Regular visitors to this here corner of the Blogosphere surely know of yours truly's ardent fondness for a good--OK, make that any--zombie flick (see this sub-folder of said corner for material evidence of said fondness). So imagine my joy when the Seattle International Film Festival unleashed two--count 'em, TWO--cinematic odes to the living dead as the opening salvo for their Midnight Adrenaline midnight movie series. And imagine that joy amplified by the fact that both zombie movies delivered.
The one with the biggest buzz, Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola's Dead Snow, brought its packed house everything a discerning gutmuncher fan could ask for: Nazi zombies, plasma projected by the gallon, rended limbs, tongue-in-bloody-cheek humor, and--yes--gutmunching.
The Cliffs' Notes setup (as if most zombie movies require something more substantial than a Cliffs' Notes pamphlet for setup): A group of Norwegian med students trundle up to a remote ski lodge for some relaxation. They're visited by a creepy old villager who regales them with stories of the cruel Nazis who ran rampant throughout the nearby village during World War II. He warns the reckless youths to get the heck outta town, but his warnings go unheeded. Then the med students discover a stash of Nazi gold...and the recently-resuscitated Nazi zombies who're out to retrieve it.
Wirkola does not reinvent the wheel here. The setup's pure Evil Dead, the survival scenario sketched out over the movie's running time comes grafted wholesale from any one of scores of horror flicks over the last twenty years, and the only thing distinguishing Dead Snow's zombies from any generic pack of undead hordes would be their snazzy wardrobes.
Then again, you don't watch a zombie movie for radical innovation. Most of the things you do watch a zombie flick for, however, surface in nifty fashion in Dead Snow. After the slow-ish first quarter, the movie puts the pedal to the metal with high-speed pacing, hearty helpings of blood and viscera, and a goofy sense of humor that owes a lot to this generation's Godfather of the Ghouls, Sam Raimi. And while you won't find a lot of outright innovations on display, a few twists to the established cliches liven things up: The paunchy movie nerd emerges as the only one of these sex-obsessed characters to get some nookie (right on!), and one character hastily patches up his bleeding zombie bite with some fishing wire...and duct tape (DOUBLE right on!).
I Sell the Dead, meanwhile, provides a stylish and smart contrast to Dead Snow's low-brow yocks and shocks. It's a good old-fashioned horror flick--in the best, most loving way possible.
Most of I Sell the Dead is told in flashback by Arthur Blake (played by Dominic Monaughan of Lost and Lord of the Rings fame), a young graverobber unjustly accused of murder and awaiting a trip to the same guillotine that claimed his partner in crime Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden). Blake relates the story of his evolution from scared slum kid to professional graverobber to an unconventional monk (played, twinkle in eye, by Ron Perlman), but his narrative soon departs from the traditional Burke and Hare graverobbing skullduggery, giving way to tales of turf wars with a pack of rival body snatchers, and details on several corpses that refuse to stay dead.
Sure, there are some spatterings of Romero-esque undead gore scattered hither and yon, and the influence of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead flicks surfaces occasionally, but I Sell the Dead mostly works a much different side of the street than Dead Snow. The emphasis here is on character and atmosphere: Writer/director Glenn McQuaid spends a good third of I Sell the Dead getting the audience well-acquainted with the resourceful and funny Blake and his slightly addled mentor/partner Grimes before throwing them hip-deep into the monster show.
McQuaid's engaging script doesn't so much travel straight from Point A to Point B as it meanders to said point, sketching out the characters with humor and sharp relief (when was the last time you actually relished, you know, dialogue in a modern horror movie?). He's well-served by a great cast that hits all the right notes. Monaughan makes for a funny and self-aware protagonist, New Yorker Fessenden plays cockney oddball to game perfection, Perlman lends a faultless Irish brogue and wry wit to his clergyman, and Angus Scrimm does his best Boris Karloff as Blake's and Grimes's least agreeable client.
Best of all, I Sell the Dead parlays a carefully-crafted atmosphere totally at odds with current horror trends. McQuaid and company are clearly juggling a limited budget here, but they inject their little chiller with a moody visual style that riffs on Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe flicks of the sixties, as well as the great old Hammer films of the same era (the movie also includes nods to Euro-horror chestnuts like Black Sunday and Eyes Without a Face, and to the EC comics of the 1950's, in case you're keeping Geek-Reference Score). In its own modest way it's as visually immersive as Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, only (likely) done on one-twentieth the budget and with (swear to God) a much better script. It's not some lost masterpiece, but I Sell the Dead is the kind of heartily-entertaining dark comedy/horror film that they don't make 'em like anymore. And that's a compliment of the highest order.