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Reel Zombies
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by Jay Seaver

"Proof that it's good to know one's own shortcomings."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2009 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Zombie Night" is, I'm given to understand, a terrible movie, bottom-dozen of all-time bad. Thus it has a cult following. The sequel, to hear the filmmakers tell it, was better-made to the point of mediocrity, but paradoxically less entertaining as a result; the making-of feature on the DVD was allegedly more fun. So, this time around, they set out to combine the two.

Thus, the film starts out with Mike Masters, producer of the Zombie Night movies, saying he never wanted to make another. But in the aftermath of the recent zombie-virus outbreak, he has a brainstorm - make the third part with real zombies! Surely there will be a demand for zombie-killing movies as soon as there's theaters again! So director David J. Francis throws a script together in a couple of days, they get as much of the cast and crew who are still around together, hire a new DP (Jean-Marc Fontaine), and a zombie wrangler (Bill Simmons), find some actresses willing to do nudity, and they are ready to go! Granted, they weren't so good at this before, but having real zombies should make it easier, right?

The "movie movie" is a popular genre, since folks who like to watch movies are naturally curious about how they're made, and it's generally a topic filmmakers know something about (insert joke about the makers of Zombie Night here). Even without real zombies, there's a bunch of fun ways for everything to go wrong on set, especially with this cast of characters - guys who are familiar with each other, but maybe don't really like one another. Camaraderie is fun; everyone being in "I can't work under these conditions!" mode is funnier.

In order to generate that atmosphere, the filmmakers spare no effort caricaturing themselves. Francis, in particular, is hilarious as the sort of director who likes to do things on "feel" and is none too bright besides, and he's well-complemented by Masters, who gets progressively more bitter and sarcastic as things go downhill. Fontaine is one of the few actors not playing a version of himself - although for all we know, "Jean-Marc Mileaux"'s improvised dialog is exactly what Fontaine would say in similar circumstances - and he makes the character beautifully contemptuous of his co-workers. Stephannie Hawkins is the new leading lady, and her disgust at crude returning star Dan Rooney (and shameless flirting with the director) is always good for a mean laugh (she also serves as the film's stunt co-ordinator). Troma's Lloyd Kaufman shows up for a very funny cameo.

I think my favorite thing about the movie, though, is the way it posits that a zombie outbreak would more or less be a nuisance. Zombies are slow and stupid, only getting more so once rigor mortis sets in, and once you know that living dead exist, they're only really a problem if you're careless or stupid (insert joke about the makers of Zombie Night here). Okay, sure, bashing in the heads of your former friends might not be for the squeamish, but it's amazing what people can adapt themselves to once it becomes necessary, and as this movie gets going, pulling out the baseball bats because there are zombies in the parking lot is already become a form of pest control. There's plenty of other quality moron jokes on tap - the engine that runs the film is basically that people who think filming a movie with real zombies should not be allowed near expensive equipment or weapons - and most of them are spot-on.

To be fair, though, for all the jokes at the filmmakers' expense that I've made in this review (probably unfair, since I haven't seen their other movies, but I'm just following their own example), they actually do a pretty good job putting Reel Zombies together. Francis's editing not only sifts the good bits out of a ton of raw footage, but it comes together with good pacing as well. For all that it's meant to be composed of handheld behind-the-scenes footage, the camerawork isn't exaggeratedly shaky and it's always easy to make out what's going on. And, if what we see on screen is any reflection of how these guys actually shoot their "real" movies, the improvisational style actually suits them.

I've got no desire to go out and find the original "Zombie Night" movies; both the footage we see and the film-within-the-film do a fine job of convincing me that these guys really couldn't make a good scripted movie. They are the right people to send the genre up, though, even if they had to make a couple crappy zombie movies in order to warm up to it.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=19356&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/23/09 15:43:57
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Fantasia Festival For more in the 2009 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 11-Feb-2014

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