Thursday, October 23, 2014

ZAM Review—World War Z: Unrated Version (2013) **

This review was originally written for and published in Zombie Apocalypse Monthly.

UR, 122 min.
Director: Marc Forster
Writers: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof, J. Michael Straczynski, Max Brooks (novel)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kurtesz, James Badge Dale, Ludi Boeken, Fana Mokoena, David Morse, Matthew Fox, Peter Capaldi, Pierfrancesco Favino, Ruth Negga, Mortiz Bleibtreu, Sterling Jerins, Abigail Hargrove

In the year since the theatrical release of Brad Pitt’s big screen adaptation of Max Brooks’ zombie apocalypse fictionalized history novel “World War Z”, the general consensus on the film version has been that of disappointment. This is despite the fact that the film grossed over $200 million in the U.S. theatrically after an expensive reshoot of the film’s original ending. In fact, it was more like a reshoot of the entire last act of the film, which was totally rewritten.

Much of the disappointment comes from the fact that the movie’s plot is nothing like the novel, which remains unread by myself. I can stand a movie that doesn’t really follow the book. What I have trouble with in “World War Z” is the complete lack of any dramatic development whatsoever, including but not limited to characters, plot, and even environment. I don’t even know what kind of a world it is in which this story takes place. I suppose it’s presented in an ultra realistic way, so we might believe that this could actually happen in our world. I think that’s what all the news feeds that play over the opening credits are supposed to establish. These news reports allude so vaguely to some strange developments about a worldwide plague, I’m not even sure if the family we’re introduced to in the film’s opening scene is aware of what’s been happening even though we witness Brad Pitt watching one.

Soon the action has the family in downtown Philadelphia. We don’t know where they are going or why.  For some reason, screenwriters often seem to think that a lack of exposition gives the audience an impression of realism. Even if that were so, does a zombie movie on this global scale really need to sacrifice such integral storytelling elements for the sake of realism when it really is a form of fantasy horror? It seems to have become assumed that audiences know so much about zombie culture these days that it isn’t necessary to explain the rules of the zombie creature anymore. The characters in this movie certainly seem to have a good understanding of how zombies work despite their bafflement as to how such a thing could happen and their reluctance to even categorize what is happening as having anything to do with “zombies.”

Anyway, Pitt is a former UN investigator who is put back into the field after he successfully navigates his own family to the safety of a military aircraft carrier in the middle of the Atlantic. The mobilized fleet is one of the few truly safe places left on Earth, and although he has no desire to return to service, it means a safe haven for his family. Soon he is globe trotting, trying to track down the origin of the zombie virus. This involves a cadre of locations, non-stop action, and a plethora of special effects.

The movie looks great. Although I felt the 3D in the theater did little to enhance the story development, it did look slightly better than it does on home video. Its non-stop pace is also effective in keeping the audiences attention. However, there are some gaping holes in the structure of the story. It almost feels like its three-act structure might be cobbling together three acts from different movies. First our hero is accompanying a scientist to find the virus’ origin. That scientist is killed so quickly we wonder why they even bothered. Then he’s off to Israel to find out how they knew the plague was coming before it arrived. Then he’s in Cardiff looking for a World Health Organization facility to manufacture a cure even though he never looked back into finding the origin after the scientist was killed. True, he learns key elements that go into developing a way to combat the virus at all these stations, but they’re all pretty awkwardly fit together.

I did like the inclusion of some elements that are often ignored in the zombie genre. The global scale is appropriate for how the zombie virus operates. I’m always skeptical when zombie filmmakers find a way to isolate the plague to an island or some such thing that would leave the door open for an organized force to come in and save the day. I liked the scientific and strategic approach the writers took in finding a solution for such a devastating set up. The zombies themselves, however, are not designed to distinguish themselves from those of other films.

In the past few weeks, the movie has become available for streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Netflix is even offering the Unrated Cut of the film, which includes six extra minutes. I decided to watch this version hoping it would close some of the gaps I felt existed in the theatrical cut. Frankly, I couldn’t tell of any difference between the two versions. Maybe some of the action sequences were extended. Perhaps there was a little more gore added back in that the MPAA took umbrage with in a PG-13 movie. I’ve always wondered just what the point of a PG-13 zombie movie could be. The main horror action element of a zombie flick involves dead people eating the flesh of living people. How can that be presented in an appropriate manner for children of any age?

Despite the universal disappointment and boosted by the world wide box office totals, a sequel was announced before the film’s U.S. theatrical opening weekend had ended. I’m not sure where they can go with the film’s conclusion, which is obviously constructed to produce possible sequels but leaves little to explore in terms of the zombie plague itself. The makers of the far superior “28 Days Later” left more on the table by not hinting at a sequel than this one does by all but declaring it.

Read my theatrical review here

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Horror Thoughts ‘14—The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) *

R, 86 min.
Director: Charles B. Pierce
Writer: Earl E. Smith
Starring: Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Jimmy Clem, Jim Citty, Charles B. Pierce, Robert Aquino, Dawn Wells

The original 1976 version of “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” is so bad I really don’t want to talk about it much. It’s an indie that came out a couple of years before John Carpenter’s original “Halloween”. I mention the Carpenter film because they both focus on serial killers who terrorize a small town. Both killers wear fairly non-descript masks and breathe heavily under them. I don’t recall much about Carpenter’s inspiration for “Halloween”, but I would find it hard to believe that “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” didn’t play some part. The killer’s are too similar and the sound effects of each film’s killer sounds as if they came from the same source.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Horror Thoughts ‘14—Black Sunday (1960) ***½

UR, 87 min.
Director: Mario Bava
Writers: Ennio de Concini, Mario Serandrei, Nikolaj Gogol (short story)
Starring: Barbara Steel, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi, Ivo Garrani, Arturo Dominici, Enrico Olivieri, Antonio Pierfederici

I think I prefer the original title of “Black Sunday”. “The Mask of Satan” has much more to do with the movie. I don’t think the day of the week is ever even mentioned in the film. And does it really matter what day it is? I suppose in 1960, it would’ve been difficult to get U.S. audiences of any kind to go see a movie that even mentioned Satan in its title. Hell, today’s Hollywood would be just as scared to release a film under such a title, but people would go to see it. People who will never see it would also lambast it in the media.

Friday, October 17, 2014

ZAM Review—Birth of the Living Dead (2013) ***

This review was original written for and published by Zombie Apocalypse Monthly.

NR, 76 min.
Director: Rob Kuhns
Featuring: George A. Romero, Larry Fessenden, Mark Harris, S. William Hinzman, Gale Anne Hurd, Elvis Mitchell, Jason Zinoman, Samuel D. Pollard, Chiz Schultz

Film critic Gene Siskel had an idiom about the success of a film that stated that the best measure of a film was to imagine if a documentary with the same actors having lunch would be more entertaining. Of course, when it comes to zombie films, that is what you’re watching—the zombies having lunch. The man responsible for realizing this vision was George A. Romero, who rewrote the rules of zombies into our modern notion of what a zombie is—a dead person who has been reanimated and desires only to dine on brains (and the rest of your flesh) while the only way to stop one is by destroying their brain. This is basically what Romero came up with in his first film, 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead”—originally titled “Night of the Flesh Eaters”. Watching this documentary, which includes a great deal of footage of Romero just talking by himself, you’ll find he’s as entertaining as his movie.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Horror Thoughts ‘14—The Sacrament (2014) ***

R, 95 min.
Director/Writer: Ti West
Starring: AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz, Kentucker Audley, Kate Lyn Sheil, Gene Jones

It’s true. Since “The Blair Witch Project” popularized the found footage horror subgenre, it has been done to death. And that’s putting it lightly considering the past few years. Found footage has even found its way into family films, like this past summer’s “Earth to Echo”.  I can’t for the life of me figure out why an already established and quite impressive horror director like Ti West would be inspired to make a found footage movie, but with his latest, “The Sacrament”, he puts in his bid on the horse-beaten gimmick.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Horror Thoughts ‘14—Only Lovers Left Alive (2014) ***

R, 123 min.
Director/Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Anton Yelchin, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, Jeffrey Wright, Slimane Dazi

What Jim Jarmusch did for the spy genre with “The Limits of Control”, he now does for the vampire flick with “Only Lovers Left Alive”… for a little while anyway. I think if he’d stuck on his minimalist line with this one, he would’ve lost me; but the second half of the movie gets a little more conventional. In doing so, it finds its purpose.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Annabelle / ** (R)

Mia Gordon: Annabelle Wallis
John Gordon: Ward Horton
Father Perez: Tony Amendola
Evelyn: Alfre Woodard

New Line Cinema presents a film directed by John R. Leonetti. Written by Gary Dauberman. Running time: 90 min. Rated R (for intense sequences of disturbing violence and terror).

I suppose most of us have a deep-rooted fear of dolls coming to life in some way or another. Whether it’s like the clown under the bed in “Poltergeist” or just the kid’s plaything-come-to-life ala Chucky in “Child’s Play”, Hollywood is no stranger to this fact. So, when last year’s sleeper hit “The Conjuring” featured a very creepy looking doll that had supposedly been the worst case the ghost hunters in that film had ever seen, it was inevitable that we’d learn more about it in another movie.

Now, we get “Annabelle”, titled after the doll featured in “The Conjuring”. The same people who made “The Conjuring” produced this move, which makes sense. The same producers are also responsible for the two “Insidious” movies. The feel and themes of both series make their way into this prequel of sorts. It has a similar period setting as “The Conjuring”, but its horror is more deeply rooted in the sinister machinations of the “Insidious” movies. It has some very scary moments indeed, but it never quite gels together as well as those previous films, and what’s left is creepy, but messy.