by David Cornelius
You gotta hand it to any movie that kicks off with a tirade on the state of quality zombie movies, a reference to “Plan Nine From Outer Space,” and a naked guy in the woods. It takes a sharp wit to cram all of this in early, and an even sharper with to keep this from being the high point of your film. Fortunately, “Hide and Creep,” from co-directors Chuck Hartsell (who also stars) and Chance Shirley (who also wrote the screenplay), is a zombie comedy overflowing with wit. In fact, it’s so crisp, so imaginative, so downright funny, that I’m willing to put this alongside personal favorite “Moving” as one of the very best homemade movies I have ever seen.Not bad for a couple of guys from Alabama. Hartsell and Shirley - working on a shoestring budget of a mere $20,000 (with half that going entirely to film stock, the result of a choice to avoid the more affordable, yet less appealing, digital video) - have everything going against them: amateur actors, nothing to spend on special effects, a title that really, really sucks. (Having seen that the investment company behind the project is named “American Zombie,” I couldn’t help but wonder why they didn’t go with that nifty title for the movie.) Yet the duo manage to rise above all of it, using low budget ingenuity and a healthy dose of filmmaking genius to turn in a movie that refuses to let budgetary setbacks get in their way. If this is what they can do with twenty grand, somebody write ‘em a bigger check, and soon. There’s a whole heap of potential on display here.
The story opens with video store employee Chuck (Hartsell) languishing on the phone with an anxious customer. Seems there’s been a run on zombie flicks lately, although, Chuck adds, that’s no loss: “I hate to tell you,” he says, “but there are only three good American zombie movies, and Romero made all those.” Hartsell and Shirley seem to know their retail drudgery backwards and forwards - there’s a cute moment in which a lame brained customer complains about the “black bars” on his DVDs, adding, “the ones I get at Wal-Mart aren’t like that!” - and the movie’s in no hurry to get us to the meat of the story (no pun intended), which kicks off when a zombie makes his way into Chuck’s shop, looking for a little flesh for lunch.
Even with the plot officially launched, the script continues to keep its laid-back approach. This is thanks mainly to a brilliant performance by Hartsell, who turns his Chuck into the world’s most casual dude; leaving the zombie corpse at the local police station (“Dead guy! Call Chuck” reads the Post-It), he heads off to a diner for a quick diatribe on the evils of Pepsi (“a charlatan, an impostor”). Nothing, and I mean nothing, is going to bother this guy, and his easy-going approach is infectious.
The movie’s funniest moment comes when Chuck’s giving a phone interview to the TV news, who are interrupting their regularly scheduled programming to bring us this breaking news story about the zombie invasion. Not only is the writing here sharper and smarter than that of most Hollywood comedies (“They’re not zombies in the Haitian voodoo sense of the word…”), but Hartsell throws it all off with the comic timing of a true pro. This is a masterful performance, coming from the one place nobody thought of looking.
An equally likable turn comes from costar Kyle Holman (a comic natural whose mannerisms reminded me of Billy Bob Thornton), playing gun nut/our-best-chance-for-survival Keith. There’s something special in this character, both in the performance and the writing. What begins as a portrayal of a comical, stereotypical redneck manages, somehow, to evolve into a character that surprises us: we begin wanting to laugh at the guy, but end up cheering him on, thanks mainly to his role later on as the world’s coolest dad. He’s a goofy guy in a ridiculous situation, to be sure, but he manages to defy expectations. How many other low rent movies bother with complexity like this? Answer: barely any.
Come to think of it, there’s not really a sour performance in the whole bunch. Usually a movie of this level will have a few cringers sneak in (friends of the director, a last minute replacement needed just to get the damn thing shot). But here, everyone works, showcasing a knack for comedy that ultimately sells the picture. Even in the movie’s lesser roles - a subplot about a preacher doesn’t quite pan out, a bit involving a government agent is a bit too forced - the actors in the roles lift the material. If not for the cast, this would merely be an occasionally funny, slapdash affair. With the cast, it flies in scene after scene.
Some viewers may scoff at the filmmakers’ efforts to make do with their low budget; horror fans especially may feel disappointed with the film’s lack of impressive “kills.” I, however, liked seeing the shrewd ways Hartsell and Shirley managed to film the rubbing out of a zombie. It’s like watching a kid gleefully churning out a home movie: wisely timed cutaways, quick, deceptive movements, and expert sound work create the illusion. It’s nothing fancy, but it gets the job done.
(In fact, the only drawback I could find to the low budget was in the dialogue, which came off as uneven throughout. Most scenes featured replacement dialogue recorded after the fact, and the quality of those recordings was too varied from actor to actor in certain scenes. That said, it’s a teeny hiccup in an otherwise impressive production.)Comparisons are inevitable to “Shaun of the Dead,” but comparisons may be unfair. “Shaun” was a professional work all the way, with plenty of money and top notch talent at its disposal; “Hide and Creep” was limited by all the various hindrances of a local production. And yet “Hide and Creep” manages to be just as fun as its British big budget counterpart, which, considering the film’s limitations, is no small feat whatsoever. Hartsell and Shirley deserve major congratulations for putting out a work this solid on such slim resources. This is a fantastic first effort, and with any luck, these noteworthy talents will be on some lucky studio’s payroll in no time.
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originally posted: 07/22/05 16:51:25