Movies

IMDB, Maggie“Maggie” on IMDB

Drama/Horror – 2015 – 95 Minutes

I think we can all agree that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s post-political film career has been somewhat… mundane. His several traditional, big-budget action movies have all been good; not great. More pointedly, none of them presented any real challenge or growth opportunities for the actor, although it’s difficult to fault a man in his late sixties for keeping inside his comfort zone; especially when he’s done so well in it. So, why would he choose to do a low-budget, independent drama – albeit one with a zombie twist?

Zombies remain popular, but still only rarely breakout to impact the mass market. Big name talent tends to avoid the genre and there have been only a few exceptions. (In fact, Abigail Breslin, playing the title character, is an alumnus of one them: 2009’s Zombieland.) Add to the mix that this is the first feature for director Henry Hobson and the first writing credit for writer John Scott 3 and  it becomes even less clear what attracted the king of action movies to the project.

What may be most confusing is that this may be Schwarzenegger’s best work to date.

The story, like many other post-peak zombie properties, mixes zombies into another genre – this time family drama. The backstory is told through inference and minimal flashbacks. The world is suffering from a zombie plague, but is still clinging to societal norms. There is no cure for the bitten and families are instructed to deliver them to quarantine centers before the change, which can take as long as several months, where they will be euthanized.

The never-seen centers are rumored to be over-populated, poorly managed and terrifying. The method of execution is revealed to be excruciatingly painful. When Wade’s (Schwarzenegger) daughter is bitten while on a trip he pulls some strings with his local doctor and is allowed to take her home to say goodbye. Maggie’s mother passed away years earlier and there is understandable tension with Wade’s new wife, but it never approaches the trite and lazy “wicked stepmother” vibe.

With very little change, the story could easily be that of a child dying of cancer or any degenerative disease. The zombie angle is leveraged well, but lightly and there is little to no “action” in the piece. It’s a somber exploration of a father’s devotion to his dying daughter and her ultimate acceptance of an inescapable fate. Tension is drawn out expertly from many sources, but always from human interaction and expectation.

As Maggie’s condition degrades Wade is put under pressure from multiple sources to take her to the centers or to handle the issue himself. Schwarzenegger’s performance is nuanced and surprisingly subtle as we agonize with him on the best course of action. There are still wooden moments, but the performance remains his best in decades; perhaps ever. Breslin matches him well, wavering between bravely facing her fate for her family and being naturally terrified of it. Her performance is enhanced greatly by the effective, but subtle, practical make-up effects that mark her transformation.

Unfortunately its unlikely that the movie will attract a larger audience. It’s likely be considered too slow and plodding for most genre fans and too steeped in the genre for fans of mainstream drama. The quiet, introspective story asks a lot, perhaps too much, of its audience. Those willing to put in the effort will enjoy the amazing performances and a deeply human experience.

IMDB, Dead Snow Red vs Dead“Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead” on IMDB

Horror – 2014 – 100 Minutes

The original Dead Snow, released in 2009, was one of the first movies we screened as part of the very first Boiled Eggs and Brain Eaters. In a classic set-up, a group of young friends take a beer-fueled trip into the mountains for some fun in the snow. Unfortunately, once they get there, they raise an army of pissed-off undead nazis. It became an instant household favorite, but it did have a bit of an identity crisis.

The movie begins as a straight, effective horror movie. Perhaps poking a little fun at itself via deftly applied genre cliche, but a straight take nonetheless. There’s enough jump scares, gore and bad decisions to satisfy any horror fan. That all changed in the last act. At that point the movie just goes amazingly, awesomely, absolutely insane. A darkly hilarious “gearing up” montage plays homage to “The Evil Dead” and prepares the audience for a pants-crapping crazy melee between the survivors and the Nazi dead.

The whole sequence launched the movie into a completely different class. The stark white, sun-soaked snow made for an amazing canvas for the splattering of blood and the splaying of severed limbs. The desperation of the survivors juxtaposed with the ridiculousness of the premise created one of the most darkly hilarious scenes in modern horror.

The sequel took everything that worked in that third act and cranked it straight to eleven.

It begins the moment the first film ended and continues the story of our sole survivor, Martin. He still has problems. The police have dismissed his explanation and are holding him responsible for the deaths of his friends. The Nazi zombies, led by the demonic Colonel Herzog, have decided to complete their original mission: march on and destroy a town that was a hotbed of the Norwegian resistance. Along the way he begins raising an army of the undead from his victims.

Through a ridiculous, but hilarious, circumstance Martin is now tied to the Colonel and shares some of his power. He’s the only one with any hope of stopping Herzog. He gains allies as the story progresses, including the “Zombie Squad”, a team of American zombie fans that have never seen a zombie but are absolutely positive that they exist. They’re not what you’d call “effective”, but they do have a hell of a lot of gumption.

The movie is gut-bustingly hilarious and unabashedly dark as hell. You will laugh your ass off and you will feel completely guilty for doing it. For all that, there’s not a mean bone in this movie’s shuffling, reanimated body. It’s bigger, more bombastic and more irreverent than the first in every way. It’s also gorgeously produced and artfully paced. This is the new standard for zombie party movies.

IMDB, Zombie Hunter“Zombie Hunter” on IMDB

Horror – 2013 – 93 Minutes

This film was a selection for BEBE 2015.

There were only two reasons too watch this: 1) it has the word “zombie” in the title and 2) it has the words “Danny Trejo” above the title. Now having “zombie” in the title isn’t exactly a hallmark of excellence. If anything, it’s generally a sign of amateurishness. “Danny Trejo” doesn’t really scream “quality” either, but does mean that you’ll at least see some Danny Trejo.

Turns out, not all that much in this case. Even though he’s plastered all over the poster, Trejo really only gets a couple of scenes. One of those scenes is so overladen with aggressively terrible CGI that you can barely see him. Everything else is dull and lifeless and wastes him completely.

The rest of the movie is a lumpy mash of genres and themes. Set years after a zombie outbreak, a terrible “Mad Max” clone drives through the wasteland killing the animate dead and recording ham-fisted narration. He’s ambushed by a group of survivors and his car is totalled, forcing him to squint and grunt a lot. The group, made up of Trejo, a couple rednecks, a pole dancer, a hollywood-plain (meaning smoking hot) girl and a late-twenty something guy playing a teenager have apparently only survived until this point because the camera wasn’t pointed at them.

Zombies attack their total lack of fortifications and, surprisingly, break through.  Then the aforementioned terrible CGI zombies attack and the group is forced to flee. They do this so well they make it all the way out of their movie and into the equally bad slasher movie. After spending some very predictable time in the slasher movie, the zombies catch up with them and other things happen.

By this point, nobody cared. Our advice, if you’re stuck with this: fast forward to Trejo, then stop it after he leaves. It still won’t be a good movie, but at least Trejo is never dull.

IMDB, Dead Season“Dead Season” on IMDB

Horror – 2012 – 85 Minutes

This film was a selection for BEBE 2015.

One of the casualties of the zombie popularity explosion is the traditional zombie movie. They’re still out there, as this proves, but they’ve been shoved aside by a cavalcade of “zombie vs. things”, rarely funny zom-coms, direct to television schlock and a much smaller, but forceful, selection of high-concept zombie flicks. Simple, serious stories about survivors in a world of the dead just don’t seem to be in demand any longer.

Doing a good movie is never easy, but doing a decent, traditional zombie movie is absolutely easier than the alternatives. Comedy is hard; very hard. High concept is great when it works but pathetic when it fails (and it fails a lot). A good, old-fashioned zombie story? We all know know them and we all like them.

The story starts long after the dead have brought humanity to the brink. Elvis (played by Scott Peat [IMDB]) has become a professional survivor. He’s turned his focus to looking for other survivors. Tweeter (Marissa Merrill [IMDB]) and the boy she’s protecting find him and form an uneasy alliance. When food becomes scarce they take a long-shot: a boat to the supposed sanctuary of a Caribbean island. There, a small community struggles to survive both the dead and challenges that the island sets them.

The opening scenes are the strongest. In many ways they’re more thought provoking than the effective, but predictable twist later. We’re introduced to Elvis and his past and we  follow him as he wanders the ruins, scavenging. Small details are given significant thought and the care taken to introduce the world is obvious. The sequence is quiet and soulful and it sets the tone very well.

Technically the movie suffers for its budget, but not as badly as many. Simple, practical effects are used throughout and work well. Even poor practical effects beat crappy CGI, hands down. There’s also some impressive audio work, considering the budget. The action sequences are the weakest element, overall, with fast cuts and jittery camera work standing-in for choreography. Thankfully, the script doesn’t allow the relatively few action scenes to become a focus making their quality something of a moot point.

The script is smart and, as noted, a little predictable. Predictability is vastly preferable to the muddled mess that most movies create by trying to surprise the audience. Here, with a few unfortunate exceptions, people act reasonably and intelligently. Predictability is a small price to pay. Acting is hit-or-miss across the board, but the main characters, at least, are well handled.

The movie has flaws – the lack of budget sees to that – but it overcomes them to deliver a solid, traditional story. Good, old-fashioned zombie stories have become rare; this is a good, old-fashioned zombie story.

IMDB, The Jones

“The Jones” on IMDB

Horror – 2015 – 9 Minutes

Force of Nature Films has finished the second segment of their horror anthology, “The Forces of Horror Anthology Series Volume I”. The first segment, “Revelations“, was reviewed on our sister site, DepressedPressed.com, but this one is a Zombie story and belongs here.

[Full disclosure: this review was the result of a request from the writer/director of the movie.]

It is worth reading that first review as nearly everything applies to this segment as well. This is still a rock-bottom budget production. It’s still got the same problems that a rock-bottom budget brings. And, like the first, it ends up much better than you’d expect.

Don’t take our word for it, you can watch it right now:

Technically there are subtle, but noticeable, improvements over the first segment. Firstly, although the cast is still very small, there are more characters to work with and this allows for a more dynamic presentation. The effects are limited, but are all practical and effective. The acting is uneven, but definitely not as poor as the budget would normally attract. Camera work, staging and transitions are kept smartly simple. They may not be exciting, but they work well and opportunities for embarrassment are all but eliminated.

It’s a simpler story than the first, and more approachable. Like any good short, it features a concise, complete story arc that introduces an interesting idea, then ends with you wanting more. The idea isn’t particularly mind-blowing, but it is novel and, to our knowledge, original. It’s an idea worth mulling over a bit after watching. It reminded us – and this isn’t said lightly – of a classic “Twilight Zone” episode. Sure, maybe not the best Twilight Zone episode, but honestly: there were no bad ‘Zones!

This is a definite improvement over an already impressive start. The team is clearly not rushing themselves on these and the care they’re taking shows. We’re excited to see more and thank the team for sharing them with us.

IMDB, The JonesWe have a nice surprise: just last night, Roger Sampson of Force of Nature Films sent us a note that he had finished the second segment of his horror anthology, “The Forces of Horror Anthology Series Volume I” and it’s a zombie story! Talk about synergy!

Where the first segment was a serious, otherworldly reversal of expectations, this one, “The Jones” is a tongue-in-cheek take on the zombie genre. Here we meet the Jones, an average, normal family of zombies just not-living life just like everybody else. They have a small problem: their daughter’s not feeling well. She’s lost her taste for brains and her fever is well above room-temperature. What’s a pair of loving zombie parents to do?

Like the first segment of the anthology, “Revelations“, which we reviewed on our sister site, DepressedPressed.com, this is a no-budget production that exceeds expectations. Each short presents a single interesting concept, “Twilight Zone” style, and gives us just a taste of it.

Here’s the trailer for “The Jones” and we highly recommend that you track it down when it’s released:

IMDB, Life After Beth“Life After Beth” on IMDB

Comedy/Horror – 2014 – 89 Minutes

At this stage in the game any attempt at originality in the zombie genre gets points. Real originality, of course. Plopping zombies in a new location – a tanning salon! a brokerage firm! a library! – doesn’t cut it. You need to try harder than that. This does.

Beth (Aubrey Plaza [IMDB] playing herself, as usual) is dead. Her boyfriend Zach (Dane DeHaan [IMDB]) is shattered. That is, at least, until he drops by to visit her parents and finds her wandering around the house. Other than being a little muddled, her funeral doesn’t seem to have slowed her down much. Her parents think it’s a miracle. He’s not going to argue; especially since she can’t seem to remember that she had dumped him the day she died.

She’s also decided that she’s most comfortable in the attic and loves smooth jazz. She doesn’t seem to feel pain, has freakish strength and violent mood swings. Zach tries to take things in stride, but it’s difficult to pretend that this is the same Beth he knew and loved. It’s also difficult to ignore that there’s something odd going on in general when other previously deceased people start popping up. As Beth, and the situation in general, degrade further, it becomes impossible.

The conceit is undeniably interesting: zombies are the reanimated recent dead but, at least for a little while, they’re basically themselves. They have some memory lapses and minor quirks, but aren’t something to be automatically feared. Once the rot and the hunger sets in they get more… “traditional”, but until then they may very well be considered a blessing.

The idea is original (at least as far as I know) and executed well, but the overall story has a slow unevenness that undermines it. It meanders through multiple genres without committing enough to any of them. The audience is unable to find comfortable footing and, in turn, means that many of the gags and emotional touch points fall flat.

Even if it’s just not enough of a horror movie… or a comedy… or a romance… to truly stand out, there’s still a lot to like. The A-list cast (or, maybe, “A minus” list) is excellent and do the best with what they have. A good budget goes a long way in a landscape of no-budget mediocrity. The ideas are fun and implemented with a minimum of cliche. It may sputter out at the end, but at least you passed some interesting scenery on the trip.