One Cut of the Dead (2019)

It’s near impossible to recommend One Cut of the Dead without spoiling what makes it special, so I’m going to have to tread lightly here. This is maybe the most deceptively complex horror comedy I’ve ever seen. It’s certainly the most patient; the movie takes a huge gamble in saving all its major comedic payoff for its concluding half hour – an alchemist third-act twist that retroactively transforms the movie you think you’ve been watching for the previous hour into pure gold. Whether or not all its potential audience will stick around for the full benefit of that payoff is a major risk, especially since encouraging viewers who are going in blind to push through the limitations of its initial conceit might already be tipping the film’s hand. All I can really report without prematurely revealing too much is how the film toyed with my own expectations. I found it quietly charming, then disorienting & awkward and then, finally, one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a theater in a long, long while – horror or otherwise.

As the title suggests (perhaps awkwardly, in Japanese-to-English translation), the initial conceit of One Cut of the Dead is that it is an experiment in staging a zombie-invasion horror film in a single take. A microbudget movie crew filming a zombie cheapie in an abandoned WWII lab (that once experimented with bringing the dead back to life) are attacked by real-life zombies between takes. The unflinching, handheld camera offers a meta POV of the crew’s shock & subsequent fight for survival as the zombie mayhem they’re struggling to authentically stage for an unseen audience becomes “real.” Deciphering exactly what’s meant to be “real” within this paradigm and what’s merely a limitation of staging a single-take zombie picture on an amateur budget is increasingly difficult. Stage blood & actors’ spit splash against the lens. Performers wait a beat or three too long for their proper cues to deliver their next line. The POV cameraman is directly acknowledged by the actors, despite there already being a meta remove of a movie-within-the-movie. So much of One Cut of the Dead is on shaky logical ground because of the limitation of its filmmaking resources, but horror fans who are inclined to watch low-budget, high-concept zombie movies in the first place should be used to making those allowances. What’s brilliant about the film is how it transforms those awkward low-budget details into something brilliantly executed & purposeful. Revealing how it performs that miracle in a review would be a crime that I’m not willing to commit. You just have to afford it your attention & trust long enough to see it for yourself.

The biggest hurdle in convincing people to watch One Cut of the Dead long enough to catch onto what it’s accomplishing is that it’s a little difficult to convince people to watch any zombie movie in 2019, especially the kind that was made for less than $30,000 and most plays at genre film festivals like The Overlook. That’s the ultimate trick to the picture, though. This isn’t about zombies at all. Rather, it’s a heartfelt love letter to low-budget filmmaking and all the frustrations, limitations, and unlikely scrappy successes therein. Even before you’re allowed to fully catch on to what you’re watching, the movie’s already pitting a microbudget film crew against the horrors of the world outside their orbit. Actors strain to convey believable emotion in a preposterous scenario; sound technicians fight off the undead with boom mics; directors & cameramen defy all survival odds to piece together whatever scraps they can salvage from a film shoot that immediately goes to hell. This is a movie about the improbable joys & common frustrations of making movies, a sentiment that only becomes more apparent the more time & attention you afford it.

-Brandon Ledet

Anna and the Apocalypse (2018)

Everything about Anna and the Apocalypse makes it sound like a one-of-a-kind novelty. Just the film’s basic descriptor as a Scottish, Christmas-themed, horror comedy zombie-musical screams cult classic in its uniqueness & specificity. That’s why it’s such a disappointment that watching the film is a safe, overly familiar experience, a deflating feeling that we’ve seen all this before. A thin smattering of its one-liners land; it has exactly one good Christmas-themed musical number; and it’s hung off an admittedly clever metaphor where the zombie Apocalypse (yawn) mimics teenage emotions of leaving your entire life behind after high school; but none of those minor successes are enough to overpower the feeling that everything onscreen is a well-trodden cliché. The R-rated campy gore is too safe & corny where it needs to be transgressive & over-the-top. Worse, it centers its narrative on the blandest Disney Channel-ready personalities it can conjure when there’s a much funnier, more distinct POV fighting for screen time as a side character – the worst case of that sin I’ve encountered since Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl.

The titular Anna is an escaped protagonist from a Disney Channel Original Movie – a high school teen worried about losing her friends & defying her dad’s wishes when she leaves town to travel after graduating high school. Her self-absorption about this personal crossroads compounds with the obnoxious atmosphere of Christmas Cheer to distract Anna and her friends from the fact that a Romero-type zombie Apocalypse is unfolding in the background – a longform gag lifted wholesale from Shaun of the Dead (except now filtered through Glee-style song & dance). In this new harsh reality, Anna no longer has the luxury of finding closure with her friends & loved ones when high school ends, as they are all eaten alive by the flesh-craving undead before her eyes. We tenderly say goodbye to characters one by one as if we’ve gotten to know them over seasons of television instead of a few short minutes of rapid exposition, while the least compelling one of the bunch is featured front & center as the inevitable Final Girl. The CG blood-splatter & Avril Lavigne level “punk” showtunes do little to flavor that genre-faithful tedium and Anna and the Apocalypse mostly plays like the Kidz Bop version of a more memorable picture.

I don’t want to portray this film as an entirely negative, worthless experience. A few flashes of humor do break through the Yuletide schmaltz to offer a taste of what could have been: a one-liner like “Christmas is quickly becoming my least favorite C-word” or a salacious song addressed to Santa Claus that offers to “warm his milk” and invites him to “unload his sack.” I was also often taken with an uptight lesbian side character whose quiet indignity throughout the zombie invasion is both hilarious & endearing in a way few other things onscreen are. All the specificity missing from the protagonist’s POV is hiding just offscreen with a put-upon ball of nerves who generates more pathos & comedic tension than the rest of the cast combined in what little screen time she can scrape together (in a movie-stealing performance from Sarah Swire). None of these momentary respites are enough to save Anna and the Apocalypse from its lowly status as camp cinema for normies. The movie doesn’t even have the decency to be over-the-top gawdy camp like The Greatest Showman. It instead achieves something as pedestrian as that one musical-themed episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Plenty of people love Buffy, and that’s okay. I genuinely hope they get a kick out of this movie too, as it has the structural bones of something that should have stolen my heart. Instead, I spent most of the film bored, wishing I could listen to the horny Santa Claus song again or, better yet, follow Swire’s character in a much weirder, more gleefully perverse horror comedy – musical or no.

-Brandon Ledet

Overlord (2018)

There’s nothing especially nuanced or unique about the message “Nazis are evil & gross and must be destroyed,” but in the context of 2018’s political climate it still fees damn good to hear. This is especially true when said Nazis are shot, set aflame, and exploded in an over-the-top action spectacle that cares way more about cathartic fun than it cares about historical accuracy. Overlord opens as an immersive WWII battle demo; it operates like a dirt-cheap Dunkirk in its earliest stretch, where a group of American soldiers are deployed in France to take out a contingent of “rotten son of a bitch” Nazis occupying a local church. That introduction is just a coverup for an entirely different kind of well-budgeted schlock, however: a Nazi zombie movie with a distinct video game sensibility. Neither the WWII thriller nor the Nazi zombie action-horror descriptors fully capture how distinctly fun & cathartic Overlord can be as a middle finger to modern Nazi grotesqueries, which is always a good sign for a genre film repeating narrative patters we’ve already seen many times before. We may be living in a word where war thrillers & zombie pictures are all too plentiful, but there can never be enough condemnation of Nazi scumbaggery.

Two of the earliest introduced POV characters in Overlord are black & Jewish American soldiers preparing to parachute into German-occupied France, even more terrified of Nazis that their fellow troop members because of their ethnographic identities. They later join forces with a local French woman who has suffered Nazi tyranny in prolonged, horrific ways and skeptically aids the Americans’ mission to destroy a Nazi communication tower in her small town’s church. The demographics of those POV characters help distinguish Overlord from the doldrums of a generic war picture just as much as the supernatural phenomena they find in that church. Likewise, the church-lab’s experiments to reanimate corpses to create a “thousand-year army” for Hitler that they uncover is far from the Nazi zombie tedium of the Dead Snow series. This is partly because they’re not the typical Romero-style zombies who stumble around craving “braiiiiins,” but are instead styled after the Re-Animator tradition of botched science experiments that play loosely with the boundaries of undead lore. Neither side of this war/zombie divide should play fresh in a modern genre picture, especially one so simply structured like a video game – where each challenge feels like a level to be defeated on the way to the Final Boss (a Nazi monster so jacked on Evil-Science serum that he resembles the version of Bane from Schumacher’s Batman & Robin). Overlord pulls it off spectacularly, though, if not only in its prioritizing of modern anti-Nazi sensibilities over all logic & responsibility to history.

It’s arguable that there’s no need to reinterpret Nazi history though genre film sensibilities, since sci-fi & horror require an exaggeration of something so inherently evil that a metaphor would only cheapen it. That might be why Overlord was so cautions about anchoring the war half of its narrative to real-life atrocities – including systemic genocide, “scientific” torture, and widespread sexual assault – before moving on to the paranormal grotesqueries of its zombie half. Its horror film impulses are often kept at bay, then, but when they are allowed to flood the screen they arrive full-force. This isn’t exactly a gore fest, but it is often incredibly gross – mixing CGI & practical effects to make sure Nazis look as vile & monstrous as possible through a B-movie lens. Once-human figures dangle in fleshy sacks from the church-lab’s ceiling, filtering jars of red & black goo through their barely functioning organs while breathing heavily in pain. Severed heads gasp for air and ask for immediate relief from their mortal coil. Flesh melts; faces cave in; bullet wounds gush untold gallons of hot, sticky blood. Real-life Nazis are gross & worthy enough of destruction without the help of schlocky exaggeration, but just in case you’re not fully convinced (as seems to be the case with young Alt-Right recruits online) Overlord takes giddy pleasure in spelling it out for you.

There may be a secondary theme in Overlord about knowing when not to follow orders if it prevents you from doing what’s right (as the mission of destroying the communication tower is meant to take priority over destroying the zombie-filled church lab) but there’s nothing about that message than can trump the simple pleasure of watching gross, “rotten son of a bitch” Nazis get blowed up real good by the people they hurt the most. Overlord is not the year’s most thoughtful or nuanced genre film take on real-world evil racist institutions that have recently made an alarming comeback (that would be BlacKkKlansman). However, it does easily achieve the Herculean task of making zombies interesting again in a post-Walking Dead cultural climate by relying on a simple truth: Nazis are evil & gross and must be destroyed. In 2018, there’s immensely satisfying entertainment value to be found in watching that destruction, especially in an over-the-top action horror context.

-Brandon Ledet

Zombie (1979)

In what surely drives continuity & canon-obsessed nerds mad, Italian copyright laws allow any feature film to be marketed as a direct sequel to a previous work, regardless of intellectual property licensing. This is how Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 came to be marketed as a direct sequel to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (or, more accurately, the Italian edit of Dawn overseen by Dario Argento & scored by Goblin, retitled Zombi), despite having nothing to do with that cult classic outside their shared depiction of the undead. That positioning of Zombi 2 as a direct sequel to the Romero classic is notably more of a marketing decision than a creative one, as the shopping mall modernity of Dawn of the Dead is the exact opposite approach to zombie lore than the one Fulci takes in his own work. If anything, Zombie (as it was more accurately billed in the US.), is more of a return-to-basics, traditionalist throwback to the origins of zombie cinema – most notably the 1932 Bela Lugosi relic White Zombie. On the surface, the film appears to be Lucio Fulci’s transition into making colonialist, Cannibal Holocaust-type “video nasties” after his previous run of psychedelic gialli like The Psychic & A Woman in a Lizard’s Skin. In practice, it’s more of a return to early, Voodoo-themed zombie cinema updated with more state of the art, grotesque gore effects we’re not used to seeing in that context. If Zombie has any relationship with George Romero’s work, it’s in amplifying his fixation on practical effects gore, while rolling back his influence on the zombie genre to the era that came before. Zombie isn’t a sequel to Dawn of the Dead so much as a traditionalist renunciation of that text, coated in an excess of sleaze.

The brilliance of this return-to-basics zombie filmmaking is that its dialing-back from urban modernity to the old-ways’ culture gazing at Voodoo rituals is signified in its basic plot. A disheveled boat arrives in the NYC harbor with most of its crew missing – and the remaining members turned into flesh-eating zombies. The daughter of the boat’s owner and an investigative reporter track its course back to the (fictional) Caribbean Island of Matul, which superstitious natives believe to be cursed. There, they discover an age-old plot so cliché it belongs on the lower wrung of a 1950s double bill: a white-man researcher strives to scientifically rationalize the local phenomenon of a Voodoo curse that can bring the dead “back to life” (as mindless flesh-eating copses, at least). His research is going nowhere, of course, and only invites violence as the zombie hoards surround his lab and attempt to eradicate the intruders on their island by eating them alive. It’s in this last-act zombie invasion that Zombie most resembles a George Romero picture, with a small group of cornered city-folk firing guns at a mindless hoard that surrounds & eventually engulfs them. Most of that Romero aesthetic is left behind in NYC, however, where an off-screen modernist zombie crisis Fulci doesn’t have the budget to properly stage unfolds. On Matul, the movie mostly bridges the gap between the latent racism of the Civilized Man Vs. Savages narratives of zombie cinema past and the more active racism of then-current Italian cannibal nasties like Cannibal Holocaust and Slave of the Cannibal God. Outside some questionable vocal dubbing & characterization among the (infrequently shown) native locals, however, Zombie mostly avoids the worst trappings of the colonialist cannibal genre of its grindhouse heyday: sexual assault exploitation, cultural Othering, documentation of real-life animal abuse, etc. Its likeness to that despicable subgenre is mostly in its grimy visual aesthetic; it most often plays like pastiche nostalgia for the more quietly problematic Voodoo pictures of the White Zombie tradition.

The closest Zombie comes to indulging in the typical animal abuses of the Italo-cannibal pics it superficially resembles is in its breathtaking underwater stunt in which a zombie fights a real-life shark. It’s a scene so infamous the film might as well have included The One Where the Zombie Fights a Shark among its various “official” titles. Whether the local “shark trainer” who costumed as a zombie to stage that stunt is abusing the animal is a much murkier issue than the straight-up animal slaughter included in Cannibal Holocaust-type pictures, but what’s made clear in that sequence is that Zombie’s strengths lie entirely in the grotesque beauty & unflinching audacity of its individual gags, their importance to the plot be damned. As the characters are first making their way to Matul, the boat stops dead, along with the plot, so that a free-spirit passenger can strip nude to take underwater photographs of marine life, stumbling directly into a zombie-shark fight. It’s a sleazy stunt on so many levels it’s hard to keep count (the camera’s lingering on the photographer’s oxygen tank strap across her crotch is especially slimy) and it serves little-to-no thematic purpose for the task at hand. Still, it’s so elaborately staged that you can’t deny its appeal. While Zombie’s overall narrative is a barebones, back-to-basics zombie genre throwback, its individual stunts & images are complexly crafted, grotesque wonders: an eyeball impaled on a splintered door, tendrils ripped from a victim’s neck, a zombie’s POV approximated in first-person camera work as it rises from the grave, etc. The perfect symbiosis of this thoughtfully complex imagery & traditionalist genre throwback energy is best represented in a scene set in a Spanish Conquistadors’ graveyard; muddy hands reach from beneath the ground as the dead rise, hungry for flesh. The image of a lone hand reaching from beneath a gravesite is much more typical to the zombie genre than an underwater shark fight, but it’s rarely shot with as much giallo-level stylistic detail as what you’ll find here.

As questionable as I find the impulse of rolling back George Romero’s modernization of the zombie picture to its White Zombie roots and as much as I despise the Italo-cannibal pictures it occasionally resembles, I can’t help but appreciate Zombie for its grotesque visual majesty. Rewatching the film restored on its Blue Underground Blu-Ray release is especially illuminating, since I’m used to seeing it through the grainy haze of a VHS cassette. I don’t know that Fulci deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the film’s racial politics or possible animal rights violations, but his imagery certainly deserves to be seen in crisp, Blu-ray quality detail. Most people aren’t going to seek out Zombie for its advancement of the genre or its thematic complexity (despite that being exactly what’s promised as a supposed follow-up to Dawn of the Dead). This is a film best enjoyed for its awesome brutality & the detailed beauty of its practical effects gore, two things Fulci is a master at delivering.

-Brandon Ledet

The Girl with All the Gifts (2017)

Whoever botched the distribution for the recent zombie-themed sci-fi horror The Girl with All the Gifts should be ashamed of themselves. It took two full years for this British production to reach American shores, only to be quietly dumped onto VOD instead of enjoying a full theatrical run. A little apprehension about its chances in wide release is understandable. If this film were released in the mid-00s it’d be considered highly marketable, but its genre’s cultural status has changed since then. The zombie film as a medium may have reached its cultural nadir last year with the exceedingly silly Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but that doesn’t mean the genre is thematically bankrupt by nature. The recent South Korean action thriller Train to Busan alone was exciting enough for some critics to declare the zombie genre undead and now we have a small, thoughtful drama with a strong sci-fi bent arriving in its wake to very little, if any fanfare. On paper, a sci-fi horror with a female lead (and several well-written female supporting characters) that narratively splits the difference between Logan & 28 Days Later sounds like an easy sell. It must have arrived to the market at the exact wrong time, though, as it only earned half of its budget back in its brief run at the box office. Time should be very kind to The Girl with All the Gifts, but modern audiences & distributors weren’t, probably due to an understandable bout of genre exhaustion.

The opening half hour of this film is absolutely stunning. The concluding half hour is similarly worthy of praise & attention. It’s everything between those points that could be accused of slipping into overly-familiar genre territory. The Girl with All the Gifts begins in a military facility where children are being groomed & studied for mysterious scientific purposes, not unlike in the recent art horror piece Evolution. The star pupil/prisoner at this facility is an unusually intelligent youngster named Melanie (promising newcomer Sennia Nanua). This eternally chipper, persistently curious young’n responds to the military security guards referring to her as “it” and “an abortion” with a smiling “Good morning!” and “You’re very welcome!” despite being restrained and wheeled around like a pint-sized Hannibal Lector. She eventually sets in motion an action adventure plot where she, her most adoring teacher, a few overly-cautious security guards, and an uncaring scientist creep (an effectively chilling Glenn Close) venture into a cinematically familiar world of abandoned, zombie-infested cities. It’s out in this post-apocalyptic hellscape that the movie begins to feel a little disappointingly generic, especially in its assertion that Melanie may just be the key to their search for a cure. However, the solution to the problem of The Cure is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a zombie film before and The Girl with All the Gifts finds its own way to refresh the genre by focusing on the scientific implications of the way its zombie virus spreads & the philosophical implications of what it means to attempt to stop it.

The major variation on genre expectation here is the way the film plays with the children in peril trope. The initial hook of The Girl with All the Gifts is that it complicates the emotional effect of placing a child in danger by making that child a danger herself. Like in Logan, we’re asked to sympathize & identify with a young girl who has to be held back from doing harm to others, even to the people she loves. It’s difficult not to pity a child who’s locked in a cell & forced to eat worms for sustenance, but once you see the potential damage that can be wrought if those worms & that cell are taken away from her the scenario becomes a little more nuanced. Thankfully, that twist on the children in peril trope isn’t the only major conflict the film has in mind. After a brief, forgivable trek through Search for a Cure zombie film tedium, The Girl with All the Gifts sinks into a fascinating exploration of the ways Nature reclaims human structures when given enough time and how human bodies are a part of that reclamation. Fighting against Nature’s course is proposed to be potentially futile, which is a pretty hefty lesson to stomach within a genre that’s often reduced to cheap jump scares and Michael Jackson dance routines. The post-Romero tradition of zombie cinema has always thrived on reaching for metaphor in its modes of undead havoc and although The Girl with All the Gifts may briefly appear to be something you’ve seen before in its second act stretch, it eventually finds new thematic purpose for the genre. That’s no small feat, considering the decades of tradition it’s riding in on, not to mention the oversaturation of the zombie market in the past decade alone.

If nothing else, this film is proof that a straightforward, gimmick-free zombie movie can still be worthwhile. There’s no real need for Zombieland, Fido, Life After Beth, Warm Bodies, The Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, and their like-minded contemporaries to shake up the genre with jokey meta humor (although I’ll admit to enjoying all five of those films to some degree, due to being a huge sucker for gimmicky horror in general). The Girl with All the Gifts does what it can to best distinguish itself within the genre, searching for a very specific aesthetic in its militaristic grey & green color palette, its loopy drone soundtrack, and its world-building details like a scent-distorting “blocker gel” that repels the zombies, who characters call “hungries.” There’s also a literary feel to the film in a larger sense, which includes blatant references to things like Pandora’s Box & Schroedinger’s Cat, perhaps as a result of its nature as an adaptation of a pre-existing novel. For the most part, though, the film tries to excel through basic measurements of craft. Its dialogue is well-performed, its creepy sound design is top notch in terms of tension & atmosphere, and it manages to stage a convincing, fantastic image of widespread, zombie-fueled chaos on a miniscule indie horror budget. If released in the mid-00s days of the James Gunn/Zack Snyder Dawn of the Dead and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later I have no doubt this film would have been a hit. It’s an impressively well-made genre entry that wrings plenty of surprise pleasures out of a medium everyone presumed was bone dry, simply through strength of craft & metaphor. Hopefully as modern culture’s zombie fatigue lifts, The Girl with All the Gifts will get its due as a thoughtful, thematically-rich sci-fi horror flick. Even if that never happens, it will always remain a great film.

-Brandon Ledet

Train to Busan (Busanhaeng, 2016)

It’s an oft-cited criticism among professional reviewers, the laity, and everyone in between (like me and probably you) that there are too few original ideas being produced in film, with various thinkpieces arguing the relative merits of remakes (like the upcoming Beauty and the Beast), reboots (like the upcoming The Mummy), reimaginings (like the upcoming IT), and sequels (of which there will be at least a dozen this year, but let’s just put a pin in Transformers: The Last Knight as the one that’s least likely to have any objective value). In the fight between the pedantic “You know that Wizard of Oz and The Maltese Falcon were remakes, don’t you?” camp versus the equally annoying “Everything’s a remake these days!” camp, there’s not a lot of room for middle ground. Although we’re no longer in the heyday of remakes that we were  ten years ago (for instance, Hollywood’s top performers in 2005 had a high percentage of remakes, 17%, which fell to 5% by 2014), the rise of narratively homogeneous “cinematic universes,” the tendency on the part of studios to fund financially safe sequels, and the widespread proliferation of lay criticism on YouTube and beyond means that you’re no less likely to hear kvetching about unoriginality today than you were in the summer of 2006; in fact, you probably hear it more often.

With regards to horror, the tendency to “follow the leader” whenever the wheel happens to be reinvented, either intentionally or accidentally, is non-negligible. The relative profundity of originality that catapulted The Blair Witch Project to success means that we’re approaching nearly two decades of found-footage horror, with six Paranormal Activity films in eight years and the most recent season of American Horror Story using the format as its central gimmick. The nineties saw a huge uptick in teen-oriented slasher films following the release of Scream, although the extent to which they retained that film’s sly metacommentary varied from project to project. Before that, the international success of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead spawned a slew of imitators, including an entire separate string of foreign sequels starting with  Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2.

Of course, Romero’s zombies became the default conception of the reanimated undead from that point forward, with the occasional outlier generating considerable interest in the horror fan community, despite the frequent obstinance of zombie “purists.” Danny Boyle’s astonishing 28 Days Later rocked the boat in 2001 with its so-called rage-zombies (although whether or not the infectees of the film are “true” zombies is still a matter of debate among the persnickety), and Edgar Wright’s delightful 2004 romp Shaun of the Dead adhered to the more traditional Romero zombie apocalypse scenario filtered through a distinctly comedic (and British) lens. It’s noteworthy that both of these zombie films of the aughts were made by Brits, following the distinct and entrenched American orientation of Romero’s satirism. At the same time that Shaun and 28 Days were making zombies interesting again, Americans were putting out regrettable and forgettable nonsense like the made-for- TV Return of the Living Dead sequels, Tobe Hooper’s Mortuary, and Romero’s own Land of the Dead, which is better than its contemporaries but suffers from both a lack of subtlety in its social criticism and its lack of freshness (there’s a reason that it’s not recalled or discussed with the reverence that is reserved for Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead).

It should come as no surprise, then, that following another decade of retreads of the zombie genre, with adaptations like World War Z (aka the zombie movie that your dad can watch), more Resident Evil movies than you can shake a stick at, and other flash-in- the-pan flicks, the next great thing in zombies also comes from outside America’s borders: Busanhaeng (aka Train to Busan), a South Korean production, is frenetic, gorgeous, and ironically full of life.

Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is a workaholic fund manager who is inattentive to his young daughter Soo-an (Kim Su-an), to such an extent that his belated birthday gift to her is the same gaming system he bought the year before. Soo-an asks only that she be taken to her mother’s home in Busan as her birthday gift, and her father obliges. Unfortunately, before their train leaves the station, an infected young woman jumps aboard, and soon it’s zombies, zombies, zombies! Also along for the ride are: Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok), a working class ruffian with a heart of gold; his pregnant wife Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-mi); young baseball player Yong-guk (Choi Woo-shik) and his team, including cheerleader Jin-hee (Ahn So-hee); and Yon-suk (Kim Eui-sung), a stereotypical (but no less true-to-life) rich CEO who is concerned with saving his own skin at the expense of all others.

There’s some social commentary in that Yon-suk’s pragmatic and unrelenting self-interest is reflective of Seok-woo’s potential to be just as monstrous in his banal  inhumanity as the older businessman. This is especially evident when Yon-suk is able to make contact with a friend on the outside who tells him to take a different path away from the platform when the train stops briefly at Daejeon and he tells no others, not even Sang-hwa and Seong-kyeong. He becomes a better man throughout, however, and ultimately makes the right choices for both himself and what survivors remain as they begin the final leg of their journey.

Train to Busan doesn’t reinvent the wheel; in fact, there’s an awful lot of 28 Days Later in its DNA, what with the Rage-like zombies, the urban environments, the involvement of military forces (although there’s no unsettling discussion about repopulating the earth by force here as there is in Days), and the ending. Still, placing the action on a train puts a new spin on things, as when one group of survivors is trying to reach another group in a distant compartment, with the horde between them. The interplay of light and darkness, the addition of color, and a child character who’s actually quite likable (serving as her father’s conscience) are all touches that this genre was missing. It’s such an obviously great idea that I’m honestly surprised it was never done before (despite searching my memory and the internet, I can find no evidence of previous zombies-on-a-train films). It’s worth checking out at the earliest opportunity.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2017)

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And so it goes that Paul WS Anderson’s Resident Evil franchise dies with a pathetic whimper . . . if, in fact, it dies at all. Resident Evil: The Final Chapter makes a hefty promise in its title to decisively conclude what has been a wildly uneven series of futuristic zombie shoot-em-ups. Yet, this sixth installment fails to deliver on that promise of finality, leaving the door wide open for a sequel the way each of its predecessors have in the past. Worse yet, The Final Chapter eases up on the mutated giants, virtual reality scenarios, and cloning-run-wild shenanigans that have made past Resident Evil films such an odd, unexpected delight. Instead of going for broke in its over-the-top CG fantasy violence and convoluted high-concept sci-fi plots, this series “finale” makes the mistake of aiming for genuine dread (a mark it falls far short of) & providing a legitimate backstory for its barely sketched-out characters. If the exact, clearly-defined origins of its heroes & villains were a necessity for Resident Evil‘s entertainment value, the series would not have gotten six films deep without them. These films’ mild popularity (in America at least; they’re wildly popular in foreign markets) depends on the ridiculousness of their zombie-themed action spectacle, something The Final Chapter brings no passion, attention, or inventiveness for. There’s nothing new here that hasn’t been done better in previous films in the series, except for that precious backstory for its protagonist, which, who cares? If this truly is the last Resident Evil film, the franchise has concluded with its worst, least exciting entry, a lazy shrug before its final bow, followed by a winking tease for an encore.

The end of Retribution, the fifth and possibly best entry to the franchise, leaves Project Alice (Milla Jovovich) stranded at the White House with the Agent Smith motherfucker that’s been the Bugs Bunny to her Elmer Fudd for the back half of the series. Surrounded by zombie hordes & some mutated dragon beasts, Not Agent Smith stabs Alice in the neck with a serum that supposedly restores her powers. The beginning of The Final Chapter throws all of the potential entertainment value of that setup in the trash. JK, everyone. Alice doesn’t really have her telekinetic supersoldier powers back. Also, there will be no showdown at the White House, since Not Agent Smith and his zombie buddies have cleared DC by the time Alice wakes up. Instead, we get another retelling of the franchise’s entire story arc, this time with a revisionist history that explains the backstory for the Umbrella Corporation’s evil intent for instigating a zombie outbreak in the first place. Game of Thrones actor Iain Glenn returns as the wicked corporate stooge behind all of the evildoing. Nevermind the fact that in the third film in the series, Extinction, his character was frustrated with his lack of power, having to answer to higher-ups in holographic boardroom meetings. He’s apparently been the head honcho for the Umbrella Corporation all along and the versions of him Alice has destroyed in the past have all been insignificant clones of the real thing. Okay. Now Alice must race back to the place where it all began, the underground Hive facility beneath Raccoon City, to retrieve an antidote to the zombie virus “before it’s too late,” in effect saving the world (or at least the few thousand uninfected humans who still inhabit it). It’s there that she learns who she truly is and where she comes from, a revelation I would have traded for any number of CG creatures, motorcycle stunts, or virtual reality freak-outs.

The Final Chapter completely misinterprets Resident Evil‘s inherent style over substance appeal and bends over backwards to retroactively inject gravitas into a flimsy premise that can’t support it. As a newly-converted fan to the series (Extinction & Retribution are both fun at least), I can’t speak for the majority of Resident Evil‘s dedicated audience, but I can say say that no amount of reformist backstory & clearly defined character motives could raise my own esteem for the long-running video game adaptation. I’ve made it five films into the franchise, somewhat happily, without that kind of clear-headed storytelling, so why start now? Ideally, a Resident Evil franchise-ender would get even more convoluted in its ill-considered sci-fi premise and go for broke in a nonsensical spectacle that would attempt to top the ridiculous places it went in the previous entry instead of crashing the whole thing down to the grounded, generic familiarity of the series’ origins. The closest we get to that here is some weird dragon hybrids teased at the end of the last film & a couple shots of a waterfall made of fire that melts a few zombies in a brief moment of victory. That should’ve been the starting point, not the conclusion. The rest of The Final Chapter is cheap jump scares, confusingly rapid action photography, a grounding backstory the series never needed, and the threat of a sequel despite the finality blatantly promised upfront in the title. The movie even misreads the room by aiming for action cinema legitimacy in a John Carpenter-inspired synth score instead of sticking with its usual nu metal tunage. I don’t look to Resident Evil films for legitimacy. I want them to be over-the-top & tacky. By failing to embrace its own tackiness the way past entries have and in eagerly searching for a more standardized mode of action cinema competency & logical storytelling, The Final Chapter had ended the Resident Evil franchise on its least worthwhile picture to date. It doesn’t exactly sour the memory of the series’ heights in Extinction & Retribution, but it does leave you walking away with a much blander taste in your mouth, which is the ultimate bummer.

-Brandon Ledet

Resident Evil: Retribution (2012)

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I had more or less given up on the entertainment potential of the Resident Evil franchise after its fourth installment, Afterlife, wasted its entire runtime treading water & showing off its The Matrix Zombified aesthetic for a 3D lens. In a way, I had also given up on Paul WS Anderson as an auteur, since that entry tore down a lot of the good will established by Russell Mulcahy’s contribution to the franchise, the Mad Max-riffing Extinction. I was wrong to lose faith. The fifth Resident Evil film, Retribution, matches (if not surpasses) Extinction‘s entertainment value as a standalone feature, but does so without having to step outside the franchise’s usual formula. Retribution fully embraces its zombie-themed shoot-em-up video game roots as well as its nature as a late-in-the-game sequel by conducting a simulated, virtual reality retrospective of the series where each film is a level that must be cleared on the way to the final boss. Here, Anderson establishes his particular brand of nu metal technophobia as its own distinct artform, turning what should feel like an exercise in generic action film tedium into high-concept, reality-bending sci-fi with a kick-ass female protagonist in the lead. It’s an amazing act of genre alchemy, one that completely turned me around on the merit of the series as a cohesive whole.

It takes a few minutes of housekeeping exposition before Anderson feels comfortable with mashing the reset button in this way. The ending of Resident Evil: Afterlife teases an Umbrella Corporation attack on a ship of uninfected zombie virus survivors and this follow-up delivers that action set piece upfront . . . twice. The attack is first shown in reverse motion, starting with Milla Jovovich’s lead badass floating in an underwater void before being sucked onto the ship & downing a helicopter. She then explains the plot of each Resident Evil film to date in a detailed recap before the same Umbrella Corporation attack is shown in a more linear, traditional fashion. That’s when Anderson mashes the reset button. Project Alice (Jovovich) awakes from her underwater grave to a reality-shift, apparently living an alternate life as a housewife in the Raccoon City suburbs at the start of the zombie outbreak. This traditional George A. Romero scenario is revealed to be a simulated experience, in essence a video game, staged within an underwater facility where The Umbrella Corporation is holding Alice captive. The brilliance of this premise is that it allows Retribution to incorporate all of Resident Evil‘s past lives & themes of cloning, virtual reality simulation, and supernatural beasts in a single, interconnected location Alice must escape as if she were clearing levels on a video game. Where the movie really gets interesting is when pieces of these simulations, including the clones, begin to overlap and the narrative bleed-through finds the series finally reaching its own sense of distinct purpose that doesn’t feel like a riff on a pre-existing property.

Figuring out exactly what makes a franchise special and how to retread old ground without merely going through the motions five films in is no small feat and it actually reminds me of the way Fast & Furious movies similarly took their sweet time figuring their own shit out. Curiously enough, in both cases actress Michelle Rodriguez plays a badass toughie retroactively raised from the dead after a long absence (this time through cloning), which is just about as small of a genre niche as you’ll ever find. Other old characters like the rogue cop Valentine from Apocalypse & the axe-swinging giant from Afterlife also return, giving the film a distinct The Gang’s All Here vibe that’s been absent in its search for consistency. All that’s missing now is Vin Diesel raising a Corona to toast the makeshift family as they fire endless bullets into the zombie hoards that threaten to wipe out what little is left of humanity. Retribution ends in the same frustrating way all Resident Evil films insist on ending: shamelessly setting up a sequel (this time concluding at a zombie & dragon-surrounded White House) and fading out to tacky nu metal era tunage (this time supplied by Deftones singer Chino Moreno teamed up with some dubstep dweeb). Even that aspect feels like a tried & true feature of a series that’s finally come into its own, though, one final adherence to its already-established genre tropes before you leave the cinema. I’m not exactly sure how he did it, but Paul WS Anderson slowly turned me into a fan of his own bullshit just when I was on the edge of giving up on him as recently as one film ago. Even if he doesn’t stick the landing with the franchise’s sixth entry, The Final Chapter, he had already cohesively pulled it all together in the fifth, so the mission was already, in effect, accomplished. Retribution was Resident Evil‘s de facto resurrection, its sorely needed saving grace.

-Brandon Ledet

Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010)

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My biggest fear when I learned that Paul WS Anderson had returned to the director’s chair for the fourth Resident Evil film is that he would completely undo what that entry’s predecessor had accomplished. Russell Mulcahy’s Resident Evil: Extinction elevated the franchise’s production value & traded in its overgrown nu mental tone for a goofy Mad Max vibe, making for the best entry in the series to date. My fears were confirmed; Anderson did indeed slide the franchise back into its The Matrix But With Zombies creative rut, even daring to include gratuitous shots of “bullet time” effects to drive the point home. Luckily for Afterlife, I liked the goofy nu metal technofuturism of the first two Resident Evil films, so it’s not like the territory it returned to was all boredom & despair. I’d just be lying if I didn’t find the Original Recipe Resident Evil flavor a little bland after Extinction had spiced it up.

The film opens with a slow pan up a Japanese punk’s leather costume as she solemnly contemplates something mysterious before turning full zombie & igniting a breakout that consumes Tokyo. MIlla Jovovich, the franchise’s anchor, then narrates a plot summary of the first three films in the series, the first time Anderson found that kind of housekeeping necessary for his convoluted, yet video game-thin cyberpunk zombie yarn. We then join Alice (Jovovich) as she raids one of the Umbrella Corporation’s seemingly endless supply of underground bunkers, sporting her latest film-defining costume change: a sleek black ninja outfit complete with swords & throwing stars. A couple decapitations & some telepathic nonsense later and she’s immediately killed, revealing that she was a clone the whole time and that there are plenty more Alices where that came from (a repeat of Extinction’s opening, in a way). Some Agent Smith-looking motherfucker stabs her in the neck with a serum that takes away her ass-kicking superpowers and she spends the rest of the plot hunting him down while collecting any of the world’s straggling uninfected she can on the way.

This is easily the most low-energy, self-serious entry of the Resident Evil franchise so far. There are so many shots of Jovovich flying a small airplane, searching out the window for a purpose to be onscreen, when Afterlife could’ve just as easily held onto the army of Jovovich clones it blew up in the first scene instead and made a much more interesting picture. Besides a few zombies with some octopus mouths and a mutated giant swinging a CG axe, there just isn’t much Afterlife has to offer that you couldn’t get from the three franchise entries that precede it. The film seemingly has three directives: to openly riff on The Matrix, to make gratuitous use of the then-recent Avatar 3D technology, and to promote the A Perfect Circle single that plays multiple times throughout. Afterlife indulges in frequent enough goofy action sequences to feel occasionally worthwhile, but after the series heights of Extinction I had come to expect more than that. As a director, Anderson feels a little limp here, stuck in an outdated mode of nu metal cinema like a slightly more endearing (and significantly less funded) Zack Snyder. I’m still willing to afford the final two entries into the franchise an open mind, but the bland diminished returns of Afterlife has significantly dampened my expectations.

-Brandon Ledet

Resident Evil: Extinction (2007)

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Although I found the first two titles in the Resident Evil  series fascinating in a cultural context & entertainingly goofy in select scenes of CG fantasy violence, I failed to fall head over heels for either work as an individual, stand-alone feature film. Watching Milla Jovovich weaponize a motorcycle by launching it through a stained glass church window makes for a fun, dumb action movie moment, but I’ve had a difficult time maintaining that kind of enthusiasm for the entire length of one of these zombie-themed shoot-em-ups. The third film in the franchise changed that for me. Within the first five minutes of Resident Evil: Extinction I felt a huge leap in quality, as if the series had emerged from a direct-to-DVD production value to a legitimate action cinema aesthetic. This is likely a result of hiring Razorback/Highlander director Russell Mulcahy, who cut his teeth directing music videos for 80s acts like The Buggles, The Vapors, and The Human League, to take the reins. Series mastermind Paul WS Anderson still remains a steady hand in the writer’s seat, but Mulcahy brings a slick sense of professionalism to the film’s staging that saves it from the series’ usual idiotic The Matrix But With Zombies formula.

One of the ways Extinction shakes off its stylistic rut is by hitting the reset button, opening with the exact same scenario as the first Resident Evil film. Milla Jovovich’s zombie-slaying protagonist wakes confused & unremembering in the shower, finding her iconic red dress from the franchise’s debut laid out carefully on her bed. As she tries to fight her way out of a military takeover of her home, she’s killed, the scenario is revealed to be a simulation, and her body is dumped on a pile of similarly-dressed clones in a chilling image that recalls the excellent existential horror Triangle. While The Umbrella Corporation’s main stooge (Game of Thrones’s Iian Glen) is literally trying to clone past successes of the franchise with villainous intent, Extinction then blows its derivative, campy treats wide open by shifting from Matrix knockoff to Mad Max knockoff, taking the zombie-infested shit show on the dusty, dusty road. The breakout has spread from Raccoon City to cover the entire globe, making Earth an endless Mad Max hellscape. Just like in the second Resident Evil film, an inconsequential female badass archetype leads a band of anti-Umbrella Corporation rebels until Jovovich arrives to take over. While Glen’s slick-haired corporate jerk is obsessed with cloning her, he also wants to capture & harness the Original Recipe version, which means the small group of desertscape rebels has to fight off the evil corporation in addition to the zombie hordes. Everything that goes down from there is highly stylized, but mostly predictable outside maybe Jovovich’s newfound telepathy abilities, a weaponized murder of crows the rebels fight off with flame throwers, and the casting of R&B singer Ashanti. The movie then doubles back to its origins a second time for another underground showdown with a mutated humanoid beast & some ominous warnings from a creepy child A.I. This is when Jovovich discovers the cloning project, concluding the film on a moment of existential horror.

It’s difficult to convey exactly why Extinction is of a higher quality than its two predecessors. On a writing level, its story is just as scattered & inconsequential as ever and its characters still sport dumb names like Project Alice, White Queen, and (most notably here) K-Mart. There are some new details like a serum that partially domesticates zombies, characters blowing off steam by running over zombie roadkill, and some corporate intrigue nonsense involving hologram boardroom meetings. It’s all very silly, but no more entertaining in and of itself than the silliness of previous franchise entries. I really do think it’s Mulcahy alone who elevates the material by bringing in a strong, stylistic guiding hand that the series desperately needed. He drags Resident Evil out of its nu metal era technophobia into some more timeless (but equally derivative) genre territory. Extinction is a really fun entry in a series so stupidly convoluted in its futuristic zombie mayhem that it doesn’t deserve to be so entertaining this many films in. I’m a little bummed to know that the last three contributions to the franchise all have Anderson returning to the director’s seat, because it seems like the best he can do at this point is knock down what good will Extinction built up in its break from the usual aesthetic. I won’t at all be surprised if this film stands as the best of the bunch and it’s sad to know that the most fun I’ve had with the series is likely already behind me.

-Brandon Ledet