The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, November 23, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Night of the Living Dead 3D

Full review behind the jump

Night of the Living Dead 3D

: Jeff Broadstreet
: Screenplay by Robert Valding, based on the film written by George A. Romero and John A. Russo
: Jeff Broadstreet
: Brianna Brown, Joshua DesRoches, Sid Haig, Greg Travis, Johanna Black, Adam Chambers, Ken Ward, Alynia Phillips, Max Williams, Cristin Michele

It was a fluke – when the Walter Reade Organization, distributors of the landmark 1968 horror film
Night of the Living Dead, struck new prints in order to change the original title (from the less chilling, more literary Night of Anubis), they inadvertently left off a copyright notice. From the moment George A. Romero’s Pittsburgh-based commercial production company decided they wanted to make a low-budget feature, many twists of fate contributed to the resulting picture, which single-handedly changed the direction of both the horror genre and the independent film movement (and has been an inspiration to yours truly). But this accident involving the copyright notice, followed up by years of legal battles, has concluded with the film effectively in the public domain. It can be downloaded from the Internet for free, any company with the means to burn a DVD can distribute their own version; and, most crucially, anyone with ambition can adapt, sequel-ize or re-make it to their heart’s content.

In my opinion – because the story is so lean, so tailor-made for limited filmmaking resources – it would be a crackerjack idea for a film school to turn
Night of the Living Dead into a sort of master class project. Students could analyze the working parts of the original, divide up tasks, and then find their own little farmhouse in the woods to riff on the story about the awakened dead devouring the flesh of the living. And I say this with the full confidence that it wouldn’t take long for a group of film students with no experience to produce a feature that would be far more polished and compelling than Night of the Living Dead 3D, a dismal, ramshackle update that is only impressive in how it manages to take such extraordinary source material and do just about everything possible wrong with it.

This about sums up the level of the movie’s incompetence: there’s a scene where a couple (Max Williams, Cristin Michele) are having sex in a barn. I can’t tell, during this scene, if they are videotaping themselves having sex with an expensive high-definition digital camera, and the scene was just too poorly-written and shot to make this clear, or if the filmmakers went through the entire editing process without ever noticing one of their own cameras sitting in full view on a hay bale. There may yet be a third, stupider explanation that’s not occurring to me. And if you’re curious about the effect 3-D filmmaking has on the nude female form, the muddy presentation will leave you scarcely more enlightened.

The story of this iteration kicks off in roughly the same melody but with teeth-gnashingly modern affectations. “Maybe we’re being ‘Punked’” one character opines upon finding a gravesite seemingly abandoned mid-funeral. Har de har har. From there on the movie revisits the necessary forks in the road – an attack in the graveyard that sends young Barbara (Brianna Brown) a-flight, followed by refuge in a farmhouse where a zombie horde grows and lays siege while people inside debate how to survive.

Actually, debate is not an annoying enough way to describe it – these people bicker. And carp. And whine. And reel off the most ceaseless, banal disagreements you can imagine in a movie that’s only 80 minutes long with credits. Forget the undead threat beating down the doors, even the death of loved ones is but a brief hiccup on the way to the next gallingly snide rejoinder for these people.

I think some of it is meant to be funny. Why screenwriter Robert Valding looked at Night of the Living Dead and decided that what it needed was more jokes is beyond me. Valding is also the editor and a digital effects artist on this little homebrew, he demonstrates similarly remedial understanding of cinema in those tasks.

The movie does attempt to strike out its own territory as the story develops further. One element of this, exploring how the moment someone dies is not necessarily the exact moment they become a zombie, I actually found thought-provoking, and I am willing to give credit where due.

Then there’s a new character named Gerald Tovar, Jr., who runs the town mortuary. He’s played by Sid Haig, a veteran character actor who has earned some cult recognition from Rob Zombie’s House of 1,000 Corpses and its sequel The Devil’s Rejects. His savvy, his ability to inject urgency into thin air, to describe events as if he actually witnessed and lived through them, to just plain speak dialogue and sound like a human being, is near jarring when set against the rest of the cast. They all look dazed, like they just woke up from having dental work done and now must pose for a modeling shoot.

The trouble with Haig’s character is that he both attempts to explain the phenomenon of the dead rising, and his role in the climax reduces their scope. Part of the dread of the original was that the story we were watching was but a microcosm for a whole world turning into Hell, and that the why of it didn’t matter.

It’s not my wish to continually hammer this movie for not living up to the impossible standard of its nomenclature, but it just keeps putting it out there. The residents of the farmhouse where Barbara holes up (hippie-dippie pot farmers this time around, har de har har) are actually watching the original on television when the attacks come, and learn no lessons from having such a valuable instructional text around.

The groundbreaking blood-and-guts aesthetic of the original Night was a shocking riposte to the rubber-masked creature features of the drive-in 1950’s, they wanted their realistic treatments of the grisly premise to be its own gimmick. Yet here the makeup and gore is juvenile, and the thrills are presented in 3-D, a schlocky gimmick born of the 50’s that stubbornly refuses to die. It usually pops up in the horror world, in Jaws 3-D or the third Friday the 13th picture, and never succeeds in being more than an ineffectual tease. There’s repeated allusions in this version to the foul aroma of the ghouls – it makes me wonder if producer/director Jeff Broadstreet also intended to release the film in Smell-O-Vision.

One can imagine the opportunities for 3D in a movie about walking, grabbing, biting corpses. So when you experience this movie, you’ll feel doubly-insulted that it has seemingly no idea what to do with said opportunities, and even if it did, the shoddiness with which the effects are executed diffuses whatever jolt they may have had to begin with. Everything about this movie, from the lighting to the sets to the zombies themselves, comes across as artificial, poorly-imagined, and (that fatal irony) flat. Night of the Living Dead may have been low-budget, but Night of the Living Dead 3D is just cheap.


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