Posts Tagged ‘zombie movie’

"Deathdream" Movie Poster

Years before Michael Cimino and Oliver Stone dealt with the trauma of returning Viet Nam veterans in their Oscar-winning films “The Deer Hunter” and “Born on the Fourth of July,” independent exploitation filmmakers were going where Hollywood still didn’t dare to go. More specifically, legendary director Bob Clark of “Porky’s” and “A Christmas Story” fame was going there, and at the time he was working in the regional independent exploitation milieu.

Before heading north of the border to lens the slasher classic “Black Christmas,” Clark cut his teeth on a couple of low-budget horror flicks in Florida. The first, “Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things,” is a pleasing if ultimately forgettable effort, but the second, 1974’s  “Deathdream” (also released under the titles “Dead of Night,” “The Night Andy Came Home” and “The Night Walk,” among others), is a bona fide classic. Not only did it beat Cimino and Stone to the punch in terms if its harrowing subject matter, but it one-upped George Romero in using the zombie film as contemporary sociopolitical allegory because while Romero offered hints of his zombies (and remember, he specifically referred to them as “ghouls” at the time) and even moreso the human survivors confronting them as being stand-ins for a host of current issues, Clark dealt with those issues in a much more head-on manner in “Deathdream.” When Romero returned with “Dawn of the Dead,” he tackled the political in a much more direct manner, and while I can’t say for certain that Clark’s film emboldened him to do so, it certainly couldn’t have hurt matters any .

Also worth noting for history : this film was originally released with a PG rating, but was later re-rated with an R somewhere along the line as it continued to play regional drive-in and grindhouse circuits. You could get away with a lot under the PG label in the early years of the MPAA rating system.

I’m no prude, but considering the subject matter and some of the (effective for a film with literally ten times its budget) gore, I think an R does seem the more appropriate classification, but what the hell do I know? Read my little brief overview of the plot details  (or better yet see the film) and decide for yourself —

Andy at the beginning ---

Charles Brooks (John Marley, the guy who found the horse’s head in his bed in “The Godfather”), his wife Christine (Lynn Carlin,  “Faces” ) and their daughter, Cathy (Anya Ormsby)  are sitting down to dinner when two messengers from the army arrive with the telegraph that every parent with a child in the service dreads : their son, Andy, has been killed in Viet Nam. Needless to say, the entire family is devastated beyond words.

Later (what one assumes to be) that same night, though, a truck driver picks up a hitchhiker on a lonely stretch of two-lane road somewhere in Florida. He’s dressed in army fatigues and and isn’t much of a conversationalist, but the trucker learns that he’s just come home from Viet Nam and is on the way to see his family.

In short order, Andy (a young Richard Backus) turns up on his parents’ doorstep. Convinced that the telegram was nothing more than a horrible mistake, his family is at first so overjoyed to see their son that they let Andy’s strange behavior slide. He won’t go see the family doctor for a physical. He sits silently in his room at all hours rocking back and forth in a chair. He seems quiet and distant, He has no interest in seeing his former high school sweetheart, who still carries a torch for him or any of his former friends, for that matter.

Of course, when the death of a truck driver is reported on the news, his family don’t suspect a thing. But when other bodies start turning up, including the family doctor he refused to visit, Andy’s father, at least, begins to fear the worst, even if his mother willfully refuses to put two and two together.

Andy’s a zombie, you see, and he needs blood to survive. Or things start to get real ugly real fast. And the longer he hangs around, the more blood he needs. When he finally relents and goes out on a double-date to the drive-in with his former (although not in her mind) sweetheart and his best buddy and his girl, he’s dressed in dark sunglasses and a crisp white suit-type outfit that covers him from head to toe. He shouldn’t be going anywhere and he knows it, and his deterioration and berserker rage at the drive-in is a classic scene in the annals of horror.

--- and at the end

It goes without saying (but I’m saying it anyway) that the plot’s pretty simple and straightforward here, but the actors really bring the material to life. Marley is superb as the father who walks a delicate balance between being overjoyed at seeing the son he never thought he’d see again and suspecting the harsh,brutal truth about his condition. Carlin delivers a heartwrenchingly realistic portrait of a mother who will protect her son from anything, even when the reality of what he’s become stares her in the face. What could be portrayed as a simple case of denial in the face of everything is instead a gut-wrenching portrait of motherly love even when said love flies in the face of reality itself. And Backus is magnificent as Andy, conveying cold menace yet also a sense of tragic victimhood at all times.

As for the ending — -well, it’ll rip your heart out. That’s all I can say. The story can obviously only finish one way (although I won’t spell that out too specifically), but the pain and anguish that occur when the inevitable happens makes for a truly heartbreaking goodbye, not just for B movie, but for any movie.

"Deathdream" DVD from Blue Underground

The fine folks at Blue Underground released “Deathdream” on DVD a few years back in a truly superb package that contains an excellently-restored 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer of the film. two separate feature length commentaries (one from director Clark recorded not too terribly long before his sudden and tragic death in an auto accident, the other from screenwriter Alan Ormsby), an extended version of the powerful ending sequence, a poster and still gallery, the original theatrical trailer, and a new interview with star Richard Backus.

Best of all for horror fans, though, is the mini-documentary “Tom Savini : The Early Years.” Included because “Deathdream” was the first film on which the legendary make-up FX man cut his teeth before his his horror-history-making work for George Romero on “Dawn of the Dead,” this is a fascinating look at the early life and work of a guy who literally revolutionized the movie business. The fact that he was a Viet Nam vet, to boot, makes it doubly thematically appropriate.

Don’t let my rather quick synopsis of the plot fool you (your reviewer didn’t want to give away too much in terms of detail, but the truth is that this is a film I could literally spend hours talking about) : “Deathdream” is a painstakingly detailed account of one young man’s desperate struggle to continue surviving after he’s already dead, and how his quite literal descent literally rips his family apart. And while there weren’t any literal zombies who came home from Viet Nam, the number of walking wounded was incalculable. They’re coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq today, making this film as timely as ever. Leave it to low-budget regional filmmakers to blaze the trail and let Hollywood know it was “okay” to deal with subject matter like this.

Finally, it’s worth noting in closing that the Viet Nam war was still going on when this film was made, while it was over and done with by the time “The Deer Hunter” came along. That’s guts right there. Hollywood was still producing John Wayne movies cheering the “glory” of the war when Clark was showing us its’ horrific consequences in a cheap zombie flick.

“Deathdream,” therefore, is not only one of the most emotionally affecting horror films ever made, it’s also one of the gutsiest.

"Pontypool" Movie Poster

Zombie flicks. You either love ’em or you don’t. I certainly love ’em, and so do plenty of other folks, if the recent box-office success of movies like “Zombieland” and the “Resident Evil” series are any indication. But the best and most groundbreaking of the bunch in recent years has flown somewhat under the radar.

2008’s “Pontypool,” from visionary Canadian director Bruce McDonald (best known for his distinctly north-of-the-border-flavored road movies “Roadkill,” “Highway 61” and “Hard Core Logo”) is a distinctively atmospheric, oftentimes downright scary entry into the zombie canon that has the potential to redefine the entire genre in the same way that George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” did back in 1968 and Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” did over 30 years later. But first, enough people have to see it, because great art that exists in a vacuum is still great art, to be sure, but if it enters into the public consciousness, by word of mouth or other means,  even if we’re just talking about on the level of horror and more specifically zombie genre fans, then it has the power to be transformational. And if there’s one thing “Pontypool” does — and does very well — it’s to take the zombie movie in a bold new direction by opening up some seriously new and (therefore naturally) previously-unexplored territory for a genre that many folks feel has become a bit shopworn in recent years.

Oh, don’t get me wrong — in many respects, McDonald’s film is very much a traditional  low-budget walking-corpse story. The principal cast of characters is very small. The action, such as there is, take place in an enclosed location with our protagonists under siege from the spreading undead infection that surrounds them (essentially Romero’s stock-in-trade scenario for his first three “Dead” films). And (again like Romero) the zombie plague, and the reaction of the surviving humans to it, serve, at their core,  as  stand-ins  for the filmmaker to cast light on certain contemporary sociopolitical issues.

So what, then, can truly be said to be so new about “Pontypool”?

That’s where reviewing this film gets tricky. Because you can’t give away what’s new and different and altogether revitalizing (how’s that for an ironic choice of words when talking about a walking-dead movie?) about this film without giving away some major plot points and therefore trashing the element of surprise for any potential viewers that might be out there. Suffice to say that I’ll offer just a couple of clues : in one scene a copy of Neal Stephenson’s cult classic science fiction novel “Snow Crash” can be seen lying on a desk, and it’s no accident that I chose to open this review by saying that I hope strong word-of-mouth buzz among horror fans will get this film wider attention. And I’ll say no more than that.

Writer  Tony Burgess, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel “Pontypool Changes Everything,” has really hit on a novel approach for how the zombification virus is spread here that utterly redefines both how one can become a zombie, and what it means to even be one. Yes, of course, it’s still transmitted from one carrier to the next, but that’s where any similarity to the living dead of old ends.  Because with “Pontypool,” all notions of how it’s spread, and for that matter why (the implications — and that’s all they are, implications — of who might be ultimately responsible for the origins of this particular plague are truly chilling) are completely blown out the window.

Radio shock-jock Grant Mazzy (veteran Canadian actor Stephen McHattie, best known to American and international audiences as Hollis Mason, the first Night Owl, in “Watchmen”) has gotten himself sacked from his (unspecified) major-market gig over a Don Imus-type brouhaha (again, the specifics are unspecified) and has found work in the only place he can, as the morning show host for an AM station that broadcasts out of a church in the small town of Pontypool, Ontario ( I looked it up and it’s a real place). How much of a comedown is this for our guy Grant? Well, the “eye in the sky” traffic commute reporter in Pontypool phones in his reports from his car that’s parked on top of the biggest hill in town and plays helicopter sound effects in the background, and the biggest local news story is an old woman’s missing cat (the name of which will have significance later).

Stephen McHattie as Grant Mazzy

With Grant in the studio are his producer, Sydney Briar (McHattie’s real-life wife, actress Lisa Houle), and his technician, a recently-returned Afghan war vet  named  Laurel-Ann Drummond (Georgina Reilly). That’s about it for the main cast of characters, apart from the town doctor who plays a part later.

What begins as a day not unlike any other quickly turns strange, however, when Grant begins to get phoned-in reports about a mob of crazed people converging on said town doctor’s office. Then more reports start to come in about large groups of people acting strangely and attacking random folks in the city, in the woods, and on the highways. Some of the reports, such as one about a car carrying a family being literally buried under a herd — that term is used specifically — of people are so bizarre (and so much more effective when heard and not seen —  showing anything like that on this film’s budget would have resulted in yet another cheap CGI spectacle, and we’ve had more than enough of those in more than enough other movies) that Grant and his cohorts don’t know whether or not they’re being played for fools in some sort of massive, town-wide hoax. When an in-studio guest starts behaving strangely, though, they know something’s up.

Soon the BBC is calling. More and more truly unbelievable reports are coming in. And it’s soon quite obvious that this cold and snowy late-winter morning has brought something entirely new and dreadful to the sleepy hamlet of Pontypool. When one of their own, Laurel-Ann, begins to transform, all pretense (or hope) that it might be some sick and elaborate joke is gone.

Laurel-Ann's had better days

When the full-scale zombie siege of the studio finally begins in earnest, our protagonists are still trying to figure out, on the fly, how it can possibly be stopped, so flabbergasted ( and, for that matter, only partially informed)  are they as to the nature of the infection and it’s mode of transmission.  It’s pretty damn tough to figure out how to stop something if you barely understand how it works and find it hard to believe what little you do know.

Throughout the film, the claustrophobic studio setting and incredibly small cast of characters really works in terms of presenting the us-vs.-them, inside world-vs.-outside world, “bunker mentality” sense of atmospherics so essential to this story’s success. Sure, it’s indicative of a very tight budget, but it’s also indicative of how said tight budget can really be harnessed to the story’s advantage. Less is indeed more.

And speaking of less and more, now would be the time to point out that gorehounds are sure to be disappointed here. The level of blood and guts on display is pretty damn low, but that only makes it all the more shocking and disturbing when the violence really does start to hit home. Have no fear, though — even though the gross FX quotient here is pretty low,what few there  are really are  quite effectively staged and presented. That being said, though, the majority of the horror is “Pontypool” is psychological, and in the best horror tradition, what’s not shown is much scarier than what is, allowing the viewer to imagine in his or her own mind the unfolding terror taking place outside the studio walls — and threatening, of course, to get in.

A major hit at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival, “Pontypool” nonetheless received scant theatrical distribution. It played some in Canada and on a small handful of  art-house screens in major US markets and got some play at various horror conventions and independent film festivals, but that was about it.

Now, the good folks at IFC (Independent Film Channel), which handled the distribution rights, have hit us with a one-two “Pontypool” punch : it’s just been released on DVD, and is also playing on IFC On Demand on cable TV. The DVD looks and sounds great, with crisp, clear 16:9 letterboxed picture (as if it wouldn’t, it’s essentially a brand new film) and top-notch 5.1 Surround sound mix. A commentary track featuring McDonald and Burgess is included (the good news from it — they’re planning two sequels!), there’s a selection of independent Canadian short films, the theatrical trailer is thrown in, and best of all there’s also the full-length original CBC radio drama (presented along with corresponding  stills from the film to make it easier to follow the audio action) that McDonald and Burgess developed before the full movie project was green-lighted.

They want in!

“Pontypool” isn’t just the best zombie film of the year (and I say this as someone who absolutely loved “Zombieland,” although it’s technically true that this was a 2008 production and that was 2009), it’s the best zombie film in many years. Entertainment Weekly has already declared it one of the 25 best of all time in the genre. And while I’m usually not one to agree with any statement found in any gossipy Hollywood rag, much less one that features a regular column by Diablo Cody, in this case they’re absolutely right. Hell, I’d go so far as to say it’s top 10 material.

So see it already.

Oh, and spread the word — it’s the only thematically appropriate response. That’s as close to a hint as I dare to get.

"Deadgirl" Movie Poster

"Deadgirl" Movie Poster

Continuing with our little not-really-a-countdown-in-the-strictest-sense-but movies-that-make-good viewing-this-time-of-year-in-any-particular-order-anyway, we come to one of the more controversial indie horrors of recent years, newcomers Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel’s “Deadgirl” (with screenplay by Troma alum Trent Haaga).

This movie raised a lot of eyebrows (and hopefully only eyebrows) when it hit the independent and genre festival circuit this past year, and now that it’s received a (damn comprehensive, with commentary from cast and crew, an exhaustive “making-of” documentary, trailers, promo spots, and the like) DVD release from Dark Sky Films, your host gave it a look last week and found it was well worth at least a rental provided you can stomach the initial premise, which I must admit it something of a tall order.

Simply put, juvenile delinquent outcasts (think underachieving “Trench Coat Mafia” wannabes) Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) and J.T. (Noah Segan) decide to do what they do best one day, namely skip school, and go fuck around in a long-abandoned mental hospital. Not the kind of thing I usually got up to when cutting class, but hey, that’s kids these days for you. Anyway, while they’re tearing around in a tunnel underneath the main building, they become would-be prety for a vicious doberman that’s on the premises for reasons that are never even close to explained (guess it just lives there) and in their desperate bid to run away from the hungry canine they come across a gig old MF’ing metal door that they figure they can open up and slam shut behind them, then wait inside whatever sort of room lies behind it until the doberman gets bored and moves on.

There’s just one problem : the door is quite literally rusted shut. To make a short story even shorter, they do of course not-so-eventually prise the door open and get away from the dog, and inside they find a crummy, damp, disused cellar-type room with a dead naked girl wrapped in plastic laying on a table inside of it. J.T., horny teenage ne’er-do-well that he is, seems rather taken with the female corpse at his disposal and decides within a couple of minutes to fuck her, dead or not. Except she’s not. Or she is. Or she—well, hell, she’s a flesh-eating zombie.

Rickie, the closest thing that passes for a conscience in the movie, is quite rightly repulsed by the whole idea and high-tails it out of there when his efforts to talk J.T. out of his stupid idea lead to a fistfight. Besides, our guy Rickie is sweet on a real-live girl who won’t give him the time of day, anyway.

J.T. quickly becomes lost in his little depraved fantasy world, skipping even more school than usual (in fact, never going), and spending all his time with his chained-up dead —ummm—“paramour.” He also shoots his mouth off about his cool (as in absolutely frigid) find to another buddy, Wheeler (Eric Podnar), and he in starts getting his rocks off in the zombie lady, as well—and then shoots his mouth off to a couple of asshole jocks at school in order to—I shit you not—try to sound like a cool dude who’s getting some pussy.

One thing leads, of course, to another, and through the jocks we learn that our zombie chick follows the classic “Romero Rules” of the living dead and passes on her infection via biting. The preppie jock asshole who gets bit is the boyfriend on the girls that Rickie likes and pretty soon she shows up in the cellar, as well, and—well, the details at this stage are pretty unimportant since it’s the basic premise itself that is the film’s real “grabber.”

Of all the rather inventive new takes on the zombie genre that have come along in recent years — another of which we’ll be getting to on this countdown when we take a look at another recent indie horror, Paul Solet’s “Grace” — I must say that a zombie as sex slave/fucktoy is one I’d certainly never considered. Which probably says that I’m more well-adjusted than I think. Let’s be honest—if the basic premise of this film doesn’t sicken you, then you’ve got some serious issues.

If you can get over the hump (no pun, dear God, intended) of the genuinely revolting basic set-up (and if you’re like me a setup that twisted literally compels you to keep watching in an effort to, at the very least, see how much you can stomach), then what we’ve really got here is a pretty well-done coming-of-age story about throwaway kids in our modern culture. Rickie seems alright enough apart from being sullen and carrying a gun around, and J.T. is the classic “bad influence,” trying to corrupt the character the audience is meant to, at least partially and reluctantly, identify with, and basically the real dramatic tension here is seeing whether or not Rickie will come over to the dark side or, if not, just how far J.T. can push him before he pushes back. So, for all that the horror community has been buzzing over “Deadgirl,”  in truth underneath all the mega-controversy lies a rather standard story of  a confused youth trying to find his way, albeit one that’s pretty well done.

Fernandez, for his part, turns in a standout performance as Rickie, with a sort of Joaquin Phoenix-esque “dangerous cool” tempered with a believable amount of hopeless loserability. He’s the only character who’s at all multi-dimensional and he pulls off the task of making Rickie repulsively believable quite nicely. Jenny Spain as the deadgirl herself deserves special mention for even having the guts to take the part, and given that she has two — ummm — “moods,” namely absolutely docile and absolutely rabid, I have to say she nails (sorry—really, no pun intended again) both perfectly.

The cold clinical precision of the film’s atmosphere is nicely brought to life by directors Sarmiento and Harel, and its muted color palette and the intricate simplicity of its extremely precise shot selection further adds to the dirty-yet-paradoxically-antiseptic ethos of the piece, the dichotomy of which provides a constant yet not-too-heavyhanded visual representation of Rickie’s own inner dualistic struggle.

Pretentious description? Yes, guilty as charged — but accurate nonetheless.

As for the ending—you really do see it coming. But it’s still sort of quietly tragic because you want Rickie to be better than he ends up being.And no, despite how that reads, I’m really not giving much of anything away.

One thing you won’t walk away with after seeing “Deadgirl” is much hope in America’s youth. This flick paints a relentlessly grim and way-too-accurate picture of what it means to be a young outcast in today’s society, and the “accepted” type who “fit in” come off as being even worse than the losers.

I guess what I’m saying is that ultimately, as in reality itself,  there are no “good guys” in “Deadgirl.”  Just tremendously flawed human beings (and a zombie sex prisoner), some of whom are less repulsive than others—and the ultimate failing of the one who seems okay is much more sobering than witnessing the outright depravity of the kid who’s just no damn good from the start.

“Deadgirl” is short on redemption but long on honesty, and for that reason, moreso than it’s shocking premise, it’s a pretty gutsy little piece of filmmaking.