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By Mike Watt | August 31, 2006

I’m beginning to think that the best way to predict which filmmakers will survive the current lousy marketplace and who won’t is to examine how they handle the zombie genre. If they’re just out to make a gut-muncher where kids in oatmeal make-up chow down on other kids running through the woods (or city, suburb, etc.), then there’s a good chance their careers will have the same life-expectancy as one of their movie’s generic victims. If, on the other hand, they’re using this relative youngster of a sub-genre (yet rapidly aging) to say something about society, class structure, etc., weaving thoughtful themes into the gore, there’s every reason to believe that these filmmakers, while having an upward struggle ahead of them, will be around for some time to come. Obviously, this theory will be proven over time; right now it’s more than a hope than a hypothesis. But to explore my hope further, I set “Last Rites of the Dead” before you as an example of a movie that will, audiences willing, survive the tests of time.

It starts out like so many other classics before it: something is causing the dead to rise. Nobody knows what it is. Anyone who dies is at risk, no matter the manner of their death. You die, you rise, you walk around. The world now has to decide what to do.

Only this time, the zombies aren’t flesh eaters (not at first). They arise as second-class citizens, forced to take menial jobs—when they can find jobs at all—forced to deal with their rotting states in support groups. They can’t digest anything but raw meat. They have to order special make-up to hide their chalky complexions and fit in, or risk burning themselves with “living cosmetics”. They are a sub-culture unto themselves, and the capitalistic world wants their hard-earned money. Their only alternative is to check themselves into voluntary euthanasia clinics and accept the inevitable: a shotgun blast to the head (which may or may not kill them, depending on the gunman’s aim).

If this weren’t enough, they have to deal with the prejudice of the living, primarily from fellow poor people who see the zombies as threats to their livelihood, their property values, whatever. Something is wrong with their living lives, it’s the damned dead that caused it. So militia groups crop up. One in particular, run by a woman called “The Commandant”, is particularly brutal, preying on homeless zombies first before moving on to any undead they can get their hands on.

Into this world is thrust Angela, who becomes a walking corpse thanks to a shot to the head courtesy of her unstable boyfriend, Josh. Angela’s job vanishes with her life. She spends her days avoiding Josh, who still loves her, he says, despite his penchant towards homicide. Josh, meanwhile, hooks up with the Commandant, hoping that her violent group will help him exercise some of his psychotic angst.

“Last Rites of the Dead” is a complex, multi-character drama about alienation, class frustration, unemployment, unsatisfactory Capitalism and an uncaring government blaming its problems on a misunderstood enemy, all wrapped up in a box that says “zombie” on the outside. It’s a mature horror movie that brings to mind both “Dawn of the Dead” and Scooter McCrae’s similarly-themed “Shatter Dead” (minus the religious questions) and is ultimately quite satisfying. Which should come as no surprise to anyone who saw the Insane-O-Rama team’s freshman effort, the equally-surprising and intelligent vampire movie “Strange Things Happen at Sundown”. Like “Sundown”, “Last Rites” allows plenty of blood to soak through just as they’re exploring the human condition. Gore hounds won’t be disappointed in this area; true horror enthusiasts will dig the hell out of the whole deal.

While almost two hours long, “Last Rites” never drags, though some sequences feel a little more drawn out than necessary (the climax comes to mind, as does a prolonged shoot-out in a park—the rest is perfectly paced). And while the gore and visual effects are outstanding, some of the make-up leaves a little to be desired—unfortunate, but not devastatingly distracting. The acting is solid clear across the board—particularly Ramsden and Nelson as the dysfunctional ex-lovers.

If my theory has a solid foundation, once the official Brain Damage release hits the shelves, horror fans will come out in droves to support this little gem. And if history has ever proven anything to me, it’s that I’m wrong, frequently and horribly, and that the long path ahead of the Insane-O-Rama crew will only get longer, thanks to the folks who “just want to be entertained”… But if there’s justice, they’ll be around and talked about for the rest of their careers and beyond.

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