<![CDATA[Ginger Nuts of Horror - THE RETRO ZONE ]]>Thu, 19 Apr 2018 10:51:22 +0100Weebly<![CDATA[THE STONE TAPE]]>Mon, 07 Mar 2016 12:00:01 GMThttp://gingernutsofhorror.com/the-retro-zone/the-stone-tapeAn odd, esoteric little piece of work, generally forgotten by culture at large
Budget is not horror's friend, generally. Certainly not in televisual or cinematic terms. There is something about the guerilla style of production, in which invention is forced by lack of resources, that perpetuates artistry in horror, resulting in some of the most iconic shots, scenes and complete works that define the genre.
That is not to say there are not examples of horror cinema and television that have money behind them and which “work;” there are many, but...in comparison to those created on shoe-string budgets, by what were (at the time of production) considered non-entities and nobodies...they are few and far between.
 British television, traditionally, has always laboured under constraints of budget, certainly in comparison to its US network counterparts. There was a time when that situation turned to its advantage, the product requiring a degree of quality in terms of writing, performance and atmosphere in order to succeed, as there simply wasn't any possibility of effects carrying the day.
The Stone Tape, a 1972 televisual “play,” is a fantastic example; written by Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale, the story consists of a scientific research team's effort to create or discover a new recording medium; one that will catapult the UK's technology far in advance of that currently making Japan a commercial and industrial goliath. In that effort, the team accidentally discover a strange phenomena in an unfurbished room of the “Taskerland” mansion where they are stationed; where builders and renovators refuse to tread because it is supposedly “haunted:” a ghostly scream and spectral footsteps can be heard by certain individuals who set foot into the room, some even witnessing the manifestation of a womanly phantasm on the mysterious steps lining one wall of the chamber, which appear to terminate nowhere.
The researchers ultimately come to the conclusion that what they are experiencing is not a “ghost,” in the conventional sense; not an earthbound soul or spirit, but a kind of recording; a perpetually looping playback of prior events bound into the stones themselves. However, it soon becomes apparent that the newly discovered “medium” is far more versatile than once imagined, and that what it is capable of “recording” goes far beyond mere human extremity...

An odd, esoteric little piece of work, generally forgotten by culture at large, save by a rare few who were touched by its morbidity, its strange, oppressive atmosphere...the surrealism into which it descends at its climax, The Stone Tape has been cited as in influence by many who operate within horror media, including the dark princes of horror comedy, The League of Gentleman, the director of such iconic works as Halloween, The Thing and numerous other works, John Carpenter and writer and critic, Kim Newman. A success born of its own limitations and constraints, the TV short is an exercise in slow-burning atmosphere, escalating intensity; the classic “horror” trope of multiple, frayed and flawed personalities slowly going mad together (like much work of its type, the characters constantly question their own and one another's experiences, suggesting that there might be some sort of hallucinogenic in the air; a rare kind of gas or fungus, as might have inspired purportedly “divine” or supernatural visions throughout history...even the possibility of a kind of mass hysteria), pushed to the edge and beyond by an external and malevolent influence.
Part of the piece's strength is its mystery; despite the reams and reams of expository dialogue (much of which has to be forgiven in order to truly enjoy it), there is deliberately little in the way of actual explanation, the strangeness of the situation enhanced by confusion; multiple, conflicting hypotheses coming in rapid succession, most of them disproven or undermined in a matter of moments, whilst others are left to flail and foment. Without the proper guiding hand, this factor could so easily have rendered the story impermeable or alienating. Instead, it has the effect of intriguing and distressing, leaving the audience macabrely fascinated by what is unfolding before their eyes, waiting for the inevitable descent into chaos that is to come.
Beneath the deliberately esoteric, technical jargon; the allusions to established parapsychological hypotheses etc, is, ultimately, a somewhat traditional story given a gloss of (post) modernity; a trope that fans of Japanese horror cinema will be familiar with in the form of current technology rendered sinister and threatening by ancient and mythological influence: like The Ring's Sadako, what is contained within “The Stone Tape” is far more than a mere recording; it has an ancient and malevolent intelligence; an intent that is stirred by the research team's attempts to harness it, resulting in a manifestation whose crudity serves to enhance atmosphere; little more than crude visuals drawn directly onto the film cells, it is difficult for the viewer to make out precisely what the entity (or entities) is; a shapeless, amorphous mass of luminous vapour, it shifts and pulses with suggested form; those of human beings rendered down and eroded over centuries of captivity within the stones; those of things that existed long before humanity, before anything like terrestrial life walked the earth. Combined with the spectacular use of sound, the result is as distressing as it is fascinating, the horror one that the audience almost want to reach out and touch, even knowing that it might drive them mad.
There is more than a shade of Lovecraft to the closing scenes, not to mention the overall themes of the play (most notably that of post-modern humanity dabbling in ancient and primal forces they have little to no comprehension of, unleashing incomprehensible and arcane madness as a result), the researcher that proves most sensitive to the “recording” finding herself simultaneously drawn and harassed  by the entity, until she finds herself drawn into the surreal realm it inhabits; physically falling from the stones themselves, breaking her neck, whilst her soul is drawn into them, becoming the victim and play-thing of the terrible, ancient entity that exists at the deepest level of the medium. It is a truly fraught and terrifying moment, leant a degree of Dario Argento flare by the strange lighting, the flashes of colour and strobing light...the fantastically disturbing, distorted soundtrack, which has the quality of many voices all murmuring their own inarticulate agony, wordless in their despair.
A far, far from perfect production; the play suffers from its lack of budget as much as it draws strength from it: certain scenes are problematic in their direction or editing, resulting in salient information being relayed too quickly for the audience to catch or being drowned out by background chatter. Some of the characters are somewhat one-note in therms of their performance (most notably the odious Peter Brock, who has a tendency to shout or bark every line and to erupt into fury at the slightest provocation). There are also numerous contemporary elements that might prove daunting or alienating to a more (post) modern eye; the shakey, cobbled together sets, the purportedly “high end” technology which largely seems to consist of vast banks of blinking lights and keyboards connected to nothing in particular...even the style and pace of storytelling are notably of their era; slower, more deliberate and oblique than more recent equivalents; much of the information provided by suggestion or vague exposition, leaving a certain degree of responsibility in the audience's lap: do not expect clear cut explanations or some sort of resolution that dots every “i” and crosses every “t;” the sincere joy of the piece derives from not knowing, in the manner of a Lovecraft short story, the mystery is the point; to define it, to explain it, would be to somehow constrict and contain it, thereby robbing it of power.
What the audience is left with is a wonderful sense of delerious chill, a gnawing paranoia, as though every wall and brick of their homes might, potentially, resonate with unseen malevolence; with the tormented spectres of ancient tragedy and forgotten evil.
Not for everyone, but for those who have a penchant for TV or storytelling conventions of the era, a fantastic specimen of slow-burning, paranoid horror. 



<![CDATA[HORROR FILM REVIEW : I SAW THE DEVIL]]>Wed, 23 Sep 2015 08:50:37 GMThttp://gingernutsofhorror.com/the-retro-zone/horror-film-review-i-saw-the-devil
Jee-woon Kim’s I Saw the Devil is an incredibly thoughtful film in both theme and presentation; it’s clear that every frame was chosen to provoke a reaction, to get you to think and feel a certain way.  Gory, violent, almost comical at times, it sticks with you the way few movies can.  While the theme of revenge and its fundamental futility has approached cliché in modern cinema, Jee-woon Kim manages to take it in a new, disturbing direction.  It’s not a mere cautionary tale about the cost of vengeance, nor is it a ho-hum meditation on a man becoming the monster he hunts, but something different, something better: a story of how violence in any form can poison both the actor and the victim, no matter how justified.

The film’s attention to detail is immediately arresting: a cart heaped with the remains of one of serial killer Kyung-chul’s victims appears at first a mess of pink flesh until you see the brown nipple of a breast peek out, reminding you that this meat used to be a young woman.  Our first glimpse of the secret agent protagonist shows the angelic perfection of his face just so, foreshadowing that he can only descend from here on out.  The apparent throwaway scene of Kim Soo-hyeon interviewing Kyung-chul’s estranged parents and unwanted son becomes very important later in the film.  From the blood to the effortless malice Kyung-chul exudes, everything is meaningful, everything makes sense.

Fans of Chan-wook Park’s Revenge Trilogy will appreciate Min-sik Choi’s performance as the utterly loathsome Kyung-chul: he’s not quite the badass he was from Oldboy, but he’s far more disturbing.  We’re not shown why he kills young women or what makes him a serial killer, which is a deliberate choice: as the Devil to Kim Soo-hyeon’s angel, he doesn’t need reasons to be evil.  He just is.  His gradual disintegration through the film tells us that evil such as his cannot be conquered by anything other than decisive, righteous action.  Kim Soo-hyeon’s petty malice can injure or even maim him, but not stop him. 

Kim Soo-hyeon’s descent is more subtle: his prolonged revenge against Kyung-chul serves to knock him from his moral perch as a grieving man seeking to catch his fiancée’s killer, but doesn’t mark him, as such.  By not killing or apprehending Kyung-chul at their first meeting, he takes responsibility for Kyung-chul’s subsequent acts of violence and murder.  His game with the serial killer has a terrible cost, and not just to him.

The violence and gore, while affecting, isn’t gratuitous; in a film about a good person and a horrible person doing appalling things, the blood drives the story.  There are a few hard parts to watch, and they do stay in memory after the credits roll.  Despite the lengthy runtime, it’s a riveting, stylistic movie worth at least one sitting.  



<![CDATA[FREAKS (1932) : A HIGHLY UNUSUAL ATTRACTION]]>Fri, 07 Aug 2015 16:32:03 GMThttp://gingernutsofhorror.com/the-retro-zone/freaks-1932-a-highly-unusual-attraction
To celebrate the relaunch of his novel Reinheit Thomas S. Flowershas kindly agreed to write a retrospective review of the horror classic Freaks.  

"Before proceeding with the showing of the following HIGHLY UNUSUAL ATTRACTION, a few words should be said about the amazing subject matter. BELIEVE IT OR NOT - STRANGE AS IT SEEMS. In ancient times anything that deviated from the normal was considered an omen of ill luck or representative of evil. Gods of misfortune and adversity were invariable cast in the form of monstrosities, and deeds of injustice and hardship have been attributed to  the many crippled and deformed tyrants of Europe and Asia. HISTORY, RELIGION, FOLKLORE AND LITERATURE abound in tales of misshapen misfits who have altered the world's course. GOLIATH, CALABAN, FRANKENSTEIN, GLOUCESTER, TOM THUMB AND KAISER WILHELM are just a few, whose fame is world wide. The accident of abnormal birth was considered a disgrace and malformed children were placed out in the elements to die. If, perchance, one of these freaks of nature survived, he was always regarded with suspicion. Society shunned him because of his deformity, and a family so hampered was always ashamed of the curse put upon it. Occasionally, one of these unfortunates was takes to court to be jeered at or ridiculed for the amusement of the nobles. Others were left to eke out a living by begging, stealing or starving. For the love of beauty is a deep seated urge which dates back to the beginning of civilization. The revulsion with which we view the abnormal, the malformed and the mutilated is the result of long conditioning by our forefathers. The majority of freaks, themselves, are endowed with normal thoughts and emotions. Their lot is truly a heart-breaking one. They are forced into the most unnatural of lives. Therefore, they have built up among themselves a code of ethics to protect them from the barbs of normal people. Their rules are rigidly adhered to and the hurt of one is the hurt of all; the joy of one is the joy of all. The story about to be revealed is a story based on the effect of this code upon their lives. Never again will such a story be filmed, as modern science and teratology is rapidly eliminating such blunders of nature from the world. With humility for the many injustices done to such a people, (they have no power to control their lot) we present the most startling horror story of the ABNORMAL and THE UNWANTED."

And this is how Tod Browning's Freaks (1932) opens. We are forewarned with a somewhat strange historical account for the philosophical reasons for the most traditional accounts of ethnocentrism. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's presentation of Tod Browning's production of Freaks follows one of the most classic idealizations and horror film motifs, the carnival. According to film historian David Skal, Tod Browning first became enthralled with the carnival when he was sixteen years old, "infatuated with a dancer, a so-called sideshow queen in the Manhattan Fair & Carnival Company" (The Monster Show, pg. 28). The unusual attraction to the carnival for those in my generation is probably best seen through the eyes of Ray Bradbury in his epic novel, "Something Wicked This Way Comes." Dark images of Ferris wheels silhouetted against dark sky's. The circus, as far back as I can recall, has always been a place of strange attraction. We do not venture to the circus to see the mundane, after all. In the history of cinema, film began in much the same way, as a sideshow. And, furthermore, is that not what horror movies are? A strange attraction? 

Freaks follows the doomed tale of a trapeze artist named Cleopatra (performed by the ever talented Olga Baclanova) who discovers that a circus midget by the name of Hans (Harry Earles) has an sizable inheritance. She knows Hans is in love with her and decides to marry the lovesick performer, all the while concocting a dubious plan to murder him and steal his fortune, running off with her lover, a dim-witted strong man by the name of Hercules (Henry Victor). But everything is not as it seems. Cleopatra is openly disdain towards Hans' fellow freaks. And when Hans' friends discover what is going on, they band together and carry out a brutal revenge that leaves both Hercules and Cleopatra knowing what it truly means to be a so-called "freak." The best scene, I thought, was at the end, during a torrential downpour as both Hercules and Cleopatra are attempting to flee from their would-be assassins. Hercules is caught under one of the wagons and as we watch, the freaks, knifes drawn, close in on him. Watching these mutilated forms drawing near, crawling through the mud, has always given me this sense of dread one hopes to find in movies such as these. Cleopatra's fate is probably the most heinous albeit deserving (SPOILERS) when they mutilate her so badly she herself transforms from something of beauty to just another sideshow attraction. When had looked upon her, they swooned with love, and now they doing nothing but scream!

There is little doubt that it was Tod Browning's directorial success with Dracula (1931) which allowed him to work on what many have considered his masterpiece. This is my personal opinion, of course, but I think it is more accurate to say that Freaks was more of a passion project, considering his own past experiences working the sideshow as a geek up and down the Mississippi River. What I find most interesting about Freaks is the time period in which the film was released. Horror during the 1930's, in my opinion, is retrospective of the decades past Great War. The maiming and grinding machines of war which ended in 1918 found its way into the picture shows of this era, in movies such as Freaks (1932) and even Frankenstein (1931) we find a representation, if intended or not,  of the mutilated shell-shocked forms of returning soldiers and perhaps even modernity. One need only to look at Lon Chaney's career to see what his custom-made effects were to symbolize. If this was an intentional use is debatable, but nonetheless, especially in the 1920's-1930's, it was a familiar image, the afterbirth of war, so to speak. Even here in our own age we find an intuitive symbolic gesture. Consider the latest season of American Horror Story, subtitled: Freak Show. A period piece set during the 1950's telling the story of the last remaining freak show struggling to survive. This new season of AHS is juxtaposed, of sorts, with the end of the Iraq War, or at least the era of the war of which so many of our own generation fought and died or worse, survived -- mutilated both externally and internally, in the same way Freaks was juxtaposed with The Great War. Has Tod Browning's classic 1932 Freaks found a new audience in a new generation of witnesses to the horrors of war and the macabre afterbirths? To each their own, I'm sure.

horror fiction review website click to purchase

"Rebecca Moss never questioned the purchase of the strange seductive armchair. She wanted to please Frank. But the armchair has a dark purpose. Nazi officer Major Eric Schröder believed fervently in Hitler's vision of purity. Now the chair has passed to Frank, an abusive thug who has his own twisted understanding of patriotism. There are those who want to destroy the armchair, to end its curse. But can the armchair be stopped before it completes its work?"

Author bio:

Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of terror. He grew up in the small town of Vinton, Virginia, but in 2001, left home to enlist in the U.S. Army. Following his third tour in Iraq, Thomas moved to Houston, Texas where he now lives with his beautiful bride and amazing daughter. Thomas attended night school, with a focus on creative writing and history. In 2014, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in History from UHCL. Thomas blogs at machinemean[dot]org where he reviews movies, books, and other horror related topics.

<![CDATA[THE RETRO ZONE : JASON GOES TO HELL: A 22 YEAR REVIEW]]>Wed, 01 Jul 2015 09:01:42 GMThttp://gingernutsofhorror.com/the-retro-zone/the-retro-zone-jason-goes-to-hell-a-22-year-review
jason-goes-to-hell-6 Picture
Let’s face facts here, people. The 1990s had some damn good horror movies! But what sets the ’90s apart from every other decade? It goes without saying (but I’m going to say it anyhow), every era has its own brand or style of horror. The classic silent pictures of the early 1910s with its German expressionism and tales of old legends and then moving on to the Universal Monsters, such as:Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, The Mad Ghoul, The Leopard Man, Cat People, etc. etc showed us a new world, reconstructing itself from the maiming machines of the Great War. And then we had the “invaders” of the ’50s with its outlandish sci-fi horror-esk Cold War-esk flicks, like The Day The Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Invaders from Mars, Them!, The Blob, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Plan 9 From Outer Space, etc. etc. And then in the ’60s movies drew downward into psychological freights, with Psycho, Night of the Living Dead,Rosemary’s Baby, Black Sunday, Carnival of Souls, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, and so on and so on. And of course, who could forget the ’70s? The decade ofSavage Cinema with terrifying flicks, such as: The Exorcist, Dawn of the Dead, Alien, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Jaws, Carrie, The Omen, Shivers, The Brood, Deathdream, etc. etc. And of course moving into the big hair, more of everything, excess-excess of the 1980s, with films like:The Evil Dead, Re-Animator, Nightmare of Elm Street, The Thing, The Fly, Return of the Living Dead,The Stuff, Hellraiser, Poltergeist, American Werewolf in London, Videodrome, Creepshow, and so many more, not to mention the birth of the Friday the 13th series and the modern slasher.
Lets return to the above question. What could be said of the 1990s? The monsters, in retrospect, seem to be more internalized, almost spiritual or more supernatural in nature than in decades past. Before moving on to our movie in review, lets examine for a moment the occultioris sensus of some of these spiritual-supernatural horror flicks, which would include:In The Mouth of Madness, Candyman, Jacob’s Ladder,  Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Nightbreed, The Sixth Sense,Ravenous, Sleepy Hollow, Silence of the Lambs, Baby Blood,Lawnmower Man, Cronos, The People Under the Stairs, Misery,Cube, Ringu, The Serpent and the Rainbow, Event Horizon, etc. etc. And I know I’ve probably missed some, but still… Take a look! For the most part, pooling from a majority of movies, we can tell that horror withdrew from the overindulgence of gore and mayhem and, much like in the ’60s with the addition of supernaturalism, drew inward becoming a spiritual-supernatural psychological thriller. And when our beloved classics crossed over into the new era, they likewise transformed into the cerebral appetites of said decade. Consider Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, which was not heralded as a good Nightmare on Elm Street…why? Because its not a Nightmare on Elm Street movie. The ’80s are…game over man! Done! Gone. Hasta la vista baby! When long running series’ transition into a new decade, the judgement and critique of the film becomes…well, a tad bit unfair. When we hear Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th we expect what we watched in the 1980s, but its not the 1980s anymore. If we were to be reasonably rational, we must critique said movie for the era in which it was made… Of course, a really-really-really good critique will look at both, if the movie is from a running series. Does the movie honor the decade past while ushering in a new take in the new era? While Jason Goes to Hell has received some rather harsh criticism, my opinion on the matter is, yes, Jason Goes to Helldoes honor the past while bringing in the new.

Jason Goes to Hell brings back all kinds of 1990s nostalgia. For the life of me I cannot recall if I was able to see this one in theaters or not, however, I do remember watching it on VHS and thinking how different it was from the others (I even can recall the Fangoria issue with Jason Goes To Hell!!!), but not in a bad way, just a different way. With being a big fan of Friday the 13th, I’d read all the books (that’s right, there are books!) and was familiar with the concept of the supernatural element with Jason, that is, his spirit can live-on in others. Voodoo type stuff. Think, Child’s Play. This was sort-of the concept for Part V, but lets not get into that right now…

Jason Goes to Hell had some drawbacks, sure. Fans were hoping for what they’ve come to love, teen-slasher-gore. But that’s simply not what this movie was about. I think to better understandJason Goes to Hell we should look at it as its own stand-alone flick. If we can push away from the table of Great Expectations, we’d see the amazingness this Final Friday brings to the table. Much likeNew Nightmare was for Freddy. I know plenty who hate that movie, simply because it wasn’t like the others. Personally, I enjoyed both. Yes, they weren’t the slashers we remembered from the ’80s. But hey, the ’80s are over, man! In Jason Goes to Hell, the action was well paced. The acting was a hell of a lot better than in some of the Friday’s past. The cast was also solid. There was humor, specifically in all the Easter Eggs in the Voorhees house. The Uncut edition was chock full of gore and practical effects. It was brutal when it needed to be and it was supernatural when it needed to be. And the soundtrack was also very memorable. Overall, I thought Jason Goes to Hell was a fantastic addition to the franchise, taking the ’90s spiritual-supernaturalism back into the gore-fest mayhem of the ’80s, or vise-versa…? Oh, whatever, you know what i’m getting at!

My Rating: 4/5 


<![CDATA[THE RETRO ZONE : GHOSTWATCH]]>Mon, 22 Jun 2015 11:34:14 GMThttp://gingernutsofhorror.com/the-retro-zone/the-retro-zone-ghostwatch

A population in panic, a record number of complaints, the BBC under siege, stories of descents into mania, demonic possession, spontaneous happenings all around the UK, all attributed to one programme which aired at 9:00PM, October 31st, 1992. 

What work of fiction has ever been this successful? 

Described as “...the most subversive piece of television in history,” the BBC's epic Halloween prank, Ghostwatch, consisted of a purportedly “live” investigation of Foxhill Drive, “the most haunted house in the UK.” Consisting of on-site investigations, interviews, on-going commentary from the family affected, parapsychologists, skeptics, all presented in the familiar format of a “crime-watch” style documentary, Ghostwatch traumatised the nation with its brilliantly subtle, almost subliminal scares, by upsetting the audience's expectations and desires; their very relationship to the media in question. Not only did it present its content as factual and live, it also directly involved them in the narrative by urging them to phone in with their own accounts of the supernatural, and later as part of an unwitting mass séance created by their viewing of the show via the television. Most recall the show fondly, but also not in its entirety; part of the controversy that erupted around the show the following day largely derived from the fact that people were so scared by it, they stopped viewing before some of the more overt, clearly crafted shocks and horrors occurred (familiar chat show host Michael Parkinson getting possessed and hissing nursery rhymes in the closing quarters should have certainly given the game away).

Disowned and buried by the BBC for years, the show nevertheless remained fondly remembered, for the most part; the audience reaction, barring a few militant, moral quarters, generally very positive, the experiment an unparalleled success, drawing the kinds of viewing figures that the likes of the X-Factor and Britain's Got Talent in the present day can only dream about. Much of the negative response derived from an entirely conscious and deliberate media campaign from certain right leaning tabloids, not one of which presented a genuine critique of the show as a piece of fiction nor any kind of commentary on what it betrayed about the audience's relationship to the media itself. As a result, it remained little more than a matter of memory for some time, until the internet allowed for a resurrection of the piece. Now, it is fondly recalled and rightly regarded as a masterful experiment, of a type that the BBC nor, indeed, any TV station, would likely consider, terrified as they are of being sued or drawing condemnation from certain vocal, moral minorities. This is television at its most witty, its most engaging and subversive, in that it betrays audience trust; it does not coddle, it does not condescend; it tricks and abuses audience trust and expectation, and in that, throws into stark question the relationships we have with our media. Much of the more vocal outcry against the show seems to have been based on exactly that; not the fact that it was “scary” (it was called Ghostwatch. What the Hell did people expect?) or disturbing, but that it betrayed them; that it tricked them into believing it to be documentary rather than drama (despite the fact that a cast list appears on the show itself and was readily available from the Radio Times magazine of the time). This, in turn, provides a stark and fairly unflattering commentary on our relationship to the medium of television, that is: there are certain fairly significant quarters of its consumers who treat it in a parental fashion; who have an infantilised relationship with it; they want it to be familiar and comforting; to cling to its skirts and suckle at its teats. What they do not want is something that challenges them, which upsets that relationship. The extremity, the almost violence of the response the following day, fed by the media hysteria now that the tabloids had gotten the bit between their fangs, stands as testament to that. Ultimately, it was a piece of television. All control is and has always remained with the audience, the viewer. That those who did not enjoy the conceit of being delightfully deceived, there was always the option of changing the channel or turning off the set. Or, better yet, adjusting their own expectations and parameters to appreciate and enjoy what was being done.

But no; Ghostwatch found itself the subject of a small maelstrom of politics, hysteria and sheer absurdity that casts a none too flattering light on the culture of television of the era and, indeed, in general.

But, context aside, does the piece stand up to a current viewing? Does it suffer for the lack of ambiguity fostered around its original broadcast?

There is no clear cut answer. Though the visceral, emotional impact that informed the original hysteria is certainly diminished by the knowledge that it is a contrived and created thing, taken as a piece of fiction, as an experiment, it is utterly masterful, playing with perception and uncertainty in ways that too little in the way of self proclaimed “horror” does.

Take, as an example, the profoundly simple but witty manner in which the audience is first introduced to the spectre, “Mr. Pipes,” who occurs off shot, subliminally, in reflections, crowds and shadows, throughout the entire running time, but which you will not spot unless you are specifically looking for him: footage rolls of a purported recording from the bedroom in which much of the activity occurs. The children of the house are terorrised by poltergeist activity; moving objects, bangs in the walls...what appears to be the faint outline of a figure in the shadowed corner of the room. During the course of the show, multiple calls apparently come in commenting on this, prompting host Michael Parkinson to call for a replay of the footage. The figure is definitely there, however, Parkinson and the parapsychologist responsible for the footage claim not to see anything. When the tape is run back and played again, the figure is gone, the two commenting that it is simply a matter of human perception: “...faces in the fire.” You know as the viewer that you saw it, but, without the benefit of being able to replay the footage (in the original broadcast at least), with these two authority figures telling you that you are mistaken, that it was not there, you begin to doubt the veracity of your own senses and perceptions. Which is terrifying. Which is fantastic. It is an invasive and faintly abusive and utterly brilliant thing for a piece of horror fiction to attempt, much less succeed in.

The show subtly escalates this technique throughout, presenting more and more overt phenomena, manifestations, but always calling them into question, leaving the viewing audience in profound doubt and increasing panic as to what they are seeing, until finally, things explode into utter, paranormal chaos with the fantastic conceit that the show has acted as a kind of “mass séance,” allowing the entity the girls simply know as “Pipes” to infiltrate the TV set, people's homes...it's a wonderful notion that, once again, feeds into the overall themes of the piece as a work of meta-fiction; a commentary on its own nature and medium and the relationship that its consumers have with it. Also, it is genuinely frightening, even now: the atmosphere is slow building, the tension tangible, the pay off slow but incredibly satisfying. 

Negatives?; Some of the acting is a little ropey, certainly from the child actors, and some of the lines certainly betray its contrivance, but these are very minor quibbles, especially considering that it is so gripping, so utterly fascinating to watch and to consider what people of the time must have experienced viewing it first hand. 

As for me, I was nine years old at the time, and remembered it fondly, right up until the point I discovered the DVD whilst at university. However, the original experience was somewhat ruined by my Mother who, being knowledgable in all things media-centric, immediately recognised the actress playing the parapsychologist from some obscure, “play for today,” utterly puncturing the illusion of documentary before it ever got under sway in our house. Perhaps, if it had been allowed to swell, our reaction would have been somewhat different; perhaps we would have found ourselves amongst those calling for heads to roll at the BBC (though I doubt it). As a result, we were able to appreciate it for the work of fiction it was from the outset, not to mention finding ourselves “in on the joke” far earlier than most. Even so, it remains a powerful and strangely persuasive piece of work, one that you can't help but watch multiple times over, looking for spectres or manifestations that you might have missed first time round (and there are plenty; I've watched the DVD any number of times, and I still keep finding more). 

Also, bear in mind that this was before the advent of “documentary horror,” pre-dating The Last Broadcast and The Blair Witch Project by almost half a decade. In that, it stands as an incredibly forward thinking bit of work on a technical level and in terms of conception, not to mention that it arguably succeeds in many areas where latter instalments in the sub-genre do not. 

Like Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist, The Omen, Ghostwatch is one of those works that, for a particular generation, has become a part of cultural consciousness, despite the BBC's attempts to bury it, the media's efforts to diminish and discredit it; something that, for a fleeting moment, did what television generally does not; stirred its audience from torpor, from apathy; made them feel what the seemingly endless spew of soap operas, banal social commentaries and reality shows never will; genuine emotion. That, more than anything, was the sin for which Ghostwatch and so much else considered “controversial” media was condemned; that it dared to exist in defiance of tradition, of expectation. Far from reinforcing what was considered gospel, and arguably is more today than ever, the experiment served to agitate and unsettle its audience to the point of furore, not because they were scared or disturbed by its content, but because of what it represented: a breach of unspoken social contracts, an exposure of an uncomfortable, potentially toxic status quo in which we are force-fed the same tasteless, textureless mulch day in, day out, its providers insisting that it is the very finest of nourishment, when in point of fact it may as well consist of ashes and dead things. 

So, as a work of fictional horror?; Extremely well done, especially for something produced on such a limited budget, as a one-off experiment, entirely intended to be aired, remarked upon and then forgotten. Purely on a technical level, the piece is remarkable, the manner in which narrative unfolds in a fairly naturalistic fashion, in which atmosphere is fomented with the most subtle reference to the tropes and techniques of purely “narrative” horror...deeply clever, deeply effective. However, its true significance lies in what it represents: a work which provided no comfort or consolation at the time of its broadcast, which, in fact, shook people so profoundly in terms of their relationship to their media and its devices that they ended up baying for its blood. In that, there is a far more profound and incisive horror than any the spectre of “Mr. Pipes” can provide with his bangs, clangs and nursery rhymes; one that we all assume and engage in as part of our daily lives, rarely stopping to even question or consider: the deceits and illusions we casually accept owing to the familiarity of their source. When Ghostwatch's audience were told they were being subjected to a live broadcast, a genuine investigation, they believed it, because the TV told them so. When they were told that the phenomena they were witnessing, as improbable ad they became, were real, they believed it, because the TV told them so. When they were told that the actors portraying “experts” in various fields were experts, they believed it, because the TV told them so. 

In that, Ghostwatch stands as a brilliant piece of what would now be called “meta-fiction;” something which calls into question its own medium, its own veracity, by insisting upon it. Not only are the BBC or mainstream television in general unlikely to approach anything quite as disturbing again, they are unlikely to engage in anything that treats its audience with quite the same degree of respect again, for fear of provoking similar outrage. 

Ghostwatch, a notable piece of horror, a remarkable TV phenomenon, and one well worth investigating. 


Follow the links for a two part exclusive interview with Stephen Volk the creator of Ghostwatch. 

Part 1 

Part 2 

<![CDATA[SYSTEM SHOCK 2  :RETRO HORROR VIDEOGAME REVIEW]]>Mon, 11 May 2015 16:28:29 GMThttp://gingernutsofhorror.com/the-retro-zone/system-shock-2-retro-horror-videogame-review

The most frightening video game ever made, and one of the least known. System Shock 2 occurred during a particularly turbulent era of video game evolution, when the likes of Half Life, Deus Ex and myriad others were redefining what video games were capable of in terms of narrative and world building. 

A quiet release from the now defunct Looking Glass studios, System Shock 2 was the child of talents who would later go on to create the industry-shattering BioShock and BioShock: Infinite, games which owe more than a little to System Shock in terms of their atmosphere, mechanics and the manner in which their respective narratives are communicated. But whereas the BioShock titles tend to preoccupy themselves with metaphorical explorations of certain notions and ideologies, System Shock has only one agenda on its mind: to scare the player utterly witless, which it succeeds at more aptly than any game I have ever played. 

Set aboard the city-scale star ship, the Von Braun, System Shock 2 picks up some years after the original game's conclusion, in which the dominant Tri-Optimim corporation dominates practically every market, industry and political structure on the planet. The Von Braun is the latest and most ambitious venture into space travel humanity has ever attempted; what is supposed to be Tri-Optimum's crowning glory. As an anonymous soldier sent to serve on the Von Braun's security detail, you awake from “cryo-sleep” to find that something has, inevitably, gone wrong: the ship is a wreck, entire areas deserted, running on automated systems, others sealed off where hull breaches have occurred. You have no memory of recent events, but have been surgically outfitted with a number of military grade cybernetic enhancements. A survivor of whatever catastrophe has occurred, Doctor Janice Polito, contacts you from the ship's science deck, guiding you through the early portions of the game.

Despite being graphically crude even upon its original release, the game immediately bleeds atmosphere; the setting fraught and claustrophobic, lights failing, steam issuing from ruptured pipes, the entire structure resonating with strange sounds; screams, whispers, sputterings.

Sound is highly significant in this game, more than making up for its graphical crudity; not only are there myriad environmental cues which serve to enhance the player's sense of isolation and paranoia (the clicking of security cameras, the clanking of service and security droids...the organic squelch and shrieks of the creatures infesting the ship). Not only is sound merely a passive or atmospheric factor, but, for arguably one of the earliest instances in video game history, the player must actively make use of it: enemies are intelligent and sensory beings; they respond to your footsteps, your gun fire; if you throw some item of rubbish across the playing space. This makes tactical combat and stealthy approaches to encounters the order of the day, arguably more so than any first person title of the era, beyond Looking Glass's now iconic Thief series. It also serves to heighten player tension to ridiculous extremes; you become hyper aware that you can be heard and sensed, even when the enemies cannot see you or you cannot see them. A consistent state of paranoia reigns, especially since many of the enemy's own expressions are masked by or resemble the natural sounds of the ship. It is very easy indeed to jump at shadows in this game, or the sudden venting of a steam pipe, the crackle of nearby circuitry. Each creature and entity aboard the Von Braun also has its own particular range of expressions, from the zombie-like hybrids (who constantly mutter and growl a range of phrases to themselves and one another) to the chittering, hooting, arachnids (arguably the most terrifying enemies in the game).

Not only does sound serve environmentally, but the story is communicated almost exclusively via voice recordings and data logs; a system that would later be carried over to the BioShock series. Voice acting and writing are superb throughout, the player encountering a number of fragmented sub-plots that span the entire ship and which detail the history of the Von Braun and what happened to reduce it to its current state: even though most of them are never met, the  player becomes familiar with certain key characters (Captains William Bedford Diego and Anatoly Korenchkin, Doctor Janice Polito and Security Sergeant Bronsen), all of whom are extremely well developed and occupy differing or conflicting positions on the situation (Captain Korenchkin, for example, is one of those entirely assimilated by the collective entities known as “The Many,” and who comes to regard them as beautiful; a means by which his species can transcend itself; to do away with “..the tyranny of the individual.”). Many of these audio logs range from the distressing to the utterly terrifying, those infected by the worm-like parasites that constitute “The Many” audibly transforming over a series of entries, to the point whereby they lose themselves entirely, becoming monsters, or murdering themselves before they can). Of particular note in this slowly accruing back story is that the game takes great pains to explore how absorption into “The Many” is not necessarily undesirable; that those (like Korenchkin) who surrender to it find a state of joy and expansion of consciousness that is almost metaphysical; all parameters of self, of division, dissolve, to the point whereby they become one with all who have ever become part of the mass; a collective flesh and consciousness, against which their former, separate states are nothing.

Weighed against this are those who consistently defy “The Many;” security Sergeant Bronsen and her staff, Janice Polito and the player character, with whom “The Many” directly communicates on occasion, in some of the most distressing encounters one can find in horror video gaming.

Oh, and SHODAN. The long-standing icon of the System Shock series, SHODAN (Sentient Hyper-Optimised Data Access Network) is a rogue artificial intelligence and the creator of “The Many.” However, having grown somewhat annoyed by the “unruly” nature of her creations, SHODAN contacts and enlists you as the player character as an avatar of her will. Not only is SHODAN a uniquely terrifying entity (a thing of pure ego, regarding herself as a goddess), but she provides an interesting ideological counter-balance to “The Many;” whereas they are flesh, togetherness; the ultimate dissolution of self and ego, she is the opposite: technology, ego, singularity. If there is a fault in the game, it is that the player character does not have much element of choice when exploring these factors; it would have been fantastic to have the option to choose where your loyalties lie; to side with Korenchkin and “The Many” against SHODAN and her technology or vice versa (alongside the option to side with neither).

As it stands, the game does peter out towards the end, as is generally the way with most horror titles, but while it sustains, stands as one of the most immersive, engaging, consistently horrifying pieces you will find in video gaming. 





<![CDATA[HORROR VIDEO GAME  REVIEW :CLIVE BARKER'S UNDYING]]>Tue, 05 May 2015 12:11:28 GMThttp://gingernutsofhorror.com/the-retro-zone/horror-video-game-review-clive-barkers-undying
Clive Barker's Undying review
Clive Barker's Undying
Clive Barker's UNDYING "Still Crazy After All These Years"

It boggles my mind how few people know about this game, despite being one of the best horror games of all time, created by one of the 20th century's most famous horror writers, Clive Barker. His later foray into gaming, 2007's Jericho, went a little too far into the combat realm for me, but 2001's Undying had the perfect blend of survival horror, gunplay and magic (that's right: fucking MAGIC!), combined with an intricate, terrifying story that still, nearly 14 years to the day of its Valentine's 2001 release, has me wishing for an HD update.

Maybe it's because Undying was only ever released on PC and Mac that more people aren't aware of its existence. Similar games had a life on consoles, and fared better. According to Wikipedia, "Undying was critically well-received, but sold poorly with sales so low that announced plans for a multiplayer patch were abandoned. Console versions of the game were also cancelled, and EA... reportedly shelved the idea of a sequel."

In this first-person shooter, you play as Patrick Galloway, a paranormal investigator debunking claims of mysticism and the supernatural throughout the world. After WWI, his commanding officer, Jeremiah Covenant, requests his help to investigate the strange events at the Covenant family home in Ireland. When he was a child, Jeremiah found a book of the occult in his father's study, and convinced his brothers and sister to recreate one of the rituals between the standing stones.

The Covenant children inadvertently released an ancient evil upon their estate, and a curse upon themselves.

Galloway soon realizes Covenant House is not just haunted but swarming with dangerous otherworldly creatures. Using minimal weaponry and the Gel'ziabar Stone, which acquires new magic abilities as the story progresses (via "arcane whorls"), Galloway casts spells and blasts his way through both ghosts and monsters. Soon, he learns what happened to his friend's deranged siblings, and of The Undying King, a demonic presence who seeks to enter our world… and destroy it.

Undying succeeds where many similar games fail: in making the game mechanics fit the game.

Weapons run the gamut from plain old guns to explosive Phoenix eggs, the heavy melee Scythe of the Celt, and the Tibetan War Cannon, which fires glowing green globules at enemies. With the Gel'ziabar Stone, Galloway can use a variety of attack and defense spells like Ectoplasm, Skull Storm, and Shield. He also has a clairvoyant power called "scrye" which allows him to see into the past for a short period of time. This is useful for solving puzzles, and offers up some really creepy imagery.

True to Clive Barker's other work, there are some genuinely bizarre, terrifying creatures in Undying. The most-frequently seen are the howlers, dog-like beasts that spring at you with sharp claws, and skarrows, flying squid-like monsters who spit poison from a distance. Later, you are faced with more difficult adversaries such as the Dri'nen, tall native warriors from a realm called "Eternal Autumn," who phase in and out of reality, making them particularly hard to beat, or the Decayed Saints found in the monastery, who can only be vanquished using certain spells and weapons. These are all minor enemies compared to the Covenant siblings, each of whom have their own levels, or "realms."

But what Undying does best is tell a truly intriguing scary story. So much attention is paid to details in character and plot that it would take a series of books to cover the same ground. The atmosphere is unsettling, with frightening sounds and jump scares galore. There are also some genuinely surprising twists, wildly imaginative settings (such as Onieros, a ruined city afloat in a black abyss), and some really great, surprising character moments.

It's a vastly underrated classic, and if ever a game required an HD update, it's this. If you enjoy survival horror and haven't played Undying, I urge you to find a copy by whatever means necessary. When you inevitably find yourself saying "Locked," and "Jammed" in a faux-Irish brogue every time you try to open a door, you're welcome.



Duncan Ralston is the author of Gristle & Bone, a collection of short and not-so-short horror, and the upcoming novel, Salvage. He lives in Toronto with his girlfriend and their dog.

<![CDATA[HORROR VIDEO GAME REVIEW : SUPER METROID]]>Thu, 30 Apr 2015 08:43:21 GMThttp://gingernutsofhorror.com/the-retro-zone/horror-video-game-review-super-metroid
Retro-Horror Video Game Review: Super Metroid

There is a popular assumption that horror in video gaming didn't begin until what is (fallaciously) referred to as the “32-bit era,” that it came about with the likes of Alone in the Dark, Resident Evil and Silent Hill. Whilst these were arguably some of the first to popularise what came to be known as “Survival Horror,” (a sub-genre in which characters are placed in extremely dire situations with little in the way of ammunition, health or defence and forced to run a gauntlet of traps, monsters and inevitable betrayals), the tropes, techniques and subjects of horror have been a part of video gaming arguably since its earliest days. 
Super Metroid. I can already see some of you spitting across the screen in consternation. Super Metroid? That's not a horror game! It was a Super Nintendo title! Mario and Donkey Kong and Mega Man!

Go back and play it again. Look at it through adult eyes. The title screen alone borrows from a number of fairly evident sources (not least of which is Ridley Scott's Alien, which originally inspired the Metroid series) all of which are iconic of horror cinema. The camera panning over a darkened space, bodies littering the floor, the music chiming rhythmically, almost emulating a heartbeat, the chirruping of something unseen, something alien...panning out, revealing the creature at the heart of the carnage, as iconic in video gaming as the “xenomorph” of the Alien franchise is to cinema:

The Metroid.


It's an exercise in tension building that, were it not for its pixellated format, wouldn't be out of place in the early frames of any science fiction horror film. Rare, not only for the era, but also for the console itself (Nintendo, particularly in its Western markets, almost exclusively targeted child or adolescent markets at this point). Not only that, but it's supremely effective; foreboding, unsettling. There's no action, no explosions; no demonstration of graphical flare...only the atmosphere, which deepens with every new screen.

Then the introduction of Samus Aran; the “Ripley” of the piece, and one  of the very earliest female video game protagonists (not to mention one of the strongest, excluding the pollution of the character that occurred in the much lamented title Other M). Exploring the space station Ceres, she the player finds it in disarray, wandering through the environment seen in the opening credits, eventually finding the eponymous alien in a storage space, but not alone.

Something moves in the shadows, something emerging from the background...the first encounter, and one that sets the tone for all that will come after. Fans of the original game will get an extra jolt of recognition, as well as a sense of panic as they scrabble to fight off the alien monstrosity. Tension. Everything in the game is an exercise in atmosphere and manipulating player emotion (again, a rarity at this point in the medium's evolution, especially for what is ostensibly an action adventure piece).

The fight doesn't last long. Following that, a heart-pounding escape, a timer counting down to the space station's destruction as it collapses and erupts around you. Tension.

The descent to Zebes, the planet on which much of the game takes place, is characteristically unusual; quiet and tense, a heavy rain falling, the clouds dense, the terrain upon which Samus eventually lands rocky and barren. The design of environments is another area in which the game excels, the planet Zebes separated into distinct zones, all of which have their own themes and topography, not to mention environmental hazards, climates and denizens. From the moment you first land, there is a sense of palpable dread; as of something watching, waiting to reveal itself.


This is enhanced massively by the fact that there are no enemies. Not a single one. Also, no directions determining whether you should head left or right (the environment itself dictates that for you, obstacles such as certain types of stone or sealed barriers not allowing entry unless you have the right tools or have met the correct criteria). The music is minimalist, as was the style of horror cinema at the time, but also faintly orchestral, suggesting the manner in which it will later elaborate.

Samus's exploration of a darkened cavern reveals ancient machinery and architecture; suggestions of a civilisation that once was, or that is in a state of stasis, awaiting its time to reawaken. Alien insects dart and scamper throughout, harmless, designed to draw the player's eye, to make them suspicious and enhance tension. It works.

Nothing for several screens; only exploration, the atmosphere deepening, allowing the player to get to grips with the controls and the nature of the game (notice how each screen has its own unique environmental effects; dripping moisture from stalactites, drifting mist in the foreground, seeping slime and matter. Again, extreme rarities at this time, demonstrating the cinematic ambitions of both designers and programmers. Fans of the original NES title may recognise ruinous incarnations of environments they are well familiar with; the shattered remains of Tourian; the final area of the original game where Samus met and defeated the Mother Brain, its central antagonist.

Still nothing; no enemies. Only sealed doors and blocked off areas, the subterranean lighting shifting from almost total darkness to areas of fitful murk.

The first item, the activation of what seems to be a whirring security camera which fixes upon Samus before she can escape.

When the player returns to the previously uninhabited screens, not only has the environment changed (different lighting, different colour palette, background details that were obscured now revealed), but so has the music, becoming more ominous and threatening, and now, there are familiar enemies to contend with: the Space Pirates, who are the series' primary antagonists.

This is demonstrative of how Super Metroid makes a virtue of its technical limitations, utilising fairly basic, two dimensional graphics in highly creative ways to evoke atmosphere, foregoing the standard, “scrolling from left to right” formats that most other action adventure games of the era were typified by. There are moments of quiet, moments of stillness, in which the player character is given time to breathe and assess their environment, the enemies not merely placed as obstacles but often introduced as part of small set pieces, and always with reference to the environments in which they occur (in Crateria, the rocky plains and caverns in which the opening sequences occur, there are entities that resemble living stalactites, diving down with claw arms outstretched to burrow into the ground when Samus passes, swarm-like enemies that only attack if Samus disturbs their nests. In the comparatively lush, almost jungle-like environments of Brinstar, we find animated and extremely hostile plant-forms, moth and butterfly like entities, all seemingly designed to interact with their environments and to seem as though they are products of them).

The first “boss” encounter is an excellent example of the minor set-pieces that Super Metroid employs in order to enhance the ethos of the encounter, making it far more than something to simply be surpassed:

Upon entering a small, technological chamber, Samus finds an item on the outstretched palm of an alien statue. Upon taking the item, the door seals behind her, leaving the player to wander and investigate for a few moments before the statue cracks, a musical cue accompanying the blink of a glowing eye. The creature inside the statue roars, and the now-iconic “boss theme” begins.

The “monsters” in Super Metroid are a cut above those that one will find in most games of the era, not only in terms of their design, but also their placing and their introduction; they tend to operate in dynamic and highly atmospheric environments, usually “revealing” themselves in highly surprising and effective ways (the emergence of Kraid, a sprite which takes up five screens, making it one of the most enormous video game monstrosities ever to occur on the Super Nintendo system, is of particular note), all designed to enhance the player's sense of dread and tension. It also makes them far more challenging than their patterns would otherwise suggest, making the player panic and make mistakes.


This factor acts in conjunction with environmental set pieces such as earthquakes, collapsing tunnels and corridors, areas of extreme heat or that are flooded, all conspiring to elicit degrees of emotion from the player, which tend to climax in dramatic encounters with the entities responsible.

Nor is the style of horror the game attempts to deploy limited to one type: one of the primary areas of Zebes consists of a crashed, alien space craft, apparently left to rot over centuries, its systems barely functioning, the darkness inside haunted by the spectres of the original crew, which appear and disappear as hellish configurations of faces. Here, the player encounters one of the most distressingly designed creatures in the whole game: the spectral Phantoon, again, introduced via a small set piece in which it manifests from a ring of blue flame in the air, lending the entity an almost occult quality in a game that is primarily science fiction in subject.


For many, Super Metroid stands as their first introduction to horror in video gaming; the closest we came to such in Western markets of the 1980s and 1990s. Along with the likes of Contra/Super Probotector, Earthbound and a handful of others, Super Metroid provides echoes of what would come later; the tense and the distressing, the grotesque and disturbing. Those who remember it can likely already pinpoint particular moments that made them leap out of their skins or raised the hairs on the back of their neck. Though the moments of horror seem extremely tame by current standards, contextually, there was little to rival it, certainly not on the Super Nintendo, either in terms of its subject or sophistication. Even now, the style and gameplay stands up remarkably well, to the point that many independent developers or studios producing titles for handheld consoles still emulate it.

A remarkable example of how tension can be cultivated from extreme technical limitation; how even familiar formats can be creatively reworked to establish atmosphere and immersion.



<![CDATA[HORROR VIDEO GAME REVIEW :  DEAD ISLAND  - ZOMBIES IN A SAND BOX]]>Tue, 28 Apr 2015 12:05:25 GMThttp://gingernutsofhorror.com/the-retro-zone/horror-video-game-review-dead-island-zombies-in-a-sand-box

Do you like to be scared shitless? Do you like to be scared shitless by zombies?

If you answered yes to the above questions, chances are you'll at least get some kind of thrill out of Dead Island.

Dead Island started its undead life with one of the gaming world's most beautiful trailers—which, as eager gamers soon discovered, happened to have nothing at all to do with the game aside from the setting, causing mass internet outrage.

The slow-motion, backwards footage of a vacationing family dealing with a sudden zombie outbreak tapped directly into our collective fears. The game itself seemed a rather tepid foray into the hack-and-slash zombie survival genre.
Many diehard fans refused to even look at it. It's unfortunate, because the game is actually pretty enjoyable.

Sure, the multiplayer elements are familiar to players of Left 4 Dead, and the breakable, upgradable weapons are similar to just about every game out there. But Dead Island actually has an interesting outbreak story, lots of zombie action, a sandbox-style "open world" with multiple side-missions, and fun, over-the-top characters.

You get to choose from 4 playable stereotypes... uh, characters. I chose Sam B, the foul-mouthed rapper, who also happens to be a blunt weapons specialist. For some reason if given the opportunity, I always play as the black guy. Maybe I'm hoping it'll help him survive past the first ten minutes, which as everyone knows is rare in horror. Regardless, when the outbreak starts, he's in the club drunkenly singing his chart-topping, mind-numbing hit "Who Do You Voodoo, Bitch?" He wakes up hungover in his suite with no idea what happened the night before… but screams are audible outside the door. The hallways are empty, luggage racks left everywhere with plenty of items and money inside. An apparent suicide from the top of the hotel is Sam B's first glimpse of real trouble.

When the elevator crash lands in the basement, there are "infected" everywhere. A voice on the radio (Kiwi or Australian, I'm not sure which) tells him to follow instructions. The lighting is minimal and flickering, with plenty of smoke and whirring fan blade shadows--typical horror game ambiance. After you escape you end up with a bunch of other survivors, where you get your first taste of side-missions.

Like any survival game, you start out with whatever weapon you can find. I used an oar against the first hoard, bashing my way to multiple experience points and gaining "achievement levels." I found the XP gains and Hit Points lost floating above the heads of the zombies distracting. It's nice to know you're rising in the ranks and hacking down the life force of your enemies, but in a horror game I want to be absorbed in the action. I don't want numbers floating everywhere, ruining the illusion of reality. Minor gripe. As you can probably tell, I'm not a huge RPG fan.

The game manages to scare you in the daylight, which is something most games, even movies, rarely achieve or even try.

But where Dead Island really shines is its zombies. And there are a fuckload of zombies, to use Sam B's penchant for cursing (and mine, I suppose). The Infected are most prevalent, lurking around just about every corner, moving incredibly fast. Walkers shamble, as true zombies should. Thugs are larger, shirtless zombies, much stronger than the rest. And then there are the "Super Zombies," such as the exploding Suiciders (George W. would have loved that one), the Rams, behemoths in a straight-jacket, and the Butchers, genuinely terrifying creatures who look like MMA fighters and have arms that end with grisly bone-blades.

So, as Sam B, I beat, bashed and bladed my way from island to island, cutscene to cutscene, finding other survivors who had lost hope, finding many, many who hadn't survived, and had become human all-you-can-eat buffets. They talk a lot about kuru, the real-life degenerative brain disorder thought to be caused by consuming human flesh, similar to "mad cow" disease. There are several missions in a lab where you have to collect tissue samples for them to study, to potentially create a vaccine. It's nice to have even such a seemingly brainless game as this to have an outbreak grounded in reality.

And on the surface, Dead Island is pretty silly. But, like the original trailer, there are some surprisingly touching human moments.

I ran a lot, because there are so many enemies. I missed a lot of the scenery in the resort, the town, the prison and the laboratory, because even with a gun there are often too many hoards to make a dent. But that's part of the fun. If there were only two zombies, the game wouldn't be about survival, it would be a virtual tour.

Let's be clear: this is not the best zombie game out there. Left 4 Dead is a better multiplayer game, the Resident Evil games have a better "mythology," and Dead Space, with its necromorphs and zero-gravity, has a far better storyline. But Dead Island offers some fun, some scares, and plenty of zombies to batter away at for hours on end. It's a good stress reliever, at the very least. And I hear the sequel, Riptide, is even better.



Duncan Ralston is the author of Gristle & Bone, a collection of short and not-so-short horror, and the upcoming novel, Salvage. He lives in Toronto with his girlfriend and their dog.