Just when you couldn’t get another zombie-movie, and with Zombieland: Double Tap still in its last throes in theaters (as of late November), here we get a surprise import from Japan that is sure to satisfy those who like their horror with a healthy dose of the chuckles and a meta slant. Shin’ichirô Ueda’s movie One Cut of the Dead, now available to stream on Shudder, doesn’t invent new grounds, but it offers quite a bit in terms of the fictional suddenly becoming real. A director of art films goes into a closed-off military base where “horrible experiments were made on people” — itself perhaps a nod to Japan’s own checkered past going back to World War II — to film a zombie film, and before you know it, his stage becomes itself invaded by zombies hungry for the entire cast.
It’s all done in a rather impressive shot lasting 40 minutes in length and ends in the Final Girl having disposed of her beau. What the movie then becomes — we then realize — is its own movie within a movie, with the director yelling “Cut!” which then throws us out of the horror narrative proper, and back into the making of the movie per se, from conversations with producers to get it done to finding the cast to then settling down to the actual location in order to start filming proper, which leads us then to the final third of the movie, which is where it delivers on its premise on showing us how it somehow became a meta-horror picture in the first place.
One Cut of the Dead is, honestly, nothing new in the zombie genre. But for a picture to take such a tired, overdone theme and subvert it unto itself to create a rollicking comedy filled with moments of choreography and improvisation, now, that’s something I can bite into. Give it a look see. You’ll be glad you did.
ZOMBI CHILD. Country, France. Director, Bertrand Bonello. Screenwriter, Bertrand Bonello. Language, French, Creole. Cast: Louise Labecque, Wislanda Louimat, Katiana Milfort, Mackenson Bijou, Sayyid El-Alami. Runtime, 102 minutes. Part of the 57th New York Film Festival Main Slate. Venue: Alice Tully Hall. US Premiere, October 1, 2019. US Release date: TBA.
Mostly Indies: C+
After experiencing back-to-back disappointments with his 2014 film Saint Laurent and his 2016 Nocturama, I was a bit hesitant to approach Bertrand Bonello’s incursion into the horror genre with his current work Zombi Child, an incursion into art-horror that attempts to merge Haiti’s tradition of turning civilians into zombies to reinforce slavery, blended somehow with a sheltered all-girl’s school, because I wasn’t sure how well he would treat the subject matter of what is part of Haitian religion and its own culture without turning it into something a bit silly or fetishistic.
The result of Bonello’s movie is equal parts historic recreation mixed with elements that seem borrowed from Val Lewton’s own I Walked with a Zombie (1944) or Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1987), and in that is good in my book. From the start, Zombi Child kicks off rather eerily, with the depiction of an unknown bokor preparing the drug that will be used for nefarious purposes against an unfortunate. That unfortunate turns out to be Clairvius Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou), who collapses in the middle of a street in an unknown Haitian town and gets buried soon after. Only that he is not dead, Bonello films a chilling shot from Narcisse’s point of view as he silently and passively listens to the dirt falling onto his grave, only to find himself enslaved in the fields working for a black master.
The film then cuts to the present and zooms into an all-girl boarding school, where (predictably) the girls are mostly ignorant of the outside world. Amongst them is a young Haitian girl, Melissa (Wislanda Louimat), who while accepted in a clique of girls who love to listen to trap music and discuss literature, is also seen as a bit of a freak, mostly because she has been heard making strange noises in the girl’s bathroom at odd hours. Another girl, Fanny (Louise Labecque), seems to be going through an existential crisis of love as she mourns the loss of a former boyfriend, Pablo (Sayyid El-Alami). Conversations between Fanny and the other girls of their clique lead Fanny to discover Melissa’s Haitian heritage and seek her aunt Katy (Katiana Milfort) out for something unspeakable.
For the most part, Zombi Child seems to be split down the middle with its two disparate storylines which merge into a final, satisfying third. Its Haitian scenario is truly an atmospheric nightmare in which Clairvius, drugged beyond his wits, works the fields and wanders aimlessly through streets, slowly piecing back his life together. The French story sags quite a bit, and serves as a (very) slow ascent up the rollercoaster, giving us bits and pieces of information about the two most salient girls, before revealing to us not just what one is about to engage in, but that the other may have been a product of some unholy union and carries that in her own veins. It’s an intriguing piece of cinema, not quite horror but close, in which the cultural and political heritage of one country informs and colors another, and its incursion into a fantastic and horrifying climax serves as both expungement of a trauma by one girl, and the reaffirmation of another girl’s own culture.
THE DEAD DON’T DIE. Country, USA. Director: Jim Jarmusch. Cast: Adam Driver, Bill Murray, Chloe Sevigny, Tilda Swinton, Tom Waits, Danny Glover, Steve Buscemi, Caleb Landry Jones, Rosie Perez, Ester Balint, Larry Fessenden, Carol Kane, Iggy Pop, Selena Gomez. Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch. Language: English. Runtime: 102 minutes. Venue: AMC Newport Mall. Rating: C
Eventually, it had to happen. Sooner or later every director at one point tries to delve into the horror genre and what better way to do it than the zombie flick? Jim Jarmusch isn’t actually a stranger to horror; in 2014 he directed TIlda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as languid lovers lounging in the middle of Detroit, barely alive, observing a world overtaken by zombies (i. e. “humans”). Fast forward five years ahead and Jarmusch returns to the genre in a generic and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny new movie, The Dead Don’t Die (which is also a song performed by Sturgill Simpson), a tepid take on Night of the Living Dead that features a laundry list of everyone who at one or various times worked with Jarmusch, and some social commentary on the woes of society through the staging of the action in small town Centerville. So, instead of two vampire lovers in a world they don’t recognize, we now get two yokely cops (Bill Murray and Adam Driver), with a female thrown in for scream queen moments (Chloe Sevigny), also commenting on a world that seems to have gone to hell without them knowing it.
For the most part, The Dead Don’t Die works even when the entire feature film feels as though Jarmusch left it at the level of sketch other than fully develop it. There are so many characters featured and all seem to demand as much attention as they do in their short screen time, I can’t see how this wasn’t a compendium of shorter sequences in style of Night on Earth tied together by the zombie thread.
First we have Tom Waits scuttling around the forest in full bushman regalia, observing everything happen through a safe vantage point. If anything, an despite not being credited first, he seems to be the true protagonist. Next we have Tilda Swinton in a role that makes her to be the resident eccentric who not only works at a funeral home and applies garish amounts of make up to the recently deceased but also has a penchant for sword fighting and walking in severe right angles wherever she goes. Swinton is clearly in her own movie zone, and later on it becomes clear why in a clever but WTF moment that basically, performs a magic trick and leaves us scratching our heads.
Other characters paint a rather picturesque canvas of small town life: Steve Buscemi as a stand-in for every MAGA supporter you would love to hate; Danny Glover and Caleb Landry Jones as unlikely partners fighting zombies in a video store, and Selena Gomez, Rosie Perez, and a gaggle of others making appearances to either enhance the mood or be sitting ducks for the insanity that is about to happen.
The one thing the undead have in common is that aside from craving human flesh they also have specific interests; the first ones to pop up (played by Iggy Pop and Sara Driver) want coffee, a dead woman (Carol Kane of all people) wants chardonnay, and others cling on to smartphones hopelessly seeking for WiFi. It’s a clever little commentary on society and how undead we have become, addicted to our habits, our pleasures, even our wireless connection. It’s this, it seems, that may be behind Jarmusch’s observation of humanity as a whole planet gone to hell that still deserves a laugh. He even extends his sense of humor in a pivotal moment towards the film’s end that is the movie’s only truly standout scene. It’s so left field that it threatens to stop the picture and morph into something closer to Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles’ climactic sequence.. It’s almost as if he were saying, “Look, don’t take this too seriously. It’s only a momentary lapse into crazy. Wink.” While this does indeed work (I heard several loud guffaws in the audience and I myself did a double take), it’s not quite enough to fill in for the movie’ overall feel of unfinished product. It’s because of this that in the end, The Dead Don’t Die ultimately delivers at a superficial, forgettable level equivalent to a low chuckle and a “Meh.”
Just when you thought the zombie apocalypse was all but dead Colm McCarthy appears with a fresh different approach even when it still includes familiar situations typical of the genre. His film version of the Mike Carey novel of the same name comes to vivid life under the eyes of a little girl names Melanie (Sennia Nanua).
Through the eyes of Melanie we get to see the world around her. It’s a grim world — her room little more than a makeshift cell where she’s kept locked in. Every morning she gets the rude awakening in literal form — guards with guns come in, truss her up in a wheelchair, place a mask over her face, and lead her to class where she and other children learn under the tutelage of Miss Perrineau (Gemma Arterton). Perrineau is the only adult whom Melanie relates to and who doesn’t see her as a freak of nature (or a ‘hungry’, as the zombies are referred to here), but an act of affection, caught by Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine), reveals just how dangerous these children are. Parks approaches one of the kids with his naked arm extended out and places it right in front of the boy’s face. In seconds the boy becomes a twisting, writhing form straining against his straps, snapping his teeth like a feral animal.
The children — and Melanie included — are the second generation of people born after the zombie apocalypse that practically destroyed humanity, and a later explanation by Caldwell reveals just how gruesome their births were. While infected, they still exhibit normal human behavior, and Melanie is the smartest of them all, acutely aware of everything around her, Dr Caldwell (Glenn Close), a scientist in charge of the compound, has discovered that the origin of the virus that took over society is bacterial in nature; the bacteria hijacks the brain and reduces the person into a raving animal in order to propagate itself. Caldwell is searching for a cure for the virus, and has settled on Melanie as her next experiment due to her intelligence.
Just as Caldwell is about to start her macabre experiment, pandemonium breaks loose when hungries break through and invade the compound in a stunning, expertly choreographed sequence. Caldwell, Perrineau, Parks, a few other guards escort Melanie out of the now ruined compound into the unknown as they attempt to find a secure location where to find refuge and for Caldwell to further her studies. Escorting Melanie doesn’t come easy; the girl is still capable of taking them out in seconds if they drop their guard, so they keep her strapped to the top of a truck. Moving into London they find a city in ruins, but the most surreal imagery comes from the group silently navigating on foot through a horde of frozen hungries while trying to avoid even the slightest detection: a sound, a smell could trigger these apparently sentient beings into a frenzy.
The zombie genre in Mike Carey’s novel continues to evolve, even when it presents familiar scenarios of people in danger, tenuous alliances being formed, self-serving egos, and third-act revelations that ever-so-subtly place the entire concept on its head by cleverly linking it to a reverse Invasion of the Body Snatchers. With an extraordinary lead as Melanie, the entire story takes on another dimension found in some of the short segments of World War Z (the book). The Girl With All the Gifts doesn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel, but it’s deeply atmospheric, reasonably well-acted, and one of the better entries in quite some time ever since The Walking Dead made the whole thing mainstream.
If you have DirecTV, you can watch The Girl With All the Gifts through their OnDemand platform — it’s been available since late January — and makes its official release in theaters and VOD February 24th.
One of the things I love about horror movies is how they tap into the social collective and paint a rather interesting picture of society, complete with its problems and failings, and with a tight plot whip it all into a frenzy that must be addressed in acts that turn some into heroes and others into villains. Train to Busan falls under the zombie flick s social commentary, and yes, that already sounds rather tired, because how many more movies about zombies can there be before people just stop caring and look for other means to get the scares? However, this one isn’t just good–it’s so good you wish it was juicy carbs offered at the tail end of a keto diet. Its premise is as simple as its plot: a mysterious virus of possible human origin breaks loose in South Korea, finds its way onto a train headed to the town to Busan, and mayhem breaks loose. Think of this as 28 Days Later, combined with Snowpiercer.
What makes this one a stand-out in a genre that is fast becoming saturated is how the director, Yeon Sang-Ho builds up tension. His first scene — a truck driver hitting a deer that comes back to life — is almost comical and completely ludicrous. However, the meat of the story concerns the stereotypical over-stressed, workaholic father, Seok-woo, who barely has time for his daughter Su-an and has makes the mistake of gifting her a Wii when she already had one, and how her preternatural humanity will bring his own inner hero out, is at the crux of the story. Other characters get their introduction through the (mostly selfish, self-serving) actions of Seok-woo: working class, expectant father Sang-Hwa and his wife Sung-kyung, two sisters traveling to Busan, a pair of teenage lovebirds who are part of a sports team, and a smarmy businessman.
If this isn’t the sort of setting that Stephen King would love! And the gradual development of events as out of the fringes of the frame it becomes clear something is happening: a building afire, for example, a woman with an injury to her leg making the train seconds before its departure, and barely visible, through Su-an’s eyes, the shocking vision of a transit employee being tackled by someone on the platform.
What I found interesting, and it’s the second time I notice this, is how Korean horror crosses genres to create a hybrid of sorts. In The Wailing, demons possess a girl, and that leads to some unexpected and genre blending events. Here, as the horror unfolds and the usual mayhem transpires — often with nail-biting suspense: you will never see a frenzied crowd on a train platform the same way ever again, I promise — there is another story slowly revealing itself. While it’s already rather unsavory to be an infected, flesh-craving zombie, what about the human monsters intent on preserving themselves at the expense of their fellow man? Therein lies the question, which Train to Busan decides to ask the audience. How bad can it be when we decide to forgo our neighbor and save ourselves, or worse, rally up a mob to single out people we choose not to assist out of our basic, primitive survival needs?