Monday, December 24, 2012

A Cadaver Christmas (Shitmas Day #24)

A Christmas Cadaver came onto my radar this year the same way a couple of other fantastic independently made horror films did (namely Dear God No! and A Little Bit Zombie), by means of artwork done for it by, and featured on the blog of, the always awesome Tom Hodge AKA The Dude Designs. One look at this montage of the blood-soaked Janitor and his motley crew being pitted against a horde of the walking dead, all framed in a festive Holiday motif and I knew that I was sold. I mean, I love Christmas themed horror movies like the next guy, but can only watch the likes of Black Christmas, Silent Night Deadly Night or Christmas Evil so many times. Wait, scratch that, I can in fact watch those movies a TON of times but they say that variety is the spice of life or at least during your holiday moving watching, which allows us to expand into the latest sub-genre of Christmas-Horror, the ZOMBIE themed Christmas movie! Doing a little research, it turns out that there are actually a few of these out there, most all being extremely low budget and varying in degrees of quality by the sound of it but damn it, The Dude did the artwork for this one, so that’s what I’m going to start with! Luckily this just came out on DVD and VOD this past October, so I knew that I had to check it out. Will this latest low budget, independent genre offering be a Shitmas gift worth keeping or will it get relegated to the return heap? Let’s find out!

The basic premise here is fairly simple and shouldn’t sound too surprising to anyone who’s watched a horror movie, zombie or otherwise over the last 30+ years. It’s Christmas Eve in the town of Mt. Peacemore. Bar owner Eddie is entertaining his best patron, Tom, who’s a bit of the town drunk, when in walks our blood drenched main character, The Janitor, who has just come from the local University. After cleaning himself up a bit, he tells them that while mopping up in the science building after the students have left for winter break, he stumbled upon a horde of undead cadavers walking the halls. After quickly dispatching them with his trusty mop (during a fun opening credits montage), he heads into town to find some help. After another scuffle with more cadavers in the parking lot, where they are joined by local cop Sam Sheriff (yes, they make a joke out of this) and his perp whom is aptly known only as “The Perp” and was just arrested for fucking a goat (yes, they make an actual joke out of this as well), our group heads up to the University to investigate. While there, our ragtag gang is joined by their final member, feisty student security guard Kristen, and they set off to find out just what is bringing the dead back to life in Newtown Hall. As the truth is revealed, the group’s numbers dwindle, the body counts rises and events lead into a blood soaked climax of gore, humor and even a touch of holiday spirit! You see, this Janitor never leaves a mess unclean and things are about to get very VERY messy this Christmas!

Walking a fine line between homage/parody and flat out unoriginality can be tricky. I was pleased to find that the makers of this movie pretty much got it right, for the most part. Once they get to the University they spend a good part of the movie (40 minutes) going through the usual character and group dynamic tropes of the genre. You have your infighting. You have your distrust. You have characters that are holding back secrets about themselves. You have the scene where the Janitor “suits up”. You have the bit where the group gets separated, leading to the first attack on one of them. You have them reading the Professor’s journal (he was naturally trying to find the cure for a rare brain disease that killed his wife) and showing in flashback just what happened to cause these cadavers to come back to life. And then finally, you have the eventual turning of certain members and, of course, one of them has to sacrifice themselves in order to help save some others. It’s all pretty standard stuff but I think that the characters and attempts at humor are what help pull it through. While they initially come off as cookie cutter (the antihero, the drunk idiot, the best friend, the disgraced cop, the feisty chick, the annoying guy that you can’t wait to see die) I do think they add enough uniqueness to these characterizations to make you want to find out what will happen to them next. The Janitor is particularly strong and he needs to be as the movie depends on him, with his assortment of cadaver killing janitorial implements and no nonsense attitude about cleaning/ chip on his shoulder because, well he’s a janitor, is a really fun character and is a well done homage to the other heroes of this genre.

The humor is hit or miss but you have to give them some credit for at least trying some original stuff. Some of the better jokes include ongoing ones about how the Janitor keeps insisting that the dead are not zombies but “cadavers,” and then one that pokes fun at some campus security procedures. Of course some others fall flat, including a nasty bit of necrophilia involving the perverted Perp and a charred corpse that I honestly couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be played for laughs or just give us a reason to hate this guy even more. It totally didn’t fit in with the lighter tone of the film. Luckily more stuff works than fails, thanks to the relative oddball nature of the characters and the actor’s delivery. Getting back to the homage aspects of this, there are a few direct visual gags sprinkled throughout the production: an Evil Dead poster and Jack Burton tank top in the Janitor’s closet, a Treevenge ad hanging on a bulletin board, the Professor’s use of a syringe of green serum and his having a favorite cadaver that he calls “Zed,” and the Janitors blood soaked face (which continues to get splattered throughout the film) which is of course similar to those found in the Evil Dead movies or Dead Alive. There are a few more gags, all out there in the open but they never really overdo it, instead opting for them to be more of a *wink* to the audience.

For being an extremely low budget feature and coming from some first time feature length film makers, I must say that the production values are pretty strong in this. Director Joe Zerull keeps the action interesting with different lighting choices and camera angles, including a couple Sam Raimi-esque shots that made me grin on more than one occasion. I also rather enjoyed the throwback synch score, as it added some good atmosphere and jumps to the background. The gore and other makeup effects were also very well done, even if most of the action here is mostly of the human-on- cadaver kind. The only thing that I actually didn’t really care for, from a production standpoint, was the faux grind house aesthetic that they went for here, where they digitally add wear to give a worn film look like in the Grindhouse feature that Rodriguez and Tarantino put out. Did this ever really catch on in other films after it came out? It’s not majorly distracting but just didn’t seem to fit in since the overall feel of the movie is more Shaun of the Dead than Planet Terror. The acting is kind of up and down which is understandable as these actors had to keep leaving and coming back to these roles over the course of the two years that it took to film this. STARmeter

Down 27,300 this week

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Daniel Rairdin-Hale probably does the best job as The Janitor character, as he gets the most screen time and makes the most of it, bringing a kind of comedic hard edge to the character and not allowing himself to go too over the top with his performance.

Finally, I want to talk about my absolute favorite aspect of this movie. Christmas! They could have taken the easy way here, like a lot of other movies do, and merely had the film take place during the Christmas season to help separate it out from all of the other flicks out on the market. Maybe throw some mentions of the holiday out there along with some occasional songs or decorations. But no, they go ALL out in this movie. A closet full of Christmas decorations plays a big part in defense against the cadavers at one point in the film. Ever seen a zombie run through by an artificial Christmas tree? You will here! Christmas songs are plentiful and used creatively throughout the film as well, including a particularly memorable rendition of O’ Holy Night during one of The Janitor’s clean ups. Hell, they use red & green lighting and filters during certain parts of the film to keep the proceedings festive and finally, even created their own anthropomorphic hippo-themed animated Christmas special called a Hippopatta Christmas Carol, which the characters are watching in the bar at the beginning of the film. I mean, come on, that’s dedication! The best part however is saved for the last 20 minutes or so of the film, where our final two characters (screw spoilers, it’s The Janitor and Tom the drunk) bond and become friends over some of the darker aspects of the holiday season. You see, The Janitor is new in town, lonely and ridiculed by the people on campus for being a janitor while Tom has lost loved ones, is lonely as well and suicidal every Christmas. Both characters in the end find out that even cadaver killing on Christmas Eve is worth doing if you have someone special to share it with, so the movie even has a positive holiday message! And make sure that you watch through to the end of a fun end credits sequence, where they tease a possible New Year’s themed sequel!

All in all, I was really pleased with A Christmas Cadaver. I usually go into these independently produced horror flicks with a “hope for the best, expect the worst” kind of attitude, but this one delivered. The filmmakers showed real heart and creativity that helped elevate this above the trapping of its ultra-low budget and DYI filmmaking techniques and beyond being just another bland zombie movie homage. I have to admit that it does lose some focus in the middle part of the movie but by the end, I was totally on board with this film and its characters and really hope that they can do a sequel. Most of all, it ends up being just a fun Christmas movie! Welcome to the Holiday Horror Club A Cadaver Christmas. I’m looking forward to enjoying your tale of The Janitor and his Christmas Eve campus cadaver decapitations for years to come. Never leave a mess unclean! Thanks for reading.

- Heath

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