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Cockneys vs. Zombies (2013)

East End (of the World)

Let's be real: despite the popularity of The Walking Dead--or maybe because of it--making a compelling, culturally impactful zombie TV show/movie/comic book is nearly impossible. Anything not actually featuring Norm Reedus with a crossbow inevitably feels like a cash-in or a knock-off. This is also true in the realm of zombie comedies, where Shaun of the Dead reigns supreme.* I love that movie, and was justifiably skeptical when I heard the premise of Matthias Hoene's new film, Cockneys vs. Zombies: When London is besieged by re-animated corpses, a group of bickering losers, snobs, and pensioners holes-up to fend off the hoards while awaiting rescue.

Hoene and screenwriters James Moran and Lucas Roche had a lot of nerve wading into such familiar territory. But their gamble paid off: Cockneys vs. Zombies not only proves that, like slasher movies, the sub-genre is rife with fun and innovative stories to tell--it also dethrones Edgar Wright's masterpiece as the superior picture. Take notice, Shaun of the Dead fans: your new favorite cult movie has arrived.

Were it not for creative and property concerns, Hoene and Wright's stories could easily be set in the same universe, existing at different points along the economic spectrum. Shaun centers on a lower-middle-class retail worker with girl troubles, and his slovenly best friend; Cockneys vs. Zombies is about a pair of poor brothers whose scheme to save their grandfather's retirement home involves robbing a bank with the help of their sassy cousin, a just-paroled moron, and a bona fide, psychopathic gangster. The pre-credits sequence establishes the zombie menace, but the first third of the movie plays like a Guy Ritchie heist picture.

That's a really smart approach, as we're dropped into a world of colorful, dangerous, and enigmatic characters whose exploits would be endlessly fascinating even if they were to never meet a zombie. As siblings Terry and Andy, Rasmus Hardiker and Harry Treadway make a great comic duo, squabbling in a way that suggests a contentious, lifelong friendship that transcends blood ties. Their desire to see Grandpa Ray (Ritchie alum Alan Ford, in all his feisty glory) not have to face his fear of leaving the East End sets them squarely in Mental Mickey's (Ashley Thomas) sphere of influence; he's an Iraq War vet with a ship's container full of guns and a head full of steel plating.

The bank job goes awry just as society begins to crumble, and Cockneys vs. Zombies kicks into high gear with a race to the retirement home. The senior citizens trapped inside are a lively bunch: the place is lousy with people whose tough and/or virile image of their younger selves never went away, and this bizarre lust for life keeps them from becoming victims. Also, it's just plain fun to watch a coot on a walker outrun a zombie.

Oh, did I mention that these are classic, Romero-style ghouls? I spotted a couple of suspiciously able-bodied stalkers in one scene, but for the most part we're treated to a solid, old-fashioned Horror of Sheer Numbers. The creatures pile up on gates to (unintentionally) bring them down, and can silently pop up in dark corners like nobody's business. We've been inundated with ADD-generation-inspired zombies for so long that it's refreshing to see monsters who don't sprint or exhibit superhuman strength and/or mad fighting skills. Best yet, their carnage is achieved mostly via practical gore effects. It seems you can't avoid a few digital squibs in these films anymore, but there's enough rubber-limb-chewing and jaw-ripping here to satiate the most fed-up, die-hard gore hounds.

I'm tempted to go on, but I really don't want to spoil anything for you. But before wrapping up, I should explain the two factors that place this film slightly ahead of Shaun of the Dead in my book. First, Moran and Roche give us a compelling new breed of underworld protagonist to follow: Terry and Andy are dim-witted losers with big hearts who see crime as a means to an end. They present themselves as hard men, but are constantly going out of their way to help people. As the movie opens, a lifetime of bad luck has pushed them to desperate measures. The zombie outbreak acts as a cosmic slap in the face to steer them back toward a straighter, narrower path. Here, the main characters are not heroes by default, and unlike, say, Attack the Block, you're unlikely to root against them when all hell breaks loose.

Second, I've never accepted the frozen-time bubble that exists in Shaun of the Dead's climax. It is established that the zombies in that universe are strong and aggressive, but there's a fifteen minute pause in the carnage that allows Shaun to say good-bye to his dearly departed mum--during which the Winchester Pub should have been completely overrun. I always considered this a cheat; an effective cheat, to be sure, but still a pretty big flaw in an otherwise well-paced movie.

There's none of that here. Cockneys vs. Zombies bulldozes through its premise, never failing to deliver big laughs and weirdly triumphant, touching moments--all set to a quirky rock 'n roll soundtrack that matches the creators' chutzpah. Just as last year's Dead Weight renewed my faith that innovation was still possible in the genre's dramatic corners, Hoene's film is a clarion call to all would-be zombie-comedy filmmakers: if you're bold, smart, and funny enough, there is still originality to be mined from spoofing the walking dead.

Attention Chicagoans! As you may have heard on the latest KtS Podcast, the Music Box Theatre is hosting midnight screenings of Cockneys vs. Zombies tonight and tomorrow. If you're in the area, you definitely don't want to miss what is sure to be an awesome big-screen, big-crowd experience.

*Sure, Warm Bodies was a smash, but that was due to the cold, corporate formula of mashing together one mega-property and one mega-genre and targeting it squarely at dumb teenagers (Twilight + zombies x Millennial texters = $$$). Artistic merit never entered the picture.

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