The American zombie movie was born in October 1968 with the release of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and it’s a measure of how subversive that film and its sequels truly were that zombies only became palatable to the major studios in 2004, when a kid named Zack Snyder stripped Dawn of the Dead of its original class-conscious, anti-consumerist premise–inverted it, even, by making a zombie movie that pandered to the shopping-mall multiplex crowd rather than ripping into it. Given its success, it’s hard to believe it has taken almost another ten years for the sub-genre to be completely transformed by a Hollywood establishment that’s turned so timid and equivocal in its thrill-seeking ways that it begrudges even the zombies their killing sport. Yes, somebody somewhere decided that what zombies really need, more than forty years on, is a redemption story. Director Jonathan Levine doesn’t put a stake through the heart of the sub-genre, quite, but he does something that might be worse. With Warm Bodies, he’s made the first middle-aged zombie film.
Neither especially well-crafted nor completely inept, Death of a Snowman is less interesting as a film than as an artifact. You might hope that a low-budget crime drama shot in and around Johannesburg, South Africa, during the apartheid years would deal explicitly with political conditions in the segregated country. Instead — perhaps because of government censorship or fears of political reprisals — Death of a Snowman has only the whiff of racial tension about it, as whites and blacks doubt, disbelieve and double-cross one another from start to finish.
Director Anthony Balch, known both as a collaborator on film projects with William S. Burroughs and as a shrewd cinema programmer and distributor, made this cheesy but imaginative and good-natured horror show on a shoestring. Swinging singles Jason (Robin Askwith) and Judy (Phoebe Shaw, credited as Vanessa Shaw) take a holiday at an old, vaguely threatening English manor. By the time they figure out that the other houseguests have been lobotomized, it’s too late — creepy Dr. Christian Storm (Michael Gough — I know him from Trog) and matriarch Aunt Harris (Ellen Pollock) are holding them captive in a weird kind of research laboratory with security provided by Daft Punk. Storm apparently wants to turn the poor kids into mindless sex slaves and only Frederick, a sympathetic dwarf servant, may be able to bust them out before that happens — assuming the mysterious, shambling mud monster doesn’t do them in first. Too bad Balch really blows his load in the film’s very first scene, prematurely debuting his pièce de résistance — a Rolls Royce with pop-out machete blades that serves as a mobile decapitation machine, right down to the sacks positioned to catch the heads as they roll off the bodies while the limo tears up the English countryside. Meanwhile, the goings-on inside the house are pretty rote — but there’s a wee bit of nudity to spice up the first half and the film’s cheerfully ludicrous attitude goes a long way. And complaining about the film’s cheap stereotypes would likely be missing the point.
Elite Entertainment released a nice version of this on DVD back in 1999; it’s now out of print.
Note: Since I wrote this review, Horror Hospital has been reissued on DVD by Dark Sky Films.
The latest addition to Criterion’s budget-priced and barebones Eclipse line-up is this boxed set of five films from a cycle of tough-minded crime dramas that enjoyed popularity in post-WWII Japan. Little-seen in the U.S., this group of films as a whole probably benefits from Japanese settings and attitudes that bring a sense of freshness, even exoticism, to straightforward genre exercises. But the films are entertaining and engrossing on their own terms, and, more than that, they paint an interesting picture of a culture in a generational transition and, perhaps, a bit of an identity crisis — they’re clearly derivative of American film noir and French crime films of the period. And the best ones in the set — for my money, Seijun Suzuki’s Take Aim at the Police Van and Takashi Nomura’s A Colt Is My Passport (pictured at top) — hold their own against any crime film of the period. Together, they provide a sketch, in necessarily broad strokes, of a key period in the development of the popular Japanese cinema. Nikkatsu Noir
is a terrific collection.
Mounted and directed by the legendary showman Cecil B. DeMille and photographed by the marvelously adroit cinematographer Karl Struss (Sunrise, Island of Lost Souls), The Sign of the Cross is a dispiriting epic that purports to tell the tale of Roman persecution of Christians under the reign of Nero, who is believed under some theories to have ordered his men to set fire to the city and then blamed local Christians for the damaging blaze. But despite insistently dull depictions of the monotonous lives of the true believers, who are so dumb they can’t even station proper lookouts outside their secret prayer meetings, what DeMille’s really into is the hedonistic habits of the Roman upper classes. The result is a film whose generous helpings of sex and violence are overwhelmed by its general air of condescension and phony piety.
Crummy by mainstream standards, this low-budget martial-arts programmer has lots of charm, starting with the opening shot depicting the inside of a church with saloon-style swinging doors banging against the wind and dust outside, and Tarantino fans will make note of some of the source elements he appropriated for his Kill Bill revenge pastiche. But the real attraction here is Yumi Higaki, playing a talented but reluctant martial-arts disciple seeking payback for injuries to the body and pride of her master (Sonny Chiba, in an extended cameo at the film’s beginning). I had seen her previously in Sister Street Fighter, released two years earlier, but her poise and confidence has improved here. A prototype for any number of femme videogame ass-kickers, from Chun Li down the line, she has an overgrown-kid look to her that makes her determination and eventual triumph in the violent coming-of-age scenario more rousing.
Chicago 10, a documentary about the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and subsequent jury trial of eight protester defendants, is a bracing combination of archival footage and contemporary animation. The archival sections speak for themselves — the colorful footage of groovy, loose-lipped protesters with a flair for the theatrics filling Lincoln Park is not only historic, but can be interestingly contrasted against the less colorful demonstrations of today — but the interspersed animated sequences are something unusual. Working from stranger-than-fiction transcripts of the (sadly unphotographed) courtroom proceedings, writer/director Brett Morgan has assembled an all-star cast of character actors (Hank Azaria, Dylan Baker, Nick Nolte, etc.) to portray that world-class cast of characters (including Abbie Hoffman and Black Panther Bobby Seale), animated in a rotoscoped style reminiscent of Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly.
This loosely autobiographical quasi-coming-of-age tale from Garth Jennings, half of music-video production team Hammer & Tongs and the director of the unwieldy but fitfully amusing Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy feature, is crammed tight with every kid-pic cliché you can imagine. It starts with the unlikely friendship of imaginative loner Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) and village tough Lee Carter (Will Poulter), then quickly becomes one of those movies about the making of a bad movie — the titular “Son of Rambow,” which is inspired by a bootleg videotape of First Blood shot by Lee at the local cinema. While Will has been raised in a straight-laced religious sect that forbids TV and movies, Lee is almost his polar opposite – a rambunctious (though soft-hearted) bully given to petty larceny who nonetheless wields a primitive VHS camcorder in the hope of winning a filmmaking contest by leveraging the limited materials available to him.