NOVEMBER 14 ― Staying cooped up at home (for a lot of people in the “non-essential” industries at least) for another month, which more or less officially makes 2020 the year of staying at home, is nobody’s idea of a good time.
Having spent quite a few years as a freelancer before this, I know full well how working from home can mess with your brain’s compartmentalising and organising side of things, blurring greatly the distinction between working time and “home” time if we’re not careful.
Keeping sane in these tough and challenging times is probably something that a lot of us have been trying really hard to achieve, in our own unique ways according to the circumstances we’re facing.
One of the ways that I keep myself entertained these days is to plough through the many nooks and crannies of the international genre film scene, hoping to make some under-the-radar discovery or just to enjoy the comforts of familiarity that only the best of genre films, especially horror flicks, can provide.
In fact, I’ve probably been doing this a bit too much this year. 2020 is fast turning out to be the year where I’ve seen the least number of new arthouse/foreign language films, at least when compared to the last 10-15 years of my movie-going life.
Looking at it from another angle though, it just means that I get to explore more genre films, and even more facets of the darn thing, and these two very different horror films I recently came across, which also came from two different countries not normally associated with the international horror scene, are cases in point.
I’ve no idea what kind of budget normal Filipino blockbusters (or aspiring blockbusters) have, but even a cursory glance at Block Z, a new Filipino zombie movie from director Mikhail Red (of Eerie and Netflix’s Dead Kids fame) makes it apparent that this one is on the lower budget end of the scale, because the production values here are not even anywhere near the elegant Eerie, which was a small scale film to begin with.
Admirably, Red didn’t let the low budget (reportedly around PHP33 million or less than US$1 million which makes it about RM4 million) hamper his ambitions, as this is very much an attempt to make a Filipino version of Train To Busan, only with the location restricted to a local university.
So, like the under-rated Dead Kids, this one is also more or less a teen movie that later on gets mashed up with genre elements, which in this case is your standard zombie apocalypse movie a la 28 Days Later or the aforementioned Train To Busan.
Just like Dead Kids, the initial interaction among the bunch of university kids here can come off as a little cringe-worthy as they seem to be trying too hard to ape the kids in American college movies at times.
But just like in Dead Kids, Red has a few things up his sleeve as the film goes on, making some pointed comments about the class divisions in the Philippines and the widespread corruption that has been plaguing the country, all through the very familiar plot beats and archetypal scenes from the zombie apocalypse genre.
In short, he’s well aware that he’s there to deliver some formulaic entertainment, which he does quite admirably, even going so far as to set up the possibility of a sequel right at the end, but it’s kind of cool that he still found time to sneak in some political and social commentary as well while he’s at it.
Hailing from New Zealand, this obvious labour of love which was written by and stars the duo Thomas Sainsbury and Hayden J. Weal (who also directs), is a pretty wicked horror-comedy that riffs on the good cop/bad cop buddy movie formula, with the variant here being that it’s a living cop/dead cop.
Sainsbury plays Marbles, a sort of loser who can see and talk to dead people with the help of drugs and Weal plays a dead cop called Tagg, who’s trying to solve his own murder and enlists Marbles’ help to do so.
The chemistry between Sainsbury and Weal here is wonderful, as they’re simply hilarious together, and the script’s focus on their characters’ many eccentricities just makes the whole thing a delight to witness from start to finish.
Making it even more worthwhile is the film’s big heart, especially when it comes to the whole “unfinished business” angle that is the heart and soul of the Marbles character, right from the various early scenes with Marbles helping loved ones deal with the passing of their dearest family members all the way through his family’s own “unfinished business” with his late father.
It's strictly small scale, yes, but it’s the kind of charmingly funny and touching small scale film that you’ll wish there are more of nowadays, just when we need a little bit more warmth and joy in our lives when watching films at home.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.