DAY OF THE DEAD (1985)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 41 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: George A. Romero

Written by: George A. Romero

Starring: Lori Cardille, Joseph Pilato, Terry Alexander, Jarlath Conroy, Anthony Dileo Jr., Richard Liberty, Sherman Howard & John Amplas

After forever changing horror cinema with his groundbreaking NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and then creating one of the best zombie films ever with DAWN OF THE DEAD, George A. Romero decided to conclude his original DEAD trilogy with DAY OF THE DEAD. When it was originally released in 1985, DAY OF THE DEAD didn’t receive the warm welcome that greeted both NIGHT and DAWN. The film garnered mixed reviews from critics and fans generally considered it to the weakest in the DEAD saga. Despite its “lesser” reputation, DAY OF THE DEAD is dark, shocking, and contains just as much power as the first two DEAD films. DAY also provides a natural progression of Romero’s undead universe and has held up remarkably well as a compelling nightmare.

DAY takes place long after the zombie outbreak. The walking dead have overrun the entire world, but small bands of survivors remain. A group of these survivors are living in an underground base. Half of the group are scientists working on a possible solution to the zombies and the other half are heavily-armed soldiers assigned to protect the scientists. When headstrong Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) takes command as a new leader, tensions between the soldiers and scientists rise to dangerously high levels. As the base threatens to tear itself apart from within, an ever-growing pack of zombies gathers outside and mad scientist Dr. “Frankenstein” Logan (Richard Liberty) makes surprising breakthroughs with an undead test subject.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is easily the most frightening installment of Romero’s trilogy, DAWN OF THE DEAD is often cited as the best, and DAY OF THE DEAD is easily the darkest of the bunch. The third DEAD film capitalizes on two major themes that were prevalent in the previous two installments: the zombies are a disturbing representation of society itself and humans are the real monsters in a deadly crisis. DAY OF THE DEAD follows the collapse of a band of survivors that could easily have great lives if they all saw eye-to-eye and simply cooperated with each other, but these people refuse to respect or listen to an opposing opinion and things escalate ridiculously fast. It’s scary how relevant DAY remains in our modern times and it will likely always be relevant in one way or another.

With my description of the plot and overall tone, it shouldn’t be surprising that a lot of characters are flat-out unlikable. However, that doesn’t make them any less fun to watch. Lori Cardille plays stubborn Sarah Bowman, the main protagonist who seems like a bit of a one-note hard-ass for a while and then later becomes a great character as her more emotionally broken side comes out. Jarlath Conroy and Terry Alexander play the only other likable living characters as an drunkenly charming radio operator and a stoned helicopter pilot who spouts words of wisdom. An early scene between Alexander’s “slacker” reveals deep truths about the apocalypse (in any given scenario) and helps put a great deal of things into perspective.

On the villainous side of things, Joseph Pilato plays the DEAD mythology’s biggest scumbag in Rhodes. Pilato’s baddie is easily one of the best antagonists in zombie movie history. Rhodes’ motivations and gripes with other characters are completely understandable and borderline sympathetic, but his brutal tactics of enforcing commands make him into a sick son-of-a-bitch. Every time this character is on the screen, you’ll either find yourself on the edge of your seat or shifting uncomfortably as you wonder what he’ll do next (as he seems capable of committing all sorts of monstrous deeds). Anthony Dileo Jr. is believable as a cowardly private who’s being pushed to his limits, while Gary Howard seems almost too convincing as Rhodes lecherous second-in-command. On a side note, Richard Liberty is utterly bonkers as Dr. “Frankenstein” and that helps his already cartoony character.

The film’s biggest stand-out performance isn’t from a human character though, because it comes from Sherman Howard as Bub the Zombie. Bub is sure to win over viewers, especially as Howard’s dialogue-free performance sells the viewer on this flesh-eating corpse having emotions. Romero was treading potentially cheesy waters with Bub’s story arc (as intelligent zombies might come off as less scary or laughably corny). He stuck the landing perfectly though as Bub pretty much steals the entire show. It’s also interesting to note that Bub’s role in DAY cemented the foundation for the zombies’ story arc in LAND OF THE DEAD (which arrived two decades after DAY’s release).

As far as the carnage and gore goes, DAY seems surprisingly restrained for the first two-thirds as the guts are mostly reserved for the science experiments and zombie wrangling. Tom Savini and at-the-time-newcomer Gregory Nicotero (who was three years away from founding KNB EFX Group) finally unleash balls-to-the-wall splattery spectacle in the hellishly awesome final third. Guts fall out of bodies, throats are torn (including a voice box being ripped from a screaming victim in the film’s most cringe-inducing scene), and the best death is saved for last. You’ll know it when you see it and horror fanatics will bask in its gory glory. This unforgettable death scene is probably the greatest kill in zombie history and I’m not being hyperbolic when I make that claim either.

My sole complaint with DAY OF THE DEAD comes from something that no other DEAD film has: nightmare sequences. There are two dream sequences in DAY. The first one (near the opening) serves as a big jolt, albeit a cheap one. The second nightmare arrives near the end and it feels like a cop-out. Sure, it leads to arguably the most pleasant final shot in all of the DEAD series, but it’s an eye-rollingly lame jump scare. This is a minor nitpick when everything else in DAY OF THE DEAD is stellar. If you’re a fan of zombie movies, you owe it to yourself to check this one out. DAY OF THE DEAD is one of the best zombie movies ever made, but that’s not surprisingly when you consider that it came from the master himself.

Grade: A

FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Gore, Language and Nudity

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Directed by: Robert Rodriguez

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino, Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis, Ernest Liu, Salma Hayek, Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo, Tom Savini & Fred Williamson

FROM DUSK TILL DAWN is damn near impossible to classify into one genre. Robert Rodriguez delivers action-packed moments with adrenaline-pumping vigor that call back to the finer scenes of his Mexico trilogy. Quentin Tarantino’s snazzy dialogue supplies a ton of laughs and memorable lines that find myself quoting on a weekly basis. This crime-thriller’s first half is tense as a hostage situation becomes a bit of an oddball bonding experience. This horror-comedy’s second half delivers gore-soaked mayhem and the ugliest vampires you’ve ever seen. FROM DUSK TILL DAWN may not be the best vampire film ever made, but it’s definitely my favorite vampire movie!

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Seth (George Clooney) and Richie Gecko (Quentin Tarantino) are fugitive brothers heading for Mexico. In an effort to avoid the cops, the screwed-up siblings take an RV-driving family hostage. Ex-pastor Jacob Fuller (Harvey Keitel), his daughter Katherine (Juliette Lewis) and son Scott (Ernest Liu) reluctantly cooperate with the Gecko brothers and wait for a morning rendezvous at secluded strip club “The Titty Twister.” What appears to be a tense hostage situation winds down with alcohol and then transforms into a gory fight for survival as the Titty Twister staff reveal themselves to be hungry vampires who feed on bikers and truckers. With hundreds of bloodthirsty monsters craving a snack, the Gecko brothers, the Fuller family and a few other survivors barricade themselves inside the strip club and try to live through the night!

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FROM DUSK TILL DAWN is a great party movie. The first half plays like a tense crime-thriller and the second half is a crazy horror-comedy, but the sense of fun remains constant through the entire running time. The film unloads its full bloody potential as soon as the vampire strippers pop up midway through, but that doesn’t lessen the first half by any stretch of the imagination. If nothing else, DUSK’s first half devotes time to developing the colorful characters before they are thrown into a fanged fray. This makes certain deaths more satisfying or sad, because we’ve come to either despise or love these people for the scumbags/badasses they are.

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George Clooney is clearly having a blast in his first major Hollywood role as the charismatic, dangerous Seth Gecko. Clooney’s presence helps sell big goofy fun mixed with 100% cool confidence. Acting alongside him is a creepy Quentin Tarantino in a very disturbing role, which is further amplified by the fact that he also wrote the screenplay and was totally cool with acting like a perverted lunatic…as long as he got to touch some feet. Tarantino gets both laughs and cringes in equal measure as unhinged psycho sibling Richie. Harvey Keitel is great as a ex-pastor who finds his faith tested in a way he never imagined and Juliette Lewis makes the most of her role as his rebellious daughter. Meanwhile, Ernest Liu doesn’t really do much as Keitel’s inexplicably Chinese son (never explained, but I assume he’s adopted).

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The supporting characters don’t show up until the crew step through the Titty Twister doors. Tom Savini is more than memorable as the aptly named Sex Machine, equipped with an unforgettable weapon. Former football player/martial artist/Blaxploitation star Fred Williamson is absolutely badass as Frost, a Vietnam vet who’s more than prepared to take on a few vampires. Speaking of which, the vamps themselves feature some recognizable faces. Danny Trejo does his usual thing as a scowling bartender. Selma Hayek is sexy as hell as show-stopping stripper Santanico Pandemonium. Cheech Marin shows up in three different roles (one of which is a vampire bouncer who’s not above some cheesy puns).

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The script is not without a few inconsistencies (Keitel’s priest’s so-so struggle with faith and varying amounts of screen time in the vampire transformations), but the sense of gory entertainment and high energy pretty much make up for the narrative problems. The practical effects are outstanding, while most of the CGI (mainly bats and melting bodies) is intentionally cheesy and kept to a minimum. The kills range in creativity, with truly inventive weapons being used and cool vampire demises. Hearts are ripped out, tables are used as improvised stakes, holy water comes into play, etc. DUSK’s vampires are among the ugliest that I’ve seen, resembling snakes, rats, and bats.

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FROM DUSK TILL DAWN may not be the smartest vampire story (LET THE RIGHT ONE IN probably takes that title) or the most technically well-made bloodsucker flick, but it remains my favorite vampire movie for its sarcastic sense of humor, colorful characters, insane gory fun, and sheer entertainment. When I see this film airing on TV, I always find myself watching it to the end like an unwritten personal rule. It’s a bloody blast from start to finish and cannot be clearly lumped thrown into one genre. Look at that director/writer team! Look at that premise! Look at the cast! Look at those effects! What’s not to love?

Grade: A-

THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Mature Thematic Material, Drug and Alcohol Use, Sexual Content including References, and a Fight -all involving Teens

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Directed by: Stephen Chbosky

Written by: Stephen Chbosky

(based on the novel THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER by Stephen Chbosky)

Starring: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Mae Whitman, Paul Rudd, Nina Dobrev, Johnny Simmons, Kate Walsh, Dylan McDermott, Melanie Lynskey & Joan Cusack

PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER is a novel that became controversial right from the beginning. Though it is frequently included on high school reading lists, it has also appeared many times on the 10 Most Challenged Books list. Issues addressed in Stephen Chbosky’s novel are prevalent in high schools across the country, yet many adults prefer to pretend they don’t exist or just outright ignore them. None of the controversy stopped PERKS from being a hit among the young adult crowd as well as a number of adults. This all led to the extremely rare circumstances of an author taking the reigns as a screenwriter and director behind the adaptation of his own book. Stephen Chbosky knew exactly how he wanted his words to translate onto film and in 2012, the cinematic vision of his novel was brought to the screen. PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER is not only one of the most emotionally realistic coming-of-age stories, but it’s also one of the most important.

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Told through letters/memories from our protagonist to an anonymous friend, PERKS is the story of Charlie. He’s an emotionally distressed teenager who’s especially scared about beginning his sophomore year at high school. References are made that Charlie got “really bad” in the past and it becomes clear throughout the film that he is suffering from Depression. Charlie’s first year looks to be boring, bleak and uncomfortable…until he finds a couple of friends. These friends come in the form of Sam and Patrick, a couple of seniors who happen to be siblings. Sam is adventurous, loves old music and opens the doors wide open for Charlie to be himself. Patrick is a proudly gay individual who isn’t afraid of being teased and embraces his uniqueness. Alongside a group of other friends, Charlie, Sam, and Patrick navigate their way through the turbulence of the school year.

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Logan Lerman has had his share of good performances (FURY) and not so good performances (GAMER), but really stands out as Charlie. The character is a difficult one to play as you can see the outside appearance that he’s putting on around other people, but also feel the sadness inside of the character. Thus far, the best performance of Logan’s career is right here in PERKS. Coming off the HARRY POTTER series, Emma Watson masterfully blends right in as Sam. Everything about the character is complex and little touches in her performance show that she is coping with problems that are similar to Charlie’s. Ezra Miller is fantastic as Patrick and turns his role into one of the strongest LGBT movie characters that I’ve ever seen. Mae Whitman and Johnny Simmons shine as a Buddhist/goth and a closeted gay jock. As far as the adults go, Dylan McDermott is great as Charlie’s frustrated father, Tom Savini makes a welcomed appearance as a shop teacher, and Paul Rudd is outstanding as an English teacher with a passion for his subject.

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WALLFLOWER’s big turn off for some folks would be in the marketing. This film was sold as a sort of dramedy, when it’s mostly a serious drama that happens to have a couple of laughs. These laughs mainly come from some light-hearted bonding between Charlie, Sam, and Patrick. The drama comes with you being placed in Charlie’s shoes throughout the rest of the story. The way in which WALLFLOWER addresses its serious themes and issues (including mental illness, abusive relationships, suicide, drug use, and past trauma), but doesn’t necessarily make them the main focus is beyond admirable. At the core this is the story of three high school friends and it just happens to have real-world problems that can be found in every high school across the country. The conclusion is bittersweet and beautiful, actually bringing some tears out of me.

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In my opinion, PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER is one of the most important films that you could show teenagers today. It’s hard-hitting, realistic, emotional, and reminds that everyone has their own set of problems. The last of those is easy to forget when you’re a teenager in high school with homework and dating on your mind. If you’re looking for SIXTEEN CANDLES or THE BREAKFAST CLUB, then feel free to look elsewhere. PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER is depressing, brilliant, and hugely emotional. It’s also far more mature than most teenage-geared movies. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call PERKS a coming-of-age masterpiece.

Grade: A+

FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: Sean Cunningham

Written by: Victor Miller

Starring: Adrienne King, Betsy Palmer, Jeannine Taylor, Robbi Morgan, Kevin Bacon, Harry Crosby & Laurie Bartram

Before it became a pop culture phenomenon, FRIDAY THE 13TH was merely a title without a script behind it. Filmmaker Sean Cunningham had made a few flops and needed a surefire box office success to pay the bills. So he decided to make a movie called FRIDAY THE 13TH. Through a simple one-page magazine ad, Cunningham was able to garner enough interest to get the movie made…cheaply, I might add. Though Cunningham claims that the hastily written screenplay was based on things that scared you as a child or teenager, it’s clear to anyone with a half-functioning brain that the movie was a cash-in on the slasher formula that John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN popularized. As it stands, the first FRIDAY THE 13TH is cheap, silly, clichéd fun that’s not technically a good movie, but can be enjoyed as a guilty pleasure or a wave of spooky nostalgia for those who grew up watching the series.

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Twenty-one years after the gory double-murder of two promiscuous counselors, Camp Crystal Lake is reopening. Teenagers have been hired on as camp counselors and must renovate cabins before the children arrive in two weeks. It turns out that the teenagers aren’t the only ones in the woods on this gloomy Friday the 13th. Somebody is killing off the potential new counselors left and right. Strong-willed Alice watches as her friends disappear one by one, only to find that she could be the next victim. This is a slasher movie after all and it’s not a particularly complicated one. The plot serves as an excuse for a few jump scares, a number of gory kills, and easy money for the producers.

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FRIDAY THE 13TH is recognized as one of the earliest slashers and was made long before the subgenre turned into the ridiculous gorefest that it is today. That’s not to say that FRIDAY THE 13TH isn’t ridiculous or dumb, because it’s very much both. However, it’s not quite the gorefest that some have hyped it up to be. It’s also not a film featuring Jason Voorhees as the killer. Instead, we get someone else in his place and this person lends a lot to the later mythology of the series. My roundabout point is that people without a prior knowledge to exactly what this first entry in the series is will be surprised that it’s not at all what they’re expecting. Though there are plenty of deaths, about half of them occur off-screen with the victims’ bloody corpses seen later on. For the kills we do see, the practical effects by Tom Savini haven’t exactly aged well, but hold a cheesy charm to them. This is especially true of Kevin Bacon’s demise which is easily the most memorable kill of the whole film.

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As far as the production values go, Sean Cunningham was aiming for cheap and easy…rather than good and complex. The budget was at just over half a million and that’s very apparent in the poor lighting and amateurish camera quality. The acting is terrible from just about everyone and Betsy Palmer seems embarrassed for her brief appearance (which she admittedly signed up for in order to pay for a new car, thinking that nobody would pay to see the low-budget horror flick). It should also be noted that FRIDAY THE 13TH seems to have invented some of the more annoying slasher movie clichés including dumb victims who you could not give a shit about, a harbinger of death (in the form of an old kook named Crazy Ralph), and people who don’t know how to run from the killer (only to end up tripping several times in a row). This all being said, there’s something intrinsically fun to be gained in watching this silly 1980 slasher flick. It’s stupid, but it’s still enjoyable when taken on its own merits.

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FRIDAY THE 13TH is only essential viewing for those who are deep into slasher films or want to see all of the horror classics. Is it a good film? Hell, no. However, it’s an entertaining guilty pleasure for those who grew up with this cash-grab franchise. Those who have the built-in nostalgia factor for this series will always have that special place in their heart for Camp Crystal Lake. I may have bashed this film a bit in this review as a cheap cash-in, but there’s no denying FRIDAY’s influence on the massive outpour of slasher flicks during the 1980s. I have a bit of that special nostalgia in my heart for this silly slasher series (I distinctly remember watching most of them on AMC’s Fear Fridays). FRIDAY THE 13TH is a guilty pleasure, but remains a pleasure nonetheless.

Grade: C+

KILLING ZOE (1994)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Language, Plentiful Drug Use and a Sex Scene

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Directed by: Roger Avary

Written by: Roger Avary

Starring: Eric Stoltz, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Julie Delpy, Gary Kemp, Kario Salem, Tai Thai & Bruce Ramsay

There’s probably a really awesome movie lying somewhere in the confines of KILLING ZOE, but, sadly, the film by the actual title of KILLING ZOE is not that movie. This directorial debut of Roger Avary (the man who helped Quentin Tarantino construct his first screenplays) very much feels like an early Tarantino film. By that, I mean that it feels like it would fit somewhere right before RESERVOIR DOGS, because this movie has some issues in its first act that are just too big to overlook. KILLING ZOE is an entertaining and dark little heist thriller…if you can make it through the amateur hour that is the first 45 minutes.

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Zed is a safe-cracker who’s come to Paris in order to pull off a big job with a former childhood friend, Eric. Without any company and a free night to himself, Zed decides to hire an escort for the evening. This prostitute comes in the form of Zoe and the two spend a semi-enjoyable time together. While prepping for the heist, Zed comes to realize that Eric is not the same person he remembered as this long-haired French thug is frequently using hard drugs and seems to be quite insane. Zed still considers a job to be a job and the heist begins…only for Zed to discover that Zoe happens to be one of the bank’s employees. Needless to say, things get very complicated!

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I want to make it clear that I liked KILLING ZOE. I need to say that upfront because I don’t have a lot of a nice things to say about the first half of this movie. In fact, that’s the space of running time where pretty much every single problem with this film dwells. The first 45 minutes are build up until the heist. Zed’s encounter with Zoe is alright, but I didn’t buy any believable chemistry between these two for a single second (in spite of what the film wants you to believe). However, the interactions with Eric populate most of this front section and they’re close to being downright unbearable. Eric’s a lunatic asshole character for sure, but the style in how these early conversations are shot reek of a “Look what I can do!” mentality. The camera angles are slanted so much that the look becomes the annoying style of the film until the actual heist begins. Honestly, the film could have snipped out 20 minutes from the opening 45 and it would have been far better for it.

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The latter half (a.k.a. the heist) is where KILLING ZOE really takes off! There’s a solid amount of tension that’s slowly built and frequently explodes into bloody outbursts. Eric’s villain who previously just seemed like an obnoxious idiot, becomes a very dangerous and evil obnoxious idiot. The film is unapologetic in its violence as innocent bystanders get gunned down as the fever pitch rises. There are a couple of downright brutal bits in the last third of this film. Though there is definitely a sense of darkness surrounding the sheer insanity and overly excessive violence in the long heist, Avary also couldn’t help but inject a couple of moments of pitch black humor. A scene involving an American tourist who feels that he should be entitled to be safe wherever he goes simply based on him being an American made me laugh, even if the punchline is pretty twisted.

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KILLING ZOE is a mediocre film in the first half that turns into a great film during the second half. The contrast between the tones in these halves really seem like they came out of entirely separate films. The sheer pretentious bore that is the opening is made up for by the ridiculous insanity that is the closing. It’s almost like RESERVOIR DOGS had a baby with TRUE ROMANCE, but it’s not quite as good as either of those films. If you dig Tarantino’s earlier stuff and don’t mind lowering your expectations a bit, then you’ll probably enjoy KILLING ZOE. Know that your struggle to get through the overstylized first half is worth the reward that is the rest of this movie.

Grade: B-

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