Sunday, March 24, 2013

American Zombie

Description from Netflix:
Part mockumentary, part unabashed gore-fest, this film follows two documentarians as they infiltrate a Los Angeles zombie community.

My thoughts:
First of all, the “unabashed gore-fest” is completely misleading.  There was very little blood in this movie.  And, what little blood there was (mostly at the end) could not be considered a “gore-fest”.
And I’m pretty sure a mockumentary is supposed to be interesting.  Or funny.  Or show the genre in a different light. 
This movie had none of that.

This film had 3 classifications of zombies:
Feral – Your common, everyday zombies.  They roam and bite.  That’s the assumption, anyway.  We don’t see much of them.
Low-functioning – A step above feral, but not capable of thought.  They don’t roam and bite, and are actually able to join the workforce.  The ones we see are working on an assembly line.  Think the zombies putting away shopping carts in Shaun of the Dead or the collared zombies in Fido.
High-functioning – Pretty much like humans.  But undead.  They can pass on the zombie virus, but most choose not to.

 This movie focuses almost entirely on the high-functioning zombies (and when I say “almost entirely” I mean “we see maybe 30 seconds of the other 2 classifications”).  And that’s a shame.  Had they included the other classes a bit more, perhaps this movie would’ve been interesting.  But they didn’t, and it wasn’t.

Through the eyes of our two main documentarians (Grace & John), we meet a handful of these zombies.  To me, the most interesting of these was Joel, a zombie rights activist who headed up the group Z.A.G. (Zombie Advocacy Group).  Through him, I thought I could see where this film was going.  Heading back to Romero (especially Dawn of the Dead), zombie movies have been closely tied to holding the mirror up to society.  With all the talk in this movie about equal rights, I thought they would be making a statement about same-sex marriage or something along those lines.
Sadly, I was very much mistaken, and gave this movie entirely too much credit. 

At the end of this movie, we find out that even the high-functioning zombies are, indeed, still zombies, and their end goal is to take over.  Even Joel becomes violent and screams things like, “Your day is done!  We will rise!” 
So, unless the message was “homosexuals are evil and will try to take over the world as soon as they are able to marry” – and I really hope it wasn’t – there was no message to this movie.  Which means it was pointless.

About halfway through the movie, we find that all the zombies are planning on attending an event called “Live Dead”.  Basically, it’s a place for zombies to gather, talk about zombie things, buy zombie things, do zombie drugs, make sweet zombie love (as best as they can, anyway), and listen to zombie music.  Like Burning Man, but with zombies.  John was convinced that terrible things happened there (he kept asking all the zombies if they ate human flesh), so he had Grace work hard to try to get them in.
Which she did.
Of course, once it looked like stuff was starting to head towards the crazy zombie stuff, our documentary crew was kicked out.  And, even though they were able to film some of the events, they were far away and didn’t get a very clear picture of what happened.

And that’s pretty much it.

I had a number of problems with this film.
The biggest problem I had was that it was amazingly boring.  As I mentioned, we spend pretty much all of our time with 4 high-functioning zombies.  The make-up wasn’t great, to say the least.  Most of these zombies were nothing more but normal looking people with a little bit of grey painted on their necks.  They showed a bit more of the wounds in a few scenes, but not very much, and it didn’t look great when they did show it.
What we were left with was a group of documentarians talking to people who looked and acted almost exactly like normal people.  And most of them were pretty boring.  They would talk about their zombie experiences, but they weren’t very interesting.

Much like Mimesis, this was a great concept, but terrible execution.  It could’ve been really good, but it wasn’t even mildly interesting.  A boring, pointless movie.  No wonder I never had anyone recommend it to me.
Also, John (one of our main documentarians) was an entirely unlikable person.

Rating: 1/5

Zombie Talk:
As I mentioned earlier, there were three classifications of zombies in this film.  I spelled out the specifics on them at that point, so I don’t feel the need to go over them again.
I would assume they could be killed by a blow to the head, but it wasn’t really discussed.  There was a scene where they interview a PI.  After tracking down some family members, he was then asked to “take care of them” if they had been turned into zombies.  He then demonstrated how he did this, by hacking up various mannequins in a parking lot.  While he did seem to focus on the head (beating it in with a baseball bat, driving it over it with a car, severing the head with a shovel, etc.), he also spent some time bashing in the stomach and severing various appendages.  Still, I was left with the impression that destroying the brain would kill the zombie.

I would also like to talk about the life-span of a zombie.  According to the Zombie Survival Guide, the average life-span of a zombie is 3-5 years [pg.10].  That seems a little long to me, but I’ll defer to Brooks on this matter.  Since we’re discussing intelligent zombies, there’s a chance they would have found something that would allow them to extend this period.  They didn’t say anything about it in the movie, so I doubt anything like that had been developed.
Even so, over the years, each zombie would be steadily decomposing.  Month-to-month, they would begin to look noticeably worse.  By the end of your first zombified year, you would start to look pretty bad.  Towards the end, there wouldn’t be much left of your body.  Just a crawling, chomping skeleton (and not even much crawling or chomping, as most of the muscles would be gone).
Yet, in this movie, you would never know most of these people were zombies.  Some of them have been dead for several years, yet, aside from a slightly grey neck and some yellowing teeth, there’s no real evidence of being dead.  At one point, we meet the founder/emcee of Live Dead, who tells us that he has been a zombie for 7 years.  And yet he looked like a normal person. 
I know zombie movies are not founded in reality, but at least try to make a little bit of sense.

Last but not least, I’d like to talk about the origin of the zombie outbreak.  In this film, people were turned into zombies if they died “a violent death”.  Like a gunshot wound or something like that.  They could also be turned if bitten by a zombie, but, apparently, the outbreak started by violent deaths.  Like ghosts.
Looking past the rampant stupidity of that method, and I was still left with one main question: why now?  People have been dying violent deaths since the beginning of time.  Why is it that people are just now being turned into zombies?  What changed?  Why did Abel not become a zombie when killed by Cain? 
I don’t demand that an origin be given.  But, if you are going to give the virus an origin, at least give it one that makes some kind of sense.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Dead Season

A small note before I start this review: for zombie movies, I have decided to add a section to the bottom of each review called "Zombie Talk", where I discuss the tendencies and rules of the zombies involved.  A lot of zombie movies have zombies based on "The Romero Zombie" (slow, shambling, unthinking, kill with a shot to the head, etc.).  But many zombie movies have their own twist on the Romero zombie.  I think it's important to note the rules around each movie.
And now, without further adieu...

Description from Netflix:
When a worldwide viral outbreak leads to a plague of zombies scouring the earth for the living, two survivors flee the chaos of America to a remote island, hoping for a chance to start a new life.  What they find is unrelenting horror.

My thoughts:
I really didn't know anything about this movie.  I was looking for something to watch through Netflix Instant, and I came across this cover.  Which looks pretty awesome.  The description was generic enough that I didn't really know what I was getting myself into.
What I got was a pretty typical low-budget zombie movie.  With some odd twists.

We mainly follow the travels of Elvis & Tweeter (as opposed to Tweeter & The Monkey Man...that's another movie entirely).  As the movie starts, we find that they have never met in person, but have been in communication over a CB radio.  They have a tentative plan to meet up and head to an island.
But, as we already know, the living are usually a bigger threat to survival than the undead.

And some of the living kind of remind you of Henry Rollins

They come across Kurt and his merry band of misfits.  And by "merry" I mean "kind of crazy."  Generally speaking, when a leader says stuff like, "We do what we need to survive," he's usually talking about their sociopathic tendencies.  Also, if he says that and immediately hands you a plateful of dry strips of meat to eat, you probably shouldn't eat them.  Because they're from a human.  And you know that.  (This is the worst kept secret in the movie.)

Also living within this gated community of cannibals is Rachel, Kurt's teenage daughter.  He is so terrified of her dying that he has kept her locked in her room for 10 months.  He brings her food, but she doesn't eat much of it.  Kurt asks Tweeter to talk to her - as the only other women at the house are older...and whores - and Tweeter and Rachel end up hatching a plan to escape the island.

They make their escape.  They're chased, both by humans and zombies.  This part of the movie has a bit of a 28 Days Later feel to it.  Not nearly as good, obviously, but it's not hard to see how 28 Days Later influenced the last 30 minutes of this movie.

Elvis smash!  Polk Salad Zombie, amiright?!

There were a couple things I really liked about this movie.  For the most part, the main characters used handheld weapons.  Guns were employed from time to time, but they weren't the main weapons that were used.  Elvis used a sledgehammer (see above) and Tweeter used a machete (see below).

I really liked the setting.  The bulk of the movie took place on an island, and it looked terrific.  They operated out of a gated community on a hill, so you could see a lot of the island, which was quite beautiful.  There were also a lot of shots on the beach.  A few times, we got to see zombies staggering out of the trees and onto the beach.  For some reason, zombie-killing in the sand made me happy.
I also thought the acting of the main characters was pretty good.  Scott Peat (Elvis), Marissa Merrill (Tweeter), Corsica Wilson (Rachel) and James C. Burns (Kurt) all did a great job.
That's what I liked.  Here is what I didn't like.

Some of the characters - Elvis in particular - completely changed a couple times during the course of the movie.  Within 5 minutes, Elvis went from extremely wary of Kurt and his psychopathic tendencies to completely on board with a full-fledged maniac.  Then, without a word, back to thinking Kurt was completely in the wrong.  They were a couple of very confusing turns for his character, with little-to-no explanation for them.
My other main issue with the movie will be covered in Zombie Talk.

Overall, I would say that I enjoyed this movie, but there were enough problems with it that I can't really say that I liked it too much.  Some good scenes, for sure, but nothing really amazing.  Still, for a low-budget zombie movie, you could do a lot worse.

Rating: 2.5/5

Zombie Talk:
For the most part, the zombies seemed to be pretty standard Romero zombies.  They were slow, shambling creatures.  A bite from one of them was fatal, and would kill-and-reanimate you in a pretty short period of time (just a few minutes, if I remember correctly).  A shot to the brain would destroy them.  I believe decapitation would still leave the head alive, so only destroying the brain would eliminate the creature completely.  That's why Elvis' sledgehammer worked so well (provided he never got tired, which he never seemed to do), and that's also why Tweeter's machete worked so well, provided it was sharp (which it always was).
They acknowledged that the zombies were slow in this movie, which is not always done.  In one scene, they came across a large number of them in a warehouse.  Instead of trying to kill them all, they basically just ran through them, killing those that posed the biggest threat.
Here was my main problem.
Towards the end of the movie, a few of the zombies could run.  I was paying attention to the movie, and I don't seem to remember any explanation for this.  It was only some of Kurt's guys that were turned, so I thought, "Maybe the newer ones move faster," even though that really doesn't make any sense at all.  To further add to my confusion, a couple of Kurt's guys didn't move fast.  It was only 2 or 3 of them.  How they acquired the magical power of zombie-running, I'll never know.
Maybe I missed it.  But, even if I did, I doubt there's an explanation that makes any sense.  This is the first time I've seen a movie that switches up the rules for zombies during the actual movie.  I'm not a zombie snob: if you want running zombies in your movie, make the zombies run.  It certainly raises the level of stress.  But don't change your rules for zombies while the movie is in progress.

Saturday, March 2, 2013


Description from Netflix:
Two girls left to fend for themselves in the forest for five lonely years after the death of their mother find refuge in the home of their uncle.  But it soon becomes clear that the girls have not arrived alone in this woodsy supernatural thriller.

Notable actors: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau

My thoughts:
I had wanted to see this as soon as it came out, but fate and timing did not allow it.  Thankfully, I was able to catch a matinee yesterday.
And I loved it.
It had the same kind of feel as The Orphanage (I know that's kind of a lazy comparison, seeing as how Del Toro has ties to both of them, but it doesn't mean that it's not accurate).  It had a great atmosphere throughout the entire film.  They really set the feeling of dread and overwhelming creepiness up pretty early, and it cast a shadow over the rest of the film.  Even in the slow moments, I couldn't help but feel a little tense.  They used a lot of wide shots, so I was always looking over the shoulder of the characters.  Looking for any movement at all.

It was a beautifully creepy movie, which is why the comparison to The Orphanage is so accurate.  Both movies are overwhelmingly eerie.  But, where The Orphanage only goes so far as to be "creepy", Mama hits the "downright scary" button a few times.  The Orphanage had some tense and scary moments, but nothing came close to the terror that Mama slung around.

I'm not ashamed to say that I jumped a few times during this movie.  There were times when I knew something was coming, and I still jumped.  And yet, I never felt that any of jumps were cheap scares.  They worked hard for them, and they delivered.  That's no easy feat.

The acting was terrific.  It's no surprise that Jessica Chastain was fantastic.  With as great as she is, it's kind of amazing that she's just now breaking out (she was also terrific in Lawless and Zero Dark Thirty).

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister from Game of Thrones) was also great, though his role was a bit more limited than I thought it would be.

The real surprise here were the kids.  This movie relied heavily on them, and they pulled through.  They were amazing.  Megan Charpentier (Victoria) was outstanding.  She had an especially complex character to play, and she did a terrific job.  She was torn between her old life (with Mama) and her new life (with Annabel & Lucas).  She had to run a gauntlet of emotions, and she nailed all of them.
Even the actress who played young Victoria (Morgan McGarry) was terrific.  An adorable little kid.  And her dad was going to kill her.  Some people, man...

Isabelle Nelisse (Lilly) was also terrific.  Even though she had slightly less of a character (a feral child who never really seemed to grasp the concept of the real world), she was still terrific.  She had a simple innocence to her, and she played it perfectly.  Even with the overwhelming creepiness, there were still a lot of playful moments with Mama, and Lilly was at the heart of those.

I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about the one massive complaint I've heard about this movie: the CGI of Mama. It's quite possible that I had heard so many negative comments about it that my expectations were lowered so far that the actual CGI couldn't possibly be as bad as my mind had made it out to be.
It could also be that I have recently made peace with CGI.  My deal with CGI is this: as long as the movie is good, I don't really care if the CGI isn't amazing.  I refuse to let bad CGI kill a good movie for me.  Now, if it's a bad movie with bad CGI, all bets are off.  But less-than-stellar CGI is not a deal breaker for me.
Also, I really don't think the CGI was that bad.  Not enough to distract from the creepiness of the movie, anyway.

This has nothing to do with CGI, but I really love this shot

One small fact before I end this review.  The part of Mama was played by an actor by the name of Javier Botet.  He is a horrifying man.  All those weird, disjointed stances Mama took?  All Botet.  Which is simultaneously amazing and horrifying.  (For the record, Botet also played the role of Nina Medeiros in all of the [Rec] movies.)

Overall, I really, really loved this movie.  As I mentioned before, it has a great atmosphere, which gives the entire film a creepiness that never lets up.  I really loved everything about this movie.  I'm already looking forward to watching it again when it comes out on DVD.  This could easily become my favorite movie of the year.

I have a handful of questions about the ending of the movie, and the fallout that would occur.  I don't want to bring them up here, as they would include a lot of spoilers, none of which I necessarily want to bring up here.  Very soon, I'll either do a post about the fallout from certain horror movies (using Zombie's Halloween 1 & 2 as a guide), or start up a discussion blog filled with spoilers (I doubt this will happen, as I doubt enough people read this blog to necessitate another one starting up).  If anyone has a preference, leave a comment.

Rating: 5/5

I can't end this review without a few words about Jessica Chastain's character, Annabel.  Her character goes through a pretty big transformation as well: from a punk-rocker who cheers when she finds out she's not pregnant to a protective and loving mother for Victoria and Lilly.  (Even her wardrobe changed: from low-cut tank-tops to, eventually, a turtleneck sweater.)
It is her punk-rocker side that I want to point out.  They spent a little bit of time on it, and it kind of made me laugh.  My favorite part was when her and Lucas were trying to get custody of the kids.  Part of the case against them featured the statement, "Annabel is in a band."  Granted, the point was more, "how can they support these kids when they don't make any money?", but it sounded more like, "She can't take care of these kids...she plays the devil's music!"

Here are a few pictures showing her transformation (and, again, featuring some of the wide shots this film used).