Friday, 30 June 2017

Zombiesaurus

Director: Milko Davis
Writer: Michele Pacitto
Producers: Michele Pacitto, Andy Haman
Cast: Andy Haman, Mia Klosterman, Cooper Elliott
Country: USA
Year of release: 2017
Reviewed from: UK DVD (101 Films)

When I first encountered Zombiesaurus it was just a listing on Amazon. Just a title. But what a title. Boy, that’s how you sell a movie. I knew I had to see it.

A little later, the sleeve image appeared. It was obviously misleading and hyperbolic in the grand tradition of B-movie marketing. After staring at the design, wondering why it rang a bell, I realised that 101 Films had used exactly the same stock library dinosaur illustration that 88 Films (who are presumably either 13 places higher or lower on some sort of arbitrary scale) had already used for Steve Lawson’s Killersaurus.

This week I was in Morrisons, browsing the video shelf as is my wont, and there it was. Zombiesaurus. Five quid. Into the basket it went. It had only been released that very day. Bought it on Monday, watched it on Tuesday, started the review on Wednesday, finished it on Thursday, posted it on Friday and I’ll stop now before people mistake me for Craig David.

I’m not going to lie to you. Zombiesaurus is not a good movie. However you measure it, this is pretty terrible. But that doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining. Genuinely entertaining. Not in a snide, so-bad-it’s-good, mocking way. Regular readers know that I would never approach a film like that. No, Zombiesaurus is considerably entertaining in a bizarre and strangely fascinating way, and frankly it’s not without its occasional moment of genuine cinematic cleverness and quality. Don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty much exactly as bad as you expect, just not in the way that you expect.

I think the people who made this can be proud of what they have created. I’m just not sure they know what it is they have actually created. Because it certainly beats the hell out of me.

The core of the story is pretty simple and straightforward, and original too. There’s a bunch of people being chased around a sort of military/scientific/industrial building by a fiercesome, hungry dinosaur. The unique schtick is that this dino can’t be killed because it’s already dead (hence the green, glowing eyes). Furthermore, anyone unlucky enough to become dino-chow returns from the dead as a zombie, also with the green, glowing eyes. That’s pretty much the second half of the film right there.

I have no problems with the second half. Well, I do in fact have a whole bunch of problems, but we’ll come to them in due course. But let’s start with the first half, which really makes very little sense.

We start with a man we will come to know as Dr Wojick Borge (Cooper Elliott) – bearded and bald with a rather alarming cauliflower ear – who is making a shady deal in a car park in the middle of the night, for some reason, with some guy. The guy gives him a box containing some hypodermic needles, each of which has some sort of green, glowing liquid inside it (green and glowing is a recurring motif in this motion picture). Borge accepts this consignment and has, for no apparent reason, a living dinosaur under a tarpaulin on a trailer.

Wait, what?

Never mind because one year later Dr Borge, resplendent in lab coat and bow tie, is teaching a (small) class at a university. Let’s just listen in to some of the lecture he delivers to a dozen or so bored-looking students:

“Why not break the chain? The chain that causes the expiration of life. Why not expand on Darwin’s theory of evolution – and push further? I stand before you today, representing and educating the idea of progressing life. I want to eliminate the thought that forces us to believe that life must end. Remove the gauge.”

Anyone? Anyone got any ideas? Any suggestions what on Earth any of this is supposed to mean? No? Oh well. At least it’s not just me.

It’s not exactly clear what subject Borge is teaching, but it involves a dead cat at the front of the lecture theatre. He injects this with some of the green, glowing stuff and it comes back to life, to the shock and horror of the students. For this misbehaviour, Borge is chewed out by the Dean (Mary Jo Mauro) and given the boot. He will return to our story later. But for now, he’s crossing the road, getting hit by a car and swearing vengeance on humanity.

Cut to a shot of an asteroid hurtling towards Earth, with the curious caption ‘0515 HRS ZULU TIME’. I looked this up and apparently ‘Zulu Time’ is what the US Navy calls the time at the Prime Meridian, so they have a single reference for their ships around the globe who don’t have to wonder whether a given time is ten o’clock in New York or ten o’clock in San Francisco. Except there’s already a perfectly good name for this. It’s called Greenwich Mean Time. Silly Yanks.

Ten minutes in, we finally get the opening titles, which introduce us to five quasi-military types in a Humvee, driving through the desert accompanied by a CGI helicopter. There’s Duque (professional bodybuilder Andy Haman), the muscle mountain leader who someone later says looks exactly like Duke Nukem. There’s Spivey (Shale Le Page), the cocky, slightly crazy one. There’s Stick (Ruselis Aumeen Perry) the thankfully not wisecracking or hiphop-loving black one, Cuchilla (UFC fighter Raquel ‘Rocky’ Pennington) the taciturn, sword-wielding, kick-ass female one and Swat (Juan Gonzalez) the other one. The titles provide the lead actors’ names and tell us ‘Screenplay by Michele Pacitto’ but in defiance of tradition don’t mention either the producer(s) or the director(s).

A bizarre caption now appears – on screen and read aloud – which I think is worth reproducing in full (complete with incorrect apostrophe):

During a great time of peril on Earth, a deranged scientist emerged and took control of a secret military bunker deep in the desert…
Evil would unleash it’s monstrous secrets to destroy Earth…
Five commandos set out to eliminate the threat…
Out of the five commandos…
Two survived…
Out of the two…
One told the story…

What? I mean, what? I mean, right at the start: “a great time of peril” – do you mean a time of great peril? Has this been translated from Japanese?

Now we meet yet another set of characters: four young people in a car, also driving across the desert. Roxanne (Nicole Goeke) is a bimbo, her boyfriend Gunnar (Ben Johnson, who has played Superman in several Justice League fan films) is a jock. In the back seat are Sadie (Mia Klosterman) and her boyfriend Cameron (Adam Singer) who are kind of stoner gamer nerds.

Despite the somewhat simplistic descriptions that I’m using here, one thing the movie has going for it is characterisation. There are nine main characters and they are all different and distinctive. They all speak in different ways and act in different ways and have enough depth to them that they feel like individual, semi-real people, not just off-the-peg cardboard cut-outs.

Except for Swat. I couldn’t tell you a damn thing about him. But that’s okay because – fuck spoilers – he’s the first to get killed.

As the kids’ car is overtaken by the commandos’ Hummer, Spivey waves a gun at them and throws something horrible onto their windscreen. And another shot of  that asteroid assures us that there’s just three minutes to impact. And whaddaya know, exactly three minutes later – in both real and movie time – it does indeed hit Earth. Causing untold devastation and destruction and…

Nah, it causes a bright, large, quiet explosion in the background which the kids in the car don’t even notice. It also causes an electromagnetic pulse which takes out their phones – and the car (which is not, as far as I can tell, electric). But evidently it doesn’t affect the Humvee and its occupants who overtook them three and a half minutes ago.

Somewhere up ahead the Hummer has stopped, the commandos get out, the CGI helicopter lands in the background and promptly explodes. Spivey’s rant at this (“Are you fucking kidding me?”) contrasts with his oppos’ insouciance in one of those genuinely clever and enjoyable moments which I referenced above.

Leaving their vehicle, the four youngsters trudge off across the desert (Sadie has an R2-D2 rucksack!) until they come across a CGI bunker in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a security fence. The EMP has evidently cut off the electricity to the fence. Apparently it has also cut off the barbed wire around the top since they climb over with nary a scratch. The door is slightly open, so in they go.

There’s then a considerable amount of creeping around, intercut with shots of the five commandos also creeping around, plus shots of someone (it’s Dr Borge – remember him?) wearing a hooded cowl and a mask that makes him look like the missing link between Bane and Palpatine. For some reason he’s listening to an old vinyl record.

There are canisters of something, labelled in Arabic. There’s a digital countdown timer with 47 minutes still to go. A green gas emerges from some pipes, which prompts Cameron’s helpful instruction “Back up. Don’t inhale that gas.” After which he and his three companions avoid its toxic effects by putting their hands over their mouths.

Elsewhere, poor old characterless Swat, who has somehow become detached from his team, omits to put his hand over his mouth when similar gas pumps out at him – and becomes our first actual zombie. Meanwhile, Duque and co find an old scrapbook, which Stick identifies as “Arabic codex pentagram (something)”, which contains drawings of dinosaurs and some convenient newspaper cuttings:

“Infamous for accidentally releasing toxins into the Colorado River during a stint at the Environmental Protection Agency, Dr Wojik Borge’s government career ended when he was terminated by the US Department of Energy for mental instability and obsessive claims of conspiracy.”

Spivey identifies this as “more of that Illuminati mumbo-jumbo” while Stick avers “I’ve seen some messed-up stuff but this is off the chain.” And the viewer just comments: “What?”

“Borge says,” continues Stick, reading with ease some tiny handwriting in a dark room, “that he has calculated the impending hit location, approximate date and time of impact, but government authorities have repeatedly warned the public to avoid his apocalyptic workshops and events as opportunistic fear-mongering.”

What’s really great here – and it’s only just occurred to me – is that this is an infodump scene which, because of the obtusely unfathomable script, completely fails to dump any actual info.

After Gunnar shoots zombie Swat, the two groups meet up. Then a hologram of a coughing Borge appears to tell them that a meteorite has hit, just as he predicted, and “every major electrical grid in North America will be down for months. There will be mass hysteria and the tartans will be released.”

Listening to that again he possibly says ‘toxins’, but given how little sense this all makes, it might well be ‘tartans’. He also assures them that “the Jurassic monster will be reanimated and America will destroy itself.” Throughout the past ten minutes or so we have had recurrent cut-aways to a large metal crate suspended on a chain being slowly lowered to the floor. Now the hatch on the front of the crate slowly opens. A pair of green, glowing eyes can be seen within. Out emerges… zombiesaurus!

And you know what, I’m going to give some serious props here. This film may have cost about ten bucks and change, it may have a script written by someone who had smoked way too much weed, it may feature large amounts of over-acting so ripe that it just falls off the tree… but the dino effects are pretty damn good. Not Jurassic Park good obviously, but better than SyFy movie crap. It’s a therapod, about eight feet high at the hip, portrayed by an effective mix of puppetry and CGI. Much of the time it seems to be a full-body costume (inhabited by Jason Hagan). Honestly, it’s way better than you expect in something like this. There are nice, Harryhausen-esque movements: the tilt of the head, the swing of the tail. I really dug the dino.

But not as much as I dug what happens next, which is that Duque, cowering behind oil drums with the others, decides to stand up, put down his big-ass gun and walk right up to the beast. He then proceeds to punch it repeatedly around the head until it falls unmoving to the ground, spilling a handful of teeth.

This is my absolute favourite thing I’ve seen in a film this year! It’s only a few seconds but it is awesome in its audaciousness, reminiscent of the gag when Mongo lays out a horse with one punch in Blazing Saddles. Honestly, it’s moments like this which elevate a film like this from crap to ‘Holy crap!’

That’s at the 40-minute mark. It’s followed by 26 minutes of the characters trying to escape the building while avoiding (or not) the not-as-dead-as-they-thought dinosaur and their zombified friends. Highlights include a touching moment between Roxie and zombie Gunnar, an unexpected gunshot fatality in the gents’ toilets, Stick sliding between the dino’s legs then shooting it up the arse, and the astoundingly bloody and protracted destruction of zombie Duque. The pace is well maintained while the editing and camera-work in the fight sequences are genuinely well-handled.

Eventually our three survivors burst out of the building in a (different?) Humvee, just as the countdown timer reaches zero, unleashing a chain reaction of ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads across the cities of the world. There is a final incomprehensible, rambling monologue from Dr Borge which I can’t be bothered to transcribe here. Hopefully by now I have whetted your appetite enough that you are determined to view this surreal masterpiece for itself. I want to leave you a few unspoiled moments.

The final scene is these three driving across the desert, only now they all have zombie eyes and voices. Except that they have black and white contact lenses, not green glowing eyes. Now I’m really confused. The whole film lasts 69 minutes before the end credits appear under an extremely autotuned song, starting with a shot of each character that freezes and turns into a comic-book image.

But wait, just as you’re expecting ten minutes of glacially slow, Full Moon-style credits, there’s an extra scene of Stick being interviewed by TV host Cara O’Nightly (Julie Crisante) about a book he wrote about what we have just seen. Or something. Even in and of itself, this little coda makes no sense. She says, “I’m speaking of the fact that the journals had been stolen in the aftermath and were sold for profit.” He replies, “Cara, no-one really knows the full story. I am a soldier and I can say this with confidence: everything written in my bestselling thriller Z Rex – available in hardcover and paperback – is true.”

Seriously: what?

And that is indeed followed by nearly seven minutes of glacially slow, Full Moon-style credits. Director Milko Davis is credited with ‘story’ (and with ‘miniatures’) but not, so far as I can tell, with directing. A bizarre snafu on the Inaccurate Movie Database means that his name is listed there as ‘Milko Davis Main Director’! Davis has two previous features to his credit: Raiders of the Damned and Tsnambee: The Wrath Cometh.

As per Stick’s book referenced in the epilogue, before release this film was variously titled Z/Rex: The Jurassic Dead and also Z-Rex: Jurassic Apocalypse. But fair play to 101 Films, their new title is both more commercial and just plain better. Zombiesaurus. Love it. Filmed in Colorado in February 2016, the movie had a local premiere screening in April 2017, then this 101 Films disc on the other side of the Atlantic seems to be its first actual commercial release. It is, incidentally, an utterly vanilla DVD without even a trailer or chapter selection.

So let’s cut to the chase here: why does Zombiesaurus work as a movie, despite all expectations (and a fair bit of evidence) to the contrary? First, although it’s not a comedy or spoof it certainly doesn’t take itself seriously. Second, although it doesn’t take itself seriously, one can see that cast and crew took the making of it seriously.

But mostly I think it’s that the film has – more by accident than design, I suspect – found a perfect balance between on the one hand unpretentious, well-made, lightweight scifi-horror action and on the other a batshit insane scenario/context. What the hell is all that about the meteorite and its strangely selective EMP? Why does the helicopter explode? What are all the oil-drum canisters and why are they labelled in Arabic? In what sense does any of this take place in a “time of great evil” (or even a “great time of evil”)? Why do the survivors have different scary eyes to everyone else? What’s all that stuff about Stick writing a book? Why does Dr Borge reanimate a dead cat in front of his students? What is the Arabic Codex Pentagram (something)? What happens when the tartans are released? And above all, where the hell has that dinosaur come from?

I really, really don’t understand the story of this film. I understand the bit in the middle, the bulk of the second half when the dinosaur and zombies are chasing them – that’s cool. But I honestly don’t know what bigger story the film-makers were trying to tell. And I really honestly do have to wonder whether they do either. What were they trying to make? What do they think they’ve made? What have they actually made? I don’t know the answers to those three questions but I’m pretty sure they’re all different.

I get sent a lot of films for free, and pick up others cheap on eBay or in charity shops. Only occasionally do I buy a brand new film on DVD, and when I do the question to be asked is: do I want my money back? Or did I get good value? In the case of Zombiesaurus I can state with certainty that I got way more than five pounds’ worth of entertainment. Just the literary enjoyment of spending two evenings writing this review has been worth a fiver.

Somehow, in some way, Zombiesaurus transcends simple dichotomous concepts of good/bad or sense/nonsense. It's an extraordinary, amazing film. Should you buy it and watch it? Hell yeah.

MJS rating: A-