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The Return of the Living Dead Series – Review: Part 1

14 Jul

Zombie films, at this point, seem to have been done to death. There was a time however, where messing with the formula was providing audiences with some new and exciting content, and one of the most popular blends of genres just so happens to be the horror/comedy. Enter Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon into the mix, and you’ve got yourself a cult classic from 1985 called The Return of the Living Dead, which despite what the title will have you believe, is not related to George Romero’s series of films. It didn’t end there however, with four sequels being spawned to create a series that has lasted over a couple decades, with varying results of course. In this review, I’m going to be looking at the first three and will finish up with the last two in the second part.

Let’s kick this off with O’Bannon’s cult smash.

Freddy (Thom Matthews) is a bumbling punk kid who just got a job at a medical supply warehouse and is being trained by the equally bumbling foreman, Frank (James Karen). While trying to impress the new hire, Frank shows Freddy a container in the basement which contains a corpse and a toxic gas, which was part of an experiment that reanimated the dead and inspired George Romero to make Night of the Living Dead. After fiddling with the container, it springs a leak which released the toxic gas into the warehouse and reanimates the corpse within it. After calling their boss, Burt (Clu Gulager), to help destroy the corpse with the mortician next door, Ernie (Don Calfa), the groups actions poison the rain outside that is falling over a cemetery which causes all of the dead resting there to come back to life. Of course, a group of Freddy’s friends happen to be loitering there at the time and make a quick escape to the mortuary. From this location, the group must get innovative with their surroundings if they are to survive, but chances begin to get slimmer and slimmer as members of their party start falling victim to the zombies.

The Return of the Living Dead is a special kind of movie. It’s just the right blend of horror and comedy that is so hard to come across. Everything from the poster to the characters and even the way the zombies are design and behave just scream of a punk rock attitude, and that’s exactly what writer/director Dan O’Bannon was going for. It’s so funny to think that the mastermind behind the original Alien would go on to write and direct a movie like this. I’m not saying this is a bad movie at all, it’s just such a departure from what I’ve already seen of his work. So anyway, what this movie is is a comedy with horror elements, and boy can it be funny. What really helps the humor is that this movie takes place in a world where George Romero’s zombie films are around and just as popular. This fills the character’s heads with useless knowledge about zombies that don’t apply to these zombies in the least. In fact, the zombies from Return of the Living Dead are responsible for all the impressions of the undead that involved someone yelling “BRAAAAINS!” Even if you haven’t seen this movie, it’s reach still extends to you through the powers of cult film references that abound.

While The Return of the Living Dead holds up well as a comedy, it also has to hold up as a horror. In that respect, it also succeeds. This isn’t really a creepy movie, but more of what you’d expect from a zombie film. That’s lots of gore and some really great special effects, like on the Tarman zombie that hides in the basement of the warehouse. The other zombies also look great, with some really great make up and practical effects used to complete the illusion. I do have a couple minor complaints with the film as a whole however. For one thing, the set goes on for way too long and it really takes a while for the movie to really get going. Once it does, it’s off the walls, but I was surprised that so much time was used up in just laying the ground work of the story. A story that isn’t really that hard to understand, I might add. The ending also isn’t that spectacular. It is admittedly funny and does work with the nihilistic punk sensibilities, but it all happens way too fast and then the credits just begin to roll. Kind of an odd way to end the film, but it does leave me wanting more.

The Return of the Living Dead shouldn’t have to be compared with something like Dawn of the Dead, but it is possible. This isn’t a perfect zombie film, but it does reinvent the formula in such a way that makes it stand out from the massive amount of other works in this subgenre of horror. This is also a really funny film with a cast of faces you will probably recognize from some other cult favorites. The make up and effects are on point and the gore will leave any horror fan satisfied. If some of the pacing and storytelling issues were cleaned up, you’d have something close to being a perfect horror comedy. Even with those flaws, The Return of the Living Dead has rightfully succeeded in standing the test of time.

Final Grade: B

When The Return of the Living Dead proved to be a critical and box office success, it’s pretty easy to look back now and see that a sequel was inevitable, only this time without Dan O’Bannon. Instead, Lorimar Pictures took a script by Ken Wiederhorn and said they would fund it if he turned the story into a sequel of Return of the Living Dead. He did just that, despite wanting to get out of the horror genre, and it’s certainly weaker than the first film but it isn’t without its charms.

After a barrel of Trioxin falls off of a military transport truck and lands in the river a small town, it’s pretty clear that something very bad is going to happen. After being bullied by a group of neighborhood kids, Jesse (Michael Kenworthy), and his tormentors find the barrel and accidentally open it. Jesse was long gone at that point, but the other two kids weren’t so lucky. Meanwhile, two inept grave robbers, Joey (Thom Mathews) and Ed (James Karen), witness firsthand the dead begin to rise from their graves after a rainstorm sends the gaseous Trioxin underground. Joey and Ed soon meet up with Jesse, his sister Lucy (Marsha Dietlein), and their cable man Tom (Dana Ashbrook), who have also been slowly learning the truth about the undead crisis. With the military surrounding and barricading the town, this unlikely group of heroes have to fight for their lives against the zombies at any moment while also looking for anyway to stop this disaster before it gets any further.

The first thing I noticed about this movie is that it’s shameless about ripping off major plot points of its predecessor. If you go into this movie expecting a sequel that builds off of the events of the first film, then you’ll be let down by this movie on a major level. Return of the Living Dead Part II is a watered down retelling of the first film on a bigger scale. While the first film just took place in a very contained area, this one takes place in an entire town. This change doesn’t necessarily make for a better movie and it just makes the zombies seem stretched thinner. The first movie was tight and made it a lot harder to avoid the undead, where in this one there’s plenty of places to hide. The humor in this one is also watered down big time, which was done in order to attract a wider audience. This backfired miserably since it only made $9.2 million while the original grossed $14.2 million. The zombies in this movie are utter buffoons. This choice sacrifices the wit and anarchic attitude of the first film for zombies that fall all over each other and just meet whacky demises. I really did miss the clever dialogue and original humor that the original offered, but there were still some laughs to be had in this sequel.

I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t an entertaining movie. It definitely had its moments, and they can’t be forgotten just for the sake of railing on the film. The kid that played Jesse was actually very good and it was fun to see Thom Mathews and James Karen practically revive their roles, even though other actors probably could have been chosen. James Karen is absolutely hilarious though, and its a better movie with him in it. There’s also some really good special effects that stand up well with the effects of the original film. Return of the Living Dead Part II is a very light hearted film that relies way more on the comedy than the horror, instead of finding a balance between the two. This is a pretty bad movie, but it’s a bad movie that’s easy to like just for its absurdity and self awareness. Just don’t go into this movie expecting quality.

Final Grade: C-

Return of the Living Dead Part II was the last of the series to be released in the 1980s, and also the last to have a wide release in theaters. In 1993, Return of the Living Dead 3 was released in select theaters and admittedly has the worst box office results of the first three films. Other than financially, how well does it hold up with the others that came before it.

After stealing his father’s high class military key card, Curtis (J. Trevor Edmond) and his girlfriend, Julie (Melinda Clarke) sneak onto an army base and witness a group of scientists and officers reanimate a corpse with the Trioxin gas. Col. John Reynolds (Kent McCord), Curtis’ father, is part of the project and when it ultimately fails he is reassigned to another state, much to the devastation of Curtis. Curtis decides he isn’t going to leave and runs off with Julie, but the two get into a motorcycle accident that kills Julie. Curtis soon realizes that he still has the key card and uses it to get back onto the base to reanimate his girlfriend. As the two lovers start realizing that this new life (or afterlife in Julie’s case) isn’t going to be easy, Julie’s need for human flesh and brains causes an out of control situation of undead flesh eaters that could cause the next apocalypse if not contained quickly.

The mood of Return of the Living Dead 3 is way different from the mood of the first and second. The first film is a witty dark comedy/horror film while the sequel is mostly an exercise in slapstick. This entry totally does away with the comedy, while still retaining the sense of punk rock, even more so than the second film. I’ll get into the positives of that later, but I do want to focus on some of the not so great elements of this movie. For one thing, it’s kinda boring. Compared to the craziness of the first two, this entry is really tame. I could easily count the number of zombies in this movie and there’s never really a moment where they seemed to be overpowering anyone. Zombies work best as a horde, not a clump. We’re also meant to really buy the romance between Curtis and Julie, but Curtis is such a selfish idiot, it’s really hard to root for him in any circumstance. I ended up feeling bad for Julie having to be stuck with him and his awful ideas.

As a whole, though, this is a pretty solid movie. It isn’t anything grand, but it has some strong redeeming qualities. For one thing, and this is probably the most obvious thing to praise, Julie’s design for when she gets progressively deeper into “zombie mode,” if you will, is awesome. This make up and costume design is an under appreciated gem of the horror genre, and it’s something that needs to be revisited. This film also feels like it can stand on its own. The second film relied on the first one so much that it felt like a crutch. Return of the Living Dead 3 has its own style, mood, and storyline that is, for the most part, completely its own and unique. I also have to once again give props to the special effects department for once again showing that practical effects is the only way to successfully craft a zombie film.

As I already said, Return of the Living Dead 3 is a solid movie that does have some major flaws which will surely annoy viewer. It’s a tad boring and feels much smaller and less suspenseful than a zombie movie should. It does, however, have a cool concept to work with and it does try to make its two leads something more than just generic horror characters. This isn’t a movie that will ever be seen as a classic, but it does have some neat effects and costume design. For fans of the genre, I’d say give it a try.

Final Grade: C

So there’s the first three films in the Return of the Living Dead series and the only ones to be released in theaters. When I return with this series review, we’ll be heading back to the wonderful, yet often startlingly absurd world of direct to DVD.

Zombie – Review

6 Aug

Italian horror offers some of the most popular and beloved films of the genre. With names like Dario Argento, Mario Bava, and Lucio Fulci, there’s plenty of content to choose from, and it’s pretty much guaranteed that whatever movie you find will be violent and equally gory. But, hey, that’s what people come to expect in horror movies, right? For this review, we’re going to be looking at arguably the most famous film by the Maestro of Gore, himself, Lucio Fulci. Zombie may just be an unofficial  sequel to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and an attempt to cash in on the zombie craze, but this film actually stands alone as one of the greatest zombie films ever to be made.

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When Dr. Bowles (Ugo Bologna) goes missing and his boat carrying a rather large zombie shows up in New York Harbor, his daughter Anne (Tisa Farrow) is brought in for questioning. While investigating the boat herself, she meets Peter West (Ian McCulloch), a journalist with the same questions she has. Their inquiries lead them to the Virgin Islands, where they hope the find the mysterious island of Matool. Along the way, they enlist the help of Brian Hull (Al Cliver) and his wife Susan Barrett (Auretta Gay), a seafaring couple who are more than willing to give them a ride on their boat. When the group gets to Matool, they find the island ravaged by zombies, whose numbers are increasing more and more each day. Their only chance for survival may lie with Dr. Menard (Richard Johnson), a scientist working to solve the mystery of these zombies who was also a close friend to Anne’s father.

First, I’d like to give you a little history on this movie since it’s a bit out of the ordinary. It all starts in 1978 when George Romero released Dawn of the Dead, which was the sequel to his 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead. Internationally, this film was known as Zombi. Now, in order to cash in on the massive success Romero’s film, the Italians decided to make an unofficial sequel, this being Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2, now known as Zombie in the United States. This film has absolutely no connection to any of Romero’s movies, other than the fact that there are lots of zombies in it. Strangely enough, from this film, even more sequels were released. That gets a bit too confusing so I’m just going to stick with Fulci’s cult classic.

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Now let’s look at the movie itself. This is without a doubt one of the greatest zombie movies ever made. In a time when zombies have become a subject of parody, even within its own genre, it’s so satisfying to see a movie that takes its subject matter seriously. Let’s just say that when this movie was first released, it was banned in the UK for being too obscene, and as a fun gimmick, the theaters handed out barf bags. Sure, the whole barf bag thing is all in good fun, but that’s not to say that there aren’t some really sick scenes in this movie. Some are so gross that they have become iconic. The most famous scene has to do with someone slowly getting their eye pierced by a sharp piece of wood. This isn’t done offscreen either. Oh no. We see it in all its gory detail. Think Un Chien Andalou, but with zombies.

Don’t get me wrong, though. Zombie is more than just a festival of gore. In fact, it’s still a pretty cool movie in its own right. Think of it as if The Serpent and the Rainbow and Cannibal Holocaust had a baby. There’s a lot of cool voodoo type stuff going on and the gore just kind of adds to how cool everything else is. The pacing moves very slowly, especially the scene with the boat pulling into the harbor. It adds a great sense of suspense and dread that overtakes the entire movie. To top it all off, that late 70s Italian synth soundtrack just makes the movie all the better. It definitely feels like a movie from the 1970s, but it feels like a great one.

No matter how you look at it, Lucio Fulci’s Zombie is a classic of the horror genre. It’s fill of suspense, gore, violence, and fantastic makeup and effects. Zombie movies have become something of a cliche recently, and that’s a shame because they used to reign as some of the greatest horror stories in film. This film may not be for the squeamish of feint of heart, nor is it a movie for people who treasure their eyeballs, but it is an important part of film history as one of the landmarks of horror, and also as a film that has earned its title of a cult classic.

Helldriver – Review

20 Dec

Never has a movie made me so mentally exhausted. Helldriver is an overload of insanity that invades all of your senses and doesn’t let up for two hours. This is both good and bad. For awhile, the insanity is enjoyable and a laugh riot, but after a while it made me tired and I really just needed a break between scenes just to comprehend what I just saw. I knew going into this movie that it would be nuts, but I got way more than I bargained for.

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After a cosmic cloud of ash blankets half of Japan, multiple reports of zombie hordes take the media by storm until it becomes too much to really control. The infected half of Japan is blocked by a huge wall, and the Prime Minister is fighting to allow zombies basic human rights. Amongst all of the insanity, a small group of “criminals”, led by Kika (Yumiko Hara) and her chainsaw sword, enter into the other side of the wall to find and kill the zombie queen (Eihi Shiina), who just so happens to be Kika’s sadistic mother.

This is a zombie movie unlike any I’ve seen before. These aren’t your typical zombies who just lumber (or run, in some cases) down the road without a clue as to what’s going on. These zombies are pretty intelligent and are killed when the tumor stemming from their heads are destroyed. Oh, and not only that, but people use these tumors as illicit drugs and they also are very flammable. I dare you to name another movie that has anything like that! I’m sure one might exist, but certainly not to my knowledge.

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This film is directed by Yoshihiro Nishimura, whose other films include the wonderful Tokyo Gore Police and Machine Girl, a review for another day. These movies are crazy, over the top splatter films that enjoy how ridiculous they are and bask in their own insane glory. I respect that. Watching how crazy these movies get is so much fun. This one… this one takes the cake. It’s a two hour barrage of crazy editing, out of this world and long action sequences sprayed with gallons and gallons and gallons of blood in every frame. I loved the scenes of dialogue, not because they were very good or interesting, but because I needed a break. My mind could not compute everything that was happening.

This sort of spoils the movie in a way. Every movie, no matter how crazy, needs to have some down time.  Even though I was tired after watching this movie, I need to be able to appreciate some of the things that I saw. Every Nishimura has something you never thought you would ever see, kind of like a car made out of pieces of zombies that is used in a prolonged chase scene featuring some of the most laughable CGI I’ve ever seen. This scene in particular wore me out and hurt my eyes.

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I was completely shocked by the audacity of Helldriver. Japanese splatter movies are a guilty pleasure of mine, and this one is certainly no exception. Is this as good as Tokyo Gore Police? No way. That one reigns supreme, but this Helldriver pushed this genre farther than I have seen yet, and for that I enjoyed it. Just be prepared to feel exhausted from the relentless violence, blood, and ridiculousness. I can’t say that you should definitely check this one out, but if  you’re at all interested in the genre than this is an insane trip.

Braindead (Dead Alive) – Review

28 Jun

Peter Jackson. There’s a name that everybody knows very well, even if movies aren’t your forte. He’s most known for directing the Lord of the Rings trilogy, a remake of King Kong, and an adaptation of the book The Lovely Bones. But let’s pretend that they haven’t happened yet and the year is 1992. Peter Jackson’s first film, Meet the Feebles, was a small cult hit but he would need something bigger to really start his career. How about making the “goriest film of all time?” Now we have Braindead. 

Lionel (Timothy Balme) is a push over who spends his days doing whatever his mother (Elizabeth Moody) tells him. After his mother gets bit by a Sumatran rat monkey in the local zoo, she begins to get sick and eventually dies…but not for long. Soon, the undead begin to run amok and it’s up to Lionel, who is new girlfriend, Paquita (Diana Peñalver), and his scheming Uncle Les (Ian Watkin) to destroy these zombies any way possible with unbelievably gory results.

I was excited to see Braindead. Really excited. I mean, come on, this is supposedly the king of all gore movies, and I can now honestly say that it is and then some. I could not believe the amount of blood, limbs, intestines, and all the other miscellaneous appendages that I saw fly across the screen. In one particular scene involving a lawnmower, five gallons of blood were blasted from the device per second. What other movie can brag about that?

The scene below is pretty gross. Just wanted to let you know if you want to watch it.

Don’t let the amount of gore and general yuckiness give you the wrong idea. You will be laughing hard at 90% of the jokes in this movie. Lionel was both likable and frustrating, but definitely a character we can relate to on some level. The supporting characters were appropriately good and evil, with the exception of Uncle Les who went above and beyond the level of douche baggery.

What I also mean by not letting the gore intimidate you is also the fact that when there are loads of body parts flying across the screen, it is normally in a slapstick fashion. There were never any parts in the movie, besides the one above scene, that really grossed me out like Anti-Christ did. Instead it was just a lot of fun to see how far Peter Jackson would go with his gore crazed scenes. I have to say, it exceeded my expectations.

This is the scene that I mentioned in the beginning and is probably the goriest scene of the movie.

Stylistically, Braindead hits the mark perfectly. The film is loaded with dutched close ups that are both funny to look at because they are kind of cheesy, but they also cause a feeling of disorientation at times. There are also some great green and purple filters used in scenes towards the end that make the rooms in the zombie filled mansion almost other worldly.

Braindead or Dead Alive, whatever you want to call it, is a fantastically awesome early film by Peter Jackson. I can vouch for it and say that it is, at least, the goriest film that I’ve ever seem and that’s saying something. I don’t just recommend it for that reason, however. I recommend it because it is really funny, has style, and also has great characters. This is a very well rounded movie in a aspects and I really loved it.