a bit hard to get excited about a genre film that squarely positions itself with the boundaries of two of its most over-used sub-genres. I’m talking about World War Dead: Rise of the Fallen. And I’m talking about the film being a cross between the found footage sub-genre that has been worked to death in the past couple of years, and the much-travelled zombie genre which has literally nothing left to give, save for the superb The Walking Dead. With both sub-genres having nowhere left to go that’s interesting, all we get is stale mixes of the two like this.

I’m guessing the selling point for this one is for its war-themed zombies, only this time the zombified Germans aren’t Nazis, they’re just normal Germans from the First World War. It makes little difference when they’re all shuffling around with helmets on. Cue the basic set-up where we see the world through the eyes of the cameraperson, we are introduced to the main characters and they all go about their jobs. It’s hardly riveting stuff and seems to take ages before anything worthwhile actually happens. Visiting the site of the Battle of the Somme, the filmmakers at least seem like they had a good holiday whilst filming. There’s no real build-up of tension here and very few set-ups for later on.

Once the crew discover the zombie army, it’s purely by-the-book found footage numbers for the remainder of the running time. The camera somehow manages to remain focused on all of the important bits of action regardless of the angle or position. The camera shakes around and drops to the floor numerous times. The camera picks things up in the corner of the frame which are not there again on closer inspection. The cameraman implausibly keeps filming for far longer than you or I would do in the face of certain death, for instances when his friends are being torn to shreds. There will also be some scenes where the camera’s night vision mode is enabled. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before. There are no new approaches to the material. It’s just safety first.

When the survivors head into the underground trench, things go from dull to impossible to watch. The scenes are far too dark to see what is going on and between the unnecessary fake camera glitches, the shaking movements and the lack of light, you’re going to be waiting for a while if you think you’ll get a good look at some of the action. That’s appropriate too given that there’s hardly any action and no standard zombie-style kills. Save from a mildly effective couple of seconds at the beginning of the first zombie attack, the rest of the attacks just consist of the characters running around in the dark shouting swear words and trying to avoid being grabbed.

I actually hate seeing actors ‘act’ in these found footage films, trying to act naturally as if they were off-camera. Talking in low voices, indulging in endless chatter, speaking over the top of people, etc. gets frustrating after a while. They do it to try and capture the essence of filmmaking but in doing so these films lose their pacing, their narrative and sometimes end up in shouting matches or scenes with people screaming and running around. There’s a lot of that in World War Dead: Rise of the Fallen. Right from the first zombie attack, the characters run around like headless chickens trying to escape the zombies.

 

I’m really struggling to get into this review since watching World War Dead: Rise of the Fallen was a struggle in itself. With literally nothing worthwhile to comment on, it’s a good thing that at only seventy-seven minutes long, it doesn’t waste as much time as it could have done.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Armageddon of the Dead (2008)

Armageddon of the Dead (2008)

When the dead have risen, some things are more important than your own survival.

A train carrying dangerous chemicals derails on the outskirts of a small American town which releases a gas that begins to reanimate the dead. This spells bad news for a young couple who left their daughter at her grandma’s house and are now trying to rescue her by battling their way through the zombie wasteland.

 

Another low budget zombie flick with another variation on ‘….. of the Dead’ as the title and another fancy cover apparently showcasing the zombie apocalypse bringing down burning cities. Look at the covers for The Zombie Undead, Zombie Apocalypse, The Dead Undead, The Horde, Zombie Virus On Mulberry Street, World of the Dead: Zombie Diaries 2, Apocalypse of the Dead and so on….they’re all virtually the same. Its overkill at an extreme level to see so many similarly-themed films all being released within the space of a few years (though The Horde doesn’t deserve to be in the same bracket as the others as it’s actually really good). And besides which, pretty much none of them feature anything as remotely as exciting as their covers suggest. See the muscular man and woman on the front sporting some serious hardware and looking upon the zombie menace like they mean business? Well you won’t see them in this film that’s for sure!

Armageddon of the Dead’s artwork has nothing to do with anything in the film (even more so than usual). Neither does the majority of the synopsis on the back of the DVD. It’s almost like a totally different film. The DVD blurb proclaims that Armageddon of the Dead ‘has been called one of the goriest, most violent films ever made.’ No source is attributed to this quote. For all I know, it was the director who said that. It most definitely is not one of the goriest, most violent films ever made. Its most definitely is nowhere near being one of the goriest, most violent films ever made. This is a ridiculous unquantified statement which just goes to show how desperate the makers of this film were to sell their product to a gullible market currently being well-served by TV’s The Walking Dead.

Armageddon of the Dead isn’t gory or violent in the slightest so, unless that quote came from someone who has only ever watched Disney films, then it’s a big fat lie. Attack scenes generally consist of the standard neck biting or gang assaults where victims are mugged by a group of zombies (which conveniently means you don’t get to see the victim being ripped apart as there’s too many zombies in the way). There’s a few of the headshots that you’d expect to see but its standard issue zombie film stuff done at an amateurish level. Watch one of Fulci’s zombie films if you want violence and gore.

Armageddon of the Dead is low budget zombie movie making at its most blatant – low on creativity, low on originality and low on entertainment. It’s fairly standard issue storytelling to place a group of normal people into the extraordinary situation of a zombie apocalypse but it serves its purpose pretty well here. Only you never get the sense that this is the end of the world. There’s no scale or scope. And there’s nothing worse than a modern zombie flick which can’t decide how to portray its zombies – whether they go old school like classic Romero or the sprinting fiends from the Dawn of the Dead remake. So you get lots of inconsistency here, with some shuffling along as if they have no care in the world and others gunning for the 100m record.

I’m afraid that at some point we have to mention the acting – or lack of it. Think nursery nativity levels of direness. Zombie films like this rarely pull off any big names as it’s usually the case of a director and a few mates doing some silly stuff in front of a camera. Of course the acting isn’t helped by the poor screenplay so even Pacino or De Niro would find this a struggle to work. At one point the main character is wrestling with a door to stop a ravenous zombie from entering his bathroom and devouring him. His phone rings. Instead of ignoring it like any sane person would, he actually wonders whether to let go of the door and answer it. I guess that annoying Unknown Caller would have hell to pay when they find out the person they are harassing has just been gored by a zombie. The dumb script gives me no reason to care for the characters at the start of the film and you’ll spend the next hour rooting for the zombies to break through and mercy kill them.

 

Armageddon of the Dead is an atrocious zombie film of gigantic proportions. With nothing to do with its advertised premise, grossly misleading artwork and overblown visions of being the next big zombie thing, the only thing apocalyptic about this is the realisation that thousands of people across the world have wasted an hour and a half of their life on this rubbish.

 

NB: the film originally went under the name Risen but it was changed for some reason to Armageddon of the Dead, no doubt due to the slew of rival zombie films that had similar names. Getting confused and watching the wrong one is a mistake I’ve already made once!

 

 ★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆