Saturday, April 27, 2013

Rob Zombie Double-Feature!

ROB ZOMBIE: artist, writer, musician, filmmaker, icon! Since his humble beginnings as the frontman for the alternative heavy metal band White Zombie in the mid-1980's, he has grown respectively into a fully-fledged media mogul, expanding his vision into various mediums such as film, TV, video games and even animation. Since embarking on a successful solo career in 1998, Rob has released four studio albums and has directed four feature films along with being involved in a number of projects including animation voice-over work and also directing an episode of CSI: Miami. Although he remains certainly the busiest personality in entertainment, he still finds time to release new music and concert tours with fellow shock rockers Marilyn Manson and Alice Cooper. 2013 is another busy year for Rob Zombie, especially this month which saw the release of his new horror film: The Lords of Salem, along with the release of his fifth studio album entitled: Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor. This special blog entry will be a "Rob Zombie Double-Feature!" which includes a review of Zombie's latest horror film and music album.
Since completing his first two cult films House of 1,000 Corpses (2003) and The Devil's Rejects (2005) which focused on the murderous Firefly family and the reboot of the Halloween franchise with Halloween (2007) and Halloween II (2009), Rob Zombie has ventured into the realm of supernatural suspense with The Lords of Salem. Heidi 'LaRoc' (Sheri Moon Zombie) is a popular, local radio DJ in Salem, Massachusetts. A recovering drug-addict, she lives alone with her beloved dog Troy in an old apartment building in Salem. When she receives a mysterious recording from a band known only as The Lords (of Salem), playing it on her show starts a dark chain reaction which affects the women of the city and gives rise to the return of witchcraft in Salem. Heidi is the tragic victim of circumstance and ancestry as she is plagued by violent and disturbing dreams and hallucinations, she slowly succumbs to the devilish influence of the real witches of Salem, acolytes of Margaret Morgan (Meg Foster) who in 1696, was sentenced to death by Rev. Jonathan Hawthorne (Andrew Pine).
This is Zombie's return to a more original style of filmmaking since his remakes of the Halloween franchise. Lords of Salem stars Rob's wife and long-time model/girlfriend Sheri Moon Zombie, who has appeared in every film of Rob's since House of 1,000 Corpses when she played the manic 'Baby' and in his Halloween movies as Michael Myer's mother, Deborah Myers. While Sheri has previously appeared as more of a support role in Zombie's movies, this is her first appearance in a leading role. While most fans loved her as the giggly 'Baby', her role as Deborah Myers featured a much more subdued character. As with Lords of Salem, her character is just as mellow, if not on the verge of catatonic in the third act of the film. Despite her outrageous appearance, bizarre wardrobe and weirdly decorated apartment, her personality comes across as almost bland. As for the rest of the cast, the movie features a balanced male/female cast with her co-DJs: 'Whitey' (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Herman (Ken Foree), then there is the author Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison), a local witch trials researcher. As the story references the actual events of the Salem witch trials (1692), the film makes very little mention of the actual events or people involved, even changing the name of Judge John Hathorne to Reverend Hawthorne, while also a nod to the real-life ancestor of author Nathaniel Hawthorne. There are a few other film veterans in this film particularly the three sisters including Heidi's landlord Lacy (Judy Geeson) and her sisters Megan (Patricia Quinn) and Sonny (Dee Wallace).
The film features a number of highly disturbing and brutal scenes often featuring intense images of death, torture, sex, full-frontal nudity, Satanic imagery, and not to mention explicit gore and violence! The movie also has several scenes depicting a witches Sabbath which hearkens back to early films like Häxan. It's surprising that the movie got away with it's R-rating and not labeled NC-17, but it has been a recent trend for horror movies (like the remake of Evil Dead) to push the boundaries of the R-rating. Zombie utilizes his trademark brand of surrealistic, music-video style of directing with quick-cuts and flashing images, common with most of his films. His unique visual aesthetic is especially prevalent in the final disturbing climax. The music in Lords of Salem is very eclectic, while most of the score was written by Zombie's musical collaborator John 5, the film also features a wide variety of music by Rick James, Rush, The Velvet Underground and even includes Mozart's "Requiem". The soundtrack also features a song "Crushing the Ritual" from a "fake" black metal band called Leviathan The Fleeing Serpent which is  also featured in a clip on Heidi's radio show. The inspiration for the name of this film came from Rob Zombie's song "The Lords of Salem" from the 2006 album Educated Horses.
The Lords of Salem is mind-blowing, extreme, horror! The easiest way to describe the film is comparing it to Rosemary's Baby (1968) and the films of Mario Bava (i.e. Black Sunday (1960), combined with the vision of Rob Zombie. Zombie teamed up with the producers of Paranormal Activity (2007) and Insidious(2010) Jason Blum and Steven Schneider to bring this original and yet highly unsettling vision of horror. It is interesting to note that this film is one of the few horror movies that has actually released a novelization written by Rob Zombie and B.K. Stevenson. With an estimated budget of only $2,500,000, sadly, Lords of Salem has so far been a box-office bomb bring in less than $650,000. While highly original, this movie may be too much for the average horror-movie viewing public and only the very hardcore fans of extreme horror and Rob Zombie's work will appreciate it. It's true as a fan of horror and of Rob Zombie since his days in White Zombie, that this film seems like his masterpiece, but may also be seen as a failure. If you are up to the task, you be the judge.
Rob Zombie's latest album, Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor is the first release on his new label, Zodiac Swan, through T-Boy Records/UMe since leaving Roadrunner. Featuring guitars by recent collaborator and guitar virtuoso John 5, since his joining the band in 2006 with the album Educated Horses, the style of Zombie's music has changed significantly.
Gone are the heavier more industrial sound of the Hellbilly Deluxe era in favor of a more alternative heavy metal/rock sound. This is a very interesting album featuring groove/Nosferatu Pussy" is supposed to be what Rob Zombie calls an "uplifting anthem...for the youth of America", but it remains a very slow, drudging song with a similar lyric referencing his White Zombie song "Electric Head" with repeating the lyrics in the refrain of "Turn it on". The first single and music video (directed by Rob Zombie) on this new album is "Dead City Radio and The New Gods of Supertown", which is an homage to classic rock radio. Other songs included are "Revelation Revolution", "Theme for the Rat Vendor", "Rock and Roll (In A Black Hole)", "Behold, The Pretty Filthy Creatures", "White Trash Freaks", "Lucifer Rising", "The Girl Who Loved The Monsters", and "Trade In Your Guns for a Coffin". One of the oddest songs on the album has to be "Ging Gang Gong De Do Gong De Laga Raga" which is complete nonsense! The album also features a curious cover of Grand Funk Railroad's "We're An American Band" with a little Rob Zombie twist to it. Although Zombie is not known for recording covers, he has recorded a version of Black Sabbath's "Children of the Grave" for the 1994 compilation album Nativity In Black and a cover of the Commodore's "Brick House" on the House of 1,000 Corpses (2003) movie soundtrack. This album features several experimental songs along with a few general songs just for fun. Rob Zombie's artistic vision and musical style continues to grow and evolve over the years and with every new album. With every new album Zombie consistently improvises his musical style utilizing various styles from his musical influences. This will unfortunately remain a somewhat mediocre album for Rob Zombie as he has yet to surpass the success of Hellbilly Deluxe even after releasing Hellbilly Deluxe 2 in 2010.
Watch this Best Buy Exclusive interview with Rob Zombie for a track by track breakdown of the new album!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Movie Review: Evil Dead

Back in 1981, now successful director Sam Raimi (The Spider-Man Trilogy, Oz the Great and Powerful), produced and directed his first independent horror film The Evil Dead, based on his 1978 short film Within The Woods. Although the film had a somewhat mild success in it's theatrical release as a cult film, the movie prospered in the then fledgling home video/VHS market and still lives on today as a modern horror classic. Along with it's campy remake/sequel Evil Dead 2 (1987), and final chapter Army of Darkness (1993), the Evil Dead Trilogy remains a fan favorite with many horror movie aficionados and made it's B-movie star Bruce Campbell, a horror icon, it even inspired the popular Evil Dead: The Musical, now playing in Las Vegas! Now, over 30 years later, rookie, Uruguay-born, director Fede Alvarez (Panic Attack! (2009)), along with the help of producers Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell and Robert Tapert (the original Evil Dead Trilogy), brings us the ultra-bloody remake simply titled Evil Dead! When five friends come to a secluded cabin in the woods, they discover an ominous book and inadvertently unleash a demonic force that threatens to kill them and steal their very souls!
Mia (Jane Levy) is a recovering drug addict, who, along with her estranged brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) and friends: Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), Olivia (Jessica Lucas) and Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) come to their old family cabin in the woods, long neglected after the death of Mia and David's mother, to attempt an intervention. While Mia has sworn to quit "cold-turkey", suffering through "DTs", to make matters worse, during the night, a peculiar smell and blood stains draws them to the basement. Beneath them they find the horrific remnants of a bizarre ritual and a mysterious book wrapped in barbed-wire. While David and his friends are trying to help Mia make it through the night, Eric curiously opens the "Book of the Dead" and unknowingly summons an evil presence in the woods that takes possession of Mia and the others, killing them off one-by-one in the most horrific manner!
Cover of Fangoria #322
As a devoted fan of the original trilogy (and proud owner of the Limited Edition "Book of the Dead" DVD, signed by none other than Bruce 'Ash' Campbell himself!) I was reluctant to accept yet another '80's horror remake and risk being disappointed like so many others in the past few years (i.e.  Friday the 13th (2009), A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010), Fright Night (2011)). Despite my reservations, I knew from the first 5-minutes that there was something that seemed very original and yet altogether unsettling about this movie. Very rarely does a horror movie really scare me, other than those original horror masterpieces like The Shining (1980), Poltergeist (1982) and of course, the original Evil Dead (1981). I must admit, even for me, there were a few scenes that were so intense, I could feel my heart pounding (and that's rare). From the very beginning, with it's unexpected and rather violent prologue, audiences are thrown head-first into what critics are calling: "The most terrifying film you will ever experience!" Overall, the movie is essentially the same as the original, even the story and plot. As we first lay our eyes on that infamous cabin, we feel like we are returning to someplace familiar. There's even a nod to the original movie when we first meet Mia, she's actually sitting on the hood of what appears to be Ash's (or Sam's) 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 "Classic" from the original movie, although now completely rusted and derelict. Despite it's differences, which are obvious as the film progresses, there are many similarities which director Fede Alvarez admitted: "Story wise, it's a remake with the same house and the same idea, but with new characters, and technically it's not intended as a sequel or a prequel." (Fangoria #322, April 2013)
As for the main "object of interest" in the movie, that being the evil tome known as "The Book of the Dead" (a.k.a. The Necronomicon ex mortis) although similar, is never really mentioned by name and it lacks the face-like features on the cover and the insides are covered with various scribbles and bloodstains, (no doubt added by other unwary readers). The character of Eric, although seemingly the smartest of the bunch and apparently a high school teacher at that, is actually the most foolish as he proceeds to read the book and even speaks the very same words that summoned the demons in the original movie. While the characters seem more real and believable, as does their seemingly justifiable reason for being at the cabin, the movie tends to focus especially on Mia.  Despite being a drug-addicted, artist with issues, it presents her as the ultimate victim and with the character of David, her brother as the savior trying to save her mind, body and eventually, soul from the things that "possess" her, whether it be drugs or "deadites". For all intents and purposes, the whole experience could merely be seen as some kind of drug-induced withdrawal hallucination! There are also some very deep emotional and psychological aspects to the movie, however they are somewhat overpowered by the gore. As for the sheer intensity and overall gory-ness of the movie, it is completely over-the-top (although not necessarily a bad thing!)! So much so, that many consider Evil Dead to have broken the R-rating! This Evil Dead does seem to do everything possible to push the limits of horror violence, particularly when it comes to the blood and gore. Then of course there is the infamous "tree rape scene" which does appear in this version, is just as disturbing, if not more so. The violence is especially brutal and bloody in many horrifying and gut-wrenching scenes. (And yes there are chainsaws involved!) For an audience that has already experienced the gory, "torture-porn" trend like with the recent Saw (2004) or Hostel (2005) movies. Evil Dead's gore seems much on the same level, however with a more supernatural element to it that goes far beyond the campy mayhem of Evil Dead 2.
Evil Dead is insanely intense and quite possibly the BLOODIEST movie I have ever seen! The reaction from movie goers and horror fan's alike have been overwhelmingly positive and encouraging. Following it's strong Internet promotion including the "Dare To Share Your Scare" on YouTube which included the explicit "Red Band" Trailer, audiences were given a much anticipated preview of the sheer terror and gore that was to be expected with this movie. For those horror fans that may dismiss the hype and doubters like I was, given that Evil Dead is in fact a "remake", it proves itself to those expecting just another remake. I'm actually quite impressed as to the level at which director Fede Alvarez has gone to present us with this truly terrifying and amazing experience without disrespecting the original film (and especially NOT replacing the iconic 'Ash' character!). Some of that may come from the fact that both the original producers and director of the original Evil Dead as well as Bruce "Ash" Campbell himself not only co-produced this remake, but fully endorsed it as well. With all the success that Sam Raimi has had over the years, he could have easily just remade the movie himself with a big-budget and lavish special effects. But, no! The fact that the film-makers relied heavily on practical special effects and make-up is a testament to the legacy of horror filmmakers such as Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson and Guillermo Del Toro who have let the new generation of film-makers like Fede Alvarez take up the cause and give us "true horror"! By the way, be sure to stay after the credits for a "groovy" surprise!
"With any good remake, it's not about taking shortcuts. You don't want to do a strict copy of those who know and love the original...For the fans who really know the story, it's about giving them something new and showing them fresh ideas, because they know the old ones. For the new audience that has no idea about the original, or heard about it but haven't seen it, or claim they saw it a long time ago, which means they never saw it [laughs]...For them, it's not relevant that you use ideas from a movie they haven't seen, but as a filmmaker you feel like you want to bring those things back..." Fede Alvarez (Fangoria #322, April 2013)

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Movie Review: G.I. JOE: Retaliation

In 2009, Paramount released G.I. JOE: The Rise of Cobra following the popularity of the 80's Hasbro toy based movies like Transformers (2007). Directed by Stephen Sommers (The Mummy, Van Helsing), the first G.I. Joe live-action movie was not very successful (barely making $150 million) and was panned by critics for its camp and cheesiness, although it remains simply a fun action movie, it was not taken very seriously. Whether it was a combination of directing, writing or casting (especially Marlon Wayans as Ripcord?!), The Rise of Cobra did not "wow" fans as it had hoped. Despite it's shortcomings, it left several open plot-points to be addressed in the sequel, which many doubted would even be made. With the release of G.I. JOE: Retaliation (2013), almost the entire cast has been replaced except for a few vital characters and fan-favorites. At the end of The Rise of Cobra, both Cobra Commander (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Destro (Christopher Eccleston) (both actors whom do NOT return for the sequel) were captured and imprisoned as their plan to launch nanomite missiles at major cities was thwarted by G.I. JOE, however Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) had successfully taken the place of The President of the U.S.A. (Jonathan Pryce)!
Now in command of G.I. JOE, Duke (Channing Tatum), leads his team on a mission in North Korea only to be ambushed afterwards by agents of Cobra. The only survivors are Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Flint (D.J. Cotrona) and Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki). With the G.I. JOE team presumed dead, The President/Zartan condemns the G.I. JOE team allowing Cobra to take over and begin their plan to launch satellite weapons called Project Zeus into orbit which will target every major city in the world! While Snake-Eyes (Ray Park) is away to train new recruit Jinx (Elodie Yung), Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) and Firefly (Ray Stevenson) break Cobra Commander (now played by Luke Bracey) out of his heavily guarded and sophisticated, underground prison, leaving Destro literally "out of the band". While the Joes find a way to reveal The President for who he really is, they enlist the help of retired General Joe Colton (Bruce Willis) to stop Cobra from taking over!
Jon M. Chu, director of such teen-oriented/music/dance movies such as Step Up 3D (2010) and Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (2011) seemed an unlikely choice to direct a special-effects driven action movie, but after seeing it, I was thoroughly impressed. Gone are the hokey, low-budget looks of The Rise of Cobra as well as the Sci-Fi-like costumes and weapons, in favor of a more Modern Warfare style with the G.I. JOEs wearing basic military camouflage instead of the black-tight, armor of the first movie (with the exception of Snake-Eyes).
As for the plot, every element in the movie is very much like the original G.I. JOE cartoons we all know and love, right down to the ultimate weapon of mass destruction and Cobra's desire to rule the world. As for the characters, really, the only ones who return from the first movie to make a significant impact in the movie is Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow, whose life-long feud hearkens back to the original comic books and their origins in the first movie. As for the other main JOEs like Duke, played by Channing Tatum, who has a very "brief" appearance in the movie, Roadblock, played by former wrestler Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, is the most prominently featured character in the movie and could almost hold the whole film by himself. As for Snake-Eyes' (played by the versatile stunt-actor Ray Park, who also played Darth Maul in Star Wars: Episode I) part, while exciting (and with ninjas!), seems more like a side-story compared to the rest of the plot. The famous couple of Flint and Lady Jaye is featured, although Flint is somewhat bland, forgettable and is in no way like his character, he doesn't even wear his signature green beret! Lady Jaye however makes for an interesting character and is given an emotional backstory, unlike Scarlett (Rachel Nichols), who came across as very cold and stiff in the first movie. The addition of Joe Colton, played by Bruce Willis is somewhat ancillary as his function is to fill the void left by General Hawk (Dennis Quaid, who also does not return) from the last movie. Like most aging action-stars, Willis does make a few "old" jokes like in The Expendables 2, but it is not as overdone.
The villains in Retaliation are much more like their cartoon/toy counterparts. Although we see nothing of Destro, who was a major part of the first movie, he is rumored to come back in the third movie. In the new movie, Cobra Commander appears in a few scenes complete with uniform and his trademark silver face-mask, along with his new, deep, Darth Vader-esque voice, he is a very imposing figure. The Cobra symbol, which was almost non-existent in the first movie, is boldly displayed in the movie, although sadly they refrain from using their famous "COBRA!" battle-cry. Firefly, played by Ray Stevenson (Punisher: War Zone (2008), makes for an interesting villain as the fan-favorite Cobra saboteur, who even uses tiny, robotic, fireflies! As Cobra takes over the government, proudly raising their flags over the capitol, you can't help but consider the subject of The White House being taken over by terrorists which is starting to become a popular trend with upcoming films like Olympus Has Fallen starring Gerard Butler and White House Down (coincidentally also starring Channing Tatum) which seems to suggest a possible political agenda.
Originally, G.I. JOE: Retaliation was set to be released back in June 2012, but due to the recent popularity of 3D movies, it was pushed back to March 2013 so that it could be converted to 3D. The 3D effect, however provides very little improvement as suspected. February and March have always been a "dead time" for movie box offices, with movies like Oz the Great and Powerful pushing for $200 million, Summer blockbusters like The Avengers, which made over $600 million over the Summer. The G.I. JOE movie franchise has surprisingly improved in quality but has yet to surpass the opening weekend numbers of the first movie of $50 million, only bringing in $40.5 million so far.
Despite the huge fan-following and heavy Internet promotion with YouTube and Cobra Special, G.I. JOE: Retaliation, I fear, will be just another mediocre action movie franchise. Most of its appeal relies mostly on the nostalgia factor and for those like me, who were kids during the 1980's. Now as adults, we can enjoy the Transformers and G.I. JOE movies without taking it too seriously, yet for those of us who still love and cherish those childhood memories, we can take these movies as homages to those toys and characters we spent countless hours playing with in our own little imaginations. While the first movie almost seemed like a parody of G.I. JOE, this new movie seems to try and take those characters and put them respectfully in a more of real-world setting and the film presents us with more believable characters and scenarios. If you were a JOE fan like me, than you just might feel the need to stand up in the theater and shout "YO JOE!"