Sunday, May 12, 2013

An Acute Case of Sequelitis: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: RE-ANIMATION 3D (2011)

It's not just obsessive and compulsive movie watchers like us here at VJ that become jaded, the movie viewing public does. We all operate on expectations and make evaluations of films based on those expectations, no matter how hard some of us try, it still happens. So what exactly do you expect from a DTV movie with the title NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: RE-ANIMATION 3D? Nothing good, that's for sure. For me, I expect something low-budget, badly acted, indifferently directed, with lots of very cheap CG gore and even cheaper jokes because nothing with that title could possibly take itself seriously. I mean, come on. Trying to rip off two horror classics and throw "3D" in on top of it just reeks of DTV desperation.

Set almost entirely in a run-down mortuary, head mortician, Gerald Tovar, or as his name tag says "Junior" (Andrew Divoff), lives in his dead father's shadow. He is troubled and on edge getting into conflicts with his apathetic staff, goth-girl DyeAnne (Robin Sydney) and stoner/slacker Russell (Adam Chambers). The only person he maintains a good relationship with is the obese bookkeeper/receptionist Aunt Lou (Melissa Jo Bailey) who spends most of her time watching FIXD News, a right-wing cable station. We quickly find out that the root of Gerald's problems are deeper than his problems with poor staffing and inner demons. For some reason his crematorium is kept locked and is filled with rotting corpses, flies and a video camera that Gerald leaves running. During an unscheduled inspection, what is clearly a member of the walking dead shambles through the graveyard and attacks the inspector. Gerald is at least well mannered as he apologizes for killing the inspector with a shovel after dispatching the undead.

After bringing on a new assistant Cristie (Sarah Lieving), Geralds issues are compounded by having his half-brother Harold (Jeffrey Combs) show up out of the blue. Harold has lost his veterinary business and is a little bitter about his brother getting the bulk of daddy's estate. As it turns out, Dad had a deal going with the US military: they would truck over strange bags from a nearby base which he would burn in his retort. Unfortunately, since Daddy died, Gerald has found himself with a deep and intense phobia of fire and has let the bags and the corpses stack up.


If you are thinking "holy crap, that is a lot of plot!", you aren't alone. It actually took me a good 20 minutes of the running time to mentally switch gears from the expected low-brow NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and RE-ANIMATOR rip-off that I expected it to be, to the low-key, deliberately paced, character-driven movie that it actually is. Writer-producer-director Jeff Broadstreet seems to have garnered himself quite a reputation for making very low-budget movies that are not well received by critics, fans or really anybody. I never even considered checking out one of his movies until this one came along and the only reason I decided to watch it was because I wanted to see if a low-budget indy flick would fuck up 3D just as much as Hollywood's "big" movies (the answer, obviously, is no - nobody fucks up great ideas like Hollywood). I thought it would make a fun bit of blogfodder, an easy target for some of my own cheap jokes. Instead I got something that took me completely off guard and took some effort to readjust to. A slowly unfolding character piece in which the "Living Dead" and "Re-Animation" is left in the background, as sanity-eroding forces that eat away at the main characters.

Gerald is a snarling ball of neuroses, but generally seems like a good guy. Harold is very confident and assertive, particularly in his right wing beliefs and hatred of diet sodas. At least that's what you might think at first. As the film progresses and more dirt is dug up, the viewers perception of the characters will change and evolve. The movie is essentially a character piece with Divoff and Combs giving exceptionally solid performances with a sincerity that surpasses many Oscar nominees. While mostly it is the two brothers exploring each other's characters, trying to pry out dirty secrets, the employees in the embalming room are trying to simply get along. Cristie is college-educated and professional, but finally gives in to the lure of the slacker mentality when Russell swings by with da kine and everyone decides that it's time for a smoke break. Broadstreet could have used this sequence as an opportunity for sophomoric laughs (or lack there of), but instead tries to get into a surreal space. DyeAnne shows an intense interest in the dead ("you mean, like for sex?" says Cristie), but it doesn't really go anywhere and her character doesn't even have a satisfying conclusion. It felt like they were cribbing a riff from RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD's Trash, but without even trying to match the energy or envelope pushing of that classic character. Matter of fact, if anything, this movie feels far more like a quasi-sequel to RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD rather than a quasi-sequel to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

Therein lies the crux of the problem. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: RE-ANIMATION 3D is a semi-prequel to Broadstreet's  NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD 3D, a quasi-remake that wasn't well received in the least. While this outing is far and away better than it has any right to be, it still doesn't deliver in what is a vital area: the raison d'etre, the living dead. There are a few cool scenes (the fridge in Daddy's office), but for the most part the horror factor is somewhat underplayed and the effects, both physical and CG are rough around the edges at best. Even worse, a few ideas are set up, including the ultimate fates of most of the cast, and are fumbled out-right. One of the major missteps is the inclusion of a character that parodies Sarah Palin, who is seen on TV and for no explained reason simply shows up at the mortuary near the end of the film. It's completely out of left field  we get no real payoff with her character (spoiler alert - she dies, but that's about it) and even at the time this was made in late 2011, everyone had skewered Palin so often, that she was like Pam Anderson at a butt-rock re-union tour, even the late-night comics were starting to look for fresher material. Hell, Hustler's NAILIN' PALIN porn parody came out in 2008, a full three years earlier! This is what I will henceforth refer to as "The IRON SKY Syndrome".

Shot in stereoscopic 3D on digital video, the 3D really isn't necessary to the film, but does highlight the craftsmanship that went into the set dressing. While it was shot on a TV soundstage in Burbank, you'd never know it as the sets are highly detailed and have a fantastic, cluttered, lived-in (or maybe "died-in") look about them. It's also interesting to note that while Hollywood makes hundreds of millions of dollars on a film like IRON MAN 3, they can't be bothered to actually spend the money on shooting in 3D, instead relying on a computer to make a 2D movie that must be watched with 3D glasses and still look 2D. Here, even a simple shot of the graveyard looks great with each headstone occupying its own place in a three dimensional field. There's a scene early on where a candle is blown out and the smoke beautifully wafts off of the screen. Is it intrinsic to a story about two brothers with deep, dark personal issues? Not in the least, but it's still a better 3D experience than Marvel, Paramount, Columbia, or Universal are willing to give us, which is simply shameful.

In spite of the stumbles, the movie is an unqualified success with its main characters. Feeling somewhat like a stage play based on a Joe R. Landsdale short story, this is Broadstreet's first attempt at writing a screenplay. Granted there are plenty of areas where this is very apparent, but by the same token he wrote some great material that gave Divoff and Combs meaty roles that they could sink their teeth into. You can see the gears turning in each of the actor's heads when they are slowly revealing their motives and trying to figure out how to work the situation to their advantage. These guys didn't phone this movie in, they are invested in their parts. Divoff, bearing a producer's credit, apparently invested in a fiscal sense as well, but that's even better as he clearly isn't there for an easy paycheck.

So, yes, the movie doesn't payoff on expectations, but at the same time, I never felt like walking away from it either. There's enough going on to keep your interest and find out if Gerald and Harold will actually solve their problems or die trying. I wish I could say the same for some recent major studio efforts.

Moments of Clarity:

3 Reactions:

  1. Um, now wait a minute. It actually sounds like you kinda sorta liked this???? I don't know that I'll ever check it out, but wow. That's impressive.

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  2. As a professional actor who has a blog titled "Horror 101", I'm surprised that a horror film with exceptionally strong performances and character writing would be something that you wouldn't want to see.

    I can see why Divoff and Combs were interested in doing the film. Like I said, the parts are very literate almost to the point of feeling like stage work. The rest of the film may not be that great, but their work comprises at least 80% of the film.

    I'm really interested to see how Broadstreet's next film turns out as I think he has a lot of talent in certain areas as a screenwriter. This being the first film that he actually wrote, the next one (which looks pretty damn cool) will let us know if Combs and Divoff had an invisible hand in the crafting of their characters and dialogue here.

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  3. I guess I meant there was no way I was excited to see something called NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: RE-ANIMATED 3D prior to reading your review. I'm definitely intrigued now. Again, not at the top of my list (that would be OGROFF THE MAD MUTILATOR, which I just found out about via the Kryptic Army - tell me again why you two haven't enlisted yet?), but I might just get to it one day based on your rec. True story.

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