Review: Sugar Hill

Posted by Cory Casciato On April - 2 - 2010

In 1974, two of film’s greatest movements — Blaxploitation and zombies — combined to form Sugar Hill, one of the most unjustly forgotten movies in film history. It’s the story of a woman (Marki Bey as Diana “Sugar” Hill) who turns to voodoo to get revenge on the powerful mobsters who murdered her boyfriend. With an army of chrome-eyed, cobweb-festooned zombies commanded by voodoo god Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley), Bey dons a funky jumpsuit and takes out the mobsters in inventively horrible ways. The incredibly loud clothing, unique creature design and stylish camera work result in one of the most visually stunning entries in zombie film history.

In an interesting and rarely used twist, this movie really played up the voodoo angle, utilizing not just zombies but voodoo dolls and rituals, a voodoo-drum heavy soundtrack and a starring role for voodoo god/spirit Baron Samedi. The zombie design is unique — and awesome — as well. The cobwebs, blank expressions and weird, silver eyes were both cool and creepy. I’m actually somewhat surprised no one has used that look since. It’s very effective.

Okay, the plot is paper thin, the acting is generally mediocre with occasional flashes of scenery-chewing insanity and it’s non-PC to the point of being embarrassing to modern sensibilities. But you don’t go to a Blaxploitation/zombie film looking for deep plot, deft characterization or a message — you go for jive talking, corpse raising, and ass kicking, and it delivers all of that in abundance.

Sugar Hill/US/1974

Parts of this review originally appeared in my initial reaction piece when I viewed it as part of the 2009 Zombie Movie Marathon Month and in a piece I wrote for Westword.

Review: Pontypool

Posted by Cory Casciato On March - 19 - 2010

As I mentioned in this week’s feature, Pontypool is a movie that stretches and tests the boundaries of what can or can’t be considered a zombie. It’s set in a radio station in the small town of Pontypool in rural Canada on a particularly cold and snowy day. Strange reports of rioting and bizarre behavior start pouring in to the radio station. For a town where the typical crime consists of public drunkenness and maybe the odd domestic disturbance, this is obviously a very strange day. It’s about to get a lot stranger.

It’s hard to talk about the rest of the film without getting a little spoilery. if you are extraordinarily sensitive to spoilers, haven’t yet seen the film and have managed to somehow avoid any of the other spoilers out there online (the main plot point is “spoiled” everywhere, from the ads to the back of the box to every interview and probably every review out there) STOP READING. I’ll spoil the review and tell you I thought the film is excellent and a must-see — you can come back and read the rest when you’ve seen it.
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Review: Revolt of the Zombies

Posted by Cory Casciato On March - 12 - 2010

The pre-Romero history of zombie film is a litter of dull, sleepy films studded with the occasional gem. Revolt of the Zombies is not one of the gems. Revolt is the second zombie film from White Zombie director Victor Halperin but it lacks even that film’s somewhat dated charms and plays like a third rate ripoff of it. Clearly Halperin was out of ideas and hoping to capitalize on his previous success (he even “borrowed” the effect of superimposing Bela Lugosi’s eyes over certain scenes, despite the fact Lugosi is not in this movie).

Supposedly, Revolt is the tale of an expedition to discover the source of a zombie-creating agent to make an army of zombie super soldiers. There is one cool early scene of a horde of Cambodian zombie soldiers getting shot at and not dying or even reacting. Neat! In reality, the rest is a turgid, melodramatic love story about a guy, the girl he loves, and his best friend. Who she loves, naturally. Blech. Anyway, the guy who loves the girl learns the zombie secret and uses it to … try to get the girl. Really?

He controls everyone around him but the girl, creating a massive zombie army. And uh, does nothing with it. Then he realizes she will never love him, he releases his zombies (they aren’t dead, just hypnotized into a mindless, obedient state) and they turn on him. The end. Lame. Next time, more zombie army, less retarded love story, please.

Revolt of the Zombies/US/1936

Review: Day of the Dead 2008 remake

Posted by Cory Casciato On March - 5 - 2010

That's a zombie climbing on the ceiling. Because apparently, zombies do that.

There is so much wrong with the 2008 Day of the Dead remake it is hard to know where to start. For one thing, it has nothing to do with the 1985 George A. Romero film apart from a couple of similar character names and some really fucking stupid references. For another, it’s horribly written and poorly acted. But the biggest problem might just be the spider zombies.

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Review: King of the Zombies

Posted by Cory Casciato On February - 26 - 2010

The pre-WWII potboiler King of the Zombies is more spy movie with zombies as a plot device than zombie movie, and it’s a dull, plodding spy movie at that. Two men and their faithful, comedy-relief black servant (I mention his race because it’s a constant theme in the movie) crash land on an island somewhere in the Bahamas. There they find a Nazi (not identified as such, but not hard to decipher) scientist who’s using voodoo to raise a zombie army and interrogate a captured admiral. A lot of not very much happens, the black servant (played by Mantan Moreland) does a lot of icky playing to broad stereotypes, some “zombies” shuffle around not very menacingly, the scientist gets caught and killed, the end.

I’m not one to hew to political correctness, but the way blacks are presented in this movie is hard to ignore. I know it was a different time, but it’s a very “gee, aren’t uppity negroes just hilarious! And isn’t it even more hilarious when they get put in their place!” kind of thing. It essentially takes over most of the movie, making it into a grotesque, anachronistic race-relations slapstick. Moreland seems a decent, perhaps even gifted actor, but he’s given a shitty row to hoe, here.

The bottom line is, this isn’t much of a zombie movie. The zombies are just stiff-shouldered black guys who don’t do anything. Pass on this one unless you’re determined to thoroughly explore the history of zombie film.

King of the Zombies/US/1941

Note: King of Zombies has entered the public domain, so if you’re curious, you can watch or download it from the Internet Archive.

Review: Awaken the Dead

Posted by Cory Casciato On February - 19 - 2010

In Awaken the Dead, a priest with a dark past teams up with a shut-in prostitute (the daughter of the man he worked for in said dark past) during a citywide zombie infestation. Together, they rescue survivors, kill zombies and eventually uncover the secret behind the zombie outbreak.

Sound promising? Perhaps, in its small way. But the execution here was so flawed that any promise of the premise was quickly squandered. For starters, the whole thing was shot in the ugliest, blurriest, shittiest style I have ever seen. At least 90 percent of it used this horrible faux sepia tone effect. As a result, it was often difficult to tell what was going on. I couldn’t tell you if most of the zombie makeup and effects were good, because I could barely see them. The zombies did seem inconsistent — some had a sort of a demonic visage, others just looked like people with bloody faces.

The story was flimsy, but not terrible. The writing was frustratingly inconsistent: fairly solid at one minute, ridiculous the next. Same with the direction. The acting was actually decent, at least in the case of the leads (the priest, the prostitute and a Jehovah’s Witness they pick up early on). It was nothing special, but higher than usual quality for a film of this caliber.

All told, Awaken the Dead is entirely forgettable and not really worth your time. Its few positive points are outweighed by the terrible look, inconsistent execution and general dullness.

Awaken the Dead/US/2007

Review: Evil

Posted by Cory Casciato On January - 7 - 2010

It’s not often you see a movie that is both better and worse than you expect it to be, but that is exactly what happened with the Greek zombie apocalypse movie Evil, known  as To Kako in its original language. The little I’d heard about it suggested it was a pretty mediocre, run-of-the-mill low-budget foreign knockoff. The truth is the majority of it never rose to the level of mediocre, but the best bits were pretty goddamn awesome.

Let’s start with the cookie-cutter story. The premise is three workers uncover ancient evil in a cave, lose time, return home confused and then turn into ravenous zombies a few hours later, much to the dismay of their families, dates and friends. That is, by far, the most original part of the movie. The rest of the plot follows the usual group of survivors thrown together by circumstance as their personalities clash and zombies run rampant, until the ambiguous but ominous ending. Sound familiar? If you’re reading this, of course it does.

There are a few other problems. The leads lack charisma. They can’t act. The wisecracking funny guy is not funny. The insane soldier, easily the best character, comes in late then disappears for most of the movie. The writing is terrible and the translation is crap. The directors strangely chose to use a lot of gimmicks, including an unforgivable amount of split screen shots. The zombies act inconsistently. They are totally mindless one second, then sneaking up on people and pausing for dramatic effect the next. A lot of terrible CGI is used in the backgrounds.  It’s shot on video and it looks and sounds like crap.

That’s the “worse” part. What redeems the film is the completely over-the-top and utterly ridiculous gore and violence. It’s just a step below something like Dead Alive in both quality and quantity. In essence, anytime the zombies catch up to the survivors, it’s wacky time. Limbs are severed — and then used as bludgeons. Zombies get sliced, diced and cut in half, heads are squashed, blood spurts by the gallon and a good time is had by all.

During these numerous and zany action sequences, the leads magically transform from hapless city folk to something like urban ninjas. They bust out some sweet martial arts moves, throw knives like professionals, jump over shit, punch through zombies’ heads, etc. Suspension of disbelief is out of the question, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. It’s also worth noting that the movie moves at a brisk pace, with very few dull or slow spots.

Despite the movie’s issues, these elements make it hard to not enjoy it. Sure, it would be a lot better if it wasn’t laboring under the weight of terrible acting, gimmicky direction and editing, poor writing, half-assed subtitles and ridiculous CGI. It would be a better movie if it didn’t play like a rip-off of 28 Days Later spiced up with the mood of Dead Alive. All true. But being what it is, it deserves a spot alongside other such ridiculous, shoddy trash gems such as Nightmare City and Burial Ground in the “so off it’s on” category. Go in expecting to very little but a few laughs and WTF? moments and you won’t be disappointed.

Evil/Greece/2005

Review: House of the Dead

Posted by Cory Casciato On December - 9 - 2009

houseofthedeadUwe Boll’s House of the Dead has a reputation as one of the worst films of all time, the kind of movie that can put you off the entire genre. For that reason,  I’ve avoided seeing it for some time, as I find I have to carefully moderate my intake of terrible zombie films so as not to deflate my affection for the genre. I’ve had it in my possession a couple of times, and always found an excuse not to watch it. But when I saw it on on-demand recently, I knew it was time and finally bit the bullet.

And you know what? It wasn’t that bad.

Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t good by any means. There’s no question about it: this is a bad, bad movie. But it isn’t one of the worst — I wouldn’t replace any of the movies on my worst movies list with this, and it isn’t even close.

The plot puts a group of pretty people on a zombie-infested island. They are there for a rave, naturally. And they catch a ride to the rave with a couple of gun smugglers, naturally. It’s all very stupid and little more than an excuse to throw the characters into the zombies’ way. Once they get there, people start getting attacked and the corpses are dragged off to become zombies. They hole up in a house, they leave the house, they meet more characters, return to house, learn back story about a Spanish prison ship and the evil scientist it carried to the island, they die off one by one until just two are left, they face the big bad, the end.

It’s all cursory, clumsy and stupid. The writing is perfunctory. The acting is terrible, even by the few actors that are capable of better (Clint Howard and Jurgen Prochnow, how did you come to be in this turkey?). I got the impression that director Boll was either encouraging them to act poorly or just didn’t give a fuck. There were some elaborate action sequences, but they were so poorly filmed and edited that they were really more annoying than anything else. The zombies were okay, but nothing special. They reminded me a bit of Burial Ground‘s zombies, with the addition of glowing red eyes. The gore was skimpy — way too many of the kills were off screen, usually cut away from just before the deed. And it isn’t like they were going for a PG-13 here — the gratuitous nudity pretty much guaranteed an R, so it seems more like laziness, or perhaps Boll blew the effects budget on explosions.

There were some good points, or rather, points that lifted it out of the realm of true bottom dwellers. Some of the jokes, dumb though they were, were worth a chuckle (I loved when the blond chick got puked on, for one). It was more or less technically sound (clumsy, yes, but well-lit, shot, recorded, etc.). The pacing was surprisingly, almost shockingly good. What was consistently frustrating was how lazy and half-assed it all felt, from the moronic plot to listless acting to the haphazard insertion of footage from the videogame. It seemed like Boll watched Resident Evil, maybe a few classic zombie flicks, said “Yeah, I can do this” and proceeded to make the movie with all the dedication to craft and enthusiasm for their work that the average hipster coffeehouse barista brings to the job. It was so apparent that the filmmakers didn’t give a fuck about the movie that it was impossible to care about it. Not that I tried very hard, mind you.

House of the Dead/Germany, Canada, US/2003

Review: Zombies of Mass Destruction

Posted by Cory Casciato On November - 20 - 2009
Zombies of Mass Destruction does not skimp on the blood.

Zombies of Mass Destruction does not skimp on the blood.

The tagline for Zombies of Mass Destruction is “A Political Zomedy” and that pretty much tells you everything you need to know about it. There are zombies. It is political, and a comedy. And it isn’t subtle — it telegraphs every one of its punches. But this is zombie film we’re talking here; subtlety is strictly optional.

The film is set in a small island town where an unfortunate zombie outbreak occurs. Caught up in this small-scale apocalypse are a young Iranian-American woman who’s abandoned her heritage to hang out with a cute rocker boy, her traditional father, her redneck neighbors, a gay couple trying to come out to a conservative parent, a fundamentalist preacher, the ultraconservative mayor and his liberal challenger. Do these sound a little stereotypical? They are, but again, it doesn’t matter all that much.

As the outbreak unfolds, things get worse and worse for the main characters as they face the prejudice and half-buried hostility of the small town stereotypes around them. Oh, and there are the zombies to deal with. And it’s mostly presented in that order — sociopolitical commentary first, zombie mayhem second. None of the political or social jabs are quiet or refined — this movie wears its politics on its sleeve and wields its commentary like a ten-pound hammer.

Arguably, this limits the audience. The degree to which you enjoy it is probably largely dependent on how much you agree with its positions. On the other hand, there’s plenty of splatter and broad phsyical comedy between the political jabs at post-9/11 America, so even a die-hard conservative could probably find something to enjoy here — supposing they didn’t walk out before they got to it.

Those points might sound like complaints, but really they are just observations. Ham-fisted sociopolitical commentary is endemic to the zombie genre and the stereotyped characters don’t really hurt the movie that much.  More of an issue is the generally weak acting. None of it is terrible, but it’s all a little dodgy. Add to that the fact that there’s very little chemistry between any of the actors and the results weigh the movie down a bit and keeps it from being as funny as it could be. It’s nothing terrible, but it is worth noting.

Apart from that the only real problem is that it all feels a little dated. If it had come in in 2003, this film’s political jabs would likely feel rapier sharp. In 2009, it’s a little out of step with the world. Not to say that the issues raised are not legitimate or aren’t still issues — it’s just that today, they’ve taken on different nuances that simply aren’t addressed here.

But make no mistake: there is plenty to enjoy. The zombies look good. There are some fine jokes and visual gags (weedwhacker vs. zombie, anyone?). The direction is good, things move along at a decent clip and the movie is well shot. It’s not amazing, but it’s a solid, well-executed movie. It may offer slight returns, but it’s still got enough to offer to put it in the top third of the genre’s offerings.

Zombies of Mass Destruction is showing as part of the Denver Film Festival. You can see it tonight, November 20 at 11:30 p.m. and tomorrow, November 21 at 10:30 p.m.

Zombies of Mass Destruction/US/2009

Review: The Revenant

Posted by Cory Casciato On November - 16 - 2009

revenant1Part zombie, part vampire and pretty much entirely awesome, The Revenant is the latest film of 2009 to contribute to making this one of the best years ever for zombie cinema. It’s the story of Bart, a typical guy with a girlfriend, a slacker best friend and the piss-poor luck to get shot to hell during a tour of duty in Iraq. Then, once his friends have had a chance to bury and mourn him, he has the (arguably) worse luck to be reanimated as a decomposing, blood-hungry member of the walking dead. From there, he seeks the aid of his best friend Joey and begins feeding on creeps and criminals, until the complications mount (as they invariably do) and things go awry for him, Joey and pretty much everyone they know.

As mentioned, Bart is a weird hybrid of zombie and vampire. His buddy uses the Internet to determine he’s a revenant — a spirit returned in corporeal form. He looks like a zombie (moldering, gross, awesome) and acts like a vampire (sleeps all day, drinks blood) but lacks most of the traditional vulnerabilities, as revealed in one hilarious scene. He’s also damn near impossible to kill — sunlight doesn’t do it, bullets are a joke and even some extreme measures result in little more than some unfortunate handicaps.

The Revenant plays out as part black-as-sin buddy comedy, part gore-fest and part action movie. There’s also an underdeveloped and slightly overwrought love story subplot and some pretty interesting (although also underdeveloped) exploration of the morality of the situation and its parallels to warfare. It’s well acted, nicely paced and well-written, with excellent dialog and a compelling story.

The film is the work of writer/director/producer D. Kerry Prior, whose only experience writing and directing is the 1996 obscurity Roadkill. Apart from that, he’s worked on the effects of several Phantasm movies, one of the Nightmare on Elm Street sequels, Bubba Ho-Tep and numerous other films. With that pedigree, it’s no surprise that the zombie makeup is fantastic, with lots of great wounds, copious amounts of blood and general grue.  What’s more surprising is how well the rest of the movie is executed — Prior is a talent to watch and probably won’t have much time for effects in the years to come as he’ll be too busy directing and writing.

There are some minor complaints to be made — it’s a bit long and several of the story threads seem to be abandoned without much thought — but these barely get in the way of the overall experience of the film. You’re not going to have much time to notice the blemishes while the film is cruising along at a 100 MPH, delivering great action sequences, brutal kills and snappy one-liners, and you’re not much going to care if not every thread of the plot is full developed by the time you get to the nice little twist ending. No, you’ll be too busy laughing at the hilarious dildo-voicebox scene, wincing at the beheadings and blood-vomit and generally having a great time at the movies.

Right now, The Revenant is making the festival rounds (I saw it as part of the Denver Film Festival) but if you aren’t lucky enough to have a festival with impeccable taste in genre film in your area, keep your fingers crossed for the wider theatrical release this film so richly deserves — or just keep an eye out for it on DVD. It’s definitely worth a look, even for zombie and/or vampire purists — after all, he’s a revenant. Regardless of name, he’s zombie enough to make the cut for me, in no small part because, frankly, I love this film.

The Revenant/US/2009

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