Dead by Dawn

Thursday 24th-Sunday 27th April 2008

Big guns

Sun is shining, birds are singing, rain is only sporadically sheeting down: welcome to Scotland, home of killer viruses, zombie Nazis and Mediaeval mummery – according to the Dead By Dawn horror festival, at any rate.

Ray Stevenson as a hardbitten mercenary in The Outpost

This year's fright fest gets off to an explosive start with Outpost, a taut, atmospheric horror thriller set in Eastern Europe (although filmed in Scotland – isn't it usually the other way round?). Swarthy Rome swordsman Ray Stevenson plays DC, a crack mercenary paid to lead a motley crew of hard-bitten soldiers of fortune to an abandoned military bunker – which just happens to be defended by a troop of undead Nazi super-soldiers.

Like Dog Soldiers in the Third Reich, Outpost plunges an ill-assorted bunch of world-weary, battle-scarred conflict veterans into a situation beyond even their jaded ken, eschewing CGI FX for good ol' fashioned gory make-up and trusting the unmistakeable silhouette of the helmeted Nazi soldier to strike fear into the audience. All in all, a tense, exciting and powerful movie, and definitely one of the festival's highlights. Next!

One bad mother

Friday kicks off with a flashback to the early work of Italian horror legend Dario Argento, in the form of his groundbreaking witchcraft epic Suspiria and its sequel, Inferno. With gorgeous locations bathed in a wash of primary colours (usually red, naturally) and pounding synthesised soundtrack, both films display the master's trademark mix of lush, gory Grand Guignol, overpowering music, daft plots and truly terrible dialogue.

Asia Argento stumbles her way through Dario Argento's Mother of Tears

But while these two may be occult classics, the third instalment in Argento's 'Three Mothers' trilogy, 2008's Mother of Tears, which we get to see on Sunday, is definitely not. The lovely Asia Argento stumbles through this sloppy mess of hokey black magic, bad deaths, Monty Python-style peasant histrionics and rubbish ghosts and ends up falling into a pile of poo. Which would pretty much sum up the film, were it not so pant-wettingly funny it's almost good – and the pile of poo a deadringer for a tank full of Coco Pops. Whatever next?

What you make it

Well, next we have the first selection of 'what you make it' shorts – slices of weird, gory, disturbing, funny, gross and otherwise sick cinema for our delectation and delight. Highlights this year include Puppet, a charming piece of animation that's like Peanuts rewritten by the Marquis de Sade, Karaoke Show, which proves that there really is no limit to the wrongness of Michael Jackson, and two delightful slices of rural nonsense from Irish director James Cotter: Eggs, which sees the Catholic Church tackle the shortage of priests by growing them in bin bags, and The End is Night, which takes this year's theme of abuses of power and not so much runs with it as dances gleefully in the style of a Fantastia hippo…

Scream for me, Tennessee

Next up we have the cheapest film I have ever seen on the big screen. Five Across the Eyes is a cautionary tale of five teenage girls who accidentally damage a parked car and decide to drive away without leaving their insurance details. But a scraped bumper is the least of their problems – the fact that the owner of the car is away slaughtering the clientele of a nearby café is slightly more pressing. And when she (yes, she) catches up with the girls, there's hell to pay.

Okay so, spending 90 minutes trapped in a station wagon with five teenagers screaming incoherently is both exhausting and aggravating; there are gaping plot holes you could fit the car through and much of the dialogue is indecipherable, but when you consider this film was made for just $4,000 (!!), you have to dole out the kudos with a shovel.

Little black book

In Outpost, we saw what happens when those in power start dabbling with the supernatural: invincible zombie Nazis. Friday night's big movie, the Japanese cult Manga thriller Death Note, also deals with the addictive dangers of occult power. When dedicated law student Light (Tatsuya Fujiwara) finds a notebook dropped by the God of Death that can cause the demise of anyone whose name is written within its pages, he at first uses his new power for good, punishing criminals who've (in many cases literally) got away with murder. But as an FBI net starts to close around him, retaining his godlike gift becomes paramount – with unfortunate results for the FBI agents on the case.

Light (Tatsuya Fujiwara) discusses life and death with the God of Death

Aided by the God of Death himself (a CGI Muppet incarnation of Black Frost), Light eventually meets his nemesis in the charismatic but mysterious form of youthful detective L (Ken'ichi Matsuyama), a class A sugar-junkie who accompanies his surveillance operation with marshmallow and truffle kebabs. But with the film ending on a cliffhanger, you'll have to wait for Death Note 2 to find out what happens next in this intriguing, thought-provoking series.

Suicidal tendencies

Saturday kicks off with another offering from Japan, the bizarre mystery-come-gorefest-come-musical movie Suicide Club. Beginning with one of the best opening scenes of a horror film ever (54 Japanese school girls throwing themselves simultaneously under a train), this is a strange tale that crosses the black humour and teen suicide hysteria of Heathers with the eerie weirdness and police drama style of Hypnosis – and then throws in a glorious Rocky Horror glam rock song half way through…

Short and sweet and nasty

Next up is the Cutting Edge short film competition, which as usual doesn't disappoint. My faves this year included: Side Effect, a beautifully crafted mini movie that plays with your horror expectations (babysitter home alone, the power cuts out… you get the picture) before serving up a tasty twist at the end; Peekers, a creepy little number about old people who want to play; The Election, in which The West Wing gets all Goodfellas on your ass; The Girls, which gives me another very good reason not to have children; and Criticized, which makes me scared to say anything bad about anything ever again… Who knew a humble paperclip could do so much damage?

Short and sweet and nasty 2

As ever, each DBD feature is preceded by a selection of shorts, featuring a fearsome cast of supernatural cannibal killers (Eater), psycho children (The Descendent, Hyperactive Ingredients), nervous nuns (the brilliantly inventive Lapsus), cute, cuddly, crazy, power-mad bunnies (Wat a Wonderful Day), rabid undead monsters (Bitten – a French mini zombie flick that makes me wonder why any zombie movie needs last longer than ten minutes) and eight-legged freaks (Itsy Bitsy and superb, super-cruel Aussie comedy Spider).

Dr Tran - aw!

One of my favourites this year had to be Butcher's Hill, a Hansel and Gretel-style folk tale set in 17th century New England, which features one of the best decapitation scenes ever. But see the bit where Hansel and Gretel get the witch? Doesn't happen…

Oh, and I have to introduce you to my new favourite action hero, the lovable Vietnamese South Park escapee Dr Tran. He's not an action hero – or a doctor – but try telling that to the voice over… Check out Dr Tran on YouTube to see for yourself.

Monsters in the mist

As I've mentioned before, last time I saw a good, scary Stephen King movie, James Caan was having a very bad week. But The Shawshank Redemption's Frank Darabont bucks the trend with his splendid adaptation of King's novella The Mist.

A good Stephen King adaptation: The Mist

An impenetrable white fog is rolling in across the lake, the army are mustering round a mysterious military base where Promethean scientific experiments have been conducted and the townsfolk are holed up in the local supermarket. But the Lovecraftian horrors in the mist are nothing compared to the vicious battle lines drawing up within the food mart, as man of action David Drayton (Thomas Jane) finds himself fighting for hearts and minds with loony evangelical doomsday preacher Mrs Carmody (a bravura turn from Marcia Gay Harden). Like Dawn of the Dead with giant insects, The Mist balances convincing special effects with a snappy script and characters you can really get behind, its nicely underplayed examination of the human condition capped with a devastating ending.

Machine gun madness

Okay, so this is where I get all lightweight on your ass and admit that the all nighter was pretty much wasted on me. I slept through most of low budget post-apocalyptic survivalist movie The Vanguard, which seemed to have some good ideas (and continued the abuse of power theme, with a greedy capitalist Corporation deciding to conserve the earth's resources by culling its inhabitants) but buried them beneath a turgid voice over and overly complex plot.

As for Japanese schlock horror Machine Girl, well, I only have myself to blame. Who was it who said Planet Terror wasn't extreme enough? Yes, it was me. As a ten minute short, this ultra-gory tale of kick-ass teenage school girl machine gun vengeance would have been perfect, but strung out for over 90 minutes, its slicing, dicing, high-pitched blend of B-movie martial arts mania and bucket loads of blood just gets a bit wearisome.

Tall tales

On Sunday, after the laughter fest that is Mother of Tears, we return to 1979 for Don Coscarelli's surreal fantasy, Phantasm, which poses the perennial question 'what happens to us when we die?' and comes up with a truly random answer. If I'd seen this film when I was ten it would probably have scarred me for life; I'm made of sterner stuff these days, but nevertheless Phantasm is an enjoyable, intriguing and ultimately rather sweet story of brotherly love, grief and loss, and a creepy ol' funeral home run by a scary tall man. What's not to like?

Hit and run

Stephen Rea as Tom in Stuck

Next up is a real treat, Stuart (Reanimator) Gordon's sick, cynical urban myth Stuck. Beginning like a Mike Leigh movie populated by likeable losers, it soon descends into black farce when party-hard care assistant Brandi (Mena Suvari) takes her eyes off the road and ends up with a down-and-out (Stephen Rea) stuck halfway through her windscreen. Rather than call 911 or burn rubber to the nearest hospital, as we like to think we would all do, drunk and drugged up Brandi drives home and stashes car and corpse in her garage. Except that the corpse isn't actually dead, and is determined to get away…

Great performances from Suvari and Rea humanise the cruel worldview which characterised Gordon's truly nasty King of the Ants, so that we feel genuine sympathy for the ghastly predicament of both characters even while we'res recoiling in horror. A masterly, perfectly paced exercise in tension, Stuck is brilliantly scripted and directed and very entertaining. Just try not to think about the fact that it's based on a real incident…

Scotland the brave

For its denouement, Dead By Dawn pulls out its final big gun, in the form of Neil Marshall's post-apocalyptic action adventure movie Doomsday. After the outbreak of a deadly virus, Scotland has been sealed off at Hadrian's Wall and left to die. But thirty years later, the virus has resurfaced in London, so an elite team of scientists and soldiers are despatched across the wall to search for survivors, and a possible cure.

The shape of things to come: Neil Marshall's Doomsday

There they discover a decaying battlefield divided between the leather-clad, tattooed, Mad Max-style punks who rule Glasgow, roaring around George Square on skull-bedecked motorbikes, breathing fire and eating anyone who isn't wearing bondage gear and sporting body piercings, and the Dark Age tribe ruled by the mad scientist Kane (Malcolm Macdowell), who's taken retro to its logical conclusion by holing up in Blackness Castle and presiding over a Mediaeval court of re-enactors in full body armour.

A homage to the post-apocalyptic films of the 1980s, this movie is shamelessly old school, full of blatant visual references to Escape from New York and the Mad Max movies, with styling tips from Shout at the Devil era Mötley Crüe. However, it's a little disappointing that the director of the wonderfully inventive, tautly scripted cult classic Dog Soldiers has come up with something so formulaic and Hollywood-lite.

In trying to create a British flick that plays well in the States, Marshall appears to have let his film fall between two stools: too referential and cynical for the American market, it's doesn't really ring true for British audiences either. While the scenes of dead Glasgow look superb, there aren't many in-jokes for us northerly dwellers (although the idea that Glasgow ends up ruled by Edinburgh's Beltane Society has its appeal).

Playing the same merry havoc with Scotland's geography that King Arthur did (in place of a glacial mountain range across the Borders we have… a desert), the sunshine-saturated landscapes of Doomsday don't exactly conjure up the Scotland we know and love – make the whole place grey and wet and infested with midges and we might have recognised it.

Still, Doomsday sets the apocalyptic scenario well and, despite its flaws, is wildly entertaining, meaning that Dead By Dawn exits on a high, all guns blazing.

The Jerry Springer bit

From Nazis bent on beating death, witches out to destroy the world and military scientists opening the gates to another dimension, to corrupt politicians wiping out entire civilisations and Japanese students wielding the power of life and death, this has been a bloodthirsty, power-hungry Dead By Dawn that's proved without a doubt that the scariest monster on the planet is man. Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely; and machine guns and deadly viruses wipe up the mess. So dig out your body paint and leather trousers – come the apocalypse, you're gonna need them.

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