Monthly Archives: April 2015

28 Weeks Later (2007)

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*. “Even better than the original,” wrote Peter Hammond in Maxim (he’s quoted on the front of the DVD). Well, says I to myself, that shouldn’t be too hard. 28 Days Later was an overrated mess. I mean, all they’d really need is a better script . . .
*. Didn’t happen.
*. As you may know by now, I have a thing against screenplays that don’t make sense. Hitchcock famously derided people who looked for implausibilities in a film, and this is something I’ve never been able to forgive him for. Why shouldn’t a story make sense? Why shouldn’t the events unfold in a plausible manner?
*. You start to notice little things right away. Why does that house look so run down and patched together on the inside, when it appears to be fine on the outside? And is that what English people call a “wee cottage”? Then, when the zombies (I call them zombies) attack, how do they tear it apart like it’s a house of straw? Why are there suddenly so damn many zombies running around out in the middle of nowhere? Why are the people inside so concerned about sealing the house up so no light can get out when they’ve got a fire going in the wood stove so presumably anyone for miles around can see smoke coming out of the chimney?

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*. These, however, are niggling little things. Two really big things, however, bothered me so much, and made the story so unbelievable, that they pretty much sank the movie for me.
*. First of all, how is it possible for the two kids to just scamper out of the green zone that easily? Never mind the absurdity of their motivation (they want to go home so they can pick up some of their stuff!), if they can walk out like that in broad daylight then how secure is District One?
*. Then there’s Don’s trip to see his wife in quarantine. I understand he’s a caretaker with a triple-A pass card, but surely that wouldn’t mean he’d have access to the lab they’re holding a highly dangerous medical specimen in. And again there’s the absurd motivation . . . he’s doing all this just to get a kiss?
*. While on the subject of stupidity I guess I’ll throw in the helicopter scene. If you read around you’ll find a lot of discussion over whether it would have been “really possible” to fly a helicopter nose-down at a crowd of people and cut them into pieces like this. Personally, I don’t think so. Maybe in theory, but the pilot would have lost control of the helicopter flying that low at that angle and taking that much damage to the blades. He would have crashed for sure.
*. OK, one more. Why, when they put the city into code red lockdown, do they think it’s also a good idea to kill all the lights? Just wondering.
*. Different writers and director (though Boyle and Garland did make contributions). And yet it’s a very similar movie. Unfortunately, that’s not a good thing. As with 28 Days Later all the good stuff is at the start and then it gets very, very stupid.
*. Also carried over from the earlier film is the same fast editing, handheld camera work, different film speeds, and jerky stop-motion looking movement. A lot of the movie also takes place in the dark or with flashing lights, so what it all adds up to is that I basically can’t tell what the hell is happening most of the time. I’m an old guy, and feeling older all the time. But I wonder how young you have to be able to follow shit like this.
*. On the plus side, they really do those shots of a deserted, desolated London well.

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*. How bad do we feel for Alice? She runs back into the room to get the kid after Don specifically tells her not to, then immediately begins screaming at Don to save her stupid ass. Your call, woman.
*. Imogen Poots is a model and looks like a model. She has that alien look that models have. Her nose could be a weapon, and her normal eyes look scarier than the people infected with the Rage virus.
*. Mackintosh Muggleton (which, incredibly, sounds even more made up than “Imogen Poots”) seems to spend most of the movie trying to keep his beautiful hair out of his eyes. No, I didn’t like these kids much at all.

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*. What is it with Spaniards and zombies? That country has given us the producer/director combo for this movie, all those wretched Tombs of the Blind Dead efforts, Jorge Grau’s The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, and more recently the Rec films. This seems like national overrepresentation.
*. London. Again. Because if you’re looking to re-introduce the native population of England to that island the place to start is right at the heart of its biggest city.
*. “The U.S. army is responsible for your safety.” Don’t worry, you’ll be safe in the “green zone.” I wonder if there was a political message in that. Something to do with Iraq maybe?
*. Another zombie movie which calls into question family loyalty. Dad was right to run away and leave mom. Sneaking back in to see her when she’s in quarantine is, of course, unfathomably stupid. And taking the boy to  France at the end so he could infect the rest of Europe wasn’t a good move either. On the DVD commentary it’s said that “what is truly original in this movie is to put the focus on the family.” I agree that this is the focus, well past the point of it being a fault, but this is something zombie movies have been stressing since Night of the Living Dead, when Johnny comes back for Barbra. Family is toxic, a mortal threat to you and everyone else.
*. You know how often a push start will actually start a car? Not often. Never worked for me. My father had some luck doing it with tractors. It helps if you’re going downhill. You have to get it going faster than the car is here.
*. They really shoehorned that night vision sequence in there at the end, didn’t they? No excuse for that at all, and it drags that section of the movie down.
*. Don and Alice just don’t add up. Why does she return to her house? Would that have been the safe thing to do? Why is she so silent after being captured? Why doesn’t she talk to anyone, try to get information out of them as to what is going on? Then, when Don comes to her, does she want to infect him? Or is she too stupid not to know what is going to happen?

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*. Then there’s Don. Instead of becoming a raving maniac like the other people infected with the virus he seems to quite methodically hunt down his children, tracking them and picking his moments to strike. There’s no consistency at all. And how is he able to see so well in the dark at the end when everyone else is blind? After a while you just get sick of trying to figure it out.
*. I really love John Murphy’s “In the House — In a Heartbeat” music, but it only belongs at the beginning here. It’s the kind of score that can be overused.
*. The loss of containment made me think of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Which, as it happens, was the Apes movie that was basically remade as Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011. Is there a fear of urban revolution in the air? A British or North American Spring? Occupy Wall Street was only a few years away.

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*. I like how they decide to fire bomb District One in such a spectacular fashion and . . . there’s no point to it because the zombies have already broken out. But boy does it look good.
*. Of course Don manages to survive the fire bombing by ducking around the corner of a building. Brilliant! Why did nobody else think of that?
*. I don’t see why Doyle figures the sniper shooting at his small group is “panicked and no marksman.” He does manage to shoot that mirror out of Doyle’s hand, which is pretty darn good.
*. Yes, I’m back nagging at all the little things that don’t add up. I didn’t like the movie. They spent millions of dollars on a ramshackle script that hung the cast out to twist in the wind. Could another instalment be any worse? We have yet to see.

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Rec (2007)

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*. How do you render the title of this film when writing about it? Rec? REC? [REC]? Or do you have to include the red dot as well?
*. I liked this movie the first time I saw it, but found it confusing. I then saw the first two sequels (Rec 2 and the less directly related Rec 3) and was very disappointed, both in terms of the films themselves and the light they shed on the original. Going back and watching this one again I was more impressed. It’s a great horror movie.
*. I think if you really want to enjoy it you should forget about the sequels (a plan that might also help you enjoy The Matrix more). Yes it’s muddled. It’s not clear if the business about Max the dog being infected is just a red herring or is related in some way to what’s going on (and how would Max have been infected anyway? by an insect bite?). Nor is it clear just what is going on. Is it a virus? A case of demonic possession? Some combination of the two? The sequel would try to explain, and tie itself in knots doing so.

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*. As for the emaciated hag at the end, one supposes she is the possessed girl now all grown up, but how can we be sure? And who is that kid in the attic? You’ll have to wait for the sequel to find out.
*. But this muddle doesn’t really bother me. Given the premise of the film any further attempt at explanation would be awkward. Let’s face it, the business of the penthouse being full of newspaper clippings and a tape recording of the professor’s experiments is really straining to introduce explication. So I’m content to only know as much as the people stuck in the building.
*. Of course, the other part of the premise that strains credibility is Pablo the cameraman’s sense of duty to “get it all on tape.” At some point one would think a survival instinct would take over and you’d drop the camera, either to run faster or protect yourself. But he keeps shooting right till the end.
*. Despite this confusion — which may not have been that confusing to a Spanish audience more attuned to mystical terrors — there is an awful lot to like here.
*. In the first place, there’s a great performance by Manuela Velasco as reporter Angela Vidal. She was typecast since she was a television personality already, and I think she was helped by shooting the film in sequence so her transformation could play out more naturally. But it’s still a persuasive transformation, from girl-next-door camera cutie to stripping down to a tank top (what has become an official uniform of the last girl in recent horror films), her hair increasingly dishevelled, her body covered with greater amounts of sweat and blood, and finally appearing as an almost feral final survivor caught in night vision, like some rodent that has tripped a camera set up outside its forest burrow.

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*. That night vision ending works very well. Even better, in my opinion, than the conclusion of The Silence of the Lambs. And that skinny hag (actually a male actor) is one of the scariest and most original movie monsters I’ve seen. She’s right up there with the little girl who comes crawling out of the television set in The Ring.
*. You can almost think of the Medeiros crone as the Jack Spratt half of a grisly couple, with the heftier old lady zombie on the first floor being the other. And both tap into an obvious but rarely addressed horror: the bodies of old women seen in their underwear. Let’s face it, this is something we do not want to see. Why? Because naked old women look scary and grotesque. It’s entirely natural — everyone’s flesh starts to slip and slide as we age — but it’s not something we’re used to seeing on film. It’s the best kind of horror show: frightening because it’s so real.
*. Then there is the direction by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza . Now personally I’m no fan of “shaky cam” filmmaking. I was thoroughly unimpressed by The Blair Witch Project. But it was a development that did at least inject some energy into filmmaking by imposing almost Oulipan constraints. No music, for one thing. Editing, sound effects (sirens, dogs barking, screams), flashing lights, etc. have to do all the work. It’s a sort of pure filmmaking, and it takes a lot of work to make it seem so improvisational and off the cuff because in fact these are some of the most intensely scripted films around.
*. The key is in the rhythm of the action. Note, for example,  how everything seems to slow down as the health inspector makes his ghostly entrance through the layers of plastic. Of course it’s not shot in slow motion, but the actors are moving very slowly and deliberately, and it’s the distance of this shot that makes it seem slower. Compare how fast everything seems to be moving when the zombies are right in the camera’s face.
*. This scene is immediately followed by one of the few static shots as the camera is left on while lying on the floor. It’s the perfect way of showing that we are at a dramatic turning point, with the action seeming to stop and catch its breath until the next round of manic action.
*. The soundtrack is part of the same sense of rhythm. Note how the sound goes out entirely at key moments, or is distorted. You’re not allowed to get comfortable in this movie.
*. The script also does a great job playing with our expectations. The firefighter who falls down the stairwell to splat on the floor is an incredible shock cut (and no one in the cast was told it was coming, so their surprise is genuine). Then there’s a scene where you do expect something to happen and nothing does which is even more disconcerting. This is just after the old lady is shot and her body is kept in the background as two of the leads converse. I wasn’t even paying any attention to the dialogue, just waiting for her to start to stir and rise up. But that never happens, and I came away enjoying how I’d been played.
*. Is there no elevator in this building? Is that why the penthouse, normally the luxury suite in North America, is a shithole here (as it often is in older European buildings without elevators).
*. That aside, this is a terrific example of the kind of use that can be made of a real location. I can think of few other contemporary movies that use architectural space so well.
*. This is what happens “While You’re Sleeping” (the name of the television show being shot). Nightmares come. And indeed the whole thing has a kind of dream reality to it, what with the imaginative (illogical) leaps and threatening archetypes. Above it all we have a sense of larger forces at play that we can’t understand. Outside there is a voice of authority and a light we see only through plastic wrap darkly. Upstairs there is a shadowy evil.
*. It’s a clever inversion of the standard zombie film conceit: of the survivors barricaded and besieged in a house (or shopping mall, or cave, or whatever) against the masses of zombies gathered outside. Here the survivors are locked in with the zombies, and are struggling to get out.
*. There’s no question in my mind that this was one of the best horror movies of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, they were blasted by success and couldn’t leave what was more than well enough alone.

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Night of the Living Dead 3D (2006)

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*. You know you’re in trouble when the “3D” is actually part of the title as it appears on screen. God help us.
*. Alas, God is dead. Or at least s/he had nothing to do with this mess. The point is addressed when one of the living suggests that the sudden zombie outbreak may be the Rapture. Not yet!
*. This movie is bad in almost every way. It takes far too long to get going, then, when the zombies do arrive, everyone is even more clueless about what is happening than the cast of Romero’s original, despite the fact that they were just watching Romero’s movie on TV! Get with the script people! You have to shoot them in the head, and if you get bit by one then you turn into a zombie yourself. Those are the rules.
*. The “zombies vs. deadheads” idea had potential, but not only is there nothing funny going on here, I’m not even sure if there is any attempt being made to be funny.
*. Does it matter that Ben isn’t black? This is a remake, sort of, and the first two versions (Romero’s and Tom Savini’s 1990 remake) had black Bens. Should we feel offended at the break with tradition?
*. Most of the time the characters seem to be only hanging around waiting for someone, anyone, to prompt them with a decent line. They also suffer from a curious lack of urgency. Barbara gets chased about for hours before deciding to take out her cell and phone her brother, and only then she says she’s going to phone 911? Meanwhile, at the planter home mention is made of calling the cops but nothing is done until it is too late. Guns are mentioned, but they run outside without them. It’s suggested that they board up the windows and doors (hey, maybe they were watching the movie!) but nothing is done. Later, the zombies will simply walk in through the windows.
*. The zombie makeup is completely unexceptional and there is virtually no gore at all. The only remotely interesting effect is the shovel through the head that is lifted directly out of Day of the Dead (where they did it better).
*. I’ll confess I didn’t see this movie in 3-D. There are various things thrown at the screen: a joint, a shovel, a bullet, tits. I don’t think I missed anything.
*. Poor Sid Haig, to have gone from Spider Baby to this in . . . forty years.
*. No, I don’t have any idea what Tovar Junior’s character is up to. Was he trying to create an army of zombies, or did it all happen by accident? Why isn’t he infected by his father? Why is his father so spectacularly flammable?
*. If the Coopers were going to go upstairs to barricade themselves in a bedroom, why didn’t they? Or why didn’t she at least try and get away? There was a window, and a ladder down off the roof.
*. The bottom line here is that even if you’re a zombie fan you’re going to hate this movie. It’s stupid, poorly made, and hurts. This isn’t just a movie to miss, but one to actively stay away from.

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Fido (2006)

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*. By 2007 we were reaching a point of peak zombie, and the genre was splintering. Fido was Zomcom, or zombie comedy (not to be confused with Zomcon, the zombie corporation here).
*. Zombie comedy was there from the beginning (witness the antics of Mantan Moreland in King of the Zombies, or the satire of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead), but around this time it really took off with movies like Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, Juan of the Dead, and this film.
*. But what are we laughing at? Primarily the 1950s, or the alternative-reality 1950s we’re presented with: a Technicolor dream world of bright, lacquered primary colours, preternaturally shiny cars, men in fedoras, and women in aprons, busy in the kitchen cooking dinner or mixing drinks.
*. It all struck me as very tired territory for satire, and not because I grew up in the ’50s (I didn’t). Rather, it struck me as a very similar movie to Parents (1989), which was all about a family of suburban cannibals in 1950s America. And that was twenty-five years ago.
*. The thing is, we’ve always known that the mythic ’50s of Leave It to Beaver was a lie, its small-town, Eisenhower-era idyll only a hypocritical facade for intolerance, closed-mindedness, violence, and repression. We could have got that half-a-century ago from reading Cheever. Or thirty years ago from Blue Velvet (director and co-writer Andrew Currie’s favourite movie, directly referenced a couple of times in this film). That plastic, stuck-on smile we get from Timmy’s dad is a familiar mask.

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*. So as far as sending up the ’50s is concerned . . . why bother? Or is something more at stake?
*. To be honest, I don’t think there is much more to the story than this. Fido is pretty much a one-joke movie, and the joke is easily and quickly made. On the commentary track Currie mentions the similarity between Mr. Bottoms and George (presumably W.) Bush, and that’s fair enough. We are living in a kind of security state, a gated-community green zone ringed with fences to protect us from the bad guys outside. Even children have been enlisted into becoming part of the surveillance society (Currie saw the two bully brothes as patterned after the Hitler Youth, with some Boy Scout thrown in for good measure). But this is all obvious and in the end not that interesting.
*. There are a few subtle touches. First there is the age angle, which I can’t remember any zombie movie playing up before. Old people are obviously a threat because they could die at any moment and then immediately turn into zombies (there is no need of a bite to transfer a virus). As the one public service announcement puts it: “The elderly. They seem friendly, but can you really trust them?” Of course not!
*. Then there is the fear of miscegenation. Clearly there’s a racial satire intended, with the zombies constituting a darker-skinned working class doing all the shit jobs around town. But the wrinkle here is in Mrs. Robinson’s line that she intends to “go zombie,” and that Fido is a threat to the Robinson’s marriage. The dance scene — where Mr. Robinson won’t dance with his wife so she picks Fido as a partner — makes it pretty clear what is going on.

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*. Finally there is the religious satire. The idea of “head burial” is a barbed one because it really takes an anti-Christian perspective. In a world overrun with zombies, who would want to believe in resurrection of the dead? You’d want to be damn sure that when you die you’ll stay in the ground.
*. Another trend with deep, historical roots in the genre is the zombie as a source of cheap labour. Of course this was the initial raison d’être of zombiehood — putting the undead to work in the Caribbean cane industry — but the idea started to come back in a more contemporary form in Day of the Dead (Dr. Logan thinks the zombies can be trained to do simple tasks), and at the end of Shaun of the Dead where we see how zombies are doing menial, brainless jobs.
*. There’s a real problem with the satire here though, as the zombies, for the most part, are not doing dumb brute labour (like working in a sugar mill), but rather tasks that involve some minimal amount of skill that they are clearly unsuited for. They can’t even deliver newspapers, or serve dinner. And on top of that, they’re so slow that even the simple tasks they might be able to do, poorly, would hardly be worth getting them to do. In short, they are an inconvenience, at least outside of the factory.
*. Carrie-Anne Moss and K’Sun Ray are both good as the only characters with any depth. The rest of the cast are animate figurines. I guess Billy Connolly is fine as Fido, but I can’t get too excited about a guy playing Lassie.
*. This is a good little movie, and there’s nothing wrong with it not being something more. Good little movies don’t always get the appreciation they deserve. It looks nice, the acting is solid, and it never slips in its tone of genteel mockery.

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Land of the Dead (2005)

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*. On the DVD commentary to Dawn of the Dead, George Romero makes the rather bold confession that he only cares about the concepts behind his films, he doesn’t care about the story or the characters. As I see it, this cuts two ways.
*. In the first place: what concepts! Romero’s zombie movies are always interesting because of his ability to channel broader cultural and political concerns. That’s certainly the case here as he gives us an early taste of the Occupy Movement camped out at the foot of Wall Street, whose towers are inhabited by the 1%. Riley is “looking for a world where there are no fences,” and there’s even a line where the groundlings point to the tower of Fiddler’s Green and say  that Kaufman “didn’t build that.” Did Elizabeth Warren see this film?

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*. The governing board of Fiddler’s Green was, in turn, inspired by the Bush II administration, with Dennis Hopper’s Kaufman apparently modeled after Donald Rumsfeld.
*. The theme of widening social inequality meshes perfectly with the siege mentality that pervades so many of Romero’s zombie films. The city here (it’s never named, but we’re meant to assume it’s Pittsburgh) is a giant gated community, appearing a bit like a twenty-first century Constantinople surrounded by barbarians in the digital diagrams. Just make sure to keep juice in those fences!

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*. As an aside, it’s interesting how Riley’s getaway destination of choice is Canada. This is actually a common safe haven in American dystopian films (even Barb Wire!). And there’s an irony in the fact that Canada is the land of the dead here, as it was filmed in Toronto (as was Zach Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead).
*. But if Romero has a firm finger on the pulse of national anxieties, and is spot-on with his sense of satire, his characters here are flat and uninteresting, and the script just clomps along.
*. Take a couple of fairly big plot points that don’t make sense. In the first place, there’s the business with leaving Mouse (the kid with the skateboard) alone to wait for the cash delivery. Why is the weakest member of the team given this job? Why doesn’t he find a good place to hide out where he can keep an eye on the location and watch for zombies instead of sneaking around a suspiciously unlocked building where there are lots of places the zombies can jump out at you? And then why does he put on headphones blaring rock music while he’s waiting, so that he can’t hear either a boat approaching or any zombies sneaking up on him? The whole situation is idiotic.
*. A larger problem, however, has to do with everyone’s financial motivations. What use is cash in this economy? Why does anyone care about it? What would Cholo do with his five million dollars? What is Kaufman going to do with those bags of bills he’s lugging around?

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*. Romero makes an interesting point on the commentary about how he gets nagged for not playing up the romantic interests between his leads. He doesn’t think it’s realistic or necessary. I agree with him somewhat, but it does make you think about how little goes on between the men and the women in his zombie films. Barbara is of course catatonic throughout most of Night of the Living Dead. In Dawn of the Dead Francine is pregnant, though how she got that way isn’t clear since she only has the one candlelit dinner scene with her boyfriend Steve to even hint at their relationship, or even suggest some mutual attraction. In Day of the Dead Sarah’s presumed lover Miguel is totally dysfunctional and, surprisingly, nobody else seems interested in her. Here Riley and Slack are an obvious couple, and they do like each other, but not in that way. Not at all.
*. This was the first film in Romero’s second Dead Trilogy, and it had the biggest budget he ever got to work with (the next two films, Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead, were much smaller affairs). There are decent production values throughout and some name actors like Hopper. And it did good box office as well. But despite the strength of the concept, I don’t think it’s that successful a film. At least I never felt that involved in any of the plot threads.
*. Simon Baker seems a little bland in the lead. But as I said earlier, he’s playing a flat character, not a tortured post-apocalyptic soul.
*. Perhaps zombies had by this time become banal. The gore effects here are well done and even include a couple of more imaginative bits (the tongue being pulled out of one victim’s mouth, and the face being torn off another), but mostly we have the staples: in particular, the bites (usually to the neck) pulling away stretchy hunks of tissue and skin, and the disembowellings with ropes of intestines being withdrawn from stomach cavities.

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*. I wondered at one point why all the zombies have such bloody face wounds. The short, practical answer is that this is what identifies them immediately to us as zombies. But I don’t think it’s realistic.
*. It’s obvious that the zombies are evolving, communicating with each other and beginning to use tools. In this regard the film seems less like a zombie movie to me than it does another instalment in the Planet of the Apes series. We can imagine a time when they’ll take over entirely, while the humans fight among themselves and generally behave in a self-destructive way. As the undead get smarter, the living appear to be getting less intelligent.
*. At the beginning they offer up a rationale for why the living go scavenging at night (so that the fireworks can be used to distract the zombies), but this didn’t convince me. I’d still rather be out and about in the daylight. And boy does it make for a dark film. Almost every scene is shot at night except I think for one brief street scene near the beginning. After a while I found this got to be depressing and monotonous.
*. Here’s something that’s bugged me since the first time I saw this film: Whatever happened to the hanged man’s son? He’s bitten in the neck by his dad and appears to be dead or at least in very bad shape, but we never see or hear of him again after a final sinister shot of his wound. I kept thinking they were going to bring him back and work him into the plot somehow but they never did. Then again, seeing as this whole sequence was apparently cut from the theatrical release I guess there was no point. Still, I like to imagine he’s still up there in Fiddler’s Green somewhere, having taken over from Kaufman when the revolution hit.

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Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave (2005)

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*. I’m a big fan of the zombie genre, but I hate what it turned into. Which is this.
*. It was filmed back-to-back with Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis, with the same director and some of the same cast. And to some extent it’s a sequel, beginning where the former film left off with Peter Coyote’s Uncle Charlie (is this a nod to Shadow of a Doubt?) driving away with one of the Trioxin canisters).
*. But after that initial link any connection is broken. The survivors of Necropolis seem to have no memory of what happened in that film.
*. Either that or they’re complete morons. Which is a possibility. The term “idiot plot” is usually reserved for slasher films, where the victims have to behave in unbelievably stupid ways in order to up the body count. You don’t hear it applied to zombie films as much because the victims would have to be really, really stupid not to be able to outsmart the living dead.

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*. Well, here they are that stupid. I suppose there’s something ironic about the zombies jonesing for brains in such an environment, but it isn’t played up. Unless the scene where the zombie bites the cheerleader in the ass — because that’s where her brains are? — counts as ironic.
*. Even the two men in black — who I initially assumed were Russian because of the link to the previous film, but who are later made out to be Italian — are total morons. They tell the kids to be sure to shoot the zombies in the head but repeatedly go for body shots themselves. There’s just no consistency at all. In earlier films we’d been told how the virus only spreads through saliva, but the nerdy girl is infected by a scratch from a zombie’s hand. And so it goes.
*. I called Necropolis a complete piece of shit, and this is no better. It has slightly better gore effects (though they’re still nothing special), but the story makes even less sense. As with Necropolis, none of the attempts at humour work. There’s nothing like the Chernobyl intro. Instead, the main difference is that this movie has tits. Lots of tits.

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Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis (2005)

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*. Is this even part of the Return of the Living Dead series? It was originally titled Return of the Living Dead 4: Necropolis but they dropped the number because really it had nothing much to do with the previous instalments aside from the barrels of Trioxin (which are introduced at the beginning but don’t play much of a role).
*. It starts off well. I like the idea of finding a few barrels of the Trioxin hidden away at Chernobyl. That’s a spooky place. But then . . .
*. This movie is a complete piece of shit.
*. I’ve said this before about previous instalments but I’ll say it again: you can’t just chomp through a skull. Your teeth aren’t big enough or strong enough.

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*. These aren’t canonical zombies, for this series or for zombie filmdom in general. For starters, you can apparently take them down with body shots. I think mainly because the effects are cheaper to do with squibs under clothes than having to show exploding heads. Some zombies move slowly and others quickly. I’ll accept that the one group member who turns (his name is Zeke, naturally) can still move well because he’s just died and so rigor mortis hasn’t set in, but it doesn’t make sense that he can still fight, talk, and not act like he’s hungry for brains at all.
*. There’s a bigger problem. As the fourth in a series, the plot takes as a given the earlier zombie outbreaks. They’re mentioned in the opening newscast. But shouldn’t the zombie basics then be common knowledge? Once Zeke gets bitten in the neck and starts acting funny, shouldn’t his friends know that he’s about to turn? Or that you need to shoot zombies in the head to kill them? Admittedly this final point is inconsistently applied, but it’s vital information for the encounter with the two homeless men who have turned into zombies.

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*. Does Peter Coyote look uncomfortable in this movie or what? It’s like he’s not even sure what he’s doing here.
*. It’s not a funny movie. And what makes this worse is the fact that it does occasionally try for laughs.
*. No good kills or gore scenes. Pretty disappointing for a twenty-first century zombie film, even with this limited a budget.
*. As in Return of the Living Dead III, I was left confused as to what military use the zombies, even pimped-out with lethal hardware, would be. The question is raised, but dismissed with contempt by Coyote: “Ain’t it obvious? World domination! What else is everything ultimately for?” Whatever.
*. If only they had let this “franchise” die a natural death. But no . . .

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Shaun of the Dead (2004)

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*. A successful and long-running genre inevitably generates parody. James Bond begets Austin Powers. Friday the 13th begets Scream which begets Scary Movie. Dawn of the Dead begets Shaun of the Dead. Once a genre or franchise is fully developed there just aren’t that many places left for it to go.
*. Not that earlier zombie movies were without a sense of humour. The original Dawn of the Dead was quite a funny movie. But it wasn’t self-satire, it wasn’t sending up the zombie genre. That’s the difference.

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*. Probably the best known scene here is the long take of Shaun’s walk through his neighbourhood (to the general store and back), completely oblivious to the results of the zombie apocalypse all around him. The joke behind this movie, then, is its amplification of Romero’s essential theme, that the zombies are us.

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*. It’s funny because it’s true. The shots of Londoners going about their business in the opening credit montage only reinforce the point. Look at Shaun’s fellow commuters on the bus he takes to and from work, slack-jawed and seeming barely alive. Or listen to his girlfriend’s complaint in the opening scene, where she expresses a desire to “live a little” and get out of the living death of routine and going-nowhereism that is her so-called life. It’s T. S. Eliot’s observation of Londoners in the 1920s, of how he had not thought death had undone so many (itself a borrowing from Dante), updated to the twenty-first century.
*. But then the apocalypse is upon us and everyone suddenly is alive. They’re tossed out of their ruts, they have a purpose, a goal in life . . . even if it’s ironically the same one they had before the shit hit the fan: to get to the Winchester.
*. That sort of repetition of before and after is also key to the movie’s structure. Lines and props and characters get recycled. Some of these are pretty obvious, like the way the bouquet of flowers or the pack of cigarettes resurface at the end. Others are more subtle, like Pete taunting Ed about living like an animal in a shed. And some I didn’t notice at all until I heard them pointed out on the commentary (like the way Snake Hips, who is introduced as always surrounded by women, is last scene being devoured by hungry maenads).

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*. I mentioned in my notes on Dawn of the Dead (the remake) that suburban zombies were an interesting new direction that the movie might have gone in. This movie came out at exactly the same time (its release was put back until just after Dawn of the Dead because of similarities in the title), and does in fact go a bit further in this line.
*. I don’t get the joke about the “zed word”: not calling the zombies by that particular name. Why not?
*. Other jokes that are easy to whiff on have to do with Pegg’s and Wright’s earlier work, particularly on the series Spaced. There’s a lot of that here, but at least it’s unobtrusive so it doesn’t really matter if you’re not getting the in-jokes.
*. It seems to me that only the Brits could do this material in the right register. The situation is desperate but not serious. The world is falling apart but everyone will keep up appearances and observe a kind of rough decorum. Humour arises from the mangled priorities of the survivors.

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*. Also very British is the lack of gun play. In the U.S. everyone just has to grab the heavy artillery that they have stashed around their homes, or in the glove compartments of their cars, and start blazing away. Here there is humour in the laundry basket of household items that Shaun and Ed throw at the zombies in the backyard, the shovel and the cricket bat they carry, and the plastic children’s lawn furniture they try and use to kill the bathrobe zombie (before settlng for a tetherball pole).
*. Then when Shaun does get his hands on a gun he (a) doesn’t know how to use it; and (b) can’t hit anything with it when he does figure it out. Say what you will about America’s gun culture, but it does make surviving the zombie apocalypse easier.

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Dawn of the Dead (2004)

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*. Pretty much everybody liked the way this movie started. When had we seen zombies taking over suburbia before? I’m not sure. Of course the presentation of the suburbs as hell has been with us for a while, but this is the first time I can remember seeing a full-fledged suburban apocalypse.

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*. And then there’s Sarah Polley, a surprising choice as lead in a zombie flick, but one that pays off. She’s the perfect blend of vulnerable (playing the first part of the film in bare feet and pyjamas) and independent. Polley has never gone mainstream in her career, and this movie is one of the few looks we’ve had at what she was capable of in such a role.
*. In 1978 it had to be explained what exactly an “indoor shopping centre” was. But in 2004 malls were on their way to becoming relics, victims of the shift to big box stores and online shopping. The mall this movie was filmed at, Thornhill Square Shopping Center in Ontario, was actually slated for destruction, which is how they got to shoot here.
*. Which is a way of saying that malls just aren’t that interesting any more. In the seventies they seemed like a fun place to hide out in. Now they’re tacky and monotonous. Yes, all the necessaries of life are provided for, even luxuriously so. Instead of a portable black-and-white television set propped up on a box you get a whole wall of home theatre entertainment. But despite the better lighting and upscale merchandise, it all seems generic and dull. A nice place to walk around window shopping for a few hours, but then you want to go home.
*. Today’s malls also undercut the satire on consumerism, as the modern mallwalker often isn’t into buying anything. That may be signaled here by the zombie behaviour. They don’t waltz around staring slack-jawed at the displays but just want to get the door-crasher specials.
*. There are other changes. The zombie outbreak is now the result of a virus. You don’t automatically come back to life as a zombie when you die, it takes a bite.
*. But the biggest difference is in the nature of the zombies themselves. They’ve obviously been working out and now they can run really fast and even swing from the ceiling.
*. And it’s not just that the zombies move faster, but the movie does too with the hyperspeed editing of videogames. Romero likes to have a lot of cuts, but this kind of filmmaking really marks a generational shift into the digital era.

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*. The zombie-baby sequence is disgusting, especially given the odd aquarium lighting, but it could have been even more extreme. Alien was almost a quarter century earlier. When you break it down, the gross-out factor here is kind of tame given what might have been done. It could have chewed its way out.
*. Is the first shot in the opening newsreel montage a bunch of zombies rioting in the streets? Urban violence? Cities on fire? A virus? Nope. It’s a mosque full of Muslims bowing in prayer. There’s the real enemy, the threat within. Homeland threat level raised to red! Ugh. What a painful and obvious jab of propaganda.
*. Given that Andy has a whole gun store and apparently unlimited ammunition, couldn’t he just kill all the zombies by picking them off from the roof? In the DVD extra featurette “The Lost Tape: Andy’s Terrifying Last Days Revealed,” Andy says that for every one he kills two more arrive, but this must be hyperbole and in any event can’t be extended indefinitely. I mean, there aren’t an infinite number of zombies out there. The actual number seems to fluctuate wildly, but I’d never put it above a thousand. That’s quite manageable.

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*. Chips is not a big dog. Why  not have a smaller doggy door? I mean, Ving Rhames has no trouble getting through it. Come on.
*. I really like the face off in the elevator with the doors automatically closing as the tense negotiations proceed. That’s a nice dramatic touch. One of very few.
*. Overall it’s not a bad zombie flick. I liked it better seeing it again on DVD then I did when it was first released. But despite the bigger budget and all the advances in effects it still doesn’t live up to the original, I think in part because it tried to be too faithful a remake (a reverence signaled by all the cameos). The mall is a less interesting environment than it was in the ’70s, and once they’re in there the cast has very little to do. In addition, the major plot points (the botched rescue of Andy, the escape to the island) are forced on us and don’t really make a lot of sense.

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28 Days Later (2002)

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*. I hate this movie. That doesn’t mean it’s all bad, because hating a movie means something different than thinking it simply sucks. But I do hate it.
*. What I hated about it was the sheer stupidity and waste. Which begins with the wretched screenplay by Alex Garland.
*. When the movie came out I remember the widespread opinion “on the street” was that it started off well and had a terrible ending. In fact, it has a very strong introduction, with Jim wandering the empty streets of London. And then it falls apart completely.
*. The DVD comes with three — count ’em three! — “alternate endings.” One of these is quite radically different, without any of the business with the military base out in the country.
*. Now let me say this: When a movie has three endings, it has none. It means — if you can believe it (and you should believe it, as remarkable as it seems, because it does happen) — that they got this project rolling without any idea what movie they were going to end up making.
*. Then there is the stupidity. You can dress it up as much as you want, but this is a pure idiot plot. Things happen either by random accident or because the characters behave like total morons.
*. What does Jim want to do when he’s just been chased through deserted London by bloodthirsty maniacs and then been told what’s going on? Why, go see his mum and dad of course! No point telling him that this is a very bad idea, because you see he just has to do it. So everyone goes off together so we can have that little episode play out.
*. By the way, Jim was a bike courier before the Rage struck. So why don’t these survivors ride bikes around town? Wouldn’t that make more sense?
*. I also like how Jim just glances at the headlines of the newspapers about the outbreak of the plague and then tosses them aside. Sure they might help him find out what’s happening but . . . the stories are probably too long, and he doesn’t want to be bothered.
*. More stupidity: Why does Jim go into the restaurant, alone, at the gas bar? Because, while it’s true they already have food, they don’t have any cheeseburgers! OK, there’s another scary scene added to the plot. This screenwriting business is easy!

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*. But by far the stupidest episode is the tunnel scene. Of course everyone agrees it’s an idiotic idea to try to go through the tunnel (which would in fact be impossible to get through even with a more formidable vehicle than the cab they’re in). But . . . what the hell, why not? And so there you have another scary scene courtesy of everyone behaving like idiots.
*. Boyle recognized that the tunnel scene was a horror cliché (down to them getting a flat tire), but was of the opinion that you must never be afraid of clichés because they’re very enjoyable. That’s why they’re clichés. I guess. In fairness, it’s the scariest scene in the movie.
*. Random accident also plays a role. We are introduced to Frank and Hannah only because they’ve got lights blinking in their apartment window. Problem solved. And as for how Frank gets infected with the Rage virus, well . . . I guess somebody thought it was a good idea at the time.
*. This isn’t really screenwriting at all. As the business with the different endings suggests, they were just making it up as they went along. On the commentary Boyle makes an interesting point when he says “we had lots of rules for the infected which we basically thought were terribly important and then ignored whenever we wanted” (like the Infected not coming out as much during the day). Garland: “We took lots of liberties with the things we set up for ourselves.”

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*. Where are all the guns? There are none because it’s England! They don’t have guns! But where are all the cars? There’s still gas around, even at the gas stations (there must be because we see one blow up). Ah, but Boyle explains in the commentary that they’ve put “all” the cars in the tunnel! Apparently there was a “huge” pile-up that ate all of the cars in England!
*. Where are all the bodies? According to Garland it was “sort of atmosphere and surrealism over plot requirements really. It’s like an aesthetic decision, I suppose. . . there’s not really a good logical reason in storytelling terms, it’s just because it feels more interesting and hopefully that’s a legitimate reason.” Hm. Good answer.
*. It’s interesting that they went the way of providing a quasi-medical explanation for having zombies but then didn’t make use of the obvious justification for cannibalism (they need to eat something). Even the chained-up black guy who is supposed to be starving to death doesn’t eat his kills when he gets loose. And so these aren’t cannibal zombies. Also: Why don’t they fight each other? Why do the uninfected make them mad? I take it the virus is totally in control, urging them to infect others. Perhaps the newspapers no one reads might have explained this. Apparently at one point the idea was to turn the infected into “raging erections,” or sex maniacs (at least the male ones). Which wouldn’t have made sense either but might have been more fun.

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*. Given that Rage is just a virus anyway, why would the Infected take longer to starve to death than anyone else? If anything their metabolism seems to have sped up.
*. Or maybe it just looks like they’re going fast. The jumpy editing suits the sugar-high diet of the audience and the stars, who keep themselves going on chocolate bars and soda pop. How long before a human being starves to death on that? Now there’s an interesting question.
*. By the way. Some people get quite exercised when you call this a zombie film. These aren’t the living dead, after all. They’re just infected with a virus. Which is technically true but . . . this is a zombie film. There are nods to Romero throughout and the basic mythic template is all in place.
*. I’ll admit, I’m getting old. But what with the crazy editing, the digital photography (which has less resolution than film), and the deicision to shoot the Infected at a different frame setting, I had a lot of trouble seeing what was going on during the action sequences.

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*. We begin with television shots of rioting and anarchy. This is the same introduction used in the Dawn of the Dead remake. I guess the point is to make the movie seem “political” or an “allegory.” Before there was Rage, there was rage. I call bullshit. Please tell me what sort of deeper political meaning all of this has (or what the point is of forcing the chimp to watch it). Are the lower orders getting out of line?
*. “It started as rioting . . . ” Huh? However the people infected with Rage act out, it can hardly be mistaken for rioting. Nor does it seem to have started in “small villages.”
*. No, this is what happens when Europe plunges into Third World status: the opening riot scenes were mainly taken from footage of various failed state meltdowns, the money in the streets was inspired from a photo of Phnomh Penh after the fall of Pol Pot, the board of notices came from Beijing, the church filled with bodies from Rwanda, the dead in the diner is a reference to the Kurds gassed by Saddam Hussein, the execution in the forest was inspired by events in Bosnia.
*. The prologue strikes a conservative note. The natives are revolting. And who’s responsible for letting the virus loose? A bunch of hippy, animal-rights do-gooders.
*. Jim’s waking up in hospital bed is taken from Day of the Triffids, though I don’t recall either Boyle or Garland referencing this in their commentary. The same curtain-raiser is used in Kirkman’s Walking Dead serial, for what it’s worth. I think it’s just laziness.

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*. Why doesn’t Jim get infected in the scene where the one Rager crashes into his house? He’s splattered in blood all over his face, and is screaming throughout (i.e., his mouth is wide open). Later, a drop in the eye is enough to do the trick. The script seems to realize the improbability by having Selena ask him “Did you get any in your mouth?” Come on. There’s no way he could have avoided it.
*. There’s another example of dialogue being used to paper over what is an obvious bit of silliness when the Major explains how defensible a position the Great House occupies. There’s “flat terrain around the house” and various walls, etc. Whatever. I don’t see why flat terrain is a good thing. The house is surrounded by woods. I don’t see what use the walls are doing either, as they’re so far out they can’t be seen from the house and the Infected have no trouble getting past them. And the house itself is full of large windows even on the ground floor. It’s a ridiculous place to hold out against zombies in, though it may have some symbolic meaning. Is this the 0.01% holding out in their manor against the lower classes?
*. The shopping expedition has been a staple of the genre since The Last Man on Earth, and certainly since Dawn of the Dead. As I mentioned in my notes on that film, there’s something infantilizing about this, and here we see another example of that as the team of survivors seems to mentally regress as soon as they hit the aisles of free goodies. The nadir of this idea (at least thus far) comes in Zombieland. I don’t want to see any more of it.
*. I like strong women in these roles, though they can have the effect of unmanning the male leads. This is quite pronounced in Day of the Dead, where Sarah is a Ripley-style action heroine and her boyfriend Miguel is a total wimp. Things start off the same way here, with Jim’s totally irritating “Wait for me, Selena!” as she races ahead of him up the stairway. But then the roles are dramatically reversed when Selena becomes a rape target decked out in ridiculous formalwear while Jim has to strip to the waist to rescue her.

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*. The coda is just silly. Where did they get so many sheets? Why use sheets in the first place? Why spell such a stupid message? Why such a long message (“Hello”)? Why not Help? Why not SOS?
*. As I began by saying, it’s not all bad. Danny Boyle’s direction is lively. A lot of the production looks nice. But the best part of the movie is Jim’s exploration of deserted London (that is, the first ten or fifteen minutes), and after that it very quickly turns into a stupid mess.

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