The 6th annual UK Festival of Zombie Culture (and in true zombie film tradition it has another title it goes by – The Day of the Undead) took place, as it always has, at the Phoenix Arts Centre in Leicester. More than ever before, this year’s programme had a distinctly British feel to it, with four of the features (and many of the shorts on show) being home-grown affairs.
Scattered around the venue were numerous opportunities to meet the authors of zombie novels, buy various zombie games and DVDs, and even get yourself made-up to look like one of the undead horde. The real draw was the programme of zombie films on display in the state-of-the-art cinema.
First up was the world première of the HD restoration of Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2, known in the UK as ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’. This unofficial sequel to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead has been restored for a Blu-ray release (to be released next month), and it certainly looks fantastic. The images are clear, without ever looking too clean.
As a big fan of Dawn of the Dead, I went into this expecting a lesser film – and was actually very pleasantly surprised. Having seen some Italian giallo films recently I have started to get used to seeing dubbing in films, and if I’m honest – I wasn’t here to see realism. There’s plenty of melodramatic acting, and the musical cues almost parody themselves – but the real meat (if you’ll excuse the pun) is in the zombie effects, and the set-pieces.
Not only do the zombies look genuinely like decomposing corpses (sadly, many modern zombie films seem to think a bit of white make-up and a bloody chin will do) – but there are some genuinely horrific scenes of violence here, including the worst scene featuring an eyeball since Un Chien Andalou.
If you are a fan of Romero’s films this is a must for your collection. Actually, this is a must-own for anyone who likes the idea of a zombie fighting a shark.
Next up were a number of short-films, or varying quality. Ross Shepherd’s Victorian Undead certainly looked good, and would make a nice scene in a longer feature. However, as a short film it failed to convey much of a story or any characterisation. A local film made in Loughborough called The End also showed some promise, but the lack of a budget showed when the zombies finally appeared on-screen.
Velvet Road was my pick of the shorts, both stylistically and thematically head and shoulders above the rest of the unofficial competition. Set in the racially-charged US-south in the 1960s it certainly owned a visual debt to The Walking Dead.
The comedy side of the zombie genre was also well-represented. Smush, a short from the team that made last year’s Deadheads, was a rather sweet story of a young girl befriending a hungry zombie. We were also treated to a couple of episodes of Bumbloods – a four-part web-series about a couple of room-mates trying to survive a zombie apocalypse. What it lacks in budget and story-telling, it makes up with in some great jokes and a home-made charm.
The headline film of the shorts section was Muralim (Poisoned), the first ever state-funded genre film from Israel. A ‘zomedy’ in the style of Shaun of the Dead, it tells the story of army base gardener (and son of a war hero) Danny who has to face down a horde of zombie soldiers on during Passover, while trying to win the heart of his high-school sweetheart. As well as being very funny, it is also an interesting exploration on the way the military can ‘poison’ the minds of soldiers into becoming a homogeneous group of mindless beings who follow orders without question. Deep.
Next up was new British zombie film Before Dawn directed by, and starring Paddy from the UK soap opera Emmerdale (Dominic Brunt, who introduced the screening), and his real-life wife Joanne Marshall.
It tells the story of an estranged couple getting away for a weekend in the country to make one last go of their marriage. Then, obviously, some zombies turn up.
The kitchen-sink set-up of the film actually works really well (as you’d expect from a soap opera veteran), and Brunt and Marshall are believable and sympathetic.
The fact that Brunt has gone for running zombies was always going to upset a traditionalist like me. It’s not that I don’t see them as ‘proper’ zombies, it’s just that I don’t find these modern zombies to be as scary as the shuffling hordes we know as ‘Romero Zombies’. I like the changing power dynamic you get in a film featuring the shuffling zombies. The fact that one or two of them would be reasonably easy to repel, and it’s only when you start getting overwhelmed that you realise the true horror of the monster.
Like most zombie films that don’t aim for all-out comedy, this is a pretty relentlessly depressing film. It’s a good-looking and well-performed piece though, although Brunt’s inexperience shows in the action/fight scenes which are more confusing in the shooting/editing than terrifying.
Before the next screening we were treated to a conversation with Charlie Higson, talking about his ‘The Enemy’ series of books for young adults. He admitted that he felt a fraud as the monsters in his books weren’t strictly zombies in the ‘risen from the dead’ mould, but rather an infected populace as in 28 Days Later. Of course, as he pointed out, I think we have come to accept that the definition of zombie in popular culture has changed to encompass a range of ‘changed humans’ in an end-of-the-world scenario. Higson is a friendly and engaging fellow, with a good-line in stories of scaring his own children.
Up next was The Eschatrilogy, an anthology of stories with a linking narrative arc set within the zombie genre. I was really looking forward to this, and I was sadly very disappointed. The opening 10 minutes of the film looks glorious, and the concept of a ‘watcher’ collecting stories from the zombie apocalypse intrigued me. The problem is that the film’s £15,000 budget is massively outstripped by the film-makers ambitions. Normally I would be able to overlook this, and even applaud it – but when one of the short-cuts they have chosen to make is in the acting department I just can’t get on-board. Nothing is likely to put me off of a film faster than amateur acting. The type of acting you see in the adverts that candidates in The Apprentice make. It didn’t help that the end of the film was cut short by technical problems with the Blu-ray. Unfortunately I don’t think I missed much.
Finally (for me anyway) was Gangsters, Guns, and Zombies. This low-budget film is basically ‘Lock Stock’ meets ’28 Days Later’. It’s derivative and unoriginal, but it does its best to win the audience over with some genuinely funny lines and some entertaining and sympathetic characters. One I think I might be tempted to watch again.
At this point I was zombied-out. I had to forgo Cockney’s Versus Zombies after 12 straight hours watching the undead, and I applaud anyone who made it to the very end. I really enjoyed my first UK Festival of Zombie Culture though, and I am sure I’ll be back next year.