Captain Kirk and Nazis: The Unsung Zombie Treasures of 2009

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Okay, I had a pretty busy holiday of watching sci-fi films. For starters, I was brushing up on some old favorites for our “Top Five Underrated Sci-Fi Movie Masterpieces,” which will be announced in full on Wednesday morning. Second, I had been handed numerous screeners throughout November and December that I never had time to watch. So from this forgotten mound of jewel cases, I popped in three titles that absolutely blew me away.

It got me thinking: Why do some films find an audience, while others seem to die on the vine? Why is a zombie movie like 28 Days Later added to our best of the decade list, while another vision of the zombie apocalypse is relegated to the straight-to-DVD section? I don’t quite understand it all, but I know a good movie when I see it.

Here they are – three awesome films from last year that you should have heard a whole lot more about:

1. Pontypool (coming to DVD Jan. 26) – A little campy, a little freaky, and a whole lot of fun, Pontypool is a story of a Canadian radio station that’s based out of the basement of a church. The entire film takes place in and around the recording studio, as a standard morning broadcast goes to hell when the switchboard operator starts fielding calls from terrified locals. Hordes of people are apparently marching through town, killing people. Soon enough the mob has reached the radio station. Something has drawn them here, and Grant (Stephen McHattie), the cowboy morning show host – think of him as Don Imus on steroids – starts to suspect that something about his broadcast is poisoning people’s brains.

Now I’m not saying this is necessarily brilliant screenwriting, but I found myself leaning in, utterly clueless as to where this thing was going. And I also dug the claustrophobic feel of the thing, trapping us in the basement with these old-time radio folks. When the zombies show, director Bruce McDonald does some pretty cool lighting tricks too.

2. Carriers (now on DVD) – Did you dig Star Trek last year? Did you like Chris Pine, the new Kirk? Well, he had another film in 2009 that almost none of us knew about. It’s called Carriers, and it reminded a whole lot of I Am Legend and The Road – as well as The Book of Eli, which we’ll be talking about next week.

We meet Pine as Brian, one of a handful of characters out on a joy ride through the desert. At least that’s what we think it is, until they come upon a stalled car blocking the road. Brian and his cohorts don’t jump out to help right away. They are hesitant and cautious and when they see that the car holds a man and a daughter wearing a bloody surgical mask, they bust out the guns. The only way to survive this epidemic, after all, is to live by a strict set of rules.

We learn what’s going on here through fleeting pieces and chunks of information. Clearly some virus is wiping everything out. There are the healthy, and the infected. And then also apparently some bands of roving mercenaries. When Brian and comrades gather around the campfire one night and see headlights cresting the horizon, they seriously freak out. All the while, there are the moral implications of helping this man and his little child. Brian rigs up a truck so that he can carry his friends up front, and this diseased little girl in the back. It’s a convoluted situation, playing both the good Samaritan and the enemy, all at the same time.

But that’s the kind of film Carriers is, a story that reveals itself – and all its associated moral dilemmas – en route to something far more shocking. I watched it twice.

3. Dead Snow (coming to DVD Feb. 23) – Nazi. Zombies. Need I say more?

Some of the festival reviews of Dead Snow said it got a little silly. Um, what do you expect, festival audiences? Remorseful soliloquies? Pained expressions of anguish? These are friggin nazi zombies, rising from the dead on the ski slopes of Norway. This isn’t the kind of story with any hopes of getting an Oscar.

When I realized where this movie was going, I got a little giddy. All I wanted was a good setup, to draw out the tension. And then some hard-core vicarious nazi slashing. On these two levels, Dead Snow does NOT disappoint. The mood turns on a dime when a strange hiker interrupts a ski party to tell these medical students about the demons that call this place home. And then this crew of seven must figure out how to make use of everything from chainsaws to machine guns to mow down the sprinting nazi bloodsuckers.

Honestly, it doesn’t get a full four stars in my book. But isn’t this a movie that you’d pay to see, maybe as the late show on a Saturday night? Why haven’t we heard more about these three movies, even as we’ve been subjected to Alvin and the Chipmunks? It can’t be that hard for studios to make a quick buck, when you’re talking low-budget scares. Studio execs: Give movies like this a chance!

So set your Netflix queues now: Zombies, zombies and more zombies. All awesome.