June 30, 2009

Flight of the Living Dead (Review)


Flight of the Living Dead:
Outbreak on a Plane

Director: Scott Thomas

RATING:4 / 5 zedheads

When the first public libraries were created in this country, something tells me that no one could have predicted that one day a man such a myself could wander down to the library on a bright summer's afternoon and instead of checking out something good for the brain check out a movie about brain eaters.

Yes, I checked out Flight of the Living Dead from the library. I had been avoiding this movie since it was released, assuming it was one of this cheaply-made shitstorms concocted to suck any possible profit out of the whole Snakes on a Plane craze that itself tuned out to be too bloated to even sustain itself. I was expecting Snakes on a Train level trash here, and wasn't willing to pay for it. What I got was a thoroughly surprising and fun zombie romp that defied my expectations!

Flight of the Dead, which was originally and much more creatively titled Plane Dead, is about a commercial flight from LA to Paris that goes horribly wrong. A team of fugitive scientists bring aboard a secretive cargo that escapes and turns the crew and passengers into zombies. Yellow-eyed, snarling, hissing, undead zombies! These zombies share much in common with the modern "fast" zombies. Some shamble, but most lunge quickly out at you. They're not particularly gory, but they are effective and create some bloody mayhem. Admittedly, their bestial screeching and hissing gets a bit boring, but I found the zombies charmingly unique. Since the setting of the movie makes it very difficult to create wide shots of zombie hoards, the zombies spend most of their time hiding between the walls and popping out of the floor. They seem to nest in the cargo hold. It takes a while for the zombies to start creating mayhem, but when they do there's some really fun scenes where zombies are pulling their victims under the floor, taking them or pieces of them back to the den to feed. Director Scott Thomas and his crew make excellent use of the airplane environment that gives the movie a scope -- if not at times an unrealistic one -- that lifts the film above its budgetary restraints. Yes, the way the characters get in and out of the cargo hold seems unrealistically complicated and fabricated, but it works in the context of the film.

But zombies aren't the only threat on board. The plane in this movie must have the shittiest overhead compartments ever made because every bump of turbulence sends bludgeoning luggage projectiles down onto the passengers. Although most of the humour in this movie is intentional and tongue-in-cheek, there are some unintentionally hilarious scenes where the off-screen film crew are hurling luggage at the actors as they rock back and forth with the pretend turbulence.

So the zombies are great, but a zombie film is only as good as its human characters. Luckily, the film combines the pop sensibilities of Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake with the successful character ensemble nature of airplane disaster films like Airport and Airplane. The first third of the movie takes time to introduce the audience to the eclectic group of passengers -- some of whom will survive and others who will become zombie chow. Smith keeps things interesting by giving each character distinctive qualities without turning them into full-blown stereotypes, and each character is given his or her own arc. There's the two jocks and their bitchy, feuding girlfriends. There's Truman, the cop, and his scam-artist prisoner Frank. There's the golf star and his unhappy wife. All these characters, and more, are likable (even Co-Pilot Randy who comes across as a hysterical douche bag). Every character feels like they have an equal chance of being saved or eviscerated. There's some rough acting and terrible cliches (oh, it's your last flight before retirement? What should I put on your tombstone?).

More review after the jump!

The majority of the film, however, is well-acted and filled with many characters played by film and TV character actors. Actors such as Richard Tyson, Erick Avari, and the fantastically quirky Kevin J. O'Connor lend the film a nice balance of a familiar and unknown quality to each character. I haven't had such a fun time watching a group of characters in a zombie film in a long time. You don't necessarily wish they will die, but if they do, it's no sweat. They're not deep characters, but like the travel-sized amenities one gets on a plane, each character is satisfying in the short time you have with them before they're gone. No one overstays their welcome.

I think I'm most impressed that, for a direct-to-video feature, Flight of the Living Dead manages to use the conventions of zombie films while at the same time surprising the viewer. There were several moments in the plot and the development of the characters in which the filmmakers set up expectations that are turned on their heads. A lesser film would play to the lower expectations of the audience and let the scenes play out as they do in every other damned movie, but not this film. This film will keep things interesting both in the plot and the visuals (there are some neat scenes where the camera films the action from a unique angle, such as a kill seen through the lenses of a pair of glasses on the floor). In addition, the film quality looks great. It is as well-shot and lighted as any major release studio picture.

Finally, the film is not perfect. I have some issues with the CGI. Because of the relatively low budget, many of the effects are computer generated. The film begins with a rocking CGI title sequence full of blood and organ imagery, but other areas of the film are disappointing. All exterior shots of the plane are CGI (obvious from the solid-yellow windows that look painted on the texture map of the plane). There's also clear use of digital blood spray and splatter effects. For the most part, these effects are handled subtlety, but the more spectacular effects in the climax of the film are obviously green-screened and look more artificial than one can suspend with imagination. You just have to kind of roll with it as best you can.

Overall, Flight of the Living Dead does not deserve to be saddled with the stigma of being a Snakes on a Plane ripoff. It is a fun, exciting, funny, and surprisingly unexpected zombie treat. It has flaws, but after years of avoiding this flick, I'm now going out of my way to buy a copy. If you've been avoiding this movie too, go out and find it!