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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It Follows (2014)

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It Follows is a real corker, and you should watch it, like right now. Daring and original, writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s tale of teens in trouble with … something relentless (Ghost? Evil spirit? Demon stalker?) is fascinating, freaky, and, above all, extremely well crafted.

Even as the constantly escalating sense of dread threatens to drag us down into perpetual darkness, observant eyes can’t fail to register Mitchell’s uncanny arsenal of 360 degree pans, unexpected angles, and sneaky shot compositions that prevent the viewer from getting comfortable with a stable perspective—thus ratcheting up our discomfort to strange new levels. Even mundane shots of characters watching TV or going to the movies are rife with tension, accompanied by discordant synthesizer static reminiscent of an early John Carpenter flick.

Nutshell: Heroine hottie Jay Height (Maika Monroe) gets dumped by mystery man Hugh (Jake Weary) after surrendering her virtue in his car. In this case, getting dumped entails fobbing sweet Jay off on a malevolent shape-shifting entity that can look like anyone, as it slowly, inexorably pursues its quarry. Hugh hastily explains that Jay needs to “pass it on” by having sex with someone else. “You’re a girl, it should be easy,” he tells her.

Jay’s sister Kelly (Lily Sepe) and neighborhood friends Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and Yara (Olivia Luccardi) valiantly attempt to keep her moving and close ranks around her, but it (Ghost? Evil Spirit? Demon stalker?) just keeps coming, forcing the group to make some very, very difficult decisions.

There’s almost no gore or computer-generated mayhem to be found in It Follows, and it doesn’t make a bit of difference. The hellish situation thrust on Jay and her friends is so confounding and unearthly, that fear of death and dismemberment places a distant to second to the awful, inevitable pursuit by … something really bad. Whether Jay’s running, driving, or hiding in a vacant beach house, we know there’s no escape—and eventually so does she.

Metaphorically, the implacable follower could represent any number of things: mortality, STDs, original sin, guilty conscience, loss of innocence, you name it. Unfortunately, Jay is too busy fleeing and concocting desperate schemes to really consider these implications.

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.

Almost Human (2013)

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It’s no work of art, but writer-director Joe Begos has successfully crafted a nifty low-budget, alien-abduction thriller. If you can get around some amateurish acting and an uneven plot that provides few answers to nagging questions (e.g., Where do these aliens come from and how come we never get any idea of what they’re up to?), Almost Human delivers decent gore and a respectable body count.

Rural Maine citizen Mark Fisher (Josh Ethier) disappears one evening after a visit from his buddy Seth (Graham Skipper), who seems agitated in the extreme over the disappearance of another mutual friend. Mark’s house is bombarded with weird lights from the sky accompanied by horrible, paralyzing banshee shrieks, and neither Seth nor Mark’s girlfriend Jen (Vanessa Leigh), who witness the abduction, has any idea of where Mark has gone.

Two years later, Seth is a nervous wreck while Jen has moved on with her career (waitressing at the local greasy spoon) and her love life, getting engaged to Clyde (Anthony Amaral III), who presumably furnishes her with a more stable, down-to-earth relationship. The long-missing Mark is soon discovered nude and freezing in the woods by a pair of hunters, who quickly become the first casualties of his alien-augmented rampage.

In an interesting turn, Mark chooses to keep his victims close in order to secrete goop all over them and transform the newly departed into not-very-capable killer zombies. He’s also got a plan to get back together with Jen and start their own little litter of star-spawn.

If expectations are kept to a minimum, there are enough shocks and jolts in Almost Human to keep the viewer engaged—if not exactly enthralled. There are even a few subtle nods to The Thing, Evil Dead and Reanimator lurking in the details, if you need additional stimulation.

CHUD II (1989)

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Without a doubt one of the lamest, tamest brain-dead horror-comedies of all time. CHUD II has nothing whatsoever to do with the original CHUD (1984), a decent fright flick about Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers (CHUDS) who roam the sewers and tunnels beneath New York City devouring whatever stray sucker that encroaches on their turf. CHUD II isn’t even on the same level as the average Troma Team release—and that’s saying something. The credits list David Irving as director and Ed Naha as writer, but the whole thing seems like it was derived from a none-too-bright sixth grader’s “really weird dream.”

Steve (Brian Robbins, a sort of poor-man’s Corey Haim) and Kevin (Brian Calvert) accidentally lose the cadaver that’s supposed to be on display for their biology class and decide to steal another one from a nearby disease control center. To complicate matters, the new stiff, nicknamed Bud (Gerritt Graham, a really funny actor who, to his credit, gives it the ol’ college try), is actually a hungry hungry zombie that was created by the military to be an eating and killing machine. Once reanimated, he falls in love with Katie (Tricia Lee Fisher), Steve and Kevin’s lab partner, and creates a mob of zombie pals through his contagious bite. One of the zombies is Steve’s poodle. Idiotic, unfunny hijinks ensue. You will not laugh.

If you’re a fan of Murder She Wrote, you might get a kick out of all the cameo appearances from a veritable Who’s Who of television actors from yesteryear, including Larry Linville (M*A*S*H), Norman Fell (Three’s Company), June Lockhart (Lassie, Lost in Space), and Jack Riley (The Bob Newhart Show). Or perhaps you’ll appreciate Robert Vaughn’s (The Man From Uncle) hammy turn as a deranged army colonel. Oh yeah, and Bianca Jagger appears at the very end of the movie for some reason. But I’m betting you won’t make it that far. Frankly, I’m surprised I did.

Frankenstein’s Army (2013)

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OK, this bad boy rocks. If you haven’t seen anything worth inviting into your Netflix queue lately, Frankenstein’s Army is a brilliant remedy; a disturbing Weird War tale with steampunk accoutrements fitted into a “found-footage” frame, brandishing an aesthetic that’s shockingly bold and nightmarishly distinctive.

In the waning days of World War II, Russian troops are streaming into Germany, wreaking havoc along the way. One such unit is accompanied by Captain Dimitri (Alexander Mercury), a cameraman making a documentary about these “heroic” soldiers. While holed up in a bombed-out village, the group discovers a church converted into a mad scientist’s lab and are soon set upon by the most outré pack of Nazi zombie-robot-monsters I’ve ever seen. Frankenstein’s Army is a Czech/US/Netherlands co-production filmed in the Czech Republic, which perhaps goes a long way toward explaining its unique appeal.

Director and story man Richard Raaphorst hits a horror home run his first time at bat. Sure, the lengths needed to preserve the found-footage premise become increasingly (and purposely, I think) absurd as a 70-year-old Soviet movie camera is able to capture pristine audio while getting tossed around like a Samsung at a frat party. But Raaphorst is a filmmaker with vision: his nimble mind invents extraordinary beings, and like Dr. Frankenstein (Karl Roden), he has the ability to bring them to life. He’s not just another fawning acolyte of Sam Raimi or Tim Burton—if anything, his work reminds me of England’s reigning madman, Ken Russell. Take it from me, Frankenstein’s Army is some very fresh hell, indeed. Highly recommended.

World War Z (2013)

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I haven’t read the book by Max Brooks, but the lovely Barbara assures me that the movie is a major departure. Instead of an oral history of a war with the undead as told by the survivors, World War Z tucks us into Brad Pitt’s hip pocket as a battle-hardened U.N. inspector who swings into action to find an antidote for the latest zombie plague.

One fine day, while shepherding their two darling daughters to school in Philadelphia, Gerry Lane (Pitt) and his wife Karin (Mireille Enos, from The Killing, who is criminally underutilized) encounter a traffic jam caused by a rampaging band of zombies who look an awful lot like those depicted in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. They’re fast and insanely violent, more like bitey berserkers than your traditional Romero-inspired shambling flesh eaters.

Lane is apparently quite an in-demand figure, as he spends most of the film being whisked all over the globe by helicopter, trying to root-source the cause of this worldwide catastrophe. His bacon is saved several times by phone calls to his U.N. superior (Fana Mokoena), who for some reason sees his former coworker as the last, best hope for humanity. Lucky him! And while the rest of the world is engulfed by hungry, hungry humanoids, Lane is repeatedly snatched from the jaws of fate.

You will not be bored by World War Z; it moves lickety-split from one dire scenario to the next, always with swarms of zombies in pursuit, clambering over each other to mount the walls and get at the yummy remnants of humanity. But despite their formidable swarming capabilities, the zombies are virtually indistinguishable and often resemble blurry video-game creations. It’s a CGI world we live in I’m afraid, and that makes for an altogether less frightening zombie holocaust.

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