Devil's Playground (2010)
Director: Mark McQueen
Writer: Bart Ruspoli
I was home sick from work today, so while Dr. Girlfriend was at school I took a little trip to the UK for the first full-blown traditional zombie/plague movie of this year's marathon, Devil's Playground, and boy do those traditional zombie/plague clichés come a mile a minute. If you put 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake in a blender, dumbed it down, and threw in a combination of Parkour and MMA zombies, then you would have Devil's Playground.
Yes, I said Parkour and MMA zombies.
The story is one you're already familiar with before you even watch and there's not a single surprise to be found. And if zombie film clichés weren't enough, we also get cop movie clichés and hitman movie clichés. These come in the forms of normally quite enjoyable actors Danny Dyer as Joe, the cop who, for some unexplained reason, went to jail for shooting a crackhead 14 year old who had a gun, but is out on bail and just wanting to meet up with his girl and make all the bad stuff go away, and Craig Fairbrass as Cole, the hitman/security expert in the employ of the corrupt pharmaceutical corporation — he killed a pregnant woman on orders from his boss and now wants out since he's crossed that line.
So an experimental over-the-counter performance enhancer — wha? — is going through drug trials before hitting the market, and out of the 30,000 people that it is tested on, 29,999 turn into raving Parkour MMA zombies. The one who turns out to be immune is Angela, played by MyAnna Buring of The Descent, and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Parts 1 and 2. She's also a very talented and enjoyable actor who is wasted in this film. As luck would have it, Angela is Joe's girlfriend, the two meet up out of the blue, and later she reveals during an intimate moment on the run from Parkour MMA zombies that she's pregnant with Joe's child.
But she's got a new cop boyfriend now (played by the film's writer, Bart Ruspoli), and the two of them escape to live happily ever after — after a trip to a lab to get her blood turned into an antidote, of course.
There's really not much else to say about this crapfest. It was tedious, derivative, and didn't even really have good gore. Honestly, the best thing about the entire film is that the wonderfully amazing Sean Pertwee (I've said this before and I'll say it again — put a wig on the man and get him doing Dr. Who adventures as his dad did before him) has a small role as a blustery mustachioed copper who blusters into one scene, delivers a few blustery lines, and then disappears (blustering) until we seen him running full speed down a dock, jumping into a boat, and speeding away down the river without a word or a look back, in a hilarious bit that made me literally LOL.
I can only assume the producers had just cut him his check and he was out of there.
It's getting harder and harder to make a good, serious zombie film that adheres to the old classic Sartrean "Hell is other people" mode, with a bunch of strangers holed up in a house while the world goes to hell outside. There aren't that many different variations on that scenario that we haven't seen after almost 50 years of zombie films. The best films these days are the ones that take the general concept of a zombie holocaust and turn it on its head or get experimental with it.
On the other hand…
Rammbock: Berlin Undead (2010)
Director: Marvin Kren
Writer: Benjamin Hessler
This short film (it clocks in at an hour, give or take a minute) from Germany takes that classic trapped in a room scenario and really makes it work. And the reason for that is the attention to character.
Michael Fuith plays Michael, who has just arrived in Berlin to return his apartment keys to his recently ex-girlfriend, Gabi. He's your classic loveable loser who thinks that if he actually shows up in person he might be able to win Gabi back. But when he arrives, she's not home. Instead two plumbers are there doing some repairs; the teenage Harper and his unnamed boss.
Another thing that Rammbock does right is that it doesn't waste any time. This film is all muscle. The zombie attacks start almost immediately and in just a few minutes after the opening titles, we've got Michael and Harper trapped in Gabi's apartment with raging, biting monsters pounding on the door and rampaging through the streets.
I should note, however, that these aren't zombies, despite the Berlin Undead in the title. The infected here are more like those in the 28 Days Later scenario, infected with some sort of super rabies. Once you're infected you have to stay calm, since the transformation into mindless killer is triggered by adrenaline. Once you lose your cool, you get all red in the face and white eyed, you start foaming at the mouth, and then it's all over for you.
Hessler's screenplay provides plenty of small emotional moments that allow the actors to build sympathy and form a connection with the viewer — something Devil's Playground never even tried to do (at least not in a way that wasn't clichéd and ham-handed). Theo Trebs does a nice j
ob as Harper and before everything is said and done, you find yourself really invested in his and Michael's survival.
This isn't a film that tries to raise any deep questions or pose any social criticism. It just tells a good, solid story with good, solid characters. There's not a lot of gore, but when it happens it's pretty bloody, and the director, Marvin Kren, does an excellent job balancing out the tension-building quiet moments and the all-out zombie attacks.
This one's a keeper. Old school storytelling done right.
Xombie: Dead on Arrival (2003-2007)
Writer/Director: James Farr
Over on the experimental tip, we have Xombie: Dead on Arrival, an animated zombie action-adventure that was originally an independent web series, written, directed, and animated by James Farr in ten chapters over five years. Even with ten chapters it only runs about 45 minutes long, which is why we have three entries tonight instead of one or two.
Dirge, a sentient zombie, and his zombie wolf Cerberus, find themselves tasked with rescuing and making sure that a little girl named Zoe gets home. Home is the only human settlement in the zombie wasteland, and it's a twenty mile journey with loads of adventures to be had along the way. Halfway through their trip they encounter another sentient zombie, Nephthys, who may or may not be an ancient Egyptian slave. Without question she has bad-ass fighting skills and a skin-tight mummy wrap.
But it's not just the mindless zombies that they have to contend with. There are strange robotic-looking aliens who are hunting Zoe for some unknown reason — and they have a history with Dirge, even though he can't remember them. You see, when the undead rise, they have no memory of who they were before they died.
All in all, it's a very intriguing concept and with flash animation that hints at inspiration from Samurai Jack and design that has a little Fifth Element thrown in, I was impressed and want more.
Unfortunately, there are no more animated chapters to be had. Instead Xombie has spawned a sequel graphic novel, Xombie: Reanimated, with a final installment in pre-production, tentatively titled Xombie: Death Warmed Over. I don't know what kind of quality the graphic novel has, but I think I may track it down. I kind of owe it to myself to check out innovative zombie lit, especially when it throws in crazy science fiction and kung-fu action.
For more of Paul's Easter Zombie Movie Marathon, check out the previous entries:
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now for Kindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at@PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.