Fright Club: Best Zombie Movies

Ever since Romero reimagined the mindless monster in 1968, horror cinema’s go-to beast has been the zombie. Perfect for true terror or splatter comedy – or, hell, even a romantic comedy now and again – films of the undead proliferated faster than a zombie horde. You can find them in nearly every genre, on almost every continent, and in just about every possible medium including children’s books. (If you have not read Ten Little Zombies, it makes an excellent stocking stuffer. Trust us!)

To help us hone our list we enlisted Dave Man, who kindly joins us on this week’s podcast. If you only have time for 5 (or maybe 6) zombie films, which to choose? Rest easy! We have some candidates.

5. Zombie (1979)

Originally filmed as an unofficial sequel to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, this was director Lucio Fulci’s first true horror film, though he’d done several very violent films previously (Don’t Torture a Duckling, for instance). Shot to showcase violence, and immeasurably aided by Fabio Frizzi’s score, Zombie became a turning point in Z films and in Italian horror.

A boat docks in New York with one undead seaman aboard. A young woman and an investigative reporter head out to the island of that boat’s origins, where her father has been doing scientific work, only to find that the island is overrun with hungry walking corpses.

Fulci’s film tries to marry Romero’s take on the undead with the traditional voodoo narrative of films like White Zombie, but it’s the director’s vivid imagination for festering flesh, plus his now go-to shock of eye gouging, that helped the film make its mark. Plus, zombie-on-shark action!

4. Dead Snow (2009)

Like its portly nerd character Erlend, Dead Snow loves horror movies. A familiarly self-referential “cabin in the woods” flick, Dead Snow follows a handsome mixed-gender group of college students as they head to a remote cabin for Spring Break. A creepy old dude warns them off with a tale of local evil. They mock and ignore him at their peril.

But co-writer/director/Scandinavian Tommy Wirkola doesn’t just obey these rules. He embraces our prior knowledge of the path we’re taking to mine for comedy, but he doesn’t give up on the scares. Wirkola’s artful imagination generates plenty of startles and gore by the gallon.

Spectacular location shooting, exquisite cinematography, effective sound editing and a killer soundtrack combine to elevate the film above its clever script and solid acting. Take the gorgeous image of Norwegian peace: a tent, lit from within, sits like a jewel nestled in the quiet of a snowy mountainside. The image glistens with pristine outdoorsy beauty – until it … doesn’t.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55uGN58UOkk

3. Braindead (Dead Alive) (1992)

Rated R for “an abundance of outrageous gore,” Braindead is everything the early Peter Jackson did well. It’s a bright, silly, outrageously gory bloodbath.

Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme) secretly loves shopkeeper Paquita Maria Sanchez (Diana Penalver). Unfortunately, Lionel’s overbearing sadist of a mother follows the lovebirds to a date at the zoo, where she’s bitten (pretty hilariously) by a Sumatran rat-monkey (do not mistake this dangerous creature for a rabid Muppet or misshapen lump of clay). The bite kills her, but not before she can squeeze pus into some soup and wreak general havoc, which is nothing compared to the hell she raises once she comes back from the dead.

Braindead is so gloriously over-the-top that nearly any flaw can be forgiven. Jackson includes truly memorable images, takes zombies in fresh directions, and crafts characters you can root for. But more than anything, he knows where to point his hoseful of gore, and he has a keen imagination when it comes to just how much damage a lawnmower can do.

2. Dawn of the Dead (1978/2004)

Romero returned to the land of the undead in ’78 with a full-color sequel to Night. Set in Philadelphia, at a news broadcast gone crazy, the film follows a news producer, her chopper pilot boyfriend, and two Philly SWAT cops ready to abandon the organized zombie fight and find peace elsewhere. The four board a helicopter, eventually landing on the roof of a mall, which they turn into their private hideaway.

Romero, make-up legend Tom Savini, and Italian horror director Dario Argento teamed up for the sequel. You feel Argento’s presence in the score and the vivid red of the gore. Ken Foree and Scott Reiniger as the buddies from SWAT create the most effective moments, whether character-driven tension or zombie-driven action. Romero’s politics are on his sleeve with this one. He uses the “z” word, digs at consumerism, shows full-color entrails, and reminds us again that the undead may not be our biggest enemy once the zombie-tastrophe falls.

Plenty of filmmakers have remade or reimagined Romero’s flicks, but none did it as well as Zack Snyder.

In Romero’s version, themes of capitalism, greed, mindless consumerism run through the narrative. Snyder, though affectionate to the source material, focuses more on survival, humanity, and thrills. (He also has a wickedly clever soundtrack.) It’s more visceral and more fun. His feature is gripping, breathlessly paced, well developed and genuinely terrifying.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PpuNE1cX03c

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rhsutNfvuAY

1 Night of the Living Dead (1968)

From the brightly lit opening cemetery sequence to the paranoid power struggle in the house to the devastating closing montage, Night of the Living Dead teems with the racial, sexual, and political tensions of its time. An unsettlingly relevant George A. Romero knew how to push societal panic buttons.

As the first film of its kind, the lasting impact of this picture on horror cinema is hard to overstate. His inventive imagination created the genre and the monster from the ground up.

They’re dead.
They’re back.
They’re hungry for human flesh.
Their bite infects the bitten.
The bitten will eventually bite.
Aim for the head.

The shrill sense of confinement, the danger of one inmate turning on another, and the unthinkable transformation going on in the cellar build to a startling climax – one that utterly upends expectations – followed by the kind of absolutely genius ending that guarantees the film’s eternal position in the annals of horror cinema.

Listen to the whole podcast HERE.

#NotBlessed

#Horror

by Hope Madden

Simultaneously spoiled and neglected, handed every luxury imaginable and then abandoned to do with their time what they will, a group of 12-year-old girls at a sleepover pay the price for a too-modern childhood.

Loosely inspired by true events, #Horror tracks the evolution of the mean girl. Between cyberbullying and online gaming, one pre-adolescent clique elevates their coming-of-age angst into a post-modern horror show.

Writer/director Tara Subkoff populates her soullessly luxurious world with bizarre and arresting visuals, and her cast – both the seasoned adults and the mostly unknown child performers – offer a range of unique and compelling performances. The atmosphere created is so detached, stylized, and surreal, you can imagine almost anything happening.

Subkoff has provocative things to say about coming of age, and though none of them are entirely novel, she wisely avoids one-sided arguments. Yes, the five 12-year-olds ultimately blame their selfish, negligent parents for their own fucked-up-edness, although the film’s heroine Sam, (Sadie Seelert) chooses to reject her loving and protective mother in favor of the attention of her new school’s mean girl circle.

Subkoff’s film is at its best when it drops you into the undercooked logic of a child.

“Nothing is mean if you laugh,” explains a genuinely earnest and confused Cat (Haley Murphy). And that’s really the point of the film: kids are stupid, parents are blind, the world offers more immediate and accessible dangers than ever before, and that time between childhood and adulthood is a haze of misunderstood circumstances and unavoidable selfishness.

Chloe Sevigny and Timothy Hutton are over-the-top wonders, both horrifying yet wonderful in their own way, but Subkoff’s real victory is her ability to capture, with the help of a game pre-adolescent cast, the combination of cynicism and playfulness that marks these particular girls’ youth.

The horror story is a tad thin – derivative, even – but what Subkoff, her visual panache and her cast manage to do with it keeps you intrigued and guessing for the full 90 minute run.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

Read Hope’s interview with director Tara Subkoff HERE.

Bad Doctor

Victor Frankenstein

by Hope Madden

As Daniel Radcliffe’s Igor begins to spin his Gothic yarn in voiceover, he tells us that everyone knows about the monster, but too few people know about Victor Frankenstein.

Here is the first problem with this movie.

In fact, only James Whale and Boris Karloff did Frankenstein’s monster proper. Everyone else – everyone else – has been preoccupied with the mad scientist whose compulsion to create life went wildly out of control.

Still, Paul McGuigan’s film invites us, not just to the headspace of the mad doctor, but to the bond between scientist and assistant, because VF is, at its heart, a buddy picture. In fact, we learn a lot more about Igor than we do the title character.

Radcliffe’s performance is tender and sincere as the malformed and bullied young man, rescued by the anatomically obsessed surgeon. As Victor, James McAvoy waffles between a believably wounded and vulnerable genius, and some hammy overacting.

Neither McAvoy nor Radcliffe are the issue, though. Max Landis’s screenplay meanders hither and yon without the slightest focus, from circus to laboratory to ball to medical college to isolated castle without a clear narrative path or sense of purpose. Worse still, the utterly baffling leaps in logic. (Igor is crippled circus clown who’s never known anything but cruelty; he is also the circus doctor. I’m sorry – what?)

McGuigan’s pacing only exacerbates the situation. The film feels twice as long as it is, and the very-late-entrance of the monster only makes the balance of the running time feel that much more tedious. Though he pastes together eye-catching images now and again – the twirl of a red skirt, an oversized medical sketch on the floor, enormous advertisement heads atop a building – on the whole he can’t capitalize on either a visual aesthetic or any sense of movement.

Victor Frankenstein is as stagnant and bloated as his corpses.

Regardless of all that, the question is, who needs another doctor with a God complex? Whale was right. It’s the monster who’s interesting.

Verdict-2-0-Stars

Startlingly Relevant

Trumbo

by Hope Madden

“We are going to have to do some things that we never did before, and some people are going to get upset about it. But I think that now, everybody is feeling that security is going to rule.”

Those are Donald Trump’s words as to why he’d consider warrantless searches, Muslim databases, and closing or surveilling mosques – a fear-monger-fueled attack on civil liberties and basic humanity. What’s scary is the idea that he’d consider doing things “we never did before,” because, as Trumbo points out, we’ve done some pretty nasty things in the name of xenophobia.

Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) had been the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood before the blacklist. He and nine others chose to stand up for their first amendment rights, finding themselves in contempt of Congress and facing jail time. What you may not know, and the film hopes to point out, is that Trumbo was at the center of the shameful period of history from its opening to its close.

As fascinating a history lesson as Trumbo is, too much competes for your attention.

Though the cast is lousy with talent, that almost becomes its weakness. There are so many people to draw your consideration, with few characters feeling as if they serve the larger story as much as they require attention of their own.

Elle Fanning is wonderful, as usual, as Trumbo’s eldest daughter – a social activist like her father. Helen Mirren is delightfully wicked as Hedda Hopper, gossip columnist and anti-Communist instigator. Louis C.K. offers perhaps the most naturalistic performance in the film, which, while quite solid on its own, actually emphasizes the sometimes stilted performances around him. Meanwhile, Diane Lane is utterly wasted in the conflicted but supportive wife role.

Even smaller roles sometimes rob focus from the central character and story. John Goodman and Stephen Root liven things up as Schlockmeisters Frank and Hymie King, and Christian Berkel is a scene-stealing scream as Otto Preminger.

Cranston’s central figure should be the undisputed star, though, and the fact that so many others pull for your attention is a shame, because the Breaking Bad star tosses off droll one-liners like an old pro, and his chemistry with every other actor onscreen is wonderful. He epitomizes the writer’s inherent yin and yang with effortless humor and skill.

There is an expression of weary panic on his face as he sees the direction his beloved country is taking – one of ignorance, fear, and hatred. It’s a look we can probably all recognize about now.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

Where the Heart Is

Brooklyn

by George Wolf

Intimate but universal, heartbreaking but hopeful, Brooklyn is a rich, wonderful tale of a young woman learning about life and love.

In the early 1950s, young Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) lives with her mother and sister in County Wexford, Ireland, but has dreams across the pond. Through connections with a helpful priest in New York, Eilis scores her boat ride, plus a room and a job, too, because, as Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) says, “We need Irish girls in Brooklyn.”

She lands at the boarding house of Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters, gleefully stealing scenes) and does her best to take social cues from her older housemates. Nightly dinners become downright hilarious, as Mrs. Kehoe scolds her girls over everything from overall giddiness to discussing “the Lord and stockings” at the dinner table. Priceless.

Suffering through crippling homesickness, Eilis perks up when she meets Tony, a young Italian who eventually takes Eilis home to a pretty funny family dinner of his own. The romance grows serious, but Eilis is called home for a family emergency, begins spending time with proper Irish boy Jim (Domhnall Gleason), and suddenly a choice is in Eilis’s future.

Writer Nick Hornby adapts Colm Toibin’s novel with wit and grace. He’s shown skill with coming-of-age stories before (About a Boy, An Education), but here he seems to relish fleshing out a character who’s taking control of her life in an era when the options for young women were more limited.

Irish director John Crowley (Closed Circuit, Boy A) does some relishing of his own, gorgeously framing his homeland, and then subtly changing color saturation and shot selection to mirror Eilis’s personal journey.

The entire cast gels as a stellar ensemble, but it is the sublime work of Ronan that pierces your heart. A New York native who was raised in Ireland, Ronan embodies Eilis from the inside out, and her character’s growth is never less than authentic and gently touching. Crowley knows it, regularly framing Ronan in picturesque glamour close-ups that his star holds with ease.

A luminous story of love, home, family and commitment that will lift you to another time and place, Brooklyn is a near perfect non-holiday film for the holiday season.

And if you’re Irish?

Well, you may find a new Christmas tradition.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 

Walk the Dinosaur

The Good Dinosaur

by Hope Madden

Is there any name in filmmaking more reliable, any surer bet, than Pixar?

Maybe not.

The Good Dinosaur, as is always the way with a Pixar film, opens with a fascinating short. Longtime Pixar animator Sanjay Patel directs his first effort, and Sanjay’s Super Team defies expectations to tell a lovely, warm story of overcoming father/son barriers and, in doing so, opens larger doors for similar cross-cultural embracing.

The animation giants’ second feature in less than a year takes us back to a magical time when dinosaurs were farmers and cowboys. That meteor? It missed Earth, you see, so this is what might have happened had we evolved right alongside those majestic beasts.

Rather than relying on a star-laden vocal cast (although Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Steve Zahn, and the unmistakable Sam Elliot do lend their talents), the bulk of the film features – almost solely – the work of 14-year-old Raymond Ochoa.

Ochoa plays Arlo, the runt of the dino litter who needs to battle his own insecurities to find a way to make his mark. He does so with the help of a feral whelp of a human called Spot.

Though the story borrows heavily from The Lion King, first time director Peter Sohn combines hyper-realistic scenery with very cartoony characters in a way that’s surprising and lovely. Punctuated frequently with silly humor, the mostly serious tale does not shy away from darker edges and a real sense of peril, eventually delivering a genuinely emotional punch.

Sohn is even craftier without the aid of dialog, as many of the funniest and most touching moments are delivered in silence or with grunts.

After producing arguably the best film of 2015, Pixar has the cajones to release a second feature this year. I guess when you’re the undisputed king of cartoons, that kind of swagger makes sense. And while The Good Dinosaur is no Inside Out (or Up or Toy Story, for that matter), it’s a worthy entry in their impressive canon.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

Creed is Good

Creed

by George Wolf

When your debut feature film was a powerfully moving achievement that heralded limitless filmmaking potential, what’s your next move?

Yo, Rocky!

Yes, the film is called Creed, but what director/co-writer Ryan Coogler does to an old cinema warhorse is nearly as surprising as the rookie chops he brought to Fruitvale Station in 2013.

We catch up with Rocky living the life of a local legend in his native Philadelphia. He’s away from the fight game, quietly running a restaurant named for his dear departed Adrian, when an impressive young man shows up and starts asking some very pointed questions.

His name is Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), though he’s intent on proving he is more than just Apollo’s son. He’s been training himself, fighting under the radar and out of the country as “Donny Johnson,” but figures now is the time to look up his father’s old friend and make a move toward the big time.

Coogler again shows sharp instincts, keeping Creed subtly rooted in the tradition of its characters while simultaneously taking the entire franchise in a new direction as vital as it is welcome.

Snippets of familiar music, landmarks and training methods are included but not overdone, reminding you that Rocky was a damn good movie, but never spending enough capital to let you forget that was yesterday.

The cliches are here, too. Adonis must declare that he’s “been fighting my whole life,” there’s the obligatory street fight defending a girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) and of course Rocky wants no part of training a young fighter. But miraculously, Coogler is able to make them all feel part of a larger plan, one that is cemented with moments of authentic emotion between the three principal actors.

Jordan, who also broke out with a stupendous performance in Fruitvale Station, finds layers in Adonis, and a drive that reveals without consuming. The kid is a star. Thompson, delivering another winning performance full of easy chemistry, isn’t far behind

And then there’s Stallone, better than he’s been in…well, awhile. Putting aside the lazy crutches (and the Botox), he returns to Rocky Balboa as a man wise enough not to waste this late chance to again be a contender.

The big fight scenes are ridiculously action-packed, sure, but they’re also dynamic, thrilling and as crowd-pleasing as they come. The push over the cliff? Coogler utilizes real anchors from ESPN and HBO more believably than anyone ever has.

Respect where you come from, but build your own legacy.

Creed gets it done.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 

 

 

 

Unlikely Oscar Contender

For the first time in – perhaps ever – a full-on horror short appears to be in the running for an Oscar nomination.

Shant Hamassian’s one-take wonder Night of the Slasher offers a clever, funny, self-referential look at slasher films and manages to tell a complete tale, develop a character, scare, and entertain – all in about 12 minutes.

The pacing is wonderful, and with each passing minute Hamassian unveils another piece of information we didn’t realize we were missing. A protagonist (Lily Berlina), for reasons unexplained but certainly suggested, appears to be trying to unravel the slasher’s formula. Her goal is certainly to defeat the killer, but she may turn into a monster herself in the process.

A couple of very funny lines, a handful of perfectly placed visual gags, and camerawork that never feels like a gimmick separate Night of the Slasher from other horror comedies. Certainly the story follows the same path as Scream and, more recently, The Final Girls, but Hamassian finds new ground to break. Efficiency is on his side. Nothing is belabored, everything compels attention.

The masked maniac brings with him the film’s cheekiest joke, but Berlina plays the heroine with a raspy desperation and tenacity that elevate the film above spoof.

The short was carved from a full length screenplay and filmed as an attempt to get funding for a full feature. Here’s hoping!

Find out more at Night of the Slasher’s Facebook page:

Fright Club Live: Inside

Inside (2007)

Holy shit. Inside is not for the squeamish.

Beatrice Dalle’s insidious performance is hard to shake. Fearless, predatory, pitiless and able to take an enormous amount of abuse, her nameless character stalks a very, very pregnant Sarah (Alysson Paradis). Sarah lost her husband in a car crash some months back, and now, on the eve of Christmas, she sits, enormous, uncomfortable, and melancholy about the whole business. She’s grown cynical and despondent, more depressed than excited about giving birth in the morning.

Alexandre Bustillo’s film seeks to change her mind, make her want that baby. Because Dalle’s lurking menace certainly wants it. Her black clad silhouette is in the back yard, smoking and stalking – and she has seriously bad plans in mind.

Bustillo and directing partner Julien Maury swing the film from intelligent white collar angst to goretastic bloodfest with ease. The sadistic humor Dalle brings to the performance adds chills, and Paradis’s realistic, handicapping size makes her vulnerability palpable.

The film goes wildly out of control, and by the third act, things are irredeemably out of hand. And yet, this is a brilliant effort, a study in tension wherein one woman will do whatever it takes, with whatever utensils are available, to get at the baby still firmly inside another woman’s body.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOk5tiAkEdA

Fright Club: Not Quite Zombies

Zombie films are legion, easily becoming the go-to monster of our generation. Part of the draw is that the horde can represent almost anything, like a modern tech-addicted population that’s lost touch with the living world. But do these dangerous, mindless beasts need to be dead already? Because living things seem to move a lot faster, and contamination is contamination, whether your brain is literally eaten or just taken from you.

Here’s our salute to all the not-quite-zombie movies out there!

5. Splinter (2008)

Road kill, a carjacking, an abandoned gas station, some quills – it doesn’t take much for first time feature filmmaker and longtime visual effects master Toby Wilkins to get under your skin. One cute couple just kind of wants to camp in Oklahoma’s ancient forest (which can never be a good idea, really). Too bad a couple of ne’er-do-wells needs their car. Then a flat (what was that – a porcupine? No!!) sends them to that creepy gas station, and all hell breaks loose.

Contamination gymnastics call to mind the great John Carpenter flick The Thing, but Splinter is its own animal. Characters have depth and arcs, the danger is palpable, the kills pretty amazing, and the overall aesthetic of that old highway gives everything a desperately lonesome quality where you believe anything could happen and no rescue is in sight.

4. Slither (2006)

Writer/director James Gunn took the best parts of B-movie Night of the Creeps and Cronenberg’s They Came from Within, mashing the pieces into the exquisitely funny, gross, and terrifying Slither.

A Troma alum with writing credits ranging from Scooby-Do movies to the remake of Dawn of the Dead, Gunn possessed all the raw materials to pull it off. The film is equal parts silly and smart, grotesque and endearing, original and homage. More importantly, it’s just plain awesome.

Cutie pie Starla (Elizabeth Banks) is having some marital problems. Her husband Grant (the great horror actor Michael Rooker) is at the epicenter of an alien invasion. Smalltown sheriff Bill Pardy (every nerd girls’ imaginary boyfriend, Nathan Fillion) tries to set things straight as a giant mucous ball, a balloonlike womb-woman, a squid monster, projectile vomit, zombies, and loads and loads of slugs keep the action really hopping.

Consistently funny, cleverly written, well-paced, tense and scary and gross – Slither has it all. Watch it. Do it!

3. The Crazies (1973/2010)

Just three years after Night of the Living Dead, the master found himself interested in taking his zombiism concepts in a different direction.

Two combat veterans are at the center of the film, in which a chemical weapon is accidentally leaked into the water supply to a Pennsylvania town. Military incompetence, the needless horror of Vietnam, and the evil that men can do when ordered to do so are all central conceits in this film.

Romero may not have always had the biggest budget, best actors, or the keenest eye for composition, but his ideas were so ahead of their time that modern horror would not exist in its current form without him. You can see Romero’s ideas and images from this film repeated in 28 Days Later, Return of the Living Dead, The Signal, Cabin Fever, Super 8, even Rambo – and, obviously, in the remake.

Breck Eisner’s 2010 reboot offers solid scares, inventive plotting, and far better performances.

Building a cumulative sense of entrapment and dread, the film relies on a storyline whisper-close to the overplayed zombie tale, but deviates in a powerful way. The slight alteration plumbs a different kind of terror, and Eisner’s sense of timing provides a fine balance between fear of the unknown and horror of the inevitable.

2. The Thing (1982)

John Carpenter’s remake of the 1951 SciFi flick The Thing from Another World is both reverent and barrier-breaking, limiting the original’s Cold War themes, and concocting a thoroughly spectacular tale of icy isolation, contamination and mutation.

A beard-tastic cast portrays a team of scientists on expedition in the Arctic who take in a dog. The dog is not a dog, though. Not really. And soon, in an isolated wasteland with barely enough interior room to hold all the facial hair, folks are getting jumpy because there’s no knowing who’s not really himself anymore.

This is an amped up body snatcher movie benefitting from some of Carpenter’s most cinema-fluent and crafty direction: wide shots when we need to see the vastness of the unruly wilds; tight shots to remind us of the close quarters with parasitic death inside.

The story remains taut beginning to end, and there’s rarely any telling just who is and who is not infected by the last reel. You’re as baffled and confined as the scientists.

1. 28 Days Later (2002)

Prior to 28 Days Later, the zombie genre seemed finally dead and gone. But he single handedly resurrected the genre with two new(ish) ideas: 1) they weren’t dead, 2) therefore, they could move really quickly.

You know you’re in trouble from the genius opening sequence: vulnerability, tension, bewilderment, rage and blood – it marks a frantic and terrifying not-zombie film. They were not dead, you see, just super pissed off.

Danny Boyle uses plenty of ideas Romero introduced, pulling loads of images from The Crazies and Day of the Dead, in particular (as well as Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder). But he revolutionized the genre – sparking the rebirth of zombie movies – with just a handful of terrifying tweaks. Boyle paints a terrifyingly realistic vision of an apocalypse we could really bring on ourselves.

Listen to the podcast HERE.