Saturday, September 25, 2010

It's a zombie movie of a different sort

Zombies Anonymous (aka "Last Rites for the Dead") (2008)
Starring: Gina Ramsden, Joshua Nelson, Christa McNamee, and Mary Jo Verruto
Director: Marc Fratto
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

The recently dead are rising into a state of undeath with their full faculties intact and society is struggling to cope. When Angela (Ramsden) is murdered by her abusive boyfriend (Nelson), she too rises from the dead. She first tries to conceal the fact that she is now dead so she can quietly carry on the business of living. Ultimately, she is forced to join other zombies in the fight for social justice and equal rights, in the violent battle against the anti-zombie movement led by the vicious Commandant (McNamee), and even to struggle against a cult of zombies that have become the monsters the living fear they are.

"Zombies Anonymous" is a cut above the vast majority of zombie movies from the past and present. It's got a better script, it's got superior camera work and make-up effects, and it's got a cast of very talented actors. In fact, it belongs on a level approaching "Dawn of the Dead" as far as the performance delivered by the cast and its effectiveness is delivering social commentary and satire while still remaining a perfectly straight and deadly serious horror movie. The intense plot twists and turns in the third act and the blood-drenched, dramatic climax is also one of the best finales to any zombie movie, period.

Director/screenwriter Marc Fratto has created a film that not only stands apart from most of the output from his fellow indie filmmakers but that also puts recent horror movies from major studios to shame. There may not be hoards of mindless, flesh-eating zombies roaming the streets in this film... but the monstrosity the unfortunate zombies in this story cause to be revealed in the average person is far more frightening. Like the best horror films (and sci-fi flicks for that matter), the worst monsters in the "Zombies Anonymous" aren't the creatures in the title but rather the humans that "fight" them.

First and foremost, Fratto made sure that he maximized the quality of the one thing that every indie producer has total control over: The script.

With the exception of a couple very minor logical flaws (ones that could perhaps even be dismissed as artifacts of a society falling apart in the face of a completely unexpected development but which feel more like plot conveniences if one is being perfectly objective), the script here is honed to perfection. The film is virtually free of padding and every line of dialogue is vibrant and necessary. Each major character even has their own unique way of speaking, the true hallmark of a well-written, well-polished script. The mirror it holds up to society and the issues of tolerance and how quickly we might all give way to bigotry are also explored in very clever ways--the zombies here are not threatening anyone but are as harmless as they were when they were fully alive yet they are still hated and abused, sometimes by those who used to be their friends and loved ones. Finally, the film offers some of the commentary on the modern, brand-name and consumption-driven business world. (Interestingly, the marketers and mega-corporations might well be the most accepting of the new "living dead" segment of the population in the film, as they quickly jump on the opportunity to market products to them. I'm not sure if it was a message that Fratto intended, but it's true that the smart businessman is the least bigoted person of all... your money spends the same no matter who you are.)

Second, Fratto didn't try to create scenes and effects that were beyond what he, his actors and special effects crew could effectively handle. Fratto also has an eye for staging and filming action, with the result that all the action and fight scenes in the film are convincing and realistic. The splatter effects are also extremely well done. (Angela's death at the beginning of the film was particularly excruciating and shocking.)

Finally, "Zombies Anonymous" features a cast of excellent actors. Almost everyone appearing clearly understands the different techniques that need to be employed when acting for a camera instead of an audience in a theatre (something all-too-rare among actors featured in low-budget films like this), and every important part is filled by someone with a level of talent that makes me hope they'll go onto bigger films and bigger paychecks in the future.

Gina Ramsden is particularly good in her part, portraying a character that could easily have come across either as a whiner or as a cliched battered woman if someone of lesser talent had been cast. Instead, Ramsden infuses Angela with a humanity and depth that makes the viewer feel deeply for her and gives the film an emotional center all-too-rarely found in zombie movies. We're already rooting for the zombies in this picture, but it’s the sympathy and emotional attachment to Angela that Ramsden's performance generates that really makes us hate the villains in this picture.

The final word is that "Zombies Anonymous" is the best zombie picture I've seen in years. With enough gore and violence to keep fans of modern zombie movie happy, enough character development, soul-wrenching horror and tragedy to keep fans of classic horror movies entertained, and enough intelligent content and social commentary to keep all but the most snobbish "intellectuals" engaged, this is a film all horror fans can appreciate.

You can also gain more information about the movie and see production stills by visiting the official website.