Jungle Wolf (1986)

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We have ISCFC favourite Len Kabasinski to thank for bringing Ron Marchini to our attention. The micro-budget genre filmmaker was a big fan of “Omega Cop” and “Karate Cop” growing up, and because they were movies about a karate master who was the last cop in a post-apocalyptic future, we had to watch them too. They were pretty good fun, truth be told, so thanks Len, and now, after yet more tracking down of old VHS tapes, we’re able to give you more Marchini.

 

There’s some “Rambo” style numbering fun going on, which also means we’re watching a Marchini series out of order again. Let’s see if we can puzzle our way through it. In 1985’s “Ninja Warriors”, he plays a character called Steve; but that seems to have no connection to 1986’s “Forgotten Warrior”, where he’s Steve Parrish. That movie would appear to be the prequel to this one, also from 1986, as he’s got the same name in both; but then there’s “Return Fire”, from 1987, also with Marchini as Steve Parrish. Lastly, with a little sprinkle of weirdness, there’s a “Jungle Wolf 3” from 1990, where he plays a guy with a completely different name.

 

“Ninja Warriors” sounds amazing and “Forgotten Warrior” sounds dull as ditchwater, but we know you rely on us for snarky reviews of obscure old genre movies, so we’ll watch them all, don’t you worry about that. Luckily, there’s not a ton of continuity so I feel confident about discussing this without having seen any of the others.

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Marchini is Steve, as has been mentioned, and in the flattest voiceover since “Witchcraft 10”, we’re informed he was in Vietnam, married a local, but she was killed; now he’s back home in the USA, with a blond son. Did he have this son before abandoning him to go to Vietnam the first time, or is this a “ten years later” thing? Already with the questions, this is going to be a long movie. The small Central American country of San Sebastian has got a rebel problem, and right at the beginning those rebels capture the US Ambassador during a TV interview – this is handy as it gives them the chance to state their demands, which is entirely to do with the return of their imprisoned leader. We get no sense of why they’re fighting or what they’re so angry about, in case that sort of stuff is important to you.

 

The US is going to send the big guns in, but before they waste money and lives, they decide to ask Steve, who is now, apparently, a stunt pilot – yes, we get several minutes of a little plane flying upside down and doing loops and so on. They paid for the plane and pilot and by golly they’re going to use them! So after seconds of discussion, Steve agrees to leave his son behind and head off into Central America to do a rescue. Now, I’m wholly prepared to admit that I wasn’t paying the closest attention, but the next I see, he’s got the rebel leader in handcuffs and is leading him through the wilderness? Perhaps they just wanted him to make the handover, but it seems like they could have made it a bit easier, by flying him a bit closer to the rebels, or something like that. Anyway, it’s Steve, Rebel Leader and Rebel Leader’s daughter (I think), and that’s the majority of the movie.

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Well, the real majority of the movie is writer / producer / star Ron Marchini kicking the ass of a rather large number of Filipino extras. Sorry, “central American freedom fighters”. They keep coming and he keeps knocking them back, whether with his sweet (if rather non-flashy-looking) moves, or a wide variety of guns, or throwing stars, or even a sword at the end. Ron is undoubtedly a very skilled martial artist, and he never really lets the pace of things drop either, so that side is an enthusiastic thumbs up from us. I do like how sometimes he goes out of his way to just knock guys out, and other times straight-up murders people (he throws one poor chap off the roof of a building, for instance). There’s a lot of people mown down by machine gun fire too, to the extent you’ll doubt the rebels have any soldiers left by the end.

 

The plot goes a bit sideways in the last act, and the ending is just completely meaningless and stupid, but all in all it’s a solid, fun, action-packed B-movie. But we need to talk about the acting. Apart from the rebel second-in-command, who’s a splendid scenery-chewer, every single person in this is wooden as hell, to the point where I’m not entirely convinced they all realise they’re in a film; but standing proudly atop this mountain is Marchini himself. Now, I don’t want to say he’s a bad actor, because that implies that he is one – he’s a non-actor, an unactor, an empty page. He manages half a smile when his character gets married and that’s it, the rest of the time he’s nothing. It’s quite amazing to watch, really.

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Fans of rarely filmed locations will enjoy the firefight which is in and around some beautiful Filipino ruins (or just enjoy how little respect they show what should be a world heritage site). And fans of songs in films which describe the plot of the film itself (one of my favourite sub-genres) will be delighted with “Back In Action”, hair-metal class that you can listen to for yourselves:

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QmU81XZq9w

 

I hope you get as much enjoyment from Ron Marchini’s movies as I have, and if you can track this one down, do so.

 

Rating: thumbs up

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American Ninja (1985)

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Michael Dudikoff is perhaps the most 80s of all the action stars. Despite a fairly steady career up to 2000 or so, the only films anyone remembers, at all, are the “American Ninja” series; although 1998’s “Freedom Strike”, co-starring – I can’t believe I’m typing this – Tone Loc, sounds pretty awesome too. Anyway, Dudikoff is probably feeling a little aggrieved he never got a call from the “Expendables” people, and after taking a decade away from acting he’s been making a mini-comeback over the last few years.

But that’s all a long way away to the world of 1985 and “American Ninja”. Dudikoff (how many times was he called “The Dude”, do you think? I’ll go with 10 million) is Private Joe Armstrong, a guy who was discovered unconscious on an island in the Pacific, with amnesia. He bounced around reform schools for a few years before being offered prison or the army, and he picked the army. Sent to the Philippines, he scowls his way round the base before a hijack attempt on a convoy he’s driving in forces him to use his super bad-ass martial arts skills to rescue the Colonel’s daughter.

This was made during, well, probably a few years after, the American fascination with all things martial arts and Oriental. Joe has to fight one of the other guys on the base, Jackson, because he’s a loose cannon who gets people killed, and he does this by not throwing a punch, just using Jackson’s weight against him in a nice basic kung-fu display. The weird reverence the rest of the guys then have for him is way over the top for what he can actually do, but he’s a pretty good fighter all the same.

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If you want something which is thick with good old 80s action cheesiness, then this is the film for you. There’s a plan to steal some stuff from the base which Joe discovers, but who else is in on it? Who can he trust? Why don’t people trust him when, wherever he goes, he kills a few evil ninjas? Was there a reason other than “we need some stuff to crash through” why they had all those fruit stalls on the dock? And how awesome was the scene where the private ninja army was training?

Given that Dudikoff had been acting for a long time before this movie, one would have expected him to be better at it. He stays silent (even when speaking would benefit him) for great periods of the film, and when he does speak he’s got quite a light high-ish-pitched speaking voice, which doesn’t go with his character at all. I mean, it’s not like the rest of the cast is RSC material or anything, but he stands out as weirdly bad. I discover that, far from being a martial artist who converted to acting, he’s a model who converted to acting, his pout at the beginning sort of bearing this out, and then took up martial arts later.

If you think about the ninjas in this film for a second, it gets a bit odd. They wear black to go unseen at night, but if you’re in the jungle in daylight then wearing black is a terrible idea. It’s not a uniform! Chief bad guy ninja has a laser, which is a fantastic weapon but not traditionally part of the ninja’s arsenal; oh, and the explanation for how Joe gets his ninja skills when it’s forbidden on pain of death to teach them to a Westerner is so obvious they might as well have hung a sign round the guy’s neck. There’s a whole thing about ninja magic, and light / dark side nonsense too.

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Alright, it’s not very good. Dudikoff looks way out of his depth, the plot is cheesy, the bad guy’s accent is so bad as to almost be a deliberate joke, and the fights scenes aren’t anything to write home about. But…even though this is a thumbs down movie, if you’re in the right frame of mind you might enjoy this. Cannon Films, run by Golan and Globus, specialised in this thing and it all runs smoothly and fairly quickly. Wow, that sounds like damning with faint praise, eh? Picture that DVD cover – “Runs smoothly and fairly quickly” – Mark, ISCFC.

Rating: thumbs down

Modern fighting – thoughts on “The Raid 2” and “In The Blood”

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The ISCFC loves fighting films – a few days ago, we reviewed martial arts classic “Dragons Forever”, and a few months ago we did modern gem “Ninja”. Today, we’re taking on a couple of brand new films with fighting at their core – one of them the sequel to a modern classic, the other a good old-fashioned (relatively) low-budget actioner starring someone best known for fighting for real. How do they shape up?

I wasn’t as big a fan of “The Raid” as some people. I enjoyed it a lot, but felt there was quite a lot of stuff I remembered from computer games – find a bit of cover, crouch behind it, shoot endless swarms of bad guys, repeat. Perhaps it was the rotten subtitles on the version I saw, which kept dropping out or going “invisible” (white words on white background), but I didn’t feel like it was worth the hype. “The Raid 2”, on the other hand, is a 2 ½ hour beast, a sequel that goes further, with more of…everything, really.

Iko Uwais is Rama, the cop who broke so many people in pieces in the first film, and this time the raid is to go undercover with Jakarta’s biggest criminal gang, not to bring them down but to discover the crooked cops who are on their payroll. This, unfortunately, involves him going to prison for 2 years – but luckily for us, he does get to have an amazing mass brawl in the middle of a muddy quad. The big boss’s son is in prison, so Rama helps him out, gains his trust and works alongside him. Add to this other gangs trying to muscle in on their territory, the son plotting against the father and the crooked cops trying to kill everyone, and you’ve got a recipe for insanity.

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The filmmakers clearly want you to bother about the plot of this one – Rama is supposed to be going to prison for a few months, but due to political interference, ends up in there for two years; although if you were expecting them to develop that side of the story in the gigantic running time of the film, you’d be disappointed. What the film does extraordinarily well is the fighting. The martial art of choice is pencak silat, one born in Indonesia and full of amazing close-fighting speed, and Iko Uwais clearly knows his stuff, as the fights are full of speed and incident and incredible precision.

Oh, and violence. Boy is this a bloody film – people get their faces smashed in and shot off, folks get impaled on a whole variety of things, Hammer Girl (her name in the film) uses her hammers to cause the sort of damage you’d expect…and so on. It’s really really violent. But beautiful, weirdly, as there are so many wonderfully filmed set pieces – like “Hero” but in the here and now.

I liked that this film wasn’t one long orgy of shooting and violence like the first one, but director Gareth Evans seems to have put an entire normal-length ultra-violent film in here, then added another hour of gangsters and crooked cops and betrayals. The thing is, I’m not sure a film like this really needs to be quite as long as it is (two and a half hours)- and it’s got an exceptionally downbeat ending, if you think about it for a minute.

So, “The Raid 2” goes over the top with violence, while giving us plenty to chew on, and it’s an enthusiastic thumbs up from me. It feels very very modern, too, but our other film of the day, “In The Blood” feels like it was taken straight from the 80s (with the exception of the gender of the protagonist).

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Gina Carano is brilliant. She was a kickass MMA fighter, and drew some impressive PPV numbers for her fights until she ran into the (chemically enhanced) Christiane “Cyborg” Santos. After that, someone decided she could make a lot more money acting and not have to get her head kicked in for real, so she made a move. Her first big role was the Stephen Soderbergh-directed “Haywire”, which I loved, and while she’s still not the world’s best actress, she’s not bad and improving all the time. She plays Ava, who marries Derek (Cam Gigandet) after they meet in Alcoholics Anonymous. He’s rich, and his family don’t want him marrying someone like her, who’s probably just after his money, but they do anyway and go for a honeymoon to an unnamed Caribbean island.

We also get regular flashbacks to Carano’s childhood, where she watches her parents get killed (before killing the two assailants herself) and then is brought up by the sort of mysterious fella you get in films like this, who teaches her how to fight extremely dirty and generally look after herself. This is a handy way round the explanation for her being an amazing martial artist, so when Derek falls from a zipline and disappears on his way to hospital, she starts beating her way to the truth.

This is where the film stops making sense, too. I’d suggest stopping reading now (rating: thumbs up) if you don’t want to have it spoiled, as I’m not a good enough reviewer to tell you why otherwise.

Derek is important because he’s an exact bone marrow match for violent gangster Silvio (Amaury Nolasco), who has some rare cancer. The problem is, with the timescale of the film, there’s no possible way Silvio could have known that about Derek before everyone started acting weird. Thinking back on it, it starts to make less sense – unpicking the series of events that led Derek to being kidnapped by Silvio, I’m trying to remember if he had a blood test at any point, and I just don’t think he did. Talking of stuff that makes no sense, what about the bizarre way Derek’s family treat Ava when they come over from the mainland? They seem fairly satisfied that she murdered him and hid the body and just leave after a day or so, never to be seen again.

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So, provided you can completely ignore the fact that this film’s plot is a complete house of cards and the merest whisper of wind is enough to send it tumbling, there’s plenty to enjoy. It’s got some great B-movie people in it (as well as Nolasco, we have Treat Williams and Danny Trejo) and Gina Carano is beautiful. No sense ignoring it, and despite being grotesquely large by Hollywood standards (in other words, built like a fit, strong, athletic woman rather than an undernourished waif) she dominates every scene she’s in and when she fights men, she looks infinitely better than when we’re expected to believe some 100-pound woman who looks like she’s never trained a day in her life can beat the crap out of some ripped 200-pound guy (there’s a reason boxing and MMA have weight classes, you guys).

A bit more acting development and Carano could be a huge star, but I think the writers (one of whom only did cheap horror sequels before this, the other wrote “Dumb and Dumber”) need to work on establishing why stuff happens. I annoyed my viewing companion by trying to puzzle out the ludicrousness of the story, and probably when I cheered at the nightclub fight, where women in tiny dresses throw each other around, so sorry about that; but I’m not sorry for still being unable to work out why A followed B in this movie. So watch and enjoy, but don’t whatever you do spend any time thinking about it.

Dragons Forever (1988)

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I’m sure there are tons of reviews of this film out there already – written by smart people with a deep knowledge of both Jackie Chan and martial arts cinema in general, with all sorts of information about the evolving style and the one-martial-art-vs-another undercurrent that seems to feature in so many of these films. But for this one, you’re just going to get the socialist film nerd’s approach…which is probably not original either. But it’s free, so stop complaining!

Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao (the three stars of this film) were all brought up in one of the many Peking Opera Schools, among the last generation to do so. The kids were trained from an incredibly young age in dance, acrobatics and martial arts, and paid off the training “debt” by public performance. This was pretty brutal (Chan’s autobiography goes into some detail on this) but for those who succeeded, they could make a career out of it afterwards – and that’s what happened for the three famous graduates, who started at the school at the same time.

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The plot to this one is pretty irrelevant, to be honest, as it’s just a hook to hang Three Stooges-level slapstick and insanely complicated fight sequences on. A woman’s fish farm is being threatened by pollution from a nearby industrial laundry (which, it turns out, is a front for a heroin production plant, a twist that any fan of “Breaking Bad” will have spotted) and Jackie is the bad guy’s lawyer. He employs mystical thief Yuen and conman Sammo to try and get the woman to both drop her lawsuit against the laundry, and sell them her farm – and eventually (but not til a really long way into the film) they realise whose side they should be on.

There are two things to say about this film. First and foremost is the astonishingly backward portrayal of women, which starts with Jackie walking through the courthouse, sleazing women into going out with him while his secretary looks on longingly; continues through the fish farm owner and her friend discussing how you should pretty much say yes to any man because you might end up 40 and alone; and culminates with the two women forgiving Sammo and Jackie almost immediately when it’s revealed that they have been working for the violent criminal who’s trying to put them out of business. Oh, I almost forgot that Jackie’s girl (who is an expert witness for the fish farm) being forced by the judge, under oath, to say whether she loves Jackie or not.

Now, I know banging on about this sort of thing says more about the relatively enlightened times we live in now than it does about then; but this film is so awful that it sticks out, even among the late 80s. While watching this and discussing it, my wife asked “so, this film is from the 1940s, right?” with not much irony.

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The second thing is the magnificent set pieces. There’s a reason I had it fixed in my head that this is my favourite Chan film, and it’s the incredible fight scenes that are dotted throughout. Chan is the best in the world at this sort of thing, with Hung and Biao not far behind, so the stunts are performed at an incredible pace with a degree of difficulty most other stars (or even their stuntmen) could only dream of. The closing fight, where Jackie and Yuen take on a drug plant full of guys, one of whom is Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, former world champion martial artist and looking extra-creepy here with heavy mascara, is just fantastic. Even with the technical advances made since 1988, and the arguably more impressive set-pieces (such as Tony Jaa taking on a nightclub full of guys in a single take), this is still an amazing technical achievement.

It wasn’t a hit at the time in the Far East (all three main guys played against type, and seeing Chan with a woman is a big no-no for his female fans, apparently), but it’s become more of a classic with the passing years – so this review is somewhere between those two poles. The reason it doesn’t work isn’t because they play different sorts of roles than we’re used to, it’s because the plot is stupid and it’s appallingly sexist; and while it deserves to be seen, it needs to be watched with a critical eye. Still, there aren’t many films that combine fighting and broad comedy with as much skill as this one does, so enjoy the incredible display, and the ludicrous comedy.

Rating: thumbs up

Youtube Film Club – Dragon From Russia (1990)

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Why is it that being really good at martial arts gives you the ability to pretty much fly? I feel we accept a lot from our old-school wire-fu films, one of those things being people just bounce around, have fights in mid-air, and so on. It’s one of the things that seemed cool as a kid and now seems a bit odd, but enough of my prejudices.

I will now give a recap of this film, both to show the plot doesn’t really matter in kung-fu films, and also to demonstrate how even if it did matter, it makes absolutely no sense. A guy called Joe, a girl called…nope, can’t remember, but she was played by Maggie Cheung, lovely lovely Maggie Cheung…and another girl called Queenie, are orphans, raised by a man whose name is, I believe, Snooker. Snooker! They live in Russia, but for some reason are forced to get on a train to go to Hong Kong; the train is raided by some badass masked killer types who kidnap Joe, take him to a guy’s dojo out in the middle of nowhere and train him to be an assassin. While doing his assassin-y thing, he keeps running into Ms Cheung, his former girlfriend, but as he’s lost his memory he’s got no idea who she is.

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Then the trainer’s other assassins and him get in a fight, I think, and the police are tracking Joe down, and there’s some other people after him as well, and who want the assassin school shut down (understandably). Joe has to go and confront his old trainer, rescue his girlfriend (who seems to get shot in the middle of the film and dies, but that must just be someone who looks a lot like her, who had the same woman dubbing her voice).

Admittedly, I wasn’t paying the closest attention, and it’s a pretty well-regarded film in some circles, but I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. And the worst thing is, fight scenes have moved on. Back in 1990, this was certainly state-of-the-art, but we’ve had the good fortune of fighting movies becoming big business since then, and martial arts films have come on in leaps and bounds. Nothing really looks like it hurts in this film – every punch and kick is laughed off, and people barely ever have a scratch on them after a huge fight to the death.

I might be misrepresenting the culture of this sort of film, and I’m sure afficionados would look down their nose at the new crop of fighting movies coming out of Eastern Europe. But to a film-literate outsider such as me, this looks like the product of a very different time. There’s stuff like the 20 minutes of weird knockabout comedy as he trains with his new master – an extremely evil man who plans assassinations for a living, lest we forget – and the way that the women in this film all look…and please don’t take this the wrong way, dear reader…very alike, to the point where I could identify Maggie Cheung, just about, and the main villainess, but everyone else might as well have been one character (and may well have been).

The reason you’re likely to have heard of this film is due to it being sold in the UK as a box set with “City Hunter”, the Jackie Chan classic, and “The Story of Ricky”, perhaps the most insanely over-the-top film ever made. Compared to those two, this sadly pales in comparison, and unless you’re in a really good mood, I’d suggest going elsewhere.

Rating: thumbs down

Swamp Zombies! (2005)

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There are two main reasons that low-budget filmmakers tend to make their films short (typically, 90 minutes and below). Firstly, making films is expensive, and it’s not like you’re going to be able to charge more for your 2-hour film than you would for an 80-minute one. Secondly, if you’re fortunate enough to sell your film to a TV channel, it’s convenient for them to have it in a 2-hour block, which minus adverts is around 1:30. So when I saw that “Swamp Zombies!” was almost 2 hours, I was intrigued.

I loved this film. Absolutely loved it. It’s beyond cheap – filmed on camcorders, a cast of rank amateurs, weird stunt casting, non-existent lighting, sub-bargain-basement special effects – but it’s got something to it that I just warmed to immediately.

You don’t need a ton of recapping with a name like “Swamp Zombies”, but you’re going to get some. Evil doctor is experimenting with fresh corpses, but before he gets the chance to finish it off, the Government comes to do an inspection of his hospital, so he has to pay some criminals to dump the bodies in a lake next to a swamp. Also in the swampland – a group of students doing some biology fieldwork; a Sheriff and his amazing kickass deputy; some sunbathing ladies; and the corporate villains. They keep one of the test subjects at the hospital, and he turns into a zombie too and starts causing some havoc there.

The stunt casting is minor stars of wrestling – Brian “Blue Meanie” Heffron plays a guy living out in the swamp, mourning the death of his wife and son; his real-life wife at the time, former porn star Jasmine St Claire, is the evil doctor’s main investor, or boss, or something; and MMA legend and occasional dabbler in pro wrestling Dan “The Beast” Severn is a cop who shows up near the end. If the rest of the cast isn’t just Kabasinski’s friends, family and people from his martial arts school – the guy was a nationally ranked martial artist before turning his hand to filmmaking – I’ll be very surprised.

The extreme lack of a budget shows itself in a hundred small ways, but there’s little more boring than film reviewers going “haha look at that continuity error” or whatever, although if that’s your bag then you’ll have a good time. My favourite is when Jasmine goes for a shower (which includes a great deal of her lathering her boobs with spurts of creamy white shower gel) and when she leaves you can see urinals on the far wall. Not too many urinals in female bathrooms, I’m thinking.

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Favourite character is Deputy Anna, played by Monica Picirillo (her only credit, sadly). She’s clearly a martial arts friend of the director’s, and looks like the sort of character who’ll see a zombie, shriek and then get eaten. But no! She whups an absolute ton of ass and although she does a bit too much standing around trying to figure out where to go, she shows those dead scumbags who’s boss…until she gets overwhelmed, bitten and turns into perhaps the world’s first martial artist zombie. My notes just read “deputy = BADASS” and that is absolutely right.

Your opinion may vary radically from mine about this. It’s incredibly low budget and the performances are truly abominable, the sort of people who’ve seen a lot of genre movies but have never had an acting lesson (with a few honourable exceptions – I liked most of the group of teenagers, who seemed pretty natural). The doctor is extraordinary, almost a new level of acting badness – but you know what? I just think it all works, and for a film which cost an estimated $12,000, these people had to really want to make a movie. Compare that to the similarly low-budget “Agent Beetle” we reviewed recently, where the people all seemed to be on the Hollywood ladder (even if it’s right at the bottom) but the finished product was cynical, nasty and cheap – trying too bludge a few dollars from people drunkenly expecting a real Blue Beetle movie. This could not be called cynical at all – it’s a guy with a few credit cards, lots of friends and lots of chutzpah trying his best to make a fun zombie movie.

Time for my now obligatory railing against sexism in genre movies before we part, dear reader. There are a lot of boobs in this movie, most notably Ms St Claire’s, but far too many females in the cast show too much flesh, while the only thing for fans of the male form is a few seconds of the director (who is put together, I’ll admit) doing some shirtless katas on his deck. Take a look around, people. The world is changing and there are a lot of straight female and gay male genre movie fans, and you should either be catering for them or catering for no-one. I don’t think anyone’s sitting through two hours of a movie about swamp zombies just for the occasional shot of boobies, is what I’m saying.

So be prepared for wildly disagreeing with me, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, if you’re in a forgiving and friendly frame of mind, you’ll have a damn good time watching this.

Rating: thumbs up