Sunday 5 September 2010

Office of the Dead (2009)

Directors: Matthew Chung
Stars: Teddy Chen Culver, Shawn Parikh and Christina July Kim

How was I ever going to resist a zombie movie in which the three lead characters are a couple of software engineers and a project manager? I'm an IT professional and a horror movie maven, so something that merges two of the key things that make my brain tick is a very cool rarity indeed. It's only one of the rarities writer/director Matthew Chung chose to set up here, because almost nobody in this American movie is of the typical WASP heritage. The software engineers are Ben and Raj, a Chinese American and an Indian on an H1 visa. Their project manager is a 'hot Asian mama' called Liz, who used to be Ben's girlfriend before she got promoted above him but who he secretly wishes still was. I don't blame him. By the way, that isn't my description, because I would naturally never be so insensitive about gorgeous young ladies, it's the description used by a couple of consultants brought in by gay jerk boss Nate when they can't meet their deadlines.

Ben and Raj work for a company called Life Corp on a project that uses psychokinetic therapy to change how people feel about their memories, thus making them feel happier. Naturally, they aren't given enough time to get the job done right and they're not given the best equipment to work with. You can tell they're in a Microsoft world because there's a DOS box on the screen, so chaos is what research institutes get for using Windows. 'Everything's within safety parameters,' says Ben during the experiment that opens the film, but when they hit thirty seconds until brain damage, they can't switch it off because the mouse has frozen. So jerk boss Nate replaces them on their PKT project with a couple of consultants. For those without a background in IT projects, management loves consultants for reasons known only to them but consultants don't know jack. What that translates to here is optimising phase one's inefficiency means office zombies.

There are problems here. The sound mix is low which really doesn't help when people whisper and they do a lot of that, whether they're hiding behind desks or inside closets. The accents are very varied too, which doesn't help when we're trying to decipher those whispers. The leads are of Chinese, Korean and Indian heritage, though they're clear compared to the supporting cast, who are sometimes lost in the mix. David Goldman, who plays the CEO of the company, Sir John Chris, comes across as either Australian, South African or both, though he's apparently supposed to be British. There is a cool explanation for this later but it doesn't help us try to fathom what he says during most of the first half of the film. Natasha Nova, who plays his PA, Angie, is a Russian who grew up in Israel. Nate the jerk boss is played by Jani Blom, a Finn who lives in Sweden. This ethnic smörgåsbord is joyously unusual but isn't an attempt at political correctness.

Beyond the sound, the downside of the film is the basic plot, which is threadbare: the Life Corp office building is taken over by zombies and the good guys try to find a way out. The upside is in the details, like the fact that Life Corp's security system successfully locks down the building, but through a design flaw can only be opened from inside. I'd guess that the film will play better to people who work in offices because there are many clever touches that make the comedy shine but which may slip by the average moviegoing audience. In fact this works as wish fulfilment to a massive degree. I bet most software engineers (or most IT professionals of any flavour) would love to tie a poor excuse for a manager into a chair with tape over his mouth and wheel him out into the zombie apocalypse to serve as a distraction while they escape. Later, after he's been turned into a zombie but breaks free from the chair, they beat him up with keyboards.

The actors are excellent, Teddy Chen Culver and Shawn Parikh doing much more than would be needed to fight off any obvious Harold and Kumar comparison as Ben and Raj. They work well as a pair, both talented but very different in character. Christina July Kim plays well off both of them as Liz, though I have to admit I've never had a project manager who looks like her. Perhaps their shared success can be best measured by one particular piece of dialogue. 'WTF?' Liz asks Ben, while they hide in a closet. 'TTYL,' interrupts Raj. It's inane, stupid, dumb dialogue but it's spot on for the moment and it stays in its place. If they can make things like that work, they can make anything work. I was really impressed by Robbie Daymond and Don Jeanes too, as a pair of ass kissing marketing guys, who shine from moment one in a company video which is a masterpiece of subtle storytelling through body language. Even the font size and the burgundy shirt are right.

As a zombie movie, Office of the Dead is capable, though it hardly breaks any new ground in the genre, except for the setting. I don't remember seeing middle aged women stumble around the eighth floor cubes in zombie make up before but I'll keep an eye open next time I'm in the office. It really isn't about the zombies though, it's about comedy through character and the characters are a deconstruction of an entire company. Some are more successful than others. The constant competition between the marketing guys and gals is hilarious, making the confession scene a peach. The boss has his moments, though he gets more of those through appearances on video than as a character stuck in the building. Matthew Chung seems to know more about a software company than a TV news station but he scores a couple of successes at Noogle News too with reporters who expect experts on everything, even things for which there are no experts.

As a comedy, it's a subtle piece, led by good acting by unusual choices for the main characters and gags that run from cleverly insightful to more obvious and crude. I won't repeat the line that both Ben and Raj use on jerk boss Nate after the zombie apocalypse arrives outside his office, but I'm sure you can imagine what it is. There's joy both in the delivery and the wish fulfilment and I wonder just how much Chung poured into this film. Prior to this he wrote and directed two films, Gamers Circle and Change for Food, both shorts from 2004. It took five years for him to make a feature, but I'd be more than interested in seeing what he comes up with next. It seems more likely that we'll see more from the actors first, as all of them are racking up interesting filmographies and, on the basis of their work here, deserve more lead roles. For now, I want to see Christina July Kim in To the Brink and a couple of the actors in Ocean's 7-11.


Anonymous said...

Robbie Daymond...AWESOME!

Anonymous said...

Agreed, what else has he been in? He's effin funny.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Is that you, Robbie?

If it isn't, I posted a review of Recollection at the weekend, which is a very cool new horror short that Robbie is briefly in.

If it is, well, I posted a review of Recollection at the weekend, but you already know how very cool it is.