Review: Deadlands 2: Trapped

Posted by Cory Casciato On November - 5 - 2009

deadlands2The second film in auteur Gary Ugarek’s Deadlands series, Deadlands 2: Trapped, manages to improve in almost every way from the original Deadlands: The Rising. The zombies look decent, it moves at a much better clip than the original and it’s well shot considering the minimal budget, with an oversaturated and washed-out look that’s questionable, but not necessarily bad. The acting is passable for a microbudget zombie flick, but the dialog is execrable and the story is derivative and meandering. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a group of strangers are trapped by the strange, murderous mobs of zombies that are suddenly everywhere as a result of a government test… Derivative can be okay, but you have to execute well enough to make it enjoyable, and D2:T simply does not.

In my review of the original Deadlands, I noted that apart from a whole lot of enthusiasm for zombies, writer/director/producer/star Ugarek had little or no skill in any of the areas needed to bring a zombie movie to life. That’s no longer true. He’s wisely abandoned acting. He’s a competent producer. His direction is decent, but shooting his own writing, he doesn’t have the distance to see where it doesn’t work, leaving us with interminable stretches of back story and needless setup. I’m pretty sure Ugarek could take a decent script and make a decent movie, but his inability to write either dialog or story torpedoes any gains made in other areas.

Deadlands 2: Trapped/US/2009

Review: The Earth Dies Screaming

Posted by Cory Casciato On October - 15 - 2009

earthdiesscreamingI do love a movie with a great name, and The Earth Dies Screaming is a great name if I ever heard one. The movie itself? Not bad, but not great either. The whole thing kicks off with a sequence where everyone dies. Trains crash, planes crash, people fall down dead in the street — your basic apocalypse. A few survivors in England group together and figure out that it’s some kind of gas attack, perpetrated by robots — alien robots to be more specific. And the alien robots reanimate corpses to use as slaves, which is where the zombie element comes in.

earthdiesscreaming_zombiesIn terms of rough plot outlines and imagery, TEDS seems a clear predecessor to Night of the Living Dead. You have the same ragtag group of survivors thrown together by circumstance — and a very similar interpersonal conflict within the group fueled by its more weaselly members. You have the same staggering, reanimated corpses — although these don’t eat anyone and can be dispatched with a few shots in the gut. But what it really lacks is the grim, gritty realism that made NotLD so special — this feels stagy and typical of movies of its era. Everyone is remarkably chill considering they’re the last  people on Earth and are being stalked by both alien robots and the walking dead. And it has a resolutely upbeat ending that’s pretty cheesy. As I said, not bad — just a little slow and finicky, and a bit hard to swallow.

The Earth Dies Screaming/UK/1964

Review: I Sell the Dead

Posted by Cory Casciato On October - 8 - 2009

ISelltheDead

You think there are no new ideas in the zombie genre? Well tell me how many historically based comedies about two shiftless grave robbers who specialize in the undead you can name? The number, as far as I know, is one, and that one is I Sell the Dead, a charming little tale from first time director Glenn McQuaid. And, to be fair, it isn’t really a zombie movie. But it is a movie with zombies in it (as well as a vampire, some undefined weirdness and one thing I can’t reveal without ruining one of the movie’s best scenes) and hey, that’s enough to qualify it for inclusion.

Set sometime in the 18th century, the story is told in flashback. On the eve of his execution, grave robber Arthur Blake recounts the highlights of his career in the “resurrection trade,” as he calls it, to a strange priest. From his first grave robbing to his last job, Blake expounds on the vagaries of digging up corpses — some quite lively — for cash. Each story is essentially self contained, yet a clear narrative thread runs through and connects them all. It’s a nice mechanism that allows the film to explore a much wider swathe of story than would have been possible with a more straightforward tale and it keeps things moving along at a consistently brisk pace.

One of the film's zombies

One of the film's zombies

It’s the last, climactic vignette that introduces the clear-cut zombies of the film. In attempting to recover two of them, the luckless heroes clash with a rival gang, with fairly disastrous and generally humorous results all around. The zombies look good, with an exaggerated, almost cartoonish design and are quite expressive for zombies – especially the one who, while caged, seems to display a bit of affection for both the heroes. The look of the zombies fits well with the obvious influence of old-school, EC-style horror comics. The other main influences here seem to be the British horror of Hammer and Amicus – the period setting, fog-drenched moors and other atmospheric clues nod towards those classics. It’s a nice mix and it works well.

The script is good and the funny bits are actually funny. The leads – Dominic Monaghan and Larry Fessenden – are fine actors and display a good on-screen charisma. Two familiar genre vets – Ron Perlman and Angus Scrimm – do a nice job in supporting roles as well. And the twists of the ending, while not completely unexpected, work well and leave things open for a sequel – or even a series (the format would work very well…). All in all, a pleasant, light horror comedy that’s a great way to get a zombie fix without treading much – if any – familiar ground.

I Sell the Dead/US/2008

Review: Zombieland

Posted by Cory Casciato On October - 2 - 2009

zombielandThe hype for Zombieland has been, at times, overwhelming. As a defensive mechanism, I’ve maintained what I consider to be a healthy skepticism. But I have to say, now that I have seen the movie, the hype was largely justified. By the time the opening credits rolled, I had little reason to doubt that this is a fine zombie film.

Now, make no mistake, many a hardcore zombie fan will find reason to hate this movie. These are fast zombies, for one thing. I know that’s enough to earn a “how about no?” from plenty of people. Possibly worse, in many eyes, is these zombies are probably closest to 28 Days Later zombies. That is to say, there’s no reason to think they died and reanimated. Technically speaking, these are just very sick people with an appetite for eating their former friends, not reanimated corpses. Over that? Okay, this is also not a film with a heavy — or any, really — social commentary. It’s just not. It’s an action-movie buddy comedy with zombies. If you haven’t swallowed your tongue in apoplectic horror yet, read on. It’s smooth sailing from here.

Zombieland is the story of four people thrown together by unlikely circumstance — the zombie apocalypse. That’s pretty standard fare for any buddy pic, and especially familiar to zombie fans. But the chemistry between the four, especially main leads Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg, is enough to make it work. The foursome, after some intitial hijinx, are headed for Pacific Playland (read: Disneyland), an amusement park rumored to be free of the zombie scourge. That’s it. That’s the story. Now twists, no turns, no fanfare.

Okay, there are a couple of subplots (Eisenberg falls for the older girl, there’s a hilarious interlude with a famous actor I’d hate to spoil) but the point is, this is all very straightforward, by the numbers, action-oriented zombie stuff. But it works, in part becasue director Ruben Fleischer does an excellent job of keeping things moving as he puts the characters throughout their paces. That, and there are some really great effects, inspired musical cues, clever jokes and utterly awesome zombie kills and set pieces. It does slow down a tiny bt in the middle, but by the time you notice it, things have revved back into high gear and you’re headed for the climax full steam ahead, so it’s no big issue.

Call it shallow, call it slick, whatever. It’s fun and that’s the bottom line. I don’t know that this moves the zombie genre forward. But I do know that it could easily introduce zombies to a whole generation of fans that haven’t ever paid much attention to our walking dead frenemies. I’ve said many times before that Shaun of the Dead is an excellent “gateway drug” zombie movie. In all honesty, this may be even better for the purpose of introducing newcomers to the living dead. It doesn’t have the same kind of reverent, deeply rooted respect for the genre that Shaun displayed, but it’s not really any worse for lacking that. And just as Shaun was a deeply British movie, this movie 100 percent all-American. It may lack depth and substance but it more than makes up for that in sheer awesome. If you have doubts, let them be banished. Zombieland is a kickass good time and you should absolutely go see it.

Edit: Added a clause to clarify comparison to Shaun of the Dead.

Zombieland/US/2009

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: Deadlands: The Rising

Posted by Cory Casciato On July - 31 - 2009

deadlandsTake a whole lot of enthusiasm for the zombie genre and a complete and utter lack of talent or skill in any of the disciplines needed to make a movie, stir well and you will get Deadlands: The Rising. The debut feature from director/writer/producer/star Gary Ugarek, D:TR is a run of the mill zombie apocalypse tale. Bioweapon is used, the dead walk, society crumbles. Ho hum. The story is not only utterly pedestrian, it’s executed poorly. For example, I do not need interminable scenes of dudes shooting guns at bottles. This does nothing for me, or for the movie.

As apparent as it is that Ugarek loves zombie movies, it is also painfully apparent he has no idea how to write, act, direct or produce one. The movie is technically shoddy, the makeup is perfunctory, the acting is … well, the best actor is the wild-eyed, scenery-chewing redneck that tries to organize a shelter full of refugees to prepare for the onslaught of zombies. And despite being the best here, he is, by all standard measures, one of the worst actors I have ever seen. Everyone else is just listless and boring; at least he’s good for a laugh. The whole thing meanders, and even at a brief 63 minute runtime, it still feels slow. It’s not the worst zombie movie ever made (I still give that nod to Zombie Night) but it’s also pretty much without merit as entertainment, much less art.

Deadlands: The Rising/US/2006

Review: Zombie Honeymoon

Posted by Cory Casciato On July - 29 - 2009

zombiehoneymoonIn Zombie Honeymoon we get a sad and horrific tale of zombification told from a point of view sympathetic to the zombie. While on his honeymoon, Danny is attacked by a zombie that emerges from the surf, pukes black ooze into his mouth and expires. Danny dies, reanimates in the hospital and begins eating people shortly thereafter – much to the chagrin of his newlywed Denise. She sticks by him even as the body count rises, but it’s a hard lot (indeed) and before long she’s questioning her decision.

The premise of this movie, while not completely original, is at least a lot fresher than the typical zombie apocalypse/siege. Unfortunately, the execution is pretty weak. The relationship between the leads seems believable, but incredibly shallow – it’s hard to imagine she’d stick by him if he got a parking ticket, much less when he starts eating people. The actors playing the leads just aren’t really likable enough to generate any sympathy, so you end up hoping they’ll get caught, or he’ll eat her or something bad will happen to them. Of course, the people getting eaten aren’t terribly likable either, so it’s kind of a wash.

The zombie makeup is passable if unremarkable, but it doesn’t really get used a lot until the last third when the decay sets in. And by that point, you’re pretty much ready for it to end, or for more people to go zombie or for anything to happen besides the sudsy, melodramatic and unbelievable relationship dynamic that drives the whole thing. The pacing is glacial, and remarkably little happens for most of the movie. There are a few murders and a little bit of gore, but not enough to keep things moving. It’s a made-for-cable movie, and probably worth sitting through if you came across it some late, sleepless night when there’s nothing else on — it might help fight insomnia, but it’s not really worth much beyond that.

Zombie Honeymoon/US/2004

This movie was viewed as part of my second annual Zombie Movie Marathon Month — see the initial reaction piece here.

Review: The Grapes of Death

Posted by Cory Casciato On July - 27 - 2009

GrapesOfDeathThe French may make great wine, but I have yet to see any evidence they can make a decent zombie movie. The best thing that can be said for Jean Rollin’s The Grapes of Death is that it is much better than his other undead attempt, Zombie Lake. Considering Zombie Lake is one of the worst films ever, that’s the very definition of damnation by faint praise. The other thing that can be said for it is Brigitte Lahaie naked. Of course, the woman made porn, so it’s not like this is your best chance to see that.

The Grapes of Death is about a nasty pesticide blend that poisons a batch of wine so thoroughly that everyone who drinks it becomes a rotting, sore-covered maniac/zombie. The film begins with our heroine on a train. A rotting dude gets on the train, kills her friend, and kicks off an interminable series of painfully slow pursuit sequences. Each is the same: our girl runs; meets up with another woman; the other woman gets killed and naked; repeat. Okay, near the end she meets up with some dudes who don’t get naked but do get killed. Wow, what a plot!

The languid pace strips any tension out of the already meager formula, leaving us with a cheap, sleazy and boring exploitation flick. At least the naked scenes are more or less evenly distributed and all the girls are hot, but a few gratuitous nude scenes and some tainted wine are all this zombie movie has to offer.

The Grapes of Death/France/1978

This movie was viewed as part of my second annual Zombie Movie Marathon Month — see the initial reaction piece here.

Review: Plan 9 from Outer Space

Posted by Cory Casciato On July - 23 - 2009

plan9 It’s probably a bit of a stretch to say that Plan 9 from Outer Space is the worst movie ever made – not in a world with Uwe Boll and Troma films. Still, it’s not difficult to see how director Ed Wood’s disasterpiece earned that reputation. This is a bad movie. At points, it is so bad it’s good. But for the most part, it is just bad.

The movie is the story of a half-baked alien plot to resurrect the dead to convince Earth people of the existence of aliens, or take over, or both (it’s kind of unclear) and to stop them from discovering how to make sunlight explode and thereby destroy the universe (yes, really).

This story is told in voiceover, through lots of exposition by the characters and with a few weak action scenes. We do get some dead people wandering around – one of them, Tor Johnson, is actually even kind of menacing – and occasionally attacking people, but we get a lot more talking: poorly written, terribly acted, interminable talking. And then the occasional terrible effects sequence, including the pie plate on fire that serves as the movie’s climax.

If you love bad films for their badness, there are a few laughs here. If you are interested in film history, especially zombie film history, it’s worth seeing. But don’t expect much in either case or you’ll be disappointed.

Plan 9 from Outer Space/US/1959

This movie was viewed as part of my second annual Zombie Movie Marathon Month — see the initial reaction piece here.

Review: I Walked with a Zombie

Posted by Cory Casciato On July - 22 - 2009

IwalkedwithazombieA gothic romance that essentially repackages Jane Eyre on a tropical island, I Walked with a Zombie is the story of a series of overlapping love triangles – the nurse, the ill woman and her husband; the ill woman, her husband and his brother; and, to a certain degree, the brother, the husband and the nurse. It’s the triangle between the ill woman, her husband and brother that results in her illness (actually, her zombiism, to be precise), but the weird, stilted affair between the nurse, the zombie woman and the husband is what drives the plot.

The zombies here – there are two, a native zombie and the zombie woman at the center of the plot – are old-school voodoo zombies. They don’t eat people, nor even act particularly menacing unless ordered to by their masters – except in one inexplicable case early on that implies the zombie woman sees the nurse as a threat. They just walk around with empty expressions, unresponsive to stimuli. Not terribly exciting for fans raised on Romero’s gore-splattered hungry dead, but probably quite creepy by the standards of their day. The movie’s treatment of the native people and the voodoo religion and practices is surprisingly respectful, for its time.

The relationships at the core of this movie may be sudsy and melodramatic but they have a certain old-school charm. Despite not a whole lot happening, it moves along at a decent clip, the acting is excellent for the era (a little stagy by today’s standards, but still quite good) and it’s beautifully shot. The direction creates a nice moody atmosphere and conveys the sense of doomed love well. It’s interesting to see how the standards of horror have changed – only the atmosphere and sense of despair/doom remotely qualify this as a horror movie. The movie may be unbearably talky and slow by today’s standards, and it is certainly not what zombie fans typically look for in a zombie movie, but I Walked with a Zombie is a good, perhaps even great, movie.

I Walked with a Zombie/US/1943

This movie was viewed as part of my second annual Zombie Movie Marathon Month — see the initial reaction piece here.

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