I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943):
The word "atmospheric" gets thrown around in discussions of director Jacques Tourneur's work almost as much as the word "adorkable" is used to describe Zooey Deschanel. But it's certainly apt. Maybe even more so than the director's Cat People and Curse Of The Demon, I Walked With A Zombie goes for an overall mood of gorgeously-shot eeriness rather than big, spectacular scares. A Canadian nurse (Frances Dee) is hired to look after the brain-damaged wife of a plantation manager (Tom Conway) in the West Indies, and her curiosity about the woman's mysterious ailment leads her to investigate alternative treatments--like the ones practiced in voodoo rituals by the local plantation workers. We learn of a love triangle between Paul, his wife Jessica, and Paul's brother Wesley, which may have led to her condition. The possibility arises that Jessica has fallen under a voodoo curse, and that she may not even be technically alive at all anymore. But who cursed her, and why? The film keeps you guessing as to whether or not supernatural forces really are at work, or if it's all the result of jealousy, forbidden love, and mental illness. Viewers drawn to the title looking for a Romeroesque apocalypse of walking corpses will be pretty disappointed--I Walked With A Zombie is much more of a romantic melodrama with supernatural undertones than anything else. But it remains a sterling example of classy studio horror of the era. And even nearly 70 years later, the image of the giant, pop-eyed voodoo enforcer Carrefour is still pretty startling.
REC (2007) and REC 2 (2009):
If you wanna make me roll my eyes at you, recommend I watch a) another goddamned zombie movie, b) another goddamned found-footage movie, or c) a goddamned found-footage zombie movie. But the first two installments in the Spanish-language REC movie series make these tired horror cliches fresh, exciting, and terrifying all over again. The key to the series' success so far (a third film has been released in Spain, but I have no idea when it'll arrive in North America) has been its inventive use of the you-are-there immediacy of the found footage format (courtesy of co-directors Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza), and a fascinating mythology that blurs the line between the supernatural and the scientific. In the 2007 kickoff to the franchise, we follow a TV crew recording a show called While You're Asleep as they follow a group of firemen on their nightly duties. When the firemen are summoned to a nearby apartment building on a mysterious emergency call, they find themselves--along with the terrified cameraman and TV host (Manuela Velasco)--trapped inside the now-quarantined building with its hapless residents as a strange virus, transmitted through blood and saliva, turns its victims into the spazziest ghouls this side of Return Of The Living Dead. As the story progresses, we learn that the building's penthouse has been home to a mysterious old priest who has been performing strange experiments on a young girl. The hair-raising final moments of REC take us inside the penthouse as the remainder of the building is overtaken by the lunatic zombies, who are not undead at all but are instead victims of a particularly contagious strain of demonic possession. The priest who lived there had been trying to find a scientific cure for the strain, but to no avail...and his unbelievably gross Patient Zero is still lurking about! 2009's REC 2 picks up mere moments later, as a SWAT team enters the still-quarantined building with a health official (Jonathan D. Mellor) who is not what he seems. The sequel keeps things fresh with a whole new bag of cinematic tricks--things veer into Aliens territory, not to mention first-person-shooter video game territory, when the SWAT guys activate their helmet-cams, and the perspective shifts in Act Two to a group of young video pranksters who sneak into the building hoping to sell footage to the nightly news. REC 2 throws a number of crazy surprises at you, like the reveal that kicks off Act Three, and the movie's stomach-churning final twist. Some story points don't hold up upon consideration--for instance, why would anyone conduct such risky experiments with a dangerous contagion inside an apartment building full of innocent civilians? Wouldn't a concrete bunker in the desert be more appropriate? But you'll be too busy being scared out of your wits to dwell on such questions for long. Reviews on the third film in the series, which sounds like it deviates from the original story by taking place at a wedding (?), have not been promising, but in any event I'm glad the filmmakers kept the cameras rolling for the first two outstanding installments. Watch these at night with the lights out if you think you've got the guts, but I watched the second one for the first time this very morning and, even in broad daylight, it still freaked me out.
Lifelong genre enthusiast. I made the comics SCENESTER and SLAM-A-RAMA (both available at tucocomics.blogspot.com and slamaramacomic.com), I write comic and movie reviews for NerdSpan (nerdspan.com), and I'm sure I do other stuff that I'm not remembering right now.