Shaun of the Dead (2004)
by Steve Habrat
Before the summer of 2003, the zombie genre had largely remained dead and buried. There was a sluggish 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead here and the final Italian effort Dellamorte Dellamore there, but the zombies seemed content to rest six feet under. In 2002, we caught a glimpse of the undead in the futuristic action-thriller Resident Evil, a film that was unexpectedly fun despite the fact that it was based around a video game and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. In 2003, zombies—or should I say INFECTED people—came back in a big way. Danny Boyle’s grim indie 28 Days Later re-ignited interest in the apocalyptic subgenre and the craze grew ever stronger with the spring 2004 release of the Dawn of the Dead remake. With the zombie craze re-established, the fall of 2004 saw the release of British director Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, a written-in-blood loveletter to George A. Romero’s Dead trilogy, some of the early Italian releases like Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, and, yes, Boyle’s gritty reimagining of the genre. Down-to-earth, warm, hilarious, and tense in all the right places, Shaun of the Dead is without question one of the strongest modern zombie movies and it ranks up there as one of the best undead films ever made. Oh, and it also happens to be a romantic comedy, which means your girlfriend might like it too.
Shaun of the Dead introduces us to Shaun (played by Simon Pegg), whose life seems to be stuck in a rut. He works a dead end job as an electronics salesman at Foree Electric, he loathes his stepfather, Phillip (played by Bill Nighy), he constantly quarrels with his roommate, Pete (played by Peter Serafinowicz), over their lazy best friend Ed, who shacks up on their couch and refuses to get a job, and he wants to spend every night sipping pints in a local pub called the Winchester. To make things worse, Shaun is loosing his girlfriend, Liz (played by Kate Ashfield), who wishes that Shaun would do more with his life. After Shaun forgets to book a table at a fancy restaurant for their anniversary, Liz decides to call it quits with Shaun because he just can’t seem to grow up and take on responsibility. Devastated, Shaun and Ed retreat to the Winchester to drown their sorrows in a couple pints and shots, but the next day, the two awake to discover that mankind has been wiped out and the cannibalistic undead roam the streets. Hungover and terrified, Shaun and Ed begin devising a plot to round up Liz, her roommates, David (played by Dylan Moran) and Dianne (played by Lucy Davis), and Shaun’s mother, Barbara (played by Penelope Wilton), in an attempt to show Liz that he is a responsible adult. The plan is to hold up in the Winchester until the whole thing blows over, but as they begin their trek to the pub, they realize that the situation outside is a lot more dangerous than they had anticipated.
The early scenes of Shaun of the Dead are absolutely hilarious and brimming with social commentary. The opening credits find ordinary citizens shuffling through their daily lives with a blank stare frozen on their faces, rooted in monotonous routines. Even Shaun is stuck in a mundane ritual as he shuffles out of bed like a zombie, throws on his work clothes, and sulks obliviously down to the local market where he picks up sodas and ice cream to munch on while he plays video games with Ed. Funny enough, Ed is the one that reminds Shaun that he can’t jump into a game because he has to go to work. Shaun is so blind to his surroundings that when the zombie apocalypse does finally hit, he has absolutely no idea that it is happening until Ed calmly tells him that there’s a girl in their garden. From here on out, the film falls back on the blind leading the blind. Shaun and Ed are clueless over how to deal with the situation they find themselves in. They think that throwing records like Frisbees at the zombies that have stumbled into their back yard (the movie’s best and funniest sequence) is a good idea and they hilariously believe that they will be able to shack up in a pub and sip pints while the undead pound away outside. These early scenes show that Pegg and Wright, who penned the script, both fully understand that Romero’s Dead trilogy had a lot more on its mind that just blood and guts.
While there are plenty of smarts to be found in the depiction of daily life, which clearly Pegg and Wright detest, the film also gets by on some witty references to other zombie movies. Early on we get a nod to Lucio Fulci, Ken Foree, who was the star of Romero’s 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead, a sly nod to the 1984 cosmic zombie movie Night of the Comet, a hilarious spin on the “we’re coming to get you, Barbara” line from Night of the Living Dead, and charming use of Goblin’s score from Dawn of the Dead. There is also a blink-and-you-miss-it tribute to Boyle’s 28 Days Later near the end of the film. While Wright and Pegg are eager to pay tribute to the zombie movie greats, they create a unique offering to the genre. The film is also a hilarious slacker-stoner comedy and a touching romantic comedy that finds us rooting for the romance to rekindle between Liz and Shaun. By the end of the film, Wright has scrubbed away most of the laughs in favor for the typical gut munching and closed-off claustrophobia that made horror fans fall in love with the zombie genre in the first place. The final sequence has powerful emotional blows, a quick visual gag to break the tension, and then a final siege that finds our heroes realistically trying to work their way around a firearm. The scene is all the better because we truly want every single one of these characters to make it out alive, but when the zombies start trying to claw their way in, our stomach twists into knots and we know that won’t happen.
The characters of Shaun of the Dead are all brilliantly written and beautifully played by a handful of very talented British actors. Pegg is a revelation as Shaun, who still gets a belly laugh out of a good fart joke. He shares several touching moments with the stoner Ed, who seems to have grown roots to the couch and super glued an XBOX controller to his fingertips. Ashfield is sweet and tightly wound as Liz, who thinks that there is a lot more out there for her than simply wasting away at the Winchester. Moran is a geeky puke as David, who pines for Liz even though she sees him as just a friend, and Davis tries to be mediator as Dianne. Nighy is stern discipline as Phillip, Shaun’s no-nonsense stepfather who is given one of the most dramatic scenes of the movie. Serafinowicz is wildly unlikable as Pete, Shaun’s fed-up flat mate and Wilton is naïve as Shaun’s lovable mother Barbara. Amazingly, Wright gets us to like even the most detestable characters and he almost drives us to tears when the cannibals seeking human flesh bite a few of them. Overall, Shaun of the Dead dares to take on quite a bit and it could have been crushed under the heavy load it attempts to lift. It is bound and determined to take on several different genres at once and it does it with shocking ease. It is an inventive, poignant, hilarious, and creepy zombie movie that has even earned praise from the zombie godfather himself, George A. Romero. You’ll want to watch this movie again and again.
Shaun of the Dead is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
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!
World War Z (2013)
by Steve Habrat
In 1968, Duane Jones and a rag-tag group of desperate and confused survivors holed up in a rural Pennsylvania farmhouse as undead cannibals roamed the yard waiting for their meals to emerge from their boarded up safe-haven. The survivors, who were armed with only a rusty rifle and a handful of bullets, were almost completely oblivious to what was happening a mile away from where they were hiding, their only source of information being messy and almost skeptical reports from spooked news anchors. The television flickered images of flustered government officials dashing to a car and mentioning something about radiation from space causing all the chaos in America’s streets. There was also the hollow reassurance from local authorities that the situation was under control even though you got the uneasy feeling that these events were going to get worse before they got better. Other than that, the survivors of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead were on their own, with their backs pressed firmly against the wall. Forty-five years later, we have director Marc Forster and Brad Pitt’s vast World War Z, which is based on the globetrotting novel by Max Brooks. Romero’s groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead preyed upon the viewer’s fear of being confined into a tight space by a horror that lacked clear-cut explanation. As far as scope is concerned, Forster’s World War Z is the polar opposite of Romero’s vision, presenting the audience with sprawling shots of zombie mayhem from all over the world and much to this viewer’s surprise, it is actually a pretty effective zombie blockbuster.
World War Z begins with former UN employee Gerry Lane (played by Brad Pitt), his wife, Karin (played by Mireille Enos), and their two daughters, Rachel (played by Abigail Hargrove) and Constance (played by Sterling Jerins) caught in a nasty Philadelphia traffic jam. On the radio, a fuzzy news report talks of a rabies outbreak that has apparently spread internationally. Overhead, helicopters roar and ambulance sirens echo through the buildings. Suddenly, there is an explosion just up the road and panic erupts as zombies charge through the bumper-to-bumper maze. Gerry and his family manage to escape to an apartment complex where they are to be extracted by a helicopter sent by Gerry’s former UN colleague, Thierry (played by Fana Mokoena). The Lane’s are taken to a US Navy ship that is just off the coast of New York City. On board, Gerry learns that the president is dead, the vice president is missing, and that the world is going to Hell in the blink of an eye. Thierry and the ship’s naval commander soon approach Gerry about accompanying virologist Dr. Fassbach (played by Elyes Gabel) on a mission to find the source of the outbreak. Gerry reluctantly accepts the mission and the two men set out towards South Korea, but as the investigation deepens, their dangerous journey also takes them to Jerusalem and Cardiff.
What was only heard about and distantly felt in Night of the Living Dead is shown to the viewer in full CGI glory in the rocky opening moments of World War Z. Forster assaults the viewer with blurry images of panicked citizens running for their lives as cars smash into one another, buildings blow up, and snapping zombies jump through the air like banshees. Unlike Romero’s shuffling ghouls, Forster’s zombies are more in the vein of the cannibals found in Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. These zombies have cloudy white eyes that bulge out of their head and they twitch, spaz out, and when they spot their prey, dash wildly towards their meal. They hurl themselves off of buildings towards spinning helicopters and when they hear a noise on the other side of the massive wall that protects Jerusalem, they pile on top of each other like ants to reach their victims. While the initial glimpses of the ghouls in the World War Z trailers were a little corny, the finished product is pretty impressive, especially when viewed in long intervals from above. While these overhead shots are here to wow, they also allow Forster to conceal some of the gut munching that is taking place in the streets. Considering World War Z is rated PG-13, Forster is forced to really cut back on the violence that has become a staple of the zombie subgenre. He keeps the violence largely off screen but there are still more than a few moments that will make you wince. Be warned, zombie fanatics, there is none of the intestine spewing carnage that Romero is known for.
It was no secret that there was quite a bit of off-screen drama surrounding World War Z, both before and during production. Before the cameras rolled on the $200 million dollar project, there was a massive bidding war for the rights between Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, Appian Way, and Brad Pitt’s company, Plan B Entertainment. Pitt wasn’t content on just having the rights to the film—he also stars in this epic zombie beast. Pitt is the only A-list star billed in World War Z and he gives his all in his performance. He is a loving family man before the violence comes crashing down and he is a driven investigator racing to save the human race when the zombies charge towards him. The action allows Pitt to be tough-guy hero in certain places, but some of the scenes are plagued by action movie clichés that will just have you shaking your head. As far as the supporting acts go (which is everyone else), Enos is asked to just hover around a cell phone and wait for Gerry to call and reassure her that he hasn’t become an all-you-can eat buffet. Gabel is given a small and brief role as Dr. Fassbach, who is convinced he can find a way to beat the virus. Mokoena shuffles around the Navy ship and is simply asked to explain how bad the situation is to Pitt. Unknown actress Daniella Kertesz is here as a shoot-first-as-questions-later Israeli soldier named Segen, who joins up with Pitt in Jerusalem. Make sure you keep your eyes peeled for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Matthew Fox (Alex Cross) a Navy SEAL operative and a small, scene-stealing appearance by David Morse (The Green Mile) as a former CIA operative with a nasty story to tell about North Korea’s approach to containing the zombie outbreak.
Considering that World War Z is a zombie movie, there is no doubt that you are wondering if it is actually scary. While there is quite a bit more emphasis on the 10-miles-wide action, World War Z offers up its fair share of nail-biting suspense, especially in the smartly claustrophobic climax that subtly winks at Romero’s 1968 game changer. Initially, I was unsure if I cared for this drastic shift in vision (those gliding God’s-eye-views are really something), but I’ve warmed to it in the hours since I’ve seen the film. What ultimately holds World War Z back from being a great zombie blockbuster is the number of clichés that you’ll find throughout its runtime. It seems that every place that Pitt’s Gerry steps, zombies manage to conveniently come barging in right when he gets a lead and you’ll highly doubt that he could survive a specific fiery plane crash. Oh well, he’s clearly having a good time playing a he-man action hero and I’m certainly not going to rain on his parade. Overall, World War Z gets off to an awkward start, but once it finds its groove, the film morphs into fun-but-flawed apocalyptic journey. It proves that there is still some wild-eyed life in the zombie subgenre and what Romero couldn’t afford to show us in Night of the Living Dead is actually pretty chilling stuff.
Cannibal Apocalypse (1980)
by Steve Habrat
At the height of the Italian zombie and jungle cannibal craze, exploitation director Antonio Margheriti (yes, you heard his name in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds) came up with the idea to mix the two splatter subgenres together, add a dash of Apocalypse Now and The Warriors, and replace real jungles for concrete ones. The result of this strange brew is Cannibal Apocalypse, a hit-or-miss grindhouse zombie extravaganza that features some impressive gore for a low budget Italian exploitation effort, some mildly entertaining action sequences, gratuitous nudity, and, yes, even a bit of senseless pedophilia. Cannibal Apocalypse could also have been a fairly solid exploration of the traumas of war and early on it seems like it is threatening to get a bit psychological, but after the first twenty minutes or so, the film abandons any sign of something substantial. In its place is the same old clichés that we’ve seen before set to the same synthesizer scores that played over countless other Italian zombie and jungle cannibal movies before it. The only difference is there is a hilarious saxophone playing over those pulsing synths. Make no mistake; this is an exercise in sleazy short-term thrills that goes great with a few Pabst Blue Ribbons. There is no long-term meditation and reflection over a glass of Chardonnay.
Cannibal Apocalypse begins with a rip-roaring flashback to the Vietnam War, with Norman Hooper (played by John Saxon) and a group of commandos storming an enemy bunker where two other commandos, Charlie Bukowski (played by Giovanni Lombardo Radice) and Tom Thompson (played by Tony King), are being held prisoner. Much to Noman’s horror, his two buddies have developed an insatiable hunger for human flesh and are in the process of devouring the charred body of a Vietnamese woman. While trying to help his friends, Tom suddenly lunges at Norman’s arm and he tears a big chunk right out of it. Several years later, Norman appears to be living a normal, happy life in an Atlanta suburb with his wife, Jane (played by Elizabeth Turner). Despite the happy face he puts on, Norman is still haunted by the horrors that he witnessed during the war and he even finds himself being seduced by the teenage girl next door. To make things worse, he finds himself craving human flesh. One day, Norman gets a call from Charlie, who has been recovering in a local mental hospital, about grabbing a drink and catching up. At first Norman turns down Charlie’s offer to get together, but after Charlie goes berserk in a local movie theater and rips open a girls throat, Norman is forced to reconnect with his friend and convince him to give himself over to the authorities. While in custody, Charlie meets up Tom, who is also still craving human flesh. As Charlie and Tommy bite more and more people, the cannibalistic cravings begin to spread and madness begins spilling into the streets.
The opening twenty minutes of Cannibal Apocalypse are fairly impressive and well spoken, as the camera is trained on the seriously disturbed Norman and the traumas that haunt him. He suffers from terrible nightmares and he squirms every single time he sees a piece of raw meat sitting in his refrigerator. Things really boil over when the young neighbor girl seduces Norman and he proceeds to take a chunk out of her hip. It is creepy in more ways than one and frankly unnecessary. From here on out, the filmmakers are more interested in showing bare breasts and giving the audience extreme close-ups of teeth tearing into chunks of meat rather than exploring the mental slip that these characters are experiencing. The gore just continues to escalate and you should know that the effects are pretty jaw dropping for a cheap Italian cannibal flick. One scene finds a doctor having his tongue ripped out by an infected nurse after he mistakes her attacks for seduction. Just to make things even more disgusting, the nurse then spits the very realistic tongue onto the floor and proceeds to bash the doctor’s head open. In another standout moment, our group of cannibals huddle around one victim’s leg and then saw it open with an electric saw, all while the camera zooms in on the mutilated meat. Yet the king daddy of gore shots comes when one character has a hole blown through their stomach with a shotgun. Just to make sure we understand that there was a hole blown through the character’s stomach, Margheriti cuts to it multiple times and even shows an extreme close up of it.
While the artier spurts may be the true stars, Cannibal Apocalypse contains some surprisingly passable performances from the actors. Saxon is convincing enough as the mentally unstable Norman. It rumored that Saxon really hated making the movie and that he has refused to see it. You’d never guess he was miserable though, as Margheriti never catches him sleepwalking through a scene. Then we have Radice, who you may remember from Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead. For those who don’t remember him, he is the guy who gets the drill right to the temple. Radice is in full crazy throughout much of Cannibal Apocalypse and he seems to be relishing every second he is in the film. If you think Radice is gonzo, wait until you get a load of King’s gnashing and thrashing Tom, who chomps, rants, and raves all while blood drips from his gums. He is so outrageous that he surpasses bad and just dives right into hilarity. Turner meanwhile is forgettable as Norman’s suspicious wife, who doesn’t even seem moved when he tells her he was fooling around with the girl next door. May Heatherly is also on board as Helen, a poor nurse who gets bitten and turns into a robotic cannibal with a craving for human tongues. She joins the pack of flash eaters near the end of the film as they dash around in the sewers, but she is mostly there to get gunned down by gas masked police officers.
Heavily inspired by Fulci’s Zombie and George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Cannibal Apocalypse never reaches the extreme highs of either film it is attempting to emulate and it certainly never taps into the satire that Romero did in 1978. Margheriti does manage to deliver a few action sequences that will hold your attention, especially the climactic chase through the hazy and rat infested Atlanta sewers. There is also an unintentionally hilarious brawl with a group of bikers in a seedy alleyway that looks like something ripped right out of The Warriors. The unintentional laughs will continue when you hear the wildly inappropriate disco score that accompanies most of the carnage. Overall, Cannibal Apocalypse is far from scary and it squanders every single opportunity to explore the impact that war has on our troops, but as far as inexpensive exploitation films go, it does have some stomach churning violence. This is only for those people who have worn out their copies of Zombie and Dawn of the Dead and are craving a lesser-known cannibal flick.
Cannibal Apocalypse is available on DVD.
Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror (1981)
by Steve Habrat
In the wake of George A. Romero’s zombie masterpiece Dawn of the Dead and Lucio Fulci’s surprise smash imitation Zombie, the walking dead became all the rage in Italy during the late 70s and early 80s. While most of these films were made on the cheap and focused heavily on gratuitous violence, there was still a few that managed to be pretty entertaining and stand out from the bunch. Perhaps the most warped of these standouts is exploitation director Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror. Plot-less, artless, and wildly perverted, Burial Ground has climbed the cult classic ranks mostly due to the presence of Peter Bark, a 25-year-old dwarf that is onboard here as a young boy named Michael, who is sexually attracted to his own mother. This relationship certainly trumps every other “eww” factor in the film, but Bianchi has a few more tricks up his sleeve to shock and repulse. Burial Ground wastes absolutely no time jumping into the exploitation action, beginning with a little sex and nudity and then launching itself headfirst into non-stop gut munching. Those searching for a zombie film with a biting social commentary mixed in with the shuffling undead hordes better start looking elsewhere. This sucker is all about grossing you out.
Burial Ground begins with the bearded Professor Ayres snooping around ancient Etruscan catacombs near his home. As he investigates the catacombs, he accidentally sets off a mysterious device that unleashes a horde of shuffling ghouls that proceed to eat him up. A few miles away, three couples, Leslie (Played by Antonella Antinori) and James (Played by Simone Mattioli), Mark (Played by Gianluigi Chirizzi) and Janet (Played by Karin Well), and George (Played by Roberto Caporali) and Evelyn (Played by Mariangela Barbieri), arrive at Ayres’s mansion for a relaxing getaway. Also among the group is Evelyn’s young son Michael (Played by Peter Bark), a creepy little kid with a huge crush on his “mama.” Shortly after the group arrives, they all engage in a little afternoon delight and then they all take to the mansion grounds to do a bit of exploring. While taking in the idyllic scenery, the couples come face to face with the walking dead that have been unleashed by Professor Ayres. Terrified and confused, the group retreats to the mansion and begins boarding up all the windows and doors, but as day turns to night, the zombies reveal that they are not as mindless as the group initially thought and that they are actually very resourceful.
Right from the get-go, it is obvious that Burial Ground is more interested in spilling blood than giving any sort of clear explanation as to how exactly Professor Ayres woke these Etruscan cannibals up or why they are cursed to walk the earth as these monsters. Bianchi asks us to simply accept it and embrace the film for what it is—a cheap exploitation movie. The best part of the entire film is the zombies, which all wear some seriously nasty and detailed make-up. Much like the ghouls of Fulci’s celebrated Zombie, these zombies have worms dangling from empty eye sockets, jagged teeth protruding through their rotten lips, exposed bones, maggots slowly crawling out of gashes, and yellowish blood oozing from gunshots wounds. When they finally catch up to their victims, they rip their stomachs open and pull out a seemingly endless string of entrails. We are then treated to extreme close-ups of the decayed zombies chewing on various body parts as skin-crawling sound effects echo on the soundtrack. Unlike Fulci’s zombies, these undead nightmares don’t just rely on their bony hands and discolored fangs to get to their victims and rip them apart. These ghouls raid the gardening shack and pick up various weapons including axes, pitchforks, knives, and even a scythe to use on their meals. There is one eerie scene that finds the mansion maid sticking her head out of one of the mansion’s windows and getting her head chopped off by some scythe-wielding ghouls, who then all greedily grab for their blood treat. This particular scene is about as terrifying as Burial Ground gets.
What really puts a bullet in the head of Burial Ground is the absolutely atrocious acting from nearly everyone who steps foot in front of the camera. The only two performers who really stick in the viewers mind are Bark as the Oedipal Michael and Barbieri as his sexed-up mother Evelyn. The adult Bark is absolutely hilarious and downright unsettling playing a child that is maybe eleven or twelve years old. He slinks around the mansion and bursts in on his mother and George as they have passionate sex. His mother’s response upon seeing Michael is to leap out of bed and barely cover herself in front of her bug-eyed son as he calls out “mama!” As if Bark wasn’t weird enough, Bianchi then dubs the man-child with a voice that sounds like an adult attempting to sound like a little kid. Over the course of the film, Michael’s relationship with his mother gets more and more bizarre as he reaches up her skirt and tries to expose her breasts during a zombie attack. If those scenes don’t have your jaw on the floor, Bianchi has one final shock for you in the final moments of the film. If ever there was an image that would burn itself into your brain and haunt your dreams for the rest of your life, it is this one. If you’re wondering why the 25-year-old dwarf Bark was cast as a child, Italian law stated that a child could not be cast in a film that featured such graphic content.
If it weren’t for the incestuous subplot between Michael and Evelyn, Burial Ground certainly would not have the rabid fan base that it does today. Sure the gore and make-up effects are solid but they alone would never have carried the film off into the land of cult classics. As if the lousy acting and poor plot weren’t enough to bring the film down, Bianchi approaches the project as if he could care less about it. The camera is almost always at a stand still and offering up a poorly lit and grainy medium shot of the action. It is clear that a good majority of the film’s budget went to the zombie make-up and gore effects and you can’t really blame Bianchi for wanting to show them off, but after a while, you get the impression that he is just filling out the runtime. Surprisingly, Bianchi does choose a dark path at the end, but he shoots himself in the foot when he stamps a quote over the final image of the film that is riddled with spelling errors. Overall, Burial Ground tries desperately to play to its audience and there are a few moments that are mildly entertaining, but as far as Italian zombie knock-offs go, you’re better off sticking with a Fulci zombie film.
Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror is available on DVD.
Nightmare City (1980)
by Steve Habrat
Way back in 2003, most casual horror fans believed that Danny Boyle had created the running zombie with his 2003 horror gem 28 Days Later. His sprinting ghouls then inspired Zack Snyder, who sped up his undead in the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. While these two films made the running zombie popular, it could be argued that zombie godfather George A. Romero did it first in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead. Yes, you read that correctly. If you think back to the opening sequence of the film, the cemetery zombie that terrorizes poor Johnny and Barbara isn’t afraid to hustle for his meal. While the rest of the ghouls shuffled their way to the farmhouse, that iconic zombie moved at a very fast walk. About thirteen years later, the fast moving zombie appeared once again in the Italian made Nightmare City, another one of the European knock-offs of Romero’s 1978 masterpiece Dawn of the Dead. Much like Boyle’s 28 Days Later, Nightmare City doesn’t actually contain cannibalistic undead. No, these maniacal terrors are suffering from radiation poisoning and they are not simply craving a hearty meal of entrails. They crave blood and they are not afraid of using guns, knives, and clubs to get it. Hell, they even drive a car and fly a plane!
Set in an unnamed European city, a television reporter named Dean Miller (Played by Hugo Stiglitz) arrives at an airport to await the arrival of a scientist he is supposed to interview. While he waits, a mysterious military plane makes an emergency landing and unleashes a slew of radioactive zombies that proceed to shoot and stab the police and military officers waiting outside. Dean manages to escape the slaughter and he makes his way to the local television station to warn anyone who will listen to him. Just as Dean is about to make an announcement, the military steps in and prevents him from spilling too many details about the incident. It doesn’t take long for the ghouls to make their way into the city and begin killing anyone in their path. As the city is overrun, Dean attempts to rescue his wife, Dr. Anna Miller (Played by Laura Trotter), who works at the local hospital. Meanwhile, military officials General Murchison (Played by Mel Ferrer) and Major Warren Holmes (Played by Francisco Rabal) scramble to contain the situation and understand what type of threat they are up against.
While there isn’t much of a plot to Nightmare City, director Umberto Lenzi, the man who gave the world the Cannibal Holocaust knock-off Cannibal Ferox, keeps the action and bloodletting rolling at a furious rate. There is maybe five minutes of downtime before that dreaded military plane makes its emergency landing and unleashes those crusty-faced infected. The make-up on these ghouls is less than impressive, as their faces just look horribly scabbed over. There is nothing particularly memorable about any of them and they never wear the grotesque detail that many of the other ghouls of Italian zombie movies wore. Hilariously, all of the ghouls in Nightmare City are male and when they attack their female victims, they feel the need to rip off the women’s shirts for a quick boob flash before they start hacking and slashing. As far as the gore is concerned, the film never matches the jaw-dropping intensity of one of Lucio Fulci’s zombie films. Just because the film never matches the gore of a Fulci film doesn’t mean that Nightmare City is a softie. No, brace yourself for eyeballs being gouged out, blood slurped out of necks, heads getting blown to bits, an arm being yanked off, and even a women’s breast getting sawed clean off.
Probably the poorest part of Nightmare City is the stiff performances from nearly everyone involved. Mexican actor Hugo Stiglitz tries has hardest to make something of a role that simply asks him to run from one location to the next. His Dean is asked to be a tough guy, but sometimes he looks a bit bored firing a machine gun at a handful of charging ghouls. Despite his faint disinterest, he still manages to give the best performance in Nightmare City. Trotter barely registers as Dean’s terrified wife, basically just throwing herself on the ground and acting helpless. Ferrer does passable job as the no-nonsense General Murchison, but even he just stands around in an underground military bunker and forces himself to look important. Rabal’s Major Holmes is another bore who tries to inject a bit of emotion into his role. The only scene he really seems invested in is a steamy make-out session between him and his artist wife, Shelia (Played by Maria Rosaria Omaggio). Much like Trotter’s helpless Anna, Omaggio’s Shelia is asked to flash her chest and cautiously wander around her massive home.
Despite everything working against Nightmare City, it still manages to be a surprisingly fun European zombie movie. In addition to the poor effects, lousy acting, frail plot, and silly exposition, the film also features the biggest rip-off of an ending you will ever see. Yet you will be willing to forgive all the flaws because Lenzi really goes out of his way to deliver the thrills and he even manages to craft a few moments that are fairly suspenseful. The most stunning is an aerial shot of swarming infected charging through the city. To break up the mild suspense, you’ll get a few solid laughs, especially when Stiglitz lobs a television at charging infected and it blows up like a grenade. In the years since its release, Lenzi has tried to argue that the film actually is making an anti-nuclear message and that it is extremely critical of the military, but it is glaringly obvious that the film is just a low budget exploitation cheapie. Overall, Nightmare City is certainly no Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Zombie, City of the Living Dead, or The Beyond, but as far as action packed escapism goes, you can do much, much worse. No one will blame you if you seek this sucker out for a midnight viewing.
Nightmare City is available on DVD.