Okay, full disclosure up front. I know someone involved in this. Does that make me biased? Well, only insofar as wanting to see them succeed. But seeing them succeed will not be helped by telling people something is great if it isn’t so, no, I’m not going to say something is good if it isn’t.
Fortunately I don’t have to worry about that here. First though; lets get everyone up to speed on the who, what and where behind the film.
Fistful of Brains is the cinematic child of The Adrenalin Group. They’re a small. independent film group working out of Sanford, NC who, at this point, specialize in the zombie flavor of the horror genre and have already created a small library of DVDs to their credit. Fistful of Brains is their third zombie film and a sort of prequel to their first full length feature The Forever Dead (being an extension of their short film The Second Death.) Their pedigree has some technical credits up to and including director and co-founder Christine Parker’s background as a videographer and schooling in the field of film-making, but the largest of these credits seems to be simply being fans of the genre itself.
But don’t confuse that with the idea of their work simply being that of fans making films. While they’re certainly fans of the genre, their first and foremost roles when working on their films are those of filmmakers. They know what needs to be done to make a film tick. They also understand that the big moments have to be built up to and separated with quieter moments in order to give them impact. Their work is not simply fans stringing together a film with a series of “cool” moments devoid of substance but rather a complete and effective film. Speaking of which… On to the film.
As stated above the film is their second full length zombie film, but on a technical level it shows an incredible amount of growth that makes it appear to be three or four films removed from The Forever Dead. Christine Parker’s directing shows a great deal more focus and polish here. There were moments in their prior two films where some scenes looked as though they were being shot at odd angles or in odd ways for no other reason than to be done in a “different” way. Here, you can actually see where she’s going when she uses an angle or a shot that’s not a “normal” POV shot or a typical setup for a scene. They work and they convey the needed feel of the scene and the story being told. And even when they don’t work it’s not a 100% “huh” moment. You can at least see where she was going with it and still understand the ‘why’ behind it. And, honestly, the few scenes that didn’t work 100% for me may simply be a matter of taste on my part as they’re technically very solid.
The FX in general are much better than you would expect from a film that had a production budget that wouldn’t buy you a brand new car. There’s even a few good uses of split screen that don’t suffer the fun glitches that everyone likes to make fun of. The only real general FX nit that I might have picked is an incredibly small one involving the use of fire in one scene. But then fire in the way they used it is a tricky bit of FX even when you’re working on a Peter Jackson level film so, as I said, it was really only a very small nit. I have been told though that they have some new software to play with in their next film.
Then there’s the zombie makeup itself. Well, there’s no other way to say it. Utter crap. No, I’m kidding. (Guess you figured out who on the film I know now.) The makeup is actually quite good. It’s actually amazingly good considering how much of it was needed to be created VS the time they had, the shooting schedule they had to deal with and, of course, the budget that they were working with. The zombies of the piece show various levels of damage and decay and the gore is perfectly in that zone of horrific yet humorous when needed. You can definitely see where there’s some heavy cribbing from the Tom Savini school of “oh, gross” going on. As far as low budget independent zombies go; it would have been a home run for me if only that one zombie’s jaw didn’t look so odd…
The only other “FX” matter in the film that really sticks out is a constant one and one of personal taste. The final product was treated in a way to give it an odd grain and slight color shift to convey (I’m assuming) that old west feel. It has an ever so slight worn look that stylistically is similar to what Terantino and Rodriguez did with Grindhouse. It sort of worked for me, but I’m not sure if I might not like the film a little better without it. But you have to give them credit for trying it. It could be seen as a risky move by some, but they went with their vision for the film and decided to let the chips fall where they may. That in and of itself is a good sign for their future endeavours in my book.
So, for overall look I’d say the film rates a solid 7 out of 10. No, it’s not Universal’s FX shop, but any fan of Romero, Fulci or early Raimi is going to feel comfortably at home here. Now, enough of being someone who can’t just mercilessly picking on those who do. Lets get to what’s the heart of the film for most people. Lets talk general story. I’m not going to get too detailed since there are things that the viewers get to discover along the way and, frankly, there’s no way to tell the whole story without giving away spoiler points. So…
Again, the leaps and bounds in story quality here VS their prior film makes this feel like a film two or three films removed from The Forever Dead. The basic breakdown of the story is that you have a typical old west huckster, Dead Eye, comes into a tiny, drying up western town to sell his wares. It’s just that his special wares really are a bit more… special… than average. The town itself is filled with characters that play out their own various sub-stories throughout the film that show off the various failings in human nature along with a few of the better points of our nature. Not sure about that preacher though…
The central figure of the town’s cast of colorful characters (and one of the primary characters in the film) is Lily. She’s the daughter of the local sheriff and suffers more than just a little from the fact that daddy has quite a few screws loose. Unfortunately for her the loose screws are the kind that make him violent, paranoid and controlling. It also makes her relationship/not relationship with Jack a wee bit complicated. The dysfunctional nature of their interactions is consistently damaging to their lives throughout the film (and into the next one it appears) and actually works to make the protagonists of the film more interesting than the cookie cutter heroes of some genre films, but also not as defective as the stereotypical “damaged” heroes in most films.
And into this mix we add a mysterious group of people out in the woods who may or may not be behind some unsettling matters that started happening just prior to the film’s starting point and the (obviously) all hell breaking loose moment when the dead decide that maybe laying around in the dirt isn’t as much fun as getting up and looking for a good meal. The nice, and rather ambitious, twist in the story is that they attempted to do something a little bit beyond the usual zombie story setup. Our zombie hoards are the result of something older than the old west itself and the story touches myth territory as the relationship of two of the characters and their conflict with one another goes beyond simple human issues.
The story itself actually unfolds at a nice pace. The first half of the story might feel slow to some, but it’s necessary as the groundwork for everything that comes in the second half is laid out and explained. But, rest assured, once the story starts moving it really does start moving. A lot happens in the second half of the film and it almost feels like too much for the time they gave it. Still, better to have just a little too much than to have too little.
The dialog is well done and has a very natural feel to most of it. There was, for me, only a few weak dialog moments and those were created mostly by the actors having to use an old west style accent. And, again, that may simply be a matter of personal taste as I’ve never been a big western fan. Some of the transition scenes and pillow scenes also work quite effectively. Again, they show that the people behind this film know how to space their action and their scares, and what to space them with, so that when something does happen it has a real impact on the viewer. The big scenes have meaning because they use the small scenes as effectively as they do.
There are a couple of scenes where Parker and crew should have had someone on standby with a wiffle bat to whack a few of the extras upside the head though. There were a couple of times when the action in the foreground wasn’t quite being reflected properly by the extras in the background. They were obviously having fun playing around on the set of a zombie western, but they probably shouldn’t have looked like they were having fun when the zombies were breaking into their refuge. (Hey, if they need an extras wrangler on the next film I work cheap and can supply my own taser.) But, again, it’s a small nit to pick and doesn’t truly detract from the action in the foreground.
Between the scripting, directing and use of effects there are some genuinely creepy moments in the film. There are also some fun moments as well. Lily and Dead Eye (and Lazarus) are played well and that goes a long way since they’re central characters and get a lot of screen time. The rest of the cast does a good job as well and there really wasn’t a bad performance in the group. Quite the contrary actually. Even smaller characters have their moments. I quite liked the barkeep who had a “same shit, different day” attitude, but seemed to look as though he still found it to be depressingly amusing “same shit.”
The music used in the film was actually very good as well. The composer deserves some serious kudos. I actually liked it and I’m not a fan of western music or western flavored music.
On the whole the story (and the execution thereof) is also a solid 7 out of 10. Quite a bit better than your average “independent” horror and actually better than quite a few studio zombie films I’ve seen. Oh, and it doesn’t quite end where you would think it would either. Is that a spoiler? No. Why? Cause you’ll never guess it in a million years. Yes, this is a film worth tracking down and, especially for zombie geeks, owning.
The extras on the DVD are fun as well. Maybe not as fun as (inside joke alert for fans of their work) a dead rabbit playing with cats, but still fun. They also include the grossest scene on the DVD. Blood and puss spurting on film actually didn’t bother me. Blood and puss combined with the sound of whatever hand pump they were using (and failing with for a bit) to push the stuff through the tubes? That actually got me squeamish in a way that the scene itself didn’t come close to doing.
Other extras are the standard expectations for films on DVD these days. There are cast and crew interviews, little making of featurettes and a music video. All in all, a very nice package and very much worth the price of the DVD.
A website with info on the film can be found here:
Purchase information here:
And updates on happenings with the film and the sequal film can be found on MySpace here:
Again, very much worth the price to pick up and far better than my review likely makes it sound.