Episode #117 of The Swampflix Podcast: Zombi Child (2020) vs. The Zombie Diaspora

Welcome to Episode #117 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, and Britnee discuss Bertrand Bonello’s new film Zombi Child (2020) and the ever-broadening zombie genre’s diasporic exodus away from its Haitian Vodou roots. Enjoy!

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– Britnee Lombas, James Cohn, and Brandon Ledet

Zombi Child (2020)

Bertrand Bonello’s follow-up to the wonderfully icy teen-terrorist drama Nocturama is a from-the-ground-up renovation of the zombie film. Zombi Child directly reckons with the racist, colonialist history of onscreen zombie lore, and pushes through that decades-old barrier to draw from the untapped potential of its roots in legitimate Vodou religious practices. It’s a deceptively well-balanced film that evokes both Michael Haneke’s cold, academic political provocations and Celine Sciamma’s emotionally rich coming-of-age narratives while somehow also delivering the genre goods teased in its title. The only film I can recall that attempts its same wryly funny but passionately political subversion of long-established horror tropes is the recent festival circuit curio I Am Not a Witch, and yet it’s clearly part of the same lineage as its genre’s pre-Romero beginnings in titles like I Walked With a Zombie. Gore hounds and horror essentialists are likely to be bored by the thoughtful, delicate deconstruction of the genre attempted here, but if you can get on-board with Bonello’s academic evisceration of zombie cinema tropes the movie feels almost outright revolutionary.

The narrative is split between two dominant timelines. In 1960s Haiti, a man is zombified by a Vodou ritual that drags his body out of the grave only to force him to work as a slave on a sugar cane plantation. In 2010s Paris, his teenage descendant is struggling to adapt to her new life at a bougie boarding school for (mostly white) French legacy kids, gradually losing touch with her Haitian heritage. The modernism of the contemporary timeline at first feels entirely disconnected from the eerie atmosphere of the historical Haitian setting. Teen girl bonding rituals and casual discussions of Rihanna’s discography don’t immediately feel as if they have anything to do with zombie plantation slaves an ocean & a half-century away. Gradually, though, it becomes clear that the subjugative evils of the past cannot be severed from their echo in the present; it is impossible to have a normal, healthy relationship across class, cultural, and racial borders without acknowledging the colonialist abuses of our ancestors. At least half of Zombi Child is an observational coming-of-age drama that plainly presents modern teen girlhood at its most natural, but it still manages to establish a direct tether from that setting to a centuries-old Vodou tradition long before the connection becomes explicit at the film’s crescendo.

The most impressive aspect of Bonello’s touch here is how out in the open the film’s academic explorations can be, even though a significant portion of the screentime is focused on teens just hanging out, being kids. Classroom lectures at the boarding school about the unfulfilled promises of the French Revolution and the imperialist legacy of Napoleon Bonaparte (the school’s founder, no less) are allowed to simmer for minutes on end. The girls themselves are self-designated literature nerds, which means they get to discuss the evolution of the zombie movie in-dialogue and to recite poems with lines like “Listen, white world, as our dead roar. Listen to my zombie voice honoring the dead.” The historical Haiti setting is much less vocal, as it mostly follows a zombified plantation slave’s sublingual path back to human consciousness. It’s no less overtly academic in its themes, though, pushing discussions of how cinema represents “black bodies” and slave labor to its most literal extreme. Sequences of zombie field workers despondently hacking at sugar cane with machetes—too pathetically drained of human life to even remain vertical without assistance—are just as horrifying as any brain-eating or disemboweling undead carnage you’re likely to see in a more straightforward genre exercise.

The zombie genre has become an over-saturated market in the last few decades, especially when it comes to grim post-Apocalyptic melodramas like The Walking Dead. At this point, the term “zombie apocalypse” alone is enough to send even the most horror-hungry audiences running to the hills out of madness & boredom. The continued appeal of zombies as a genre device is understandable though, especially when you consider the flexibility of the metaphor. There’s nothing especially novel or compelling about the survivalist, doomsday prepper bent of most modern zombie media, but there are still plenty of outlier examples where storytellers uncover new thematic purposes for the undead in metaphor: Indigenous peoples’ frayed relationships with white settlers in Blood Quantum, the monstrous stench beneath America’s idealized Conservative past in Fido, the unwelcome return of Nazi ideology in Overlord & Dead Snow, etc. Zombi Child feels like a slightly different beast, though, and not only because it’s not a straight-up Horror film. Bonello’s contribution to the genre stands out because he dials the clock back even further than these equally political Romero riffs to directly engage with zombie lore at its original, real-world birthplace. It scorches the earth so it can start entirely anew, calling into question whether our cultural zombie obsession is itself a continuation of colonialist pilfering. More impressive yet, it does so while also taking time to declare “Diamonds” to be the best Rihanna song.

-Brandon Ledet

Kung Fu Zombie (1981)

As bottomless as my hunger for low-grade genre trash can be in general, I do have a limited appetite for particular cheap-o subgenres that I never developed a proper palate for. One of my most glaring shortcomings as a B-movie enthusiast is a dulled, limited appreciation for the martial arts film. I’m not talking about artily psychedelic wuxia epics or the 1980s heyday of Hong Kong visionaries like John Woo. I mean the real cheap stuff, the kind of public domain outliers that pad out local broadcast television schedules. While I grew up watching tons of sci-fi & horror schlock on TV, I don’t remember martial arts cheapies ever being part of that diet. As a result, I have a hard time brushing off my annoyances with the genre’s worst idiosyncrasies—mainly the inert sense of pacing and the repetitive fight choreography sound effects from its near-universally shoddy English dubs—things I’d likely find more charming had I been indoctrinated with this stuff at an earlier age.

In an effort to meet martial arts schlock halfway as a latecomer to genre, I’ve been seeking out fringe titles where it overlaps with the horror tropes I’m more accustomed to. The “boutique” bargain bin Blu-ray label Gold Ninja Video has been an excellent resource in this endeavor, releasing such horror-tinged martial arts titles as the post-modern Brucesploitation castoff The Dragon Lives Again and the delightfully amateurish wuxia nightmare Wolf Devil Woman in the past year, both of which I enjoyed immensely. While I wasn’t quite as enamored with their recent selection Kung-Fu Zombie as those other two titles, it did help further drag me into an appreciation for horror-themed martial arts schlock in a couple key ways. Firstly, it includes an excellent video essay from critic (and label-runner) Justin Decloux titled “Punch a Ghost: A Beginner’s Guide to Hong Kong Horror” that highlighted the charm & historical context of the subgenre (along with a 90-minute “Hong Kong Horror Trailer Reel” packed with recommendations for what to watch next). More importantly, Kung-Fu Zombie itself was one of the quickest-paced films I have ever seen in any genre, which sidestepped one of my usual sticking points with martial arts schlock in particular.

Kung Fu Zombie is a public domain Taiwanese martial arts horror cheapie that’s very light on spooks & gore but plentiful in broad comedy & breakneck fight choreography. It mostly concerns a father-son duo who’re haunted by criminal nemeses from their past. The son’s petty dispute is with a thief whose robbery he interrupted, landing the scoundrel in jail. Once released, the thief hires a Taoist priest to reanimate a small militia of corpses to attack his foil as retribution, fearing the young hero’s superior fighting skills in one-on-one combat. Through a series of mishaps, the thief & the priest manage to resurrect a vicious murderer with a heartless vendetta against the hero’s father (and martial arts trainer) as well, a much more formidable foe our hero has unknowingly been training to defeat his entire life. The title is something of a misnomer. This really isn’t a Romero-style zombie invasion picture with fight choreography interludes as much as it is a full-on martial arts picture that happens to feature a grab bag of generically Spooky archetypes: a couple zombies, a ghost, occultist rituals, etc. It’s all played more for broad humor than genuine horror atmosphere, which is fine, except that the jokes aren’t especially funny (and often backslide into juvenile sexual assault humor at women’s expense).

While the horror elements of this genre-hybrid cheapie didn’t deliver anything especially memorable, the kung-fu sequences are plentiful and plenty entertaining on their own. The movie is insanely shrewd in its editing – speeding up & trimming down everything surrounding those fights until all that’s left is a lean 78-minute whirlwind. Kung-Fu Zombie isn’t nearly as funny nor as innovative as the Peter Jackson classic, but the way it delivers broad jokes & a wide range of classic spooks at a breakneck pace makes it feel like the martial arts equivalent of Dead Alive. I won’t say that it was a mind-blowing revelation that cracked open the martial arts genre for me as an outsider or anything, but its rapid-fire looniness made for an amusing enough novelty, one I likely should have enjoyed with friends & beers instead of alone on the couch as a midnight snack. I plan to continue seeking out these cheap-o titles where horror & martial arts schlock overlap just to expand my appreciation of everything low-end genre filmmaking has to offer. Even if this particular film didn’t fully hit the spot, its Gold Ninja Video release gifted me with dozens of other titles in its same vicinity that look even more promising. It’s more of a breezy genre primer than it is its genre’s artistic pinnacle.

-Brandon Ledet

Blood Quantum (2020)

You would be forgiven for never wanting to see another zombie movie again. The genre was niche enough in its 70s & 80s heyday, to the point that it was synonymous with just one filmmaker’s name—Romero—with plenty of leftover room for loonier weirdos like Raimi, Jackson, and Fulci to play around in the margins without wholly repeating the master’s territory. After the last decade or so, however, just the term “zombie apocalypse” alone is enough to send even the most horror-hungry audiences running to the hills out of madness & boredom, as the market has become ludicrously oversaturated with zombie #content. I’m not sure if the genre hit its point of no return with the Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse novelty handbook, the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies literary remix, or season 230 of The Walking Dead, but it’s clear that most horror nerds are fatigued with the deluge of the undead. I’m not totally tapped out on zombies just yet myself, though, even if only because I was never compelled to watch the Walking Dead series that sucked the well dry. The appeal of zombies as a genre device has mostly stayed fresh for me, as I continue to appreciate the flexibility of the metaphore. There’s nothing especially compelling to me about the survivalist, doomsday prepper bent of most modern zombie media, but there are still plenty of outlier examples where storytellers discover new thematic purposes for the undead in metaphor: the monstrous stench beneath America’s idealized Conservative past in Fido, the unwelcome return of Nazi ideology in Overlord & Dead Snow, romantic relationships that rot far beyond their expiration date in Life After Beth, and even low-budget zombie #content production as the embodiment of modern filmmaking in One Cut of the Dead. In my eyes, it’s still okay to keep making zombie movies even in this incredibly crowded market; you just better do something interesting with the metaphor to justify the indulgence.

Blood Quantum has no problem satisfying that very simple criterion in making a worthwhile modern zombie film, offering a fresh metaphorical context for the genre I’m certain I haven’t seen before. Set in an alternate-history 1980s, the film details a zombie breakout among white Canadian urbanites that eventually reaches an isolated First Nations reservation of the Miꞌkmaq tribe. It appears that Indigenous people are immune to the zombie virus, putting the white outsiders that gather at the gates at the tribe’s mercy. Likewise, the Miꞌkmaq people themselves are at risk if the outsiders they shelter in their community prove to be unknowingly infected. This conflict between the First Nations people vs. their volatile white interlopers is obviously rich with potential for metaphorical extrapolation. If you really wanted to, you could probably map out an entire history of white settlers endangering & effectively extinguishing the land’s Indigenous inhabitants over the course of the movie – starting with the Miꞌkmaq’s tribe’s apparent adaptability to a lethal environment that’s dangerous to outsiders, and extending to how their humanist pity for the invaders eventually leads to their own demise. It’s a line of interpretation that the movie actively encourages, especially in details like the outsiders’ blankets being infected with the zombie virus, iconography that deliberately recalls smallpox outbreaks of the past. Curiously, the film also works on another level as a kind of power fantasy where the economic & healthcare vulnerability many Indigenous peoples suffer on modern reservations is reversed, putting white oppressors on the receiving end of a shitty deal for a change. It’s all very fluid & fun to pick apart, like zombies pulling apart the wet, viscous entrails of a freshly split-open victim. And since director Jeff Barnaby grew up on a Miꞌkmaq reservation himself, it seems to be coming from a genuine, authentic place, which is even rarer in modern zombie media.

All that said, Blood Quantum‘s merits as a colonialism metaphor aren’t likely enough to overpower any potential audience fatigue with the zombie genre at large. Outside its central conceit and cultural context, it’s very much a straight-forward zombie movie, one that owes a lot of its visual & storytelling textures to The Walking Dead in particular. It’s a solid genre entry on that front, especially in how hard it leans into the post-Romero gloom & gore of the genre by making sure no character is safe from having their head smashed open or their torso bifurcated by chainsaw. It even cuts some of its thematic seriousness by indulging in juvenile jock humor inolving defecation & fellatio, softening up its political severity with some classic Raimi & Jackson-flavored goofery. However, the real selling point of the film is the way it finds yet another new application for the zombie apocalypse as a literary metaphor, which is quite a feat considering how many times that well has been returned to over the decades. Whether or not a new metaphor alone is enough to draw you back into the genre is up to you, as the film entirely plays it straight as a genre entry elsewhere. You have to be onboard for some of the same-old same-old to appreciate those new textures.

-Brandon Ledet

Flesh Freaks (2000)

I’ve recently become enamored with the carefully curated Blu-ray releases of the Toronto-based Gold Ninja Video, which is positing itself as a boutique physical media label for low-end genre trash & D.I.Y. oddities. From bargain bin Brucesploitation titles like The Dragon Lives Again to backyard filmmaking curios like Impossible Horror to a Criterion Collection-level art cinema treatment for Matt Farley’s Local Legends (one of my favorite films of the 2010s), Gold Ninja Video has been consistently extraordinary in their dedication to unearth & uplift otherwise ignored castoffs from genre cinema’s furthest reaches. That impressive track record prompted me to take a chance on the label’s recent Blu-Ray release of Flesh Freaks, an amateur shot-on-video zombie flick from the late-VHS era. Flesh Freaks itself is—to put it mildly—not great, but when considered in the context of Gold Ninja’s catalog of discarded low-to-no-budget relics I do find it fascinating as a kind of historical document. This sub-professional, juvenile zombie flick is an artifact from a bygone era when that kind of novelty could land legitimate VHS rental store distribution instead of being directly uploaded into the digital void on platforms like Vimeo or YouTube. In the 2000s, Flesh Freaks qualified as a Real Move – one that even secured a Fangoria Magazine blurb on its Clip Art promotional poster. If released today, it’d be an easily ignorable YouTube preview window that remains forever unclicked.

The reason I’m dwelling on all this extratextual background info is that it’s far more fascinating than the actual onscreen content. When considered outside the context of its time or finances, Flesh Freaks is a dutifully mediocre zombie flick, one that’s only saved from total dead-air tedium by its spectacularly violent third act – a delightfully grotesque practical effects showcase (that unfortunately arrives too late to fully justify the long stretches of mediocrity that precedes it). The story goes that unscrupulous archeologists accidentally uncover an ancient curse from Mayan ruins in Belize, conjuring zombie-like creatures who slay everyone at their dig site – except one lone survivor. Once home at the University of Toronto, the survivor struggles to explain the horrors he encountered in Belize to his impatient, curious friends. He also—shocker—has carried the Mayan zombie curse back with him, unwittingly unleashing a full-scale outbreak on his college campus. This Torontonian back half of the film is both more fun to watch and more technically accomplished than the opening stretch in Belize. Yet, the film dwells on its Belizean travelogue opening for as long as it can manage, emphasizing its importance so drastically that the film feels rigidly bifurcated between the two settings (rather than the Central American portion functioning as a place-setting flashback the way it’s intended). It turns out that, like all things in Flesh Freaks, that decision is much more forgivable & interesting when considered in the context of how the film was produced & distributed.

Flesh Freaks is the passion project of Torontonian horror nerd Conall Pendergast, made when he was still a pimply teen. Pendergast stars in the film himself as the contaminated traveler, of course, which is the tell-tale sign of a young aspiring filmmaker playing around with a decent camera for the first time (usually out of financial necessity). He first conceived of the project while traveling with his archeologist parents to their actual dig site in Belize. Bored and isolated in a remote, foreign location, Pendergast made the shrewd decision to utilize his stunning deep-jungle surroundings as easy production value for a Real Movie. Only, his zombie-outbreak footage merely amounted to a mediocre short film, one that would need to be heavily embellished to approach the length of a proper feature. Once Pendergast got around to assembling this “extra” footage back at the University of Toronto, he had more time, experience, resources, and collaborators at this disposal – resulting in much stronger, more distinct work despite the pedestrian locale. As a result, it’s the Belize travelogue footage that registers as the film’s runtime-padding, not its college campus epilogue. By the time Flesh Freaks stages its handmade gore spectacle in its climactic final minutes it feels like the emergence of a fully formed filmmaker, one we’ve been watching gradually evolve out of the shot-on-video ooze the entire film. While most bored teenagers were playing video games and spending their pocket change on ditch weed, Conall Pendergast made a Real Movie, one with distribution that reached far beyond his local social circle. That is in itself a genre cinema miracle, even if the actual film is a standard, paint-by-numbers zombie cheapie.

Since Flesh Freaks is more substantive as a cultural artifact than it is as a feature film, its recent Blu-ray release from Gold Ninja Video is still a recommendable purchase for curious genre nerds even if the movie’s reviews are generally unenthusiastic. All the context required to consider the film as a fascinating, unearthed relic is easily accessible in the disc’s overloaded special features. Deleted scenes, filmmaker introductions, commentaries, essays, as well as bonus feature films & shorts from Pendergast are all included on the disc. It’s as if this were Criterion reviving some long-lost Bergman classic instead of a small indie label publishing heavily padded excerpts from a nu-metal era horror nerd’s vacation footage. There are some beautifully sculpted D.I.Y. creations in the film’s zombie-swarmed climax, but for the most part Flesh Freaks is nothing especially remarkable when considered on its own. If anything, it’s the kind of movie you’d usually pick out at random on Amazon Prime only to bail five minutes in for a more promising option. Gold Ninja Video doing the work to highlight why it’s important & exemplary of its era is the real story here. They did a great job uncovering this lost artifact.

-Brandon Ledet

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