Braaaaains at Work in the Zombie Apocalypse – Three Film Recommendations of the Undead
Article by Ray Schillaci
Like vampire movies, the undead film genre feels like there is no killing it off even though at times you would think it’s been done to death. One would assume there would be no more zombie storylines after the very successful long-running AMC series, The Walking Dead, and the last of Romero’s Dead series. But, the CW ended up with a big following once they introduced I, Zombie, the UK gave us a couple of bloody gems with a very reflective new kind of zombie (an actual rehab one), the fascinating, short-lived series, In the Flesh along with the outrageously gory, violent and funny mini-series Dead Set, plus there is SyFy channel’s zombie action/comedy/drama, Z-Nation, already in its fourth season.
Sure, there have been feature disappointments like the ridiculous Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies, and the ever so “I want to be a zombie art film,” Maggie that did actually show a gentler Schwarzenegger. But, somehow someone always seems to bounce these deadheads back to life with a jolting new take. Three perfect examples of late are Sang-ho Yeaon’s Train to Busan, Colm McCarthy’s smartly directed The Girl With All the Gifts from gifted writer Mike Carey, and the most recent unusual, quirky and darkly comic zombie thriller, It Stains the Sands Red by the Vicious Brothers (Grave Encounters).
The Sang-ho Yeon entry is just one of many, along with I Saw the Devil, The Host, and A Tale of Two Sisters, that proves that South Korea is a formidable force in the horror genre. That being said, let me get this out of the way right now, Sang-ho Yeon’s monsterpiece classic, Train to Busan, is one of the best zombie thrillers in many years. In fact, the damn thing was so successful upon its release, critically and box office-wise, that there is already an American version revving up to tear into the screens on our shores. It’s not high on the gore scale, but it’s off the charts in suspense. If you thought 28 Days was fiercely riveting, this film plows through your nerves like an uncontrolled bullet train.
That’s basically what Yeon’s film is, zombies on a train sans Samuel L. Jackson. Yeon gets under our skin with his characters and intense situations that had me squirm and nearly make me close my eyes. The Girl With All the Gifts is more science-fiction and thought provoking than just trolling flesh eaters and It Stains the Sands Red is laced with dark humor and ranked by many as the kind of “dead” feature that could shamble right along with Romero’s original trilogy. All three munch-a-bunch films have unique visions on near apocalyptic endings. And, they have a suspense factor that is off the charts.
Train, as mentioned, introduces an assortment of people on a commuter trip. A business man taking his daughter to see her mother, a cheerleading squad heading for a game, and a pregnant couple are just some of the select few we get to know well. Director Yeon slowly builds his apocalypse, delivering only snippets of what is about to happen. They’re tell-tale signs that give the audience reason to hesitate.
Once the train pulls out from the station and a stray infected comes aboard, all hell literally breaks loose for the rest of the hour and forty-five minutes that hurtles in breakneck speed. Of course, the people that we are most vested in is the little girl and her father, the pregnant couple, and surprisingly, a homeless man that makes his way onto the train during a random stop. The turning of the infected is both funny and frightening. They turn so fast with their bodies spasming and contorting in such a bizarre way it’s practically a choreography of the damned.
The action that takes place both inside and outside the train is near breathtaking. Director Yeon has developed a masterpiece of terror. Yes, some of the set pieces may look familiar, but they are far superior from anything you’ve recently seen, and that includes World War Z. In fact, it’s been reported that David Fincher is set to direct World War Z 2, but I can only imagine the insanity that could be unleashed if the reins were handed over to the very talented Sang-ho Yeon. Yeon’s Train to Busan is a hellish ride of the undead that wreaks havoc at every turn, and it’s definitely one to jump on.
Colm McCarthy’s The Girl With All the Gifts is a very different kind of beast. Opening with children in an underground facility being tested, in some ways it brings to mind the 1964 creepfest Children of the Damned. The kids are housed in concrete cubicles and when the time comes, they are ordered to sit in a special wheelchair, get strapped in, and have head and chin gear strapped to them as they are rolled out into an antiseptic classroom. All the while at gunpoint by soldiers clad in black.
The scene is mysterious until one of them is tested by one of the soldiers to make a point to the teacher that they are not normal children. The soldier has the headgear released off one of the children as he rolls up his shirt sleeve, and exposes his arm. The child goes into convulsions as he smells the skin. He tries to bite the man and this causes many of the other children to follow suit. One lone child fights back the urge, precocious and overly polite, Melanie, she with the smile that could warm any cold heart. But Melanie is capable of some dreadfulness if her instinct takes over. She is tested over and over again by Dr. Caroline Caldwell, played to matter-of-fact perfection by Glenn Close. Close’s character does not see Melanie as a person but more as a thing and a possible cure for the epidemic of a fungus that has turned people ravenous for any living thing, including humans that are not infected. But, where these adults are like walking dead, the children are much less conspicuous. They act human until they get a whiff of living flesh.
Amidst the science and eventual chaos is a young caring teacher, Helen Justineau. Gemma Arterton embodies the maternal Helen. Both Arterton and the marvelous Sennia Nanua as Melanie have a chemistry that works beautifully on screen. Also along for the ride is a hard-bitten Sgt. Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine), who goes from a very unlikeable, by-the-book military type to someone with a dry sense of humor that we genuinely care about.
From the confines of the governmental facility to the long trek to a small village with “hungries” nipping at their heels, the search for a cure becomes Dr. Caldwell’s obsession that endangers those that travel with her and could mean Melanie’s death. The Girl with All the Gifts explores humanity and the lengths some will go through to survive while tossing the moral compass away. Director Colm McCarthy’s film taken from Mike Carey’s book is an intelligent science fiction venture that just happens to have a type of zombie. The ending is thought-provoking, and made me want to return to it for a second or even third viewing. Not just for the material, but the engaging performances as well.
It Stains the Sands Red has cult film written all over it. It’s daring, bizarre, and his a biting sense of dark humor. The film is also a product of the “Vicious Brothers,” writer/director Colin Minihan and writer Stuart Ortiz who brought us 2011’s eerie first-person movie, Grave Encounters. Once again, the Vicious Brothers take full advantage of their location, the Nevada desert, for an unusual zombie encounter.
Seedy couple and Las Vegas residents Molly and Nick are traveling through the desert, heading for an airfield and up to no good. Their luck runs out when their car gets stuck and something is heading towards them from the road. This shambling wreck of a man continues to approach them even when Nick threatens to shoot. Molly, high on coke, is a hot mess and useless in helping her boyfriend. Nick eventually gets gnawed on, to Molly’s shock, having her take off into the desert with the zombie slowly following her.
Brittany Allen as Molly is the latest and greatest in a short line of female heroines. At first it may not seem like it, but as the film progresses, her complex portrayal of both victim and hero ends up standing amongst the great performances of Linda Hamilton (T2) and Sigourney Weaver (Aliens). She carries this very strange road/relationship movie with an undead. Yes that’s right, we’re talking only one zombie.
What starts off as one powerless woman treading across the desert with a slow walking undead stalker turns into a survivalist story using that zombie to get through her trek across the wasteland. She even ends up naming him and we actually feel for this flesh-eater (that ends up caring for its prey). The Vicious Brothers manage to create the same kind of empathy that George Romero brought to “Bub,” the likable zombie from Day of the Dead.
It’s hard to imagine two people (one dead) traveling across the desert and maintaining our interest for an hour and thirty-two minutes, but the horror, suspense, uncomfortable laughs, and a bold performance by Brittany Allen make this film unusually great. There are edgy scenes that will make some squirm (i.e. a rape scene), but there is nothing that is exploitive about the content. Both Minihan and Ortiz are serious filmmakers with wonderful vision and deliver something that people will talk about for years to come. Well, at least those who appreciate a good mash-up of genres and a fresh take on an old corpse.
All three films can be found on Blu-ray/DVD. Train to Busan is also available at Redbox and Netflix. The Girl with All the Gifts is available on Amazon Prime and Redbox. It Stains the Sand Red is available only on DVD through Netflix and PPV.