With the release of Jonathan Levine’s Warm Bodies, I decided to compile a list of my favourite films that take a non-traditional approach to the living-dead canon. More specifically, they all blend romance and zombies, in their own unique and twisted ways.
This is the first of what will be a two part article.
1: Dance of the Dead
Directed by Gregg Bishop
Written by Joe Ballarini
Dance of The Dead may seem like another lowbrow, low budget horror film, but in fact, it offers sharp writing, terrific characterizations, likeable performances, and a real affection for geek culture. Imagine the humour of Night of the Living Dorks but powered by the central plot behind Night of the Creeps. Sure Dance uses every rule from the official zombie handbook, but for a movie that seems equally inspired by a John Hughes coming of age flick, Dance of the Dead does a great job in capturing the diversity of high school cliques, without resorting to clichés. Yes we have the familiar teen movie stereotypes but each is given a fresh spin, and how rare is it, to see such a large and young cast of unknowns, display such talent and charisma.
For a low-budget zombie film, Dance is efficiently shot and downright entertaining. Mark Oliver has a scene stealing performance as the school’s aggressive gym teacher, who delivers lines like a drill sergeant, and has access to an arsenal of weapons that comes in handy during the zombie outbreak. The comedic momentum and the touch of teen angst doesn’t always work, but when it lands, it scores big, and with a satisfying array of gore no less. From the 80’s setting, to a cover of Pat Benatar, and to a make out session between a zombie-cheerleader and a high school nerd, Dance of the Dead is if anything, incredibly charming. And besides, how times do we see the sci-fi club save the day?
2: Graveyard Alive
Directed by Elza Kephart
Written by Elza Kephart and Patricia Gomez
From the Canadian team of producer-writer-director Elza Kephart, co-writer-producer Patricia Gomez and producer Andrea Stark, comes a take-no-prisoners genre parody, which just so happens to also be a feminist indie.
Director Elza Kephart weaves the eroticism of the vampire myth but replaces the immortal appeal of it all, with flesh eating zombies. The film’s subtitle, A Zombie Nurse in Love, pretty much sums up the plot. Drawing its inspiration from classic zombie movies and medical soap opera canons, the film relates the tongue-in-cheek story of a nurse named Patsy, who lusts over a handsome Doctor. Things take a turn for better or worse, when she tends to a woodsman who is brought into the hospital after receiving an axe to the head. But as it turns out, the man’s real affliction might just be “zombie-itis”.
Graveyard Alive is visual pleasure. The luminous black-and-white Techniscope cinematography (an old-fashioned, high contrast look), deservedly earned the film the Kodak Vision Award at Slamdance. For a low-budget horror comedy, Graveyard is extremely well made, complete with sharp compositions, an Eraserhead-inspired dream sequence and plenty of visual references to other classics such as Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It even has a narrator at the beginning and end, akin to a host of a late-night TV horror show on a Screamfest channel. The acting is deliberately terrible, and the dialogue is intentionally out-of-sync; with actors highlighting their emotions with exaggerated facial expressions and body movements.
Graveyard Alive is firmly rooted in the playful tradition of Sam Raimi, George Romero and Canadian iconoclast Guy Maddin. The film’s biggest strength is its original story, and the unexpected directions it goes off in. A fine example of do-it-yourself-movie-making, from a trio of ladies who know the genre inside out.
3: Night Of The Creeps
Directed by Fred Dekker
Screenplay by Fred Dekker
The debut feature by writer/director Fred Dekker is notable as an earnest attempt at a B-movie and a throwback to the genre. Paying tribute to everything from plots, themes and to the filmmakers that created them, Night offers alien parasites, zombies, extra-terrestrials, a sorority house, Prom Night and a 50′s opening prologue involving an axe murder. Dekker goes so far as to pay tribute to his idols by naming every character after a famous filmmaker. There is the love interest, Cynthia Cronenberg, a police sergeant named Raimi, three other characters named Miller, Carpenter, Landis and of course, Detective Cameron, played by Tom Atkins.
Atkins steals the show, delivering the film’s most memorable lines including the classic: ‘I got good news and bad news, girls. The good news is your dates are here. The bad news is they’re dead.’ He perfectly embodies the hardboiled detective – worn out, all attitude, sarcastic and tough as nails. Jason Lively’s likable lead Chris Romero, and Steve Marshall, his sidekick J.C. (James Carpenter) share some sharp and witty dialogue and work well off each other, particularly in a couple of scenes that prove quite unexpected and touching (one involving a message on a tape recorder).
Working on a shoestring budget, Dekker and award-winning make-up artist David Miller (Thriller music video) manage to deliver some quality effects and enough gore and blood to please horror aficionados. Visually, the film is a treat, from the opening grainy black and white photography to the vintage ’80s neon colors, to the long tracking shots and the nostalgic period detail.
Although never considered a genuinely scary horror film, Night of the Creeps was a film that caught attention for its original screenplay, special effects and it’s campiness. Dekker succeeded in making a horror movie that has it all: a dash of romance, scares, lighthearted comedy, nostalgia, camp, a touch of drama and a bit of gore.
4: Otto; or Up with Dead People
Directed by Bruce La Bruce
Written by Bruce La Bruce
The Razor’s Edge: “The dead look so terribly dead when they’re dead.”
A gay teenage zombie spends his days wandering the streets of Berlin and feasting on road-kill. He soon meets a pretentious experimental filmmaker named Medea, who casts the living-dead-twink in a black and white political drama about a new strain of gay zombies – titled Up With Dead People. But Medea’s interest in Otto grows, and she decides to make a film about him instead. While documenting his experiences as a walking corpse, the adorable twink tries his best to remember his previous life. “Was I a vegetarian?”, Otto asks himself at the start. During production, Otto remembers his former boyfriend is still very much alive, and suddenly Otto finds new meaning in his life – or death.
With each film, Canadian-born, queer auteur, Bruce La Bruce (No Skin Off My Ass, Hustler White, The Raspberry Reich) improves his filmmaking excellence. The filmmaker has spent decades making fierce, betimes hilarious and generally haphazard indie films with a sharp political edge. Only this time, he’s made a genuinely touching pornographic horror film.
Once more straddling the line between art and smut, Otto; Or, Up With Dead People, carries the director’s trademark touch of dark humour and pointed politics. Otto revels in zombie genre clichés and uses them as a metaphor for AIDS, homophobia, and for the brutish compliance within the gay community. And has the story progresses, the film becomes a harsh examination of urban life, the film industry and the gay sex scene. Otto slowly realizes the living have no respect for the dead much less the living, and LaBruce goes far beyond the limits of cinematic good taste to express this. His take-no-prisoners-approach offers plenty of opportunity to mix sex and violence, often cutting between images from horror films, war crimes and pornographic sex, including a zombie orgy. But despite all this, Otto’s story is surprisingly moving, and the film has a lot to say about how society will only accept someone, if they abide by their personal definition of normality.
In every way LaBruce’s films are pure anti-Hollywood. His poetic visual sense is closer to Jean Cocteau than George A. Romero, but as a director, La Bruce remains an unapologetic disciple of filmmakers like Paul Morrissey, Kenneth Anger and Andy Warhol. Otto just so happens to be one of the filmmaker’s best, featuring the spectacular cinematography of James Carman (which continuously cuts between colour and black-and-white), and a soundtrack provided by Anthony and the Johnsons. Straight or gay, this is essential viewing for any true cinephile; That is, if you can stomach the blood, gore and sex.
Otto: “I was a zombie with an identity crisis.”
– Ricky D
PART TWO / NEXT