Train To Busan (2016)

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In this case, go ahead and believe the hype. Yeon Sang-ho’s nervy South Korean zombies-on-a-train epic is getting rave reviews, and deservedly so. Not only is Train To Busan a tightly wound horror movie, it’s also a tense disaster film in the spectacle tradition of Irwin Allen.

First and foremost, Train is an expertly paced thriller that darts deftly between hysteria-inducing sequences of undead mobs running amok, and scenes of quiet love and devotion between a father (Gong Yoo) and his daughter (Kim Su-an) that actually succeed in developing their characters to the point where we can root for them in good conscience.

Harried, overworked fund manager Seok-woo must escort his demanding daughter on a train trip to visit her mother and his estranged wife. As so often happens, real life gets in the way of even the best-laid plans, as a nearby chemical leak causes average citizens to turn hungry, fast, and ferocious. The featured zombies have a rubbery acrobatic grace as they gamely snap back to life after succumbing to lethal bites.

All too quickly the train is overrun with bloodthirsty berserkers, and the supporting players emerge from the chaos. There’s a tough guy and his pregnant wife; a high school baseball team; a sociopathic tycoon, and a pair of spinster sisters. Alliances form and crumble, and as we learned in Romero’s original, a house divided cannot stand. As usual, the rich guy can’t be trusted.

Nonetheless, these characters routinely sacrifice themselves for the good of the remaining survivors, continually casting humanity in a noble light. Seok-woo begins the story as an ineffectual office drone, but through attrition and necessity, evolves believably into a hero to save his child.

Director Yeon Sang-ho displays uncanny action-film finesse at times, contrasting the closed-room claustrophobia of the train interior with sweeping panoramic views of an embattled choo-choo chugging down the tracks to its final destination. Train To Busan is indeed a grim ride to survival, but it’s a satisfying one. And the scenery is magnificent.

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The Battery (2012)

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I suppose The Battery qualifies as a zombie movie—but just barely. Until the finale, you can count the number of undead appearances on one hand. First and foremost, it’s a post-apocalyptic road movie that owes more to Samuel Beckett than it does George Romero. Gorehounds with ADD are going to hate this film because it’s slower than a senior citizen’s square dance and probably a lot less bloody. It’s also an extremely frugal production. Seriously, the budget was probably less than what I have in my checking account. (I am currently unemployed—thanks for asking!)

Even with so many things stacked against it, I have to give an admiring thumbs-up to The Battery and to writer, director, and star Jeremy Gardner, who bravely ran with the idea of having very little money at his disposal, and used that freedom to create something unique: a bleak, absurdist buddy movie about two minor-league baseball players dodging the dead on the backroads of Connecticut.

After months on the road, our two main characters have become a study in contrasts. Ben (Gardner), the team’s catcher, is a bearded outdoorsman, a brawny survivor-type who does most of the heavy lifting (hunting, fishing, zombie-killing) in the relationship. Mickey (Adam Cronheim), a relief pitcher, is a sullen romantic who spends most of his time lost in thought with a pair of headphones fixed over his ears. Despite the presence of the jovial and optimistic Ben, Mickey is depressed and desperately misses his old life.

One fine day, the pair pick up some stray communication on their walkie-talkies, leading them to believe there is a fortified community in the area. Ben, who is content with camping and living outside, wants to steer clear. Mickey wants a home. A bed. A roof over his head. And maybe a girl.

This is the doomed conflict at the heart of The Battery—the terrible necessity of freedom, as personified by Ben, who refuses to be trapped in any situation, and Mickey’s need for comfort and security. In the end, freedom trumps comfort, as one might expect given the dire circumstances. But Gardner’s excruciatingly lengthy scenes of Ben and Mickey brushing their teeth, playing catch, listening to music and generally farting around, seem to imply that it takes two souls to make a life worth fighting for. Positive and negative, yin and yang, pitcher and catcher.

Fun Fact: “The Battery” refers to the pitcher and catcher in ye olde baseball vernacular.

The Colony (2013)

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When in doubt, a frozen hellscape will definitely add depth and dread to your horror movie—even if the main characters in The Colony spend entirely too much time hiking around on another egregious AIW (Anonymous Industrial Walkabout). Still, the production values here are decent, the story is reasonably compelling and the atmosphere is chillingly claustrophobic. The presence of a couple genre vets in Laurence Fishburne and Bill Paxton, doesn’t hurt either.

Nuclear winter has fallen and in a few lonely outposts, humanity attempts to restart society underground. The titular colony has suffered a drop in numbers lately, thanks to a nasty flu that’s been going around. This is usually followed by the afflicted citizen either getting shot by an increasingly paranoid Mason (Paxton) or being sent on “the walk,” a stroll through the aforementioned frozen hellscape which offers a grimly minuscule chance at survival. But hey! At least they have a choice!

When Briggs (Fishburne), the colony commander, loses radio contact with one of the few remaining outposts, he takes a small team out to investigate. And here come the cannibals, led by a fearsome bald giant (Dru Viergever). But how can three guys fight a ravenous mob? Unsuccessfully, as it turns out.

There’s nothing blazingly innovative going on in The Colony, but cowriter and director Jeff Renfroe keeps it moving with a minimum of stupid crap we don’t care about—despite a surfeit of aimless rambling. You will watch, you will care, and you will be effectively entertained.

 

28 Weeks Later (2007)

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I avoided the follow-up to 28 Days Later (2002) for the simple reason that it wasn’t written and directed by Danny Boyle. As it turns out, this is akin to skipping Aliens because Ridley Scott wasn’t on board. Writer-director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo is no James Cameron, but 28 Weeks Later is very much a worthy successor to Boyle’s original. In fact, Boyle himself served as executive producer and reportedly did some second unit direction, so this lightning-paced, action-packed production was in good hands from the get-go, never straying far from the dark frenetic chaos of the first film, even as it chases a different thematic agenda.

About six months after the outbreak of the original rage virus in England, a US military deployment has succeeded in carving out a bit of safe territory in London. British government man Don (Robert Carlyle) managed to escape mutilation at the hands of roving maniacs by bravely lobbing his wife Alice (Catherine McCormack) at them to cover his exit strategy. (OK, slight exaggeration, but he did scamper like a bunny chased by greyhounds, leaving the Mrs to fend for herself.) Imagine his surprise when soldiers recover not only his son Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton, love that name) and daughter Tammy (Imogene Poots, ditto), but also his previously jettisoned wife, who appears to have a rare blood type that renders her immune to the virus—which soon makes an unwelcome reappearance. The lovely Rose Byrne from Damages gets plenty of screen time as a military supervisor who decides to protect the kids and their valuable blood at all costs, aided by Jeremy Renner as a rough-and-ready sniper.

In 28 Days Later, Boyle focused on the breakdown of authority and the fallibility of leaders in a time of crisis. 28 Weeks Later is more of a domestic morality play, as Carlyle’s character is punished for his cold feet and faint heart by becoming an alpha maniac who relentlessly pursues his children in a perverted act of devotion, somehow trying to reunite his fractured family in death. Naturally, the kids want no part of this nonsense, and much carnage ensues.

Stake Land (2010)

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I noticed this title had popped up on a lot of “Best Of”  lists from two years ago so I was keen on seeing it. Saints be praised, I wasn’t disappointed. (Don’t you love it when that happens?) Lean, mean, and gritty, there’s not an ounce of fat on Stake Land; no extraneous drama, no clumsy attempts at comedy, and very little dialogue. It’s a rural, post-apocalypse road movie that’s long on action and intense situations. Admirers of The Walking Dead, The Omega Man, Road Warrior, and especially Justin Cronin’s novel The Passage will be in their happy place. The undead/post-apocalyptic genre is getting pretty crowded these days, but director and co-writer Jim Mickle manages to “stake” out a little fresh territory.

Martin (Connor Paolo) is a young survivor trying to keep his blood inside his body during the vampire infestation that’s swept the nation after the collapse of society. (Don’t you hate it when that happens?) His hard-boiled mentor Mister (Nick Damici) is a bad-ass vampire killer that drives a muscle car around the rural South, chasing bloodsuckers (and collecting their fangs) and steering clear of the crazy Christians known as the Brotherhood, who may well pose a greater threat than the undead. They stop and sleep where they can and barter with other refugees, all the while following a vague plan to head north for a safe settlement called New Eden, which may or may not exist. Martin and Mister are targeted for death by the head of the Brotherhood, Jebedia Loven (Michael Cerveris), a bald-headed fanatic who thinks the vampires are angels sent by God to rid the world of sinners.

The vampires in Stake Land are neither dudes in capes nor sparkly teenagers. In fact, they’re little more than zombies; grunting, snuffling ghouls on the hunt for a fresh cup of O-Positive. But they’re fast, strong, and seemingly all over the damn place. Because this is basically a road movie, things keep moving (duh!) and the action never bogs down. Martin and Mister fight, flee, make friends, lose friends, and gain enemies, and continue to chase a nebulous idea that somewhere else is probably better than here. Just like everybody, ever. It’s Martin’s determined belief that he can somehow find a normal (or at least livable) life that propels Stake Land, and keeps it from imploding in the face of hopelessness and chaos. Believe me, there’s plenty of hopelessness and chaos to go around; it’s almost as prevalent as the vampires and deranged bible-belters.

Zombie Apocalypse (2011)

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Pas·tiche /paˈstē-SH

Noun: An artistic work in a style that imitates that of another work, artist, or period.

Today’s vocabulary word is pastiche, as in, “The Ving Rhames movie Zombie Apocalypse is a pastiche of the popular television show The Walking Dead.” And that’s about it. There’s nothing groundbreaking or envelope-pushing at work here. It’s pure comfort food, but not especially well executed.

You know the drill. A ragtag band of plague survivors tries to avoid being eaten by zombies long enough to make it to Catalina Island where the remains of the government has setup housekeeping. Ving Rhames is Henry, a sledgehammer-swinging bad-ass, which pretty much makes him the most developed personality among this group of stock characters. There’s also Julian (Johnny Pacar), a wise-cracker who quotes Wordsworth; Mack (Gary Weeks), a leader-type who looks and acts like Ryan Reynolds; Ramona (Taryn Manning), the whiny girl who grows up fast; and Cassie (Lesley-Ann Brandt), the hot chick with the sword. Spoiler: Some of these people don’t make it.

What Zombie Apocalypse has going for it is a breezy pace. The action roles along at a steady clip, never really bogging down with unnecessary character backstory. The group is almost always ass-down in the frying pan. On the flipside, the special effects are mostly poorly animated CGI bullshit which extinguishes a great deal of the fright factor. People should be afraid of zombies because seeing their own flesh chewed from their bones while still alive is scary. Blobs of drawn-on blood splatter is not. This technique is also used for countless zombie headshots, and it looks cheap and amateurish.

If you’re starving for a zombie fix, this one will barely make a dent in your hunger. It’s like a zombie eating an anorexic: Not much meat on them bones.