Thursday, 24 January 2013

Bong of the Dead

Director: Thomas Newman
Writer: Thomas Newman
Producer: Thomas Newman
Cast: Mark Wynn, Jy Harris, Simone Bailly
Country: USA
Year of release: 2011
Reviewed from: screener (Left Films)

Never judge a book by its cover and never judge a film by its title. I passed up a chance to see Bong of the Dead on the big screen at the 2011 Day of the Undead because it just sounded like a dumb stoner comedy. And stoner comedies are rarely funny unless you yourself are already stoned. In which case the test card is funny.

From what I could see it was a micro-budget feature about two stoners who discover a way to grow super-strength weed by fertilising it with mashed-up zombie brains. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, it sounded shit. So I didn’t bother.

Six months later, when a screener from Helen at Left Films turned up, I felt obliged to watch it but with little enthusiasm. Imagine my surprise to find that I had completely misjudged the film, which turns out to be well-made, imaginative and thoroughly enjoyable, with interesting and sympathetic characters.

One of the reasons it works is that the whole super-strength weed fertiliser made from zombie brains schtick is fairly swiftly forgotten. Instead, we get a quite charming three-hander between survivors of the zombie apocalypse, like a sort of Cheech and Chong’s Z for Zachariah.

Heavily moustachioed Edwin (Mark Wynn: The Boy Who Cried Werewolf) is the brighter of the two, capable of growing his own weed and experimenting with different horticultural techniques. Clean-shaven Tommy (Jy Harris: Baby Geniuses 2) is his pal/customer, impressed by the set-up. Thanks to the miracle-properties of the zombie-brain mulch, they have enough weed to last for years...

...which they promptly blow in about 20 minutes. All this takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where the Government has designated blue circles on the map as safe zones and red circles as zombie-infested danger zones. Tommy and Edwin set off for the nearest red circle in search of fresh zombie brains, largely oblivious to the inherent danger.

After running afoul of, but somehow escaping from, a surprisingly erudite zombie leader (Barry Nerling), they stop their car at a gas station where they are challenged by the initially distrustful owner. This turns out to be the unbelievably hot Leah (the unbelievably hot Simone Bailly: recurring roles in Stargate and Battlestar Galactica) who is fiercely independent, handy with a shotgun and an expert mechanic. With the boys’ car’s engine knackered, she reluctantly lets them stay for a few days.

And this is where the film is great, as these characters slowly humanise each other. Leah starts to relax, while Edwin starts to understand responsibility - with Tommy around to still provide broad comic relief. The scene where Leah discusses (with flashbacks) how she had to kill her own family is heart-achingly good, and absolutely not the sort of thing you expect in a film called Bong of the Dead.

It all culminates in a gloriously splatstick fight against zombie hoards in which our three protagonists use knives, guns and lawnmowers to chop down the undead. There is also a too-long epilogue about the lead zombie being rebuilt as a robot which seems to serve no purpose except to set up a potential Bong of the Dead 2. This sort of balances a nine-minute wordless prologue showing the initial cause of the zombie outbreak (meteorites) featuring an elderly couple, which frankly could have functioned as a short film on its own.

Bong was a labour of love by Thomas Newman: writer, director, producer, DP, editor, composer, effects dude and quite possibly tea-maker too. Newman has been working towards this position for 15 years, scraping around the edges of Hollywood as an extra or doing the crappy jobs in make-up departments on stuff like The X-Files, Futuresport and They Nest. He shot Bong with his last $5,000 in 2008 and then spent three years in post which included, incredibly, a completely looped/foleyed soundtrack, created by Andres Santana. (The ADR is only occasionally obvious and easily ignored.)

Mike Fields - whose make-up CV includes Masters of Horror, The Mangler 2, Sanctimony, Elf, the Nick Fury TV movie and the Doctor Who TV movie - handles the prosthetic effects work here, creating a good number of varied zombies for the two sequences which feature them. (There is also a featured zombie who serves a special purpose which is so funny and original that to say more would be a spoiler.)

Despite all the indications of the publicity (and a terrible title), Bong of the Dead proves to be a warm, thoughtful relationship comedy - with zombies. It looks way, way better than its budget says it should and is something different in the crowded zombie genre that should be applauded and sought out. Wish I’d seen it at the cinema now.

MJS rating: A-
Review originally posted 18th April 2012

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