‘Zombieland: Double Tap’ is Fun, But Also a Bit Stale

Zombieland Double Tap poster

For the record, I have seen the original “Zombieland” although it took being on cable one morning for me to watch it. In the midst of an endless sea of zombie movies and television shows, here was one which had a fresh take on the zombie apocalypse, and it proved to be endlessly entertaining throughout. While everything and everybody could have been easily upstaged by Bill Murray’s howlingly funny cameo where he is at his self-effacing best, it had a game cast of actors who reveled in the fun you could tell they were having during its making.

Now it is 10 years later, and we finally have the long-awaited sequel “Zombieland: Double Tap” (nice title). The cast now comes with at least one Oscar nomination under their belts, Reuben Fleischer is riding high after the commercial success of “Venom,” and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have freed themselves from the “Deadpool” franchise long enough to pen this one. What results is definitely fun, but it also lacks the freshness of its predecessor, and everyone seems to be trying a little too hard to be funny and clever this time around. Plus, the sight of a zombie’s head getting bashed does not have the same visceral thrill it used to have.

When we catch up with our intrepid band of heroes, they are laying waste to the latest zombie horde as they make their way towards a government building which these days has had one too many unwelcome guests – The White House. Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) has long since become a hardened survivor, and the many nights he spends with Wichita (Emma Stone) in the Lincoln Bedroom has him seriously thinking about marriage. As for Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), he treats everyday in there like it is Christmas while Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) continually resents him for treating her like she is still a little girl. Things come to a head when Wichita and Little Rock suddenly become tired of life in the Oval Office and hit the road to find some new sights. After some hesitation, Columbus and Tallahassee do the same.

For a moment, I figured “Zombieland: Double Tap” would take place entirely in The White House and that the filmmakers would take great pleasure in ridiculing the terrible state of American politics. But since “Zombieland” took place largely on the west side of America, it only makes sense we find these characters traveling through various locales on the east coast which include, yes, Graceland. Like in any zombie movie, home is where you find it as no one can afford to stay in the same place for very long.

Seriously, these movies thrive on their inspired cast of actors. Woody Harrelson, who can play just about any role at this point in his career, looks to be having the time of his life as Tallahassee as we watch him channel Elvis Presley more often than not, and he makes his undying hatred of pacifism and minivans especially palpable. Eisenberg and Stone play off of each other wonderfully as they constantly try to prove who is more sarcastic than the other. As for Breslin, it has been fascinating to watch her grow up onscreen, and her yearning to look for other people her age in this apocalyptic world gives her character more room to grow than the others.

Still, there is a constant feeling of “been there, done that” which permeates these proceedings. Sometimes filmmakers can get away with doing the same thing one more time, but other times they fall victim to staying in their comfort zone to where things get stale very quickly. With “Zombieland: Double Tap,” it is an example of half and half as there is still much fun to be had, but what was once fresh now feels far past its expiration date. Plus, seeing these characters continually try to be cleverer than the other gets exasperating rather quickly.

One of the things this sequel really has going for it is new blood. Zoey Deutch, so fetching in “Everybody Wants Some,” is a scene-stealer as the infinitely dumb Madison. Sure, this character is a dumb blonde cliché, but Deutch is a hoot throughout as she makes Madison so adorably stupid to where I kept waiting for her to sing “Cause I’m a Blonde” at the drop of a hat. We watch a lot of movies like these waiting for dumb blondes to die a most horrible death, but Deutch gives us more than enough reason to see Madison live one more day and then die on another.

There is also the always excellent Rosario Dawson who shows up as Nevada, a fellow survivor who, like Tallahassee has quite the thing for Elvis. She and Harrelson have quite the chemistry together as they talk about their love for “the king,” and it is a shame she is not in the movie more. However, when she does reappear, it is at the perfect moment.

And there is no forgetting Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch who play… Well, just watch the movie to find out.

Fleischer does what he can to keep things rolling, and he gives us one great zombie attack sequence which lasts several minutes and looks like it was done in one shot. This sequel is never boring, but it still feels lacking in one way or another. Even when the main characters ban together to attack an amazingly large horde of zombies which threaten Babylon, an oasis of peace which is just asking to be laid waste to especially when you take into account it has a no guns policy, the climax is never as thrilling as it wants to be.

“Zombieland: Double Tap” is not a bad movie, but it is also not particularly memorable. Whether or not the fans of the original enjoy it, I do not think it will have the same staying power. Everybody here looks ever so happy to be reunited, and the fun is definitely on display, but that same amount of fun does not quite translate fully over to the audience. In the end, things could have been much worse, but this sequel is still a near-miss for me.

By the way, be sure to stay through the end credits as there is a couple of post-credit scenes which are funnier than anything else in this sequel. Trust me, it is worth waiting to go to the bathroom until after the lights come up.

* * ½ out of * * * *

‘Survival of The Dead’ Finds Zombies Running Afoul of Family Rivalries

Survival of the Dead movie poster

“We’re not gonna make it, humans I mean.”

 “It is in your nature to destroy yourselves

                                                                  -Edward Furlong & Arnold Schwarzenegger from “T2”

There was a 20-year gap between George Romero’s “Day of The Dead” and “Land of The Dead.” Some parents now have kids who are slightly older than the number of years Romero sought financing to make zombie movies on his own terms. But since “Land of The Dead,” Romero has been pumping out one living dead movie every other year. Talk about strong productivity. His latest flesh-eating opus is “Survival of The Dead” which looks at the rivalry between two families on an isolated island, struggling to maintain power as the zombies continue to outnumber them and reject their vegan ways.

Actually, we first get introduced to a group of mercenary National Guardsmen who appeared briefly in “Diary of The Dead” when they stole supplies from the protagonists as they traveled the deserted highway in their old Winnebago. These soldiers are lead by Sarge “Nicotine” Crockett (Alan van Sprang), and they are now on their own, struggling to survive in a god forsaken world. As a result, “Survival of The Dead” is the closest thing to a direct sequel this series has ever had.

These days, Romero is not trying to scare with these movies, and he even “Night of The Living Dead” was the only true horror movie of the bunch. These zombie movies act as a conduit for his social commentary which is both humorous and yet very bleak. In Romero’s point of view, it is only a matter of time before these “deadheads,” as one young boy calls them, devours what’s left of humanity. What can be said about us in the meantime?

Whereas “Diary of The Dead” was a clear take on the You Tube/social networking generation of today, the meaning behind “Survival of The Dead” is not as clear. It took me some time after watching the movie to get an idea of what Romero was attempting to accomplish. Apparently, this one was inspired by a 1958 western called “The Big Country” which follows a new man in town who gets caught up in a feud between two rival families over a valuable piece of land. The same thing happens here between the O’Flynns and the Muldoons, but their rivalry is amped up by the fact that many of the people they know and loved have died and come back to life as drooling flesh eaters.

The O’Flynns believe the zombies are dead and will never return to normal, and therefore must be destroyed. The Muldoons, however, believe they should be kept alive in the hope a cure can be found for them. Romero sees their sharp differences as symbolic of the state of our world today as we can’t agree without being disagreeable, and the lack of civility reigns over the ability for us to listen to one another.

With the Muldoons, things get a little confusing at times because they are not above shooting zombies dead if necessary, so their protection of these same beings threatens to make them utterly hypocritical. Then again, their hypocrisy may be the point. “Survival” goes along with one of the plot threads of “Land of The Dead” as it shows how zombies have evolved somewhat to where humans can now teach them things. What the Muldoons hope to do is teach these lumbering bodies to consume something other than human flesh. Whether or not they succeed is for you to find out.

When the National Guardsmen arrive on the island, they are caught in the middle of this conflict and provide a more objective point of view. All they want to do now is survive. They can take an island and make it their own, but they won’t hesitate to abandon it when it becomes overrun by unwelcome guests. They are also not about to get caught up in some family duel when they run a high risk of turning into the thing they blow away at close range.

Politically speaking, we are so seriously divided these days, and we believe the side we are on is right without any question. We just think the other side is full of horse dung and incapable of looking at the world objectively. In the meantime, the world is falling apart all around us, and we appear to be unable to pull together as a whole when a crisis hits. I’m sure we can all see by now it’s not the zombies who are going to do us in, but ourselves instead. That’s the way it has been from the start.

The budget for “Survival of The Dead” was around $4 million dollars; not a lot, but enough to give Romero total creative control over his content. I have to give him a lot of credit because he gives this movie a look which makes it look like it cost much more. I don’t know if this is because the scope he is shooting in is bigger than on his previous movies, but it looks more like it cost at least $20 million to make.

Plum Island almost seems like the land time forgot. Whereas on the mainland people are utterly consumed by technology and have made themselves a slave to it, these families live like they are still stuck in the Old West. You never see anyone other than the National Guardsmen with a laptop computer or an iPhone. They simply ride on their horses or in their cars, and they appear happy to be isolated from the rest of the world. Feminism also seems to not have been introduced yet to the island, and this is regardless of how Janet O’Flynn (Kathleen Munroe) is perfectly capable of taking care of herself without the help of a man. Leave it to Romero to always include strong female parts in his films.

Both families are Irish by the way. I’m not sure why Romero went this route, but perhaps it was to remind us how America is, and always has been, a land of immigrants. Their accents at times were a little too thick to where I couldn’t understand half of what they were saying, but as long as I got the gist of what was being said, I didn’t complain much.

There is a strong of familiarity which runs throughout “Survival of The Dead” in the themes and characters Romero employs throughout. Sarge “Nicotine” Crockett is close to being a doppelganger of Captain Rhodes from “Day of The Dead.” Janet O’Flynn is your basic strong willed female character who is in every “Living Dead” movie. And, of course, the movie ends the same way the others do with the zombies having more than enough room for leftovers. So really, there’s not a lot new here, but once you get past that, the movie is still fun.

The cast is the usual batch of no-name actors Romero prefers to use. I liked Kathleen Munroe and thought her to be very lovely, and I also liked Alan van Spring as the no-nonsense sergeant who manages to hold it together throughout. Kenneth Welsh also has a very strong presence here as Patrick O’Flynn, the patriarch of his family who gets thrown out but ends up coming back with the guardsmen for revenge. Athena Karkanis also makes a badass soldier out of Tomboy in the same way Jeanette Goldstein made an undoubtedly tough marine out of Vasquez in James Cameron’s “Aliens.” All in all, the cast does very good work here.

Many of you probably are wondering how gross the effects are in “Survival of The Dead.” Well, let’s just say the Fangoria fans will not be disappointed. One character makes creative use of a fire extinguisher to dispatch one flesh eating bastard. All the other characters have their own creative kills as they are equipped with the full knowledge that zombies need to be shot in the head to be killed. They are no longer terrified of the living dead as much as they are hopelessly annoyed by them, and the living dead exist more as a nuisance to them instead of a threat.

“Survival of The Dead” is not as good as “Diary,” and the themes and meanings behind this sequel are not easy to decipher at first. I’m not even going to bother comparing it to the original trilogy because it’s just going to take away from Romero was trying to accomplish here. I still enjoyed “Survival” for what it was, and there is something really inspiring about how Romero still makes these zombie movies after so many years. It’s like you could never make him give up on the chance to make another one after the box office disappointment of “Day of The Dead.” There is a way to make a movie all your own. It’s just that there is not as much money involved.

The movie’s last image of two men facing off at each other with their guns is a strong one as it illustrates the folly of rivalry, especially when it’s over things which become increasingly insignificant in the wake of a zombie apocalypse. Romero still has a bleak worldview of humanity, but he still manages to give this film some biting humor which keeps us entertained. It seems like all we can do is just survive and make it to another day. In his movies, this seems to be the best victory anyone can hope for.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Diary of the Dead’ Has Romero Taking Aim at the Internet Generation

Diary of the Dead movie poster

I had an English teacher who once said, “We have all been mediatized. This is a generation that has been robbed of its innocence.” This has stayed with me since because nothing could be truer. She said this back in 1994, back when we had yet to fully discover the internet, and we were not yet addicted to Facebook, You Tube or our cell phones. She remarked of when she watched a trailer for “Far from Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog.” It looked like a very innocent movie, and yet there were teenagers in front of her who said, “This looks so lame!” As a result, she felt they were robbed of any chance of enjoying this movie as they were more interested in watching something which was its polar opposite. When you combine the loss of innocence to the ever-growing world of technology, it is apparent there is no going back to the way things were. We are now more “mediatized” than ever, and it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to live without the internet or cell phones.

This is the main sticking point of George Romero’s zombie flick, “Diary of The Dead,” as he takes aim at a generation so sucked into You Tube and of watching things not just from a distance, but an emotional distance as well. We have become so enamored of watching disasters and car crashes from afar to where it appears we have been robbed of our ability to actually help others. As a result, Romero’s vision of humanity is especially bleak as he wonders if it is even worth saving.

The movie starts off as a film within a film as we watch a horror movie turned documentary called “The Death of Death.” The horror film itself is not going well as everything is behind schedule and the crew and actors are restless. All of a sudden, they hear on the news of the dead coming back to life, and everything changes forever. Some head home, and others head to the college to rescue their girlfriends. From then on, it’s a race for survival as the world is soon overrun by zombies, or so the internet and television tells them. What are they gonna believe?

“Diary of The Dead” could be seen as being released too late as “Cloverfield” had arrived in theaters just before. Both films are shot in a handheld style, but whereas “Cloverfield” used the technique as a gimmick, “Diary of The Dead” uses it as a commentary on our fascination with watching the worst life has to offer. Many people went crazy and beyond nauseous with the camerawork in “Cloverfield,” but those same people will be relieved to see Romero and his Director of Photography Adam Swica have reined it in to where it shouldn’t alienate the audience.

The film crew on “The Death of Death” is made up of different characters. There’s the director, Jason (Joshua Close), who believes if it didn’t happen on camera, it never happened at all. There’s his girlfriend, Debra (Michelle Morgan), who gets increasingly annoyed at his filming everybody, Tony (Shawn Roberts) who always looks like he is prepared to beat Jason to death, and there’s the drunken film professor, Maxwell (Scott Wentworth), who looks upon everything with a bemused detachment. What Romero succeeds in doing as a writer is giving us characters who aren’t simply types. If they come across as clichéd, he and the actors subvert those clichés as each character becomes increasingly unpredictable in their actions.

Romero also gives us strong characters who are females and minorities. He started doing this years ago with “Night of The Living Dead,” and he continues this tradition here. The female character who is the strongest in “Diary” is Debra as she is driven to get back to her family and is not about to get sucked into watching everything through a camera lens. Michelle Morgan gives this movie its best performance, and she also narrates the film within the film which gives you a pretty good idea of what happens to her character in the end (or does it?).

While the crew ventures home in an old and stuffy Winnebago, they run into all sorts of people who are quickly learning how to survive in a world being overrun by zombies. They run into a squad of African Americans who have taken over a small town and refuse to leave. This is because, for once, they have power over something they have never power over before, and you could see it as a revenge for all they have been put through over the years. There is also a deaf Amish man who provides some of the funniest moments as he blows up zombies with dynamite before introducing himself to the frenzied group of film students.

What makes these “Dead” movies so relevant even after four decades is they are really social commentary movies designed as zombie movies. Romero looks at how society is enslaved by its own wants, needs, beliefs and prejudices in. “Night of the Living Dead” dealt with civil rights and gave us a black man as the chief protagonist, something you didn’t see in movies back then. His ultimate destiny at the film’s climax said much about the times when the movie was released. “Dawn of The Dead” dealt with our quest for materialism, wealth, and of having everything we could possibly want, and it looked at how it leaves us feeling as empty and dead as the zombies who look to tear their way into the mall for fresh human flesh. “Day of The Dead” dealt with the paranoia and crazed determination of the military and its inherent sexism. Then you had “Land of The Dead” where Romero went after the wealthiest people of all and how selfishly involved they are in their own interests, and it served as a huge criticism of Reganomics which gave us the great lie of how this great wealth and riches could be yours even though this would never be the case.

Now with “Diary,” Romero looks at our addiction to watching the unthinkable instead of doing anything to stop it. You have to look at all of Romero’s “Dead” movies in context to see they are really a long chronicle about the decline of western civilization. It all started with civil rights and the reaction to it, and it’s been downhill ever since. To call this latest film bleak is a severe understatement. Romero doesn’t seem to hold out much hope for the human race, and the last scene questions whether humans are really worth saving.

If you’re wondering about the blood and gore, there is a good deal of it in “Diary” even though it is not on the same level as “Dawn” or “Day.” Still, there are some good kills throughout, and the characters make good use of a scythe as well as a bow and arrow. Romero, after all these years, doesn’t skimp on the gory stuff. However, it still takes these characters way too long to figure out the best way to defeat a zombie, which is to shoot it in the head.

The other interesting thing about “Diary” is the way the characters and their reality are drawn out. Whereas in “Cloverfield” where there was a chance for safety and victory against what was attacking New York, there is no real hope for anyone in here. Whether or not they make it home, they quickly realize this is a conflict which will never cease. It will just get worse and worse until there is nothing left. “Diary” forces you to think about what you would do if you were in this situation, and this makes the movie all the more terrifying.

One big difference in this specific “Dead” film is, unlike the others, there is no military presence. None of the characters have a clear idea of whether or not there is even a military left. They are left to fend for themselves in a world which has gone dead on them, and their only link to the world is technology and the internet. But with everyone voicing their opinions through videos and blogs, who is to be believed when they’re so many different opinions circling all over? All you have left is chaos and anarchy, and every man and woman for themselves. The characters in this movie are smart enough to recognize this, and this makes the events for them all the more suffocating.

I liked “Diary of The Dead” a lot, and it shows Romero is still a strong force in the realm of independent filmmaking. While the first three “Dead” movies are pretty much untouchable at this point, I would put this one ahead of “Land of The Dead” which I thought was good but may have been encumbered by too much studio interference from Universal Pictures. While Universal gave Romero the money he had been begging for years to get, he’s back to his indie roots this time around and seems a lot more comfortable as a result. The movie’s pace does slow in its last half which had me a bit restless, and some moments last longer than they should have, but these are minor complaints at best.

Regardless of how bleak Romero’s worldview continues to get in each “Dead” movie, there is something to be said for his efforts to spend decades raising money to make them. There was a big lull between “Day” and “Land,” and this shows his endless determination to see his vision reach the screen one way or another. And here he is 40 years later, making a new zombie movie for generations old and new. There may be room for another one Romero zombie yet, and there is hope to be had even if our world continues falling apart. I wouldn’t mind seeing him do one more, but I hope it comes out before the apocalypse hits us.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

pride_and_prejudice_and_zombies_ver3_xlg

I came into this movie expecting a parody along the lines of something directed by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, the same filmmakers who inflicted such laugh free movies on us like “Meet the Spartans,” “The Starving Games” and “Vampires Suck.” The problem with most movie parodies today is everyone is constantly in on the joke to where watching them becomes excruciating. It’s no wonder this genre has been dying out lately as we can see the jokes coming from a mile away to where the punchlines are ruined before they’re even spoken.

So it is a nice surprise to see “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” a sly take on the classic Jane Austen novel, does not come even close to falling into this trap. It actually stays respectful of Austen’s work while adding a bit of the undead to the proceedings. The actors take their roles and the story more seriously than expected, and there’s never a kitsch feeling to be found throughout. This movie could have easily fallen apart in the wrong hands, but smarter minds prevailed and gave us something quite entertaining.

The movie is actually based on the novel of the same name by Seth Grahame-Smith which follows the plot of “Pride and Prejudice” while adding both zombie and ninja elements to it. The characters still exist in 19th century England, but it’s an alternative universe where the undead are a constant nuisance and Mr. Bennet (Charles Dance) has taken the time to train his daughters in martial arts and weaponry. Chief among his daughters is Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) who is the best trained of them all as well as fiercely independent. While her sisters are eager to find a husband, she does not feel the need for one.

Into the picture comes Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) who is an expert at identifying zombies and taking them out before they even have a chance to reveal themselves to the unsuspecting. Just as in Austen’s novel, Darcy and Elizabeth share an utter contempt for one another which will soon reveal the unmistakably strong attraction between them. But can they survive the zombie onslaught long enough for them to share their true feelings to each other? Well, anybody who has read Austen’s classic book knows the answer, but keep in mind how it never contained zombies like Grahame-Smith’s book does.

Lily James makes Elizabeth Bennet into a woman as lovely as she is lethal when it comes to taking out zombies with a sword. Seeing Elizabeth and her sisters stroll into a social event and armed to the teeth with weapons of all kinds makes clear that polite behavior has to be set aside when the undead drops by for a bite. Does she do one better than the other actresses who have played this classic character in the past? This doesn’t matter as she gets to take on a different version of this fiercely independent female who is more than capable of taking care of herself.

The same goes for Sam Riley who takes on the role of Mr. Darcy. Comparisons to Colin Firth’s interpretation of Darcy, which everyone seemed to fall in love with at first sight, might be inevitable, but I’m not going to bother. While Riley tends to keep Darcy’s stiff upper lip a little stiffer than it needs to be, he still makes Darcy into a formidable soldier and his scenes with James crackle with an attraction which cannot be denied.

The other actors in “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” look to be having a great time as well. Among the standouts are Jack Huston as George Wickham who turns on the charm to where the easily duped are duped beyond repair, Lena Headey makes Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Darcy’s aunt, an especially fierce protector of her own family, and Matt Smith steals several scenes as the infinitely dubious Parson Collins. Once again, none of the cast acts like they are in on the joke, and the movie is so much the better for that.

Directing “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is Burr Steers who in the past few years has made one picture too many with Zac Efron (“Charlie St. Cloud” and “!7 Again”). However, this was the same man who helmed “Igby Goes Down,” a movie with a biting sense of humor which cut deep as it came with a lot of emotional honesty. “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” doesn’t cut as deep as “Igby Goes Down” did, but it feels like Steers has more to play with this time around as he melds Austen’s world with the undead, and he is not as constrained by cinematic conventions as he was in the past.

Is Steers able to keep the momentum going from start to finish? Not quite. The movie does lose some steam towards the end as there is only so much he can do with the zombie thing. Also, it has a PG-13 rating which means the violence is going to seem neutered to an extent which is frustrating to accept. Imagine how insane the proceedings would have been had the violence and bloodshed went unrestrained. This would have been even more fun had Screen Gems let Steers turn this into a go-for-broke extravaganza.

All the same, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” proved to be far more fun than I expected it to be, and it brings to mind those crazy B-movies we all grew up on. Jane Austen could have been rolling over in her grave at the sight of this, but her fans can take comfort in that her works remain as popular today as they were years ago. Besides, it’s got zombies in it. How could it go wrong?

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016

* * * out of * * * *

Principal Photography Begins on the Horror Movie ‘Valentine DayZ’

Valentine Dayz slate

This past weekend saw the start of principal photography on the horror film “Valentine DayZ.” It’s the latest film from writer and director Mark Allen Michaels who helmed “The Fiancé,” a thriller which had a bride-to-be bitten by Bigfoot and becoming a force of nature, hell-bent on destroying her engagement. The movie’s press release describes it as a “heart-stopping horror story” and included the following plot synopsis:

“Revisiting his unique blend of hardboiled crime thriller and brutal, bloody horror, Michaels’ ‘Valentine DayZ’ takes his characters on a journey from the champagne and yacht lifestyles of the rich and corrupt, to doom and despair in Death Valley as the zombie-apocalypse threatens everything they hold dear.”

Now zombie movies and television shows are a dime a dozen these days, but “Valentine DayZ” looks to be a unique take on the genre. If it proves to be as deliriously entertaining as “The Fiancé,” we are in for one hell of a ride.

Valentine Dayz seal

Shooting on the film began in Marina Del Rey, and the cast and crew were greeted by a seal which became an extra almost immediately (non-union of course). Other photos include a wealthy looking character hanging out on a yacht as well as cast and crew having fun with zombie makeup.

RobertAllenMukes_ValentineDValentine Dayz zombie makeup

 

“Valentine DayZ” will be distributed by Firebreathing Films and is being produced by writer and filmmaker Staci Layne Wilson (“Fetish Factory”) and Kate Rees Davies (“Altered Perception”). Leading the cast are Dallas Valdez (“The Fiancé”) and Carrie Keagan (“Sharknado 4”), and the movie also stars Robert Allen Mukes (HBO’s “Westworld”), Diane Ayala Goldner (“The Collector”) and Curt Lambert (“The Hotel Barclay” television series).

For more news on the movie, be sure to follow its Twitter page (@ValentineDayz) which will be updated with announcements throughout its production.

Cell

Cell movie poster

I did have the opportunity to read Stephen King’s “Cell” while I was on vacation in Hawaii. It’s not one of King’s best novels, but it was an entertaining read as it delved into our increasing obsession and dependence on technology, in particular cell phones. When the novel was released in 2006, cell phones still had a bit of a ways to go to get to where they are today; devices that can do just about everything and anything in our daily lives except make coffee. But now it’s 2016 and we have long since reached that point where we can’t bear to live without our cell phones and are a slave to them.

A movie adaptation of “Cell” had been in the works for years and Eli Roth was originally going to direct it, but that didn’t work out. Now it has finally arrived in theaters and can be quickly added to the garbage heap of terrible Stephen King adaptations like “Maximum Overdrive” and “The Mangler.” While its subject matter is still timely, “Cell” quickly devolves into just another zombie movie where the clichés are rampant to where we know exactly what to expect to where any suspenseful moments it hoped to have are rendered moot. In short, it is an uninspired retread of “28 Days Later,” a movie this one can only dream of being as terrifying as.

“Cell” opens up on Clayton Riddell (John Cusack) getting off his flight which has brought him back home, and he is eager to reconnect with his wife and son, both of whom he has been estranged from for too long. But it doesn’t take all that long for all the fellow travelers around him to start losing their minds and convulse to where they start attacking everyone and everything in sight. Clayton manages to escape the airport and teams up with subway worker Tom McCourt (Samuel L. Jackson) and Alice Maxwell (Isabelle Fuhrman) to find a safe haven away from those infected with the cell phone virus that controls the actions of everyone infected by it.

The movie gives us sights and sounds we have seen endlessly in one apocalyptic movie after another. We see scenes of cities in utter ruins, cars turned over, survivors travelling through empty roads and fields, etc. All this does is remind me of other movies that are far scarier and more unnerving to where it’s tempting to turn off “Cell” and watch them instead. There’s almost nothing to separate this film from others of its genre, and it becomes a glum and languid bore of a motion picture that feels too long even at 98 minutes.

Watching John Cusack here made me feel sorry for him. After suffering through a number of bad movies these past few years, he delivered a truly great performance as the elder Brian Wilson in “Love & Mercy” which proved he still has much to give to the world of acting. But here in “Cell,” Cusack just looks bored and barely interested to be a part of this particular Stephen King adaptation. His character is just another father trying to get to his child to ensure his safety, and the actor just goes through the motions with little to show for it.

Samuel L. Jackson fares a little better here as Tom McCourt as he gives a performance that is subtle instead of bombastic. The “Pulp Fiction” actor effortlessly turns his character into an everyman who has seen far too much in this lifetime to where this apocalyptic situation is no different to him than being a soldier in a foreign land. Jackson has been in countless movies over the years, many of them flat out bad, but there is no doubt that he will survive this critical catastrophe to give us great performances in the future.

What’s especially galling is that both Cusack and Jackson starred in another Stephen King cinematic adaptation almost ten years ago, “1408,” and that proved to be a scary time at the movies. Why they couldn’t bring the same enthusiasm they clearly had on that one to “Cell” almost feels like a mystery.

But then again, we shouldn’t be blaming the two stars as much as we should be blaming the director of this uninspired mess, Tod Williams. Back in 2004 he gave us the blistering drama “The Door in the Floor” which starred Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger as a couple forever torn apart emotionally by the death of their sons. It was a breakthrough feature for Williams as he got some of the best performances out of Bridges’ and Basinger’s careers, and he dug deep into the lives of unlikable characters whose psychological wounds were too deep for us to look away from. A few years later he directed “Paranormal Activity 2,” a sequel which proved to be as terrifying as the original. And considering how terrifying the original was, that’s saying a lot.

Those two movies show Williams to be a huge talent behind the camera, so it is very hard to understand why he couldn’t make “Cell” the least bit scary or unnerving. King’s novel dealt with material that was familiar to him, but the writer made “Cell” more than just another exploration into the end of civilization as we know it. Williams doesn’t bother to do that here as he simply throws out one tired cliché after another at us, and some scenes are so badly lit to where it’s impossible to figure out what is going on. This is also not to mention the horrible CGI effects on display which illustrate how this low budget horror movie had an even lower budget than others.

This all leads to a climax which is not at all satisfying, and an ending that is unforgivably confusing. King’s conclusion to “Cell” was a bit anticlimactic and too ambiguous for many readers, but it was still a haunting conclusion that Williams doesn’t bother to include here.

Adapting Stephen King novels to the silver screen has always been tricky as filmmakers have to balance out their attention to both the gory aspects of his stories and the characters which inhabit them. Perhaps Williams tried to do both here, but he’s not able to shock us or care about the protagonists at the center of “Cell.” What we get instead is a very below average genre movie that isn’t worth anyone’s money or time. That should more than explain the studio’s decision to dump it in a handful of theaters this past weekend for a limited release. Do audiences even know “Cell” is out in theaters this weekend? Well, even if they do, I can’t blame them for not caring.

* out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016. All Rights Reserved.