When The Shit Hits The Fan


Before he was interviewing movie stars or producing podcasts, horror fandom stalwart Tom Elliot was sharing his thoughts on the genre with the GeekPlanetOnline community. From grim 1970s slashers to modern CGI murder, if you need the opinion of a gorehound then Tom is your man...


I used to be an obsessive completist. I was the kind of person who couldn’t bear to look at their DVD shelf if there was a sequel missing from a movie series. I own more films that I consider rubbish than I really should, but I managed to kick the habit; eventually sense prevailed.  I went cold turkey and extinguished the need to feel the warm glow inside that true completeness brings; that lovely feeling you get as you slide Howling 3: The Marsupials into its new home nestled between parts 2 and 4. Well, I say I kicked the habit, but even though I don’t have to rush out and buy Children of The Corn 2-8 because someone buys me the first one for Christmas, I’ve still got one major weakness.  Zombies. 

As you’d expect, George Romero takes pride of place in my zombie collection.  All five films from Night of The Living Dead to Diary of the Dead are all present and correct, and his new currently untitled zombie project will join them regardless of quality.  There’s an interesting phenomenon surrounding Romero’s films though, and I’m not talking about the numerous remakes (there are almost as many remakes as there are Romero zombie films).  Ironically, while Romero has often struggled to secure funding for his projects over the years, there has been a steady stream of films trying to hitch their wagon to his star.  These films aren’t just inspired by the dead series, but actually attempt to become part of it.  If you’re so inclined, you can use the Dead series as a staring point, but branch of in a number of directions.   

 

The Zombi Series (1979 – 1987) Director: Various 

Known in some countries as Zombie Flesh Eaters, and others as Zombie, the Zombi series’ link to the Dead movies is tenuous.  Dawn of the Dead was released in Europe re-cut and re-titled by horror director Dario Argento as Zombi.  A year later a completely unrelated zombie movie, directed by Lucio Fulci was released as Zombi 2, using the Zombi name purely for name recognition.

The origins of the zombie’s in Zombi 2 are more akin to the traditional voodoo zombie than the zombies of Romero’s films, that are hinted to be as a result of radiation from a space probe.  Origins aside though, the look and behaviour are similar.  Zombi 2 is set mostly on a remote island and features an earthier breed of zombie. Caked in dirt, with worms and maggots wriggling in eye sockets, there are some exceptional effects on display.  Two standout scenes have become some of the most iconic in zombie movie history.  A scene where a zombie fights a shark really is as cool as it sounds.  Another where a woman has her head slowly impaled onto a splintered wooden spike through her eye is not only visually horrific, but her scream is blood curdling.

If you’re the kind of fan who needs to connect continuity even where there is none, then Zombi 2 would actually work better as a prequel or companion piece to Dawn of The Dead.  With Night of The Living Dead out of the equation Zombi 2 would lead into Dawn nicely.  Connecting Zombi 3 - 5 though would prove to be harder, unless you take the view that in this world zombie outbreaks happen from time to time for various reasons but get contained between movies.  Truthfully though the fact is Zombi is more of an anthology series than anything.

The zombies in part 3 are the result of a biological weapon gone wrong.  Quality takes a real downturn, but the film itself is a “so bad it’s good” romp of the highest order.  Gore and splatter are all present and correct with a healthy dose of the ridiculous added to the mix.  It’s still all played dead straight, but when one scenes shows a zombie head flying out of a fridge and ripping someone’s neck out with its teeth, you can’t in all honesty take it that seriously.

Zombi 4 is the point at which the series unfortunately loses steam.  Back to voodoo territory it’s all a bit dull and a real struggle to get to the end.  The final entry Zombie 5: Killing Birds despite having a title that suggests it might be cheesy good fun is a movie too far for even this completist.  Though I’m sure one day it’ll find its way to me. 

 

The Return of the Living Dead Series (1985-2005) Director: Various

If you fancy a bit of zombie fun, without having the navel gazing subtext of Romero or the dodgy dubbing of Fulci the Return of The Living Dead series should fit the bill.  Strictly speaking it doesn’t claim to be a direct sequel to Romero’s dead films; instead it refers to Night of The Living Dead as being based on true events.  As it was originally conceived Night of The Living Dead co-writer John A. Russo planned it as his own sequel to Night, but director Dan O’Bannon took it in a different direction.

Jettisoning the serious tone of Romero’s films, Return is firmly in the realms of horror comedy and pulls it off with bloody style.  The origin of the zombies in the series is a chemical called Trioxin that will turn you into a zombie if you touch or inhale it.  It’s one of those classic horror devices that sit undiscovered until some poor sap discovers it and all hell breaks loose.  It’s beautifully simple and means that the series is as portable as the barrels that contain the Trioxin.  Want another installment?  Stick a few barrels of Trioxin in the corner of a warehouse somewhere, or have it fall of the back of a truck and bingo!

Preceding the Dawn of The Dead remake’s running zombies by almost twenty years, Return’s zombies are fast, clever and tough; shoot these guys in the head all you want, they’ll still keep coming.  The zombie and gore effects are top notch, and the film boasts possibly the most memorable zombie of all time, the tar man.  A boggle eyed zombie dripping from head to foot with tar, his movement and costume make him truly unique.  It’s hard to imagine that this is a man in a suit; he’s such a marvelous complete creation. The heart of the film though is the four male leads, whose chemistry is such a joy to watch you half wish you were stuck in the middle of a zombie apocalypse with them!

The rest of the series is a mixed bag.  Part two suffers in comparison to the first, but is still a fun movie.  The lead character is a child this time round, which surprisingly isn’t as bad as it sounds; he’s a likeable lead, and gets to do fun stuff they’d never let kids do these days like shooting zombies and driving screwdrivers through their heads.  There’s some inventive gore too: a zombie’s face caving in and oozing puss when he gets punched, another gets cut in half but still keeps coming by walking on his hands.  Unfortunately the effects don’t quite seem on par with the first, despite the two films sharing some of the same effects crew.  Zombie’s faces are quite obviously rubber appliances, and you can imagine how good some of the effects like the zombie who gets cut in half would look if done by the likes of Tom Savini. 

Two of the lead actors from part one return, playing completely different roles.  It’s a strange choice, there’s a line of dialogue that doesn’t so much explain it, but just acknowledges it.  Unfortunately they don’t quite recapture the magic of the first film, their presence does seem a bit shoehorned in, but they’re still enjoyable to watch.

Bryan Yuzna, the producer and director of two installments of the Re-animator  trilogy stepped in to direct Return of The Living Dead 3.  It a natural fit; Yuzna seems to share the wacky sense of humour of the Return films, and has an eye for outrageous effects.  The resulting film differs in tone from parts one and two, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Part two, although fun, was perhaps pushing the comedy a little too far.  Part three is played deadly straight, but still manages to be an enjoyable romp.  The zombies and effects are excellent, and seem to have a wackiness about them in fitting with the series; so while the people are all playing it straight, the zombies provide the humour, and manage it while still being genuinley threatening.

Twelve years after part three, two further sequels were released.  Filmed back to back in Romania, parts four and five (Necropolis and Rave to The Grave) went straight to DVD.  Necropolis is the story of a group of teenagers trying to rescue their friend from a facility were Trioxin is being tested, while Rave to The Grave features teenagers using Trioxin to make a recreational drug. 

There’s a thread of continuity with parts one to three in that Trioxin is still the cause of the zombie problems, but apart from a couple of homages that’s where it ends.  No longer are the zombies the virtually unstoppable juggernauts that they used to be; they can now be stopped by the traditional bullet to the head.  What is potentially good is that in this world, zombie outbreaks are a known and accepted problem.  A corporate video at the beginning of Necroplis boasts that there hasn’t been a zombie outbreak for ten years.  They’re more like a forest fire, or a flood that wreaks havoc before being contained.  I couldn’t help but think that there was some mileage in that idea alone.  How does society adapt?  What safeguards do they put in place?  Unfortunately the idea is never explored. 

Maybe not quite as bad as they’re reported to be, these final entries are still an unfortunate continuation of an enjoyable series.  What all involved seem to have forgotten is how much fun the Return of The Living Dead films are.  What attempts at humour there are fall far short of being funny, and everything else is played without any thought for the humour that’s associated with the previous installments.  The makeup effects are at times very good for an obviously low budget production, so the blame really lies with the un-inspired script and flat direction.  If you find yourself watching one of these films at two o’clock in the morning after stumbling across them on satellite television, you may not feel too cheated, but that’s probably the only way you should discover them.

 

Children of The Living Dead (2001) Dir: Tor Ramsey 

Produced by George Romero’s writing partner on Night of The Living Dead, John A. Russo, Children of The Living Dead is his second attempt to create his own ongoing series. It exists in a separate timeline from Romero’s sequels, using the original 1969 Night of the Living Dead as a jumping off point, or more specifically the 30th anniversary edition of Night which contains extra footage filmed by Russo.   

When you start watching Children of The Living Dead, you’d be forgiven for thinking that despite its terrible reputation, it’s not that bad.  The opening scenes feature special effects artist Tom Savini, in great shape and on top form shooting and fighting his way through a pack of zombies.  Sure the low budget shows, it’s not the best looking zombie film you’ll have seen, but the zombies are adequate, and a little bit of Tom Savini charisma goes a long way.  Sadly, Savini’s involvement is nothing more than an extended cameo and when he goes, the film goes with him. 

Children isn’t so much a film about zombies, but more accurately a film about a zombie, a kind of super zombie called Abbot Hayes.  Rather than lumbering round town munching on townsfolk, he’s actually more of a local legend, who pops up occasionally to kill unsuspecting passers by.  A smarter zombie isn’t necessarily a bad idea, Romero himself explored it in his films, and the Abbot Hayes character can at times be quite creepy.  The main problem is the plot itself.  After the opening flurry of zombie activity virtually nothing happens except for the odd appearance by Abbot Hayes, until the very end when a few more zombies arrive.  In between there’s a meandering plot about a car dealership being built on the town cemetery that goes absolutely nowhere. 

The other main problem is the dubbing.  A good 80% of the film seems to have had the dialogue replaced.  Allegedly the writer/producer of the film re-cut it and had it dubbed when the end result didn’t match her script.  Mostly annoying, but occasionally hilarious, it beggars belief how it could be released in this way.  Character’s mouths stop moving while their voices keep talking and vice versa.  At one point Tom Savini points a gun at the camera, looks through the sights and says “surprise”, but his lips don’t move! 

If there’s a silver lining, it’s the online apology from the director Tor Ramsey, Google it, it’s rather an entertaining read.  I get the feeling that if there were ever a documentary made about the making of Children of The Living Dead, it would contain a lot more drama, and probably horror, than the film itself.

 

Day of The Dead 2: Contagium (2005) Dir: Ana Clavell, James Glenn Dudelson

The last entry into the expanded universe of Dead films holds the dubious honour of not only being the worst, but is genuinely one of the worst films I’ve ever seen.  Taurus Entertainment Company holds the rights to the original Day of The Dead, and made this quasi prequel/sequel.  If you can get past the fact that it’s a sequel to a Romero movie that he has no involvement with, it’s unlikely you’ll get past anything else.   

The opening sequence supposes to explain that the zombie outbreak in Night of the living Dead is the result of the military losing control of a biological weapon (sorry George, it wasn’t that Venus probe after all!).  In the ensuing chaos, a vial containing some of the viral weapon is lost, only to be re-discovered in the present day when the military base has been converted into a mental institution.  Considering that in this present day society seems to be functioning quite normally, we can only assume that since the first Day of The Dead, the zombie problem has gotten better!   

The film is an excruciatingly bad hour and a half that doesn’t work on any level.  Fans of so bad they’re good movies unfortunately won’t find anything enjoyable here either.  It’s so amateurishly written, directed and acted, that you really have to wonder did anyone involved have any talent at all?  If you think running zombies are blasphemous, wait till you get a load of these guys.  Here we’re treated to zombies talking, laughing and cracking cheesy one liners. 

Yes, it’s as bad as it sounds.  Avoid. 

It’s possible that Contagium signals the end of the alternate Romero universe.  Romero himself has rebooted his own zombie series with Diary of The Dead, and the remakes of his first three films are more likely to be in the consciousness of modern movie goers than the originals.  There’s a chance that John A. Russo may yet make another attempt to use his right to make sequels to Night of The Living Dead; a movie adaption of his comic Escape of The Living Dead has long been rumoured. 

Looking back on this list some may despair at the blatant attempts to cash in on Romero’s legacy.  I prefer to see it as an interesting and unique footnote in movie history.  Contracts these days are tied up so tightly that it’s unlikely to happen again.  Most of all though, it’s a testament to the strength of Romero’s work that enjoyable though some of these offshoots may be, they’ve never equaled his own, and they’ve never diminished his legacy.   


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Has Tom whet your ghoulish appetite for unofficial sequels? Hear more about the movies spun off from Night of the Living Dead on the Hypnobobs podcast's Zombi Zombi series, right here on GeekPlanetOnline.