Thursday, 6 December 2012


Flesh-eating zombies may never be likely to take over the world for real, but they have certainly dominated the horror genre for some considerable time now, and the infection shows no sign of easing up its widespread virulence as the plague continues its lethal march across the landscape of international horror, consuming all that fall in its path as it rapidly jumps host and moves from film to computer games,  converts the world of graphic novels and now moves on to its most recent acquisition, TV drama -- which takes the form of AMC’s hugely popular The Walking Dead, which was based on Robert Kirkman’s popular comic book series. This multi-platform dominance has been accomplished with apparent ease and equal success. One of the most heavily susceptible species of media, especially prone to harbouring a particularly unshakable variant of this most persistent of infections, has long been recognised to be the no-budget independent feature. The living dead have planted themselves firmly in place and taken root in that film backwater, as a permanent fixture that shows little indication of being supplanted anytime soon: all any aspiring Fulci needs these days, after all, is a camcorder, a little bluish grey face make-up and an "extra" or two happy to moan incoherently and affect a shambling gait for the viewfinder (and if they have no objection to chowing down on some raw butchers’ guts, all the better), and his/her film career is up and running!
Of course, very few of these flicks -- the vast majority of which are customarily proven to be amateurish dreck of the first order -- are worth even the effort it takes to insert the disc into a DVD drive, yet still they keep on coming by the dozen, dominating the landscape through a persistence of numbers that eventually makes them impossible to hold out against as they continue their mindless mission to fill DVD bargain bins in never ending bulk supply.
The zombie sub-genre remains popular of course (which partially accounts for this abundant harvest of flesh-eating variants) and it still occasionally but regularly supplies interesting material; yet one can’t help but be aware of the poverty of imagination which ultimately lies at the root of the ubiquity of the phenomenon. Yet, if there’s one interesting thing to comes out of a recent collection of zombie-based indies, released in the UK as a double-disc set by Monster Pictures (distributed by Eureka Entertainment), then it’s the set's inadvertent highlighting of the fact that the zombie sub-genre is actually capable of sustaining an incredibly wide selection of divergent approaches, and there are a spectrum of distinctions to be made, even within the indie movie bracket alone. Of course, the term ‘indie’ also covers a multitude of budgets and standards of professionalism, but rest assured -- everything included here meets a certain core level of competence (in other words, there’s nothing included in this set that is a complete insult to your eyes!), whether it be shot for tuppence on DV or aspires to widescreen cinematic standards of presentation. Across two discs, we’re given over five hours’ worth of zombie shorts from all over the world and in all sorts of styles, incorporating comedy, romance, action, satire and even the odd existential meditation. Although it’s an obvious PR line to take, there is indeed something here for everyone: if a particular short doesn’t happen to do it for you, then there’s every chance that the next one along will float your boat instead. The shooting standard ranges from grungy indie DV amateur style to comparatively glossy-looking fare. And there’s even a puppet animation zombie western here as well! The variety extends to running time, as we're given everything from brief five minute vignettes to hour-long mini features, with most entries averaging around fifteen minutes in length.

Dutch directing duo Barend de Voogd and Rob van der Velden demonstrate versatility even with the simplicity of their opener’s minimalist set-up: Zombeer (2008, Netherlands, 11 min) is an initially slick comedy short that highlights what happens when a bibulous brewer at a high-tech distillery keels over and drowns in a huge vat of his firm’s finest booze (‘beer with a bite’ is the company’s apposite tag-line!). Not only is the dead man (Rogier Schippers) reanimated by a secret mixture that’s being stirred-up in the bowels of the brewery, but everyone who samples it (which includes a party of Japanese day trippers) instantly becomes a flesh-craving revenant too. This quickie spans the gamut of the zombie sub-genre’s stylistic traits: starting off as a fairly proficiently filmed piece of work before moving into a (presumed) parody of [REC] by having most of the climactic zombie action shot as found-footage, viewed from the POV of the shaky camcorder of one of the fleeing visitors to the brewery.

Similarly, Zombies and Cigarettes (2009, Spain, 17min), also directed by a duo, Inaki San Roman & Rafa Martinez, takes the most familiar scenario imaginable – a zombie outbreak in a Spanish shopping mall which leads to a small group of survivors barricading themselves against the hordes – and uses it as something of a director’s show reel: it’s extremely well-shot and sharply edited, and it has gathered a raft of festival awards including some for best visual FX and best director. One can see why its flashy slickness would attract such attentions ... it may be the least original of any of the films included here, but it does at least attempt something interesting and new with the bitter-sweet cynicism of its conclusion, and the brief running time is perfectly judged for preventing it from outstaying its welcome. 

Zombies and Cigarettes (2009) Spain
Joseph Avery and Matt Simpson’s Plague (2008, UK, 17 min) heads for more obviously satirical waters in a grungy tale about an illegal migrant and gun-runner who flees the troubles of his Latvian homeland and winds up in a London that’s become overrun by the living dead. This sombre tale of urban isolation and despair makes fitting use of the zombie metaphor to examine the alienation, loneliness and persecution suffered by those forced to make a life for themselves in the jostling metropolitan sprawl that is contemporary London by removing the "jostle" and the "sprawl" and leaving only the apocalyptic decay of the aftermath of zombie plague. There’s one affecting and atmospheric scene in the middle of this piece which occurs when the narrator and protagonist investigates a derelict building, resulting in one of the most well-executed scare scenes to grace any of the films in the set.
Duncan Laing’s Bitten (2008, UK, 6 min) is another downbeat effort with an intriguing and disturbing premise. Here we join a young woman, played by Claire Wilson, in the middle of a zombie infestation and after she has just been bitten and is awaiting her own imminent transformation in the familiar surroundings of her home. Tense, ugly and grim, this is a fraught meditation on the prospect of the loss of one’s own faculties -- a situation which, frankly, will face us all in some form or other eventually. It combines gruelling body horror with a thought-provoking contemplation of mortality, and is only let down by poor "pancake" zombie face make-up, which rather breaks its spell. Another low budget effort, Arise (2010, USA, 18 min), attempts to excuse its own shoddy splatter effects with recourse to a facetious line in silly humour. The annoyingly cliched Death Metal soundtrack and the deliberately bad gore which accompanies all the "action" throughout risks losing the goodwill of the viewer fairly quickly, but this does actually have a thoughtful payoff about parental responsibility and maturity behind a long line of suppurating zombie cadavers shuffling forth to be deprived of limbs when the hero’s proficiency with his work tools finds another use after the living dead invade his workshop. Not Even Dead (2009, USA, 5 min) examines the misguided urge to hang on to a loved one and hope that a cure can eventually be found for the zombie infection: David (Joseph Will) keeps his zombified wife(Treva Tegtmeier) chained up in the basement and illegally feeds her, convinced there is still some remnant of the woman he used to know preserved inside the salivating creature’s brain. This is a bleak little tale about the catastrophic repercussions of irrational, undying love. Unfortunately, well-enough staged as it is, it just doesn’t go anywhere you don’t already expect it to go to.

Bitten (2008) UK
Randy Smith’s Fear of the Living Dead (2009, USA, 16 mins) is a cheaply shot attempt to do action and mystery with a small cast and a tiny budget and never really gets convincingly off the ground. April Campbell plays a young woman who believes she is the last woman left on Earth thanks to her immunity to the zombie virus, which has turned the rest of the world into flesh-craving ghouls. However, while raiding suburban houses for supplies she finds she isn’t the only remaining human being who's out and about after all. After becoming well-used to living in "survivalist" mode, this discovery becomes a difficult circumstance to adjust to. But she may well now be in even more danger than ever before. This is watchable enough as far as it goes, but it’s too slight and cheap-looking to pass muster as anything else but a minor quickie. Kidz (2010, Canada, 9 mins), on the other hand, is a delightful comic vignette in which a trio of child friends prove to be well-equipped for the death of their parents during a zombie plague because of their well-honed proficiency at shoot-em-up video games. Approaching the entire ordeal as just another game, they suit up as super-powered comic heroes and set about protecting the neighbourhood from the encroaching zombie hordes. Nicely acted by the young leads, this combines zom-com humour with a gentle evocation of the nostalgic joys of childhood fantasy and play.

Kidz (2010) Canada
 The Book of Zombie (2007, USA, 64 min) is, of course, the most substantial work here in terms of running time, and thus it’s no surprise that this is the one which most successfully manages to build up some degree of character interaction, which helps to create and hold on to viewer interest. A troubled married couple (Brian Ibsen and Larisa Peters) attempt to bond on Halloween night while their daughter is away having a sleepover with friends, but the evening is already going far from well for their relationship when the couple are suddenly assailed by zombie Mormons at their door who have taken over the small sleepy Utah town in which they live. As they battle through the streets to reach their daughter, they meet a couple of stoned and slightly vacant slacker youths working late in a local store, and the group attempts to hole up in a Medieval themed bar with a feisty waitress who’s got her zombie boss locked up in the store room. The conceit behind this gory comedy is that only Mormons are initially affected by the zombie infection, and they can only be stopped by exposure to caffeine (Mormons won’t touch anything that contains it, apparently), which is most readily available to our heroes in the form of soft drinks sold in the store they find themselves barricaded in (one character meets his end when his defensive can of Coke turns out to be of the decaffeinated variety!).

The Book of Mormon (2007) USA
 Andrew Loviska puts in a decent effort as the laconic, bespectacled slacker shop clerk Darwin, and Ibsen and Peters make their initially annoying bickering couple (who are gradually brought closer together over the urgent need to kick some serious Mormon zombie butt) more and more likable as the film proceeds towards its Evil Dead-style splatter-based finale. Not quite so likable in the comedy stakes is the British effort from Sat Johal, Tony Jopia and John Payne:  Zombie Harvest (2003, UK, 11 min) starts with someone tripping over while trying to escape from a zombie revenant by running through a farm, and ending up with their head stuck up a cow’s arse; things go pretty much downhill from there on. A few nice shots near the end, of a ghostly army of the re-animated dead shuffling, like rotted Fulci-esque cadavers, through a cornfield in the Oxfordshire countryside, is small compensation for this facetiously narrated tale which is told from the viewpoint of a soldier from a nearby American base, who’s on the turn after being attacked by a scientist who's been experimenting on himself with a genetic virus that has had some unforeseen consequences.  

The Skin of Your Teeth (2009, USA, 14 mins) is more a vignette than a fully-fledged short, and ends up leaving the viewer wanting more. But in terms of atmosphere and creepiness it’s by far the most successful piece included in this collection and is actually my favourite. Shot on a working farm in Western New Jersey by Dan Gingold -- a director/producer/editor based in Brooklyn, New York -- the film expertly uses landscape and space to create a mood of forboding which has a Cormic McCarthy-style sense of impending doom about it. The dialogue is kept to an absolute minimum and the set-up is conveyed visually, as we are introduced to a quartet of young survivors from a recent zombie plague taking refuge in a derelict farmhouse on the brow of a hill surrounded by a flat expanse of countryside. The group monitor emergency radio broadcasts for news and keep watch for the approaching hordes from the roof of the farm building using binoculars. The film vividly evokes a sense of dread relying on the featureless landscape as a means of emphasising the fact that there is nowhere to hide, and when the zombies eventually do come, the frantic battle for survival is by far the most visceral and scary out of this bunch of films because of this acrophobic feeling of the vastness of the countryside that the dead are seen to now dominate. Poor zombie makeup may slightly let the side down, but the last few minutes are the most terrifying out of any of the shorts here.
The Skin of Your Teeth (2009) USA
David M. Reynolds’ Zomblies (2009, UK, 47 minutes) is the other substantial work included in the set, with its TV episode-like run-time enabling a proper storyline to unfold rather than just the sketching out of a mood or the delivery of a set-piece. It’s steeped in the stylistic mannerisms and tone of 28 Days Later and its ilk, with shaky camerawork and digitally de-saturated colour tones ... but it sets up its dystopian world quite effectively and sells the action set-pieces it’s been designed to convey with conviction. There’s also quite an enveloping score accompanying this action and gore-drenched apocalypse. This is basically a ‘guys on-a mission’ film in which an elite squad of Rangers are sent out beyond the automatic-machine-gun topped wall, that provides a protective perimeter for a high-tech military base with a control room that looks like CTU from 24, in search of a rookie bunch of zombie hunters who have gone missing after leaving a distress call. The macho squad soon find themselves in trouble when it turns out that the zombie virus is mutating and can infect people even if they’re only exposed to the blood of one of the dead. There’s nothing wrong with this film other than the fact that it’s just a straight-down-the-line, low budget version of a typical zombie action film, with nothing new to offer. Performances are generally acceptable but characters, as tends to be the case with such material, are simply "types" and its hard to get more than casually engaged with the plight of the cookie cutter squad of military men who find themselves cornered and cut-off in a wilderness of marauding dead, as their superiors decide to cut their losses and bomb the whole area with their men still in it.
If it’s originality rather than straight-line thrills and action you’re after then look no further than the next offering: It Came from the West (2007, Denmark, 16 min) is an animated western created with hand puppets and directed by a 27 year-old student of the National Film School of Denmark called Tor Fruergaard. It tells the story of a freckle-faced, ginger-haired youngster with an overbite, called Virgil. Bulled by his oafish father and the mean guys who prop up the bar at his local saloon, who collectively dismiss him as nothing but “a wannabe cowboy weak pisser”, this plug-eared hero finds himself trapped between a rock and a hard place when the daily round of abuse he suffers at the hands of his daddy and his boorish friends is interrupted by a good ol’ zombie siege. A serial killer called the Dark Destroyer has been busy chain-sawing the local redskin population to death, and the natives decide to strike back by raising the dead in a sacred ceremony to take revenge on the white man. Before the bog-eyed-ugly cast of totem-faced cowboys have realised what’s going on, the Saloon is besieged by flesh-eating zombies freshly risen from a nearby graveyard and it’s up to Virgil to fend them off as the other patrons meet a variety of gory deaths at their undead hands. This humorous puppet adventure revels in outrageous cartoon gore, quirky characters and a great score that mixes tribal drumming and some extra twangy tremolo guitar licks.
It Came from the West (2007) Denmark
 Gregory Morinhas’ Paris by Night of the Living Dead (2009, France, 12 min) takes some stylish cinematography and cartoonish CGI splatter effects and combines them with fluid camera movement and vertiginous crane shots to make up this fast-moving action-fest, in which the dead take over the streets of a series of Parisian tourist destinations and only a handsome-looking, newly married young couple (Karina Testa and David Saracino) are available to fend them off when their wedding vows are interrupted by the zombie outbreak. This twelve minute piece is all about style, with the couple whipping off their wedding clothes in a trice and producing huge pump-action hand guns from nowhere (it’s always good to come prepared) before striking a series of action poses while variously either machine gunning, decapitating or otherwise eviscerating the staggering zombie crowds. The CGI is pretty low rent, but then that only adds to the cartoony artifice of the action, and despite the superficiality of it all, this manages a few tense moments and even a little poignancy at the end.
Paris by Night of the Living Dead (2009) France
Tarunabh Dutta’s Savages (2011, India, 39 min) is billed as one of India’s first independent zombie films and the imagery that comes with its interesting mixture of semi-rural/jungle locations is certainly different enough from anything seen in the other films included here to make this fairly cheaply-made effort stand out, although the influence of The Evil Dead and a few other classic Italian-made zombie films is always apparent. Unfortunately, the enthusiasm of the participants in front of and behind the camera is rather fatally undermined by the sheer amateurishness of the cast performances. This mostly just looks like a bunch of mates having a laugh with a video camera while they spend a weekend making their own zombie picture. The story, in which a group of teenagers idly amble off into India's equivalent of the backwoods on the outskirts of their village in order to give one of their number a special ‘treat’ by taking him on a camping trip to a contaminated area that’s been sealed off as a biohazard for years, requires said characters to behave with more than the usual quota of stupidity we expect to find distributed among the cast of zombie fodder flicks like this. There’s a dishevelled-looking ‘wise man’ who at first tries to warn them off and then, when that doesn’t work, resorts to martial arts skills to get rid of them; but by then it's already too late and one of the group gets infected with the zombie-inducing contaminate with predictably half-arsed results.
The final film in this collection, Dead Hungry (2009, UK, 10 min), is the surprise gem of the bunch and is probably best summed up by its tag line: ‘life’s a bitch, and then you die. Then you’re a zombie, and death’s a bitch too.’  The unfortunate protagonist of this little adventure is a forlorn-looking and very hungry revenant with a rumbling belly who’s in desperate need of fresh brains. Stumbling through a forest clearing, dressed in baggy dungarees, our “hero” encounters a number of classic clichéd zombie/horror movie situations but is too generally hopeless at being a member of the walking dead to capitalise on them. Basically, he’s just a little bit clueless when it comes to the business of eating people. Director William Bridges deals in a wry, poignant humour that closely resembles the attitude of Shaun of the Dead, but here it’s the hapless zombie we feel for, and his point of view we take throughout this ten minute film ... not  that of the potential victims he’s attempting to make a meal of. When the classic zombie siege situation develops after a bunch of American teenagers attempt to take refuge in an old log cabin, it is the poor old hungry zombie outside whose fortunes we’re actually following, as he continually gets crowded out by the other more pushy zombies surrounding the trapped kids' hideout, who are also attempting to break in. Eventually a quirky little ‘romantic’ relationship develops between "our" zombie and another female zombie who's also taking part in the siege -- and the ironic bittersweet ending takes the concept of funeral humour to  extremes!
Dead Hungry (2009) UK
As a collection, the films included in this Monsters Pictures release demonstrate the full range and the great versatility the zombie film is still capable of; and although a few of the entries merely deliver standard zombie flick fare, many others remind us how there is still more than a spark of life left in the genre’s shambling cadaver, should the more inspired indie writers and directors choose to search for it.  


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