Posted in: Disc Reviews by Gino Sassani on January 11th, 2011
When you first look at the title for this entry in After Dark’s 4th annual 8 Films To Die For, you probably have summoned up images of a dank and foreboding cemetery where unspeakable horrors rise from their resting places to torment the, albeit temporarily, living. This is definitely a little bit of a case of false advertising and the misleading use of a title. These Graves are sisters, Megan (Grant) and Abby (Murray), to be exact. They’re the kind of sisters who do everything together. You know the type. They almost speak in a secret language and appear to be soul mates. But Megan is a bit more outgoing and has gotten herself a job in New York, far away from the sisters’ home in Arizona. Abby is a bit more introverted and is having a hard time dealing with the inevitable loss of her sister. So the two decide to have one more blast together. It’s time for a road trip to visit the world’s largest thermometer. Oh boy. Any horror fan worth his remote knows that the girls are likely not going to make it to see the big thermometer, and they’d be correct. They get sidetracked in a small town called Unity where they are encouraged to visit the abandoned gold mine called Skull City Mine.
Something very strange lives at the mine, and the town’s folk have been feeding it tourists. The creature or entity is a dirt cloud that devours the hapless victim’s soul. Unfortunately, the creature isn’t capable of killing its prey, so the townsfolk have to pitch in and commit a little murder in order to satiate the beast. The Graves sisters are lambs being led to the slaughter. Of course, these two girls just wouldn’t be enough slaughter fodder for the full running time of a respectable movie, so the filmmakers have populated the mine with other lovely co-eds to provide a bevy of interesting kills to amp up the movie’s gore meter. Fortunately for the girls, the creature is willing to eat anybody, even its own followers if they should happen to find themselves dead. And the Graves sisters are all too happy to help some of them find their way to that cooperative condition.
This is the first film for writer/director Brian Pulido. But he’s not exactly an unknown name for horror fans who like their gore from the splash pages of the horror comic genre. He’s best known for such titles as Evil Ernie and Lady Death among his 250 comic title credits. He’s quite well known for his bloody-delicious mayhem on the pages of his comics. You could say he puts the graphic into the graphic novel. For a first film, this is actually a pretty solid effort.
The location for the fictional Skull City Mine is a real abandoned mine and town in Arizona called Vulture Mine. It’s an appropriate setting, because the real life mine is a perfect stand-in for the eerie environments of Pulido’s story. Of course, there’s a very good reason for that. It was this very location that inspired the story and film to begin with. Apparently, he and his wife Francisca, who was the movie’s set production designer, stumbled upon the location on one of their many explorations of Southwest tourist traps. A real example of art imitating life. We suspect there is no soul-eating creature at the actual location.
The solid cast is led by veteran horror actor Tony Todd. His deep voice and imposing figure have made him somewhat of an iconic actor in the industry. Here he plays the strict Reverend Abraham. This is the guy who keeps the creature’s congregation, The Church Of The Devout Ascension, in line. Unfortunately, the name actor gets little enough screen time, as is common when known actors often participate in these low-budget affairs. Give Todd credit, however. He never appears to be here only for the quick payday. He gives it his all, and it raises the entire level of the playing field here considerably. Clare Grant and Jullian Murray do a pretty convincing job as the sisters. They appear to share some genuine chemistry that I’m told began when they first met for the film. It’s Murray who shows the best range here, going from the rather shy, frightened girl afraid of being out on her own to a pretty kick-butt chick out to kick some bad guy behind and take down names.
You could do worse here, and make no mistake, this turns into a very standard survival game as so many films these days do. What it lacks in originality, it more than makes up for with just a little extra spunk. The gore effects are pretty good, even if the kills are your standard stuff. The soul-eating effects are rather cheap CG, but they do the job. In the end I can say it’s entertaining, and what more are you really looking for out of 1 of 8 Films To Die For?
Zombies Of Mass Destruction:
The year is 2003. The war in Iraq is just underway, and its ripples are felt even in the small town of Port Gamble, Washington. Take, for instance, Frida (Janette Armand). Her father is Iranian, which is the same thing as Iraqi as far as everyone else is concerned, and furthermore her skin tone and ethnic background mean she is not a “real American” (to quote her numbskull boyfriend) even though she was born in Port Gamble. Tom (Doug Fahl), meanwhile, has concerns less related to world affairs: he has returned to his home town, in the company of his boyfriend Lance (Cooper Hopkins), to come out to his mother, a prospect that fills him with dread. Then, just to complicate everybody’s life, a zombie plague breaks out, bringing out the best and worst of everyone in town.
Zombies have been fodder for socio-political allegory all the way back to their first cinematic appearance (in their pre-flesh-eating days) in White Zombie (1932), where they were the exploited workers of Bela Lugosi’s sugar cane mill. Director Kevin Hamedani and his co-writer Ramon Isao go into satirical overdrive with this effort. There is some very funny stuff here, along with plenty of over-the-top gore FX and likable protagonists. Unlike Dawn of the Dead and Shaun of the Dead, however, whose commentary emerges naturally from the story and characters, here the personalities and story have clearly been designed to fit the political points being made. Thus, though Frida, Tom, and Lance are very engaging characters (if almost entirely defined by their ethnic or sexual minority identities), their non-zombified opponents are caricatures of conservatism, as hissable as they are stupid. Now, satire is, by its very nature, a savage art, and I’m all for both savagery and movies that aren’t afraid to take a stand, but Hamedani and Isao run the risk of preaching to the choir here. With almost every line of dialog slaved to the film’s political points, we are entering the realm of the editorial cartoon. And though there’s nothing wrong with that, it does mean that there isn’t much to the film beyond those political points. Thus, one faction of the audience will simply have its views confirmed, while the other will be completely alienated, and it is doubtful that much thought will be provoked. As well, some of the gags are arguably a bit misjudged. The scene where Tom’s mother eats her own eye owes its funny/nauseating vibe to Peter Jackson’s Dead/Alive, and works well enough, but the moment where a little girl Frida is trying to help and is splattered by a car is more problematic, depending on your tolerance for extreme splatstick. All that said, there’s still plenty of sharp work from all concerned here.
For both films the 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 20-25 mbps.
The Graves is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. What I think I like best about this film is that it happens mostly in broad daylight. It means a little better chance to enjoy the scenery and the blood and guts. The lighting is harsh desert stuff, but at least it looks pretty natural. It’s not a lot of color, unless you count dark red, blood, that is. Texas gore. There’s a bit of a compression artifact trouble here, so black levels are a bit sub par.
Zombies Of Mass Destruction:
The palette is a naturalistic one, favoring realism over eye candy. The colours are solid, as are the contrasts, blacks, and flesh tones. The overall look is a perhaps a bit darker than it needs to be, which makes for some squint-inducing moments in a few of the night scenes. Grain is not a problem, though, and the image is nicely sharp. The aspect ratio is 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen.
Both films contain a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio presentation.
This track isn’t going to win any awards for sound design. It does enough. You can hear the dialog. Todd’s booming voice gets a good bit of sub going, so it’s probably a little better than average for this kind of release.
Zombies Of Mass Destruction:
There’s a great goblin-like feel to the electronic score, and it makes full use of surround possibilities. The sound effects are also well handled, so be prepared to hear gut-munching coming at your from all sides. The dialog is always clear and never drowned out, however energetic the rest of the track becomes. Very nice work, then, and as slick as that on films considerably more expensive than this.
Lionsgate loaded this one larger than any other film in the collection. It’s all in standard definition, however. Look at all you get here:
Auditions/Script Reads: (5:03) Various members of the cast are seen reading their parts here.
Music Video: (3:11) Vampires Don’t Exist by Calabrese.
Plan To Actual: (5:46) Not really sure exactly what in the heck this is supposed to be. It starts with a split screen of shooting and final film. These pieces are intercut with some of Pulido giving the cast some direction.
Spot The Gnome: (1:21) Apparently a gnome shows up in all of the dude’s films. This piece challenges you to find it in the film.
The Graves – Behind The Screams: (20:39) This is more like your typical behind-the-scenes stuff with plenty of goofing around by cast and crew. This was obviously a happy set. Pulido has a very dry sense of humor, and there’s a lot of it here.
Sound Designing: (5:05) Steve Harrison was the film’s sound designer, and he takes you through some of his work on the film.
There are even a couple of Commentary Tracks.
Zombies Of Mass Destruction:
The Making of Zombies of Mass Destruction: (6:00) The usual promotional thing, and pretty brief at that, though it is interesting to hear the filmmakers talk about the film’s politics.
Hey, I get to sit around sometimes and watch horror movies for a living. Then I get to tell you guys what I think about what I saw. It’s a tough job, but you know the rest. This collection from Lionsgate has really been a gravy run for the most part. This is by far the best collection in the series, and I mean by a huge margin. Six out of the eight horror films are actually pretty good. With that much horror movie watching out there, you NEED someone like me to pick the winners, someone you can trust, “You need somebody who loves the job, who lives for it.”
The Graves written by Gino Sassani Zombies Of Mass Destruction written by David Annandale