Life After Beth


Dane DeHaan explains to a hungry Aubrey Plaza that he is contractually entitled to first crack at the craft services table.

Dane DeHaan explains to a hungry Aubrey Plaza that he is contractually entitled to first crack at the craft services table.

(2014) Horror Comedy (A24) Dane DeHaan, Aubrey Plaza, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Matthew Gray Gubler, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser, Anna Kendrick, Eva La Dare, Alia Shawkat, Thomas McDonell, Allan McLeod, Paul Weitz, Michelle Azar, Jim O’Heir, Rob Delaney, Adam Pally, Elizabeth Jayne, Jenna Nye, Garry Marshall, Bechir Sylvain, Bonnie Burroughs. Directed by Jeff Baena

“Til death do us part” is an intense statement. The vow signifies that we will remain with that other person until one of us is called to the Choir Invisible. What happens though, if death doesn’t part us exactly?

Zach Orfman (DeHaan) is mourning the unexpected death of his girlfriend. Both are in high school although summer vacation was in full flower. She’d gone hiking in the Southern California hills by herself and had been bitten by a snake. The poison did her in.

A young romance tragically curtailed is hard enough to endure but Zach had the extra added bonus that the two of them had been having problems. Zach was the kind of guy who didn’t do things he didn’t want to do particularly and while Beth (Plaza) – the said late girlfriend – wanted to go hiking with him, and learn how to dance the flamenco, Zach wasn’t interested in either, or a thousand other things the young and vivacious brunette wanted to try out. So she had brought up the concept of splitting up, which Zach definitely didn’t want to do. While they were in this state of flux, she had decided to go hiking by herself since nobody would go with her and…well, you know the rest.

So Zach was dealing not only with the death of his beautiful young girlfriend but also with his own inadequacies as a boyfriend and it was proving very difficult for him to accept. His parents (Reiser, Hines) weren’t particularly helpful, being a little bit too distracted with whatever it was successful L.A. types are distracted with to give a thought to their brooding son. His older brother Kyle (Gubler) had plenty of time to devote to Zach, considering that he had the high exalted position of security guard for the gated community Beth’s parents Maury (Reilly) and Geenie (Shannon) lived in. Kyle seized the opportunity to make life miserable for his younger brother – after all, what else are older brothers for?

So Zach had taken to spending more time with Maury and Geenie, the three of them united by their numbing, overwhelming grief. They all understood what the others were going through and Zach found it somewhat therapeutic to go through Beth’s things, wearing a ski scarf of hers even though, as I mentioned, it was the dead of summer.

Then one day he goes over and rings the doorbell but there’s no answer. It’s weird because he can hear people inside. He checks the window – and sees a fleeting glimpse of Beth walking around the house. He pounds on the door and tries to get in but just in time his brother turns up and escorts him out of the development. There’s another thing older brothers are for.

Of course, nobody believes what he saw but Zach knows what he saw. He’s so sure that he breaks into their house and comes upon Beth, big as life and still breathing. At first he’s furious, convinced that Maury and Geenie were pulling a fast one, but no, they’re just as mystified as he. She had just shown up at the door and had no clue that she’d died. And Maury, quite frankly, wants it to stay that way.

Zach is determined to do all the things with Beth he’d never done – including sex, which is at the top of the list and Beth is quite frankly horny as all get out. She has no memory of the break-up – as far as she’s concerned everything has always been hunky dory. Except something’s not quite right. She’s prone to these rages and tantrums that were completely unlike her. And then again, she’s stronger than you’d expect for a slip of a girl. And gets sunburned really easily. Zach is sure she’s a zombie – Maury doesn’t want to entertain the concept. But yeah, she is and Zach is totally cool with it. At first.

Equal parts zombie apocalypse and romantic comedy, Life After Beth could be accurately deemed a Zom-com (catchy, no?) and given the popularity of the living dead these days I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a whole lot of them shuffling down the pike, arms outstretched and grunting.

There are a lot of things to like. DeHaan and Plaza make an odd couple but just the sort you’d find in your local high school, the sort who get drawn together in history class and make it official in drama club. DeHaan gives the character equal doses of gravitas, confusion and hormonal overwrought drama. If some teenage boy from your neighborhood had the same circumstances in his life, my guess is he’d act pretty much the same way as Zach does. As for DeHaan, his career has been taking off in the last few years, may not be available to do these smaller films much longer.

The same goes for Plaza. She’s been attracting a lot of notice in Parks and Recreation over the past few years and has quietly done some really strong work in roles large and small in offbeat films. I wouldn’t be surprised if she became the next big comedic actress a la Tina Fey and Kirsten Wiig, but I would be even less surprised if she became far more versatile than that. She captures Beth’s somewhat demanding nature and is able to convey fear, tenderness, sexuality and rage often turning on a dime to do so. She gives an assertive and assured performance, the kind that commands attention. It’s a safe bet that her work here is going to get her noticed for higher profiled roles.

The humor here is scattershot as it is for most comedies and occasionally swings and misses. There are some nice quirky touches – the only thing that calms Beth down is smooth jazz, a type of music that in her first life she used to despise. It becomes kind of a running joke throughout.

While the supporting cast is good, the last half hour of the movie turns into a kind of kitschy episode of The Walking Dead or more to the point, George Romero on an acid trip. Fun and funky is one thing but it doesn’t mesh as nicely the comedy and horror aspects do in the first hour. Still, this is some fine entertainment and Chris Hardwick and his Talking Dead nation are going to enjoy this one as much as I did.

REASONS TO GO: Will crack you up in places. Captures teen angst perfectly.
REASONS TO STAY: The comedy and horror aspects stop working together well in the last third of the movie.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of foul language and some gore and comedic violence, some nudity and sexuality as well – and a scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Dane DeHaan’s first comedic role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/22/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fido
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Drop

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Night of the Living Dead (1968)


They're coming to get you, Barbara!

They’re coming to get you, Barbara!

(1968) Horror Action (Walter Reade Organization) Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley, Kyra Schon, Charles Craig, Bill Hinzman, George Kosana, Russell Streiner, Frank Doak, Bill “Chilly Billy” Cardille, A.C. McDonald, Samuel R. Solito, Mark Ricci, Lee Hartman, Jack Givens, Paula Richards, Vince Suvinski. Directed by George A. Romero

6 Days of Darkness 2013

Less is often more, particularly when it comes to excellent filmmaking. In fact, in the world of independent films, less is often all you get. For some classic films, that turns out to be serendipity of the most wonderful kind.

Barbara (O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Streiner) are at the cemetery one somewhat chilly spring day to visit their father’s grave on the anniversary of his death. Barbara is a bit discomfited and Johnny teases her that “they’re coming to get you Barbara” in a not-bad Boris Karloff impression. Then indeed, they are coming to get her as a reanimated corpse (Hinzman) attacks her. Johnny saves her but accidentally falls during the struggle, hits his head on a gravestone and is instantly killed.

Panicking, Barbara runs to an old farm house with a gas pump outside it. She is followed by dozens of the ghouls (the word “zombies” is never uttered during the film) and runs inside, only to find a woman’s mangled corpse. Once again panicking, she runs outside only to be stopped by Ben (Jones) who pulls up in his car which is running out of gas. He ushers her back inside and fights the walking dead off, barricading the doors and windows.

In the cellar they find Harry (Hardman) and Helen (Eastman) Cooper and their daughter Karen (Schon). They are hiding there after their car was overturned by a horde of the undead. Karen is gravely ill, having been bitten on the arm by one of them. Also in the cellar is teenage couple Tom (Wayne) and Judy (Ridley) who sought shelter after hearing an Emergency Broadcast urging people to get inside.

Immediately a struggle for power ensues between Ben and Harry. Harry wants everyone in the cellar but Ben knows it’s a deathtrap – there’s only one way in or out and once down there, they are committed to a last stand. The group hears reports of an infestation of the dead rising throughout the eastern half of the United States. Shelters have been set up throughout the state of Pennsylvania in the greater Pittsburgh area. Tom and Ben know their only chance is to get to one but Ben’s truck doesn’t have enough gas to make it. Meanwhile the dead outside have grown into a horde surrounding the farmhouse.

This is as DIY a movie as you are ever likely to find. Romero, who had begun his career shooting commercials and local TV programs including several vignettes for the popular children’s show Mr. Rogers Neighborhood knew little about making a feature film but went at it with the gusto of youth. Enlisting local actors and friends to play zombies, the movie has an unparalleled creep factor and was unlike any horror movie seen before and in some ways, since.

This was one of the first movies to show zombies eating people. The distinctive shuffling gait of the walking dead was first seen here. Many of the conventions of modern zombie movies were established by this one. While it is fairly tame by modern standards in terms of gore, in its time it was truly shocking.

Another shocking element was having an African-American as the heroic lead. That was rarely done in the movies outside of Sidney Poitier and never in a horror movie. Jones, an erudite scholar who studied at the Sorbonne and acted professionally in New York City, made for a good one – strong and iron-willed. When he slapped a hysterical Barbara across the face, audiences surely must have recoiled in amazement – a black man hitting a white woman? Positively indecent! Ironically enough, the movie was released a week after the assassination of Martin Luther King, to give you a sense of the timeline involved.

Sure, by today’s standards the movie is pretty crude but the storytelling is not. In fact, the movie is even now pretty gripping, particularly if you haven’t seen it before (and if you haven’t, what kind of rock have you been hiding under?) and for those who have, it never fails to keep one on the edge of their seat.

The film famously fell into public domain nearly immediately upon release because the filmmakers naively didn’t know to put the copyright statement at the film’s conclusion, so Romero and his partners saw little profit from the movie which has generated tens and maybe hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, mainly for other people. A documentary on the film, Year of the Living Dead screened this past April at the Florida Film Festival and gives some insight into the making of the film and its impact on popular culture.

There is really no underestimating the role of this little movie from Pittsburgh has had on horror films and popular culture in general. In many ways, the modern independent film industry sprang from pioneers like Romero. Watching the movie now, we see that it is certainly a product of its times not just technologically speaking but also in terms of the movie itself; whether consciously or not, it examines racial tensions of its time and nuclear fears as well. It’s surprisingly well-written and if there are some areas where the script dates itself, it nonetheless remains a timeless classic. Anyone who loves horror movies needs to see this one and not just once – regular viewings are recommended and I’m not talking about the Rifftrax abomination that showed recently in theaters but the original. This is the ultimate zombie movie and should be treated with the reverence as such.

WHY RENT THIS: A classic that essentially re-defined the zombie film. Startlingly poignant and intelligent.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Crude by modern standards.

FAMILY VALUES:  Violence, disturbing images, adult themes and some brief nudity. Even 45 years on this is still not for the kiddies.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As was common with black and white films, Bosco chocolate syrup was used as blood.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Because the movie fell into the public domain, there are myriad home video versions out there, mostly made from inferior prints and with few or no extras so for our purposes we’ll concentrate on the higher end home video releases. The 1999 Special Collector’s Edition has a comedic short Night of the Living Bread as well as examples of Romero’s early commercial and TV work for Image Ten. The 2002 Millennium Edition however remains to date the standard – in addition to what was mentioned, there are liner notes from Stephen King, clips from lost Romero films The Derlick and There’s Always Vanilla, the original treatment and script for the film, an audio interview with the late Duane Jones and scrapbook photos from cast and crew members. To my knowledge, no credible Blu-Ray version exists of the film to date but hopefully as we approach the 50th anniversary of the film someone will make an effort to do it justice.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.8M on an unknown production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Blair Witch Project

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Transporter

After.Life


After.Life

Who knew the dead could be so hot?

(2009) Horror (Anchor Bay) Christina Ricci, Liam Neeson, Justin Long, Josh Charles, Chandler Canterbury, Celia Watson, Luz Ramos, Rosemary Murphy, Malachy McCourt, Shuler Hensley, Alice Drummond, Sam Kressner, Erin Ward. Directed by Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo

Dead is dead, or so conventional wisdom would have it. Once we’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, the party’s over. What happens then is highly up to speculation.

Anna Taylor (Ricci) is a beautiful young teacher who has the world opening up to her on the horizon. Her boyfriend Paul (Long) is about to propose when they go out to dinner but they get into an argument. Anna storms out of the restaurant and drives off, angry and emotional, the rain falling in sheets. Inevitably, she gets into a nasty accident.

When she wakes up, she’s in the morgue, attended to by Deacon (Neeson) who informs her that she’s dead. Deacon has the special gift of being able to communicate with the dead under his care, able to help transition them from this life to the afterlife. Anna finds this difficult to accept. Deacon counters that most of the newly dead find their new situation hard to accept. They always whine that they have so much left to do, so much unfinished business.

Anna feels alive though and nothing Deacon can say or do will dissuade her. She wants to call her  boyfriend to rescue her from this maniac keeping her against her will in this terrible place; but from his point of view he’s trying to help her accept her fate and move on to her final rest. But is she alive as she asserts that she is, or dead as Deacon maintains that she is?

This is an intriguing concept that has a “Twilight Zone”-esque quality to it. First-time director Wojtowicz-Vosloo doesn’t always know what to do with it. Her job, as I see it, is to keep audiences off-balance without giving away the answer to the question “is she or isn’t she” and for the most part, she succeeds. Occasionally though she stumbles, sometimes failing to maintain the inner logic of the situation. Of course, that’s more the fault of the script than the direction but as she also co-wrote the script, she doesn’t really have that out.

Ricci is lustrous here, spending a good chunk of the movie nude (and also a bluish shade which kind of increases the allure) and her trademark gothic waif look is perfect for the role. Her physical charms notwithstanding, she also gives the part a certain amount of emotional wallop, going through stages of grief (denial, anger, fear) while never becoming shrill.

She has some great chemistry with Neeson, who is such a great actor that even a role like this which doesn’t really push him all that much he still manages to imbue with his charisma and invite the audience to get invested. The movie’s main selling point is to make it ambiguous as to whether Deacon is a kindly guide or an evil monster. Neeson pulls it off so that either option is possible.

I’ve mentioned “The Twilight Zone” and that’s not necessarily a bad thing – but the movie here, rather than paying homage to the show tries to emulate it a bit too much. There is not so much a Rod Serling influence rather than an attempt to bring him back from the dead and the corpse doesn’t smell too good to be honest.

That aside, the concept is good and the acting solid enough so that it gets a pass for all its flaws. Sometimes critics such as myself just have to get past what a movie could have been and accept it for  what it is. No doubt this could have been a whole lot better – but it is as is good enough for me.

WHY RENT THIS: Spooky and atmospheric. Ricci and Neeson have some great exchanges.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script should be more ambiguous and let the audience figure out whether or not Anna is dead. Too much Rod Serling here.

FAMILY VALUES: The whole theme is pretty disturbing; there’s also some nudity and sexuality as well as a buttload of bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The prop knife used by Ricci during the film is the same one Glenn Close used in Fatal Attraction.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2M on an unreported production budget; in all likelihood this lost money or broke even at best.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Ides of March

I Am the Walking Dead


I don’t know why I’m still here. I remember dying, vividly. It wasn’t a good death.

I’d heard the reports of the dead coming back to life and feeding on the living, but like most people I think I didn’t believe them. How crazy is that, right? Stupid, stupid, stupid is what it is! I went to the movies with my girlfriend. We were sitting near the front row because we got there late – girls take goddamned forever to get ready, you know? Anyway I was pretty pissed off. I’d wanted to see the movie, and it put me in a bad mood to be seeing it with my neck craned up the whole time.

I remember hearing screaming from behind me…and it wasn’t a horror movie. My girlfriend turned around to look and then she started screaming, so I turned around too.

There were dozens of them, flesh rotting from their bones, eyes staring straight ahead – those that had eyes – and they were feeding, ripping flesh off of the screaming, gibbering living. “We’ve got to get out of here” I shouted and grabbed my screaming girlfriend by the arm. Most people, idiots, were trying to run up the aisle to the main exit but it was flooded with zombies. There were emergency exits not 20 feet from where we were sitting and it was towards those that I pushed my girlfriend.

The alarm sounded as soon as we opened the door into a back alley that led to Copper Street, the one where the theater was. I think it was Copper Street. It’s hard to think right now, my mind feels sluggish. Anyway, we ran out and fortunately there weren’t any zombies that I could see right away. I could hear the screaming in the theater; it sounded like a horror movie was playing, except the screaming kept on going, wouldn’t stop.  A few other people came out behind us.

I heard a noise behind me, like someone burrowing in a garbage dump. I turned around and there it was, one of the living dead, burrowing in a garbage bin. It looked up and made a snarling noise.

I will say that George Romero, director of the Living Dead movies, got the look pretty much right. The skin was a bluish-red color, the lips red and dripping with gore. There were bruises all over their skin, and the marks of their demise were apparent. However, George missed a few details. For one thing, they didn’t shuffle like they were walking down the aisle at a wedding – they moved like normal humans pretty much. Also, there was the smell, an odor of corruption and decay that was overwhelming. It made you want to vomit.

There was one other thing, the noise. Zombies don’t growl, moan or groan. They scream, they howl. I can tell you from experience that it is the most unnerving thing you’ve ever heard. The sound isn’t quite human, it’s higher pitched like the vocal chords have changed. It’s different than the screams of their victims.

Some poor schlub came out of the emergency exit right at that moment and the zombie pounced. He had ripped open the guy’s jugular before he even knew the zombie was there. Frankly, I didn’t stick around to see what happened next. I yanked my girlfriends arm and started running towards the street, away from the feeding ghoul. As we ran down the alley I saw a 2×4 board leaning up against the wall. I grabbed it without stopping with my free hand. Might as well have a weapon, I figured.

When we got to the street, the scene was nightmarish. There were restaurants and bars aplenty near the theater and they were all filled with screaming zombies chowing down on the hapless patrons inside. It was total chaos; people were trying to get to their cars and zombies were catching up to them while they fumbled for their keys. A few had managed to make it and were weaving in and out of the carnage, trying to get away.

I knew where we were parked – in a lot around the block. The greatest concentration of zombies seemed to be away from where the car was so I turned right onto the street. My girlfriend was sobbing and crying that I was hurting her. Well honey, better hurt than dead…or food for the dead. I heard that distinctive zombie scream close by and saw one angling towards us. As it came close enough I swung the 2×4 at its head and it went down. I didn’t stop, even though the board had split and was really too short to swing again the way I had.

As we rounded the corner another zombie came out and stood directly in our path. I had to let go of my girlfriend’s arm and with both hands rammed the board into the zombie’s chest. It went down and again, I didn’t want to stick around to see if I’d hurt it. I grabbed the girl’s hand again and started running but my hand was slick and hers slipped out of my grip. “Come on!” I remember yelling at her and started running again. There weren’t any zombies that I could see and no people either. The lot was just across the street and I could even see my car.

I didn’t want to make the mistke that the other poor saps had made, so I fished my car keys out of my pocket, now that I wasn’t holding on to my girlfriends arm. I pressed the keyless unlocking button and heard the gratifying beep beep that signified my car was unlocked. All we had to do was get in it, start the engine and drive away to safety.

I’d started to cross the street when I heard my girlfriend scream behind me. A couple of zombies had evidently been behind us and one of them had grabbed her. She looked at me with eyes like saucers, and while my memory is fading, getting dimmer, this was one thing that still remains very vivid. “Help me,” she pleaded in a little girls voice. It was already far too late though.

They wrestled her to the ground and the screaming began. One of them ripped a chunk of her face off and another had reached her blouse and yanked it off, then started feeding on her breasts. I guess he liked his meat more tender.

I stood there, watching it for a moment, mouth gaping then I turned away. Dead was dead, and there was nothing I could do for her. I started running for the lot and then I heard a noise, a car horn. I turned towards it to see an SUV barreling down on me and I could see the panic-stricken eyes of the person driving it.

The impact wasn’t as painful as you might think. I remember flying through the air, my limbs flopping around like dead fish. I landed on my skull on the pavement as the driver who had hit me raced onwards, not stopping. Smart guy I remember thinking. It was the last thing I thought as everything went black.

The next thing I know I was standing up and I could see my body on the street. The skull had been caved in and it  looked like one of my legs was broken and my hip was shattered. I’m dead I thought to myself and there was a sense of wonder about it. I looked back and could see five or six zombies crouched down around my girlfriend whose eyes had glazed over. I think she was dead too, or close to it. She had stopped screaming at least.

They say that when you die you see a light. I did, but it wasn’t the pure, white light they talk about. It was spotty, unstable like the power source had been compromised. The light flickered in other words. I went towards it and I got a sense that there were people I loved waiting in it, but I couldn’t make out who. The light really began to flicker and I started running towards it with a sense of urgency. I could feel a deep sorrow emanating from the light and then it went out. I felt this awful pain then, one of the emotional loss of not going where I was supposed to go. The other was physical. I began to scream.

I wasn’t on my feet any longer. I was lying on the pavement where my body had landed after the SUV hit it. I sat up. I could feel my injuries – apparently Romero got that wrong too. My leg was definitely broken but I got up anyway. I had a horrible headache and I was slick with my own blood.  A zombie walked past me and paid me absolutely no attention. The realization hit me – I was one of them. A zombie.

The worst pain was not from my broken leg or my fractured skull. It is the pain of the hunger. If you’ve ever gone more than 24 hours without food, you might have an idea of what it is like, but even then you have no idea. It’s that need, so pressing that your whole body feels it. I guess a heroin addict in withdrawls might feel this bad, but having never used heroin I couldn’t say for sure. I just knew I was hungry.

I didn’t want to eat human flesh but I knew, instinctively that living human tissue was the only thing that could ease my pain. I walked back over to my girlfriend. Some of the zombies had left but there was still meat to be had. Her chest was open and some of her organs were still inside. I grabbed her heart and began to chew on it. Tears were streaming down my face. Oh God, what have I become?

It’s been a few hours since then. I’ve been walking down the street, limping more like. It is getting harder and harder to think. I can feel my humanity draining from me, and it scares me, scares me shitless. In another hour, maybe two at the most, I’m going to be like them, mindless screaming monsters marauding for human flesh. The hunger is beginning again and I know I will not be resisting its call. I am walking towards the suburbs, the development where I lived. I know there are lots of people there, flesh to feast upon. I want to turn and walk away, walk somewhere where there are no people but I know I can’t do it. The need is just too great.

I wonder if it was the same for all of them, the gradual loss of their humanity instead of the sudden change from person to zombie. I can’t say for sure, but I know how it is for me. I just hope the military gets here and figures out a way to kill us permanently. I hope they do it before I feed again. The taste of my girlfriend’s flesh is still in my mouth. It tastes foul and wonderful at the same time.

I can’t remember her name. I can’t remember my name. I’m glad I found this internet cafe so I can post this on my blog. I hope I remember how to do it. Maybe it will help someone to know, to figure out how to stop this. It won’t be me. I can’t stay here anymore. I must go and feed. God help me. God help us all.