R0BTRAIN’s Badass Cinema: French Zombies Don’t Eat Just Snails

Hello folks and welcome to October! 2010 just keeps flying by, with this year’s summer movies a distant memory and the Christmas season getting closer and closer. I honestly can’t keep up with the tide of movies and it’s unfortunately reflected in my output with this column, but I’m trucking along and hope to finish 2010 strong, especially with the slate of movies still yet to come out this year. As for October itself, I’m still getting into the swing of things, but the horror movie mood is creeping up on me.

Before anything else, I wanted to talk about a big happening this week that’s really significant to me. Anyone who has stuck with me and this column over an extended period of time knows just how important Superman and his mythos are to me. I’ve grown up watching the movies about him, I’ve seen just about every TV episode depicting him, and have a significant amount of Superman comics that I revisit very often. As a fanatic of the original Donner series of Superman films, I loved what Bryan Singer was trying to do with Superman Returns and believe he succeeded on a lot of levels, but I can also see where he didn’t connect with audiences as much as he should have, hence Warner Bros’ desire to start fresh with the character and bring in Batman franchise mastermind Christopher Nolan to guide a new vision of the Man of Steel to screen.

Even though I would have loved to see what Bryan Singer could have done with another crack at Big Blue, I’m excited about the prospect of what Nolan and new director Zack Snyder have in store for us with a new Superman picture that apparently just hit the fast track. I do have some trepidations about Snyder and this project because I’m not sure he’ll be able to bring the emotional depth needed to really bring this character to life, but I will concede that as a visual director he’s as good as anyone working right now. Snyder and Nolan are the two biggest genre directors housed at Warner Bros. so you can see why they’ve just been teamed up on the biggest film in the studio’s foreseeable future. The duo are amazing at blowing my mind, but I’d like to be moved as well, or at least filled with affection for this new film the way J.J. Abrams was able to do with Star Trek or Jon Favreau did with Iron Man. If there’s a lot of heart mixed in with the Truth, Justice, and American Way, we should be in for something really, really special.

Next piece of business!

Badass of the Month – September 2010

Machete, Played Danny Trejo – Machete

While the competition in August was probably the roughest it’s been all year for the BOTM title, September seemed a little more clear-cut. While the cast of Machete and the boys from Boston in Ben Affleck’s The Town provided the most competition, outside of that the only other contenders were a bunch of heavily armed owls from Zack Snyder’s Legend of the Guardians. Really though, this came down to Danny Trejo’s Machete just overwhelming everyone else; clearly owning the highest body count, the coolest kills and just plain being unstoppable throughout his fake trailer-turned movie. With some of the biggest laughs and best one-liners of the year (“Machete don’t text.”), Machete is an A-List badass that we’ll hopefully see again real soon.

And speaking of Machete, I know I was scheduled to finish out my Machete-fest, but the way things turned out I’m just going to have to save it for another time. I’ll be covering some personal favorites, including The Mariachi Trilogy, but for right now, I’m just starting to get my groove on when it comes to my annual Horror marathon, and before I know it October will be over so there’s no time to waste. Besides, I love Robert Rodriguez’s Spaghetti Western/Hong Kong cinema mashups and want to be able to really give them the time they deserve.

October just allows me to switch gears and really indulge in my love for Horror. Though I know some people that would prefer the genre be worshiped this way every month (or every day for that matter), I think the Halloween season gives us a little something extra to look forward to because of this focus on the most macabre of genres. This month I’m hoping to run down some titles that are completely new or have eluded me for one reason or another. I’m stoked about bringing some masked killers, brain eaters and some genuinely disturbed individuals to you guys this year. So let’s get on with it!

La Horde, Starring Jean-Pierre Martins, Eriq Ebouaney and Claude Perron. Directed by Benjamin Rocher and Yannick Dahan.

Sometimes, it’s the simplest of premises that really makes a film work and manages to show you its subject in a new light. Like a lot of people, I wonder just how long the zombie craze is going to be able to keep up the pace. Sure, we’re still getting a good movie or two a year, video games don’t seem to be letting up on the undead, and this year will see the premiere of AMC’s The Walking Dead, which looks absolutely amazing so far, but even with all this success, I can see the fatigue starting to set in.

That sort of newness and vibrancy that was present when 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead hit screens a few years ago isn’t quite on the same level it was, and you can tell there’s a bit of wear and tear amongst fans that’s starting to creep in. DTV zombie movies are everywhere, and there’s hardly a word for just how awful most of them are. Even the king of zombie flicks, George Romero, has reduced himself to a parody of the film maker that was giving us brilliant tales of the brain-dead monsters as recently as 2005’s Land of the Dead, but since then has struggled to give us movies that are even barely watchable.

Thankfully, there are still film makers out there that are struggling to push the genre forward, even if it’s in smaller and subtler ways than attempts in years’ past. One such team of directors comes in the form of French duo Benjamin Rocher and Yannick Dahan, who don’t change much when it comes to the classic zombie formula in their debut feature film, La Horde, but manage to breathe a little bit of new life into the genre by tweaking it just a little. The results are fun and ferocious, hopefully propelling these two to making something even better their next time out.

What makes this film primarily feel so different are its characters. So often Horror and specifically zombie films try their damnedest to fill their cast with as many everymen as possible, as it’s easier to connect with people if we can somehow identify with them. Working stiffs or single moms that simply want to save their families or just get back to the normal world they inhabit when the dead finally start rising from the grave make for an easy venue to get into a movie’s story. Rocher and Dahan instead fill their film with people that would more likely be found in an early Tarantino film.

La Horde starts not with mad scientists or a government experiment gone wrong, but with a plain, old-fashioned murder. A cop has been shot down in the line of duty, and knowing who is responsible, a  foursome of his comrades decide to storm the abandoned building where the murder took place, hoping to take revenge on the drug dealers who killed one of their own. Seemingly not new to working outside the law, the cops seems to make no bones  about their eye for an eye agenda.

What is so striking early on is just how visceral this film is before all hell breaks loose. Like The Descent, another movie that already has your pulse pounding before it even becomes a Horror film, La Horde’s setup works really well as crime film all on its own. Its gritty setting and edgy characters all seem legit, and the directors seem adept at really investing us in the situation and providing us with a really interesting group dynamic. When the apocalypse does hit for some unnamed reason, the cops and crooks who have survived their own massacre decide it’s better to work together than to die at the hands of the recently undead, but we’ve been given such a good premise already that it makes sense when tensions within the group start to break it down.

What makes the movie further compelling is that a lot of the survivors are just flat out great characters. I especially love the work of Jean-Pierre Martins and Eriq Ebouaney as Ouessem and Markudi, the defacto leaders of the cops and crooks who decide to make this very fragile pact. You actually get the feeling that Ouessem is a cop on the straight and narrow who got roped into this suicide mission because of his closeness to the officer downed at the beginning of the film. He’s the closest thing to an actual hero in the movie and makes for a terrific protagonist, doing what he can to keep the rest of his people alive while honoring the deal he’s made with Markudi.

Eriq Ebouaney should get some well deserved attention as the gangster leader, Markudi, a Nigerian who fought his way out of his country to become an underworld figurehead. Ebouaney made an impression in a very small role as part of Liam Neeson’s badass team of crusaders in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, but hopefully this will get him some bigger parts on this side of the ocean. He’s got charisma to burn, and brings a terrific amount of intensity to this anti-heroic zombie fighter. He doesn’t have to show mercy to the cops that came there to kill him, but decides to in order to survive, and the movie makes his transformation from monster to monster hunter a good one.

Of course, while the crime elements add some nice wrinkles to this picture, none of it matters if the movie doesn’t work as a zombie flick. As the movie switches gears, Rocher and Dahan come prepared with one killer sequence after another.  The tables turn on everyone, as the fortress that the gangsters have set up for themselves at the top of a condemned skyscraper becomes a death trap, with the gangsters’ victims and a fresh swarm fill the building from top to bottom as the survivors try to escape. This gives us some terrific video game-like scenarios, with tons of zombies filling cramped hallways and dark rooms becoming instant danger zones. The condemned building is a frightening place before it’s filled with flesh-eaters, and afterward becomes a terrific shorthand for suspense sequences.

What I also love is that the movie is still sort of rooted in the crime genre. A scene in which mob enforcer Greco (Jo Prestia) is stuck in a hallway unarmed with two zombies trying to kill him would spell instant death in a normal zombie film, but imagine someone like Harvey Keitel’s Mr. White from Reservoir Dogs or Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito from Goodfellas in a movie like this. We’re talking about a guy that’s dangerous even when armed with just a pen and colorful language. Greco takes the zombies down with animal instincts and a plethora of headbutts in one of the best fight scenes I’ve witnessed all year, and this is just one of many spectacular action set pieces the movie has to offer.

The only thing that keeps this film from being a total homerun is its ending, which I think ends up working against a lot of the themes it’s built up to that point. Not to spoil too much, but there’s a weak character in this mix that manages to just rub me the wrong way and the final arc for the character is so holy unsatisfying that it almost undoes the movie in its final moments. Thankfully, the movie’s Die Hard-meets-The French Connection-meets-Dawn of the Dead premise is strong enough that its still easy to recommend, especially for genre fans. If you need a good warm-up before The Walking Dead hits basic cable, then this may be the release you need.

 

See you guys soon!

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