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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Review of Zombies: A Record of the Year of Infection

Zombies: A Record of the Year of Infection is an illustrated journal of a zombie plague that struck the world on January 7, 2012. The journal's author, Dr. Robert Twombly, is a blood specialist who is hopefully in a position to explain the zombie plague. Right? Why else would you make a scientist the protagonist?

Things go south in the very next sentence: "The infection lasted approximately one year, and during that time all known zombies either decayed enough to succumb to their physical limitations or were destroyed by pockets of human survivors."

Imagine the scrolling text in the beginning of Star Wars reading: "A long time ago in a galaxy, far, far away…The Empire was eventually defeated by the Rebellion." The end.

The challenge for a book or movie (like Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project) that act as if the events are real is in immersion – the reader has to believe they're in the moment. This takes a lot of work. To make something scary requires the observer to become absorbed enough to empathize with the protagonist. Giving away that the plague ended isn't relevant – the ending of the book has nothing to do with world events. So giving us that tidbit of information (in the prologue and on the back cover) saps the book of any sense of urgency or dread.

This would all be forgivable if Zombies contributed something different to the zombie genre. It doesn't: zombies are slow but strong in numbers, travel in packs, and can only be stopped by destroying the head.

The other important part of a zombie narrative is the eccentric survivors. But Zombies doesn't have anything to offer here either: inhuman gun-toting nut jobs, tough-as-nails survivalists, an isolated community convinced it's safe, the pathetic zombie slave, the noble dog, a creepy old lady alone in her house…it's like someone used the 8-Ball of Horror, shook it up a few times, and wrote a comic.

Our protagonist does everything from running experiments on infected blood to breaking into the company's research facility (Primodine) that supposedly created the infection. And he comes up with nothing. A golden opportunity to provide some pathology for how zombies work and the book glosses over it.

The artwork is of variable quality, reflecting the supposedly rushed nature of a scientist on the run. It's mostly watercolor, with lots of red and grays. Although it's supposedly handwritten, the text is actually a font. Fortunately, the font is suitably unobtrusive. What's much more annoying is the various scribbles where the author wrote something, thought better about it, and scratched it out. It gets annoying fast.

It's not all bad. There are some band mates that are interesting, which leads to an awesome illustration of a zombie getting axed by a guitar. Birds aren't afraid of zombies, so we get a great picture of a bird sitting on a zombie's head with an eyeball dangling from its beak. But none of these elements make up for the fact that Zombies has nothing new to share about zombies.


Saturday, October 10, 2009

Review of Zombieland

So many zombie movies seek to infuse the zombie genre with pathos, with a wry commentary on society or the human condition…basically taking themselves waaay too seriously for a film about dead bodies trying to eat people. Zombieland does not suffer from such delusions.

What Zombieland does right is revel in the chaos of a zombie apocalypse. The characters refuse to give themselves names (the better to avoid "personal attachments") and instead go by their intended destinations: Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) the nebbish shotgun-toting recluse, Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) a professional zombie killer, the winsome Wichita (Emma Stone) and her kid sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). Each of them is trying to get somewhere, with vague hopes and dreams of finding family and solace. But the reality, of course, is that the survivors have little hope of finding anyone alive, much less their loved ones.

And that's pretty much it. Oh, sure, there's some back story for each character, and a budding romance, but mostly Zombieland is an amusement park where zombies pop up and get smashed down like blood-filled piñatas. It's also gut-wrenchingly gross, as every good zombie film should be. There's so much blood and gore, it even spatters the screen.

Throughout the film are hilarious rules for surviving a zombie apocalypse. It's as if Max Brooks' Zombie Survival Guide was grafted onto Evil Dead II. Columbus lives by these rules while Tallahassee regularly breaks them. The explanation of these Rules and the victims who break them are half the fun. And who can forget the Zombie Kill of the Week. Tallahassee keeps trying, but he just can't be that nice old lady with the piano. Whenever Zombieland gets away from its main premise (you know, killing zombies) it falters a bit. A cameo by Bill Murray is funny but not THAT funny, and it drags the movie down.

By far the best part of Zombieland is the zombies themselves. The slow-motion introduction is a piece of performance art, instantly creating a story just by the placement of the zombies and the (inevitably) fleeing victim with a look of horror on his or her face. By the time you see a guy in a bad suit running from a zombie stripper, you're in the right mood for Zombieland.

If you like Twinkies, fear clowns, and always stretch before any strenuous activity, you might just have what it takes to survive Zombieland. No fan of the zombie genre should miss it.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Role-playing game review of Civilization Gone

Civilization Gone is a supplement to the Dead Reign role-playing game by Palladium. It begins with an overview of the types of personalities that inhabit the new apocalyptic world, and most of it is actually "fluff," i.e., role-playing tips. In a refreshing change to Palladium's crunch-heavy system, these archetypes provide few rules changes – they aren't classes or races.

Except for the Zombie Killing Maniac, who gets a whole pile of bonuses for really, really hating zombies. I imagine most players will immediately classify their characters as Zombie Killing Maniacs, because although he's a maniac, he's actually a pretty nice guy. In fact, his zombie-killing frenzy kicks in whenever facing a "life and death situation with zombies" or ten zombies or more. The Maniac's rage lasts until every zombie is destroyed or "until he must retreat or die himself." In other words, Maniacs are actually quite reasonable people who get bonuses to killing zombies. Not much of a downside.

There is a new list of phobias and obsessions, which occasionally gets awkward as not every phobia has its opposite in an obsession. Fear of dumpsters makes sense; an obsession with dumpsters makes less sense—the character gets a bonus to kill zombies lurking in one.

The next section details other threats: raiders, bandits, and other human filth, as well as a wide range of psychopaths and natural threats: bugs, disease, starvation, etc. There are two additional zombie types, big ones (Juggernauts) and little ones (Trash Crawlers), which are basically variations on regular zombies. The remainder of the book covers a wide variety of random tables for what can be found in houses, where zombies lurk, survivor communities, and zombie population density.

Overall, this is a useful supplement for any apocalyptic game that takes place within five months after the failure of civilization. Short and sweet, it infuses some much-needed human drama to Dead Reign games.


Role-playing game review of Dead Reign

Dead Reign is a zombie-apocalypse setting using Palladium's Megaverse system. When you open the book, it's clear this is not a traditional Palladium product. It starts out with a first-person narrative explaining what happened without explaining everything. It's five months after the zombie apocalypse and a biker gang known as the Reapers provides advice on how to deal with the undead plague.

Five months after the apocalypse is significant, as it provides unique opportunities for scavenging. The world is only recently destroyed, long enough to ruin infrastructures and destroy organizations, but not so distant that houses and habits become unrecognizable.

The zombies themselves operate under a very specific set of rules. Specifically, they consume life-force, which keeps the zombie functional; they fear fire; and they have a moan which calls other zombies to them. Zombies see via a form of life-sight that attracts them to living beings, and go dormant when there is no fresh life-force to eat. And yes, they can only be permanently slain by destroying their heads.

In the tradition of Palladium's unabashedly old-style approach to gaming, there are random dice rolls for everything (1d4 cans of soup can be found in a home!) and new rules are made up on the fly to adjudicate the topic at hand. More recent systems have long since moved past this style of game rules, but Palladium embraces it.

What this means is that the game has huge amounts of "crunch" interspersed amongst its ideas. There are rules for how much damage a zombie can take at close range, how many zombies move in a pack, the chances that they will wander off, the odds that one is sleeping in a car, how many will stick around trying to eat you, the chance one is holding something…the list goes on and on. For d20 games and their ilk, this is a game master's treasure trove of material.

Dead Reign covers a range of zombies; Slouchers are your typical horror movie zombie, Fast Attackers run, Pattern Zombies repeat their old lives (just like Romero's mall zombies in Dawn of the Dead), Flesh-Eating zombies are vegetarians – just kidding! – and so on. All the zombie tropes are here too: fundamentalist nutjobs known as Retro Savages, Death Priests who keep zombies as pets, thieves, thugs, soldiers, and scrappy survivors. Because Palladium's system isn't very modular, every form of survivor requires a different set of rules (in some cases, repeated rules).

There are piles of rules on random encounters in this new world, including typical zombie settings; all really useful information for game masters who aren't sure how many zombies are lurking in an industrial park or a corporate high rise building. There's even a random corpse search table.

There's also the obligatory set of rules that most gamers skip, explaining the skills and equipment that are part and parcel of Palladium games. Fortunately, these rules have actually be customized for the setting rather than cut/paste from other Palladium games.

If you are a Palladium fan and love the action horror genre, Dead Reign is an awesome supplement. If you're not a Palladium fan but you enjoy d20-style rules, Dead Reign is an excellent addition to any apocalypse game; the rules and advice on scrounging and scavenging are excellent, and the random tables (assuming you use random tables) are very useful. I plan to use some of the rules in my own d20 Modern game.

But if you're not a Palladium fan and don't play d20-style games, Dead Reign isn't going to change your mind. Kevin Sembedia's writing style is strongly represented here. He tends to list everything in threes (e.g., "People are rivals, enemies and food to be hunted, killed and eaten."), lectures for two pages on how level-based systems reflect his real life experience in "leveling up" as a game designer, and on page 55 he actually includes a parenthetical note to someone named Taylor ("Hey Taylor, this might be something you and I want to revisit.").

If you can ignore that stuff, and it's easy to ignore, there's a lot of great raw material here for any apocalyptic game.


Monday, August 10, 2009

David Manning's Manly Movie Review: Mansion of the Living Dead

Best quote ever:

(NICK) Where’s the nearest sink? I need to wash my eyeballs.



Sunday, April 5, 2009

Resident Evil 5

This game is so good, it made me a Resident Evil fan.

I’ve never really liked the Resident Evil series. The dubbing wasn’t particularly good, the characters weren’t very compelling, and the scares…I’m fond of running and gunning, not sitting around waiting for the scary monster to jump out and eat me. Resident Evil never offered the kind of zombie-blasting experience I craved…until now.

Resident Evil 5 has a plot, but who cares about the plot? It’s all about Chris Redfield and his superhot female companion, Sheva Alomar, blasting zombies away. Oh sure, there are nuances here and there: the zombies aren’t really undead but infected with weird worm-like parasites, the zombies move fast, they’re smart enough to drive vehicles and fire weapons, and oh yeah…the majority of them are Africans.

Whether or not this matters to you depends primarily on your discomfort level with a white guy attacking red-eyed Africans with a machete and stealing their gold. Yes, the zombies actually drop gold. My suspicion is that most gamers simply don’t care, because the bad guys are zombies and thus fit into the same category as orcs in fantasy – faceless villains to be defeated in great swaths of destruction.

The problem is that Resident Evil’s graphics are now so good that it looks like the real thing—if the real thing was villages filled with rotting animal carcasses and glowing red-eyed zombies. In fantasy gaming, we don’t have a real orc to compare our opponents to. This is the burden of Resident Evil’s hyper-realistic modern gaming environment.

If you actually play the game, it’s clear that there is not an intentional bias against Africans. There are African military allies who are just as empowered as the zombies are moving targets. And Sheva is from the region, although she’s admittedly lighter skinned than many of the other African characters.

Resident Evil isn’t above breaking the rules to keep horror top of mind. Chris and Sheva can’t simply run-and-gun. They have to stop and aim, which gives zombies plenty of time to sneak up behind them. Inventory is limited, ensuring that you will frequently run out of ammunition. There are cinematic sequences that have nothing to do with shooting in which you simply die if you screw up, like giant man-eating crocodiles and chainsaw wielding zombies.

Although Sheva is in the game regardless of whether or not you play-cop, the co-op mode elevates Resident Evil 5 from a beautiful but standard zombie shooter to an awesome gaming experience. The game has mechanics to specifically encourage teamwork, ensuring that you come to the rescue of Sheva when she’s grappled by a zombie, heal each other when you’re hurt, or hurl the (presumably) lighter Sheva up on rooftops. Who says having an attractive female companion doesn’t have its perks?

Resident Evil 5 has a limited cover system, awkward reloading, and an aggravating inventory system. But that just heightens the tension. The zombie co-op bar has been raised…again!


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Patient Zero: A Joe Ledger Novel


When you have to kill the same terrorist twice in one week there's either something wrong with your world or something wrong with your skills... and there's nothing wrong with Joe Ledger's skills. And that's both a good, and a bad thing. It's good because he's a Baltimore detective that has just been secretly recruited by the government to lead a new taskforce created to deal with the problems that Homeland Security can't handle. This rapid response group is called the Department of Military Sciences or the DMS for short. It's bad because his first mission is to help stop a group of terrorists from releasing a dreadful bio-weapon that can turn ordinary people into zombies. The fate of the world hangs in the balance....


PUBLISHERS WEEKLY: "Plenty of man-to-zombie combat, a team traitor and a
doomsday scenario add up to a fast and furious read.
KIRKUS: "The book is as fun and funny as it is chilling and thrill-packed. Joe is a fantastic character, full of compassion, real vulnerabilities and a deliciously dark sense of humor."

"I had a fine old time reading PATIENT ZERO. Jonathan Maberry has found a delightful voice for this adventure of Joe Ledger and his crew: while the action is heated, violent, and furious, the writing remains cool, steady, and low-key, framing all the wildness and exuberance in a calm rationality (given an almost comic edge) that renders it as palatable as your favorite flavor of ice cream. This is a lovely feat, and Maberry has written a memorable book." - PETER STRAUB
"A fast-paced, creepy thriller that as prickly as a hospital needle and sounds a little too convincing. This guy is good." –JOE R. LANSDALE
"Brilliant, shocking, horrifying, it puts the terror back in terrorist." – JAMES ROLLINS, New York Times bestselling author of The Judas Strain
"PATIENT ZERO is a first-rate thriller with a bioterror angle that is as horrific as it is plausible. Maberry's prose sears, his dialog cuts like a knife, and his characters crackle with life. Joe Ledger rules."–DOUGLAS PRESTON , co-author of The Wheel of Darkness and The Book of the Dead A dark, chilling and funny thriller about zombies
"Patient Zero is high-octane excitement from beginning to end, and the start of a fabulous new series. Joe Ledger and the DMS have my vote as the team to beat when combating terrorist threats on a grand scale." - DAVID MORRELL, New York Times bestselling author of FIRST BLOOD and CREEPERS
"Scary, creepy, and gripping--PATIENT ZERO is 'Night of the Living Dead' meets Michael Crichton."-- JOSEPH FINDER, New York Times bestselling author of Power Play
"Brutal action, insanely intelligent, and so real that the hair on the back of your neck stands up!" -- L.A. BANKS, The Vampire Huntress Legends Series, New York Times Best-selling Author
FREE PREQUEL SHORT STORY: Download a free prequel story to Jonathan Maberry's exciting new bio-terrorism thrill, PATIENT ZERO (St. Martins Press).

Or you can link to it from the author's website:


Monday, March 2, 2009

The Fog

I've never seen The Fog except in snippets on television. My wife, on the other hand, saw it at a Girl Scout movie night, which is either a cruel trick or a hilarious joke, depending on you perspective. Certainly, the movie scared the heck out of the poor girls watching it and my wife remembers it vividly.

Anyway, this gave the movie something of a reputation at our house that made it required viewing. With the release of the awful remake, I decided it was time for me to bone up on a little chunk of cinema history by John Carpenter, master of action horror.

The movie is essentially a ghost story: settlers of a coastal town led a ship full of lepers to their deaths, stole their gold, and went on to prosper. On the eve of the hundred-year celebration, six souls will be claimed in vengeance.

There are several protagonists in this film: Stevie Wayne (the smoky-voiced Adrienne Barbeau) the radio DJ, Kathy Williams (Janet Leigh) as the mayor, Elizabeth Solley (Jamie Lee Curtis) the loose hitchhiker, and Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) as the boozy priest. Malone discovers a diary that details the pending doom about to befall the town. Wayne, who runs her radio station from a lighthouse, is uniquely positioned to use the power of 80s technology to track the fog. Williams frets over the loss of her husband at sea and bravely leads the candlelight vigil on the eve of the ceremony despite the town losing power. And finally Solley...well Solley sleeps around and gets scared a lot.

The Fog is hardly perfect. It's obvious Curtis' character exists as a box office draw. She has nothing to do but tag along. There's at least one scene where the fog looks like a kid's chalk drawing being dragged across a piece of celluloid. And viewed abstractly, there's something hilarious about zombies dressed in pirate garb who are polite enough to knock on the door rather than breaking into your house with outstretched hands, Romero-style.

And yet The Fog is one scary movie. John Carpenter's score, while reminiscent of Halloween, is scary in its own right. Wayne's helplessness and terror, as she shifts from sultry on-air voice to a mother terrified for her son, is palpable. And the glowing fog, when the special effects are up to snuff, is truly terrifying. Carpenter knows when to show his zombies and when not to show them, and it's a credit to his nascent (at the time) moviemaking skills that even when the zombies show up, they're scary enough that the glowing red eyes of the lead zombie burn in your memory long after the movie has faded.

There are also a variety of nods to Lovecraft throughout the film, including Machen, Whateley, and Arkham, which just goes to show that Carpenter actually knew his horror roots. The special features are illuminating as well, explaining the moviemaking process Carpenter went through as well as the reshoots. I'm pleased to report the movie is better for it.

Years later, when my wife saw this movie, she was still creeped out by it. But she's comforted by the knowledge that when the zombies come in the least they'll knock first.


Friday, February 27, 2009

Movie Review: 28 Days Later

28 Days Later is a really good zombie flick.

Despite all those distractions, I STILL thoroughly enjoyed this movie. It combines elements of Night of the Living Dead, but it does them better. Like in the remake of Night of the Living Dead, the director makes a statement about mn killing man -- is it okay to have fun shooting people when they're zombies?

They're not really zombies, of course. They're victims of a disease called "Rage" that turns you into a murderous killing machine. These are still people though -- they can be shot, set on fire, and starved to death.
  • Cool Device #1: Main character wakes up from a coma. We're as clueless as he is.
  • Cool Device #2: It takes place in deserted London. It's a plague that spreads fast. I imagine it spread to all of England, actually. Sort of like Vanilla Sky in NYC. It's probably not even as creepy for Americans, as we don't live or visit there very often.
  • Cool Device #3: Rage can be transmitted by any bodily fluid exchange, blood being the most likely.
  • Cool Device #4: Rage takes 20 seconds to take effect. Whenever you think a character gets infected, you subconsciously being counting to 20. This keeps the audience perpetually on edge.
Eventually, the protagonist and his companions find a military base and we expect the movie to end. Only the message here is that being with the military (the supposed savior of the people) is actually WORSE than being with the zombies.

This movie was done before, and the parallels between the two are quite amazing. The movie: Resident Evil! Of all things, Resident Evil -- a true-blue zombie flick -- didn't pull off horror nearly as well as 28 Days Later. But they have the same elements:

28 Days Later/Resident Evil
  • Protagonist wakes up in hospital with no idea what happened/Protagonist wakes up in a deserted house with no idea what happened
  • Movie begins with protagonist in a completely deserted city (London)/Movie ends with protagonist in a completely deserted city (Raccoon City)
  • Movie begins with protagonist naked in hospital/Movie ends with protagonist naked in hospital
  • Zombies get shot by a military agency (UK military) sent to eliminate them /Zombies get shot by a military agency (Umbrella, if I remember correctly) to eliminate them
  • Zombie disease spread by infection (20 seconds)/Zombie disease spread by infection (uh, more than 20 seconds)
  • Two females end up running around in red dresses/Female protagonist runs around entire movie in red dress (thank you Mila!)

So what did 28 Days Later do right as a horror movie? Well, it's a horror movie for one. To clarify, it focuses on horror. Zombies are scary enough, but they alone do not a good horror flick make. There needs to be more. And the director (the same one who made Trainspotting) has no problems going "there."

"There" is watching a father figure turn into a zombie and being forced to kill him. "There" is bashing a zombie child's head in with a bat. "There" is being attacked by a priest who's a zombie. "There" is having one of your friends turn zombie and -- instead of the old, "I refuse to kill my friend" -- brutally hacking him to bits.

28 Days Later succeeds because it ignores horror conventions. There is none of the angst associated with a person turning into a zombie. Hell, even Night of the Creeps had that. No, 28 Days Later succeeds because the director isn't a horror filmmaker. He knows that collapse of basic human decency is what's horrifying, not zombies.

Don't get me wrong, Resident Evil kicks ass. But it's a science fiction action movie. This is real horror, the way it was meant to be made. See it, you won't be sorry.


The Evil Dead Companion

The Evil Dead Companion is about the movie, Evil Dead. If you haven't seen it, you should see Evil Dead II (funnier and not quite as disturbing). Then, if you're drunk, see Army of Darkness. Then come back to this review -- it won't make much sense otherwise.

In the bookstore, I picked up the Evil Dead Companion, flipped through it, and put it back down. It seemed mildly interesting, but it didn't have enough to hold my attention. I forgot about it.

Then for Christmas, lo and behold, Maleficent bought it for me. So I figured it'd be worth a good read, especially in fleshing out my D20 Modern supplement, Evil Dead: Swallow This! If you don't know what that is, 1) shame on you, 2) visit my web site for more details.

Bill Warren's a fan of Raimi and Bruce and co. A big fan. In fact, he's so much of a fan, there's a slant to the material that wasn't quite hard-hitting enough for my tastes. I submit this evidence at the end of the book:

These guys from Detroit are among the most decent, likeable people this writer has ever met, and it has been an enormous pleasure, one of the greatest of my professional life, to have been associated with them.
Okay, WHOA. I really like Bruce Campbell. When I finally do meet him, I'll proably make a stuttering idiot of myself. But come on now. Even if this is true, and I'm sure it is, would you be quite so effusive with the praise?

Also, a good chunk of the book -- pages 180 through 251 -- is a summary of the script with commentary from Bruce. Some if it's interesting. Some of it is irritating in its lack of specifics. It's not the REAL script, it's a summary.

But I'm griping about things that ultimately should be meaningless to a true-blue (true-red?) fan of Evil Dead. The book actually is more about the first movie, Evil Dead, than Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness because...well because that's what Sam and Bruce wanted to talk about most.

The stories are funny. Sam takes a wicked glee in abusing Bruce. And the early days of filming were hell -- literally and cinematically. The behind the scenes stuff is interesting.

The writer makes a half-hearted attempt to make the book an inspirational tale. The idea being that if Sam can do it, you can do it. But that isn't true at all. These friends were all connected to other people who were hell-bent on making movies too. In short, the average hopeful filmmaker is probably NOT working with a bunch of other guys who were ultimately making it on their own. In my experience, the average filmmaker is a kid in a basement trying to film stuff on his own. Sam and Bruce were talented guys with a level of desperation and daring most sane people aren't willing to go. And oh yeah, they don't appear to have had long-term relationships at the time either.

The book's becoming rapidly outdated. I checked all the web sites listed in the back and over 50% of them are gone. The game mentioned, Hail to the King, came and went.

In short, if you're an Evil Dead fan, you will enjoy this book. A lot of the quotes are taken from other sources vs. interviewing (I can write a book that way too, duh), but there's enough hidden gems that make it worthwhile. If you're not that big a fan, this book will probably bore you pretty quickly.


Movie Review: Shaun of the Dead

The zombie genre has been done to (ahem) death by now. Sam Raimi proved that it could be a successful vehicle for launching more expensive films with Evil Dead. Since then, there's been an endless array of less engaging imitators, often confusing gore with content.

Zombie movies can be summed up in exactly the same way. The difference is in the inflection. Don't believe me? Let me demonstrate...

  • ZOMBIE TROPE #1: "Zombie movies are about SHAMBLING dead people." These zombie movies laugh at the absolute absurdity of the walking dead. I mean, they're dead and they stumble around like DRUNK people for crying out loud! How can you take anything serious that moans like an overly hormonal teenager on prom night, lolls its head to the side like a Valley girl, and can't even walk in a straight line? Zombies definitely have a lot of humor potential, as established in Evil Dead II. The shamble is one of the primary reasons that modern zombie movies have made their zombies move quickly-it's hard to take slow moving zombies seriously.
  • ZOMBIE TROPE #2: "Zombie movies are about shambling DEAD people." These zombie movies concentrate on the horrors of what it means to have corpses trying to eat you. It is visceral and disgusting. There is gore (dead bodies are gross) and decay. These zombies are rotting and, thanks to the magic of special effects, really do look like exhumed corpses. This is just about every zombie movie that takes itself seriously without devolving into camp.
  • ZOMBIE TROPE #3: "Zombie movies are about shambling dead PEOPLE." These zombie movies aren't about the zombies. They're about how people react to the fact that people they knew who were dead are walking around trying to eat other people. The presence of zombies causes people to freak out. Some folks are barely over their mourning when their spouses and children rise up to attack them. It's enough to make a person snap. It's also George Romero's specialty, a topic he has extensively covered in the Living Dead series.

Recent zombie movies have been combinations of these three attributes, but rarely in equal balance. Shaun of the Dead? It's all three.

Shaun (Simon Pegg) is the hero of the title, a fellow who has long since exited the swinging college years and entered into the stale, zombie-like grind of a working man. He is a man out of time, frozen in his own routines. He still lives with his two flatmates, Ed (Nick Frost), the fat, funny one and Pete (Peter Serafinowicz), the smart, successful one. Shaun is trapped, unable to go back to the good old days of no responsibility and unwilling to go forward with his relationship to his blonde girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield).

Meanwhile, ambulances start popping up in the background, carting away twitching body bags.

The outcome of their situation is an inevitability that we've all witnessed before: Liz has had enough. She doesn't want to keep going to the same old pub every night: the Winchester, named after the rifle on the wall. She hates Shaun's best friend Ed, who is an offensive boor. And Shaun hates Liz's good friends Dianne (Lucy Davis) and David (Dylan Moran). As it turns out, David used to date Liz and just tolerates Dianne so he can be near her.

Meanwhile, paramilitary vehicles drive by and newscasters report troubling news about some sort of plague.

And oh yeah, Shaun loves his mum (Nicola Cunningham) and hates his step-dad, Philip (Bill Nighy), a perpetually frowning robot of a man whose face has been untouched by any other expression.

When Liz finally gets sick of Shaun, his world falls apart. He goes on a drunken binge with Ed, blasting music, playing video games, and shutting out the world around him. In essence, Shaun's life has finally gone out of joint and he desperately regresses to deal with it. Unfortunately for Shaun (and everyone else in that part of England), the world has also literally fallen apart.

A large part of the humor is how Shaun and his compatriots deal with the undead. It takes a very long time for him to even notice; after all, who would really notice slow moving people? The director, Edgar Wright, gleefully makes this point at every turn. At first, the zombies are just the homeless, who everybody ignores and expects to act strangely. Then, it's people in menial jobs that have a glazed look as they go about their drudgery. It's not until a zombie actually shows up on their doorstep that anybody gets concerned. Even then, they figure the zombie is just really, really drunk.

Once Shaun and Ed come to grips with the situation, they devise a plan. Their plans are highly unrealistic, but mostly involve beating on zombies with clubs (remember, no guns in England), rescuing girlfriends and mums, and holing up in the Winchester, "cause it's the safest place." That's right, the one place Liz doesn't want to be with the people she really doesn't want to be with.

Shaun of the Dead embraces all the zombie tropes, and then rips their guts out. Sure, the movie seems to say, it's easy to get around slow moving zombies. But eventually they catch up with you. Sure, smashing a zombie's head in sounds easy...until it's a family member. Sure, shooting a zombie with a rifle should give you the upper hand...unless you've never actually shot a gun before.

In the mean time, Shaun deals with his issues with his step-dad, introduces his girlfriend to his mom, meets an ex-girlfriend (who seems to be far more capable than Liz), finally gets tired of drug-dealing Ed's antics, and slowly realizes just how fragile his humdrum life is. It seems to encapsulate his mom, Liz, and Ed at first, but Shaun discovers that his circle of family and friends extends to more people than he thought.

This movie is deadly earnest about everything, including its humor. It has traumatizing gore, hysterical in-jokes, and weep-worthy moments of true drama. All of it is pulled off with incredible aplomb by the cast, who have to do everything from beat on zombies to act like zombies (no, really) to finally going utterly ballistic like real human beings.

Shaun of the Dead is the culmination of dozens of zombie movies that have gone before it. It succeeds because it focuses on the people, gives shambling corpses the respect they deserve (which is to say, very little and a lot, depending on the scene), and dramatizes the horror of dead people coming back to a tortured semi-existence.

No self-respecting horror fan should miss this movie.


Monday, February 23, 2009

Nick Ozment's Book Review: World War Z

That is the power Brooks wields, and in so doing he makes a contribution to gothic literature as powerful and as timely for the twenty first century as Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde was for the nineteenth or Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby was for the twentieth. By tapping into viable fears and present dangers, Brooks instills his imaginary bogeymen with real terror and menace. These are our worst fears given tangible form, dressed up in mythical drag: walking corpses bringing infection to our homes, invading our safe havens and reminding us viscerally with their dripping flesh and ravaged skulls that in the world we live in, there really is no such place: no haven is truly safe. [MORE]


Book Review: The Dead

I met Mark Rogers at a fiction convention. Bored and sensing a kindred spirit, I hung around Mark's table, a little lost in the swirl of all the agents, publishers, and hopeful authors like myself.

When I mentioned that I write book reviews, Mark offered me not just one book, but all of them - literally, the entire pile of books he had on his table. I just couldn't do take him up on his offer; as much as I'd love to write reviews for all of his books, the odds of me finishing any of them in a reasonable period of time (say, before I see him again in a year at another convention) were low. So I only picked up a few. Then he asked me the magic question: "Are there are any in particular you're interested in?"

I pointed at The Dead, with its disturbing cover of a wicked-looking dead man. And thus I became acquainted with Mark's style of horror.

Mark is what I like to call a double-threat. Mark's not just an artist; he's an amazing talent reminiscent of Frank Frazetta. After reading The Dead, it's apparent that he's also an exceptional author. It just isn't fair!

When I picked up The Dead, Mark warned me "there are typos." That's not entirely true. I found only one actual misspelling. But something happened during layout, such that every few paragraphs two words run together. Somehow, these kinds of errors offend me far less than misspellings.

I expected a zombie book. In fact, I was intrigued how one writes a zombie-themed novel. After awhile the zombies have to get a little boring, right? What I got instead was something completely different: a good old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone tale of the apocalypse, complete with the dead walking the earth to claim souls for Hell.

The Dead is basically a morality play, detailing the efforts of a few tough characters strong enough to survive. All the familiar apocalyptic elements are here, from nature reclaiming technology to good people suddenly spirited away to Heaven, from preachers touting the end of the world to survivalists loaded with artillery. They're all front and center in The Dead, and Mark gleefully kills them off one by one.

Mark's greatest skill is in his imagery. He has an artist's talent for visualizing the indescribable; his description of the palpable evil that one of the zombies gives off, like "that scene in Indiana Jones where the Nazi pugilist is about to hit the whirling blade" will stick with me for the rest of my life. Mark doesn't just describe events; he actually paints pictures of them in your mind, filling in every color and texture.

The book isn't perfect, however. Some characters (notably the wife of the protagonist) seem undeveloped, while others (Steve) show up out of nowhere. The events of the world are summarized in narration rather than left a mystery, which detracts from some of the horror. For those seeking definitive answers as to which side Rogers comes down on philosophically, he dodges the question: what happens to all those folks who aren't Christian? Good question...

Still, The Dead is a terrifying tale, especially so for Roman Catholics with a healthy dose of Italian guilt. You'll never look at your zombies the same way again.


Game Review: Stubbs the Zombie: Rebel Without a Pulse

The plot may be a bit simplistic, but at various points it's hilarious. The game makes effective use of its Mature rating by having characters swear and alluding to naughty situations (go Stubbs!). Speaking of the plot, every zombie movie has its homage in Stubbs: from battling rednecks in cornfields to attacking shoppers in a mall. The various characters react accordingly…they freak out when they see zombies, but can carry on hilarious dialogue until then. Military types actively hunt down Stubbs and work together. This is a living, breathing universe.

One that deserves to have its brain eaten for sure. [MORE]


Game Review: Dead Rising

  • DAY -35: Just saw an ad for Dead Rising. So jazzed! The main character kills shambling zombies in a mall with baseball bats, an umbrella, and a chainsaw. Chainsawing zombie goodness, baby! WOOHOO!
  • DAY 0: Just got the game. YES! Popped it in and started playing. The main character reminds me of Andrew Dice Clay from The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, only sized like a linebacker.
  • DAY 1: What the...the text is so small! I can't read anything!
  • DAY 2: Oh for the love of...Dead Rising is for HD televisions only. I can't read what Otis keeps calling me about, so I can't play the game. Sigh.
  • DAY 32: My brother was over for dinner and when he looked at my flat screen television in the basement, he pointed out that it's actually a high def television. Yes, I'm an idiot. Back to Dead Rising!
  • DAY 33: Woohoo, this rocks! So many zombies to kill! And not just zombies; the game is full of psychopaths too. I killed a clown with chainsaws, some big fat cop who looks like Kathy Kinney (from The Drew Carey Show), a pyromaniac who looks like Weird Al, and a weird raincoat/green mask-wearing cult that totally freaks me out. I'm a little behind on the main missions but the game hasn't ended yet so I figure I'm good.
  • DAY 34: I hate this game so much. I spent hours playing it and when I got back to the security office, the game ended and said I had missed a deadline. Information that would have been useful YESTERDAY! Maybe I'll sell it.
  • DAY 37: Okay, back on track. It's really upsetting that I don't have time to save all the survivors. So I of course only save the hot chicks. And this one old lady because I love my grandma (God rest her soul). A couple of times I accidentally killed one of the survivors with a sledgehammer when I was trying to kill a zombie. Mental note: people and sledgehammers don't mix.
  • DAY 38: OH. MY. GOD. The game just crashes at random times. It says the disc is dirty. Only the disc isn't dirty. My theory is that the game uses a huge amount of processor speed, and since I have a refurbished 360, they dialed back the processing power so the Xbox doesn't overheat anymore. Which means Dead Rising crashes it every few times. I am so selling this game, screw this!
  • DAY 40: It seems like there's some sort of plot to produce cattle...that led to creating zombies in a little town outside the U.S. The main psychopath decided to reveal the U.S. government's illegal experiments by unleashing the zombie plague at a mall to make a statement. It doesn't really make too much sense. Worse, there are multiple endings and I missed the chopper pick-up time on the roof of the mall. I'm going to start over from my last save point (which is few and far between). I'm starting to really hate this game.
  • DAY 42: I did it! Almost. Now the U.S. military is "cleaning up" the operation by killing everyone. Gee, glad I went through all the trouble to save all the hot chicks. Oh well, a few katana slices takes care of them nicely. But then there's this long battle with a tank and then some military guy who is impossible to beat. I think I'll just sell this game.
  • DAY 43: My wife said, "After all this complaining about the game, you BETTER finish it." So okay, I'm gonna finish it.
  • DAY 44: I did it! I beat the main bad guy by spinning around like a top, backslapping the bad guy with what has to be the stupidest move in gaming combat history. But I beat Dead Rising! Take that, only-one-save slot! Take that, crashing-all-the-time processor! Take that, stupid forced story-timeline! I did it! I did it! Did I mention I love this game?


Review: Land of the Dead

I've seen all of George A. Romero's zombie movies, starting with Night of the Living Dead (NOTLD), and found them a little boring. To be fair, this is because everyone's been ripping off Night of the Living Dead since he created NOTLD, so what appears to be tired zombie fare to my jaded eyes is actually what Romero started.

Zombies in Night of the Living Dead are slow, shambling, recently dead people. There are no running zombies here. They can spread their contagion with a bite. The only way to stop them is by blowing their brains out (or stabbing them in the brain, or setting their brains on fire, you get the idea). This traditional zombie trope has been done to death (pun intended), such that it's become a bit difficult to take slow moving zombies seriously.

Zombies were originally conceived as allegories first, horror monsters second. The strength of Night of the Living Dead wasn't just the terror of cannibalistic strangers assaulting a home; it was the threat of the unwashed masses overwhelming the middle class. The zombies in Romero's movies are slow, but they are relentless, and their numbers are legion. Never mind that you can outrun them...eventually, they will catch up to you. Who's worse: the zombies outside or the people who will do anything to survive on the inside? We know Romero's answer.

This class warfare was further explored in Dawn of the Dead, where we had the comedic "shopping zombies." The film established that zombies struggle to recapture their old life, shambling aimlessly about in shopping malls...sort of like what they did when they were alive anyway. Dawn of the Dead posited: Are zombies any different from uninvolved and unaware living citizens? We know Romero's answer.

By Day of the Dead, we had the other side of the coin. The previous films followed the travails of pockets of civilization and their struggle for survival. In Day of the Dead, humanity's last hope is sequestered in a military installation. There, scientists struggle to discover a cure, wage a philosophical (and sometimes physical) battle. We're also introduced to Bub, a zombie who can learn. Can the lower classes become better through education? We know Romero's answer.

Land of the Dead is the fourth movie in the series, and this time there's far less claustrophobia. Whereas the first three movies centered on human protagonists holing up in a farmhouse, mall, or military base, the humans in Land of the Dead live in a city. And this city has the full range of human triumph and misery, from its slums to a glittering tower known as Fiddler's Green. Lorded over by Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), it's a microcosm of society: white socialites in suits dine at the top of the tower while the poor mingle in all manner of vices, many of them supported by an easy supply of non-humans: the zombies.

But even the most powerful city has to be powered somehow, and ruthless scavengers (who drive an armored tank known as Dead Reckoning) stock Fiddler's Green. This miracle of modern technology has a front-mounted gatling gun, missile launchers, nightvision, and armor plating. It's just what you'd want if you were fighting zombies. Riley (Simon Baker...wait, not that Simon Baker) lead his team, along with his cheeky second in command, Cholo (John Leguizamo). Charlie (Robert Joy), who is mentally disabled and disfigured, follows Riley around like a puppy. He also happens to be a crack shot. There's also an ex-hooker named Slack (Asia Argento) who provides an audience point of view to the whole situation, but seems primarily to be there as a thank you to her infamous horror movie producer father, Dario Argento.

The opening scene, wherein Riley and Cholo demonstrate different interpretations of the term "critical supplies," sums up the movie's ethos very quickly. Cholo thinks booze and smokes are critical because they might gain him some influence with Kaufman, maybe even letting the mercenary move into Fiddler's Green. Conversely, Riley wants to get antibiotics for the sick child of his friend. Both men believe it will be their last mission amongst the "stenchers," the phrase the humans use for the zombies.

But there's more to the zombies than meets the eye. A former gas station attendant turned zombie, Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), is a "zombie lord" of sorts. He is self-aware and capable of learning, just like Bub. He remembers parts of his old life and, more importantly, sympathizes with his zombie brethren. When they are wounded, he is outraged. Most frightening of all, Big Daddy can teach the other zombies what he knows. It doesn't take long before he leads a zombie rebellion-straight towards Fiddler's Green.

When Cholo discovers that his boss will never give him a place in Fiddler's Green, no matter how many troublemakers he murders (along with the zombies), things turn ugly. Cholo steals Dead Reckoning and drives off with the intent of holding the city hostage until he gets enough money to start his own city. Ironically, Riley has the same plans, but discovers his car is stolen...because Kaufman wants him to stay. Kaufman then promises Riley his freedom if he steals Dead Reckoning back before Cholo blows up the whole city.

Land of the Dead is surprisingly engaging; it's probably the first pro-zombie movie ever, casting the undead as sympathetic, pathetic, and clearly underclass: they are butchers, musicians, and yes, gas station attendants. And as the zombies become more self aware, they lust for what the humans already have...more than just flesh, but their homes. At first, fireworks awe the stenchers. But eventually, even that is not enough to preoccupy them.

Romero knows his zombies well and films them in all their alternately gory, comedic and yes sometimes-beautiful glory. We watch zombies from a God's-eye view, when they look only like everyday citizens, wandering about. We see zombie and anguished citizens alike in a writhing pile of corpses and teeth. Everywhere, Romero never lets us forgot that if you squint your eyes just enough, a zombie looks just like a person. And if you can confuse the two, maybe things aren't so black and white as life and death, "living" and "stencher."

The parallels to modern day are a bit more subtle than say, Revenge of the Sith. But they're still there. Kaufman "refuses to negotiate with terrorists." The zombie life seems almost idyllic before the tank-like Dead Reckoning invades from Fiddler's Green, blowing the zombie-citizens to smithereens. It becomes rapidly apparent that Romero wants us to see the zombies not just as undead foils or evil monsters, but as people. And if they are capable of thought, then do the supposedly civilized humans have the right to shoot them in the head and take their resources?

We know Romero's answer.

Land of the Dead is a traditional zombie film with a lot to say. Kids accustomed to the 2004 Dawn of the Dead-speed of horror will undoubtedly be disappointed. But for adults who want a bit more from zombies than just dead people, Land of the Dead is lively indeed. StatCounter - Free Web Tracker and Counter


Review: Resident Evil: Apocalypse

The first Resident Evil movie was a homage to zombie movies that have gone before. And Aliens. And a few other movies thrown in for good measure. It had a creepy girl, zombies, long-tongued monsters, carnivorous dogs, and Alice (Milla Jovovich) with lots of firepower.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse has all of those things, but none of the spunk. Where the first movie had a relentless ambiance of terror, Apocalypse is a juiced up action horror without much horror.

PLEASE NOTE: This review contains spoilers, but that's sort of like saying "water might be wet"--everything I explain here is painfully obvious from the start of the film. So read at your own risk, but you're not risking much...

Where we last left Alice, she and the other survivor of the movie, Matt Addison (Eric Mabius), were captured by the evil Umbrella Corporation for experimentation. When she awoke, nobody was left alive in the hospital (shades of 28 Days Later). So Alice does what she always does in an uncertain situation…she grabs a shotgun.

Meanwhile, the entire city has been infected with the T-virus, a biological weapon that 1) mutates Alice into a superhuman killing machine, 2) turns poor Matt into Nemesis, a muscle-bound gun-toting juggernaut, 3) turns people into zombies, 4) turns dogs into zombies, 5) allows a little girl (Angie Ashford, played by Sophie Vavasseur) to walk, 6) did I mention it turns people into zombies?

So what does Umbrella do? What all authorities do in a zombie movie: they seal off Raccoon City and call in the nukes (shades of Return of the Living Dead).

Also running about trapped in the city is a cast of stereotypes: the hot police chick (Jill Valentine, played by Sienna Guillory who fails miserably at disguising her British accent), the hot military dude (Carlos Olivera, played by Oded Fehr), and the funny black guy who swears a lot (L.J., played by Mike Epps). After lots of grandstanding, swearing, amazingly accurate zombie head shots, and a lot of confusion, the plot finally gets going when Dr. Ashford (Jared Harris) gives them a mission.

Using his amazing "personnel locator" that only seems to work for Dr. Ashford, he discovers that Angie is holed up in her school, all by herself. We're not sure exactly how this is possible, but never you mind…what matters is Ashford hacks into the entire Raccoon City network and is able to view what's going on from every video camera and microphone. He then calls our heroes with a deal: if they agree to get his little girl out of the city, he will tell them how to escape.

The means of escape is through a helicopter. That's it. That's the big plan. Hijack a helicopter. But of course, it's all a trap, and ultimately Alice and Nemesis must duke it out…for some reason. Something about the perfect weapon, yadda yadda.

There are a lot of neat graphical touches throughout the film. Alice's bullets have little Umbrella Corp. icons on them. The helicopters are painted with the Umbrella Corp. logo. And the end of the film (and subsequent cover-up of the nuclear blast) is entertaining in the same way that the rise of a zombie outbreak was entertaining in Shaun of the Dead. Which is to say it's awful, but you enjoy it anyway.

But that's it. Alice is far too much of a superhero to make us feel concerned about her survival. There are too many characters to keep track of without enough plot development to care about them (Carlos seems to have no actual value at all, less so than even L.J.'s offensive portrayal as a black gangsta). And for some reason, Alice's every move is punctuated by a whiplash sound that quickly gets tiresome.

There's a lot of slow motion action sequences, a lot of blue lensing, and a lot of freeze-frame shots of weapons dropping to the ground. The director (Alexander Witt) is new to directing a film on his own. He doesn't seem to know what to do with Paul W.S. Anderson's script, and it shows.

The movie drags on and on and on long after it should end, such that it feels a lot like you're watching the third film (an inevitability). By that time I had lost interest. When the most interesting part of a film is Jill Valentine's miniskirt, it's hard to care about Alice's fate. StatCounter - Free Web Tracker and Counter


Sunday, February 22, 2009

Zombie CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead

Zombie CSU is nonfiction pop-culture that brings together two of the most popular themes in current entertainment: crime scene investigation and zombies. The book includes short interviews and essays on the step-by-step procedures used by forensics experts and law enforcement agencies to address an outbreak of the living dead. Though the premise is certainly fantastical, the book’s core information is hard science and accurate investigative techniques, beginning with the first-on-scene police, through the CSU phase, then into speculation on how Federal authorities would deal with a potential plague, especially if the basis for zombies was biological in nature (a bacteria or other disease vector to be determined) and what steps would be taken to keep this out of the hands of terrorists. Using a “what if?” approach, the book includes interviews, comments, FAQs and Q&As with actual scientists, crime scene investigators, pathologists, medical doctors, psychologists, physicists, etc.