A Little Bit Zombie (2012) dir. Casey Walker
Starring: Kristopher Turner, Crystal Lowe, Shawn Roberts, Kristen Hager, Emilie Ullerup and Stephen McHattie, George Buza, Robert Maillet
By Greg Klymkiw
Mixing horror with comedy is a noble enough tradition. An American Werewolf in London, Shaun of the Dead and Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn have become modern classics of this winning hybrid, but what makes them great is that the emphasis is always on horror and the comedy elements stem naturally from the drama. Even Sam Raimi's sequel/remake to his decidedly serious The Evil Dead manages to adhere to this with several clever Looney Tunes homages doubling as whacko POVs whilst Bruce Campbell's Ash is increasingly infused with terror and paranoia.
A Little Bit Zombie breaks this rule, but not too successfully. It's first and foremost a comedy, but as such, seems to just miss the boat on the laughs. I think the problem is that for much of the film, director Casey Walker tries too hard to make it funny. A lot of the performances and comic set-pieces are played broadly to the point of annoyance and seem just plain juvenile. That said, I watched it with my 11-year-old daughter and she laughed all the way through it. Best of all, for her, she was never scared and enjoyed all the jokey violence.
She is, however, 11-years-old.
I ultimately think the movie would have genuinely been so much funnier and possibly even deliciously creepy if Walker had pitched things much straighter. There's frankly an overabundance of "Hey Ma, look at me, I'm funny" mugging amongst a few of the actors.
The movie, however, is paced like shit through a goose and the screenplay is full of so many clever ideas that it still manages to be entertaining enough for a die-hard horror and dark comedy fan like myself. I just wish I didn't have to groan all through the picture - lamenting how one great idea after another kept hitting the floor like lead balloons due to the overwrought pitch of the direction.
It's a great story, though.
Two couples drive to a remote cabin in cottage country to plan the upcoming nuptials of Steve (Kristopher Turner) and Tina (Crystal Lowe). Steve's sister Sarah (Kristin Hager) is a smart, unpretentious lassie and detests her soon-to-be-sister-in-law's prissy consumerist girlie-girl nattering and attitudes. Craig (Shawn Roberts) is both Steve's best friend and Sarah's husband. He's an amiable, dimwitted beefcake with a heart of gold.
When Steve is bitten by an especially aggressive mosquito, his body temperature starts to plummet and no matter what he eats, he immediately barfs it up. Once he starts getting an overwhelming craving for brains, we know trouble is just around the corner.
And yes, just around the corner in the same cottage country region, the grizzled, trigger-happy Max (Stephen McHattie) and the young, brilliant, babe-o-licious scientist Penelope (Emile Ullerup) are deep in the woods, tracking down zombies via some mysterious orb that detects the undead. Max just wants to splatter zombie brain with his shotgun. Penelope is searching for a cure to the zombie disease.
We follow the adventures of both parties until the inevitable showdown.
What's especially cool about the script by Trevor Martin and Christopher Bond is the unique take on Steve's turn to zombie-dom. Steve is still Steve. He just wants to eat brains. That's all. Oh, and he has no pulse. Some of the funniest ideas involve the trio of non-zombies trying to find ways of dealing with Steve's affliction. Even potentially funnier is how the prissy Tina is adamant that the wedding will go as planned.
I say "potentially" because everything that should elicit laughs pretty much doesn't. One is constantly amused with all the cleverly funny ideas, but most of the gags miss their mark.
McHattie is suitably over-the-top, overplaying within the context of the character he's rendering. Max is supposed to be bigger-than-life. Many of the other characters shouldn't be. I just wish someone had told this to Crystal Lowe, for example, who amongst the two beleaguered couples is so broad, that her shrill, nasty harping out-harridans even the most vile harridans we've come to know and love in the movies (notably many of the villainous harpies in the Whatever Happened to Baby Jane-styled thrillers of the early-to-mid-60s).
Even the likeable presence of Kristopher Turner as Steve gets sucked into the realm of the overwrought. When he underplays, he's terrific, but when he pushes the envelope, someone needed to keep him reined in. Shawn Roberts's bigger qualities suit his character and he's genuinely funny. Finally, it is up to Kristen Hagerman and Emile Ullerup to maintain the best balance and deliver consistently enjoyable performances by playing the crazy material straight and subsequently eliciting considerable laughs.
While there are numerous exigencies of production that can contribute to elements being less than perfect, there are so many elements that are right with the picture that I made a point of seeing it twice to pinpoint why it is that it falls short.
It has a clever script (that could have easily been interpreted closer in tone to the aforementioned classic horror pictures with comic elements), there are some genuinely on-the-money performances (and even those that fall short are not without some sporadic merit), the production value is genuinely high and we seldom see the seams of the picture's obvious low budget, the effects are skillfully and imaginatively cheesy in all the right ways, the film is well photographed and finally, the superb editing by Michael Mason addresses the elements of both pace and narrative thrust with occasional cuts of considerable aplomb.
At the end of the day, much of the success or lack thereof, finally must be attributed to the direction. Even on a first viewing, one of the things that bothered me was how so many of the dialogue scenes were shot with endless one-ers and most annoyingly the constant reliance on dirty-over shots. I longed for good master shots and solid two-shots.
There's an early scene where the couples are driving at night in their car. Much of the dialogue is between Steve and Tina in the front seat while Craig and Sarah sleep in the back. Given that this is a long dialogue scene, and especially given that much, if not all of it is rendered in the old reliable poor man's process to makes it seem like the car is actually moving, I simply had no idea why much of the conversation was not composed with a nice two shot of the couple so that their dialogue could play out in a series of longer takes and only when necessary would there be a punch-in on a oner, closeup or dirty-over.
Instead, we seemed to be cutting on virtually every line of dialogue and no nice master two-shot carrying the bulk of the scene. On a first viewing, I chose to be charitable and think that maybe the masters existed, but that the performances could not sustain that approach and it was up to the editor to save the scene and performances by using the remaining camera-jockeyed coverage.
But then, there occurred a lengthy dialogue scene on the shore of the lake and the entire conversation seemed comprised of an identical approach when clearly a much more interesting and effective way to shoot it would have been a complete reverse angle to allow for longer takes in two-shot and only occasional dirty overs, but from the front, which still could have include the lake and surrounding wilderness.
To keep the camera always behind the actors might have worked if there had been a simple wide master, followed by a few dirty overs from behind and then gradually working into the reverse angle so we could actually see the actors dead-on and let good chunks of the scene play in much longer takes.
This kind of dull, though vaguely competent TV-like approach to covering the dialogue, coupled with so much of the great script being pitched far too high suggested that direction was indeed the one primary aspect of what kept A Little Bit Zombie from being more than mildly engaging.
All this said, when I do the math on the picture, it still managed to provide enough entertainment value - even for jaded genre geeks.
So, without further delay, let's do the math:
A Zombie mosquito.
First-rate zombie head explosions and general zombie carnage.
Stephen (God) McHattie.
More vomiting and regurgitation than I've ever seen in one movie.
3 Babes (1 ultra babe, 1 mega babe, 1 nasty babe).
1 manly, good-humoured hunk.
1 fey, sensitive lad for those so inclined.
Good natured, though mild homophobic homo humour.
Biting into a bunny rabbit's head.
Bunny rabbit brain eating.
White Trash Butcher who is a brain gourmand (courtesy of George Buza).
"Clinking" squirrel brains together as "bottoms up" toast.
WWF wrestling maestro Robert Maillet.
A slam-bang CAT-FIGHT twixt Ultra Babe and Nasty Babe.
Ultra Babe and Nasty Babe dolling up like hookers to seduce Robert Maillet.
Slurping brains out of someone's head with a straw.
A final 10 minutes that's so good, it makes up for all the movie's flaws.
And yes, allow me to reiterate - babes.
The sum total: If the above appeals to you - GO FOR IT!
You can, ultimately, do a lot worse than a zombie comedy that's not as funny as it really should be.
"A Little Bit Zombie" is the Closing Night Gala of the Canadian Film Fest at the Royal Theatre in Toronto. For more information, visit the Festival website HERE.
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