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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Zombie Planet
Zombie Planet
Tempe Entertainment // Unrated // October 19, 2004
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Bill Gibron | posted October 28, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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Sometimes, ambition can override available attributes. People occasionally reach for the stars, having neither the ability nor the answers on how to even approach the attempt. This maxim applies to most areas of endeavor from bands that have no business writing and recording their own songs, to singers who can't even carry a note, let alone an entire tune, with their weak vocalizations. There are trillions of talentless writers who believe that everything they belch or blog is worthy of mass consideration, not inclusion in the educational tome The World's Funniest Grammatical Errors. From deluded designers to spastic sportsmen, we all occasionally bite off a little more of life's aptitude apple than we have the constitution to digest. But nowhere is this idea more pronounced than in low budget filmmaking. Amateur auteurs, pretending to push the limits of their cinematic craft (while lacking the basic tools to even start sculpting) tend to fall into two distinct disciplines. On one side, you have the personal problem panderers with their drone-like dissertations on abuse and sinister closeted skeletons that take two hours to make their five-minute point. Then there are those who envision the infinite, the boundless possibilities in almost any genre. For them, the lack of money and disparate shooting circumstances lead to creative, not restrictive possibilities. Yet herein lies the rub. Usually, when kept simple and solid, an indie film can find a viable voice. But when horror – or worse, science fiction – are forced into the mix, the results can be pretty pitiful.

George Bonilla had such a dimensionless dream. He wanted to craft the mutha of all zombie films. The idea festered and fumed in his mind until he gathered up the ganas and actually followed Troma titan Lloyd Kaufman's constant mantra: he went out and made his own damn movie – actually, two movies. Now, thanks to the entrepreneurs of off-title entertainment, Tempe, we get the first installment of this double dip into the dead zone. Zombie Planet has epic platitudes as big as the name suggests. This is Armageddon baby, real end of the world weirdness. But the question becomes, does it actually work? Can a small time filmmaker craft a pseudo-blockbuster out of camcorders, local actors and foam latex. The answer is a resounding...almost.

The DVD:
It's several years into the future. The world as we know it is gone. Thanks to a pharmaceutical mishap, the population of the planet is divided into three distinct camps. Inside walled communities where money, and influence, rule, rich people try to carry on with their normal routine. Out in the "zones", those who can't afford the high price of safety live in squatter like sects – groupings closely monitored by the omnipresent government. Within their restrictive existence reside two separate classes. Those who scavenge and barter for food – the Dregs - and the criminal element that exploits them – called the Upper Class. The Lord of the Upper Class is a deranged megalomaniac named Adam. He demands mafia like "tributes" from the Dregs in return for supplies and a sense of order. And the rest? Well, the beings making up the vast majority of the remaining 'residents' on the third rock from the Sun are zombies; decaying flesh eaters who avoid the daylight, preferring to feed at night. Walking right into the middle of this melee is the mysterious Kane. A solitary stranger with an enigmatic aura and a gift for martial arts, he falls in with a Dreg contingent made up of Warren, the leader, Mary, his hot tempered bodyguard, Frank, an equally angry denizen and Julie, a tired, troubled young woman, among others. The stage is set for a battle over supremacy of the dying world, a war between the living and the dead, the criminal and the civil for the ability to simply survive on the Zombie Planet

God, how you'll want to HATE Zombie Planet. As it recycles scenes from every living dead, post-apocalyptic, sci-fi schlock fest ever conceived, as the characters spew lines loaded with techno-babble and blatant clichés, as the actors awkwardly attempt to emote in some manner of professional performance, you can feel your patience starting to wear thin. Add in George Bonilla's eccentric directing style that believes in long, languid takes. He finds silence and stillness far more meaningful than an actual, motivated mise-en-scene. As a filmmaker, Bonilla allows his shots to linger for far too long as his characters look pensively off into the distance. But perhaps the final flimsy straw in an already overstuffed camel sack is the actual flesh-eaters themselves. Obviously conceived from some F/X savants first few lessons at the Dick Smith school of makeup design (they have a full facial appliance phoniness to their style), these reanimated corpses are the most inconsistent bunch of baddies ever set against the movable feast of the living. Some shuffle and amble. Others run like track stars. A few even spew ready made retorts, like Freddy Krueger with a tendency toward skin snacking. By the time you notice how crappy the fight choreography is, or the salient stupidity of the social class system in this future shock circumstance, you're probably hurling your remote, and/or any other weighted object at the home theater system. Zombie Planet has poised itself to be another self indulgent disaster, a ridiculous rip-off that substitutes a couple of decades in front of the VCR with the entire Horror section of Ballbuster Video in place of any semblance of originality or invention.

And yet, strange as it may seem, by the end of the nearly two-hour running time of this Dawn of the 28 Days of the Night of the Twilight of Thunderdome and His Dog story swiper, you actually want more. That's right, even though it has disappointed you time and time again with its nods to far better films, and continually flounders around in its own narrative indulgences, Zombie Planet turns into something quite sublime. Like a homemade graphic novel, written and penned by that AV geek who you wouldn't sit next to in PE, there are kernels of creativity and outright cleverness in this big, sloppy ersatz-spectacle. Director Bonilla obviously knows his genres and plays into their formulas perfectly. He follows the blueprints laid out by the recognized classics, hoping that such cinematic shorthand will buy him a little low budget leeway. The shoestring facets of this film are never very far away. The cast is amiable, but hardly able to offer up the despair and anxiety necessary to convince us that all of human society is in chaos. They're far too calm to convey such cataclysmic ambience. The sets also smack of a trip to the Home Depot, not a well-stocked studio backlot. Sure. Bonilla makes the most of his locations (a rundown housing project becomes a perfect desolate neighborhood) and he even finds inventive ways to utilize natural settings (city streets and alleyways dressed with a few found objects become the habitat of the zombie hordes). Ambitious, visionary and quite adept at times, Zombie Planet is one major fanatics love letter to the films he grew up on. It is also a frightfully uneven mess that sometimes even fools itself into thinking it's better than it really is.

Thankfully, there are other elements that clearly compensate for the lack of consistency. Though, as mentioned before, Bonilla needs a few lessons in shot selection and editing rhythm, some of those slow, sedate sequences are really atmospheric. Though it pushes our disbelief suspension to believe in this decaying cityscape with its boarded up doors and windows, something about the way the director lets the movie lag gives it the heft and scope he's hoping for. Then there is the basic precept behind the origins of the zombie plague, a novel invention on a tired, time-honored tradition that works incredibly well. Bonilla deserves some manner of medal for devising an absolutely original take on the whole disease/radiation/retribution from God notion of the dead rising. So as not to spoil the surprise, let's just say that the diet industry can't be too happy with the message this movie is forwarding. Bonilla renders the expositional foundation in a terrific – if talky – flashback sequence that does a nice job of building both tension and truth. When it's all over, we believe in the beginning of this bout of mass cannibalism, which is crucial to supporting the rest of the story. But Bonilla's bravery goes beyond simple plot dynamics. His script is filled with knowing nods to other films, rich with excellent, expressive dialogue, and even contains a classic moment or two. From a purely technical standpoint, Zombie Planet is a very well realized and nicely written movie. The fact that it's not always successful comes more from the performance and the pilfering angle than Bonilla's ability as a filmmaker. Homage or not, the multiple references almost ruin the experience.

You just can't help but play compare and contrast while watching this film. Zombie Planet is just that obvious in its ideas. It draws direct points of reference from The Stand, The Road Warrior, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, the entire Romero canon of corpse grinding, the more modern versions of gore-based gonzo violence like Resident Evil or House of the Dead, just to name a few. With the occasional bows to the crazier Italian spectrum of zombie fare (a batso farce like Nightmare City come to mind) juxtaposed against those illogical examples of society gone goofy – films like City Limits, Escape from New York/ LA/ the Bronx, and Robot Holocaust – you sometimes feel like your watching a video version of some super-dork's trivia game. This is not to suggest that these lifts are arcane or obtuse, however. Sometimes, they are so obvious as to inspire fears over copyright infringement. One such jaw-dropper comes during the direct lift from Mel's third trip into Mad Max's flack jacket. Though they call it the Death Party, or something similar to that, the battle royale between Kane and one of Adam's defrocked henchmen is Thunderdome in miniature. Everything, from the set up, to the weapons dangling from the ceiling to the moralistic conclusion is a plagiarist's paradise. So direct is the filching that at one point you're just waiting for a character to scream out "he's a raggedy man", Tina Turner style. Had Boniila found a better way to incorporate his worship of the genres into his narrative, Zombie Planet wouldn't feel so familiar. The director has a lot of good ideas here, and shows that he has the camera confidence to fulfill a high percentage of them. But we clearly can see that several of his most interesting concepts came out of someone else's typewriter.

There are a few other items that constantly hampered this film. While he looks the part of a post-apocalyptic savior set on re-righting the wrongs, Frank Farhat is just average as our hero. He is all style (except for that Joe Perry patterned streak of white hair in his mop of a mane) with very little strength. He's like a nerd playing at a ninja, presenting all the right clothes and moves, but carrying very little of the inherent weight necessary to pull it all off. Equally awkward is Matt Perry as head Upper Class honcho Adam. Maybe it's his long red hair and sparse goatee. Maybe it's the fact that he acts like he's in a third rate community theater production of Scarface: The Play. It could be that he's trying for a whole genial gentleman killer vibe. Whatever the case may be, it really doesn't work. When he growls and barks his baneful condemnations, you want to giggle, not cower. When your two leads can't quite bring the basics (heroism, criminality) that you hired them for, the film will face some staggering problems. The supporting cast is a little better, even with Karl Gustov Lindstrom channeling a southern fried Emilio Estevez with his pissed-off bumpkin, Frank. Then there is the whole evil government angle. So convoluted that its parameters and practices don't make a lot of sense, as well as functioning as a dumb distraction from what the film is really about (the dead vs. the living), every time Adam confers with the federals, you'll want subtitles and an interpreter along to figure out just what the fudge tunnel they're plotting. Bonilla should have saved the conspiracy/ cabal element between Adam and the officials until Part 2 of his twin pack of terror. It would have made more of an impact – and sense – as a last minute plot twist. Here, it just mucks up the proposed bloodletting.

Still, all stilted performances, snail based pacing and bloated plotting aside, Zombie Planet finds a way to successfully suck you in. Maybe it's a combination of all the facets – the good, the bad, the ugly and the fascinating – that keeps us connected. It's sure not the characters or their concerns. Indeed, what may be working here is that aforementioned ambition in action. Bonilla wants to make this broad, sweeping canvas of a camcorder movie resonate with all the epic concepts he has cooking in his brain. Unlike most low-end monster movies, Bonilla takes time in details and design, making sure his zombies as look convincing as his locations (you'll find nothing but pseudo-professional level effects all throughout Zombie Planet, which speaks volumes for the director's idealism). And even if his cast has issues with emoting, they all at least look the part. There is plenty of blood and guts to keep the gorehounds happy and we even get some somber, interpersonal moments that help offset some of the testosterone laced fistfights constantly popping up in the plot. As it scrounges situations from other, more mainstream films, Zombie Planet wants to give its audience a little of everything – comedy and pathos, action and horror. It hopes that by filling us with ideas, by placing as many interesting or just plain distracting elements within our field of vision for nearly two hours, we'll ignore all the problems and just go with the blood flow. And you know what, it works. Zombie Planet is comprised of dozens of unoriginal aspects that should fluster and enrage even the most mediocre macabre fan. Yet somehow, and occasional in spite of itself, it is an addictive, entrancing experience.

The Video:
Zombie Planet does not look like a low-budget action/horror film, not based on the beautiful, atmospheric image director Bonilla manages out of his available money. Presented in a 1.33:1 full screen transfer, the film looks amazing. Certainly, there is grain in the night scenes and a tendency toward some compression problems. But details are well defined (you can count the hairs on Kane's chin during close-ups) and the color correctness is sharp and radiant. This is a good-looking independent film, and others wanting to improve their visual palette would be advised to give Bonilla's framing and compositions a good gander. The guy has quite an eye.

The Audio:
The first thing you'll notice about Zombie Planet is the massive amount of ADR in the film. It is probably safe to say that nearly 75% of the film is dubbed, something that is not unusual for no-budget features. Shooting your story on the run, and under some rather unfriendly circumstances, means that certain facets just flat out fail. And in the case of Zombie Planet, the aural attributes were obviously undermined. If you can get past this ersatz-successful lip sync situation (some of the cast are better at it than others) the Dolby Digital Stereo soundtrack will cause you no further dismay. True, the reliance on digital sound effects (the gunshots sound like a low grade .wav file) and over exaggerated foley (punches land like explosions) can grow annoying. But overall, this is a good looking and decent sounding production.

The Extras:
Tempe tends to lard on the content when they create a DVD, but strangely enough, Zombie Planet does not follow this trend. Instead, we are treated to only two commentaries and a few trailers. No Behind the Scenes featurette, interview footage or Making Of documentary. This is a major disappointment, as audiences love to see the technical aspects of even the most low budget, independent moviemaking. They live for a sneak peek at the process, and love to share gossip and anecdotes with the cast and crew. The fact that Tempe offers very little of that here is certainly sad (or maybe, its being saved for the mega 2 DVD set of Zombie Planet and ,b>Zombie Planet II: Adam's Revenge in a few months.) Thankfully, Bonilla tries to address this flaw in his full-length commentary. There is a tendency throughout his narrative to pat himself and his cast and crew on the back a few too many times, but he also acts as a teacher and mentor, explaining to neophyte filmmakers how to realize even the most expansive goals. He provides detailed descriptions on how certain shots were achieved, argues vehemently for production value and even exposes a few of Zombie Planet's less obvious "secrets". If you can get past all the plaudits and praise, it's a damn good discussion. Less effective is the second track, featuring the four gentlemen credited as cinematographers on the picture. Billy Blackwell, Ray Mason Wright, Barry Stout and Todd Burrows think this is an episode of Miscreant Science Theater 3000 and basically spend the two hour running time riffing on the film. They giggle over performances and joke about plot points. They even undermine their own efforts in the lighting and camerawork in the film. Their efforts behind the lens are truly incredible. Their narrative skills leave a great deal to be desired.

Final Thoughts:
Perhaps it's because we expect so little that we end up liking Zombie Planet so much. Maybe it's our own love affair with the living dead genre that allows us to forgive some of its palpable flaws. It could be that we fall under Bonilla's ballsy spell, following along as he continuously broadens and bolsters the scale of his ideas. And when you're stealing from some of the better speculative fiction films of the last two decades, the noticeable nods don't seem so unpleasant. Few people in the arena of home made movies have tried something as epic as this all out war for control of the future. There have been other examples, both bad (Necropolis Awakened) and brave (Viral Assassins). But none of these movies wanted to be an all out blockbuster style cinematic shocker depicting all aspects of Armageddon. Zombie Planet and its dreamer of a director aim for the galaxies and land on as many planets as they can along the way. Bonilla wants his film to be as fun, as frightening, and as fecund as its mainstream counterparts. And the great thing is, he is willing to actually TRY to achieve his aims. Many independent moviemakers have epic visions and broad sweeping statements they wish to make within their films. But very few of them have the ability, or the ambition, to make them a reality. George Bonilla has heart enough for all of them. And Zombie Planet is the fresh, if flawed, result of his passions. While by no means a masterpiece, this is one fervent fright flick.

Want more Gibron Goodness? Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here

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