Last Rites of the Dead (2006)
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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