This weekend THE BELKO EXPERIMENT
is coming to theatres, and since that film is the result of a collaboration between two familiar names in the genre, screenwriter James Gunn and director Greg McLean, that combo gave some options to choose from for this week's Face-Off. Since I have already put McLean's WOLF CREEK and WOLF CREEK 2 against each other (you can read that Face-Off HERE
), the choice came down to two James Gunn projects: 2004's DAWN OF THE DEAD
remake, which Gunn wrote and Zack Snyder directed, and 2006's SLITHER
, which Gunn wrote and directed himself. These two films have very different tones, but both deal with zombies in some way, so let's set them loose on each other and see how it goes.
The foundation of this film was, of course, established by George A. Romero with the first DAWN OF THE DEAD in 1978. The best thing about this take on the concept is that James Gunn only took the most basic pitch of Romero's film, "people seek shelter in a shopping mall during the zombie apocalypse", and then built an entirely different story out of it. There are nods to the original here and there, but these are different characters in a different location who go through very different things. I still don't like it nearly as much as the '78 film, it's a much lesser movie in comparison to that epic classic, but I can appreciate that Gunn chose to distance his story from Romero's when tasked with writing a remake. The result is a fun little zombie action movie.
SLITHER draws inspiration from many sci-fi horror movies that came before it, although somehow Gunn hadn't seen the movie it has the biggest similarities to, NIGHT OF THE CREEPS. When a meteorite lands in a small South Carolina town, slug-like parasites emerge and start crawling their way into locals, taking over their minds. The parasite species has been traveling through space for a long time, wiping out entire planets, and Earth is the next in line. The first person to become infected is a man named Grant Grant, who starts to mutate into a monstrous creature and has control over the slugs. The parasite hive mind has merged with what remains of Grant, so all of those slug-zombies become fixated on his wife Starla. Watching it is more simple and fun than trying to explain it.
The characters in this film are kind of presented in broad strokes, and I don't really come to care about them or to even remember the names of most of them. The heroine is a nurse named Ana who is played by Sarah Polley, there's a cop who's a badass because he's played by Ving Rhames, Jake Weber plays a born loser who becomes a minor love interest for Ana. Mekhi Phifer is a guy who's so intent on being a good father that he keeps his zombie-bitten pregnant wife tied up until she can carry the baby to term. The pilot from JASON X is hanging around. WRONG TURN couple Kevin Zegers and Lindy Booth are reunited. Nobody really matters. The standouts are the douchebags; Michael Kelly as the security guard who tries to rule the mall and fails, and Ty Burrell as a smarmy rich a-hole. Those two steal the movie.
When the cast is led by Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, Gregg Henry, and Michael Rooker, it's a good bet that the characters are going to be a likable, fun bunch. Fillion is police chief Bill Pardy, a really down-to-earth, funny guy who makes it his mission to save Starla (Banks) from her monster husband (Rooker) not only because it's the right thing to do, but also because he has had a crush on Starla since they were kids. Pardy leads a group of quirky characters on a Grant Grant hunt in the middle of the film, and among the group is the high-strung, foul-mouthed mayor (Henry), who I find to be hilarious. It isn't all just laughs, scares, and action, the connection between Grant and Starla also adds heart and emotion into the mix. Gunn did a great job writing these characters and cast the roles perfectly.
The zombies really bring down my level of enjoyment for this film, and it's not that I hold firm to a belief that zombies should never run or anything like that. One of my favorite movies is THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD. It's just this particular brand of fast zombies that doesn't sit well with me. They rage, they roar and screech, they run like Olympic athletes on PCP. I find them to be ridiculous and off-putting. I'm not saying they're not threatening, I'd be devoured real quick in this zombie apocalypse, I'm just not a fan of this portrayal of the living dead.
The slug parasite zombies aren't really scary, although there is a little girl zombie who is quite creepy. Some shamble, some run, they all share the same mind, Grant Grant's mind, and they all want to get as many people as possible to join their little slug party. If someone puts up too much of a fight, they might get hit in the face with the acidic slime the zombies can spit out. It's not just humans who get infected with the slugs, either. Pardy has a nasty run-in with a slug parasite zombie deer.
DAWN '04 is all about the action, starting when Ana hits the road, seeking help as the world crumbles around her. There's never too much time between action scenes after that. Sometimes zombies are found in the mall, sometimes more survivors arrive and need to be helped. Characters turn and have to be put down. Soon enough the mall dwellers decide they need to take their chances on finding somewhere else to stay, and that dash for freedom (in custom reinforced vehicles) involves a lot of gunfire, explosions, car crashes, chainsaw fu, and bloodshed.
The action in SLITHER is more low-key, but there's a good amount of it. In fact, the entire second half of the film involves monster fighting, whether it's confronting the Grant-monster, being swarmed by the slug parasites, or fighting the parasite zombies. Including that aforementioned deer. There isn't a huge amount of destruction and there aren't bullets flying all over the place, but this movie has some cool creature feature excitement to offer. Plus, you do get a couple explosions. One of them being ironically lackluster.
This was director Zack Snyder's feature debut, and you could already tell he was a filmmaker who wanted to manipulate the image as much as he could. I've never been able to fully get into his movies, each has stylistic decisions that I find off-putting, starting here. From the way he presents the zombies to the choice to let the mall be filled with sickly green light to even a laughable number of cuts to the spent shell casings falling at a character's feet during a shootout, I don't really like how this movie looks or was put together.
James Gunn didn't get too flashy or cutting edge on this one, he was just out to deliver a good time in the form of a throwback horror/comedy. The visual style leans more toward the comedy side of things, perhaps a bit too much. The horror elements are presented well, but there are times when the film could have been a bit darker than it is. Still, the focus on the comedy does allow me to get a lot of laughs out of watching the movie, so I can't complain too much. The visual style may not stand out as being impressive, but at least it doesn't hinder the film in any way.
DAWN OF THE DEAD has a great idea at its core (thank you, Romero) and some cool action, but I can't get into the style and I don't like the zombies. SLITHER has better characters and I find that it provides more entertainment, offering a more satisfying and less troublesome viewing experience. So SLITHER takes the win on this one.
Are you a SLITHER fan, or would you have given the victory to DAWN OF THE DEAD? Will you be seeing THE BELKO EXPERIMENT this weekend? Share your thoughts on these movies and on James Gunn's career (and/or Zack Snyder's visuals) by leaving a comment below. If you have Face-Off suggestions you can send them to me at CodyHamman@joblo.com.