Welcome back to May of the Dead! We’re diving right in for Part II – taking you through a hand-selected chronological trip through this most unkillable subgenre. Revisit Part I here for more information and, of course, Matt’s glorious Zombie Bingo Board.
Monday May 17th
Braindead aka Dead Alive (1992)
And the award for most inappropriately misleading poster goes to… Peter Jackson’s Kiwi splatterfest, Braindead. Here, the madness begins with the theft of a Sumatran rat-monkey, progresses to tap into Anthony Perkins’ over-protective Psycho “mother” vibes, with ears falling in custard, and ends with a descent into orgiastic chaos with a Wellington lawnmower massacre. I believe the locations from the opening “SINGAIA!” scenes were eventually reused in PJ’s The Lord of the Rings, and there’s also a neat Skull Island nod (the mythical setting of King Kong). The period aspects of Braindead never really occurred to me on first viewing, with its Teddy Boys, and girls with 1950s glasses and attire. There’s charm in the crudity of the model plane sequence; a cheapness I didn’t appreciate at the time, but thoroughly enjoy now. They use some clever forced perspective. I love the stop motion rat-monkey at the zoo, and find all that handmade stuff endearing and miss it in modern cinema.
An almost British sensibility to the character approach, makes Braindead a little easier to digest for me. There’s even a “God Save the Queen” (on a horse) opening. I can identify with elements of the misplaced pride at play, mainly from the matriarchs in my family. What the neighbours think is the most important thing, and to be embarrassed or shamed publicly in some way would be a fate worse than death – something taken literally here. The rebirth of our hero (Lionel), emerging again from his mother, Vera Cosgrove’s body, albeit this time a giant, monstrous version of her on the roof of their house, represents a changed man, finally on his own – not under her strict control, but independent, and free to love whoever he chooses.
“Your mother ate my dog!”Paquita, Braindead
There’s a sequence, in which a baby hangs from a light fixture, falls into a blender, is promptly ejected, punched through a window, hits a man in the bollocks, the man’s wig falls onto the baby’s head, and gardening shears are then used to cut the wig off. When have you ever seen or heard of anything like that happening in a film? In fact, to illustrate the madness of Dead Alive, I’ll list some of its most bizarre and unique splatstick moments.
We have Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine’s Forrest J. Ackerman with a brief zoo cameo, Fernando the devoured dog, a kung-fu vicar “Kicking arse for the Lord,” a semi-severed headed zombie nurse with a syringe up her nose chewing off a zombie vicar’s face while they copulate… impaled, a woman punched through the back of the head resulting in the fist coming out of her mouth, a guy gets his legs eaten and only the bones remain, a zombie baby is hurled against a wall and caught up on its umbilical cord, there’s a zombie (literally) in a toilet, and a head used as a football. The lawnmower slaughter could be the goriest thing ever committed to film. A zombie “Baby Selwyn” emerging from a woman’s face by tearing it open, is another unforgettable image. Also, perhaps most disturbingly (or hilariously?), a violent beating of the infant Selwyn in a park – punching the toddler (mainly realised as a puppet, but also briefly as a crawling, human-sized double in a onesie) in the face, slamming him into the ground, and beating him in a bag. It’s not for the faint-hearted or weak of stomach. Honestly, the film is so grotesque and disgusting that it’s solely for the extremists – people who can appreciate a sick sense of humour and perverted visuals.
Tuesday May 18th
Return of the Living Dead III (1993)
Skipping over the somewhat tired retread of Part II, which sees original cast members Thom Mathews and James Karen assuming new roles as graverobbers and fails resolutely and painfully to capture the scuzzy majesty of the first film, Re-Animator producer Brian Yuzna took the helm for a film which, if nothing else, radically deviated from the formula. Finding the military back in possession of the 2-4-5 Trioxin gas, they begin testing it to see whether zombies could be used in combat – two senior officers in a secretive facility having a disagreement whether cryogenic darts or exoskeletons are the way to go. Snooping from up in the rafters of this unfortunately extremely cheap-looking set are the rebellious son of one of the colonels, Curt, and his badass girlfriend Julie.
A horrendous motorcycle accident leaves Julie dead and Curt with a Pet Semataryesque decision to make, having seen how the 2-4-5 Trioxin works – a decision he obviously takes with inevitably tragic consequences. On the lam from the military facility with his dad in pursuit, Curt realises what he’s got himself in to when Julie starts chowing down on the brains of an unfortunate liquor store manager that they inadvertently get shot in the head by the cops after a gang of wrong ‘uns have held up his store and wounded him. Julie also takes a bite out of one of the gang – who also take up the trail of our star-crossed lovers and hunt them in to the sewer system under the L.A. River. There, they meet the slightly questionable River Man, a sage vagrant who takes them in while Julie’s deterioration and growing hunger for brains continues apace. She finds that physical pain helps to sat that hunger, so begins scarring herself with nails and glass until the gang show up and start smacking Curt around. In one of the most curious and startling iterations of the old ‘tooling up for the fight’ montage, Julie pierces herself with glass and metal until she becomes a walking weapon.
Despite its manageable runtime, there are some longueurs and pacing issues as the film holds back on the crazy a little too long, treading water while its melodramatic relationship drama doesn’t always hit despite the game work of Mindy Clarke – J. Trevor Edmond struggles to elevate his sketchily defined character opposite her, although is perfectly serviceable. It also doesn’t quite deliver on screen the way it really should once it finally presents us with Julie in her final form, with her rampage through our perfunctory gang baddies suffering from what I’d imagine are very fragile practical effects that limit mobility and too much mad roughhousing. The practical effects in general are a mixed bag, exacerbated by a directing style which doesn’t always hide their budgetary shortcomings. But, that iconic image carries the film a long way, as does a chaotic ending with some very meaty shotgun blasts and creative limb splatter that highlights the best of Yuzna’s authentic weirdness (see Society for his magum opus in that regard). It’s not a home run, but it does try admirably hard to break out of the overriding tone of films that had taken root since Dawn and had infected the vast majority of the 1980s output – that blackly comic, sticky irony that had served the likes of Re-Animator and Evil Dead II and of course the original Return so well, but had perhaps become stale through inferior repetition by less interesting creative hands. While we do get our gore quota, Yuzna really does try to foreground the tragic doomed romance of Curt and Julie, attempting to push the series in a new direction that sadly was ignored when the sad cash-in sequels of the mid-00s slithered out in to the world.
Wednesday May 19th
Cemetery Man (1994)
Continuing with a mini-burst of twisted romantic zombie movies, Michele Soavi’s Dellamorte Dellamore A.K.A. Cemetery Man is, first and foremost, an absolute visual treat. I doubt there’s been a more beautiful zombie movie ever made. Soavi, who memorably appears as the masked man at the beginning of Demons and acted as an assistant director on that set, worked alongside Dario Argento from Tenebrae onwards, and also served as an assistant director on my beloved The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, clearly learning plenty of lessons from both directors. From Argento, the morbid mixing of sex and death, the way a camera can seem to thirstily drink in beautiful actors; from Gilliam, the pure cinematic thrill of meticulously dressed, fairy-tale-esque sets which appear at once artificial and totally, believably lived-in. He may even have swiped Gilliam’s stunning Death puppet from that set which appears in this film to our very unusual protagonist.
Starting out on relatively solid ground, the film lays out its basic premise – the dead are coming back to life, and the titular Cemetery Man, the caretaker played by Rupert Everett, is lumbered with the unenviable task of dispatching them with a bullet to the head. His assistant, a near-mute lunk called Gnaghi, assists in re-disposing of the corpses and spends the rest of his time chasing dead leaves. A huge bus accident leaves Dellamorte with a lot more reanimated trouble on his hands – a town’s worth of dead Boy Scouts, plus the mayor’s daughter and her biker boyfriend. Added to this, Dellamorte has found himself infatuated with a mysterious young widow, although their budding macabre romance is cut short by the return from the dead of her dearly beloved old husband, on whose grave they were having sex.
To say things get complicated from here would be an understatement. Sexual impotence, doppelgangers, murder, suicide, necrophilia and more are wheeled out with reckless abandon and in impeccably stylish fashion as the film oscillates between super creative Evil Dead-ish, darkly comic zombie violence and hints towards something more morose and melancholic. The usual caveat for so much Italian genre cinema applies here – if you’re looking for characters to behave in ways that logic would dictate should follow the actions on screen, this will be a frustrating experience. This is ecstatic, surreal-tinged gothica of the highest order – a ripe and lusty delve in to darkness that could only have sprung from a fertile and fevered imagination. A rare bright spot in an otherwise slightly moribund period in zombie movie history, and a cult object in the most pure sense.
Thursday May 20th
A film that is so of its time you can practically smell the pleather trenchoats, yet wildly incorporates such a dizzying array of genres and tropes that it remains box fresh, Ryuhei Kitamura’s feature debut sees the young director swing for the fences in a spectacular way, fashioning his clearly minimal budget in to a film of remarkable style. By his own admission stuffing in every idea he could conceive of, Kitamura directs as if this is his one and only shot at creating a feature film, a 2 hour ballet of martial arts, swordplay, technopunk, gangsters, zombies, mysterious fates and portals to hell.
Kitamura takes Japan’s burgeoning zombie fascination (in the wake of major video games hits Resident Evil and The House of the Dead) and, in his opening scene, blends it with a hyperviolent, twicthy Edo-era martial arts film, as an unknown protagonist chops down a forest full of undead sword-wielding samurai before succumbing to the blade of a shamanic bad guy and is bisected in the time-honoured ‘cut/slide’ method. This lays the groundwork for what we’re about to see, visually: a forest (a location beloved of low budget filmmakers everywhere – it’s cheap, everything sort of matches, you don’t have to build a set to have something going on visually in the background); kinetic action scenes replete with film speed ramp shots and a pulsing score; swooshy sound design; and a whole lot of pretty impressive practical gore effects. From there, we launch in to a ‘modern day’ present that has so many wraparound sunglasses and over-gelled hair spikes you’ll develop the urge to go watch the entire Kerrang TV video catalogue on YouTube as soon as you’re done. Two unnamed escaped convicts, one of whom is handcuffed to a severed hand (a gag that pays off brilliantly later), run in to a bunch of besuited gangster types, where the first of many multiple participant gunpointy showdowns ensues. Much mystery groundwork is laid, including a kidnapped young woman who ends up being taken on the run by our protagonist Prisoner KSC2-303 once the bodies not only hit the floor, but rise right back up off it and start chowing down on the flesh of the remaining gangsters.
From there, Kitamura’s love of Highlander bleeds in to an opaque, vaguely mythical narrative that, while taking place entirely in the aforementioned budget-friendly forest (which we find out is, inconveniently for the Yakuza who buried untold numbers of their murder victims there but conveniently for gore-hound viewers, The Forest of Resurrection, hence all the zombies), knows to add an extra wrinkle, another kickass wire-fight sequence, another self-consciously cool-guy-pose-for-the-swelling-score moment to keep up the admirably relentless pace. I’m not sure it means anything beyond what it is, and that’s fine – it’s a giddy, silly, rollicking ride of a film that, while its zombies seem to come and go at the whims of the script, has all the gross, gutslashing, decapitating, shotgun blasting grotesquerie you might want from a later zombie movie, plus a whole heap of other weirdness besides.
Friday May 21st
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
If nü-metal was a zombie movie it would be Zack Snyder’s 2004 directorial debut (unfortunately penned by the questionable James Gunn) and noughties remake of George A. Romero’s 1978 undead opus, Dawn of the Dead. Yes, it’s garishly colour-corrected to hell, but it ticks all the zombie movie boxes. There’s jump scares and satirical, if unsubtle, comedy. I understand now why the zombie film had this sudden, massive resurgence – it often lazily allowed for every blatant up and down stroke of dramatic storytelling, and could easily incorporate topical, contemporary commentary on whatever social issues the world was struggling with at the time.
“Hell is overflowing, and Satan is sending his dead to us. Why? Because you have sex out of wedlock. You kill unborn children. You have man-on-man relations, same sex marriage. How do you think your God will judge you? Well friends, now we know. When there is no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth.”The Televangelist, Dawn of the Dead
Ving Rhames, Mekhi Phifer and Sarah Polley make up a decent cast. Dawn ’78 OG, Ken Foree, pops up as a televangelist preacher, and “one cool motherfucker” Tom Savini’s cop cameo puts a cherry on the bloody cake. I can’t say I’m much of a Snyder fan (although he has a knack for well-soundtracked opening title sequences, expertly using Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin'” in Watchmen and “The Man Comes Around” by Johnny Cash here, as an apocalyptic icebreaker), but the subgenre’s key elements come together here fairly well, and his OTT, showy style meshes and gels with the material and performances. There are times when there’s no tact at all, as you’d expect from Snyder and Gunn, like the crowbarring in of nudity, the execution of a zombie baby, and the now cringy, “Down with the Sickness” montage, which is “rad” when you’re a teenager in a Papa Roach t-shirt and you’re mad at your dad, but the older you get, it loses its edge and grates.
Dawn ’04 does, however, boast an intensity and an adept balance of practical and digital effects, and although it showcases zombie purists’ sworn enemies, “running zombies,” it mostly sticks to Romero lore, and for my money remains one of the preeminent modern zombie horrors and shouldn’t be neglected, even if it is an inferior remake of arguably the greatest zombie film ever made.
Saturday May 22nd
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
The gang that brought us Spaced reunite for their first foray into features (sort of, not counting Edgar’s ’95 effort, A Fistful of Fingers), in what George Romero himself, in his poster blurb, quite rightly called, “An absolute blast!”
“They were a bit… bitey.”Barbara, Shaun of the Dead
Shaun of the Dead’s detail and layering is beyond impressive. I never tire of clever, under the radar lines like, “Why don’t you go and live in the shed, you thick fuck!” Because he does! There are moments where I just wanted to clap – just give Edgar and Simon and their flip-chart draft a massive round of applause. Instances such as the TV news reports, which thread together different lines from different channels to form covert sentences about the outbreak is miraculous, and I can’t help but think people underestimate, or take for granted, the amount of ingenuity, careful planning, and time it takes to execute such a thing and have it be effective and funny.
From Fulci’s restaurant *wink*, to Foree Electric *nudge*, it’s all totally loyal to Romero, and the love and admiration shines through. How great that George could see it, and appreciate their appreciation of him by returning the favour, and sticking them in Land of the Dead as the photo opportunity zombies in chains.
Sunday May 23rd
Land of the Dead (2005)
As part of the zombie rise-up of the noughties, George A. Romero’s post apocalyptic Land of the Dead is often (fairly) smeared, but as one of the creator’s black sheep, it’s nevertheless an entertaining, lore-breaking sequel. This one burst straight from the brain of the master himself, so it must count for something in the overall oeuvre. Flawed, yes, but fun too. There’s a rather attractive, fish-netted Asia Argento, a loony Dennis Hopper, John Leguizamo as “Cholo,” a cameo from Shaun of the Dead creators, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg (who also made the one sheet poster), and a little person pimp called “Chihuahua.”
It will, no doubt, be puzzling for some to see zombies “evolving,” and learning to use weapons. Land tries a bit hard to reinvent the wheel, with a seemingly self-aware, gun-toting zombie, with a Steyr AUG, grunting loudly to communicate, albeit primitively. There’s some overwrought dialogue scenes, and comedic portrayals of zombies – a little lighter than Day of the Dead, with clunky and obvious plotting. To me, Romero’s talents lie firmly in his initial concepts and satirical schemes, not so much in his dialogue.
“Zombies, man. They creep me out.”Kaufman, Land of the Dead
Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger (of KNB fame) take on special effects duties, with some practical creatures to die for, who lumber and squelch throughout. The beautifully designed mournful makeups with minor digital enhancements work the best, but unfortunately suspect explosions, and my nemesis – CGI blood, rears its ugly head, and blows some of the reality – a cheap, sadly ongoing gimmick that would later tarnish much of Nicotero’s stellar practical work on The Walking Dead. Interestingly, zombies are referred to as “walkers” in Land of the Dead, and right from the get go, it feels very much like a precursor to the 2010 TV show. It makes sense that Nicotero would take what he learned from Romero and apply it liberally on TWD. There’s enough creative kills to keep bloodthirsty audiences interested, including a startling, belly button ring chain rip, a graphic eye bite, and people generally being ripped to shreds with aplomb. The opening’s tambourine and trombone, brass band zombies raised a chuckle. At times, Land borders on tedium, nothing really wows, but what it does attempt, it does fairly well, and for a film that’s largely maligned, it’s not quite as bad as folks make out; it’s just up against the greatest of the greats, where it gets pummelled. In spite of the state of the art FX, it unfortunately lacks a solid story and characters, as seen in Romero’s Night, Dawn, and Day, but it sneaked into my list of undead go-tos regardless. Again, make sure you unearth the unrated director’s cut.
Monday May 24th
Black Sheep (2006)
Oh wait, wrong Black Sheep. The trickster spirit of early Peter Jackson is alive and well in this fun Kiwi black comedy that gained a little traction and garnered some decent notices in the wake of the urtext of modern zomedy, Shaun of the Dead 2 years earlier. While it doubtless benefitted from the renewed attention on the genre and the mixing of dark humour and gory bloodletting, this film is very much a product of its place, with its oddly sweet-natured approach to an otherwise grotesque situation recognisable to fans of, for example, Taika Waititi’s What We Do In The Shadows. Black Sheep is less gag-centric than that film, as the central premise itself is essentially the joke. And in presenting it without nudging the audience in the ribs constantly, it manages to avoid the smug fate of so many lesser movies that simply expect that zombie plus unexpected thing equals comedy.
The script actually takes time to make something more out of its titular pun – the central fraternal conflict resulting from the elder son feeling disconnected from his farming family, and then inverting that dynamic when the younger son returns to the farm as an adult with a severe case of ovinaphobia following the tragic death of their father in an opening prologue. Character decisions, however outre or heightened by the requirements of the genre, are rooted in emotional responses that track throughout. Events are paced nicely, with set pieces studded throughout that manage to avoid falling in to the trap of repetition – one sequence that plays on the hilarity of oblivious sheep chomping down on guts is funny, but if they showed us the same trick 3 or 4 times the joke would wear thin extremely quickly. Luckily for us, elder brother Angus’ grotesque dabbling in genetics gift us with a variety of human-sheep hybrid creatures that showcase the phenomenal puppet and make up effects of the famed Weta Workshop.
Delightfully, this is actually a real film! It has nice cinematography, that contrasts the now-famous pastoral beauty of rural New Zealand with the Re-Animator-esque laboratory of horrors and plenty of dark and creepy barns for creatures to skulk about in. There’s a full, lush score that knows when to play it straight, and when to become more playful. Performances are game and likeable, and while not every one-liner lands completely (if I have one complaint, it’s that perhaps a polish to the dialogue could have gifted us some more memorable exchanges and helped up the laugh quotient just a little), the film’s physical comedy tends to hit the mark a lot more often that it misses. A film that survived the glut of comedy zombies of its era, and certainly deserves a place on our rundown.
Tuesday May 25th
At a mere 76 minutes, [REC] moves like a bullet, and hot on the heels of The Blair Witch Project, it’s my second favourite found footage horror. It feels like you’re mainlining fear; like a really scary fun house, or ghost train, with effective shock after effective shock. The claustrophobic, night vision finale invokes memories of The Silence of the Lambs. [REC] gladly wears all of its influences on its sleeve, and collages them together beautifully to make this a worthy entry, albeit at a slight stretch in terms of the authenticity of its “zombies.” When characters are bitten, they do “turn.” These are zombie bites if ever I saw them. It’s arguable whether it’s purely a transitional coma, or a death and reanimation, as the bite victims’ eyes roll over white and they begin to behave like the modern, running, post-28 Days Later “infected” we’ve come to know. Let’s not split hairs – it’s the way things are heading. [REC], to me at least, represents a succession within zombie cinema. It’s part of a natural evolution, and looking back we can chart these kinds of changes throughout, which often seem extreme upon release, but have always been present in this malleable subgenre.
“We have to tape everything, Pablo. For fuck’s sake.”Ángela, [REC]
The way the directors block [REC]’s foregrounds and backgrounds means we can often preempt what’s about to happen (in a suspenseful way) as someone crosses the frame, or lurks deep in the backdrop. It’s meticulously designed – a real work of art in that sense. It’s brash and loud, and takes more faux-doc liberties than something like The Blair Witch Project, which remains purer, but amid the R2-D2-style beeps and boops of Pablo’s camera, and its exaggerated faux breakup and pixelation, it’s nevertheless, still an incredibly effective movie. I’d probably lose the Spanish rock ‘n’ roll outro music over the credits, but at least it’s not the soulless, drastically inferior, American remake, Quarantine.
One of the most fascinating aspects of [REC] is that it was inspired, in part, by the Naudet brothers’ 9/11 (2002) documentary, in which two French filmmakers, who happened to be making a film about a probie firefighter in New York City, found themselves part of the first Ladder to respond to the incident at the World Trade Center. The entire events of that day were captured through their video cameras. Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza simply transposed the handheld chaos to an apartment complex in Barcelona, Spain, and injected a tidy virus/possession plot. In the Naudet film, we hear huge deafening crashes incrementally as “jumpers” from the towers fall to their deaths, and [REC] employs some of these real-life-inspired, terrifying and suspenseful moments as horror techniques. Those who question why anyone would continue taping in a situation like this must look to the Naudets. The Twin Towers were collapsing around them, and still they filmed everything.
Another interesting aspect of this recent rewatch was the effeminate chap who flirts with Pablo, and blames the “Chinese or Japanese” for the outbreak. He doesn’t understand them, he says it’s their fault, with their raw fish, and how they, “Run around shouting.” That kind of xenophobic, what would become Trump-era fear, along with COVID-19, the “Chinese Flu,” etc. was all present in [REC] way back in 2007, and now plays as prescient as ever.
Wednesday May 26th
28 Weeks Later (2007)
I know what you ghouls are thinking, “Matt, you’ve spelled Days wrong,” but believe it or not, it’s intentional. I went for 28 Weeks Later instead, initially because of the sheer intensity of its truly scary opening – starting out intimately, and exploding outwards into a terrifying multiple assailant pursuit – and then stuck with it and kept it among my 15, due to its unerring, negative Britain vibes, and menacing Shining-esque Robert Carlyle zombiness.
“Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything. Targets are now free. We’ve lost control.”Gen. Stone, 28 Weeks Later
I appreciate Danny Boyle and Alex Garland really going for it with 28 Days Later. It was such a bold move at the time, but upon rewatching, I was somewhat turned off by its digital PD150 video visuals, which cement it as being British with a lowercase b – almost as if Boyle was tentatively dipping his toe in the idea that us English were capable of delivering a decent zombie film. How dare we, when our film schools point us to the kitchen sink and tripod, and rarely dare us to break filmmaking traditions. 28 Weeks Later, however, in spite of its many shortcomings – first and foremost, an unrelenting bleakness, when all’s said and done, feels like zombie Britain on a Hollywood scale, and benefitted from an injection of American cash that the modest but important original lacked.
Thursday May 27th
Dead Set (2008)
If you’ve ever wondered what swapping Dawn of the Dead’s Monroeville Mall for Channel 4’s Big Brother compound would look like, check out Dead Set. Braaaiiinnnsss-child (soz) of TV-wiper and Black Mirror maestro, Charlie Brooker, the satirical, reality telly-skewering bloodbath is a smart, stylish and profound contemporary take on the zombie narrative, using authentic Big Brother graphics, an accurate BB house, even real crowd footage from an actual eviction night, spliced in to add authenticity. Zingers like, “Does this mean we’re not on telly anymore?” and “Big Brother is not watching us” really pop, and are evidence of a scathing, snide intellect driving things.
During BB’s decade-long, Channel 4 glory years, its contestants would repeatedly remark upon evictions, particularly sudden surprise evictions, feeling akin to deaths. In a house where you spend every minute of every day with people, only to lose them abruptly, and entirely, to the hungry horde outside, this is somewhat understandable. When they’re gone, there’s a chance you’ll never see them again. We’re also accustomed to seeing the most minor spats in the Big Brother house flare up into screaming matches and occasionally even physical violence. With Dead Set, Brooker refreshingly subverts this by depicting anything but trivial arguments about life and death zombie survival strategies. As a huge Big Brother fan, obvious parallels of the Jade Goody creation and destruction arc spring to mind. Just the year before, in 2007, unknown to the imprisoned housemates, a worldwide race row broke out. The subsequent fallout preceded Goody’s illness and untimely death. Big Brother births z-list stars (thank you), turns them into self-obsessed narcissistic monsters, and then the British tabloid press devours them. For me, it’s the most profound and poignant slant on zombie horror since the consumerist skewering of Romero’s original Dawn – an intelligent, satirical swipe at reality television and the zonked living room zombies we’ve become. A scathing attack on the shallow, the self-absorbed, and the era-defining show it utilises – from its contestants, presenter, live studio audience, behind the scenes puppeteers, to the complicit audiences at home.
“Why do people riot anyway? It’s not the eighties! They should stay in and watch telly.”Patrick, Dead Set
Dead Set stars daughter of Ray, Jaime Winstone, and features cameos from former BBUK housemates, Eugene, Ziggy, Makosi, Bubble, Imogen, Aisleyne, and fan fave Brian Belo, who thankfully gets his own frightening zombie transformation. A youthful Riz Ahmed pleasantly pops up, UK comedy “that guy,” Kevin Eldon, who is always under the radar brilliant, and a zombie Davina McCall, which is perhaps the standout for me, as she’s truly menacing – subverting her image as a friendly face we’ve seen and felt comforted by almost all our lives, by transforming into a rage-filled, corridor-inhabiting, creature of the undead. It boasts some superb deaths, most notably an ’85 Day of the Dead, Captain Rhodes-style, ripped apart by the horde demise – a fitting and deliciously satisfying end for a despicable rat character, which has become an essential trope in zombie pictures.
The 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, and 2007’s [REC] (the year before) injected a brutal, fast-paced energy to spice up the zombie film, which Dead Set not only embraces, but also adds a keen-eyed social commentary and depth, amid a really fun script and several solid performances. Anyone sticking with our picks will get, and giggle along to, the lovably hateable Patrick’s (Andy Nyman) obscure reference of, “Face like a Manchester morgue.” It’s a worthy peer to its predecessors and it’s influences. With a hefty running time of 141 minutes over 5 episodes, Dead Set is best digested in its entirety, in the early evening for the full harrowing experience. Yann Demange (Top Boy) directs proficiently, with a pace beyond the typical zombie fare – largely owing to 28 Days Later’s DV aesthetic (mainly its jittery, juddery, step-frame, mad shutter speed shaky-cam) and sprinting rage-infected foes. Before CGI completely took hold, Dead Set was somewhat of a high point visually. It adopts a harsh, yet appropriate, videotape look, which plays a bit gimmicky now, but certainly adds an immediate, abstract urgency to the cinematography, and an intense nail-biting aspect to the horror.
At the time, Dead Set’s fast zombies were a point of contention for Shaun of the Dead star and Romero zombie purist, Simon Pegg, but any claims of inauthenticity were soon dispelled by Brooker, who invoked a scene from Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead, in which two zombie children run. I understand why people resent the modernization of the “fast zombie” approach, as it arguably renders some of the older films tame, and once you take that massive leap forward it’s hard to go back. Like fleeing from a monster in a dream, slow zombies hold their own nightmarish power, but these intense, high-speed pursuits are just as nasty, if not more horrific in nature. But it’s a different kind of horror, and although they’re under the same subgenre umbrella, one shouldn’t necessarily compete with the other. There’s room for both (although I’m a bit of a purist myself, and prefer the Romero rules). The slow-moving hordes that outnumber you is one thing, but furious, rage-infected, hyper-fast running zombies is another kind of nightmare fuel altogether, and although it’s often dismissed as inauthentic, it’s unarguably tense to watch. It’s an inescapable evolution, and therefore part of zombie lore, and films utilising it perhaps shouldn’t be ignored or excised completely from lists like this based solely upon this controversial departure.
Friday May 28th
World War Z (2013)
They say the next wave of global disasters will dictate the next wave of zombie movies, and our current fears are always brought to the fore. Here, it’s a widespread pandemic, which again, is eerily appropriate for us in 2021. In the era of COVID-19, I think I picked out more viral zombie movies than I otherwise would have. This one teetered on the precipice of being relegated, but I just couldn’t pull the trigger. There’s something deeply fascinating and watchable about it, and WWZ has become somewhat of a guilty pleasure for me.
“Mother Nature is a serial killer. No one’s better, more creative.”Fassbach, World War Z
For someone who’s allergic to CGI, I can somehow miraculously stomach World War Z. I understand, in order to make something on this massive scale, you need to employ modern technology. Here, the little CG zombie avatars, capable of climbing up one another, intentionally appear like swarming insects. It’s another key evolution of the subgenre, making the zombie movie bigger and bigger in scope. It takes the trope of the horde to a ludicrous extreme, with its gargantuan action sequences – namely the frantic, veiny, rageaholic “hive zombies,” flooding over overturned buses, and that “all pile on” pyramid to breach the walls in Israel, which become so frantic and abstract, that the geography is occasionally lost, but the overall suspense is handled fairly well.
Why is Party of Five and Lost star, Matthew Fox, even in this movie? His appearances are so brief, I don’t think he gets a single close up. The only answer I can think of is that his later scenes were cut in the great shake up that was the infamous Damon Lindelof rewrite and subsequent reshoot. Perhaps he was part of the erased battle in Moscow’s Red Square.
The film is built up in sections, which make it quite palatable in one or two sittings. We get the Philadelphia opening, then the Camp Humphreys segment in Korea, then Jerusalem – arguably the highlight from an action perspective, and finally the frankly forced W.H.O. Lab stuff in Cardiff, which is where the film unfortunately takes a bit of a nosedive for me.
Saturday May 29th
Busanhaeng (Train to Busan) (2016)
How could I not pick it? It’s Korean, it’s quarantine-centric, and we’re all struggling through this bloody COVID-19 era right now. I wanted something that felt like what has been my home for five years now, and Busanhaeng fits the bill. The subsequent Seoul Station, disappointing cash in, Train to Busan presents Peninsula, 2020’s #Alive, and popular TV show Kingdom, quickly followed, and as someone who teaches Korean kids, it’s safe to say zombies are still very much all the rage.
It was such a huge hit here, all the kids have seen it – even the younger ones. They know what zombies are because of this movie. The other day, a lad had to colour a rabbit green in his book for a phonics class, and he said, “Zombie rabbit!” or “Jombie” as the kids often mispronounce it here. I remember wanting to make a kids’ zombie film called, Jombie Dijaster, but my girlfriend said it was a bit racist. Probably wise.
“All are dead!”Homeless Man, Train to Busan
A divorced family, with a distant/estranged child, typically not getting along with their dad, is an overdone trope, especially in apocalyptic, end of the world sci-fi movies – I’m looking at you, War of the Worlds, and the as per usual, Spielberg-aping of Roland Emmerich with 2012. But unlike many of its Hollywood counterparts, Train to Busan plays as extremely touching. This is where I must confess to rolling tears at least twice, on average, throughout its running time.
Busanhaeng features some of the finest physical zombie appearances I’ve ever seen on film. It draws on everything preceding it, and advances the creatures. Again, I’m not keen on the liberal use of CGI as a rule, but the makeup, the contorted performances, and the overall aesthetic of the zombies makes this one incredibly intense. This propulsive, inhuman, surging forward, where the zombies clamber over each other desperately at an intense speed, is totally reminiscent of World War Z, made 3 years previous, which was the first time I’d seen it done to that extent, using digital doubles. If you go frame-by-frame through Busan, the action is so petrifying and layered, so smartly and conscientiously done, it warrants multiple viewings.
Sunday May 30th
One Cut of the Dead/カメラを止めるな! (2017)
A film I lauded back at HalloRe’ewind but absolutely couldn’t leave off this list of my go-to zombie movie favourites, once again I find myself in the conundrum of trying to recommend a film where a lot of its joy derives from the discovery of the story’s twists and turns. Suffice to say, it took a hell of a lot of recommendation to get this one to stick with me – the world seems to be awash with low budget zombie comedies, usually spinning some variety of the phrase “of the dead” in its title (although the original Japanese title has no such allusion), and the poster also seemed to suggest that this was either a found footage, or a faux documentary film. Again, both can be great in the right hands (What We Do In The Shadows proves that) but are often used as a convenient workaround for only having access to handheld digitial video cameras. Essentially I was burned out on the version of this film that I judgmentally created in my head and resisted watching it and now I think it’s hands down one of my favourite films of the last 10 years.
I had perhaps expected a loose film, one that used a shaky handheld camera to piece together some kind of comic shenanigans, and in a sense that’s how the film’s first 1/3 plays out. We begin on the set of a zombie movie in progress, in an isolated industrial warehouse. As the camera pulls back from the scene to reveal a furious, Hawaiian-shirted director screaming at his leading lady. The two leads, taking downtime with the make-up artist, have a bizarre and stilted conversation that hints at a sinister, Resident Evil-esque history of macabre research at this very location, before crew members start getting picked off and resurrected in some very unusual ways. A chaotic 30 minutes follows as our one-take crew struggle to keep up with the action, before a shift in tone reveals the incredible artistry and meticulous planning that went in to creating it.
Now that we’re so far down the road in this subgenre, it’s inevitable that films would have to get meta in order to be effective. Shaun of the Dead managed to combine parody of the classic shambling Romero zombie with a reverence for the form, and some moments that managed to still bring the horror and tragedy to the fore. One Cut instead gives us something different, but equally meta, and equally combining heart, reverence, laughs, and bloodletting. It’s a charming, meticulous and surprising film that certainly resurrected my interest in a subgenre that I had, perhaps, thought had run its course completely.
Monday May 31st
The Dead Don’t Die (2019)
A Jim Jarmusch zombie film? Yes, please! The Dead Don’t Die is a star-studded zomb-semble, touted as “the greatest zombie cast ever disassembled,” consisting of Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Chloë Sevigny, Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Selena Gomez, Tilda Swinton, Rosie Perez, Iggy Pop, RZA, Carol Kane, and a vagrant Tom Waits, who acts as narrator, and guide to the consumerist dead, dragging us back to Romero’s Dawn by lamenting these ghouls are, “Just hungry for more stuff.” An environmentally conscious Jarmusch seems to be blaming fracking for the Earth’s orbital shift, and of course, Jarmusch zombies drink gallons of coffee, and say things like “Freee caaaable!” “Chardonnay,” “Snapple,” “Snickers,” “Wi-fi,” “Xanex,” and “Ambien.”
Still not sold? Firstly, what is wrong with you? Secondly, the zombies look absolutely brilliant – the design is incredible; what Jarmusch achieves practically is certainly the best stuff. Again, grandad over here, I’m a broken record – the CGI is bothersome, but stylised in a way that places The Dead Don’t Die in the forgivable/acceptable category. The black dust rising when the zombies are killed, and the Walking Dead way the sliced heads slide off sideways somehow play ok. It ain’t Day of the Dead ’85, by any stretch of the imagination, but it works within this context.
“What a fucked up world.”Hermit Bob, The Dead Don’t Die
I didn’t think it was possible to make a meditative, calming, zombie movie, but Jarmusch went and did it. It’s very smart, very accepting of death, very matter-of-fact, self-referential and meta – to the degree that Adam Driver actually possesses a Star Wars Imperial Star Destroyer keychain. Murray is funny, charming, and naturalistic as hell, as per, as Centerville’s Chief Clifford Robinson. It’s a real slow burn, unlikely to thrill or terrify as a horror, but as film thirty-one, and a whimsical wind down to this May marathon of ours, it’s peaceful, contemplative nature, and relevance make it a fitting final coda to our Zombie Awareness Month. In a genre where everyone’s trying to do something a little different, The Dead Don’t Die perhaps represents the final evolutionary (or devolutionary) stage of the modern zombie film. At least, for now.
Undying thanks to Devlin for accompanying me on this quest, and thank you, fellow ghouls, for listening, reading, and watching along. With that, to put this monster marathon to sleep – stay scared, stay sick, and unpleasant dreams.