Tag Archives: Zombie

1977 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART ONE: SHOCK WAVES & SATAN’S CHEERLEADERS

Star Wars, Annie Halland  becoming a corpse were the entertainment events of 1977; but exploitation/horror cinema hardly noticed, driving ahead full-throttle with Third Reich obsessions in this banner year for Nazisploitation. Naturally, queen was still cracking the whip. Unfortunately, Ilsa the Wicked Warden was directed by , and he is no . Franco’s direction is, as usual, languid. Still, Thorne, now a redhead, has undeniable charisma. Originally, this was not an official Ilsa title—the wicked warden was originally Wanda—but was christened with her name somewhere along the way.

Still from Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia (1977)Thorne was extraordinarily promiscuous in 1977, appearing in a second Ilsa: Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia (directed by Jean Lafleur). More flesh and blood along with multifarious locales makes this a far better entry than Franco’s effort, while still not at the level of Edmonds’. This was the last of the Ilsa films, which undeniably make up the most notorious of exploitation franchises.

Blatant Ilsa ripoff Elsa: Frauline Devil (directed by Patrice Rhomm) commits the cardinal sin of exploitation: it teases more than it delivers.

The same can’t be said for Last Orgy of the Third Reich (directed by Cesare Canevari), which features cannibalism and death by German Shepherds and rats, but this one’s different. It has a  brunette warden (Maristella Greco).

A pubic-hair eating rapist dwarf actually outdoes the lesbian concentration camp warden in SS Hell Camp (AKA The Beast in Heat, directed by Luigi Batzella). Macha Magali is the Aryan camp dominatrix filling in for Dyane Thorne. It tries to outdo the competition, and succeeds (with multiple brutal rapes, pulling out fingernails, castrations, rats, etc), but even with all that going on, it still manages to be a dull affair. It’s still banned in the U.K.

Italy continued its love affair with Nazis (at least on screen). Nazi Love Camp 27 (directed by Mario Caiano) has a decent budget, wretched dubbing, notorious hardcore sex, and a good, central performance by the tragically short-lived Sirpa Lane (from The Beast) as a Jewess out for revenge.

The Red Nights of the Gestapo is another Italian entry in the genre. Directed by Fabio De Agostini, it is clearly influenced by Tinto Brass’ Salon Kitty (1976) and features a Third Reich orgy and farting torture. Brass was more adept at this kind of thing, for what that’s worth.

Frauline Devil (AKA Captive Women, directed by Patrice Rhomm) features German hookers being sent to the camps to service the poor overworked Nazis. It has a  lot of wretched accents and amateur costume design, with Nazi uniforms looking like they just came off the racks. Worst of all, though, it’s a big tease in both the sex and Continue reading 1977 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART ONE: SHOCK WAVES & SATAN’S CHEERLEADERS

1971 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD, WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS, AND WILLARD

1971 began with one of the most stylish horror films ever produced: The Abominable Dr. Phibes, a near-perfect collaboration between director and star produced a “masterpiece” of a very different kind with Dracula vs.Frankenstein, featuring the most (unintentionally) frightening performance of poor .’s career and the most hilariously inept portrayal ever of the Transylvanian vampire count (by “Zandor Vorkov”). Director Eddie Romero and “star” John Ashley teamed up for both Beast of Blood and Beast of the Yellow Night, which may be as unimaginative as they sound, but would make a worthwhile, howling triple feature with Adamson’s opus.

 was still gifting the world lesbian vampires with Caged Virgins (AKA Requiem for a Vampire) and The Shiver of the Vampires. Following suit were Stephanie Rothman with The Velvet Vampire, Ray Austin’s The Virgin Witch (starring twins Anne and Vicki Michelle), and with the bluntly titled Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed In Ecstasy, both starring the tragically short-lived cult figure . Not to be outdone, Hammer Studios contributed to the thriving same-sex bloodsucker subgenre with as a “Calgon Take Me Away” Countess Dracula (directed by Peter Sasdy), and with Lust for a Vampire (directed by Jimmy Sangster and starring Yutte Stensgaard). Neither of these were as explicit as they promised and probably should have been. Considerably better was another Hammer opus with identical siblings (Playboy playmates Mary and Madeleine Collinson): Twins of Evil, stylishly directed by John Hough and featuring a superb authoritarian performance by . However, it was ‘s Belgian Daughters of Darkness, starring and Danielle Ouimet, that made the biggest impact, becoming an international cult hit that is still referenced today. Of course, hetero bloodsuckers were not be left out and had their moment under the sequel moon in The Return of Count Yorga (directed by Bob Kelljan and starring Robert Quarry), which failed to repeat its predecessor’s success. Night of Dark Shadows by Dan Curtis improved on the previous years effort, despite an absent Jonathan Frid. Oddly, it was the Japanese who were perhaps most suited to Transylvanian folklore in 1971 with Lake of Dracula (directed by Michio Yamamoto).

Still from Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971)Amando de Osario charted unexpected territory with his zombie monks in Tombs of the Blind Dead, the first of his Blind Dead series (he had previously made the unrelated vampire opus, Fangs Of The Living Dead, in 1968). Although short on actual plot, it’s arguably Osorio’s finest moment. Scenes of the blackened, dead Templars rising from their graves (resurrected by Satan) and mounting horses (juxtaposed to Anton Abril’s highly effective, eerily faint score) to ride into the slaughter (filmed in slow motion) are spine tingling.

These are zombies of a different sort who raise their swords to slash at victims, before draining their blood. Scenes of the Spanish Inquisition, failed crusades, misogynistic torture of women, and lesbianism are surprisingly low-key, and often poetically surreal. Although Osorio’s influences (including Mario Bava’s color palette) are in full evidence, his is a strongly original film, almost painterly. Decaying abbeys and a potential victim standing motionless to avoid the army of blind marauders evoke a sense of dread. Even a massacre on a train is artfully restrained.

Michael Winner presented a literal-minded prequel to Harry James’ Continue reading 1971 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD, WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS, AND WILLARD

268. DEAD ALIVE [BRAINDEAD] (1992)

Known as Dead Alive in North America, Braindead elsewhere

“You know what they are saying about you don’t you? You’ve got funny in the head! A real bloody weirdo!”–Roger, Dead Alive

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Timothy Balme, Diana Peñalver, Elizabeth Moody, Ian Watkin, Stuart Devenie

PLOT: An explorer discovers a Sumatran “Rat-Monkey” on Skull Island; the creature is safely housed in a Wellington zoo. The animal escapes and bites Lionel’s overbearing mother, who becomes a zombie and infects anyone she comes across. Lionel then juggles the advances of the local shop owner’s daughter Paquita and the machinations of his blackmailing uncle with the zombies mounting in his basement.

Still from Dead Alive (Braindead) (1992)

BACKGROUND:

  • Written before the controversial puppet black comedy Meet the Feebles, but filmed afterward. This was the first script co-written with longtime Jackson collaborator and partner Frances Walsh. The story originated with the third credited co-writer, Stephen Sinclair, who originally conceived of it as a stage play satirizing New Zealand society.
  • Partly funded by taxpayer dollars through the New Zealand Film Commission.
  • The film won Best Screenplay at the New Zealand Film and Television Awards in 1993. It won Best Film (and Best Special Effects) at the 1993 edition of the Fantasporto Film Festival for genre pictures.
  • Released as Braindead in New Zealand, Australia, and other countries, but as Dead Alive in North America to avoid confusion with the practically identically titled 1990 horror film Brain Dead (directed by Adam Simon).
  • The uncut version was banned for extreme violence in several countries, including Finland, Singapore, and South Korea.
  • Came in it #91 on Time Out’s 2016 poll of the greatest horror movies.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Grand Guignol finale where Lionel cuts down a horde of zombies with a lawnmower. Three hundred liters of fake blood were used in this scene.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Sumatran Rat-Monkey; zombie baby; the Lord’s ass-kicker

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: From the seemingly benign and placid surface of 1950’s New Zealand society, director Peter Jackson spews forth undead geriatrics consuming German Shepherds, amorous zombies who impregnate each other, sentient viscera, oedipal vaginal imagery on an epic scale, and an inexplicable excursion to the local park with a zombie baby. The invention and gory slapstick of this film are comparable to a Looney Tunes episode where Wyle E. Coyote falls into a spool of razor wire. Or perhaps the antics of and the Keystone Cops defending themselves from an undead invasion after ingesting speed-balls.


Original trailer for Dead Alive

COMMENTS: I fondly remember Braindead from my 1990’s adolescence, days of VHS and weekends spent with friends, trying to outdo Continue reading 268. DEAD ALIVE [BRAINDEAD] (1992)

1968 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, AND SPIRITS OF THE DEAD

In 1968 released one of the most relentlessly frightening movies ever made in Night of the Living Dead, but it took a couple of years for the midnight movie crowd to make it into an epic cult phenomenon. Seen today, it holds up effectively, even with our sensibilities jaded from countless hack imitations. Its grainy black, white, and gray palette serves its otherworldliness well during a late night viewing on big screen, which I how I first encountered it. Even Romero could never quite match it, although he continued to try for forty years.

The argument can be made that Romero’s best post-Night of the Living Dead films were outside the zombie genre (The Crazies, Martin, NightRiders, and Creepshow). Still, no one does zombies like Romero (as proved with his 1990 NotLD remake), and the movie closest to the impact of the original was its immediate sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978), which was a shock satire on Western consumerism, brutalizing in its late 70s comic book colors and deliberate plays on banality. Some claim Dawn is Romero’s masterpiece, although it lacks the original’s reinventing-the-wheel, rough-edged freshness. In 2004, Dawn was remade by who completely missed Romero’s acerbic wit. The underrated Day of the Dead (1985) was the third in Romero’s original zombie trilogy, but did not attain the cult status of its predecessors. Its financial disappointment seemed to render it a finale to Romero’s zombie oeuvre. However, Romero, who has always been a sporadic filmmaker, returned with The Land of the Dead in 2005, which was followed by Diary of the Dead (2007) and what looks to be his last film, Survival of the Dead (2009). Each of Romero’s zombie sequels has its equal share of fans and critics, but at the very least, he has tried to say something new with each entry.

Still from Night of the Living Dead (1968)None have attained the compact rawness of that 1968 yardstick, however. Duane Jones became a cult icon as the doomed protagonist Ben. Previously an English professor, Jones was the first African-American to have a starring role in a horror feature (the script does not specify Ben’s ethnicity). Judith O’Dea, as Barbara, is the eternal victim ( in Savini’s remake, the character is recast as a feminist femme fatale). Together, they hole up in a farmhouse and fight off the marching dead, but are inevitably at the mercy of hayseeds with guns. The shot-on-the-cheap crudeness and novice acting actually add to the mundane horror. It was riveting enough to create an entirely new genre, but predictably, its unique qualities have eluded pale imitations.

Elsewhere in 1968, AIP’s Wild in the Streets (directed by ) Continue reading 1968 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, AND SPIRITS OF THE DEAD

CAPSULE: RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Dan O’Bannon

FEATURING: Clu Gulager, Don Calfa, James Karen, Thom Mathews,

PLOT: Workers at a cadaver warehouse accidentally release an experimental army chemical that reanimates the dead and, together with a band of punks, find themselves fighting hundreds of brain-eating zombies.

Still from Return of the Living Dead (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s essential cult movie viewing, but it’s not inside the perimeter of the weird.

COMMENTS: In the mid-1980s horror movies realized that, in a post-Leatherface/Michael Meyers/Jason/Dawn of the Dead world, it was fast becoming impossible to shock jaded horror audiences with escalating gore. The response was to embrace, and exaggerate, the campy aspects of the genre. By 1984, wisecracking Freddy Krueger and his groaner puns supplanted the silent masked killers of just a few years earlier. Along with 1985’s bloody-but-wacky Re-Animator and the increasingly cartoonish horrors of , Return of the Living Dead was in the vanguard of the new tongue-in-cheek horror movement, helping to start a cycle that reached an artistic apex with 1987’s Evil Dead II (verifying the trend towards black comedy, II was itself an outrageously campy sequel/remake of the earnestly grim 1981 original).

While took horror’s basement budget subgenre into ridiculous realms of farce with The Toxic Avenger and its ilk, Return got the tone just right, adding reassuring flecks of “you shouldn’t take this seriously” to the script in a way that didn’t mar its legitimately scary and thrilling aspects. Return‘s jokes range from the blatant and silly (a zombie grabs a walkie-talkie from an abandoned ambulance and advises the concerned dispatcher to “send more paramedics”) to the subtle and silly (a pair of the survivalists are named “Burt” and “Ernie”). But the gags are just opportunities to catch your breath as the zombies close in, not the entire point of the show. Return captures the siege mentality of its inspiration, ‘s Night of the Living Dead. The victory of the ghouls is inevitable, because the dead outnumber the living. The victims, funeral industry workers and a gang of “punks” trapped in the melee while partying in the cemetery, can’t hope to defeat the undead. These corpses are particularly resilient—if you chop them up into tiny pieces and throw them in a garbage bag, the dismembered parts continue squirming. They are, in fact, nearly indestructible. The living can only hope to hold out long enough for the National Guard to arrive. Along the way come some imaginatively freakish sights, such as quivering half-dog zombies (the FX are not great by today’s standard, but it’s the concept that chills you) and the interrogation of a female corpse who’s missing the lower half of her body. Add in proto-Goth Linnea Quigley’s full-frontal nude dance among the tombstones (which is about as much Eros as a teenage boy in the 1980s could take with his Thanatos without exploding) and you have a trashy but timeless horror spectacle.

Scream Factory released a 2-Blu-ray “Collector’s Edition” of Return in 2016, with four different commentary tracks (!), including contributions by director O’Bannon and a number of the cast members. The set also includes unused scenes taken from the work print and a definitive 2-hour documentary on the film (More Brains: A Return To The Living Dead) among its comprehensive encyclopedia of supplemental features.

Happy Halloween!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s kind of a sensation-machine, made out of the usual ingredients, and the real question is whether it’s done with style. It is.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Brad.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here).

CAPSULE: BEYOND THE GRAVE (2010)

Porto Dos Mortos

DIRECTED BY: Davi de Oliveira Pinheiro

FEATURING: Rafael Tombini, Álvaro Rosa Costa, Ricardo Seffner

PLOT: A solitary policeman travels the countryside looking for the Dark Rider, one of the prime agents of evil walking the earth after the Seven Gates of Hell have opened.

Still from Beyond the Grave (2010)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While it works nicely as an imagining of a minor zombie classic from the 1970s, its various idiosyncrasies aren’t too dissimilar from what you might find in many other low budget horror pictures.

COMMENTS: Highways invariably become desolate when the undead start out-numbering the living. Our film opens on a lone black car traveling a deserted stretch of road, and inside is the film’s hero—a determined police officer on a quest. A radio DJ broadcasts from some indeterminate location, playing music and speaking to the few survivors: “…if you’re out there, have a nice day. I hope you survive it.” The officer makes a stop at an abandoned building, enters, and dispatches the killers who have set up camp there. He narrowly avoids decapitation, revealing a preternatural ability to survive. Now nearly out of ammunition, he returns to his car and flips through dossiers in the trunk. He obviously still has unfinished business.

Though made in 2010, Pinheiro’s zombie film has the feel of a much older movie. The picture quality is slightly washed out, and looks like a relic from a bygone era. The environs and fashions hail from thirty to forty years ago. And the gist of the story—lone man, undead, Gates of Hell— all smack of the golden age of zombie pictures.

Through the course of the officer’s travels (his character, like all but one in the movie, is never given a name), he encounters a young couple, a household of survivors who’ve set up shop in an abandoned school, and a clutch of supernatural assailants keen on thwarting his mission. Ostensibly his goal is to kill someone or something called the “Dark Rider,” who always has the undead following in his wake. Though society has by and large collapsed, the officer continues doing his job. He always has his lights spinning on his car during his many long drives, more as an act of defiance against the death of civilization than anything else.

As with most supernatural movies, there are elements of the strange. The cop stumbles across ceremonial designs drawn on dingy floors, sometimes in blood. The trio of killers that he is both following and is followed by are made up of a man armed with bow and arrow, a mixta woman wearing a gas mask and armed with a handgun with a pistol-grip of human bone, and a nebulous fellow whose weapon is an atonal harmonica that when played cripples enemies with its bleed-inducing drone. There is talk of the Seven Gates of Hell having been opened, and at one point a cultist gives the officer a book with which to summon the Dark Rider (Necronomicon, anyone?) Also, this is the only zombie movie I know of that takes something of a sympathetic stance towards the afflicted. A few scenes depict cruelty toward the walking dead negatively.

Beyond the Grave clocks in at a succinct 89 minutes. While not everything is made clear, there is a consistency to the narrative. Though certainly not weird by the standards set at this website, it still is a pleasant way to spend an hour and a half in an atmospheric, post-Apocalyptic detour.

Beyond the Grave is currently available for viewing free in the U.S. on Hulu.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a unique experience in the theater of the weird.”–Mark L. Miller, Ain’t It Cool News (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE BEYOND (1981)

AKA Seven Doors of Death

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: (as Katherine MacColl), David Warbeck, Cinzia Monreale

PLOT: A young woman inherits a hotel that was built over one of the seven gates of Hell.

Still from The Beyond (1981)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While it would be hard to deny the irrational aesthetics of The Beyond—this is, in every sense, a weird movie—its filmmaking quality leaves much to be desired. I find The Beyond falls just below the threshold of list candidacy.

COMMENTS: Convoluted and absurd, both by design and by accident, The Beyond is a mess of a horror spectacle, and its effect on a particular viewer can be difficult to predict. You might find it unsettling, or annoying, or sometimes both, in back-to-back scenes. The story lurches from plot point to plot point, racing towards the next shock sequence; long series of frames seem to be snipped out of the film. It begins with a sepia-tinted flashback: in 1927 Louisiana, a mob of torch-bearing villagers track down a “warlock” at a hotel and take him to the basement, where they beat him with chains, crucify him against the wall (is that really the symbolism director Fulci wanted?), and douse him with acid. The gore scenes are accompanied by horrifically inappropriate funk music that sounds like horror-rock band Goblin got infected by boogie fever. Years later, Joe the plumber goes down to the same basement, and unseen forces squeeze his eyeball out of its socket, one of several scenes of ocular trauma (a Fulci specialty). Once his corpse is discovered and taken in for an autopsy, the pathologist decides to hook a brainwave monitor up to the lifeless body, for the hell of it (“why not?”). Lo and behold, his brain has a heartbeat! Later, the insect world’s loudest tarantulas—they chirp like birds—eat a man’s face off. And in the weird and sporadically effective finale, a hospital is inexplicably taken over by zombies, and our fleeing heroes escape via an elevator that leads to the hotel basement!

Like I said, it’s a mess. The Beyond is one of the most divisive movies we consider for the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies, with critics and horror fans dividing up to defend or attack it in equal measures, and with equal passion. It’s a movie which alternates effectively evocative scenes (a blind girl standing on an empty bayou causeway as a lone car bears down on her) with absolute howlers (the hand-painted “do not entry” sign at the hospital). There is something attractive about the mix of sloppiness and surrealism here, but I think the enjoyment of this film relies on appreciation of a very specific type of incoherence camp that not everyone can vibe to. While I catch a glimpse of what this movie’s champions—many of whom are extremely erudite and eloquent in its defense—see in The Beyond, for me, Fulci’s incompetence and adolescent gore obsessions drown out his flashes of irrational inspiration and visual imagination. This is Lucio Fulci at his very best, but Fulci at his best is about the equivalent of at his worst.

Befitting The Beyond‘s cult status, Grindhouse Releasing’s impressive 2015 Blu-ray Collector’s Edition contains 3 discs: the film, an entire disc of extras, and a CD of the soundtrack.

“…Lucio Fulci’s bold incoherence honors [cinema] as a sensory experience…”–Fernando F. Croce, Cinepassion

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

(This movie was nominated for review by Alex. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Christopher George,  (as Katriona MacColl), Carlo de Mejo

PLOT:The suicide of a priest prompts the Hell Gate in Dunwich, NY to spring open, bringing with it maggot storms and risen dead.

Still from City of the Living Dead (1980)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This pastiche of zombies and Lovecraftian references does have a couple of neat-o violent set pieces, but is largely a tedious, incoherent affair.

COMMENTS: Throughout City of the Living Dead, you cannot help but think of prior, superior entries in the zombie genre. A woman’s scream sounds over a black screen, then there’s an opening shot of a church steeple with a backwards tracking shot showing the adjacent cemetery. The close-up a gravestone reads: “The soul that pines for eternity shall out span death. You dweller of the twilight void, come. Dunwich.” This helpfully informs the viewer of the movie’s two main ingredients: undead and ill-defined Lovecraftisms. We see a priest hang himself from a tree, the base of the rope attached to an obelisk (Masons?) Within moments of the cutback to New York City we find a young psychic and her mentor, with the former literally frightened to death (Poe?) and the latter going on about the merits of the Book of Enoch.

Unfortunately, so little goes right in this movie that it is difficult to discuss without sounding like a long list of complaints. To its credit, the pacing is brisk enough that its ninety-three minutes go by swiftly. An intrepid journalist is curious about the psychic’s mysterious death, and in the course of poking around the cemetery she’s to be laid to rest in, he even saves her from being buried alive (Poe, again). With her in tow, and receiving further advice from the Book of Enoch, they make their way to the cursed town of Dunwich in order to close the opened gate to hell before All Soul’s Day.

Taking place between the priest’s suicide and the nebulous finale is a string of poorly coordinated horror-movie moments. There’s a young village-idiot type who may or may not have supernatural powers (at the very least he can inflate a blow-up sex doll without a bicycle pump) who meets a rather grim (and, film-wise, notorious) fate at the hands of an over-protective father. There’s Dunwich’s resident psychologist who is either calm beyond belief in the face of unremitting supernatural tragedy or just bored out of his mind. And there’s my favorite diversion in this trip to mid-state (?) New York—two barflies and the saloon keeper having their own Xanaxed discussions about the slowly growing zombie menace.

Amidst all the Lovecraft, ancient Judaica, and Poe, there’s also, perhaps, a Conan Doyle hat-tip with the unlikely named mortician’s, “Moriarty and Sons.” Granted, this isn’t an altogether impossible name for an establishment, as it is not too uncommon an Irish name, but with all the other shout-outs to superior fiction, I’m inclined to believe the director deliberately went for it as a recognizable link to Holmes’ diabolical nemesis. Among the many real pities about this movie is the fact that none of these potentially worthwhile homages are given any narrative traction. Taken together, they seem more of a “Hail Mary” on the part of the film makers to lend their movie a smattering of depth as opposed to any actual link (either thematic or otherwise).

The horror scenes themselves aren’t that weird (rotting corpses, vomited innards, plague of maggots), and that results in the only truly weird moments in the movie being the strange relics of the era in which it was written. There’s a scene with the two cemetery men who don’t quite bury the heroine during which one of them (the one with the mustache, of course) is ogling an adult men’s magazine. He quips to his buddy, “Talk about ‘box lunches’, man!” as he gazes over the pictures. In contrast to this dismissive chauvinism is the enlightened exchange between the psychologist and a patient of his that goes as follows:

“Tell me honestly, do you consider me a basket case?”

No, you’re nurturing a pet neurosis, that’s all, just like about 70% of the female population of this country.”

“So according to you, I’m not stark raving mad…”

This exchange is made without any sense of irony, which brings me to my main reaction to this whole movie: had it been made within the past decade or so, City of the Living Dead could easily pass as a humorous post-modern take on the whole genre of low-budget horror movies from the ’70s and ’80s. However, that is not the case; everything is to be taken at face value. Fulci obviously intended this as a sincere entry into the zombie canon, but succeeded no more than  succeeded in his efforts to make a science fiction masterpiece.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The entertainingly weird festival of gore looks forward to his masterpiece, The Beyond.”–Sean Axmaker, seanax.com (DVD)

CAPSULE: MIDNIGHT SKATER (2002)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Lucas Campbell

FEATURING: Cory Maidens, Ezra Haidet

PLOT: A killer chops up his fellow students on a college campus while a zombie plague brews.

Still from Midnight Skater (2002)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Even if this glorified home movie were good—and not only is it not good, it’s perversely proud of its badness—it’s not at all weird (except in the most obvious and derivative sense of the word). Midnight Skater simply apes the ironic grindhouse-throwback aesthetic, without putting its own spin on the genre.

COMMENTS: Why do low-budget filmmakers assume that comedy is easy? Whenever they’re wringing their hands over lack of a production budget, they say, “I know! We’ll make it a comedy! Then we can make fun of our own crap budget, it’ll be hilarious!” To a large extent this phenomenon is the poisonous effect of on the modern horror mentality, but it’s also the fallacy of believing that because Boner Bob’s impression of a gay meth dealer makes all his frat brothers at the Saturday night kegger spit Schlitz through their nostrils, his antics will make sober strangers crack up, too.

Midnight Skater does have one kinda-laugh, when the killer gives an absurdly literal recap of his latest necrophiliac adventure. Far more painful attempts at comedy come from a simpering, anime-and-D&D-obsessed gay nerd with a combination lisp/sneer and attitude of arrogant cowardice. The lame kill puns don’t even rise to the level of groaners (“now that’s what I call good head” quips the killer after crushing a victim’s skull). Mostly, the movie is a painful parade of bad lighting, overacting, audible offscreen noise, surprisingly ugly kids, OK zombie makeup, and crew members spraying people with syringes of tomato soup from just off camcorder.

Midnight Skater has garnered a surprising amount of praise from the few critics who actually condescended to look at it. The explanation is always that the kids look like they had a lot of fun making the movie. And, indeed, if you were part of the gang of college freshmen that made Midnight Skater, you’d be proud of the achievement, and have a great time reliving the film with your buddies over a case of cheap brewskies. On that level, the movie is a success—but a success for the makers, not for the viewers. It is a crime that this glorified home movie somehow got onto Netflix, and might accidentally take up a slot people could use to rent a real film. There’s a big difference between “good for you, you made a movie!” and “you made a good movie.” Encouraging amateurs to go out and make their own movies is one thing, but at some point, you have to stop giving people bonus points just for being inexperienced and enthusiastic. This is the marketplace of ideas, not a third grade soccer league; everyone doesn’t deserve a trophy just for participating.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…getting in the same Spock state of brain with the insane and inventive no-budget filmmakers here may require Ritalin, a gross of sugary juice boxes and about a hundred trips to the video store (or at least a couple readings of The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film). This is horror and hilarity as channeled through a TV eye mentality, a narrative knowledge derived almost exclusively from issues of Fangoria and untold reams of fan fiction.”–Bill Gibron, DVD Talk (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Angry Rob,” who said “the acting is bad but the writing is brilliant.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

BLAXPLOITATION ZOMBIES: SUGAR HILL (1974)

Guest review by Brandon Engel, a freelance writer specializing in entertainment and pop culture, as well as an aspiring filmmaker.

What if a real zombie outbreak occurred during a zombie pub crawl? Imagine everyone liquored and latexed up to such a degree that nobody could differentiate the real zombies from the fake zombies. My point, I guess, is that this zombie thing has gotten out of hand.

Hearken back to a time when people were still appropriately freaked out by the living dead. Because of directors like George A. Romero, zombies became a fashionable cinematic device to address a myriad of social issues, starting in the late sixties. The films might have made more of an impression because zombies still elicited a strong reaction from viewers. Romero’s frequently remade and frequently cited Night of the Living Dead (1968), for instance, addressed the increasingly violent and sensational mass media coverage of the Vietnam war, and was notable also for featuring a black actor (Duane L. Jones) as the film’s leading man. Dawn of the Dead (1978), Romero’s follow up, offered a satire of North American consumerism by having a bunch of zombies putter mindlessly around a shopping mall.

Dawn also, incidentally, also featured a black male in it’s lead (Ken Foree), and even delved thematically into race issues with the extended segment that shows how the zombie apocalypse might manifest in the projects. But a few years prior to Dawn, the blaxploitation/horror film Sugar Hill (1974) had also appropriated the zombie motif to comment on race relations and social inequities.

The film was directed by Paul Maslansky, whom some may know as producer of the Police Academy films and Return to Oz (1985).  In the film, Diana “Sugar” Hill (Marki Bey) is engaged to marry the owner of a lucrative Haitian-themed bar. At the beginning of the film, members of a predominantly white crime syndicate approach Sugar’s fiance. When he refuses to acquiesce to the gang’s protection racket, Sugar’s fiance is beaten to death.

Still from Sugar Hill (1974)Sugar seeks the assistance of a voodoo priestess, Mamma Maitresse (Zara Cully), who in turn summons Baron Samedi, the Voodoo Loa who presides over funerals and acts a medium between the realm of the living and the realm of the dead. Samedi enlists an army of Voodoo zombies to avenge Sugar’s lover’s murder. The white gangsters are picked off, one by one. One guy is fed to a pack of hogs. One guy is thrown into a coffin filled with dangerous snakes. Blaxploitation films usually depicted black characters in positions of power over the “archetypal white oppressor” character. The title character from Superfly accomplishes this by dominating the drug trade. Shaft and Cleopatra Jones were cunning law enforcement agents. Part of what makes Sugar’s story so compelling in the annals of blaxploitation/revenge films, however, is the supernatural element. The film even evokes the transatlantic slave trade directly by suggesting that Sugar’s band of voodoo zombies were all slaves transported to the United States from Guinea. So, it becomes a revenge film in a much broader sense. It’s not merely about Sugar avenging her boyfriend’s death, but she’s also avenging (symbolically, at least) the wide-scale oppression and dehumanization of her ancestors.

The film was produced by American International Pictures, who were eager to follow up on the success of their earlier blaxploitation/horror genre blenders Blacula and Scream, Blacula, Scream. Part of what distinguishes Sugar Hill is that it isn’t based on a piece of 19th century European literature, but is instead a more distinctly black American narrative which synthesizes elements of Voodoo iconography, fairy tales, and classic b-horror film tropes. It’s occasionally clumsy and highly stylized script offers all of the cliches that you’d hope for in a blaxploitation film.

While Sugar Hill is frequently overlooked (even by cult film fanatics), it’s now enjoying a resurgence in popularity thanks to midnight screenings throughout the U.S., and regular showing on ‘s El Rey Network. Vintage horror fans (especially anyone with a fondness for either blaxploitation or seventies Italian zombie films) should absolutely check this one out.