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Goal of the Dead
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by Jay Seaver

"Scores a lot of points for a zombie soccer movie."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: At first glance, "zombie soccer" sounds like the sort of novelty horror-comedy that really should be about half of "Goal of the Dead"'s two hour and twenty minute length, and I wonder if the filmmakers thought that as well, because it's built to split into two, with a new director and even new opening credits at the midway point. So it's almost shocking that this thing works - it's a chaotic but clever film with more than obvious sports gags up its sleeve.

It starts with Olympique de Paris, a soccer team fairly close to relegation, heading to the provinces for a match with Caplongue's club team with reporter Solène Belanger (Charlie Bruneau) along for the ride. Their amiable, long-time veteran of seventeen years Sam Lorit (Alban Lenoir) is from the town, but they're not exactly eager to welcome him back or particularly thrilled to see rising star Idriss Diago (Ahmed Sylla). Well, most of them aren't; some young women like Béné (Joana Person) and Cléo (Tiphaine Daviot) have their eyes on the Parisian team. But when the Caplongue team's star Jeannot Belvaux (Sebastien Vandenberghe) is injected not with performance-enhancing drugs but something akin to 28 Days Later's rage virus, all hell breaks loose, and where does out-of-control violence spread better than at a hotly contested European soccer game?

The filmmakers don't pull a From Dusk til Dawn-style switch here; the infection is contracted early, even if it does take patient zero a bit of time to actually make it to the stadium. They do give themselves enough time to play much of the first half as a pretty good sports comedy, with all the pieces there for an entertaining movie even if it were virus-free, including some laugh-out-loud bits as Solène tries to interview Idriss on the bus and the Olympique coach is doesn't know what to make of the three Koreans named Park on his team. Director Benjamin Rocher handles that part well before handing the reins over to Thierry Poiraud, who runs with an outbreak in full swing. There are moments when it seems like they are working relatively independently of each other, with both the two directors and the half-dozen writers throwing in elements of their own and then doing the best they can to stitch it together in the editing room so that it mostly makes sense.

It's fun, though, in part because the large cast of characters has a knack for defying expectations. Sam Lorit, for instance, has a story that builds him up as a sympathetic character with a redemption arc to come, but he's actually kind of an ass, and Alban Lenoir turns in a very funny performance that lets him be the protagonist of the piece and kind of charming even if the viewer still constantly wants to smack him upside the head. Tiphaine Daviot takes a not-unexpected plot twist and plays it with wit and pluck, and the way Bruno Salomone is asked to play an out-for-himself agent - often paired with an idealistic coach - is kind of a blast. Ahmed Sylla has a great girly scream as the team's star but is still a lot of fun once we see this. Charlie Bruneau is a ton of fun as the constantly-slighted lady sports reporter without going the full badass route. And the movie's got room for more, from hooligans constantly razzing one of their number for being born while his mother was on vacation in Paris to the gruff chief of police. Even the ill-fated Jeannot and his doctor father aren't quite what we'd expect when we meet them.

Folks coming for zombie action won't be disappointed, either, even if they feel that they didn't really sign up for the sports comedy. There's a lot of basic gore, although with the filmmakers going for a fast-paced horror comedy, it's a lot more enthusiastic than really stomach churning. Still, the constant barfing up of milky-white liquid to spread the disease is enjoyably gross, there's a nasty laugh or two to be had as we watch bullets do their messy zombie-killing work in extreme slow motion, and the main characters are always ready to fight their way through a horde with whatever comes handy, Shaun of the Dead-style. The infected are just articulate enough to add the right combination of menace and absurdity, and the inside of a long-standing soccer stadium proves a great setting for zombie action, as does the town that Poiraud presents as having gone to hell very fast.

It's a lot of messy comedy and action, and I'd be lying if I said that the filmmakers didn't occasionally get lost along the way. They always find their way out, though, and manage to make even the more soccer-oriented material entertaining to American non-fans like me. It's still kind of stretched for this sort of high-concept movie, but less so than you might expect.

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originally posted: 07/27/14 01:57:29
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

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