Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Attack the Block

Action (1976)
DREDD (2012)

Carl Urban as Judge Dredd. A fusion of Dirty Harry and Desperate Dan, the super fascist was named the seventh greatest comic book character by Empire in 2011, beaten only by Superman, Batman, John Constantine, Wolverine, Spider-Man and The Sandman.

THE British comics scene of the mid to late seventies mirrored the changing social and political environment. Publications such as Warlord had started a more grittier trend away from the Beano/Dandy norm, and within the rise of radical trade unionism and an increasing punk ethic, the antihero became a leading light. This shift was typified by Action comic: 'Hellman of Hammer Force', the story of a German Panzer major, and the JAWS cash-in 'Hook Jaw', established a pattern for unconventional or unsympathetic characters, while 'Look Out for Lefty' was a football strip which openly depicted hooliganism on the terraces. Within weeks of the first issue the media had picked up on the title's violent content, with The Sun dubbing Action "the seven penny nightmare." Following its withdrawal Action's co-founder Pat Mills unleashed the science-fiction themed 2000AD in 1977, essentially Action in space. Early strips were particularly honed to the forerunner's expertise, with 'Flesh' a bloodthirsty time-travel story involving dinosaurs, and 'Shako' essentially 'Hook Jaw' with a polar bear.

Futuristic law enforcer Judge Dredd first appeared in the second "prog" of 2000AD. Britain's best-known strip character of the past thirty-five years was in fact created by Canadian-born writer John Wagner and Spanish artist Carlos Ezquerra; Dredd is the most notorious of a group of super cops, religiously disgusted yet righteously determined to fight crime in the post-apocalyptic milieu that is Mega-City One. An encapsulation of Eastern American cities with a population of four-hundred million crammed into Dickensian tower blocks, this megalopolis houses The Hall of Justice (at once judge, jury and executioners). Sporting a fetishist black leather uniform, straddling an armour-plated patrol bike, living by his stock phrase "I am the Law," and always donning his visored-helmet, Dredd fights more and more outlandish adversaries within the Mega-City One walls and in the wastelands beyond, affectionately labelled The Cursed Earth. His most grotesque foe for example - Judge Death - is a skeletal inter-dimensional tyrant who considers life itself a crime.

The cover that got Action banned. An unfortunate colouring decision - making a police helmet the same shade as a fallen member of the public - was the final straw for the comic.

The strip was originally informed by the cinematic landscape of the 1970s - vigilantes, out-of-control cops, dystopian futures - and Wagner even suggested to Ezquerra that he used David Carradine's character from DEATH RACE 200 for his main visualisation of Dredd. This British/South African co-production - directed by Pete Travis and written by Alex Garland - at last brings a faithful version of the character to the screen, following Sylvester Stallone's version of 1995. With DREDD, it is refreshing to see a comic book movie that strikes at the core of an iconic character without overt allegory, bloated posturing or need of an origin story. Here its just another day at the office as Dredd (Karl Urban), partnered by psychic rookie Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), investigate a triple homicide at the 200-storey Peach Trees block. The Judges discover that a criminal gang - led by Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) - have taken over the building and are using it as a base to market the designer Slo-Mo drug, which slows reality for its users to a fraction of normal time.

Either viewed in 3D or 2D, DREDD is a robust, action-based entertainment given a distinctive visual motif with its slow-motion sequences: everything from bath water to blood spray are given a hallucinogenic twist, with Slo-Mo a much-need excursion to slow chaos down around the user and the viewer. There is never any great hope in Garland's fantasy screenplays - 28 DAYS LATER... saw most of Britain wiped out by the infected, and SUNSHINE revolves around a suicide mission to the stars - but here the writer manages to evoke a tangible futurism: the inward-looking sets are impressive, and offset only by fleeting exterior CGI of Johannesburg. Consequently it is a rounded illustration of the comic strip world, and in a pretty thankless role, Urban's square jaw is fine. It is, however, Thirlby that excels in such a daunting baptism of fire.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Worlds of the Dead

THE ZOMBIE DAIRIES 2: WORLD OF THE DEAD (2011)
OUTPOST II: BLACK SUN (2012)
COCKNEYS VS ZOMBIES (2012)

ZOMBIE DAIRIES 2's decontamination suites recall images from George A. Romero's original CRAZIES. The cut-away scenes of the white figures rounding up civilians like cattle to shoot then burn them is detrimental to the "race against time" narrative.

RETURNING to the world created in their 2007 hit THE ZOMBIE DAIRIES, Michael Bartlett and Kevin Gates use the same lead character Leeann (Alix Wilton Regan, replacing Victoria Nalder) and predatory villains Goke (Russell Jones) and Manny (Hiram Bleetman) for the pro-military sequel THE ZOMBIE DAIRIES 2: WORLD OF THE DEAD. Found by a squad of T.A. reservists - with their own documenting cameraman - traumatised Leeann journeys with them across zombie-infested Hertfordshire towards Hope’s Point, where rescue ships are due in two days. As the group head towards this destination, civilians are as much a threat as the ghouls. Starting effectively with an intimate family birthday gone to hell, ZOMBIE DAIRIES 2 is more polished than the original, but doesn't bring anything new to the table. Its relentlessly grim facade rejoices in three rape scenes, the most self-defeating filmed in gloating close-up; and it is ironic that the most memorable aspect was produced by a fortuitous cold-snap during production, with snow adding to the struggle and providing an edge to the midnight dash through a graveyard.

Released four years after their claustrophobic and testosterone-fuelled OUTPOST, director Steve Barker and writer Rae Brunton widen the scope - and shift the tone - for the horror adventure OUTPOST II: BLACK SUN. In the present day, a NATO force is sent to Eastern Europe, where a sinister enemy appears to be killing everything in its path. Following in the footsteps of her late father, Lena (Catherine Steadman), an investigator on the trail of the notorious German scientist Klausener (David Grant), learns that the war crimes of the man she is looking for goes far beyond the blasphemy of extermination camps. Together with former colleague Wallace (Richard Coyle), a physicist who has been chasing Nazi secrets for years, they team up with the NATO force to prevent the rise of a zombie 4th Reich.

The depiction of the Nazi undead is the highlight of OUTPOST II: BLACK SUN; relentlessly brutal, the zombies either club their prey or stab them repeatedly, with the visuals presented in an effectively dirty brown-and-grey colour palette.

Despite a promising opening salvo with an aged SS officer, Steadman becomes yet another ineffectual female lead and largely unable to look after herself, despite being a seasoned Nazi hunter. As usual, it is up to the military grunts to protect her, who are portrayed as the usual stereotypes: the ruthless one, the compassionate one, the belligerent one, and the wise-cracking one. In fact, the history of the Black Sun and its adaptations into popular culture are more interesting than anything in Barker's film. This motif may have originated from the Theosophy of Helena Blavatsky's Central Sun, an invisible or burnt out star which symbolises an opposing force or pole, and it was former SS member Wilhelm Landig who coined the idea of a mystical source capable of regenerating the Aryan race. Pop culture references include Grant Morrison's comic strip Zenith, which makes a Black Sun cult a combination of Nazi and Lovecraftian ideas; in the novel Satan's Seed by Mark Ellis, the Brotherhood of the Black Sun and Aleister Crowley use geomancy to travel through time; and in the computer game Wolfenstein, the Black Sun was actually another dimension altogether.

The feature directing debut of German Matthias Hoene - who rebooted Hammer for the 2008 online serial BEYOND THE RAVE - and co-written by James Moran - who penned SEVERANCE - the zombie-gangster-comedy COCKNEYS VS ZOMBIES does everything it says on the tin, but isn't as wily as it thinks it is. A proposed building development threatens the Bow Bells Care Home with closure, and to secure the well being of their war-hero grandfather Ray (Alan Ford), chancer brothers Terry (Rasmus Hardiker) and Andy (Harry Treadaway) ineptly rob a bank with the aid of spunky cousin Katy (Michelle Ryan), friend Davey (Jack Doolan) and psychopathic weapons-specialist "Mental" Mickey (Ashley Thomas). But the East End of London has more pressing matters; workers at the development site have excavated into a plague pit sealed by Charles II in 1666, unleashing a mutated infection that transforms humans into shambling zombies.

"The Undead are Brown Bread." Former EASTENDER Michelle Ryan is effortlessly strong and sexy in the otherwise irksome COCKNEYS VS ZOMBIES.

Overtly formulaic and a SHAUN OF THE DEAD facsimile, COCKNEYS VS ZOMBIES suffers from muted action scenes, no real tension, and cockney rhyming slang jokes that wear thin pretty fast. Consequently, it's not funny enough to be a memorable comedy, and not scary enough for hardcore zombie enthusiasts. The film works best when it depicts the potential abandonment of the elderly. In the stand-out sequence, deaf Hamish (Richard Briers) hobbles along on his zimmer at the same pace as a ghoul eager for his flesh, and it is this old guard of performers - Ford, Briers, Honor Blackman, Dudley Sutton, Tony Selby, Georgina Hale - that provide the production with ballast.