HAPPY HALLOWEEN! If you’re like me you’re bored with zombies and pseudo-zombies. The 21st Century is as mired in tiresome, cookie-cutter zombie flicks as the 1980s were in tiresome, cookie-cutter slasher flicks.
Here is a look at seven films which, while technically classified as zombie movies at least adopt unique perspectives and don’t follow established formulas.
THE DEAD PIT (1989) – This horror film was the directorial debut of the very prolific director Brett Leonard. While not a four-star movie The Dead Pit is enjoyable enough for the Halloween Season and should certainly appeal to anyone into 1980s horror flicks. This movie’s hybrid of zombie elements and slasher elements is both its charm AND the reason behind its love-it-or-hate-it status.
Don’t expect non-stop Resident Evil-level action but DO expect to see some in-your-face gore very early in the flick for lovers of guts and decomposition. A physician (Dr Swan) at a mental hospital discovers the secret sub-basement where a rival MD (Dr Ramzi) is subjecting hopeless patients to horrific experiments involving a combination of science and the supernatural.
Swan overcomes Ramzi and kills him, then leaves his corpse locked in the sub-basement with his unholy, dead creations. He has the place sealed away and keeps mum about it to prevent bringing the law down on the institution.
Twenty years later an amnesiac female patient is committed to the asylum shortly before a mild earthquake cracks open the sub-basement, unleashing Dr Ramzi and his obscene army of zombies. To fill a little time while that is percolating we get slasher movie thrills as the nubile amnesiac Jane Doe (Cheryl Lawson) tries to survive in the twisted asylum.
Once the walking dead come climbing up out of the Dead Pit of the title they’ve been so charged up with eldritch forces by two decades of fermenting with their creator they are especially deadly. The zombies are more intelligent than in most films so that’s another novelty.
Some viewers really rip this movie apart over the way Holy Water is used to kill Dr Ramzi’s legion of the unliving but I found that, too, to be a nice change of pace. If you go into The Dead Pit with an open mind and reasonable expectations it makes for a good, ghoulish time.
SHIVERS (1975) – David Cronenberg directed this overlooked gem that takes his love affair with body-horror and sets it in what would otherwise be a traditional zombie format. In fact my opinion is that George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead from a few years later shows a lot of this Cronenberg film’s influence.
Barbara Steele is the big name for horror fans in Shivers which was also released under the title They Came From Within. Lynn Lowry and Joe Silver are also in the film.
Countless other movies give us zombies that act purely on the animal instinct to kill and feed. Shivers gives us zombies who act first on the animal instinct to fornicate with killing being a secondary – but no less inevitable – consideration.
Mad scientists are behind it, of course. Their research center is looking into sexual diseases, parasites and other biological ailments. That center is part of a luxury condominium campus on an island near Montreal. The sprawling island complex features shopping malls, theaters, restaurants, power stations and other elements needed to let its well-to-do residents live in virtual independence from the rest of the world.
Genetically engineered parasites escape from the research center and begin infecting the other people on the island, turning them into sex-crazed savages who round off their orgasms with murder rather than cigarettes. The island provides the ultimate setting for commentary on consumerism (He beat ya to it, Romero!) and class anxiety while throwing in lots of gore and sex along the way.
The parasites tend to burst out of the mid-sections of their hosts in plenty of gruesome scenes that beat the chest-bursters from the Alien series to the punch as well. This film was originally rated X and one character even grows grotesquely uh … fond … of the parasite inside him. With Shivers Cronenberg delivered blood, gore, body-horror, deviant sex acts and a terrific ending in a sadly underappreciated movie.
MALEFICIA (1998) – This offbeat item from France was directed by Antoine Pellissier, who was an actual practicing physician at the time so viewers can rest assured that the looks they get at the insides of slaughtered human beings are reasonably accurate (I’m kidding.)
The 1860 setting should appeal to Goths but the ENORMOUS amounts of blood and gore will satisfy even fans of the most graphically violent zombie films. A few vampires eventually show up, too, in addition to the zombies if you’re looking for a little variety.
A family is on their way by carriage to a castle they’ve inherited from a relative involved in secret occult activities. Enroute they come across a Satanic ritual with naked humans being sacrificed by way of crucifixions intentionally staged as blasphemous parodies of the crucifixion of Christ.
Those crucifixions are very graphic and set the tone for the over-the-top violence the rest of the way. At times the blood and gore are so surreal I can’t be sure if it was intentionally artistic or just a function of budget shortfalls.
At any rate the crucifixion ritual has summoned up various zombies from the four eldritch elements – Water, Earth, Fire and Air. They chow down on the remains of the crucifixion victims before moving on to satisfy their appetites elsewhere, including with the family who stumbled upon the grisly tableau.
From there it’s all the things that zombie lovers look for but that I generally find very repetitious and boring. All the usual set pieces from zombie flicks show up at some point. The 1860’s setting and costumes provide enough novelty to this zombie apocalypse story to keep this obscure item from feeling too familiar.
The fleeing family is stupid enough to think they can find safety in the castle they inherited from their mad relative and they pay for that idiocy like all stupid characters in horror films do. There’s a nice twist toward the end which I won’t spoil in case you want to seek this neglected film out.
THE LIVING DEAD GIRL (LA MORTE VIVANTE) (1982) – French director Jean Rollin helmed this introspective, touching and at times even poignant rendition of a zombie film. If you’re not familiar with Rollin’s work he often starts with a prosaic premise but then flies off into strikingly original territory with it.
La Morte Vivante starts off with the trope of toxic waste artificially preserving and ultimately reviving the corpse of heiress Catherine Valmont (Francoise Blanchard). The barrels of toxic waste have been illegally stored in the Valmont family’s catacombs over the course of two years without their knowledge and Catherine’s first action when restored to life is to dispatch the men dumping the waste in swift and bloody fashion. Another corpse in the catacombs with Catherine is also revived but was already so decomposed that the men had no problem destroying it.
The living dead girl feeds on human flesh and drinks human blood and, though she starts off as a typically mindless and shambling example of the living dead the longer she is “alive” more and more of her humanity begins to come back to her. The Valmont mansion is empty and up for sale and soon Catherine racks up a few other kills and meals by way of prospective buyers and a horny couple who sneak into the place to have sex.
Eventually Helene (Marina Pierro), a friend of Catherine’s since childhood, encounters the zombified girl while reminiscing during a stroll through the mansion. Since this is a Rollin film there is a heavy insinuation of lesbian attraction, at least on Helene’s part, and Helene works with Catherine’s revived corpse, slowly jogging further memories and eventually coaching back Catherine’s ability to speak.
Helene is overjoyed at the thought that, with the world believing Catherine to be two years dead she can keep her all to herself with no pesky male admirers mucking up the chemistry. A living dead girl’s got to eat, however, and after Helene realizes the flesh and blood of dead animals just doesn’t do it for the increasingly sentient Catherine she makes the cold-hearted decision to lure human beings to the mansion for Catherine to feed upon.
As Helene’s behavior becomes more and more monstrous Catherine’s becomes more and more human and as she finds her conscience returning she suffers immense remorse at what she and her friend are doing. This dichotomy is expertly handled by Rollin, contrasting Catherine’s torment and increasing reluctance to feed on others with Helene’s growing ruthlessness and willingness to do anything to keep her would-be lover “alive” and functioning.
Meanwhile a female photographer who happened to snap photos of the shambling Catherine shortly after her resurrection begins investigating the situation when all the villagers tell her the woman in the photo has been dead for two years. This investigation sets in motion the tragic, bloody circumstances of the movie’s nightmarish climax. If Anne Rice had ever written a zombie story it might have played out like this very memorable horror film.
PONTYPOOL (2008) – Pontypool is based on the novel by Tony Burgess and is set in a small town in Ontario. The best way to describe this original and thought-provoking movie would be by saying “If PBS decided to do a zombie film I think it would go something like this …”
The movie stars Stephen McHattie, whose career goes all the way back to a very memorable Kojak episode in which he played a serial killer being recruited by the CIA to be their “crazed loner” patsy for a planned political assassination. McHattie portrays Grant Mazzy, a former shock jock from America. He’s currently languishing on a small station in the backwoods of Canada after his provocative antics got him fired one too many times from radio stations in the States.
He tries to liven up his boring gig on local radio by suggesting some unorthodox public behavior to his listeners and is as surprised as his female producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) when people around the area begin taking him up on the suggestion. As reports continue to come into the tiny radio station it soon becomes apparent that the population isn’t just extremely receptive to suggestion, many of them have become living zombies with a desire to kill anyone not similarly stricken.
The blood and gore in this flick is minimal so it won’t appeal to many fans of zombie films. Pontypool starts out emphasizing remote reports from personnel sent out by the small station where Mazzy is on the air. These reports and some paniced phone calls to the station make the first part of the movie seem like a zombie invasion version of Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast.
As the story progresses, however, Pontypool becomes more like a zombie version of Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist comedy Rhinoceros, with the zombified citizens representing mindless conformists and the “unstricken” people representing individualists. The film actually betters Ionesco’s metaphor by way of its emphasis on mass media’s role in eroding individuality. To simplify the premise for the sake of brevity if a person isn’t spouting the same kind of repetitious gibberish that the zombies are they immediately recognize that the person isn’t “one of them” and attack. Beautiful! If you yourself don’t go through life talking about Dancing with the Stars or Miley Cyrus or the latest reality tv hit you can definitely relate!
This allegorical representation of individuality versus the forces of conformity is cleverly handled and goes beyond commercial interests and entertainment. It applies just as much to the political arena and, since I live in this land of fanatics called America, independent voters like me are figuratively surrounded by rampaging and destructive Liberal zombies spouting Obama’s “Hope and Change” or “Diversity” gibberish and Conservative zombies spouting Reagan’s “American Exceptionalism” or “Family Values” gibberish.
Some may wonder how Pontypool compares to the above flicks. It’s better than Maleficia whereas La Morte Vivante is far more accessible plus Pontypool is marred slightly by a needlessly cryptic post-credits sequence.
CEMETERY MAN (DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE) (1994) – This film is based on stories by Tiziano Sclavi, the man at the center of “Sclavian philosophy” from Italy. Michele Soavi directed and Rupert Everett starred as the hero, Francesco Dellamorte. Dellamorte is the gravedigger and custodian of Buffalora Cemetery, Buffalora being a fictional town supposedly in the north of Italy.
If you ever wondered what the Patrick McGoohan series The Prisoner would have been like if it had been done as a horror story rather than sci-fi then Cemetery Man is the movie for you! The film employs the same Kafkaesque themes that The Prisoner did with heavy overtones of Sartre’s work The Myth of Sisyphus.
The dead buried in Buffalora Cemetery tend to come back to life as killer zombies after seven days. Dellamorte, with minimal help from his rotund and simple-minded assistant Gnaghi (Francois Hadji-Lazaro), destroys the undead monsters. Our hero gets no thanks from the living citizens of Buffalora, however, who treat him like a Village Idiot and spread rumors that he is either impotent or a eunuch. Mysterious benefactors pay Dellamorte well for his thankless job via envelopes of cash that they mail to him.
Amid thwarted and tragic romances with a series of women (all played by sexy Anna Falchi) our protagonist perseveres in his nocturnal zombie-slaying, but slowly the repetitious task of burying the dead only to have them rise to be killed again takes its toll on Dellamorte. He begins questioning his seemingly meaningless existence and encounters the sinister figure of Death itself who says “If you don’t want the dead coming back to life why don’t you just kill the living?”
Taking this advice to heart Dellamorte attempts a few murder sprees that don’t have quite the effect he intended. Eventually our hero and his grotesque, quasi-mute underling attempt to flee Buffalora, taking the movie into a whole different direction that I couldn’t possibly comment upon without spoiling most of the film. Dellamorte Dellamore is definitely worth at least one viewing for all horror fans.
PESTICIDE (LES RAISINS DE LA MORT) (1978) – The better-known English language title of this movie is The Grapes of Death, but let’s face it, NOBODY could take a film seriously with a title like that. It sounds like one of those cheapjack horror movies that the Troma Team buy up and distribute.
Jean Rollin strikes again with a typically trite premise that he then pilots into undiscovered country! The humdrum premise of this story is that a newly-developed pesticide is sprayed on the grape harvest of a vineyard in France and when people drink wine made from the grapes their bodies begin to break down and decompose, their brains (and therefore their minds) as well. As they suffer and decompose the victims become living-yet-dying zombies whose growing madness prompts them to attack and kill the unafflicted people they encounter.
Marie-Georges Pascal stars as Elisabeth, a French woman returning to her fiancee who is the scientist who developed the pesticide that serves as the catalyst for the story. When the train she is riding arrives in town the suffering zombies begin crawling out of the woodwork, preying on every “normal” human they find. Elisabeth flees them and finds herself in one nightmarish situation after another as she tries to keep herself and a blind girl named Lucie (Mirella Rancelot) alive til morning.
Rollin’s zombies in this film look as hideous as zombies in traditional horror films but he gives them odd eccentricities that make each one stand out. Even the half-dead fiends who aren’t on screen long enough to really register at least manage to stand out through their clothing or choice of primitive weaponry.
The living-yet- dying zombies retain various degrees of intelligence, depending on how far their brain has decomposed. Some are very shrewd, making their murderous impulses even more dangerous. Others are primitive and ape-like, imitating what they see to the point that a group of the half-dead pondering a cemetery’s large crucifix with a life-sized Jesus on it attempt to recreate this dimly- remembered object of worship by crucifying the next unfortunate human who falls into their clutches.
Elisabeth at first tries to protect the blind Lucie from the horror of their situation by hiding the truth from her. Some of the most effective moments in the movie are those with our heroine leading Lucie through the blood-soaked, corpse-strewn town with the blind girl blissfully ignorant of the grisly mise en scene. Some surprises are in store when Elisabeth is at last reunited with her fiancee but Rollin drags the ending out a little too long for most tastes, hence this film’s lack of a larger following
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