Friday, September 15, 2017

Compilation Review: Zombies! The Aftermath

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2015
Images from the Internet

Zombies! The Aftermath
Sector 5 Films / Chemical Burn Entertainment / World Wide Multi-Media
240 minutes, 2017

This zombie extravaganza is a collection within a compilation. What I mean is that of 2-discs that was put together, one of which was already a set of two films. The first was called Grindhouse Zombies: The Dead Shall Inherit the Earth (WWMM loves the word “grindhouse”; that’s an observation, nowhere near a complaint). The second is the solo film, Dead Walkers: The Rise of the Fourth Reich.


Zombie Factory (aka Zombie Field Trip, aka Zombie Isle)
Written and directed by Robert Elkins
American Eyesore Films / WWMM
110 minutes, 2014
While played straight, this film is definitely handled tongue-in-cheek. It is supposed to take place in 1978, and actually looks a bit like the style of Mother’s Day (1980). Though likely shot on a digi-cam, the film has the appearance of washed out or discolored film stock from the day. The tone of the film is quite purposefully amateurish, reminding me of those ‘50s films they used to show in schools like “My Body is Changing,” but without the rinky-dink music behind it.

Also, it’s obviously positing a miniscule budget; for example, when the local sheriff gives one of the female students a business card, it’s hand-written. Mini-budget in the 1970s or even 1980s was different than it is now. With a relatively inexpensive camera, a film can be made for just a few hundred dollars or less and still look damn fine. Back then, when it was shot on literal film, a micro-budget meant inexpensive (sometimes past its expiration date) film stock and cutting corners wherever possible.

The acting isn’t quite as wooden as, say, Night of the Living Dead (1968), but that is definitely the tone they seem to be going for, and it is actually quite effective. Once you get used to the discoloration (other than the red tones, which “pop”), the bad edits that are supposed to look like the film broke and was edited back together (seen that happen in person when I worked in a movie theater around the time this was supposed to take place), the whirlpool of the effects become more secondary to the action.

We join a group of students and a randy professor named Grant Foster (no relation to the sunglasses, I supposed…) with a stereotypical corduroy jacket, wool turtleneck, pipe and beard, and his students as they look over a supposedly deserted island for rare plants. The ship captain who takes them over is a decent additional comic relief.

Once on the island – excuse me, isle – they set off in pairs, including the two dumb blondes who are actually more fun to watch than annoying, the lustful girl and disinterested nerd, the militant feminist and the horny chubby guy in the afro wig, and the professor and the smarter-than-the-professor “cute one” (Kyle Billeter, who by far gives the best reading of the cast); he tries to “mansplain” everything to her while doing a Cosby by spiking her drink with booze. He continually proves he has possibly the least smarts of the group. But to paraphrase the song, “Only the dumb survive” (for a while perhaps…).

In pretty quick order the last pair find a sign indicating the United States Army has banned anyone from the isle (though that doesn’t stop them), and the zombies come out in force exposing the viewer to a strong mixture of cheesy and well done extreme gore. There are a lot of George Romero (d. 2017) references in these zombie kills, but the better for it, in my opinion.

Then we get introduced to the (of course) escaped Nazi scientist with the really (purposefully) bad German accent that is behind it all. As escapist fun goes, well, you are never taken out of the film, meaning that you are always aware that you are watching a film thanks to all the jittery digital additions – although all the appliances are real and well done – but that actually feels like part of the parade, and this actually ended up being more fun than I was even expecting. And don’t even get me started with the vengeful three-headed monster added in for… well, why not?!

Who will survive! Will the Nazi prevail? Will the zombies make it off the isle? Will the living? All this and more!! Other than being a bit too long, it was an enjoyable experiment in retro-zombie cinema. I’m gonna like this film, even if the director is (still) a Trump supporter…

Zombie Holocaust (aka Flesh of the Living)
Written, produced, cinematography and directed by Robert Elkins
American Eyesore
70 minutes, 2012
What a difference a couple of years make. Directed by the same person who did Zombie Isle, but a couple of years (and films) before that one; there is a wide range of knowledge he seems to have gained betwixt the two.

This earlier film is less of a narrative than a series of set pieces intermingled via editing. A solar flare has sent radiation to the earth, raising the dead to become flesh-eating zombies. They are the stumbling kind rather than the running, but they still manage to get up enough speed to cause some serious damage.

The earlier part of the film that introduces us to the gutmunchers takes place in a cemetery (this definitely a love-letter theme to Romero, with his influence present throughout), and then we move on to a night in downtown wherever this is supposed to take place (filmed in Petersburg, VA), especially around the fence of the IGA Supermarket, apparently.

The visual effects are still quite well done with lots of ripping, biting and gnashing. The exposed teeth appliances definitely look better in the than other film, but are still nicely done. While it is  certainly understandable due to budgetary constraints, the digital effects, which consist of a lot of gunfire and explosions, look just like what they are, relatively inexpensive digital effects… but I am totally forgiving with that and it didn’t bother me, just that it was noticeable, so when you see it, you will be aware.

While most of the characters come and go, or are dispatched, there are some reoccurring characters, such as the hard as nails Agent (Sarah Bella). Most of those who reappear, though, are comic relief, like an often-interrupting news broadcast with an increasingly sickened anchor named Harvey Leads (David Witt, who played the Nazi scientist in the other film), some re-election adverts by right-wing President Corman (Jerry E. Long, giving an anti-zombie agenda – “…for a zombie-free America” – that actually sounds similar to what we are hearing now with the anti-immigrant jibbing; I’m assuming the name of the president is a nod to Roger), and Willie-Bob (director Rob Elkins) who, through a comic character, is promoting not only his “indoor shooting restaurant and bar,” but is also subtle-as-a-mallet pushing a pro-hunting message to the audience.

There is lots of subtle humor scattered throughout, such as the newscasts, or a moment when the zombies react to punk rock on a radio. While the film may be all over the place, the effects are well done, which more than makes up where the plot is lacking.

Also included as an extra is Elkins’ 30-minute short, Chick’n-Head, from 2011. It’s a satisfying tale of revenge by a homeless voodoo woman who strikes back at a trio of other street trash. I won’t say much except Chick’n-Head looks just like the puppet that it is at first, and a guy in a suit resembling an evil ball game mascot, but it’s easy for forgive because the whole is greater than its parts here.

The only other extra on this disk is some WWMM trailers, which are also fun.


Rise of the 4th Reich (aka Dead Walkers: Rise of the 4th Reich)
Directed by Philip Gardiner
75 minutes, 2013
Chemical Burn Entertainment
British director Philip Gardner has quite a few films under his belt, some of which are fiction and many more “documentaries” dealing with the likes of conspiracy theories and the occult.

The basic plot elements here are that a secret agent of the British government, known simply as Alpha One (Philip Barzamanis), is back from a mission and under psychiatric care because of hallucinations and recurring dreams – make that nightmares.

His previous assignment, as we are shown, was to find a group of present-day Nazis and eradicate them. However, they are using some occult or scientific force to raise the dead to bring about, yeah, you got it, the Fourth Reich.

Most of the film takes place in a warehouse, and it’s pretty easy to guess (not saying I’m right, but it seems obvious) that the hospital scenes are shot in the same location. Alpha One’s sleeping quarters just seems too…dingy, and the room where he is questioned by Dr. Gavreel (Bob Lee, who reminds me a bit of a less slovenly Joe Fleishaker [d. 2016]) looks like a shower room.

Through flashbacks and dreams, we see either what Alpha One saw, imagined, or dreamed. That’s actually something I liked about the film, that the question of what actually happened/is happening is left up to the viewer (I definitely have my own opinions). In fact, that may be the strongest positive in the film.

There are a lot of references through the story, intentional or not (though I believe it’s more in the former’s corner), such as the Wolfenstein video game (no german shepherds, though), Ilsa She Wolf of the SS (1975), and even Groundhog Day (1993). The zombies, however, are based more on the Nazi undead subgenre, such as Dead Snow (2009) or even as far back as Shock Waves (1977, where the living dead are more “killing machine soldiers for the cause” than just roaming around for human flesh (unlike Zombie Factory above, which takes the rare step to mix the Nazi and meat-eating zombie genres).

One of the problems with the film, right from the start, is that it tries way too hard to be arty, but fails in that regard. For example, there is a lot of mixing of color, grayscale, and especially blue or green monochrome to look like night vision cameras, with electronic POV “noise” (such as when we saw through the Terminator’s eyes). It is too distracting, especially since it’s never explained who is doing the watching (i.e., “them” or “us”).

There are a lot of fight scenes, especially with fists, but honestly they are even worse and fakey looking than anything even Steven Seagal does. It reminds me more of when MadTV did the Dolemite spoofs. I kept thinking, why are all these Nazi pricks just attacking him barehanded. They have guns, so just shoot the fucker. This adds to the muddled mess of the story.

The male Nazis are dressed in the typical – albeit modernized – Reich uniforms, but the women are mostly seen in high boots and miniskirts, some with their cleavage hanging out, and some in skin-tight leather (or was it vinyl?) clothes. While the visuals were pleasing, it’s also seemed one-sided; that being said, at least one reviewer commented on the attractiveness of the often bare-chested and tattooed Barzamanis, so maybe I’m overreacting?

In all, it’s not that great a film, and with all the repeating of action and bad fight choreography (ironically, Barzamanis owns a company that supplies security to bars), it’s easy to lose concentration on what the hell is actually happening pretty often. Add in a fuzzy and low-toned vocal track often drowned out by the music, it doesn’t do itself any favors in that regard.

Another positive, though, is what few gore effects there are, they look decent, and it’s a mostly attractive cast (male and female). Unfortunately, the acting is also not that great, though considering what I could make of the storyline and dialogue, there isn’t much really substantial to react against.

The extras are a mostly electronic-based music video by Great Northern Hotel of “Cutz and Collides,” and some decent and short interviews from Awesome Magazine Online’s “On the Set of…” with lead actor Barzamanis, the DeNiro-looking (right down to the mole) Nathan Head who plays the Nazi scientist Professor Matsema, and Eirian Cohen who portrays the Nazi bitch Captain Orlax. All three of these are followed by the trailer (yep, we see it three times, though it's different than the one below). There are also some other trailers by the director included.

I’ve waxed on about this before, but I’ll say it again: the biggest problem I see in indie films is when a director also writes the script. There usually needs to be a second writer or strong editing force to hone the story. A director knows what the plot is about, but oft times has trouble getting that across. This release is a good example of that.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Anthology Reviews: Two by Patrick Rea – Charlotte; Monster X

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2017
Images from the Internet

I put these reviews together for two reasons. First, they are both anthologies of short films with a wraparound story, “directed” by Steven Rea. Just for the record, the quote marks are not meant as any kind of jibe, but rather because Rea put the collection together, which is a mixture of his own films and others.

Each of the stories is an independently released horror short that has been compiled into the collection. Actually, I approve of this method of getting (a) a showcase for one’s own films (i.e., Rea’s), and (b) a way to present other creators’ work as well. I’ve always enjoyed short films, so this is a nice little production to catch some I may have missed. Okay, definitely have missed, as so many shorts are thrown up on video channels like YouTube and Vimeo these days. Again, not a complaint, it’s just hard to see the forest for the trees.

All the directors are listed in the credits at top of each review, and I will indicate which next to the title with the initials. As these collections both came out in 2017, and honestly it doesn’t matter to me which was released first, I’m reviewing them in alphabetical order.

Another commonality across both is that the only extra is chapter breaks.

Directed by Patrick Rea, Colin Campbell, Corey Norman, Calvin Main, John Edward Lee, April Wright
Ruthless Studios / Synergetic Films / MVD Visual
84 minutes, 2017

I have no doubt in my mind that this collection, and possibly the wraparound, was inspired by the recent popularity of evil doll films, especially the Annabelle franchise. Of course it goes back further to the likes of the infamous Talking Tina “Living Doll” episode on The Twilight Zone, and a number of projects on the big and small screen about evil, self-contained ventriloquist dummies (whether real or imagined).

“Raggedy Damned” (PR) is the title of the bookends and wraparound thread/threat, which presents an obnoxious Millennial babysitter who is bound (off-screen) by a mad and cracked-faced silent dolly (looking nothing like the cool DVD cover art, FYI), who forces her to watch the shorts we also get to view. Between each one, we flash back to her to see… well, I’m not tellin’.

 “Counter Parts” (PR: 2014) is the first tale about identical sisters who are not exactly compatible, though similar in more ways than just looks. They are fierce, determined, and especially egocentric. Nasty pieces of work. Somyia Finley does a nice turn as the sibs with whom you definitely would not want to be associated, never mind romantically involved. After a tragic turn, they use wile and some black mojo to cure and curse. It’s an effective tale with an O. Henry-ish twist at the end. Also a tale with a sinister surprise is “Dollface” (CC: 2011), regarding the titular, strange woman. She and her companion have a woman locked up in their storage area. Then our heroine, whose boyfriend has been slashed, tries to rescue her before the aforementioned duo come back. With an obvious-yet-enjoyable throwback to a “The Twilight Zone” episode called “The Howling Man,” it is effective and fun, if a bit obvious and silly (in a good way).

If you’re into toe-choppin’ closet trolls (I’m just back from Norway, so trolls are currently an interest), then “Tickle” (CN: 2014) may be of interest. A babysitter tells a brat a tale about the toe-takin’ Tic Tac (“not the breath mint,” she explains), something she made up on the spot. But of course it’s a mind-over-manifestation thing. A bit long, but still enjoyable. The gore effects are really nicely done, and worth a mention.

In a creepy and minimalist story with effective SFX to back it up, “Good Evening” (CM: 2016) is about a man who invites demons to come join him for supper. With a twist reminiscent of Stephen King’s story, “Survivor Type,” it’s short and neat sweetmeat. It’s dark (as in lighting and tone), but that only add to the atmosphere in this two-character moody release. The bizarre yet humorously subtle battle royale of “Get Off My Porch” (PR: 2010) is about a guy and his interactions with some overly perky tween Adventure Girls, who are selling cookies. It’s a really fun story with pretty poison people forcing their way into the greater culture through some mysterious chocolate treats. The kids in this are great, as is the rest of the cast. Again, it’s a bit goofy, but honestly the better for it. If it had been done seriously, it probably would not have been as effective.

While the story above is full of whimsy, the follow-up is “The Judas Cradle” (JEL: 2011) is dead-on serious. A woman finds herself in a basement with a recently beaten man who is tied of a chair. A third catalyst character is played by the director, as a man who is there to facilitate and instigate vigilantism, in order for her to confront a shocking event in her past that ties her to the bruised guy. Lee is a bit over the top, but the other two plays their roles right on the line. It’s a good “what would you do in this situation?” conversation starter.
In an even more seemingly direct linkage to Talking Tina, “My BFF” (AW: 2015) replaces TT with Samantha, a dolly that shows up on the doorstep, as it were, of a young girl who of course immediately falls in love with it in a heteronormative way (I’m not being critical here, just observant). The mom, in Telly Savalas mode, is a bit of a meanie and doesn’t like the doll. Obviously, the feeling is mutual with obvious-yet-enjoyably-satisfying results.

“Howl of a Good Time” (PR: 2015) is ludicrous, audacious and just plain goofy. Again, despite all that, it’s quite satisfying and well made. A young girl sneaks into a horror film festival where all the audience are werewolves. Hints are given early on, and it’s really not that difficult to figure that part out, but the twist ending will make you say, “what?!” and guarantee to make you snortle a little bit with glee at its audacity.

There are a lot of elements and themes of this film that overlap, such as characters watching television (usually some non-copyright film like 1968’s Night of the Living Dead), some kind of doll (which makes sense), something or someone strange at the door, or babysitters.

As anthologies go in general, it’s a wise selection meandering between humor and straight horror, even with a wraparound that is pretty obvious from near the beginning. I like Rea’s choices, and also his filmmaking style on its own.

Charlotte trailer HERE

Monster X
Directed by Patrick Rea, Daniel Iske, Sean van Leijenhorst, Jaysen Buterin
Ruthless Studios / MVD Visual
75 minutes, 2017

As with the previous film, this one is also a compilation with a wraparound. Interestingly, the connecting piece is from a series called The Dead Hour, and it’s from the second season titled “Fright Fest” (DI: 2011). It’s an appropriate one, as a couple goes on a first date to a horror festival featuring a multiplex in which different genres play in each theater, such as werewolves, zombies and Asian ethereal women (think The Ring or The Grudge). In each, what is happening on the screen seeps into their reality, as they jump from theater to theater. This segmentation makes it perfect to slot around the other shorts.

First up is “Banshee” (SvL: 2014), which is based on Irish myth, though this is filmed near Prague, the locus of the director. This 20-minute opus tells of a woman whose alkie husband has died, involving the titular creature, who is either a warning of death or an instrument of it, depending on who you ask (both are referred in the story through exposition). It’s beautifully shot with just the right amount of tension and even a nice jump scare or two. Eva Larvoire particularly stands out as the heroine, showing great ranges of emotional distress. Nicely done.

Speaking of film festivals, “Howl of a Good Time” is duplicated here, so I won’t repeat myself. Still enjoyable the second time around, though, so you should know that. Both this and the next short, “Now That You’re Dead” (PR: 2009) were directed by Rea, which shows that he actually knows his way around a script and direction. I have no idea what he’s like for a feature length release, but he packs quite a punch into a short, such as this one. Mix a cocktail of a tale of marital infidelity, double-, triple- and so on crosses, and then use a vampire spoon to stir it all up. There is just enough humor in it to keep you smiling, but not enough to take the – err – bite out of the storyline. The three key characters are all likeable in an unlikeable, anti-hero way. No matter who wins, if anyone does (I’m not telling), and more importantly who loses (ditto), the story is successful. That’s decent filmmaking.

The last presentation, “Don’t Let the Light In” (JB: 2015), is short tale of a new babysitter who is summoned to watch a very strange kid that sort of reminds me of a Mini-Me version of the man-boy Stuart character from MadTV (played by Michael McDonald). The story itself is somewhat predictable, though thanks to its length not being too drawn out, it keeps the viewer’s interest (well, this one anyway). Personally, I would have liked more of an explanation of the title. Then again, I’m a bit confused about why it’s Monster X when it really should be Monster V. But I digress…

As with the film above, there are some common threads that run through this one, such as the Horror Film Fest being more than it seems, or an occurrence of classic and iconic (is that redundant?) creatures like werewolves, zombies and vampires, to name just a few.

Some of these shorts have won awards, and it’s easy to see why, but honestly I really appreciated Rea’s because they had just the right amount of humor mixed in with the horror. One of the cool things Rea does here is interrupt a short to throw in a bit of the wraparound. I can’t imagine what the other filmmaker felt about it, but I thought it was a cool thing to do, and something you don’t see very often when dealing with other artists; a director might do it to his own short, but to someone else’s? Yeah, that’s ballsy, for one last time, in a good way.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Review: Diamond Cartel

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2017
Images from the Internet

Diamond Cartel
Directed by Salamat Mukkammed-Ali
Cleopatra Entertainment / Shoreline Entertainment / BES QARU Films / MVD Visual
77 minutes, 2016 / 2017

It’s always nice to occasionally get the chance to review a straight-out action flick, especially if there’s some chop-chop added in. But first some very quick background… Mukkammed-Ali is from Kazakhstan, part of the former Soviet Bloc. He started out as lead singer of a Kazakh rock band called Enoch, and then segued his way into television production, and then finally into film.

His first film, from 2015, was called The Whole World at Their Feet. This was then re-edited and is now being shown in the West as Diamond Cartel, a much more palatable name for a violence-focused part of the world (ours).

Armand Assante
One aspect that makes this stand out is the sheer star power behind it in front of the camera, with the likes of Armand Assante, Peter O’Toole (his last film as he passed in 2013; here he looks feeble and older than his 81 years), Michael Masden, Bolo Yeung (aka “Chinese Hercules,” who has aged phenomenally well for his 70 years), ex-basketballer Tommy Lister, and Don “The Dragon” Wilson, among others. All but two are basically cameos, but still. Assante is one that lasts throughout the feature.
Nearly all of the dialog is dubbed into English, including the English speaking actors, but actually it is usually done quite well in the foreign-to-English actors, though sometimes dodgy in the English-to-English, such as Masden and Assante. Lister is given a bit of a stereotypical “Black slang” voice, which feels odd on so many levels (I almost expected him to say, “Yo mama!”).

The plot is both simple and complex. An international criminal named Mussa (Assante, often wearing a jacket with bare chest underneath, ironically appears and sounds a bit like Sylvester Stallone, as they played brothers in 1995’s Judge Dredd). He’s ready to pay $30 million for the Star of East diamond, in US$10,000 bills, no less.

Kadygash Mukkamedzhanova
After double- and triple-crosses, young lovers Aliya (Karlygash Mukkamedzhanova) and Ruslan (Aleksey Frandetti, dropping a young Keanu Reeves vibe complete with whoa-period hairstyle) are on the run from both ruthless sides of the diamond sale equation, having absconded with the diamond and the cash, as they drive through Kazakhstan with the others in pursuit. But it’s Nurlan Altaev as enforcer Arman, who is a childhood friend of the two runaways and is now one of the parties chasing them, that steals the film in his cool clothes and mostly stoic stance; he plays his emotions very subtly here.

The story is a bit convoluted, and the dialogue is quite overwrought, but all-in-all, it was pretty enjoyable. There is lots of primary references throughout the film, such as Scarface (1983), I, Claudius (1976), Sergio Leone westerns, and a subtle nod to Bruce Lee’s The Way of the Dragon (aka Return of the Dragon,1971), but especially True Romance (1993).

Nurlan Altaev
There is a lot of action going on including some martial arts, but mostly it’s gun play of various calibers, with people getting blown up good, real good, from a variety of weapons. Most of the blood and gore is digital, and it certainly looks digi, but there is a fair amount that is unexpected, pretty graphic, and made me smile.

The physical artistry of the film is nicely handled, such as the camerawork, the lighting, the editing, and the framing of shots. There are also some nice visual, digital effects used to warp the image at times, or change hues. But I do have a multi-fold complaint and that is mainly with the sound. There is a segment in which the sound is reverbed and hard to make out, and even though the dubbing is well handled relatively speaking, the tone of the dialog is flattened so everyone sounds like they’re at the same level, whether close to the camera or not. This took me a bit out of the story, especially the echoing segment.

Most the acting is pretty typical for Asian dramas: lots of wide eyes showing emotion, or cool-as-ice anger. Aleksey and especially Mukkamedzhanova fall into the former, and Altaev excels in the later. O’Toole looks like he’s just barely conscious about what is going on around him, but the over-acting award definitely goes to Assante who looks like he is trying to top Pacino at his most manic as Tony Montana. Often it comes across as clownish, but part of that may be the overdubbing of his voice, which at the very least contributes quite a bit.

Even when holding back, a lot of the high drama acting of most of the characters is kind of like horses straining at the rein, but again, that’s pretty common in many Asian action films. This story plays more like something out of China or Japan than from Soviet influences that I’ve seen elsewhere, which tends to be more towards the understated.

There is a nice and varied soundtrack that runs through, from metal and punk, to noise and more soothing, background type stuff. Some of the bands included are Christian Death and Anti-Nowhere League (Animal was actually quite nice when I met him in the ‘80s, but so what, I digress…).

The extras are a noisy kind of black metal/rap-ish thingy by DMX and Blackburner, a 2:43 slideshow of clips, and the trailer. Oh, and chapter breaks, of course.

So, you may be asking yourself if this worth the investment of your time? Well, if you like crime and/or action films, yeah, it is. There are at least two nice shoot-em-up set scenes and some cool car chases and crashes. But the real violence is held for the guns, which is done kind of imaginatively, even though shooting from a motorcycle sailing overhead has been done to – err – death.

Not as gritty as some of the Japanese crime dramas, but there is a level of glee that you can share with the action. In other words, if you don’t cringe at Assante’s emoting, then you most certainly will get a good contact buzz off whatever it is he seems to be on.