Cinepocalypse: Sequence Break; Dead Shack; Suspiria

An urban legend for the video game age, a family of zombies in the woods, and an uncut classic in its native language

On my third day at the festival, I saw two shorts (Feeding Time and Blood Shed), along with two new films (Sequence Break and Dead Shack), along with the Chicago premiere of the uncut, Italian-language, 35mm print of Suspiria discovered by the Chicago Cinema Society last summer.

Feeding Time

Short Film: Feeding Time

Directed by Matt Mercer, 2016. Starring Stacy Snyder, Graham Skipper, Najarra Townsend. 13 minutes.

Matt Mercer wrote and directed this delightful little horror-comedy, about a hapless teenager (Stacy Snyder) hired by an eccentric couple (Graham Skipper, of whom more later, and Mercer’s Contracted co-star Najarra Townsend) to babysit. Just lovely.

Sequence Break

Sequence Break

United States. Directed by Graham Skipper. Starring Chase Williamson, Fabianne Therese, John Dinan, Lyle Kanouse. 80 minutes.

According to an urban legend first recorded in 2000, several units of an arcade game called “Polybius” manufactured by “Sinneslöschen” appeared in the Portland, Oregon, area in 1981. The game was very popular, even though players suffered from side effects like seizures and hallucinations. Black-suited government agents occasionally showed up to download data from the units. After a month, the machines disappeared.

Genre mainstay Graham Skipper takes on the Polybius legend for latest directorial effort Sequence Break. Skipper reunites John Dies at the End power couple Chase Williamson and Fabianne Therese as, respectively, an arcade-game refurbisher named Oz and an aspiring writer named Tess, who find themselves mysteriously drawn to an unnamed game cabinet in the corner of Oz’s work space, which begins to have sinister effects on the couple as they play it.

Skipper connects the Polybius story with the technology-as-flesh motif of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. Unfortunately Sequence Break doesn’t display the wit or depth of the Cronenberg work. In compensation, the film offers some strikingly creative practical effects work, while Williamson and Therese prove engaging leads. It’s a perfectly enjoyable middle-of-the-road low-budget horror film, probably not something that you’ll regard as a classic in ten years, but a fun way to scratch your horror itch while also engaging in some ’80s arcade nostalgia.

Blood Shed

Short Film: Blood Shed

United Kingdom. Directed by James Moran. Starring Sally Phillips, Shaun Dooley. 13 minutes.

In this hilarious British short, cost-cutting measures result in a DIY garden shed that eats flesh and pukes buckets of blood on its owners. The shed’s name is Bunty, and it’s a she, because we all know that sheds are girls, just like cars are.

Dead Shack

Dead Shack

Canada. Directed by Peter Ricq. Starring Matthew Nelson-Mahood, Lizzie Boys, Donavon Stinson, Valerie Tian, Lauren Holly. 85 minutes.

Aaaaagh, I just could not get into this one at all. Fourteen-year-old Jason goes off on a camping trip with his asshole friend Colin, Colin’s asshole sister Summer, Colin and Summer’s asshole father Roger, and Roger’s girlfriend Lisa. There, they run into Lauren Holly, who’s raising a family of zombies.

As you can probably guess, I decided early on that I hated all the characters, although I expect I was supposed to find them funny. I just found their constant bickering and insults annoying. Judging from the consistent bursts of laughter from the audience, I’m probably alone in that.

I didn’t completely hate the film—I believe I chuckled once or twice, and appreciated the makeup work and production values overall—but this is not going to rank as one of the festival highlights in my memory.

Suspiria

Suspiria

Italy. Directed by Dario Argento, 1976. Starring Jessica Harper, Stefania Cassini, Alida Valli, Joan Bennett. 98 minutes.

Look, I understand why people like Suspiria so damn much. Even today, there’s not much out there that looks or sounds quite like it, and that’s after forty-plus years as one of the most influential horror films ever made. So in 1976, American horror fans must have felt like they were viewing something produced on another planet.

But for myself, while I don’t dislike the film, it does have an actual plot. And I tend to feel that a film that has an actual plot should take care to make sure said plot makes a bare minimum of sense. Suspiria takes place in a world where the standard laws of cause and effect never existed. What does the rain of maggots have to do with anything? Why would a ballet school keep an entire room filled with coiled razor wire? Why doesn’t Sara tell Suzy what Pat told her before running off into the night? Why doesn’t Suzy ask Sara to tell her?

(On a positive note, I have finally seen the scene where Daniel gets kicked out of the academy, so the reasoning for his murder makes more sense now. And seeing the film in Italian means Madame Blanc’s line about “fifty of your American dollars” doesn’t stick out.)

The point is, Suspiria (to quote the Village Voice) “only makes sense to the eye.” (I would argue that it only makes sense to the eye and the ear: Goblin’s atypically dissonant and discordant score pushes even mundane scenes over the edge into insanity. Suzy enters the “world of madness” not when she crosses the threshold of the Tanz Akademie, but when she walks out the door of the airport in Freiburg.) I prefer movies that make sense to the brain as well. As a result, while I like Suspiria somewhat, I will never love it.

Next

On Tuesday, Ted Geoghegan drops Mohawk, his follow-up to We Are Still Here; genre legends Barbara Crampton and AJ Bowen team up in the Don Coscarelli-produced Applecart; plus: secret screening!

Contracted: Phase 2

Considering it largely disregards the ideas that made its predecessor so interesting, Contracted: Phase 2 works much better than expected.

A scene from CONTRACTED: PHASE 2.
United States. Directed by Josh Forbes, 2015. Starring Matt Mercer, Marianna Palka, Morgan Peter Brown, Anna Lore, Laurel Vail, Peter Cilella. 78 minutes. 5/10

Towards the end of Eric England’s 2013 film Contracted, protagonist Samantha, her transformation into a zombie via a contagion contracted (geddit?) during a date-rape, grudge-fucks her “nice guy” friend Riley (Matt Mercer)…who then becomes the focus of the sequel, written by Craig Walendziak and directed by Josh Forbes. Phase 2 details Riley’s gradual decay and devolution, while also following subplots involving the spread of the disease beyond Sam’s group of friends, and the authorities’ search for “B.J.” (Morgan Peter Brown, taking over from the original’s Simon Barrett), Sam’s rapist and the infection’s apparent “Patient Zero.”

The differences between Contracted: Phase 2 and its predecessor stretch beyond the obvious gender-reversing of the protagonists. My reading of the original’s subtext was that it was a metaphor for how people use sex to hurt each other, an element almost entirely missing from Phase 2. Instead, the infection spreads through more conventional vectors such as bites and other involuntary exposures to bodily fluids (one unfortunate supporting player catches the plague through infected blood in nacho cheese dip).

The filmmakers wryly probe their apparent theme: entire subcultures of people so self-absorbed they fail to see what’s really going on around them. Riley’s sister Brenda (Laurel Vail) opportunistically exploits the death of a dear friend (actually one of Sam’s victims, as seen in Phase 1) to promote her latest self-help tome, and doesn’t notice her brother has developed a habit of inconveniently spraying gouts of blood from his nose and mouth. Even Riley himself isn’t about to let the discovery of nests of maggots under his skin get in the way of getting it on with Harper (Anna Lore), his grandmother’s adorable nurse.

Phase 2’s winning cast (which includes several hangers-on from the predecessor; not just Mercer, but also Najarra Townsend, Reuben Pla, and Community’s Charley Koontz as the hilarious black-marketeer Zain), wry humor, and well-constructed gross-out sequences detract from its biggest failing. By relegating the sexual transmission vector to the background, Forbes and Walendziak rob the film of what could have been its distinguishing element. STD zombies might not seem quite as novel now as they did two years ago (thanks to the original Contracted and Thanatomorphose emerging at the same time, and a possible resurgence in “venereal horror” led by the success of It Follows), but the filmmakers don’t have any fresh takes on the ghoul trope to replace them with, to make it stand apart from the rest of the pack of zombie movies. B.J.’s subplots turn out to be a particular disappointment, a limp combination of doomsday-cult conspiracy and bog-standard police-procedural that take up far too much of the film’s comparatively scant running-time.

Contracted: Phase 2 works fairly well for a sequel that largely disregards what made the original so interesting, but I doubt it’s likely to find much of an audience beyond subgenre diehards and fans of the original.

CONTRACTED: PHASE 2 poster.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

The novelty of combining classic romance fiction with horror elements can only carry the film so far.

A scene from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES.
United States/United Kingdom. Directed by Burr Steers, 2016. Starring Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote, Douglas Boothe, Matt Smith, Charles Dance, Lena Headey, Suki Waterhouse. 108 minutes. 5/10

The inevitable film version of Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 cult novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies finally sees the light of day at the hands of writer/director Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down). Jane Austen’s seminal tale of marriage and manners plays out against a Victorian Britain plagued by brain-eating undead, with Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James, Downton Abbey) leading a quintet of ninja sisters and Col. Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley, Control) serving the Royal Army “at large” by rooting out zombie infestations before they spread.

Like most notable zombie fiction, PPZ largely uses the undead as an environmental hazard, an important fact of life for the characters but not the source of the main conflict. As in Austen, the major narrative arc follows the headstrong Elizabeth and the aloof Darcy as they gradually fall in love despite making a series of bad impressions on each other. The film reinterprets Austen’s battles of words as literal, impeccably-choreographed battles.

While Steers often develops his themes without subtlety (for example, when Elizabeth’s sister Jane predicts the former would “relinquish her sword for a ring” from “the right man,” she retorts, “The right man wouldn’t ask me to”), the film does contain some measure of wit, particularly in the form of supporting characters such as the vain and obsequious Parson Collins (Matt Smith, the eleventh Doctor Who, in a bravura performance) and the legendary swordswoman Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lena Headey of Game of Thrones, sporting a strangely alluring eyepatch). The historical setting and period dialog brings out the best in the ensemble, which also features Douglas Booth, Bella Heathcote, Jack Huston (Boardwalk Empire), and Charles Dance (GoT again).

Other aspects of the production aren’t as strong. Despite its jump-scares and plentiful gore, the film lacks the conviction necessary to work as a horror story; by pulling a crucial early punch, Steers indicates that he has no intention of killing any of the major characters. When he focuses on invincible protagonists, throngs of nameless cannon-fodder extras, and massive battle sequences, PPZ feels more like a modern superhero movie (complete with mid-credit stinger) than anything else. Unfortunately, the editing and poor digital effects make action scenes look like they belong in a video game.

Similarly, the plot weakens when it emerges from its drawing rooms and cellars. The film fails to clearly convey how zombies and their plague operate in its fictional universe, the script mishandles an important and unusual subplot that develops across the second act, and the audience should figure out the big climactic twist at least half an hour before it shocks Elizabeth.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is great fun when its characters spar with words and weapons, but not so much when it strays from Austen’s original template. The novelty of combining classic romance fiction with horror elements can only carry the film so far, and the other elements can’t make up the rest of the distance.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES poster

Plague

A dark and grim entry in the zombie-apocalypse canon, but aficionados may find it a bit too light on the shambling flesh-eaters

Australia. Directed by Kosta Ouzas & Nick Kozakis, 2015. Starring Tegan Crowley, Scott Marcus, Steven Kennedy. 84 minutes.

Another zombie apocalypse. (Okay, if you insist: another plague-that-makes-people-behave-like-zombies apocalypse.) Evie (Tegan Crowley) hides out with a small group of survivors at a rural farmhouse. Days earlier, they became separated from Evie’s husband John (Scott Marcus), and have been waiting for him to arrive at this prearranged rendezvous point. The others feel it’s time to move on, but Evie doesn’t agree. Can she make it on her own until John finally arrives? And can she trust her fellow survivors?

In terms of plotting and thematics, Plague doesn’t offer any bold twists on the zombie-apocalypse template; if you’ve watched your fair share of zombie movies, you will find very little to surprise you here. The one exception: writer/co-director Kosta Ouzas and co-director Nick Kozakis keep the zombies on the sidelines as much as possible, only appearing in a couple of scenes.

By doing so, Ouzas and Kozakis intensify the focus on the conflicts between the survivors, a staple of the formula since Night of the Living Dead. Not satisfied following the human-conflict tropes, the filmmakers put them under a microscope and examine them in detail. The grossest scene in the film–a film that deploys gore minimally but graphically–comes at the climax of a conflict between two uninfected characters, with nary a shambling flesh-eater in sight. That single fact, more than any other, defines the film. I can’t think of another zombie movie with so few zombies in it. They are almost incidental to the story.

As a character study, then, Plague largely succeeds. Ouzas paints the characters in spare but broad strokes, leaving the main actors–Crowley, Marcus, and later, Steven Kennedy as Charlie, a survivor who comes upon the farm later in the film–space to embody their roles. This particular tactic doesn’t always work, but Crowley has the skill to carry the picture, and Kennedy plays his part so well that even though you should notice straight off that Charlie’s a total creep, the reveal contains a good deal of shock value.

As for Marcus, he doesn’t seem entirely able to keep up with his co-stars, but that could just be the nature of John as a character–the eternal beta-male, forever overpowered by the stronger personalities that surround him. It’s at the point when John finally decides to assert himself that Plague jumps the tracks somewhat, taking its focus off Evie for too long. From there, events progress to an ending I didn’t quite understand, from a dramatic point of view. (Or: I get what happened, but I don’t get why it had to happen.)

Even in its weaker moments, Ouzas and Kozakis keep the tension pegged at high levels, with enchanting yet lonely cinematography of stark rural Australian vistas underlining the desperation of the situation. I can readily believe that these might very well be the last people on Earth.

Plague is a particularly dark and grim entry in the zombie-apocalypse canon; while zombie aficionados may find it a bit too light on the shambling flesh-eaters, its unflinching depiction of emotional violence makes it worth seeking out, even with its uneven final act.

PLAGUE poster

Maggie

Imagine a zombie movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Whatever you imagined, it wasn’t anything like Maggie.

United States/Switzerland. Directed by Henry Hobson, 2015. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson. 95 minutes.

It seems that most of the publicity photos on Maggie’s official website are of people hugging each other. That might not strike you as weird if you didn’t know what Maggie is about. Only one of the pictures betrays the film’s subject matter: Arnold Schwarzenegger, swinging an ax, his trademark expression of steely, grim determination etched on his face more intensely than usual. The photo doesn’t show what Arnold is swinging the ax at, but I’m guessing it’s not firewood he’s splitting, but a zombie’s face.

Yes, Maggie is a zombie movie. (Actually, it’s a zombie/plague movie, where the zombies aren’t actually dead, but rabid with a viral infection–just in case it matters to you.) But it’s a highly unusual one. Only a handful of zombies appear throughout the film. One of them is the titular Maggie Vogel (Abigail Breslin). The disease incubates over the course of a couple of weeks, so the authorities allow the infected to live with their families until the disease progresses to a certain point. Arnold plays Maggie’s dad Wade, a grizzled farmer determined to spare his daughter the horror of the quarantine camps. Instead, he and his second wife/Maggie’s stepmother Caroline (Joely Richardson) will take care of her until she’s too far gone…then dispatch her quickly when the time comes. At least, that’s the plan.

Sure, it’s a set-up that lacks credibility–remember the panic surrounding the asymptomatic doctors exposed to Ebola last year–but the film j-u-u-u-st about gets away with it by vaguely implying that Wade has some pull with small-town lawmen and big-city doctors. (Now, why tracking and collection of local infected is the task of local law enforcement, not the National Guard…that I don’t have an answer for.) But for the most part I could forgive that, since it’s mostly there to frame the poignant and occasionally heartstring-tugging family drama.

As with any such drama, performances are the key to success. I expect Schwarzenegger to shock many audiences with the subtlety and depth of his performance. While the script smartly avoids his limitations as an actor while playing to his strengths, it’s quite clear that “Ah-Nuld” has come a long way from the hulking action and broad comedy of his ’80s and ’90s work. Physically, he looks a bit younger than his sixty-seven years, but you can see every one of those years in his body language and hear them in his voice. He’s old, he’s tired, the world is going to Hell, and he’s going to get a last few good days in with his daughter before her time–and his–is done.

Breslin is also excellent, with fantastic daughter-father rapport with Arnold and a few great scenes that highlight her relationship with her stepmother, half-siblings and friends. (Interesting, this isn’t the first time she’s played the victim of a zombie bite: see also Zombieland.) Bryce Romero gets a couple of fantastic scenes as Maggie’s friend (boyfriend?) Trent, also infected. An occasionally wavering accent marks Richardson’s otherwise fine performance.

Hobson proves well suited to the material; this probably shouldn’t surprise, considering how much emphasis promo copy puts on his experience as the creator for The Walking Dead’s title sequence. (The name of the offending virus–“necroambulist”–vaguely means “walking dead” and I can’t imagine it’s not a deliberate reference.) The film’s visual aesthetic is appropriately somber, subdued and grim, matched by David Wingo’s score. Incidentally, don’t let the PG-13 rating fool you: Hobson provides several icky scenes.

Imagine the sort of film the words “zombie movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger” might describe. Whatever kind of film you imagined, it wasn’t anything like Maggie. And that’s a good thing, even if overall the film has a few problems.

MAGGIE poster

The Battery

The freshest and most original zombie movie to come down the pike in a dog’s age. Don’t let it slip under your radar.

United States. Directed by Jeremy Gardner, 2012. Starring Jeremy Gardner, Adam Cromheim, Niels Bolle. 102 minutes.

Let us ponder, for a moment, the case of Dawn of the Dead. “In 1968, George Romero brought us Night of the Living Dead,” an ominous voice (belonging to actor Adolph Caesar) informs us in the theatrical trailer. “It became the classic horror film of its time. Now, George Romero brings us the most intensely shocking motion picture experience for all times.”

How intensely shocking was it? So much so that Romero released it unrated rather than with the X rating the MPAA offered it. “There is no explicit sex in this this picture,” said the ads, “however there are scenes of violence that may be considered shocking.” (There’s that word again.) “No one under 17 will be admitted.”

That was in 1979. If you were seventeen in that year, you’re probably fifty-two today. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then–and so have a lot of zombie. Since the early 2000s, they’ve multiplied like the flesh-eating ghouls that populate them. We’ve had zombie movies, zombie action movies, zombie rom-coms, zombie coming-of-age-movies, zombie found-footage movies, zombie mumblecore, zombie period pieces, and probably at least one PG-13 zombie movie. All of that in addition to comics, video games, TV shows, anime, and God knows what else.

Which leads me to ask two questions. First, can we do anything new with zombies anymore, or are we just limited to knocking off Romero or adding zombies to an existing formula? And second, can zombies be as scary or even shocking in 2014 as they were in 1968 or 1979?

Both questions have an obvious answer, which is that I need to get my head out of my ass and stop pretending that my view of the zombie sub-genre, in which everything is centered around Dawn of the Dead, is the only one that matters. But until then, here’s The Battery, which is the freshest and most original zombie movie to come down the pike in a dog’s age (always assuming, of course, that Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies isn’t your idea of daring and different), and which did a fairly good job of scaring me.

The Battery doesn’t look like much on the outside. Kicking off months after zombies first appeared, it follows former minor-leaguers Ben (played by Jeremy Gardner, who also wrote and directed) and Mickey (Adam Cronheim) as they wander aimlessly around New England, fishing, playing catch, fending off the occasional zombie. Mostly they bicker.

None of this is anything new. Defining character through bickering has been an essential component of the zombie formula since Mr. Cooper argued with Ben over whether the cellar was the safest place or a deathtrap. Unpleasant characters is another standard feature, and true to form, neither Ben nor Mickey are particularly likable. The former adopts a self-satisfied, know-it-all demeanor and has tendencies which are borderline-sadistic; the latter is more sensitive, but is prone to co-dependence and lacks common sense. Oh, and he beats off while…no, I really shouldn’t tell you about that. Best to experience it for yourself.

What makes the film refreshing is less in what it actually does than how it does it. Our annoyance at the two characters who can’t get along to (literally) save their lives is offset by the easy chemistry between Gardner and Cronheim. The loose plotting (this is one of those films that vaguely saunters from plot point to plot point rather than rigidly following them) makes the story feel more organic than it might have, considering how much one of the late plot beats hinges on coincidence.

Other key elements of the formula are deployed sparingly, with two in particular dropping in the last twenty or so minutes of the film to astounding effect. I can’t say too much more than that without entering spoiler territory, but I will say that there’s a good reason, in constructive terms, behind Gardner’s decision to not show more than one or two zombies at a time for most of the film.

Gardner’s direction is also very strong even though there isn’t much flashy “style” to it. He always keeps the tone keenly balanced between horror and comedy–like Shaun of the Dead, you probably won’t notice that the mood has shifted from “dark comedy” to just “dark” until it’s too late. His fondness for long scenes and takes generates grueling tension in the film’s final act, although some viewers might feel he drags things out a bit too long. For me, though, it’s just right.

The two questions I opened the first section of this review with are pure and utter bullshit and The Battery helps prove it by taking some chances, striking the right balance between familiar elements and unfamiliar elements. Zombie movies and other “tired” sub-genres will remain relevant as long as good movies are made within them, and good movies are always being made within them. You just might have to do a bit more work to root them out. Don’t let this one slip under your radar.

The Battery poster

Retro Review: Nightmare City

Its own special brand of terrible

Italy. Directed by Umberto Lenzi, 1980. Starring Mel Ferrer, Hugo Stiglitz, Laura Trotter. 88 minutes. 3/10

Intrepid television-news reporter Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) bides his time at an anonymous European airport, waiting for the impending arrival of an important nuclear scientist or something.

That’s when an unexpected military aircraft makes an emergency landing. Air traffic control is not able to make contact with the plane and the police assemble to investigate, as do Miller and his cameraman. A swarm of people–some of them appearing to have congealed beef gravy smeared on their faces–disembark from the plane, draw guns and knives and make short work of the police. (One of the killers is the scientist Miller was waiting for.) That being settled, they descend upon the city and wreak havoc.

Miller escapes with footage of the massacre, but when he attempts to broadcast it, the imperious General Murchison (Mel Ferrer) arrives and puts the kibosh on it, because blah blah blah military blah blah blah mass panic.

The plane came from some sort of top-secret nuclear facility; radiation mutated its passengers into murderous fiends. (It turns out the beef gravy is actually radiation burns.) They need to drink blood to survive, and the mutations have driven their cellular regeneration systems into overdrive. Only by destroying a certain part of the brain may one incapacitate them, as it disrupts the healing factor.

These blood-drinking, zomboid freaks target locations of strategic importance, including the television station where Miller works, the hospital where Miller’s wife Anna (Jill Trotter) assists with a crucial surgery, and the estate where Gen. Murchison’s daughter lives with her new husband. The ranks of the fiends swell as more planes filled with them arrive. Even worse, their affliction is apparently virulent.

While the military try to contain the chaos, Miller seeks to rescue his wife. Can they make it out of the country alive? Can Murchison devise a plan to defeat the freaks?

Or is all of humanity completely fucked?

In 1979, a little movie called Dawn of the Dead took the world by storm. It was especially notorious in western Europe, where it was known as Zombie (or variations thereof). European production companies specializing in cheap exploitation responded to its runaway success the only way they knew how: either by adding zombies to every film on their production slate, or commissioning a pile of rip-offs of Dawn. Some of these were good, most were bad, and Emmanuelle probably appeared in at least one of them.

Then there’s Incubo sulla città contaminata, variously known in the U.S. as either Nightmare City or City of the Walking Dead (not to be confused with City of the Living Dead, an alternate title for Fulci’s Gates of Hell), which is so very special that it merits specific attention.

According to IMDB, various corporate entities hired director Umberto Lenzi to make 65 films between 1958 and 1992, so it seems that someone thought he knew how to assemble a coherent motion picture. Unfortunately, the evidence of such a claim is very thin on the ground in Nightmare City.

The film includes two or three of the most hilarious continuity errors I’ve ever seen. And I’m not talking about run-of-the-mill things like “a scene is set at night, and the interiors reflect that, but the exteriors were shot at high god-damn noon,” although, yes, that is a thing that does happen. We’re talking higher orders of discontinuity here. Late in the film, a soldier shoots a zombie in the head, blowing it clean off her shoulders. In the very next shot, said head is attached to the body again. Cinema is magic! Consider, also, the case of an extra who dies at least twice, maybe three times, over the course of a scene.

Let’s not forget all those extras who fall victim to zombie attack by running towards clearly visible monsters instead of away from them. I don’t know who’s at fault here; could be Lenzi, could be the editor(s). But whoever paid them should ask for their money back.

And then there’s the sight of three or four zombies, leaning against a car and drinking bottles of Cherry Coke. I will never be able to make sense of that as long as I live. I’m hoping that when I die, someone in the afterlife will be able to explain it to me.

As for the script, you really can’t call it a story without using ironic air quotes. The degree of contrivance is astonishing: after the brouhaha at the airport, they somehow manage to strike three or four places in the entire city where important characters were congregating. Their prey-stalking technique is incomprehensible: one apparently breaks into a house, vandalizes the inhabitant’s artwork, and then lays low for at least twenty-four hours before striking again.

The script spends a good five minutes explaining why zombies can only be killed by destroying the brain, a question very few people require answered in order to enjoy a tale of flesh-eating ghouls, but doesn’t bother establishing how the mutation is transmitted from person to person. Indeed, I spent the most of the film thinking it wasn’t–until the very end, when the screenwriters evidently noticed they forgot to write a scene forcing a character to kill a zombified loved one and duly added it.

And the less said about the ending, the better.

In the writers’ defense, they gave their movie a social conscience. Actually, never mind–Claudio Fragasso also gave Hell of the Living Dead and Troll 2 a social conscience. So, hell with them, then. There’s no defense for this nonsense.

Are there any good points? Well, Silvio Cipriani’s score is top-notch, in aesthetic terms. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t often wildly inappropriate compared to what’s going on in the movie. Like any good European exploitation film, there’s plenty of gratuitous female nudity involving attractive actresses. And of course, me being me, I really appreciated the scene in which zombies attack the Solid Gold Dancers…but I’m not really prepared to discuss my fetish for women in workout or dance attire with anyone other than my therapist.

But, honestly, the only compelling reason to watch this film is to make fun of it. If you want to see a vintage Italian zombie movie that’s actually good, I recommend you look elsewhere.

Nightmare City poster

Contracted

A zombie movie that takes the novel approach of presenting the plague as an STD

Contracted

United States. Directed by Eric England, 2014. Starring Najarra Townsend, Alice Macdonald, Caroline Williams. 84 minutes. 8/10

“Sex is natural,” proclaimed the Anglo-Greek poet Georgios Panayiotou in 1987, “sex is fun.” But it’s also often awkward, occasionally painful, saddled with a lot of cultural baggage, and kinda gross.

In other words, the emotional and physical mechanics of sex are perfect territory for horror movies to mine.

The last decade or so has seen a minor boom in horror movies that use frank depictions of the female sexual cycle to generate unease in the audience. (For a lot of people, frank depictions of the female sexual cycle are unsettling enough without the added context of a horror movie.) Paul Solet’s Grace graphically portrays a miscarriage, while the heroine of Mitchell Lichtenstein’s satire Teeth turns out to have a set of the eponymous chompers in her vagina. Eric England’s Contracted, a plague movie in which the plague is an STD, works in a similar vein.

B.J. apparently contracts the disease from the corpse he’s seen fucking at the beginning of the film. Later, he passes it on to Samantha, when he meets her at a party and uses her drunken condition to take sexual advantage of her (read: rapes).

Sam is the story’s protagonist, a troubled and confused young florist who’s on the outs with both her mother and her ex-girlfriend. Her friends are assholes: Alice encourages Sam to drown her sorrows in booze, Zain offers her a “bump” of cocaine despite the implications of substance abuse in her past, and Riley is an obsessive sad-sack who puts on a grand show of being a “nice guy.” Alice and Riley are both angling to get Sam in the sack, and they don’t seem to mind employing dickish tactics in their pursuit.

With friends like these, who needs chlamydia?

Once you’ve added Sam’s bitchy ex and her homophobic mother to the mix, you find yourself without much in the way of likable characters. Even Sam, with her tendency towards immature behavior that only increases as her illness progresses, isn’t a particularly sympathetic central figure.

This has a bit of an alienating effect, which I found largely countered by strong performances, particularly from Najarra Townsend as Sam. Townsend expands upon the characterization, turning a character who could very easily be an obnoxious brat into a girl who’s still visibly battling with demons everybody else thinks she should have conquered by now.

Caroline Williams (Sam’s mother) and Alice Macdonald (Alice) put in good performances as well. Charlie Koontz brings darkly comic relief in his two or three scenes as Zain, and Simon Barrett (better known as writer for several Adam Wingard projects) is great in his brief role as B.J.

Contracted doesn’t necessarily need gore to disgust the audience; the characters are revolting enough. But there is plenty of the icky stuff on display. Sam interprets the initial effects of the illness as a particularly nasty period, allowing England to indulge in several scenes involving clothes with strategically-located bloodstains. Eventually we realize that Sam’s been gradually decomposing before our eyes. The impeccable makeup work will impress gorehounds, and a third-act scene involving maggots is sure to upset the most ironclad of stomachs.

England also wrote the screenplay and I was quite impressed with it. The plotting is effective and I enjoyed the first fresh take on the zombie/plague trope I’ve seen in a long time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that focused on the gradual change from living to undead the way this one does. His direction is fairly solid, although the cinematography more on hand-held “shaky-cam” techniques than I prefer.

All in all, it’s a fine modern horror film that doesn’t skimp on the splat. But if you can get past the unpleasant characters, you’ll find that Contracted’s emotional violence is just as powerful as its physical violence.

Contracted poster