Saturday, October 13, 2012

Countdown the 13th: The Living Dead

The new season of The Walking Dead premieres tomorrow night, and despite my serious misgivings with the entire show, I'm fairly excited. The show can always be counted on to get off to a terrific start, and even at it's worst it could craft some pretty tense and exciting zombie action. The problem is everything in between. The show has never quite figured out how to make the character interactions interesting over the long haul, and the characters are always doing stupid things, merely as a shortcut to get to a conclusion the writers need to get to. None of them consistently act like people, and their actions rarely feel like something real people would do in a zombie apocalypse. Have you ever noticed how the characters all seem to forget about zombies(or Walkers, in the show's vernacular) whenever there aren't any on screen? They crash around in the woods talking at the top of their voices, and then get surprised by a zombie and remember that maybe they should be quiet when in unfamiliar territory. How many weeks were they at the farm before they decided to put up a fence and board the windows?

But enough about my problems with the show. Last season, for all it's aimlessness, ended on a very exciting note, and I'm genuinely excited about this new season. If nothing else, the show excels at exciting, visceral zombie thrills. So, in the spirit of my excitement, I thought I'd list, in no particular order, a few of my favorite zombie films that you may not have heard of. But, this being the Internet and you probably being a friend of mine, you've most likely seen all of these. This is by no means complete, and others may be added later. For obvious reasons I've decided not to go over the classics for the umpteenth time.

Pontypool: This film is more clever than scary, but it's one of my top two-or-three favorite horror films of the last few years. It's also not technically a zombie film in the same way you might be familiar with. Taking place entirely in a radio station as morning talk-radio host Grant Mazzy(Stephen McHattie in a bravura performance) finds himself at the center of an outbreak with symptoms familiar to most horror fans. Though it's set in one location, and features very little zombie action(it's a rebuke to the 'show, don't tell' rule of filmmaking), it moves at an incredibly brisk pace. It's funny and creepy in just the right measures. Make sure you stick through the credits, as well.

Bio Zombie: Drawing inspiration, as most modern zombie films do, from George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, Bio Zombie adds a distinctly Chinese take on the zombies-in-a-mall motif. It's silly, and scattershot, and moves at a seizure-inducing pace, but it's a nonstop fun ride. It's pretty much style over substance, but the style is entertaining.

The Beyond: Lucio Fulci resides in the personal pantheon of many an adventurous horror fan. Though he's worked in pretty much every genre imaginable, his horror films and liberal use of gore are what people remember. The Beyond would probably be his Citizen Kane; the culmination of every technique he'd tried up to that point. I first saw this film at The Capri here in Anchorage, in a theater that contained only me, my two friends, and one lone guy in the front row. It was a jolly good time, as we laughed uproariously at the horrible dubbed dialogue, the inept direction, the oddball music, and the ridiculously silly gore(to call it unrealistic would be an understatement). I bought it immediately when Anchor Bay released a special edition, and it entered nearly continuous rotation at my house. For over a week I played this movie every night before bed, and sometime during this time period something strange happened. I laughed at it for the first few viewings, but somewhere around number 4 or 5, I started to get creeped out. It's still a ridiculous movie, but it's also oddly hypnotic. It's now become a form of comfort food, something I can put on and then just drift away.

Hell of the Living Dead: Speaking of Italian zombie films. Hell of the Living Dead is described in it's own liner notes as 'the worst zombie movie ever made,' but nothing this much fun could be truly bad. Same thing with Plan 9 From Outer Space always topping those worst movies of all time lists. That film is endlessly entertaining. The worst movie ever made would be dull, not silly. Hell of the Living Dead features everything you'd expect from an Italian zombie movie; ugly, pockmarked makeup for zombies, gratuitous nudity, and unexpected gore in such quantities that it bursts through the limits of reality. In all honesty, it is a pretty bad movie, but it's also compulsively watchable if you have a group of like-minded movie buffs with you.

Dead Heat: Featuring the comic stylings of Treat Williams and Joe Piscopo at the height of his lunkhead bodybuilder phase, Dead Heat is an oddball buddy cop film with zombies. It's ridiculous, it's stupid, it's corny, and Vincent Price seems to be reading his lines through a NyQuil induced haze, but those are actually some of it's strengths. That, and the makeup and practical effects are actually quite impressive, especially one setpiece set in a Chinatown butcher's shop where all of the animals on display for purchase begin to attack our heroes.

Night of the Living Dead(1990): I mention this one only because I think people judge this film too harshly, or at least don't assume it could be any good. A remake of one of the most influential horror films ever made? A film that most people consider to be perfect as it is? Blasphemous. But, in reality, the NOTLD remake is a solid film in it's own right. George Romero scripted and produced this version, partially as an attempt to get money out of a movie that made a lot of other people rich, but never earned him a dime. Very little is changed in the plot of the film, but the characterizations are slightly different. Ben(this time played by Tony Todd) is still the capable, even-headed hero; Harry(Tom Towles) is still the abrasive asshole everyone should have listened to in the beginning(he's clearly the villain, but if everyone had hidden in the basement like he suggested, they would have all lived). The biggest change is Barbara(Patricia Tallman), who Romero altered as a corrective to the hysterical, useless character she was in the original. This Barbara goes through her hysteria, but comes out tougher and more capable. The remake doesn't have the same political bite that the original did, but it's simply an effective, well made zombie film.


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