Crash Analysis: ZOMBIES ANONYMOUS (2006)

Hit and miss Zombies Anonymous

A zombie woman tries to find her place in the world of the living.

When zombies rise, the living and the undead must tread an uneasy line of cohabitation. There’s an anti-zombie gang out to “kill ‘em all”, a zombie support group for those trying to cope with being undead and a faux-religious zombie cult out to embrace their “inner zombie” by chowing down on all things human.

Sound awesome so far? The concepts in this movie are wonderful, though we’ve seen them fleshed out a little more in David Gebroe’s ZOMBIE HONEYMOON (2004) and later in Grace Lee’s AMERICAN ZOMBIE (2007). However, all three movies have one thing in common: They were all hit and miss. Concept-wise, their story paths were interesting and intelligent since they moved far beyond the cliché of mindless zombies wanting nothing more than brains to consume, but the final execution, when the movie was in the can, was off, like they couldn’t drag out a one-trick tale.

In ZOMBIE’S ANONYMOUS (originally entitled LAST RIGHTS OF THE DEAD), writer/director/producer/editor/composer Mark Fratto works hard to weave a story centered around Angela (Gina Ramsden), who, after being murdered by her hot-headed misogynistic boyfriend Josh (Joshua Nelson), begins life anew as a walking, talking, lost in the world of the living, zombie. As we follow Angela, we learn that this strange new world is working hard to come to terms with all things undead: Do they have rights? Should they be allowed to work? Should they be destroyed?

Angela simply wants to find out where she belongs and her journey brings her to the in-denial therapy group that wants to fit in with the human population by trying to eat doughnuts, and a cultist zombie group hellbent on fighting – or biting – back. She also has to deal with Josh again, since he’s now part of a militia group out to destroy zombies because they don’t belong. Fratto’s story deals with some important questions about alienation, group fantaticism, self-esteem and independence, as well as bigotry, but he tries to cover too much ground and only scratches the surface, while indulging in some cheap laughs and tongue in cheek dialogue. No, this didn’t need to be a serious piece weighed down with pretencious musings and monologues, but since much of the acting was over-the-top, it was hard to take anything seriously.

In the opening scene, Angela’s hunkered down in the bathtub, doing her best to avoid boyfriend Josh’s wrath and 9mm on the other side of the door. Here, Ramsden shines. Sure, we can tell it’s a low budget movie, but Ramsden’s acting and Fratto’s camera angles add much to the scene. However, Nelson was instantly on and off. Sure, he was acting tough and hostile, but he was simply trying to play the part. Like the Commandant (Christa McNamee) Nelson muscles for, neither actor embraced their respective roles and became the characters. They simply acted as best they could and came off as disingenuous because they didn’t go that extra step to lose themselves in their respective roles.

Besides Ramsden’s consistent work of the freaked out Angela, Kevin T. Collins rocked as Louis, the zombie who left the therapy group for something far more visceral and violent. Richie (J. Scott Green) is equally wonderful as the zombie killer wannabe, and his final segment in the movie really grasps at the heartstrings. All three actors were solid and consistent, embraced their characters and let their emotions ring true. The rest of the cast, fell sadly short.

Anthony Pepe, the special effects man on the crew, at times delivered some excellent make up work, while on other occasions one wondered if he cared at all about his creations. The visual effects of exploding heads thanks to shotgun blasts, were fast, cheesy and far removed from worthwhile, and will most often bring a little laughter from the audience.

Original music supplied by Fratto, as well as Andy Ascolese and Frank Garfi, leaves much to be desired. Once again, some of it works well within the scope and atomosphere of the movie, while other tracks are simply awful and distort the scenes they inhabit. Most often, the soundtrack proves distracting.

The acting, at times spot-on and perfect, is also off the mark at far too regular intervals. The same as the special effects make-up as well as the music. So why is the entire movie “hit and miss”? Because the director, Marc Fratto, didn’t follow through. Because he often went with one take instead of asking for another. Sure, money and time played a role, but it’s clear many parts are rushed, even in the overly elongated sequences where Fratto’s editing needed to be put to better use. Fratto tried to do way too much on his own. Ambition is fine, but he could have used the assitance of others to get the job done. Granted, Helena Inno was his second assistant director, but he needed more help from his producers. Hell, maybe he shouldn’t have left all the casting to Brandi Metaxas, who was also in charge of makeup. For a zombie flick, Fratto clearly bit off more than he could chew.

In the end, ZOMBIE’S ANONYMOUS is a “could have been”. Great moments of social commentary are often lost in the comedy, and at times, bad acting brings the entire movie to a halt, undermining everything Fratto worked so hard to accomplish. Many fans tote this as being one of the greatest zombie treats of all-time. But if you favor a complete package of writing, acting, cinematography and special effects to weave a mesmerizing and original tale of quality, ZOMBIE’S ANONYMOUS falls short – and this is one of the reasons why the movie’s a direct to video feature and didn’t appear in a cinema near you. Still, it is definitely worth a look for its ambition. However, the true disappointment is that Gina Ramsden has not been part of another feature in six years, and that’s sinful.

2 out of 5 stars

Crash Palace Horror Diary: TOO MANY PREDATORS Underway…

Sunday, October 28, 2012

What remains of Hurricane Sandy, still a tropical tempest, is about to hit my native New Jersey and bring havoc to its shores. And as wind speeds climb and travel warnings blaze, I’m heading closer to the storm by heading east on Route 78 towards New Providence. Then again, I’m on a mission to meet to the filmmakers at the New Jersey Film School that will bring my horror short, TOO MANY PREDATORS to life.

Chris Messineo, founder and director of the award-winning New Jersey Film School, had recently moved into a more comprehensive and more filmmaker friendly location. With workspace and studio of 3,700 square feet, a screening room and waiting area, he could put his eight cameras as well as other top-flight lighting and sound equipment to work for students at any level. Of course, I was hoping for his best and brightest class. Then again, Chris had come to me with the idea of having his Advance Film Workshop shoot the movie, so I knew that’s exactly what he had planned.

We had met in 2000 when I had indulged in his screenwriting course. At this point, my crime thriller BLOODLETTING had won Second Place in the Screenwriter Showcase Screenwriting Contest, but I wanted to craft even better stories. Thankfully, Chris had been impressed with my work and soon invited me to join the New Jersey Screenwriter’s Group, which he had co-founded. I visited the group of scribes on three Saturdays, took part in live readings of members’ scripts, offered feedback, and had submitted the first ten-pages of a dramatic feature (which has yet to be completed). Afterwards, the group voted me in and I have been with the group ever since. Regardless of all the screenwriting awards I had received, thanks in part to the group’s professional recommendations, “near misses” on sales had run rampant, and other prospective short films had yet to materialize. But after TOO MANY PREDATORS had come up short in a contest at MoviePoet.com, Chris said he had liked the script and apparently kept the story in mind.

Originally, I had met with Chris last year to talk about shooting my dramatic horror RAVENCRAFT as a “no budget” feature. The script was the Third Place Winner at the AWS Screenwriting Contest (first for the horror genre) and was a Top-Twenty Finalist at Shriekfest. But he had recommended I film a short first, to get my bearings, and chose TOO MANY PREDATORS right away. (This was the polite way to tell me that I wouldn’t be the next Oren Peli or Richard Rodriquez.)

As I pulled into the lot, facing a strong headwind, I was thankful Sandy had yet to unleash herself and hoped she’d hold off for another few hours. I stepped into the class that was already in session, and immediately saw two familiar faces: Mark, who actually teaches digital photography at the school, and Rolando, who had taken Chris’ Crash Course in filmmaking with me earlier this year. I indulged in one of Rolando’s videos and had been wowed by his talent. I already felt like I was in the best of hands. The class attentively reviewed a short film they had shot as an assignment the week before. Chris praised the director, an action hero looking man named Bill, then showed everyone a short sequence that lasted less than seven seconds. In that moment, lighting, framing, a musical queue and great acting brought the scene to life in grand fashion. A jolt of energy rocketed through me, my heart beat a little stronger and I had to fight to hide my excitment. Here was a student who had shot a professional looking segment that made me wonder why low-budget films could be so damned awful. Maybe it was because the so-called filmmakers that churn out such drek hadn’t taken a class with Chris.

Besides being the founder of both the screenwriter’s group and film school, several years before, Chris had launched his own production company, Off Stage Films, and won awards along the way. Chris is a taller than average, slender man with a lean face and a “kindness first” attitude I admire. He’s also father to Joanna who has appeared in several of his short films, and his always upbeat wife, Liz is the school’s front office manager. When not penning scripts, shooting films or teaching, Chris coaches soccer. Although I have never seen him coach, there is no doubt he brings the same vivaciousness and strength to his team as he does with every other group. As a student of Chris’s on two occasions, I was overjoyed to see that he and I approached teaching in a similar matter: Offer students praise, followed by constructive criticism, then encourage them to challenge themselves and move forward. No wonder most of his students keep coming back for more instruction and guidance – because he empowers them to make the very best films and write the most complete scripts possible.

I was soon introduced to the remainder of the class: everyone was twenty-plus, mature, focused and professional.

Chris read the first version of the script from the MoviePoet contest, my initial rewrite, then the final shorter version for the class’s main and final project. No response. They simply took notes with vigor, not simply from what Chris was discussing, but they were apparently dreaming up elements for a shot list.

My confidence rose as I marched with the students to where we would film the short. Again, as Chris spoke: More note taking, as if the class were made-up of Dr. Spock movie-making geeks – and that’s an excellent thing. There was no silly prepubescence here, just creative adults with a drive to make another quality film for themselves and for the school. In fact, three of the students had worked on New Jersey Film School’s First Place film for the DVXUser Contest in 2011. The movie, THE WATER’S EDGE (http://vimeo.com/26971574), based on Chris Messineo’s script, is as professional as they come: great story, acting, cinematography, direction – you name it. Yet as Chris walked around the space, he pointed out what they might want to consider in regard to their shot list for TOO MANY PREDATORS.

As a screenwriter, I imagine my stories visually, as if already watching a movie. In my head, I pursue close-ups and wide shots, angle on characters and items, and so forth. But as we stood in the matte-black studio, Chris mentioned a couple of different shots to his students as examples. Shots I had never even remotely taken into account. As a screenwriter, instead of feeling that my script may be in danger of being changed, I felt another surge of elation due to an instantaneous recognition that my script would be far better than I had imagined. And as producer, I would have the chance to witness the director’s vision (whichever student wins that spot), and learn from him or her.

After some minor chatter, class was over. Sandy was getting closer by the second, and most had to get home, though the bulk lingered to chat amongst themselves. As for me, I hadn’t felt that pumped-up about a project in a long time. Everyone in the class gave a damn and wanted to shoot the best possible movie. One student shook my hand and thanked me for providing them with a script. Of course I thanked him. It was clear we were doing each other a favor, and I looked forward to the collaboration, and to what I might take from my second short film experience.

For this coming Sunday, Chris will assign their official duties for the short, based upon their requests, and they will comprise the shot list. Over the next several Sundays we will cast our actors, plan the shoot, spend a day designing the set and shooting, then editing.

And as a special bonus, we’ll have someone working on set who is quite renowned. Most of you have seen this person’s work, but I’m sworn to secrecy – for now.

By the time I got home, Sandy still had not revealed her true tempest, and I was too wired to sleep. Thanks to Chris, the New Jersey Film School and his devoted class, it almost felt like Christmas morning had come early for me.

More to come…