Found Footage Film Forage

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 22nd May 2012.

I still remember that night. The cinema was packed. The tension was palpable. I had prepared myself with a few motion sickness tablets. The lights finally dimmed and the crowd hushed, ready to be scared out of their wits. It was time to meet the Blair Witch.

The year was 1999, and after months of hype, The Blair Witch Project finally hit Australian cinema screens. One of the first examples of a worldwide internet marketing campaign, the movie was pitched as an edit of real footage found in the woods a year after its crew went missing whilst searching for the elusive Blair Witch.

The mystery surrounding the film didn’t last very long. How many real life encounters with the supernatural come with their own soundtrack album, tie-in books and comics? Of course, the hype worked and the film went on to be one of the most successful independent films ever.

My encounter with the Blair Witch wasn’t nearly as frightening as I would have hoped. The film is 78 minutes of tiresome wandering around and minor squabbles between the “filmmakers” followed by one minute of a shocking, and very memorable, ending.

I was right to take the motion sickness tablets. The nature of the film meant that the whole thing was shot handheld, and I don’t mean with a Steadicam. The continuous jerkiness of the onscreen action is amplified on the big screen and a little vomit inducing.

The success of The Blair Witch Project inevitably led to more entries in the found footage genre, all with varying levels of success.

In 2008, the zombie Godfather, director George A. Romero, added to his zombie apocalypse series with Diary of the Dead. Following a group of student filmmakers who stumble onto a real life zombie outbreak, they do what comes naturally and run. Actually they don’t run, they decide to document the incident on film.

Probably the weakest in Romero’s iconic series, my biggest complaint with the film is the tendency for the protagonists to keep filming in situations of danger rather than get the hell out of Dodge.

The same dilemma similarly handicaps Cloverfield. Also released in 2008, the movie benefitted from online hype particularly about the nature of the mysterious creature attacking New York. Minutes before the unnatural disaster, a farewell party is taking place for Rob, who is moving to Japan (I wonder if he was aware that Godzilla flattens Tokyo on a regular basis?).

Luckily for the audience, Rod’s mate Hud is filming farewell messages, and when the ultimately disappointing turtle-like creature emerges, he keeps recording, even when it would be more useful to say, save your friends.

The Paranormal Activity trilogy launched with the original film hitting cinemas in 2007. A series of bizarre happenings in the home of a young couple lead them to set up cameras to discover what might be responsible for the haunting. What follows is akin to watching a series of security camera videos. Things go bump in the night. Doors creak. Nobody thinks to move out. Two further sequels followed buoyed by strong social media campaigns, with a third on the way. So far the series has grossed US$700 million worldwide. That’s 700 millions reasons to keep churning them out.

My favourite found footage film is the 2007 Spanish horror entitled [Rec]. A television crew recording the fictional show, While You’re Asleep, are following a fire crew on night shift. A call to an apartment building sees them quarantined inside with the tenants during an outbreak of a mysterious virus which renders its victims into violent and angry zombies. When the power is cut, the night vision of the camera becomes the only way for the survivors to search for a way out.

[Rec] works because it makes sense for the camera to be in use despite horrible things happening. It’s an unrelenting roller coaster that is easily in my top five scary movies. So far it has spawned two more sequels and a US shot for shot remake under the title, Quarantine, which in turn spun off its own sequel, which was strangely not filmed in a found footage style.

So if you’re wandering through your local spooky woods, keep an eye out for stashes of film reels or video tapes left behind by missing filmmakers. There are fortunes to be made in those haunted hills.

Zombies! Zombies! Zombies!

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One of the hottest new shows from last year’s US television season is sadly yet to find a broadcast home on Australian television. The Walking Dead has been universally acclaimed by both critics and viewers, with strong ratings both in the US and the UK. Developed by Frank Darabont, director of The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and The Mist, and co-produced by Gale Ann Hurd of The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Aliens fame, the series is based on a popular comic book series of the same name.

So why isn’t The Walking Dead sitting in our TV guides alongside Hawaii Five-O and Blue Bloods? Probably because it is a post-apocalyptic drama focusing on a small band of survivors following an outbreak of zombies.

Zombies are nothing new to popular culture. Originally appearing in films such as I Walked with a Zombie (1943), zombies were originally intertwined with voodoo and witch doctors. It was George Romero’s landmark black and white feature Night of the Living Dead (1968) that introduced the idea of zombies being the flesh eating undead.

Romero continued his zombie series with four further Living Dead films: Dawn of the Dead (1978); Day of the Dead (1985); Land of the Dead (2005); Diary of the Dead (2007) and Survival of the Dead (2010). Each film features civilisation falling apart as the world is overrun by zombies but none are direct sequels to each other in terms of characters or storylines. The entire series is gore-tastic and gets two half eaten thumbs up from me.

Romero’s co-writer on the original Living Dead film, John A. Russo, wrote a book, The Return of the Living Dead, which was also made into a film in 1985. This time, the zombies have a taste for human brains, and a further four sequels were spawned, all of variable quality. A scene in Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988) depicts a zombie dressed in Michael Jackson’s Thriller costume being electrocuted and hilariously recreating the iconic choreography.

Of course, Jackson’s famous long form music video, directed by John Landis in 1983, has probably been seen by more people worldwide than all zombie movies put together. In the video, the living dead arise from their graves to dance and sing to Jackson’s music. That’s far more frightening to me than any brain eating zombie.

The zombie world is not without controversy. Fans were upset when Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead (2005) featured running zombies. The argument is that as reanimated corpses, zombie ankles are probably too decomposed and unstable to sustain running. I guess that rules out my Zomba™ latino dance exercise program for the undead.

The excellent post-apocalyptic films 28 Days Later (2002) and 28 Weeks Later (2007) also feature zombie-like creatures. A debate still rages over the internet about whether these films can be considered of the zombie cannon. In my opinion, they can’t be included, as the creatures depicted are actually infected living people who can starve to death if they don’t feed.

Zombies have also slowly made their way (walking and moaning) into other motion picture genres. The action horror franchise Resident Evil (2002-2010) features Milla Jovovich fighting hordes of zombies. Peter Jackson’s Braindead (1992), Andrew Currie’s Fido (2006) and Zombieland (2009) are laugh out loud comedies. Even the romantic comedy isn’t safe. The excellent Shaun of the Dead (2004) was the world’s first “zom-rom-com.”

Reportedly in pre-production, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies should hit our screens in 2013. I can’t wait to see literary heroine Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters battle the walking dead.

My favourite zombie movie title has to be the rather subtly named Zombies! Zombies! Zombies! (2007). Surprisingly, it focuses on an unorthodox speech therapist helping King George VI overcome his stammer.

But seriously, zombies are now firmly a staple for modern film audiences. Why shouldn’t they be on our small screens too, especially in a dramatic series as acclaimed as The Walking Dead? With the plethora of free-to-air and pay TV channels out there, surely someone should purchase the rights and air it before some of the more technically gifted amongst us obtain it by “other means.”