The Undead Underground

Bill Gibron

Although Hollywood might have rotted the zombie film through insipid cliché, there's plenty of 'fresh meat' available from these straight-to-video auteurs.

The poor zombie. You'd think being dead, slowly rotting away, and having to subsist on a gristle-heavy diet of human flesh would be burden enough. But no, our friendly neighbor-noshers have to carry the entire horror genre on their decaying backs. Over the last few years, everything else in the arena of eerie has gone all post-modern and ironic. The slasher film ala Scream is a self-referential laugh riot. Vampires are now just urbane Blade-esque Eurotrash. And werewolves haven't been this anxious about their place in the paranormal pecking order since that pretend Thriller, Michael Jackson, attempted to join their ranks.

It's up to the corpse collective to keep the horror home fires burning. More than any other category of chiller, the zombie flick functions under a set of guidelines that are rarely successfully altered. The fast moving-undead of movies like 28 Days Later and the recent Dawn of the Dead remake aren't novel, just necessary. They represent an evolution in addressing audience expectations. A modern crowd likes a mobile monster. Ever since George Romero gave birth to the radio-activated atrocities, film fans have fretted over his zombies' lack of motor skills. Sure, they can feast on a bowel, slicing into sinew with powerful, blackened teeth. But when it comes to being ambulatory, George's ghouls are unquestionably on the Chess Club side of physical acumen. Dead or not, these dudes are SLOW!

Romero's immobile minions returned to theaters this year as the genre master offered up his latest film, Land of the Dead. Aside from being smarter, and just a wee bit better organized, these cadavers are still pretty crappy when it comes to agility. No one expects a putrefying person to be Lance Armstrong, but some kind of flesh-eater flexibility would be nice. Then again, the belief that zombies should be quick on their feet has resulted in two Resident Evil films and something called House of the Dead, so maybe keeping your carcasses clumsy is the best bet for maintaining quality control.

It goes without saying then that when mobility and management skills become the major selling points to your new and improved entry into the cinema of skin snacking, you need to look elsewhere for inspiration. All the big budget Hollywood agent provocateurs have to do is glance down into the low-to-no budget realm of home video to discover some viable variations on the epidermis eater theme. Indeed, thanks to outsider films like The Stink of Flesh, Zombie Planet and Mulva: Zombie Ass Kicker, the genre's rebirth is just an independently produced and distributed DVD away. Don't be duped by your '80s ideal of homemade movies, however. Thanks to advances in technology and ever-increasing cinema savvy on the part of the filmmakers, the direct-to-video diversion is now sometimes superior to the middling mainstream offering corrupting at the local Cineplex.

Sometimes, all a director has to do is step back and rethink the entire narrative of the undead film to revitalize its formulas. That's what Scott Phillips did when he created The Stink of Flesh. Certainly, our storyline revolves around an Armageddon populated with people-hungry horrors. But Phillips combines his creatures with a seedy story about post-Apocalyptic swingers looking for a little bi-curious lovin' -- anything to make Judgment Day a tad juicer.

Stink's main character, a Mad Max style mercenary named Matool (played by Phillips friend and video store owner Kurly Tlapoyawa) stumbles upon the sexcapades of carnal couple Dexy (Diva) and Nathan (Ross Kelly) while on his routine patrol, which consists of little more than slaughtering the reanimated citizenry by driving large spikes through their brains. At first, he's a little freaked out. But soon, what looks like a standard zombie vs. human standoff turns into an oddball exploitation film.

Using digital filmmaking to create a fantastic-looking film (far better than Danny Boyle's Days), Phillips blends both the bawdy and the baneful perfectly. The Stink of Flesh has elements as insane as a child-like woman with a mutant twin attached to her torso, an overly protective pedophile, and a secret love pit where our haggard husband "relaxes" with a naked rotting zombie girl. And while this all might seem tawdry, Phillips actually keeps the action tight and the tension electric. He also wants to challenge the genre as well, by using apocalyptic adversity to explore individual's baser instincts. Though a weak ending sets up an inevitable sequel, The Stink of Flesh proves that there's life in the zombie genre after all -- and apparently, that life comes from a very broad interpretation of "alternative lifestyles".

George Bonilla's Zombie Planet, on the other hand, always had a part two in mind. As a matter of fact, 'epic' is perhaps the best way to describe this writer/director's designs. Bonilla has made a movie about the end of the world, the devastation of the entire planet, several classes of surviving citizenry, shadow government conspiracies, and crime lords. Oh yeah, and there are some members of the living dead around, as well. Spending about $1.50 on production value and overreaching in the worst ways possible, this director still manages to get us interested in his ideas and intentions. He even offers up his own version of the loner/outsider: a kung-fu fool named Kane who, in irony of ironies, looks and dresses exactly like Rob Zombie.

Bonilla's novel way of explaining his reanimated corpses (let's just say it has something to do with a diet supplement gone sinister) is complimented by his equally compelling cinematic social dynamic. The Dregs spend the daytime scrounging for supplies. The Upper Class lives behind carefully constructed barricades, the better to indulge their hapless human hedonistic lifestyle. There is a crime boss named Adam who enjoys tormenting those below him. Naturally, Kane gets jujitsu on his ass, but not before the undead (remember them?) step in to pick off a few of the choicer human morsels. Though it simply stops halfway through to await the inevitable follow-up (currently in production), Zombie Planet manages a fairly amazing feat for a homemade horror movie. Where Hollywood wants to stay marketable and minor, Bonilla is aiming for a kind of mythic motion picture. Despites its limits, he does get you to care about his characters - and what will happen to them come sequel time.

Not every filmmaker wants to recreate a previous sci-fi adventure classic when taking on the living dead. Over at Low Budget Pictures, Chris Seaver just wants to make people laugh. And chuckle you will after watching his magnificent Mulva: Zombie Ass Kicker. Though it sounds like some kind of superhero hooey, Seaver has actually crafted a comedy of considerable skill. Mulva is on pair with the recent Shaun of the Dead, since both films found ways to milk humor and novelty out of what is a standard corpses-on-the-prowl plot.

Mulva (played in unforgettable fashion by Missy Donatuti) doesn't start out kicking zombie booty. Indeed, she's merely a chocolate-obsessed 23-year-old geek girl who can't wait to go out on Halloween. Unfortunately, her mortal enemy Chest McLargehuge (the local bully) wants to guarantee that this sugar-loving loser makes out like Charlie Brown come Trick-or-Treat time. Before he gets the chance, the members of the local cemetery club show up to spoil the fun. Hoping to help her need for nougat, Mulva teams up with local sage, Mr. Bonejack, and an all out zombie smackdown takes place.

Seaver's severely skewed sensibility is like South Park on crack. He obviously believes that zombies shouldn't be married to just one type of movie and wants to explore as many different varieties as he can. He takes every pop culture reference he can muster, adds in a few that are even more obscure, and channels everything through an over the top desire to entertain. This is gross-out, gag a minute humor at its best, the kind of fresh and fun filmmaking that instantly wins you over. Certainly, it's a one-time treat that loses some of its luster upon repeat viewings, but for anyone who thought corpse and comedy don't mix, Mulva is all the spoof proof you really need.

It's too bad that the mainstream zombie movie can't get a little of the fanboy freshness that Phillips, Bonilla and Seaver bestow upon their gourmands from beyond the grave. These devotees of the dead know that it takes more than advanced sprinting skills to deliver the ghoulish goods, since all aficionados of flesh-eating fiends want to see something inventive and exciting. By purposefully playing with the genre, exploring some of its more obscure tenants and circumventing expectations, the outsider auteur conjures up inspiration instead of exasperation. Hopefully these far-thinking fanatics can save the long-suffering living dead before Hollywood has them hooked on the Human Growth Hormone steroid to increase their fright physicality. That kind of 'roid rage is not what being a cannibal corpse is all about.

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