DVD Review: The Ultimate Zombie Feast
Review by Kit Rathenar
What do you call a relentless tide of mindless, drooling, moaning horrors that keeps coming, is apparently limitless in its scale, and is impossible to hold at bay forever no matter what fortifications you erect or how well you arm yourself? That’s right: indie zombie movies! It seems like literally everybody, no matter how limited their film-making experience, wants to try their hand at a zombie flick these days; the genre has been worked, aptly enough, to death and beyond. I’m actually working on a theory that zombie movies are no longer a cinematic art form but a performance one: the true goal of the exercise doesn’t seem, any more, to be the production of a finished film that’s worth showing to the world. Rather, it’s to generate an excuse for you and all your mates to cover yourselves in fake blood and shamble around your local town centre moaning and attempting to eat each other, presumably for the sheer fun of doing it. And while I can understand the impulse, and indeed sympathise with it to an extent, there are other ways to get it out of your system. Zombie LARP events exist for a reason.
That being said, it was inevitable that a compilation of sixteen short zombie movies, clocking in at a massive five-hour running time, was going to be a mixed bag. Monster Pictures claim to have assembled the “Ultimate Zombie Feast” with this selection, but in all honesty if this is the ultimate shortlist, then I dread to think what the ones that didn’t make the cut were like. Many of the entries here are okay in and of themselves, but putting them all together and watching them at once they stack up to form a portrait of a genre that’s become bloated with complacency, cliches and self-indulgent directing.
There is, however, one film here that I would unreservedly recommend, and that film is Tarunabh Dutta’s Savages. Billed as “one of India’s first independent zombie films”, it’s forty minutes of truly affecting, powerful horror that follows the tragic fate of four friends who unwisely go trekking out near the site of a former government biochemical facility. On a whole other level to anything else in this collection, it has the smarts to develop its characters and focus on them above all else, rather than just filling time until it can throw its special effects budget at the screen. The warm, affectionate introduction we’re given to the characters makes their later suffering and emotional conflict personal and engaging, and the zombie element of the film is there to serve and advance the narrative, rather than the reverse – ironically making this movie far more shocking and impactful than anything else here. In truth, the highest praise I can give this film is to say that it shouldn’t have been included here at all, because it deserves much more attention and respect than it’s going to get via this particular distribution route. See Savages even if you watch nothing else from this collection.
After that, I’d give the next tier of credit to those films that at least bring some imagination, charisma or a twist to the table. Bren Lynne’s nine-minute Kidz is my favourite after Savages, taking the premise of three children caught in a zombie apocalypse and going in the last direction I was expecting, to charming effect. Next after that I’d probably pick Jay Reiter’s Arise, a joyously brutal romp in which a blue-collar conspiracy theorist called Thanatos (what a name) is forced to take on the role of action hero when a zombie plague at his workplace threatens his girlfriend and her daughter. It’s simple but it knows it’s simple, and the surprise bonus of a ferocious death metal soundtrack won this reviewer over on the spot (why don’t more horror films use extreme metal when it works so well?) Meanwhile Tor Fruergaard’s It Came From the West is without doubt the weirdest offering here, a Danish puppet animation set in the Wild West and featuring cowboys, Native American stereotypes and a steam-powered chainsaw in a surreal performance that’s about half-and-half Sergio Leone and Looney Tunes. At the other end of the seriousness scale, Joseph Avery and Matt Simpson give us Plague, following an illegal immigrant who seeks out a new life in the UK only to run headlong into a zombie outbreak – filmed with no dialogue, only voiceover, and a cold and shadow-drenched visual style, this is one of the more effective and harrowing offerings here.
Additionally, I’d say a good word for opener Zombeer, the shambolic but fun tale of a drunken brewmaster who boils alive in one of his own vats, accidentally giving birth to a batch of beer that turns anyone who drinks it into the living dead. Chemical stimulants also play a pivotal and hilarious role in The Book of Zombie, the longest film here at just over an hour, in which a small Utah town suffers a zombie outbreak that only affects Mormons. Tongue firmly in cheek, this movie bowls through all the classic zombie cliches and invents a couple more that deserve to become staples in their own right, before finishing with a punchline whose genius will only be marred if it results in the directors receiving a lawsuit. I’ll spoil no further.
While most of what remains is simply middle-of-the-road, perhaps unavoidably there are a couple of real clangers in the mix as well. Fear of the Living Dead manages to combine a weak script and a nonsensical plot twist with a nasty gloss of misogyny (why is the female lead tough and competent only until she encounters the male lead, whereupon she turns into a clumsy, shrieky, cliched movie damsel?) Zombie Harvest is a weird fusion of bathos and gross-out, unable to decide whether it wants to be a pastiche or a parody and somehow accomplishing the worst of both worlds. The Skin of Your Teeth, meanwhile, isn’t as actively bad as either of these but does manage to be the most pointless zombie film I’ve ever seen, coming off like a random clip lifted from the middle of a feature film that would have had to be pretty generic to start with.
For the record, the remaining films are Zomblies (three quarters of an hour of shooty, shouty military-vs-zombies mayhem that appears to be trying to emulate the success of films like Dog Soldiers but without the same calibre of script, though it does conjure up enough of a budget for some cool action sequences); Not Even Death (a tragic but ultimately predictable little tale of a husband who refuses to part with his beloved wife even after her transformation into a zombie); Zombies and Cigarettes (which takes the classic zombie-occupied-mall plot and combines it with a hapless protagonist who’s trying to court the girl of his dreams and keep her alive at the same time); Bitten (a woman comes home as a newly infected zombie, in a short-short which feels more like an promo for the special effects team than an actual film); Paris By Night of the Living Dead (reminiscent of one of those action movie trailers that spoil the film by showing you all the best scenes, though here with the advantage that the other eighty minutes of the film in question was never made so you just get all the cool scenes in one place – and bonus points for destroying both the Sacre Coeur AND the Eiffel Tower in a twelve-minute film) and Dead Hungry (a bizarre little zombie romance with a gag-inducing comic twist). All of these would potentially be fine on their own, but taken in sum with everything else in this collection, zombie fatigue is likely to set in sooner or later for all but the most easily pleased diehards.
Though if you do like zombies that much, it’s possibly still worth your while to buy this box set. Just whatever you do, don’t watch it all in one go, or you really will have no brains left by the end…
The Ultimate Zombie Feast is released to Region 2 DVD on 8th October from Monster Pictures.