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Zombies
cast: Lori Heuring, Scout Taylor-Compton, Chloe Moretz, and Ben Cross

director: J.S. Cardone

90 minutes (15) 2006
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Momentum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Before I even begin to discuss the film, I need to address the issue of the title. When you say the word 'zombie' you tend to think of the shambling, moaning re-animated corpses that grace the work of George Romero. As a result, if you see this film in a shop or on your DVD rentals site, you may take a look at it expecting a zombie movie only to be disappointed when it turns out to be a lot closer to a traditional ghost story such as Susan Hill's The Woman In Black, or the various M.R. James ghost stories that used to grace British TV around Christmas time. Indeed, when Zombies came out in the US, it did so under the far more apt title Wicked Little Things. While this re-branding may come across as a rather gratuitous and charmless piece of commercialism, the name change does highlight one of the film's central problems; a lack of clear identity.

After a long illness, Karen Tunny's (Lori Heuring) husband dies leaving her a widow and their daughters Sarah (Scout Taylor-Compton) and Emma (Chloe Moretz) without a father. Psychologically scarred by their loss and facing a mountain of medical bills, the remaining Tunnys decide to move to the long abandoned Tunny family home up in the mountains. What they find is a large wooden shack in the middle of some creepy woods filled only with dust and bad piping. Disappointed at the new living conditions, the tensions between Karen and eldest daughter Sarah immediately surface as Sarah starts to snipe at her mother every chance she gets.

However, more worrying is the fact that youngest daughter Emma has started wandering off into the woods to play with what is assumed to be a new imaginary friend called Mary. After an alarming first night that saw someone smear blood on their door before running off through the trees, the family start to settle in and discover quite how odd the place they have moved to really is. Sarah learns from her new friends that 'zombies' stalking the living in search of revenge infest the mountain. Indeed, when driving home, the Tunnys' plumber, is attacked by a gang of children wielding mining tools and they brutally hack him to pieces. Hearing the legends and getting increasingly worried about her daughter Emma, Karen wanders out through the forest and meets up with Hanks (Ben Cross), a long time resident and complete nutcase who warns her about the zombies; ghosts of children who died in a mining explosion. This precarious situation is then made worse by the descendent of the mine-owner turning up and buying up all the land on the mountain in order to build a ski lodge. This drives the zombies mad and before long they are not only attacking the landowner but also the Tunnys.

Zombies is a remarkably well-shot film. The location is well chosen with the autumn colours of the forest blending wonderfully with the mist and shadows that appear after dark. It also wonderfully conveys the sense that not only are the Tunnys incredibly isolated, but also that practically anything could be out there in the woods. Indeed, Karen keeps stumbling across old farm buildings while she is out searching for her daughter and this gives the piece a nicely post-apocalyptic feel. The visuals are also incredibly strong with the pale skinned and black-eyed children looking far creepier than a bunch of young actors in mining uniforms have any right to. The shots of them swarming out of the forest are particularly well put together, as is the attack on the teenagers' car, and Karen and Emma's arrival at Hanks' farm, an absolutely wretched place hugely reminiscent of the farms in Fabrice du Welz' overlooked Belgian horror film The Ordeal (2004).

The acting is also surprisingly good. Heuring's fragile manner makes her come across less as an archetypal 'final girl' and more as a normal mother struggling to keep her family together under increasingly difficult circumstances. Taylor-Compton also does good work as eldest daughter Sarah whose hostility towards her mother only ever comes across as a projection. Moretz's Emma is also a good turn as she comes across throughout the film as a sweet little girl as opposed to the kind of Sixth Sense-style tiny adult that were once so tiresomely omnipresent in American cinema. Ben Cross' Hanks is also great fun to watch as his performance is incredibly straight-faced and low-key considering that he bleeds himself while reciting the Lords' prayer and then tells a pig that she is doing 'the Lord's work'.

Technically, Zombies is undeniably a well-made film. Its good pacing, interesting visuals and well-constructed set pieces are a testament to Cardone's background as a proper small-budget genre director. However, it is not a film without problems. The most obvious problem with the film is a tendency to go for safe and familiar ideas. We get the little girl who is eerily in tune with the spirit world, gruesome murders, entrails eaters, religious fanatics and a healthy dose of female empowerment. Unfortunately, these ideas are never reworked or put in any kind of context that might make them appear fresh or original. Zombies is a film that is cut entirely from the cloth of the films that have come before it.

The strange mix of ghost-film elements with splatter-style zombie films is also somewhat unsettling. Zombie films and ghost stories tend to use their subtexts in very different ways. Modern zombie films such as those put out by Romero tend to have hidden depths; they rely for their affect upon their director's visual flair but, on the bus home from the cinema you realise what the film was about and the real horror sinks in. By contrast, successful ghost stories such as the M.R. James adaptations Whistle And I'll Come to You (1968), and A Warning To The Curious, as well as the J-horror ghost films such as Ringu, and Dark Water, tend to rely quite explicitly upon their subtexts for their affect. For example, if you remove the tension between the life of the mind and the needs of the flesh from Whistle And I'll Come To You then all you have is a rather cheaply made TV film. Similarly, if you remove from Dark Water the elements of invasion into the psychologically safe place that is home then you have a far less effective film that is entirely reliant upon its score and special effects for its impact. Zombies suffers because it lacks a clear psychological subtext to drive the horror and, lacking that focus point, it has to fall back upon scenes of splatter horror which, while creepy, lack the force of those found in most zombie or slasher films.

A well made if ultimately uninspired piece of horror, Zombies is an inoffensive little film with a number of nice moments. The only DVD extra is a making-of featurette with lots of footage from the film and some somewhat vacuous interviews in which the cast lavish praise upon the director.
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