Sunday, 31 May 2009

Zombies: The Beginning (2007)

You're kind of stretching the definition of zombie here

No "Best Sequel" list is complete without Aliens. It's a classic film that stays true to the central character while spinning things off in a wildly different direction, changing the tone, the focus and even the genre. I've heard many sequel directors reference Aliens when talking about how their film ups the stakes and changes the rules of the game, but rarely do they live up to their promise. It's been slavishly imitated over and over, and it's fair to say that Aliens clones have become a genre unto themselves.

It's surprising then, that Zombies: The Beginning stands out even amongst Aliens clones for slavish imitation and unoriginality. Of course, those of you astute enough to notice the Bruno Mattei tag on this post won't be surprised. Yes, as late as 2007 Bruno Mattei was making films like it was 1983. He would probably still be making them today if a brain tumour hadn't cruelly taken us from him shortly after making this film.

You see, after the Golden Age of Mattei in the 1980s, he retreated to the safety zone of softcore erotic thrillers and the occassional Jaws rip-off. However, the 00's saw a return to form for Mattei and (under his pseudonym Vincent Dawn) he produced some cannibal and zombie films and even a few women-in-prison movies. Audience tastes may have moved on since 1978, but Mattei hasn't. His 2003 cannibal film Land of Death is basically "Predator with cannibals" (and not his first Predator rip-off either), so it's a shame that he shuffled off his mortal coil before he was able to bring us a zombie/cannibal crossover film riffing off of Alien vs Predator. It couldn't be any worse than the real Alien vs Predator films, right?

Zombies: The Beginning was Bruno Mattei's last film. Like all of his recent genre films, it was shot back-to-back with a similar film (the previous year's Island of the Living Dead) and this film is a direct sequel. It has the same central character Sharon (played by Yvette Yzon, who proved to be something of a muse to Mattei, starring in most of his mid to late 00's films) and, well, you've seen Aliens so I don't really need to explain what happens. All of your favourite scenes are replicated here with drastically reduced resources and talent.

That's not to say that Mattei doesn't put his own stamp on the proceedings. For instance, in the boardroom scene where Ripley is chewed out by corporate executives she says "All of this bullshit you think is so important, you can kiss all that goodbye!" Mattei turns things up a notch by changing the last part to "'ll only be able to use to wipe your ass!" Definite improvement! Instead of becoming a dock worker Sharon becomes a Buddhist monk, but like Ripley her nightmares drive her to accept a consultant position on a rescue mission to the island.

Actually, this whole beginning sequence is a pretty good illustration of the calibre of rip-off we are talking about here. James Cameron knew that showing one of Ripley's nightmares was sufficient. After that you could show her waking up in a cold sweat and leave the audience to fill in the blanks. Mattei has that original nightmare sequence (Sharon turns into a zombie with a truly horrifying monobrow) but uses subsequent dream sequences (at least three) to pad the running time with scenes of Sharon screaming as zombies moan and drool into the camera.

So anyway, it turns out that the corporation is using pregnant women to incubate baby zombies. Who knows why. There's an obligatory scene of a rubbery zombie fetus bursting it's way out of a woman's stomach, plus they also get attacked by a baby zombie, played by a heavily made-up midget with a hilarious eyeball poking out the top of his head. These zombie babies grow up into weird coneheaded mutants that look kind of like Greedo from Star Wars. Like Han Solo, Sharon definitely shoots first. Instead of the alien queen there is a brain in a jar, easily dispatched with a burst from Sharon's flamethrower, so the equivalent scene for Ripley's final face off with the queen aboard the Sulaco is missing entirely. This makes for an extremely anti-climactic ending and makes Bruno Mattei's subsequent posthumous shout-out seem kind of sad and pathetic.

Where Aliens differs from a lot of the imitators is that it gave a strong (if one-dimensional) personality to each of the secondary characters. So much so that to this day characters in films are often referred to as a Vasquez-type or a Hudson-type. Of course Mattei has a few analogs to those characters here (which are terrible), but most of them are completely interchangable. It doesn't help that they are all wearing SWAT-type face masks, leaving only the lousy dubbing to tell them apart.

There's also a lot of gore, all realised with practical effects with no digital touch-ups and aside from the fact that it's obviously shot on crappy digital there's barely anything to indicate this film was made just a couple of years ago. In another throwback to the 70s, all of the dialogue is dubbed (badly) in post-production. There's also a little bit of stock footage. A sequence aboard a submarine is taken from Crimson Tide and apparently Viggo Mortenson is visible in the background, although I didn't see him.

On one hand this film is kind of interesting, like those kids who did a scene-for-scene remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark or Gus Van Sant's Psycho vanity project. Though it was a labour of love for them, I don't think Mattei had such lofty motivations. It certainly doesn't help your enjoyment when you're sitting there thinking "I could be watching Aliens instead of this stupid bullshit." Bruno's earlier films might have been shamelessly derivative, but ocassionally someone would strip off their clothes for no reason or pipe up with a nonsensical and profanity-laden piece of dialogue and all was forgiven. His films were at their best when they plumbed the depths of ridiculousness, like Reb Brown's speech to a dying boy in Strike Commando. So I wish this film had some of the same ridiculous touches but at least he died doing what he loved... ripping off other films. So long Bruno, I hope you're climbing popcorn trees in heaven.

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