Horror Hysteria: “Rec 3: Genesis”

With a poster this awesome, do you actually need a movie?
With a poster this awesome, do you actually need a movie?

The Spanish “REC” series of zombie movies is one which I clutch dearly to my (mostly) undead heart.  The first two entries in the franchise related the frantically-paced tale of a mysterious viral outbreak in a Barcelona apartment building.  Shot in an immediate, first-person style which plunges the viewer directly into the nightmarishly unfolding action, the films tapped into the storytelling techniques familiar to a generation raised on reality TV and “Call of Duty“-style shooters whilst weaving a background tapestry of governmental collusion, demonic possession and societal mistrust.

The third movie doesn’t quite follow this template, which some fans may count as an unforgivable betrayal.  In “REC 3: Genesis”, we find ourselves watching highlights of Koldo and Clara’s wedding day as it unfolds, meeting the bride (who has a secret…), the groom and their respective families and friends as they gather at the church and the reception afterwards.   The first heads-up that things are going “REC” comes when a guest appears to have suffered a dog bite…

 

Ruh Roh

 

Before you can say “Colega, ¿dónde está mi motosierra?”, the recently undead are running amok, chowing down on second cousins and forcing apart Clare and Koldo on the happiest day of their lives.  It’s at this point that the film jettisons any pretence at found footage with a meta-joke about people who keep recording in the midst of a disaster instead of just running for their lives.  The film swaps to a traditional 2:35:1 aspect ratio at this point, giving long-suffering Horror aesthetes like your humble blogger the chance to enjoy the zombie-riffic carnage in a more cinematic style than hand-held video permits.

And this may be the problem for a lot of fans of the series.  In acknowledging the tenets of traditional narrative cinema, the immediacy is lost and you’re watching just a.n. other horror movie, rather than going into the grisly heart of the action as in previous franchise entries. That would be fine if the film was a nerve-shredding exercise in suspense and white-knuckle terror, but this third entry in the series is closer to “Zombieland” than “Zombie Flesh Eaters”.  Personally, I don’t have a problem with that, but your mileage may vary if you fear the dread spectre of mainstream norms gatecrashing our undead party.

The focus is on situational chuckles rather than survival horror, save for the last ten minutes of the film which take a sojourn into more serious territory.  The performances scale upwards accordingly and if you went into the third movie expecting the vivid terrors of the first two entries, this film’s exaggerated caricatures and more sentimental overtures might well stick in the craw like so much undigested flesh.

 

The Spanish Chainsaw Massacre

 

I really enjoyed this film and was punching the air by the time that Clara (Leticia Dolera) was slashing her wedding dress up with a chainsaw to make easier work of dispatching ghouls.   That it doesn’t have the relentless drive and manic shocks of the first film proved to me that “REC 3” was happy to take a different path and not just repeat the riffs of its predecessors.  Isn’t that a good thing?  Finding some narrative hook to justify a team of survivors documenting their path through an undead uprising rather suggests that the established filming conventions are more important than the story – surely not the right message to send when, as audiences, we complain about studios and film-makers being content to fall back on the same old tropes?

At a scant 80 minutes, it doesn’t wear out it’s welcome and is at least trying to do something different – I’ve can’t recall the last time I saw a ravenous horde of flesh-munchers stopped in their shuffling tracks by a priest reciting Bible verse over the hotel P.A. system…

 

Continue reading “Horror Hysteria: “Rec 3: Genesis””

31 Days of Halloween Hysteria: “(Rec)”

Nightmarishly gruelling terror, Spanish-style...
Nightmarishly gruelling terror, Spanish-style…

 

If I’ve learned one thing from participating in this 31 Days of Horror blog challenge, it’s that non-Hollywood film offers the best chill for your buck.

The studios have the cash, but the indie and international films have mastered the fine art of using their limitations creatively to scare the living pants off you – witness Spain’s (Rec) from 2007.

 

 

As directed by Jaume Balaguero & Paco Plaza, “(Rec)” relates the story of Angela (Manuela Velasco), a local TV presenter in Barcelona fronting the show “While You’re Asleep”.  Angela’s beat is to follow people who work whilst the wider world slumbers and on this night, she’s shadowing guys from the local fire station.  She’s convinced that she’s in for a dull show until a call comes in from an apartment building.

It's all smiles until a viral zombie outbreak ruins your day...
It’s all smiles until a viral zombie outbreak ruins your day…

 

The crew are called to rescue a confused elderly woman locked in her apartment.  On closer inspection she’s covered in blood and a wee bit bitey.  Angela and her long-suffering cameraman Pablo capture everything as the elderly woman attacks the firemen, mortally wounding their supervisor.  From that point, the fit really hits the shan as the local police and military seal off the building, trapping the remaining tenants inside with an increasing complement of feral, meat-crazed, virally-created predators.  The survivors numbers drop by the minute until only Angela and Pablo are left to document the horror, culminating in a visit to the mysteriously locked and sealed-off apartment at the top of the building.

It is here in the last twenty minutes of the film that Balaguero and Plaza really get their hooks into you, with the found footage conceit working at its peak effectiveness and Velasco’s embodiment of abject terror being totally convincing. The combination of performance, staging, cinematography and direction conspire to utterly grip and even scare the viewer – the first time in this 31 Days of Halloween Hysteria that I’ve actually been on the edge of my seat and frightened by the film.

That “(Rec)” is a scant 75 minutes in length is also of note –  it makes you wonder why more directors don’t just get in, scare the bejesus out of their audiences and then drop the mic in triumph.

Two follow-ups have been released to date, with a fourth due imminently – the parallel sequel “(Rec 2)”, hybrid prequel/sequel “(Rec 3: Genesis)” and final instalment “(Rec 4: Apocalypse)”.  Two American films remade the franchise for subtitle-averse audiences in the form of “Quarantine” and “Quarantine 2: Terminal”.  Whilst it would be foolish to judge a film without seeing it, the fact that the cover art for the US remake appears to give away the very last moments of the movie doesn’t exactly inspire me with confidence.

Still, “(Rec)” is a cracking horror movie on it’s own and I’m going to continue to watch the rest of the series with great interest to see how this refreshingly scary take on the zombie genre develops.

 

31 Days of Halloween Hysteria: “Dawn of the Dead” (2004)

Black Friday 2014
Black Friday 2014

2004 saw two contemporary zombie movies released which owed a great debt to George A. Romero’s pioneering trilogy of undead horrors.  This is the other one.

Whilst “Shaun of the Dead” won over audiences across the globe with it’s witty take on a zombie apocalypse in suburban London, Zack Snyder’s directorial debut “Dawn of the Dead” is now more a footnote to his career as an A-list director of “300”, “Watchmen”, “Sucker Punch”, “Man of Steel” and the 19 DC Comics adaptations he’s currently linked to.

Snyder’s movie sets out its stall from the get-go with nurse Ana (Sarah Polley) having a crap day at work before the world as she knows it ends.  After surviving an attack by her freshly zombiefied husband, Ana barely escapes an apocalyptic sub-division in her car before being run off the road and careening into a tree.  All this mayhem occurs before the titles kick in with a perfectly chosen Johnny Cash song  soundtracking  the end times.

Finding fellow survivors and temporary respite from the undead in a shopping mall, Ana’s group find themselves imprisoned when the Mall’s rent-a-cops start playing God and enforcing  compliance from behind a pistol.  The power struggle continues throughout the rest of the movie, with a makeshift society within the mall constantly threatened by infected newcomers and the surging horde outside.

Whereas Romero uses action in his movies, it clearly isn’t his focus.  Snyder, by contrast, is all in.  This is at least as much an edge-of-the-seat action movie as a horror film, with the scale of the set pieces elevated in accordance with the vastly increased, studio-backed budget of this version.

Snyder’s zombies are not the shuffling, tireless ghouls of Romero’s version but are sprinting, feral, and utterly lethal predators.  The tone of the film reminded me back in 2004 of James Cameron’s “Aliens”, and a decade has done little to change that view.

Whilst the film is undoubtedly a thrill ride, I do miss the underpinning sociological concerns of Romero’s film – where his zombies gravitated to the mall as it represented some kind of still extant collective memory from a time before the fall of mankind, Snyder’s zombies seem to treat the place as an all-you-can-kill buffet.

We might reasonably have expected a sequel to have followed by now, as this was quite the global hit, but Snyder’s skyrocketing career killed any chance of him returning to this material. A planned sequel was quietly shelved – perhaps sensibly, as studios wouldn’t touch an R-rated movie on this scale in these times of austere, micro-budgeted possession/paranormal PG-13 horror fare.

Snyder’s cast is more than solid, with the always excellent Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames and Jake Weber registering particularly in the leads – a pre-“Modern Family” Ty Burrell is also good value as an eminently slappable rich guy and Mekhi Phifer is particularly tragic as a petty criminal and expectant father.

A muscular, loud, brash blockbuster with many of Snyder’s stylistic touchstones – slo-mo violence, graphic sex and underpinning nihilism – present and correct, “Dawn of the Dead” isn’t particularly frightening but it is a gripping and expertly staged film.

It’s best described as a cover version of a classic horror movie, content to do it’s own thing.  Just be glad that Michael Bay didn’t get his mitts on it.

 

31 Days of Halloween Hysteria: “Day of the Dead”

Now that's what I call a classic movie poster...
Now that’s what I call a classic movie poster…

Third entries in horror franchises can be divisive.  Witness the initial furore over “Halloween 3: Season of the Witch”, which boldly divested itself of The Shape and then suffered the wrath of a fanbase not getting what they expected. George A. Romero’s trilogy-capping “Day of the Dead” enjoyed similar slings and arrows from critics and fans alike expecting the satirical underpinnings of “Dawn…”, only to get a dour and claustrophobic drama which is a slog even at 97 minutes.

Whereas “Halloween 3” has latterly been privy to critical and fan reappraisal, the third instalment of the “…Dead” series hasn’t been welcomed with open arms.  Perhaps this is due to Romero’s latter zombie films – “Land of the Dead”, “Diary of the Dead” and “Survival of the Dead” – enjoying progressively poorer reviews and box office returns in a pop culture space where “The Walking Dead” on TV and “World War Z” in cinemas have captured contemporary attention.

Romero’s film is set largely in a Floridian military base, with a small band of soldiers and scientists working at cross-purposes  in a world now overrun by the undead.  As the soldiers hold back the barbarians at the gates, scientist Sarah (Lori Cardille) and her colleagues are experimenting on zombies captives to determine whether or not the effects of the plague can be reversed and the undead pacified.

When the base commander dies, a power struggle simmers between the two camps, as an untiring army of zombies hammers at the gates and threatens to overrun this small pocket of what passes for humanity.

A major issue with this sequel is the decision to explore a comparitively small conflict amongst a group of broadly-drawn archetypes.  The characters are largely uninvolving as they represent philosophical positions rather than convincing as people. The conflict is very clear-cut and we’re in no doubt about whose side we’re supposed to be on – the military are itchy trigger-fingered racists and everybody else isn’t waving M16s and threatening rape at regular intervals.

The film really becomes involving in it’s last half-hour when the perculating tension boils over and the two sides come to blows.  It’s here that the undead finally breach the base and Tom Savini’s still excellent make-up effects come into play. The best CGI can’t really hold a candle to what Savini and his crew accomplished here – Romero’s zombies are still genuinely ghoulish and the stuff of nightmare fuel, some 29 years later.

The performances are, shall we say, varied?  Cardille does good, understated work as Sarah, one of the few characters in the film holding it together as the world comes apart – her dream sequences provide some of the bigger jolts in the film. Pilato is gloriously over-the-top as Rhodes but the real honours in the film, for me, go to Sherman Howard as the increasingly domesticated zombie Bub.  He’s a memorable horror protagonist, with a uniquely expressive performance that ranks amongst the greatest movie monsters.  The showdown between Howard and Pilato results in one of my defining horror climaxes – the ‘choke on ’em’ moment giving us some of Savini’s most grotesque and convincing effects work.

Not the best Romero zombie movie but it still has moments of real power and bleakness amidst the hand-wringing, petty power-struggles and truly inexplicable synth pop on the soundtrack (what is that end-credits music doing here?).

 

31 Days of Halloween Hysteria: “Undead”

Three barrels, no waiting...
Three barrels, no waiting…

 

There must be something in the water down under.

Following in the proud tradition of New Zealand’s patron saint of DIY splatter, Peter Jackson, Australia’s Spierig brothers made their feature debut in 2003 with the demented zombie comedy, “Undead”.

Whereas Peter Jackson started in the low-budget trenches with horror comedies like “Bad Taste” and “Brain Dead”, before helming a few films you might have heard of, the Spierig brothers have remained in their native land, developing their own projects like 2009’s vampire sci-fi “Daybreakers” and the forthcoming “Predestination”.

“Undead” is every inch the debut feature.  It’s a little baggy around the mid-section, it has way more ambition than budget and goes for broke from the get-go, lest the makers never have the chance to make another feature.   Focusing on the inhabitants of small Aussie fishing town Berkeley, “Undead” shows us how a very typical community rapidly goes to literal pieces when mysterious asteroids bombard the town and turn the townsfolk in blank-eyed, intestine-hungry, shambling zomboids.

A handful of people escape the carnage – chief amongst them is disgruntled beauty queen Rene (Felicity Mason) who is all for getting the hell out of her small town after the bank forclose on the farm her grandparents bequeathed her.  She finds refuge with mysterious hick Marion (Mungo McKay), who previously had an unwanted close encounter with visitors not of this earth and has been outfitting his farm with enough firepower to blow a whole in the ozone layer.

It’s fair to say that this doesn’t represent the more thoughtful end of the zombie sub-genre.  This is very much a calling-card feature, showing prospective studios and producers what this pair of self-starting hypethenates could achieve with modest means – which is a nice way of saying that the plot and characters play distinctly second fiddle to gory kills, creative camera work and quick-fire editing.

The gun fights, seemingly, go on for at least five minutes each and at least one or two of them could have been trimmed to move the story along.  The reason for the zombie infection and the eventual resolution of the A-plot are so quickly romped through that you might have to head to IMDB to check and see if what you think happened actually occurred.

A quick and bloody caper through the greatest hits of Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi and John Woo, “Undead” is probably only for fans of the Spierig’s later films who want a look at where they started.  It doesn’t add anything of substance to the zombie sub-genre, isn’t quite memorable enough to rank as a cult movie and is notable solely for the underused setting and some inventive staging when our heroes escape from the farmhouse.

Any comparisons made by critics to “Shaun of the Dead” are very much flattering this film, which doesn’t have the wit or poignancy to justify the correlation.  It’s a fun diversion if you absolutely can’t get enough zombie action, but not a film which will live long in your memory.

 

31 Days of Halloween Hysteria: “The Dead”

I walked with a zombie...
I walked with a zombie…

“The Dead” is a low-key, African-set zombie horror character study.  How many of those have you seen recently?

Directed by the Ford Brothers in 2010, the film follows Murphy (Rob Freeman) and Dembele (Prince David Oseia) as they grapple with the mundane realities of surviving an implacable, tireless and omnipresent plague of the undead.  I’m not exaggerating when I state the scope of the threat.  Though this is clearly a film with a low budget, the focus is very much on the shuffling hordes of intestine-munching horrors who are rarely far away from our protagonists, just waiting for them to get tired and stop long enough to be devoured.

Murphy is an American private military contractor whose flight out of the hot zone crashes.  Finding himself washed up on a beach, he scrabbles to find weapons to protect himself, transportation and supplies to keep himself alive.  After encountering soldier Dembele who saves him from certain death when his car gets stuck, the two men travel across hostile country to get to an airfield where engineer Murphy hopes that he can find a plane and repair it – Dembele just wants to keep the car so that he can search for his young son.

It’s this matter-of-fact treatment which makes the film worth watching – the threat is constant, the dangers are as much from the environment and simple mechanical failures as anything more high concept or based in contrivance and the acting is refreshingly unhistrionic.  When was the last time that you saw a zombie horror film where the simple act of finding clean drinking water was a source of triumph?

 

If you want your zombie tales to be slick and propulsive, you might want to skip this, but I found it a refreshing change of pace from the usual ‘set-em-up, knock-em-down’ school of horror movies which followed Zack Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake.  It’s a beautifully-shot and oddly thoughtful tale of survival against impossible odds.