Your Bad Pandemic Movie of the Week Is… Zoombies (2016)

During these times, sometimes I feel the best way to cope is to approach with a level of dark humor. And what better way to tap into that humor than by looking at some of the poorly done pandemic films over cinematic history. Each week I’ll dissect a new film, ripping it apart to find some socially distanced catharsis.

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 17%

Zoo animals are infected with a strange virus, turning them into zombies, and begin wreaking havoc around the zoo grounds. It sounds like a foolproof premise for a really bad but endlessly fun movie, something that John Carpenter or Rob Zombie would absolutely crush. However, Zoombies actually achieves a somewhat impressive task of making zombie gorillas and lions boring.

It’s hard to paint a picture of what makes Zoombies just bad-bad and not fun-bad, but I’ll try. Picture you’re stoned out of your mind on a Sunday afternoon. Like too stoned to change the channel. The TV is stuck to the SyFy channel and on is a movie that looks like it only raised 25% of its Kickstarter goal, but they said, “eh.. screw it, let’s make it anyway.” Now with only a quarter of their budget, the production team can’t afford to hire a writer, so they have a bot watch 1,000 hours of Sharknado on repeat to create the driest dialogue possible. Having blown what little they had on the god damn robot, they were left were no other choice than to scrap all the revolutionary CGI effects I’m sure they had planned, instead settling for running some animation through Photoshop real quick and sending it straight to post. As you watch on from the couch, your brain baking from the bong rips starts to enjoy it, simply because it requires the minimal amount of sound and color recognition. That’s the headspace this movie functions in.

I will admit there were two things about the movie that helped salvage some of the time I wasted watching this. The first were the deaths. Boy, did they really imagine up some very gruesome death scenes. I’ll rank them later. The second was that the movie doubled as a struggling actor ladder match, where all these vanilla characters were fighting not just to survive, but also clawing for as much screen time as possible to add to their reel. And since, this movie never really bothered establishing a main character, it added a level of mystery as to who would be left standing with the belt and a background role on NCIS.

Odds on favorite to win the ladder match is Dr. Ellen Rogers, manager of her late grandfather’s Eden Wildlife Zoo, who wants to clarify early on that this is, in no way, a complete Jurassic Park ripoff. Business is booming at Eden. Ellen has coincidentally just bolstered her security personnel with the hiring of the tough-as-nails Lizzy. Today also is the first day of her internship program, as bright-eyed college kids look to gleam vital knowledge about the thriving zoo industry. She even has started building the framework for her innovative Dangerous Animal Daycare, where small children, like her super annoying daughter Thea, get to have hands on learning experiences with trained “environmental educators,” such as Kifo the gorilla.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Ellen, her zoo’s doctor is dealing with inexplicably infected primates. Using his best medical judgement, he decides to revive a dead and diseased monkey, because never has that had any negative ramifications in a zombie film. The lab becomes overrun, the alarm triggered, and chaos soon to follow. The group of Breakfast Club rejects arrive right in time to be literally fed to the wolves. Suit-clad Gage quickly claims alpha status, mixing a lethal duo of can-do attitude with fiscally conservative beliefs regarding zoo management.

The horrors of shoddy CGI befall the group, as crew and interns start dropping like flies. With the zoo on full lockdown and the stock footage police of no service, it’s up to Lizzy and Ellen to manage the situation by murdering every single animal in the place. The giraffes are victim number one, but not before they take a big healthy bite of Gage. It’s okay though, because this literally has zero follow up later in the movie. Even little Thea does her part by fast-tracking her clearly destined trajectory towards serial killer by smashing the shit out of a koala. As Thea bathes in the blood of her adversary, Ellen concocts an exit strategy. They will, wait for it, leave through the front gate, but not before blowing up the aviary as to not let the virus escape to the public.

The bad acting battle royale comes down to a four-way tie: Ellen, Thea, Lizzy, and Gage. They set the birds ablaze and head for the gates. However, in their path steps Kifo, no longer hungry to inspire young minds but hungry for actual young minds. For no discernible reason, the animators decided to not provide their main animal antagonist with the state of the art CGI found in the rest of movie, and instead opted for the technology used to make the fucking Gremlins. Ellen ends Kifo, and in a sense all of our suffering, as a chopper sends the remaining four back to the safety of their off-Broadway theatre troupes. Our parting shot shows the eyes of Kifo reopening, transitioning us flawlessly into Zoombies 2. A film for another quarantine I believe.

So yeah, even though we have all the time in the world right now, I think I still wished I spent these 90 minutes doing something more productive, like staring at the spackle on my ceiling. Nevertheless, that time is irredeemable now and I guess a silver living should be found. Perhaps solace comes from social distancing helping keep us safe, not just from the rapid spread of virus, but from:

5) Wolves sneaking up behind you to gnaw right through your Achilles

4) A parrot poking your eyes out while mocking your final words

3) A gorilla smashing your skull as if opening a coconut

2) Monkeys bursting through your stomach like that scene in Alien

1) Eagles ripping out your esophagus and using it to make a nest for their eggs

And for that I’m thankful.


Your Bad Pandemic Movie of the Week Is… Outbreak (1995)

During these times, sometimes I feel the best way to cope is to approach with a level of dark humor. And what better way to tap into that humor than by looking at some of the poorly done pandemic films over cinematic history. Each week I’ll dissect a new film, ripping it apart to find some socially distanced catharsis.

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 60%

If you scroll through the Outbreak Wikipedia entry, you wouldn’t peg it as a bad movie. It was a commercial success, earning over $120 million at the box office. Roger Ebert heaped huge praise on it, calling it, “one of the great scare stories of our time.” But then you press play, and an entirely different story shows itself. The plot is messy, the dialogue static, and it features just an incredibly awkward romance.

So let’s unpack this thing. We start off heavy on the xenophobia with a virus outbreak in the African jungle, brought to America by a monkey via a Chinese ship. The U.S. military puts its best team of sexual scumbags on the case. Our ringleader is Colonel Sam Daniels, played by Dustin Hoffman, a virologist who refuses to play by the rules. Kevin Spacey as Casey Schuler is his right-hand man and they recruit Major Salt (Cuba Gooding Jr.), who’s only qualification for handling a pandemic seems to be doing a quick skim of “Virus for Dummies” before boarding the flight to Zaire. These three all report to the by-the-book General Billy Ford, played by Morgan Freeman. Seriously, I don’t think there’s been a cast that’s aged more poorly.

Once back in the states, they take the virus to the lab, zoom in and enhance, and diagnose the virus as “Motaba.” By this point Motaba has made its way to American soil.  Patient zero: Jimbo Scott, played by Patrick Dempsey looking super McDreamy with his luscious looks and Motorhead t-shirt. He tries selling our contagious monkey on the black market, fails, and then proceeds to Harry and the Hendersons the thing into the woods, dooming us all the in the process.

Here’s the kicker though: this monkey was actually a two viruses for the price of one monkey. There’s the original water-borne virus that infects Jimbo and somehow does not spread after his trip to Boston. Then there’s the much more dangerous airborne mutation sweeping through a small town in coastal California. Action must be taken right away to save humanity, and in steps Colonel Daniels.

Except Daniels seems constantly preoccupied by the thought of his failing marriage with CDC scientist Robby Keough (Rene Russo) to even begin wrapping his brain around a global catastrophe or whatever. I mean he never misses a chance to interrupt an important medical briefing by venting about a weird self-imposed custody battle he’s having over their DOGS. He’s one step away from just flipping through the family photo album with patients on their deathbeds. This love rescue mission Daniels is on destroys any chance at intensity in the film, something you might want if you’re telling a story about the world potentially ending.

Health-professionals, military personnel, and generic 90’s news reporters flock to California as Motoba has started its spread. Daniels squeezes past the barricades, against general’s orders, because nothing saves a fractured relationship quicker than curing deadly disease. Meanwhile, on the warfront enters Major General Donald McClintock (Donald Sutherland) hellbent on prioritizing what matters the most, the military’s spit-shine sparkling PR image.

In perhaps the most accurate aspect of the film, McClintock makes the decision to firebomb hundreds of infected civilians, simply to hide the fact that the military were developing the Motaba strain to use as a biological weapon, which is you know, a war crime. Daniels learns of the plot, decides that’s uhh kind of fucked up, and takes matters into his own hands. I guess it’s just a slight coincidence that Keough is also now infected.

Daniels and Salt set out to search and destroy the source monkey. They track the monkey to a six-year-old girl who has just been the most hospitable tea party host for our number one public health threat. Daniels comes up with the most brilliant idea to catch the monkey. They will use the, I repeat, SIX-YEAR-OLD girl as bait, putting her in the middle of a tranquilizer gun and a deadly contagious wild animal. Daniels gives the girl an inspiring pep talk that basically boils down to, “oooo I love my wife,” and by gosh it works.

With the monkey secured, Daniels and Salt hightail it back to the infected site, but not before a totally sweet helicopter montage. However, McClintock still has Operation Clean Sweep at all systems go. Just a quick side note, if you’re planning on spinning the obliteration of an American town as in the public interest, maybe don’t name it Operation Clean Sweep. Daniels sweet talks the bomber pilots into abandoning the mission, detonating over the Pacific.

The dynamic duo then head to the hospital. Salt has miraculously gone from just learning about viruses at the beginning of the film to Nobel Prize winning biologist, developing an antidote in like 7 minutes. Humanity is saved, but most importantly, it looks like Daniels and Keough are going to make it you guys. Oh yeah, and Kevin Spacey dies. Just a great happy ending all around.

So when the credits rolls, I suggest reflecting on the highly important message this movie delivers in these uncertain circumstances. Hit up your ex, because maybe all you needed was a massive pandemic to really make it work.


Portrait of a Lady on Fire Review: An Existential Look at Love

The first scene of Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire narrows in on our titular painting. A lady in fancy gown, looks away to the empty horizon, isolated, the frills at the end of her dress set ablaze. The painting’s creator, Marianne (Noemie Merlant), looks through the painting, staring at a memory long in the past. This moment frames the anguish that drives the complex commentary on love throughout the film.

Marianne is commissioned by a high-society woman to paint her daughter, Heloise (Adele Haenel). As Marianne settles into the estate, she gathers rumors about Heloise’s sorrow. Heloise shrouds herself in her dark cloak, numbing herself to the constraints of 18th century society. She’s to piously accept the arranged marriage set up by her mother, expected to practice the concept of restraint learned at the convent to guide her in the strengthening of the family’s noble bloodlines.

This sense of anguish lurks around the corner in every aspect of Marianne and Heloise lives, but briefly we get to see fleeting moments of escape found in each other. For Marianne, it is an aesthetic release provided by her muse. Her passion ignites from mental snapshots she takes of Heloise. It’s the first sight of Heloise’s golden curls in the sunlight, her piercing blue eyes, and gentle slope of her neck that cement Marianne’s artistic attraction.

Heloise’s escapes come not from the lure of outward beauty, but the moments of liberation from internal strife. In Marianne arrives someone who can break free her emotions long locked away. A smile first cracks open as Marianne plays Heloise a first exposure to orchestral music, a discovery of something profound to define her existence. Through this relationship, she builds ways to contextualize her suffering from music to nature to art itself.

Cinema often portrays love as a permanent cure from our anguish, but Sciamma sees it differently in her award winning screenplay. Yes, Marianne and Heloise find their longest reprieve as they fully consume themselves in one another, but eventually the constraints of life return and sorrow prevails. The motifs of fire as passion in the film quickly give way to signs of internal distress. The complexity of their love pulls back and forth as they look longingly at each other from opposite sides of a crackling bonfire. Heloise’s dress begins to catch fire with her reacting with nothing but emptiness. Eventually, the world swallows up you back up and those moments of escape burn off into the night.

This might make the mood of the film sound awfully bleak, but Sciamma tries to have her characters live outside the binary of happy and sad. Yes, her existential argument centers around the idea that to exist is to feel pain, but she also communicates that any experiences that temporarily lift us from that pain is worth the heartbreak that might follow. Sciamma supports this belief by comparing her two lovers to the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.

With Orpheus ordered by Hades to not look at his lover Eurydice until they escape the underworld, Orpheus cannot resist her beauty, turns back, and on the precipice of exit Eurydice sinks back down below. According to Marianne in her interpretation, Orpheus decides to accept the memory of Eurydice, a blissful moment preserved in the mind, never to be soured by time.

Marianne has her own Orpheus moment. At the threshold of her goodbye, she peers back at Heloise, angelic in her wedding gown. The image both haunts and delights. It’s the perfect encapsulation of aesthetic ecstasy Marianne found in her muse, but also reminds of a love doomed from the beginning by expectations. Both fade from each other’s lives forever, only memory remains.

Sciamma concludes her film by showing her characters as a sum of their experiences. Heartbreak facilitated growth. Marianne improved as an artist, her agony translating to a deeper connection with her canvas. Heloise has found a similar connection with her emotions, her tear-streaming reaction to the symphony far removed from the blank face first seen on the French cliffs. Portrait of a Lady on Fire refuses to coddle audiences with a love conquers all messaging, but it does give us some solace in its reminder that at least our anguish drives our human existence forward.