Purely by chance, we watched George Romero’s SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, Breck Eisner’s THE CRAZIES, and Ruben Fleischer’s ZOMBIELAND in a month. Not all in an evening or anything hardcore like that, mind you. Then, more recently, we watched the whole of Frank Darabont’s The Walking Dead in a day. That was somewhat hardcore, I grant you.
The Romero is the most underrated of the three — we’ve come to a pretty pass when the master and originator of the zombie sub-genre is so marginalized! And yet this is a fun film, essentially a western with a lot of Irish actors and a lot of zombies. Acting honours in the no-star cast go to Kenneth Welsh as the roguish patriarch. A few awkward moments obtrude, and the CGI gore effects look cheap. Romero is in very relaxed form, like late Hawks, not trying to be earthshaking, just having fun. The movie really is a western, something like THE BIG COUNTRY, complete with a zombie on horseback. Romero still pulls amusing variations on his original 1968 premise, and here he delivers the finest closing shot of his entire career. Long may he reign!
THE CRAZIES isn’t absolutely strictly a zombie movie, in the same way that 28 DAYS LATER isn’t, but… you know it is, right? A remake of Romero’s 1973 shocker, it’s much more expensive, much slicker, and delivers copious shocks and considerable suspense. The performances are fine, with Brit-playing-yank Joe Anderson the man of the match. It provides the most spectacular version yet of a climax that served for both RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD and PONTYPOOL, and probably needs to be retired. As Fiona said, it’s stylishly made and has lots of good scares, but lacks the skin-crawling creepiness of the seventies cult nasty.
Scott Kosar and Ray Wright’s script does serve up some nice war-on-terror resonance, in keeping with the political tradition Romero’s always been part of (unlike the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake, which doesn’t bother its pretty decomposing head about little things like meaning), and in the early stages I was impressed by the pace of the plot development and the intelligence of the characters, who figure out the whole situation and take sensible steps to contain the problem long before most real cops would, let alone the movie variety. It doesn’t do them any good. And unfortunately, as the crisis mounts, they seem to lose their wits and do stupid things like separating for no reason in locations which haven’t been secured.
What they need is a set of rules, like Jesse Eisenberg in ZOMBIELAND. You wouldn’t think there was room for another zom-rom-com after SHAUN OF THE DEAD, but Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick use the zombie holocaust as mere bloodsoaked backdrop to a touching love story between a naive, nerdish virgin and a tough lady grifter. There’s actually a slight flavour of 1930s conman movies like BLONDE CRAZY here.
Also to be enjoyed — the titles, which use that interactive lettering thing that’s been spreading through cinema since the opening creds of PANIC ROOM, titles floating blimplike over Manhattan and casting their drifting shadows over the skyscrapers. Here, the artists’ names are scattered by falling zombies and their prey. This is a stylistic flourish driven by technology — had it been possible in the forties, Michael Powell would have had fun with the idea. In the sixties, Leone.
This is the first movie to explore the idea of zombie celebrities — expect more of this, someday. Romero introduced the incidental comedy of dead people still wearing the ridiculous gear they had on in life, back in DAWN OF THE DEAD — football players, Hari Krishna cultists, nuns (in fact, the nude girl in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is probably the first gesture in this direction), and ZOMBIELAND carries on the tradition with a zombie stripper, nipple-tassles spinning like rotor blades as she sprints bloodily after a victim, and a zombie father-and-son three-legged race could well be the greatest genre image of 2009.
Finally, The Walking Dead, Frank Darabont’s TV treatment of zombies, which delivers on suspense and gore and is compulsively watchable, as we discovered after five or so hours of viewing it. What it lacks is any new slant on the zombocalypse scenario, and any particularly novel or striking characters. The central perfs are all very good (as in THE CRAZIES, several Brits play Yanks), but nobody has the kind of soap-opera appeal of Hurley from Lost or Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica: they’re all a bit standard-issue. And if they’re not going to be decorated with quirks, I’d like them to be properly deep, which they’re not either. Only Michael Rooker (known affectionately to us as “Henry Portrait”, which is an old League of Gentlemen joke) has an excess of unpleasant personality to balance the mindless hordes.
Good zombies, though! Probably the most impressive designs of all the shambling undead above, and very good suspense situations, deftly delivered by Darabont and his colleagues, including Ernest Dickerson. My favourite TV zombie holocaust is still this one, though.
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