Posts Tagged ‘zombie’

"Survival Of The Dead" Movie Poster

I guess I’m an old-school horror fan (or maybe I’m just old), but to this reviewer the theatrical opening of a new George Romero “Dead” movie is still a big deal. Always has been, always will be. And that’s why, even though his latest, George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead has been available for purchase online and on demand on cable for a couple of weeks now (it also opened theatrically in Europe about a month before it did here in the US) and I’ve been chomping at the bit to see it, I’ve resisted. I wanted to see it on the big screen, with an audience (an audience, it should be noted, that’s probably been pretty effectively boiled down to nothing but Romero die-hards like myself after the — shall we say — less than enthusiastic reception for Diary of the Dead) — because damnit, even though this opening wasn’t an “event,” per se, it still counts as one in my book. I guess I’m just stubborn like that.

So the question now is — was it worth the wait? Obviously the theatrical release, limited as it is, can only be described as formality on the part of Magnolia Pictures and their Magnet imprint — they know this thing isn’t gonna recoup its costs in theaters, and it’ll probably be gone in a week. Like so much indie horror, they’re counting on alternative “viewing platforms” providing nearly all of the audience for this film. And so it goes. 42 years (think about that for just a second — 42 fucking years! This guy has been making zombie films for nearly half a century!) after Night of the Living Dead, the creator of the modern zombie genre is well and truly back to his independent roots, albeit for completely different reasons than those that prevailed in 1968.

Back then, Romero was just a young guy who made local TV commercials in the Pittsburgh area and there was no reason for Hollywood to take a chance on him. He had to go it alone and find independent distribution for his film because that was the only choice had had. Today,  he has to go the independent route because there’s a sense that the times have passed old George by, and that he just doesn’t “have it” anymore.

As is my wont to do with conventional “wisdom,” your humble host is here to piss all over that notion.

Romero's zombies : still hungry after all these years

Survival of the Dead picks up immediately after the events in 2007’s Diary of the Dead, so rather than viewing this as Romero’s sixth “Dead” film (even though it is), it’s probably best to think of it as the second film in his second “zombie cycle,” since Diary took us back to the beginning. Our focal point here character-wise is the ragtag renegade National Guard unit-turned-highwaymen we met briefly in Diary when they held up the fleeing students’ RV.  Thanks to the wonder of internet cell phone connections, they’ve learned about a place called Plum Island, off the coast of Delaware, that’s supposedly a zombie-free paradise.

When our ragtag band of Uncle Sam’s formerly-finest led by Sergeant “Nicotine” Crockett (Alan Van Sprang) arrives at the ferry crossing to the island, though, they find they’ve been set up by the crusty old Irish sailor who sent out the internet greeting to the world, one Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Welsh), who intends to trade safe passage to the island for — well — everything they’ve got, which in this case happens to include a million bucks’ cash.

Needless to say, the Sarge and his boys (and one girl, a lesbian solider nicknamed, drearily enough, “Tomboy” and played by Athena Karkanis) aren’t going for this and a battle ensues between O’Flynn and his cohorts, the renegade military unit, and whatever zombies happen to be mulling about on the ferry.

After “Tomboy” saves O’Flynn’s life, they all make sorta-nice and head for Plum Island together — there’s just one problem. O’Flynn’s become persona non grata there since he and the patriarch of the other large island clan, a hard-ass named Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick) don’t exactly see eye to eye on how best to deal with the undead menace. O’Flynn’s  a shoot-’em-all-in-the-head sort of guy, while Muldoon wants to train them to eat something other than human flesh if possible and keep ’em around for — well, I dunno, domestication, I guess, although he’s big into family, as well, and probably just doesn’t like the idea of pumping lead into the skulls of his loved ones if he doesn’t have to, even if they are, you know, dead. The fact that the two families have a generations-long blood feud going on between them (think of them as the Irish version of the Hatfields and the McCoys) doesn’t help matters, either.

The families have shared the island uneasily over the years, with the O’Flynns making their living as fishermen while the Muldoons have earned their livelihood as ranchers (I didn’t know ranching was a big thing in Delaware, but there you have it). So anyway, the premise has some holes in it (and the amount of inbreeding on the island must be crazy).

It’s also, dare I say it, repetitious — essentially what we’ve got going on here is the exact same set-up as Romero’s earlier Day of the Dead, although this time the roles are reversed. In Day, the people who wanted to attempt to domesticate the walking corpses were the smart (if still crazy) ones — the “heroes” of the story, if you will. This time around, they’re the unscrupulous assholes. And while this time Romero’s got a whole island to play around with rather than Day‘s underground military research bunker, it doesn’t change the fact that premise-wise, we’re pretty much in firmly familiar territory here.

Patrick O'Flynn don't take no shit from no zombies

Other problems persist : while most of the acting is certainly competent (something that couldn’t be said for Diary), the OTT stereotypical Irish accents do start to grate after awhile, and make O’Flynn and Muldoon feel more like caricatures than fully-fleshed-out characters. The time frame is problematic as well : this supposedly takes place just six days after the dead started walking, yet Muldoon has hatched his plan to try to coexist (or maybe that should be enslave) the zombie hordes pretty damn quickly. Also, the zombies exhibit the type of familiar-to-their-real-lives actions (think Bub from Day “Big Daddy” from Land of the Dead) that, in previous Romero lore, it took them years to come around to (there’s a hysterical scene with a chained-up living dead mailman delivering the same letters to the same box over and over again).

Still, there’s an awful lot here Romero gets right.  The zombies themselves have an unknown quality to them that’s been missing for some time, and there’s a sense that the standard “Romero rules” may not necessarily apply across the board. the effects work, apart from a couple of crap CGI sequences, are generally good, and the blood-n’-guts are handles with the level of aplomb we’ve come to expect. the interactions beween the characters are handled in a pleasingly naturalistic manner, giving us real insight into how real people deal with the by-now-done-to-death scenario of a “zombie apocalypse.” And of course, the question of who’s actually worse, them or us — a staple of Romero’s flicks from the beginning — is brought to chillingly effective life through the demented actions of Seamus Muldoon and his clan.

The family blood feud adds an interesting wrinkle, as well, and gives us a look at a heretofore unexplored facet of life in world overrun by the dead — how the tensions of a new and altogether deadly situation can either serve to transcend age-old tensions (think of Yugoslavia — everyone was pretty much united in their hatred of the Soviet interlopers, yet the minute the dreaded commies were gone all the age-old ethnic tensions came bubbling back to the surface resulting in — well, you know) or, in this case, exacerbate them even further.

As with Diary, given the proximity of events here to the beginning of the shambling-corpse onslaught, the zombies themselves aren’t as “far gone” in appearance as they were in movies like Day and Land. they’re more at the level of physical putrefaction we saw in Dawn on the Dead, although there’s more overall goriness to their look than the simply greyish-blue facepaint many of them sported in that classic film.

As for the conclusion, well, that’s right outta Day as well, with the zombies kept as “research subjects” by Muldoon turned loose to wreak havoc on the island, with the added wrinkle here being that against this backdrop the blood feud between his kinfolk and the O’Flynn’s is finally settled once and for all (or is it? I don’t want to give too much away, but the film’s final scene does show that age-old enmity carries on even after death. I’ll say no more and have probably said too much already). As for the survivors (such as there are) from our now-freelance National Guard crew, well, that’s where we get another interesting wrinkle on Day‘s premise — rather than escaping to an island at the end, these folks decide to get the hell off the island. One major problem with the ending that I won’t divulge too many details about — Romero’s trademark social commentary, which had been pleasingly relegated to a more figure-it-out-for-yourself status (as opposed to the pounding-you-over-the-head-with it he did in Diary) really does take over and get pretty damn preachy for the last minute or two. It’s not enough to dimish your overall enjoyment of what is, aforementioned niggles aside, still a well-done zombie flick, but why George can’t just trust his audiences enough to figure out what he’s saying anymore (it’s never too far in the background, after all) is beyond me. He  achieves the classic balance between horror and sociopolitical allegory throughout this film, then breaks his old sledgehammer from Diary back out for the conclusion.

What you see this movie for --- zombies on the loose!

And speaking of Romero as social commentator, while it does get admittedly heavy at the tail end, it’s still, on the whole, pleasing to see that he hasn’t abandoned this angle to his cinematic storytelling. You go into a George Romero “Dead” film expecting sociopolitical allegory, after all, whether it be Night of the Living Dead‘s none-too-subtle parallels with race relations at the time and its firm stance in support of black civil rights, Dawn of the Dead‘s absolutely blistering (yet, perhaps paradoxically, quite understated) critique of consumerism, Day of the Dead‘s exploration of Reagan-era militarism and the Cold War “bunker mentality,” Land of the Dead‘s savaging of Bush-era “War on Terrorism” bullshit and the outright evil that is gated “communities” (an oxymoron if ever there was one), or Diary of the Dead‘s annoyingly-overstated-yet-nonetheless-spot-on take on both the voyeurism and, ironically enough I suppose, narcissism at the heart of today’s YouTube-style “culture” of “emerging media.”

While Survival of the Dead doesn’t exactly tackle any new symptoms of our overall cultural malaise, mining instead, as mentioned (or at least implied) the same thematic ground as Day, taking that exploration of “bunker mentality”-style tribalism and nativism out of a Cold War setting and transposing it into today’s world of racist Arizona immigration laws,  ugly nationalism and xenophobia expressed in the form of right-wing “Tea Party” pseudo-populism, and anti-Muslim hysteria, isn’t necessarily indicative of any creative bankruptcy on Romero’s part, it just shows that he understands that while circumstances may have changed, the essential dangers inherent in any sort of “us-vs.-them” mentality persist.

As you’ve probably been able to gather by now, Survival of the Dead is shy, by several orders of magnitude, of being the absolute spot-on classic that Romero’s first three “Dead” films were. But enough of what makes those movies so movies so undeniably compelling, even after all these years, is still here — the characterization, the sociopolitical analysis, the technical expertise in terms of editing and pacing, the humor, the heart, and, yes, the splatter — to make it well worth your time.  Modern zombie flicks, be they comedies like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland,  action-thrillers like the Resident Evil films, or contemporary thoughtful meditations on the human condition in the face of  apocalypse like the 28 Days and Weeks Later all have bits and parts of the George Romero legacy in there somewhere, but to date no one has been able to combine each of those various elements to achieve all the possibilities inherent in the zombie film in the way that the man himself has done — and continues to do. Survival of the Dead isn’t on the same level as his best work, but it’s still miles ahead of what anyone else has been able to accomplish within the genre he created.

"Grace" Movie Poster

"Grace" Movie Poster

We promised — or threatened, depending on how you look at it — to take a look at first-time writer-director Paul Solet’s rather disturbing little indie horror “Grace” in a previous entry in our not-really-a-countdown,  and now seems as good a time as any to engage in a critical overview of this film that’s got a pretty solid little “buzz” going for itself thanks to a largely well-received run on the horror convention and indie festival circuit last year being that it’s just been a couple of weeks since Anchor Bay released it in the form of a very nicely-done DVD that includes (just to get the specs out of the way) a great 5.1 sound mix, stellar 16:9 picture, and extras galore including a nice little “making-of” featurette and an exhaustive feature-length commentary track from Solet and company detailing just about everything you’d want to know about the movie’s origins and its various production stages. Clearly Anchor Bay have pulled out all the stops in providing a first-class package to showcase this film, something of a rarity for a flick that barely saw any theatrical play and marks an untested filmmaker’s debut effort. In short, they clearly believe they have a winner on their hands with “Grace,” but the question is — do they?

The answer, I’m pleased to say, is “yes” — although it’s a “yes” with a few reservations, which we’ll get to in due course.

Madeline and Michael Matheson (Jordan Ladd and Stephen Park, respectively), are a very well-to-do yuppie couple (he’s a lawyer — I think, and she’s essentially a bored rich housewife — again, I think) who have been trying desperately to conceive after Madeline’s last pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage. She’s now happily eight months pregnant again, and despite the reservations of stereotypical mother-in-law-from-hell Vivian (Gabrielle Rose), a judge who seems to have connections in the medical as well as legal professions, they’re forgoing the typical hospital-birth route and employing the services of a very pricey midwife, one Patricia Lang (Samantha Ferris), a woman who Madeline was friends (at least, perhaps more than that) with in college who’s steered them in the direction of one of those water-births that are all the rage among the holistic/natural set these days. This is rather more in keeping with the couple’s vegan/health-conscious lifestyle, and despite humoring Vivian by paying a visit to her personal physician, Dr. Richard Sohn (Malcolm Stewart), their minds are made up.

And then, tragedy strikes. On the way home from an appointment at Patricia’s office, they’re involved in a horrible car crash that Madeline survives, but Michael and their unborn child do not.

In a move that Sarah Palin would no doubt approve of, Madeline decides to carry the baby to full term and give birth to a stillborn child. She even goes ahead with the whole water-birth scenario just as planned. And that’s when things start to get pretty damn nuts, because within moments after delivering the supposedly dead baby, Madeline puts the little girl right up to her breast and wouldn’t you know, it start feeding—and feeding—and feeding—and the little tyke’s not after her mother’s milk, it’s after her blood.

I don’t know what you’d do in a situation like that, but our girl Madeline names the baby Grace and brings her home.

The rather gorgeous Jordan Ladd as Madeline with her monster-baby, Grace

The rather gorgeous Jordan Ladd as Madeline with her monster-baby, Grace

And you know? I can sort of understand this admittedly warped decision. Imagine you’ve been trying for years to have a baby and nothing’s worked out. Then, when things are finally looking up, both the baby and your husband are lost to you in an instant. You have the kid anyway, and damn if it isn’t — at least seemingly — alive. Bloodthirsty little shit or not, you’d probably think it’s very existence was a miracle, which Madeline clearly does.

Sure, there are signs something’s not quite right almost immediately. Flies buzz around the infant’s crib like crazy.  The child has a foul odor. And then there’s all that blood-drinking.

But this baby is not only the answer to all Madeline’s prayers, it’s also a living connection to her now-dead husband. And of course, for Vivian, that also means it’s a living connection to her son.

There’s a problem, though — Madeline knows something’s wrong and she won’t let Vivian — or anyone else, for that matter — inside the house to see little Grace. After all,  how do you explain hanging roll after roll of fly paper from the ceiling in the baby’s room? Okay, maybe she just plain doesn’t want the old bitch-on-wheels anywhere near her kid, but in truth, practically speaking, she can’t let her see Grace because it would take a completely blinded fool — which Madeline surely knows she’s become but frankly doesn’t care — not to see that there’s a serious problem with the kid.

As Madeline’s mental health deteriorates, her physical health does, as well. The little tyke’s draining way too much of her blood and she’s become badly anemic as a result, so in order to satiate the six-pound bundle of evil (and by the way, is Grace more a zombie or a vampire? I’m going with vampire given the whole blood-drinking thing, but you could make an argument for her being a zombie-baby, as well, given that she is, quite literally, the living dead, as opposed to the “undead” status vampires “enjoy” — but I digress, the kid’s a monster any way you slice it, which camp it belongs to is a purely academic question) she turns to killing others since she can’t keep up with its constant demand for the red stuff and stay alive herself — and who doesn’t want the privilege of being around to watch a demon-child grow up?

There’s some seriously authentic drama between Madeline and Vivian as the elder, sensing something is seriously wrong, hatches a plot with the previously-mentioned Dr. Sohn to get Grace away from her mother. Hell, she even dusts off her old breast pump, not knowing that the baby will have other plans for her mammaries if she ever does manage to wrest it away from Madeline.

Our erstwhile blinded-by-motherly-love heroine, however, has an ally, too, in the form of Patricia, who evidently still harbors some feelings for her, much to the chagrin of her current lady-love who works as her clinical assistant.

Now, from what I’m told, this kind of shit is pretty common when a husband dies during his wife’s pregnancy. The mother-in-law become seriously unhealthily attached to the infant — but in this case, whoever ends up with the kid is the real loser, so by the time Madeline and Vivian do have their inevitable confrontation, you’re not quite sure who to root for, since neither of them seem particularly great candidates for raising a child by this point, both consumed as they are more with the need to be needed by the baby  than anything resembling love any longer, yet whoever does end up with the kiddo is essentially as good as dead.

I’ve probably given away more than enough at this point, but hopefully not too much. Suffice to say, “Grace” works as both a horror and slice of realistic (well, as realistic as can be given the circumstances) fucked-up psychodrama. It take an unbelievable-on-its-face situation and makes it believable, thus succeeding in being a truly domestic horror.

As I said earlier, though, there are some flaws. A scene where Dr. Sohn pays Madeline an unexpected visit, diagnoses her anemic condition, and then gives her a thoroughly sadistic tutorial on the proper use of a breast pump despite her weakened state is so over-the-top sadistic that it borders on being darkly humorous in a film that, frankly, has no sense of humor whatsoever. It’s jarring and incongruous and thoroughly disrupts the flow of the film. Then we’ve got the whole rather disturbing subtext of female breast mutilation that runs throughout the film. I mean, for a movie where you never see any boob at all (unusual enough for a horror flick), this is the most creepily breast-obsessed movie you could imagine. Whether it’s Grace getting at her mom’s blood through her bosom, or Vivian getting out her dusty old pump, or the doc giving Madeline an altogether inappropriate, very hands-on lesson in pump use, or the really warped and cringeworthy scene at the very end that I won’t say anything about, this is the most mammary-fixated non-porno movie you’re ever likely to see, and after awhile it stops feeling integral to the plot and starts feeling downright prurient. Suffice to say, the abused-boob theme gets taken way too far.

On the technical side,  my only gripe is that the camerawork of Zoran Popovic (“War, Inc.”), along with the lighting and set design, while very professionally executed in all respects, is seriously clinical and antiseptic, in much the same way “Deadgirl” is. The overly-orchestrated visual aesthetic works a lot better in “Deadgirl,” though, since it’s so incongruous to absolutely repulsively dingy subject matter that the dichotomy really strikes a chord. Here, though, I’d have to say that “Grace” would benefit from a little more chaos and dischord in terms of its overall aesthetics, especially in later scenes, as it would really serve to drive home the trainwreck that Madeline’s life has become thanks to her little hellspawn.

That’s pretty much it as far as the complaint department goes, though. On the whole, “Grace” explores territory few other films can, let alone should. Paul Solet has proven himself to be a new, and rather daring, voice to be reckoned with in the horror genre, even if he does sometimes let his own unhealthy fixations get in the way of telling a good story. He knows how to bring horror down to a human level we can all understand and all be both frightened and sickened by in equal measure, and he creates characters that are both hopelessly fucked up and all too real at the same time.  And regardless of whether or not you can forgive its flaws or stomach its morbid obsessions, “Grace”  is undoubtedly a film you have a very hard time shaking out of your head, because at its core is a dark truth that we can all relate to — our children need us for a time, but ultimately, they’re here to take our place after we’re gone. Every parent that has ever told their kid “you’re going to be the death of me” wasn’t just tossing out a throwaway guilt-trip line, they were giving voice, whether conscious of it or not, to a primal fear that lies at the heart of parenthood.

Fortunately for most of us, however, we won’t actually meet our end at our son’s and/ or daughter’s  hands. Or their mouths.