Anti-Film School’s 15 Best Zombie Movies of All Time!
by Steve Habrat
With director Marc Forster and Brad Pitt’s epic World War Z swarming the global box office, I thought it would be a good time to countdown the 15 best zombie movies of all time. Now, if there is one thing that I know in this world, it is zombies. I love ‘em. I cut my teeth on Night of the Living Dead when I was just a little sprout and I never looked back. I’ve dabbled in everything from the Italian splatterfests of the late 70s and 80s to all of Romero’s heady zombie romps. I’ve thrilled at the sprinting zombies and I’ve chuckled right along with the new string of “zom-coms.” Hell, I even religiously watch The Walking Dead when it is on AMC. So, without further ado, I give you my picks for the top 15 zombie movies of all time. I do hope you’re craving some brrrraaaaaaaaaaiiiiiinnnnnnssss!
15.) Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974)
Director Jorge Grau’s surreal 1974 chiller doesn’t feature the undead in thick hordes like many of the films on this list. No, this film was made when the zombie subgenre was still suffering from some growing pains. However, it is still a massively chilling, impeccably acted, and brutal zombie movie made in the wake of the collapse of the counterculture. With an alien score that would have been perfect for any 50s science fiction flick and spine tingling wheezes creeping over the soundtrack, this go-green atomic freak out is an absolutely must for zombie fanatics and horror freaks, especially the final blood-soaked twenty minutes.
14.) Grindhouse-Planet Terror (2007)
In early 2007, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino unleashed this passion project into an America that frankly didn’t get what the duo was trying to do. Well, America, you missed out. This scratchy double feature kicks off with a gooey bang in the form of Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, a pus-filled tribute to zombie godfather George A. Romero and Italian goremaster Lucio Fulci. Brimming with tongue-in-cheek violence, melting penises, machine gun legs, and kerosene action, Planet Terror is a self-aware charmer that is guaranteed to churn your tummy. Keep an eye out for an extended cameo from Tom Savini, who did the make-up effects in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead.
13.) Shock Waves (1977)
Way before Call of Duty: Nazi Zombies took the world by storm, this little-known but unnervingly creepy tale about a troop of goggle-clad SS ghouls patrolling an abandoned island snuck into theaters and then was largely forgotten. Fueled by a ghostly atmosphere and flooded with horror icons (Peter Cushing! John Carradine! Brooke Adams!), this sun drenched chiller doesn’t feature the same old flesh-hungry ghouls ripping victims limb from limb. Nope, these guys march out of the water, sneak up on their victims, and then violently drown ‘em. Trust me, they are VERY cool. With a score guaranteed to give you goosebumps and an immensely satisfying last act, this is a low budget B-movie gem that deserves to be showered in attention. Track it down and show your friends!
12.) 28 Weeks Later (2007)
It seemed like an impossible task to try to do a sequel to Danny Boyle’s terrifying 2003 game changer 28 Days Later, but that didn’t stop Hollywood from giving it a try. Surprisingly, 28 Weeks Later, which was produced by Boyle and directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, is an intimidating follow-up that goes bigger and louder than the previous film. Clearly crafted for a summer audience, 28 Weeks Later is an effects heavy blockbuster that finds much of London being reduced to ashes, but the acting is top notch, the smarts are in place, and the zombie…sorry, INFECTED mayhem will leave you breathless and shaking for days.
11.) Day of the Dead (1985)
The third installment in George A. Romero’s zombie series was a bomb when it was first released and unfairly dismissed by many critics including Roger Ebert. You should know that the shockingly dark and cynical Day of the Dead has many tricks up its sleeve. Perhaps the angriest zombie movie ever made, Day of the Dead is the work of a man who has completely lost his faith in humanity and our ability to work together. Did I mention that it also features an intelligent zombie? Yeah, wait until you meet Bub. While much of the zombie carnage is saved for the shadowy climax, Day of the Dead is still a film that spits fire. I’d even go so far to say that it is one of the most important films of the Regan Era.
10.) Return of the Living Dead (1985)
This punk rock “zom-com” from writer/director Dan O’Bannon passes itself off as an unofficial follow-up to Romero’s 1968 treasure Night of the Living Dead. The characters all openly acknowledge the events of that film, but they do it all in neon Mohawks while snarling rock n’ roll blares in the background. With plenty of gonzo action and a swarm of ghouls that howl for more “braaaaaaiiiiiinnnnnssss,” Return of the Living Dead is like a living, breathing cartoon. If that doesn’t convince you to attend this ghoul shindig, wait until you catch a glimpse of the tar zombie, one of the most visually striking zombies ever filmed. Rock on!
9.) The Dead (2011)
The newest film on this list is actually one of the most impressive throwbacks of recent memory. The Dead is basically a road movie smashed together with Lucio Fulci’s Zombie and a forgotten spaghetti western. It could also be the most beautiful zombie film on this list (aside from Dellamorte Dellamore). Taking place on the parched African landscape, The Dead will send shivers as its zombies slowly shuffle along in the background of nearly every single shot, making you wonder if our two silent protagonists will ever make it out of this situation alive. While the last act dips, The Dead never lets up on the intensity. Just watch for a scene where an injured mother hands her infant child off to Rob Freeman’s Lt. Murphy as zombies close in around her. Pleasant dreams!
8.) Re-Animator (1985)
It seems that 1985 was the year of the zombie. We were treated to gems like Return of the Living Dead, Day of the Dead, and Stuart Gordon’s cheeky horror-comedy Re-Animator. A bit more restrained that some of the films on this list (but not by much), Re-Animator is a big glowing tribute to science fiction and horror films of years passed. It has a little something for everyone, all wrapped up in a big Sam Raimi-esque wink. Did I mention that it can also creep you out big time? Featuring a must-see performance from Jeffrey Combs and a zombie doctor carrying his own head, Re-Animator is a science-lab romp that will have you shrieking one second and giggling the next.
7.) Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Zack Snyder’s speedy remake of George A. Romero’s masterpiece was probably the most expensive zombie movie of all time until World War Z came crashing into theaters. It was also much better than it had any right to be. While it will never trump the heady original, Snyder makes an energetic gorefest that will make horror fans giddy with delight. The film has a stellar opening sequence that is followed by grainy news reports of a world going to Hell, all while Johnny Cash strums his guitar over bloody credits. From that point, Snyder lobs one gory gag after another at the audience, the most fun being a game of spot a zombie that looks like a celebrity and then turns its head into hamburger meat. Oh, and if the film didn’t have enough blood and guts already, wait until you see the chainsaw accident near the end of the film. It’s a doozy.
6.) Dellamorte Dellamore aka Cemetery Man (1994)
From the late 70s through the mid 1990s, Italy had severe zombie fever. In the wake of George A. Romero’s massively successful Dawn of the Dead, the Italians cranked out more knockoffs than you can shake a severed arm and leg at. Many of them were cheapie exploitation movies that lacked artistic vision, but right before the craze died off, director Michele Soavi released Dellamorte Dellamore aka Cemetery Man, a gothic zombie fantasy that truly is unlike anything you’ve seen before. Surreal, sexy, and episodic, Dellamorte Dellamore borders on arthouse horror and has earned fans as high profile as Martin Scorsese. The last act of the film is a mess and it seems like Soavi wasn’t exactly sure how to bring the film to a close, but this is certainly a zombie movie that you have to see to believe.
5.) Shaun of the Dead (2004)
In 2004, American audiences were introduced to British funnyguys Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright, and we were all the better for it. The first “romantic comedy with zombies,” Shaun of the Dead is a side-splittingly hilarious romp that can also be quite terrifying what it sets its mind to it. Loaded with nods to classic zombie movies (each time you watch it you will spot another tip of the hat), endlessly quotable jokes, and some eye-popping gross-out gags, Shaun of the Dead is a surprisingly sweet film with a core romance you can’t stop rooting for. Also, Romero has given it his approval, which automatically makes it a zombie classic.
4.) Zombie (1979)
Lucio Fulci’s 1979 grindhouse classic Zombie (aka Zombi 2) was the first Italian knockoff inspired by George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. It is also the best Italian zombie movie out there. Entitled Zombi 2 in Italy to trick audiences into thinking that the film was a sequel to Dawn, Zombie is a beast all its own. Without question the most violent and exploitative zombie film to emerge from the Italian zombie movement, Zombie is a tropical blast of excess that will have your jaw on the floor. Gasp as a zombie has an underwater battle with a shark (you read that correctly, in case you were wondering) and dry heave as a woman has her eye gouged out by a piece of splintered wood (shown in an extreme close up). And that is Fulci just getting warmed up! Approach this sucker with caution.
3.) 28 Days Later (2003)
Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later is not technically a zombie movie. The red-eyed, blood-spewing maniacs that dash through the streets of devastated London are suffering from a virus known only as “RAGE.” Still, the ghouls are very zombie like as they sprint towards their victims like coked-out marathon runners. Gritty, grim, and absolutely terrifying, 28 Days Later is an impeccably acted and smartly directed apocalyptic thriller that astounds with each passing second. The climax has split viewers, but in my humble opinion, it is an unflinching glimpse of human beings at their absolute best and absolutely worst. This is an essential and influential modern-day classic.
2.) Night of the Living Dead (1968)
In 1968, George A. Romero crafted a film that would go on to lay the foundation for the zombie subgenre. Cramped, creaky, and infinitely creepy, Night of the Living Dead is a lo-fi horror classic that continues to sit securely on the short list of the most terrifying films ever made. Romero instantly throws the viewer into the chaos and flat-out refuses to give us any sort of explanation for why the dead-eyed cannibals outside are trying to pound their way into that boarded up farmhouse. All we know is that something is very wrong and the situation seems to be steadily getting worse. Brimming with Cold War anxiety and flashing images that would be right at home in a forgotten newsreel from the Vietnam War, Night of the Living Dead is a film that will stick with you the rest of your life. A true horror classic.
1.) Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Ten years after he shaped the subgenre, Romero returned to give audiences his ultimate apocalyptic vision. Often imitated but never duplicated, Dawn of the Dead is the king daddy of zombie movies. Set just a few short weeks after the events of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead begins with a flurry of blood and bullets ripping across your screen, assuring the viewer that once again, Romero is taking no prisoners. Once Romero decides to usher his four protagonists off to the Monroeville Mall, the satire kicks into high gear. Launching a full-scale attack on consumer culture, Romero dares to compare mall shoppers to his shuffling ghouls that wander the aisles of JC Penney. He also warns us that our inability to work together will be the death of us all. Featuring heavy character development, heart-pounding action sequences, and a devastating conclusion, Dawn of the Dead stands as a pulse-pounding masterpiece not only for Romero, but for the entire zombie subgenre.
So, do you agree? Disagree? Did I leave something off of the list? Feel free to leave me your picks! I’m dying to hear them!
House of 1000 Corpses (2003)
by Steve Habrat
Way back in the early 2000s, I can distinctly remember several of my friends whispering about shock rocker Rob Zombie directing a horror film that was so scary, the studio was thinking about shelving the project all together. Being someone who liked Rob Zombie’s music and was a fan of horror movies, I was instantly intrigued by just what the horror-obsessed rocker would come up with. Finally the day came when House of 1000 Corpses was released to the public and believe it or not, I never took a trip to the theater to see the movie. I finally saw House of 1000 Corpses during the summer of 2005, right before I went to see Zombie’s second feature film The Devil’s Rejects. I had read the largely negative reviews of film and I had even talked with a few people that had seen it and simply shrugged their shoulders at it, so when I rented the film, I had insanely low expectations as it began. As the film sped through its brief eighty-eight minute runtime, I found myself actually impressed with several segments of House of 1000 Corpses and chuckling at some of the blatant tips of the hat to other classic horror movies (everything from The Creature from the Black Lagoon to The Munsters to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is in there). It certainly was an inimitable vision from a man who had infinite amounts of potential as a horror/cult filmmaker. It was a blood soaked sampler of all the horror films that Zombie loved, but a number of disjointed moments and cheap jolts kept the film from truly striking fear in the viewer’s heart.
House of 1000 Corpses begins on October 30th, 1977, with four teenagers, Jerry Goldsmith (Played by Chris Hardwick), Bill Hudley (Played by Rainn Wilson), Mary Knowles (Played by Jennifer Jostyn), and Denise Willis (Played by Erin Daniels), traveling the Texas back roads in search of wild roadside attractions and macabre local legends. The group stops off at Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madmen, where the meet the fast-talking Spaulding (Played by Sig Haig) himself. While exploring Spaulding’s funhouse, he sparks the group’s interest in the local legend of Dr. Satan, who is supposedly responsible for the mysterious disappearances of the area. The group suckers Spaulding into giving them directions to the area where Dr. Satan is supposed to reside and while traveling the back roads, they pick up beautiful young hitchhiker Baby (Played by Sheri Moon Zombie), who claims to live nearby. As the group nears Baby’s house, their tire is blown out, forcing them to take shelter at Baby’s rundown farmhouse. Shortly after arriving, the group begins meeting various members of Baby’s family including her mother, Mother Firefly (Played by Karen Black), her half-brothers Rufus (Played by Robert Mukes) and Tiny (Played by Matthew McGrory), her adopted brother Otis Driftwood (Played by Bill Moseley), and her Grampa Hugo Firefly (Played by Dennis Fimple), all of whom are gearing up for creepy Halloween festivities. As the hours pass, the group begins to fear that they may not be permitted to leave the Firefly home alive.
It really won’t take the viewer long to figure out that Zombie has lifted the plot from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and then fed it a heavy dose of LSD. After the acid has kicked in, it feels like Zombie pried its eyes open with the device from A Clockwork Orange and forced it to zone out on endless hours of Universal’s classic monster movies, episodes of The Munsters, forgotten television horror hosts, and stock footage of seedy peep shows and the Manson family. It then spirals into a kaleidoscope of warped images and repulsive shocks that hint at other, better midnight exploitation movies, B-horror cheapies, and real-life serial killers. You could honestly fill a review with all the movies that Zombie pays tribute to. Yet there is something strangely admirable about how Zombie wears these influences on his sleeve. It’s clear that he absolutely loves these movies, he just has a hard time funneling all of these references into one cohesive idea. Instead, he just shoots all over the place, eager to spring redneck funhouse shocks on us while also unleashing a group of underground ghouls that look like they would be more at home on stage with him during a rock show rather than a scruffy horror outing. It really should have been one way or the other.
What has really lured the cult audiences to House of 1000 Corpses are the eccentric cast of creeps drawn up by Mr. Zombie. By far the best character in the entire film is Haig’s Captain Spaulding, a cackling madman clown who never seems to be at a loss for words. A word to the wise, never get the idea to hold up his flashing little roadside attraction. Another classic character would have to be Moseley’s Otis Driftwood, a foul-mouthed hillbilly maniac who takes charge of every situation and dispatches his victims in the most brutal ways imaginable. Together, Haig and Moseley ride off into the Texas sunset with the entire picture. Karen Black will make you uncomfortable as the dotting Mother Firefly, a woman who stands firm behind her Halloween traditions. Sheri Moon Zombie’s Baby will have you gritting your teeth as she chuckles like a deranged schoolgirl. You can tell that Moon Zombie is pretty inexperienced here and that she has a lot of growing to do as an actress. Meanwhile, Wilson and Hardwick are likable enough as Jerry and Bill, but Hardwick (yes, THAT Chris Hardwick) ends up falling into the amateur category when going up against the infinitely more talented Wilson (yes, THAT Dwight Schrute). Jostyn and Daniels are pretty forgettable as heroines Mary and Denise and weirdly, Zombie asks us to root for Daniels in the final twenty minutes. Tom Towles (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Night of the Living Dead (1990)) also memorably shows up in a small role as Lieutenant George Wydell.
I honestly don’t think that House of 1000 Corpses is a terrible horror movie. It really isn’t. It just isn’t nearly as scary as it was hyped up to be and it tries to pay tribute to way too many horror movies. It almost feels like Zombie feared he would never have the opportunity to make another film so he overstuffs it. The film would honestly have fared better if someone had convinced Zombie to drop the whole Dr. Satan thing and leave the mutant monsters on the cutting room floor. I won’t deny that they look really cool but it just doesn’t mesh with the rest of the film. However, there are enough spirited performances, quotable lines of dialogue, and eerie surprises (that cop-execution sequence really stands out) to balance out the weaker spots. Overall, Zombie has a vivid imagination and it truly is a start for him, but you just can’t shake the feeling that Zombie is much, much better than all of this. Either way, you won’t ever forget entering the House of 1000 Corpses.
House of 1000 Corpses is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003)
by Steve Habrat
After disappearing from movies for six long years, Quentin Tarantino finally returned in 2003 to the cinema scene with one of his wildest films yet. Enter Kill Bill: Volume 1, a globetrotting epic that blends together blood-drenched kung fu, anime, squinty spaghetti westerns, sleazy revenge flicks, and, you guessed it, more pop culture references than you can shake a Hattori Hanzo sword at. After his rather docile blaxploitation feature Jackie Brown, it was great to see Tarantino embrace a whirlwind of crazy again but Kill Bill: Volume 1 remains a film that turns many viewers off, especially if they are not in on what Tarantino is trying to do. Kill Bill: Volume 1 is another love letter to the exploitation films Tarantino marveled at as a kid, but the film is also a nod to the influence Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo had on the creation of the spaghetti western. Kill Bill: Volume 1 stands as more of a vibrant kung fu movie than a spaghetti western (the spaghetti western is alive and well in Kill Bill: Volume 2) and it puts a lot more emphasis on artery spurting action sequences than in-depth story. Despite all of its energy, Tarantino still slips in some knockout emotion, especially near the end when we begin to learn more about Uma Thurman’s mysterious and bloodthirsty Bride. Until then, Tarantino keeps you glued to the candy-colored action and boy, those action scenes are exhilarating.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 introduces us to the Bride (Played by Uma Thurman), who was a valued member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad led by Bill (Played by David Carradine). It turns out that the Bride grew tired of working as a hitwoman and decided to distance herself from the group and find love. On the Bride’s wedding day, her old coworkers burst into the El Paso wedding chapel, gun down her friends, family, and fiancé, and then proceeded to beat her to a bloody pulp. After the savage beating, Bill proceeds to shoot her in the head despite a last gasp plea that she is pregnant. The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad assumed they killed the Bride but instead, they put her in a coma for four long years. After snapping out of the coma, the Bride makes a list of all who were involved with the massacre, tracks down Japanese sword maker Hattori Hanzo (Played by Sonny Chiba) in the hopes that he will create a new weapon for her to unleash her fury, and then sets her sights on former colleagues O-Ren Ishii (Played by Lucy Lui), who is now head of the Tokyo Yakuza and controls her own personal army called the Crazy 88, and Vernita Green (Played by Vivica A. Fox), now a housewife with an array of weapons stored around her home. Nothing will stand in the Bride’s way and she will not stop until every last one lies dead in the dirt.
Not nearly as chatty as Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown, Kill Bill: Volume 1 puts the pedal to the metal and jumps right into the bone-snapping action. The film opens with a thunderous confrontation between Vernita Green and the Bride. Sure, there are a few moments where the characters trade clever lines of dialogue but Tarantino seems more hell-bent on spilling as much blood and guts as he possibly can in just under two hours. At the time of its release, Kill Bill: Volume 1 was certainly Tarantino’s biggest and most polished film yet. When compared to his first three features, it is clear to see he had a lot more money to work with (the budget was $30 million). With that much dough in his hand, Tarantino dares to get flashy, especially at the climax of the film. The last portion of the film jumps to Tokyo in a swanky restaurant/bar/nightclub called the House of Blue Leaves, where the Bride confronts O-Ren and her Crazy 88. This showdown finds the Bride hacking and slashing her way through a seemingly endless army of hotshot gangsters in Kato masks as blood gushes like geysers from their wounds. It is hilariously extreme to the point where Tarantino had to scrub away the color and present it in black and white so the film would nab an R rating (it has also been said that Tarantino did this to pay tribute to the television airings of classic kung fu films, which would switch to black and white to mask some of the gore). It is the shining moment of Kill Bill: Volume 1, complete with the Bride dressed in a yellow motorcycle suit that pays tribute to Bruce Lee’s 1972 film The Game of Death.
Then we have Thurman, who plays the Bride with such ferocity that you would think that this was the last role she will ever play. I love the way that Tarantino drenches her in mystery, even censoring her name in a wicked tribute to Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. It is great the way he provides little morsels of information to tease and hook us for the big reveals of her character that will come in Volume 2. Yet Thurman remains one tough and scowling cookie, more so in this installment over the second, where he really fills her emotions in. She’s the ultimate hardass who never seems to break a sweat even as she is surrounded by hissing bodyguards. As the Bride bops around in her Pussy Wagon (a bright yellow pick up truck she steals from a perverted orderly), she encounters Daryl Hannah’s Elle Driver, a one-eyed femme fatale who is clearly a nod to Christina Lindberg’s character in Thriller: A Cruel Picture. We basically get a sample of her vile character but she is certainly an evil piece of work. There is also Fox’s Vernita Green, a smooth-talking lioness who gets into a living room brawl with the Bride. Fox is basically given an extended cameo, as Tarantino seems more interested in Lui’s O-Ren, the ruthless head of the Yakuza. He spills O-Ren’s back-story in a shockingly violent anime sequence that will captivate even those who don’t have much interest in anime. There is also Sonny Chiba’s wise and scene stealing Hattori Hanzo, Chiaki Kuriyama’s pint sized ball-and-chain assassin Gogo Yubari, and Carradine’s heard and only briefly seen Bill.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 is ultimately a mash up of everything Tarantino loves. It is loaded with toe tapping songs from a wide-ranging collection of artists. He opens the film with Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang” droning over a silhouette of the Bride and has her flying off to Tokyo as the Green Hornet theme trumpets her arrival. He makes reference to countless grindhouse and exploitation films, mostly ultra-violent kung fu that he is always raving about in interviews. In addition to being a massive sampler, Kill Bill: Volume 1 is also Tarantino’s most cartoonish film. It is almost like witnessing a comic book suddenly springing to life, which is why I think some people tend not to really care for it. Overall, if you’re open to what Tarantino is trying to do here, you will be left wiping the drool off your chin when the credits role. Not one moment of the film ceases being cool and you can practically hear Tarantino giggling with glee at some points. If you’re new to Tarantino’s work, this is probably not the best place for you to start but for those who love his work, you’ll be thrilled to find him in full form again. Kill Bill: Volume 1 is a roller coaster ride from beginning to end.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Attack of the Remakes! The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)
by Steve Habrat
Tobe Hooper’s grubby 1974 horror outing The Texas Chain Saw Massacre ranks as one of the scariest films I have ever seen. Hands down. It is downright terrifying and manages to make us queasy even though it has very little gore to speak of. In 2003, Michael Bay’s production company Platinum Dunes decided that they were going to remake the film, a decision that would open the remake floodgates and shower the film market with a slew of senseless horror remakes that absolutely no horror fan was begging for. With music video director Marcus Nispel behind the camera, Bay unleashed his sleek and gory update that comes at you like a speeding demon. Truth be told, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003 is not that bad of a film. It’s actually sort of fun and it has plenty of personality and style. It has a must see opening sequence shot in shaky black and white, a crime reel that is chillingly authentic as John Larroquette somberly explains the back-story. It opens the movie with a bang. What comes next is a fairly mundane but excessively flashy exercise in teen slashers elevated by the presence of R. Lee Ermey and, surprisingly, Jessica Biel. It’s the excess and Nispel’s reluctance to leave anything to the imagination that ultimately keeps The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003 from reaching the levels of terror that the original does. Oh, and cannibalism would have helped too.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre begins on August 18th, 1973, with five teenagers, Erin (Played by Jessica Biel), her boyfriend Kemper (Played by Eric Balfour), Andy (Played by Mike Vogel), Morgan (Played by Jonathan Tucker), and Pepper (Played by Erica Leerhsen) passing through Texas on their way to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. While making their way along the desolate highway, they happen upon a distraught hitchhiker (Played by Lauren German), who quickly climbs into their van, rambles about a “bad man,” and then shoots herself in the head. Terrified, the group stops off at the nearest gas station to call the sheriff. The sheriff convinces the group to meet him at a local abandoned mill, where he will come and pick up the body. The group waits for hours but the sheriff is a no show so Erin and Kemper decide to travel to a nearby farmhouse to try to contact the sheriff again. The home seems to belong to a cranky amputee named Monty (Played by Terrence Evans) but as Erin and Kemper linger at the home, they begin to suspect that Monty may not be the only person lurking around the decrepit home. Their suspicions are confirmed when they are chased down by Leatherface (Played by Andrew Bryniarski), a gigantic psychopath who enjoys dispatching his victims with a chain saw and then removing their faces so he can wear them as masks.
Since Michael Bay and Platinum Dunes insisted that this film exist, I can at least give it credit for the fact that it isn’t a shot for shot remake of the brilliant Hooper original. It is bold enough to play around with the premise and up the number of nutcases from four to seven, making the whole film seem a bit more dangerous. While upping the number of psychos is a positive, Nispel and Bay do everything in their power to strip Leatherface of the horror he once possessed. And, lets face it, it takes a lot to make a psycho with a chain saw only slightly creepy but apparently Nispel and Bay were up to the challenge. Looking like your crazy uncle in an expensive Halloween costume, Leatherface looks like he is wearing a rubber zombie mask that tried to smile but couldn’t. Only once do we see him wear another face and there doesn’t seem to be any of the eerie cross-dressing that the character liked in the original. It would have been nice to see him in that famous suit with a woman’s face covering his own but I guess you can’t always get what you want. Nispel and Bay also give him a new origin story, one that just comes off as silly. Things really got shaky when old Leatherface decides to peel off his mask and show us what it underneath that rotting flesh. I’ll tell you this much, it isn’t very spooky and actually sort of laughable.
While Nispel and Bay certain screwed up the monster, they fair better with just about everyone else. I still think that Biel does a great job as Erin and she rightfully earns our sympathy, especially as things really get bad. She’s no Marilyn Burns but she is alright in my book. Balfour is also pretty strong as Kemper, a guy just trying to do the right thing for his girlfriend. Another standout amongst the group of teens is Tucker’s shaggy pothead Morgan, who always has just a little too much to say when he shouldn’t. Out of all the teens, I actually liked him the best. Leerhsen and Vogel are okay but they never really grab us like Biel, Balfour, and Tucker. Then we have the merry Hewitt family, led by R. Lee Ermey’s deranged Sheriff Hoyt, a mean son of a bitch who drools chewing tobacco and giggles at the suffering teens. He is here in full force blasting hilariously sick and twisted one-liners right into the faces of his victims. Marietta Marich is also pretty terrifying as the matriarch of the Hewitt family, Luda Mae Hewitt. She rules the family with a rusted fist, demanding that Leatherface lumbers into the family room and get one of the sobbing victims out of her sight. It is such a cold and cruel scene, one that ends with one character suggesting that their victim should stay for dinner, one of the better nods to the original film.
While cannibalism is only hinted at here and there, it is largely absent from this entry in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series. If you didn’t know it played a big role in the original, you’d have no idea it was even present in this one. Nispel does take great care in constructing the Hewitt home, a massive, decaying structure gloriously backlit when the sun sinks from the sky. Some of my favorite images in the film are the ones where Nispel’s camera peeks out of the trees and stares cautiously at the house, almost like it is going to spring to life and attack. The set design on the inside of the home is even more painstaking and ornate as the camera pans over rotting corpses, demonic dolls nailed to the wall, and leaky pipes that could very well be oozing blood. While some of the chases are sort of fun and that scene with one character getting his leg cut clean off by Leatherface’s roaring chain saw are nifty, you can help but find yourself longing for that grainy cinematography and that hazy, late summer atmosphere that drips with death and decay. I longed for a scene that would disturb me like the original’s twitching death, where a character that was just clubbed over the head with a mallet thrashed and twitched as his brains oozed from his head wound. I wished for the dinner party scene, the one where Marilyn Burns shrieked in terror as the Sawyer clan tormented her over a plate of human BBQ. And the film didn’t end with that terrifying image of Leatherface doing his “dance of death” in blazing Texas sun. There is nothing razor sharp like that here. Looks like Bay and Nispel removed the chain from this one.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Since its release in 2003, Marvel’s big screen adaptation of the lesser-known Daredevil has gained the reputation of being a downright stinker of a movie with a cringe-inducing Ben Affleck as the blind crime fighter. Daredevil isn’t nearly as bad as it has been made out to be. It is merely a decent movie that does have its fair share of flaws. Reeking of Matrix-esque fight sequences with a hints of Spider-Man and Batman thrown in, Daredevil is a clunky film set to awful wannabe grunge rock that was all the rage in 2003, but there are still a number of aspects to admire. Affleck molds the blind lawyer Matt Murdock into a captivating character who is more interesting during the day when he is fighting crime in the courtroom than when he is prowling the streets as the teeth-gnashing vigilante dressed up in red leather. Capitalizing on the popularity of 2002’s Spider-Man, director Mark Steven Johnson works hard to make something that is faithful to the comic lore (many shots are taken directly from the comics) but he trims his origin story down to a brief hour and forty minutes, too in a rush to get to the action and leaving several major characters and a romance underdeveloped.
Daredevil begins by flashing back to the troubled childhood of Matt Murdock (Played by Scott Terra), a nerdy kid from New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. Much like Spider-Man, Murdock is the target of neighborhood bullies who like to toss him around like a ragdoll. At home, his father is a washed-up boxer named Jack “The Devil” Murdock (Played by David Keith), who relives his glory days by guzzling countless bottles of beer and drunkenly rambling to Matt about fights he won and why it is important to get an education. Matt suspects his dad is working as an enforcer for a local mobster and his suspicions are confirmed when he bumps into his dad roughing up a local hood in an alley. Fleeing in horror, Matt stumbles into a construction yard and proceeds to be blinded by toxic waste in a freak accident. Matt’s father blames himself for the accident and the two make a silent promise to each other to never give up and better themselves. Shortly after the accident, Matt begins to discover that his other four senses are operating at superhuman strength and give him a radar-like sight, which he uses to stand up to neighborhood bullies. Matt’s father begins boxing again but he finds that he is unable to walk cleanly away from the mob. After Jack refuses to throw a fight, he is beaten to death in an alley by a towering enforcer who likes to leave roses on the bodies of his victims. The devastated Matt silently vows to find the people responsible for the death of his father and he assumes the identity of Daredevil, the man without fear.
Part Spider-Man and part Batman, Daredevil doesn’t really have any superpowers to speak of. He uses sound waves to create a radar sight to help him locate and knock out bad guys throwing punches his way. He leaps around the rooftops dressed in a goofy red getup that does have a slight DIY feel to it despite its silliness. Matt doesn’t stop fighting crime when the sun comes up. By day, he paces a courtroom as a lousy attorney who shouts, “Justice is blind!” When Affleck doesn’t have a mask pulled over his face, he is fascinating to watch as a blind man. We watch him perform daily rituals that help him get around the bustling New York City streets. He folds his money in different ways to help him figure out if he is reaching for a ten or a five and crams prescription painkillers into his mouth to help ease the pain of injuries that he suffers at night. You will genuinely like him as Matt Murdock and you will relish the moments he shares with Franklin “Foggy” Nelson (Played by Jon Favreau), his chatty partner who likes to get drunk with Matt and describe beautiful women they encounter on the street. Together they are the saviors of Daredevil with their chuckle-worthy conversations and pranks they pull on each other.
Naturally, Daredevil has a love interest by the name of Elektra Natchios (Played by Jennifer Garner), a stunning Greek beauty that can hold her own in a schoolyard brawl. Daredevil does hint at a substantial romance between Murdock and Elektra but it doesn’t hold together once Elektra’s father is slain by the Irish hitman Bullseye (Played by Colin Farrell). Bullseye is hired by the hulking mobster William Fisk/The Kingpin (Played by Michael Clarke Duncan), a ruthless gangster who oversees organized crime in New York City and may be responsible for Jack Murdock’s death. In a rage, Elektra almost instantly morphs into a superhero herself and then disappears from the film like she was never there to begin with. Bullseye is easily the coolest character in the film, a resourceful bad boy who likes Guinness, has a nasty brand on his forehead, and can turn anything he touches into a deadly weapon. Farrell’s enthusiasm for the role is contagious as he slinks around hissing at our horned hero. The Kingpin is supposed to be the main villain of Daredevil but we hear about him more than we actually see him. He is probably on the screen a total of twenty minutes, making him more of a gigantic disappointment.
At its core, Daredevil is a gritty tale that is loaded with untapped potential. The opening flashback of the film is thrown off by lame acting from the child actors, removing us from the moment entirely. I am also bothered by the wiry action sequences, where the actors go spinning effortlessly through the air with no explanation at all. It is painfully obvious they are dangling from wires and it is sloppily executed. Daredevil could have also used more of The Kingpin, a mildly frightening villain who could have been even more menacing had we gotten to know him a little bit better. We have to take into consideration that Daredevil was made in a time where the superhero genre was experiencing some growing pains, many filmmakers viewing them as mere escapist thrill rides that were heavy with wild action scenes and perfect CGI. To be fair, Daredevil attempts to put more emphasis into the characters when they don’t have their masks on and I will give it credit for that but we still have to like the costumed hero and I can honestly say Affleck lost it for me when he was wearing the horns. Overall, it was a step in the dark direction for superhero films and it does feature some fine performances, but the skimpy runtime prevents Daredevil from having the depth it is so convinced it has.
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
by Steve Habrat
After Ang Lee’s weighty Hulk, Marvel Studios wanted to cut out some of lengthy character development and restart the Hulk franchise to fit with their upcoming superhero mash-up The Avengers. The result was 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, a faster paced and action packed thrill ride that covers the Hulk’s origin in the opening credits and then jumps right into earth shaking battle sequences that aim to give both Hulk fans and average audience members exactly what they are looking for in a summer blockbuster. The Incredible Hulk is a major improvement over Lee’s slower character study in the action department, climaxing in a car-lobbing final showdown in the streets of New York City, but the film is hollow, never asking us to really use our brains in any way. With Lee’s Hulk, Marvel gave us too much of the big green guy and with director Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk, it feels like not enough. What gives Leterrier’s film the upper hand is the strong presence of a much more effective and present villain to torment the Hulk.
The Incredible Hulk begins with a green tinted opening credit sequence where we see Bruce Banner (Played by Edward Norton) get exposed to the dreaded gamma radiation that causes him to turn into the Hulk. Banner ends up injuring the love of his life Betty Ross (Played by Liv Tyler), who is present during the accident. Banner flees the lab after the accident and Betty’s father General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (Played by William Hurt) sets out to arrest Banner for what he has done to Betty. The film then jets to Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro, where Banner hides out while he searches for a way to cure himself. Banner also works on ways to control his anger through breathing techniques that keep him without incident. Banner keeps in contact with a mysterious scientist that he calls Mr. Blue and communicates with him via the Internet. Mr. Blue claims to have a way to cure Banner but he needs information that would require Banner to return to the United States and risk being taken into custody by General Ross. After an accident in the bottling factory where Banner works, General Ross discovers Banner’s location and sends the deadly British Royal Marine Emil Blonsky (Played by Tim Roth) after Banner, who quickly flees and finds himself on a journey back home to meet the mysterious Mr. Blue. Blonsky, on the other hand, finds himself fascinated by Banner and his condition. General Ross agrees to “level the playing field” and inject Blonsky with a serum that can allow him to battle the Hulk but there are horrific side effects.
The Incredible Hulk tosses out Lee’s comic book panel aesthetic for a typical polished summer blockbuster look. We also don’t have to wait until about forty minutes in to catch a glimpse of the big green guy in action. Leterrier is just dying to unleash his new and improved Hulk on us and I must say he is impressive. Gone is the purple compression shorts wearing Hulk and present is a Hulk in tattered jeans with leathery looking skin. The action is also a bit grittier and in your face, just about everything in the Hulk’s way getting tossed, kicked, punched, or used as shields or, (awesomely) boxing gloves. The downside of all the teeth rattling action is that Leterrier focuses a little too much on it and not enough on developing a meaty story. I’ve heard talk that screenwriters Zak Penn and Edward Norton had a longer version with a bit more character development but Marvel rejected it in favor of a faster pace. It’s a shame because I would have liked to get to know a little bit more about Norton’s Banner.
In addition to beefed up action, The Incredible Hulk features a slightly stronger cast than Hulk did. Edward Norton doesn’t spend a good majority of the film moping over daddy issues from his past. Norton possesses a natural gangly and bird-like look to him than Bana’s Banner, which makes his transformation into the Hulk all the more shocking. Bana sort of looked like he could have held his own in a scuffle without transforming into a giant green muscle. Much like Jennifer Connelly, Liv Tyler isn’t given much to do as Betty Ross aside from run around from location to location with Banner. Tyler also happens to speak in a breathier tone than Connelly did. William Hurt as General Ross adds a bit more attitude than Sam Elliot did and when he unleashes his temper, you will want to run for cover. The real star here is Roth, who has a blast flashing a sinister grin as Blonsky, the deadly super soldier who becomes addicted to a serum that turns him into the slimy Abomination. Roth is clearly on top of the world in the role, his excitement level growing as he evolves into a truly formidable villain for the Hulk. With Abomination, Leterrier single handedly lays waste to Lee’s Hulk, just the mere presence of a clear-cut villain a huge bonus.
The Incredible Hulk is a shameless thrill ride that is more enamored with eye-popping CGI monsters and fiery destruction rather than the psychological study that its predecessor was so stuck on. It’s so obviously sugary summer fun but it does its job and you can’t fault it for it. If it boiled down to it, I would probably choose The Incredible Hulk for a Friday night movie if I ever had to make the decision. Norton is clearly the better choice for Bruce Banner and Roth is a devilish delight as the Abomination. You’ll thrill when they begin trading blows in the final stretch of the film. In a way, I wish that The Incredible Hulk had tacked on another fifteen minutes to develop this new Hulk universe and to allow me to warm up to these new interpretations of the characters that Lee introduced us to. The Incredible Hulk also gets a surprise visit from a certain Armored Avenger, which teases us for the epic upcoming mash-up and will drive Marvel fanatics wild. Even if moments of it are lopsided and a bulk of the story gets lost in all the rumble, The Incredible Hulk still manages to get your to be mindless, smashing fun for everyone.
The Incredible Hulk is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
One of the most polarizing films in the Marvel Studios line of films is Ang Lee’s 2003 splashy origin tale Hulk, which shows us the unfortunate accident that turns mild mannered Bruce Banner into the smashing and thrashing Hulk. The film has seemed to divide audiences and critics over the years—some standing by Lee’s psychological evaluation of the pain the Bruce bottles up inside and some practically retching at the mere mention of the film. I stand firm in the above average crowd. Personally, I’m a fan of the aesthetic that Lee applies to the jolly green giant’s first cinematic outing and I do enjoy some of the camp that he lays on oh so thick. Hulk does come with several flaws that do hold the film back, mostly the poorly executed action sequences and some of the brooding character development that takes place during the sagging middle of the film. Much of the grim stuff could have been left on the cutting room floor. Yet when Hulk is firing on all cylinders, it is really, really good and it is hugely innovative.
Hulk tells the tale of genetics researcher Bruce Banner (Played by Eric Bana), who nurses a tragic past. Banner is working with nanomeds and gamma radiation to discover a cure for cancer and multiple other diseases. He works close to his main squeeze, the pretty Betty Ross (Played by Jennifer Connelly), who is the daughter of scheming General Ross (Played by Sam Elliot). When Bruce was young, General Ross and Bruce’s father David (Played by Nick Nolte) had a feud that caused David to be put in prison for many years. After an unfortunate accident, Bruce is exposed to gamma radiation but he miraculously survives. At first, Bruce feels better than ever but he quickly discovers that when he gets angry, he transforms into a destructive monster that lays waste to anything in its path. Fearing for the life of his daughter, General Ross demands that Bruce be taken into custody by the army before he can hurt anyone. To make matters worse, Bruce’s father returns to continue the work that he was torn away from all those years ago and undergoes a dangerous transformation of his own.
The best part of Lee’s Hulk is without question the comic book panel aesthetic that he uses to sculpt the film. It makes Hulk a constant visual treat—like we have cracked open the pages of a long lost Hulk comic book and the pages suddenly sprang to life. Lee’s film could be considered one of the first superhero films that tried to mimic the pages of it’s source, opening the door for films like Sin City, 300, etc. Hulk is one big cartoon, drenched in vibrant colors and action that would seem more at home on the pages of a comic than on a movie screen. Yet it is this very action that causes Hulk to hit a wall. When Lee throws an action sequence at us, he can’t quite keep Hulk contained and on track. These scenes, which are mostly the Hulk versus Hulk-dogs showdown and the final confrontation between Hulk and David Banner swirls into incoherency that completely removes us from the fun.
While Hulk is a visual treat, the subject matter veers into heavy territory that the comic book genre wasn’t particularly used to at the time. Lee doesn’t hesitate to give us multiple glimpses into Banner’s heavy heart and he marries the bottle up demons within Banner with his transformation into the Hulk. His pain and anguish is literally explosive. Lee drags Hulk out to two hours and twenty minutes with breathlessly explaining every psychological aspect of Banner’s inner turmoil. Lee uses Betty as the Banner’s psychologist, someone who stands back and baits Banner into decoding hazy memories from his past. This would be all okay except that Lee begins to repeat himself and he never really attempts to break the film up. He does finally lighten the mood with an extended battle between the Hulk and endless waves off army tanks, helicopters, and waves of soldiers.
Hulk does feature some first-rate performances from its colorful cast, mainly from Nolte as the mysterious David Banner. Nolte, looking as scruffy as ever, is a tortured soul much like Bruce, one who buries secrets within and then explodes into a force of nature. It’s a shame that Lee forgets about his character half way through the film and then suddenly remembers that he has to work him in and give him something to do with his sinister new powers. Connelly is given the routine superhero’s girlfriend job of putting herself in harm’s way but her interactions with Bruce are at times touching. She does everything she can to rise above her clichéd role and often does. Bana does a bang up job of playing the brooding nerd and I have to say I really enjoyed him. He does really send a chill when his face begins to bubble and he sputters out with, “You’re making me angry!” Sam Elliot as General Ross is an egotistical man who torments Banner every chance he gets. He’s the true villain here even if he is planted behind computer screens and shouts orders to never-ending troops of soldiers.
With fairly memorable performances and lots of visual bells and whistles, Hulk musters up several nifty moments throughout its lengthy runtime to really make it a winner. I personally enjoy the cartoonish special effects here and I think they have held up quite well over the years. I enjoy the hell out of the Hulk’s showdown with the army near the end of the film and I personally think it is the highlight moment. Just wait until the Hulk bites the tip of a missile off and spits it at a helicopter. Yet I don’t think a character like the Hulk truly needs such an emotionally complex origin tale for a hero who is basically a green wrecking ball. Furthermore, I really don’t think that Lee needed to drag it out as long as he does, as more than once I checked the time while I was re-watching it. What I want out of a Hulk movie is lots of smashing, destruction, and mayhem with a tiny bit of romance thrown in. I commend Lee and Hulk for trying to add some depth to the superhero genre and for that, I say Hulk is pretty darn good. It’s a risky experiment of imagination and Lee, God bless him, almost pulls it off.
Hulk is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Bad Santa (2003)
by Steve Habrat
From the snowless southwest setting to it’s alcoholic, self-destructive tomfoolery, Bad Santa seems like an unlikely holiday hit. Just get a load of its sloshed opening where Billy Bob Thornton’s Willie, dressed as the skinniest Santa Claus you will ever lay eyes on, vomits in a snowy alley on Christmas Eve. It’s certainly not one you could put on for the kiddies to distract them while you wrap your Christmas gifts or gather as a family to have a few guffaws at. Bad Santa is bad, naughty, anti-social, raucous, dirty, ugly, and downright side-splitting if you are not one with virgin ears. The best part is that Willie clings to his bad attitude the entire journey, making him one of the most loveable anti-heroes in a Santa hat. It is important, though, that you gauge if this film is appropriate for you, as I could see some getting their panties in a bunch over Willie’s womanizing, violent temper, and treatment of the kiddies. I howled with laughter over his short fuse, especially when one tyke sneezes chocolate ice cream all over his white beard. The funniest part is that we really don’t hold his mood against him.
Willie (Played by Thornton) and his dwarf friend Marcus (Played by Tony Cox) pose as a mall Santa and one of his elves. Willie has issues holding his temper together and Marcus has to constantly keep him in check. Every Christmas Eve, they rob a mall and disappear until the holidays return, only to show up at a new mall in a new city. A year later, Marcus contacts Willie in Miami and recruits him for a new job in the southwest. After checking in to the mall and meeting the prim and proper mall manager Bob Chipeska (Played by the late John Ritter), they begin their duties. Bob begins to suspect something strange about the duo and he seeks the help of the mall security chief Gin Slagel (Played by the late Bernie Mac), who agrees to keep an eye on Willie and Marcus. Willie also begins shacking up at the home of a pudgy kid who he nicknames “the Kid” (Played by Brett Kelly) and his senile grandmother. He also begins seeing a seductive bartender named Sue (Played by Lauren Graham), who he develops genuine affection for. As Willie and Marcus begin to plot their heist, they find themselves at the hands of Gin, who figures out their history and demands half of what they steal. Willie also begins mentoring the Kid and he begins to show glimmers of kindness.
Going against the usual messages of hope, love, cheer, joy, and peace on earth, Bad Santa embraces degenerate behavior and a foul mouth that, if an open flame were lit near its boozy breath, it would burst into hellfire flames. It has the balls to go against “the norm”, which I absolutely love. Willie is pathetic, one who we want so desperately to loathe but can’t help but like. He is perpetually nursing a hangover, an acting style that Thornton excels at. I have to admit I love his as the grump. The other shining star in Bad Santa is John Ritter as Bob Chipeska, who steals some of the funniest lines of dialogue in the entire film. He plays an uptight family man role who is always squeaky clean. Bernie Mac hits a homerun as a smart-ass swindler who is just looking out for himelf. His negotiating skills will have you slapping your knees. It is these three performances that make the film a must see.
While Cox, Graham, and Kelly are memorable, they sometimes don’t hold a candle to the work done by Thornton, Ritter, and Mac. The story has enough outrageous and taboo situations (Chipeska stumbling upon Willie and another woman becoming intimate in a dressing room is a classic, especially a certain line of dialogue delivered with such seriousness by Thornton, I almost think he meant it.) to keep its one-dimensional message buoyant. It is basically the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, someone who rejects the season at first, only to finally come around and see the error of his ways. At least Thornton has the good sense to retain the disgust that flashes in his droopy eyes every so often–sometimes I think it is at himself. The love does come creeping in, even if it is in a rather left of center way. The film also rests heavily on irony, mostly by placing the un-jolly Thornton in the britches of Santa and having him display zero enthusiasm and a strong dislike for kids. It’s a joke that many may fear will get stretched a too thin but it continues to get us chuckling.
Bad Santa doesn’t do much to change the Christmas comedy through technicalities, as the film is rather flatly shot. Director Terry Zwigoff lets the script do most of the work, which usually means having one of the contemptible characters deliver a hugely over-the-top line of dialogue. It also relies on its shock-and-awe premise, leaving us asking ‘Will it go there?’ and it usually does. It’s a staple that raunchy comedies heavily rely on but we have become largely forgiving for it. It has boiled down to how far can the envelope be pushed and how much will audiences take. Bad Santa basically wants nothing more than to give the adults a break from the childish touches of the season. With everything revolving around the kiddies and family orientated activities, it’s the perfect middle finger to the season.
Bad Santa is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.