Wednesday, October 24, 2012

FEATURE: LoEB ''This Is Halloween'' Part 2: Revenge from the Grave

You know, I had so much fun yesterday with this week's League of Extraordinary Bloggers assignment that I've decided - in true horror franchise tradition - that there's room for a sequel (whether you want it or not.) So here it is...

If you missed yesterday's post, the main thrust of the piece was to celebrate Halloween traditions. And as my tradition is to watch a buttload of scary movies, that's what I went with. But to add a little twist to proceedings, today's movie list isn't about scary, unsettling or creepy movies. It's about the grossest, ickiest and most gory of genres: the Zombie Movie.

And before we proceed, know that this list isn't a definitive ''Best Of'' or intended to in any way pass judgement over the movies listed. Rather it's simply about sharing a few obscure - and maybe not so obscure - movies for those looking for a few zombie-themed thrills.

Night of the Living Dead
The film that virtually invented the modern zombie genre, Night of the Living Dead is still a surprisingly effective bit of cinema. Although personally I prefer the earlier scenes (such as the graveyard chase) and things do get a little bogged-down when everybody starts bickering (although this is probably due to the fact that the idea of humans being unable to put aside their petty differences for the greater good has become such a trope in zombie movies) it's still a very creepy, unnerving movie. It's also surprising just how gory the movie is, although the impact of the undead feeding upon the flesh of the living is perhaps a little muted due to the film being shot in black and white.

Shot for just over $100,000 the movie went on to gross over $30 million, spawned a number of sequels and essentially invented a new movie genre. Not bad at all...

Night of the Living Dead has also been remade on two occasions. The 1990s version is the better of the two, particularly for people who've seen the original (there are a number of gags where expectations are reversed and the script plays a lot with the original's events) and the character of Barbara - who really didn't seem to get to do much in the original - gets to actually be involved in the action. And unlike the 2006 remake (AKA Night of the Living Dead 3D)  it seems the moviemakers did genuinely have some respect for the original.

Zombi/Zombi 2/Zombie Flesh Eaters
Following the release of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead (which we're skipping because I don't think it's as good as a lot of fans claim and if the truth is known, I enjoyed the 2004 remake more) Italian director Lucio Fulci decided to produce his own unofficial prequel to the movie, which was released in Italy under the title of Zombi and explored events that led up to the zombie outbreak.

Despite its reputation as being an absolute gorefest (and yes there are some very bloody scenes of death and for a number of years the uncut version was banned in most countries) Zombi 2 manages to do something few zombie flicks pull off, in that it's incredibly atmospheric. There's an almost otherworldly sense about the way in which the movie is shot, edited and recorded that really gets under your skin before you even see the zombies, which owe more to Haitian voodoo than space-born radiation. And of course, there's that theme tune which for me ranks right up there with the Halloween and Twilight Zone themes in terms of creepy.

And yes, that is a zombie battling a shark.

The Alien Dead
I'm a big fan of low-budget horror and I like directors who don't play by the studio's rules. For me horror movies have been ruined by big budgets and people looking to turn art into business. Of course, movies are a business but that doesn't mean you have to whore yourself to whatever demographic is most likely to buy the t-shirt of the cereal based on your movie's sequel. Thankfully there are no such worries on that front with The Alien Dead.

The first feature of maverick genius Fred Olen Ray (whose softcore erotica you may have seen on late night cable TV), The Alien Dead was made on an incredibly low budget using, what I assume to be, amateur actors and friends of the director. Although it also marks the last movie appearance of Flash Gordon himself,  Buster Crabbe. So yes, it looks cheap, the edits are rough, scenes are poorly lit and there are some very over-the-top performances to be had but for all that it's actually a lot of fun. And I don't mean in a Birdemic ''what the what?'' fashion. I mean it's a genuinely entertaining zombie flick that deserves to be seen by a larger audience.

Burial Ground
If there's one thing it seems Italians love - aside from their mothers, riding mopeds and football - it's zombie movies. Presumably the release of Zombi (as mentioned above) struck a nerve with their collective consciousness (or their movie industry cottoned on to the idea that zombie flicks could be made quickly and cheaply) because over the next decade Italy produced over six billion zombie movies. OK, so maybe not quite that many but it certainly seems that way.

Burial Ground is one such super-cheap cash-in that would have probably been forgotten along with the other sixty eight zombie flicks released that day were it not for the presence of the awesome Peter Bark. 

You see, rather than cast a child actor (presumably because of the movie's violence and the script's Oedipal Complex scenario) the producers called in an adult to play the role, complete with bad wig and more than a passing resemblance to Dario Argento, who, when he's not trying to shag his mother (yes, they really do go there) gets to deliver such awesome lines as ''Mummy! This cloth smells of death!''

Burial Ground is hardly a good movie but it's a movie I guarantee fans of the genre will enjoy.

Dead & Breakfast
Sadly overshadowed by the release of Shaun of the Dead, Dead & Breakfast is another ZomCom that pokes fun at the genre. But whereas Shaun of the Dead was clearly a homage/pastiche of the Romero movies, Dead & Breakfast is much closer in tone to The Evil Dead. The ''zombies'' for example, are bodies possessed by magic (rather than a virus-based reanimation) and the humor is more in the same vein of slapstick-meets-gross-out.

And then there's the song and dance routine.

Yes, you read that right. Song and dance routine. Which is actually a lot more fun than you'd expect it to be.

But what's particularly good about Dead & Breakfast is that - like Shaun of the Dead - it's actually a pretty good zombie movie in its own right. There are characters to care about, some good gore, a few scares and a plot that always keeps you engaged until the very end. Definitely an overlooked gem.

Oh no! A found footage movie! But unlike all the post-Blair Witch Project wannabes, Spanish horror flick [REC] not only has a legitimate rationale for the use of the first-person camerawork (being based around a TV show) but is also a damned good movie.

Like The Blair Witch Project, [REC]'s script builds slowly. We're given time to understand what's going on (or rather, like the protagonists, not understand what's going on), time to learn about the characters and - best of all - the anticipation of the oncoming terror is kept at just the right level to keep the audience engaged but without giving away its best tricks too early. Claustrophobic, intense and genuinely disturbing, [REC] is - as is usually the case - vastly superior to the remake, Quarantine. Even if you've seen the US version, do yourself a favor and give the original - and indeed the sequel [REC2] - a look.

And if you still want more, here are a few ''harmless'' (or should I say ''armless?'') zombie flicks you may enjoy.

Severed: Forest of the Dead
Modern zombie flicks are ten-a-penny these days and the vast majority are pretty forgettable. But of these more recent movies I have to admit that Severed: Forest of the Dead stuck with me for some time after I'd finished my viewing. If you asked me why I'd have to admit that I really didn't know. There's nothing particularly different or unique about it (although the origin of the infection is new to me) beyond the fact that  it's actually pretty well made, performances are strong and it's a good, fun way to pass 90 minutes.

Abraham Lincoln Vs Zombies
The Asylum's mockbuster - sorry ''tie-in'' - of the big budget Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Abraham Lincoln Vs Zombies is actually a pretty fun and - yes - smart zombie flick. It's literally exactly what you'd expect it to be, namely 90 minutes of Honest Abe hacking zombies to pieces but if the idea of that appeals then you'll enjoy this flick for sure, because that's what it delivers.

Zombie Lake
Probably the most famous entry in the underwater Nazi zombie subgenre (yes, it really exists) Zombie Lake's is a heady mix of skinny-dipping women (who magically seem to be transported to an indoor pool for all the underwater shots), zombies whose green make-up is not only limited to their faces but also washes off and best of all a script that seems unable to decide if the movie is set in the present day or just mere years after the end of World War II (and yes, that's actually an important plot point.) So terrible even the Master of Bad Movies, Jean Rollin, changed his directing credit to JA Lazer.

The Video Dead
Despite its low budget and generally 80s-tastic production values, The Video Dead has a number of seriously creepy moments, courtesy of the dead ''seeing'' the viewer and emerging from their TVs. If that scene from Ringu got to you then you'll love this.

Wild Zero and Versus
Finally, two low-budget Japanese zombie movies. Whereas Wild Zero is an anarchic romantic-comedy-action-flick that's plays out like some kind of 50s teen rebel acid trip, Versus is essentially two hours of the Yakuza fighting zombies in a forest... and then it all goes crazy from there. Although both are very different movies, they're also both a lot of fun and worth seeing just for the way in which the Japanese movie makers reinterpret Hollywood staples.

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