The title alone should have horror film fans drooling in undeniable anticipation. It encapsulates almost everything about the genre that fright fiends love. Then, when you happen upon a synopsis of the plot, the schlock circuits inside your macabre mentality blast into overdrive. A superhero serial killer battling a mad scientist who wants to overthrow the planet by turning the populace into zombies? Where do I sign up? Well, the answer is imprinted all over Caleb Emerson’s motion picture madness. With his second feature film, Die You Zombie Bastards!, this Massachusetts moviemaker is out to recapture the glory days of bad b-movies, a canon covering the campy classics of the 1950s up and through the VHS variables of the ‘80s. And the results are ridiculous – and absolutely hilarious.
The story does indeed start out bizarre, and then gets even stranger. After decapitating a group of hunters in the woods, murderous madman Red Toole (a spectacular turn by actor Tim Gerstmar) goes home to his weird wife Violet. After a little corpse grinding of their own, she presents him with a present – a homemade hero kit, including a red suit, big yellow rubber boots, and a cape made out of human flesh. How thoughtful. Meanwhile, a trio of sex bomb scientists tries to locate the legendary Amphibious Guy, a sea creature noted for his unusual genital prowess.
Unfortunately, they instead run into newly exiled alien uberlord Baron Nefarious, and he turns the girls into zombies. It’s the skuzzy spaceman’s goal to conquer the world, using his living dead device to turn the entire planet into walking corpses. Once he sees Violet, the Baron decides to kidnap her as well. Lost without the love of his life, Red dons his outfit, takes to the streets, and slowly makes his way to the desperado’s island retreat. Along the way, he must battle horny Swedish sluts, consult a Jamaican jinn, and decipher the stunted English of rockabilly legend Hasil Adkins. If he does, he will defeat Nefarious and get his vivisection-loving Violet back.
Like The American Astronaut, Rock and Roll Space Patrol: Action is Go, or the bravura Bleak Future, Emerson is definitely functioning within his own idiosyncratic space, a self-helmed universe where evil alien villains live in overdone mountaintop hideouts, sexy scientists explore exotic locales for a well endowed creature from the hack lagoon, and mass murderers make love among various and sundry severed body parts. It’s a place where local legendary slashers don coconut masks, and Rastafarian sages spend their time divining fortunes from their bathtub. It is also a land of penises – lots and lots of penises. For some reason, Emerson is obsessed with the male member, giving us multiple examples of fake phallus to laugh/cringe over during the course of the film. Yet the movie never feels overly gratuitous or sleazy. Instead, all the scatology is presented like a series of sketches in a Middle Schooler’s assignment notebook.
Such a spoof-a-riffic approach may bother some, especially those who hate for their favorite cinematic categories to get all tangled up and tacky. Yet Die You Zombie Bastards! is so expertly realized, so perfectly set within its own insular world that its not long before you forget all the movie type muck-ups and simply enjoy the entertainment being offered. Emerson is an expert deconstructionist, always finding the easiest way of taking the piss out of a situation. When our amiable anti-hero, the spree killer turned crime fighter Red Toole, speaks to the police, he puts on an air of thespian authority that’s so arch it’s richly insane. Similarly, when Nefarious goes on his rogue-mandated rants, he brings the kind of broad mannered mania that convinces us he really wants to rule the world. Since the actors clearly understand what Emerson is after, and share his peculiar view of how plot and personality are created, we witness a kind of cinematic symbiosis, a coming together of subject and approach that gets better and better as the movie motors along.
Indeed, Die You Zombie Bastards! never stops striving to bring something new to the terror title lampoon. When a Swedish bartender tells her story of Olaf, the nasty cheese demon who attacks young women with his breast wrecking fondue, the manner in which Emerson envisions the situation – first person POV shots, skinny imp arms stirring the lava-like fromage with insidious glee – sends us over the edge into pure dopey dada enjoyment. Similarly, the mandatory last act melee finds Red battling Nefarious while zombies take on robots, ninjas and some hilariously disobedient dog men. It’s a shame that more filmmakers don’t fill their films with as much imagination as this stellar satiric celebration. Granted, some of if can easily grow grating (the dominating dick jokes, in particular) and some may feel that, toward the end, Emerson repeats himself instead of striving for new narrative ground, but overall, we appreciate Die You Zombie Bastards! for what it aims for more than the targets it sporadically misses.
As stated before, it’s important to have actors who comprehend the crackpot conceits of the movie’s main motives. Without a cast ready to go along for the goofball ride, you end up with artistic elements battling at cross-purposes. Gertsmar does his utmost to fill out even the most ancillary role (he plays several here) and Geoff Mosher is masterful at capturing Nefarious’s clueless confusion. As Violet, the cannibal bride and loony lover of Red, Pippi Zornoza is far funnier when she’s not chewing up the scenery. In her initial scenes, she’s so over the top that we tend to dismiss her. But when Nefarious tries to taunt her during a pre-matrimony meal, the gal’s callous comeuppances are classic. Perhaps the most surprising turn is offered by ‘70s/‘80s porn idol Jamie Gillis. Mr. Meat Puppet plays Stavros, a kind of guardian angel/fairy oddfather for Red’s fantastic voyage. Instead of going for camp or cool, Gillis actually makes his supernatural sage a three dimensional entity, something we miss when fate steps in and turns things tragic.
But for many, the appearance of outsider rock god Hasil Adkins will be the butter on this terrific stack of puzzling pancakes. Old, doughy, and equiped with songs about such standard sonic facets as bacon and eggs (no…seriously), Adkins adds that dive bar David Lynch lunacy to the film, kind of like a rancid Roy Orbison with an entire back catalog of psychosis to draw from. His scenes one on one with Gertsmar are great, especially when you see the actor struggling to get the musical muse to make some sense. Like a detour into a visit with Satan’s personal songstylist, Adkins’ appearance is priceless – and even a little sad once we learn his unfortunate real life fate. It’s the final cherry on this silly sundae overloaded with luscious ice cream craziness and ribbons of fully f**ked up fudge.
Companies like Image should be proud of providing quality queerness like Die You Zombie Bastards!, especially when they give viewers a chance (via commentaries and featurettes) to learn a little about this kind of project’s production history. Once we witness the Herculean effort put in by Emerson, his company, and his more than happy to help crew, we see the signs that something special is about to be created. No one enjoys the process of independent filmmaking this much and doesn’t end up making a minor motion picture masterpiece. In this case, Caleb Emerson manages the full classic cult creation. While 2007 has barely begun, it is clear that, come 12 months from now, Die Your Zombie Bastards! will find its way onto some year end ‘best of’ list. Those who don’t cotton to this kind of lo-tech treat are missing something very extraordinary. More than surpassing its inferential moniker, this is definitely a movie to “die” for.
Image Entertainment’s‘s DVD version of Die You Zombie Bastards! was released on 16 January, 2007. For information on this title from Amazon.com, just click here
// Notes from the Road
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