When did horror films go from scary to snarky? When did the comedy part of the subgenre suddenly take precedence? For a long time, practitioners of the often clueless combination of fear and funny business have made more out of the frights than the farce. It was all blood, guts, and occasional laughs. Now, it seems that the cyclical nature of the category has forced the humor to the forefront. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the recent release from the After Dark Horrorfest. As part of a 'Double Feature to Die For' we get the two sisters vs. smoke demons weirdness of The Graves, followed by the Red State living dead silliness of Zombies of Mass Destruction. Both films decide to dump the terror rather quickly, hoping to tickle your ribs instead of tingling your spine. In one case, it almost works before completely falling apart. In the other, no matter the number of quips or the physical attributes of the actresses involved, the lack of something wholly sinister really undermines our appreciation.
The Graves (Score: **)
Before she heads off to New York City to be a high profile publicist, Megan Graves wants to show her sheltered younger sister Abby a good time. So they head off into the Arizona desert looking for the world's biggest thermometer (no joke). There, they run into the small village of Unity and their star attraction, the Skull City Mine ghost town. Hoping for a little haunted fun, they head to the abandoned burg. What they discover instead is a bunch of psychopathic killers, citizens possessed by the smoke spirit of the demonic presence unearthed during the original drilling (again, no joke).
Zombies of Mass Destruction (Score: **1/2)
The island town of Port Gamble loves its quaint, ultra-Conservative politics. All that changes when a zombie washes up on their shore, and quickly turns most of the populace into people eaters. As they look for answers, local Iranian citizens Frida and her immigrant father are targeted as the possible terrorists responsible for the media-mentioned living dead virus. As the creatures continue to attack, we meet Tom and Lance, two gay lovers coming out to the former's fascist mother, Mrs. Banks, school teacher and free thinker, and Rev. Haggis, an old time religious fanatic who believes he can cure what ails the town with God.
Boy, oh boy - do The Graves and Zombies of Mass Destruction try WAY too hard. So tapped into the current horror zeitgeist that they believe anything literally goes, these unfocused films treat tone like an afterthought, narrative logistics like an unnecessary nuisance. Kills occur off screen, F/X (when they do arrive) play second fiddle to foolishness, and the overall approach reeks of the kind of cocky irony that went out of style around 2002. It's not that the genre comedy is dead or dying. Indeed, many homemade fright flicks get the balance perfectly (or at least partly) right. But instead of finding the wit in the wicked and the sinister, directors Brian Pulido (Graves) and Kevin Hamedani (Zombies) take standard scary movie premises and then toss in pointless jibes. Imagine the cinematic benchmark Evil Dead II without the splatter scat vivisection and, instead, loaded with nothing but endless scenes of Ash's possessed hand bashing him over the head with plates. That's what each of these movies are like - stand-up comedy routines where, suddenly and surreptitiously, a few seconds of spook show break out.
Of the two, The Graves is more aggravating. The premise has all the promise of a perfect exploitation romp: two hot chicks; a weird little town; a local legend; a determined demonic presence; and a bevy of former fear icons including Bill Moseley, Tony Todd, and Amanda Wyss. All those behind the lens have to do is manage this material with the utmost care, creating tension as well as sequences of purposeful levity and we'd be in paranormal pig heaven. But instead, everything that comes out of everyone's mouth is a sarcastic remark. It's as if Pulido, who also wrote the script, studied Mad Magazine's "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions" and then completely blanked on the terror. There are some great moments here (Moseley's classroom confrontation with Megan), but by the time we get to the sacrificial altar and all the Hellspawn stuff, we've bailed on the boo. Though they are fetching, lovely leads Clare Grant and Jillian Murray can salvage this stunted stalker survival stuff.
At least Zombies of Mass Destruction tries for a political satire angle - at least for a while. Using a Fox News like network to blame the outbreak on terrorists is a cheeky plot contrivance, and having the local intellectualized hottie be a Westernized Iranian chick is also a master stroke. But as with most living dead efforts, ZMD falls in love with itself and fails to go no further. Instead of endless shots of blood geysers and truncated limbs, a little comedic exposition would have been nice. Instead of the crazed father who believes he can torture Frida into spilling the beans (and the ineffectual son whimpering in the background) , we could have had more nods to the current War on Terror. But when given the opportunity to be fresh and funny, ZMD goes right back to the Romero rulebook, pilfers a few moves from Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, and then tosses in a ton of low rent cannibal corpse kookiness to confuse things. Granted, it's hard to take the creature feature category seriously, what with all the grade-Z direct to DVD schlock out there, but with an intriguing premise and the promise of delivery on same, Zombies of Mass Destruction should be better. Instead, it's barely tolerable, constantly tripping over its own self-subscribed 'cool.'
Both films go with a 1080p widescreen presentation, the image of The Graves looking much bolder, brighter, and better made than the flat, often overly dark visuals of Zombies. This is probably because the former film spends much of its time in broad daylight, the extra illumination giving the visuals a clarity and depth that the latter's night interior shoot lacks. Similarly, The Graves looks more expensive, the found locations and various desert sets coming across with startling clarity. Zombie of Mass Destruction, however, looks foggy and soft sometimes, especially during the aforementioned comedic "torture" scenes. It is also limited in its often single set sequences. Both movies definitely benefit from the upgrade, with The Graves getting the overall edge.
On the sound side of things, the English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix for both films is excellent. The voices and dialogue are crystal clear, the musical scoring settling easily into the multi-channel speaker set-up. There are even some interesting directional sound F/X, both The Graves and Zombies of Mass Destruction offering ambient moments of suggested terror off in the backdrop of the design. Certainly, things are not reference quality and the overall sonic make-up can be a bit cacophonous. Still, for a second tier Blu-ray release, the aural aspect of the two titles is pretty good.
Since this Blu-ray is really nothing more than both previously released DVDs ported over to the new high definition format, the bonus features offered are exactly the same. For Zombies, we get a making-of and a trailer. Nothing exciting or overly insightful. As for The Graves, we overdose on commentary tracks (there are TWO, believe it or not), four featurettes providing behind the scenes information on the production, a silly music video, and a trailer. It's standard stuff for a basic genre double feature.
Because they both want to be different while staying the same, because they both have genre concepts that promise more than they can deliver, The Graves/Zombies of Mass Destruction release is beyond irritating. If we want jokes, we'll watch Comedy Central. If we want tacky horror humor, we'll watch Chiller. Clearly failing to learn the lesson taught by those they are mimicking, these movies earn an easy Rent It rating. There's enough here to avoid a Skip It, but the lack of scare surplus avoid a score of Recommended. At some point, filmmakers are going to figure out how to be horrifying again without adding in their own tongue in cheek take on the material. Until that day arrives, we are stuck suffering through subpar scary satires like this. Instead of chuckling, however, you'll be chaffing.
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