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Posts Tagged ‘zombies (comedy)’

One of the things I’ve been doing over the last few months to keep myself occupied and stay sane is (brace yourself for delight) write a book. My chosen topic relates to the writer H.P. Lovecraft, a writer of early 20th century horror stories, and one of the things it occurred to me to include was a brief overview of the various movies based on or influenced by Lovecraft’s writing. To be honest, the latter category probably contains more distinguished films than the former: it includes, arguably, every version of The Thing, Annihilation, Hellboy (and many other del Toro movies), and so on. Actual Lovecraft adaptations tend to be cheaper and creaker, beginning with The Haunted Palace, and going on to include the likes of Die, Monster, Die!, The Unnamable, and plenty of obscurities with titles like Cthulhu Mansion, Castle Freak, and Dagon. In the end I gave up on trying to be comprehensive – it’s not even as if there’s a universally-respected reference work on the subject, as the most prominent candidate – entitled Lurker in the Lobby: The Guide to Lovecraftian Cinema – has been the recipient of mixed reviews, to say the least.

Despite having spent my time in the trenches when it comes to this kind of thing, there was still a very obvious omission: one of the most obvious cult movies based on Lovecraft’s work, Stuart Gordon’s 1985 film Re-Animator. (This garnered Gordon such a following that he has gone on to become possibly the most prolific adaptor of Lovecraft to the screen: some of the films mentioned up the page are his.) Happily, the movie – which for quite a long time never turned up on terrestrial TV, simply because of the levels of gore in it – popped up on one of the high number channels just the other day.

As the short story the film is based on is set in real Lovecraft country – which is to say, mist-haunted New England – I was slightly surprised when the opening scenes of the movie turned out to take place at a university in 1980s Switzerland. Something is terribly wrong with respected academic Dr Hans Gruber: he seems to be having some kind of seizure, followed by his eyeballs exploding (if nothing else this sequence does set the tone for the rest of the movie very accurately). Needless to say, Gruber expires shortly afterwards. Suspicion falls on visiting American student Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), who insists that rather than murdering Gruber through some dangerous experiment, he in fact brought him back to life!

And we’re off into an appropriately garish credit sequence, which is extra-confuzzling for the cine-literate (or even not so cine-literate) viewer, as the score of the film is very blatantly ripping off that of Psycho (so it’s not as if they’re just copying some obscure movie with bland and nondescript music). It’s perhaps a slightly more poppy, upbeat, burlesque version of the Psycho theme, but even so I’m astonished that writs didn’t fly in the direction of credited composer Richard Band.

Anyway, we find ourselves back in the States, at Miskatonic Medical School, where youthful Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) is pursuing his medical studies and romancing the daughter (Barbara Crampton) of the Dean (Robert Sampson). Dan’s life gets a bit more complicated when he rents his spare room and basement out to Herbert West, who has miraculously managed to get out of Europe without being subject to major criminal charges. Now West is looking to continue his experiments into the prolongation of life, despite the scorn heaped upon him by his tutor, Dr Hill (David Gale), and recruits Dan to help him.

Dan and Megan (his girlfriend) are less than thrilled when West uses their pet cat as one of his experimental subjects, raising it from the dead but also transforming it into a hissing, savage, manic terror. When Dan attempts to tell the Dean about what West is up to, the Dean promptly dismisses the idea and kicks them both out. This only serves to strengthen their determination, and they sneak back into the school morgue late at night, intent on using West’s re-animation serum on a human subject…

The odd thing about Re-Animator is that its roots in Lovecraft’s short story Herbert West – Re-Animator are absolutely clear, yet the tone and style of the film couldn’t be more different from it. The movie is really a textbook example of a rather odd subgenre known as splatstick, essentially a splatter movie (the sine qua non of which is graphic, extravagantly gory special effects) played for laughs: a hyper-active descendant of the grand guignol. It captures the essence of Lovecraft’s outrageously overblown prose surprisingly well, for all that it is still clearly a gonzo 80s comedy-horror film, clearly owing a debt to The Evil Dead amongst others. After the exploding eyeballs before the opening credits, the film calms down, but the gradual escalation of the level of gore throughout the film is surprisingly shrewdly done. The film is pitched with impressive skill, with the horror and comedy elements apparently in lockstep.

It’s still a startlingly extreme film in some ways – quite apart from the moment where one character is obliged to wrestle with a reanimated intestine, there’s another where a naked female character is leched over by the decapitated head of the villain (his headless corpse thrusts the severed bonce into rather intimate areas of her personal space). Part of me suspects that Lovecraft would still have abhorred its crassness and crudeness, though. The source short story is a bit of an outlier as far as the Lovecraft canon goes – for all that it introduces Miskatonic University (one of the key locations in Lovecraft country), it’s not really a part of his wider cycle of cosmic horror stories, arguably being written as an exercise in self-parody. Nothing wrong with that – though it’s hard to tell the difference between a self-parodying Lovecraft and the author in full flow in earnest – but it is also one of the stories in which Lovecraft’s much-criticised racist attitudes are given their fullest articulation. Gordon, thankfully, incorporates none of this, resulting in a movie which may be highly objectionable to many viewers, but isn’t actually bigoted.

I have to say I rather enjoyed it and was very glad to finally see it: it’s played with energy and conviction by the cast (it’s easy to see why Jeffrey Combs has gone on to enjoy a good career as a cult actor), and written and directed with flair. It is still such a spectacularly icky film that I can imagine a lot of people just being repelled by it. And that’s fair enough. But if you can take the pace, and the subject matter, it’s a lot of fun.

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Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland: Double Tap concludes in a manner which summarises the whole film rather nicely: as the credits roll, Woody Harrelson treats the audience to a full-throated rendition of the Elvis number ‘Hunka Hunka Burning Love’. It is enthusiastic, not actually awful, and indeed sort of entertaining, but it’s also a bit baffling and you do wonder what the point of it is.

It has, after all been ten years since the first film appeared. I did say at the time that a sequel would be welcome, but I didn’t quite anticipate there being quite such a long delay before its appearance – the Optimum Period Before Sequel is something we have discussed here as well, of course, and a decade is really pushing it. Even the film seems to be aware of the distinct possibility that it’s turned up too late for its own party – ‘Hello again! And after so long!’ are the opening words of Jesse Eisenberg’s voice-over. Given that the main players have gone on to bigger and more reputable things in the intervening period, one can only assume they genuinely have come back out of fondness for the material on this occasion, though I note that Emma Stone now qualifies for an ‘And’ in the credits, unsurprising given she is now probably the biggest star involved.

I could take up quite a lot of space listing all the various handwaves the film deploys and the ways in which it kind of demands the audience cut it some slack – the main one is to do with just how much time has elapsed since the original movie. None of the zombies have actually rotted away to nothing (then again, this is almost a convention of the zombopocalypse genre), and there are vague references to ‘a few years’ having gone by. On the other hand, Abigail Breslin was 13 when she made the first film and is very visibly 23 now, so they do have to sort of address this. What it all means is that from the start the film demands the audience be complicit in its silliness and the fact it doesn’t really hold together as anything other than a knowing piece of popcorn entertainment.

Anyway: as the film starts, the quartet of survivors – Tallahassee (Harrelson), Columbus (Eisenberg), Wichita (Stone) and her sister Little Rock (Breslin) – have made the derelict White House their new home, mainly because this is just a funny idea. The plot struggles a bit before managing to contrive stresses within the group that result in the two women departing, leaving the men behind. Columbus is initially bereft by the departure of the love of his life, but then comes across Madison (Zoey Deutch), an epically dim young woman who’s been living in a fridge since the collapse of civilisation. Then Wichita reappears, delivering the news that Little Rock’s rebelliousness has reached the point where she is now heading for Graceland in the company of a pacifist folk-singer.

Needless to say, the group agree to put their differences aside and make sure Little Rock is all right, although the presence of Madison amongst them inevitably causes some friction. A bigger concern is the appearance of a new and much deadlier breed of zombie, which they are bound to encounter if they go back on the road…

When Zombieland initially came out I was rather positive about it, noting the surprising longevity of the zombie boom which was kicked off by Danny Boyle and Alex Garland in 2002. That was ten years ago, and things seem to have got to the point where the zombie movie has become something of a staple of the horror genre: doing a new zombie-themed TV show or movie or book or comic isn’t really noteworthy anymore – just more of the same. Double Tap acknowledges this when it jokily refers to the wide availability of zombie-themed entertainment these days.

It doesn’t actually try to spoof or parody the zombie genre any more than the original film, though, nor is it a particularly serious attempt at an actual horror movie – there is plenty of gore and splatter in the course of the story, naturally, but it’s only fleetingly scary. Nothing is taken seriously enough to be actually disturbing or frightening. Instead, this is basically just a rather offbeat comedy film which happens to feature a handful of elaborate sequences with the stars blowing the heads off undead extras with impressively big guns.

So how does it hold together as a comedy? Well, I did kind of fear the worst for the first few minutes of the film, as it really does struggle to find its groove, with the various developments in the relationships between the quartet feeling laboriously contrived, and good jokes being rather thin on the ground (the film is set in a world where the Trump presidency never happened – one good thing about a zombie apocalypse, maybe – so any satire derived from the characters being in the White House is only implicit). However, once the plot is laid in, and especially once Deutch’s character appears, it does pick up quite considerably and there are some very funny moments.

These are mostly due to the skill and efforts of the cast – Harrelson is on particularly good form, though Eisenberg and Stone also contribute deft comic performances – because the script itself is really all over the place when it comes to things like the actual plot. The story is episodic to the point of feeling actually disjointed, with weird digressions and tangents happening throughout, regardless of whether they actually make a great deal of sense (at one point Tallahassee and Columbus meet their near-doubles, Albuquerque and Flagstaff) or advance the story. The film seems to take a (not inappropriate) shotgun approach to comedy, blasting away wildly at anything in sight in the hope that at least some of the jokes will hit the mark. It just about manages to get away with it.

What is interesting, and kind of refreshing, is that as a result the film feels a bit less inhibited in terms of its humour than many modern films. By this I mean that Double Tap quite shamelessly includes jokes about dumb blondes who love pink things, gun-loving right-wingers, hippies, and so on (jokes about a hippy commune in a 2019 movie? Yes indeed. See what I mean about the film being a bit all over the place in some respects). At a time when it feels like most mainstream movies have to subject themselves to a rigorous vetting by the Progressive Agenda Committee (apparently the focus group decided it’s a much friendlier name than the Thought Police), it is nice to find a film which apparently doesn’t care at all about that sort of thing.

It doesn’t quite change the fact that Zombieland: Double Tap is really a superfluous sequel trading heavily on fond memories of the first film. As a comedy, it is funny enough to justify its existence, and it is honestly¬† quite nice to spend an hour and a half watching something so openly and inoffensively silly, intended only to entertain. It never quite trashes the memory of the first film, but neither does it really add lustre to its reputation.

 

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 19th 2009:

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to the movie review that’s not afraid to be wrong. Well now, first off this week we look at the latest offering from Ricky Gervais, who’s risen from near-obscurity to international acclaim and bona fide movie stardom in only the time it takes a rather lazy and feckless person to write 170 editions of an intermittently popular internet film review column. Currently he’s on screen in The Invention of Lying, which as usual he co-wrote and directed, on this occasion with Matthew Robinson (fans of the Og-monster can take heart: Gervais’ regular collaborator Stephen Merchant gets a tiny cameo).

Gervais has described this film as an attempt at ‘the funniest Twilight Zone episode ever’ , which isn’t at all misleading, although I don’t recall Rod Serling ever launching a Zone story with an extended comic riff about masturbation, as happens here. Anyway, it’s the story of Mark Bellison (Gervais), an unsuccessful staff writer at a film company. His mum is in a care home and his most recent date with the lovely Anna (Jennifer Garner) was hardly a great success. But his life changes forever when Mark discovers he has the unique, near-supernatural ability to say things that aren’t literally true!

For Mark lives in a world superficially almost identical to our own, but where everyone is completely, literally and brutally honest all the time. All their movies are documentary lectures on historical fact. Their advertising is unrecognisable. People openly admit to the shallowness of their love lives. In this world Mark’s new faculty gives him immense power, as everyone takes every word he says at face value, but it brings unexpected responsibilities with it, too. More importantly, though, is he ever going to get anywhere with Anna in the romance department?

Well, you’re going to find this movie deeply irritating unless you cut it some serious slack right from the start, because the premise is so high-concept it’s practically piercing the ozone layer. Do people in this world have dreams? Don’t they ever use conditional sentences? Isn’t the use of the imagination crucial to our existence as human beings? Forget all these questions and many more, as the film ignores them, and while you’re at it do your best not to notice that a lot of the humour derives not from simple honesty but people apparently lacking any kind of interior monologue and being compelled to say every thought that crosses their minds, which surely isn’t quite the same thing.

This is really a one-joke comedy, but Gervais is tremendously inventive when it comes to continually putting new spins on it. Most striking is a long section in the middle where the film suggests that not only is fiction essentially a kind of lying, but so is religion – there are shades of Life of Brian in how this is articulated. The laughs never stop coming – quite the opposite – but the movie is quite serious in exploring the ramifications of its central idea. At first glance the movie appears rather thought-provoking, but in the end it seems content to simply nose around big and complex ideas rather than do anything with them or come to any kind of conclusion about its main theme – is it okay to lie to people if it makes them happier?

Probably quite sensibly, it doesn’t try too hard to be naturalistic, but Ricky Gervais gives a typically classy deadpan performance in the middle of everything – and hints at having considerable potential as a straight actor, one sequence where he attempts to comfort his sick mother being startlingly moving. Garner is her usual perky self, and it’s presumably a credit to Gervais’ growing international clout that he’s secured cameos from actors of the calibre of Ed Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Barry off EastEnders. The direction is nothing to be ashamed of, but for me the reliance on using classic pop songs to set the atmosphere got wearing – Charlie Kaufman was mercilessly lampooning this six or seven years ago.

It won’t split your sides, and I suspect a lot of people will be left distinctly unimpressed, but I found The Invention of Lying consistently amusing and rather likeable – even if it’s a bit less clever and profound than it probably aspires to be.

Moving on, one fictional milieu which has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years is the good old Zombie Apocalypse, which is so ubiquitous nowadays you wonder if the media know something we don’t. Forty years after its arguable invention, it’s even gone multimedia – in addition to movies like the Resident Evils, the 28… Laters, the fruits of George A Romero’s sudden increase in work-rate, and various others, there are now high-profile Zombie Apocalypse comics (The Walking Dead), TV series (Dead Set), and novels (the utterly brilliant World War Z). It’s getting so it’s difficult for any new project featuring hungry cadavers and the collapse of society to stand out from the (probably quite smelly and slow-moving) crowd.

Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland solves this problem by playing the whole thing for laughs. In this movie Jesse Eisenberg plays Columbus, a fairly useless twitchy geek making his tentative way across the corpse-ridden US after – we’re told – mad cow disease mutates into a zombie-causing strain. Hmm. (Taxonomists of the undead will note that this movie features another sighting of the recently evolved ‘running zombie’, which seems to be competing well with the traditional strain, particularly in relatively low-budget projects which can’t afford vast mobs of extras.) Anyway, he soon hooks up with zombie-hating, cake-loving badass Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a man crazed with a lust for revenge since zombies ate his puppy, and the duo in turn encounter Wichita and Little Rock (the agreeably comely Emma Stone and surprisingly tolerable child-actress Abigail Breslin), sisters who are heading for a supposedly zombie-free enclave outside Los Angeles. (The thing with the weird names is just one of a few slightly laboured elements of a script which in places tries a little too hard to be quirky). Will this odd quartet survive the manky hordes roaming the land of the free?

Hang on, you may be saying: didn’t the peerless Shaun of the Dead do the whole comedy Zombie Apocalypse routine over five years ago, and set the bar extremely high to boot? True, Shaun was my point of reference going into this movie, and to start with Zombieland falls a long way of its standards – the opening sequence just isn’t particularly funny, with the script somehow missing the right beats and the tone distinctly uncertain. But things improve considerably as soon as Harrelson comes on screen, as he gives a barnstorming and endearingly absurd performance which is exactly the thing the film needs. It improves enormously as it goes on and stops trying to be funny and horrific at the same time. In the end it’s not a true comedy-horror fusion, or a parody of zombie movies, but simply a broad and very offbeat comedy (a bit too offbeat to be really credible in places), which adeptly includes effective moments of romance, emotion, and action. Not to mention splatter and pus, of course.

I found myself enjoying it hugely as it went on, but am reluctant to go into too much detail for fear of spoiling the fun. The small cast give likeable performances, the post-apocalyptic landscape is convincingly rendered (well, the electricity’s still on everywhere, but…) and Fleischer’s direction is mostly neat and effective. There are a few whistles and bells with the graphic design (captions whizzing around the screen) which I wasn’t mad about, and the thrashing heavy metal soundtrack didn’t do a lot for me, either, but by the end I was laughing out loud longer and more frequently during Zombieland than The Invention of Lying. My sources (okay, the inter web) tell me it’s done rather well at the box office – and this is one instance in which, if they can keep the quality up, a sequel would be very welcome. It’s definitely a comedy more than anything else, but Zombieland is also a quality piece of work.

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