2010 marks the fourth year in the After Dark Horrorfest, an annual collection of 8 independently produced horror films grouped together to give them a higher profile. Previous years have seen the horrorfest in nationwide theatrical release, but these days the films usually get a week long release in one theatre and a quick DVD turnaround. In theory I love the idea of the ADHF; an attempt to give 8 struggling indie film-makers per year some well deserved recognition. In execution, though, the films leave much to be desired. Horror has long been the genre of choice for up-and-coming directors looking to make an impression; Sam Raimi, James Cameron, Joe Dante, Guillermo Del Toro and Jonathan Demme all got their start with low-budget horror or exploitation productions. The problem with ADHF is that while their motivations may be honest, the enterprise is ruled by economics. This leads them to pick movies that mimic or aspire to fit in with the big budgeted stuff Hollywood is putting out these days, so the lineup is usually a mixture of bland Saw knockoffs or bland zombie films. And yet I keep watching them, or at least a couple of them, every year, because you never know when you might stumble across the next John Carpenter.
But that act of slogging through the crap to get to the good stuff CAN be hellish. Most of my friends have given up entirely on the series, and these days I usually just pick and choose which films I watch(for the first couple years I tried to watch each of them). I have been uniformly disappointed by each entry in the series, with the exception of From Within, and even that film could only really be called successful when graded on a curve with the rest of that series. A few of my friends quite enjoyed Mulberry Street, but I felt that outside of the clever Were-Rat premise, the film was a fairly typical(and oddly humorless) zombie film. So this year, with 8 new films to choose from, I read a few brief rundowns and picked two of the most promising titles; Zombies of Mass Destruction and Lake Mungo.
It's clear that the makers of Zombies of Mass Destruction took most of the right lessons from Romero's zombie epics; a focus on flawed and disparate individuals standing against a zombie horde that can be seen as a metaphor for any number of perceived social ills, and a fairly healthy dose of gallows humor. I can not stress enough how much a little bit of humor can elevate a shitty zombie film. In this film, the zombies are a physical manifestation of the xenophobia and religious fervor that swept America during the darkest points of the Bush years, as a small secluded community is overrun by the walking dead. With a pretty healthy sense of humor, and a target ripe for satire, the writers(Ramon Isao and Kevin Hamedani, who also directed) drop the ball with their sense of timing. A gag that could have been hilarious, as when the rural pastor awkwardly and cheerfully welcomes his congregation to the apocalypse and is met by sporadic but ecstatic applause, isn't even chuckleworthy because of it's indifferent presentation. And this problem doesn't just affect the humor, but the horror and action scenes as well. There's no real visual style other than 'put camera here, lets get it on film, and go home.' Those problems don't always have to kill a film. Plenty of borderline inept films are much more enjoyable than ZOMD turned out to be, but in this case the slapdash execution smothers any of the modestly good ideas.
The second of this years ADHF films I rented was Lake Mungo, which isn't a title that really grabs your attention. To call Lake Mungo the best film of the entire ADHF run would be faint praise indeed, since those films can most generously be called 'aggressively mediocre.' But against all expectations, Lake Mungo turned out to not only be a good film, but maybe even a great one(I only say 'maybe' because I am easily swayed by the manner and circumstances in which I watch a movie, and this one was viewed in a manner very conducive to my enjoyment of creepy and sad entertainment)
Lake Mungo is an Australian film, fashioned like a modern documentary, chronicling what one family goes through when the eldest daughter drowns. Shortly after her death, the teenage girl begins popping up in the background of photos and videos taken at places she used to frequent, and her family begins investigating the possibility that their daughter may be trying to communicate with them. The film mainly avoids comparisons to the Blair Witch Project by not acting as sensationalistic 'found footage', but as an actual documentary you would see on the Discovery Channel, or PBS, complete with unseen interviewers and interviews with friends and neighbors. This of course means the film never becomes very scary; there are no moments in which you're filled with tension or nail biting fear. What the film has instead is tons of creepy atmosphere, and a mournful sadness that you rarely find in genre films of this nature. It's the sadness that gets you, as the unbearable loneliness of the family(and the dead daughter) grows and crystallizes over the course of the film. Lake Mungo is a bit like Twin Peaks rendered into a ghost story, with a family's investigations into their daughter's secret life revealing mysteries they might wish they didn't know. By the end, the point isn't to scare the audience, but to show what happens when the living(and dead) refuse to let go of each other.
I've just read that both films are due to be remade for a higher budget 2011 release. In the case of Zombies of Mass Destruction I think this might be beneficial, but a big budget remake of Lake Mungo will most likely ruin what made that film so special, turning a gentle little film into a hyperbolic Paranormal Activity