Active Essentials: Zombie Flesheaters Part 2
More Brains! The second part of Gabe Powers' list of walking dead essentials
The Laughing Dead: The Splatstick Era
Re-Animator (aka: H.P. Lovecraft's Re-Animator,1985)
"Herbert West Has A Very Good Head On His Shoulders... And Another One In A Dish On His Desk". One of the best taglines of our time. Though not strictly speaking a zombie movie, it's more of a "Mad Scientist" film, and the re-animated dead aren't very interested in eating their victims, Stuart Gordon's début film is one of the most important films to the horror/comedy sub-genre. There have always been dark comedy/horror hybrids, and outrageous slapstick dates back to Charlie Chaplin and H.G. Lewis' tongue-in-cheek gore epics of the '60s, but Re-animator was the perfect modern era extension.
Based on H.P. Lovecraft's pulpiest story (originally printed as a series), Re-Animator owes much of its existence to the classic E.C. Comic series of pre-code American funny books. The series is also knowingly pilfered by Romero on a regular basis, from his zombie flicks to his direct homage Creepshow films. The story follows Herbert West, played with extreme gusto by a young Jeffery Combs (one of the worlds top 10 most underrated actors), who comes to Miskatonic University in search of the knowledge needed to bring the dead back to life.
The school offers West little in the way of stimulation, and soon he's reverted to his pre credit sequence ways, injecting his homemade, day-glo green goo into the dead. West manages to suck his new roommate Dan into the debacle, and the two are soon ejected from school for their meddling, much to the chagrin to of Dan's girlfriend, who doesn't trust West from the outset. A series of tragic mistakes leads West's rival, Dr. Hill, to figuring out Dan and Herbert's secret.
Insanely clever, deviously funny, and gruesomely raunchy, Re-Animator is most well known for its final act 'rape-by-severed-head' sequence, but has a lot more going for it than simply bawdy visual puns. The film is shot like a theater troop re-enactment of an EC comic book, and its dialogue contains some of the most quotable witticisms this side of Peter Sellers. When confronted with the possibility of being caught by the late night morgue staff, West simply scoffs and quips, "What are they going to do, embalm us?".
Though dated, Gordon's film somehow appreciates with each passing year. Like most cult films of the 1980s, Re-Animator endured due to its popularity on video. Two versions were made available - the uncut 'unrated' version, and the edited 'R-rated' version. The edited version, though shorn of several minutes of gore (not to mention the film's show-stopping visual pun), but was actually longer in run time due to the inclusion of several scenes originally cut for timing. These scenes offered little to the film, but were sought after by fans regardless.
The original DVD release from Elite Entertainment included these 'R-rated' scenes as an extra, along with a fantastic group commentary, trailers, and a solo commentary from director Stuart Gordon. Elite later released a 'Millennium Edition' version of the DVD, as they had with their other two most celebrated titles, I Spit on Your Grave and Night of the Living Dead. The re-release wasn't much of an improvement in features, and the new DTS surround track was as pointless as a beak on a cow, but the video transfer itself was a marked improvement.
See what Brian Kelley had to say about this release.
The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
In 1985, the same year George A. Romero was preparing the third part of his zombie epic, Day of the Dead, scriptwriter Dan O'Bannon inherited former Romeo partner in crime John Russo's Night of the Living Dead sequel script. O'Bannon, who had found some major writing success with Alien and Dead and Buried (a very underrated little film with an original take on zombies), was given the right to direct the film, his first. O'Bannon managed to turn a weak, sub-Romero bore into an audience friendly comedy. Return of the Living Dead went on to decimate Romero's film at the box office, proving that mid-'80s youth was more interested in comedy and punk rock than allegories and depressing social issues.
The plot is clever in that it pretends that the events of Night of the Living Dead actually happened, but that Romero's film was forced to change some of the facts by the U.S. Government, who kept some of the zombies in a medical supply house. When a couple of bumbling employees accidentally re-animate one of the vacuum-sealed undead, they also release the gas that turns people into the walking dead. It's soon clear that a bullet to the head will not kill these particular zombies, and the re-animated remains are burned in a crematorium furnace. The ashen remains are rained down on a local cemetery, and the process starts all over again.
Return of the Living Dead is most well remembered for its soundtrack, punk rock witticism (very similar to that of Alex Cox's Repo Man), and zombies that eat brains. Including this film on my list is a bit of a cheat considering that these zombies aren't really flesh eaters, but brain eaters, a fact that infiltrated zombie lore in the following years (brains... brains... ). Fans that despised recent films like Dawn of the Dead 2004 for their sprinting zombies have Return of the Living Dead to blame, as O'Bannon more or less introduced the subject. Some hardcore fans resent the film for appealing to the broadest possible demographic, with its 'R rating' and such. I say sometimes the mainstream is an OK place to be.
MGM finally released the film on DVD in 2002 due to popular demand, and actually made an effort on the release. The anamorphically enhanced widescreen image is miles beyond the old VHS versions, which were surprisingly hard to find for such a popular film. O'Bannon's commentary track is a joy, and the brief retrospective documentary is worth its time. The film has officially spawned four sequels. The first sequel is universally known as an awful film, but Return of the Living Dead Part III, directed by Re-Animator producer Brian Yuzna, is a great comic-book exploration of teenage love and angst. It's too bad the R1 DVD is the censored 'R rated' cut. I've not seen the two newest sequels, but haven't heard a single good thing about them.
Braindead (aka: Dead/Alive, 1992)
A few years ago, one Peter Jackson officially became the highest paid director (initially) of all time, and he got the money for creating his dream project, a remake of King Kong. Before that, he became a household name with his impossible direction of New Line's epic Lord of the Rings Trilogy, for which he won a bunch of Oscars. Back in the mid-'90s, even the most avid Jackson fan wouldn't have thought for a second that this is where the creator of such bad taste comedies as, erm, Bad Taste, and Meet the Feebles would end up. If you'd asked me what the apex of the indie Kiwi's career would forever be when I was back in High school, I'd answer, without a second's hesitation, Braindead (or Dead/Alive, as it was known in my native US).
Lionel is a lonesome momma's boy, guilted into caring for his perfectly capable mother through years of mental abuse. Paquita is a shamelessly romantic immigrant girl, looking for the right man to complete her life. The Sumerian Rat Monkey is a beastly creature, who wants nothing more than to eat flesh and spread his horrible zombie disease. When Paquita is told it is her fate to be with Lionel, she cannot be stopped, and her innocent allure is a threat to Lionel's mother, who follows them on their date to the zoo...only to be savaged by the Sumerian Rat Monkey while spying on them from behind the bushes.
Lionel is again guilted into caring for his now zombifyed mother, finding no time to continue his budding relationship with Paquita. When his mother escapes the house and is hit by a bus, she is pronounced dead, and Uncle Lester comes looking for his share of the inheritance. The problem here being that Lionel's mother isn't actually dead, but undead, a fact that Lionel has decided to keep under wraps. How will he deal with the spreading zombie virus, how can he quell his gold digging uncle, and how can he win back his love? One thing's for sure, hilarity will ensue.
Braindead (the title has a similar double meaning to that of Bad Taste) may not seem like one of the three logical precursors to The Lord of the Rings at first, but this was a major step. Though Heavenly Creatures dealt with the mature and dramatic themes that'd later win him honour, and The Frighteners established his effects company WETA as a force to be reckoned with, it was this extremely ambitious zombie flick that cemented Jackson's talents in the greater public eye. No, it wasn't a film for everyone, especially not the weak-stomached, but it was a boundary-crossing breakthrough that few critics have been able to find real fault with. Who’d’ve thunk that the heir to the title of ‘Goriest Film of All Time’ would be so lovable, funny, and unabashedly romantic.
Oh, the romance amongst the viscera. Paquita and Lionel's predestined love is so endearing, and almost all the films tension comes out of their relationship's speed bumps, rather than the plight of the numerous zombie victims. Braindead may be my favourite romantic comedy of all time, because I really do care about the characters and their struggle. How many women would stand by a man whose mother ate her dog? That's true love. Jackson's Zom-Rom-Com predates Edgar Wright’s by more than a decade. It's too bad he didn't coin the phrase. I suppose being the highest paid director in history will have to be his substitute.
I won't play Mr. Highroad though, it's really all about the splatter in the end. I'm very hesitant to even refer to Braindead as a horror film, as it's far too gleeful to really ‘horrify’ anyone. The violence is strictly played for laughs, never is there a feeling of real animosity, and even the weakest of stomachs can usually get used to the icky excesses. And just when you don't think Jackson could take it any further, he does. Severed limbs not doing it for you any more? Have an eyeful of internal organs. Seen enough guts yet? Well, here are some living ones, complete with a gas-spewing anus. And least we not overlook the maniacally gooey lawnmower sequence. Lovely.
There is no definitive version of this film on the market in any region. Every available version suffers from cuts or video aliments. UK and German versions utilize the longest cuts of the film, but suffer from sub-par video presentations and zero special features. The R1 release has a decent transfer and stereo soundtrack, but is missing several minutes of footage. There's word of an out of print German box set release that is indeed uncut and anamorphically enhanced, but I've not been able to find it myself.
The Dead of the Rising Sun: Super Fun Asian Action Zombies
Bio Zombie (aka: Sang dut sau shut, 1998)
Had Abbot and Costello made films in late '90s Hong Kong I've a feeling they might've turned out a little something like this. Wilson Yip's (the man who'd go on to direct the popular Donnie Yen vehicle SPL) oft overlooked little half-spoof is actually much more Shaun of the Dead than Return of the Living Dead. This potent mix of teen-sex-comedy, straight-up horror, Romero spoof, and Asian action is first and foremost a romantic comedy, when whittled down to its base.
Our heroes, Woody the Invincible and Crazy Bee are two punk kids with very loose mafia connections that run a VCD store in a local mall. When picking up the bosses car at the shop they hit and "kill" a government experimental zombie, and toss him in the truck for safekeeping. While the boys furiously hit on the lovely ladies of the mall, and feud with an arrogant cell phone salesman, the zombie infiltrates and begins feasting on security guards. Before you can say "aim for the head", the mall is swarming with loopy and crusty undead.
Bio Zombie is an absolute blast that won't change your life, but will entertain even the most weary-eyed zombie vet. The violence level is surprisingly tame, but there are plenty of other genre films to fill that void. The film's direction is at times shockingly adept, and viewers should keep an eye out for a very impressive split screen sequence that is revealed to be an elaborate camera trick in the end. Yip's tonal control is also incredible, and shifts are believable and smooth. There are very few films that can make an audience honestly care for such audacious characters.
As far as I know there are only two DVD versions of the film available, both R0 discs, and both utilizing a very similar non-anamorphic transfer. The transfer and plain stereo soundtrack aren't much to shake a stick at, but will get us by until someone sees fit to release a decent version. The HK disc has an alternate ending, which I myself have not been able to see (I've got the US release). Other than that, neither disc has any non-commercial special features.
Versus (aka: The Ultimate Versus, 2000)
Filmmaker Ryuhei Kitamura burst onto the action and horror scenes with this zombie/kung-fu/yakuza/fantasy hybrid, and never looked back. In six short years he set himself up as the go to guy for over-the-top and violent action in Japan. Kitamura's films are cinematic junk food for the most part, including 2004's Godzilla: Final Wars and the motion captured cut-scenes for the 2004 video game sequel Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes. Every once and a while, a work of art escapes, as in the director's finest film to date, Azumi, but Versus fits snugly in the 'junk food' category.
The plot is contrived to say the least, involving an escaped convict trying to save a hostage from a group of cutthroat Yakuza in the forest. Of course it turns out that the forest is haunted, and the recently deceased come back as hyperactive zombies. The whole thing is rather silly, but it really is amazing how much production value Kitamura gets out of his estimated budget of $400,000. The guy really knows how to shoot, and the fight scenes are at times breathtaking, at least as good as the majority of recent big-budget output.
The film's problem is its length, as in it's too long. Kitamura allows himself to get too tied up in his own made-up mythology and back story. As it turns out that the convict and the Yakuza leader are actually reincarnated warriors. The Ultimate Edition director's cut contains a few new fight scenes, and good ones, but adds ten unnecessary minutes to the nearly 2 hour runtime. If you have the time, Versus is a great way to waste an afternoon, filled to the brim with fisticuffs, shoot-outs, flesh-eating, acrobatic camera work, and gore, gore, gore.
Picking a DVD version comes down to taste, and language. The longer cut has two discs of extra features, but is only available only in Japanese. The R1 release from Media Blasters is the shorter cut, and isn't overloaded with features, but looks and sounds decent. There is an edited, 'R rated' cut, which needless to say, should be avoided.
Wild Zero (2000)
Lock and Loll!
Like Return of the Living Dead before it, Wild Zero attempts to infuse the zombie film with humour and punk rock. The film follows the adventures of Ace, a rabid fan of Japanese rock sensation Guitar Wolf (members names include Guitar Wolf, Bass Wolf, and Drum Wolf). Ace saves the band from their evil manager and becomes a blood brother. Guitar Wolf has promised to come to his aid when he's in need. When a meteor strikes Tokyo and starts turning everyone into flesh-eating zombies, it looks like it may be time to call on his new friends for assistance.
Wild Zero is a very silly movie, and one that the majority of zombie fans will probably not have the patience for. The film has less in common with Dawn of the Dead and much more in common with Rock and Roll High School. There's almost as much screen time devoted to Guitar Wolf's concert footage as actual zombie mayhem, but the music is great, and the mayhem is pretty juicy. My personal favourite moment is the one where a bickering couple only realizes their love for each other after joining the legion of the undead.
The North American DVD release from the pioneers at Synapse is a blast and a half. The big revelation here is the disc's built in drinking game. Synapse didn't invent the drinking game, people have been making film specific ones for years, but never has a DVD actually assisted in the process. Those who don't drink (like myself actually) can still enjoy the on-screen mug icon popping up every time someone shouts "Rock and Roll", every time someone runs a comb through their hair, every time a zombie's head explodes, every time fire explodes out of something, or something explodes in general, and every time an on screen character drinks. Don't play the game with anything too hard, like whiskey, because you may die of alcohol poisoning before the end credits roll.
Speed Kills: The Next Generation
28 Days Later (2002)
After the relative failure of British golden child Danny Boyle's post Trainspotting releases (the unjustly maligned A Life Less Ordinary and the somewhat deservingly maligned The Beach) the ever enigmatic director joined forces with Beach novelist Alex Garland to produce one of the most critically and monetarily successful experimental films of all time. The story starts off as an modern adaptation of Richard Matheson's classis novella I Am Legend (already filmed in two loose adaptations, The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man) with newcomer Cillian Murphy waking up from a coma in a world seemingly bereft of human life. Murphy's desperate search turns up monstrous beings infected with what is only described as 'Rage'. It seems these creatures fear the daylight, but when nighttime comes around they are more than ready to attack the few remaining uninfected soles.
Murphy meets up with a few other survivors, and the very Dawn of the Dead-esque group embarks on a journey out of the city of London in the hopes of finding salvation. Then the story takes a Day of the Dead like turn, and our protagonists happen upon a heavily protected army base. In true Romero fashion, the surviving solders aren't the valiant protectors they initially seem, and the infected outside take a back seat to the human on human drama and violence.
The plot of 28 Days Later is very schizophrenic, but with good reason, as the filmmakers were basically making it up as they went along. Filmed entirely with digital cameras, which at the time was still very rare, and utilizing mostly unknown actors, the film was a bargain, and ended up grossing a fair amount of cash in both its native England and the US. Like Sam Raimi's Evil Dead films, the film runs on its energy, and is at times surprisingly scary.
The 'infected' aren't zombies, strictly speaking, and seem more interested in spreading their disease than eating flesh, but they are undoubtedly an extension of Romero's universe. Had it not been for the success of 28 Days Later, and the popularity of zombie based video games like House of the Dead and Resident Evil (the later of which owes its soul to Romero) we'd not have seen a zombie film resurgence, which itself is a double bladed sword, as there were plenty of crap knock-offs in this film's wake.
DVD versions vary slightly in their special features, but for the most part every region has its own decent release of the film. Video quality varies due to the non-HD digital video, but for the most part it works in the film's favour. The sound design is spectacular, utilizing contrasting volume levels to maximize each scare. The finest features on each release are the alternate scenes, including one entirely made up of storyboards which offers up an entirely new take on the film's last act.
Check out various other takes on Danny Boyle's foray into the scary here, here, and here
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Oh how I wanted to hate this film. I heard they were remaking the untouchable classic and I just about cried. There was just no way to get me into that theater, until, of course, I went to the theater anyway. Why did I even bother? It must have been morbid curiosity, because the fact is that the only other of the Titanic amount of recent horror remakes I saw in the theater was Willard. How was I to know that 2004's Dawn of the Dead remake would be the only proper horror film to have me clutching my theater seat in fear since, well, I can't even remember another time an American studio horror flick frightened me.
Yes the film holds nary a candle to the original in terms of drama and emotional scope, and it runs dramatically out of steam as soon as the opening credits are through, but this movie scores high points simply for making me eat my pissy fan-boy words. In the end it's better than Savani's 1990 Night remake because of its energy and the fact that writer James Gunn actually had something to add to the original's structure. Had the film not been titled as a remake it wouldn't have suffered comparisons. Romero's film was a zombie dramadey about metaphors and allegories, Gunn and first time director Zack Snyder's film is a zombie action film, complete with full-bore running zombies.
The running zombies are a large bone of contention, but modern film seems to dictate that visceral thrills are more poignant that psychological ones. In 1968 the very idea of dead people walking with the sole intent of eating living flesh was enough to scare an audience, but our modern pop-sensibilities have robbed the Romero zombie of a lot of their mystique. Running zombies are a cheap trick, but one that works, especially with mainstream America. My biggest problems are with the film's MTV style and modern soundtrack, but I'm not a fan of movies dating themselves through music.
The Unrated DVD is an essential not only because of the added violence, but because of the added character development. The original film spent two plus hours with four characters, the remake triples the number of characters and cuts the runtime to 90 minutes. One character in particular was entirely forgotten in the theatrical version. This is a case of reinstated footage actually making a difference in the final product. However, those in search of an entirely uncut version will want to search outside of R1, because there is a brief snippet of nudity still censored in the US Unrated release.
Matt Joseph did a full R1 review, and Brett Anderson checked out the totally uncut R4 disc.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
What can I even say about such an adored modern horror/comedy? Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, the geniuses behind my personal favourite Brit-Com of all time, Spaced, put more love and admiration into this little film than anyone's seen in a very long time. At once a parody and homage to the genre, Shaun of the Dead most intelligently chooses to play its horror aspects straight, and allows the humour evolve from the character's natural reaction to the situation.
Though not technically the first Zom/Rom/Com, Shaun of the Dead coined the phrase, and its genuine take on romance in the face of such ridiculous adversity is one of its most commendable suites. Spoof can be funny, but it never lasts, and I've a feeling that this is a film for the ages. Never one to take itself too seriously, but never-the-less willing to dredge up a genuine emotional response (check out Pegg, he can actually act non-believers), Shaun of the Dead is the feel good zombie movie of its generation, and a tough act to follow.
The UK R2 special edition release is the best available. Though the US disc is similar, it is missing a fair amount of the original releases' extra features. Both versions feature the excellent Pegg and Wright commentary, which'll make any movie-geek worth his salt want to be best friends with the pair. Both discs also feature an impossibly gorgeous video transfer, and effective Dolby Digital track.
Editor Chris Gould did a write-up on the R2 disc, and The Wilson Bros. (they're the twin biker zombies, not the Texas born Hollywood heart-throbs) are regular visitors to the site.
And so we come to the end. This was a hard list to whittle down. My biggest problem came when I realized I had four films for my modern movie section, and I really only wanted to include three. Shaun of the Dead was an obvious shoe in, and I felt the need to admit my initially wrong reactions to Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake. That brought me to 28 Days Later and the Aussie born Spierig Brothers Undead. Undead is a fine film, and good because it brings some real Sci-Fi to the genre, not to mention some seriously funny scenes. 28 Days Later is not a zombie film, but an infection film. However, it was more important to the major studio releases of Dawn of the Dead '04, Shaun of the Dead, and Land of the Dead. It's also the slightly better film. I apologize to fans of Undead.
The Honorable Mentions
So you've seen all these, huh? Well, I got a few more. Here's a little list of other genre 'greats' that failed to make my final list. I had to draw the line somewhere, right? If it's not on this list, I either didn't see it, or I personally didn't like it.
Burial Ground (aka: Nights of Terror, Zombie 3, Le Notti del terrore, The Zombie Dead 1981)*
Bride of Re-Animator (1990)
Dead Next Door (1988)
Hell of the Living Dead (aka: Virus, Night of the Zombies, Zombie Inferno, Inferno dei morti-viventi 1980)*
Living Dead Girl (aka: La Morte vivante 1982)
Masters of Horror: Joe Dante's Homecoming (2006)
Night of the Comet (1984)
Night of the Living Dead (1990)
Resident Evil (2002)
Return of the Living Dead III (1993)
Tombs of the Blind Dead (aka: La Noche del terror ciego, Crypt of the Blind Dead, Revenge from Planet Ape 1971)
Zombi 3 (1988)*
And a few films that aren't really zombie movies, but share some elements:
Bad Taste (1987)
The Crazies (1973)
Dawn of the Mummy (1981)*
Dead and Buried (1981)
Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2, Army of Darkness (1981, 1987, 1993)
From Dusk 'Till Dawn (1986)
I Drink Your Blood (1970)
Last Man On Earth (1964)
Mr. Vampire (aka: Geung si sin sang 1985)
Pet Semetary (1989)
Shock Waves (1977)
They Came Back (2004)
Zeder (aka: Revenge of the Dead 1983)
And a few 'classic' zombie movies:
I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
White Zombie (1932)
*Warning: not a good movie, for acquired "bad movie" tastes only
Editorial by Gabriel Powers
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