Sunday, 22 May 2016

The Road

Director: Ron Ford
Writer: Michael O’Hara
Producer: Ron Ford
Cast: Anne Selcoe, Richard Erhardt, Daniel Ray Anderson
Country: USA/Canada
Year of release: 2008
Reviewed from: screener disc

The Road has a neat and original central premise, something sorely lacking in most zombie films which are usually content to be the 498th remake of Night of the Living Dead. It is also well-made - given its tiny budget - with some enjoyably bloody special effects that make up for the less-than-convincing acting.

The film’s biggest fault however is that, at 40 minutes, it is either too long or too short, possibly both. It would work better as a tight, 20-minute film, shorn of an unnecessary prologue and a frankly boring and largely irrelevant first act. Alternatively, the basic premise could be expanded to feature-length by replacing our loan protagonist in a car with a minibus full of kids.

But... you get what you get.

We open with a character identified only as ‘The Injured Man’ (Richard Erhardt) crashing his car on a lonely road at night while running drugs from one dealer to another - although this reason for his journey is completely irrelevant and never mentioned again. Stumbling through the dark, he sees a couple of dismembered-but-still-moving people and a dog that has evidently been run over but is nevertheless still walking around.

It’s a comic-book splash panel style of prologue, in that it doesn’t really have much to do with anything but it gets some gore effects on screen in the first five minutes. And it’s a good job that it does, I suppose, because it’s the last ‘horror’ we’ll see for quite some time.

Once the credits start, we’re introduced to heartless businesswoman Jean (Anne Selcoe: Home of the Brave, The Family Holiday) who is on her way to some sort of meeting and rings up her employee Gary (Daniel Ray Anderson) to find out the address (I dunno, I’d have looked that up before I set out). Gary doesn’t want to help her because she is planning to fire her partner Linda; presumably that’s Linda in a photo on Gary’s desk because he reveals to Jean that he and Linda are dating and he won’t help her destroy the woman he loves.

The thing is, it seemed (when I first watched this) that Jean was actually on her way to fire Linda but that can’t be right because she must know her own business partner’s address. Anyway, she blackmails Gary into helping her by e-mailing him from her Blackberry a scan of a newspaper cutting about a fatal drink-drive accident from his past. But he deliberately gives her the wrong address and then sets off after her with a gun.

Unsure about the address, with her mobile and her satnav packing up, Jean turns onto a lane later identified as Bluebottle Road where she occasionally stops the car, gets out, walks around then drives on. At one point she sees somebody but, when they get close, it’s obvious they have no head. (I kept wondering whether ‘Bluebottle Road’ was a subtle Goon Show reference, as in, “You rotten swine, you have deaded me!” But I’m guessing probably not...)

So anyway, is Jean shocked by this headless, walking corpse? Amazed? Puzzled? Horrified? Difficult to tell as she just drives off with no comment and no obvious display of emotion. More to the point, we’re nearly halfway through the film by now. This is where the story starts and it’s difficult to see why we need five minutes of ‘The Injured Man’ injuring himself or ten minutes of soap opera about Jean, Gary and Linda.

Down the road Jean’s car bumps gently into our friend from the prologue, somehow sending him flying several yards onto the verge where he lies, pleading for assistance in a flat monotone. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the line “Oh God, please help me” delivered with less emotion. The dialogue reads like someone panicking but is performed like a note to the milkman: Oh God, don’t leave me. Two extra pints today please.

He’s terrified of being left there because “they’re coming - the dead ones”; the Z-word is never used in this film. So Jean drags him into her car, which has either run out of petrol or got stuck in a rut in the road, possibly both. And then ‘the dead ones’ attack. There’s about ten of them with assorted injuries: eyeball popped out, arm torn off etc. It’s an entertainingly varied group of the living dead including a tall goth bloke with long hair, a girl with a license plate stuck in her head, a delivery boy still clutching a pizza box and of course Bandit the pug, possibly cinema’s first canine zombie.

The most impressive effect is a zombie with a not quite severed head, attached only by a flap of skin at the nape. This hangs down the fellow’s back until he lurches forward at which point it pops back into place, before later flopping back again. This is neat and clever and funny and Ron Ford himself plays zombie-with-head-in-place.

While I salute the non-use of the Z-word (it reminded me of Joe Ahearne’s British TV series Ultraviolet in which no-one used the word ‘vampire’, giving the impression that it was set in a parallel world where vampires do not exist in tradition or fiction), there’s a problem here. What exactly is the threat from these walking corpses? If they were acknowledged as zombies then inherent in that is the fear that they will want to eat you. But although they lurch silently towards the car and then paw at the windows, there is absolutely nothing whatsoever to indicate what danger they present. They might grope you, but as they move along in the traditional slow-time shuffle (these aren’t 28 Days Later zombies) they can be easily avoided.

Bereft of context, without the intellectual baggage of zombie-as-cultural-artefact, all we have here is a group of very badly injured people moving very slowly and it’s difficult to see why Jean would be so scared of them. In other words, in order to understand that they are a threat - rather than an inconvenience or even deserving of sympathy and help - she has to know what they are and her understanding has to match ours. She has to be in touch with the, if you will, zombie zeitgeist. Which she apparently isn’t.

Our injured friend does know what they are. Bluebottle Road has some sort of curse which means that anyone who dies on the road is doomed to stay there forever. My favourite part of the film is the little bit of exposition where Jean asks how this could be without the road becoming famous and TIM (as I might as well call him) explains why it is that local people know about the road but the story never goes any further.

But again, there’s a problem. Surely Jean is local? After all, Gary works for her and he’s only a few miles away (as evidenced by his appearance at the end of the film) so why doesn’t she (or Gary) know about Bluebottle Road? This would work much better if Jean was from a long way off and just passing through, in other words without all that boring phone stuff at the start. This would also make her more sympathetic - and TIM would be more sympathetic too if we didn’t have that prologue showing us that he’s a drug-dealer’s goon. What we’ve got here is a drug-pusher and a bitch trying to get away from some people who seem frankly harmless and thereby invite our sympathy much more than the couple inside the car.

I can see what The Road is trying to do, I can see where The Road is, ah, going. But I can also see how and why it’s failing to get there. The script really needed tightening up, divested of all the unnecessary stuff at the start and stripped down to its essentials. If it had to be 40 minutes long, the main story should have been filled out to that time - rather than attaching irrelevant background stuff at the beginning - and there are plenty of problems in this set-up which could be explored and thereby solved through that extra running time for the main story.

I’m being overly critical here. Ron and co have put a lot of effort in and done a grand job but the core of any horror film is the threat and these zombies are simply, well, vague. You really, really need to know what your threat is, in every detail, before you unleash it on your protagonists, rather than just ticking a box that says ‘zombie’ and assuming it’s all okay (even more so if you’re going to avoid using the Z-word). And it helps to have at least one sympathetic protagonist. There are only three characters here: one is an evil, soulless bitch about to betray her best friend; one earns his living by helping to drag people’s lives into drug-dependent misery; and the third one killed several people when he was drink-driving and now plans to murder his boss. Who precisely are we meant to empathise with?

This is deliberate - there’s little doubt about that. The film opens and closes with a radio DJ (played by young Mr Ford) bemoaning the amount of greed in the world and whether there is still time to change the road we’re on - very allegorical. The problem is that those who suffer in this film don’t do so because of their unpleasant nature or past misdemeanours, they just suffer. And with no sympathetic characters, there’s nobody to show us, allegorically, how we might change our ways.

I won’t spoil the ending but it involves Gary, a less than convincing make-up on Jean (it always look wrong when somebody’s face is plastered in blood but there’s none in their hair), an editing inconsistency that suggests Jean has turned off Bluebottle Road although she then seems to still be on it, and a final resolution that is inconsistent with the established lore because by then Jean definitely isn’t on Bluebottle Road.

There’s a car crash at the end which is really quite effective (as indeed is the one at the start, although that has the advantage of being in darkness) and you know, car crashes are extremely difficult to do on a limited budget for obvious reasons. We also get a revelation about TIM (though it has nothing to do with his drug-running job) which includes a brief shot of the best gore effect in the film. It’s all a bit of a mishmash at the end, to be honest, combining possibly the film’s best bit with some of its weakest moments.

I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy The Road but I did find it frustrating. There are parts that don’t really make sense - why, for example, after eventually driving away from the shuffling zombies, does Jean knock down the same zombies further down the road? - and other parts that aren’t necessary at all.

And while time and effort has been put into the make-up effects, there’s a small but annoying moment when Jean tops up her tank from a can of petrol in her boot (er, 'gas in her trunk’, I suppose). It’s annoying because the container is very obviously empty. There’s an episode of Seinfeld where the characters are wandering around a car park and Kramer is carrying a heavy item that he bought - a video or something similar. Michael Richards insisted that the genuine item be put in the box because, good as he is at physical comedy, you need the weight there to act against. Acting that an empty container is heavy requires world class mime skills. In other words, why not give the actress a genuine can of petrol? Unless you’re Marcel Marceau, it’s virtually impossible to carry an empty plastic container around the same way you would if it was full. Sorry to harp on about something so inconsequential, but I get annoyed by tiny things that would cost nothing to fix.

The Road was written by Michael O’Hara as part of an anthology script (Ron gets an ‘additional material’ credit) and is likely to end up being released as one segment in the third volume of the Goregoyles series from Canadian executive producer Alexandre Michaud’s Helltimate Studios, some time in 2008 (the film carries a 2007 copyright). Hopefully the opening sequence can be trimmed for the feature release so that it doesn’t swamp the film. Let’s face it, this is a movie for folk who love cheesy, gory low-budget horror and there’s no point wasting so much time before getting to the, ah, meat of the story.*

DP Phil Sondericker previously worked with Ron Ford on Fred Olen Ray’s Tiki, which also featured Selcoe and Erhardt in its cast. Ron, Raymond D Biddle and Russell La Croix all get an ‘additional photography’ credit and the editing is credited to Ron ‘with’ Michaud. Make-up effects supervisor Mitch Tiner is another Tiki veteran who also worked on Ron’s little-seen Snakeman, providing - and indeed wearing - the titular effects make-up. He also ‘does’ John Lennon in a Beatles tribute band! Shawn Shay and Jamie Kenmir also get ‘make-up effects’ credits.

David G Such, who scored Ron’s The Crawling Brain, provides the effective music while Christian Viel (director of Evil Breed: The Legend of Samhain) gets a credit for ‘digital SFX’ which principally consists of some bullet hits. Tiner, Shay, Biddle and La Croix are all among the zombie extras, along with Ben and Connor Foxworth, Karolyn Clark, Joelene Smith and Richard Lee.

It’s always good to see a new Ron Ford film and I’d love to like The Road more than I do. It’s so nearly there but its deficiencies, in terms of both script and production, make it unsatisfying for those of us who know what Ron is capable of. Still, trimmed a bit and sandwiched between a couple of other horror tales, it would make a passable half-hour of unpretentious horror fun.

MJS rating: B-

* Update: After writing this review, the Goregoyles III project fell through and Ron re-edited The Road, tightening up the picture by six minutes, before releasing it as half of his own anthology Horror Grindshow.

Review originally posted 3rd March 2008

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