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A noteworthy blend of horror and humor
Christopher Landon directs this off-the-wall, outrageously extreme, yet oddly personal addition to the zombie scene with earnest heart and a flair for classic 80's cinema. I'm not exactly a connoisseur of zombie flicks, so I can't accurately rank this relative to other genre classics. However, I've seen enough horror and young-adult comedies than I can safely say it's above average in both categories.
Fortunately, the movie gets its number one necessity correct: the chemistry between the three leads is top-notch, and not for a moment did I doubt that they'd been life-long friends. Further, each individual actor carries out his respective role with competence and authenticity. Joey Morgan makes an impressive big-screen debut as Augie, the cheerful but sensitive life-long scout nerd, delivering his character's child-like optimism, bleak dejection, and eventual bravery in a solid performance that should easily land him future roles. Logan Miller hits the mark as Carter, the restless and unabashedly crude scout responsible for a majority of the film's juvenile humor. Finally, Tye Sheridan gives yet another accomplished performance as Ben, the socially inelegant and apprehensively indecisive scout who discovers his latent ass-kicking abilities and the self-confidence that follows. Unfortunately, their characters as a whole were somewhat under-developed, and the actors could have used a bit more to work with. But, they still did a great job with what they had.
And that leads to a recurring observation I had throughout the movie: there simply didn't seem to be quite enough content for a feature-length film. Though the setup was good and the characters were mostly well-conceived and well-performed, there were a number of missed opportunities for further action/comedy sequences and better relational development - opportunities which were seemingly put aside in favor of extensive evasive sneaking and panicked retreats. For those familiar with classic comedy, it felt like when The Three Stooges or Laurel & Hardy tried to expand on their episodic routines by making feature-length films, only to have their usual episodic amount of content diluted by conventional plot filler.
Still, while some of the scenes felt like padding, it's not to say that the movie should have been shorter, but rather that the time could have been better spent expanding on some of the relational developments that were only briefly hinted at (mostly between the scouts), bolstering certain secondary characters beyond their traditional stereotypes (Kendall and Jeff in particular), showcasing some more action and heroics from the scouts (especially after their big prep scene in the hardware store), and rounding out some of the plot points (an example I keep thinking of is revisiting the recruiting scenes from the beginning, but this time at the end, almost everybody would be joining the scouts).
The horror element tends to be emphasized more through over-the-top violence and frantic mob chaos rather than slow brooding tension or an increasingly imminent threat of death. The zombie makeup was generally well done, and the gore effects were outstanding in all their excessive glory. However, the film was rather inconsistent in establishing how much human personality was left in the zombies, so I was never quite sure which were the mindless eat-your-brains zombies and which were the let's-have-a-sing-along zombies. The latter led to some funny moments, but also undermined the fright factor.
The humor will be hit-and-miss for most people. There's certainly some good situational and relational comedy that anybody can appreciate. However, a number of the jokes aim to amuse a target well below the film's R-rated age limit. And it's not the fact that the jokes are juvenile, as that's what they're blatantly intended to be. But most late-teen and college-aged viewers are well past the point of needing a 20-second super-slow-mo "O M G" because a zombie policewoman's shirt got caught on a fence and pulled open. Carter's reaction there is so overdone you'd think he's never used the internet before. On the other hand, props to Tye for the best girly-scream-from-a-guy I've heard in years. I won't spoil the scene, but suffice it to say it's very well deserved.
Technically, the movie is put together quite competently. The camera-work is on par, the action sequences are frenetic and swift without falling back on choppy editing trends currently flooding similar films, and the attention to lighting detail in the film's many dark scenes carefully reveals everything we need to see and nothing more. Matthew Margeson's music adequately fits the film and successfully taps into the key elements of each scene, but is rife with the stock techniques common to many of Hans Zimmer's protégés; in particular, it draws heavy influence from the works of Brian Tyler and Henry Jackman. And despite my earlier critiques regarding the focus of certain scenes, the editing itself kept the film moving at a quick enough pace that no parts became boring or overplayed.
Overall, it's an amusing blend of horror and humor elevated by a skilled cast and a good production crew. Compared to the handful of zombie flicks I've seen, it's not notably original, but it is tried-and-true. Some people will find that such a quality makes for a solid and dependable film; others will find it redundant and passable. Either way, it's a strong enough entry into horror comedies that I have no problem recommending it to its target audience, as it will no doubt become a cult classic in a variety of circles.