NY Times: Return of the Not-So-Benevolent Dead
Published: October 14, 2005

Television, in recent years, may have convinced viewers that communing with dead people is not only possible but also positive. After all, on HBO's "Six Feet Under," visions of the recently deceased were known for both wisecracks and wisdom. In that show's wake has come the treacly CBS series "Ghost Whisperer," in which Jennifer Love Hewitt's character does favors for her psychic friends.

On the other hand, two interrelated horror flicks remind viewers not to trust every awakened corpse. "Necropolis" and "Rave to the Grave" are the latest installments of the "Return of the Living Dead" franchise, and together they roust the entire zombie genre from the crypt.

The director, Ellory Elkayem, was also behind the 2002 movie "Eight-Legged Freaks," a goofy but clever feature film on extreme arachnophobia. Now, as then, Mr. Elkayem plays to his younger audience's eagerness to snicker not just at the campy gore, but also at embedded ironies that buck the established order of adults. The "Scream" and "Scary Movie" franchises have trained a whole slew of audiences in how to mix fear with laughter and a little learning.

"Necropolis" begins with a clever corporate video hailing the many facets of the Hybra-Tech corporation, a fictional global conglomerate whose chemicals play a part in snack-food recipes, nuclear-accident decontamination and even zombie neutralization. The opening scenes lampoon contractors in homeland security companies, with Hybra-Tech hailing itself for providing "chemical solutions for the entire planet." The promotional messages archly resemble actual commercials for GE, which owns NBC Universal, which owns the Sci Fi Network.

The most recognizable face in both casts is the former counterculturalist Peter Coyote, and he appears among a bevy of bubbly cheerleaders, rockhead dirt-bikers and Russian thugs. Mr. Coyote plays a Hybra-Tech researcher named Charles who imprisons innocents for his own noxious experiments. In the first installment, his orphaned nephew, Julian, played by John Keefe, leads a band of teenage schemers into Charles's secret laboratory, and together they confront the coldblooded scientist about what his purpose might be.

"World domination!" Uncle Charles says in his sole moment of cheerfulness. "What's everything ultimately for?"

Charles's prized substance comes in oozy or gaseous form, and when breathed or touched or eaten or delivered through a zombie bite, it can turn the living into monsters. As the contagion spreads, bug-eyed figures lurch toward squealing hotties, and only bullets to the zombies' heads can keep them from their cannibal pursuits.

The endlessly repeated expression of zombie hunger - "braaaaains!" - becomes a monotone drone over the full four hours of the two films, but the scripts' pungent wit comes to the rescue. The first two-hour installment includes rogue scientists and lethal canisters hidden in Chernobyl, an allusion to a black market in nuclear contraband. In "Rave to the Grave," the zombie goo is spread by coeds at a rave who think the substance is the latest libido-boosting party drug. The malady thus spreads through chemical experimentation and sexual contact, which seems like a riff on the dangers of crystal meth and H.I.V.

This second plot is the more witty and wicked, as Julian takes the slop to his friend's lab for analysis. The friend starts a cottage industry around the controlled substance, which is distributed in pill form and turns an elaborate outdoor party into a bloody rampage.

This biting take on a trendy event is staged as a Halloween dance, already fueled by ghoulish gags, altered states and trance music, and Mr. Elkayem has some devious fun with youthful disrespect for death. In his opening scene, cheerleaders implore athletes to kill opponents, and later they get done in by zombie chomps on their shaking backsides.

Both "Living Dead" chapters will appeal more to an audience in tune with the lurid lingo of college dorm rats. "What's with the nonparty 'tude?" one stoner asks an angry zombie, who proceeds to eat him. Proselytizing New Agers also get a brutal comeuppance, as does a tardy pizza-delivery guy.

Whatever lessons the scripts suggest about youthful risk-taking, the films are not meant for moralists. In the screener provided for review, there were many episodes of bared breasts, some showcased with kinky body paint, as well as profane hipster zingers.

The running gags of the dual "Living Dead" chapters slow to a crawl after four hours, but viewers should discount the flaws of such low-budget, high-energy projects. These are scrappy installments that actually succeed in making the consumption of brains fodder for thought.



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The characters and events depicted in these photoplays are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.