This stuff will blow your mind…
While on a stake out, detectives Eddie Boone and Mike Weitz encounter the nasty drug pusher Ritcher who works for the notorious crime boss and kingpin Sam Debartolo. When Mike disappears in pursuit of the elusive drug lord, Boone makes it his goal to find his missing partner. Problem is, during Ritcher's capture, Boone was injected with a strange black substance that has him in a panic. He dreams that he is melting into a pile of hideous goo. He sees himself turning into a horrible blob-ish beast. Everywhere he goes, he runs into odd people who resemble the living dead and consider him their "brother." Eventually, Eddie traces the strange goings on to Debartolo and a new drug called Ozone. Apparently, it does more than addict you. It transforms you, body and soul. It's up to Boone to find the fiend while avoiding his zombie henchmen and the ever-changing properties of the evil poison possessing him. If he's not careful, he too may become a mangled member of the brotherhood of Ozone.
Ozone marks one of the few attempts by filmmaker J.R. Bookwalter and the motley cast and crew of Tempe Entertainment to fashion a realistic, professional horror film, and the fact that they (for the most part) succeed is not as amazing as how they manage to achieve it. After all, Ozone is still the same ol' shit, the product of Super VHS cinematography, Local Advertising Brand reject acting, schizophrenic scripting, and amateur effects, all hallmarks of the company's previous no-budget epics. There is crappy monster make-up, crazy clashes of continuity, plot holes the size of the Cayman Trough, and several scenes of unexplainable weirdness. Still, the movie manages to be a compelling, competent take on the entire horror genre, a compendium of cribbed notes and notions from other big time films. Buried within Ozone's diabolical drug dealer cops and robbers routine are nods to Street Trash, The Return of the Living Dead, The Evil Dead films, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Bad Taste, and Hellraiser. Sometimes obvious, occasionally subtle (which is a word one normally doesn't find in association with Tempe or Bookwalter's work) and often genuinely creepy, the movie wants to mix the macabre with the moody to offer the company a shot at scare fare legitimacy. And when viewed in light of such bottom feeding foolishness as ChickBoxer, Galaxy of the Dinosaurs, and latter losers like Bloodletting, Ozone is The Exorcist of this ersatz exploitation organization, a well meaning, moderately entertaining take on terror.
One of the reasons Ozone is successful is that it never once gives in to cheap tricks. It understands the horror hierarchy and manages to play within those rules. It knows it needs to maintain a sound scary atmosphere to sell its occasionally silly story and it provides a decent, unswerving ambiance of doom and gloom. Bookwalter also jacks up his directing skills and provides interesting compositions, shots, and performances. True, among the actual acting are a few people (friends and familiars) who smell up the set with their artificial antics (the opening junkies "desperate" plea for drugs sound more like he's in need of Kaopectate, not heroin), but for the most part, there is a general believability, a tone of dread that fits the film perfectly.
Don't get the wrong idea, however. Ozone is far from a perfect film. The script has some inherent flaws, like failing to provide the characters with anything other than external motivations (i.e. threats to life and limb) and we never invest much of our emotion in them. Also, there is not enough done with the drug and its transformation/mutilation properties. We see the result and a couple of dream sequences, but how the poison progresses to the zombie state and worse (like full size demonoids) is left to our imagination. Unfortunately, we have very little with which to free associate. And the ending is a cheat, the kind of circular non-shock that indicates a dearth of creativity, not clever control. But one can hardly fault a film with exploding heads, liquefying bodies, the graphic birth of a mutant hellspawn, and a couple of amorphous blobs knocking boots. Thanks to the gore, the gratuitousness, and the genuine desire to entertain, Ozone goes down a lot easier than most homemade horror films. It's professional, passionate, and playful.
Tempe outdoes themselves with a 10th Anniversary Special Edition DVD treatment of the film that emphasizes bonus content and context. Bookwalter is all over this disc; in two commentaries (one by himself taken from the Full Moon release of Ozone under the title Street Zombies, one with star James Black); providing intelligent and witty linear notes; narrating a wonderfully thorough making of documentary; discussing early test and behind the scenes footage and providing a strange, newsmagazine style segment (for B's Nest Video Magazine) derived from the original VHS release. And this is just a small slice of the material here. There are trailers, a snippet from a James Black retrospective, a look at some scenes dubbed in Spanish for an international release, conceptual art, production stills and press material galleries, and you can even choose the cover art you want with a reversible insert. Unfortunately, all this additional material is in service of a pretty lousing transfer, one that Bookwalter admits is fairly sub-standard. Anyone who is a fan of the film in VHS form (or in early DVD incarnations) will probably cheer the meticulous refurbishment involved here. Tempe has indeed cleaned up the print considerably and even smoothed out some of the effects work (initial morphs were done on an Amiga!), but when viewed next to today's independent cinema, Ozone looks old and worn out.
Sonically, Tempe remasters the audio to provide as close to a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix as they can, utilizing as much of the channel capacity as possible. In some ways, Ozone is better "sounding" than looking. In his commentary, Bookwalter makes no apologies for the transfer. He concedes that the film still has a made by low-grade technology feel, but he hopes that this will somehow enhance the mood and atmosphere. He also notes that the film would not work as well without the new aural mix and the contribution of Jens C. Moller (there is even an isolated audio track to experience) whose eerily weird score is indeed a highlight. Bookwalter also confesses that, after a string of less than enthusiastic projects, Ozone was his make or break production. Either he was going to make a decent film or give up the movie business completely. His commentary is full of the trials and tribulations (and necessary shortcuts and location cues) used to bring him back from the brink and continue to pursue his dream of low budget film stardom. There may be those people who think he failed after taking a look at the muddy, full frame image, the cheap makeup work and the occasionally static narrative. But the more adventurous lot will find Ozone a noble effort by a fringe filmmaker actually trying. While it may not be fair to grade a film based on effort alone, Ozone so surpasses expectations that how it was made is as important as what it ended up being.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tempe Video
• Commentary Track with Producer/Director J.R. Bookwalter and Star James Black
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