Archive for the ‘Featured Posts’ Category

Review: The Forest of Hands and Teeth

Posted by Cory Casciato On August - 24 - 2009

foresthandsteethIt’s always nice to see someone taking a fresh approach to the zombie apocalypse. In the young-adult novel The Forest of Hands and Teeth, first-time author Carrie Ryan’s tactic is setting her story so long after the rise of the dead that no one living remembers a time before – indeed, many people doubt there ever was a time before. In this genuinely post-apocalyptic world, society has reverted to a simpler way of life, much like the modern-day Amish. No lights, no phones, no motorcars – just farming, fence-mending (to keep those pesky walking dead out) and lots and lots of religion, courtesy of the Sisterhood. The sisters of the Sisterhood run things with an iron fist, maintaining order and security in a draconian manner—albeit an arguably justified one.

It is this world that our young lead, Mary, lives in. And after her father and mother both fall to the zombies, she find herself unwillingly forced into the Sisterhood. There she discovers something strange – an outsider has come to her village, but is hidden by the Sisters. Later this outsider becomes a zombie – a special one, extra ferocious and capable of running. As this unfolds, Mary’s life becomes complicated by love, obligation, her natural curiosity and need to break free of the stifling constraints imposed upon her by life in the village. And she gets her chance to break free when all hell breaks loose and the Unconsecrated, as Ryan calls her zombies, flood the village, forcing Mary to flee with her would-be lover, her betrothed, her best friend, her brother, his wife, a young boy and a dog. And in classic zombie-tale fashion, this group begins shrinking almost immediately and what limited safety they find along the way turns out to be not as safe as it seems…

Ryan shows some skill in the crucial areas of characterization and plotting. She crafts a bunch of well-realized, believable characters (especially Mary) and sets them loose in a nicely plotted, page-turning story. Of course, I did have some minor quibbles. The first-person, present-tense style (as in “I’m walking to the door, I feel its rough surface on my skin”) felt a little odd to me and was somewhat distracting, especially at first. The pacing also felt a bit off, almost as if it had initially been planned to be a longer, deeper novel but had to be cut short for some reason – perhaps a looming deadline? To be clear, it moves along at a brisk clip, but it feels like the first half or two-thirds was building to more than the final bit paid off. In particular, there were a couple of intriguing passages hinting that the Sisterhood had a much better idea of what was going on than they revealed and suggesting something of an explanation for the outsider/super-zombie character, but they weren’t followed up on, which was a bit disappointing. I’d have preferred a bit more of that and a bit less of the love quadrangle between Mary, her best friend and the brothers, but hey, I’m not a teen girl either.

Apart from those issues – and be sure, they are minor issues – this is a novel that’s easy to recommend, especially to younger readers (12 to 16, say) but enjoyable by all who love zombies. Between her fresh setting, solid characters and compelling plot, Ryan has crafted an excellent debut novel. If she chooses to stay in this world for her future works, there’s plenty of room left to explore. The ending is practically begging for a sequel and I would read it without hesitation. If she moved on to some other subject – Yeti or robots, say — I’d still be inclined to pick her next book up – she’s a good writer that seems to be headed toward being a great one.

Review: Deadgirl

Posted by Cory Casciato On August - 19 - 2009

deadgirlpAs of the time of this writing, the most recent poll posted on this site asks “Can zombies be sexy?” and it seems synchronistically appropriate that it should be sitting there, asking its slightly unsettling question to site visitors, as I review Deadgirl, a movie about a group of high-school losers and their zombie sex slave.

Yes, you read that right. High school losers, zombie sex slave.

Technically, this is a a bit of a spoiler, but in this case I can’t in good conscience steer anyone this movie’s way without a bit of a warning. Besides, the movie’s promos reveal as much, so it’s not like I am breaking new ground here.

Deadgirl is the story of friends JT and Rickie’s discovery of a dirty, but still beautiful, girl chained naked in the basement of an abandoned mental hospital. JT instantly starts thinking about what they can do to her, while Rickie thinks of ways to free or rescue her without getting in trouble, setting up a dynamic that carries through the whole film. From there, plot complications in the form of bullies, buddies, and out-of-reach dream girls enter the picture — although, strangely, the cops or school authorities never do, even once the body count begins to mount. JT and Wheeler, another loser buddy, happily use the zombie girl as a sex toy while Rickie is utterly, uselessly emo about the whole thing — he does little more than agonize about it. Meanwhile, the deadgirl acts like any zombie would, trying its best to bite the living shit out of anyone that comes near, but held down by restraints (kinky!). The bullies lead to the showdown at the climax and, predictably, the unattainable dream-girl plays a major role, too.

The movie seemed to be trying to walk a thin line between cerebral chiller and gory exploitation. Unfortunately, it failed, as those disparate elements worked to drain each other of any urgency. It wasn’t ridiculous enough to be effective exploitation; it wasn’t clever enough to be a cerebral exploration of teenage pathos. As a result, it was something of a mess. It seemed to be trying to evoke a dynamic similar to River’s Edge, the chilling, true-life story of a small-town murder and the bonds of loyalty that kept it from being reported, but it missed. Where that movie portrayed the strange, ineffable bonds between small-town dead-enders in such a way that you not only believed them, but empathized to the point where you almost understand how someone could look the other way when their buddy killed, this film leaves you wondering why any of these people would speak to each other in the first place.

Just as bad, the film just goes too far in several scenes that add nothing to the plot. In other scenes, which do add to the plot, its choice of the most predictable path drains it of momentum. No one is likable, or even particularly sympathetic, although the leads Shiloh Fernandez as Rickie and, especially,  Noah Segan as JT, are capable actors who deliver what they are asked. The problem seems to lie with the direction and, to a slightly lesser degree, the script, which go too far at the wrong moments and fail to build realistic relationships between the characters that would justify their actions.

I really wanted to like this and, for almost half of it, was inclined to do so, but by the end it had lost me completely. Part of this was the aforementioned issues; part of it was the utter lack of realistic consequences for anything that happens in the second half of the movie (basically, no one seems to notice when people start going missing, among other things…). In the end,  when the credits rolled, I was simply glad it was over.

Deadgirl/US/2008

Note: Technically, the nudity in this is not gratuitous, but integral to the plot, but the whole thing os sort of gratuitous so I tagged it with gratuitous nudity.

Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) and dead-end greaseball JT (Noah Segan)

Review: Plants vs. Zombies

Posted by Cory Casciato On August - 7 - 2009

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When the zombie apocalypse comes, the only thing standing between you and the ravenous hordes of undead is your skill in the garden.

Wait, what?

Yes, that’s the message to be gleaned from the runaway hit Plants vs. Zombies, an addictive, amusing “casual” game that offers incredible depth and longevity for its $20 asking price. Combining a friendly, cartoonish aesthetic with some easy-to-learn, hard-to-master gameplay, the whole package comes together nicely and offers plenty of fun and a few nice laughs for fans of the walking dead..

The gameplay is a variation of the popular tower defense style of real-time strategy. In brief, the player’s home is on the left of the screen. The zombies start from the right, heading left. If they manage to cross the screen and get into the house, brains are eaten and the game is over. To stop them, the player has a wide variety of (cute) weapons in the forms of plants: sunflowers fuel the army, peashooters shoot peas, walnuts provide a barrier to temporarily halt the zombies’ advance, etc. There’s a wide variety of weapons and tools available to the player, to accommodate personal preferences and to deal with specific threats.

The single-player campaign is structured to ease players into the game and it does a fine job introducing the concepts, weapons and enemies at a pace that anyone can understand. In truth, veteran gamers who already understand the underlying mechanics of real-time strategy and tower-defense type games may find the pace a little slow except in the later campaign levels. Luckily, the games survival modes are much more challenging and should offer plenty of intensity even for hardcore gamers. In addition, a large number of mini-game variations on the basic gameplay are included, many of which incorporate elements of other popular games, from popular videogames such as Bejeweled to staples such as bowling. Fleshing this out are metagame mechanics that allow you to buy new plants and tools and raise plants for cash in a Zen garden. All told, the package is full of content and should keep gamers busy long enough to get their money’s worth, and then some.

The zombies take the popular conception of zombies – slow, shambling brain eaters – as a starting point and add variation from there. The full cast of undead comprises a wide variety of silliness, some based on pop culture zombie referents, such as the obviously “Thriller”-inspired zombies, others seemingly created for gameplay purposes such as football-player zombies, Zamboni-driving zombies and dolphin-riding zombies. If there’s a complain to be made, it’s that the choice to make the enemies zombies seems largely immaterial to the gameplay. Apart from a few exceptions – the “Thriller” zombies in particular – these enemies could have been anything – aliens, Bigfoot, monkeys, whatever. Still they are zombies, so it’s not much of an issue. The plants used to defend the homestead against the walking dead are cast in the same cutesy vein as the zombies, giving the whole game a light-hearted, fun feeling. All told, if you’re a videogame fan who likes zombies and likes cute, Plants vs. Zombies should be something of a dream come true.

Review: Dead Set

Posted by Cory Casciato On June - 2 - 2009

divina-deadsetc4The zombie apocalypse comes to reality TV in the BBC miniseries Dead Set. The premise is that the cast of reality show Big Brother, locked away in a house isolated from the outside world, are among the few survivors of a plague of flesh-eating zombies. They don’t even quite realize what is up – they think the producers are “testing” them – until one of the remaining crew gets into the house, followed shortly by one of the zombies. From there, the story follows a fairly predictable – or classic, if one prefers – curve as some are bit, a supply run is undertaken, more survivors make their way to the compound and finally, things unravel spectacularly.

Haters of speedy zombies might want to tune this one out – these bastards can move. The show gets credit, though, for not setting the characters into a situation where this speed would make escape impossible without cheap editing tricks as many fast-zombie films do. There are no scenes  where they’re surrounded … then cut, and they’re a few steps ahead all of the sudden, for example. The zombies look great, with creepy, white-irised eyes and lots of apparent wounds – everything from torn flesh to missing limbs.

The show uses a lot of cuts and angles to keep the gore from being too excessive for mainstream consumption but considering that this was on TV (pay TV, if I understand correctly, but still) the gore factor is remarkably high. It comparable, gore-wise, to something like Dexter in the U.S. – plenty of grue, but not so much as to classify it as a truly gory show for those that revel in such.

The creators clearly know and love their zombie lore. There’s at least one direct nod to each of George A. Romero’s first three zombie movies, including direct quotes from Night of the Living Dead (“They’re coming to get you Barbara”), parallel dialog from Dawn of the Dead (a character suggests the zombies are attracted to the studio where they’re holed up by some sort of “primitive intuition” and opines that the place used to be “like a church to them”) and a visual quote and parallel dialog from Day of the Dead where an obnoxious character gets torn apart by a mob of zombies while spouting curses at them the whole time. It’s not just Romero, either – at one point a character says another has “a face like a Manchester morgue” (clearly a reference to The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue aka Let Sleeping Corpses Lie).

They fail, however, at putting across a message as well as Romero or even Let Sleeping Corpses Lie – those films are admittedly heavy handed, but clear in what they have to say. Apart from the very obvious and zombie-film standard message inherent in the fact that it’s the failure to work together that causes nearly all of the problems for the survivors, this seems to be vaguely condescending toward and condemnatory of the reality-TV generation and surveillance state, but what the exact message is – if any – is unclear. It would have added depth to the proceedings if made a little clearer – or streamlined it if jettisoned all together. It’s also entirely possible that the difficulty in transmission stems from subtle but deep differences between British and American culture that leave me somewhat in the dark as to some of the targets here.

Despite that minor quibble, the writing, direction and acting are all up to the task – Jaime Winborn is particularly good as Kelly, and Andy Nyman turns in an impressive, scenery-chewing performance in the role of the bastard lead producer, Patrick. The only real complaint is the pacing is a bit off – things start off slow before catching stride, then drag a bit in the third and fourth episodes and seem a bit rushed in the fifth and final episode. Still, considering how well the creepiness, jump scares, drama and laughs all work overall, this is a minor issue. Falling short of greatness, Dead Set has to settle for being very good – but in a genre as heavily weighted to the terrible end of the scale as zombie film is, very good is high praise, indeed.

Dead Set/U.K./2008 – Made for TV

Cataloging the Dead: Romero Zombies

Posted by Cory Casciato On April - 13 - 2009

flyboyzombiedod

Appear in: Night of the Living Dead; Dawn of the Dead; Day of the Dead; Land of the Dead; Diary of the Dead also, the Tom Savini directed Night of the Living Dead remake (1990) but not any other remakes as of current date.

Cause: Unknown (radiation from Venusian space probe is one hypothesized cause, but never tested).

Diet: Human flesh (eats only a small portion of the body, estimated at around five percent in Dawn of the Dead). Occasionally observed eating other animals (bugs, etc.).

Circumstances for creation: All dead bodies rise to become zombies. Zombie bites are invariably fatal, usually within 24 hours of being bitten. No known way to prevent reanimation short of destroying the brain.

Behavior: Slow moving. Easily distracted, such as by fireworks. Capable of learning and recalling at least some impulses from its life. The longer it has been zombified, the smarter it is. Newly risen are nearly mindless, but even they have been observed using simple tools to bludgeon or break windows to reach prey. Older zombies can communicate, organize and plan, including making efforts to resist distractions to focus on a task.

How to kill: Destroy the brain, destroy the zombie. Nothing else works.

Slow but implacable, the Romero zombie just keeps coming, ever hungry for the flesh of the living. In Romero’s universe, all recently dead people rise to become zombies – being bitten is not required. Being bitten, however, is invariably fatal, usually within a day or so. The early Romero movies showed zombies are largely mindless, but they seemed to get smarter with each installment, evolving over time (perhaps as they acclimated to a post-life existence?). Eventually they achieve cooperation, planning and impulse control, making them considerably more dangerous.

Romero’s zombies appear to get sustenance from eating the living. They can exist for a long period, perhaps indefinitely, without feeding, so there may be something else at work besides simple desire/need for sustenance. They can not be killed except by destroying the brain. Massive damage to the body may incapacitate the zombie, but as long as it can still bite it is dangerous. Since all bodies rise to become zombies, the bodies of the dead must be disposed of as soon as possible after death, regardless of the cause of death.

The zombies of George A. Romero’s work are in many ways the prototype for all modern (post-1968) zombies. As such, they appear frequently in others’ works, sometimes with minor variations. A good rule of thumb for any new and unidentified zombie encountered is to treat it as a Romero zombie until evidence suggests otherwise. These zombies first appeared in the seminal Night of the Living Dead and then in its four follow-ups. The first three of these, through Land of the Dead, appear to take place on a single timeline. The last, Diary of the Dead, appears to be a reboot/reimagining and further installments may alter these observations or make a case for categorizing a second variety of Romero zombie.

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