Tuesday, December 31, 2013

December to Dismember: SILENT NIGHT, ZOMBIE NIGHT (2009)

If the 11-year-old William S. Wilson ever heard me say this, he wouldn’t believe it and probably cry.  Anyway, here it goes: I’m sick to death of zombie movies.  Yes, the genre I ate up as a kid now causes my gag reflex to go off at the slightest hint of the z-word. Post 28 DAYS LATER (2002), the DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004) remake, and SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004), the subgenre has exploded thanks to mainstream stuff like ZOMBIELAND (2009) and THE WALKING DEAD (2010).  It seems like every damn person is making a zombie movie. Hell, zombie boss George Romero is about to see his DAY OF THE DEAD (1985) remade for the second (!) time in a decade and even he is apparently only allowed to make movies about flesh-eaters now.  Yes, I’m asking Romero to stop making zombie movies.  The new millennium is strange.

That is not to say that the resurgence hasn’t provided the opportunity for some good films – I’ve enjoyed stuff like [REC] (2007), DEADGIRL (2008) and PONTYPOOL (2009) – but the good ones are few and far between the shuffling brain dead masses.  Sorry, my 11-year-old self, but I’m skipping RESIDENT EVIL part 75 and you wouldn’t catch me renting something called ZOMBIEZ (2005) under a pseudonym.  But didn’t you just review a shot-on-video German piece of crap called ZOMBIE: THE RESURRECTION (1998) I hear you ask.  Hey, that’s…uh…different.  Anyway, my point is I think I manage maybe one or two gutmunchers a year now and it takes something special to get me to watch it.  Hey, SILENT NIGHT, ZOMBIE NIGHT (2009) is set around Christmas and we’ve got a “December to Dismember” quota to fill.  Does that say Vernon Wells on the cover?  Sold!

The film wastes no time getting right to the action as police officers Frank Talbot (Jack Forcinito) and Nash Jackson (Andy Hopper) respond to a 911 call about a dispute between neighbors where someone got bit. Before arriving at the house, it is established there is some tension between Frank and Nash with the latter informing his partner he has scheduled for a transfer.  Once at the scene, the cops encounter a man in a wheelchair who says his neighbor’s daughter bit him.  They investigate and are quickly pounced upon by a blood-soaked girl, who proceeds to clamp her teeth onto Nash’s boot.  Frank fires to get the girl off and succeeds in doing that and blowing his partner’s toe off. (Note my amazing ability to refrain from “and this little piggy…” jokes.)  Meanwhile, Frank’s estranged wife Sarah (Nadine Stenovitch) has been suffering a zombie attack of her own.  The two cops drive to Nash’s place to get some shelter and Frank is surprised to find Sarah there.  Uh oh, tension! They perform a quick surgery to stop the bleeding on Nash’s foot and soon begin to start assessing their situation.

The state of affairs looks grim.  It appears the brain dead skeletal folks looking to feast on the flesh of the innocent are shuffling the streets of Los Angeles.  Isn’t that just regular L.A.?  Oh, these folks are the dead returning to life and feasting on the living.  Frank quickly identifies that there seem to be two kinds of zombies shuffling around – slow ones and fast one that will even prey on their own kind.  With Nash zonked out, Frank and Sarah take some time to talk about their marital issues (I’m not sure why we never see them try to turn on a TV or radio).  The clever Frank soon discovers that he can walk freely among the living dead by using hunting masking spray.  He heads out into the night to try and find more food rations and ends up in the house of Jeffrey Hannigan (Lew Temple), who has holed up in the attic with his unconscious son.  Meanwhile, back at the apartment, Nash has woken up and decides the best course of events is to get drunk with Sarah.  Bad move as he drunkenly tells her that he loves her. Perhaps realizing that was a bad move (zombie apocalypse love traversing is tough, man), Nash heads out to find Frank.  Once he reaches Jeffrey’s house, Nash is accidentally shot in the head by Frank, who thought he was a zombie.  Frank returns home to Sarah and tells her about what happened. What he doesn’t know is that Nash survived and is now being taken care of by Jeffrey.  Meanwhile, a ragtag group calling itself the Los Angeles National Preparedness League (LANPL?) shows up and their members (including Vernon Wells and Felissa Rose) explain what has been learned about the two different zombie contingents.  They also convince Frank and Sarah that they will take them to safety at the Burbank airport.

SILENT NIGHT, ZOMBIE NIGHT won’t be replacing any of the Romero undead classics any time soon. However, I’ll give writer-director Sean Cain decent marks for his attempts to do something a little bit different with the film. The theme of people struggling with personal problems during mass chaos extends from Romero’s efforts, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen a full blown love triangle in Romero’s zombielands.  I liked that Cain focused on the emotional elements, although some viewers might find it a bit soap opera-like. There is actually one scene in the attic where Jeffrey talks about Christmas morning (SPOILER: The unconscious son by his side is actually dead after his father had to shoot him) that plays really well.  There is also something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a zombie film before where one of the living dead seems to be reacting in pain to having lost some fingers and yells out in agony as Nash keeps chopping at him.  I also like that Cain introduces some depth into the outbreak (Speeders apparently have something wrapped around their brainstems), but never gives us the full answer.  After all, why would anyone know the cause right away? Also, the film has a great ending. Stuff like this makes me appreciate the film.

Unfortunately, there is a downside to all of this. While Cain has a well-done script and surprisingly great actors to pull it off, he doesn’t appear to have the funds. Trying to create the chaos imagined on the page when you only have 9 or 10 zombies shuffling around hurts.  Also, it doesn’t help that the streets are lined with rows of nicely parked cars.  It hardly conveys the chaos of what the City of Angels would look like with millions of infected and, as we are told, only “a few thousand” survivors.  It pains me that someone like Uwe Boll can get $7 million to crap out HOUSE OF THE DEAD (2003), while these guys struggle with what I assume is less than the estimated $100,000 budget listed on IMDb.  It is doubly disappointing because Cain relies mostly on practical effects for the zombies and the requisite bloody headshots (there are some CGI gun shots and hits) and anybody who does that gets my vote of confidence.  All in all, there is a lot of admirable effort here both in front of and behind the camera.  I just wish they had more funds to capture their zombie apocalypse vision.

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