Friday, March 27, 2009

Reanimating Genre Movies: a look at the current Zombie franchise

Don't you love a good genre film? Thrillers, vampires, chases, zombies, damsels-in-distress, sci-fi, heists, werewolves, mummies and more. So many to choose from but so few that add much new or interesting to the canon. TrustMovies is taking a break from new films opening theatrically to get back into what's worth watching on DVD, so I thought this subject of what's been going on with genre movies might be fun to tackle.

I'll start with the zombies, a genre dearly in need of resuscitation. Have you found yourself wishing, as have I of late, that George A. Romero had never allowed his cast members in Diary of the Dead to pick up a video camera and start filming? I believe that this was the first zombie film to use the ploy, and though it happened only two years ago, already there have been more than enough knock-offs of this semi-interesting notion. Of the several I've seen, only American Zombie goes a ways toward reanimating the genre via its documentary-cum-video approach to a typical few weeks in the life of the undead, who are by now, according to this witty film, a sub-group of the Los Angeles scene that must campaign for its rights, just as blacks and gays have done previously. Director/co-writer Grace Lee's film is often funny and acerbic, and her game cast does her proud.

Another documentary-style British film The Zombie Diaries begins very well with a "plague" overtaking Britain that we hear about in brief snatches of TV and radio -- and then see, via the cameraman of the news crew that, by accident, ends up covering all this. Initially creepy and suspenseful, once the carnage begins (and never ends) the film's 80-odd minutes grow grizzlier and tiresome until the writers/directors Michael Bartlett and Kevin Gates decide to conflate the zombie movie with the slasher movie. Now, there's a recipe for ultimate blood and gore. The result is just about what you'd expect but, in my book, does not qualify as a decent reanimation.

Mr. Romero will always be at or near the top rank of the great genre reanimators for his Night of the Living Dead (above, from 1968), which I believe gave us our official introduction to the flesh-eating zombie -- a creature that, so far as the undead are concerned, has yet to be improved upon. Except, of course, via higher budgets and better special effects. But even these don't seem to pack the punch managed by Romero's grainy, over- and under-lit black-and-white cinematography (by the director himself, who also did some of the editing). And really: It's difficult to find an image scarier or more transgressive than that of a sweet young child beginning to nibble on her mom.

Which is no doubt why other directors kept stealing this moment (or maybe "homaging" it) -- most recently in the Spanish zombie film REC by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza and its slightly better (surprise!) American remake, John Erick Dowdle's Quarantine, both of which find a consistently clever way to use a video camera to record some pretty awful events. Still, by the end of these less-than-90-minute movies, both have overstayed their welcome. Why? What is it about zombies that too often results in their finally becoming a bore? Well, they're dead. And they stay dead. In particular, they seem brain-dead, so they're no fun at parties (as vampires so often are). They generally groan, moan or grunt, which does not make for sparking dialog (compare anything a zombie has to say to nearly any line of dialog spoken by Dracula and his ilk). And unlike vampires and werewolves, zombies don't change form. They're just there, usually walking (slowly) or feeding. And having them appear suddenly from a closet, chest or dark room to provide a fright goes only so far in the annals of classic film moments.

Lately some directors, led I believe by Danny Boyle (28 Days Later...) and then by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (28 Weeks Later) have realized that giving their zombies the capability of speed will increase the thrills. They're right, but even this goes only so far. Other directors have smartly mined the innate comedic potential of the zombie (Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead, and the under-rated Fido (by Andrew Currie, starring a glorious Billy Connolly), that also manages to nicely taunt the 1950s via sets, cars, clothing and make-up). Both these films count as decent enough re-animations. Other more-or-less humorous zombie movies of late have included Netherbeast Incorporated (my review is from GreenCine's Guru site), in which the crew appears to be a kind of vampire/zombie combo; Otto: or, Up With Dead People (a so-so Bruce la Bruce conflation of gays, videos and zombies; Dance of the Dead (a pretty good attempt at resuscitation via high school humor, in which one character warns the others, "Oh, no -- now every zombie in town is going to turn up at the prom!"); and of course the Troma Team's try at reanimation: Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead -- which, if you can stomach it, includes a lot of perverse fun along with its gore.

Although he has not offered a zombie movie in quite some time, Stuart Gordon also reanimated -- and sexed-up -- the genre with his classic Re-Animator (1985), which will be celebrating its silver anniversary next year. Gordon's film was not quite a zombie movie in the traditional sense, but then nothing this writer/director does comes off as exactingly traditional. In this past decade alone, he's given us an old-fashioned and beautifully strange monster movie (Dagon); a scary, violent genre-mashing movie that goes places you won't expect (King of the Ants); an interesting though not completely successful movie version of David Mamet's Edmond; and a film based on "fact," to which Gordon added his own quirky personality to come up with a weird winner (Stuck). This under-rated director is not for every taste but he surfaces now and again with something that breaks new ground. (And, according to the IMDB, he's working on House of Re-Animator for 2010. We'll wait in hope.)

Over the past decade, only one film I recall has done something startlingly different with our zombies. And of course almost nobody in America bothered to see it. It was French, after all, and thus subtitled, smart, with a philosophical bent. And it contained nary a single flesh eater. Robin Campillo's marvelous They Came Back (Les Revenants) offers zombies who rise from their graves (as usual, in unexplained fashion) in a small French town and simply go back to their lives as before.

The problems ensue not because these dead want to chomp on the living. No: they want their jobs back, along with their husband or wife. They'd like to have, well, sex -- and all those other good things in life of which the French insist upon partaking. In fact, they want Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. But what will this do to the local economy? The city fathers are not amused. Would you give all this to a zombie -- even one that looks damn good? (Once they've dusted themselves off, they're quite well-preserved, if a bit cold to the touch.) Campillo's movie (a shot from which appears below) is not horror, it's social critique, and though it, too, runs out of steam toward the end, it remains by far the most interesting spin on the walking undead to come along in a decade.
I'm out of time here. Let's tackle vampires in a future go-round....

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