Dead & Buried (1981)

Dead & Buried is a 40-year-old fright flick that has remained available on cable since the Reagan Administration. Now that’s staying power!

We open on the quaint seaport town of Potter’s Bluff, where friendly townsfolk frequently gather to savagely murder unlucky tourists, all caught on camera for those special vacation memories.

Sheriff Gillis (James Farentino) is inevitably handed the case, but he’s distracted at home by his wife’s (Melody Anderson) increasingly strange behavior, which includes teaching her fourth-grade class about voodoo.

Gillis consults with dapper Dr. Dobbs (Jack Albertson) the jazz-loving town coroner, who complains that closed casket funerals are a drag, because no one can fully appreciate the artistry it takes to make a comely corpse—especially ones that have been burned alive or had their throats sliced.

The murders continue unabated, while the sheriff dutifully gathers clues that point to pretty much everybody.

The ending is Rod Serling-meets-Angel Heart, as Gillis realizes he has more in common with his neighbors than he’d care to admit.

Most of Dead & Buried‘s notoriety comes from being the followup to Alien for screenwriters Ronald Shusset and Dan O’Bannon, as well as makeup mastermind Stan Winston, whose gore effects are brutally efficient here.

In some ways, this is a dated artifact that looks downright hokey at times. Compared to Alien, it’s all the way down to earth and mundane in appearance.

That said, Dead & Buried is creepy as hell and full of small-town weirdness, like Norman Rockwell taking a stab at Dorian Gray.

It’s also the final live-action appearance of veteran actor Jack Albertson, best known as Charlie’s bedridden gramps in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.

In Dead & Buried, Albertson goes out in grand fashion, as a hepcat mad doctor with delusions of grandeur and visions of immortality.

We should all be so lucky.

 

Overlord (2018)

Underwhelmed is more like it.

By most standards, Overlord is a pretty cool WW II movie about a platoon of parachutists dropped behind enemy lines in occupied France. Told from the point of view of a nervous black soldier (Jovan Adepo), the squad members who don’t perish upon landing hit the ground and regroup near a small village.

Their mission is to blow up a strategic tower held by the Nazis to pave the way for the imminent Allied invasion.

The soldiers discover that the Nazis are performing weird science experiments on the local peasant community and Boyce (Adepo) pauses the mission to lend a hand.

This is all well and good, if you’re in the mood for a bracing war movie. My complaint with name producer J.J. Abrams is that Overlord underperforms as a horror movie.

While the battle sequences are reasonably compelling, we don’t get to the monster portion of the program till well past the 70-minute mark.

And to be honest, it was just okay. Fine even.

The effects, makeup and set demolition are on point, and Kommander Wafner (Pilou Asbaek) is a formidable uber-villain.

But director Julius Avery and writer Billy Ray spend far too much screen time cooped up in the attic of plucky French partisan Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), establishing the presence of Chloe’s dopey kid brother Paul (Gianny Taufer).

As we all know, this is for the sole purpose of predictably using him as a hostage bargaining chip going forward.

I wish that the brain trust behind Overlord would have allotted more time and energy to creating memorable monsters, with less concern for conventional plot devices.

The nasty Nazi hybrids that we spend the entire film waiting for, are too few and far between to mount much of a threat, and that’s my chief beef.

I recall a trailer for Overlord two years ago that blew me away, breathlessly hinting at Third Reich abominations the likes of which we’ve never seen.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen Frankenstein’s Army, and it’s a much better and weirder horror movie, along similar lines.

Despite my ire, this isn’t a negative review. Overlord is solid entertainment that promises more than it delivers, never really cashing in on the story’s monstrous potential.

 

 

Demon Wind (1990)

Sam Raimi and The Evil Dead = The Velvet Underground.

I accept that it’s not a perfect analogy, but you get where I’m coming from. It’s an undeniable influence.

Nearly 10 years after Raimi and Bruce Campbell caught lightning in a bottle, Charles Phillip Moore and his crew unveiled a delightfully unfettered homage, Demon Wind, about another bunch of old teenagers assailed by occult forces in a rural location.

Corey (Eric Larson) and his girlfriend Elaine (Francine Lapensée) meet up with a group of friends and stereotypes to solve the mystery of Corey’s grandparents, who perished under mysterious circumstances during the Great Depression.

Turns out the family farm (more of a tattered theater set, really) is on land originally claimed by a devil-loving preacher and his followers who were set ablaze by townsfolk with no taste for human sacrifice.

Once Corey and his comrades reach the farm, all hell breaks loose, and suddenly, we’re at a Dead show, with ghouls coming out of the woodwork.

I’m not recommending Demon Wind because it’s a brilliantly conceived film that was nurtured to life by the artistic vision of writer-director Charles Phillip Moore.

Rather, it’s the sort of slap-dash amateurism (it was filmed in seven days) that drove Ed Wood to create flying saucers out of paper plates and a cockpit from a shower curtain.

Necessity is indeed the mother of invention, and the makeup and practical effects on Demon Wind, though plentiful, range from barely adequate to comically half-assed.

Moore employs a similarly scattergun approach to the narrative, seizing and abandoning ideas with random enthusiasm.

One of the doomed kids, Chuck (Stephen Quadros), is a magician with a black belt. His friend Stacy (Jack Forcinito) has a shotgun with unlimited ammunition.

Chuck still carries a torch for Terri (Lynn Clark) who now belongs to homophobic meathead Dell (Bobby Johnston).

Poor Bonnie (Sherrie Bendorf) gets turned into a doll, and no one seems to care.

Magic spells are cast. You can tell because that’s when the bloopy, hand-drawn animation appears.

The entire cast looks as though it just stepped out of a Huey Lewis video. Feel free to hit pause and ridicule the myriad lame looks available to pre-grunge adolescents.

And don’t worry about Corey’s friends dying. When the pack gets thin, Amazon thoughtfully sends more.

Stinky cheese makes the tastiest snack, no?

Pandemic (2016)

Nothing like a little light entertainment to help shake those quarantine blues.

Can we interest you in a first-person, point-and-shoot craptacular, with a side of zombie dressing?

Sporting a tagline of “You are humanity’s last stand,” Pandemic puts the viewer squarely behind rotating POV cameras in a breakneck race to save uninfected survivors in post-plague Los Angeles.

Nutshell: A virulent contagion has swept the nation, transforming average citizens into berserk cannibals. After the fall of New York, survivor Lauren (Rachel Nichols), heads to LA where doctors are in short supply.

Assigned to a four-person rescue team tasked with rounding up survivors and testing them for infection, Lauren, Gunner (Mekhi Phifer), Wheels (Alfie Allen), and Denise (Missi Pyle), cruise the streets in a retrofitted school bus, dodging and dispatching meat-seeking freaks and armed gangs of plunderers.

Although the team has been specifically ordered not to go in search of family members, this directive somehow gets lost in all the excitement, and personal agendas threaten to derail the mission.

My wife commented that Pandemic is more of a sketch than a movie, and there is truth to that. With only minimal time given to character exposition, it’s the seat-of-the-pants mayhem that’s designed to carry the story, and indeed, there’s no shortage of high-speed splatter.

Unfortunately, director John Suits doesn’t generate much actual adrenaline, and the action seldom rises above (old) video game quality. When the POV perspective shifts rapidly to different characters, it becomes disorienting trying to follow the identities amidst a barrage of choppy, spastic editing.

Instead of freely reveling in post-apocalyptic/undead shenanigans, it took Dustin Benson’s screenplay shifting its focus to Lauren’s private mission, to keep me involved on a basic level.

Rachel Nichols brings surprising depth to a role that could have been adequately filled by a CGI sock puppet, and her supporting cast, particularly Phifer and Pyle, more than pulls its own weight.

Pandemic does not break new ground or offer much in the way of spectacle, but time passes quickly, allowing us to put our own viral anxieties on the back burner.

That’s gotta be worth something, right?

 

 

Body At Brighton Rock (2019)

Two words: Deceptively simple.

On the surface, writer-director Roxanne Benjamin’s Body At Brighton Rock is about a novice national park employee (Karina Fontes) who discovers a corpse on a remote hiking trail.

Benjamin vaults from this premise into a a vast, confusing wilderness where predators lurk behind every tree, and a tenderfoot’s training is put to the test.

We quickly learn that part-time park guide Wendy (Fontes) isn’t the most motivated employee, after she shows up late (again) for the daily assignment posting. Wendy’s friends waste no time in reminding her that she’s more of an “indoor” type and not really suited to the more rugged demands of national park stewardship.

Shamed by her coworkers’ low opinion, Wendy swaps duties with her pal Maya (Emily Althaus), and sets out on a lengthy hike to post new seasonal signs all the way up a distant peak.

As it turns out, Wendy’s posse is very perceptive. The neophyte ranger loses her map and ends up in the middle of nowhere with a dead cell phone and a walkie-talkie that looks like it came out of a cereal box.

Let’s add one dead body, a vaguely menacing stranger (Casey Adams), and claw marks on tree bark to ensure young Wendy spends a sleepless night jumping at every snapped twig.

Body At Brighton Rock looks and sounds like a survival situation, and it is. But Benjamin intuitively pushes a number of buttons that ramp up the tension to include Wendy’s understandable self-doubts about her ability to handle some very intense circumstances.

The movie also works as an engrossing coming-of-age vision quest with a bit of Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry thrown in for good measure.

Deceptively simple, highly recommended.

 

One Cut of the Dead (2017)

If you made a Christmas wish for an undead version of Truffaut’s Day For Night, I have some wonderful news. Writer-director Shinichiro Ueda pulls off multilevel moves on a micro budget in One Cut of the Dead, a riotous ride about the joy and terror of no-frills filmmaking, and the question every horror director asks themselves during a production: Do we have enough fake blood?

A small Japanese film crew sets up in an abandoned munitions factory as a location for a slap-dash feature for cable channel Zombie TV. The tyrannical director (Takayuki Hamatsu) wants real fear from his star-crossed leads, Chinatsu (Yuzuki Akiyama) and teen heartthrob Ko (Kazuaki Nagaya). This motivational tactic comes to fruition when the little troop faces an undead ambush.

Unfortunately for the young actors, the director has apparently joined the other side in his pursuit of cinematic excellence, and the director’s wife (Harumi Shahama), who serves as company den mother, no longer trusts anyone—and she’s got an axe.

While the single-cut, running hand-held camera splatterfest is the main course in One Cut of the Dead, the backstory of how the plucky crew successfully pulls off a nearly impossible realtime shoot is funny and frantically paced, and gives one a deep appreciation of frugal artists on a deadline.

During filming, the one-shot restriction requires actors to nervously ad-lib entire scenes and take inexplicable pauses in the action to await the arrival of makeup and effects people to throw more blood and body parts on the scene. But the show must (and does) go on. Somehow.

Lovers of quality cheese will be pleased and gore hounds will howl.

Dead Shack (2017)

Warning: Stranger Things template in full effect.

A trio of nosy teens and their piss-poor adult supervision spend a weekend at a cabin in the woods. What could possibly go wrong? Since the name of the film is Dead Shack, we can assume they don’t get their cleaning deposit back.

Jason (Matthew Nelson-Mahood) gets roped into a camping trip by his obnoxious friend Colin (Gabriel LaBelle), which works out fine since he has a major crush on Colin’s sister Summer (Lizzie Boys).

Along for the ride are Colin and Summer’s party hearty dad Roger (Donavon Stinson) and his bored alcoholic girlfriend Lisa (Valerie Tian), who has zero interest in bedding down in the boonies with a bunch of goofy adolescents. At least not while sober.

Inevitably, the snoopy kids stumble upon a neighboring house owned by a lady in body armor (Lauren Holly) with a passel of undead kinfolk who need regular meals. Tonight’s Special: You!

Unfortunately, Roger and Lisa are too busy playing cards and getting plastered to listen to such an outlandish story, so it’s up to these wily misfit teenagers to save the day.

Dead Shack lives up to its potential and delivers splashy fun and flying body parts in Raimi-esque abundance.

With all the baggage present, director Peter Ricq could simply have allowed these characters to speak their minds, give voice to their dissatisfaction, and engage in Dysfunctional Family Feud for the entire weekend, but then we’d have a Tennessee Williams play instead of a grisly and often-amusing Zombie Comedy (Zom-Com).

We liked it. Worth a look.

 

Train To Busan (2016)

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 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 a 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 languid, lengthy scenes of Ben and Mickey brushing their teeth, playing catch, listening to music and generally farting around, 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.