Beautiful Creatures: Pandemic at the Disco

With the coronavirus creating a global pandemic and millions of people on lockdown to try and stem the tide of the disease, I’ve found myself to be one of those truly tasteless individuals rewatching every B horror movie about plagues, epidemics, and zombies that I can think of. The good, the bad, and the absolutely grotesque are spending a lot of time on my television set lately and I felt it was only right to share a steaming pile of pandemic titles worth watching.

The Last Man on Earth (1964)

When a disease turns all of humanity into the living dead, the last man on earth becomes a reluctant vampire hunter. IMDB isn’t much for giving a good synopsis of a film but they pretty well hit the nail on the head here. Based on the genre changing Richard Matheson novella, I Am Legend, The Last Man on Earth is without a doubt the best film adaptation of the story ever shot. Starring the one and only Vincent Price, this is the first of four cinematic attempts to capture the apocalyptic, isolationist horror of a global pandemic and the only one, in my opinion, that even comes close to succeeding. A beautiful, black and white monologuing descent into madness, Price as Robert Morgan (Neville in the book) finds himself struggling to find a reason to keep living now that the dead have risen and he alone remains.

Skipping at times into the past with flashbacks of the growing panic, the loss, and the first dramatic encounter with the living dead, the story is beautifully shot and has some genuinely creepy and unsettling moments seeded into the cornball antics of a B flick from the early 60s. Moreover, it may be the first time we ever see Vincent Price as an action hero, battling vampires and getting the girl before his ultimate demise.

The effects are all practical and make-up and everything you’d expect from a pre-Romero zombie flick. And, yes, I can hear that one obsessive horror nerd know it all shouting at me right now that they weren’t zombies, they were vampires. Shut the fuck up. The creatures were vampires but the story and the film both introduced the concept of a disease resurrecting the living into blood hungry, murderous ghouls and was, in fact, an inspiration to George Romero when he shot Night of the Living Dead four years later.

Night of the Living Dead (1990)

Sacrilege! How dare you! Hurumpf, good sir! You start with The Last Man on Earth and then go to the remake of Night of the Living Dead?

You’re damn right.

The original Night of the Living Dead is a classic, no doubt, but when it comes to lists and reviews and every horror pundit in existence it is an overused and over-explored bit of territory. The 1990 Tom Savini directed remake, however, never gets its fair share of credit for being an incredible zombie movie and, arguably, the best in a series of remakes over the last 30 years to share the title. As you all know, or maybe you don’t, because of a clerical SNAFU, Night of the Living Dead was never correctly copyrighted and unlicensed reproductions have been rampant ever since the film’s release. These include a host of remakes and “reimaginings” that have used elements of the story, the characters, and even the title. Even the 30th anniversary release of Night of the Living Dead ended up reedited with a bunch of vanity storytelling by John Russo that utterly ruined that version of the film.

But the 1990 version, starring Tony Todd and Patricia Tallman as Ben and Barbara, was something truly special. The movie combined updated special effects, more fleshed out storytelling, and elements of the story that Romero had wanted to include in his original film but didn’t because of concerns that it would hurt the release. Add to this a subtext of humor at some of the absurdities found in both the genre and the original film and you have what I consider to be a nearly perfect remake. The movie plays every bit as creepy and true to form as its namesake while adding an entirely new and modern layer of character to the tale. There are some great, gruesome zombies in this one and, if you can play with the color settings and watch it in black and white, you’ll find it’s a great companion to the original.

[REC]/Quarantine (2007/2008)

Not all remakes are good and, in fact, most are completely unnecessary. Take Quarantine or, better yet, take the Spanish original [REC]. I hate found footage films but, like a train wreck, I can’t stop myself from looking. Quarantine is a shot for shot remake of [REC] with the only major difference being that one was shot in Spain in Spanish while the other was shot in North America in English. Even the sets used are almost identical. The overall plot is pretty standard zombie movie stuff with some mutant strain of rabies getting released into a small apartment building causing the tenants to die and become hyperactive cannibal monsters.

For all the things you can find wrong with this movie -and, yes, I’m referring to both as a singular film because they are- what it gets right is pretty amazing. The panic, the fear, and the overall atmosphere created by the people trapped in the building is suspenseful and raw. Even if you’ve seen it a few times, this movie can put you on the edge of your seat at times. The effects and zombie make-up are okay. They’re not great but they’re not bad. All in all, it’s a fairly entertaining, if laughably predictable movie that’s worth a watch.

My recommendation is to find an English dubbed version of [REC] and a Spanish dubbed version of Quarantine and watch them side by side to see how well they sync up with one another.

Train to Busan (2016)

Do you want a zombie movie that’ll make you cry like a bitch? Because this is a zombie movie that’ll make you cry like a bitch.

Train to Busan is the surprise South Korean zombie movie that no one knew we needed until it hit Netflix and Shudder. A gut wrenching story about a father trying to earn his daughter’s love and trust while trying to save her from the end of the world. I mean, even thinking of the plot is giving me goosebumps and making me tear up a bit. Add to this a warped sense of humor and some truly disturbing, otherworldly looking zombies, and we’re talking about a serious horror show here. Like any B movie, there are some deeply flawed CGI pieces and a few plot inconsistencies but overall the film hits all the marks for being terrifying and engaging.

The zombies are possibly some of the freakiest I’ve ever seen and I think that’s just because filmmakers and artists in the Asian continent understand the genre better than a lot of folks. They don’t want you to look at their monsters and think “Oh yeah, there’s a dude in zombie make-up.” They want you shouting at the top of your lungs “What the fuck is that thing!” The zombies in Train to Busan will definitely make you scream.

I could list off a dozen great zombie movies and turn this into a huge list. I Am A Hero, Shaun of the Dead, Zombie, Dawn of the Dead, Fido, Return of the Living Dead, Dead Alive… I mean I could seriously keep this episode going for two hours just talking about some great, pandemic panic inducing flicks. But these ones were some of the best and it’s because they all create a fantastic atmosphere surrounding a pandemic crisis using zombies as an analog for physical and social disease. Each one offers a steady build of tension as you look at a normal world gradually turned sideways because of a baffling and unnerving disease. What starts as a heroic struggle soon becomes the cold truth that no matter how hard we struggle, no matter how valiantly we fight, in the end a single celled organism is capable of bringing us to our knees and changing our reality forever.

After all, nothing’s more terrifying than realizing that we are always being hunted.

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