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Chernobyl Diaries – Review

Chernobyl Diaries – Review

Jun 3, 2012

reviewed by Hallo
directed by Bradley Parker, 2012
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Chernobyl Diaries is a 2012 horror film written and produced by Oren Peli, the mastermind behind the Paranormal Activity franchise. The movie follows a group of young people, two of which are brothers, in a vacation across Europe. The older and less stable brother, Paul, decides to make a slight detour from their Moscow itinerary and instead embarks on an “Extreme Tour” of Pripyat, an abandoned town that was immediately evacuated after the famous Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Although Paul’s younger brother Chris is against the idea, the rest of the group agrees to the tour and convinces Chris to come along.

The single owner and operator of the extreme tour is a big Ukrainian named Uri who makes clear that he “works alone.” He takes them in a shoddy van through a “secret” entrance into Pripyat since the main entrance has been blocked by a military squadron. They make their way into the heart of the city and begin the tour process, occasionally receiving short but helpful tips from Uri. After being attacked by a bear, they decide it is time to hit the road – Uri assures them that there will be “no extra charge for bear attack.” Strangely, the leads to the van battery have been shredded, leaving the group stranded in the heart of the city. Since the nearest checkpoint is 13 miles away and hiking at night is too dangerous, everyone agrees to stay in the van until morning.

This is when the chaos begins. For various reasons the group is led out of the van to investigate disturbances and then back into the van to tell everyone to stay put. When Chris becomes seriously injured, three of the friends decide they must find a way out of the city at any cost. Along the way, they discover horrific truths about the abandoned city – it isn’t really abandoned. Mutated creatures, presumably altered by radiation, now survive as zombies apparently under the careful watch of the Ukrainian military. By the end of the film, two of the friends have survived the attacks from the creatures, but unfortunately have to contend with being discovered by the military.

A glimpse on RottenTomatoes.com quickly reveals how unimpressed critics have been with Chernobyl Diaries – it currently holds a 22% rotten rating. The scathing reviews from the critics once again demonstrate a lack of appreciation for horror conventions. Let’s state the obvious right from the start – yes, this film incorporates a lot of tried and true horror cliches; the tour guide is the first to die, the setting is an isolated location, the vehicle won’t start, most of the lighting from the film comes from flashlights, and so on. Herein lies the basic distinction between most movie critics and most horror fans – the inclusion of these elements does not preclude a positive viewing experience for horror fans. In fact, they quite possibly could set the stage for everything we love, just so long as it is done well. That is what makes a horror fan a horror fan. We aren’t just looking for the next unique, never explored concept in film making (although it is great when that comes along!), but we instead are looking for horror films that do things well, even if it is a concept we have seen 1,000 times before.

With that in mind, Chernobyl Diaries is worth a look. The blending of a historical, disastrous event with a fictional horror story creates a terrific atmospheric setting. The creation of Pripyat is incredibly well done with the center piece being the famous Pripyat Ferris Wheel (as seen in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare). I found myself wishing the “tour” would continue a little longer just so I could learn a little more about the ghost town and nature of the evacuation. This is one of the those movies where you come home and immediately Google the real Pripyat to see how much of the film was historically accurate.

The creatures themselves were fairly bland – we never get a good view of them and they remain blurred most of the movie. As a matter of fact, most of the kills and gruesome elements of the movie take place off screen. Nevertheless, there are some effective scare moments and plenty of suspense building silence combined with a few frantic chase scenes.

By far the weakest aspect of the film was the direction of the camera – I just couldn’t help feeling like a high school student somewhat familiar with horror was manning the camera for this film. At times it was very noticeable and distracting. This, of course, is ultimately the job of directory Bradley Parker to make sure he has set up the shot in an effective manner for the camera to work its magic. Although Parker, I think, has some good ideas scattered throughout the film for the camera, I wouldn’t expect him to be directing again anytime soon.

Chernobyl Diaries is a decent, fun, entertaining summer horror movie. Certainly not one for the ages, but also not deserving of the beating it is receiving from the “critics.”

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Return of the Living Dead – Review

Return of the Living Dead – Review

Sep 23, 2011

reviewed by hallo
directed by Dan O’Bannon, 1985
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Some movies carry with them a sense of legend that escalates them in quality past the film’s real achievements.  Return of the Living Dead is such a film.

Director Dan O’Bannon is himself something of a legend.  He is most known for his screenwriting and character development, making a name for himself in films such as Alien and Total Recall.  And yet it is  silly little zombie flick O’Bannon directed in 1985 that cemented his name in horror movie history among die-hard fans.  O’Bannon only directed two films during his career, one of which was a zombie spoof called Return of the Living Dead.  It is cheesy, over-the-top, and filled with every element one would expect to find in a mid-80’s horror film.  You know – perfect.

The film is a heavy spoof on Romero and this original Night of the Living Dead.  The U.S. army is to blame in this one, producing a chemical agent that brings dead things back to life.  When a few barrels of this stuff accidentally gets shipped to a medical supply company (conveniently located next to a mortuary, crematorium, and cemetery), it creates a recipe for disaster.  The manager of the supply company, Frank,  shows his new warehouse employee, Freddy,  a young rebel, the aforementioned barrels and accidentally releases the fumes from the container in the process.  Not only does every dead thing in the medical supply company come back to life, including dogs cut in half for universities to study, but the cemetery begins to unleash the living dead.  Add to the mix a gang of 80’s styled friends who are coming to pick up their buddy Freddy.  This is a real beauty of a group as depicted through their clever names:  Spider, Trash, Chuck, Casey, and Scuz.  All these guys provide the necessary collection of humans for the newly resurrected zombies to feast on.  Frank and Freddy attempt to keep things under wraps as long as they can, but soon there is a frenzy of zombification and mayhem.  The only way for the government to lock down the problem is by sending in a nuclear strike on the peaceful little town.

Return of the Living Dead certainly has some memorable characters, such as “Tarman”, the first zombie unleashed by the chemical.  If you enjoy zombie films, then it seems near impossible not to appreciate ROTLD.  Yes, the dialogue is hokey, the plot is ridiculous, and the effects are way over the top – but this is a satire.  Then, right in the middle of the the silliness, O’Bannon throws in some effective scares and shocks that would stand up to any zombie movie out there.  It is a nice mixture of comedy and art.

I can’t put my full weight behind ROTLD, but if you enjoy horror and enjoy zombies, then what are you waiting for?  Take a look.

Click here to purchase Return of the Living Dead

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Quarantine 2 – Review

Quarantine 2 – Review

Aug 26, 2011

reviewed by Danny
directed by John Pogue, 2011
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Quarantine 2 has one of the odder trips to the screen in recent memory and much of that journey turns off hardcore horror fans.  The original Quarantine was a near shot-for-shot remake of the excellent Spanish zombie film REC.  Quarantine shared so much of the original film’s vision and style, and came so closely on the heels of REC, that horror fans were up in arms.  “Why does Hollywood think we are so stupid we can’t appreciate a film with subtitles?”  It didn’t help that there were a number of solid foreign horror films getting the Hollywood makeover about that time.  Quarantine became a lightning rod for the negativity.   Now, Sony Pictures and director John Pogue bring us a sequel, and it isn’t based on the Spanish film REC 2 but is, instead, an original sequel to the US remake.  What a mess.  Expectations for the film dropped even lower when Sony decided to release the film direct-to-video and not even give it a token theatrical run.  I enjoyed the first film, and I thought in some ways it improved on REC, though it wasn’t as good a film overall, and I went into my viewing of Quarantine 2 with as open a mind as possible given the film’s history.  What I discovered was a solid low-budget “zombie” movie with a unique, interesting setting.  It isn’t ground-breaking by any means, but Quarantine 2 is definitely worth the price of a rental.

Quarantine 2’s plot runs in parallel with the events in Quarantine, but that isn’t obvious at the start of the film.  The film opens by introducing us to two flight attendants who are on their way to the airport for a flight.  The two characters are one-hundred percent cliché (one is a bit easy, the other has a father who tried to pressure her into being a pilot), but they are attractive and likeable enough to make for good protagonists (and potential zombie fodder).  Once on the airplane, we are introduced to one cliché character after another: a kid with divorced parents who is flying between them and trying to appear tougher than he is; an elderly woman and her Parkinson’s stricken, wheelchair bound, husband; an aggressive businessman who won’t turn off his cell phone; a portly passenger too fat to fit in the standard seatbelt, another older woman with a cat in her handbag, and a few more not worth mentioning.

The only passenger of any real interest is an elementary school teacher carrying a hamster cage.  Now, anyone who has seen the first film will know that the “hamsters” (and the cats for that matter) are going to be important.  The teacher is quickly revealed to be the male protagonist as the horror elements in the plot are introduced.  Those events are pretty predictable in light of the first film’s plot, but the setting is novel enough to build up tension and suspense.  Hey, it’s a zombie outbreak on a plane.  It would be hard to make that boring.

And Quarantine 2, even after it leaves the nicely claustrophobic plane and moves into an abandoned airline terminal (which is still novel but really could just be any nearly-empty warehouse),  isn’t boring.  There is a good deal of suspense, a little mystery, and a healthy amount of gruesome deaths.  Anyone who is not totally turned off by the film’s ancestry* should find it to be an enjoyable horror film.

* Speaking of the animosity out there in the horror community, I find it interesting that this film has an 83% positive rating from critics on Rottentomatoes.com but only a 4.5/10 average from the users at IMDB.  Considering that it is pretty rare for a low-budget horror film to have a positive critical response, I have to think the regular viewers responses are a little skewed because of the whole REC/Quarantine controversy.

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Night of the Creeps – Review

Night of the Creeps – Review

May 19, 2011

reviewed by hallo
directed by Fred Dekker, 1986
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Before a single word is written about the 1986 B-film classic Night of the Creeps, it is imperative that the career of writer and director Fred Dekker is acknowledged as one of the more unfortunate stories in horror movie history.  Dekker is an immensely gifted artist who created two of the most enduring and fan loved genre films of the 80’s – Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad.  Today, both of these films enjoy a massive cult following and have been highlighted in various horror conventions over the years.  As they say, hindsight is always 20/20, and I have yet to hear a single producer, director, or actor in the movie industry say anything other than the confident brilliance Dekker brings to a film project.  However, money rules the day in Hollywood.  Both Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad were box office failures.  The failure of Robocop 3 sealed the deal.  There is little argument, even from those within the movie studios, that the poor return at the box office had nothing to do with Dekker’s ability to direct and everything to do with the incredibly inept marketing strategies employed by the studio.  Case in point, the tag line for The Monster Squad was “You know who to call if you have ghosts, but who do you call if you have monsters?”  Wow, that is horrific.  Much more could be said, but this reviewer mourns the early departure of what I consider to be a superb director and talent in the horror industry.  Enough time has elapsed; a studio needs to give Dekker another chance.

Night of the Creeps is a perfect blending of about every B-film ingredient you can think of.  Aliens, zombies, sororities, a two-fisted cop, parasites, college humor, cryogenic labs, and gore are all beautifully mixed together.  Dekker refers to his film as placing all his favorite elements in a blender and hitting puree.  It is done tongue-in-cheek and yet has a serious tone.  It is filmed unmistakeably in the style of the 80’s and yet is not overly campy.  This is horror at its best.

The film begins with a strange UFO and alien scene where an experiment of some kind is launched from the spaceship down to planet earth.  The year is 1959 and a couple of sweethearts see what they mistaken to be a falling star.  The boyfriend finds the capsule and several slug like creatures infect him.  At the same time, the girlfriend is chopped up by an escaped homicidal maniac.  Yep, that is one heck of an awesome beginning.

Cut to the present age where we meet and begin to follow two college roommates, Chris Romero (Jason Lively – tough to see him as anything other than Rusty Griswold) and J.C. Hooper.  By the way, that “J.C.” is short for John Carpenter and you can probably figure out the Hooper and Romero names.  J.C. is a crippled who walks with two crutches and is on the prowl to help his best friend Chris score with the love of his life, Cynthia Cronenberg (yep, Cronenberg – seeing a pattern here?).  In order to accomplish that feat, they figure joining a fraternity is in good order.  Their orientation task?  To steal a cadaver and leave it on the front steps of a rival fraternity.  When the two friends set out to accomplish their goal, they find their way into a cryogenic lab where a frozen dude, who just so happens to be the infected guy from 1959, is encased in carbonite (or something like that).   You can guess what happens.  Chris and J.C. thaw out the corpse and the slugs are back on the loose!

Enter the best character of the film, Detective Ray Cameron (a nod to James) who is the coolest cop to grace the silver screen except maybe for Joe Hallenbeck.  Ray Cameron is beautifully played by Tom Atkins, perhaps my favorite character actor of all time.  “THRILL ME!”  Those are the words used by Cameron when answering a phone or walking into a crime scene.  Anyway, Cameron was the cop on the scene in 1959 when the girl was hacked to pieces (who just so happened to be his ex-girlfriend).  He begins to make the connection to the present day situation.  Meanwhile, pandemonium is running wild as more and more college students become infected by the slugs, turn into zombies, and produce more slugs.  Unfortunately, J.C. meets his demise, but not before he learns the secret to killing the creeps – fire.

Eventually the film boils down to an entire fraternity being turned into zombies while on the way to pick up their dates at the sorority house.  This leads to some of the most epic scenes imaginable as you have a bunch of college dudes in tuxedos walking around as zombies.  After Ray Cameron busts into the sorority house to save the day, he delivers what is possibly the best line in horror movie history:

“I have good news and bad news girls.  The good news is that your dates are here.”
“What’s the bad news?”
“They’re Dead!”

Flame throwers, shotguns, lawn mowers, and all kinds of fun inhabit the last 20 minutes of the film as Chris and Cynthia fight their way out of trouble.

As you can tell by now, I love this film.  But it is far from perfect.  Some of the scenes are beyond believable, even for B-film horror, and the cheese factor at times goes pretty high, which is of course intended, but probably goes overboard on occasion.  Much of the dialogue is strained and you may find yourself rolling your eyes at specific scenes in order to get through them.  But all of this happens with the greater good always at hand.  Dekker manages to maintain a small piece of sincerity in the film, especially in scenes such as Chris listening to J.C.’s recorded final message and Ray’s speech on finding his ex mutilated.

Steven Spielberg is all over the place in Night of the Creeps.  There is, of course, a blatant spoof of the beach scene when Cameron sees his girlfriend rise out of the water, complete with the cuts being signaled by people walking past him.  There are more subtle tributes as well, such as when the camera zooms on Cameron’s face while the background moves in the distance when he sees the ax-murderer turned zombie.  That Dekker was influenced by Spielberg’s brilliance is putting it mildly.

Thankfully, Night of the Creeps is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray in a wonderful edition, complete with terrific behind the scenes footage and interviews.  I really don’t like the cover art for the DVD however.  In its original release, the movie went through several different poster and art changes, the best by far being the zombie dressed in a tuxedo holding a bouquet of roses.  If you have never seen Night of the Creeps, then by all means click the link below and buy it now!

Click Here to purchase Night of the Creeps

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[Rec] – Review

[Rec] – Review

May 6, 2011

reviewed by Danny
directed by Jaume Balaguero, 2007
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“REC” is the abbreviation seen on a video camera screen while recording, so it should be obvious going in that this Spanish horror film is in the hand-held, shakey cam tradition that first gained fame with The Blair Witch Project.  Unlike that film and its many imitators, [Rec] eschews all of the other bare-bones, amateurish elements from BWP in favor of a tight, beautifully simple plot and plenty of old school scares.   [Rec] is also a zombie/killer virus film that does that genre just as well as it does the found footage genre.  My only real issue is with how the film explains the outbreak, but, to be fair, I’d always prefer the cause of a zombie outbreak to be mysterious.

[Rec] follows a young reporter assigned to do a puff piece on the local fire department.  It opens with the kind of standard chit-chat with the firemen that we would expect from a news magazine piece, but when the station gets called out, things begin to go bad quickly.  They arrive at the scene to find that the emergency is that an old lady in the apartment building has gone a bit crazy.  Before long, she is attacking and ripping the flesh from one of the policemen on the scene.  By the time the crew gets the wounded policeman downstairs, they find the building surrounded by police and under quarantine.  So there is your basic premise—a small group of residents locked in an apartment building with zombie-like creatures.

Once the action gets started, [Rec] barely pauses to give the characters or the viewers time to breath.  Despite seeing the action unfold from through a camera lens, we are witness to some solid special effects, lots of gore,  and beautifully framed set-pieces.  I was especially impressed with a scene where the characters have to rush past a zombie handcuffed to a staircase railing.  It would have been so easy for that scene to become impossible to follow, but it is handled perfectly here.

Of course, the camera goes through the same shakiness and oblique angles that we often get in these films, but I was always able to focus on the action and follow the physical elements of the plot.  To accomplish this, our brave cameraman is often shooting in a way that makes no logical sense (like shooting our protagonist while being stalked by a zombie in a dark room—I’m pretty sure I’d have that night vision trained on the thing that was trying to eat me).  This concession was made in order to make the film easier to follow and to keep the protagonist central to the story, so it is hard to complain much about it.

During the films climatic scenes, we learn what has caused the outbreak.  The theological explanation for the zombie outbreak is just as ridiculous as George Lucas using metachlorian count to explain a Jedi’s use of The Force in the Star Wars prequels.  Wait a minute—make that more ridiculous than metachlorians, especially when one factors in the explanation for why the disease control people have locked down the building.

Click Here to purchase Rec

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Dead Meat – Review

Dead Meat – Review

Mar 5, 2011

reviewed by hallo
directed by Conor McMahon, 2004
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Dead Meat is an Irish horror film (Ireland makes horror films?) distributed in America by Fangoria/Gorezone distribution.  The movie is, essentially, a zombie movie about a heavily mutated strand of mad cow disease that begins turning human beings into mad, flesh eating cannibals.  I will say upfront that I enjoyed Dead Meat and was impressed with some very unique imagery in the midst of what is certainly a worn out sub-genre.   Yet, the film could have been so much more.

The story begins with a major nod to George Romero as a young couple, Helena and Martin, are in their car and literally run into a guy on the side of the road.  Come to find out, the guy has decaying skin and seems to be dead.  Before Helena and Martin can get the gentleman to a hospital, he comes alive and begins gnawing on Martin’s neck, leaving Helena to run off seeing help by herself.  She makes her way to a cottage where soon afterward, Martin attacks her, now in zombie mode himself.  She cleverly dispatches of Martin by attaching a vacuum tube to his eye and turning on the machine.  Fun.

Helena runs for her life and ends up bumping into Desmond, the shovel toting gravedigger (actually, he bumps into her and saves her from being run over by a car).  Desmond is one of the coolest characters I have seen in a while, making unbelievable use of a shovel and carving himself out almost as a superhero.  Together, the two try to find a way out of the danger, bumping into more and more zombies.  Finally, after a brief visit to Desmond’s home, they run into two more unaffected humans, Cathal and Francie.  Although reluctant at first, Cathal eventually gives Helena and Desmond a lift in their car (and a little girl named Lisa, but we won’t worry about her.  She doesn’t last long).  After their car gets stuck in the mud, they are forced to fend off all kinds of threats, including a cow!  The movie ends with Cathal and Desmond succumbing to the massive onslaught of zombies when they try to take cover in some old ruins.  Helena survives when a group of “zombie hunters” shows up.  She is placed in the back of a truck and crammed in with dozens of other survivors.  A wooden door is shut and the screams of the living, now trapped as if they were dead, are heard from inside as the truck starts down the road.

This movie almost needed to be sub-titled.  Obviously, set in Ireland, the characters are speaking English, but the accent is so strong that I had to strain to make out the dialogue.  The film perfectly captures the essence of what a stranded day in the middle of Ireland might look like, offering beautiful views of the Irish country side and portraying the varying shades of brown that we would expect for that geographic location.  This coupled with the staggering, quick movements of the walking dead create an eerie combination.  Dead Meat is simply a survival film, where the action starts immediately and does not relent until the end of the movie.  There are some great visual kills and the gore is plentiful.  Plus, McMahon offers some twists to the typical zombie themes, providing some neat ideas that I had never seen.  For example, at one point Helena and Desmond are terrified to see they are surrounded by zombies.  Yet, the undead never move in for the kill.  They realize that this particular group of zombie are asleep (standing up) and if they are quite enough, Helena and Desmond can simply walk past them unharmed.  Then, there is the incredible kill scene while the group is trapped in the car.  It is so wonderful that I dare not give it away here.

I also like how Dead Meat provides a solid and very believable source to the zombie infestation.  It is not a stretch at all to think that an outbreak of mad cow disease, which is not unusual in Ireland, could have devastating effects on humans.  Whereas most zombie films just ignore the cause of the infestation, Dead Meat tackles it head on, which is refreshing.

The film is certainly not without its problems.  First, the editing is mediocre at best.  Continuity is a problem with Dead Meat and it brings down the overall quality of the film just a notch.  Most of these issues seemed to be somewhat manageable in the editing room.  The action sequences would be great – great – great – then “ooh, that looked awful.”  Helena, at the beginning especially, seems to just be somewhat out of sorts that her boyfriend is now a rabid zombie trying to kill her.  The reactionary elements in Dead Meat may be the weakest part of the film.  Also, the soundtrack is sketchy, leaving the already difficult accents even more difficult to understand.

I enjoyed this film.  Coming in at only 1 hour 17 minutes, it is a quick and easy watch and worth every second of it.  If you like zombie and gore, then take a look.

Click Here to purchase Dead Meat

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