Summer of Blood: 21st Century Horror - The dammed
If I were to tell you that a movie called Zombeavers is one of the most thoroughly enjoyable experiences I've had with a 2015 movie (it's been kicking around since the first half of 2014, but its commercial release was slow in coming), and you were to call me a piece of shit, no good fucking liar, could I be offended? Of course not. What sort of outright psychopath would expect a movie called Zombeavers - and for exactly the reason you suppose it is called Zombeavers, which is that it has beaver zombies in it - to be even slightly close to tolerable? Let alone the funniest horror-comedy since at the very least The Cabin in the Woods, and I'd be privately inclined to set the line farther back than that.
The friend with whom I first saw it - both of us falling head-over-heels in love after expecting not a damn thing from it* - came up with a perfectly pithy one-sentence review, and there's nothing he can do to keep my from stealing it: it's the version of ThanksKilling that's terrific instead of bone-scrapingly awful. It's mostly the same ingredients: uniformly reprehensible characters who speak entirely in filthy jokes that are forcefully dirty more than clever in any meaningful way, deaths presented in a fully comic register, and killer animals that do not pretend for even one instant to be anything but hand-crafted puppets. It simply works better this time, possibly because this film is ultimately sweeter-natured; it's more upbeat, the insults more bubbly and less caustic. And it's considerably less vile in its attitude towards women, who are still objectified to a fair degree (there's an entire scene whose narrative is "girl takes off her bikini top and makes other girls feel awkward by parading about showily"), but who are presented as the authors of their own sexuality beyond what cheap-as-hell horror movies typically traffic in.
Mostly, I am tempted to say, it has better puppets: I badly want the filmmakers to authorise the production of zombeaver plushies, because I would buy one right now. They are the cutest little ugly fuckers. But in fairness, I was already on the film's side before we saw them for the first time, at the 27 minute mark of a relentlessly paced 77-minute feature.
The film's set-up could not be more generic: three college students are driving to a cabin in the woods. These are sorority sisters Jenn (Lexi Atkins), who has just been cheated on; Mary (Rachel Melvin), who has decided that this means it's time for some supportive girl time; and Zoe (Cortney Palm), who isn't trying to contain her irritation that Mary has issued a blanket "no boys and no phones" rule for the weekend. They banter in a raucous, scatological way, etching out a strong, clear-cut dynamic, even if it's also frankly a little bit like what three male screenwriters - Al Kaplan, Jon Kaplan, and Jordan Rubin, the last of whom is also the film's director - would come up with if they knew that they wanted to subvert stereotypes but also had never been around women talking. Still, it takes only a few minutes to get a crisp, strong understanding of each of these characters, and respond to them as individual personalities, which is not at all something you just get every time a genre movie crosses your path. And while their line are crude, there's some actual humor to them as well, particularly because they're tied to character: Zoe makes jokes that Mary would not, and within five minutes of meeting the trio, we understand why that is.
And the other part of the set-up is, if anything, even more generic: a pair of truck drivers hit a deer, and in the process manage to lose a barrel of toxic sludge that ends up getting in the water supply. Cue the zombies. The twist being that the truckers (played by comedian Bill Burr and snoozy rocker John Mayer) are having a filthy conversation of their own, but one that occurs in a zen-like state of stoner's consideration, profoundly anti-funny in its abiding fascination with homoeroticism and the way that both men deliver every line to sound like a non-sequitur, even when it actually follows. And then they plow into a deer, killing it in an inordinately violent way. It's a bold first scene, at any rate, so deep into irony that one can see nothing else. I love it a little bit; it's aggressively absurdist and pointedly alien.
The film, obviously, concerns of holding the zombeavers back just long enough to shake the bottle with the young women in it until it gets good and fizzy - this includes Zoe sneakily arranging for her boyfriend, Buck (Peter Gilroy) to show up, along with Mary's boyfriend Tommy (Jake Weary), and Jenn's notorious ex, Sam (Hutch Dano), and our learning what everybody but Jenn already knew, which is that seemingly kind and pure Mary was the faceless brunette seen making out with Sam in the photo that broke Jenn's heart. And then it goes straight to the usual Night of the Living Dead territory: everybody reacts to the first zombeaver in ways that would be sensible if only they weren't in a horror movie, and then tries too late to secure the cabin their in, by which point it all comes down to waiting to see what errors they'll make to let the monsters get them. Along the way, the leering, puritanical local hunter Smyth (Rex Linn) arrives to provide some false hope, as do the nice old neighbors down the way, with some pretty crude mouths of their own, the Gregorsons (Phyllis Katz and Brent Briscoe).
We're miles away from a movie that's going to work based on the density of its plot, but then you knew that the moment I said Zombeavers. The movie goes all-in on one thing and one thing only, which is a vigorously warped sense of humor. A very precise kind of humor, too: it's not exactly a Sharknado-style exercise in "can you guys believe how willfully bad and stupid and silly this is? Isn't it fun?", a mode that I find enormously enervating. But I'd be hard-pressed to explain exactly what thing Zombeavers does that keeps it out of those particular weeds. Certainly, it is stupid; certainly, it is inordinately proud of the fact that it does all of the reprehensible and trite and illogical things that make lousy monster movies lousy. It just... feels different. The difference between a movie that is funny (or supposedly funny) because it is bad at being horror, and a movie that is funny because it's good at being comedy. It never winks at us, or tries to get away with doing stupid shit by saying "look at the stupid shit!", but treats the zombeavers, within the world of the film, with perfect gravity, even as outside of the world of the film they're pure farce. Comedy is best when the characters don't realise they're in a comedy, after all.
It's a one-note comedy, fair; maybe two, with note one being "zombeavers are too ridiculous to take seriously" and note two being "these characters are deeply committed to being profoundly awful and whipping up some zesty dialogue to prove it". 77 minutes is already a generous running time for something with so few tonal registers - smutty dialogue, manic running about and yelling in a way that Rubin doesn't even slightly care about making scary, random absurdity - and at an absolute minimum, the film could do without the outtakes that are not part of the ending credits. Those are instead set to a jazzy Sinatra-style number recapping the plot of the film we just saw, which is infinitely more fun in comparison. And better still is the post-credits stinger that's a terrible visual pun of the first order, and thus a work of art that needs to be appreciated by every person with a heart.
The repetitive nature of the humor is probably the single thing that most keeps Zombeavers from realising its full potential as a bawdy comedy masquerading as a repulsively gory horror film. Not that everybody would be in the market for the absolute best possible version of that movie, though I know that I am not alone in finding even the imperfect Zombeavers to be exactly the right thing for a specific kind of moment. It's a movie that holds nothing back and pushes itself with such energy that even someone as resistant to this brand of crude comedy as myself can't help but roll over for it.
Body Count: 9, plus a very messy deer, one dog (seen), one dog (implied), and one bear.