Full disclosure: I have known Steven ("S N") Sibley for several years – on and off – and we are currently in (ongoing) post-production on two films which we shot last summer. I thus attended the World Premiere of his latest zombie epic, A Grave For the Corpses – via a rather rough DVD-projection in the (distractingly rakeless) Theatre Restaurant – as critic, collaborator and pal.
Indeed, as S N prepared to introduce the screening, I reminded him to thank George A Romero "for inventing the genre." As it turned out, S N didn't include a shout-out to Pittsburgh's finest – maybe due to forgetfulness, and maybe because he knew that such and acknowledgement would have been, strictly speaking, inaccurate.
The reason: A Grave For the Corpses is primarily a zombie film of the pre-Romero era – owing much more to "old school" affairs such as White Zombie (1932), I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and Hammer's Plague of the Zombies (1966). Such enterprises take a historical and socio-economic approach to the idea of the zombie: originally, a kind of low-maintenance slave-labour for unscrupulous Caribbean plantation-owners.
The idea of the zombie as a shambling, entrail-munching predator only really caught on via Romero's 1968 Night of the Living Dead, followed by Jorge Grau's 1974 The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue – while more recent years have seen what might be called a post-Romero wave of pictures involving fast-running zombie-lookalikes who aren't actually reanimated corpses (most notably 28 Days Later and the Resident Evil franchise).
Perhaps as a sop to contemporary trends, A Grave for the Corpses does include instances of both Romero-zombies and post-Romero-zombies, but Sibley's priority is revealed by end credits which identify his undead by the correct, old-fashioned spelling: "zombi". These creatures are controlled by super-villain Davro (William Scott Johnson) – self-proclaimed "the King of the Zombies" – as part of his latest fiendish (and largely incoherent) plot, which the forces of rectitude, personified by jittery cop Axel Falcon (Ken Mood) must somehow foil.
Said foiling is complicated by Axel's… ahem… unusual personality and methods. In short, the man is a nervous wreck, perpetually on the point of total breakdown – or perhaps this is more a matter of Mood's rather idiosyncratic performance style. Mood has worked with Sibley on several occasions, most notably A Home for Bullets (to which A Grave For the Corpses is reportedly, a prequel) and Mood's manic, Geordie-falsetto histrionics are crucial to both films' watchability.
Indeed, at times it feels like A Grave for the Corpses (almost all of which was shot, with a Roger Corman-style inventiveness and economy, in and around Newcastle compact, 12th-century city-centre castle, complete with accidental 'cameos' from bemused passers-by) has been mainly constructed a (rather rickety) framework for Mood's loopy characterisation and anguished sincerity.
Like Mood, Johnson doesn't quite "act" according to usual definitions of the term – but his wild-eyed mannerisms give a convincingly psychotic edge to his his cacklingly villainous Davro. Sibley pushes Johnson and viewer alike to the edge of insanity with one surreally over-extended sequence in which Davro is seen cackling villainously away for several unbroken minutes: Johnson eventually seems genuinely bemused and distressed that no "cut" has been called (didn't Godard pull this trick with Anna Karina on Pierrot le fou?)
This is one among countless crazed editing decisions by Sibley – who, evidently wishing to make a virtue of his ultra-microscopic ( £200?) budget and technical shortcomings – leaves in all manner of bloopers and instances of actors "breaking character" (such as a 'corpse' calling "enough" during a gleefully sophomoric necrophilia sequence). Even if such ploys don't always come off (and the cheap reliance on swear-words for laughs quickly become tiresome), they help create a disarming atmosphere of what might be termed a post-modern, folk-art naivety. Indulgent, adventurous audiences in search of a genuinely rough-edged, underground kind of viewing experience – think very early John Waters – could do much worse than seek out A Grave for the Corpses.
But while his film – which is, objectively speaking, ropey in all key departments (crashing score, berserk plotting, repetitive padding, dopey dialogue, rough dubbing, wayward lighting) – is often amusing and frequently hilarious, Sibley never quite reaches the kind of inspired, sustained Ed-Wood-on-steroids daftness that made, say, the late John S Rad's Dangerous Men (2005) such an unforgettable midnight-movie treat. Rad is, very sadly, no longer with us – but the persistence of Sibley and his ilk indicate that his vibrations will live on…
director/editor : S N Sibley (A Home For the Bullets.)
seen 31.Mar.08 Sunderland (The Theatre Restaurant : £3.00 : DVD projection)
order a DVD of the film here