Category: Zombies


WorldWarZ-1

(A quick aside before my actual review: I watched this film Thursday night with my dad. We didn’t get home until after midnight. I worked Friday until 2 AM, and then today I went to see Monsters University with my sister which I will also be hopefully reviewing today. The moral of this story is that my brain is at least minorly fractured. Hopefully, these two reviews make sense)

After the dark and crushing ending to 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, there is one theme  that seems to have held constant across the entirety of the zombie genre of horror. The zombie curse becomes an allegory for humanity’s existential dread and our own certain knowledge that one day soon, something will wipe us out. There is a rotting, hope-sucking fatalism at the heart of all great zombie films and even in the lightest moments in the best zombie works, you always know in the back of your head that any minor victories will only lead to the most tragic fall later. So, when World War Z trades in the usual stark damnation of the zombie genre for actual, legitimate hope, it is only one of many signs that this particular zombie film lacks any teeth.

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Perhaps it’s the film’s PG-13 rating and (more likely) perhaps it’s the film’s obvious and pathetic attempts to appeal to a mainstream summer blockbuster audience, but from beginning to end, World War Z turns the zombie apocalypse into a sterile, market-tested crowd pleaser that isn’t nearly as fun (or terrifying) as it wants itself to be. World War Z has individual set pieces that are a legitimate rush (a moment in a crowded plane stands out for sheer inspiration), but with emotionally wooden characters, mostly ineffective performances, and literally no sense of stakes in the outcomes of these characters, World War Z falls prey to most of the bad parts of zombie films without any of the gore-ridden excess or social commentary that makes the best Romero pictures so fun.

Gerry Lane (The Assassination of Jesse James‘s Brad Pitt) is a former U.N. investigator who finds himself caught in the middle of a mysterious infection that is turning humanity into murderous, suicidal shells whose only purpose is to continue spreading their infection. Gerry’s family is with him when the infection breaks loose in Philadelphia (and the rest of the world) and though Gerry and his family are able to escape to a UN battleship in the Atlantic ocean, the price for Gerry’s family’s spot on that boat is Gerry returning to field duty and helping to discover the cause of the zombie outbreak before it’s too late to save humanity. And, thus, Gerry is sent on a trip around the world from Korea to Israel to Wales as he searches for answers and for a cure.

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Even more than the fact that World War Z trades in zombie ultra-violence for confusing and schizophrenic editing (in a vein similar to but not as well-exectued as The Hunger Games film), this movie is plagued by a lack of a reason to care. Having watched post-apocalyptic films for decades now, writers and directors have to provide more than the potential extermination of humanity to garner an audience’s sympathies, and World War Z fails there on every possible front. The film adopts an episodic approach to it’s storytelling (keeping in line with its summer blockbuster lineage as opposed to traditional zombie archetypes), and in the downtime between set pieces, the writers fail again and again to develop its characters enough to generate even the most marginal interest in these figures as anything more than plot devices.

Brad Pitt is serviceable in the role of Gerry. But, considering that I think Brad Pitt is one of Hollywood’s most talent and consistently intriguing A-listers (just watch Killing Them Softly and tell me I’m wrong), serviceable is not enough. Pitt gives the distinct impression the entire film that he’s only here to pick up a paycheck, and during what is supposed to be one of the film’s most emotional moments during the movie’s end, Pitt doesn’t sell the uncertainty and despair that must have been rocking through Gerry at that moment. None of the performances make much of an impression although Mireille Enos’s turn as Gerry’s wife was interesting enough that I’d like to keep an eye on this new talent.

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I hope that I haven’t given the impression that I totally hated this movie because I didn’t. When the actual action is taking place (and let there be no question, World War Z is an action movie that happens to feature zombies), it is fast-paced and exciting, and it has several moments that are just buzzing with energy and innovation. A scene where zombies make their way onto a crowded plane is the best of the bunch (and prominently featured in the trailers), but other moments like an escape from an airport and the breaching of the walls of Israel have real verve and pleasure. Sadly there isn’t enough tying these moments together.

If you like real zombie movies of the Romero variety (even the cheesier ones like Diary of the Dead), you will probably find yourself disappointed by World War Z because it lacks practically all of the hallmarks of zombie cinema. And if you’re a fan of summer blockbusters of the Rolan Emmerich variety (i.e. Independence Day), you may still find yourself thinking that World War Z is wanting in some vague aspect. At the end of the day, the film gets the job done with its action-fueled moments, but it doesn’t accomplish nearly enough for just how dead and lifeless this film feels (pun about half-intended).

Final Score: C+

 

All directors have to start somewhere. Some debuts are a little more impressive than others. When Terence Malick sprung the visual poetry and tragic love story of Badlands on the world, he was instantly marked as a man to watch (even if his output is minimal at best). I’m not sure anyone would have expected that the man behind Sugarland Express (Steven Spielberg) could have gone on to make something as magnificent and devastating as Schindler‘s List. Sam Raimi falls more into the Spielberg camp than Malick (not that he ever reached the heights of either). As director of the Spiderman franchise (especially Spiderman 2), Raimi proved that popcorn entertainment could have mass appeal while still touching your heart and mind. It’s a shame then that his debut picture, The Evil Dead, is more of a chance for Raimi to show off his technical prowess (which is apparent beneath the film’s many flaws) than a watchable movie in its own right.

The zombie horror genre (which The Evil Dead inhabits while simultaneously flirting with demon possession films) is rife with movies that are so bad they’re good. Because of how The Evil Dead II embraced an almost slapstick level of humor with its over-the-top gore and campy presentation, it’s enjoyable because it pokes fun at the innately awful nature of the B-movie (in much the same way as the Grindhouse films). If you took Planet Terror seriously, it would be unwatchable garbage, but because it satirizes the genre (while also being a perfectly serviceable B-movie), it works. The original The Evil Dead is more of a case of “It’s so bad, it’s meh.” The acting is a mess (and not always intentionally), the story is a convoluted bit of nonsense, and it fails to be scary whatsoever. However, an always endearing Bruce Campbell and early signs that Sam Raimi was a gifted director keep the film from being a total failure.

Five friends, led by the goofy and charming Ash (Burn Notice‘s Bruce Campbell), decide to go for a weekend away in a remote cabin in the woods .Things move around on there own even as they first arrive and one of the girls is momentarily possessed and forced to draw an eerie book in her bedroom. Yet, they still think it’s a good idea to stay here. After a mysterious force blows open a hatch leading into the basement, the group finds a book (and an audio recording) that appears to be sewn with human flesh. The audio recording reveals a scientist’s research into the occult and how a demon possessed his girlfriend after he read a specific phrase from the evil book (which is then read over the recording) which starts a frenzy of murderous supernatural rage when demons slowly but surely possess Ash’s friends and girlfriend as he has to fight tooth and nail to stay alive and to stay sane.

On virtually every front but Raimi’s camera work, the film is a disaster. There have been some retroactive claims that this was meant to be a horror comedy, but I call bull shit because this is clearly meant to be a somewhat serious horror affair, and nothing about the film is scary. It is certainly as gory as you can imagine (especially impressive considering the film’s miniscule budget), but the supernatural aspects of the film are laughable at best (even the most traumatic moment, a tree raping one of the female characters, is too campy and cheesy to make an impact). The acting is genuinely awful, and although Bruce Campbell shows at least some level of professionalism, it’s painfully obvious that the rest of the cast are just doing Sam Raimi a favor. It doesn’t help that the characters are given zero development (not even Ash), and the story is laughably thin.

Despite the film’s myriad flaws, Sam Raimi manages to pack the film (especially the early moments before he lets absurd levels of gore do the speaking) with tons of great shots. Whether it’s wide-angle lens close-ups, low shots, fast moving dolly shots, and great tracking shots, it’s obvious that Sam Raimi was an artist who was getting to play with a big box of toys he never had access to before. The use of smoke, shadows, and even lighting were well implemented despite the film’s shoestring budget. Raimi succeeds in creating a moody, eerie atmosphere, but when the zombies/possessed friends finally make their big appearance, he abandons any pretense of seriousness and goes for as much gore as humanly possible. His great camerawork draws even more attention to the film’s flaws because it reminds you what kind of film Raimi could be making.

I honestly have very fond memories of The Evil Dead II, but no matter how many times I watch this original, I can’t get over just how bad it is (and how actively grating certain sequences with a laughing zombie are). My sister watched part of the film with me and eventually had to find something else to occupy her time with because she thought the film was so bad. And it is bad. It’s almost irredeemably awful. Yet, those of you who can appreciate the technical aspects of film making will immediately mark Sam Raimi as a gifted auteur, and even if The Evil Dead doesn’t live up to the standard that the rest of his career set for him, it’s worth it to see young talent developing.

Final Score: C

 I haven’t reviewed all that many horror movies for this list. As a matter of fact, I think I’ve only actually reviewed two, Let the Right One In and Night of the Living Dead. There’s a reason for that though. A) Horror movies aren’t the kind of things that are nominated for major industry awards which is how most of the movies that are on this list got there. Also B) I just don’t like horror movies all that much. There are some that I think are great, but they are by far the exception. The movie I just watched, 2007’s George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead, was not actually on my list, but it happened to be on Cinemax, and I sat down and watched it. Romero is one of the only real auteurs working in the horror medium. This might not be the classic that Night of the Living Dead or the original Dawn of the Dead was, but it was still a pretty interesting take on the zombie picture.

Diary of the Dead is the story of a group of college students who are out in the woods shooting their own low-budget student horror film. Unbeknownst (at first anyways) to the students making the film, the outside world is literally going to hell because the classic zombie apocalypse scenario is beginning. The basic conceit of the film is that it is a documentary captured live on film by one of the college students once they realize what is happening and that this is the footage that they have left behind. I’m a big fan of hand-held camera movies like Cloverfield so I liked that part of it. It makes the movie more immersive. So, the film chronicles the students attempts to survive the zombie apocalypse. The story might not be all that original, but I’ll get to the social commentary in a second which is what always sets Romero films apart.

George A. Romero has always stood head and shoulder above his fellow zombie movie peers by having his films be full of some sort of social commentary or another. Dawn of the Dead is the most obvious example with its stance on rampant consumerism. Thankfully, Diary of the Dead is no exception. It explores the relationship between horror films and the voyeurism of said films and our inevitable desensitization to violence and death. It also asks whether it is good that journalists and documentarians are distant and cold to that which they study if it means that are disconnected from the reality around them. The subject isn’t handled with any real subtlety as is there is a lot of narration exactly explaining the feelings you’re supposed to get from the film, but any horror movie with a message is worth something.

I liked it. It wasn’t a great movie, but for a film that I hadn’t actually intended on sitting all the way through, I ended up watching the whole thing. Since it wasn’t on my list, I could have easily turned it off and put my current obsession in my PS3, the video game L.A. Noire, but Diary of the Dead kept my attention. If you like horror movies and especially zombie films, you should check this one out. I would say that it was better than Romero’s most recent picture before this one, Land of the Dead, but not nearly as good as his original stuff.

 Final Score: B

For the last ten years or so, the zombie apocalypse scenario has been in vogue, so to speak. Starting with Zak Snyder’s remake of George A. Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead to Shaun of the Dead to Zombieland to one of the most criticallly acclaimed shows that is currently on television being a zombie drama, The Walking Dead, making quality zombie pictures is a pretty decent way to turn a profit. Hell, you can even write humor books about zombies and make money like The Zombie Survival Guide which I have purchased for zombie-loving friends in the past. I mentioned his name a second ago, but this genre would not exist today and would not be so over-whelmingly popular if it weren’t for George A. Romero. He is to zombie films what Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper are to slasher flicks. He’s the godfather of the genre. And his original zombie film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, is in all probability the first great zombie film ever made that rose above it’s B-movie origins.

The movie is about a group of survivors who are caught in the middle of the zombie uprising. They are holed up in a little farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania. From this group of people, you have pretty much every archetypal figure in zombie movie lore. The shell-shocked survivor. The infected survivor. The bad-ass black guy. The couple in love. The asshole control freak who does more harm than good. This film created the stock characters of the genre but did those characters better than its copy cats ever would. Duane Jones plays Ben who becomes the de facto leader of the group and much like this film’s desires to not simply be a B-horror film, Duane’s performance is quite good, especially by horror movie standards. I applaud the film’s decision in 1968 to cast a black performer as the lead of the film in a film that is in no way about race, but it simply chose to make a black character the strong leader/bad ass figure.

One of the most impressive aspects of the film is how well it was made for how obviously small its budget was. The only real special effects in the film are for the zombie make-up and even that isn’t anything particular special beyond making the people paler. The film is primarily shot all in and around one house. There aren’t many action sequences. In reality, the film is very much a drama that just happens to be a zombie horror film. The character’s biggest enemies often aren’t the zombies but the other survivors themselves. And when things inevitably become even more catastrophic, it was their inability to work together and cooperate that kept them from success. Romero’s films generally have some sort of social message in them such as Dawn of the Dead‘s strict anti-commercialism spiel. I’m not entirely sure what the social message of this film was. However, it is easily one of the first horror films that tried to be equally a character study, and in that area it succeeds quite well.

The movie has one of the darker and more ironic endings of any of the horror films I’ve seen. It’s really quite good. Alright, here’s the low-down. Even if you don’t like horror movies. Even if you especially don’t like zombie movies, I think you simply need to watch this one and give it a chance. There’s a reason why, even 40 years later, Romero is still one of the kings of the genre. Along with the original Dawn of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead stands to me as one of the greatest zombie films ever made.

Final Score: A-