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Birdemic: Shock and Terror

Severin // Unrated // February 22, 2011
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted February 26, 2011 | E-mail the Author
So, here goes:
[click on the thumbnail to enlarge]
[click on the thumbnail to enlarge]
Yeah, pretty much everything you need to know about Birdemic: Shock and Terror is right there. Oh, and yes, those are clotheshangers being used in that second shot to fend off a small army of eagles and vultures. Just wanna make sure we're on the same page here.

To go ahead and get this out of the way, Birdemic isn't some schlocky slice of camp...y'know, winking to the crowd as some kind of coldly calculated, pre-packaged cult-flick-by-design. No, it's the work of a meek, middle-aged Vietnamese immigrant who, during his downtime shilling software in Silicon Valley, makes movies. Half of Birdemic, James Nguyen's third feature-length flick, is a touching story of love and romance. The other half is CGI birds who spit acid, shoot lasers or something, and try to drag mankind bloodied, kicking, and screaming back to the Dark Ages. One of the endlessly many fascinating things about Birdemic is that it's played completely straight. It has no idea how ridiculous the concept is, every bit as stone-faced and serious about killer-CG-laser-shooting-acid-spewing eagles and vultures as...oh, I don't know, An Inconvenient Truth is about global warming. It's genuinely intended to be a gripping thriller. The press blurbs say something about how Birdemic was shot for all of ten grand, and watching it, you kinda stop and marvel: "wait, where did the money go?" Birdemic looks, sounds, and plays like one of those backyard epics you made with your mom's camcorder when you were eleven, only it has stiff, immobile CGI birds floating awkwardly on top. The movie looks like it was shot with a Hi-8 camcorder back in 1987. It feels like it was edited by bashing two VCRs playing, one recording. (I'm not the only one who did that growing up, was I?) The audio drops out with seemingly every single cut. A fair chunk of the dialogue is completely indeciperhable. Establishing shots drag on fifteen or twenty endless seconds too long. There's so much pointless driving in the title sequence that it kinda duped me into thinking I put on Manos: The Hands of Fate by mistake. Despite having been in the U.S. for decades, Nguyen never completely got the hang of the language, so the screenplay he wrote is littered with broken English and phrases no one, anywhere, would ever use, and he demanded that his earnest, inexperienced cast deliver every last syllable verbatim. Oh, and it's also an allegory about mankind's disrespect for nature and the need to go green, so there's that too.

...and yet I loved just about every minute of it. There's nothing about Birdemic that's even a little bit competent, to the point where it transcends labels like "good", "bad", or, um, "movie". You probably also know by now that screenings of Birdemic aren't selling out, one after another after another, 'cause it's good. So, I guess I'm probably supposed to have gotten into the plot by now. Birdemic opens with a meet-cute in a diner between Rod (Alan Bagh) and Nathalie (Whitney Moore). Hey, they sat together in English class back in high school! They exchange business cards and smiles, and they trot off to have the best week ever. After dolling up in Vietnamese formal wear for a fashion shoot at a one-hour photo joint, Nat gets word that she's been booked as the cover model for the next Victoria's Secret catalog. Score! Rod, meanwhile, after conducting business-like business with million dollar transactions and fifty percent discounts, finds out that his company's been sold to Oracle Corporation for a billion bucks. Rod pockets ten million himself, so...a newly-minted multimillionaire and his lingerie model girlfriend. Life could be worse. Oh, but things do go south when a bunch of vultures and eagles swarm over the sleepy little hamlet of Half Moon Bay. They can -- but generally don't -- vomit acid. They can drop bombs or shoot missiles or something because, well, there are library divebomb sounds and Duke Nukem 3D explosions when they fly overhead. Mankind keeps using coal and gasoline and aerosol cans and stuff, ravaging the environment, and nature's up and decided that payback's a bitch. At least Nathalie and Rod aren't in it alone. They befriend the couple a couple doors down in the dingy motel where they'd holed up, and it just so happens that the dude is a former marine who's a pacifist yet has a loaded AK-47 in his van. Grabbing a couple of orphaned kids along the way, the six of 'em try to find some sanctuary...some glimmer of the smoldering remains of a world that's gone to the birds. Bum-dum-doommmmm!

I'm writing all this several days after first experiencing the awe and glory of Birdemic, and I'm still kind of reeling from it. When Rod is introducing the kids he'd found on the side of the road, he points at them with a pistol while rattling off their names. There are killer birds everywhere, but the survivors still have open-air picnics and drive with the windows down. Half the movie is spent focusing on a romance between two twentysomethings who fall into immediate fame and fortune, yet they have their PG-rated, foot-wrasslin' tryst in a shitty $18-a-night motel. The same howlingly bad CG bird effects are recycled over and over and over and over. The birds flap their wings but rarely get around to moving, instead just hovering in place and facing the same exact direction. Writer/director James Nguyen isn't one for second takes so much, so when someone blows a line of dialogue, they just keep stammering their way through it till the end. The acting as a whole is pretty amazing, particularly mush-mouthed star Alan Bagh, who, at Nguyen's express direction, walks in kind of a half-waddle. There's also...well, I'm not going to say anything bad about the other lead, Whitney Moore, since she's indescribably gorgeous, and pretty goes a long way. Moore and Bagh are both so earnest that it's impossible not to adore 'em, and orienting the movie around two really likeable actors might be the only thing Nguyen does right. I really don't think Birdemic would be as much fun or even watchable with pretty much anyone else in those parts.

A bunch of the blurbs on the back of the box brag about how Birdemic is the best worst movie ever, and...nah, I think I'm still carrying a torch for Troll 2 as far as the top spot goes. See, there's not a boring moment in Troll 2. Something batshit insane is always right around the corner, and a big part of the fascination there is that it's so imaginative and so utterly, completely incoherent. Birdemic trudges along more slowly, and its bag of tricks kinda runs dry after a while. During the romantic first half of the movie, Birdemic had me in a chokehold, to the point where I paused the movie, ran upstairs, and sent a friend an email with "BIRDEMIC IS AMAZING!!!!" in all caps and probably more exclamation points than that. When the birds finally swoop in after 47 minutes (!) and guns are blazing an' clotheshangers are being swatted, I was still in awe. After our plucky, intrepid heroes are on the road for a while, though, it starts to seem kinda same-y, and I had sort of a tough time not fast-forwarding through the last fifteen or however many minutes. I'd probably have felt differently if I'd been able to wrangle someone else into watching Birdemic with kind of screams crowd experience!, and it also screams booze and pizza and various illicit substances and other things I didn't have handy. What I'm really getting at is "don't be like me". Do it better. Do it right. But be sure to do it. Highly Recommended.

For whatever reason, the BD-ROM drive in my computer decided it didn't wanna play Birdemic, so I couldn't snap any screenshots this time around. I know! I'm devastated too. I guess you'll just have to take my word for it that this is the worst looking Blu-ray disc ever. James Nguyen brags in one of the extras about how the movie was shot natively at 1080p24, but...what? Really? The video here has very clearly been upconverted from standard-def. Clarity and fine detail are pretty much nil, and its colors are just about always pale, pasty, and bleeding. A vertical line -- yellow or purple, depending on the shot -- smears across part of the far right of the frame. The whole thing is soft, noisy, and heavily aliased, and it's kinda prone to some really nasty banding too. But, yeah, all that's all part of its seductive allure or whatever. Birdemic looks like a home movie from 1988 that just happens to have jarringly crisp, mostly immobile CG eagles Colorform-ed on top. If it looked even a little bit competently shot, who'd care? At the same time, is it worth shelling out a few extra bucks to get Birdemic in not-really-high-def? Leaning towards a no there.

Birdemic is slopped out on a single-layer Blu-ray disc, and its 1.78:1 video has been encoded with AVC.

Severin didn't cheap out. I mean, you're lookin' at a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack with the whole 5.1 surround sound thing. It's just...y'know, for a movie where the audio drops out every few seconds and the whole thing sounds as if it was shot with the tinny little mic built into the camera. The quality's so awful that when Alan Bagh starts talking in the cast commentary about having to work the boom himself, I was like...they had a mic rig? Huh. Anyway, background noise can spike violently from shot-to-shot. The quality of the dialogue is all over the place...sometimes distant and hollow, other times clipped and distorted, and every once in a while so muddy that I couldn't really figure out what anyone was saying. As far as the whole five-point-one thing goes, there really isn't any bass at all, although I guess the score is kinda-sorta full-bodied. Some effects leak into the surrounds -- sqwawking death-birds, sprays of semi-automatic gunfire, those, like, twelve minutes of clapping about Oracle forking over a billion dollars -- but there's no real rhyme or reason about when they decide to kick in. I've been churning out DVD reviews for eleven years and change, and...yeah, this is as bad as it gets. Like I said before, though: wouldn't be nearly as much fun if it were good.

Also included is a Dolby Digital stereo track. Oh, and sorry, kids! No subtitles. Even though the movie's in English, there are times when it really could've used 'em.

There's zero behind-the-scenes stuff, but considering that Birdemic didn't have a crew in the sense of...y'know, a crew, I guess it kinda follows that they didn't have anyone handy at the time to shoot a making-of doc either.
  • Audio Commentaries: Writer/director/pretty-much-everything-else James Nguyen takes the reins on Birdemic's first commentary track, and it's...kinda bland. Nguyen plays it completely straight and serious, without even a little hint of irony or post-modern whatever-dom creeping in. Lotsa metaphors. Lotsa environmental chatter, leading up to Nguyen saying that he sees a day when people really will kill for a tank of gas. He doesn't mention Thunderdomes or anything when those dark days come, but I guess that's kind of a given. Lotsa talk about the movies that inspired Birdemic, from a stack of Hitchcockian romantic thrillers all the way to Apocalypse Now. He explains some things I didn't understand, such as how the Asian-massage-style sex scene is intended to be an homage to John and Yoko's bed-in, along with what the ending is meant to represent...although it still doesn't really make any sense. But yeah. It's nothing really all that memorable, although Nguyen randomly re-records small chunks of the commentary at times, and the difference in audio quality can be hysterically jarring.

    ...but audio commentary numero two-oh so much more than makes up for that. I mean, looking down at my notes, I scribbled down "so awesome!" and underlined it, even, so clearly that's gotta mean something. Bobby Hacker moderates this track that revolves around stars Whitney Moore and Alan Bagh, and there's no trace of delusion lurking anywhere in here. Moore and Bagh are both in that very understandable middle ground of being proud and embarrassed about Birdemic, and because the movie was shot a few years before it was ever released, they have enough distance to be unflinchingly, brutally honest. I love hearing stories like how Birdemic was shot without permits, so if someone asked why actors slathered in fake blood were writhing around on the ground, they just said they were shooting a wedding portrait. How long did it take when taping just off a busy California highway, flailing a machine gun around, and shoving a screaming kid into a dingy old van did it take for someone to call the cops? Answered! Why does Rod walk with that kind of doofy waddle? Answered! What was in that orange-ish acidic bird vomit stuff that got chucked in a bunch of extras' faces? Answered! Why are motel coathangers the weapon of choice for fending off eagles and vultures? Answered! Hacker does a great job keeping the conversation breezing along, asking about Nguyen's direction for a bunch of these scenes, what was running through their minds, and...well, why they even bothered to finish a movie they were so miserable making. I was kind of disappointed to hear what a hot-tempered, tyrannical dick James Nguyen was on the set. The picture I had of a sweet, completely clueless middle-aged guy was a lot more cheery. But anyway, this is an amazing commentary and some of the most infectious fun I've had with a track like this in a while. Oh, and if you hate your liver, Ms. Moore has a pretty spectacular Birdemic drinking game that she spells out in here too.

  • Deleted Scenes (2 min.; SD): James Nguyen offers up a little optional commentary for the first deleted scene: a minute and a half long bit where the van breaks down and everyone starts searching for Tony who's holed up in a cave. Nguyen helpfully explains that it's meant to represent nature chasing mankind back to the cave where he the child represents the way mankind plays with nature as if it were some kind of toy...stuff like that. No audio commentary for the second scene, if you can call an 18 second clip of a kid saying "she's taking a shit!" a scene, exactly.

  • Birdemic Experience Tour Featurette (12 min.; HD): Birdemic made the rounds in packed screenings from coast to coast and even bounded across the Atlantic for a couple of exhibitions in the UK. Footage from all that -- in honest-to-something high-def! -- is piled on here, including Nguyen palling around with fans, doing Q&As where he sometimes gives wildly conflicting answers from one screening to the next, and waving around lots and lots of coat hangers.

  • James Nguyen on "Movie Close-Up" (27 min.; SD): While cameras were still rolling on Birdemic, James Nguyen took a little time out to pop up on a San Francisco public access show. He talks about how he thinks of himself as a romantic thriller filmmaker, how the Humane Society was somehow concerned that the CG birds in his teaser trailer may somehow have been real, and how the computer generated critters were supposed to be upgraded before production wrapped. Guess that didn't pan out. The real highlight is catching a peek at Nguyen's first two movies: Julie and Jack, which is where Birdemic's Tippi Hedren cameo was snipped out of, and the Vertigo-meets-futuristic-organ-cloning thriller Replica, which also happens to swirl around a Silicon Valley software salesman. You might recognize host Bonnie Steiger from her cameo in Birdemic, if you're paying attention.

  • Trailers: Four of 'em! There's a teaser for Birdemic (2 min.) along with the full theatrical trailer (3 min.) and a plug for the Birdemic Experience tour thingie (2 min.). These are all upconverted or whatever, but there is one natively HD trailer: a minute-long teaser for Moviehead: The James Nguyen Story.

  • Electronic Press Kit (3 min.; SD): Last up is a really short promotional piece about Severin gobbling up the distribution rights to Birdemic, Nguyen's blitz at Sundance in a bloodied van with Birdemic posters plastered all over it, and that whole thing.

The Final Word
Yeah, all that stuff you've heard about Birdemic...? Turns out that every last bit of it's true. Whatever concept you have of "so bad, it's good", it's not even close to being enough. There just...there just aren't words. Birdemic is this endlessly enthralling mash of earnestness, ambition, and staggering, all-encompassing incompetence. I'm too struck with awe to look away, and as awful as the flick is in pretty much every conceivable way, it's still so sincere that I can't bring myself to say anything mean. The novelty did wear off for me after a while, yeah, but I think the momentum would've kept rolling if I'd grabbed a couple of friends to watch it with me. Birdemic really is a whole social experience kind of deal.

I mean, if you took a peek at the screengrabs at the very top of this review and didn't frantically click the back button on your web browser over and over, it kinda goes without saying that you're gonna give Birdemic a look, so I don't know why I'm bothering to write all this. I've devoted way more of my life to schlock than I'd ever, ever want to admit, and Birdemic explores such new levels of bad that it even managed to catch a seasoned veteran like myself off-guard. I had a blast with it and can't wait to tear into the movie again as soon as I can scrounge up some people who are ready, willing, and able. Since the flick itself is upconvert-ish and only something like 13 minutes of the extras are really in high-def, there's not much reason to pick this Blu-ray disc up over the DVD, although the difference is only two bucks on Amazon as I write this, so...whatever. I'm gonna say Highly Recommended and stick with that.
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