Train to Busan










Hey, if you’re looking for a great horror movie to watch this Halloween, you really can’t do better than Yeon Sang-ho’s fantastic, slam-bang Korean zombie movie Train to Busan. Breathlessly paced, fiendishly inventive, wonderfully human and deeply affecting, Train to Busan puts a clutch of ordinary folk on a passenger train at the moment the world ends. Just when you think there’s nothing left to be done with the concept of “zombies on a train,” the director comes up with five or ten more ideas, each one more devilish than the last. Terrific filmmaking and automatically one of the greatest horror movies ever made. On Netflix.

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World War Z trailer

It’s been a while since I saw a trailer that made my palms sweat.

I’m a big fan of Max Brooks’s novel. It looks like this is nothing like it. I’m okay with that.

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Zombie query

So, I’ve actually gotten into the whole zombie-movie thing lately. I’ve sat down to watch Quarantine, Night of the Living Dead, both versions of Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later. I’ve recently seen The Omega Man and I Am Legend and Day of the Dead, not to mention the spooky French movie They Came Back (Les Revenants). Now I’m opening the floor up for suggestions. This is a rich and complex genre. It is both the last genre where pure, unspeakable horror is possible, and, paradoxically, the genre most capable of making broad statements about civilization and its fragility. That is, it is both the dumbest and smartest of genres. I haven’t ventured very far outside of acknowledged classics, and barely at all into the realm of low-budget exploitation (the closest I’ve come to that is Robert Rodriguez’s gonzo tribute Planet Terror). I saw one Robert Fulci* (*I mean Lucio Fulci, obviously) movie a long time ago, but otherwise have not seen a foreign language zombie movie and wouldn’t know where to start. I ask my strong-stomached readers to recommend their favorites.

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Quarantine and the zombie narrative

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I watched Quarantine last night (I know, I know, I should have watched [REC] instead, sue me). I have a soft spot in my heart for zombie movies, and I’ve been thinking about them a lot lately for some reason. New Moon is a smash hit, through the roof, with its vampires and werewolves. Is it possible, I wonder, that one day there will be a supernatural romance between a teenage girl and a zombie? It seems implausible, but then let’s step back and think about this for a moment.

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Truly Madly Deeply

Juliet Stevenson, sort of a British Laura Linney, is a woman whose cellist husband has died suddenly. Alan Rickman is the dead husband. It’s strange enough to see him playing a romantic lead; that he does so in a Village-People-style moustache is the mark of a truly daring actor.

Juliet misses Alan quite a bit, and so he obliges her by coming back and moving in with her. And things are nice, briefly, before he starts reminding her that he’s actually kind of a dick. He brings loads of dead guys around to watch videos all night, rearranges the furniture and continually picks at her manners and decorating choices.

Not a zombie movie per se, closer to a ghost story or a psychological drama, it’s about how we idealize the dead, how we remember them not as they were but as we like to think of them.

Another way to look at the story is that it’s as if Juliet and Alan are living their relationship in reverse. They start out intensely in love with each other but as time goes on they increasingly get on each others’ nerves as their personalities begin to clash. Juliet gets entangled in the lives of others and Alan starts to be more comfortable hanging out with the guys.

Mostly this is all well-observed and well-played. There are a few examples of twee British rom-com cuteness.

I have been told that it is one of the all-time great tear-jerkers. My tears remained unjerked, but then I was watching it primarily for its view on the walking dead. Your results may vary.

Director Anthony Minghella, Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson (with Kristen Scott-Thomas) would later examine a somewhat darker aspect of the love-after-death theme with their stunning, electrifying movie adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s Play, which is available as part of the invaluable Beckett on Film set.
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Pet Sematary Two

Edward Furlong has a cat. His friend has a dead dog. This is the start of a beautiful friendship.

In many ways, Pet Sematary Two is actually a better movie than Pet Sematary. It is better shot, better edited, better acted. Its production design and visual scheme is more coherent and consistent. That doesn’t make it The Bicycle Thief.

The problem, again, is the script, which actually manages to be less interesting than the first, even without Stephen King around to screw it up.

Edward Furlong’s mother, a Famous Actress, is dead and Edward would prefer she not be so.

As with Pet Sematary, the protagonist takes a Very Long Time to do anything about his problem. The mother dies in the very first scene and the movie takes an astounding 77 minutes (out of 100) to get around to addressing her death. Those 77 minutes are taken up with an assortment of subplots about Edward’s father (Anthony “I Can’t Believe I’m In This Movie” Edwards), his father’s new girlfriend, his father’s new veterinary practice, a kitten, a bully at school, his friend Drew, Drew’s relationship with his stepfather, Drew’s dead dog, Drew’s stepfather’s rabbits, a crazy ex-veterinarian, Drew’s stepfather’s relationship with Edward’s dead mother, Drew’s stepfather’s relationship with his (Drew’s) dead dog, and on and on.  This means that the protagonist’s storyline actually takes up quite a bit less screen time than the subplots.  It’s like the movie is really about Drew and is bookended by the protagonist’s story as an afterthought.

I give director Mary Lambert credit for actually having the nerve to throw in a number of visual references to DePalma’s Body Double and Kubrick’s The Shining.  It’s as though she’s saying “Okay, I know I don’t have that kind of talent, but at least I can recognize that someone does, and I should get some credit for that, right?”

One question: Hollywood can gouge out an eye, chop off a head, set a person on fire and put a drill through any part of the body they choose, but why are they incapable of replicating a dead animal on screen?  Without exception, what we see is: shot of a live animal, cut to a reaction shot from a human, then cut back to see a completely different animal, now dead, with completely different fur and seemingly now without bones.  It happens four or five times in this movie, with dogs and cats and rats and rabbits.  If you’re going to make a movie called Pet Sematary Two, spend a little money on your dead animals, people, please!
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Pet Sematary










Hi.  I’m Victor, and I’m here to fill a plothole.

I remember liking the novel Pet Sematary when it came out.  It was twisted, sick and very, very disturbing.  By the time came around to make a movie of the novel, Stephen King had acquired enough clout to write his own adaptation.

Big mistake.

Let’s go back to basics: who is the protagonist and what does he want?

The protagonist of Pet Sematary is Louis, played by Keanu-voiced actor Dale Midkiff.  What does Louis want?  Well, Louis’s toddler son Gage is dead and Louis would prefer that Gage not be dead.  Great, no problem, excellent motivation.  I want little Gage to not be dead too.

Problem is, little Gage doesn’t die until about halfway through the movie.  The narrative just kills time up to that point, it paces back and forth, throws at us whatever it can come up with to try to keep us in a state of unease.  Loud noises, mysterious lights, ominous music, a grotesque ghost, a suicidal housekeeper, a zombie cat, irrelevent dream-visions, pictures hung crooked, falling trees, a terminally ill sister, a psychic child, Herman Munster, the script just keeps chucking stuff at us, marking time until we’re practically screaming for the little kid to get creamed by the truck.  Which he finally does.

Louis has moved his family to this small town in Maine.  His neighbor from across the way is Herman Munster and large trucks barrel along the road at regular intervals.

That night, Louis is visited by Victor the Friendly Ghost With the Massive Head Wound.  After spouting some opaque folk wisdom, Victor takes Louis to a mysterious burial ground and forbids him to ever set foot there.  Good plan, Victor.  Take a guy to a place he’s never been and forbid him to go there.  That’s bound to stick.  Hey, what are you doing in this movie, anyway?  You don’t have any connection to this story.  What are you, some kind of plot contrivance?  Oh, you are?  Oh well.

Louis’s daughter’s cat dies.  Herman Munster says “Hey, you know what?  I can take you to a mysterious ancient sacred burial ground and we can bury the cat there.”  Louis says okay.  Hey, is it the same mysterious ancient burial ground Victor the Friendly Ghost With the Massive Head Wound forbade me to set foot on?  Because that would be totally cool.  Let’s go.

Later, the cat comes back and is really pissed off (the cat remains so through the rest of the movie; I hate to think what they did to the poor cat to make it be pissed-off on cue).  Herman Munster comes by and says “Oh yeah, well that’s what happens to animals when you bury them at the mysterious ancient burial ground.  I should know, same thing happened to my dog.”  Oh.  Good.  Hey Herman, if the same thing happened to your dog, why did you decide to tell Louis to bury his cat there?  Perhaps it slipped your mind.

Anyway, Gage finally gets creamed by the truck and we’re supposed to care.  I’m not sure why; I think we’re supposed to be concerned that this family has been torn asunder, but the fact is the actors don’t look like a family at all.  There’s no sense that there is any love or tenderness or caring in this family.  They look like they haven’t met each other before walking onto the set.

Herman Munster pulls Louis aside and says “I know what you’re thinking, young man.  You’re thinking of taking your dead son to that mysterious ancient burial ground.  Well let me tell you, that’s a bad idea.  Guy tried that a while back and his son turned into a murderous zombie.”  Okay, so you’ve had a reminder about the place since your dog died, tell me again why you suggested Louis bury his cat there?  Who are you, anyway?  Has anyone ever told you you’re a stupid old man?  Because you are.  You should just shut up and go inside and sit down and watch The Price is Right.

Anyway, Louis is not one to listen to reason, so when his wife and daughter leave town he goes and digs up his dead son and buries him again at the mysterious ancient burial ground.  And at this point, I’m sorry, I have to ask: what, exactly, is Louis’s plan?  I mean, let’s say everything goes according to plan and, all evidence to the contrary, little Gage bounds out of the grave fresh-faced and giggling.  Then what?  What are you going to do with your fresh-faced zombie son?  How exactly are you going to explain to people that your dead son, who they saw you bury, is not, in fact, dead any longer?  How do you suppose they are going to react to this news?  And it’s not like Louis has no time to consider any of this.  I mean, it takes a long time to dig up a grave, haul out the body, carry it across town, haul it across a wide expanse of countryside and bury it again.  There’s plenty of time in there to think about exactly how this is all going to play out.

Meanwhile, Herman Munster muses on his front porch.  He knows he’s done wrong, he’s a foolish old man and it’s time to face facts.  “You did this, Herman Munster,” he says, “And now you’ve got to undo it.”  Filled with raging fires of resolve, he promptly falls asleep.

Louis knows how he feels.  After digging up his son, carting him across hill and dale and burying him again, he goes home, plops down on the bed and also falls asleep.  Because you know?  After you’ve buried your son for the second time in a week and you know he’s going to show up in the morning as a zombie toddler, you know the best idea is to catch some z’s because the morning might be a little crazy.

Anyway, while Louis is burying the kid his daughter in Chicago has a dream, because any time Stephen King needs a plot fixed he tosses in a kid with psychic powers, and the wife is sent back home to try to stop Louis in his madness, and Victor the Friendly Ghost With the Massive Head Wound carefully, patiently guides the wife back to the house so she can, after much effort, get killed by little zombie Gage, just like Scatman Crothers in The Shining.  Thanks for showing up Vic, big help, don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out.

The acting is awful, the production design is somehow simultaneously both cheap and overwrought, there is no visual scheme to speak of and no genuine scares.  The zombie toddler, who is apparently capable of hauling dead bodies up steep staircases, fails to haunt one’s dreams.
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The Omega Man

THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS: Germ warfare gets out of control, kills everyone.

SYMPTOMS: Charlton Heston is the Last Man on Earth.  Except, of course, for everybody else.

WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?  Heston is content to live out his remaining days driving fast cars, shooting creeps with a high-powered weapons, playing chess by himself and watching the movie Woodstock every day.  Others would prefer he die.  Still others see in him some measure of hope for the future.  It’s tough gig, being Last Man on Earth, everybody wants something from you.

WHO ARE THE BAD GUYS?  The pale-faced, black-robed, light-sensitive, technology-hating, medieval-thinking goons who want to kill Heston and end all human life on Earth are led by, of course, a broadcast journalist.  Then as now, they only wish to destroy.

NOTES: The movie is directed by Boris Sagal, veteran TV director and father to Katey.  The only other film of his that I’ve seen is the similarly apocalyptic Elvis Presley vehicle Girl Happy.

Big problem: the bad guys here aren’t very scary.  Or very interesting.  Metaphorically they make “sense” (creatures who can’t tolerate light dress like the Spanish Inquisition, talk in fake medieval-speak and want to destroy all of humanity’s accomplishments), but they’re weak, disorganized and laughably inadequate to the task of being frightening or threatening.

The irony of Heston defending civilization’s greatest accomplishments against backward-thinking zealots (at the barrel of a high-powered assault weapon) while watching Woodstock every day and making whoopee with a hip, sassy black chick is not lost on me.
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Les Revenants (They Came Back)

THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS: Well, it doesn’t, not this time.  But that’s not to say that everything is hunky dory, either.

SYMPTOMS: The dead come back to life.  How, we don’t know.  Why, we don’t know.  They just come walking slowly, calmly, into town one day, everyone who’s died in the last ten years or so.  Not everyone is happy about this.

WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?  Well, we’re not going to panic, that’s for sure.  These aren’t monsters, they’re our friends, neighbors and loved ones.  They’ve come back to life for some reason and it’s a little weird, but that’s no reason to get excited.  We’re going to accept them back into our homes and into their old jobs and do our best to help them acclimate to their special circumstances.

WHERE DO WE LEAVE THINGS?  The dead, it turns out, have a mysterious plan of their own.  I’m not saying that to be coy, I mean I really don’t know what their plan is.  But they have one.

NOTES: As a zombie movie, this is the exact opposite of George Romero in every way.  In a Romero movie, the zombies claw and bite and gnaw at living flesh, here they calmly, blithely walk around town, meet up with their shocked and sometimes dismayed families, and try to go back to work.  In a Romero movie, the citizenry react with panic, dread and horror; here, they react with calm, level-headedness and careful planning.  Meetings are called, refugee centers are erected, the army is helpful and benign (well, it is the French army after all), and people keep their heads even though the whole scenario is creepy as all get-out.  In a Romero film the effects are flamboyant, the photography garish and the performances brash; here the effects are subtle to the point of invisibility, the photography lush and beautiful, the performances subtle and naturalistic.  Where Romero’s films are frantic, loud and nerve-shredding, this is elegant, stately and chilling.

The dead here are a little sluggish and not that bright, but they are not the mindless, staggering zombies of old.  They are every bit normal, regular people, just kind of “not there” to the same extent as the living.  This allows a woman to reconcile with her dead husband, parents to come to terms with their child’s death (or not), an elderly man to catch up to his deceased wife.  All the scenes of personal contact are unnervingand super-creepy.

A lot of time is spent discussing the logistical nightmares of housing the dead, providing them with jobs, giving them something to “do” in society instead of just wandering slowly around the city all day.  The fact that this is all done calmly and rationally only makes it that much more disturbing.

Mysterious, dreamlike and utterly original, the movie offers no explanation for causes or effects.  It’s not even a horror movie per se, more like a supernatural drama about the mysterious line separating the living and the dead.  
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28 Days Later

THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS: Science project gone wrong.  Ultra-contagious CrazySerum set loose by well-meaning animal lovers.

People go crazy and turn into crazypeople.  Everyone dies.  Cities of England empty.

WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?  For now, just try to survive.  That’s bleedin’ hard enough, innit?

THE MILITARY, SUCH AS IT IS, HAS A PLAN, SUCH AS IT IS: Lure people to their military base and forcibly impregnate any females who wander by.  Who knows?  In a few weeks maybe all the crazypeople will keel over from starvation.  Good plan, huh?  Huh?  Hey, where are you going?

WHERE DO WE LEAVE THINGS?  We learn, in time, that the crisis is passing, that the crazypeople, if not starving to death, are at least getting weaker and less scary, and that England is, seemingly, the only affected country.  Ah well.

NOTES: I love, love, love the first 75 minutes or so of this movie.  It’s deeply upsetting, haunting, nerve-shredding entertainment.  The creatures are wicked scary and unpredictable and the movie bristles with unexpected moments of beauty and poetry.  I love everything up to the point in Act III where the Army Guy In Charge mentions in passing that he intends to toss the women to the army guys.  What had, up until that point, been a really, really smart movie about resourceful people doing their best to survive in a really, really fucked-up world then becomes a movie about how the Military Is Bad.  Which it is, don’t get me wrong.  But for instance, we’ve got the female lead, who has proven herself to be an astonishingly effective badass with a machete, and in Act III she’s reduced to Protecting The Innocent Girl, Wearing a Party Dress (!), and Being Rescued By The Male Protagonist Who Learns To Kill And Thus Proves His Manhood (sigh).

I’m also not sure about the decision to shoot this on video.  I think it’s supposed to add “realism” to the event, and it certainly helps with the discomfort level, but for me it just keeps taking me out of the story because it doesn’t look like a movie, even though it is, obviously, a movie.  It feels self-conscious.
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