Saturday, 3 December 2011

The Watchers’ Council - Zombies

When Halloween loomed into view like a shuffling ever-living nightmare - combined with the recent return of The Walking Dead to screens in the UK and US - attentions here turned to the idea of a gathering at Ben’s to watch a few zombie movies and devour a mountain of pizza.

With the monument to Italian dough and cheese established on the coffee table and assorted beverages and extra snacks on hand, Rob, Stef and Ben got cracking with the original Romero zombie film, in many ways the precursor to the whole living dead genre (though of course, not the first zombie movie – I think White Zombie (1932) has that distinction).

Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

BEN: Have you guys watched this recently?
ROB: Ten years ago at Uni.
BEN: Controversial I know, but I remember this film being pretty bad.
ROB: I remember it being quite atmospheric. All the open spaces, a lot of it is outside which is a contradiction to the claustrophobic zombie movie cliché.
BEN: Well, I last watched it as a teenager with a low attention span!
STEF: The pace of it is what I noticed. We’re used to stuff happening all the time, but it builds the tension.
BEN: They haven’t got to the idea yet of doing gore in this film, it’s almost just a grey pallor to them.
ROB: Which doesn’t help when it’s black and white anyway!
STEF: Extra levels of grey!

And we’re off. Our initial protagonists Johnny and Barbra arrive at the graveyard after a lengthy series of shots of them driving in a car, like a really dull Sixties version of old Top Gear. We debate whether it’s just ponderous or if creates tension. As they pull up, Johnny turns off the radio just as the announcer is beginning to provide some exposition. A potentially vital clue is ignored to the chagrin of Rob and Stef, though Ben is amused by the seeming scorn towards exposition.
Then a tall pale stranger looms into view.

BEN: I'll say this for Romero, it definitely has a sense of immediacy. We've already got to the graveyard and there's our first zombie, less than ten minutes in. A lot of modern films would have started with some sort of unnecessary backstory for these two characters.
ROB: Shaun Of The Dead did that two with subtle appearances of the zombies before you realised.
The iconic line “They're coming to get you Barbra!” is uttered and all present display appreciation for the classic quote. The first zombie is noted for it's lack of gory make up and the fact that he doesn't try to bite them when he lurges at the siblings. Stef declares that he looks a bit rapey. It's the buggy eyes.
STEF: He could just be a desperate guy who's not been laid in a while.

He gets decidedly more animated as he ignores the fallen Johnny and chases after Barbra, he promptly looks herself in the car. We're all surprised when he picks up a rock and tries to smash his way in - the use of tools is something we associate with Day Of The Dead or Land Of The Dead, not this initial Romero offering.

As Barbra flees into the night, culminating in finding refuge in the house that is the primary location for the rest of the film, we begin to discuss the rules of zombie movies – whether it's an infection that is passed through blood or saliva
Inside the house, Barbra finds a dead body and we get our first gory image, which comes as quite a surprise. We all commend the film for having a black male protagonist in the Sixties. Barbra feels like a very unsympathetic character, Ben muses that this may be because she just ran away leaving her brother behind. A motley crew of people find shelter in the house.

ROB: I've never understood how people get caught by zombies in these early films because you just have to walk fast.
BEN: I think I remember reading an interview with Simon Pegg about how that was why they kinda like it. They're not a threat unless you lower your guard. A lot of the time – and in fact in this one – the problem with them is that the humans descend into infighting and then aren't careful.
STEF: It's like The Walking Dead. There's an aspect of that theme in that. It's about the humans really. They get distracted and argue amongst themselves and then they're screwed. There's danger amongst you.
BEN: The under siege mentality of the zombie genre is definitely laid down here.
Noticing that despite the progressive colour blind casting, the sexism of the Sixties remains as the woman goes to pieces and the man is doing all the work. We take a moment to muse how we would cope in a zombie apocalypse, like all good movie fans.
STEF: I'd be one of those people who see it as an excuse to beat people around the head. I'd go a bit nuts I think, I'd probably lose my mind in the mass craziness of it all and cave someone's head in with a hammer.
ROB: Let's not hang out with Stef if this ever happens.
BEN: It's fine, we'll just push him towards the zombies and away from the other people!

Zombie Flesh Eaters (or Zombi 2) (1979)

Eleven years later, we are now entering the era of the video nasty. Sure enough from the word there is a shadowed man shooting a hooded body in the head, boom! brain splatter!
Rob points out that at the time this tried to cash in on the popularity of Dawn of the Dead, they even marketed this as a sequel! Hence the original "Zombi 2" title as Dawn of the Dead was released under the title of "Zombi" in Italy.

An eerily empty looking boat enters New York harbour - the pre-credits are rolling and we try to work out the connection between the very gritty start and this sequence.

BEN: Again very much like Night of the Living Dead it has a very snappy start, just straight into it.
STEF: Well the initial 'shot' as it were.
BEN: Very interesting that this was Italian funded and directed but they set it in America and filled it with American actors.
ROB: Like a spaghetti western, in a way really.
BEN: Strange how they marketed this as a sequel to Dawn of the Dead - at the end of Dawn the world has gone to shit and yet here everything seems fine.
ROB: It's rather like the sequels you find at a market stall.
BEN: Akin to the recent popularity of 'mockbusters'.

As the music continues to mimic a bad episode of classic Who, we get our first zombie reveal. This feels much more like the zombies that we all know and love nowadays, with its skin and flesh decaying. As we witness the first jugular spurting attack, Ben points out how the effects are noticeably fake and Stef mentions the change from the previous monochrome bloodless zombies of Night of the Living Dead to this.

During a scene where our lead actress is on the phone to what appears to be a news editor we pick up on some awful dubbing which makes us ponder if the movie was shot all in Italian and then re-dubbed later but some post podcast investigation proves that in fact the movie was filmed with half the cast only speaking English and the other half only speaking Italian.

ROB: She looks like a young Jamie Lee Curtis.
BEN: Really? She doesn't look anything like a man to me!

As the daughter of the boat's owner boards the boat to investigate she bumps into a reporter who is doing the same, so they join forces to find her father.

STEF: The line "I have a morbid curiosity," does that mean he's into necrophilia?
BEN: In a zombie film?!?

As the main characters meet some tourists who are traveling the caribbean they ask them to take them to the island of Matul. (STEF: Sounds like my-tool!) Ben and Rob discuss how the audio mastery levels on this film seem to be a tad all over the place, some scenes being noticeably louder than others.

The characters, whom we seem to have lost to random conversations about the Avengers movie have now moved onto the island itself. Ben resorts to asking Siri if this movie will get any better but unfortunately gets no answer. Weirdly the next scene of the movie was a topless female scuba diving with some tiny, tiny pants and a swimming cap.

ROB: That bathing cap really spoils the look.
STEF: She's no longer hot.
ROB: It's like a bald man with boobs!

The movie captures our attention further when it introduces an actual live shark into the scene and a underwater zombie!

STEF: Zombie vs shark!
BEN: This guy is holding his breath for a very long time! He must have a buddy diver with a regulator. Woah! That guys properly wrestling a shark!
ROB: Quite impressively done this scene, I will give it that.

We are all sat in shock and awe at actually how good this scene is, also finding out that René Cardona Jr. the actor who was originally cast to play the Underwater Zombie got sick (or chickened out?) at the last minute and had to be replaced by Ramón Bravo, the shark's trainer.

The next scene is very notorious for its eye-impalement section, this made us all cringe but at the same time point out that it was very well cut and shot. Again showing that this movie isn't all bad and definitely fits its gory 'video nasty' reputation.

Ben leaves the room for a brief moment, and the movie enters a flashback explanation of the first scene and that the doctor on the island isn’t a bad guy he is just trying to cure his patients before resorting to shooting them in the head! It is also hinted at that the cause may be a Voodoo Witch Doctor’s curse on the island.

STEF: Definitely has a voodoo feel to the music in these scenes.
ROB: Yeah Ben will be sorry he missed this exposition!
STEF:He's trying to figure it out.
ROB: Science versus religion.
STEF: Isn't that always the way?!

The main group are sent to check on the Doctor's wife (who we know as the eyeball lady), we start to wonder what what has happened to Mr Fardon...

STEF: We seem to have lost Ben.
ROB: Hmm... yes.
STEF: Maybe gone for a number two?
ROB: Or bed?
STEF: Dead to the world, ha!
ROB: He'll come back as the undead Ben!

The pace is upped as our characters find the Doctors’ wife being delicately munched on (by a zombie of course). The conclusion is made that actually this film is not as cheap or b-movie schlocky as we were expecting.

We wonder why the doctor is only now deciding to pack his bags and leave, we would have ages ago! Our group of strangely unaware characters, crash their jeep on the way back from the doctors home and decide to take a lie down in what seems to be a Spanish Conquistador graveyard. And also what a perfect time to try it on with your female friend, as you’re lying on a grave. A hand rises . .

STEF: Looks the dead wants some loving too.
ROB: Yet another rapey zombie!

Ben walks back into the room just as the carnage begins.

ROB: She’s just sat there while it has taken that Conquistador zombie five minutes to get out of their grave.
STEF: Still just sat there?
BEN: Paralysed with fear?
ROB: Or stupidity?

As the woman frozen in fear gets her throat torn out we point out that they do like to use that effect. The remaining survivors manage to get back to the Doctor, he begins to examine an injured member of the group.

STEF: That looks painful, he's pretty much dead.
ROB: That's quite good acting there, while the Doctor is touching his ankle his foot is twitching. Someone went to RADA didn't they?!

All of a sudden the zombies break in and take a massive chunk out of the Doctor's face!

STEF: Well he's dead then!
ROB: Why didn't the doctor inform them about shooting them in the head?
STEF: Good point.

The climax of the movie takes place as the survivors are surrounded and barricaded in a wooden barn and are throwing molotov cocktails at the zombies and then shooting them. Further stupidity abounds as one of the group is attacked, but survives to me taken with them on the boat back to America? Still it doesn’t really matter as the parting credits shot is a traffic logged bridge with a legion of zombies shuffling across.

The Walking Dead S01E06 (2010)

As things begin we recap the season.

BEN: The whole episode with the lake in season one was by far my favourite.
STEF: I do feel this episode wasn't the strongest.
BEN: It is proving that a lot of people are just wanting to watch the graphic novels made into video, they cannot handle it veering away too much.

As we see a flashback to where Shane is struggling to decide what to do with the comatose Rick in all this madness, as armed Special Forces work their way through the building killing all they encounter, zombie or human alike.

BEN: It's always assumed in the graphic novel that he just abandons Rick, but now you can see that he at least tried - he just didn't know what to do.
ROB: He was worried he would kill Rick if he took him away from his life support.
STEF: Very intense.
BEN: This is already more compelling than anything we have watched tonight!

We then discuss wether Robert Kirkman will start writing the novels specifically so they can be transferred to screen due to the popularity of the TV series.

BEN: Kirkman was the first new Image partner to be taken on.
ROB: After the original guys from Marvel Comics?
BEN: Yeah, the first who was not an artist too. And the first thing he did in the position? He hired himself an editor.
ROB: Basically hired someone to give him some self discipline.
STEF: Good idea, keep yourself focused.

The series - even though it takes things in different directions - still manages to capture the characters and the actors who play them seem to fit the bill perfectly.

BEN: I think if Kirkman had known the comics were going to be a success he would have kept Shane around for longer so that it could add further tension to the group dynamic. Which he has obviously now done here in the TV series.

A lot of people struggle with the fact the TV series is different to the comics, but most of the time they have to be due to the difference in medium. If it is done well and keeps true to the spirit like this has then it’s not noticeable.

Our characters have reached the CDC facility and met its only survivor.

BEN: I love this beginning shower scene where you are observing them in a safe environment, Rick and Lori happy to be re-united, Shane clearly still bitter and Andrea completely devastated by the loss of her sister.

A moment is taken to try and ponder who actually within the original group of survivors is left? Spoilers - it's not many.

Dr Edwin Jenner (the only surviving scientist in the CDC) reveals to the group his research into the zombies and what happens to a human brain during the transformation. Ben points out that Kirkman shied away from explaining any details about the zombies in the comics but the average TV audience would become frustrated without it and thus they've got that out of the way early on.

JENNER: The brain stem is re-activated just enough to get that person up and moving but nothing like before. The frontal lobe - the neocortex it doesn't come back, you’re just a shell driven by mindless instinct.

We sit in silence as the very evocative visuals of how the brain's synapses shut down and then spark back into life as the person changes.

STEF: I think having the visual effect helps you grasp onto the idea of what is actually happening.
BEN: Something very powerful about that.
STEF: And linking it to actual diseases.
BEN: It definitely grounds it, like a lighting rod for reality.
ROB: A very modern fear, disease and infection. Whereas Night of the Living Dead, it was radiation – a typical for of that time.

Due to not being anywhere closer to a cure and what with the facilities power rapidly running out Jenner has had enough, he has no energy to try and survive any longer. So he locks the group in to die with him.

He mentions the stupidity of how our world runs on fossil fuels, which is very topical right now due to how we are such a tech-centric generation. If we did find ourselves in this situation (running out of power that is, not the zombies) most people wouldn't know how to cope.

A rather ‘Chekov’s gun’ moment occurs as a grenade which has not been seen since the first episode helps save the day. All while Dale is trying to convince Andrea to not stay with Jenner and kill herself - at the last moment they both leave the building and join the other survivors.

STEF: Even though we have not been completely paying attention, I have forgotten how much I have enjoyed this series as a whole and I cannot wait for more!

No one is safe, do not get attached, everyone can die.

Stefan, Rob and Ben went to see The Thing last night. Rob's review should be up on Tuesday.

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