24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Zombie Movies

Toronto 2011: 'Juan of the Dead' brings zombies to Cuba

September 10, 2011 |  3:00 pm

Horror directors often use humor to send up the genre. But it's not often you see a zombie comedy that's also a Cuban political allegory.

"Juan of the Dead," Alejandro Brugues' new Spanish-language genre comedy that premiered for the media Saturday afternoon at the Toronto Film Festive, is pretty much just that.

Set in modern-day Cuba, it examines a group of thirtysomething and fortysomething slackers led by the titular Juan (Alexis Diaz de Villegas). The group, leading an enjoyably dead-end life, finds itself in danger when the streets of Havana inexplicably begin to be filled by marauding zombies.   Entrepreneurial types that they are (but not capitalists, no, never that), they grab a few weapons and begin hiring themselves out as a kind of zombie extermination outfit, then go about slaying the undead over the movie's 1970s-era disco soundtrack.

Despite the title, the film is not so much a knockoff of "Shaun of the Dead" as a knowing homage to it.  More intriguing, political overtones are present pretty much from the opening scene. When the zombies start attacking, the government propaganda machine immediately labels them dissidents, and Juan and his group follow suit. "This time, the bad guys are not the Yankees but they're here among us," one of Juan's friends says.

But Brugues really seems to be skewering the government and the status quo, and it's soon evident, as Juan and his friends whack the lumbering zombies, that what the filmmaker is really doing is offering a kind of wish fulfillment for all those who want to destroy a Castro-induced malaise. (That message is particularly clear in a zombie massacre in the city's famed  Revolution Square opposite the trademark Che billboard; all that's missing is Castro pounding on the lectern.)

"What if they go on like this for another 50 years?" one character asks another, one of the less subtle references to Fidel's government, which also has endured for roughly half a century.

According to producers, the movie is the first to be shot in post-revolution Cuba without the financial support of the Cuban government. Given the political message, you can see why, though the film's glorious shots of the Malecon and other evocations of the city's gritty charms won't get anyone in the tourism commission too upset.

Blending history and genre conventions is becoming more popular in modern cinema. "Let Me In" used vampires as a metaphor for Reagan's America, and the upcoming "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" has its own lessons to impart about the relationship between bloodsuckers and slave owners. In the end, Brugues' concept is better than the execution, but it's a tantalizing concept indeed, and don't be surprised to see more of these types of genre films begin to stagger around.

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: A scene from "Juan of the Dead." Credit: Toronto Film Festival

Dead Island: The best trailer in years? [Video]

February 16, 2011 |  7:28 pm

Movie studios spend millions of dollars every year trying to get us to pay attention to their upcoming films by carefully cutting and distributing trailers. But for all the money and time spent, sometimes the most compelling cinematic material doesn't come from the studios at all.

That's what this fan-made trailer for "The Expendables" proved last year. And on Thursday, when a trailer for a previously little-known video game titled Dead Island started blowing up Twitter, it seemed to happen again. (The game is being developed by Techland and will be published by Deep Silver; there was no release date coming into Wednesday, but we have a feeling that will change pretty soon.)

The trailer, as you'll see below, is a marvelously ambitious work, essentially a short film in all but name. It takes a melancholy piano score and runs it under a battle between a family on vacation and the zombies who have taken over their resort. Apart from the piece's sharp visual style and emotional impact (the father-daughter moment at the end is heartbreaking), the most impressive aspect may be the trailer's structure. It's tough enough to weave in elegant flash-forwards and flashbacks in a full-length feature; the "Dead Island" trailer does it all in about three minutes.

One can only hope one of the zombie movies that studios have in the works is half as good. Or, better yet, someone in Hollywood should drop whatever branded reboot they're working on and develop this as a film.

-- Steven Zeitchik

'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' redux: Can Neil Marshall snag the job?

November 3, 2010 |  6:43 pm

Mike White, the Jack Black collaborator and  "Orange County" writer, remains a top contender to direct "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," which as we wrote Tuesday is one of the hottest and strangest projects currently active in Hollywood. But a man who is neck and neck in the race -- and could yet land the gig when the announcement comes in the coming week--  is Neil Marshall.

The director, who helmed the 2005 trapped-women horror hit "The Descent," has presented his take on the story to studio Lionsgate and is very much in the mix, according to those familiar with discussions between the studio and the director. There's one other director being considered, the sources say: Jeffrey Blitz, the fimmaker of acclaimed documentary "Spellbound" and the Anna Kendrick coming-of-age movie "Rocket  Science," potentially an even odder choice than White.

Pride The smart money now is on White or Marshall, but Blitz could yet pull a Murkowski and land the gig. Maybe.

When David O. Russell decided last month not to make the movie -- a scary, darkly funny 19th century romance with zombies -- Lionsgate went out to a host of big names, including Mike Newell ("Prince of Persia") and Matt Reeves ("Let Me In"). They passed -- this is risky territory, and if you have clout and need a hit, as both those do, maybe you take on something a little less chancy. That prompted the studio to go to the next group.

There's also still the question of cast -- those familiar with the project say Scarlett Johansson, who had previously been reported as taking the gig, won't star in the film. That leaves Bradley Cooper as Darcy. He's still in, according to our sources, but the choice of the director could influence his decision too, which would in turn require filling both the Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy roles. Making those zombie period-romances just isn't as easy as it used to be.

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Credit: Quirk Books


The appeal, and thorniness, of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies


The appeal, and thorniness, of 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies'

November 2, 2010 |  4:34 pm

Zombies have been touted as the next big Hollywood thing, and producers have had especially high hopes for the biggest of these big things -- a genre mash-up called "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies." That is, assuming they can find the right director. It's not easy when you have a movie that mixes George Romero and 19th century romance.

Pride Based on a novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, the high-concept film uses the template of the Jane Austen classic but drops zombies and other genre staples onto the English countryside.

The quirky auteur David O. Russell had been on board to direct the movie. But last month the "Flirting with Disaster" filmmaker decamped to make the video game adaptation "Drake's Fortune." That created a vacuum behind the camera, and four weeks weeks later, no filmmaker has been selected to replace him (although Lionsgate says a choice is expected soon).

The job has proved a tricky one for studio Lionsgate and producer Darko Entertainment, which is run by cult director Richard Kelly -- it requires a filmmaker who can adroitly handle comedy, genre and period conventions. One name that numerous agents and managers -- who have been briefed by those affiliated with the film -- have pointed to in recent days as a top contender is Mike White. White is a relatively inexperienced director, but supporters say the choice is not without its logic. A writer ("School of Rock," "Orange County," Chuck & Buck") and director ("The Year of the Dog") known for black comedy, White is seen as one of the few candidates who can handle the film's many tones.

One name that looks unlikely is Matt Reeves. Although he was reported by several outlets as a contender, a source at Lionsgate who asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the search process said it did not look like Reeves, who gained heat for his vampire movie "Let Me In," would get the gig. Otherwise all choices are on -- and all bets are off.

-- Steven Zeitchik and Nicole Sperling


Photo: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies book jacket. Credit: Quirk books


Zombies could replace vampires (again)



Zombies could replace vampires (again)

October 12, 2010 |  7:22 pm

With major franchises about vampires and wizards coming to a close (in the next couple of years), Hollywood, always looking to the next really big thing, or at least the last sort-of big thing, has been putting its faith in a new genre breed: zombies.

As several recent articles have noted, a number of potential films and a new AMC television series ("The Walking Dead") seek to replace the bloodsuckers and wand-wavers. But getting the movies going could be as difficult as dodging a pack of the undead.

The project suddenly with the most questions around it: “Pride & Prejudice & Zombies." The alternative take on Jane Austen's dorm-room classic looked like it was full-speed ahead with Natalie Portman and David O. Russell , in what may have been the most logical or the most surreal pairing you can imagine. But Portman has decided against doing the movie, and Russell opted last week to go off and make the "Uncharted: Drake's Fortune" movie, leaving "Pride & Prejudice" as stranded out there as Mary Bennett, or one very lonely zombie.

Ostensibly moving forward is "Warm Bodies," a love-triangle-ish tale about a zombie who falls for the woman whose boyfriend he kills (we've all been there). That movie is said to be casting now, as writer-director Jonathan Levine meets with actors. (It's at "Twilight" studio Summit, so apparently they believe zombies are the next big thing too.)

The hitch: Levine is getting a lot of buzz for "Live With It," the so-called cancer comedy starring Seth Rogen, and he's rumored for various high-profile projects. Levine could still make "Warm Bodies" his next movie -- it would probably start shooting in early 2011 if he did -- but don't rule out another big gig for Levine that could put "Warm Bodies" at least temporarily on ice. Meanwhile, long-standing rumors of an "I Am Legend" sequel/prequel seem to have quieted down.

In the meantime, there are other zombie franchises that could pick up the slack, for one, the pliable "Resident Evil" franchise. With the fourth movie an unquestionable hit, a fifth film in the Milla Jovovich franchise probably will follow soon enough. And then of course there's the likely sequel to "Zombieland," which could come as soon as next year.

Zombie movies are historically more ghoulish, and less romantic, than vampire films, which means they usually appeal less to women (and thus to studios in general).

But it's hard to ever should count zombies out in Hollywood. Unlike vampire movies, which tend to live on the screen in sharp but powerful busts, as it is right now, zombies have a longer, steadier life.

Some of the better known vampire movies of the 1980s -- "Fright Night" and "The Lost Boys" -- were concurrent with a number of zombie hits; "Fright Night," for instance, came out the same year as the zombie reboot  "Return  of the Living Dead." Twenty years later, that vampire wave had long gone, but the "Living Dead" series was still going. And even as that series petered out, there was the zombie comedy "Shaun of the Dead" in 2004, and then, three years later, "I Am Legend," and then "Zombieland" two years after that. The trend of zombies in Hollywood always comes back;  it's just a question of how quickly it's able to rise.

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: "Return of the Living Dead 4" Credit: Aurora Entertainment


 Resident Evil movie hits new high

Zombieland director was courted for Mission: Impossible

David O. Russell now back with Drake's Fortune



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