Archive for the ‘Movie reviews’ Category

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Godzilla (2014) – a review

May 17, 2014

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The new Godzilla film has been my most anticipated movie since Fellowship of the Ring, so you can imagine that I had pretty big expectations when I walked into the cinema. I was also excited and a little bit fearful – after all with high expectations comes a high risk of disappointment. Happily enough, I wasn’t let down by the film. I saw  the 2D version.

I will try to keep this film fairly spoiler free, but if you are such a purist that you haven’t even watched any trailers, I suggest you stop reading here.

The basic premise of the movie is simple enough. There are giant monsters, they fight each other and mankind gets caught in the middle. However, I like how they’ve managed to keep the film feeling fresh and interesting instead of simply having a two hour CGI slugfest. Luckily, that’s not to say there isn’t a good bit of monster punch-out involved.

Let’s start with the best parts. First of all, the visuals. Godzilla looks very, very nice. The shots of Godzilla and the other monsters wrecking civilization (and there are plenty of those) are excellent. There’s a great sense of scale, and a feeling of weight often missing from CGI. The monsters feel big, heavy and physical as does the destruction they cause. There are some actually beautiful shots in the film, balancing serenity with destruction – an aerial shot of a Navy fleet following Godzilla was a particular favourite, as was Godzilla looming over the lanterns of San Francisco’s Chinatown. There’s plenty of colour and variety of locations in the film, from the islands of the Pacific to the deserts of Nevada.

The sound design was great as well, supporting the visuals. Again, the roars and screeches of the monsters are impressively loud and animalistic, and the theatre rumbled with the roars and the destruction. There is often a nice contrast in the film with calm moments in the audiovisual storm, before the movie again erupts into full-on chaos. My absolute favourite is a sound used a few times in the film, where the destruction of a tower building’s windows creates an ethereal, hauntingly beautiful tinkling. If you’ve seen Gareth Edwards’ previous film Monsters (and you should), there’s a lot of similarity in feel here.

The real beef of the film is of course the combination of monsters and destruction. After all, when you’re going to see Godzilla, you’re going to see a film with monsters destroying stuff. The movie does not disappoint. There is plenty of both available and with loads of variety. You will see the monsters fighting ships, planes, tanks, helicopters and infantry and destroying power plants, trains, skyscrapers and landmarks. There’s even a tsunami thrown in. Godzilla looks a lot like a catastrophe movie, as it should. The monster designs are very nice and things are kept interesting.

I want to dedicate a paragraph to the monsters themselves. Monster choreography in Godzilla is excellent. The battles between monsters look like something out of an awesome David Attenborough -narrated nature document. The monsters look, feel and act real, and mostly they don’t feel like movie heroes and villains, but simply giant, monstrous animals, which helps sell them to the audience. I also liked the fact that despite modern day visuals, they haven’t completely done away with the “man in a suit” feel of Godzilla.

As you might guess, the plot and the human characters don’t particularly shine  in the film. Both are adequate for the film, and the plot has a few interesting twists, but let’s face it: in a genre film like this, I’m not going in to see awesome drama, deep characters and an intricate plot. If anything, the film tried to inject too much character and family drama into the film, but it didn’t really work. While it didn’t really fall flat on its face, the end result was still a little meh and felt unnecessary. The same thing plagues pretty much every big apocalyptic film (with the exception of Pacific Rim): the destruction of millions of people is not seen as tragic enough, but there always has to be the story of a family separated by the events. In Godzilla it isn’t as cheesy as several other films (say the god-awful 2012), but the plot device didn’t really work. All the actors turn in a solid day’s work, but there really isn’t anything remarkable on offer. There are a few minor irritations, my personal not-favourite being Ken Watanabe’s Japanese doctor, who should be an expert on the subject but tends to only offer cryptic and dramatic lines in a gruff voice instead of being of any help.

There was an element of environmentalism in the movie, which didn’t feel too forced, nor was it really heavy handed. After all, the Godzilla franchise has always been about radiation and its dangers, so this was perfectly in line with the previous films. In a great avoidance of plausible explanations (which never work in movies like this) it’s simply stated that the monsters thrive and feed on radiation. That’s cool with me.

In a genre movie like this, there’s often a tendency to go with a mass of obvious irritating tropes. Director Gareth Edwards and writer Max Borenstein are obviously quite familiar with these, as the movie often sets up situations like this, and then resolves them in a smart manner. An example is a scene where Godzilla is at Golden Gate bridge, and a courageous bus driver with a bus full of children decides to make a run for it through barricades, tanks and all. As the scene unfolded, I was rolling my eyes, as I knew exactly how it would turn out. Despite the chaotic situation, the heroism of the driver would of course clear all the obstacles previously established, there would probably be a groovy one-liner (“Hold on kids, this is gonna get bumpy!” or something similar) and then off they go. I won’t spoil it for you, but things took a more realistic turn. Things like this had me liking the film a lot. Other favourites included an intelligent, sensible military and its non-crazy, non-murderous commander – both aspects always missing from films like this.

Overall verdict: Godzilla is a nice catastrophe movie, and an awesome giant monster movie. It avoids most pitfalls of the genre and offers a wonderful audiovisual experience. If you go in expecting plenty of character development and an intricate plot, you’ll be sorely disappointed – then again, if that’s what you’re looking for, why on earth would you go see Godzilla? If – like me – you go in expecting to see cities levelled and monsters brawling against each other and the military, you’re in for a treat. Godzilla takes second place in my giant monster top 3, behind Pacific Rim but ahead of Cloverfield.

 

 

 

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Journal of an epidemic_ – a review

June 24, 2013

(Note: the embedded version is tiny. Either view it fullscreen or go to the movie’s Vimeo page.)

I’m a sucker for infection movies, as well as short and sweet pieces that manage to tell a story. With that in mind, Journal of an epidemic_ by Australian film maker Olivier Mamet hits a sweet spot with me. As the title suggests, it tells the story of a global apocalyptic infection. In three and a half minutes humanity crumbles to nothing and we’re treated to the last of our kind.

The film itself is like an intro to an apocalypse flick, which is both a strength and a weakness. On one hand it draws you in, on the other it stops just as it’s getting most interesting and would probably have benefited from a few more minutes of storytelling.

Most of the short film is made of archive footage. It’s spliced together nicely, and I like the way the story is told. We have the usual hospital shots and newsreels as well as the near-obligatory microscope shots. In addition to the archive footage, there are some lovely shots of empty cityscapes. Judging by the lighting and the lack of people I assume these have been filmed during the early hours of the day. It’s nothing new – 28 Days Later‘s abandoned London pretty much set the standard – but the shots are beautiful in themselves. The third element is filmed footage of a gasmasked survivor going through the remains of civilization.

There’s a voiceover narration throughout the film, and a special mention must be made of it. The narrator Luke Atencio has a very pleasant voice, which is critical in a short movie like this. No, seriously. Having to listen to an annoying voiceover for the duration of an entire film? Think about it. It’s not coincidental that they cast the likes of Sir Ian Mckellen or Sigourney Weaver as narrators in films and documentaries.

Overall verdict: Journal of an epidemic_ is a nice and sleek little short film. While it’s not revolutionary, it manages to condense an end of the world story into a little over three minutes, which is nothing to be scoffed at. Go ahead, watch it. There are far worse ways to spend three minutes.

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The Walking Dead season 2 – a review

October 3, 2012

My relationship with The Walking Dead in its various forms is not an entirely easy one. When I first started reading the comic (from issue #1) it was pretty much the best thing I’d ever seen. Lately I haven’t read it – it started getting a little tedious as things kept going from bleak to bleaker to even bleaker to mega bleak and then some, and the series just kind of lost a lot of its effectiveness.

I was looking forward to the TV series a lot, and apart from the final episode of season one, I was pretty happy with how it turned out. When season two started, I was…well, if not as thrilled as about season one, still pretty interested. I started watching season two, and it was, in a word, boring. The season didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Around episode five I simply stopped watching. It was a huge disappointment.

My interest in the whole TWD franchise waned, until I ran into the amazing adventure game. All of a sudden I was interested in TWD again. This was further fueled by a friend of mine giving me a TWD book, Rise of the Governoras a birthday present.

Skip forward a month, to the day before yesterday. I’m on a work trip in Mikkeli, and find myself with a lot of spare time. I visit the nearest (“only”, I’m told) video rental store, and decide to give TWD’s season two a chance. After four paragraphs of rambling, the review begins!

I’m happy I gave the series a second look. As it turns out, after a sloooooow start the season starts picking up pace, and in my opinion ends up being as good as, if not even better, than the first one.

The season has plenty of elements that make it excellent. There’s a large, coherent arc that runs throughout the season. There is some great acting, with Jon Bernthal as Shane standing out especially. Some very heavy themes are dealt with, and there’s a fair amount of unexpected twists and turns to keep the viewer interested. There are character deaths, and these are not dealt with lightly, but are important events. The tone is kept pretty dark and sombre, but there are lighter moments as well. Also, the series doesn’t go down the comic’s route, heaping bad things on bad things and piling some more bad things on, which keeps it much more relatable.

The Walking Dead‘s group dynamics work fairly well. There are interesting schisms, which in turn are often dealt with realistically enough to keep the series believable. Some strange decisions are made, seemingly just to further the plot, but these are in the minority. All in all, TWD manages to put together a group of characters that alternatively both garner sympathy and irritate – much like real people. Even the worst of the bunch have some genuinely likable moments, which is a huge plus in my book. This is helped along by quality actors who do a very good job.

While I’m not much of a gore hound, I must remark on the awesomely disgusting stuff pulled off by the effects crew. This isn’t the kind of stuff you usually see on TV, apart from wildlife documentaries. The zombies in differente states of decay are also wonderfully done, and if you get your hands on the dvd box, I recommend checking out the extras.

Of course, it’s not all perfect. The series does use the whole “Carl disappears and appears inconveniently” over and over again. Note to the writers of The Walking Dead: if your repeating plot device is getting turned into a meme, you’re doing something wrong.

Also, as mentioned before, in the first five or so episodes, nothing much happens. This does pay off handsomely towards the end of the season though, as it allows for much more character development than the six episode season one.

Character development brings me to T-Dog. This character, despite having been with the series since approximately the beginning, hasn’t really received any screen time nor character development. Don’t believe me? io9 noted this too, in their article (with some spoilers) in March. I have absolutely no idea why this is, but it’s a glaring mistake and starts to get pretty funny and noticeable around episode 8 or 9.

Overall verdict: Despite a slow start, The Walking Dead season 2 builds up to some very nice zombie action and drama. While there are some weaker elements – “Where’s Carl?”, T-Dog and the slow start, basically – the whole manages to deliver, often exceeding season one. While I almost lost my faith, it seems TWD is back on track.

You can get The Walking Dead season 2 from any decent dvd retailer. Or a video rental store in Mikkeli, your call.

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War of the Dead – a review

May 28, 2012

Well well well, I finally got to see the first (mostly) Finnish feature-length zombie film, War of the Dead (or Stone’s War as it’s also known). Did I like it? No, not really. Was it bad? Yes, pretty. Was it completely awful? No, it wasn’t. Let’s see now.

Written and directed by Marko Mäkilaakso, War of the Dead is a story set in WW2, 1941. A team of US and Finnish soldiers are en route to destroy a Soviet bunker somewhere in Karelia. What most of them don’t know is that the Russians are carrying on with some zombie/undead super soldier experiments they stole from the Nazis. Before long most of the soldiers are dead and there’s some more shooting and the movie ends.

That, dear readers, is one of the things that’s wrong with WotD. The above summary is a pretty accurate one of the film’s plot. As you can see, there isn’t very much of it. You’d think that with Finns, Americans, Nazis, Soviets and zombies running around in hidden underground bunkers, you’d end up with a wonderfully crazy movie, but you don’t. While I’m at it, let’s see some of the other things that are wrong with the movie:

The zombies don’t know whether they’re birds or fish. They are a bit bitey, but also tend to just punch people. While it’s established that they’re undead, they’re more like the soldiers in Dead Snow than zombies as such.

The movie’s pacing is terrible, there’s no way of getting around it. There’s pointless action and a lot of it. Come to think of it, a fair few scenes, in which you expect some plot development to happen, are interrupted by random zombie attacks…

…and since the plot doesn’t develop, neither do the characters. Of the three major characters, there’s basically one with a personality. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a zombie movie lives or dies depending on its characters, and in this case WotD dies a horrible, horrible death.

The dialogue is stilted, cliché-ridden and definitely not helped by the English used. At times the movie’s dialogue reads like a parody, it’s so bad. Corny one-liners are the order of the day – only you don’t know whether they’re supposed to be funny or serious.

If this sounds like I’m piling a lot on the film, it’s true. During the first 25 minutes of War of the Dead I was seriously considering walking out of the theatre. In the movie’s defense it needs to be said that it gets better towards the end. The movie also has a very good cast, even if they are mostly wasted due to the lacking plot and terrible dialogue. As a Finn it was sad to see such excellent young Finnish actors as Samuli Vauramo and Mikko Leppilampi being cut off from most of their potential. They do their best with what they’re given, so kudos to them for that.

Another area in which the film excels is the visuals. It’s a lot of eye candy, and the movie looks a lot better than the budget of less than € 1 000 000 suggests. Some of this is ruined by shoddy camera directing in the action scenes in particular, but the film looks very nice nonetheless. If only looks could carry a film!

Overall verdict: War of the Dead sadly isn’t a very good film. Director Marko Mäkilaakso not only concocts an ill-fitting mixture of different, clichéd elements, but wastes a bunch of good Finnish acting talent while doing it. While the movie looks nice and gets better towards the end, the first hour or so is so rife with plot incoherensies, awful dialogue and awkward pacing, that you’ll be fighting your own personal war to get through it. For me the movie was a definite disappointment, but there’s probably a personal element involved, this being a Finnish movie and all. If you go in without any high expectations, this one might offer you some good WW2 action/horror fun.

WotD is available on dvd at Play.com, complete with a cover that seems to portray a different film altogether.

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The Dead – a review

December 13, 2011

I’ve been waiting for this movie a long, long time. It has popped up on Dawn of the Lead several times, first almost two years back on February 6 2010, and I’ve been following its progress closely. Now I’ve finally seen it, and for once it’s great to see a zombie movie actually live up to my expectations.

The Dead, by brothers Howard & Jonathan Ford, tells the story of two men. One (played by Rob Freeman) is an American Air Force engineer, who is the sole survivor when an evacuation plane crashes off the coast of Sierra Leone (I believe). The other one (played by Prince David Oseia) is a local soldier who has lost his son in the chaos of a zombie catastrophe. The movie follows these two men, as one tries to find a way out of the country while the other tries to find his son.

This movie does a lot of things right. Where do I begin? First of all, it’s a return to the roots of zombie horror. The zombies in the movie aren’t the type that jumps around and screams using that “generic monster scream” sound effect that’s used in pretty much every low-budget movie nowadays. Instead these are the zombies of Romero and Fulci: not fast, not smart, but persistent, inhuman and ever present. This is something The Dead does very well. The zombies are scary in a very profound manner, as they are simply automatons craving human flesh. They walk around slowly with a vacant look in their eyes, and when they manage to catch someone, they chew their food thoughtfully. This is something that makes them really unsettling. By stripping their monsters of overt monstrosity (wild aggression, screaming, frenzied speed), the Ford brothers have made their zombies something more than scary. They’re at the same time terrifying and sad – former humans stripped of all humanity. Their terror is increased by the fact that they are everywhere. Whenever there’s noise, you can be sure that in a few moments a zombie or two will silently wander in. This is in my opinion a cornerstone of zombie horror that has been lost in the past years. The zombies in The Dead aren’t scary because they run up to you and rip your throat out. Instead they are scary, because their steady lumbering makes it perfectly clear that there will be no rest or respite to anyone trying to avoid them. It might take them a good long while, but eventually you will tire and they will find you.

This leads me to another of the film’s strong points. The Dead is bleak. Not rub-it-in-your-face-go-cry-emo-kid-teen-angst bleak, mind you. There aren’t witty one-liners, nor comedy zombies going up escalators, just the dead everywhere, abandoned villages and hopeless survivors. The parallels between contemporary developing Africa are obvious. It’s apparent that even without the zombies, the people aren’t living a luxury life and the soldiers are used to putting their AK-47’s to use. For the most part, the movie doesn’t luckily overdo this. There are warm moments there of hope, friendship and community. These aren’t too sappy and Hollywood, so they fit the tone of the movie. Simply put, The Dead is a zombie movie for grown-ups.

The trend is continued in the down-to-earth setting. No massive explosions, high-tech weaponry or things like that. Most of the movie features two men, a few guns and a rusty, stalling pickup truck. The moviemakers have relied on the sights of Africa for their visuals, and that is an excellent choice. Shot on location in Burkina Faso and GhanaThe Dead is easily one of the most beautiful zombie films I’ve ever seen. A lot of the film happens during sunny daytime, and the beautiful vistas of Africa get a lot of screen time. In addition to eye candy, this really changes the tone of the film. Most zombie movies are set in cramped urban environments, producing a sense of claustrophobia. In The Dead, there is lots and lots of space, yet you can almost always see a zombie somewhere, walking along. Again, this enhances the zombies’ effectiveness – you can simply walk around them, but they will follow. The directors have also wonderfully conveyed the oppressing heat and bright sun of the setting. The cast is dusty and sweaty throughout the film, and the cinematography is impressive.

I really liked the movie’s pacing, but this has divided opinions somewhat. The Dead is quite slow. It takes its time, and is largely a road movie, a story of travelling. At times the movie might feel like it slows down too much. For me, it’s a much needed departure from contemporary hectic zombie films and allows the viewer to enjoy the sights and sounds (or rather, silence) of the setting. If I’m allowed to be poetic for a moment, I’ll say the movie leaves you time to think about what’s happening, where it’s set and contrast it with reality.

There aren’t many flaws in the movie. The pacing mentioned before might make the movie seem boring to some, but that’s a matter of taste. There’s also some rather heavy handed social commentary of the “I don’t understand you white people” kind, but there’s not a lot of it. One of the movie’s potentially very interesting storylines is skipped over very lightly, which was a bit of a letdown as it was a very interesting one. The characters could’ve used just a little bit more depth, even if they are not cardboard cut-outs by any means. These are, however, small things compared to the film’s overall quality.

Overall verdict: The Dead is one of the best zombie movies I have ever seen. It’s thought-provoking, adult and genuinely scary. The setting is brilliant and really makes the movie stand out from its contemporaries. This is what zombie movies can be at their best.

You can get the movie on dvd from Play.com and other stores. Be sure to check out the movie’s official site as well.

 

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Zombie in a Penguin Suit – a review

October 21, 2011

Zombie in a Penguin Suit - Design by Tyler Littwin of Blake Ink United

More and more I’m starting to think that with the mass of zombie movies that have come out in recent years, short films are establishing themselves as the format. As I’ve said again and again, few zombie movies have enough of a plot to carry them through an hour and a half, let alone two. They often suffer from either a lack or an abundance of material: 1½ hours about a single person or a small group is often too much, yet it’s also far too little to chronicle the apocalypse in detail. Luckily we have short films, that often manage to combine these two nicely.

As you might have guessed, Zombie in a Penguin Suit by Chris Russell tells the story of, well, a zombie in a penguin suit. A movie similar in look and feel to shoestring-budget zombie movie Colin (see here for the IMDb details), it’s a quiet, melancholy story of a lone zombie’s trudge through a zombie catastrophe. We see glimpses here and there of happenings, with several traditional zombie movie set pieces. The main character (played by Michael Wetherbee) does what every zombie does, staggering along and occasionally eating someone, while at times being harrassed by survivors.

There are several things that make this seven minute short memorable. The first one is of course the main character. The zombie-in-unusual-clothes is a common trope in the genre, I believe started by Romero with Dawn of the Dead‘s Hare Krishna zombie and the rest. The sheer absurdity of the penguin suit is brilliant, and it makes for a great contrast both visually and mentally. The bright black & white costume with the orange beak really jumps out from the screen, making the main character the focal point pretty much every time he’s on screen. The mental contrast is an even more effective one. Penguins are many things: cute, funny, smart, definitely not homicidal. There is a lovely mix of absurd comedy and shock in the way the cutesy zombie attacks its victims.

On a deeper level, the movie is actually quite touching. Through the originally comic character of a zombie dressed in a penguin suit the viewers are given a glimpse of the inherent sadness of zombies. While recent movies in which zombies are portrayed as running and jumping have presented zombies as feral predators, they’ve lost the whole touching side of things. For me it’s the real sadness and horror inherent in zombies – a human being reduced to a mindless automaton, left to wander the world with no purpose, only to die eventually. Zombie in a Penguin Suit brings this theme up wonderfully. There’s another contrast, one of feeling, here, between the frantic survivors and feeding zombies, and the solitary quiet ambulation of a lone zombie. There are some beautiful shots in the film, and the viewer is given ample time to just watch the main character go. The soundtrack is a lovely composition as well and it really adds to the whole.

Overall verdict: A suprisingly touching, quiet story of a lone zombie’s existence. You could spend seven minutes of your life far worse. One of the best new zombie films I’ve seen in a while, and yet another example of zombie short film excellence.

Watch the film below, and visit the filmmakers’ official site.

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Opstandelsen – a review

June 2, 2011

Opstandelsen (or Resurrection, if you’re not fluent in Danish) is an indie zombie short(ish, around 50 minutes) directed by Casper Haugegaard. It presents a lovely vignette: during a funeral, zombies happen. Four people, all family, survive by hiding under the church and then spend the rest of the film trying to make it out alive. The main dramatic tension is between two brothers, one of them the straight-up one and the other a drug addict.

The movie left me with mixed, but mostly positive feelings. It’s very compact and well-focused. Even so, the movie does suffer a bit from balancing issues. In a movie like this, featuring a very small cast with in-story blood ties, I would’ve liked to see more character interaction and dialogue. There was some, and what was there was good. I liked the actors (Mads Althoff and Jonas Bjørn Andersen) portraying the two brothers. They had nice chemistry between them and managed to convey the relationship of two different brothers well. This stuff leaves you wanting more, so I was a bit disappointed with the decision to replace a lot of that with running around dark corridors in a panic. Which brings me to my next point.

A large part of Opstandelsen is spent shaky-cam running in the dark. This is very Blair Witch Project-y, which is a double-edged sword. On one hand it does get a bit confusing at times, and there is a bit too much of it, which might put people off. On the other it does manage to make the movie feel very personal. The cramped, dark corridors are scary and there is a genuine sense of urgency, panic and even claustrophobia. I might be wrong, but I guess that this was partly a budget thing as well – a dark setting doesn’t require very much propping or makeup after all. Still, I think the movie excels in the parts not spent running around. When you have good actors, you’d do well to get as much mileage out of them as possible.

Another little disappointment for me was the minimal attention given to the actual zombie attack on the funeral crowd. The few flashes seen are excellent, and the church itself is a wonderful setting. Again, this adds to the personal feeling of the movie as the viewer pretty much sees what the characters see. Still, every now and then this viewer would’ve liked to see some more.

The zombies themselves are nicely put together, and there is some good makeup present. There is a bit of variation in the quality though – some of the gore sequences are absolutely breathtakingly disgusting and visceral, while at times some of the characters just look like some fake theatre blood has been thrown on them. The gore does deserve a special mention. The combination of makeup and sickening sound effects makes for truly awful (in a good sense) death and devouring scenes. Make no mistake about it, Opstandelsen is brutal.

The cinematography left me a little perplexed. Other parts of the movie look like they’ve been shot in video while others look like film. Video tends to contribute to a cheap, soap opera look, but works surprisingly well in Opstandelsen. Still I was left wondering, why the difference in styles? There doesn’t seem to be any major discernible reason, and the contrast eats a bit of the movie’s coherence.

There’s a lot of critique above, so it might be surprising that I actually liked Opstandelsen a quite a lot. The main reason might just be that the whole setting and look of the thing is very Scandinavian. The familiar look contributes to a feeling of personal attachment, which is very good in any horror movie. Despite the low-budget look I found myself intensely drawn to the film for its duration – which by the way is pretty much spot on. A few minutes of corridor running could’ve been cut, but I still liked the film’s pacing.

Overall verdict: An intense zombie short film, which suffers from some of the usual low-budget problems but manages to make itself work nevertheless. Opstandelsen is far from perfect, but still an excellent way to spend fifty minutes of your life. Something is definitely rotten in the state of Denmark. Luckily, it’s not this movie.

You can get the film on dvd from CDON.com, for example.

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