Diary of the Dead at Screamfest – Review

This year’s installment of Screamfest – the Hollywood horror film festival – got off to a great start on Friday evening with George A. Romero’s DIARY OF THE DEAD. The Mann Chinese 6 Theatre, located on Hollywood Boulevard, was surprisingly not sold out – which is incredible, considering that this is the new zombie film from George A. Romero, the man who pretty much invented the genre as we now know it. At least the enthusiast crowd was pumped up for the event, and several came attired as the living dead, one with a zombie baby.
Romero was a no-show at the film’s Hollywood premier. In his stead, producer Art Spigel read a note from the writer-director:

“Thank you very much for showing up to this thing. I’m in Europe; otherwise, I’d be there with you. Thanks to the Weinstein Company and to Screamfest for premiering the film on the West Coast for all of you. I loved doing DIARY OF THE DEAD; it’s really a liberating experience to make the film the way you want to. I got the idea because of the explosion of media out there. Everybody’s a reporter; everybody’s on MySpace and YouTube. There’s all these millions and millions of voices, and I wanted to do something that reflected that. So, anyway, it’s really one from the heart. I love it, and I hope you do too.”

By now, you probably know that the story involves a group of students shooting a horror film when the living dead phenomenon strikes. With its use of documentary-style hand-held cameras, the comparisons to BLAIR WITCH PROJECT are inevitable but also extremely superficial. This is not a film about some people lost in the woods; it really is about the way that new digital technology has allowed people at the ground level to bypass traditional media to get their own voices heard. Although the film is told 90% through the eyes of our central characters, glimpses of from around the globe are provided through other video that has been uploaded to the Internet, allowing a worldwide picture of the Apocalypse to emerge.

The faux documentary approach – with action recorded in long, uninterrupted takes – seems diametrically opposed to Romero’s usual style (he has often said that he would rather have 100 bad shots than ten good shots, because with that much coverage he can make the scene work in the editing room), but it perfectly suits the material and thoroughly re-invigorates Romero’s approach to it. If you didn’t know that Romero himself directed this film, you would think it had been fashioned by some young brilliant young wunderkind director, reared on Romero’s work and eager to stake out his own claim to the territory.
The pacing is not great. Romero has points he wants to make and he takes his time making them. But the characterizations and performances are strong and the overall effect is one of chilling despair – the world is going to Hell, and it’s not clear that there is anything worth saving.
Obviously, Romero has aspirations that extend beyond simple splatter, but he does deliver. This is not a gore film, although it is punctuated with a series of shocking moments that should please the hard-core horror crowd. Along the way, Romero pokes fun at genre expectations (the film-within-a-film is filled with silly cliches, like a running girl who conveniently falls down so that the slow-moving mummy can catch up with her and rip her dress), then fulfills them (still in costume, the actor playing the mummy turns into a zombie near the end – and recreates his movie scene for real).
These witty asides – along with the occasional scythe through the skull, and a remarkable scene wherein a zombies eyes blow out when defibrillators are applied to her head – provide the horror movie shtick that fans expect. But the real horror comes from watching a document of the death of civilization, a nightmarish depiction of the world as we know it falling apart, while our characters struggle for survival and dance around the question of whether there is even any reason left to survive.

Fragile zombies

Where would Hollywood horror be without graphic novels? 30 DAYS OF NIGHT hits screens soon. We recently heard tell of cinematic adaptations of Baltimore and Virulents. Now we learn that FRAGILE – Stephan Raffaele’s tale of what happens when the Earth is overrun by zombies – is coming to the movies, with Eduardo Rodriguez directing from a screenplay by Jeff Dixon. The story follows a zombie soldier who joins forces with a human teenager and a zombie female, hoping to find a cure before being hunted down by his former military unit.

“‘Fragile’ gives me the opportunity to explore the horror we’re used to in the genre but set in a unique post-apocalyptic world where zombies aren’t the monsters anymore,” said Rodriguez, who helmed Dimension’s “Curandero,” which was written and produced by Robert Rodriguez.

Dawn of the Dead (1979) – A Retrospective

[EDITOR’S NOTE: DAWN OF THE DEAD makes another appearance on home video today, this time in the Blu-ray format, so we took this opportunity to post a retrospective-review of the film, including an interview with writer-director George Romero.]
DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979) billed itself as “the most intensely shocking motion picture experience for all times,” and this was a rare instance of a film that lived up to its advertising hyperbole. This sequel to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) abandoned the shadowy black-and-white creepiness of its progenitor in favor of a brightly lit color canvas that was bigger, broader, and bloodier. The film established a new record for explicit on-screen carnage, but it also extended the scope of the original film, taking the living dead phenomenon out of the farmhouse and unleashing it upon the world at large. This time out, the production values are superior; the acting performances are uniformly strong; and the script develops its themes more explicitly, with obvious satirical jabs at modern consumer society, as epitomized by the indoor shopping mall where a small band of human survivors take shelter from the zombie plague sweeping the country.
Continue reading “Dawn of the Dead (1979) – A Retrospective”

Evil Dead 2 (1987) – Film & DVD Review

[EDITOR’S NOTE: EVIL DEAD 2 makes another appearance on home video today, this time in the Blu-ray format, so we took this opportunity to post a retrospective-review of the film, including an interview with director Sam Raimi.
Hands down absolutely one of the greatest achievements in the horror genre—ever. This is literally one of those films that have to be seen to be believed—it’s outrageous, over-the-top, and beyond what you could possibly imagine, if you haven’t already seen it. It’s a high-octane visual assault on the senses that starts fast and keeps accelerating, slowing down only enough to change gears from scene to scene. If you’re one of those people hung up on literary values like characterization and narrative coherence (and by the way, why are you even reading this?), then this film is not for you; if, however, you really appreciate good cinema—filmmaking pushed to the limits of what can be achieved with camera techniques and editing—then you’re guaranteed to enjoy this mind-blowing roller-coaster ride. Continue reading “Evil Dead 2 (1987) – Film & DVD Review”

Resident Evil: Extinction (2007): Film Review

This film is yet more evidence that, like the walking dead who shuffle across the screen, the zombie sub-genre refuses to die a peaceful death. In a way, this is a good thing: films as diverse as relatively lavish LAND OF THE DEAD and the virtually no-budget AUTOMATON TRANSFUSIONprove that there is life in those rotting corpses yet. In the case of RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION, however, one begins to realize that the franchise is becoming almost as mindless as the zombies it portrays, lumbeirng on with only repetitive instinct,while all true vitality has long since passed away. This film is not exactly awful (it’s no worse than the recent HALLOWEEN), but it lacks the ferocious intensity that a truly good horror film should have, and its attempt to pass itself off as a post-apocalyptic action-adventure falls short of what your average low-budget cult movie could achieve.
More or less ignoring the ending of RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE (there is a lip service explanation late in the film), the new film does not pick up with Alice (Milla Jovovich) under surveillance by the evil corporation responsible for the virus that turns people into zombies; instead, we are introduced into your standard post-apocalyptic world, where a handful of remaining humans struggle for survival now that civilization has fallen. The script by Paul W. S. Anderson shows a few fleeting glimpses of promise, beginning with a sly opening sequence of Alice waking up and trying to escape from the lab – only to be killed by one of the many booby-traps awaiting her. The revelation that this Alice is one of many clones who have met their deaths looking for a way out, is a clever nod to the movie’s videogame origins, in which the player’s on-screen character is frequently “killed,” only to rise again and take another crack at over-leaping the pitfall that felled him/her previously. Continue reading “Resident Evil: Extinction (2007): Film Review”

Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004): Film Review

In case you missed the first Resident Evil film, the story involved a virus that gets loose in a secret facility, killing its victims and turning them into zombies. The expert team sent in to clean up the mess—in the great tradition of crack experts—proved a poor match for the problem, ending up by and large killed in horrible ways. Nevertheless, it seemed that they had succeeded in containing the virus—until the film’s coda, when our heroine Alice (Milla Jovavich) awakened from some kind of secret experiment and stepped into a world apparently overrun by zombies. Like a good sequel RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE picks up this thread and plays it out, taking elements from the first film expanding them onto a much larger canvas; the film even backtracks a little bit to show us how things got so bad while Alice was locked inside the lab.
That’s the good news. The not so good news is that, despite the implication of the final shot in the first film, and despite the word “apocalypse” in the new title, the sequel has nothing to do with the end of the world. Instead, the zombie phenomenon is limited to Raccoon City, which is effectively quarantined by the Umbrella Corporation, the evil company responsible for the virus in the first place; and the plot more or less follows the third video game in the series Resident Evil: Nemesis, as our character seek to rescue a scientists daughter and find a way out of the city before it gets nuked to prevent further spread of the virus. A city overrun by zombies is not a bad premise for an action-horror movie, but it isn’t quite “apocalyptic,” either. So don’t go expecting Dawn of the Dead type despair over the possible extinction of the human race; just sit back and enjoy an amiable thrill ride, which is all this film wants to be. Like its predecessor, it succeeds.

In the manner of good genre films, RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE works because it fulfills the lowest common denominator demands of its intended audience, serving up the required elements in a fast-paced, entertaining, and even stylish fashion without getting bogged down in unnecessary distractions like intricate plotting and believable characterizations. You immediately know whom you’re supposed to like, and whom you hate, and after that there is little development. This is a film in which the most important thing about the lead character is how well she handles a gun and how good she looks while doing it. In fact, with the addition of Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory), the sequel offers us two gun-toting chicks instead of one. You might wonder who too similar characters will interact (will Jill and Alice bond, or will they turn competitive because they are too much alike?), but the film isn’t going to worry about that; it’s simply going to revel in showing them off as they blast their opponents without breaking a sweat, and for brief moments the film teeters on the bring of turning into a shooting gallery contest: who will bag the most zombies?
There are some interesting plot developments that prevent the film from descending into nothing but repetitive shoot-outs. We learn that the T-virus originally had a benign purpose (it revives and strengthens dead cells, which can help crippled people regain the use of damaged limbs). Alice has been infected with the virus. And along with the zombie humans and zombie dogs we saw in the first film, there is now a new menace, called Nemesis, the mutant result of the same experiment that turned Alice into an unstoppable zombie killer. This provides the opportunity to interject a Terminator-like threat into the mix (slow and unstoppable, like a tank), and the script (by Paul Anderson) even contrives (somewhat lamely) to have Alice go mano-a-mano with what is, in a sense her twin. As hokey as the moment is, the script redeems itself with a nice twist about the identity of Nemesis; unfortunately, the fight itself falls flat, revealing one of the major weaknesses of the film.

As much fun as the action and horror is, director Alexander Witt relies too much on jumbled camera angles and fast cutting, which sometimes prevent you from seeing what is actually happening. This kind of technique is fine if the point is that things are happening too fast to keep track of, but more often it is used to obscure the fact that the fights are not particularly well staged. The showdown between Alice and Nemesis is a perfect example. The right approach should have been obvious: Alice is fast and agile; Nemesis is slow and strong. The fight should have been staged in long shots, with overhead camera angles, showing us Alice darting, feinting, running circles and figure-eights around her opponent while looking for an opening to launch an attack (float like a butterfly, sting like a bee). Instead, the editing goes cut-cut-cut-cut-cut while the two characters hit and kick at each other with little noticeable difference in strategy, even though they have obvious physical differences that should require them to fight quite differently.
This is one of those cases where flashy technique turns out to be not at all stylish, nor very effective. Fortunately, director Witt is better at handling the explosions and gunfire, and Anderson’s script is more fun that the one he himself directed for this year’s Alien Vs. Predator. The Resident Evil franchise will never surpass George Romero’s Living Dead films in importance; in his original trilogy (Night, Dawn and Day of the Dead), Romero hit on the metaphor of ghouls as a new society rising to devour – literally – the old. You could fight them, but your ranks shrank as the living died and joined the other side, forcing a horrible choice: fight to retain your individuality and risk having your body eviscerated by the group mob, or give up your mind and personality to become one of the enemy, a mindless zombie with no memory of who you used to be. RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE doesn’t add much of interest to these established genre elements, but it does put them to good visceral effect. And to some extent, that’s what genre filmmaking is all about: finding a formula and doing it well. RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE is not going to win any converts or cross over to mainstream viewers, but for fans it is an enjoyably well-made addition to the zombie sub-genre.

The zombie hordes overwhelm Racoon City

RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE (2004). Directed by Alexander Witt. Screenplay by Paul W. S. Anderson, based on the videogame. Cast: Milla Jovavich Sienna Guillory, Oded Fehr, Thomas Kretshman, Sophie Vavasseur, Raz Adoti, Jared Harris, Mike Epps

Will Romero write a new page in Diary of the Dead?

Bloody-Disgusting.Com has a vague kind of scoop gleaned from George A. Romero, whose latest film, the independently shot DIARY OF THE DEAD, was picked up for theatrical release by the Weinstein Company at the Toronto International Film Festival:

[Romero] tells us that IF the film is a success the Weinsteins will want him to write another one, which will begin directly after the conclusion to DIARY. Unfortunately you won’t know what I’m talking about until you see the film, but it’s a pretty cool finale that leaves our lead characters in a very uncomfortable and tight position.
Otherwise Romero explained that he doesn’t really have any direct plans to go forth with the franchise right now and has other projects he’d rather be doing, like SEASON OF THE WITCH. So the fans will have a huge impact on when we might see more of the undead!

Pretty weak tea, if you ask me. Despite the emphatic headline on the post (“Romero Has Plan for SIXTH Zombie Film!”), we are actually told that he does no such specific plan, but he expects the distrbibutor to ask him to make a sequel if DIARY OF THE DEAD is a success.

Undead (2003) – Horror Film Review

Zombies are big business these day, or at least Hollywood hopes so, with RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION opening later this month. So we thought we would take this opportunity to shine the light on a lesser known – but quite entertaining zombie opus – a fun-filled combo of gore and John Woo-style action that is more farce than fear. UNDEAD is an amusingly outrageous Australian variation on the familiar zombie theme, played mostly for laughs but with enough exciting action and horrible makeup effects to qualify as a tongue-in-cheek horror film rather than an outright spoof. It’s not as funny as it means to be, and some of the character conflict is annoying rather than dramatic, but the stunts and sight gags make it worth sitting through the weaker moments.
The film begins with an apparently ordinary day in a small Australian town. The local beauty queen (Felicity Mason), fed up with her life there, is on her way out, when circumstances intervene: a meteor lands downtown, poking a hole through one of the hapless inhabitants. (That the abrupt incongruity of this disruption of dull normality draws chuckles instead of screams is our first hint that we’re not in for a straight-out fright fest.) Then, as in SHAUN OF THE DEAD, the meteor turns people into zombies, whose bite then turns their victims into even more zombies. (To be fair, UNDEAD was released in its native land in 2003, a year before SHAUN.) A gravel-voiced, gun-wielding man (Mungo McKay) comes to the rescue, but in the end it is our beauty queen who rises to the occasion and proves herself to be the true survivor. Along the way, our characters find that their town has been completely surrounded by vast, unscalable wall, completely isolating them from the rest of the world; there is a mysterious rain that causes some unknown changes into the people it touches, after which they a levitated above the town, where they hang suspended in a coma; and just to top things off, some aliens show up….
Obviously, this is not just another low-budget Romero knock-off. The acknowledged intention of the writing-directing team of Michael and Peter Spierig was to craft a film in the manner of Peter Jackson’s early, outrageous gorefests, BAD TASTE and BRAINDEAD (a.k.a. DEAD/ALIVE), two films that pushed carnage well past the limits set by George Romero in DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979) and DAY OF THE DEAD (1985), but which adopted a hyper-kinetic cartoon aesthetic more in keeping with Sam Raimi’s EVIL DEAD II. Into this mix, the Spierig Brothers add a healthy doze of John Woo-style action antics: having the hero dive in slow motion while firing guns, two-handed, at the advancing zombies; or, in a wonderfully over-the-top moment, performing a 180-degree leap into the air, embedding his spurs into the top of a door frame, and firing while suspended upside down. With action like this, the film clearly is not interested in believability; it’s a movie-movie that works as a showcase for bravura excesses of action and gore that are meant to yield laughs more than screams.
Yet, somehow, it manages to avoid losing all credibility. The result is both frightening and funny — a combination of humor and horror somewhat similar to SHAUN OF THE DEAD, although the script and characterizations for UNDEAD are, frankly, not quite up to the caliber of that film. Mason is fine as our heroine, but McKay’s gravel-voice Clint Eastwood impersonation yields a one-note performance that feels fake. The rest of the cast strive to delineate their characters, but they are undermined by a script that forces them to play narrowly defined caricatures (e.g. the over-bearing, authoritative police officer and his insecure junior partner).
In particular, the film stumbles in its attempts to build dramatic tension among the supporting cast. Early on, when the characters are forced to take shelter in an underground lock-up, they begin pointlessly yelling at each other, instead of trying to figure out what they need to do. The effect is forced: it’s the script telling them to tear into each other, without really justifying their reactions, and the performers fall into the trap of trying to goose-up the weak writing by throwing themselves into it full-bore. Fortunately, these missteps are balanced by the nicely-staged action, which elevate the film a level above the usual low-budget zombie-spoof. There is also some well-done prosthetics, including the de rigueur gore expected in this sort of film.
On top of that, there are numerous, impressive computer-generated special effects that provide a larger sense of scale (such as when a small airplane weaves in and out of the levitating bodies floating over town). In the end, UNDEAD is not as sophisticated as the Romero DEAD films, nor as sinister as 28 DAYS LATER, nor as witty and clever as SHAUN OF THE DEAD, but it does not intend to be. The aesthetic here is “cult film” all the way, and on that level the Spierig Brothers succeed, creating mindless movie entertainment that works at least as well as Hollywood popcorn movies like RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE and ALIEN VS. PREDATOR. UNDEAD is the ultimate, ultra-cool, gun-smoking, brain-splattering zombie-action-comedy-gore-flick.
UNDEAD (2003). Written and directed by Michael & Peter Spierig. Cast: Felicity Mason, Mungo McKay, Rob Jenkins, Lisa Cunningham, Dick Hunter, Emma Randall

Weinsteins reckon on "Dead" theatrical release

diaryofthedeadThe Weinstein company has bought North American distribution rights to DIARY OF THE DEAD, the latest installment in George A. Romero’s epic “Dead” saga, which began back in 1968 with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. The new film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was well received, prompting several offers. Because the film is a low-budget horror effort, which will probably end up with an R-rating, some companies were interested in direct-to-video distribution; however, the Weinsteins, apparently buoyed by the recent success of HALLOWEEN, shelled out $2- to $2.5-million for a deal that includes theatrical distribution.
DIARY OF THE DEAD is not a sequel but an attempt to jump-start the franchise anew. The new story follows a group of college students out making a movie when the living dead phenomenon strikes, and the film is told from the point of view of their camera, which records the action in the first-person. Romero explains in a Dread Central interview excerpted at E-Splatter.com:

October 16, 2006 — Romero had this to say about the nature of “Diary of the Dead”:
“Well, I’m sort of going back to the roots, basically. I’m going back to the first night, when things started. […]  [A]nd so it’s basically going back to the beginning with a different set of character and taking the whole phenomenon as it comes. And it’s all subjective camera. It’s a bunch of kids that are out making a movie… college kids that are making their own little horror flick and they have a camera… and they get the news and they take off in a van and it’s all then, it’s all from this guy’s camera. I guess, in a way I guess it’s like Blair Witch… but it’s not… you know, I’m not trying to imitate Blair Witch…. I’m just trying to do it from a subjective point of view with no music and no… just really do it raw. It’s kind of a stylistic experiment, under the radar, low budget thing. It’s just sort of from the heart, you know.”

Return of the Living Dead (1985) – Horror Film Review

This pseudo-sequel to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is an effective mix of zombie horror, punk rock, and black comedy. Beginning with a jokey pre-title card, claiming that this is a true story, the film tells us that the George Romero classic is a fictionalized account of actual events that occurred as the result of an army experiment gone bad. Through a “typical army fuck-up,” some of the zombies from that incident have ended up in a medical supply house, encased in airtight canisters. Of course, it isn’t long before one of those canisters is opened and all hell breaks loose. After that, the film runs on pure energy as the basic situation humans besieged by the living dead) plays out with a minimum of plot, relying on the amusing reactions of the characters and upon the inventiveness of the special effects. Continue reading “Return of the Living Dead (1985) – Horror Film Review”