Monday, February 25, 2013

A Cadaver Christmas (2011)

Written by: Daniel Rairdin-Hale, Hanlon Smith-Dorsey, Joe Zerull
Directed by: Joe Zerull
Starring: Dan Hale, Hanlon Smith-Dorsey, Yosh Hayashi

When one thinks of shopping local, things like bakeries, record stores, and farmer's markets spring to mind. As an Iowan, it's not often that supporting local business can mean watching a horror movie. Thankfully the most recent of these rare cases is not only not an embarrassment, it stands tall amongst its brethren and makes me feel damn proud to say it's a product of my home state.

Tom is spending a lonely Christmas Eve in the local watering hole reminiscing about his dead father with Eddie the bartender, when a blood-drenched man in janitor's coveralls bursts in. After an awkward exchange about the bathroom being for paying customers only, the Janitor informs Tom and Eddie that he just came from the local college where he works. All the kids have gone home for Christmas vacation, and in their absence the place has become overrun with zombies! Or more properly cadavers, because as the Janitor explains, zombies aren't real. He convinces them to follow him back to the college to show them the pile of twice-dead bodies he left in the wake of his mop-fu.

On the way out of the bar, they encounter a cop named Sam and his most recent collar, a young guy busted for fucking a goat (“Her name is Betsy, and we're in love!”). Of course Sam refuses to believe the blood came from killing people who were already dead and wants to take the Janitor to jail. The Janitor's argument seems a little more persuasive when they're attacked by a group of people who appear to have shuffled off this mortal coil and then shuffled back onto it again, so the five uneasy allies head off to the college.

Once there, they meet up with the campus security guard and head off to find the office of Professor Hildencress (played by an older actor named Michael Kennedy whose voice sounds incredibly familiar, like he was a prolific voiceover man, except he's only been in three other movies, none of which I've seen). Seems he was working on a cure for some kind of viral brain disease that claimed his wife, and inadvertently brought all his cadavers back to life. Just as they find the notebook that holds the secret to undeath, Eddie succumbs to a bite he got previously and the shit hits the fan. Now there's nothing for it but to fight their way through a building full of undead students and try to get a warning to the outside world while there's still time.

It's rare to find a horror comedy that hits far more than it misses. It's rare to find a no-budget DTV horror flick that feels like it was written by people with real talent, let alone made with enough care to have been given more than one or two script drafts. And it's rare to find a flick copying the “grindhouse look” that does more than slap a couple of scratches and some extra grain filter on and call it a day. A Cadaver Christmas is a fucking unicorn.

I've seen a lot of exploitation flicks from the 70's. I've seen a lot of flicks that try to look like exploitation flicks from the 70's. Never have I seen one that pulls the trick off like this. Not even Tarantino and Rodriguez's Grindhouse managed such an authentic reproduction (I think that one was a case of trying just a little too hard and overdoing it). There are some outtakes on the DVD that are unaffected and make good comparison material. It's really quite incredible how much it looks like watching a vintage Fulci movie on VHS.

Very few of the jokes feel forced, and much of it is comprised less of overt gags than subtle hints and suggestions that pay off in a big way later. My absolute favorite joke in the movie is probably the least showy in the whole thing, and the setup builds so much and the payoff is so brief and obvious that you don't even see it coming until it's already passed and you realize Rairdin-Hale, Smith-Dorsey, and Zerull have been stringing you along right into it the whole time with a masterful comic sleight-of-hand trick. The Janitor has tried to call the police from the college several times, and each time he's gotten the campus security girl, who informs him each time with a rehearsed speech that all 911 calls go to campus security first so she can assess the situation and determine if she can take care of it or if outside authorities need to be called. He keeps telling her what a stupid and infuriating system that is, to which she responds imperiously that she's almost finished with her law degree and she's been a security officer for two years now. Once the guys finally convince her how serious the problem is, she immediately tries to call the police. Cut to the phone ringing at her own vacant desk. She slams the phone down and storms off. Zerull is so confident in his direction that he doesn't feel the need to hold the audience's hand and explain to them why it's funny, and it's just a marvelous moment. The entire flick is full of little details like that, which make it obvious that this was a labor of love created by truly funny and clever people who put in a lot of care and effort to make sure it was the best they could make it. Not all the jokes are that funny, but even the ones that fail, fail as a matter of the individual viewer's taste rather than ineptitude on the filmmakers' part. Things that didn't do it for me might crack you up. Regardless of your taste for the material, point is, none of it is ever sloppy.

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