Sunday, April 11, 2010

Movie Review: Shock Waves (1977, U.S.)

Considered the “Citizen Kane” of Nazi Zombie movies, Shock Waves takes influence from the 1960 book, “Le Matin des Magiciens” (Morning of the Magicians) by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier. The book, as well as the premise of the movie, center around the Nazi fascination with the occult. The film was directed and released in 1977 by Ken Wiederhorn, director of other such horror movies as “Return of the Living Dead Part II” and “Eyes of a Stranger”. Some significant stars lent their talents to this cult classic, including Peter Cushing and John Carradine. Although considered a low budget independent horror film, Shock Waves has its moments of mirth and zombie goodness that make it an endearing film to watch.

The plot of the story is pretty simple. A group of people, yachting off the shores of a mysterious island, are shipwrecked after slamming into an ominous freighter. As the survivors come ashore for refuge, they discover a SS Commander (played by Cushing) who has been secretly raising and training a group of Nazi Zombie Soldiers. From there, the movie follows the exploits of the doomed yacthers as they try to escape the evil clutches of the SS Commander and his evil undead minions.
I remember being fascinated watching this movie with Sir Graves Ghastly in Detroit eons ago. The iconic images of the zombies popping up out of the ocean have stayed with me all these years. Watching it again as an adult brings back a different view of the movie. It is, for all intents and purposes, a fun movie to watch on a Saturday afternoon. It definetly isn’t as scary as I remember it. It really shouldn’t be taken too seriously as a strong zombie movie but should just be enjoyed for what it is. 15 minutes into Wiederhorn’s Zombie Opus can easily convey to the viewer why this movie has become a cult classic. Wiederhorn’s zombies aren’t of the Romero type. They move fast, are intelligent and very cunning.

Zombie movies usually concentrate on the sheer numbers of the undead as the main reason that the premise of a zombie outbreak is frightening as hell. In Shock Waves, the zombies don’t fit into the stereotypical role of what is usually portrayed on screen. Although undead, they take on more of the unrelenting terror of a slasher such as Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th. The way to destroy Wiederhorn’s zombies is also different compared to the more accepted view of killing the undead: you take off their goggles. Yeah, apparently, Vitamin D is deadly to the Third Reich.
Other stars in this movie included Brooke Adams (her first movie role, although she doesn’t credit it in her official biography) and Luke Halpin (Sany Ricks from Flipper fame). One of the most awesome things about Blue Underground’s release of this film is the commentary that accompanies it in the special features. Once listening to it, one can understand why certain decisions were made and why parts of the film seemed to be all over the place. There apparently was an on-set romance between Adams and Halpin. Carradine was very a curmudgeon of an actor and was a “pain” to work with. The scenes with the hotel were actually shot at an abandoned Biltmore hotel in Florida and was rented for just $250 for the thirty-some days of shooting.

The movie was filmed on a budget of $250,000 (which was not a lot of money in 1977). Cushing and Carradine were only paid $5,000 a piece for their roles in the movie. Cushing went on to star as Grand Moff Tarkin in “Star Wars” just a few months after Shock Waves. The original negative of this movie disappeared from the movie studios several years ago. Blue Underground was able to obtain a negative from Wiederhorn’s own collection. The transfer is pretty decent, although you can see some minor film damage in the darker scenes of the movie.

Another one of the best parts of Shock Waves is Richard Einhorn’s groovy yet creepy synth-score. At times it is very reminiscent of more popular soundtracks of horror movies from that era, including The Shining and George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. In the director’s commentary, Wiederhorn said Einhorn’s soundtrack “bumped up the creepiness of the zombies by about eight notches”. I personally think that the music is one of the stronger aspects of the movie from a critical point of view.
All in all, this is a fun movie. The acting is sub par, although I particularly loved Carradine’s portrayl of a “Salty-Arse on the high seas”. The makeup on the zombies is pretty good for Savini-era zombies. The underwater cinematography helps add to the overall atmosphere of the film. I would highly recommend a “zombiephile” adding this title to their undead movie collection (but don’t go in expecting a masterpiece).

Zombie Lake (1981, France)

There are bad movies, horrible movies, and a special category of movies that are so horrible that drinking games are invented to tolerate them. Sadly, the 1981 French film Zombie Lake fits in the last category. This movie was originally slated to be directed by infamous European exploitation mogul Jesus Franco (creator of such timeless classics as “She Killed in Ecstasy”, “A Virgin Among The Living Dead” & “Pleasure For Three: Beyond The Grave”) but backed out of the production due to the limited financial resources available for this gem. Enter French Exploitation Director Jean Rollin, who directed Zombie Lake under the pseudonym of J.A. Lazer. Fellow readers: let me stop the review right here for a reality check. Zombie Lake is so bad, Rollin used a pseudonym because he didn’t want to be associated with this movie (you will see why this is hilarious in a moment). Very reminiscent to “Shock Waves”, Rollin’s movie focuses on a group of Nazi Zombies that rise from the depths of a lake in 1950’s France to exact revenge on the worst group of actors to ever assemble in one physical location. Rollin is considered a horror pioneer in France, but after reviewing his filmography (with such titles as “Suck Me Vampire”, “Requiem For A Vampire” & “Lewd Young Girls”), Rollin apparently is the French version of Uwe Boll. With that being said, even Rollin was embarrassed by this movie.

The opening scenes of Zombie Lake will back up this astute observation: bad 70’s porn music envelops the senses as a nubile French woman decides to go “skinny dipping” in a local lake. Cut to underwater scenes that are filmed in someone’s pool (trust me, you can see the smooth blue pavement as the viewer is treated to some full frontal nudity shots that this actresses’ husband and gynecologist should only be privy to). Enter the Nazi Zombie, complete with bad makeup and some of the worst zombie interpretation movements you will ever see on celluloid. You can pretty much guess what is going to happen next. From here, the movie continues it fast descent into the bowels of cinematic hell as the viewer is treated to a discombobulated script, horrible pacing, bad continuity and what many die hard film geeks have termed as “one of the most horrible zombie movies ever made”.

Combine these horrible components with the fact that Rollin has included enough nudity in this movie that would make a late night programmer at Cinemax blush. His attempt to distract the audience from the atrocities of this movie with naked women from the 70’s is sad and shallow (although appreciated). Also keep in mind that the movie is dubbed over, so you are given yet another realm of awesomeness to bask in (the translation for some of the lines in this movie will haunt me until my death rattle). The plot continue to spiral out of control as a News Reporter comes looking to interview villagers about the “Lake of Ghosts”, a daughter who is reunited with her Nazi Zombie father, and instantaneous busloads of female volley ball players who have the incessant need to go “skinny dipping”.
The film company that released Zombie Lake was Eurocine (Paris). This film company is largely responsible for the genre of exploitation films that influenced the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino films “Planet Terror” & “Deathproof”. The DVD from Image Entertainment is very bare bones and only contains the movie and trailer (I can’t possibly imagine what Special Features would enhance this steaming pile though).

I really wish I had some positive things to say about this movie. I consider myself a connoisseur of bad cinema, but even Zombie Lake is rough to watch. It is apparent at the end of this 83-minute journey through hell that no one cared about their part in this movie. I would only recommend this to the bravest of film geeks and not include this in anyone’s serious zombie film collection.

Movie Review: Redneck Zombies (1987, U.S.)

21 years ago, Troma Pictures made minor cinematic history when it released a “Zombie Classic” straight to video (and it was shot entirely on video, something unheard of at the time if it wasn’t pornography). I’m talking about those “tobacco chewin’, gut chompin’, cannibal kinfolk from Hell”…Redneck Zombies. Fangoria Magazine called this movie a “backwoods blood bath that’ll tickle your funny bone then rip it out”. I credit this movie, for better or worse, as one of the main influences on why I went to Film School. Redneck Zombies showed that you could make a movie and have it released by a major studio straight to video without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars (before El Mariachi, Clerks & Reservoir Dogs). The story in Redneck Zombies is pretty straight forward: the military loses a barrel of chemical waste, a redneck family discovers the barrel and decides to use its contents in their latest batch of moonshine. As the rednecks deliver the shine to their patrons, the toxic brew begins to turn the locals into zombies and mayhem ensues. As all of this is happening, the viewer is also introduced to a group of hikers camping in the wilderness of backwoods Maryland. They eventually come upon the deadly moonshine still and have to fight off hordes of the Redneck Zombies.

This movie is probably one of my favorite movies of all time. A small part of my brain shrieks in repulsion as I type those words but I don’t care. This movie is fun, pure and simple. The director, Pericles Lewnes, makes no apologies for its over-the-top campiness. This unrepentant approach helps make the movie that much more enjoyable. It’s hard to find a movie that incorporates some of my favorite things, including zombies, the Three Stooges and homages to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Recreational Drug Use, Rocky and Bullwinkle & Day of the Dead. There are so many jokes in this movie, both visual and aural, that it will take multiple viewings to catch them all. Even as I write this review, I am catching new things that never occurred to me before. For anyone that has been lucky to catch this movie before now: the director’s commentary is hilarious as hell. There are so many back-stories to Lewnes’ friends and family that helped in this movie. One of my favorites is that one of the actresses in the film was threatened to be excommunicated by her church if she didn’t stop participating in its productions. She was actually forced to attend an intervention. Another one included the zombie, Ferd Merz, and the make-up nightmare that he had to go through. His zombie makeup consisted of pretty much a Jell-O substance. The makeup artist forgot to put in a chemical to make the Jell-O pliable. The substance in turn hardened on Merz. On the special features, there is actually video of Lewnes and company extracting Merz out of his Jell-O shell. You won’t see that on the 50th Anniversary of Gone with the Wind.

The cinematography and lighting in this movie rivals several more expensive films that are considered successful by box office numbers. Some of the shots look like small “love letters” to the early work of Sam Raimi, with unique choices of camera placement and angles. Raimi actually sent a letter to Lewnes to tell him how much he enjoyed Redneck Zombies. The special effects are pretty damn good considering the budget. The movie definitely delivers the gore. Interestingly, there were two cuts of this film. A sanitized, censored version which was carried by the bigger video chain stores while the “Mom & Pop” stores carried the uncensored version. I reviewed this movie on the Troma 20th Anniversary DVD. It has a new color corrected transfer from the original stock and is chock full of DVD extras that make the viewing experience a very immersive and enjoyable one. It’s important to note the social and pop culture mentions that this movie has obtained: writes up in major newspapers such as The New York Times and The London Times as well as officially being a Trivial Pursuit question. Lewnes is no slouch either. He went on to work for Llyod Kauffman at Troma (the modern day Roger Corman), working in several films including Toxic Avenger II & III, Sergeant Kabukiman & War. He worked on Ang Lee’s first film as well as directing the music video for the band Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, “High”.

Is this movie bad? I don’t think so if you look at it from Lewnes’ point of view. Everything is exaggerated for the purpose of satire. The zombies serve as comedic relief in the movie. This is the type of movie that you get a bunch of your film geek friends together for on a Friday night, buy a case of beer, light the hooka and enjoy everything that is right, and wrong, in this movie. I highly recommend this for anyone’s zombie collection, for both historical reasons as well as having a good laugh every once in a while. Keep your eyes open for Redneck Zombies 2, as Lewnes mentions that it is in the works.

Movie Review: Raiders of the Living Dead (1986, U.S.)

When discussing the history of Undead Cinema, Scott Schwartz is not the first name that comes to mind. The name might not sound familiar, but you’ve most likely seen Schwartz. He played the spoiled kid in Richard Pryor’s The Toy and Flick in A Christmas Story among countless other movies. In 1985, he starred a little known film that is infamous in film geek circles: Raiders of the Living Dead. The film had previously sat in limbo for several months before a notorious production company picked Raiders up: Independent-International Pictures. The company was known for “re-working” unwatchable movies and turning a profit on them. One of their big claims to fame was saving and successfully selling Dracula Versus Frankenstein. Raiders is actually a retooling of a 1983 film called Dying Day. The head of Independent-International, Sam Sherman, decided to purchase Dying Day, reshoot a lot of the scenes himself, and included new actors into the film, including Schwartz, Bob Allen (a famous cowboy actor from the 1930’s) and Zita Johann (she starred in the 1932 version of The Mummy).

It's a strange one, but here’s what I’ve gathered from the three different versions of the movie that are currently out there: a scientist is creating zombies from dead prisoners at an abandoned prison (or terrorists are holding hostages at the abandoned prison); a news reporter and a librarian go to investigate rumors about the abandoned prison; Schwartz creates a laser gun out of parts from a laser disc player; the zombies attack the townspeople; Schwartz and his grandfather save the townsfolk with his ray gun. Did you follow all of that? Now, I’ve just given you the Cliff’s Notes version of this cinematic abortion. The entire terrorist sub-plot plays out for almost 30 minutes before the laser-gun totin’ Schwartz enters the picture. Raiders was never released in the U.S. but had minor success overseas. The film was actually premiered stateside on the B-Movie Show “Up All Night with Gilbert Godfreid” on the USA Network in 1989. The show was well-known for showing bad horror movies or T & A flicks with all of the violence, gore and nudity cut out of them.

I’m going to be honest with you guys: this is probably the worst zombie movie out there (with Zombie Lake taking a close second). The story and dialogue are so incoherent at points that I had to re-watch this movie several times just to write this review. The make-up is very low-rate. Most of the zombies look like they stuck their heads in an industrial sized vat of green Spaghetti-O’s. I think the only reason that you would want to watch or (shudder) own this movie would be for the pure simple reason of watching the evolution of a cinematic train wreck. I reviewed the 2002 release from Image Entertainment. The box set (I’m not making this up) features all three versions of the film, as well as commentary by the man himself, Sam Sherman. The transfer is decent considering the film stock that it was shot on. From a zombie point of view, you’re better off to see more Zombie Action in House of the Dead.

In short, an ugly baby is an ugly baby, no matter what color the “onesie” is. It’s incoherent, badly edited and makes my head hurt about 10 minutes in. I had seen this film when I purchased it back in ’02. I decided enough of the emotional trauma that it rendered back then may have subsided, so I decided to open up this little Pandora’s Box of fun for Zombie Zone News. They say that you shouldn’t have regrets in life, but me watching this movie is one of them. If one of your douchebag friends ever piss you off, this movie is a good way to get back at them. Consider it the “Two Girls, One Cup” (internet reference) of zombies movies. And now comes the part in the review where we come full circle. The failure of this movie turned into cinematic cancer for Schwartzman. His last film role in 1990’s Comeback led “Flick” down a different road… into Hardcore Adult Pornography. Schwartzman starred in several red-light delights, including: Scotty’s X-Rated Adventures, White Rabbit, Torn & Insatiable. Luckily, the story doesn’t stop there. Schwartzman leaves the porn industry and decided to open up a very successful sports and film memorabilia store with his father, where you can find him today.

This movie is an interesting letter and possible warning for greedy film studios trying to slap a zombie in the title and hoping to repeat the box office numbers of the Dawn of the Dead remake ($102,356,381 ) of Shaun of the Dead ($30,039,392). While I am like a kid at Christmas with Zombies being the new Smurfs of the 21st century, you will have to take the dross out of the gold, so to speak. A small price to pay I guess, as for every Raiders of the Living Dead you will find an Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn. Until next time kids, always have two ways out of a building when the zombies come for you.

Movie Review: Flight of the Living Dead: Outbreak on a Plane (2007, U.S.)

The idea of flying scares the hell out of me. The thoughts of straddling across the stratosphere in a long, cylindrical tube at several hundred miles an hour makes me break out in a cold sweat. So what the hell do you do when the undead are onboard? That’s the premise of Flight of the Living Dead: Outbreak on a Plane. Released in 2007 and directed by Scott Thomas, the movie focuses on a flight to Paris and a group of scientists intent on creating a biological weapon from a modified malaria virus. Some critics blame Thomas for copying Snakes on a Plane, which was released at the same time. Luckily, proof was released that Thomas had been working on this film for quite some time before the Samuel L. Jackson vehicle came to life.

I’ve got to admit, for a gimmick movie, the movie is worth a watch. You basically take the premise of fighting a zombie outbreak, but instead of being in a barn, they’re on a plane. The miniature 747 that the filmmakers used was shot at the studio where George Lucas destroyed the Death Star in the blockbuster Star Wars. Some sets were cannibalized from a plane graveyard in Arizona and used for sets in Los Angeles. The directors used the same technique that several disaster films in the 70’s would use by setting up all of the characters involved in the first 15 minutes of the film (think Earthquake or Airplane). The director credits Forrest Ackerman’s “Famous Monsters” magazine as his gateway into making films since he was 13.

The movie is based on an urban legend of a Vietnamese mosquito that could bite a person and cause their body organs to shut down. The victim would then reanimate and attack the living. Now one part in the movie that might upset the zombie purists, such as myself, is that these are not Romero zombies. They’re Snyder zombies who are running, leaping and climbing monsters for the Gen Y set. They also have the neat little trick of regenerating damaged tissue, so they virtually indestructible, even with a head shot. I don’t hate the Snyder zombies, but I don’t think they’re very scary. What makes the Romero zombies isn’t that actual zombie itself, it’s that they never stop coming, and they always start forming huge numbers at an exponential rate as the outbreak continues and that creeps the “bejeebers” out of me. The zombie action on Flight of the Living Dead doesn’t happen until about 36 minutes in. There’s a slow buildup as the filmmakers take their time building up the action.

Nathan Wang is a huge fan of the zombie genre and composed all of the music for this film (he also did the sound for the Pixar classic Ratatouille). The sound and stings have a very classic, “Hitchcockian” sound to them and added nicely to the suspense of the film. The filmmakers try to include some scenes of physical comedy amid the violence of the film for brevity and as a nod to Shaun of the Dead. The editing in this film is very clean, tight and well paced. Some of the zombie attacks are very stylized as a nod to Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead.The make up effects were pretty top notch by today’s standards.

So did I like this movie? Yeah, it actually isn’t half bad. Would I recommend it to my readers? Well, if you don’t have anything better to do. I mean, there are better zombie movies out there. This is the kind of movie you watch on SyFy while drinking a beer with your buds. Thomas did a pretty good job of selling me on this movie. Until next time, keep your bug out bag close by.