By its very nature, the zombie film is a pretty straightforward concept. Sure, you can apo-calypso it up all you want, or try to find a way to reconfigure the flesh-eating fiends (we can make them faster, stronger...smarter...stereophonic) but, when it comes right down to it, we're really just talking about reanimated corpses doing the cannibal thang, plain and simple. How you find a way to finesse that foundation, the manner in which you choose to redefine said horror genre staple says a great deal about who you are, both as a filmmaker, and as a fan of the format as well.
Peter Jackson (you remember who he is, right?) obviously loves the blood and gore aspects of the living dead. Both Bad Taste and Dead Alive contain enough grue and guts to make a Balrog weep with envy. Danny Boyle took a step back from eyeing locomotives to focus on the fundamental breakdown of the social order, post angry reanimated Armageddon. The England he envisioned after a viral outbreak was, a mere 28 Days Later, a wasteland of horror and human immorality – not to mention the home to a host of skin-eating sprinters. From Romero's politics with pus bags Dead films, to the wealth of video game inspired vomitoriums, zombies are a hot, healthy commodity, able to be spoofed (Shaun of the Dead) or stripped of anything resembling fright or fun (Resident Evil,anyone?) and still earn a BO buck.
Indie films probably take the whole bone-chewing notion the most seriously. They are always trying to shove the undead into the most preposterous or outrageous of potential scenarios, hoping to spark their own cult of claret craving. Necropolis Awakened featured Mad Max style stumblers, walking carcasses that answered to a crazed, cult like leader (hmmm...). Zombie Planet used bad dieting tips to create creatures that seemed secondary to an entire class warfare/crime boss storyline. And then there is The Stink of Flesh. Only someone like oddball auteur Scott Phillips could conceive of crossing a wife-swapping fetish film with a horde of hungry corpses. Add in homages to several other off-title cult classics, and you've got the makings of something sensational. Thankfully Scott, his incredible cast, and his $3K budget absolutely deliver.
A virus has wiped out the world. The dead are rising and feasting on the living. Those who died immediately were the lucky ones...yadda, yadda, yadda.
Matool is a mercenary, out for pleasure and his own personal vendetta. He spends his days battling badass flesh eating fiends, and his nights in the nearest bed of the first available babe he can find. One day, he is "kidnapped" by Nathan, a mild mannered man with a problem. It seems Mrs. N – Dexy - is a little bit of a freak, and likes to get it on with as many LIVING men as she can. In their decadent desert love den, the couple keeps partners around for the pounding (she diddles, he watches) until the lady of the house grows tired of them. Most then end up facing the fate of their fellow corpse grinding citizens. Matool is next on the substitute stud list.
When a group of wounded soldiers show up at the perverts paradise, the balance of poontang power really starts to shift. Dexy's mentally challenged sister, Sassy, starts falling for one of the military men. And their injured comrade is starting to turn. Tensions mount between the survivors, and with the zombie horde growing more and more aggressive, it appears nothing can stop the inevitable. But Matool is not willing to give up, even if the army men feel he and Nathan are "one rooster too many in the hen house".
Combining the best elements of horror, exploitation, grindhouse, drive-in and direct to video classicism, The Stink of Flesh is an incredibly good homemade fright flick. In a category that sees mostly belly flops and noble failures, director Scott Phillips delivers a debauched, and incredibly disturbing twist on the entire zombie genre, putting his own unique stamp on the scenarios by adding sex and more than a little 'something weird'. Managing to simultaneously create and deconstruct his macabre mythos by combining bits from other horror highpoints to fuel his own unique vision, there probably hasn't been a low budget bloodbath this inventive since the gang at Splatter Rampage created that splendid slasher spoof Midnight Skater. Though it tends to stumble toward the end, making the desire to set up a sequel more important than complete closure for our narrative, Phillips still delivers one deranged and dynamite movie.
Like a spaghetti western crafted out of blue faced goons, a Tarantino epic etched in shredded torsos and flailed flesh, or a softcore porno augmented with dead eyes and blackened teeth, The Stink of Flesh wants to satisfy both connotations of its clever, quasi-crude title. Phillips is a master, really understanding how to pull off a plot as peculiar as this. As a life long fan and genre freak, he knows that audiences constantly anticipate the same things from a living dead romp – the unstoppable creatures, the eccentric survivors, the doom and gloom of a world slowly turning extinct. But in a move that makes his vision far more viable, Phillips consistently thwarts said static expectations to deliver his own, decidedly different take on the zombie stomp.
He begins with his characters. Using bits and pieces from the movies he loves, the filmmaker (who served a stint in Tinsel Town as a writer) makes his players into complete, three-dimensional beings. Matool is not just a steely man of action (we see him kicking all kinds of ass in several very well choreographed and filmed fight sequences), he is also a thoughtful and soft spoken realist. Oh, and he is also a healthy horndog on the make, using his skills as a post-apocalyptic lifesaver to hit on the ladies he rescues. Nathan is not just a sap who lets his wife wang doodle with the available vagrants. He's a concerned and carrying husband, using his spouse's desire to cover up his own secret sexual obsession.
Even the ancillary individuals are unique. Mr. Rainville is a prissy pedophile, and makes no bones about it. The army men run the gamut from gonzo to goofball. When we meet Dexy's sister Sassy and are let in on her personal "surprise", it is both horrible and hilarious, so unexpected as to be both repulsive and ridiculous. It's the little touches like these, the desire to make the movie more than just a non-stop bout of bloodletting that makes The Stink of Flesh so much fun. While we wait for another body to be bored in to, we are consistently entertained by the bizarre interpersonal dynamic at play.
Nevertheless, The Stink of Flesh defies the familiar fear factor formulas that fright fans have memorized like Drayton Sawyer's Saw 2 "prime beef" sermons. The film is so energetic and offbeat that many may miss the quick, clever nods to other offerings in the lexicon of cinematic scares. Phillips offers up tastes from such treats as Night of the Living/Dawn/ Day of the Dead, Basket Case, Chainsaw, Zombi, Gates of Hell/ City of the Living Dead, Nekromantik, Nightmare City, a million other Italian terror tenets and any number of Sarno/Lewis/Wishman skin flicks. Some may think the combination of sex and skin scarfing just wouldn't work, but somehow, Phillips finds a way to keep them both on the back burner just long enough so that we actually miss them when they're not onscreen. Taken in total, we get a film filled with wall-to-wall invention, a love letter from someone who utterly worships the entire undead ethos – and everyone who's ever dabbled in it.
The cast is consistently excellent as well, delivering Phillips' weighty words with just the right amount of cheerful cheek. Of special note is Kurly Tlapoyawa as Matool (those who own the Make Your Own Damn Movie DVD box set will recognize him from the Make Your Own Video Store segment) and Ross Kelly as Nathan. Both actors completely inhabit their roles, giving gravitas to throwaway lines while simultaneously keeping the film loose and filled with ironic levity. In the difficult role of Dexy, Diva brings a kind of creepy corporeality to her oversexed siren. Kristin Hansen (Gunar's niece...look it up) is all quirks and smirks as the super strange Sassy, and Stephanie Leighs does a brilliant jobs as the naked and nasty object of Nathan's necrophilic desires. She's the babe version of Bub from Day...sort of.
But the real star here is Phillips. Along with director of photography Richard Griffin, the filmmaker has lifted the entire low budget movie to a new level of professionalism. This is a great looking movie, atmospheric and amazing to look at. Lighting is handled brilliantly and there are so many memorable shots that you can see this movie being hailed as a lost visual masterwork somewhere down the line. In general, one gets the impression while watching The Stink of Flesh that Phillips is preaching proudly and profoundly to his usually particular audience. He seems to be saying "You want blood? I'll give you buckets. Production value? You'll find it here in spades. Clever plotting and outright outrageousness? I got you covered, bro!" While the zombie make-up is lifted directly from George R.'s blue period, there is gore by the gallons with the F/X work that puts the sketchy CGI of big budget productions to shame.
Still, there will be a few who forget that horror films are supposed to be scary and over the top, and argue about certain cinematic stumbling blocks like logic, clear character development and narrative payoff. And if The Stink of Flesh falters at all, it's in the last five minutes. Up until the end, Phillips has found a way to successfully balance all of his bravado, killing off favored and familiar members of the survival squad while keep us completely geared into the monster mania he is manufacturing. But when he finally finds himself boxed in, unable to resolve all the storylines with insight and invention, he turns tail and heads for the hills – literally. It's an obvious move, one meant to suggest a sequel somewhere down the line. But it leaves us in the lurch, wondering how magnificent the movie would have been had he stuck with the sensational scenarios he was creating beforehand.
Had he continued with his daring ways, had he shown the wontons to continue avoiding archetypes and reestablishing the revolting and the risqué (the erotic aspect of the plot seems to 'peter' out about an hour in) we'd have one complete and knowingly nasty treat. The fumble is not enough to make us feel unsatisfied – there are too many good things here to have a lack of closure cancel each and every one of them out. And he almost delivers on his devilish promise: a certain 'minor' character's motives, once made clear, would have presented a final taboo busting bonanza to this already taste tempting film had Phillips found a way to visualize them. But without that possible payoff, we are left in a predicament of ambiguity, wondering what happened to people we actually cared about for the previous 83 minutes.
Still, The Stink of Flesh is terrific, a fresh take on a genre that doesn't get a lot of really ingenious recycling. Instead, most go-rounds are as stale as the last donut at a bake sale. It isn't everyday that someone finds a way to spin the living dead dynamic into something that stakes out a claim of creativity. But with its mallet swinging, glasses obsessed hero, a harried husband who just likes 'to watch', and a household full of half-wits, hose bags and human oddities, this film definitely finds a way. Add in a horizon peppered with reanimated people eaters, all looking for a little epidermis entree, and you've got a movie macabre fit for a king. So sit right down, your heinous highness. The Stink of Flesh has got something sloppy, sickening and scintillating to offer. Once you glut yourself on this gratuity, the standard Hollywood horror helpings just won't satisfy you anymore.
It needs to be said, and those responsible should be required to stand up and take responsibility. Whoever it is – Tempe, Phillips, Griffin, a combination of all three – who found a way to make The Stink of Flesh look this good, this superb and cinematically sensational should be taken to a local tavern and given several celebratory beers as thanks from all us DVD fans. Homemade movies can occasionally look like they were crafted by geriatric Grandmas (and stored in their soiled underpants until the lab fee could be paid). But the unbelievably fine 1.33:1 full screen transfer is just amazing, giving the movie a much larger, more epic feel. Truth be told, compared to recent Tinsel Town fare like Cabin Fever and House of the Dead, The Stink of Flesh is a far more imaginative and mature film, right down to its compositions and its framing. All horror films should pray they look this good.
Here's a note to all amateur moviemakers. There is nothing wrong with ska. Death metal is cool. Individuals channeling Trent Reznor, Tom Waits and any manner of Billy Corgan-oriented Goth operatics are perfectly presentable and well worth a listen. But randomly tossing your favorite faux bands onto a motion picture soundtrack to amp up the action (and gain a little website based, cross promotional tie-in hype as well) is the sonic equivalent of selling your soul to the decibel devil.
Basically, the problem can be boiled down to this simple sentence – a great song that you personally think kicks ass only means something to YOU. The audience could give a rat's rectum, even if the noise is nuanced by Dolby Digital Stereo. We want to HEAR what's going on between the actors, not revisit a special sonic moment from your own personal hit parade. Frankly, The Stink of Flesh is one of the lesser offenders, the Dolby Digital Stereo mix doing a decent job of maintaining the ambience and tone of the terror. But whomever that gravel voiced growler is here, his tunes taint the atmosphere like the wafting aroma that remains after a big bean burrito feast.
Tempe knows what fans crave – and the answer is EXTRAS, EXTRAS and MORE EXTRAS. Typical to their releases, we are treated to a 47 minute documentary on the making of the movie, two separate commentary tracks, a collection of outtakes, a short film about the character of Mr. Rainville, a look at the Albuquerque, New Mexico premiere, a gallery of stills and some of Scott Phillips' early homemade movies. Along with a ton of Tempe trailers, we've got one tricked out DVD, offering more contextual pleasure than most major studio releases. The Making-Of is a lot of fun, allowing a day-to-day breakdown of the shoot. We see how effects were handled (and botched), the difficulty of making the fight scenes seem realistic and the little gradations that added lots of production value to the film. Phillips seems a very genial general, while his cast is a group of happy go lucky genre soldiers. You can really tell that they are doing this for the love of macabre.
The outtakes are interesting in that they allow us to see the film without some of its finished F/X and sound work. They prove how important both of those elements really are. The Rainville and Premiere material are funny, disposable diversions, as is the gallery. The best bits here are, naturally, the commentary tracks. Phillips goes solo for the first one, offering his own take on being part of the Hell known as Hollywood (his anecdotes should be required listening for all wannabe screenwriters) as well as why he made this movie without Tinsel Town participation. He discusses the casting and the crew, mentions everyone from Troma to Chris Seaver and Low Budget Pictures and can't praise the director's cut of Daredevil enough (when you hear what he has to say, you'll instantly understand why). Witty, warm and occasionally laced with an acerbic sensibility toward modern moviemaking, Phillips delivers a delightful alternative narrative.
The same can be said for the complete cast and crew track – up to a point. In the beginning, we are treated to a lot of stories about onset disasters and personal miscues. Kurly talks about getting caught stark raving buck naked by the director's mom, while Diva discusses what it was like to be pounded like cheap meat by all the men in the cast. Everyone gets a chance to razz on star Ross Kelly who could not make it to group party patter, and the discussion quickly descends into a quip-fest, a quasi-MST3K where each person takes turns ridiculing each other. More informal than informative, and a little insane toward the end, we still feel the love that these people had for the project, and for Phillips. They all can't wait to do it again – and frankly, neither can the audience.
Finding this kind of sweet smelling fright flower sprouting out of what is usually a landfill of lousy, lame exercises in ineffectualness makes The Stink of Flesh all the more worthy of accolades. Though writer/director Scott Phillips has not crafted a complete masterpiece – there are too many laughable loose ends to consider this work concrete and absolute – what he has managed is something pretty sensational in the world of DIY dramatics. He has taken a tired old genre, spiced it up with sex and surreal splatter, and turned the whole thing on its pointed (and incredibly perverted) little head. Better yet, it does the one thing few zombie films can figure out how to get right: it makes the undead dangerous and creepy again.
Sure, they may seem like stuntmen in scary F/X, and every once in a while a FOP (friend of the production) will do a less than passable job as a member of the evil walking dead, but for what it's worth, Phillips rediscovers the fear that has all but been lost in the new living corpse dynamic. With a title that suggests both its terror and its tawdriness, The Stink of Flesh is a wonderful, wanton film. Hopefully, it will one day find a place in the hierarchy of noble flesh feast knock-offs. It is definitely better than the vast majority of the homespun gruesomeness out there. And it does so by avoiding the straightforward, substituting the scandalous and smutty instead.
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