Monday, 3 November 2014

The Zombie King

Director: Aidan Belizaire
Writers: Rebecca-Clare Evans, Jennifer Chippindale, George McCluskey
Producers: Rebecca-Clare Evans, Jennifer Chippindale
Cast: Edward Furlong, Corey Feldman, David McClelland
Country: UK
Year of release: 2013
Reviewed from: Festival of Fantastic Films 2014
Website: www.facebook.com/TheZombieKingUk

The Zombie King starts out promisingly with some fine, understated, character-based British black humour but ultimately trips itself up with an impenetrably complex back-story and too many characters. Its main selling point is the inclusion of two American actors with some name value based on, let’s face it, very old credits. You’ve seen far worse zombie films than this, but you have also seen many better ones (often of comparable budget). And, unless you live in Germany, you’ve probably not seen this one at all.

The zombie apocalypse has happened very recently – within the past day or so - and the survivors are still struggling to cope with, and understand, the situation. The first group we meet are psychotic postie Ed (George McCluskey – General Killgarth from Catalina: A New Kind of Superhero!), cynical milkman Munch (David McClelland: Emmerdale, Corrie and a holographic priest in Lexx!) and cowardly traffic warden Boris (Brazilian Michael Gamarano: Backslasher). Any audience will immediately warm to these three, especially Munch whose white coat and cap, not to mention his penchant for despatching the undead with well-aimed glass milk bottles, marks him out as one of the great comic characters of British horror. (McClelland’s voice, spectacles and performance put me in mind of his fellow Yorkshireman, poet Ian McMillan.)

Before too long, our hapless trio meet three other survivors: Simo (Seb Castang: Lost Boys 3, Ibiza Undead and daytime soap Family Affairs), Neville (Timothy Owen, also credited as casting director and fight choreographer) and Scott (Leo Horsfield: The Dead Outside and all three Outpost films). I was particularly surprised at a character named ‘Simo’ (spelt with one M but pronounced as ‘Simmo’) since that was my nickname at school and indeed I’m still called ‘Simo’ by most of my friends in sci-fi fandom. But that aside, already a problem presents itself, in that these three characters have no real character. Nothing defines them. I could not describe them to you in any way (except maybe ‘young’) and they are pretty much interchangeable. Which is a problem with the script, not a reflection of the actors’ performances.

And some time after this, these six men find a barn where they meet up with four women. But only elderly, rotund, randy Vera (Jane Foufas from Mamma Mia!, obviously having great fun) has a character. Danny (Rebecca-Clare Evans: Plan Z, Tash Force), Tara (Jennifer Chippindale: Chronoslexia) and Tabitha (Anabel Barnston, who was Mona Hallow in The New Worst Witch) are as indistinguishable and hence unmemorable (and hence, sadly, uninteresting) as Simo, Neville and Scott. This is particularly surprising given that Evans and Chippindale not only produced this film but co-wrote it with McCluskey. You would think they would have given themselves plum roles, but instead they play two of the six characters who totally fail to register and towards whom I could not apply a single adjective.

Even if all were distinct and identifiable, ten characters is simply way too many for a film like this (unless a bundle of them are going to become zombie fodder almost immediately). In fact there are eleven protagonists as the gang head for a church where they meet unkempt, drunken vicar Father Lawrence. Sometime Death Eater Jon Campling (also in The Witching Tree, Apocalypse Z, Penetration Angst, Steven M Smith’s Tales of the Supernatural and Melanie Light’s disturbing short The Herd) does the best he can with the lines he’s given, but his function is almost entirely expository and there’s no depth to Father Lawrence beyond his omnipresent bottle of wine.

Conflicted priests can make for intriguing characters in horror movies (cf. High Stakes, Bram Stoker’s Shadowbuilder) but this reverend is distinctly one-note. He doesn’t seem to have lost his faith, just his sobriety, which simply isn’t interesting. I had great difficult buying his almost immediate descent into alcohol-fuelled fatality after the zombies show up – how the heck did anyone that useless ever get a job with the C of E? – but even more than that I didn’t for a moment believe that any vicar would ever have hair that long, even if it was tidied up.

So that’s eleven characters, and we still haven’t encountered token name-value imports Edward ‘used to be in The Terminator’ Furlong and Corey ‘used to be in The Lost Boys’ Feldman.

Furlong is seen in some intercut monochrome scenes, caring for his dying wife (Tanya Katarina), with Sebastian Street (Stag Night of the Dead, Airborne) as the doctor unable to save her. Actually, these aren’t 'scenes', it’s pretty much the same scene over and over again. There are also (colour) shots of Furlong roaring around country lanes on a motortrike and pulling up amid a group of zombies who have no interest in attacking him.

But then the zombies here actually seem to have little interest in attacking anyone. They are the traditional slow, shuffling type. We never see more than a few together and they don’t seem to seriously impede our main characters. A couple of people get bitten towards the end but any gorehounds looking for serious zombie action will be sorely disappointed. That includes anti-zombie action; most of the zombie ‘kills’ are simply whacks to the head with something heavy. Furthermore, no real attempt has been made to make-up the zombies, either as rotting corpses or bloodied victims of zombie attacks. They’re just morose, slow-moving people, presenting no real threat to our protagonists.

Eventually, via Father Lawrence, we learn what is going on. Well, sort of. It’s clear that Furlong’s character, Samuel Peters, wants to resurrect his wife. To this end he has called on the (real) voodoo god Kalfu, played by Feldman in a curious make-up that covers his face with raised markings. Of course, most voodoo gods – including Kalfu – are generally depicted as black and one can’t help feeling that a more Caribbean-looking actor might have worked better in the (very brief) role. Nevertheless, props to the movie for drawing on the voodoo origins of the zombie concept, something which few modern films have done (Boy Eats Girl is the only one that comes to mind).

The question is: what are Peters and Kalfu cooking up? And the answer is: damdifino. It’s something to do with seven souls and seven steps and seven days (and possibly seven dwarfs or seven samurai or 7-Up) and Peters has a glowing blue thing on a string round his neck but I would be lying to you if I said I knew what the hell was going on. I think – and this is largely a guess – that Peters somehow created/raised seven zombies and those zombies munched down on other people but if the seven originals can be destroyed before seven days is up, then everything works out all right and the survivors live happily ever after. But if not, then zombies take over the world, and Peters becomes the Zombie King. Or maybe he already is the Zombie King. Or perhaps Kalfu is the Zombie King. Who the hell knows?

The film’s biggest problem is that it tries to create this entirely original mythology from scratch, then convey it to us through the expository ramblings of a drunken priest. But it’s too much to deal with, bearing too little relation to the standard tropes of the zombie genre. We don’t know who/what a ‘Zombie King’ is. We don’t know how/why these seven souls, or first seven zombies, if that’s what they are, came to be. We don’t know why Peters is not regarded as prey by the zombies. If anybody ever explained that blue glowing thing, then I missed it. There’s simply no cultural handholds for us – and in an 85-minute B-movie, we need those handholds.

It’s what Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio call ‘mental real estate’: stuff that we all already know which the movie can build on. It’s just not here. Consequently (and unfortunately, and ironically) The Zombie King doesn’t work in the way that many lesser zombie films do. Pictures like Decay or Zombie Undead or Zombies from Ireland may be in many respects thoroughly generic but what originality they do present, however fleeting, is at least based on the shared cultural currency of the zombie genre, rather than trying to create an entirely new zombie genre. To make things even less recognisable, there is some schtick here about how zombies can be killed using salt, but I’m not sure where that came from, what it meant or why it was there, to be honest. I also have absolutely no clue what the difference is between the seven significant zombies (credited as ‘Soul #1’ etc) and the other shuffling undead, or how our heroes are able to find and recognise the former.

In a nutshell, what we have here – milkie and postie and parking regulations enforcement officer aside – is a group of people we neither know nor care about trying to do something we don’t understand for reasons that aren’t clear. And sadly that’s never going to fly.

Which is a real shame because what this promises to be at the start would make a great movie. Ed, Munch and Boris are interesting, sympathetic characters. They are given back stories (which the others don’t get) and there is some terrific character conflict between Ed and Munch and between Munch and Boris. Furthermore, to get slightly pretentious for a moment, the use of three uniformed but non-authoritarian figures works brilliantly as a remnant of the old world among the new. These guys are not the emergency services, they don’t have any authority and represent no leadership or Government (despite Boris’ steadfast maintenance that he is in fact there to uphold the law). A picaresque feature about these three arguing as they wander through a post-apocalyptic, zombie-ridden world on some arbitrary and ultimateless hopeless quest could have been terrific, like some sort of cross between Kevin Costner’s The Postman and Spike Milligan’s The Bed Sitting Room. Or that would be brilliant as an ongoing web series. But here they are just a small part of a larger, less interesting group whose goals are unclear, facing a threat that rarely seems threatening.

Also, the implication seems to be that this zombie outbreak, centring as it does on Samuel Peters (or possibly on Father Lawrence’s church – once again it’s not clear), is very localised. There are numerous references to the army having isolated the area and having shot many of the survivors in case they might be infected (a comparison to the 2007 foot and mouth epidemic is the closest the film ever gets to social commentary). But we never, ever see any soldiers, not even in the very final scene (an unsubtle nod to Night of the Living Dead) when some of our characters actually meet some soldiers.

An epilogue halfway through the credits makes (if such a thing is possible) even less sense than the main feature.

I can’t in all honesty recommend The Zombie King, despite some nice performances and a fair number of good jokes. Yes, it’s the debut feature from Evans and Chippindale’s company Northern Girl Productions, but director Aidan Belizaire has plenty of experience helming shorts, corporates and music videos. Then again, the film’s failure is not directorial, it’s logistical. And those logistics are determined by the script. It should be obvious that in 85 minutes (less titles and credits) there simply isn’t room to get to know 14 named characters (including Mrs Peters), especially while also explaining a completely new rationale behind the creation and destruction of zombies.

What of Messrs Furlong and Feldman? Do they add anything to the production? In all honesty, no. Their presence is part of a recent trend for importing US names into British genre pictures, including Zach Galligan in Cut, Robert Englund in Strippers vs Werewolves, Mark Hamill in Airborne, Tony Todd in Dead of the Nite, C Thomas Howell in Siren Song and Jason Mewes in Devil’s Tower (plus, from a European angle, Rutger Hauer in The Reverend and JCVD in UFO). This all harks back to the 1950s/'60s trend for sticking washed-up Hollywood actors into British B-movies to give them the veneer of respectability, and I suppose it gives any production a hook when competing for attention among the crowded exhibition stands of the AFM or Cannes.

But consider the best titles of the British Horror Revival. I watched Zombie King at its belated UK premiere at the 2014 Festival of Fantastic Films, just after conducting a survey of film-makers and fans to find the best British horror of the 21st century. Take a look at that top 20. If we ignore Let Me In which, although a Hammer picture, was made in the USA, only two of those films have an imported star: Melissa George in Triangle (who is Australian) and Laura Harris in Severance (who is Canadian, and very much part of an ensemble cast). There’s no token Yank name in Shaun of the Dead. Or The Descent. Or 28 Days Later. Or Dead Man’s Shoes. Or Eden Lake or The Children or Attack the Block or Colin or The Borderlands… I remain unconvinced that the practice adds anything to a movie beyond cheap publicity. And really, not that cheap.

In this instance, Feldman and Furlong are recognisable names but hardly genre icons like Englund or Todd. Furlong’s recent genre credits include The Green Hornet, The Mortician, the remake of Night of the Demons, a Star Trek Voyager TV movie and Arachnoquake. Feldman has been in Six Degrees of Hell, non-Band franchise mash-up Puppet Master vs Demonic Toys, the two Lost Boys sequels that no-one either wanted or noticed, and something called Zombex. Both still have their fangirl followers but so does anyone who once appeared in a hit movie and still has a pulse.

One can’t help feeling that the money spent on flying in John Connor and Edgar Frog could have been spent better elsewhere. On some army uniforms, or some zombie make-up, or some gruesome prosthetics. Or just on taking the time to polish the script and remove some of the extraneous characters. It also wouldn’t have hurt to pay a little more attention during the editing process. In one shot a white car can clearly be seen driving around this supposedly deserted area. I know that's picky but I noticed it, someone on IMDB noticed it; you’ve got to ask why no-one involved with the film noticed it. That’s just careless.

Recognisable faces among the supporting cast include Forbes KB (Jack Says, Kung Fu Flid, A Day of Violence, Game of Thrones, Shame the Devil) and Nathan Head (Legacy of Thorn, Theatre of Fear, The Eschatrilogy) plus Brendan McCoy (Gasoline Blood, Bronson), Ebony-Rae Michaelson (Zombie Women of Satan), Colin Murtagh (Slaughter is the Best Medicine) and Scott Stevenson (assorted background gigs on Doctor Who).

A few production credits because people work hard on a film, even when the end result isn't up to scratch. Ismael Issa (Deranged) was the DP and Andrew McKee (The Turing Enigma) was the editor. Tabby Quitman (Soldiers of the Damned) handled production design, the ever-reliable Mike Peel (The Zombie Diaries, The Scar Crow, Red Kingdom Rising) was rather underused in the special make-up effects, and Steven Clarkson supervised the visual effects. BHR regulars Neil Jones and Stuart Brennan are among the executive producers of the film which was a co-production between Northern Girl and Templeheart Films in association with Burn Hand Films. Jones also directed second unit. Andrew Phillips composed the score.

Filmed at the tail end of 2011, The Zombie King eventually saw the light of day in April 2013 on Deutsche DVD courtesy of Splendid Film. Japanese and Dutch releases followed but it was only in November 2014 that the first British audience saw the film, at the FFF where it was paired with Trauma, a 2013 half-hour short by Natalie Kennedy starring Rebecca-Claire Evans and with Aidan Belizaire on camera.

MJS rating: C

3 comments:

  1. It's truly an awful film. Barnston, Castang, Horsfield and Campling's talents were wasted on this atrocity. What a let down.

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  2. Great review. Bad movie.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for your comment. Succinct and to-the-point.

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