Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Quo Vadis (dir by Mervyn LeRoy)


The 1951 best picture nominee, Quo Vadis, is actually two movies in one.

The first movie is a rather stolid historical epic about life in ancient Rome.  The handsome but kind of dull Robert Taylor plays Marcus Vinincius, a Roman military officer who, after serving in Germany and Britain, returns to Rome and promptly falls in love with the virtuous Lygia (Deborah Kerr).  Complicating Marcus and Lygia’s relationship is the fact that Lygia is a devout Christian and a friend to Peter (Finlay Currie) and Paul (Abraham Sofaer).

Marcus’s uncle, meanwhile, is Petronius (Leo Genn), a government official who has a reputation for being a bon vivant.  In real-life, Petronius is believed to have been the author of the notoriously raunchy Satyricon.  You would never guess that from the way that Petronius is portrayed in Quo Vadis.  We’re continually told that Petronius is a notorious libertine but we don’t see much evidence of that, beyond the fact that he lives in a big palace and he has several slaves.  In fact, Petronius even falls in love with one of his slaves, Eunice (Marina Berti).

The second movie, which feels like it’s taking in a totally different cinematic universe from the adventures of Marcus and Lygia, deals with all of the intrigue in Nero’s court.  Nero (Peter Ustinov) is a giggling madman who dreams of rebuilding Rome in his image and who responds to almost every development by singing a terrible song about it.  Nero surrounds himself with sycophants who continually tell him that his every idea is brilliant but not even they can resist the temptation to roll their eyes whenever Nero grabs his lyre and starts to recite a terrible poem.  Nero is married to the beautiful but evil Poppaea (Patricia Laffan) and there’s nothing that they love more than going to the arena and watching people get eaten by lions.  It disturbs Nero when people sing before being eaten.  “They’re singing,” he says, his voice filled with shock an awe.

It’s difficult to describe just how different Ustinov’s performance is from everyone else’s in the film.  Whereas Taylor and even the usually dependable Deborah Kerr are stuck playing thin characters and often seem to be intimidated by playing such devout characters, Ustinov joyfully chews on every piece of scenery that he can get his hands on.  Nero may be the film’s villain but Ustinov gives a performance that feels more like it belongs in a silent comedy than a biblical epic.  Ustinov bulges his eyes.  He runs around the palace like he forgot to take his Adderall.  While Rome burns, Nero grins like a child who has finally figured out a way to outsmart his parents.  “You won’t give me more money?  I’ll just burn down the city!”

And the thing is — it all works.  The contrast between Ustinov and the rest of the characters should doom this film but, instead, it works brilliantly.  Whenever Ustinov’s performance gets to be too much, Robert Taylor and Leo Genn pop up and ground things.  Whenever things start to get too grounded, Ustinov throws everything back up in the air.  The conflict between the early Christians and the Roman Empire is perfectly epitomized in the contrast between Robert Taylor and Peter Ustinov.  It makes for a film that is entertaining almost despite itself.

Quo Vadis was nominated for best picture but lost to An American In Paris.

The TSL’s Daily Horror Grindhouse: Vampire Circus (dir by Robert Young)


One of the greatest Hammer vampire films didn’t even star Christopher Lee.  In fact, it wasn’t even a Dracula film.  Instead, it was the story of a circus.

1971’s Vampire Circus tells the dark story of a Serbian village called Stetl.  Early in the 19th century, the children of Stetl are dying.  The superstitious villagers believe that Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman) might be responsible.  In fact, they suspect that Count Metterhaus might be a vampire!  Why?  Well, first off, he only seems to be around during the night.  Secondly, he lives in a big spooky castle.  Third, he’s a count and don’t all counts eventually become vampires?

Now, it would be nice to say that all this turned out to be a case of the villagers letting their imaginations get the better of them but nope.  It turns out that they’re pretty much right.  One night, the local teacher, Albert Muller (Laurence Payne), sees his own wife, Anna (Domini Blythe) leading a child towards the dark castle.  It turns out that Anna has fallen under the spell of Count Mitterhaus.  The villagers promptly drive a stake through the Count’s heart, though he manages to do two things before dying.  First off, he curses the town and announces that the blood of their children will give him new life.  Secondly, he tells Anna to escape and track down his brother.

Fifteen years later and, as one might expect, Stetl is a town under siege.  However, the town is not being attacked by vampires.  (Not yet anyway.)  Instead, the town has been hit by the plague and, as a result, it’s been isolated from the outside world.  Men with guns have surrounded the town and are under orders to kill anyone who tries to leave or enter.  Some in the village believe that this is the result of the Count’s dying curse while others just see it as more evidence of man’s inhumanity to man.  Regardless, it’s not good situation.

Fortunately, escape arrives in the form of the Circus of the Night!  That’s right, a gypsy carnival suddenly appears in town.  How did it manage to slip by the blockade?  Who knows and who cares?  What’s important is that the villagers, especially their children, need an escape from their grim existence and the Circus seems to offer something for everyone.  There are dancers.  There are acrobats.  There’s the mysterious tiger woman.  There’s a mirror that makes you see strange things.  And, of course, the are vampires….

That’s not really a shock, of course.  The name of the film is Vampire Circus, after all.  What always takes me by surprise is just how ruthless and cruel the vampires are in this film.  Even by the standards of a 1970s Hammer film, this is a blood-filled movie but, even beyond that, the vampires almost exclusively seem to target children.  Fortunately, all of Stetl’s children tend to be a bit obnoxious but it’s still a shock to see two fresh-faced boys get lured into a mirror where they are both promptly attacked by a vampire.  (And don’t even get me started on what happens when one of the vampires comes across a boarding school.)  Make no mistake, this circus is not made up of the type of self-tortured, romanticized vampires that have dominated recent films.  These vampire are utterly viscous and without conscience.  In other words, these vampires are actually frightening.

The members of the circus are, themselves, a memorable bunch.  David Prowse is the hulking strongman.  Lalla Ward and Robin Sachs are the achingly pretty, innocent-faced twin acrobats who greedily drink the blood of anyone foolish enough to wander off with them.  Some members of the circus can transform into animals.  What’s interesting is that not all of the members of the circus are vampires.  Some of them, I guess, are just groupies.

Featuring the reddest blood that you’re ever likely to see and a cast of memorably eccentric character actors, Vampire Circus often feels more like an extremely dark fairy tale than a typical Hammer vampire film.  Clocking in at 87 minutes, Vampire Circus is a briskly paced dream of carnivals and monsters.

 

A Movie A Day #59: Moon Zero Two (1969, directed by Roy Ward Baker)


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Earlier today, I was reading a now-deleted tweet from Congressional candidate Brianna Wu, in which she speculated that private companies would militarize the moon and use it as a place to launch rocks at the Earth.  According to Wu, “Rocks dropped from there (the moon) have power of 100s of nuclear bombs.”

This, of course, immediately brought to mind Moon Zero Two, a “space western” that Hammer Films produced in the wake of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The year is 2021 and the moon is being colonized by private companies.  The Americans and the Russians have made peace and now jointly run the Moon Hilton.  Bill Kemp (James Olson) was one of the first men in the moon but, having grown disillusioned with working for heartless corporations, Kemp is now an independent operator, salvaging meteorites with his Russian partner, Korminski (Ori Levy).  With his flight license about to be revoked by his enemies in the Corporation, Kemp has been grounded by his own girlfriend, Sheriff Elizabeth Murphy (Adrienne Corri).

Possible financial salvation comes when Kemp is hired by J. J. Hubbard (Warren Mitchell) to help him illegally salvage a sapphire asteroid that is orbiting the far side of the moon.  At the same time, a young woman named Clementine (Catherine Schell, who later starred in another science fiction epic about the moon, Space: 1999) wants Kemp to help her search for her brother, who went missing while also working on the far side of the moon.

Moon Zero Two starts with some Schoolhouse Rock-style animation that shows how the U.S. and the Russians originally landed on the moon:

Though the animated opening seems more appropriate for an Ealing comedy, the rest of Moon Zero Two is a fairly straight western, with claim jumpers, shootouts, and a few moments of comedy coming from the story being set on the moon instead of Arizona.  For instance, there’s a barroom brawl that takes place in zero gravity.  Even while paying homage to old westerns, Moon Zero Two also tries to predict the future, which looks a lot like 1969.  This means psychedelic costumes and a Vegas style dance revue at the Moon Hilton, one that is reminiscent of the USO show in Apocalypse Now.  The mix of styles is enjoyably absurd and everyone seems to be having fun playing cowboy.

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James Olson is the token American in the cast but, for fans of British comedy, the most interesting thing about Moon Zero Two will be seeing Warren Mitchell, who played Alf Garnett in Til Death Do Us Part and inspired All In The Family‘s Archie Bunker, playing ruthless claim jumper, J. J. Hubbard.  Hubbard’s main henchman is played by Bernard Bresslaw, who some viewers may recognize from the Carry On films.  Also, Monty Python fans will want to keep an eye out for Carol Cleveland, who has a very small role as a stewardess.

Years after it was first released, Moon Zero Two was one of the first movies to be featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000.  This was one of the earliest episodes, from before even TV’s Frank joined the show.  I have not seen the MST 3K version but it is available both on YouTube and as a part of Shout Factory’s 25th Anniversary Box Set.

Here’s an artist’s rendering of Crow and Tom Servo having a Moon Zero Two-style shootout.

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Tomorrow’s movie a day will be another space western, Peter Hyams’s Outland.

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Back to School Part II #5: A Clockwork Orange (dir by Stanley Kubrick)


It may seem strange, at first, that I am including the 1971 best picture nominee, A Clockwork Orange, in a series of Back to School reviews.  Certainly, Stanley Kubrick’s iconic adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s novel is not usually described as being a film about juvenile delinquency but that’s exactly what it is.

Many viewers tend to forget that Alex (played by Malcolm McDowell, who was nearly 30 at the time) and his three droogs are all meant to be teenagers.  (Only Michael Tarn, who played Pete, was actually a teenager at the time the film was shot.  Warren “Dim” Clarke and James “Georgie” Marcus were both in their late 20s.)  There’s even a lengthy scene in which Alex is interrogated by a social worker, P.R. Deltoid (Aubrey Morris).  Viewers are usually so surprised when Deltoid suddenly grabs Alex’s crotch that they forget that the whole reason Deltoid even came to the flat was to find out why Alex had been skipping school.  (“Pain in my gulliver,” was Alex’s oft-quoted excuse.)

So, make no mistake about it.  Among other things, A Clockwork Orange is a film about both the problem of juvenile delinquency and the continuing debate concerning what the authorities should do about it.  Stylistic and philosophical differences aside, A Clockwork Orange comes from the same cinematic family tree that’s given us everything from Rebel Without A Cause to Bully to Spring Breakers.

Of course, that’s not all that A Clockwork Orange is about.  It’s a Kubrick film, which means that there’s several different layers to work through and multiple interpretations for what we see on-screen.  For those who may not be familiar with the film, it takes place in a recognizable but futuristic England.  (One of my favorite theories is that A Clockwork Orange was about what was happening on Earth while David Bowman was becoming the starchild in 2001: A Space Odyssey.)  It’s a violent world, one where there appears to be significantly fewer people around than in the past.  The streets are deserted and bombed out.  Occasionally, when Alex returns to his home, he passes a mural of idealized working men creating a new world.  This rather banal work of Socialist realism has been defaced by obscene drawings and mocking graffiti.

Teenage Alex spends his nights hanging out with his friends (or, as he calls them, droogs), Pete, Georgie, and Dim.  They drink at the Korova Milk Bar and wear obscenely oversized codpieces, signifying this society’s obsession with outsized masculinity. When they speak (and when Alex narrates the film), they do so in a rhyming slang called Nadsat.  Under Alex’s sociopathic leadership, they spend their nights raping women, beating the homeless, and fighting with other gangs.  When Alex is not with his droogs, he enjoys lying around the house and listening to Beethoven (or “Ludwig Van” as he calls him).

After being betrayed by his droogs (who have tired of Alex’s cockiness), Alex ends up imprisoned for murder.  However, Alex is offered an early release if he’s willing to take part in the Ludovico Treatment.  For two weeks, Alex is drugged and forced to watch violent and sexual films while the music of Beethoven plays in the background.  As a result of the treatment, Alex grows physically ill at the thought of both violence and sex but he can also no longer listen to Beethoven.  Arguably, as a result of being cursed of his anti-social tendencies, he has lost the only non-destructive thing that he enjoyed.

Over the objections of the prison chaplain (who argues that robbing Alex of his free will is not the same as rehabilitating him), Alex is sent back into the real world and he quickly discovers that he now has no place in it.  His parents have rented his room out to a boarder who is now more of a son to them than Alex ever was.  The streets are full of men who were previously tormented by Alex and who now wants revenge.  In perhaps the film’s most brilliant moment, Alex discovers that his former droogs are now members of the police force.  Though they may now be wearing uniforms, Dim and Georgie are still as destructive and dangerous as Alex once was.  The difference is that Alex was caught and cured whereas Dim and Georgie discovered they could do just as much damage as authority figures as they did as juvenile delinquents.

In fact, the only people who now care about Alex are the political dissidents who hope to use Alex to discredit the government.  However, the dissidents aren’t particularly worried about Alex’s well-being either.  He’s just a prop to be used for their own ambitions.  Even worse, for Alex, is the fact that one of the dissidents is Mr. Alexander (Patrick Magee), a writer who lost both his ability to walk and his wife to an earlier assault committed by Alex…

(Interestingly enough, Mr. Alexander’s boyguard is played by David Prowse, who later become the ultimate symbol of government oppression when he was cast as Darth Vader in Star Wars.)

A Clockwork Orange is a brilliant film but it’s one about which I have very mixed feelings.  On the one hand, you can’t deny the power of the film’s imagery.  How many times has just the opening shot — of McDowell staring at us while wearing one fake eyelash — been imitated on TV and in other movies?  How much of the film’s dialogue — from “pain in my gulliver” to “the old in-out” — has lived on long past the movie?  Regardless of how many times I’ve seen A Clockwork Orange, the film’s electronic score (from Wendy Carlos) never ceases to amaze me.  Finally, it’s a film that argues that free will is so important that even a sociopath like Alex must be allowed to have it and that, as the chaplain argues, true goodness comes from within and cannot be manufactured or regulated by a government agency.  (It’s also a film that suggests that the government would be just as quick to use the Ludovico Treatment not just on the evil Alexes on the world but on anyone who dared to dissent from the party line.)  As I’m something of a “Freedom of Choice” absolutist, that’s a message to which I responded.

(At the same time, A Clockwork Orange does not argue that Alex’s actions should be free of consequences.  If anything, the film’s message seems to be that things would have been better for literally everyone if the government had just left Alex in jail, as opposed to trying to “fix” what was wrong with him.)

And yet, I have mixed feelings about A Clockwork Orange.  I guess my main issue is that the film doesn’t always play fair.  Malcolm McDowell is allowed to give a charismatic and well-rounded performance as Alex but nearly everyone else in the film is directed and written as a one-dimensional caricature.  Whereas Anthony Burgess’s novel emphasized the very real damage that Alex did to his victims, the film tends to surround Alex with comedic grotesqueries.  By both making Alex the only fully developed character in the entire film and then casting the energetic and charismatic Malcolm McDowell in the role, the film seems, at times, to come dangerously close to letting Alex off the hook for his worst crimes.  It also leaves the film open to the oft-repeated charge of glamorizing sex and violence.  (According to Roger Lewis’s biography of the author, that was Anthony Burgess’s opinion of the film.)  For the record, I don’t think A Clockwork Orange is an immoral film but I understand why some people disagree.

For that reason, A Clockwork Orange remains a controversial film.  In fact, I’m somewhat surprised that this subversive and deliberately confrontational film was nominated for best picture.  It was only the 2nd (and last) X-rated film to receive a best picture nomination.  Though it lost to The French Connection, A Clockwork Orange continues to be a powerful and controversial film to this day.  Perhaps the biggest indication of A Clockwork Orange‘s success is that it’s still being debated 45 years after it was first released.

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Shattered Politics #37: Rosebud (dir by Otto Preminger)


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Before I review the 1975 film Rosebud, allow me to tell you about how I first discovered the existence of this particular film.

The greatest used bookstore in the world is located in Denton, Texas.  It’s called Recycled Books and it is three stories of pure literary goodness!  (Plus, there are apartments on the top floor where I attended some pretty interesting parties but that’s another story….)  When I was attending the University of North Texas, I used to stop by Recycled Books nearly every day.  One day, I happened to be searching the Film and TV section when I came across a beat-up paperback called Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture.

This book, which was written by Theodore Gershuny, told the story of how the previously acclaimed director Otto Preminger attempted to make a film about terrorism.  Starting with the attempts of Preminger’s son, Erik Lee Preminger, to come up with a workable script and then going on to detail how Peter O’Toole came to replace Robert Mitchum as the star of the film and ending with the film’s disastrous release, Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture proved to be a fascinating read.

After finishing the book, I simply had to see Rosebud for myself.  Unfortunately, at that time, Rosebud had not yet been released on Blu-ray or DVD.  So, I actually ended up ordering an old VHS copy of it.  The tape that I got was not in the best condition but it played well enough and I can now say that, unlike the majority of people in the world, I’ve actually seen Rosebud!

Which is not to say that Rosebud is any good.  It’s not the disaster that I had been led to expect.  In fact, it probably would have been more fun if it had been a disaster, as opposed to being just a forgettable film from a director who was probably capable of better.  Preminger started his career in the 30s and was considered, at one point, to be quite innovative.  He directed Laura and Anatomy of a Murder, two great films.  Unfortunately, there’s really nothing innovative about his direction of Rosebud.  In Gershuny’s book, Preminger comes across like an intelligent and thoughtful man who was too set in his ways to realize that what was shocking in 1959 was no longer that big of a deal in 1975.  (And, needless to say, it’s even less of a big deal in 2015.)

As for what Rosebud‘s about, it’s about a man named Sloat (Richard Attenborough), a former journalist who now lives in a cave in Israel and dreams of establishing a worldwide terrorist network.  Under Sloat’s direction, terrorists storm a yacht named the Rosebud and take the girls on board hostage.  The girls are wealthy and privileged.  Their fathers are judges, senators, and businessmen.  CIA agent Larry Martin (Peter O’Toole) is tasked with tracking down and rescuing the girls.  If it sounds like an action film — well, it’s not.  This is not a prequel to Taken.  Instead, it’s a very talky film that has a few isolated good moments and performances but otherwise, is fairly forgettable.

That said, the film does have an interesting cast.  Peter O’Toole seems bored by his role (and who can blame him?) but Attenborough briefly livens things up in the role of Sloat.  As for the girls being held hostage, they’re not given much to do.  One of them is played by a young Isabelle Huppert.  Long before she would play Samantha on Sex and the City, Kim Cattrall plays a hostage here.  The English hostage is played by Lalla Ward, who is now married to Richard Dawkins.

And then there’s the girl’s parents, who are played by an odd assortment of character actors.  Raf Vallone, an Italian, plays a Greek.  (His daughter, meanwhile, is played by the French Isabelle Huppert.)  Peter Lawford, looking somewhat dazed, shows up as Lalla Ward’s father.  (One of the sadder scenes in Gershuny’s book deals with Lawford’s attempts to remember his lines.)  And than, in the role of Cattrall’s father, we have a very distinguished looking man named John Lindsay.

John Lindsay was the former mayor of New York City, a man who ran for President in 1972 and, three years later, attempted to launch a new career as an actor.  Rosebud was his both his first and final film.  (Rumor has it that Martin Scorsese attempted to convince Lindsay to play Senator Palatine in Taxi Driver but Lindsay turned the role down.)  Lindsay is not particularly memorable in Rosebud.  It’s not so much that Lindsay gives a bad performance as much as it’s just the fact that he has a very bland screen presence.  That blandness probably served him well as a politician but, as an actor — well, let’s just say that John Lindsay was apparently no Fred Thompson.

And so that’s Rosebud.  It’s a film that, much like Maidstone, you can only appreciate if you know what went on behind the scenes.  I can’t really recommend Rosebud but, if you ever come across a battered old copy of Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture in a used bookstore, be sure to buy it!

Seriously, you will not be sorry.

Poll: Which Movie Should Lisa Marie Watch on March 20th?


Anyone who knows me knows that sometimes I just can’t help but love being dominated. 

That’s why, on occasion, I’ll give you, our beloved readers, the option of telling me which film to watch and review.  In the past, you’ve commanded me to watch and review Anatomy of a Murder, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Logan’s Run

Well, here’s your chance to, once again, tell me what to do.  I’ve randomly selected 12 films from my film collection.  Whichever film gets the most votes will be watched and reviewed by me next Tuesday, March 20th.

Here are the films up for consideration:

1) Black Jesus (1968) — This Italian film stars Woody Strode as an African rebel leader who is captured by his country’s right-wing, American-backed dictatorship. 

2) Capote (2005) — Philip Seymour Hoffman was an Oscar for best actor for playing writer Truman Capote in this film that details how Capote came to write his true crime classic, In Cold Blood.  This film was also nominated for best picture.

3) Chappaqua (1966) — In this underground cult classic, drug addict Conrad Rooks seeks treatment in Switzerland while being haunted by a scornful William S. Burroughs.  This film features cameo from Allen Ginsberg, The Fugs, and just about every other cult figure from 1966.

4) Crazy/Beautiful (2001) — Jay Fernandez and Kirsten Dunst have lots and lots of sex.  This was like one of my favorite movies to catch on cable back when I was in high school. 🙂

5) An Education (2008) — In my favorite movie from 2008, Carey Mulligan is a schoolgirl in 1960s England who has a secret affair with an older man (played by Peter Sarsgaard), who has plenty of secrets of his own.  Co-starring Rosamund Pike, Emma Thompson, Alfred Molina, and Dominic Cooper (who is to die for, seriously).

6) Female Vampire (1973) — In this atmospheric and ennui-filled film from the infamous Jesus Franco, a female vampire spends the whole movie wandering around naked and dealing with the lost souls who want to join the ranks of the undead. 

7) Nightmare City (1980) — In this gory and fast-paced film from Umberto Lenzi, an accident at a nuclear plant leads to a bunch of blood-thirsty zombies rampaging through both the city and the countryside.  Hugo Stiglitz plays Dean Miller, zombie exterminator!  Nightmare City is probably most remembered for introducing the concept of the fast zombie and for serving as an obvious inspiration for Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later.

8) The Other Side of Midnight (1977) — Based on a best-selling novel, The Other Side of Midnight tells the story of a poor French girl who becomes a world-famous actress and who ends up sleeping with apparently every wealthy man in the world.  Meanwhile, the man she loves ends up marrying Susan Sarandon.  Eventually, it all ends with both a hurricane and a murder.  Apparently, this film cost a lot of money to make and it was a notorious box office bomb.  It looks kinda fun to me.

9) Peyton Place (1957) — Also based on a best-selling novel, Peyton Place is about love, sex, and scandal in a small town.  Lana Turner is a repressed woman with a past who struggles to keep her daughter from making the same mistakes.  At the time it was made, it was considered to be quite racy and it was even nominated for best picture.  This film is a personal favorite of mine and it’s pretty much set the template for every single film ever shown on Lifetime.

10) Rosebud (1975) — From director Otto Preminger comes this film about what happens when a bunch of rich girls on a yacht are taken hostage by Islamic extremists.  The film’s diverse cast includes Peter O’Toole, Richard Attenborough, Cliff Gorman, former New York Mayor John Lindsay, former Kennedy in-law Peter Lawford, Raf Vallone, Adrienne Corri, Lalla Ward, Isabelle Huppert, and Kim Cattrall.

11) Valley of the Dolls (1967) — Oh my God, I love this movie so much!  Three aspiring actresses move to the big city and soon become hooked on pills and bad relationship decisions. Every time I watch this movie, I spend hours yelling, “I’m Neely O’Hara, bitch!” at the top of my lungs.

12) Zombie Lake (1981) — From my favorite French director, Jean Rollin, comes this extremely low budget film about a bunch of Nazi zombies who keep coming out of the lake and attacking the nearby village.  Some people claim that this is the worst zombie films ever made.  I disagree.

Please vote below for as many or as few of these films as you want to.  The poll will remain open until March 20th and whichever film gets the most votes will be watched and reviewed by me.

Happy voting!