Viva Laz Vegaz

Army of the Dead

by Hope Madden

The single best feature film Zack Snyder ever made was his first: 2004’s Romero reboot Dawn of the Dead. (That is my hill.) For that reason (plus my sheer, giddy joy for zombie movies), I was far more eager about his latest zombie installment, Army of the Dead, than in anything else he’s made recently.

Even the title suggested that he was still on the Romero wavelength and, indeed, by his own 2005 Land of the Dead, the maestro of the undead was already dropping us into a town where the Z population had begun to organize.

In Snyder’s case, it’s not just any town. We open on the catalyst—a rapid-fire transformation just over the hill from Vegas. Conjuring fond memories of his prior undead flick, Snyder cuts together an excellent opening montage with some inspired musical accompaniment to quickly bring us up to the film’s current plight. (Likely also offering a preview to their upcoming Netflix series.)

Not a moment or line of dialogue wasted. Which is great, because this is going to trudge on for another 2 ½ hours, which is entirely unforgivable for a zombie movie.

How about a zombie heist movie?!

I mean, the zombies aren’t stealing anything, and nobody’s stealing zombies. Instead, some smarmy billionaire (Hiroyuki Sanada) convinces a Z-war hero (Dave Bautista) to get a crew together and head into Vegas to steal a fortune inside his casino vault.

So, Train to Busan: Peninsula. That’s not where Snyder and co-writers Shay Hatten (John Wick 3) and Joby Harold (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) got all their ideas, though. You will also notice Aliens, The Girl with All the Gifts, I Am Legend, Ghosts of Mars, World War Z, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and just a touch of Danny Ocean.

Still, Army of the Dead would be pretty entertaining if it weren’t so tediously predictable. (That does happen when you borrow so liberally, I guess.) Tig Notaro’s a fun piece of miscasting as the wise-cracking chopper pilot, Matthias Schweighofer delivers a bright performance (though it does feel as if it is part of another film entirely), and it’s always a delight to watch Garret Dillahunt weasel his way through a role.

The whole mess could have been mindless and merry were it not for its bloated running time. (Self-indulgence, thy name is Snyder.) It still delivers the goods here and there, but it won’t stick with you.

Like One to the Head

Witness Infection

by Samantha Harden

What would you do if everyone in your small town turned into a bloodthirsty zombie after eating sausage from an esteemed food truck? 

Witness Infection is the story of three friends Carlo (Robert Belushi), Gina (Jill-Michele Melean) and Vince (Vince Donvito), who try to save themselves and the people they love from the zombie infection rapidly spreading through their hometown. 

Writers Carlos Alazraqui and Jill-Michele Melean deliver humor, but the emotion is lacking. There are so many perfectly placed references from classic movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Pulp Fiction and The Godfather. Carlo’s dad (Carlos Alazraqui) even makes a reference to Miller’s Crossing, telling his sons to “always leave one in the head.” Still, Witness Infection misses the mark when it comes to creating a unique and unforgettable screenplay. 

It does, at times, add to the film. Andy Palmer’s direction only seems to cancel it out. Palmer chooses camera angles that don’t make sense and create noticeably unnatural transitions. So unnatural that it takes away from the focus of the movie, and it’s hard to maintain interest when so little of the film surprises. 

Zombie apocalypse movies have been done countless times. Witness Infection is too similar to every other zombie movie to be remembered. Nothing really stands out until we get to see Rose (Monique Coleman) dominate the screen. 

The heroic trio finds Rose at one of the few bars in town, still defending herself and the bar. She refuses to be the black character that dies before the end of the movie. Declaring that she isn’t going to give up, Rose claims the most memorable quote from the film: “I am not Samuel L. Jackson in Jurassic Park. I am not Yaphet Kotto in Alien, nor am I Dwayne mother fucking Johnson.”

Unfortunately, after that amazing performance, we don’t see her again. 

Palmer cut out the one thing that kept me interested in his film and left me instead with three of the most stale and even at times frustrating characters in the movie. 

Zombie Eat World

The Night Eats the World

by Hope Madden

People like to make lists. For some people, it’s a bucket list. Some like to keep track of the celebrities they are allowed to sleep with if the opportunity arises. Not me.

Years ago I put together my zombie survival team. And though I know plenty of people with varied and worthy skills, making my team mainly came down to two things. Are you smart? Are you quiet? Because it is the introverts of the world who will survive the zombie apocalypse.

Director Dominique Rocher’s unusually titled The Night Eats the World understands this.

Sam (Anders Danielsen Lie) reluctantly stops by his ex’s party to collect his things. It is a loud, raucous event and Sam is in no mood. He stands moping alone until finally he wanders into a quiet back office, locks the door to the partygoers and waits.

By morning, Sam may be the only living human left in Paris.

The majority of the film quietly follows Sam through the apartment building as he fortifies his position, spends his time, survives. It’s a pleasantly pragmatic approach to the zombie film, although it asks many of the same questions Romero asked in Dawn of the Dead.

In fact, TNETW sometimes bears an amazing resemblance to the underseen German zombie flick Rammbock: Berlin Undead. (It’s great. You should see it.)

There’s a lot going on here that’s fresh, though. Rarely is a zombie film this introspective or a horror hero this thoughtful. More than that, though, Rocher’s horror is a meditation on loneliness.

Not only is that an unusual topic for horror, it’s delivered with the kind of touching restraint that’s almost inconceivable in this genre.

Danielsen Lie, in what nearly amounts to a one-man-show, never lets you down and never feels showy. Sam is a man who is maybe too at home with the situation in a film that quietly asks, just what has to happen before a true introvert longs for human companionship?

That’s why they’ll outlast us. It’ll just be a few dozen socially uncomfortable loners skilled at closing themselves off from the chaos around them. Plus Keith Richards.

It’s Alive!

Zombieland 2: Double Tap

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

“It’s time to nut up or shut up.”

“That line is so 2009.”

There you have it. A horror film that recognizes its desire to wallow in its former glory as well as its need to find something new to say.

We had our worries about the sequel to one of the all-time best zombie action flicks, Zombieland. Horror sequels so rarely work and Zombieland: Double Tap is slow going at the start, to be sure. But don’t give up on it.

Everybody’s back. Director Ruben Fleischer – who’s spent the last decade trying to live up to Z-land‘s promise – returns, as do writers Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, along with newbie Dave Callaham, who’s written a lot of really big, really bad movies.

Still, it was enough to draw the most important elements—all four leads. Among Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Jesse Eisenberg and Abigail Breslin are seven Oscar nominations and one win. That’s a lot of credibility for a zombie movie.

They reprise their roles, now ten years on as a heavily armed and somewhat dysfunctional family. Little Rock (Breslin), in particular, longs to leave the nest, get away from a smothering Tallahassee (Harrelson) and find people her own age. Wichita (Stone) may be feeling a little smothered in her relationship with Columbus (Eisenberg), though he remains blissfully unaware.

Things pick up when the girls take off, the guys brood, a new survivor enters the picture (Zoey Deutch, scene-stealing hilarious), and a sudden road trip to Graceland seems like it might reunite the family.

The filmmakers spend plenty of time simultaneously ribbing and basking in previous success. So there is plenty here to remind us why we loved the first Zombieland adventure so much (especially during the credits), although Double Tap doesn’t come to life until it embraces some fresh meat.

A run-in with near-doppelgangers (Luke Wilson, Thomas Middleditch) leads to an inspired action sequence inside the Elvis-themed motel run by Nevada (Rosario Dawson). A pacifist commune stands in for the amusement park from part one, letting everyone poke some blood-splattered fun at the culture clash between hippies, survivalists, and of course, the undead.

An underused articulation of the way zombies have evolved over the decade could have offered the biggest update. Still, after a 10 year wait, this revival offers just enough fun to not only avoid a let down, but instantly become Fleischer’s second best film.

Don’t Pet the Animals

Little Monsters

by Hope Madden

“Teddy McGiggles isn’t my real name.”

The fact that there is a character named Teddy McGiggles in writer/director/Aussie Abe Forsythe’s new horror gem Little Monsters—let alone that Teddy (Josh Gad) has to clarify that it is not his given name—tells you a lot about the film.

McGiggles, a beloved and boldly dressed kids’ show host, is just one of the uninfected trapped in the souvenir shop at Pleasant Valley Farm Petting Zoo (now with Mini Golf!).

Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o, glorious as always) has taken her kindergarten class on a field trip. Little Felix’s (the criminally adorable Diesel La Torraca) ne’er do well Uncle Dave (Alexander England) has tagged along as a chaperone, but really he’s just crushing on Lupita.

Who isn’t?!

The petting zoo sits next door to a military testing facility, one thing eats the brains of another and suddenly Miss Caroline is hurdling zombies and convincing her class this is all a game.

Basically, Little Monsters is Cooties meets Life is Beautiful.

Even though the film is being compared to Shaun of the Dead, please go into this with your eyes open. Though it has an incredibly sweet heart and a bus load of insanely cute children, the film is definitely R rated.

Mainly because of Gad, whose character has, shall we say, some bad habits and a pretty ugly catharsis on the playground. It’s pretty funny, but a surprisingly mean kind of funny.

Still, Little Monsters is, in its own bloody, entrail-strewn way, adorable. Honestly. And so very much of that has to do with Nyong’o. Miss Caroline’s indefatigable devotion to her students is genuinely beautiful, and Nyong’o couldn’t be more convincing.

The enormously likable cast and a tight script elevate the film above its slight story and often borrowed ideas. But the pace is quick, the bowels are spilling, and I’ve never enjoyed Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off more.

Day for Night of the Living Dead

One Cut of the Dead

by Hope Madden

For about 37 minutes, you may feel like Shin’ichirô Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead delivers, cleverly enough, on a very familiar promise.

One Cut opens as a micro-budget zombie movie, which soon reveals itself to be a film within a film when real zombies show up on set. As the bullying egomaniac director continues filming, ecstatic over the authenticity, Ueda appears to deconstruct cinema.

And though that may sound intriguing on the surface, the truth is that what transpires after that 37 minute mark officially defines Ueda as an inventive, gleeful master of chaos and lover of the magic of nuts and bolts filmmaking.

To detail any additional plot points—as tempting as that is—would spoil the enjoyable lunacy One Cut has in store.

Suffice it to say, Ueda improves upon that opening act without really losing the themes he introduces. Everything that feels like a misstep blossoms into an inspired bit, all of it highlighting Ueda’s true love for what he’s doing.

Likable and silly, One Cut is brightly economical, embracing rather than hiding its shoestring – in fact, Ueda’s camera jubilantly closes in on shoestrings. His movie giddily exposes the neuroses, dangers, tribulations and mistakes—he really, deeply loves the mistakes—inherent in genre filmmaking. If nothing else, this movie is a mash note to artistic compromise.

The manic comedy proves as infectious as the zombiism on the screen, and much of the reason is the committed cast. Ueda allows each performer the opportunity to grow and discover, and every actor at one point or another takes full advantage of his or her moment to shine.

Harumi Shuhama particularly impresses as, well, let’s just say she’s the make up artist and self defense hobbyist. Yuzuki Akiyama delivers the most layered performance, but, playing the director, Takayuki Hamatsu steals every scene. He’s hilarious, adorable, compassionate, and incredibly easy to root for.

Like this movie.

Beauty in the Beast

The Dark

by Hope Madden

There are a lot of ways to approach a zombie film, few of them fresh. Zombie flick as YA (young adult) melodrama isn’t even a new idea anymore—2015 saw a surprisingly nuanced Arnold Schwarzenegger nurse his reanimated teen (Abigail Breslin) in Maggie, the best of the batch until now.

Still, writer/director Justin P. Lange has something on his mind with his debut feature The Dark, and he has found a compelling way to tell not-just-another zombie story.

We open on a twist to a familiar scene. A man in a rush, likely a fugitive of some kind, grabs some supplies at an out-of-the way gas station. He opens a map. The lone, wizened clerk points him toward an assumed destination: Devil’s Den.

As familiar as even the twist feels, the truth is that Lange gets more mileage from that old warhorse than you immediately realize. And he will continue to wield our assumptions and biases against us to better direct his story.

The blandly titled The Dark is, at its heart, a guide to overcoming trauma. Nadia Alexander is Mina, the creature that haunts Devil’s Den—a merciless, relentless, thoughtless killer. Until, that is, she comes across Alex, a blind young man (Toby Nichols) who reminds her of what she once was and what could have saved her.

Lange makes a series of clever narrative choices besides simply using our preconceived notions to surprise us. The Dark is, in part, a vengeance fable far less preoccupied by punishing those who do damage than those who should have been there for protection.

Alexander impresses as the beast unhappily and involuntarily rediscovering her humanity. Her silences, particularly in later scenes, are haunting.

As her mirror image and polar opposite, Nichols embodies vulnerability and resilience. There’s an optimism alongside a brokenness in his performance that is both necessary and heartbreaking.

The Dark occasionally skirts mawkishness, but what YA film doesn’t? In truth, Lange doesn’t run from the baggage associated with his chosen genres. He embraces it, forgives it, makes something powerful out of it.





Call of Duty

Overlord

by Hope Madden

Perhaps you don’t know this, but Nazi zombies have a horror genre unto themselves: Shock Waves, Zombie Lake, Dead Snow, Dead Snow 2, Blood Creek. Well, there’s a new Nazi Zombie Sheriff in town, and he is effing glorious.

Overlord drops us into enemy territory on D-Day. One rag tag group of American soldiers needs to disable the radio tower the Nazis have set up on top of a rural French church, disabling Nazi communications and allowing our guys to land safely.

What’s on the church tower is not so much the problem. It’s what’s in the basement.

Director Julius Avery stays true to the war film vibe. Though clearly Overlord lacks the scope of something like Saving Private Ryan, visceral scenes of war set the stage for a film about the monstrosity lurking inside man.

He’s aided immeasurably by two writers with a knack for tales of endurance. Billy Ray’s career is littered with tense political thrillers, and his co-scribe Mark L. Smith wrote The Revenant, for Lord’s sake. He knows how to put a man through some shit.

The fellas find cover in the home of a sympathetic French woman (Mathilde Olivier) and plot their next move. Too bad it’s in that church basement.

Pilou Asbaek offers another excellent performance, this time as the Nazi commander. He drips sinister and looks enough like a handsome Michael Shannon to terrify even when he’s not speaking.

All the performances are strong, and character arcs feel fresh even though you know—if you have ever seen a war movie—how they will progress. Because this is a war movie, but war is hell and hell is horror.

Avery creates the same kind of desperate tension you’d expect from a suicide mission, and when the tables turn and we’re suddenly inside some kind of filthy mad scientist horror, the film doesn’t lose a step.

Suddenly, through Avery’s eyes and the horrified reactions of our heroes, we see how easily not only war movies but Marvel comic book films can cross the line to blood chilling horror.

A satisfying Good V Evil film that benefits from layers, Overlord reminds us repeatedly that it is possible to retain your humanity, even in the face of inhuman evil.

Plus, Nazi zombies, which is never not awesome!





Wait—Camping Is Dangerous?

Feral

by Hope Madden

Here’s the thing about Feral. It’s a decent movie: well-paced, competently directed, solidly performed. And there is not a single interesting, novel, surprising or inspired moment in it.

Maybe one, but it’s not reason enough to make this movie.

Three handsome couples head into the woods. They get a little lost, decide to pitch tents and find the lake in the morning.

They hear a noise.

One of them goes out to pee.

There’s something dangerous in the woods.

Duh.

Co-writer/director Mark Young follows up half a dozen low budget, middling-to-poor horror and action films with this adequate take on a monster-in-the-woods tale.

The sole reason the film stands out in any way is that Young’s hero, Alice (Scout Taylor-Compton) is a lesbian. Equally refreshing, males are as likely as females to fall prey to the hungry forest beast.

Bravo the nonchalance with which this is depicted, as the film does not strain to call attention to the novelty of this final girl and hero twist.

Yes, it’s about time. And yet, maybe Feral needed at least one other thing to set it apart? Because as it is, it’s simply a checklist of cabin-in-the-woods horror tropes, faithfully rendered, right up to the waning moments of its running time.

Taylor-Compton offers a perfectly serviceable performance, as do most of the actors around her. Olivia Luccardi, Renee Olstead and Landry Allbright all work to provide something close to a second dimension to underwritten, throwaway characters.

Lew Temple is an always welcome sight as the—wait for it—hermit whose assistance in this situation is suspect.

Together, cast and director generate scares by relying less on imagination and more on your familiarity with the genre itself. Therefore, assuming you have ever seen a horror movie in your life, you will not be scared.

You’ll just be reminded for the thousandth time that camping is an undeniably stupid thing to do. That’s what I got out of it, anyway.





Metaphorically Yours

The Cured

by Hope Madden

Zombies have proven to be metaphorically versatile over the decades. For Romero, they were sometimes the mindless consumer, sometimes the oppressed, sometimes the political outcasts.

David Freyne’s new Irish horror, The Cured, pushes the epidemic/ostracism angle to create xenophobic and racist parallels, as well as flashes of the kind of contagion-phobic hatred the AIDS epidemic met with. And Freyne does so without losing sight of a compelling, sometimes punishing story.

The Dublin of the not-so-distant future is home to the world’s most cataclysmic outbreak of the MAZE virus—a 28 Days Later kind of thing.

Senan (Sam Keeley) is among the stricken. Along with thousands of his countrymen, Senan has spent the last several years a zombie of sorts—a mindless, cannibalistic killing machine.

And though a cure has been found—relieving 75% of the infected—returning to a society proves difficult because the cured can remember their beastly behavior. So can the uninfected.

Plus, there is still that tricky question of what to do with the other 25%, “the incurable.”

Ellen Page (who also executive produces) co-stars as Senan’s widowed sister-in-law, and becomes  our window into what humanity may be left in humanity.

For a world in chaos (ours, not that of the movie), zombies offer a simple way to contend with the unimaginable: racism being celebrated at the highest offices, child molestation being excused when it’s politically convenient, Nazis being labeled good guys. For Freyne, publicly sanctioned fear and hatred leads first to oppression and then to uprising.

His set decoration echoes WWII-era propaganda as his characters struggle with shame, disenfranchisement, and righteous indignation. Keely’s deeply human performance remains focused on overcoming, but it’s the unnerving turn by Tom Vaughan-Lawlor that makes this film a keeper.

A barrister with political aspirations before the outbreak, Vaughan-Lawlor’s Conor proves a natural to lead a revolution. But what feels at first like an imbalance between entitlement and outrage slowly blossoms into something impressively fiendish.

There are two concerns with The Cured. 1) By horror standards, it’s a sociopolitical drama. 2) By the time it decides to become a horror movie, any hint of novelty or originality vanishes.

But don’t discount it. The Cured is smart and relevant. It doesn’t leave you guessing and won’t satisfy your bloodlust, but there is something satisfying in knowing that the ugliness and chaos of the day has not gone unnoticed.