Sunday 15 April 2012

Zone of the Dead (2009)

Directors: Milan Konjević and Milan Todorović
Stars: Ken Foree and Kristina Klebe

Lately I've been fascinated by horror films made in countries you wouldn't expect, and you'll see a lot more of that at Apocalypse Later this year. It isn't only that I can't resist movies with names like Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre, it's that slices of exotic culture often shine through the material so familiar stories can carry a new edge. This is a Serbian film (no, not A Serbian Film), with financing from Spain and Italy, so it carries an Eastern European flavour that's more than welcome, except when it extends to the accents. That wouldn't have been a problem if it had been shot in Serbian but for some reason, perhaps to better target a global audience, almost the entire film unfolds in English, heavily accented English, even when dubbed. Fortunately this gets better with time, for the characters who survive are mostly played by native English speakers like Ken Foree, the star of the show, who landed an associate producer credit too.

It's pretty obvious from reviews that a lot of viewers took the broken language to be bad acting and in a few cases it is, but mostly it's a poor, albeit well intentioned, decision by the production company. I hope it paid off for them, but I know I would have enjoyed it much more in subtitled Serbian, a better dub or even as dual language. The other bizarre decision taken was with the title. This is a zombie flick, so no prizes for guessing the last three words, but the rest of the title keeps changing. It's Apocalypse of the Dead in the opening credits, Zone of the Dead at the end. In Germany it's Apocalypse of the Living Dead. In the US it's 2012: Apocalypse of the Dead, even though it was was shot in 2009 and released there in 2010. Maybe Americans get Serbians and Mayans confused. The follow up is supposedly Island of the Damned, formerly Wrath of the Dead and, inevitably, Zone of the Dead 2. It's no spoiler to say Foree may return, with Jenna Jameson.

Outside the confusion of titles and language, this is a steady zombie movie with high points and low points. It begins well except for the accents, in a brief origin story. It's 1985 and we emerge neatly from a grave to discover that the three hundred year old Turkish skeletons inadvertently dug up by builders had died of the plague. A workman who cut himself on a bone died before the ambulance could arrive, but no prizes for guessing that he quickly rises as a zombie. After the title sequence we fast forward to the modern day. We're still in the Industrial Zone, but Pančevo is now a town in Serbia not Yugoslavia. One drunken scuffle there between a trio of soldiers and a train station security guard during a military exercise leaves a bullet hole in a chemical tanker and toxic green mist overwhelming the station. I wonder what effect that might have... well, how many zombie movies have you seen where the beginning wasn't utterly predictable?
Fortunately it improves quickly. Thus far the acting and delivery has been poor, but the action has been capable. The camera moves well, often in broad sweeps, and it has the courage to try for a little style as we're introduced to the various subplots. When Agent Mina Milius picks up a mysterious prisoner with no name from the state prison in Vrsac, the camera jerkily follows the fun he has with his former guards. Don't worry if you hate handheld stuff though, because it's quick and far from motion sickness inducing. In fact I quite like the concept of having the camera stay smooth for the live characters only to shift to jerky, handheld footage when the zombies are in frame. In between, the jerkiness increases with the tension and feels appropriate. It enhances the urgency of the situations but never gets to the point of causing motion sickness. It's worth mentioning that what Americans may see as a low budget is really a high budget in Serbia.

The main subplot ties to Milius and the prisoner she's charged with transporting to somewhere or other. She's on her debut mission and still green, so along to assist is Agent Mortimer Reyes, a living legend at Interpol who has presumably got too old for this shit, and his partner and friend, Insp Dragan Belic. 'If there ever was an easy assignment, this is it,' says Reyes, but if that was the case we wouldn't have a movie, and so they drive into Pančevo and the zombie apocalypse. Mostly we stay with these stars as the other subplots gradually connect in. The second begins at the train station, where a quiet professor survives the gas but still has the zombiefied soldiers and guards to deal with. It quickly merges with a couple of other subplots: three kids who break down in exactly the wrong place and a crazily dangerous character, subtly named Armageddon, who has been patiently waiting for the End of Days in exactly the right place.
Everyone ends up at an abandoned police station, which should ably highlight the most overt inspiration for the story: John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13. There's a neat loop of influence here, as Assault on Precinct 13 was Carpenter's take on Rio Bravo, but instead of a western he shot it as an urban thriller with its abandoned police station attacked by gang members inspired by the zombies in George A Romero's Night of the Living Dead. That's why they didn't speak and they just kept on coming, no matter how many of them were gunned down on the way. Zone of the Dead merely plays it without the metaphor, so its police station remains a police station and its zombies are, well, zombies. The prisoner played by Italian actor Emilio Roso is lifted straight out of Assault on Precinct 13 but with a hint of Clint Eastwood's man with no name too. There's also a decent nod to Dawn of the Dead, still Foree's best and most famous picture.

The setup is a bit muddled, but the story follows capable directions to get to the recognisable territory. There's a neat shock moment as our leads arrive in Pančevo, which actually causes a fair amount of shock in the characters for a change. Unlike most zombie movie cops or soldiers, these guys obviously haven't gone through specific training on how to deal with an outbreak of the living dead. They figure it out, of course, with the usual dumb mistakes, but the initial shock that hammers them for a little while is very much appreciated. The effects are also excellent, as these zombies look and sound exactly as they should, the brain munching extras doing a much better job than the living ones at the beginning of the movie, including one who's fresh from the shower. The names of a few early victims highlight how much a priority the effects were: Agents Savini and Bottin don't last long enough to get any dialogue. That may be a blessing.

In fact, the film looks very good indeed, far better than it sounds. Scenes with zombies pressed up against glass doors or zombie kids emerging from pipes are beautifully shot. When we find a finalé of sorts, the lead zombie makes for a great visual, like a bloody steampunk clown. There's a gauntlet run that's a little freaky weird but I liked it, very easy on the eyes. There are quite a few neat shock moments dotted here and there to pause the action. Yet somehow it can't resist utter cliché on occasion: at one point the prisoner does a sexy action leap that is so gratuitous that it made me cringe. As good as the visuals get, the focus is on character throughout, which is admirable but not as much as it could be: these may be fleshed out characters but they're hardly surprising ones. The dialogue is decent, though the delivery is far from consistent. The one real exception is Armageddon, whose lines are as laughably over the top as his name.
Ken Foree is certainly getting old but he does a pretty good job as Reyes and it's always good to see him in another picture. Veteran Serbian actor Miodrag Krstović looks a lot older, though he's two years younger than Foree. That doesn't help our belief in their back stories but they're not a hardship to watch. Foree plays close to what we might expect him to play, but Krstović is known in Serbia as a character actor usually on the unpleasant side, more often a criminal than a cop. Kristina Klebe is a versatile multilingual actress who's let down by her character, who is far too green to have been given the mission we're supposed to buy into. It would have helped a little if she could have kept her shirt tucked in. That can't be regulation. Best of the leads in my eyes was Emilio Roso, who is notably cool under pressure as the mysterious prisoner, very patient and very capable. I liked his approach, like Lou Diamond Phillips playing Antonio Banderas.

All the leads are there as developing characters, who have action thrust upon them. By contrast, Armageddon is there entirely for the action and he feels like a reject from a Tarantino picture, jarringly out of place. He's fulfilling a prophecy, an outrageous action hero who kicks arse for the Lord and almost everything he says is a biblical reference. A bizarre mix of David Beckham and the Rock, I'm only surprised he got such a small part, given that he's played by Vukota Brajović, who co-wrote and produced the film alongside the directors, Milan Konjević and Milan Todorović. This very obvious role really has no place in the film and could only have been written in as an excuse to give him outrageous things to do. While Zone of the Dead stumbles frequently under the weight of heavy accents and familiar storylines, there's a decent zombie flick underneath it all that occasionally makes it out. With appropriate restraint and less Brajović, the sequel may well be interesting.

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