Thursday, September 23, 2010

DVD Reviews: HEAVY MENTAL (2009) and DEAD EYES OPEN (2008)

It's a maxim that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that old saw is true, then the two recent indie film releases from Troma Team DVD, the low-brow gross-out horror-comedy Heavy Mental (2009, written and directed by Mike C. Hartman) and the more serious zombie apocalypse flick Dead Eyes Open (2008, written and directed by Ralf Mollenhoff) should be very flattering indeed to their respective inspirators. As imitations go, both are pretty spot-on, at times almost to the point of slavishness.

Hartman's flick, for instance, seems to want nothing more than to be a full-fledged Lloyd Kaufman-style boobs, blood, and boogers flick. Specifically, it wants to be The Toxic Avenger. In Heavy Mental, aspiring young metal guitarist Ace Spade (Josh Hooper) receives a guitar once owned by his heavy metal idol and convicted murderer Eddie Lee Stryker (Hartman) as a birthday present from his two gay dads. At band practice Ace discovers that the guitar gives him superhuman shredding ability, making his band a shoe-in to win the upcoming Detroit Battle of the Bands competition. When local crimelord and heavy metal hater Mrs. Delicious (Brenna Roth) decides to blow up the nightclub where the competition is taking place, thus putting an end to Metal in Detroit in one swell foop, Ace is possessed by the spirit of Eddie Stryker and transformed into a hulking, musclebound, skull-faced Monster of Metal to put a stop to her unrighteous schemes.

A rare photo from Skeletor's Glam Metal period.

Monster Ace (Denny Hundiak) becomes a grotesque crimefighter in the Toxic Avenger mold, wielding a guitar instead of a mop to make Detroit safe for metal-loving losers of all stripes. His various encounters with Mrs. Delicous's minions are straight out of the Troma handbook--he rescues the owners of a Daughter-and-Pop Porn Shop from thugs by rippng the miscreants' arms off, decapitating them with his "axe," and exploding their torsos with a blast of a riff-based laserbeam. Other Troma-esque characters show up to get gruesomely murdered: a morbidly obese Hot Dog Eating Competition Champ (in novelty nerd glasses and an ACTUAL propeller beanie, to give you an idea of the humor-sophistication level) strokes his trophy "I'm the Weiner! I'm the Weiner!"; a pair of slutty lesbians rip his guts out and then make out in the blood and half-digested weiners (cartoon squeaky-boob/tongue-flapping sound fx? Of course!), and one of Mrs. Delicous's henchmen is a half-gangster, half-rooster hybrid mutant who communicates in clucks and lays a giant goo-filled egg in fright. And Uncle Lloyd himself cameos as the recording company executive who signs Ace's band in the expectedly upbeat if caro syrup-sticky conclusion.

It has to be said that Heavy Mental hits what it aims for rather well. Plot-wise, effects-wise, lowbrow humor-wise, it's mostly indistinguishable from actual Troma product--maybe a little obviously cheaper and with a smidgen less charisma from the cast. Still, Hartman and his performers' enthusiasm cannot be questioned. But for some reason, the imitation pales for me in comparison to the real thing. Maybe because when Lloyd and Co. do this stuff, it's THEIR stuff--like it or hate it, they're doing what they do and making no apologies. Heavy Mental feels like Hartman copping someone else's schtick--specifically, Mr. Kauffman's. That's a tough row to hoe--after all, by definition NOBODY can be more Lloyd-like than at Lloyd, so you're bound to fall short.

Heart of Rock n' Roll: Still Beatin'

If you're a hardcore Tromite and can't wait for Uncle Lloyd's next feature, Heavy Mental might be a nice snack between meals. Still, personally, if I wanted to watch Toxic Avenger--well, I'd just watch Toxic Avenger. 1.5 thumbs.

The German-language indie zombie flick Dead Eyes Open worked a little better for me. Like Heavy Mental, Ralf Mullenhoff's movie also wears its influences on its sleeve, and features a cameo from the creator of its main inspiration: in this case, universally acknowledged zombie-movie king George A. Romero. Most would say emulating Romero's zombie expertise is a bit loftier a goal than trying to fill Kaufman's effluvia-soaked sandals, but I can't blame Mullenhoff for aiming high--especially when he takes such an above-average shot at it.

Though it has to be said, the movie doesn't start out that promising. A group of six friends decide to take a real wilderness vacation, putting aside cellphones, computers, iPods, and all other modern technological distractions. They even take the extreme (and credulity-sinking) step of having only one of their group know the exact location they'll be camping, and having him drive the others there in a windowless police van, PURPOSEFULLY running out of gas en route. I know they do things diffently on the Continent, but really? Could this EVER be a good plan? It doesn't help that the characters are the defniition of 2-dimensional cardboard movie "types": there's the Drunk Party Guy, the Nerdy Tech Guy who's Lost Without his iPhone, the Sports Fanatic, the Rugged Outdoorsman, the Bitchy Athletic Chick and the Mousy But Resourceful Girlfriend. They all have names, but you'll forgive me if I can't remember them.

Another Pretty Face

Of course the friends have picked the worst possible time for an extended wilderness outing, as without their modern amenities they don't get word that the ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE began while they were stranding themselves in the middle of nowhere. Their camping spot selection is also unfortunate, as it's right next to a rural family graveyard where the dead are starting to rise. Bitchy Athletic Chick is bitten and sickens, leading the stranded young people to seek help at a nearby farmhouse where a creepy old lady is keeping her dead-but-still-kicking husband imprisoned in the garden. All hell predictably breaks loose, and the dwindling group of city-dwellers must fend off not only the living dead, but also a series of psychopathic rural folk who the apocalypse only brings out the worst in.

Once the zombie action starts, the movie actually does pretty well, with several suspenseful set-pieces. Mullenhoff generates some genuine unease in the farmhouse with the crazy shell-shocked hausfrau, who knows Athletic Chick is a biohazardous time-bomb just waiting to explode. The house itself is a great setting, full of shadows and dust-filled rooms containing who knows what unspeakable secrets. Back at the camp, Resourceful Girlfriend and Sports Fanatic are trapped in the van by some of the zombies, and once the male half of the couple meets his gruesome end, the girl must decide whether to stay holed up in the blacked-out van or make a break for it. Once again, the suspense and terror are handled rather well here. And a later set-piece, in which Geeky Guy and Resourceful Girl float downriver on an inflatable raft, under a railway bridge from which a legless zombie is waiting to drop on them, is inventive and exciting.

Frau Pemmican

Eventually this couple of friends make it to a farmhouse where a psychopathic farmer is keeping his dead wife's corpse under wraps, and an invading police force--who actually ARE trying to be helpful--tied up in a pigsty for zombie bait. The farmer, played by Roland Riemer, is a wonderfully creepy character, and like the redneck killers in Night of the Living Dead and the chaos-strewing bikers in Day of the Dead, really more of a monster than the zombies. Speaking of those movies, George A. Romero shows up on TV at the first house as a scientist and "the best known expert" on the zombie apocalypse--a nice touch. He tells the audience in bald terms (and badly dubbed German) what the original Dead trilogy always showed: "People are unable to cooperate. If we worked together, we might have a chance. If and only if. But people won't work together."

One thing that softened my opinion toward the movie was its attempts at a unique style. Portions of the film are shot in distressed, faded filmstock-style, an obvious digital effect but still enough to make the movie visually interesting. Though some viewers may have the opposite reaction and be annoyed by it, I appreciated this attempt to make the movie something besides the cookie-cutter shot-on-video glossiness. The zombie effects are low-budget but practical, and hearken back to Romero's first two zombie epics in a way that many fans of those films will appreciate. And the filmmakers don't skimp on the goopy stuff--there's plenty of raw meat (chicken) gnoshing, skin pulled away in the teeth, streaming blood and exposed bones to satisfy the gorehounds out there. There's even a ribcage/pig-guts effect that's used twice (perhaps ill-advisedly--the obvious use of the same apparatus for two different characters pulls one out a bit), another possible homage to King George. The keyboard score is also pretty good, minus a badly out-of-place rockabilly song in the opening credits.

Also in the film's favor: Everything is Scarier in German. This is a known fact.

German Hospitality

Dead Eyes Open doesn't break any new ground, but it pays respect to its influences without being a direct copy, and managed to hold my interest throughout. It hits all its marks but doesn't seem slavishly devoted to aping its predessors, which works to its credit in my opinion. Not a game-changer, but still a pretty enjoyable indie zombie flick, and George knows we need more of those. 2 thumbs.

Both DVDs are available from Troma Team releasing, and were provided to Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies by the company for review purposes.



Anonymous said...

These both sound great. I'm a sucker for heavy metal themed horror. And Dead Eyes Open sounds like it has enough uniqueness to make it a enjoyable watch.

JamiSings said...

Hm - I must admit, I'm not big on either heavy metal or zombie movies. Now if anyone ever does a movie about a disco loving vampire hunter.... Imagine it, using a mirrored ball to reflect sunlight and burn vampires to death. Platform shoes that hide wooden stakes. Those huge medallions the men often wore doubling as weapons to decapitate the blood suckers.

But, if you'll forgive me, I do have a request of you two. While zombies are not my cup of tea, I would love love love it if you dark lords would consider doing another double feature review. I think it would be awesome if you reviewed Dead Snow and Night Of The Living Jews.

Normally I would think this sort of pairing tasteless - Nazis disgust me and if he was alive I'd totally pull a Dexter Morgan on Adolf Hitler. Yet there's just some twisted part of me....

Am I a bad person? Or does the fact that I am Jewish somehow negate this?

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Planet of Terror--as in the Troma films it imitates, HEAVY MENTAL is fairly light on the "horror" side--all the guts and blood are played for laughs rather than scares. And the actual metal music...well, it's about as good as you'd expect. Which may actually increase enjoyment!

@Jami--for some reason the appeal of DEAD SNOW just passed me right by. I've had bad luck with Nazi Zombie movies in the past--I didn't like Franco's OASIS OF THE ZOMBIES much at all, and even SHOCK WAVES left me cold on initial viewing. As for your second recommendation...I'm kind of agog. o_O

Maybe *you* should review that one! :P

JamiSings said...

I should probably see it first! I came across the site quite by accident a few months before Dead Snow was ever talked about around me. Ever since I've just had it stuck in my head that someone should do a double feature of them. I feel so dirty even suggesting it but still - I can't get the thought out of my head. Makes me wonder what the heck is wrong with me that I'd even think such a thing!

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