MUTE WITNESS is an expertly crafted '90s horror-thriller, and it never once lets go of its grip on the viewer.
Dawn of the Dead. 1978. Directed & Written by George A. Romero.
Starring David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger, Gaylen Ross, David Crawford, David Early, Richard France, Howard Smith, Daniel Dietrich, Fred Baker, and James A. Baffico. A Laurel Group Production. Rated R. 127 minutes.
George A. Romero started the modern zombie craze with his 1968 horror movie Night of the Living Dead. Ten years later, he came back swinging with Dawn of the Dead. Full of iconic moments, even iconic zombies themselves (see: Hare Krishna zombie), Romero gives us an even more nuanced, darker, and at times funny, bit of horror cinema.
A lot of people nowadays are hugely into the zombie sub-genre. For good reason, as these Dead films from Romero, including the ones after it, are a whole lot of horror fun. The reason why Dawn of the Dead is so celebrated and loved after all these years is because not only does it do a fine job creeping you the hell out, like Romero’s 1968 film, even more than that it again explores social issues. Soon as the characters in this movie make their way to a mall, hordes of zombies trying to get inside, you can tell there will be some kind of commentary on Romero’s part. Dawn of the Dead is written incredibly well, with good characters, dialogue and action, as well as the fact Goblin does the soundtrack, Dario Argento worked on the music/editing, and master of special effects Tom Savini supplied all the zombie nasty work. This is one damn good piece of zombie horror and it’s no wonder we’re still talking about it today as much as we do.
After the dead reanimate and start to feast on the flesh of the living, a group of people hoping to survive make their way via helicopter to a large mall: Stephen “Flyboy” Andrews (David Emge) and Francine Parker (Gaylen Ross), along with two SWAT team members Peter Washington (Ken Foree) and Roger DeMarco (Scott Reiniger). Upon arrival, they try and set up camp finding a safe room to spend their nights, food for sustenance and any other various items they can manage to whisk away from the stores in the mall. Only problem is the zombies have filled up a nice majority of the shopping complex, so they’ve got to maneuver their way around the huge building efficiently, and quietly, as humanly possible.
But when Roger gets infected by the zombie virus, their situation changes. With the situation inside the mall getting worse with every passing day, the group is forced to confront other options; that is, if there are any left.
One of the most intriguing things about this movie is how Romero expands on the idea of a post-apocalyptic United States of America. During Night of the Living Dead, we do see a microcosm of the aftermath with all the sheriff’s boys out hunting ghouls and seeming to have a grand ole time, plus there are the news reports and all those aspects. However, with Dawn of the Dead this plot allows Romero to give us a bit bigger of a look at the post-zombie society. Big part of that is the mall itself.
When they first arrive, Francine questions why the reanimated corpses would be at the mall, to which Stephen replies “Memory of what they used to do; this was an important place in their lives“. Later on, as the group listens to a radio, a commentator talks about remembering past lives and how the actions of the zombies are merely them working out what they once used to do. The thing I find interesting, the social aspect of Romero’s screenplay, is how he chose the mall/shopping complex itself. It speaks volumes about human society just in the number of living dead wandering around the building and outside; it’s evident how involved we as humans are in consumerism already, but Romero – back in 1978 – was already on to the fact we’re creatures of habit, as well as creatures of leisure wanting to shamble our way into the mall, mindlessly picking away at the things inside (a.k.a “shopping”). So I think, again like his first zombie movie, this one can be considered relevant today, if not even more so than it was on its original release. The way we consume things as a society of people has gotten out of hand, especially now in the post-2000 world. Say what you want about Dawn of the Dead, or the films which follow it/the one preceding it, Romero infuses his horror with a ton of commentary. Not every last shot is done like this. Overall, though, you cannot deny Romero’s zombie films encapsulate social products of their time and even then they go on with their strength for years. I won’t be forgetting these films any time soon, if ever.
I have to talk about Tom Savini. As someone whose love for horror grew out of older films intent on using practical makeup effects, before CGI ruled the industry, Savini is one of my personal gods. Honestly, even the first three films he worked on show off his immense talent – from his uncredited work on Bob Clark’s Dead of Night and putting his hands into the loose Ed Gein inspired Deranged, to doing fun stuff on Romero’s 1977 unusual yet awesome vampire flick Martin, to the stellar makeup/special effects he did in this film. I won’t go through the man’s entire filmography, but I’m just trying to show you how immediately Savini made an impression on the horror movie industry. In fact, Romero wanted him to work on the original ’68 Dead film. Unfortunately at the time Savini was called off to war; he actually applied some of the nastiness he saw during the Vietnam war as a combat photographer to the special effects/makeup he did in films. Luckily, they got together for this movie and did a ton of bloody, fun horror work.
The look of the zombies alone is great. There’s a satirical part in how they look, as they’re all zombies yet representative of our own zombie-like qualities as humans. So while I’ve seen some horror fans wonder why the zombies are blue-ish coloured, I think there’s a wickedly dark comedic edge to their look. At the same time, they’re still fucking terrifying! Not just that, the head shots and the flesh eating and all that rotten business works well. Most of all, it’s the blood itself I find so wonderful. There’s nothing like a good looking bit of blood on camera and something about the blood in Dawn of the Dead is at once cartoon-ish and simultaneously nauseating: its rich red makes it appear almost like paint, like comic book blood, and the thick texture of it seeping out of chests/heads/et cetera has a visceral, raw essence which is kind of gross. Needless to say, without boring you too much to death on my thoughts about the effects overall, without Tom Savini this would not at all be the same type of horror film. Furthermore, I’d venture to say the zombie sub-genre wouldn’t be as rich and magical in terms of effects if Savini hadn’t done such good work with Romero here. This movie has influenced so many filmmakers and endlessly captivated the minds of legions of horror fanatics, and will continue to until the end of time.
It’s hard to say anything that’s not been said before concerning Dawn of the Dead. One thing is for sure, though, George A. Romero is the man who gave us modern zombies and this film is an intense piece of horror cinema which dives further into the zombie lore he created in 1968, as well as touches on aspects of human nature from friendship in close quarters to a reflection of our inherent consumerism as people in the 20th century. 5 stars, right through the roof and to the sky!
As I said in my review of Romero’s first zombie feature, Day of the Dead is actually my personal favourite. All the same, each of the three first films in his Dead series are perfect in my mind and neither are technically better than the others, at least that’s how I see it; I just prefer Day over the others, something more apocalyptic and foreboding about its plot.
Regardless, Dawn of the Dead constantly affects me, it always entertains and I love the two-disc DVD set this came in, which I ordered a few years back now. Lots of fun features on the release, as well. If you’re a fan it’s worth the cash. If you’ve not seen this: smarten up and watch it for Halloween.
Area 51. 2015. Directed by Oren Peli. Screenplay by Christopher Denham & Oren Peli.
Starring Reid Warner, Darrin Bragg, Ben Rovner, Jelena Nik, Roy Abramsohn, Frank Novak, and Glenn Campbell. Aramid Entertainment Fund/Blumhouse Productions/IM Global/Incentive Filmed Entertainment/Room 101.
Rated R. 91 minutes.
Right back to the supposed McPherson Tape, later given a bigger budget and made as Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County, there have been plenty of found footage films dealing with alien encounters. We’ve also got Jason Eisner’s segment from V/H/S 2, the 2014 film Alien Abduction, then there’s Apollo 18 with a bit of pseudo-revisionist history. There are more, but I won’t ramble on into the night about every last one.
Area 51 is not necessarily the same as the others. Right from the beginning, not many films involve the actual infiltration, or attempted infiltration, of Area 51. There are some, but not a great many. Plenty of mentions, though, in film and television about Roswell, New Mexico, Area 51, and areas around Nevada. In some respects, Oren Peli’s latest film is much different than anything else. At other times there’s nothing different at all. Mixed bag mostly.
Peli is someone I’ve enjoyed far more as a producer than director. His two films as director, Area 51 and Paranormal Activity, aren’t that much different than one another except for the fact they’re completely different settings. Mostly I like that he produced the three Insidious movies, The Lords of Salem, as well as both Chernobyl Diaries and The Bay of which I’m a fan despite what others might think of them. With this film – originally completed around 2009 or so and unreleased until 2015 – Peli doesn’t do much else other than try to show new ways of incorporating found footage, techniques which aren’t necessarily fresh or innovative but above all else just fun to look at.
Three friends – Reid (Reid Warner), Darren (Darrin Bragg), and Ben (Ben Rovner) – head to a huge a party. There, Darren and Ben lose track of Reid briefly. They see him staring into the sky. Later, they find him again in the road – quiet, but fine.
Three months later, Reid has planned a trip for them: to Vegas. Or, more so Area 51.
Once on their journey, they meet with Jelena (Jelena Nik) whose father worked in the base for a time before getting fired for prodding into things too far; he later committed suicide. The four head out to try and make it onto the legendary base.
However, once they arrive and start to move further and further inside, they come to understand perhaps it’s better off the American Government keeps their findings under wraps.
An aspect of Area 51 I really did enjoy was the plot of how they managed to snag the old guy’s ID and the bottle of his cologne in case they required any fingerprints. That was pretty slick! While I think once inside there’s a lot of lapse of judgement on the part of the writing, in turn affecting the characters, much of what I liked about the movie was its build-up and the first half where it’s almost more like a thriller than anything. We’ve seen plenty of this type of stuff in other movies, I dig that Peli injects the found footage into something with which we’re familiar.
Another extremely fun part were the effects. I think, despite of how mediocre I found its scares, Peli’s Paranormal Activity at the least introduced the movie industry to new aspects found footage could carry: such as special effects. In this film, Peli takes that on to different levels. SPOILERS AHEAD!
Once Darren, Jelena, and Reid enter the Area 51 facility, there are a host of interesting effects the movie introduces. The alien technology this trio comes across is impressive. I totally loved the small, smooth craft Reid gets into; from the outside it’s almost a big oval, an egg-like structure, inside Reid is soundproofed yet the whole ship is transparent. Honestly, regardless whether you like the movie overall or not, I can’t see how you wouldn’t enjoy these moments. Seeing special effects with the found footage done well, such as they are in this case, is a treat for me because it isn’t often we get to see that in other movies.
There’s a genuine creepshow of a sequence after Jelena and Reid end up in a tunnel system underneath the Area 51 facility itself. In these few scenes, Peli brings us back to straight horror filmmaking. Not in a bad sense. There’s the obligatory slow shots of the camera, light shining, moving through the darkness, but a sense of real tension is happening. I’d honestly expected, after Darren has a quick run-in with the facility security, the finale of the film was going to be an extremely big, loud chase sequence, and the effects would come fast, barely noticeable, and the film would go out on a bang. Instead, the screenplay slows things down in pace for awhile. We get these very quiet bits before the REAL chase gets on. Then we switch back to see how Darren is doing, there we get the big chase, the loud sound design, alarms, and so on. Not a bad thing, however, I thought Peli might’ve done well to keep with the subtlety through to the end and create a more effective scare for the audience. Sadly, what was built up loses its steam with a big shift between Darren/Jelena and Reid. Peli should’ve left Darren and his situation unknown, it’d be more unsettling that way instead of spelling ever last thing out visually for us. Keeping with Jelena and Reid could have created an insanely tight tension that would not let up until the finish. It still has suspense and it keeps you on edge, no doubt there, but I don’t think it reached what it could have been with more focus.
That being said, I found the final ten minutes – in regards to scenes involving Jelena and Reid – pretty damn spectacular at times. SPOILERS AHEAD! When the two of them appear to abducted there’s an amazing scene/series of shots, as they’re sort of lifted up inside this white space, no gravity, and the camera gets sucked out of a tube only to fall down to the ground. BONUS – if you watch until after the credits, which you should as respect to all the various artists who work on a film (not to be a dick but I have many friends in the industry + I’m an aspiring screenwriter so it’s always nice to spend an extra couple minutes watching them), there is a POST-CREDITS SCENE. Pretty nice little add-on.
Only for the fact that this scene may negate the found footage aspect. An old man – the same one poking around the group’s vehicle earlier in the film – finds the camera Reid dropped in his abduction, or whatever you’d like to officially call it. So my only beef is: how did the footage get “found” then? It seemed to me like this old guy was a part of the conspiracy, in some way. Perhaps I’m wrong and he was another intrigued mind, maybe the reality is he came across the tape while trying to find his own evidence of some sort. Then it’s VERY clear how the footage made it out. So I can’t knock Peli for this last bit, as I’m not sure how exactly it was intended to play off. I’d like to believe the old man was another person prodding around for tangible proof of Area 51 and its contents, just as Reid and his friends; the knocking on their door in that one scene would then be seen as him probably warning them, attempting to steer them off a course of danger.
I don’t think Area 51 is anything special, but it’s also not as terrible as some seem to be making it out to be, as if there aren’t worse instances of both aliens/Area 51 and found footage out there (which there most certainly are).
Overall, it’s about a 2 out of 5 star film. The build-up is marred by too much jumping back and forth in the finale. Oren Peli instead tries to lean hard on the exposition, spelling out the fate of each and every character perfectly without leaving any sort of room for imagination. This isn’t always bad – you don’t have to NOT answer questions to be a good film. But Peli is too heavy handed, and any of the mystery he’d cultivated throughout the first three quarters of Area 51 disappears over the closing fifteen minutes. There are a few great scenes, honestly, from scares to interesting uses of the found footage sub-genre. The acting isn’t awful, but it’s by no means anything to write home about. Especially in the finale of the film, all the emotions and intensity of those scenes could’ve come off WAY BETTER if the actors pulled their weight, or in turn if the actors were replaced with better actors.
I’m not even that big on Paranormal Activity, other than the fact it was slightly innovative for found footage, but I’d absolutely recommend seeing that one over this directorial effort from Peli. See this if you’re looking to burn off an hour and a half. Plus, you might enjoy a few of the special effects the way I did. Who knows; stranger things have happened.
Chronicle. 2012. Directed by Josh Trank. Screenplay by Max Landis.
Starring Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan, Michael Kelly, Ashley Hinshaw, Bo Petersen, and Anna Wood. Twentieth Century Fox.
Rated 14A. 84 minutes.
I’m always a defender of found footage. There are plenty of instances of bad found footage films, but who cares? Why does it bother people SO MUCH? For every few bad ones, there’s a really good one waiting to be found. Honestly, if you dig through a lot of the indie found footage efforts you’ll find more than just a few good movies. Any genre or sub-genre can be used well if it’s done appropriately, in a way which helps the story a film is telling or a mood that’s trying to be attained.
I’m not a huge fan of Max Landis, solely because of some of his interviews and his incessant Twitter ranting/whining – who am I, though, to have an opinion on his personality really? That’s merely how he comes across on social media, and IN the media. Either way, I don’t particularly like how he bashes other films while some of his own don’t do so hot. It’s as if every movie that comes out he’s got his own version, his own ideas, a fan-fiction script built around his conception of how the plot and story should’ve went. Or, he simply has negative opinions instead of being constructive. This doesn’t get in the way of me enjoying any work he does that’s actually good. But honestly? To me, Chronicle is the only decent output of his. Only one man’s opinion.
The fun really begins once the guys are documenting themselves a little while after their encounter with the glowing meteor. First, they throw baseballs at one another and hit each other in the faces, until Andrew (Dane DeHaan) steps up and stops one of them right before it hits his face – the look in his eyes and the reaction they all have is excellent. One of the things I love most about this part is how natural they all feel together. Of course they each have their own separate personalities within the group, the three do feel like friends and the relationship seems natural on camera. Part of why some found footage does not work is because everything feels so forced and inorganic. Here in Chronicle I feel that how the actors make the relationships between their characters feel so organic is a huge part of the film’s overall charm. When you’ve got actors like Michael B. Jordan and Dane DeHaan holding up this type of movie, the relationships and the characters themselves all feel tangible. As opposed to other movies where young actors don’t pull their weight, the main trio including Alex Russell have tons of charisma. Plus, their energy and their commitment to the respective roles is evident. I often say certain roles couldn’t be played by anyone other than who was cast; that’s not always true. Although, here it’s pretty damn true.
DeHaan is a solid actor. As of late, he’s been banging out good performances. From his work as Lucien Carr in Kill Your Darlings to The Place Beyond the Pines and his short part in The Devil’s Knot. Almost everything he touches, whether his role is big or small, has been very interesting; sometimes if only for his efforts.
The other person whom I love is Jordan. He’s a charismatic man who brings an immediate likability to the character. And it goes well with the others. They each have distinct and different personalities, but Jordan’s character has the personality which anchors them all. All three of the main characters are representative of people we all knew in high school, certainly, and Jordan is that funny, nice, inclusive sort of dude who bridges the gaps. At the same time, he’s almost a perfect parallel for the character DeHaan plays, so that’s another reason why I loved him in the film. Mostly, the actors are able to bring us into the human dramatics at the center of the action, the root of why the movie and its screenplay are so damn interesting in the first place.
A big aspect of the movie and why it succeeds in being so innovative as a found footage film is the incorporation of a good deal of special effects. And awesome ones, too. The best part of this is the fact the video camera has a plausible way of staying around, no matter how wild it may seem in its placement. Because with the powers, the camera can go anywhere, be anywhere, simply by DeHaan’s character levitating it and taking it wherever he goes. A reason why I hate reading reviews on found footage movies sometimes is because so many people are too concerned with the footage itself – and yes, I understand that’s part of it, but why nitpick SO HARD? Sometimes, it’s deserved. Others it doesn’t need to be a relevant factor, you can just enjoy the found footage premise. At least Landis wrote his screenplay in a way that takes this into account, and jumps that hurdle in a fairly excellent manner. So then when you add in all the special effects on top of that, there’s an impressive feeling to many of the film’s scenes.
One favourite part of mine is when they go flying, tossing a football, and the danger of the powers slowly starts to become more and more evident. The fact these high school kids are blessed with such intense superpowers, and they’re so immaturely interested in testing them out, makes the stakes of the film higher. We work up to that, too. First, the special effects start with the baseball throwing, then as above, the Lego building (which I love love loved). Then, it moves onto bigger things, taking us further and further with these high school guys until the scary aspects of their newly gained powers emerge, becoming dangerous for them personally and later violent for anyone and everyone around them.
Even more than that, the special effects and the powers are on display in a vastly different sense than any regular superhero film.
I’ve always been amazed by Chronicle, from the first time I saw it when it was released a few years ago now. 4.5 stars all the way. There were a few minor nitpicks I have, but they’re not worth discussing. Overall, this is a solid piece of cinema with plenty of drama and science fiction to go around. Furthermore, despite anything else Max Landis was able to flip the superhero genre on its head with this one, at least slightly. We’re so used to seeing superpowers used for good, other than the villains we see in the good guys’ movies – because let’s face it, the heroes are always the focus anyways. But here, we almost see the birth of a villain, and it gives us a sort of prequel to life of a supervillain; also with the same care and tact superheroes are given, showing us the inner life, the workings of his mind and how he comes to be who he is in the end.
If you’ve been dragging your feet on this one, give that shit up. Check this one out and hopefully it might prove to be a nice counter-balance to all the superhero movies now inundating our senses, of which I’m not a fan. This is a different twist on an old story, so there’s plenty of fresh, fun stuff to keep your mind aflutter.
An American man goes on a vacation to flee his life, in the process finding love and cosmic terror.
[Rec]. 2007. Directed by Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza. Screenplay by Jaume Balagueró, Luis Berdejo & Paco Plaza.
Starring Manuela Velasco, Ferran Terraza, Jorge-Yamam Serrano, Pablo Rosso, David Vert, Vicente Gil, Martha Carbonell, and Carlos Vicente. Sony Pictures.
Rated R. 78 minutes.
First off – I’m not one of these snobs who feels the need to distinguish between a “zombie film” and an “infection film”, okay? If you’re going to argue with me, or not take my opinion on this great movie seriously solely because of the fact I’m going to call this a zombie movie (as I will any movie that features infected people who kill other human beings), then turn away now! For I will throw out the words “zombie film” & “zombie movie” like I’m giving away candy.
Are you ready? Then let’s begin.
It’s actually sort of funny when I think about it – [Rec] is a combination of two very played out, tired sub-genres of horror: found footage and zombies. Now, I’m not saying these are the types of films I don’t enjoy. On the contrary, I love both found footage and zombies. That’s if they’re done well. Just as gangs of undead roam the apocalyptic streets of the sub-genre, hordes of zombie films crowd the market, as tons and tons of young amateur horror directors try to us their vision of such a world. There are actually a lot of really great zombie movies, however, as many of them that are good are paralleled with equal numbers which are mediocre (at best) to terrible – to unfortunate. The same goes for found footage. I really enjoy a bunch of found footage movies. By the same token, I can think of more than several handfuls that I did not enjoy. I think more and more these days, the amateur horror director now leans towards doing a found footage film above a zombie movie. Because whereas a zombie movie can be done on a low-to-non-existent budget, you can do found footage for as much or less.
These two directors show us the story of a television reporter, Ángela Vidal [Manuela Velasco], and her cameraman, Pablo [Pablo Rosso], who are filming footage of the night shift at a local fire station. When an old woman calls, apparently trapped in her apartment, the firemen respond. Terrible screams are heard from the old woman’s apartment. Afterwards, the firefighters, along with Ángela & Pablo, discover what exactly is happening. From here, the night turns into a nightmarish situation for the news crew, the firefighters, and everyone in the building, as soon they are all trapped inside the building. While the situation unfolds, Ángela makes Pablo keep filming to make sure the outside world knows what horror has begun.
One aspect which can really kill a found footage film is how the filmmakers actually present the so-called footage. For instance, in Ti West’s recent film The Sacrament he used the real life news outlet VICE to help portray the footage itself – as they often do stories that are considered “immersionism”, this fit the film well because West was able to edit things, add a very foreboding score, and other such things. In the case of [Rec], Balagueró and Plaza present their film as a television news report. Essentially it all goes awry, and then the reporter plus her cameraman are left to fend for themselves. The fact Ángela urges Pablo to keep filming so they can let the world know what is happening in the building really helps the found footage angle work. Usually, we get people arguing “turn off the camera”, and then it all devolves into arguments, screaming, characters are then divided to later be killed off, or whatever the case. In this sense, many found footage movies can really blend together into the same old garbage. However, by having Pablo keep filming at the insistence of Ángela, this really makes things feel natural. It’s not one of those roll your eyes moments where you think “how typical”. This is one of my favourite things about this movie. I think [Rec]2 also did a good job of continuing this trend, and making the presence of found footage feel much more real than other lesser films.
I think while a couple performances, particularly those of Manuela Velasco and even Pablo Rosso, were really good, much of what I most enjoyed about [Rec] was the blood and the zombies. I mean, that’s what we really come to a zombie movie looking to find. With this film, you will get your money’s worth. In particular, I just wanted to mention one of the last zombies we actually get to see in the movie. Without ruining anything in the plot, there’s this extremely terrifying zombie wandering around in the basement when Ángela and Pablo make their way down there. You’ll know which one I’m talking about because this scary lady is not only naked – she’s brandishing what looks like a ball-peen hammer. Now, I won’t go any further and say what exactly happens. I’ll just say this one bit of zombie make-up really looked spectacular. It’s very rare I actually drop my jaw and lean into the screen for a closer look at something creepy. This moment had me glued. I really love it. Plus, what happens after they come across this specific zombie is wild.
I can give this a 4.5 out of 5 stars easily. This is one of the best zombie films out there. I know there are a lot of purists who seem to think George A. Romero is the only person to ever make a real zombie film. I say that’s absolute bullshit. He is the godfather of the modern zombie sub-genre in horror. Of that, there is no doubt. But you can’t discount a whole sub-genre (or maybe you could say it’s a genre unto its own nowadays with The Walking Dead dominating television on AMC) by saying only one man can do it right. I love his films. Still, there are plenty of other great zombies out there. Some of those are in [Rec].
With the newest addition to the series out in the last few days, I wanted to revisit this modern classic. I love this one, as well as the sequel. And while I don’t particularly dig the third installment, this fourth movie almost reminds me of one of the Resident Evil games – Revelations, I believe – takes place on a ship in the middle of the ocean. Anyways – point is, I’m looking forward to seeing it myself. While it doesn’t seem to be the favourite of critics, I never usually fall in line with popular opinions. I’ll wait and see myself. If you’ve not yet seen any of these, please do yourself a favour and watch them soon. [Rec] is a fascinating found footage film, and it brings all the zombie carnage and mayhem you could have hoped for – highly recommended.