Sunday, April 09, 2006


2003, directed by Michael Spierig

"When I was a kid, we fucking respected our parents, we didn’t fucking eat ‘em!"

Generally speaking, I do not enjoy alien zombie movies. Romero himself was one of the first to use this excuse for zombie contagion, but he quickly dropped it after Night of the Living Dead. The alien excuse might be gaining some power again—aliens themselves are still on a downward course from their prior movie villain popularity, but alien-zombies permit a mélange of cinematic styles and seem to usher in a more humorous movie. Both Undead and Slither, for instance, use them to great effect. For my part, I feel that both aliens and zombies encapsulate the perfect guilt-free Other. They’re both superb stand-ins for whatever enemy culture fears at the time. Using both in one movie seems like overkill.

Undead begins with flaming meteors, and so introduces the alien menace well before the zombies. When eviscerated by one of these meteors, a sweet little old lady gets right back up and adopts a policy of beheading drunks. So begins the blight on Berkeley, a tiny farming town somewhere in Australia. Added to the zombie threat are burning rain from apocalyptically clouded skies and alien beams that suck up life forms. Our lead characters — the newly crowned small town beauty queen, her pregnant vengeful rival, an asthmatic rookie cop and her hair-trigger partner, a few others — have a problem.

Within short order this motley group of survivors bands together in a distant farmhouse. (The classic deserted farm house besieged by zombies is a great setpiece for survivor psychology and gory hijinks, of course.) The house belongs to Marion, a bespurred John Wayne-like farm man whose talents are guns, survivalism, and zombie bisection with a triple-barreled rifle. Marion appears surprisingly Amish to my American eyes but that just makes the ensuing violence better. I like Marion. It’s so nice to see the joy of a character who’s known for a long time that the world will end and has spent his time preparing. "Aliens,” he says dourly. “We MUST fight them."

Marion has some of the best action scenes in any zombie film. And the action is deliciously clear and even occasionally presented in slow-motion so that we can follow every impossible move and spray of blood. It’s a welcome change from the prevailing ADD trend of blurred split-second shots that obscure the action. Also of note are the clear homages to Sam Raimi. The Evil Dead series is evident in framing, pacing, and the way the undead rise stiff-backed from the floor straight into a standing position.

Undead provides fantastic, hilarious zombie gore — fists that punch straight through heads, torsoless legs that walk around with their bloody spine sticking out, humans punching out zombie fish, and flesh peeling from faces. The effects are phenomenal, particularly when keeping in mind the film’s relatively low budget.

Zombie explanation: Aliens. Zombiedom comes and goes among Berkeley’s populace. The cure and infection are caught up in alien interference, but in a fantastic twist, the humans never figure that out. What they assumed was a life-saving gameplay instead brought about post-alien secondary infection and bam, we’ve got more zombies and a potential sequel. Love it.

Contribution to the zombie canon: Undead re-energizes the alien-zombie connection. It’s also one of the few movies in which there’s a cure for zombiedom. (Night of the Living Dorks comes to mind, as do various voodoo movies like The Serpent and the Rainbow and White Zombie.) And while this isn’t necessarily a contribution to zombie canon, I’d like to acknowledge it as one of the better homages to Sam Raimi’s style.

Favorite moment: Scalded by the stinging rain, our band of misfit heroes strip off their burning clothes. As they march into an abandoned store naked or in their underwear, they perfectly embody the helpless, delicious zombie buffet that everyone else has fallen prey to. And for favorite gory moment, the defaced zombie wins. *shudder*

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Night of the Living Dorks

Original title: Die Nacht der lebenden Loser. Directed by Mathias Dinter, 2004.

The annual Wisconsin Film Festival afforded us the opportunity to see this German gem in a theater full of zombie and film (and zombie film) fans. No comedy fails to benefit from a full theater-- especially one that serves alcohol. Bearing in mind that the raucous laughter of 200 people may have ennobled this movie beyond its worth, let's dive in.

Night of the Living Dorks is, at heart, a high school film. I hate high school films. Their empty stereotypes, their comedic injustices perpetrated against my cinematic avatars, their formulaic plots and facile resolutions... we hates them, precious. But (you knew there was a but coming, right?) the movie uses all of these expectations to great advantage. Zombie comedies already rely upon genre conventions; the addition of another genre's conventions only adds spice. Setting up social cliques doesn't give me Vietnam-style high school flashbacks when I know that zombies will rip through the popular kids by the second act.

This is a tight, fast, clever movie. And it's the little touches that make it. The zombifying agent-- cremated zombie remains-- are transported from Haiti to Germany via eBay. Our three hero-nerd-zombies attend Friedrich Nietzsche Gymnasium. As soon as they suspect that they might be fearsome flesh eaters, they watch Romero's Day of the Dead and celebrate by shouting "We're so the undead!" A zombie on meth crashes a house party and dances Thriller by the pool. Body parts like ears and testicles fall off and have to be stapled back on. Each of these things is awesome unto itself. Together, they create the feel-good zombie movie of the year. (That year apparently being 2004.)

There are some ludicrous suppositions in this film, but they spring from the high school formula. The general opinion of goths, for instance, and the vacationing parents cliche grate a little. But really, zombies aren't often placed in a strictly adolescent context. This novelty alongside the humor and craftmanship assisted my willing suspension of disbelief.

Zombie explanation: Voodoo-- marginally. The goth kids' graveyard ritual happens to involve real Haitian zombie ashes, and the nerd trio is accidentally doused. Then they die. Then they come back. As zombies. And continue going to class as usual.

Contribution to the zombie canon: Besides serving as a worthy heir to Shaun of the Dead in terms of zombie comedy, Night of the Living Dorks combines zombies with typical high school clique film conventions. Awkward adolescent hilarity ensues! Also gore!

Favorite moment: The wicked zombie and his insatiable appetite for flesh and vengeance appealed to me.