*Some spoilers – I tried to keep them to a minimum but proceed with slight caution
Ever since Peter Jackson arrived on the scene with the uber-low budget splatter sci-fi Bad Taste and put NZ on the horror film map with the zombie gore-fest Braindead, any New Zealand filming maker attempting a film in a horror genre has faced inevitable comparisons with Jackson and his horror classics. Some have added extra NZ themed gimmicks into the mix the differentiate themselves, i.e. the sheep of Black Sheep and Maori cannibals of Fresh Meat – both of which stuck to a comedy/horror template comparable to that of Jackson’s – others have played it straight such as The Ferryman.
Perhaps New Zealanders are more naturally gifted or comfortable with satire – Guy Pidgen’s debut film I Survived A Zombie Holocaust is another successful combination of both comedy and horror – differentiating itself from those that came before with a self-aware narrative that winks at the audience as it deconstructs horror film cliches. It also cleverly manages to comment on the nature of film-making in NZ, with a frustrated director brought to the brink due to the stress in part of being turned down for funding time and time again – as well as by the real life living dead that have invaded his film set. The film also nods to cult classics of yore – with references to Sam Raimi and Romero films – and is sure to appeal to jaded international horror fans with its mix of horror homage and fresh ideas – thus breaking away from the long shadow of Jackson. This is also the first major horror film to have been majority shot in Dunedin (by Dunedin-ite filmmakers), the city where I’m from – so I’m quite proud to have the city not immortalized in cult-horror history.
We open with a succession of stumbling zombies and a bulked up hero brandishing science fiction weaponry – this turns out to be a film-within-a-film as we’re introduced to the film set of maniacal auteur director SMP, played brilliantly by New Zealand screen veteran Andrew Laing. The bulked up hero is vain celebrity Adam Harrison (Mike Johnson), whose co-star of this film-within-a-film is diva Jessica Valentine (Reanin Johannink). SMP’s crew includes location manager Tane Henare (Ben Baker) whose rugby past is explored through-out the film, the loyal Assistant Director Richard Driver, whose loyalty might prove to be fatal, and a gun friendly American props-master, Randy Bateman (Mark Neilson). Into this wanders aspiring writer and first time runner Wesley Pennington (Harley Neville), who fumbles his way through a first day, attempting to get his script read, only to have it used as toilet paper by the director – and who falls for the kindly caterer Susan Ford (Jocelyn Christian).
The variety of stories and strength of acting is impressive – it is unusual for a low-budget film to have a scope such as this and not trip over its own ambitions. As the real life zombies appear and the massacre begins the gore and action set pieces don’t let down for a good 50 minutes. Egg beaters are taken to faces, dismemberment abounds and there’s even some good head explosions. There is an eyeball gag to rival Fulci’s slow ocular impaling from Zombie. Towards the end, there is something particularly unexpected involving a characters hand, but I won’t mention any more as this also forms a crucial plot point. Although violent the gore never takes it self too seriously, and there are some hilarious set-pieces – such as a misguided rampage on civilians mistaken to be the living dead – a handheld horror segment in which SMP takes one last shot at finishing his film and one involving a phallus that won’t soon be forgotten.
The performances and script are strong across the board – Ben Baker as the broken ex-rugby playing location manager delivers some great moments in his subplot, as does Mark Neilson, whose one-liners and misguided rampage provides some of the most memorable comic moments. I felt truly sympathetic to the plight of the DA brought to life by Simon Ward, who sacrifices himself more than his job would usually entail. Mike Johnson is given some of the best catch phrases of the film and proves he has a knack for comedy. We are also sympathetic to Harley Neville’s Wesley Pennington, whose writing ambitions take a backseat as he must help his fellow crew members survive the real life zombie violence. Neville gets some great comic moments as well – such as early on when he is forced to be a nude stand-in – the results are one of the comedy highlights of the film. His romance with Jocelyn Christian’s Susan Ford is also a nice touch – and the duo have a fair amount of onscreen chemistry.
The film stays self-aware through-out, with our writer/runner protagonist attempting to get his own zom-com-rom script acknowledged by the film’s crew. This leads to some great reflexive moments – Wesley is given advice early on from the film’s writer Harold Beasley, who points out the archetypes that the various characters around the filmset would fall into in a theoretical way – ending with the moral that for Wesley to be a good writer he must write from what knows. This scene in turn works as an acknowledgement by the film’s writer/director Guy Pidgen of the archetypes that he himself is utilizing and commenting upon. It’s this sort of reflexivity that gives the film an intelligent edge over horror films that play it straight – and perhaps one that is necessary in the jaded film viewing world of 2014. Later, director SMP in a moment of anger teetering on madness, details the difficulties he has gone to get his films funded – facing constant rejection. Given that this is a New Zealand Film Commission funded film, one can only assume that this is direct commentary on the nature of struggling for funding in a small film industry such as New Zealand’s.
It is not often that a lower-budget New Zealand film makes as much of its funding as this – pulling off multiple sub-plots, a self-reflexive plot that doesn’t manage to trip over its own cleverness and large horror action set-pieces ambitious enough to be in a $5 million dollar film, let alone a $250,000. There is horror, comedy, romance, meta-commentary and a good ending – ingredients that add up to one of the strongest New Zealand debut’s probably ever. The gore hounds will be satisfied but so will those that require an intelligent script. I used to be quite passionate about horror films when I was younger, obsessively hunting out cult classics such as Lucio Fulci’s Zombie and devoting many afternoons to re-watching Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead. My love for the genre has since faded, and I find myself rarely willing to praise a modern horror film. But I Survived A Zombie Holocaust is worthy of the praise – not least because it rivals Jackson’s Bad Taste (hate to mention it but the mans shadow is inescapable in NZ film history), which I remain quite fond of. I haven’t watched Bad Taste in quite a while, so who knows, perhaps this even beats it as an NZ horror debut.
I have a slight bias of course. The film is shot in Dunedin and I’m friends with the filmmakers and a large amount of the cast. You might even see me rapping in music videos with the director and the lead actor. But objectively, the film is really impressive. I only managed to see it for the first time after yanking the director’s chain for about a year to let me watch it. Go and track it down when you can – the hard-work that’s gone into the film is clear.
I also have a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it cameo near the start of the film. If you’re watching, look for a green coat handed a gun in the opening scene of the film. Like I said, slight bias, but my opinion of the film is objective and would stand without this bias.