-MONTHLY FILM & TV REVIEW-
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
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
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