Movie Project #36: Dawn of the Dead [1978]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Dawn of the Dead [1978]

Dawn of the Dead [1978]
Director: George A. Romero
Writers: George A. Romero
Country: USA
Genre: Horror
Starring: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, Gaylen Ross
Running Time: 127 minutes

(The end of this review contains possible spoilers.)

One of my concerns going into Dawn of the Dead, the spiritual sequel to 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, was that I wouldn’t get the full effect of the film. Put simply, I am burnt out on zombie flicks. However, I shouldn’t have worried — this is a horror classic for good reason.

Dawn of the Dead takes place in Pennsylvania, right in the middle of a massive nationwide zombie outbreak. There is chaos everywhere, especially in Philadelphia, where four people somehow manage to escape via a stolen news helicopter. Roger (Scott Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree) are two SWAT team members who fly out with traffic pilot, Stephen (David Emge), and his girlfriend, Frances (Gaylen Ross). Their destination? Anywhere but there.

Dawn of the Dead [1978]

Eventually, the four of them end up in a shopping mall just outside of Harrisburg. They plan the stop initially to gather supplies, but instead they decide to make it their sanctuary. And why not? The mall is huge and loaded with food, guns and other resources. There doesn’t appear to be any other signs of life in the general vicinity — it’s just a matter of avoiding those pesky zombies also found within.

What makes Dawn of the Dead stand out from other like-minded films is its scathing social commentary. The aimless wandering by the zombies in the mall is not far off from the mindless consumers who do the same in reality. One of the characters even remarks that the zombies have returned to the mall simply because this is what they remember enjoying in their normal lives. It’s a sad — and unfortunately still relevant — look at our society.

Dawn of the Dead [1978]

Naturally, there are plenty of confrontations with the undead as well. Some of the face-offs offer up some impressive gore special effects (designed by Tom Savini, who also has a small role in the film), though the blood looks a bit tacky today. Decapitations, disembowelments and the like are all performed with occasionally startling execution.

The characters are generally a likable bunch, with Peter being the standout. Played charismatically by Ken Foree, Peter essentially becomes the leader of the group, and he’s the one with the best head on his shoulders. On the flip side, Roger is incredibly reckless, and his behavior causes problems more than once.

As it goes in life, all good things must come to an end, and eventually the group’s time in the mall runs out once a psychotic biker gang shows up. It is here that we learn perhaps Dawn of the Dead‘s most important message:

Humans are their own worst enemy.

8/10

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Movie Review: World War Z [2013]

World War Z [2013]

World War Z [2013]
Director: Marc Forster
Writers: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof (screenplay), Matthew Michael Carnahan & J. Michael Straczynski (screen story), Max Brooks (novel)
Genre: Action/Drama/Horror
Starring: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale
Running Time: 116 minutes

World War Z seemed to be doomed from the start. With production delays, a burgeoning budget and multiple script rewrites, Marc Forster’s film struggled to get off the ground. In fact, it took a good 5+ years of development before the final product came together. Surprisingly, even with these miscues, the film isn’t half bad, though it does fall into some familiar traps.

Brad Pitt stars as Gerry Lane, a former UN employee who, after the zombie outbreak hits, is called upon by The Powers That Be to help investigate the source of the virus. Forced to leave his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and two daughters behind, Gerry embarks on the desperate journey that takes him all over the world in order to (hopefully) save mankind.

World War Z [2013]

World War Z crams a lot into its two hour running time, as Gerry and company travel to South Korea, Israel and Wales. With so much globe-trotting, the film never really finds its footing, instead opting to use these jaunts as action set pieces with increasingly unrealistic outcomes. Some characters are seemingly invincible, surviving disasters that would swiftly kill “real” people. Many in the film also act like complete tools (i.e. forgetting to shut off a cell phone while sneaking past a group of zombies), and they are often getting into cheap predicaments meant to rivet the suspense.

Outside of Brad Pitt’s Gerry, none of the characters receive any real development, and they are merely there to fill the screen. Pitt deserves a lot of credit, however, as he is more than capable of shouldering the load. His portrayal of the near-perfect hero works well, and he helps keep the film entertaining even during its slower moments.

World War Z [2013]

World War Z is rated PG-13, and this raises some issues. I don’t have a problem with a film getting this rating, but WWZ so desperately wants to show the usual zombie gore and violence that it seems frustrated in not being able to do so. Zombies are shot in the head, impaled and otherwise brutally massacred, but all of this happens off screen. We know it happens, but the frequent cuts away from the action are distracting.

Now, that’s not to say World War Z is a bad film. In fact, it is quite entertaining, and it moves along at a very crisp pace. It’s just that it is also a remarkably generic zombie movie, one that has been done better in the past. In short, it’s pretty much what I expected from a summer blockbuster of this nature, for better or for worse.

6/10

Video Game DLC Review: The Walking Dead: 400 Days [Xbox 360]

The Walking Dead: 400 Days

The Walking Dead: 400 Days
System: Xbox 360 [also on PS3, PC, i0S and Vita (soon)]
Genre: Point-and-click adventure
Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Release Date: July-August, 2013

Meant to bridge the gap between seasons one and two of Telltale’s The Walking Dead (my pick for 2012 game of the year), 400 Days is a much-welcomed expansion that plays out like a short story anthology. Rather than focus on a couple of characters like Lee and Clementine from season one, here we are introduced to five completely different people who are all brought together in the end.

The game gives you the option of playing through their stories (all of which take place at varying points of the zombie outbreak) as you see fit, and each segment lasts about 15-20 minutes. This gives just enough time to start caring for these characters while also craving more time with them.

Each story offers up a unique situation. One involves a prison bus being attacked by zombies en route; another revolves around a car accident. The characters are a diverse group, and all of them are well-written even though their appearances are brief.

The Walking Dead: 400 Days [Xbox 360, 2013]

There is a lot crammed into these little segments, and as expected, there are a number of difficult choices to make. Once again, your stats will appear at the end of the episode, allowing you to compare your decisions with the rest of the gaming public. In fact, in terms of gameplay, there are little differences between the mechanics of this and the first season. Telltale added a couple of missable achievements, but other than that, the gameplay is pretty much the same. That’s not a bad thing.

If there are faults to 400 Days, they are stemmed in it being almost *too* short. The episode can be finished in under two hours, even when exploring every dialogue option. The epilogue feels a bit rushed as well, though it will be interesting to see how/if it ties into season two. Still, I’m happy to get any bits of The Walking Dead experience that I can, and 400 Days is a satisfying appetizer until season two arrives in the fall.

8/10

Poll Results: Best Zombie Film of All-Time

…and the winner is:

Shaun of the Dead

THE RESULTS:
– Shaun of the Dead: 11 votes
– Dawn of the Dead [1978]: 9 votes
– Night of the Living Dead: 9 votes
– Zombieland: 7 votes
– 28 Days Later: 4 votes
– Braindead (Dead Alive): 3 votes
– Return of the Living Dead: 2 votes

This was a close race all the way, but Edgar Wright’s hilarious 2004 comedy gets the hard-fought victory. Two bona fide George Romero classics finished second and third, and the relatively recent Zombieland put in a good showing as well. Might have to fire up Shaun of the Dead this week.. it has been too long!

This Week’s Poll: Monster’s University was tops at the box office once again this weekend. While I have yet to see the film, I do have a weakness for college movies in general. This week’s question is, what is your favorite college movie? Do you still think nothing can top Animal House? Are you a Will Ferrell junkie that swears by Old School? Or is there something else that you enjoy more?

Poll Results: Favorite Cast Member from This Is the End

Everyone’s favorite Moneyball supporting actor continues his winning ways:

Jonah Hill

THE RESULTS:
– Jonah Hill: 6 votes
– James Franco: 4 votes
– Danny McBride: 3 votes
– Jay Baruchel: 2 votes
– Craig Robinson: 2 votes
– Seth Rogen: 0 votes

Poor Seth Rogen. Getting shut out of his own movie. Is everyone that tired of him already?

This Week’s Poll: The weekend’s biggest surprise at the box office was easily World War Z finishing second overall while making a cool $66+ million. After a number of delays, production problems and tepid reviews, the film surpassed most expectations, and there is already talk of a sequel. In honor of the film’s success, let’s take a look back at zombies in film. What are the *two* best zombie movies of all time? Are you a fan of the Romero classics, or do you prefer modern horror-comedies like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland?

Video Game Review: The Last of Us [PS3]

The Last of Us [PS3]

The Last of Us
System: Playstation 3
Genre: Action-Adventure/Survival Horror
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Release Date: June 14, 2013

The Last of Us is the type of game that seemingly comes around only once per console cycle. Naughty Dog, creators of Crash Bandicoot, Jak & Daxter and Uncharted, have perfected their craft over the years, and this is their most mature effort yet.

It is also their magnum opus.

Set in a post-apocalyptic United States in 2033, the game revolves around two central characters: a grizzled Texan named Joel, and a 14-year-old girl named Ellie. A nasty disease (similar to the real-life cordyceps fungi) has spread across the country, turning humans into Infected. The two of them are brought together by forces outside of their control, and Joel is given the responsibility of protecting young Ellie as they attempt to survive amidst the chaos of the wasteland.

The game shares many tropes with those of post-apocalyptic films and books (Cormac McCarthy’s work in particular is a big influence), but everything is brought together in a way that makes the overall experience still feel fresh and engaging.

The Last of Us [PS3]

It starts with the Infected.

These aren’t your average “zombies”, however. They run through four stages of infection, with each one getting progressively worse. Some attack in bunches, while others stalk you in the dark, waiting for the right moment to attack.

It’s stage three where the Infected — called Clickers at this point — get *really* sickening. This is when the fungus completely take over the human face, rendering them blind while also extremely sensitive to sound. One hit from them is insta-death. Their grotesque appearance is only enhanced by their constant “clicking” sounds — this is the stuff of nightmares.

Stage four is even more horrifying. I won’t ruin the surprise there.

The Last of Us [PS3]

Coming across a large area filled with various stages of Infected is often downright scary. I found myself dying — a lot — and would frequently have to re-think my strategy for surviving that section. Should I take out one or two Clickers and then run like hell? Should I throw a couple of nail bombs on the ground and then try to lure a large group into the subsequent explosion? Or should I just avoid combat altogether and try to sneak past everyone?

The latter quickly became my preferred method of fighting. Combat is not easy, especially since ammo and other tools are scarce. This game is all about survival, and there will be many times that require improvisation in order to get to the next area. This becomes especially important once non-infected human enemies enter the picture — they are arguably even more dangerous since many carry shotguns and other lethal weapons. On multiple occasions (when I was unable to sneak past), I would run out of ammo only to frantically attempt to craft a nail bomb or other device to help even the odds. This really makes you maximize all potential resources.

The Last of Us [PS3]

I suspect that avoiding most combat will be the preferred method of some gamers simply because of the ghastly displays of violence that ensue. Finishing off an enemy can be absolutely brutal, and the violence is very matter-of-fact. There were countless times when my jaw would drop simply because I could not believe the game got that graphic.

Then again, it’s in this brutality that some of Naughty Dog’s attention to detail shines through. There are a number of little things that impressed me throughout the campaign, such as Ellie’s teenage ramblings or her random whistling, or the subtle Southern terminology from Joel.

Perhaps most impressive is just how immersive The Last of Us truly is. There is minimal loading, and the transitions between cutscenes and actual gameplay are seamless. There are also no obnoxious trophy pop-ups to remind you that you’re playing a game — most of them are related to finishing the campaign, and they pop up after the credits. This, in particular, was an excellent touch.

This is a game that relies heavily on its narrative, and its characters are incredibly well-written — an impressive achievement, considering how much dialogue there is in the game. The voice acting (with Troy Baker as Joel, and Ashley Johnson as Ellie) is fantastic, and when the game is at its peak, this feels like a high quality TV show or movie. At the very least, this is a frank reminder that video games sure have come a hell of a long way over the years.

The Last of Us [PS3]

The single player campaign — which lasts around 15 hours, give or take a couple depending on how much you explore — is one of the best in years, but as an added bonus there is also a surprisingly enticing multiplayer feature. Rather than feeling tacked-on like many, many other like-minded games, it seems a significant amount of effort was put into this.

The multiplayer mode has you pick from one of two factions — Hunters or Fireflies (both of whom are integral to the single player campaign) — and then forces you to stay in that group until you either finish the multiplayer story or have your clan entirely wiped out. Clans can be built up by winning matches (in variations of Team Deathmatch), collecting supplies and completing objectives.

Teamwork is imperative to success online. Attempting to “run and gun” your way to the top of the leaderboards is a recipe for disaster. Just like in the single player campaign, ammo and supplies are scarce. It is important to work together as a team, especially since everyone shares the same goal: to improve their faction.

But really, the multiplayer is just the icing on the cake. It’s a fun little diversion, but the single player campaign is where the game truly shines.

Simply put, The Last of Us is a major accomplishment in the world of gaming, and it has effectively set a benchmark for all games to come. When people look back at this console cycle, this is one of the select few games that will be labeled as the best of its generation.

10/10

Video Game Review: The Walking Dead [Xbox 360]

The Walking Dead: The Game

The Walking Dead
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3, PC, Mac OS X, iOS)
Genre: Point-and-click adventure
Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Release Date: Throughout 2012

The last time I cried was at my father’s funeral five years ago.

There have been times since then where I would get choked up, particularly after some painstakingly depressing films (i.e. Grave of the Fireflies), but nothing has made the tears really start flowing. I don’t like crying, and I have a tendency to fight it even when it feels like a natural reaction. After completing The Walking Dead, once again I found myself holding back tears, albeit less successfully this time. No video game has ever come close to evoking this type of emotion in me.

It’s funny, I shouldn’t even like The Walking Dead. I tried watching the AMC TV show of the same name, and found it embarrassingly amateur. I gave up after the first season. I’m also burnt out on the whole “zombie” fad, as it reached the point of over-saturation long ago. Yet I found myself drawn to Telltale’s episodic video game series. It grabbed a hold of me and refused to let go.

The Walking Dead [Xbox 360]

My initial plan was to review each of The Walking Dead‘s five episodes individually — I wrote about numbers one and two last year — but it began to grow tedious. How could I possibly write about each episode without using spoilers? There are groundbreaking revelations within each episode, with characters coming and going at a breakneck pace.

At its core, however, two characters remain constant: Lee and Clementine.

Lee is the player-controlled protagonist who essentially “adopts” Clementine, the eight-year-old he finds alone in a treehouse during the first episode. With her parents missing, Lee becomes something of a father figure to the young girl (later episodes even give the option of introducing her as his daughter). The relationship between these two grows with every moment, and I found myself doing everything I could to protect her.

Every episode forces Lee to make crucial decisions, most of which offer two choices that essentially equate to “bad” and “worse.” After my playing sessions, I found myself questioning some of my choices. Should I have saved a different character’s life? Should I have really stolen food from that car? I tried to do everything in the interest of Clementine — in a world that has gone to hell, the only important thing was to help this little girl survive.

The Walking Dead [Xbox 360]

In reality, that’s what The Walking Dead is about: survival. It’s near impossible to trust anyone else because that is ultimately their goal as well. Everyone is looking out for their own interests, as well as their families. Relationships are often forged but remain shaky as tensions flare up.

I was emotionally drained by the end of the game. This series really puts you through the ringer, never letting up at all. It’s fantastic storytelling, and it’s unlike any other found in a video game so far. The writing is excellent, the voice acting top notch, and the characters unforgettable.

I had never felt the way I did upon completing The Walking Dead. I wasn’t sure that video games as a medium could evoke that type of reaction out of me — hell, very few movies have, and I have seen a lot of ’em. For this alone, The Walking Dead is one of the most important games to come out in 2012, and I have absolutely no reservations about calling this the Game of the Year.

10/10

Horror Movie Roundup: The Toxic Avenger [1984], The Woman [2011], Fido [2006]

In an attempt to get into the Halloween spirit, I have been watching more horror films than usual. Here are mini-reviews for three of them:

The Toxic Avenger [1984]
The Toxic Avenger [1984]
My first Troma film left me entertained but also somewhat underwhelmed. A spoof of heroic monster stories, The Toxic Avenger is loaded with cheesy B-movie horror staples: terrible acting, low-brow humor, over-the-top gore and — perhaps most crucial — naked breasts with blinding tanlines. There’s good fun to be had, but the film kind of runs its course at the halfway mark. As a result, this doesn’t quite live up to its reputation, but it’s still worth seeing for camp horror enthusiasts. 6/10

The Woman [2011]
The Woman [2011]
Equal parts dark and disturbing, The Woman tells the tale of a feral woman who is captured and held captive by a rural lawyer, in hopes of domesticating her. The man, played to slimy perfection by Sean Bridgers, introduces the woman to his family, and keeps her chained to a wall in their shed. There’s more to it than that, though; something seems off with the entire family, and we are left guessing as to what the hell is going on with everyone involved. It takes a little while to get going, but the film’s payoff is an unforgettable bloody spectacle. This isn’t for everyone, thanks to some pretty brutal moments in the final act, but I was pleasantly surprised with The Woman. 7/10

Fido [2006]
Fido [2006]
Passing this off as ‘just another zombie movie’ would be a big mistake. Fido is a dark comedy that essentially spoofs on the classic Lassie TV show by using zombies as household pets. Set in an alternate 1950s universe, not long after the Great Zombie War, zombies have now been trained to perform simple household tasks — as long as their collar remains charged properly. The concept is rife with potential, and Fido sometimes realizes this with some truly hilarious moments. Unfortunately, somehow the film feels a little dull overall, never quite kicking into the next gear. Loved seeing Carrie-Anne Moss as the zombie-loving housewife, though. 6/10

While none of these films were flat-out great, I did enjoy all of them, and I am in the mood for more horror. I have a simple question for you guys:

What horror films would you recommend I check out this month? I’m open to all ideas, but I’m most interested in those that may have been overlooked over the years, and preferably ones available on Netflix Instant.

Video Game Review: The Walking Dead, Episode 2: Starved for Help [PS3]

The Walking Dead, Episode 1: A New Day [PS3]

The Walking Dead, Episode 2: Starved for Help
System: Playstation 3 (also on Xbox 360, PC, Mac and iOS)
Genre: Adventure/Horror
Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Price: $4.99 ($19.99 for PS3 season pass)
Release Date: June 29, 2012

I didn’t think it would happen so quickly, but I am becoming pretty damn attached to the characters in The Walking Dead episodic games. At just two hours in length per episode, the story continues to surprise with plenty of character development and gut-wrenching twists and turns. Whereas A New Day set the table for things to come, Starved for Help shows just how bleak the ongoing zombie outbreak really is.

Set three months after the first episode’s events, Lee, Clementine and the rest now find themselves running dangerously low on food and supplies. Just as they reach the end of their stash, a couple of guys show up at the motel looking to exchange food for gasoline. They claim to have a safe haven: they own a huge dairy farm that is protected by an electrified fence. They even have a cow to provide them with milk. Could this be the group’s big break?

I won’t get into plot specifics, but Telltale did an excellent job at dropping hints about what’s to come while also building the suspense. I wasn’t sure what to expect as the episode played out, but the payoff was fantastic.

The Walking Dead, Episode 2: Starved for Help [PS3]

As per the first episode, Lee is presented with six “Tough Decisions” that are crucial to the story development. The first one happens right away, and this gruesome encounter sets the tone for the rest of the game. By the end, I was ashamed of my final two choices, and I was tempted to go back through and try a different way. But alas, this is my Walking Dead experience, and I am going to see it through with my original decisions in tact.

It really says something when a game can make you feel such moments of despair and regret based on a single decision. This story continues to grow darker and darker, and I am excited to see where it goes from here. Per usual, the episode ends with a cliffhanger, as well as a preview of what’s next.

The Walking Dead, Episode 2: Starved for Help [PS3]

The point-and-click gameplay is the same as before, and it works well in the context of this episode. There are occasionally some slight hiccups when the framerate stutters a bit, but these do not hinder the experience.

Naturally, this is a must play if you have completed A New Day. This episode is even better than the last, and it has seriously raised my expectations for the rest of the series. Decisions seem even more critical now, and the story is moving along at a nice clip. If you haven’t experienced The Walking Dead yet, now is the time.

9/10

Video Game Review: The Walking Dead, Episode 1: A New Day [PS3]

The Walking Dead, Episode 1: A New Day [PS3]

The Walking Dead, Episode 1: A New Day
System: Playstation 3 (also on Xbox 360, PC, Mac and iOS)
Genre: Adventure/Horror
Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Price: $4.99 ($19.99 for PS3 season pass)
Release Date: April 24, 2012

Looking to capitalize on the success of the wildly popular Walking Dead TV show and comics, Telltale Games have started their own episodic take on the series. Known for their point-and-click adventures (Back to the Future, Jurassic Park), Telltale already have two seasons planned for The Walking Dead. The first is currently going on right now, with two episodes already released. The second season will likely arrive sometime next year. At just $5 per episode, it’s hard to resist digging in, even for non-fans of the show (like myself). Even better, the first two episodes are now available for free for Playstation Plus members.

A New Day begins with the protagonist, college professor Lee Everett, handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser. The driver, an old, grizzled police officer, makes small talk with Lee, and bits of his past are slowly revealed. Clearly, he was arrested for a serious crime, but it’s unclear as to exactly what it was. Before they can reach their destination, a figure suddenly appears in the middle of the road, causing the car to lose control and violently crash off to the side. After maneuvering out of the handcuffs and noticing more grotesque figures (later learned to be zombies) heading in his direction, Lee escapes and stumbles into an abandoned house.

The Walking Dead, Episode 1: A New Day [PS3]

It is here that Lee meets Clementine, a first grader who has been hiding in her tree house, patiently waiting for her parents to come home. The two of them decide to leave together in an attempt to find safety in this suddenly apocalyptic world.

For those unfamiliar with the adventure genre, The Walking Dead’s gameplay will be a bit of a surprise. This is a game that doesn’t rely on rapid action or non-stop zombie killing. Instead, the main focus is on story progression, character choices and occasional QTE (quick time event) sequences. Lee is controlled with the left analog stick, and the right analog stick is used to select objects. When chosen, Lee can make observations, chat with others or use two items together. The control system is as easy as it gets, and even non-gamers should be able to dive right in and feel at home.

The Walking Dead, Episode 1: A New Day [PS3]

As mentioned, choices are of the utmost importance in the game, and your personal actions will modify the events found in the rest of the series. In A New Day, there are five moments that the game labels “Tough Decisions”. These are critical sequences in which Lee has to choose between two actions. One such example involves two characters being attacked by zombies. You only have time to save one of them, and it has to be quick — who do you choose? There are also decisions to make during standard dialogue exchanges, and characters will remember your replies for future reference. While the impact of these decisions is minimal in the first episode, it’s going to be a hell of a lot of fun to see how these play out over the entire season.

Telltale included a nice treat at the end of the game that shows how your choices compared to others. Interestingly enough, I sided with the majority in all of my “tough decisions” except for one.

The Walking Dead, Episode 1: A New Day [PS3]

Aesthetically, The Walking Dead looks and sounds like a low budget title, but it actually works for the concept. The cartoonish art style fits the theme, and it doesn’t hold back with plenty of gore in some especially gruesome moments. Some animations can cause the framerate to sputter a bit, but they never messed up the gameplay. The voice acting is hit-and-miss; sometimes it can be convincing, yet other times it is laughably bad. On the whole, though, the voice acting is competent enough.

A New Day is an exciting beginning to The Walking Dead series, and for $5 you’ll get about two hours of good, solid gameplay. The real fun lies in making choices, as these ultimately will matter a great deal in future installments. In the heat of the moment, what would you do? Who would you save?

8/10