Night of the Living Dead (1968) Review

I am completely exhausted of the zombie craze, and it’s not an overstatement to suggest that others are too. For years the zombie has become increasingly embedded in our culture, with an influx of television shows, movies, and video games all about them. Many use the same plot formula and clichés, while others try to add their own blend of creativity to this oddly wide-open genre.

In the wake of the zombie craze, I feel it’s important to go back and understand where this obsession with the undead first started, or at least when it became popular.

Night of the Living Dead wasn’t the first film to use a zombie. In fact, I remember several zombie-ish films like White Zombie and The Last Man on Earth. Despite that, Night of the Living Dead did give us the modern interpretation of a zombie. They’re actually not even called zombies in the film, rather they are referred to as “ghouls”.

Released in 1968 and directed by George Romero, Night of the Living Dead is known for its explicit gore and grainy realism. It stars Judith O’Dea and Duane Jones as survivors immediately thrusted into a random apocalyptic event. The undead have risen, and our everyday heroes are trapped inside a small farmhouse surrounded by cannibalistic evil. Who will live and who will die?

Our characters aren’t completely void of intelligence. They argue and squabble over the situation they’re in, and what the best course of action will be for the group. Should they stay and barricade the house, or take their chances outside on the road? At one point the argument goes so far it results in a woman being punched directly in the face (not unprovoked, of course). The characters all think for themselves, and therefore feel like real people trapped in a real situation.

Some sequences are leisurely paced by today’s standards, yet there’s a certain level of charm to this I admire. You must remember that Night of the Living Dead established many of the zombie tropes and clichés that we take for granted. How a zombie behaves, how to kill one, and even how to protect yourself; all common zombie movie scenarios that Night of the Living Dead pioneered. In other undead films these aspects are all assumed and therefore glossed over, whereas here everything comes as a slow realization that must be explained through exposition and televised emergency broadcasts. All of which adds to the terrors of the unknown.

The most uncomfortable, disturbing scene is when the ghouls pull the mangled guts and remains of a couple from a truck. The ghouls then precede to hunch over and gruesomely devour what’s left of them. Apparently, Romero obtained large quantities of real meat from the local butcher for the specific scene, and its authenticity pays off. This moment (as well as many other tense scenes) is accompanied by vile, minimalist sound effects that really drive home the horrors.

Each of Romero’s zombie flicks have an overarching theme that to some extent lingers over the film. Like American consumerism in Dawn of the Dead or the birth of internet culture in Diary of the Dead, relevant social satire persisted (and to varying effects).

In Night of the Living Dead, it’s all about race. To a modern viewer it would not immediately appear so, at least not until the surprise ending that’s as tragic as it is shocking. To those who saw Night of the Living Dead back in 1968, the racial message was much clearer and more obvious. Casting Duane Jones as a Black man in the leading role was revolutionary and bold for the time, and his unjust demise is rightfully upsetting. My own realization of the film’s true intents wasn’t until the credits, where we see Duane dragged out of the house by hooks, and his limp body thrown onto a bonfire.

Some people retrospectively call Night of the Living Dead boring, but I believe it maintains its spot as one of best, and most important horror films to date. I honestly find myself much more scared of it now than when I was younger, and I think that’s attributed to my appreciation of the genre. Night of the Living Dead utilizes its unique plot and style, mixes it with creepy sights and sounds, and gives the audience one truly frightening experience. It’s a film I continue to go back to time and time again and gain a little more respect for it with each viewing.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint

Halloween (2018) Review

Forty years ago, on Halloween night, Michael Myers (Nick Castle) stalked and killed the residents of Haddonfield, Illinois. Now he’s back with a vengeance to kill Laurie Strode (the scream queen herself, Jamie Lee Curtis) and family in an all new franchise reboot by Blumhouse Productions.

John Carpenter’s classic slasher flick remains an iconic cultural piece of history and is often regarded as among the best horror films of all time. I make it a tradition to watch the original twice every Halloween, and I consider it one of my favorites.

There have been countless sequels, remakes, rewrites, and reboots. Yet, this is the first time there’s been so much hype revolving around a Halloween movie. Despite the hype and raving reviews, I’m not quite sure the magic transferred over here.

Too much of Halloween mimics past films within the franchise. Kills, plot points, and major scenes are completely ripped from the original Halloween, Halloween II, Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, Halloween H20, and even the Rob Zombie remake. Having so much potential to succeed and a wide-open platform to speak on, Halloween made little effort to differentiate itself from any sequel in the series. If you were to blend up some of the best and worst aspects of all these movies and put it into one modern film, it would be Halloween 2018.

Some of the dialogue and sound effects were awkward and frankly dead on arrival. All the humor was misplaced and didn’t make sense in the context of what was happening on-screen. The jokes got occasional laughs from the audience, but I don’t believe anyone will be highlighting the quality of the humor as a selling point.

No, we’re more concerned with the gore, a staple of the slasher genre. And as sad as it is to say, it wasn’t as graphic as one would hope. Now the original film could hardly be called graphic by today’s standards, but at least most of the kills were on-screen. I swear only half the kills in this movie even take place on-screen, with many characters shown to already be dead. Some are murdered slightly off-screen, as if to tease us. Strangely, this directly contrasts with several incredibly gruesome death scenes, including a gory head smash that we see every bit of. It was as if the filmmakers couldn’t decide if Halloween should be PG-13 or R, so they just met in the middle.

There’s a nice long tracking shot of Michael Myers as he goes from house to house slaying victims, getting adjusted to murder once more. It’s very cinematic, and the visuals within the sequence are filled with a nostalgic, spooky atmosphere. Festive decorations, pumpkins, and costumes line the streets that Myers haunts, and I loved every bit of it.

The main event, if you will, of Halloween is the showdown between Laurie Strode and Michael Myers. In a sense it becomes a classic game of cat and mouse, with the odds not always in Myers’ favor. This was hands down the best part of the film, the moment everyone was waiting for. And did it deliver? Yes, yes it did. We’re given a satisfying, tense, and kick butt conclusion to one big shoulder shrug of a movie.

If you wanted a Halloween movie that looks, feels, and plays out exactly like previous installations, then this is the film for you. Just like many Blumhouse films, the Halloween remake plays it safe in the most frustrating and painstaking ways. The unoriginality negatively impacted many key death scenes, as I could accurately predict almost every twist and turn just off prior movie knowledge. Even disregarding the rest of the series, this new Halloween was just lacking in the spooky department. It’s Halloween, I’m entitled to one good scare, and this just didn’t fully do it for me.

The Verdict: C

-Zachary Flint

Bad Times at the El Royale Review: A Neo-Noir Masterpiece!

After a rather predictable year of predictable films, it sure is refreshing to watch something like Bad Times at the El Royale. A neo-noir/thriller film that prides itself on keeping you on the edge of your seat, biting your nails and guessing what’s going to go down next.

The movie begins with a fixed, locked-down shot of your average motel room. A man enters, carrying only a duffel bag and a loaded gun. We see this man, clearly agitated, meticulously pull back the carpet and furniture, carefully remove the floor boards, and hide the duffel bag underneath the ground. He then seals everything up perfectly the way it was before he arrived. Suddenly, another man barges into the door and murders the first guy in cold blood.

After this jarring sequence we flash forward to ten years later, as several unique individuals check into an isolated, poorly maintained motel known as the El Royale. Among these people are a kindly priest (Jeff Bridges), an outgoing vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), and a struggling soul singer (Cynthia Erivo). None of whom are exactly as they seem.

Bad Times at the El Royale was the most fun I’ve had at a movie in some time. In theme and concept, it draws inspiration from the style of Quentin Tarantino’s works. Most notably, his isolated mystery/drama film The Hateful Eight. It’s mysterious, neo-noir genre directly contrasts with the upbeat, late 60’s soundtrack. Also artistic in nature is the overlapping sequence of events that we continue to jump between, all separated into different chapters. A neat touch that again hearkens back to Tarantino film’s like Pulp Fiction.

I love when a film can predominantly take place in a single location and still maintain the full attention of the audience. El Royale does this with ease, as the stakes are always high and the mystery always unfolding. But it never unfolds far enough as to give away its many secrets. For example, our character with the clearest, most established motives is killed off early on; taking the more active, investigative moviegoers back to square one in terms of why these events are taking place. We don’t really get “that character” to latch onto from beginning to end, because everyone is shrouded in mystery up until the final act.

To make a perfectly reasonable Jeff Bridges reference, by the end of El Royale I felt like The Dude from The Big Lebowski. Grasping for answers to a rather needlessly complex set of circumstances that our protagonist just so happens to be a part of. A bad case of the “wrong place at the wrong time”. And while the film leaves us with a satisfying conclusion, there’s still plenty of intriguing factors left unexplained for the audience to contemplate. My idea of the prefect ending to a movie.

And at the heart of El Royale we get a moving story about faith and redemption, and what those things can mean to a man. These themes are unmistakable to the right viewer, so long as you’re willing to look that far and read the writing on the walls. There’s also a healthy dose of sociopolitical commentary. It doesn’t slap you across the face and shove morals and messages down your throat till you choke, but those picking up what El Royale is putting down will surely walk away respecting the film a little more.

Bad Times at the El Royale isn’t the kind of movie I recommend skipping over. The complicated plot, long runtime, and moody genre may be enough to steer some people away, but those willing to stick around and invest their time and attention into this picture are sure to enjoy it.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint

First Man Review

“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

A quote from one of the United States’ most iconic figures in history, and depicted in the latest Hollywood biopic First Man.

The film documents the major life events of American hero Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling); all leading up to his Apollo 11 mission that made him the first person in history to step foot on the moon. We see his trials and tribulations, and how the loss of his infant daughter (and several close friends) impacted his psyche, as well as his drive to complete his mission to the moon. Also depicted is the strain on Neil’s family life, and how his wife Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) coped with his emotional reclusion from her and the kids. An added level of storytelling that was almost as fascinating as the main plot.

The space flight sequences here are shot with this cinematic, visceral intensity that I imagine was quite difficult to capture. I felt myself getting physically anxious for Aldrin and Armstrong, and the excitement was a roller coaster ride. Without knowing a single thing about space flight, I was left feeling hopeless when random knobs were frantically being pulled as Armstrong and friends soared through space in their claustrophobic shuttle. Effective, nerve-racking filmmaking at its finest.

I highly enjoyed Gosling’s portrayal of Armstrong, as he gives him this distant, almost reclusive personality you wouldn’t expect here. And even though Armstrong felt emotionally distant, deep down the audience could empathize with him and his personal struggles. Through Gosling’s performance it’s clear he never came to terms with the traumatic grief of his daughter’s death. This theme of grief is present throughout the entirety of the flick and is perfectly (and most likely fictionally) all resolved in the dramatic, heartwarming climax.

Towards the end of First Man I really started to feel the runtime weighing down the film. It seems to be that way for a lot of dramas (and biopics), where they become less impactful as they progress simply because they’ve been drawn out for way too long. In reality, this just isn’t the kind of movie that necessitates a two plus hour runtime to share its message, no matter how wonderful or touching that message may be. A solid fifteen minutes could’ve been shaved off First Man to condense it into an even stronger, more emotional film.

First Man is a kindly Hollywood tribute to a cherished American hero. Whether the real Neil Armstrong wanted or felt he deserved all the showing praise, it doesn’t matter. He gets it here.

The Verdict: B+

-Zachary Flint

Venom Review

With only a few weeks till Halloween, I was expecting to review more seasonal movies this time of the year. Instead, I’m stuck reviewing yet another divisive superhero movie to split critics and audiences right down party lines. It comes as no surprise that this divisive movie was made by Sony and is their loose interpretation of the fan favorite Marvel character Venom.

Venom tells the origin story of Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), a renowned investigative journalist who hits rock bottom after doing a hit piece on a notorious businessman, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). While investigating one of Drake’s scientific investments, Eddie becomes fused with an alien entity known as Venom. Now filled with a dark and twisted split personality, Eddie must try to control his new superhuman powers as Venom slowly consumes his identity.

The mood of Venom was a weird blend of dark and goofy, an immediate indication that this film wasn’t taking itself seriously.  Some scenes are frightening and given as much raw intensity as it’s PG-13 rating can muster. Police and criminals are thrown about, killed, and eaten, all in a somewhat mild manner. Other scenes simply have Tom Hardy going bananas. Throwing rage-filled tantrums and engaging in bizarre dialogues that were so perfectly timed that I couldn’t help but laugh. The tone of the writers tended to ape this humorous sentiment, leading me to assume that the film was supposed to be bizarre.

Major continuity issues plagued Venom from start to finish. Poor day and night consistency, unusual (or nonexistent) character arcs, and characters being in two places at once are just a handful of examples displaying the botched editing job. I’m not sure whether the studio or the filmmakers are at fault for these problems, but on several occasions they became a hindrance to the enjoyment of the film. I was left scratching my head when an important scientist in the film appeared in two back to back scenes in different locations, all with no indication of a time-lapse.

Venom was a bit of a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, I can see where people would be disappointed with the turnout of the film, it basically being one big comical farce. Nothing is taken seriously, some characters don’t have story arcs, and some people just duck out of the movie altogether.

On the other hand, I rather enjoyed the nonsense of Hardy’s “symbiotic” relationship with Venom. The unpredictable antics and wild outbursts of Hardy were laugh out loud hilarious, and the personality of Venom provided a nice contrast in the overall tone. I never found myself too bored with the film and I quite enjoyed some of the action, despite the sub-par editing that made certain scenes confusing.

I wouldn’t recommend that typical superhero movie fans go and see it, but Venom definitely doesn’t deserve the harsh feedback it’s received from critics. Venom differentiates itself enough from the Marvel “happy-go-lucky” blend of movies for those craving something a little unorthodox.

The Verdict: C+

-Zachary Flint

Hell Fest Review: One Helluva Movie!

While at the local showing for the new Halloween-themed flick Hell Fest, I noticed the formatting of the film on the screen was off by several feet. Meaning that the film projected on the wall and not completely on the screen. However, five-minutes into the film I realized it simply wouldn’t be worth the effort to raise from my chair and notify the staff of the issue.

The central idea (or should I say gimmick) of Hell Fest is that it all takes place inside a large haunted house. Six millennial teenagers act as our protagonists and go expecting to have the time of their lives. Only problem? A real-life murderer sneaks into the scare zone, slowly killing off our unsuspecting millennial stereotypes.

Starting with the characters, they’re so blandly clichéd that it’s almost a cliché to even talk about it. These types of cookie cutter characters have been done to death, and films have been satirizing these dull, bimbo idiots even before Wes Craven’s Scream made it cool to do so. They’re so overly sexualized, awkward, and annoying that at no point does it come off as cute. The one benefit to the terrible characters was watching them get killed in some pretty clever ways. One guy gets his head smashed by a test your strength carnival mallet, which I don’t think I have seen in a horror movie thus far. It’s funny, it’s unique, and horror fans will get a kick out of it.

Honestly, if Hell Fest took place anywhere other than a haunted house, I’d be hard pressed to find any redeemable qualities to the film. Thankfully, the costume designer and cinematographer put in overtime making sure the audience absorbed every inkling of horror-themed atmosphere. Everywhere you look there’s another cool costume or interesting prop that really gets me in the spirit of Halloween.

Unfortunately, this novelty wears off.

On a technical basis, Hell Fest was too preoccupied with scaring the cast and not with scaring the viewer. There were far too many reaction shots of the characters being frightened, as if they forgot that we were the ones supposed to be startled. Many moments where somebody jumps out and goes “Boo!”, the camera is focused on the protagonist and not the scare actor, therefore leaving the scene without tension. What’s even worse, we always know exactly where the real killer is going to be, leaving us with a net total of zero scares.

The biggest insult of all was the ending, which was very visibly rushed and ill-thought-out. Without spoiling anything (not that you probably care), there’s hardly a villain vs. hero showdown, and we never see a solid conclusion to the identity of the killer. Really, it felt like Hell Fest was building up to something that it never quite reached because it got bored and gave up.

They attempt to go for the nameless killer trope established in movies like The Strangers, but here it’s much lazier.  And that’s the key word there, lazy. Everything about the direction of Hell Fest just felt like a dull, straight to Netflix horror movie you watch when there’s nothing else on. Instead of earnestly trying to make a decent movie with a good payoff, they distract you with a clever Eighties throwback marketing campaign. Don’t let them trick you into believing this is a nostalgic romp. It’s not.

Hell Fest was essentially a scattershot of excellent Halloween visuals and remarkably poor writing. Those with a passion for the spooky festivities of the season will get the most enjoyment out of Hell Fest, but the rushed third act and lack of resolution is enough to disappoint any moviegoer. Sadly, Hell Fest just didn’t deliver in the scary department.

The Verdict: D+

-Zachary Flint

The Predator Review: An Inconvenient Truth

Apparently, the behavior of a Predator (one of the most iconic movie aliens of all time) doesn’t live up to its own animal kingdom namesake. In actuality, the predator acts more like a bass fisherman than an alien beast on the hunt for humans. Why is Predator on the hunt in the first place, you may ask? Well, because of global warming of course! At least, that’s what I was told by the latest installment to the Predator franchise.

Acting as a sequel to previous films in the series, The Predator features shoulder cannons, thermal scanners, and elaborate costumes and props. Yet, it can’t rise to the charm of previous Predator movies. A bad case of looking the part, but not playing the part.

Take the dialogue between our ragtag group of heroes as an example, which consistently came up shy of clever. Absent is the machismo attitude and testosterone-laced humor that defined the initial 1987 classic. Instead, The Predator gives off more of a carefree, Expendables-type vibe.

Our actors are having fun cracking jokes and messing around, occasionally making fun banter that got laughs from the audience. But when it’s time for characters to get serious, suddenly the holes in the writing start to appear. Point being, this movie isn’t cut out to be a laid-back romp. Where’s the suspense? The tension? The excitement? Three necessary qualities The Predator truly lacks.

The action boasts many scenes of Predator slicing and dicing people, as well as alien guns and technology blowing things up. The Predator seems content in this typical action movie formula, and less demanding moviegoers will be too. There’s plenty of “Ooo… ahh…” moments of Predator destroying things and cheeky comedy between our main cast to get the audience to the end. It will be up to the individual to judge whether it was all worth the time.

Ultimately, this film has no drive to tell a cohesive and well-rounded story. It may not sound like a lot, but it can mean the difference between getting a movie like Predator and one like Alien Vs. Predator 2: Requiem.

Part of the appeal of Predator is in the simplicity of its plot and characters, leaving plenty of time for sci-fi action and suspense. When you strip away the muscle-bound heroes and straightforward plot and substitute it for an overly complex and unfocused narrative, what you’re left with isn’t anything too thrilling for audiences.

The Predator is enough to satisfy two hours of popcorn munching, but not repeated viewings. Especially considering the many better alternatives within the genre and franchise. Most moviegoers will likely leave the theater indifferent, shrugging their shoulders saying, “That was okay.”

“Okay” indeed.

The Verdict: C-

-Zachary Flint