Friday, September 7, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: PIRANHA DD (2012) and JUAN OF THE DEAD (2012)

(US - 2012)

Alexandre Aja's gore-and-T&A-soaked 2010 remake of the 1978 cult classic PIRANHA was one of the most divisive and inexplicably acclaimed horror films in recent memory.  Some major critics and a lot of fans praised it as an enthusiastically crude throwback to old-school exploitation trash, but I think a lot of these people were imagining the movie they wanted PIRANHA 2010 to be as opposed to what it really was.  It struck me as a smug, condescending version of what ironic hipsters think an exploitation film should be, coasting on the glories of past examples and acting like it belonged in the same company.  But even PIRANHA 2010's defenders kept their distance from PIRANHA 3DD (on DVD as PIRANHA DD, or, specifically, "Piranha Double D"), a slapdash sequel that was barely released to theaters by The Weinstein Company's new B-movie division Radius TWC.  Understand something here:  by saying that PIRANHA DD is slightly more tolerable, I'm in no way recommending it.  It's still a complete piece of shit...but it's not as egregiously shitty as its predecessor.  Director John Gulager (FEAST) and writers Marcus Dunstan & Patrick Melton (FEAST, several SAW sequels) and Joel Soisson (nearly every DTV Dimension Films horror sequel over the last 15 years), all legit exploitation vets, approach the material with much less snarky poseurdom.  It's more openly comedic, and though most of the humor still bombs, it just has a different attitude.  It feels more like a genuine exploitation film than one trying way too hard to be one. 

This time, the piranha attack an adult water park called The Big Wet, run by sleazy Chet (David Koechner, cast radically against type as "David Koechner"), who has a "Double D Swims Free" policy, stripper lifeguards, and a nude swimming area with a "cooch cam."  He's pumping the park's water in illegally from an underground lake, which his marine biologist stepdaughter Maddy (the appealing Danielle Panabaker) knows is infested with the mutant strain of piranha.  And of course, opening day turns into an orgy of blood, boobs, and crappy CGI:  a guy hacks off his own penis after a baby piranha latches onto it while he's having sex (don't ask how it got in her); another guy gets a piranha stuck up his ass while he's jerking off in the pool; and a decapitated head still manages to motorboat a set of silicone-enhanced breasts.  With its bargain-basement visual effects that would make the Worldwide FX guys in Bulgaria look the other way in embarrassment, PIRANHA DD plays a lot like a hard-R version of a Saturday night SyFy movie, and the joke wears out its welcome about as quickly, right down to the appearances of D-list celebrity punchlines like Gary Busey (killed in the first five minutes) and David Hasselhoff (as himself, at one point muttering, in what must've been an ad-lib, "Welcome to rock-bottom").  Christopher Lloyd and Ving Rhames return from the first film, and the great B-movie vet Clu Gulager (the director's dad) also has a bit part.  PIRANHA DD does the absolute bare minimum to qualify as a film, with the closing credits starting at the 70-minute mark, with 13 minutes of credits mixed with bloopers and Hasselhoff in a fake trailer for something called FISHHUNTER.  I guess PIRANHA DD is marginally better than Aja's PIRANHA, but that's a lot like saying testicular cancer is marginally better than prostate cancer.  Your chances of survival are greater, but it's still a terrible thing to endure and no one should be subjected to it.  (R, 83 mins)

(Spain/Cuba - 2012)

We're approaching--if not already past--the point where we really need another zombie movie, let alone a zombie spoof, but the Cuba-based JUAN OF THE DEAD, while clearly inspired by SHAUN OF THE DEAD, actually brings some new ideas and imagination to the table.  Its ambitions lie beyond the capabilities of its budget and its visual effects team, but the spirit and style come across loud and clear.  A zombie outbreak in Havana prompts fisherman Juan (Alexis Diaz de Villegas) and his friends to form the requisite ragtag group of misfits and miscreants to sell their undead-killing services to those willing to pay.  As they make their way across Havana with plans to somehow get to Miami, they battle countless hordes of zombies while reflecting on the political past of their country.  Writer/director Alejandro Brugues deftly weaves splatter, comedy, and socio-political commentary into a loose-feeling, freewheeling film that doesn't have the power and filmmaking discipline that an in-his-prime George Romero would exhibit, but there's a lot more to chew on here than flesh.  I liked the way the Cuban media promotes the idea that it's not a zombie outbreak at all, but rather, a "social discipline" issue with "dissidents" in the employ of the US.  And Juan and his pals aren't exactly the most noble heroes around, especially when they have no qualms about leaving an old man behind to be zombie food just so they can use his wheelchair to cart beer back to their base of operation.  Brugues also stages a few truly inventive set pieces, including one involving a wily old zombie hunter (Antonio Dechent) quick-wittedly staging one of the most audacious mass-zombie killings in the history of the genre, and another great scene where our "heroes" find themselves stripped and handcuffed in the back of a military transport where all hell breaks loose when one of the prisoners onboard turns into a zombie mid-ride.  Filled with wit ranging from high-minded political humor to gutter vulgarity, and enough zombie mayhem to please the gorehounds, JUAN OF THE DEAD is a surprising find.  It doesn't always succeed because of its too-frequently dubious visual effects, but because of its ambition and sheer gumption. (Unrated, 96 mins)

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