Night of the Dead is an institution in Leeds. Part of the Leeds International Film Festival it’s a horror movie marathon that runs from 10 o’clock in the evening until 10 o’clock in the morning the next day. Well, sometimes 10, sometimes 11 or 12 or the next day or weeks later. They overrun a lot is what I’m hinting at.
As well as showing a whole bunch of horror films it also features tons of funny or twisted horror shorts, competitions, games and sometimes interviews with directors.*
The shorts are routinely amazing, showcasing some of the sharpest, funniest writing I’ve ever seen in the horror genre and some real originality and inventiveness. To that effect I’ve put as many of the shorts from this year’s festival as I can find on Youtube at the end of this post. Warning, most of them feature gruesome, violent and explicit content. NSFW.
And it’s a good thing the shorts are good because the films they show are usually awful. The hit to miss ratio of this event is just appalling. I’ve been going for three years now and have seen 14 films at Night of the Dead and I can honestly say 3 of them were good. A further 2 were so bad they’re good and 1 (Little Deaths) may be the most upsetting thing I have ever seen. Mostly though the films they show are distinctly average horror efforts showcasing maybe one or two flashes of invention against a backdrop of bland, predictable mediocrity.
But it’s a fun time so I thought I’d review this year’s crop of films for you.
* This is always a mistake because the crowd at Night of the Dead get fairly rowdy. As an example after I watched Little Deaths the 3 directors came up to talk to the audience and the first question asked of them was “why is yer film so shit?”
100 Bloody Acres (2012)
100 Bloody Acres tells the story of two brothers, Reg and Lindsay Morgan, fertiliser manufacturers in rural Australia who produce a speciality organic fertiliser that’s proving quite popular and effective with local farmers. What’s their secret? Why ground up human remains of course! Oh but don’t worry, they’re not murderers. For now they’re restricting themselves to stealing bodies from traffic accidents, as Reg does at the start of the film. But that means a spotty supply at best and the Morgan’s need to get enough bodies in to fulfill a big order they have coming up. They might have to resort to murder if their luck doesn’t change.
Unfortunately fate intervenes in the form of three young adults trying to get to a local music festival who hitch a lift with Reg. He isn’t intending to kill them but when they discover the dead body he has in the back of his van, well, he can’t very well let them go after that can he?
Horror Comedy might actually be my favourite genre of film. Good examples of the genre represent some of my all time favourite films; Evil Dead 2, Gremlins 2 and Shaun of the Dead for example. I’m not sure why I like it so much but I think it has something to do with the nature of both individual genres.
Horror and comedy are the only two genres that work to evoke a direct physical response in the viewer, laughter in the case of a comedy and fear (so screams, elevated heart rate, etc) in the case of horror. Oh and porn too of course. You don’t need to analyse the characters, the story structure or the mis-en-scene to determine if a comedy is effective. If it made you laugh it’s a good comedy and that’s all there is to it.
But I find myself struggling with both horror and comedies these days. I very rarely watch a modern comedy I like, or a modern horror film that scares me. Partly it’s an age thing. Both genres rely on novelty to some extent and once you get the beats and rhythms of a joke or a scare down it can be very hard for a film to have novelty for you.
And a horror comedy is even harder. Not only does it have to scare me and make me laugh but those are two very different things with very opposing tones. Making something funny can completely undercut any sense of menace it held and make the scares impossible.
So yeah, horror comedy is very hard to do but if you pull it off you’ve made something really special.
100 Bloody Acres does not pull it off, but it very nearly does.
The failings are all on the horror side. This film never scared me, once. Worse I never really felt a sense of dread or tension, even slightly. It just isn’t a horror film.
What it is, really, is a farce with potentially horrific consequences. All farces are predicated on the protagonist trying to avoid something bad happening but usually that bad thing is embarrassment, or losing their job, or losing money. In 100 Bloody Acres the bad thing is being turned into ground fertiliser but other than that and some gore that’s played for laughs there isn’t much horror in this supposed horror comedy.
As a farce though it is great! A good farce is a hard thing to construct anyway but gut wrenchingly funny if you can manage it and 100 Bloody Acres does. The film is hysterical from start to end full of colourful funny characters and some great gags. I particularly enjoyed the only example in cinema I can remember of chekov’s cum rag and the line “he wants my potassium”.
It also avoids many of the sins of bad farces. None of the characters are idiots. Some characters are stupid but their actions make sense for what they know and what they want at the time, nobody does something for the sake of a cheap gag it all emerges naturally from the situation. Also all of the characters are likeable and well drawn with nobody coming across as a lazy comic stereotype.
Basically if you like a good farce and don’t mind gore then you will enjoy 100 Bloody Acres. It’s no classic but it’s a funny, smartly put together comedy.
Unfortunately it was all downhill from that point on.
I’m a big fan of bad films. I’m rarely happier than sitting around with a bunch of mates, drinking good beer and ruthlessly mocking something terrible. Troll 2, The Room, Birdemic, etc. I would much rather watch these again than masterpieces like Citizen Kane or The Godfather.
Films can be bad for lots of reasons. Some have bad ideas that no level of competency can save (Baby Geniuses comes to mind), others have grand visions whose reach exceeds the filmmakers grasp (like the low budget video cheese form the 80’s that produced any number of Blade Runner, Star Wars and Terminator rip offs), some more are just the product of lazy apathetic film makers who weren’t trying very hard and so produce a lackluster result (Catwoman) and best of all are the films where the ideas and execution all combine to forma perfect storm of “what were they thinking” (Manos, Troll 2, etc).
Savaged is a rare species of bad film indeed, the kind of film where almost everything clicks. Almost everything. The story has a good idea, the production values, editing, direction, cinematography special effects, they all work but one, thing is off and it overshadows and pulls down everything else in the film. It’s like painting the Mona Lisa but inexplicably giving her a clown wig. Sure the rest of the painting is a masterpiece of composition and technique but all you can see is the clown wig and it is hilarious.
Savaged tells the story of a deaf mute girl (Amanda Adrienne) who decides to travel across the southwest of America to move in with her boyfriend in California. Along the way she is captured by a gang of rednecks, raped, stabbed and left for dead in a shallow grave.* A Native American Shaman** attempts to bring her back to life but instead merely infests her with the angry ghost of an Apache warrior. Fueled by supernatural powers she sets about getting revenge on the people who killed her.
That’s kind of an awesome story idea right? I mean, dodgy sexual politics aside supernatural rape revenge thriller is pretty original and it’s a solid narrative concept. Native American imagery is kind of under-utilised in horror too so this has real potential.
And in many ways it fulfills that potential. The story hits all the obvious beats at the obvious times, it provides the gore and action you’d expect and you get to see horrible bastards meet their comeuppance.
It’s directed by Michael S. Ojeda who has not directed a full length film before but has extensive experience on T.V. and has worked as a cinematographer and a second unit guy before. Based on the strength of this he’s got a bright future ahead of him as the film is shot and edited brilliantly. It avoids the usual issues with shaky cam and instead puts together coherent and exciting action sequences.
He does have one slightly dodgy directorial decision in that he at some point decided to shoot the entire film through an Instagram filter but overall he’s a fine director.***
However Michael S. Ojeda also wrote this film and that’s where the clown wig starts to come in. The script for Savaged is irredeemably atrocious, just jaw droppingly terrible. This is a film in which the following lines of dialogue are spoken by actual human beings who were (presumably) paid money to say them.
“When I kill something it stays dead!”
“Something dead’s been living here.”
And my personal favourite, said with utter sincerity.
“Will we be together forever?”
“Yes, forever and ever and ever.”
Everyone in this film talks like idiots. They sound like aliens that are trying out this strange human concept you call language. It’s just hilariously, appallingly wrong.
And whilst those examples are the highlights, trust me every line spoken is at best clunky and at worst hysterically bad.
Some of the actors gamely struggle with it. Tom Ardavany who plays West seems to know that his character is supposed to be a real badass but whilst he’s trying really, really hard to sound tough his lines are so poorly written it gives the impression of someone just trying to bullshit his friends that he’s all hardcore.
Other actors…do not fare as well. Brionne Davis, who plays our heroine’s boyfriend, singularly fails to give a believable read once. Every word that comes out of his mouth sounds like he’s some kind of robot speaking words as somebody else types them. There’s one scene where he’s supposed to be ominously threatening our villains about all the horrible things his girlfriend is going to do to them which is intercut with scenes of her reaping carnage and destruction. It’s obviously supposed to be a “cool” moment but it’s just so annoying. When he’s finally silenced by a blow to the head from a fire extinguisher the audience I was with cheered and I must confess, I yelled “thank you!” out loud at that point.
And he’s not even the worst offender, that honour goes to the Apache Shaman. There’s a scene at the end of the film with him and the boyfriend that is so difficult to watch that it threatens to circle round from bad to Dadaist genius.
The effect is to undercut any attempt at mood the film tries, but of course it keeps trying. It’s trying to show you The Exorcist, or Alien, or The Shining but all you can see is that every character is wearing a clown wig and it never stops being funny!
Savaged is far from the worst film I’ve ever seen but it’s a are and special kind of bad that has its own charms and if you’re an aficionado of bad films I strongly urge you to watch it.
*The film was advertised as being like I Spit on your Grave so I knew there was going to be a rape. I did not expect the girl who was going to be raped to be a deaf/mute and I could feel the audience bristle with discomfort when this was revealed. It’s as if we all thought “I’m fairly sure this is offensive” all at the same time.
**He shows up and my friend Dave said “Oh dear I think something racist is going to happen.” Dave was right.
***Oh and one scene where our heroine is gifted with magical Apache weapons which has to be seen to be believed.
On Air (2012)
How’s this for a Twilight Zone pitch.
Late Night Pirate Radio D.J. Doc Rock (Marcus Knufken) takes a call one evening from a mysterious killer called The Night Slasher who has been murdering women in the unnamed German city they both live in.
The Killer’s ultimatum; he has a woman at his mercy and he will kill her in one hour unless Doc Rock convinces him not to.
That is a simple and brilliant premise for a high concept Thriller in the style of Phone Booth or Buried. It’s full of potential for suspense and I was really looking forward to On Air at this year’s Night of the Dead.
Suffice it to say I was disappointed.
On Air singularly fails to build up tension because the story is told incredibly ineptly. To put it bluntly I didn’t understand what was happening most of the time and if you don’t understand what’s happening there can be no tension. Tension is all about expectation. You know something bad is going to happen and you wait, breathlessly, hesitatingly with mounting horror for the bad thing to happen or be averted and the tension to be released. However if you don’t understand what is going on there can be no anticipation of what will happen next and thus no tension.
I’d be tempted to right this off as me being an idiot but after the film ended my friends and I argued for a good 10 – 15 minutes about what had actually happened and only then we did reach a tentative agreement. Clearly we can’t all be idiots. I mean this is a German film so there may be some translation issues but the problems with comprehensibility run much deeper than that.
The main issue is that this is one of those thrillers that wants to provide you with a twist every 10 minutes to make you rethink your assumptions. That would be fine except some of those assumptions are baffling or contrary to what the twist implies. For example; one of the twists later in the film is the revelation that The Night Slasher has captured the police detective’s daughter. This is presented as a shocking twist but for whatever reason I was under the assumption that this was the case already. So rather than me going, gasp, how shocking, i’m instead thinking “wait, wait I thought he knew it was his daughter that had been captured, why is he shocked now?” Some parts of the set-up seem to be assumed and just aren’t explained. For example I didn’t realise that the film is set in the D.J.’s house until the last 15 minutes because I quite sensibly assumed that people don’t tend to have full radio studios in their basements so this was something of a shock to me but is presented NOT as a twist.
I spent most of the film being confused and then just growing increasingly irritated by the fact that I was confused and was struggling to follow what was happening.
Trying to figure out what’s going on in a film can be exciting and interesting. Something like 13 Monkeys, for example, requires you to pay close attention to follow the narrative and decode what is happening. But in 13 Monkeys I got the sense that Terry Gilliam knows what he is doing, whereas in On Air I just grew increasingly annoyed at what I decided was incompetent film making.
Annoying to watch, not scary, not particularly inventive and wasting a potentially clever premise. It’s not even so bad it’s good it’s just devoid of any cinematic pleasure whatsoever.
They Will Outlive Us All (2013)
I am going to horribly spoil the plot of this film. I am going to horribly spoil it because the only thing really worth talking about in this film involves a spoiler.
The setting is 2016 New York in a future that has been wracked with hurricanes due to climate change. Life carries on mostly as normal but the repeated hammering by storms that New York receives has messed up the infrastructure massively. The emergency services are taxed to breaking point and basically won’t attend most problems. There is a curfew in effect, blackouts are common and water supplies are spotty. Supposedly you can drink the tapwater again but to roommates Margot (Jessi Gotta) and Daniel (Nat Cassidy) it smells kind of funny so they stick to bottled water.
And it’s a good thing they do because something in the water is causing the following things to happen 1. people who drink it get sick 2. after they get sick they appear to turn into slow moving, not particularly aggressive zombies 3. after a bit of wandering around as a zombie a giant cockroach crawls out of their mouth and they drop down dead.
Margot and Daniel discover points 1, 2 and 3 in very short order and then spend the rest of their day barricaded in their shit hole apartment fighting a pair of giant cockroaches. They kill one and trap the other one in their toilet.
From a mixture of celebration at having dispatched the monsters and wanting to forget this ever happened the two room mates start drinking heavily and pass out on their couch. Margot sleepily gets up in the middle of the night and goes to the toilet where she falls asleep on it.
Wherein a cockroach crawls up her ass and into her stomach and she then vomits it out of her mouth.
I’ll let that sink for a moment.
This is a film in which a women quite graphically, and at length, vomits an enormous cockroach. One that had previously entered her from (one presumes) her anus.
I was all ready to go on a “horror films are misogynistic” rant but the actress that played the scene, the writer that wrote that scene and the director and cinematographer that shot it are all women. In fact they’re the same woman, Jessi Gotta. So I guess I just have to wonder what the hell is wrong with Ms Gotta and leave it at that.
Anyway after that…memorable, scene the two room mates kill the remaining cockroach and after getting washed up a bit the two friends head out into a New York overrun with zombies.
You may have noticed not a lot happens in that plot summary and that’s because there isn’t much plot to summarise in this film. There are maybe 4 or 5 scenes that actually contribute to the plot and they could comfortably be told in a half hour.
And yet this is a 73 minute film? What the hell takes up all the running time?
The answer is not a lot. Mostly it’s just the two main characters sitting on a couch and talking.
But those scenes of the two characters talking are the best parts of the film.
The closest comparison to They Will Outlive Us All that you’re likely to have seen is Kevin Smith’s Clerks but even that isn’t a perfect comparison. Like Clerks TWOUA is exceedingly low budget with a very small cast and only a few locations. Both aren’t hugely concerned with plot or narrative although both make token gestures towards it (TWOUA significantly moreso). Both use a very limited set of camera angles and focus on naturalism and naturalistic dialogue. The main difference is that where Clerks had jokes TWOUA has gross out horror moments but the main bulk of both films is just the feeling of hanging out with the main characters. Most of TWOUA is dialogue but it isn’t particularly witty or insightful it’s just kind of normal.
What keeps the film going is the chemistry between the two leads. These two seem like genuine friends and their dialogue sounds like the kind of pointless conversations friends have with each other when just hanging out. After a few minutes of this the two leads become really likeable and it becomes quite fun to just spend time in their company.
Even at 73 minutes it’s far too long though and as much as it’s nice to just spend time with the two leads they can’t sustain your interest for as long as they’re asked to.
So They Will outlive Us All. If you’d like to hang out with two fairly pleasant people for over an hour and then see one of them vomit up a cockroach this is the film for you.
There’s a reason lots of low budget film makers make zombie movies. Zombie movies are easy! They require a small speaking cast of usually no more than 5 or 6 characters, they’re set on at most 1 or 2 main locations and those locations can be as prosaic as somebody’s house and they have a really simple easy to copy story structure. A bunch of people hole up in a single location, argue, fight zombies and die off one by one until either all are dead or some survive.
The only real cost is cameras and make-up and even then you can cheat the make-up if you’re really poor. Honestly it’s so simple you and some mates could make a full length zombie film in your backyard in an afternoon without too much hassle.
That doesn’t mean it would be any good though.
Zombie movies are easy but good zombie movies, significantly harder. Good zombie movies require things like scripts, actors and directors that can create tension and those are all hard.
So maybe you cheat and you make a zombie movie, but with a twist! And again there are plenty of zombie movies that take that approach. Zombie Movies are basically a microcosm of genre as a whole. Genre is all about taking familiar elements and recombining them in novel ways, zombie movies are usually about taking the same stock elements but applying one novelty to them. For example it might be a traditional zombie film but take place in a different location like space (Dead Space), or a school (High School of the Dead); or maybe it’s a traditional zombie movie but it’s happening to a specific group of people like forensic pathologists (13 Eerie) or Yakuza (Versus) ; maybe you mash it up with another genre like romantic comedy (Shaun of the Dead) or a crime film.
This opens up the genre massively allowing for new ideas but also the potential for some biting* satire as in Romero’s “of the Dead” series and as such Zombie films have actually attracted some of the smartest horror film makers over the years who want to use the simple story structure to make a point.
Antisocial’s innovation is to change the way the zombies work so that rather than the plague being spread by biting or airborne virus it is instead spread by (spoilers) facebook.
Okay not facebook “The Social Red Room” because they don’t want to get sued but yeah, facebook.
Hey, what a neat satirical idea! The concept that our dependency upon things like smartphones and social networking has turned us all into zombies. It’s like updating Romero’s consumerist satire from Dawn of the Dead to the Millenial age. Okay movie you have my attention, what are you going to do with this idea?
Oh, nothing, You’re going to do nothing with it. I see.
Antisocial has a very clever premise that is rife with potential for social commentary, satire or even paranoid horror but the filmmakers have wasted it entirely because having thought up this premise they clearly thought that that was enough and the film would just kind of happen around it. No effort whatsoever has been expended upon developing the script in any way shape or form to capitalise on this premise.
Instead the film is filled with endless tedious scenes of chaarcters having some variation of the followign argument.
“I’m not infected.”
“Yes, you are.”
“No I’m not.”
“Yes, you are. You went on facebook and we have already established at this point that everyone who has been on facebook will turn into a zombie.”
“Yes but I won’t.”
“But you will.”
….turns into zombie and attacks everyone
That’s it, that’s the whole film over and over again for you. Tension? Comedy? Satire? Forget it.
Dear makers of Antisocial, it is not enough to have just one good idea. You also need a decent script, actors and director. Go get those and then try and make this film again.
* pun intended
So that was this year’s Night of the Dead. Two absolute wastes of time and worse, wastes of good premises(Antiscoial and On Air), one good film (100 Bloody Acres) one film so bad it’s good (Savaged) and one film that is alternately boring, pleasant and disgusting (They Will Outlive us All).
That’s better results than most years.
We also had a host of shorts which I’ve included at the end here for everyone to watch. I couldn’t find every short that was shown on Youtube but suffice it to say this gives a representative flavour.
Fist of Jesus is simply amazing. Gory, ridiculous fun. I’m not going to spoil any of it for you, just watch it now and thank me later.
Alastor is okay. It has a nice premise and some decent moody camera work but is a touch dull and long for the story it has.
Both Box films are more a showcase for some clever animation but they’re fun bits of fluff.
Cargo is so creative, and inventive and amazing it borders on genius. One of the smartest and most moving takes on the zombie genre I’ve ever seen