Zombie A-Hole (2012) Zombie A-Hole (2012) ***

     Back when I still posted frequently enough to attract attention from DVD labels’ marketing agents, there was one outfit in particular whose return address on a screener package always filled me with approximately the same volatile mixture of anticipation and dread that my gambler friends describe in connection with the call of a poker hand or a spin of the roulette wheel. Most of the people who used to send me screeners were fairly predictable in terms of their compatibility or lack thereof with my tastes, but there was no telling what a mailer from MVD Visual might contain. It could be an insane fad oddity like Supervan. It could be an escapee from the deepest forgotten vaults of vintage smut, like Erotic Diary of a Lumberjack or those silly Danish “sign” movies. Sometimes they’d send me cartoons, documentaries, and TV shows, even though I explicitly told them on a number of occasions that I don’t review any of those things. More often than not, though— and this is where the dread enters into it— a package from MVD Visual would contain several pieces of trifling indie schlock of a kind that I find exhausting even to think about watching. You remember ThanksKilling? Or Sexsquatch: The Legend of Blood Stool Creek? That’s the kind of shit I’m talking about. And yet even then, I’d occasionally get lucky. Like maybe the movie would suck, but it would suck in a way that I could respect, with ambition, personality, and intelligence. And once in a great while the unthinkable would happen, and one of those inauspicious backyard productions would turn out to be good.

     That brings me to Dustin Mills and Zombie A-Hole. MVD Visual sent me no fewer than four of Mills’s movies, and one look at their packaging— cover art, synopses, critical blurbs— was enough for me to consign them all to the “In case of extreme masochism, break glass” box. And there they sat, it shames me to say, for four fucking years. Bouts of extreme masochism do come over me from time to time, however, and my latest one moved me to give Mills’s Night of the Tentacles a spin. Having been thwarted in my attempt at cinematic self-abuse by that movie’s utterly unexpected wit, imagination, and overall competence, I decided to go for broke and watch the same director’s Zombie A-Hole next. I mean, seriously— what the fuck good could possibly come of watching a movie with that title? It isn’t even Zombie Asshole, which could at least be taken to promise a certain forthright crassness and full-throated commitment to whatever bad ideas inspired it. This was definitely going to hurt, right? Incredibly, though, Zombie A-Hole turns out to be even better than Night of the Tentacles, in a way that recalls, of all things, the short stories and early novels of Caitlyn R. Kiernan. You may never have heard of Kiernan— hell, Mills may never have heard of Kiernan, since it occurs to me that you could get here just as easily simply from watching Phantasm II— but she’s one of the best authors currently active in the fields of horror and dark fantasy. I long for somebody to make a film version of pretty much anything she’s written, but to the best of my knowledge, no such thing exists. Simply by reminding me of her, then, Zombie A-Hole is filling a gap. To be sure, giving it full appreciation requires a willingness to forgive the kind of defects that inevitably arise when someone spends literally hundreds of dollars making a movie, but Zombie A-Hole excels in pretty much all the departments that don’t cost money— and even acquits itself creditably in a few of the ones that do.

     By far the most shocking thing about Zombie A-Hole is that it isn’t a comedy. It has a sense of humor, certainly, but that isn’t the point of the exercise. Anyway, once upon a time, there lived twin brothers by the rather desperate names of Castor and Pollux Plainview (Brandon Salkil, of The Dead… Will Rise! and Snuffet). Pollux emerged from medical school just in time for the Haitian earthquake of 2010, and helping to manage that catastrophe was the very first use to which he put his newly earned degree. He returned a changed man, however— not because of the things he saw in Haiti, but because of something he acquired there. What Pollux took to be merely an unusual necklace when he discovered it amid the ruins of Port-au-Prince or wherever was actually the repository for an ancient demonic spirit, and that spirit began taking Pollux over from the moment he first hung the bauble around his neck. Castor gave little thought to his brother’s odd demeanor at first, but then the murders began in and around their normally sleepy little Midwestern town (all the victims twin sisters), and Castor couldn’t help noticing that a new pair of bodies invariably turned up within a few days of an unexplained absence on Pollux’s part. Now obviously Castor could have just gone to the police with his suspicions, but come on. This was his twin. Irrational as it might sound, Castor felt personally responsible for his homicidal brother, and he set out to bring Pollux to justice himself. His intervention came too late to save the final pair of victims, but Castor could console himself with the knowledge that those two girls truly would be the last. No way was Pollux getting up to any more shenanigans with a bullet that size in his brain. Of course, there was no realistic possibility of Castor going back to his old life after that, and the reluctant fratricide has lived like a reclusive nomad ever since.

     The inconvenient thing about demonic possession, though, is that it has a way of abrogating the normal rules— even the normal rules for getting shot in the head. Pollux did indeed survive his death, and he has considerably extended and expanded his reign of terror since rising again as a hellfire-fueled zombie. Castor has begun to fear as much, too, and thus is he now hitchhiking his way back home for a rematch. But Castor is not the only enemy Pollux has acquired. One time down south, the undead killer got sloppy, and left one of his victims maimed but alive. And although Mercy Fulci (The Puppet Monster Massacre’s Jessica Daniels) is short one hand and one eye these days, she’s plenty resourceful and determined enough to give Pollux a very hard time. What’s more, Mercy has an older brother, and Frank (Josh Eal, of Bath Salt Zombies and Kill That Bitch) promises to be even more of a handful for the murdering hellspawn. He’s a professional, you see. It’s by no means clear whether Frank hunts demons freelance, or whether he’s beholden to some kind of Watchers’ Council or Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, but either way, he kills the shit out of things that go bump in the night. Right now, Castor, Mercy, and Frank are each working solo. However, it doesn’t take Frank’s Oracle in a Box (a nifty little puppet creature voiced by Eugene Flynn, from Easter Casket and Night of the Tentacles) to see that a joining of forces is in the offing, and I wouldn’t want to be Pollux when that happens.

     My fellow Caitlyn Kiernan fans may have already spotted the parallels between Zombie A-Hole as I describe it and Kiernan’s stories about her mad Cajun monster-hunter, Dancy Flammarion. Mind you, the tone here is completely different from the Flammarion stories, or indeed from anything else of Kiernan’s that I’ve read thus far. Zombie A-Hole is unabashedly an exploitation movie, so don’t expect anything analogous to Kiernan’s habit of averting the reader’s eyes when the gore and sex start to ramp up. The film’s perspective is unmistakably masculine, there’s nothing gothy about it save the haircuts and tattoos on a few of Pollux’s victims, and the overall vibe is Rust Belt rather than Deep South. But the important stuff— the damaged people implacably hounding smugly overconfident monsters to their destruction, the hints of a larger and even weirder world beyond our field of vision, the shabby redneck voodoo— that’s all here. Like I said, I have no idea whether Dustin Mills is a Kiernan fan himself, but he sure did make a movie that scratches a lot of the same itches as her fiction.

     Zombie A-Hole is even put together like one of Kiernan’s stories, with a laconic, elliptical narrative structure that gives everything a secretive, dreamlike quality. If we discount the opening scene setting up (but crucially not showing) the first confrontation between the Plainview brothers, the main action of Zombie A-Hole unfolds over just a few days. What we see, though, ultimately encompasses years, as fragmented flashbacks drift down in gossamer layers to reveal not the whole story, but enough of it. The film leaves a ton of unanswered questions, yet none that really matter in the end. We’re afforded enough glimpses of the bigger picture to create the illusion that answers exist (even if they actually don’t), which for me at least is sufficient to silence that nagging voice that keeps saying, “Yeah, but…” whenever I watch a movie like Prometheus or Kiss Me, Monster.

     Zombie A-Hole’s most distinctively Kiernanesque feature, though, is the portrayal of Pollux as extremely powerful, yet obviously doomed from the get-go, like the various vampires, ghouls, and unclassifiable bogeymen that Dancy slaughters her way through in Threshold and Alabaster. It was probably also the feature least likely to be duplicated successfully. I’m not talking here simply about the effects of our metafictional awareness that the bad guys usually lose in stories of this kind. Overhanging the whole film is a mood of something like divine judgment, of fate inexorably bearing down on Pollux in the unlikely form of three weary, outmatched, but strangely fearless people. It’s precisely the dissonance between the monster hunters’ attitudes and their apparent capabilities that makes it work, I think. Castor, Frank, and Mercy quite simply know they’re going to win, and they quite simply don’t care if they all have to die along the way. Even scary things should have the sense to be scared of foes with that kind of outlook.

     “Okay,” you say, “but does Zombie A-Hole have anything to offer people who aren’t fans of some writer I’ve never heard of?” Glad you asked— the answer is an emphatic yes. Perhaps you’ll appreciate Zombie A-Hole for the remarkably effective ensemble which the three leads grow into despite the limitations of their individual performances. Or maybe you’ll be more taken with Brandon Salkil’s impressively menacing turn as Pollux, a characterization which relies almost entirely on body language. You might get a good laugh out of Mills himself as Voodoo Bob, loutish purveyor of paranormal accoutrements. And I just can’t see anybody not being instantly enraptured by the scene-stealing little whatsit that Frank keeps in that box. The special effects run the gamut from startlingly good to sucktacular, but even at their worst, they have a bit of clumsy charm. Finally, although I don’t want to make too much of this, it’s refreshing to see a modern Z-grade fright film not shy away from nudity. I’ve mentioned before how dishonest and off-putting I find the Maxim school of PG-13 titillation, and it dismays me how deeply that sort of thing has penetrated into what used to be the most exuberantly trashy segment of the non-pornographic film industry. I’m not saying a cheap-ass horror movie needs to be as gratuitously sexed-up as they generally were in the 70’s and 80’s, but if you’re going to go that route, don’t fuck around and pretend you’re not doing what you’re doing. Zombie A-Hole doesn’t fuck around, in that or anything else. Seriously— don’t be like me. Don’t let this movie’s stupid-ass title trick you into not watching it.

 

 

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