Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Horrorpalooza 2009 Begins in Zombieland and Journeys to Yesterday

Holy cow, the year's zipped by faster than a plague-infected 28 Days Later refugee. It's already time for yours truly to deliver the demonic; to shovel up the scares; to heap on the horror...Yes, ladies and gentlemen, back by popular demand (again, popular demand in the Land of the Petri Dish=three or more inquiries)...It's Horrorpalooza time.

For those who've never visited the Petri Dish for the fear-stivities, it's a long-standing tradition in this electronic neck of the woods to devote a sizeable chunk of October to my most cherished cinematic mistress, Horror, in all of her myriad mutations. I arrange a deal with the devil during this time, and complete a Blog every day of the fright fest, if it kills me. And no, we're not talking a couple of glib sentences, either: You get an All-You-Can-Eat Smorgasbourd of Scary here.

Horror movies have remained a mainstay in my life for literally as long as I can remember. My first childhood memory was of sitting on a couch next to my mom, watching Boris Karloff's elegant 1932 version of The Mummy as we fed ice cubes to our family dog Suzie. Early on, horror films captured my imagination and added a tincture of danger, excitement, and the forbidden to my decidedly typical suburban childhood. They were the springboard to my appreciation of all genres of film, and they arguably helped make me a more creative, happier person than I'd have been without them.

The genre's always been one of the most durable in cinema, for one basic reason: Getting scared never goes out of style. Other film categories experience ups and downs; some damn near die out (how many westerns have stormed the box office in the last ten years?). But horror always keeps its gaunt and menacing head above water. Like the flu, it mutates to suit its environment; and also like the flu it'll knock the wind outta all but the heartiest souls. Watching a good fright flick can alternately provide the most electric of vicarious thrills, force you to confront the darkest and most ugly aspects of yourself and the world around you, and tap deeply into the romance and dread that dwells impatiently in the dark. I'll never stop adoring them.

Sturdy as the horror film is, it's also as subject to trends as the most fickle Rodeo Drive bonus baby. So when Zombieland disembowelled the box office competition last weekend, it pointed up how thoroughly in-vogue the good old-fashioned zombie flick had become.

It also pointed up the surprising elasticity of living dead cinema. Once the province of grindhouse denizens and bleary-eyed geeks, zombie movies have shambled their way implacably into the mainstream. Small wonder that Zombieland really feels like 28 Days Later by way of Judd Apatow: It is, in a very real sense, the world's first feel-good zombie movie.

Zombieland follows Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), a neurotic (and yes, nigh-Apatowian) Texas-based college kid who manages to survive the zombie apocalypse by keeping to himself and adhering to a rigid set of Survival Rules (amusingly illustrated and superimposed onscreen as the movie progresses). Surrounded by naught but walking corpses, loneliness gets to him and he hits the road to search of his parents. On his way to their homestate of Ohio, he bumps into Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a short-fused cracker with a God-granted gift for (re-)snuffing the walking dead. Their meeting signals a shift into buddy-movie gear, and when this odd couple crosses paths with two con-artist sisters, Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), things get downright surrogate-family-values.

And there's nothing wrong with that. Zombieland's director Ruben Fleischer (a feature-film first-timer) juggles the suspense and humor ably, but his most distinctive stroke is injecting a good-natured, almost John Hughes sweetness into the post-apocalyptic zombie stew. In light of the genre's pessimistic conventions, the simple gesture of (SPOILER ALERT!!) allowing all four of his main characters to enjoy a happy ending takes on an air of subversion.

Much as Zombieland engaged me, though, the best living-dead flick I saw in the last two weeks was a micro-budgeted indie that's just now making the rounds on the film festival circuit.

Seattle's Revenant Film Festival presented a consistently high-quality batch of independently-produced features and shorts a couple of weeks ago (go here for a detailed rundown--plug alert), but the highlight from this corner was the first movie screened, Yesterday. Shot in 2006 in Canada, it covers yet another living-dead-induced doomsday and the efforts of a handful of squabbling survivors to keep their heads together (and their bowels inside their bodies).

Yeah, it's a completely formulaic set-up, but the basic premise isn't the thing here: Director Rob Grant's excellent script is. Every one of the almost two-dozen disparate characters he lays out in the film's opening minutes feels real and fully-formed, so it's impossible for the audience to rely on the comfortable assurance that anyone's gonna make it all the way through alive (I'm hard-pressed to think of another recent horror movie that's manipulated audience expectations and sympathies so masterfully through plain old-fashioned character-driven scriptwriting). Grant's also well-served by a surprisingly good amateur cast. My personal favorite: Justin Sproule's contemptable yet curiously sympathetic heavy, Rob.

Any movie made on 25,000 (Canadian) dollars is bound to show some seams. The film's 16mm pallate looks washed-out and ragged (not always a liability), and some of the early scenes feel a little awkward. But as Yesterday progresses the tension--and surprises--ratchet up amazingly. Real shocks (impessively-orchestrated considering the low budget) surface, and none of Grant's characters do Dumb Movie Character things.

By Yesterday's nihilistic end I was completely, utterly hooked. If this little wonder doesn't garner its young writer/director some major attention, there ain't no justice.

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