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Double Feature Fridays: Zombies

Sink your teeth into two modern zombie flicks, the laugh riot ‘Zombieland’ and the emotional ‘Cargo’

Utsav Kotrial Sep 07, 2018

Amber Heard and Jesse Eisenberg in a still from Zombieland

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The zombie myth had its origins in Haitian folklore before it came to the big screen, existing as superstition about the soulless dead returning to life. One of the first successful zombie films of the black-and-white era was White Zombie (1932) starring Hungarian-American horror pioneer Bela Lugosi. The zombies were his reanimated slaves, pale and slow, but not hungry.

Zombies invaded mainstream cinema in the Sixties and Seventies, due to the creative genius of American-Canadian filmmaker George Romero, who gave his stories depth by using them as metaphors for race relations and consumerism. Disease, political conflict, and climate change were other topics that zombies have been symbols for. Soon after, they became a popular subgenre, and even indie producers were attempting them.

The undead approach in ‘Night Of The Living Dead’

After a drop in interest for a decade or two, the second revival came in the 2000s, with original, genre-defining tales like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, competent remakes like Zack Snyder’s Dawn of The Dead and the massively popular zom-com Shaun Of The Dead. Today, you can consume one zombie property every day without worrying about running out.

This week on Double Feature Fridays, we’re focussing on two modern zombie movies. Both start off well after the population has been infected, and both end with you in tears… just not the same kind.

Zombieland (2009)

Zombieland poster

Directed by U.S.-based Ruben Fleischer, Zombieland is the product of the rising popularity of zombie comedies. It got monotonous to take them too seriously, and Zombieland revitalised the genre by balancing out its gore and panic with a focus on quirky and hopelessly mismatched human characters.

Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin and Woody Harrelson bring their comedic A-game. It follows Columbus (Eisenberg), a cowardly geek and Tallahassee (Harrelson), a gun-toting maniac as they journey across the United States of Zombieland to find their family, and on the way they’re joined by two whip-smart sisters (Stone and Breslin) hell-bent on conning them. When they unite despite their differences, it feels earned, thanks to some genuine emotional heft. Even the romantic subplot isn’t sappy; it’s infused with the same sense of fun that guides the rest of the plot. Outside of all the blood and guts, it’s a sweet story about friendship.

Woody Harrelson practises his swing in Zombieland

The film stands out because of its wacky stylistic choices. It features flashbacks, rock music, stimulating (and fortunately underused) slow motion sequences, and perhaps the best of all, hilarious animated text that enhance some punchlines and sometimes are the punchlines themselves.

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These are usually Eisenberg’s rules to survive in Zombieland, which deconstructs the genre by poking fun at ways that characters generally die during zombie attacks (‘Always check the backseat,’ ‘Beware of bathrooms,’ ‘Don’t be a hero’). The movie treats its zombies like video games do, they exist only to be murdered in funny or gruesome ways. The characters even discuss their choices for ‘Zombie Kill of The Week,’ and settle on an old lady who drops a piano on an undead.

So if you’re looking for a road-trip style film with witty banter, frantic action, and clever use of special effects, you can’t do much better. At just 88 minutes, it’s a breeze, and makes for a great night in with friends.

Cargo (2018)

Directed by Australian filmmakers Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke, Cargo is a new Netflix production, adapted from a short film of the same name. It follows a man trying to find a safe haven for his infant daughter, Rosie. The catch? He has 48 hours before he turns into the walking dead himself, which lends urgency to an otherwise slow-burning narrative. The setting itself is uncommon for the genre, as the film takes place entirely in the sparsely populated Australian outback. Martin Freeman’s heart-breaking performance is amplified against the vast stretches of dull wilderness, and the infant ‘actress’ is surprisingly emotive at the right moments.

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The other character, an indigenous girl called Thoomi who has figured out a way to care for her zombie father is hiding to protect him from her family, a group of tribals that are eradicating the zombies. Their paths cross eventually, leading to moments that are both beautiful and tragic. The film can drag in its mid-section, an unfortunately common symptom of short films expanded into features. The original seven-minute short film is available for viewing online, in case you want a much faster, punchier version. However, the full-length feature is still recommendable for its rich characterisation, tense situations and an emotional resolution that’ll even melt the hearts of hardened viewers.

Andy and Thoomi share a tender moment in ‘Cargo’

Despite finding Freeman immensely likeable, I was sceptical about the film. I decided to watch it based on a single line from Alex Bojalad’s review for Den of Geek, “The film’s best feature is a fundamental respect for humanity in all its gross forms.”  It made me curious, since I assumed the film would eventually dive into zombie-killing, or at least feature it heavily. However, it avoids gore for the sake of gore. The violence is more grounded than gratuitous, the focus being on its psychological difficulty and not on sensationalism. The scenes where multiple zombies are murdered actually make you feel something unusual… sympathy. The zombies used to be people, and are essentially blameless. The film wears this truth on its sleeve. Cargo is unafraid to give us a grown-up, empathetic view of situations that can easily be mined for instant gratification, and that is where its strength lies.

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