Sunday, March 31, 2019

Review: Spontaneous Combustion

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2019
Images from the Internet

Spontaneous Combustion
Written and directed by Tobe Hooper
Cheezy Movies / Sunset Entertainment / MVD Entertainment
97 minutes, 1990 / 2018

While it’s true his career had sort of petered out over the decades from the 1970s in the Millennium into shlock, there can be no denying that director Tobe Hooper (d. 2017) has had his moment to shine with the likes of big budget films such as Poltergiest (1982) and Invaders From Mars (1986), but what makes him part of the innovative pantheon of directors that fanboys/-girls like myself drool over is his early, seminal indie work, specifically the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).

This film was released during his transitory period when he was beginning his slide to more television than film, his glory days mostly behind him. Sadly it shows in the production. Don’t get me wrong, this is a fun film with some definite WTF moments to keep the viewer on their toes, but yeah, in hindsight, you can almost see the decline coming.

Brad Dourif and Cynthia Bain
In a long prologue that can practically be construed as an entire Act I, we meet a couple in 1955 who are involved in a secret experiment having to do with nuclear test explosions. The end result is their son Sam (Brad Dourif, who has been the voice of devil doll Chucky in every Child’s Play franchise film to date), now 35 years old and a bit of a loner with anger issues. That being said, he does have an ex-wife, Rachel (Dey Young, who will forever be Kate Rambeau of 1979’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School to this Ramones nerd), and a present girlfriend, the lovely Lisa (Cynthia Bain).
But something strange has been happening to our stringy haired hero: flames are shooting out of his arm, people are not-so spontaneously combusting, and Sam’s fears of people out to get him are starting to go beyond the mere paranoia phase. The tighter the noose gets, the more explosive Sam becomes.

One of the aspects of this power is that as seldom applied on other films is that as Sam uses it in his wake of vengeance, it also causes harm to him both physically and mentally as his body sears bit by bit. Of course, this leads to some nice effects that are both digital and practical. Before long, Sam is virtually unrecognizable as the skin begins to bake away. Feel the burn!

Dey Young
Along with the human monstrosity that is our beleaguered hero, the forces of science around him are out for blood. The film is as much about technology as it is about the callous effects on the human body. Atomic power plants and radiation are key (the Three Mile Island accident happened a decade before, in 1979), but this is most exemplified for its period by the use of the telephone, with a wonderful and huge see-through home phone owned by Lisa, to a scene with Sam on a payphone to a DJ at a call-in psychic radio show that seems to be right out of David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981); this also leads to one of the best comic moments in the film, as well.
As did John Landis in An American Werewolf in London (1981), Hooper throws in some subtle wink-wink-nod-nod moments. Included here are that all the hearths have a raging fire going, even though the story takes place in August, and that the Ink Spots song “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” plays on the soundtrack, among others.

What’s more noticeable, though, are the head scratchers. For example, Sam’s parents died when he was newly born, yet he seems to remember a song his mom used to sing to him. There are a number of plot holes like that, but I don’t want to give too much away, because if you’re like me, while that can be frustrating, on the other hand it also amuses me to make note of them.

Beyond the horror of atomic energy, electrical impulses and especially blow-torch level fires from body orifices and digits, this is also a decent spy thriller with both double and triple crosses, filled with lots of red herrings to throw the viewer of the scent. I mean, in some cases you’ll see it coming pretty early on, but in others, you may get a few surprises. A big surprise on this Blu-ray release is that the only extras are chapters and some trailers.

This is certainly not a brilliant film and can be quite silly in spots, this was a child of the VHS boom when all cards and videos were on the table in a market where there were video stores practically on every corner, with an audience that did not have 500 channels on which to choose.

Spontaneous Combustion is certainly a child of its times, and fortunately, there is a strong nostalgia for these cheesy films. Hell, the company that reissued this is called Cheezy Movies, fer cryin’ out loud. There certainly is a reason why there is a resurgence of the releases from this period, in the same way people look back at gratuitously goofy fun like Gilligan’s Island and Happy Days.



Monday, March 25, 2019

Review: Book of Evil

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2019
Images from the Internet

Book of Evil
Directed by James Coleman, Vincent Coleman, Michael Del Rossa
Coleman Films / 3:00 AM Productions / Wild Eye Releasing / MVD Entertainment
90 minutes, 2018

The Coleman Brothers, James and Vincent, have been making short films for a while now, so it makes sense that they would combine some of them together into a compilation. This is an excellent way to showcase one’s work as a shorts director(s).

The wraparound premise, as there apparently must be one, is that an author has a one-day deadline to hand in a manuscript that he hasn’t really successfully started yet. Locked away in some cabin with an old Underwood manual typewriter, he’s flustered until some supernatural occurrences begin to occur around him, inspiring the short stories that are this film.

It starts off quite strong with the James Coleman directed “Squatters,” from 2016. At around 40 minutes, it’s an incredibly intriguing story about three paramedics who end up at an old, run down house. There they encounter the inhabitants of the place, a bunch of cannibalistic rednecks who insanely and gleefully slaughter and torment their prey. Considering how dark the scenes are both figuratively and literally as there is no electricity, the visuals are pretty clear without losing the moodiness. The violence is in high gear and the tension can be cut with a chainsaw. There’s also a definite Mother’s Day (1980) vibe going on, especially towards the end. It’s an incredibly well structured start to the compilation, and I hope it can be maintained throughout the other three stories.

“Paralysis” from 2015 is 10 minutes long, and directed by both James and Vincent Coleman. The topic is sleep paralysis, and whether or not it’s in the mind or possibly a doorway to another world. It’s a bit predictable, but there are some really cool moments and jump scares that are effective, even if you figure out where the story is going. Again, much of it happens at night, but it’s always clear what the action is at any time. There is a low body count, but a high gore score that’s well done. Even as a kid, I had a fear of closets at night (door must be closed for me to sleep), and this one plays into that well.

At nearly 20 minutes long, 2016’s “Carving Season” gives the Coleman Brothers a chance to take a – err – stab at the slasher genre, as they introduce a masked killer who carves the likeness of his victims into a pumpkin before introducing them to his machete. For a short piece, there is a nice introductory segment that flows quite well into the actual story; this is nicely handled in a swirling fashion. There is no explanation as to the why this is happening, though there is a hint of the supernatural, if not The Omen (1976) meets Halloween (1978) influence.

The last story is “The Midnight Man” (2015) another Coleman Bros special clocking in at 17 minutes. At a party, a Wiccan (Goth) woman is mocked by the group, and she enacts revenge by conjuring up the titular demon to avenge her hurt feelings. This could have been a comment on bullying, but rather it’s a take of gore and burning flesh… and something involving a body orifice I have never seen before that was quite enjoyable.

There are three extras, including the Wild Eye Releasing gaggle of Trailers, which are always appreciated and enjoyable (one of my fave things about their releases). But the first is an “Intro From the Directors,” a 3:32 three-way Q&A with the Coleman Brothers (and their muscles) and Del Rossa. They play it cute and uncomfortable being in front of the camera, but what they say is interesting. Next up is the full length commentary, again with all three directors and three of the crew. It gets a bit noisy here and there as people want to contribute their thoughts at the same time as others, but mostly James Coleman and cute actress Laura Morelock, who appears in many of the shorts, take the lead and keep the info going.

The “Squatters” short is a multi-award winner at festivals, and it’s not hard to understand why. The other three were part of the “Viral Fear Fest” television mini-series in 2015-16 (which I did not see). The muscular Coleman Bros. ( have shown they know their way around a script, a camera, and get some really fine work out of their actors, so there is no reason not to believe they are on their way up. I look forward to the ride.



Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Review: DIS

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2019
Images from the Internet

Written and directed by Adrian Corona
1922 Films / Unearthed Films / MVD Visual
61 minutes, 2017 / 2019

Sometimes, ya just feel like watching a film of mindless murderous mayhem, which is all well and good, and other times you may want to dig deeper for something a bit thoughtful and arty. DIS falls into the latter category; it is dark and gloomy, with very little dialogue.

The basic premise is that there is a demonish creature called the Mandragora, who uses the seed of murders (be it semen or vaginal fluids) to feed a mandrake garden. The mandrake, mentioned in the Bible a couple of times, is also a plant used in classical witchcraft stories as it is a hallucinogen, though poisonous.

Into our story comes Ariel (Bill Oberst, Jr.) an ex-soldier who has a mysterious and not so kind past, who has run away to a forest (shot on a mountain top in Veracruz, Mexico). Along the way he stumbles into a deserted and graffiti-filled building (an old asylum in real life) that is merely a shell of its former self. Here he runs into two equally shadowy and masked figures, a bare-breasted woman and a man in a… I want to say tuxedo, with a red sash, possibly evoking a knife slash.

Soon, Ariel is captured and chained to a wall where he is fed some disgusting meat, and has both blood and semen drawn out to feed said garden. He is tortured along the way, though this is not actually a very gory film, despite the occasional signs of blood. Mostly it’s the uncomfortableness of the viewer to the situations, including scary looking needles and masturbation.

The surroundings are stark and dark, as is the mood, and the dialog is infrequent (the first spoken works are 20 minutes or so in, in a black-and-white flashback segment). Of course, Oberst is up for the task of pure pain and emotion, being one of the best character actors around; he’s generally a critic’s choice for actors, especially in the indie film game. He is the central figure in nearly every scene after the prologue.

Most of the color saturation has been sucked out of the picture, giving it a dull tone that is perfect for the mood. Even with characters on the screen, the feeling is one of loneliness and sorrow, giving the viewer hints of where this is all taking place (I surmised it out pretty fast), and to some extent why it is all happening to our protagonist.

There are some nice extras on the Blu-ray, such as an intense, 2-minute introduction by the director who stares right at the camera. The sound is a bit low, that but’s what volume control is for anyway, right? Included is the short film, “Portrait,” which unfortunately I could not get to play, be it a problem with my player or the disc. After that is a “Making Of,” consisting of three short behind the scenes of particular – err – scenes. Next is a Photo Gallery of 37 pictures, nearly all from, again, behind the scenes, which I always find more interesting than just screen shots of the film itself. Lastly is an interview with Oberst, seemingly shot by himself.

Creepy as all hell, but not scary in a jump scare kind of way, the film is more about the feeling of despair and inevitability for the characters. Oberst’s scream in one part is harrowing, for example. And as Oberst says in his interview segment in the extras, the scope is vague, whether it’s in his head or reality, and where it all is taking place. The picture is short, if not sweet, but it’s a beauty to watch.


Friday, March 15, 2019

Review: Zombie: Limited Edition 3 Blu-ray/CD disc set

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2019
Images from the Internet

Zombie (aka Zombi 2; Zombie Flesh Eaters)
Directed by Lucio Fulchi
Blue Underground / Red Shirt Pictures / MVD Visual
91 minutes, 1979 / 2018

When it comes to Italian horror films of the 1960-‘80s, during the Renaissance of gory gloriousness and the rise of giallo cinema, the names that come to mind are Mario Bava (d. 1980) and especially Dario Argento. However, my fave by far is definitely Lucio Fulchi (d. 1996). Until now, however, nearly everything I have seen of his has been on VHS or DVD knockoffs, so the quality of the images have been fuzzy (The Beyond was the exception that I saw in a theater).

Blue Underground and MVD Visual have solved that problem in this restored 4K Blu-ray, which was taken from the uncensored original camera negative that emphasizes just how amazing a filmmaker Fulchi was in reality. The zombies no longer look like that just have mud stuck to their faces, but rather you can see maestro/maven Giannetto De Rossi’s make-up work clearly, and it is startling.

Borrowing perhaps from the original Bram Stoker Dracula story or perhaps 1922’s Nosferatu, a seemingly deserted boat sails into New York’s harbor, where a zombie is lurking and starts off the Zombie Apocalypse.

Ian McCulloch, Tisa Farrow, Auretta Gay, Al Cliver
Most of the story, though, going back to its roots, which finds four people traveling to Matul Island in the Antilles: there’s journalist Peter West (Ian McCulloch), Anne (Tisa Farrow) who is searching for her scientist father that owns the wayward NYC boat, and the couple who own the cruiser that takes them to the mysterious island, Brian (Al Cliver) and Susan (Auretta Gay). This is where the old meets the new as the traditional Haitian-style zombie meets Romero’s flesh eating undead.

Richard Johnson
Is it tribal mysticism that brings the dead back to life, or is it the experiments of Anne’s father and his partner, Dr. Menard (Richard Johnson, who played the Doctor in my fave horror film of all time, 1963’s The Haunting; but I digress…). Whichever way they return to semi-life, Menard’s wife (Olga Karlatos, who easily has the most memorable scene in the film), is not impressed and wants out of both the island and the marriage.
There are lots of bodies, tons of deaths – all of them filled with gore – and a storyline that usually makes sense in a suspension of disbelief way (though there are those who believe a Zombie Apocalypse is a possible reality). If you haven’t seen the film, and you’re into horror, you really must. Just know it is fun from beginning to end, it looks beautiful as I said, and there are more extras than you can shake a bony finger at. This is a review of those extras, more than of the film itself, because man, it’s a classic and you should know it by now. Seriously.

The first thing I want to talk about is the captions. There are multiple languages available (English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, Danish, Suomi, Dutch, Swedish, Russian, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, and English for Italian audio), but as I only speak one (not counting Brooklynese), I went for the English. There are very few captions that actually match what is being said. For example, early on at one point someone mentions the boat in relation to Staten Island, and the caption says Coney Island. It’s pretty funny to watch them both going at the same time.

Olga Karlatos
Starting with Disc 1, which also contains the feature film, for the first audio commentary we hear from Troy Howarth, who wrote a book about the director titled Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulchi and His Films (2015). Despite his talking fast, Howarth gives a pretty detailed and easy to understand description of what is going on in any particular scene, anecdotes about the actors and director, and other juicy bits of information that come across as knowledgeable without being show-off-ish. He’s a man who has studied his topic and relates what he has found with a devil may care attitude (“I could be wrong about this particular thing, but I don’t care” [paraphrase]). It’s refreshing and worth the listen.
The second audio commentary is with the film’s Scottish lead that has done extensive BBC work, Ian McCulloch, and Jason J. Slater, Editor of Diabolik Magazine. This is almost the exact opposite of the Howarth one, as this commentary is slow and steady, with McCulloch giving stories about the shoot intermittently through his burr. While informative, these bits were less so, for which I blame two aspects. The first is that Slater doesn’t ask enough questions to keep McCulloch going, and he seems to struggle at times for what to say. The other is that the film’s soundtrack is kept a bit high, so it interferes with the soft-spoken McCulloch. I watched it all the way through and got stuff out of it, but it was definitely the lesser of the two.

The featurette for this disc is the 33:05 “When the Earth Spits Out the Dead: Interview with Stephen Thrower, Author of Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulchi” (2018). Thrower discusses Fulchi’s career in mostly comedies before becoming more horror related, and how even though this film is often compared as the “sequel” to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, it does indeed take quite a different approach to the philosophy of the zombie proper (e.g., no memory to its earlier life) and body politic (looks different). It’s an interesting talk with clips of Fulchi’s earlier films taken mostly from trailers, and more of an in-depth perspective of this one.

After that is a host of theatrical trailers (International and US), two television spots, four radio ads, and a posters and stills gallery showing posters from around the world, lobby cards, behind the scenes photos, color and black & white stills, the US and German Press Books, and Video covers. There’s lots.

Ottaviano Dell-Acqua
Then we can start with Blu-ray disc No. 2. First up is the 22 minute “Zombie Wasteland,” that has interviews with Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson and Al Cliver, including actor/stuntman Ottaviano Dell'Acqua, who played the worm-eye zombie on most of the posters. Now, I’ve seen a few “convention” pieces before, and most of them are shot from the back of the room with very bad audio. This was a very pleasant surprise. It’s more of a documentary at the Cinema Wasteland Con in Cleveland in 2010, and its mainly interviews with the above cast, with only a few clips from the convention floor and presentation. It’s actually quite informative and fun. With tongue-in-cheek, it concludes with a nod to the ending of the actual film. Recommended.
“Flesh Eaters on Film,” a 9:38 minute interview with co-producer Fabrizio De Angelis, follows. In Italiano with English subtitles, as with most of the crew in various featurettes, he talks pretty generally about how the movie came into being, especially considering he is scared of horror films.

Next is “Deadtime Stories” presents interviews with co-writers Elisa Briganti and Dardano Sacchetti (who was uncredited), at 14:00. If the viewer wants to know more of the origin of the story, this is the place. “World of the Dead,” at 16 minutes, follows, presenting interviews with cinematographer Sergio Salvati and production and costume designer Walter Patriarca. These two played in order build the story from the beginning through the process of filming. Both are in Italian with easy to read yellow English subtitles.

One I was really interested in seeing was “Zombi Italiano,” which is a 17-minute Interview with special make-up effects artists Gianetto De Rossi and Maurizio Trani, and special effects artist Gino De Rossi. Back then, of course, everything was done “in camera,” with prosthetics and real fire, rather than digitally. In this film, there are a lot of effects going on, and it all looks beautiful, as I stated earlier, now that the image is cleared and restored in 4K. Of course the key elements discussed are the underwater shark scene and the infamous eyeball one. Not hyper-technical, their anecdotes are fascinating and was one of my fave pieces.

Zombie is also noted for its soundtrack, and while not as infamous as Argento’s use of the group Goblin, an interview with composer Fabio Frizzi is given reverence in “Notes on a Headstone” at a brief 7:25; again, not much in composing details, but more how the effects were enhanced by either adding in his compositions or sometimes more effective by not having music at all and letting the sound of the moment be present.

One theme that runs through the interviews is that Fulchi could be an asshole to his crew, and was a bit of a misogynist. Taking his side for 6:06, we are given “All in the Family,” an interview with Antonella Fulchi who obviously adored her dad and both addresses his reputation and shows us a side of him that is absent from most anecdotes.

When you start the film, you are given the option of a brief introduction by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. If that’s not enough, there is also a featurette called “Zombie Lover,” where del Toro talks more extensively for 9:35 about Zombie, one of his favorite films. He looks at it as a youth and with a director’s eye. And it’s in English!

The third disc is the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack CD by Fabio Frizzi (with exclusive Bonus Track). Like with Goblin, Argento’s infamous go-to musical group, the music is harsh and electronic-based with sharp and repetitive rhythms, and swirling atmospheric sounds.

The last few special added features are more indirect having to do with the packaging, including a nicely thick, 12-page glossy booklet with an extensive essay by Stephen Thrower. Also there’s the 3D slip cover for the case.

Zombie, by whatever name you want to call it, deserves the love it gets from its fan, and should be as well-known as the Romero franchise, but for some reason is not. Make it so, because it’s worthy. If you haven’t seen it yet, shame, go rectify that. If you’re a genre fan, it’s a must.


Sunday, March 10, 2019

Review: Death House

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2019
Images from the Internet

Death House
Directed by B Harrison Smith
Entertainment Factory / Cleopatra Entertainment / Dark Coast / MVD Visual
87 minutes, 2018

This film is a who’s who of horror, and for that I have been anticipating seeing it. I’ve heard it’s gotten some questionable reviews from viewers, but of course, I’ll decide for myself as everything is subjective.

Barbara Crampton
Usually, I’ll talk about the cameos towards the end of a review, but to mix it up a bit, here are just some of the people involved: Adrienne Barbeau (Swamp Thing), Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes), Barbara Crampton (Re-animator and From Beyond), Sid Haig (Spider Baby), Kane Hodder (a five-time Jason Voorhees), Lloyd Kaufman (Troma Films), Camille Keaton (I Spit on Your Grave), Bill Mosley (House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects), Felissa Rose (Sleepaway Camp), Tony Todd (Candyman), Dee Wallace Stone (The Howling), Danny Trejo (Machete), Vernon Wells (Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior), Bill Oberst Jr., Sean Whalen, and supreme-o Scream Queens Debbie Rochon, Brinke Stevens¸ and Tiffany Shepis. It was also co-written by the late-great Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface in the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; d. 2015). Now that’s a roll call. Going in, I get the feeling most of these appearances will be short and sweet, but still… I’m just sayin’…
And we’re good to go, so it’s time to hit the play button.

\Cortney Palm and Joe Novak
Agents Trina Boon (Cortney Palm) and Joe Novak (Cody Longo) are given a tour into a secret prison where only the most heinous and insane murderers are stored by the government. Employing a Dante reference, it goes down nine levels until it reaches the worst of the worst, and possibly supernatural beings associated with Hell itself.
After an incident, the place is in lockdown… well, actually it might be more accurate to say that it is unlockdown, as all the prisoners are let out to roam. The skels and the agents are working their way down to the lowest level for their own reasons. The results are gruesome at best, walking down long dark tunnels with flashlights at worst.

Based on Hansen’s screenplay, there is a fine mixture of social and religious commentary, and a philosophical bent, rather than merely relying on blood and gore – of which there is plenty. This both works for and against the story, as it tries to be too many things at the same time. The commentary and psychology patterns itself after A Clockwork Orange, though it comes across as preachy rather than informative. But no complaints here about the splatter SFX, which looks great.

This could have been a great retelling of TheWarriors (1979)  as the agents try the levels to get to their destination with killers waiting around every bend, or even be seen as a video game-style of gaining tiers, but rather it jumbles around and focuses more on dark hallways and flashlights, basically skipping most floors. One could argue that it might be seen as derivative to do the floor-by-floor bit, but there are so many references of other films (e.g., Rochon plays a chainsaw wielding Leatherlace, as opposed to Leatherface), I don’t believe it would have mattered.

Kane Hodder
As I suspected, most of the cast – and it is frickin’ huge – appears in cameo form, but some are extended, and others are main characters (e.g., Crampton, Wallace Stone, Hodder). Honestly, it’s fun picking them out of the crowd, but it also is kind of a waste of talent. Having people like Brinke and Tiffany just standing in the background of a group shot made me sad. During the director’s commentary, Smith self-importantly calls this a “time capsule” and wonders who will be interesting when these horror stars are gone. There will be new stars, as there always are, but again, while it’s good to see these familiar (and semi-recognizable) faces, there needs to be more interaction with the audience. If there is enough time to show this much wandering around the complex, interface is also possible.
There were times I had no idea what was going on, between the dark and the philosophical, and was looking forward to the Smith commentary track, which actually was quite useful in clearing up things a bit, even if it was just for no reason other than Smith positing that “Jason kept coming back to life, and it’s never explained how in the films” [paraphrased by me]. I didn’t really need him repeating so much dialog that was onscreen, but still it was very much worth the listen.

Along with the commentary, the extras include a swath of Cleopatra trailers and a slide show, and there are nine interviews with the cast and crew with all but two coming in at less than two minutes,

Am I sorry to have watched this? No, I don’t think that would be an accurate statement. There are things to like about the film, but honestly, considering the firepower of its cast and crew, there are definitely moments that dragged that could have been excised (e.g., those pesky long hallway scenes in the dark), and replaced with acting rather than standing in the background for some of those onscreen.

And for those who care, there is a sequel supposedly is in the works on the origin story for some of the characters, and I’m curious to see it, honestly.


Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Review: Stripperland

Text © Richard Gary/Indie Horror Films, 2019
Images from the Internet

Directed by Sean Skelding
Independent Media Distribution / MVD Visual
103 minutes, 2011

When there’s no more room on the pole, strippers will walk the earth!”

“First they dance, then they kill!”

The basic premise to this comedy is that a virus turns young-to-middle aged women into zombies who like to dance on poles, dress in heels, spandex and lingerie, and dine on men’s body parts. Four people join forces on their way across the country to Portland, Oregon, where two of the passengers’ Grampa lives. It’s a mixture of a road movie, a buddy film, a love story, and, of course, the walking half-naked dancing dead.

Despite the title, an obvious play on 2009’s Zombieland (more on that later), this film is a lot less salacious than one may imagine. If that is a good thing or a bad one, guess that’s up to the viewer. While there is very little nudity, there are plenty of body parts, both attached and detached, mostly in something tight fitting.

Unlike some broad stroked comedies, such as Vampire’s Suck was to Twilight, or even the milder Scary Movie was to Scream, this is more of a comedic homage to a large number of zombie flicks, including all of the …of the Dead series (including the remakes), Return of the Living Dead, 28 Days/Weeks Later..., Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, anything from Tromaville, Shaun of the Dead, Evil Dead,, even Star Wars (yes, I know there are no zombies in SW), and so many others. [Okay, another quick digression: do you realize that flesh eating zombies did not exist prior to 1968? Before that, zombies were mostly related to voodoo culture.]

But it’s definitely Zombieland that is the basic paradigm, sometimes accurately, such as relying on lists (in this case, typically “strippers are all about the money”; “never eat in a strip club”) and characters being named for states, for example, but usually twisting it a bit, having one look for baked goods rather than Twinkies (do I need a trademark stamp after that?), and Portland as the goal rather than an amusement park. But the two sisters are there (though a bit older than the ZL version for obvious reasons), the tough as nails Hummer driver with the shotgun and straw cowboy hat, and the nerdy (read: annoying) guy.

The director here, Sean Skelding, only has a couple of films under his belt (such as the same level of spoof, I Am Virgin), but he has been a set designer for some very A-level films and TV programs, such as Maverick, Party of Five, and yes, Twilight. This has led him to know quite a few recognizable B-level actors that are willing to appear in his films for the fun of it, usually outshining the four main characters, who I will get to after this…. [Well, after this brief side-step, once again. The AD, Tyler Benjamin, directed the zombie documentary Walking Dead Girls, reviewed in this column earlier. He created the word “zimbie,” or bimbo zombie, which the rapper character Double D uses at some point as a throwaway line here. Okay, now back to our show…]

The main character, Idaho (Ben Sheppard) – who does not come from that state – is based on Jesse Eisenberg’s Columbus. Ben plays Idaho like a manic depressive stuck on “up” mode. He chatters and smiles and is goofy, reminding me of a chipmunk, and is obsessed with strippers from before the infection. He’s so into looking at them on the Internet, he has no idea of what is actually going on in the world, even to his step-mom, until she bursts into the room with black electric tape over her nipples a la Wendy O. Williams.

At this point, the first guest star of the film shows up, none other than Troma chief and Toxic Avenger creator himself, Lloyd Kaufman. Ever notice how Kaufman’s personality is similar to Mel Brooks, with a quick mind for ad libs? Come to think of it, they even look a bit alike. Anyway, Kaufman hams his way joyously through his lines before his demise, the way in which reminds me of the fate of the Joe Silver character in Cronenberg’s Rabid. Not sure if that was intentional or not.

Idaho is joined, after a rescue in a supermarket, by Frisco (Jamison Challeen), the only character named after a city rather than state here, who is based on Woody Harrelson’s Tallahassee. He’s rough, he’s quiet, he’s good with a shotgun (and chain saw, apparently), and just pinning for his lost love, who was a great baker, it seems. Challeen plays it a bit over the top at times, but definitely has the character down pat, being fun to watch as his slow-burn bursts of anger surface.

One of the two sisters (I’m not sure which is supposed to be ZL’s “Wichita” or “Little Rock” because they had to up the ages due to the content, as I stated above, and rightfully so) is “Virginia” (Maren McGuire, who has a Karen Allen/Genevieve Bujold appeal). She is mostly quiet until she has a reason to put herself on the line. Her character has the most range of the four leads, going from quiet and shy to, well, lets just say bombastic. While the others stay in their niche, McGuire gets the opportunity to stretch, and handles it well.

Her sister is “West” (short for “West Virginia,” embodied by Ileana Herrin), who is a match for Frisco’s fire. Rather than a shotgun, her specialty is two machetes and a very short haircut. While Herrin’s acting is the stiffest of the four, the viewer is having fun, so it is just part of the show. [Note that three of the four main actors have mostly no other IMDB credits listed; only McGuire has had a career, with around 15 credits, including some still in production].

As fun as the set-up is, the heart of the film is the set pieces with the guest stars. The next one we meet is Daniel Baldwin, who plays the rapper (you heard me) Double D, which stands for the double-decker bus he rides around in while on tour, rather than what may be obvious for this film. His song “Club Life” is, well, horrendous (unintentionally so, I assume, from the way it’s used as the chapter head music on the DVD). Our stalwart foursome run across him rapping in the middle of the road beside his bus, with huge bodyguards by his side, arms folded of course. There are a bunch of zombies dancing in front of him; apparently, as long as he’s rapping, they’re dancing rather than attacking. He speaks the “yo yo yo” kind of talk that always sounds either stupid or exploitive when middle-aged whites do it (seems a common enough device on sit-coms, yaknowwhatahmsayin’?). Baldwin looks like he’s having fun, though, and that’s conveyed onto the audience, despite the – err – music.

When they get to a mall (Jantzen Beach, in Portland), as you know they must if you follow the …of the Dead films, they run into a gay pimp with fur and reflections of Alex DeLarge of A Clockwork Orange via Bowler and eyeliner on one eye. He is played by Moose Jaw (Saskatchewan) native Boyd Banks, who has made a reputation by being in a number of George Romero’s later zombie films (not to mention Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and Kids in the Hall). The commentary track has some fine info about the development of his character.

Thom Bray plays an insane doctor living in a casino that’s trying to train the zombies into doing housework, or what he called “retro wifery.” Yep, not only is he based on the insane, always blood-soaked doctor from Day of the Dead, but he’s even named Dr. Logan. Bray is another one who is obviously having fun at this day’s work, even (re)writing his own shtick (such as a mother fixation, among other things). He’s a blast to watch at work.

The guest-star-that-wasn’t is Gilbert Gottfried, who was supposed to mirror the Bill Murray character from ZL, but as he couldn’t make it due to a another (I’m reading that as “paying”; I say that respectfully, not as a dig) commitment, the much lesser known Hank Cartwright fills in as Guy Gibson (they had already shot the scene with the “GG” on the gate), and he actually steals the scene, all the while being macho aging action star and dressed in drag.

Present scream queen Luna Moon has a bit part as a chained zombie in Dr. Logan’s laboratory. She’s into the role; you can tell by the gusto she presents. She’s occasionally seen in the background of the shots, and she is always pacing and strongly into character. She’s obviously not just a horror hostess.

And playing her first granny role (Jeez!) is ‘80s supreme scream queen Linnea Quigley (wasn’t she just a teen in Savage Streets and Return of the Living Dead?), dressed in a girl scout uniform. She gets a fine chance to chew a cigar (and some scenery), which she does in all her glory. I met her once in the early ‘90s, and she was as nice as can be.

There are two full-length commentaries, something more extensive than a viewer may associate with an indie horror film, but unlike most independents, they are worth watching, especially the one with the director, writer and producer. Their narrative is full of inside stories of particular days, how things got done, actors’ personalities, and everything that is interesting about a commentary (as opposed to the Farrelly Brothers’ lazy style of “Oh, there’s our neighbor; oh, there’s our mailman” or Kevin Smith’s insulting-each-other drunken/drugged out mess). This is really what a commentary should be. You’ll have to watch it if you want to find out the meaning of the “G.A.S.” signs that are placed all over Portland.There is a second track that I’ve listen to most of, and which I will finish, by the person in charge of the physical (make-up and applications) FX, and the one who did the digital ones. It’s also interesting to hear how they finagled things the last minute, though they occasionally focus on their own particular work, stepping on each other (not often though), and being cordial about it. Speaking of effects, there are literally hundreds of digital SFX through green screen, erasing, placing, blood, and the like, some of it a bit fakey (such as the Kaufman demise), but impressive nonetheless. As I’ve always enjoyed the prosthetics effects, make-up, and like (John Carpenter’s The Thing is still the one to beat), I was impressed by how much they were able to do with such a small budget. Overall both kinds of effects were remarkable for a film this size.

Other extras include three documentaries (averaging about 8 minutes each) on SFX, the guest stars, and interviews with some of the women who play the stripper zombies; some of them are dancers (one sounds so mercenary, I found her scarier than her character), or adult actors. There are also two music videos (including the dreadful Double D’s “City Life”), some company trailers (such as for Skelding’s I Am Virgin), and a few older refreshment theater ads that are on many of the Cheezy Flicks releases.

Sometimes the comedy falls flat in the film, and it certainly helps to be conscious of the zombie culture that has existed since someone stated, “They’re coming to get you, Bar-ba-ra” (yes, there is a character here with that name in honor, but no one says the line, and I don’t remember if anyone wore racing gloves). In the commentary, they make the suggestion that you use the recognition as a drinking game (know the source, take a drink). It’s the association of references that especially makes the film a fun voyage, more than the jokes, more than the dress code, and more than the gore. You really need to be a zombie fan (which I am) to derive the true flavor of the film, and if you are, it’s especially worth it.

There review originally appeared in