Written and Directed by Marc Fratto
Zombies. Whether you love ’em, like ’em, or barely tolerate ’em, one thing we can all probably agree on is that we’ve just about reached our saturation point of watching the exploits of the living dead, especially as envisioned by the current crop of indie filmmakers. At least that’s what I thought until recently, when I watched a new entry in the sub-genre, Marc Fratto’s Last Rites of the Dead.
While I do enjoy a good flesh feast every now and then, my heart belongs to the bloodsuckers, and Fratto’s vamp opus Strange Things Happen at Sundown is among my favorites. He threw out most of the stereotypes and crafted a film that was grim and bloody — and exceedingly smart — so when I heard his next project was a zombie flick, I couldn’t have been more stoked to see what he’d come up with. Although my rating for Last Rites is slightly lower than that of Strange Things, don’t let that deter you from checking it out. It’s every bit as clever and worthy of an audience; it just has a couple of flaws.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Last Rites opens up with a newscast montage much like the recent Dawn of the Dead remake. The world has changed overnight. For some unknown reason the recently deceased refuse to stay that way. They die from whatever cause the Grim Reaper has chosen for them — cancer, gunshot wound, car accident, heart attack — but then simply get up and walk out of the hospital, morgue, etc. On the positive side it’s only happening to people dying currently; no one’s clawing their way out of the grave.
While the pundits and powers-that-be try to make sense of things, we’re introduced to a young couple whose relationship has obviously just ended rather badly. Poor Angela (Ramsden) is huddled in her bathtub trying to keep away from Josh (Nelson), her hothead of an ex-boyfriend who breaks down the bathroom door and shoots her point-blank in the head. If you’re thinking, like any good zombie fan would, that she won’t be turning up undead after a wound like that … well, you’d be wrong. These zombies require much more than just a bullet to the brain; they need to have their grey matter totally obliterated.
You see, they’re not like any other zombies we’ve seen before. No, Angela and her ilk are able to talk and work and contemplate their fate just like everybody else. Cut to five months after her re-birth, and we find Angela joining a support group for the “mortally challenged.” Not only are they intelligent, but they’re on their way to taking pride in their undead status, damnit. They know they’re the next step on the evolution ladder; it’s just hard out there for a zombie. They’re conflicted. Even though they get violently sick from it, they eat donuts to stay in touch with their human side. While we’re on the subject, what is it with filmmakers today and their need to have as many people as possible throw up? I’m sensing it’s a guy thing and I just can’t grasp the importance a good puke. But I can appreciate good storytelling, and Fratto has that elusive gift in spades.
While Angela struggles with concealing her true identity (a new skin care product called Look Alive helps in that regard) and continuing to blend in with the populace, Josh teams up with an underground army of zombie killers led by The Commandant. Their mission is ostensibly to fight for the rights of humans and protect our culture, but in reality they’re just getting their jollies decapitating zombies, sticking their still animated heads on poles, and making them watch their bodies burn. They record these “missions” and show them off so that other zombies will get the message and voluntarily turn themselves in for execution at the various termination facilities that have sprung up over the past few months. Yet, even with all his surface hatred of the undead, Josh continues to follow Angela, seemingly in the hopes of reconciling. She wants nothing to do with him and turns to Louis, a former member of her support group who left because he felt the others were too weak and timid, for help with assimilating into the zombie sub-culture. Louis and his friends Mel and the Twins introduce Angela to some very special “meat” that is beyond intoxicating, and before you can say “Good Mother Solstice,” she’s involved with an evil zombie cult that, of course, Josh and The Commandant will soon be targeting for annihilation. Who exactly are the bad guys again?
By this point Last Rites has absolutely won me over. The script is fresh and full of smart (that word again) social commentary, rich characters, and more opportunities for beheadings and flesh rippings than you can shake a stick (or, in this case, a machete) at. The sound design and music (although a bit too loud at times) fit the onscreen action perfectly. Gina Ramsden’s portrayal of Angela is a revelation. She plays her as an Everywoman whom I cared about immediately and could relate to. She is heartbreakingly human throughout even as her outward appearance deteriorates and those around her treat her as anything but. Speaking of appearances, the zombies all look terrific. Makeup artist Brandi Metaxas and special effects creator Anthony Pepe came up with some truly memorable faces and gags for the characters. Metaxas, in fact, wore multiple hats ranging from producer to casting to set decorating and costume design. Fratto, as is his custom, handled the editing chores, and it is here that I must point out one of those flaws mentioned earlier. The film is too damn long! Things are moving along at a nice pace with just enough exposition and extended fight sequences when … BAM! We crash into a wall. By the third act scenes are dragging on and on and begin to seem redundant or, worse, repetitive. Certain elements of the script are awkward. Most disappointing is the final battle, in which the tone changes from one of absolute seriousness (albeit with several welcome elements of black comedy) to an almost campy martial arts spoof with a lot of really poorly chosen punching noises that would have taken me completely out of the moment if not for the strength of what had come before and my desire to see what happens to Angela and Josh. The climax does make it all worthwhile, but cutting out at least 10 minutes would do nothing but help the film. A length of over two hours worked (barely) for Strange Things due to its numerous subplots, but Last Rites is greatly in need of pruning.
Unfortunately, editing won’t help the biggest problem with Last Rites as it involves a prominent member of the cast. Christa McNamee, who plays The Commandant, is clearly not up to the task. She is barely passable when speaking in her normal voice, but on those occasions when she’s supposed to be angry or bossy or anything requiring her to emote in any way, it’s downright painful to watch. Being the “tough chick” isn’t easy for even the best actresses to pull off so I can appreciate the challenge facing McNamee, but considering the standards set by just about everyone else involved, her performance really detracts from the overall quality of the film. The only other weak link is Mary Jo Verruto (Solstice), who, although she had the whole trippy hippy chick shtick down to a t, could have definitely used a few more takes to nail her scenes. But I hate harping on the negative so I’ll again make mention of Ramsden’s stellar work and the able support provided by Nelson (although he, too, tended to overact a bit while playing “enraged”), J. Scott Green as Josh’s buddy Richie, James E. Smith as former cop Jimmy, and Kevin T. Collins as Louis.
Other than these drawbacks, Last Rites of the Dead is a fun, thought-provoking romp through a modern-day zombie infestation. For centuries people have debated whether or not they’d let someone turn them into a vampire so that they could experience immortality. Not too many have asked the same question about becoming a mindless, shambling zombie type. But, given the choice of becoming a living dead boy or girl with a fully functioning brain, you have to wonder how many might pick that route. Feasting on flesh is just as viable an option as drinking blood and might make for some very interesting dinner parties. And how might you treat Grandma Edna or Cousin Howard were they to become members of the walking dead? Would you still invite them over on Thanksgiving and Christmas? Would you want a zombie serving you lunch or babysitting your child? Although its questions and statements about humanity aren’t quite so overt, Last Rites of the Dead does compel us to wonder how we might react under similar circumstances. But more important than that, it delivers the gooey gore goods by the bucketful, and there’s not a zombie fan alive who can resist such a ringing endorsement.
3 1/2 out of 5
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Through the Cracks – Trick or Treat (1986) Review
Starring Marc Price, Tony Fields, Lisa Orgolini, Glen Morgan, Gene Simmons, and Ozzy Osbourne
Directed by Charles Martin Smith
I have been a horror fan for more than half of my life at this point. Meaning I have seen most of the quality horror offerings under the sun. But that said, every once in awhile a classic sneaks past so we wanted to create this “Through the Cracks” review section for such films.
Case in point, I had never seen the Halloween horror flick Trick or Treat until last night. I know, right? How the hell did that happen? But these things do happen and so for everyone that has seen the flick a million times, this will be a review of the movie from a super horror fan that – at the age of 33 – is seeing Trick or Treat for the very first time.
Now let’s get to it.
First off you have to love the movie’s plot. Mixing horror and heavy metal seems like a given, yet preciously few films Frankenstein these two great tastes together.
Like many of you out there, I am a big metal fan as well as a big horror fan. The two seem to go together like chocolate and peanut butter. Or Jason and horny campers.
I dig bands like Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and even those hair metal bands (Dokken forever!) and I’m well aware of the legends surrounding playing these records backward.
Off the top of my head, the only other flick that combines the two to this degree is the (relatively) recent horror-comedy Deathgasm. I say more horror-metal flicks! Or should we call it Metal-Horror? Yeah, that’s a much more metal title.
It only makes sense that someone, somewhere would take the idea of “What if Ozzy Osbourne really was evil and came back from the dead (you know, if he had passed away during his heyday) to torment a loner fan?” Great premise for a movie!
And Trick or Treat delivers on the promise of this premise in spades. Sammi Curr is an epic hybrid of the best of the best metal frontmen and his resurrection via speaker is one of the great horror birthing scenes I have seen in all my years.
Add to that the film feels like a lost entry in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. More specifically the film feels like it would fit snugly in between two of my favorite entries in that series, Dream Warriors and The Dream Master.
This movie is 80’s as all f*ck and I loved every minute of it.
And speaking of how this film brought other minor classics to the forefront of my brain, let’s talk about the film’s central villain, Sammi Curr. This guy looks like he could share an epic horror band with the likes of Mary Lou from Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II and the Drill Killer rocker from Slumber Party Massacre Part II.
Picture that band for a moment and tell me they aren’t currently playing the most epic set in Hell as we speak. I say let’s see an Avengers-style series of films based on these minor horror icons sharing the stage and touring the country’s high school proms!
In the end Trick or Treat has more than it’s fair share of issues. Sammi Curr doesn’t enter the film until much too late and is dispatched way too easily. Water? Really? That’s it?
That said, the film is still a blast as director Charles Martin Smith keeps the movie rocking like an 80’s music video with highlights being Sammi’s rock show massacre at the prom and his final assault on our hero teens in the family bathroom.
Rockstar lighting for days.
Even though the film has issues (zero blood, a rushed ending) none of that mattered much to this horror hound as the film was filled to the brim with striking horror/metal imagery and a killer soundtrack via Fastway and composer Christopher Young.
Plus you’ve got to love the cameos by Gene Simmons (boy, his character just dropped right out of the movie, huh?) and Ozzy Osbourne as a mad-as-hell Preacher that isn’t going to take any more of this devil music. P.S. Watch for the post-credits tag.
More than a few of my closest horror buddies have this film placed high on their annual Halloween must-watch lists. And after (finally) viewing the film for myself, I think I just may have to add the film to mine as well. Preferably on VHS.
Trick or Treat is an 80’s horror classic. If you dig films like Popcorn, and if you put the film off like I did, remedy that tonight and slap a copy in the old VHS/DVD player.
Just don’t play it backward… God knows what could happen.
All said and done, I enjoyed the hell out of my first viewing of Trick or Treat. But what do YOU think of the film? Make sure to hit us up and let us know below or on social media!
Now bring on Trick or Treat 2: The Prom Band from Hell, featuring Sammi Curr, Mary Lou Maloney, and Atanas Ilitch’s Driller Killer from Slumber Party Massacre Part II!
Charles Martin Smith’s Trick or Treat is a sure-fire Halloween treat for fans of 80’s horror flicks, as well as fans of heavy metal music.
AHS: Cult Review – Clowns, Cults, Politics, and Peters
Starring Evan Peters, Sarah Paulson, Billie Lourd, Cheyenne Jackson, Frances Conroy, Mare Winningham, and Allison Pill
Created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk
** NO SPOILERS **
It’s here. We’ve reached the end. The newest season of “American Horror Story” has ended and now we are here to provide you guys with our season review of AHS: Cult.
To start things off let me say I’m not the world’s biggest fan of “American Horror Story”. It breaks down like this: I enjoyed the absolute hell out of the first season of the series (“Murder House”), couldn’t get through “Asylum” (I know, I know, I’ve tried), dug “Coven” for what it was, really enjoyed “Freak Show”, and again I couldn’t get into “Hotel” or “Roanoke”.
That’s the story of me and “American Horror Story”. Plain And simple. But what did I think of the new seventh season of the notorious horror anthology series? Let’s find out.
Back when the seventh season of AHS was first announced (then going by the title “AHS: Election”) I was immediately intrigued by the new season because I heard it would not include any supernatural elements. Like the fourth season, “Freak Show”.
Now I’m a fan of ghosts and weird creature-men with drills for d*cks, don’t get me wrong. But the series has thus far relied almost exclusively on horrors of the supernatural variety (other than “Freak Show”) so this major change of pace was again welcomed by this guy.
Instead of vampires, aliens, and witches this season relied on terrors of the mind. Psychological fears and anxieties. The horrors man does to man. Deep issues.
Oh, and clowns. Like a lot of clowns.
But just because this new season didn’t include anything supernatural, that doesn’t mean the 11-episode season wasn’t filled with twisted visuals and horrifically disturbing acts. No, sir. This season boasted some showstoppers including S&M, gimps, and a house of horrors that wouldn’t be out of place in a Rob Zombie flick. It was all good.
But let’s backtrack a bit here.
Allow me to rundown the season’s plot for those who may be unaware. “AHS: Cult” tells the tale of a world post-election night. The literal dawn of Trump’s America. In one corner we have Sarah Paulson’s soccer mom, trying to fight through life with a series of crippling phobias (including clowns, holes, blood, and being a good person).
And in the other corner, we have Evan Peter’s angry, white (blue-haired) male, looking to seize Trump’s new position of power to bring about the end of… Actually, I want this to be a spoiler-free season review, so I’m just going to say the dude’s got big plans.
Like Manson-size plans. Let’s leave it at that.
With these two characters established, the new season then proceeds to send them spiraling into a collision course of political sabotage, intrigue, and clown-based nope, nope, nope-ing that can only end with one – or both – of them dead as Dillinger.
Overall “AHS: Cult” belonged end-to-end to Mr. Evan Peters. The young actor has continued to show his striking range from season to season of Ryan Murphy’s horror show and this season was no different. Peters’ turn as not only Kai, the blue-haired leader of the titular cult, but as infamous leaders such as David Koresh, Jim Jones, and Charles Manson – to name a few – owed this season.
I can only hope he doesn’t pull a Jessica Lange and opt-out of more AHS next year.
Speaking of top performances, “AHS: Cult ” showcases some other chilling and memorable turns with Alison Pill’s strangely vulnerable, put-upon wife character being the best next to Peters in my eyes. This actress needs to be in more films/TV!
Along with Pill, actress Billie Lourd killed it time and time again. The “Scream Queens” breakout star and Carrie Fisher spawn was yet again a highlight in her second Ryan Murphy series. Bet she has the starring role in next season. Mark my words.
Add to that, the season also boasts a handful of fun cameos, including John Carroll Lynch’s return as Twisty the Clown, Emma Roberts as a bitchy reporter that will do anything to end up on top, and Lena Dunham as SCUM Manifesto writer Valerie Solanas. The cameo cast killed it and I wish they would have been present for more episodes. What are you gonna do?
On the sour side of the season, I didn’t dig Sarah Paulson’s character. At all. But I’m sure that was the point. Right? I’m still not sure. But, boy, I wouldn’t even want to be stuck in line behind her at a Starbucks for three minutes, let alone spend the better part of this season’s 11-hours with her and her whiny bullshite. Urgh.
That said, she pulled it out by the finale. That’s all I’ll say.
In the end, I enjoyed this season as much as – if not more – than any other of the series. “Murder House” will still no doubt go on as my favorite season of the series, but “AHS: Cult” will rank third after season one and “Freak Show”.
While I was on the fence about the season after three episodes, the show ended up ditching Paulson’s character (and/or shifting her arch) after a lull so the episodes picked up quickly. Whenever the season turned its focus back towards Peters (in whichever incarnation he was playing at the time) the show got better and better. Every time.
Not a bad way to spend my Tuesday night for the past 11 weeks.
Bring on season 12.
The seventh season of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story was Evan Peters’ show all the way through. The young actor pulled out all the stops time and time again to make what may have been a lackluster supernatural-free season a winner.
The Axiom Review – A Stylish and Clever Slice of Independent Horror
Starring Hattie Smith, Zac Titus, Nicole Dambro
Directed by Nicholas Woods
The Axiom is an ambitious, well directed, impressively acted and stunningly shot independent horror film that has just a few, teensy little flaws holding it back from greatness (and therefore will have to settle for just being really, really good, instead).
The first thing you realize when watching The Axiom is that this is a beautiful film. Everything is framed and shot in a lush and stylish manner, but one which is always tonally appropriate for the scene.
The second thing you’ll notice, and keep noticing as the film plays out, is that the movie really struck gold with this cast. Not only is there a total lack of the sort of stilted and unnatural acting seen in countless other microbudget horror affairs, but the performances are genuinely fantastic across the board. The main characters are believably chill and relatably normal in the early scenes, and the acting remains just as impressive once things start getting a bit more… intense. It’s not often that an independent horror film has so many good performances that it makes it hard to pick the movie’s acting VIP, but that is undeniably the case here. Taylor Flowers delivers what is probably the showiest performance (and does it very well, indeed), but the entire cast really is quite good.
The central premise of the film is both interesting and original, and touches upon the real life fact (given some recent attention in the ‘Missing 411’ books and documentary) that a lot more people sure seem to go missing out in the woods than seems reasonable, while simultaneously weaving all sorts of folklore, fairy tales and urban legends into the mix. It’s also clever in the way that it very naturally reveals aspects to the relationships between characters that serve to later – or sometimes retroactively – explain some of the more questionable decisions they make or attitudes they display. While that may sound like screenwriting 101, it’s surprising how many films fail to do this. The Axiom rewards the viewer’s attention in other ways as well, with many aspects of the movie that initially feel odd or unnatural receiving reasonable explanations (within the context of the movie) by the end. It’s not quite as challenging (or as rewarding) in this regard as, say, something like Session 9, but it does add a nice layer of complexity to the storytelling.
The film’s score, by Leo Kaliski, is also quite good. There may be a moment here or there where the music hits an overly familiar beat, but overall it not only fits the movie’s tone, but does quite a bit to help set that tone as well.
The only thing that I don’t feel the movie quite pulls off – and I’m trying to be vague here, because I feel like the less you know going into this film, the better – is some of the makeup effects work. The gore stuff is very well executed, but some of the other stuff feels like it was crafted with the intention of shooting it in a more… stylized manner. Instead, filmed as it is here, the result is sometimes less than impressive and can fail to make the impact that the movie seems to be implying that it should. And while some of what the makeup effects lack in execution is made up for with the ingenuity and creativity of their design, it’s still a bit of a shame when they don’t quite pull them off because, aside from a few niggles that I have with the writing, the effects are the only aspect of the film that occasionally fails to live up to the high level of technical proficiency that The Axiom otherwise demonstrates.
- Man, the acting in this movie is really good. The dialogue may stumble once or twice, but these actors always sell it anyway.
- Give back Mia Sara’s DNA, Hattie Smith!
- If you’re going to put your female lead in shorts this small, I hope you’re not sensitive to viewers unleashing a nonstop parade of “Has anyone seen my pants / OH GOD WHERE ARE MY PANTS!” jokes.
- “You just pop this here ‘Blair Witch Stick Person / Anarchy sign’ sticker up on that there windshield of yours, and them park rangers? Well – heh heh – they won’t bother you none, no sir.” Hmmmmm…
- The film really is shot amazingly well – better than a lot of mainstream releases. Cinematographer Sten Olson has a real future ahead of him.
- As does writer / director Nicholas Woods, for that matter. Any director who can get this level of quality out of their cast and crew on their first ever film is someone to keep an eye on.
- “I’ll make a run for it and get help,” says the female lead, and I’m like “Yeah, let her go – she has no pants to weigh her down.”
- The gore effects in the movie are both realized and utilized very well.
- Welcome back to horror movies, “I’ll be right back” dialogue spoken unironically by and/or to ill-fated characters.
In the end, The Axiom is a solid and entertaining flick that manages to wring a level of quality and originality out of the somewhat tired “Don’t Go in the Woods” horror subgenre not seen since 2012’s Cabin in the Woods. The cinematography and acting are hugely impressive, it features a nice, unnerving score, the premise is original and captivating, and the whole thing moves at a nice pace that helps keep the film’s flaws from dragging it down.
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