Just when he thought he has seen it all, Judge Bill Gibron was absolutely blown away by this incredible pair of comic zombie action movies from decidedly South of the Border.
A spicy, supreme splatterama from our pals in South America
Three friends—a failed medical student named Bill Johnson, a geeky mathematician named Max Giggs, and a discredited ex-wrestling champion named John West—suddenly learn that zombies are overrunning their small Argentinean suburb. These are not your typical living dead, however. They are smarter, cleverer, and apparently controlled by forces beyond an inherent urge to kill and eat flesh. Hoping to escape, they discover that the FBI has quarantined the city, locking them in with the uncontrollable undead. While battling for their lives and looking for a means out of harm's way, they run into an injured agent with a secret map. If they can decode the floppy disk and learn the route, they are saved. But it will take more than computing skills to win the day. Our pals are smack dab in the heart of the Plaga Zombie: Mutant Zone, and in this terrifying domain, it's kill or be killed.
Here it is, all you home-movie hopefuls—100 percent proof positive that epic entertainment can be crafted out of a camcorder, a cast and crew of friends, and a great deal of cinematic creativity. This bravado brainchild of Argentinean auteurs Pablo Parés and Hernán Sáez is like watching Peter Jackson's private personal video experiments, or Sam Raimi's first forays into Evil Dead-based fright. Consisting of two installments in a proposed trilogy, Plaga Zombie ("Zombie Plague") and its sensational sequel, Plaga Zombie: Mutant Zone, these movies represent the height of auspicious outsider moviemaking. Similar in spirit to the shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark currently making the arthouse circuit rounds (Spielberg's spectacle was recreated by obsessive pre-teen fans back in the days before readily-available VHS), yet wholly its own amazing artifact, this pair of near-perfect films does things that the big-budget bombast of most horrid Hollywood productions would maim to achieve. Within a total combined running time of nearly three hours, we are introduced to a sensational selection of instantly memorable characters, transported into a completely believable parallel universe where zombies rule the streets, and witness to filmmaking expertise so skillful and wise that you'd never imagine it was the effort of able-bodied amateurs.
Like pulling for the underdog during a big game, or championing the little guy against big government/business, there is an inherent flaw in most film critics' analytical genes, especially when one is forced to wade through vats full of vacuous, noxious, no-name movies as part of a mandated professional integrity. We pray that the first-time director pulls off the intense, interpersonal family drama, or that a group of forward-thinking film students finds a way to make their wayward work of speculative fiction actually come together and resonate with realism. More times then not, it doesn't happen, the failure so fragrant it causes bile to bubble and churn like the fatalistic brew in the weird sister's caldron. Other times, the attempt is so close that awarding an "almost" cigar seems nearly compulsory. We don't want to be bored, we want to be amused and moved. We want to see invention and honesty up on the screen. The great thing about Plaga Zombie and Plaga Zombie: Mutant Zone is that they succeed so completely, soaring so high and mighty above other pretenders to the throne of talent that part of the pleasure derived here is imagining just how far the films themselves will take off and fly. Apparently, the filmic horizons are as infinite as the limits of the sky for these amazing moviemakers and their crazy creations.
In a pair of films loaded with amazing moments, there are several that shine above others. Our fallen hero, wrestler John West, shows off his insane collection of self-promotion memorabilia (including a catchy sing-along theme) that predates the similarly styled Toy Story II sequence. Zombies pretend to be ninjas, rappers, and players in a pretty mean game of Texas Hold-em. Max rips the arm off a corpse and uses it like a martial arts weapon, while Bill employs a long strand of intestines—complete with perfunctory farting noises—to keep his adversaries at bay. There are swipes from Back to the Future, The Matrix, and even the post-9/11 war on terror. And then there are the fight scenes—one remarkably well done, expertly choreographed, and stunningly filmed/edited sequence after another of friend vs. fiend fisticuffs that challenge, and even surpass, the efforts of bigger budgeted films. One of the major problems homemade movies have, especially when it comes to action, is the creation of credible controlled chaos. The usual result of an amateur stunt sequence is underdeveloped, static motion that looks like obese octogenarians swing dancing. But here, a combination of filmmaking joy and dogged determination results in a truly blazon battle royale. You can actually feel your pulse start to race the minute John, Bill, and Max step up to take on another unruly horde of the living dead.
Gore hounds will also get their red stuff rocks off over and over again during this dizzying display of no-budget effects. Heads split, guts spill, limbs crack open and ooze, and buckets of blood battle with barrels of bile for slime supremacy. There are more decapitations, eviscerations, and discombobulations in this film than in a dozen direct-to-video vomitoriums. The closest comparison to the claret carnage and pus pandemonium included here is the similar stage grue grandstanding in Peter Jackson's non-hobbit epics Bad Taste and Dead Alive. Certainly, some of the effects are substandard and look like they were conceived and created on the spot with poster paint and bird feces, but when inserted into this amalgamation of action, sci-fi, and slapstick, the result is a completely entertaining flesh feast, a film that becomes its own mythos and its own legitimate horror legacy. Like watching how Sam Raimi reinvented the demonic possession film to conform to his own inner aesthetic of excitement and originality, the gang at FASCA Producciones have taken the undead genre and removed all the social commentary and realistic validation. Instead, Plaga Zombie: Mutant Zone (along with the original film) becomes a new manner of monster movie, a showcase of fright film forged out of fandom, devotion, and a true fascination with the motion picture macabre that came before.
Someone needs to walk over to the offices of Fangoria International (a division of Media Blasters) and snog the snot out of the person or persons who decided that these movies needed to see the digitally remastered light of home theater day. Sure, they are creaky camcorder creations (Super VHS no less) that have been transferred to film, but the 1.33:1 full-frame image has an authentic, neo-documentary feel to it that can't be beat. The colors have all been corrected, issues with lighting have been retimed and retinted, and the entire production has been polished and honed to a shimmering low-budget shine. The picture is almost perfect and really sells the films cinematically. On the sound side, the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix, while more Mono than multi-channel, does give off an interesting, atmospheric vibe. The dialogue is offered in the original Spanish, with excellent (and accurate) English subtitles. There are a few aural jokes here and there (pay close attention to the appearance of some favorite fright film themes along the way) and the inclusion of sound effects (voices in the distance, footsteps approaching) really adds to the ambiance.
But the best aspect of this remarkable two-disc DVD set is the wealth of bonus material offered. We are treated to the original Plaga Zombie (as good a film as its sequel), with commentary from the cast and crew, two alternative narratives on Plaga Zombie: Mutant Zone (one in English, one in Spanish), a 30-minute selection of deleted scenes, a 40-minute "Making-Of" featurette, a gallery of production stills, and a collection of trailers. For those looking for additional character depth and surreal subplotting (a gay zombie couple?!?!?), the outtakes are the place to start. Some of the material here is merely snipped-out segments of scenes, places where the careful editing of excess material picked up the overall pace. But we do get a five-minute sequence with the homosexual horrors, and another nod to alternative living-dead lifestyle during the infamous grocery store scene. Since the film is already wall-to-wall wound oozing, there is not really any additional gore shots here. A couple of claret cavalcades may be extended by a second or two, but the real insight offered is how the directors carved away at their creation to perfect its fantastic fright film facets.
The Behind the Scenes documentary is also interesting on several levels. Seeing the cast and crew now, almost a decade since they first formulated the idea for these films is startling. They are all older, wiser, and far more mature—yet there is still that devious juvenile glint in their eyes when discussing the movie. There is lots of backstage footage, and an interesting confession about how the four-year (!!!) shoot on Plaga Zombie: Mutant Zone took its toll on everyone involved (they actually halted production and went out to make another film, the oddly titled Never Go to Those Kind of Parties). From a local TV station's plea for people to play zombies (including giving the directors' home phone number out over the air) to the friendly police officers who stop by and request cameos in the movie, we get the distinct impression that this was a real talent hustle for everyone involved, an effort that paid off with spectacular benefits onscreen.
The commentaries are, collectively, the best bonus features, without a doubt. Present for all three are actor/co-writer/co-director Paulo Parés (Bill Johnson) actor/co-producer Berta Muñiz (John West), actor/co-writer/co-director Hernán Sáez (Max Giggs), and actor/co-producer/effects guys Paulo Soria and Walter Cornas. During the English discussions, their lack of language proficiency is a detriment, but we still learn some amazing tricks and secrets about how certain shots were achieved. From shopping cart dollies to crappy alien models that nobody liked, these guys are genuine and genial, providing a distinct narrative on how a group of Argentinean teens with a love of horror films came to make what are arguably some of the best monster movies in the history of recent South American macabre. They even admit to never seeing a Romero zombie flick, and give a decided "thumbs down" to Raimi's Spider-man. During the Spanish track, the comfort level increases, and so does the joking. Indeed, a great deal of time is spent on the gay undercurrent between Max, John West, and another adoring fan character. From shots they hate to moments they love, these smart, friendly foreigners prove that their amazing movies were no fluke. They were born out of a real love of film, filmmaking, and those famous fiend makers of the fright genre's Hall of Fame.
So if you're tired of the same old sad and sloppy zombie stomping, creatures created to do little more than look menacing and take hunks of flesh out of the hero's hind, then it's time to step up to the supreme spectacle that is the Plaga Zombie series. Here's hoping that a producer ponies up the money ASAP and gives these genuine genre geniuses a chance to complete their trilogy. Instead of adapting another helping of black-haired chick Asian horror, or plundering the previous decades for more remake fodder, a smart studio would put these guys under contract, give them some cash, and let them run wild. With little or nothing they've created new classics of no-budget bedlam. Imagine what they could do with just the merest financial cushion. Thanks to Fangoria International, we have one of the few new must-own horror DVDs of this or any year.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Media Blasters
• Commentary (in English) with Actor/Co-Writer/Co-Director Paulo Parés, Actor/Co-Producer Berta Muñiz, Actor/Co-Writer/Co-Director Hernán Sáez, and Actors/Co-Producers/Effects Guys Paulo Soria and Walter Cornas
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