June 6, 2011

Bong of the Dead (Review)


Bong of the Dead (2011)

Director: Thomas Newman

4 / 5 zedheads


Topless lesbian zombies. Plenty of weed. Gore galore and buckets of blood. Bong of the Dead oozes with all the bodily fluids of a zombie cult classic in the making. Yet, it's more than a blood-and-guts and weed exploitation picture in the spirit of Dazed and Confused meets Brain Dead (aka. Dead Alive). Bong of the Dead is also a triumph of the independent genre film making. It leaves other zombie movies behind in a cloud of bong smoke.

Bloody work. Cast of Bong of the Dead after a hard day of zombie killing
In Bong of the Dead the world has been turned into a zombie wasteland by strange meteors that crashed to earth and either turned people into charred corpses or turned them into flesh-hungry undead. In the land of the undead, righteous stoners Tommy (Jy Harris) and Edwin (Mark Wynn) spend their days in an apartment getting high and experimenting with new and better forms of weed. One day, Edwin is inspired to use pureed zombie brains to fertilize his marijuana plants. To his surprise, zombie brains make for some incredibly potent pot. Edwin and Tommy are running dangerously low on their drug of choice, so they grab their bongs, rolling papers, and less important survival supplies to make a run for the Danger Zone where, purportedly, the government dumps the zombies. The plan: avoid getting their brain eaten long enough to collect zombie brains to fertilize a new crop of super weed. They don't get far when their car breaks down and they have to rely on the beautiful but hard-assed Leah (Simone Bailly) for help. Along the way, they also piss off an intelligent zombie named Alex (Barry Nerling) who has a penchant for Nazi uniforms and a plan to lead his brainless zombie brethren against the humans. Plenty of bong smoking and zombie mutilation ensue!

Today's the day the zombies have their picnic
Bong of the Dead was shot in 15 days and on one camera in 2008 by writer/director/composer/art director Thomas Newman. For three years, Bong of the Dead has been in post-production as Newman edited the film and composited 355 shots by himself. The film is now ready for release, and the final product is an accomplished triumph in zombie mayhem and stoner comedy. It's stylish. It's funny. It's wildly glory. Its zombies look absolutely amazing. And most importantly, the CGI special effects that Newman had to create himself actually rival those of most bigger budget independent features. For example, The Asylum, which releases low-rent mockbusters and creature features, produced the so-bad-it's-good Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus on an estimated budget of $250K. Thomas Newman's virtually one-man production of Bong of the Dead cost only $5K, yet its visual effects have more style and more technical maturity than the fake, lazy CGI monsters found in any of The Asylum's best offerings. Bong of the Dead is miles ahead of most other independent genre features using commercial video-editing and special effects software.

Heads up! One of Bong of the Dead's amazing zombies

From the inventive title sequence, it's clear that Bong of the Dead is going to approach its material with a sense of fun and a comic book sensibility. Because of its digital post-production, the film's colours, lighting, and overall look reminds me of a muddier, grimier, and more grind-house take on the artificial reality aesthetic of the Speed Racer live-action movie in the sense that everything seems to exist not in reality but on composited layers of digital reality. This style works incredibly well for Bong of the Dead because it establishes the movie its own little stylistic universe. Unlike other films where everything looks real until a bad CGI monster is composited into the frame and breaks your suspension of disbelief, everything in Bong of the Dead feels equally filtered; therefore, all the CGI effects mesh together in an augmented cinematic reality. Bong of the Dead's very distinct sense of style also allows Thomas Newman to experiment with music-driven sequences and some very cool 'let's get high' scenarios. It doesn't hurt that Newman is obviously a gifted director behind the camera. With a variety of shots and angles, Bong of the Dead is anything but visually tedious.

Hotties vs. Nazis
Another standout accomplishment of Bong of the Dead is its zombie special makeup effects. With a budget of $5000, Bong of the Dead nevertheless sets a new standard for what I expect from not both independent and Hollywood zombie films. The zombies are flat out fantastic looking! In European exploitation style, they are gory, gooey, torn, decomposed, decrepit and always unique. The zombies in Bong of the Dead are the creation of Mike Fields and his team. Everyone involved in the special makeup effects deserves a large round of applause (fun fact: Fields also worked on another Canadian zombie production: FIDO).

That's one way to get a closer shave.

 Unfortunately, not everything works in favour of Bong of the Dead. Sadly, the film is severely hampered by some very awkward and unnatural-sounding ADR (automated dialogue replacement), otherwise known as "dubbing." Bong of the Dead is an English-language film, but it had to have 100% of its audio re-recorded in post production. I'm not exactly sure why, but Thomas Newman does credit sound design producer Andres Santana as the man "who will forever be known as the man who saved Bong," and I know that the film suffered several digital distastes such as hard drive crashes. Either Bong was filmed without on-set sound, or the sound was lost and made unusable at some point in the production; either way, the actors had to re-record all their lines. At the end of the day, it just doesn't sound right.

You want I should eat this baby now or later?
The sound quality is good, but like an awkward English dub of an Italian or Japanese film, the words never completely sound like they're coming out of the actor's mouths. It's clearly out of synch if not in wording then in tone. Also, no matter where the actors are standing, every line is unnaturally clear and crisp. Attempts to replicate the natural sounds we make between words-- the "umms," the groans, the "uhhs" -- sound overly concentrated and forced. Tired sound effects, including cartoonish fart noises, are used to pad out the absence of dialogue. Overall, this is a disappointment. When the film hits a lull in action in the middle of the movie to develop its new characters, the scenes become harder to watch and the characters become harder to relate to because their voices sound disconnected from their bodies. If this complete dialogue ADR is the best possible solution to get Bong of the Dead out of an audio disaster, I give Bong of the Dead props for doing what it could to salvage the movie's dialogue. However, if the audio was purposely not recorded on set but only in post (as in the movie Graveyard Alive), I think this is serious blow the to the film's quality.

If you can get past the awkward ADR, Bong of the Dead is a really fun and splatterific zombie comedy. I'm somewhat gloating when I say that Bong of the Dead and Dead Genesis, two best independent zombie films I've seen lately, come from my homeland of Canada. Make no mistake, they are very different films. Shot on the east coast, Dead Genesis is serious, thoughtful, introspective, and pointed with social commentary. Bong of the Dead goes in the opposite direction. Shot on the west coast in Langley, BC, Bong of the Dead is silly, full of gross out humour, and not particularly lofty or interested in making any social statements. At the same time, both films are equally good and fully entertaining in their own ways.

I have no hesitation recommending Bong of the Dead. I'm not even a fan of drug movies, yet I really enjoyed Thomas Newman's independent zombie epic. Even if you forget everything Newman went through to make Bong and ignore the fact he wrote, directed, edited, composited, and even scored this film by himself, Bong of the Dead remains an undeniable achievement in independent zombie cinema ... even if it's still rough around the edges. Bong of the Dead is fun and funky with a tantalizing hook for a sequel. I really hope Bong of the Dead is successful for Newman and we get to see him return with a Bong of the Dead 2.