Saturday 23 April 2016

Zombie Killers: Elephant's Graveyard (2014)

Director: B Harrison Smith
Writers: B Harrison Smith and David Agnew Penn
Stars: Billy Zane, Dee Wallace, Mischa Barton, Felissa Rose and Gabrielle Stone
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
Dee Wallace’s first pick for my Make It a Double project, Love's Deadly Triangle: The Texas Cadet Murder, surely came to mind because, even though she only had a supporting role, she was able to really get her teeth into it and demonstrate her acting chops. She clearly remembered her performance with a sense of pride. I can see why she found it tough to pick a second one, though. After an early career that included a pair of major horror films, The Hills Have Eyes and The Howling, she found herself remorselessly typecast in variations of the role she played in ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. She’d become America’s favourite mother and she was stuck there, even in genre films like Cujo or Critters. While there are exceptions, such as The Frighteners, it’s a difficult task to find a movie in which she was given free rein to demonstrate how good an actor she actually is. In the end, she chose a horror film that she’d only just completed, which she co-produced and in which she played a different role. Acting alongside her daughter was clearly a bonus.

I couldn’t watch it for a while because it hadn’t been released yet, but it did look like an interesting pick, as it was directed and co-written by Harrison Smith, who started out writing interesting indie movies that I’d previously reviewed here at Apocalypse Later: The Fields, starring the intriguing combination of Cloris Leachman and Tara Reid, and 6 Degrees of Hell, in which Corey Feldman attempts to convince us he’s a tough guy, even with an emo fringe and an electronic cigarette. He started to direct his own scripts with Camp Dread, placing Eric Roberts, Danielle Harris and the slasher genre into a reality show format. None of these films were what they could have been, but the two I’ve seen showed promise and imagination. I found that this one fits alongside those well, not because it’s similar in content or style but because it’s another interesting film that wants to be a great one, if only it can figure out how. Sadly it can’t, but it’s a step closer than those earlier pictures and there’s great possibility in Smith’s future.
It’s hindered somewhat by its awkward title and odd IMDb synopsis. This isn’t a sequel, yet another entry in the nonexistent Zombie Killers series that’s got so long that it’s ditched the numbers. It’s a standalone movie in which zombies aren’t important. They’re the MacGuffin of this film, the only thing everyone we meet cares about but something we don’t see until after the ten minute mark and don’t see often as the picture runs on. This is less about fighting zombies and more about the internal dynamics of the town of Elwood and how they change in the face of this threat. There is meaning to the other half of the title, but it’s likely to confuse anyone who isn’t aware what it refers to; there are neither elephants nor graveyards here. The synopsis says, ‘A young militia is all that stands between a coming dead horde and their rural town decimated by the fracking industry.’ This suggests some sort of social comment on the latter, but it refuses to go there beyond mild speculation that a local operation had contaminated the water.

What we have is Elwood and its people and that young militia is only one component part of it. We leave town only once, otherwise only venturing out a little on occasion beyond the tall fence the townsfolk have constructed to keep the zombies out. Inside we’re given the impression of many people, though we really only see three factions. One are the Zombie Killers of the title, a ragtag band of ‘orphans and misfits’ who have been drafted and taught by Seiler, a military sergeant played by Billy Zane. They are the ones who venture outside of town to track down supplies, for which everyone else puts in orders, from chapstick to ammunition. Another is the ‘cult compound’ of Lia, a psycho nutjob religious chick in the capable form of Felissa Rose. Even in a closed off rural town, she still goes door to door trying to convert those she thinks are in need of the Lord. The third is led by Doc, played by Brian Anthony Wilson, whose narration begins the film. He’s the nominal leader of town, apparently a good man merely in charge of sadistic thugs.
Each of these actors does a great job. While some of the cast are clearly green and have less substantial moments, these three are excellent. Zane, everyone’s favourite wild and wacky villain, plays against type here as Seiler. He’s calm, he’s collected and he cares about his people and his town. He comes across like a younger Stacy Keach and he gets an emphatic final scene. Rose, who retired from film after Sleepaway Camp to go back to school, thankfully returned after eight years as a character actress who elevates bad movies with her presence. She sells Lia absolutely, especially in a couple of bitter scenes opposite Brian Gallagher, who plays Rory, one of the townsfolk. Wilson is a rumbling powerhouse as Doc, a philosophical man who sees the town as a patient, a viewpoint that shapes his actions in many ways. We’re constantly kept guessing as to what he’s really up to, especially with regards to the baby that Rory’s young wife Toni is carrying, but also to Team Dynasty, his group of sadistic and potentially psychopathic enforcers.

By comparison, Dee Wallace gets a very odd role. She’s Sharon, the mother of one of Sgt Seiler’s Zombie Killers, Ian Sommers, but she’s bedridden for the entire movie as a character dying of cancer. Beyond Ian, her screen son, she only gets to interact with one other character, Nikki Slater, Ian’s screen girlfriend and her real life daughter, Gabrielle Stone. Nikki is Doc’s nurse, so we wonder if we’re going to see crossovers between these factions but that doesn’t ever evolve. Sharon is there to tie Ian to Elwood and to gift Dee Wallace with an opportunity to really act with her daughter. The two have shared credits before, in three features, Fuzz Track City, Beyond and The Jazz Funeral, plus a few shorts, but I wonder if any of them had opportunities like this one. Sharon, who knows that she’s dying and that cancer may take her before the zombies take the town, talks to Nikki as the girl her son loves, the young lady she remembers in herself and the personification to her of the town she lives in. It’s a very touching and meaningful scene.
It’s also one that’s underlined by the obvious connection between mother and daughter, something that doesn’t extend to any of the other scenes that stand out. Smith wrote the script with David Agnew Penn and the two of them conjured up something notably different not just from other zombie movies but from other movies, period. One features Ashley Sumner, a hot blonde chick not playing a hot blonde chick, just another of Seiler’s Zombie Killers who takes his lesson to grip the fear seriously. She ventures outside the fence, where she sprays a mixture of perfume and blood, part deer and part her own, fires a single shot and waits for the zombies to come and face her. She’s acutely put out when they show up, only to move away, apparently called by something. Another has Rory, protected by Seiler and a couple of his men, go to the nearby fracking site to investigate. They’re utterly alone but wary and conjure up a mass of movie quotes to not use if that changes. In the end, Zane gets a real peach out just at the right moment.

One that both beguiles and disappoints is the zombie deer stampede, which I have to say I’ve never seen before, but its originality is let down by the poor CGI and the repetition as they run past. The greenscreen work and the CGI is not great here, but then it’s not really a greenscreen/CGI kind of movie so I can give it a pass on that. I’m less forgiving about how many questions end up unanswered. I don’t mean the source of the zombies, which is theorised on half-heartedly but never figured out conclusively, because it isn’t of special interest and wouldn’t have been of any at all had the script not decided to conjure up intriguingly imaginative ideas and then mostly forget about them. I’m talking about the internal stuff. I get that Doc is treating the town like he would a terminal patient, but that doesn’t explain everything he does and there are questions left hanging at the end. I like how he plays God for real, making Elwood occasionally feel a little like Jonestown, with Lia the religious nut just a red herring on that front.
But why does nobody question some of his actions? We certainly do, out here in the cheap seats. Sure, he can claim all he likes with his blood tests and pronouncements as to who’s infected and who isn’t, but I’m not sold on all the townsfolk trusting him quite as far as they do. There’s too much that’s suspicious for it to go uncommented on. ‘Am I infected?’ asks Toni at one point. ‘Not yet,’ he replies. The questions extend to the other townsfolk too, starting with where most of them are. Rory and Toni are set up as a mystery, a young wife and an older husband, accused of killing his first wife. Why set up the mystery but not explain it? I saw a couple of competing theories but neither was confirmed. As to that first wife, there’s a glorious scene where Seiler asks him outright if he killed her. He looks long and hard back and says yes, but the editor cuts away and the subject is forgotten outright from that moment on. Well, we want some answers, not just to this but also to a host of other questions that keep coming up but never get squared away.

If I appreciated most the originality of this screenplay and the neat avoidance of most clich├ęs associated with the horror and zombie genres, those unanswered questions were the most annoying counter. I liked the camerawork, which never does anything particularly flash but keeps the frame alive throughout, like a drummer who just sits there, keeping the beat but never trying to play lead. The worst acting is decent, though a few of the newer actors occasionally could have done with extra takes. The best is superb, with Zane, Wilson and Rose all spot on throughout, even when playing notably against type in a welcome and appreciated way. The other name actor, Mischa Barton, also gets an interesting role, though it’s not given all the opportunities that it could have been. And Wallace is superb in a role unlike any that I’ve seen her in, able to act and emote as if her typecasting restraints had been unshackled. Her daughter isn’t yet up to her standard but she has promise. And surely their scene together is why she picked this movie.

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