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Sunday of the dead

What was being referred to as “Z-day” felt like the fulcrum of this year’s Toronto After Dark Film Festival. It was Sunday, and there was just too much going on to be able to take part in everything. There was a fantasy shorts programme being screened in the early afternoon. There was a late afternoon screening of Audience of One. Overlapping both was the Toronto Zombie Walk. The walk concluded at the Bloor Cinema, where there would soon follow a screening of the zombie double-feature Automaton Transfusion and Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead.

I didn’t go see the latter film. Had The New Pornographers concert to go to that evening. I did take a pitcha of the director, though. Lloyd Kaufman is a Troma diety…

Lloyd Kaufman

I also skipped the fantasy shorts programme earlier in the afternoon. I’d’ve liked to’ve seen the Zombie Walk but it turned out that it conflicted with the Audience of One screening. (Next year, mebbe the organizers of the film fest and the zombie walk can make schedule allowances for each other.) But when I came out of the Bloor after that one, I found myself surrounded by the walking dead. Some in the passholders line…

And here’s my pal Rob, studiously avoiding making eye contact with the zombie who’d sidled up next to him in the ticket-buyers’ line…

The film we were waiting to see was the Canadian premiere of Steven C. Miller’s Automaton Transfusion.

To be honest, I’d seen the trailer for it and didn’t have high hopes for anything particularly interesting. I mean, the genre has been wrung pretty dry over the years. But I was pleasantly surprised.  

The thing was shot in 9 days on a shoestring budget of $30,000, but you wouldn’t know it by watching it. Granted, the script is a bit heavy-handed in places and some of the performances are kinda ripe but the effects are great and, all in all, this film is a nice little rush.

Like George Romero’s latest entry in the genre, Miller’s looks at the initial onslaught of the reanimated dead through the eyes of a bunch of young people. They were college-age in Romero’s, but they are high-schoolers in Miller’s. In the calm before the storm, there is a low vibe of suburban unease in shots of deserted commuter routes and lawnmowers left running unattended in front yards. Something’s not quite right

When I got my first glimpse of the zombie hordes, 28 Days Later lept to mind. Miller’s zombies are fast like Danny Boyle’s infected. There’s no slow Romeroesque lurching about here. But it wasn’t just the fleet-footedness of the undead that reminded me of Boyle’s film. Although the movie was shot on digital video, they used some technique that mimics undercranking in film so, like in Boyle’s, frames seem to be dropped and the action scenes move at a clip a step or two faster than reality. Frankly, I’m glad that Rob and I were sitting at the back of the theatre; it would’ve been a little headache-inducing any closer, methinks. Consider y’self forewarned.

While some reviews I’ve found in my trolling have mentioned the undercranking (for lack of a more accurate word for it–sorry, me no know what it’s called in video) as a fault, I think it was a practical choice and ended up as a virtue. When you’re dealing with such a small budget you don’t have a lotta wiggle-room, and when the camerawork and cutting is fast and furious you don’t get a chance to notice that mebbe there are just 20 zombies in the pack rather than, say, 60, so I think that the technique actually covers some holes. It also means that you don’t always get a close look at the zombie makeup effects. And they are makeup effects–not CGI. That is impressive in itself, as far as I’m concerned, because that’s how the originals did it and that’s the way I like it. CGI’d zombie hordes is cheating, sez me. Look–I know it’s a movie, but I’ll still squirm when somebody onscreen is being chased by a real something onscreen rather than some damned thing CGI’d in later. In this case, the makeup effects we do get to see up close and personal are pretty remarkable–especially considering the budget. There are some really nice effects (and by “nice”, of course, I mean “grotesque”), as a matter of fact, including the highlight for me: a cheerleader’s jaw is ripped right the hell offa her face. I’ll tellya, my own jaw was in my lap at that point!

[SPOILERS AHEAD]
When the film was introduced by festival director Adam Lopez, he warned us that the ending would seem abrupt, and explained that Miller had envisioned this film as the first in a trilogy. So that’s the way he constructed this first chapter. It isn’t until the end of this chapter that we get the explanation behind the rise of the dead(ish). And, yeah, it’s the military who’s behind it. Back in the early 70s, the ‘merican government was getting a little peeved with all the protest about sending kids off to Vietnam, so somebody came up with the idea of reanimating the dead and sending them instead. Okaaaaay. The project ended up getting shelved. Of course, the ‘merican government finds itself in a similar situation today and so, natually, some genius decides to reopen the project. They loose the subjects and discover, to their chagrin, that they can’t control ’em. Which mighta been why the project was shelved in the first place, professor! We get all this plot backfilling at the end of the film, and then we see “To be continued…” onscreen (to audible groans). This method of storytelling is a bit awkward and means that this film doesn’t stand as firmly on its own feet like other films that turned out to be the first in trilogies do (I am thinking of Raiders of the Lost Ark or Star Wars: A New Hope, here–they function just fine without sequels). But Miller’s film has been picked up for distribution in January of ’08 by the Weinstein Company and so that may bode well for the possibility of the second and third film being made.
[/SPOILERS BEHIND]

I have one question for you, though: of all the vehicles to choose from, would you choose an open-sided open-roof Jeep to try to make it through zombie-infested woods and neighbourhoods? I think I’d rather be tucked inside something with locked doors, closed windows and a roof, away from the grabbing and gnawing. But mebbe that’s just me.

→ originally published 2007-10-27

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