Z: Zoombies (2016)

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So. Back around 2004 or so, I declared a personal moratorium on zombie movies. There were just too many of them, almost all laughably bad. Before you ask, yes, I’m pretty sure it was the one-two punch of Resident Evil and House of the Dead that put a bullet through the brain of those movies for me. I didn’t even rouse myself to watch George Romero’s Land of the Dead until seven years after it was released. So I’ve been very picky about what zombie movies I will watch, and I discovered while watching [REC]³: Genesis that my old zombie fatigue was waking up and gnawing on my skull again.

Since for some reason all movies beginning with a Z (except Zelig) have something to do with zombies, this could be a problem in an A-to-Z movie challenge. Perhaps, I thought, perhaps the problem is with human zombies. Maybe I should check out this Zoombies people are asking about. In the interest of transparency, I should admit that I put it off primarily because I thought it was about fast zombies, or maybe zombies on motorcycles. It’s not.

Let’s start with a promotional video for the Eden Wildlife Park, a combination safari park and endangered animal refuge. This is hosted by Dr. Ellen Rogers (Kim Nielsen, who has simply impossible cheekbones), the granddaughter of the conservationist who started the refuge. We’ll find out later that she’s added such things as a rock-climbing wall and a zip line to attract families and therefore more money for the park.

But never mind that, let’s go the veterinary clinic, where workers have brought in several monkeys that have all contracted an unknown virus. One goes into cardiac arrest and dies, and the desperate vet injects some adrenaline in an attempt to save the endangered species; when the monkey revives, hoo boy, the carnage starts.

See? CARNAGE!!!!

In parallel with that, Dr. Rogers is bringing in her new interns. The newly renovated park isn’t open yet, so she confiscates all their cell phones so no interpark espionage can take place. While their shuttle distributes the interns to their new jobs, they run across a security guard on his bike, headed to the veterinary clinic because they’re not answering the radio.

You can probably write the script from there, if you’ve seen any movies at all in last ten years. Virus spreads to the other animals, has to be stopped before it gets outside the zoo, oh god what about the aviary, we can’t let a single infected bird fly out . Some of you will groan when the credit “The Asylum Presents” appears at the beginning, and those people need to seriously check their B-movie cred, because these guys have been doing yeoman work in that realm for years. Much of Zoombies is done by the numbers, sure – there are a lot of things in the first twenty minutes, like the new security card system acting dodgy, that will have you stroking your beard (or chin, if you are not particularly hirsute) and murmur, “Hmmm, I wonder if that will be significant later.” (Frankly, I was a little disappointed that they never managed to work in the rock-climbing wall)

I will give them this: you are presented with a fairly large cast of characters – which start being winnowed down almost immediately – but among the remainder, you are fairly uncertain who is going to survive, and who might grow into the hero role. I, at least, got surprised a couple of times, and if you can violate my jaded expectations, good on you.

Which is not to say there are no blemishes, oh good heavens, no. They make fruitful use of their location, but obviously, live stunt animals were way out of their budget, so CGI is the order of the day. The devil monkeys in the clinic are pretty good, but later beasties – giraffes, elephants and the like – look like they’re jobbing in from the original Jumanji. I can forgive a certain amount of “Sorry, this is the best we could afford”, but others won’t be so charitable. Lala Nestor, who plays Rogers’ young daughter, Thea, has been directed to say all her lines with an odd smile that shows no teeth, because somebody deemed that “cute”. It takes twenty minutes for it to look psychotic. The fact that she’s written to be precocious and cute and barf-worthy does not help the poor girl, either. She does have the best twist in the movie, though, and at least after that they said she could stop smiling.

Ah, which brings us to the writing. I’ve got absolutely no problem with the plotting (some difficulty with some of the physics, sure, but…) it’s the dialogue. I am painfully familiar with this type of dialogue. It seeks to give us exposition in a clever, amusing way. It is dialogue that looks great on paper but feels entirely too stagey when uttered. I spent most of this movie thinking, Jesus, this is the sort of stuff I would have written twenty years ago, and probably still do. It’s not awful, but the shock of familiarity stayed with me through most of the movie.

Also, I’m not sure why people trying to get away from zombie monkeys think climbing up a tree will do the trick, but it does give the zombie giraffes a chance to shine.

The bitching done: the sequences that are supposed to ramp up the tension actually do, and those are the reason folks watch movies like this. None of the actors are bad, they’re just written that way. Some surprising gore, and some of that is even practical. It’s is a pretty painless way to kill 87 minutes, and remember, that’s a zombie hater talking here.

Y: Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare (1968)

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So it was *mumblemumble* years ago that the late 60s Japanese Yokai Monsters movies were released on VHS: this one and the earlier Along With Ghosts, and 100 MonstersI think I wrote about 100 Monsters somewhere back there: I found it diverting, even charming at times. I always intended to check out the others, but life got in the way, and so here we are.

In an utterly cool prologue, we are told that an ancient Babylonian demon is sleeping in some ruins, which is a pretty good arrangement until some treasure hunters show up and unearth his magic staff (I am endlessly amused by the fact that the raiders are dressed like Bedouins but speak English). The demon (conveniently named Daimon) awakes and wrecks everything, burying the despoilers under styrofoam rocks, and then leaves for greener pastures.

Which means, as so often happens when it comes to monsters, he is now Japan’s problem. Ever the dick, Daimon’s stormy passage sinks a fishing boat.

It’s medieval Japan again, though, so when the local beneficent lord is checking out his turf before the oncoming Daimon storm, he finds his samurai sword is useless; Daimon drinks his blood and takes over his body. The sudden change in the lord is noticible (after all, he goes into his compound and starts wrecking all altars and holy items, calling for them to be burned), and when the steward inquires as to what is going on, Daimon drinks his blood and takes over his body, too.

A Kappa living in the compound’s pond sees the demon in his true form, and challenges him. In the ensuing fight, he is severely overmatched and kicked out of the compound. He goes to his fellow Yokai monsters in the local graveyard, but they don’t believe him. At least, not until Daimon tires of exsanguinating servants and sends his lackies out to kidnap children from the village. Then the good-hearted monsters decide it’s time to kick some foreign monster butt.

Spoiler: Daimon is still too tough for them, so they have to call on every monster in Japan to fight Daimon, who naturally grows to giant size to do some Yokai-stomping. KAIJU BIG BATTEL!!!! (I thought I was going to be showing my age again with that reference, but nope – they’re still going!)

I see where the IMDb now has this listed as Big Monster War which is a better title, if a bit misleading. The last fifteen minutes delivers on it, but for the most part, so much time is spent on the samurai drama of dealing with a Babylonian vampire, there are times I found myself wondering, “Wasn’t this movie supposed to be about yokai monsters?” It’s 1968, so prepare yourself for the suit technology of that era. The monsters are pretty nicely detailed, but largely unable to so much as crack a smile. The Kappa gets a movable beak, though, and is a good choice for comic foil, the actor moves so expressively; the rest, save for the two with human faces, have to rely on their voice actors.

Heyyyy, Karakosa!

It still manages to be pretty charming, in a creepy fairy tale kind of way. Despite some blood, it’s the sort of dark fantasy you could show the kids. It does help to be familiar with the folklore monsters referenced. I’m glad that it features my favorite, the karakasa kozō, the one-legged , one-eyed umbrella creature who likes to scare people by licking their cheek with its long tongue. Do not judge me.

It is also well worth mentioning that no less than Takashi Miike remade this in 2005 as The Great Yokai War and that is all I need to know.

Man, like I needed another movie to track down and watch.

X: X Moor (2014)

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Honestly, any year when I don’t have to cheat to get a horror movie starting with X is a good year. So I’m not going to have anything to with it’s alternate title, The Beast of X Moor.

X Moor is based on a true story, for a certain definition of “true”; it uses as its basis the urban legend of a great cat resembling a panther or puma sighted in the Exmoor region of southwest England. The bulk of the sightings referenced on that page are from the 1980s, but let’s not let that get in the way of our movie.

Upon learning of a £25,000 reward for proof of the Beast’s existence, Georgia (Melia Kreiling) convinces her boyfriend Matt (Nick Blood) to “borrow” some fancy equipment from his job to get some footage of the elusive kitty. They’ll be aided in this by professional hunter Fox (Mark Bonnar), who seems to feel that catching the creature is a very personal challenge. Perhaps too personal.

After a couple of violent encounters with local hooligans, our documentarians set up their network of motion-controlled night vision cameras and the control center in their central camp, only to discover a dead body – in fact, several dead bodies – and their survival on this expedition is suddenly in question.

There is a plot twist in X Moor I did not see coming, so I’m going to keep mum about it. The story developing from that is itself full of twists and turns, not all of them logical or deserved. It’s fairly well done, and although as a whole the flick just didn’t gel for me, I recognize there are other folks out there that will enjoy it. It might be also be appreciated that although it seems to be setting up a found footage movie, it’s not that at all.

U: The Uncanny (1977)

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Another anthology already?

The first thing you’re going to ask is, “Is this an Amicus Film?” Which is fair, since the name Milton Subotsky is right there in the credits. But no, at this point Amicus’ grave wasn’t even cold yet, after The People That Time Forgot. Subotsky relocated to Canada, and tried to get the ol’ anthology (“portmanteau”, if you want to get fancy) mojo workin’ again with this and The Monster Club. That didn’t work out so well, alas.

Our two big stars for the framing device are Ray Milland (yay!) and Peter Cushing (double yay!). Cushing is a very high-strung writer (his previous books were on flying saucers and ESP), who has made his way to Milland’s house with a thick binder. He’s Cushing’s publisher, you see, and he’s doubtful about the new book. Cushing responds that he has proof going back years that cats are horrible monsters that actually control the world.

Most of us who live with cats will shrug “well, duh”, but we already bought the ticket so let’s see what Peter has to say.

In 1912 London, a rich old matron (Joan Greenwood, rather wasted here but still managing to steal the show) dictates her new will, cutting out her wastrel nephew (Simon Williams) and leaving her vast estate to her multiple cats. Our snoopy maid (Susan Penhaligon) however, is also the lover of that nephew, and they hatch a plan to steal the old lady’s copy of the will. When she surprises the maid during the theft, there’s an employer murder, bringing down the wrath of all those kitties. I liked this story better when it was called Eye of the Cat and starred Michael Sarrazin, but that movie didn’t have the murderer trapped in a pantry for days, living on cat food, or the gruesome discovery that the hungry cats figured out the old lady was made of meat (Joan Greenwood, ladies and gentlemen – even dead, still upstaging everybody).

Oh, that’s never a good sign.

Then, in 1975 Quebec, the Blakes (Alexandra Stewart and Donald Pilon) take in their young niece Lucy (Katrina Holden Bronson) when her parents die in a car wreck. She brings with her dead mommy’s black cat, Wellington. Mrs. Blake doesn’t particularly like this, and she definitely hates the cat. Their daughter, Angela (Chloe Franks) is a nasty little shit who proceeds to make Lucy’s life hell. Mom finally steals Wellington away to have it euthanized, and burns Lucy’s mother’s book on black magic. Not all of them, though, and the euthanasia doesn’t take, and Angela is about to be in a lot of trouble.

Lastly, in 1936 Hollywood, a tragedy happens on the set of Valentine De’ath (Donald Pleasance)’s latest horror movie, when somehow the Poe-inspired pendulum over his co-star – his wife Madeliene (Catherine Bégin) – turns out to be quite real. Luckily for the desperate producer (John Vernon sporting a really weird accent), Madeliene’s stand-in Edina (Samantha Eggar) is willing to step into the role. As I’m sure you’ve figured out, Edina is Valentine’s mistress, the accident was murder, and Madeliene’s cat is going to be tossed out as soon as possible. Just to make sure you know Valentine is a cad, the cat has kittens and he drowns them. Well, that doesn’t go over well at all, and not only does the wily cat evade every trap Valentine sets out for it, it starts engineering on-set accidents to avenge its mistress.

Back at the framing device, I’m sure you can figure out how things shake out. Cushing is murdered by a mob of cats on his way home, and Milland burns his book while giving his cat nice dish of milk. The end.

Most of Subotsky’s anthology movies had four or even five stories, and cutting them down to three isn’t justified by the stories, which get so padded out that your wristwatch arm will get lots of exercise as you check how much time is left. The only story that doesn’t have this problem is the third one, where everybody – especially Donald Pleasance – seems to be having a lot of fun. Sure, Bram Stoker should have gotten a writer’s credit because it rather shamelessly rips off “The Squaw”, but, we take our entertainment where we may. I pondered if my reaction to The Uncanny was due to its close proximity to the more feral and kinetic Tears of Kali, but no… this one creaks in the wrong places. Oh, it’s a fair use of 90 minutes, the actors and game and uniformly good, but some patience will definitely be called for.

S: Slither (2006)

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This is going to be a tough one to write. There’s a number of reasons for that. The most pragmatic is that my keyboard is screwing up (I do indeed pound the hell out of my keyboards).

Less pragmatic is that writer/director James Gunn was fired off Marvel movies for tweets he made in his youth (Too bad you weren’t running for a Supreme Court slot, huh, James). And dammit, I loved Guardians of the Galaxy. That does put some of the things in this movie in a unfavorable light.

Downright personal is the fact that I’m really tired of this subgenre. Watching Cute Little Buggers on basically a dare was a big mistake.

So.

A meteor falls near a sleepy little deer season-lovin’ town. In short order we will meet local policeman Bill (Nathan Fillion), competent but easy-going, and his longtime crush Starla (Elizabeth Banks), who is unfortunately married to the possessive Grant (Michael Rooker). After Starla’s not in the mood that night, Grant heads out in a huff to get drunk and runs into Brenda (Brenda James), an old acquaintance who professes her hots for him. They head out to the woods, but Grant gets cold feet and breaks off with Brenda – just in time to find that meteor, and a trail of slime leading from it, to a sluglike creature that wastes no time in infecting Grant.

Movies like this live and die on bringing something new to the party, and in this case it’s that the slugs inhabiting Grant (and later a lot more of the cast) burrow up to the brain and are capable of acting like their host for a time. So Infected Grant has Starla thinking he’s become a nicer guy, giving him enough time to meet back up with Brenda and turn her into a human slug incubator. By this time Grant is starting to exhibit some physical changes, murderous tendencies, and it’s not long before Bill is leading an armed posse to find this creature that used to be Grant and the missing Brenda. Too late, as it turns out, as she explodes in a shower of slugs and suddenly actual uninfected humans in the town are outnumbered.

“There’s somethin’ wrong with me.”

The slugs also have a hive mind – now thoroughly entangled with Grant’s mind, so every slug-zombie in town is hunting for Starla, because Grant wants her back. Add to this mix a teenage girl, Kylie (Tanya Saulnier), who got a slug halfway down her throat and half a Vulcan mindmeld before she managed to pull it out and killed it with a curling iron, so there’s someone on the team who knows how the slugs operate. After that, you just need a halfway novel way to kill the main creature and stop the invasion, and Slither does that.

Nathan Fillion could do stuff like this in his sleep, but thankfully the man’s always awake and giving 110%. Elizabeth Banks has an odd role to play here, and I’m not sure the script did her any real favors, but by God she’s game. And anybody who watched this movie that didn’t realize that Michael Rooker is a far more versatile actor than folks had credited, they were not paying attention.

So why didn’t I like the flick? We’ve been here before, back when I watched I Married a Witch. Is it fatigue? Just in a bad mood that night? Is it because – just to bring back that Supreme Court reference – there’s a scene where Gregg Henry (playing the worst mayor ever) has a temper tantrum after most of the cast is turned into zombies because there is no Mr. Pibb and I watched this the day after Kavanaugh’s famous meltdown?

Most likely the fatigue – as I said, I’ve seen a lot of these movies. But this one is well-made, and aims to be an alien-invasion movie for fans of alien-invasion movies, with plentiful easter eggs in the background and an eye toward entertaining. You can still feel Gunn’s days with Troma hanging on here and there, the source of those troubling Tweets (which were really kinda expected when he was working for Edgelord Central), but overall, it’s a good, entertaining flick with a solid fanbase. It doesn’t require my appreciation, and that’s fine.

Except for that “oh no the monster’s not quite dead yet” post-credit scene. That can go straight to hell.

R: [REC]3 – Genesis (2012)

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Last year we watched the really good sequel [REC] 2 (and had previously watched the original [REC] back in 2012 before these alphabetized marathons were invented. So it’s quite natural to bring in the third chapter here, and doubtless to ride this train until next year, content to not have to rack my brain or Google for a horror movie starting with R for one more year. As I pointed out yesterday: Yes, I am that lazy.

[Rec]³ begins true to its roots, though with a welcome twist: the opening apes the beginning of a cheesy wedding video, with a song and childhood pictures of the bride and groom. Thankfully we cut from that to the raw footage of the wedding, from two different video cameras – an amateur with his tiny camera and a pro with a steadicam. You’ll be meeting with most of the characters during this segment, but since this is a [Rec] movie, don’t get too attached to any of them. You’re probably safe with the Groom, Koldo (Diego Martin) and the bride, Clara (Leticia Dolera, who is kind of the platonic ideal of the beautiful bride. I mean, wow), though. For the moment.

See? I told you.

So we go through the wedding and the sumptuous reception. One of the uncles isn’t feeling well, The video camera picks up a police car and a couple of guys wearing hazmat suits. Odd. Then that sick uncle gets all bitey and things go straight to hell. Koldo and Clara are separated in the carnage, and the panicking groom demands of the photographer, “Why are you still filming?”, grabs the camera and smashes it to the floor.

There, at 22 minutes, we finally get our opening title. And with the camera smashed, [Rec]³ abandons the found footage format for the rest of the movie.

I’m of two minds about that. First – yeah, okay, it does feel like director Paco Plaza (one of the two co-directors of the preceding flicks) breathes an audible sigh of relief as he starts setting up shots without having to deal with the Rules of the Found Footage Film. The bizarreness of the subgenre is that making a good found footage flick is actually harder than making a regular film. Action and effects sequences have to be laid out and planned with long takes in mind, and if one thing goes wrong… well, movie making is an exercise in Things Going Wrong. This is why there are so many bad found footage movies – people think they’re easy to make. And the first two [Rec] movies are good found footage movies.

From that last sentence, you might think I didn’t like [Rec]³, and up to a point, you’re right. Oh, it’s a good zombie flick – plenty of gore and suspense, the mythology of the series advances somewhat – the attending priest has a theory about fallen angels and finds out the afflicted can be paralyzed by saying Bible verses to them (at least if you’re a clergyman) – but absent the sort of berserk creativity necessary to following the aforementioned Rules of the Found Footage Film, it becomes exactly that: another zombie movie. The trials of Clara and Koldo trying to get back together without dying is compelling, but toward the end of the flick viewing simply became an exercise in yelling things at the screen (these people have a lot invested in dropping weapons).

I swore off zombie movies for a decade, and after only a few years of cautiously watching them, I find myself succumbing to Zombie Fatigue once more. To anybody bitching about being tired of superhero movies, I say unto you, try being tired of zombie movies. There are lots more of those.

But it’s the care that went into [Rec]³ that makes me hold off that particular kill switch for a while (that and the fact that I have at least one more zombie flick to review this Hubrisween). Plaza makes some clever connections to the first movie, letting us know how [Rec]³ fits in with the first two: that sick uncle is a veterinarian, bitten by a dog that was thought to be dead. That’s a bit from the first movie that I had almost forgotten. In a TV in the background of one scene, we see news footage of the police and army outside the building from [Rec] 2. The Marvel fan in me appreciates that sort of callback.

Plaza and Jaume Balagueró co-directed the first two movies, then split up the duties between [Rec]³ and [Rec] 4. So I’ve also got to hold off abandoning zombies movies until I can see what Balagueró pulls off on his own. At least I have a year to build up my resistance again.

 

P: Pieces (1982)

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If you know me at all, you know that I hate slasher movies. Hate them with the heat of a thousand suns. Hate them with a passion I usually reserve for licorice candy and overlong meetings. I hate hate hate them. Yet here I am watching Pieces, which is the platonic ideal of everything I hate about them. Not for nothing is its tag line “It’s exactly what you think it is!”

Why am I doing this? Because it’s Hubrisween.

The opening is, I admit, pretty effective. “Thirty years ago” a boy is putting together a jigsaw puzzle of a nude woman when he’s discovered by his abusive mother. She starts screeching at him that she’s going to burn all his things, resulting in an axe to her head and the boy sawing her body apart. When the cops finally come, he hides in a closet and says the bad man did it.

If you need any early indicators as to attention to detail in Pieces – though this prologue takes place circa 1952, the mother is yelling at her homicidal child to get a “plastic bag” to burn his porn stash in, and they have a touch tone phone.

In the present of 1982, on your typical fake college campus, a girl riding a skateboard crashes through a huge mirror, and this all it takes for our now grown axe-wielding kid to start putting together his blood-stained jigsaw puzzle and assembling a woman of his own from the chainsawed-off body parts of nubile young co-eds in various stages of undress (that this is the trigger is never expressly alluded to in the movie).

Director Juan Piquer Simón delivers a movie that is almost more giallo than slasher – the preponderance of red herrings (you just know Paul Smith is not the killer, no matter how ham-handedly the movie tries to make you think he is), the utter uselessness of the cops (Christopher George and Lynda Day George), and because of that uselessness, the solution to the killings lies with an outside investigator, in this case student Kendall (Ian Sera). The only thing that keeps it from being a giallo is it lacks that genre’s devotion to artistry, to finding beauty in the worst places. What it does have is nothing that will quell accusations of misogyny in either genre – the murder scenes are drawn out, graphic, and exclusively female. Possibly the most remarkable thing about Pieces is the ending, when Simón reasons that most slasher movies have a shock ending that comes out of left field… “but what if mine came all the way from the parking lot?” It’s that outre.

“I’m not THAT worthless!”

How bad are the cops? The decision is made to keep the murders quiet to avoid a panic, which allows the killer to act with impunity, multiplying his potential number of unguarded, unaware victims. How you manage to cover up a girl getting decapitated with a chainsaw in broad daylight is quite beyond me, though. The fact that Christopher George is the detective in charge caused me to assume this movie was Italian, not Spanish, for many years.

As Joe Bob Briggs pointed out in his Last Drive-In marathon, Pieces is a picture of what Simón thinks college in America is like: non-stop sex, right down to a water bed in the training room (was this ever a thing? I mean, just look at me, I’ve never seen the inside of a training room). Well, at least it gives Lynda a chance to really go for that Oscar nom:

And, oh please, let’s not forget this (and somebody owes Goblin some money):

But, alas, one bit of glorious over-acting and a surprise cameo by Bruce Le does not move me to suddenly overcome my hatred of these things. The best I can say is that it’s undeniably trash, but at least it’s fairly well-made trash.

It was exactly what I thought it was.