Archive for the ‘horror’ Category

Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Katherine Waterston, Michael Fassbender and Billy Crudup.

 

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“I am NOT Groot!”

The colony ship Covenant is en route to the planet Origae-6. It carries a crew of fifteen plus 2000 colonists and 1000 embryos in stasis. Acting as caretaker is a synthetic named Walter (Fassbender). Disaster strikes during a routine maintenance stop and Walter is forced to awaken the crew, with tragic consequence. In the aftermath the ship picks up a strange transmission coming from an unexplored planet nearby. Further investigation shows a planet with a lush, earth-like environment and the ship’s acting captain, Christopher Oram (Crudup), decides that the colony has a better chance of survival there than in continuing on to Origae-6. Daniels “Dany” Branson (Waterston), the ship’s terraforming expert feels it isn’t worth the risk, but Oram overrules her.

Most of the crew take a shuttle to the surface and find that the planet is indeed inhabitable. All too quickly several crewmembers are exposed to alien spores that gestate inside them, eventually releasing vicious creatures that wreak havoc with the landing party. The survivors encounter another synthetic named David (Fassbender again) who arrived on this planet in the aftermath of the previous film with Dr Elizabeth Shaw. David can fend off the vicious neomorphs, but is there a deadlier monster still to make an appearance?

 

As anyone who’s read my review will know, I wasn’t enthusiastic about Prometheus, so I was initially hopeful about a new Alien film that promised to get back to basics. After I saw the trailer I started to worry again, and I’ll be honest I expected Covenant to be bad. The odd thing is whilst it is bad, it isn’t necessarily bad for the reasons I expected it to be bad.

Prometheus wasn’t enough like an Alien film (though that was hardly its sole flaw) and to be honest I thought Covenant would go too far the other way and be too much like an Alien film (I know, some people are never happy, right?) and whilst it is guilty of this, it’s Alien greatest hits medley is accompanied by a side order of “You know, Prometheus wasn’t that terrible, we should do some of that again” ensuring this is a film that’s never quite sure what it wants to be.

For all its failings at least Prometheus had a clear tone, whereas Covenant is just a messy mashup of B-movie monster flick and pretentious “thoughtful” sci-fi.

Ridley Scott provides fair warning of what’s to come in a 2001-A space Odyssey inspired flashback where Peter Wayland (Guy Pearce sans makeup this time) has a conversation with a newly online David. They talk about creators, the nature of God, and immorality and…the whole thing is about as subtle as a brick that has BRICK written on the side in neon green paint.

The film then segues into something more reminiscent of the older films, with a space ship and a crew in hibernation. And then there’s a mysterious signal from a nearby planet. If this all sounds familiar it’s clearly supposed to because the call-backs in this film are not subtle. Now don’t get me wrong, harking back to previous films in and of itself doesn’t make a film terrible. I’m a huge fan of The Force Awakens but I can see it’s blatantly riffing on A New Hope. Thing is with TFA it works because what’s new is so well done that you just enjoy the call-backs. Covenant fails so badly on its own merits that the call-backs just seem really jarring. And there are a lot of call-backs. Crew of grousing space jockeys? check; express elevator to hell, going down? Check. Fight in a cargo bay: Check…and I haven’t even listed them all because some would be blatant spoilers. And when the film isn’t harking back to Alien films, it seems intent on stealing from others. The opening space scenes feel like Sunshine, there are some echoes of Blade Runner here, and even Covenant flying through the clouds whilst a storm rages just made me think of Event Horizon. Pretty much everything in this film will make you think of something else. Probably something better.

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“Where we’re going we don’t need quarantine procedures.”

The script is flimsy, and whilst Scott is clearly still a great director (The Martian was just a few years ago) he seems incapable of being able to salvage a ropey script, and the pacing is off throughout. Using a Goldilocks metaphor, when it’s slow it’s too slow, and when it’s quick it’s too quick (seriously, if you thought AVP sped up the Alien Lifecyle you ain’t seen nothing yet!).

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“Don’t call me Ripley. You wouldn’t like me when I’m Ripley.”

Cast wise there are a lot of people in the ship and down on the planet, but most of them are cardboard cut-outs and they’re stupid in much the same way most everyone in Prometheus was stupid, and they’ll be dead soon so you don’t have to worry too much. Part of what made both Alien and Aliens good was a cast of easily identifiable characters, but here the cannon fodder just merge into the background. Initially Waterston is very good as Dany. She makes for an engaging protagonist. Until the midway point of the film where she’s shunted to one side so that Fassbender can have pretentious existential chats with himself about Shelley and Byron and talk about flute playing in a way that’ll make your adolescent-self snigger. Don’t worry, Ripley will come back to the fore in time for the finale. Sorry, I meant Dany. It’s shame as when she has something distinct to do she’s very good. Fassbender is always a joy to watch, and seeing David and Walter interact is nicely done, it’s just that their conversations are a trifle ponderous to say the least. Crudup’s acting captain is given a potentially interesting character trait as it’s awkwardly shoehorned in that he’s a man of faith. Once done this will barely be referenced again and certainly won’t seem to inform many of his actions. Of the rest only Danny McBride makes any impression as (do you) Tennessee (what they did there?) but this might be down to him wearing a cowboy hat.

One of the things I found so annoying about Prometheus was it’s need to explain where the Xenomorphs come from, completely missing the point that it doesn’t matter. What matters is that they’re terrifying and unstoppable (mostly). They work best as creatures of mystery lurking in the shadows. Explaining their origins is like pulling the curtain away from the great and powerful Oz, and when you have them leaping around in broad daylight they’re just another CGI monster. Captain America could have turned up at the end and wouldn’t have seemed out of place.

If you found the Engineer origin of the Xenomorphs annoying, prepare for that annoyance to be dialled up to eleven as the franchise lurches in a new direction that makes little sense, and frankly I have no idea how they’ll get from this point to the beginning of Alien.

Oh, and if you don’t twig a certain plot point early on, well I envy you your cinematic naiveite!

After The Martian I thought Scott was back on form, but it seems he is only as good as the script. Covenant looks good, has a few nice ideas bubbling around, and features good performances from Waterston and Fassbender, but in the end it’s a dull mess, and whilst I was always slightly wary of the idea, I really want to see Neill Blomkamp do Alien 5 now, because it just has to be better than what we’re getting from Scott and co.

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I guess he didn’t like the cornbread either.

 

Raw

Posted: April 14, 2017 in Film reviews, horror
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Directed by Julia Ducournau. Starring Garance Marillier and Ella Rumpf.

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And this is what happens when you stick Lego up your nose.

Justine (Marillier) is on her way to college to train as a vet. Her parents attended the same college, and her older sister Alexia (Rumpf) is already partway through her studies there. Justine and Alexia were raised as vegetarians by their parents, but when Justine arrives she finds that an intense hazing ritual awaits all new students, or rookies as they’re known, and part of this involves the initiates having to eat raw rabbit kidneys. Justine initially refuses, but Alexia persuades her to do it.

Soon after Justine begins to feel unwell, she develops a rash which she presumes is an allergic reaction to eating meat. A little while later and she starts to develop an unusual craving…

 

Up until about a week ago I had no idea this film existed, and in a world of franchise blockbusters it’s a pleasant surprise that this did actually make it to my local multiplex given its a/subtitled and b/is a female skewed cannibal film.

Although the first thing to make clear is that ‘French cannibal film’ really doesn’t do this justice. Exceptionally well directed its truly mesmerising to watch, and acting wise both Marillier and Rumpf are superb. In particular Marillier gives one heck of a performance, switching from virginal and timid to sexy and confident and then back again, and the shifts in her personality never seen forced.

Setting aside the more lurid elements of the film, this is a story about finding your place in the world, about growing up and discovering just what kind of person you want to be. It’s about those first painful days at university when you’re alone, trying to make new friends and trying not to miss home. It’s about being out of your comfort zone, about exploring your sexuality and about fitting in, or choosing not to fit in.

The easiest point of reference I can make to this film is the Canadian werewolf film Ginger Snaps (which if you haven’t seen you should really see!) which again featured sisters coming of age, and again featured appetites that are, shall we say not the norm. Just imagine Ginger Snaps without the werewolves, which is something of a recurring motif for Raw, because in many ways it’s a zombie film that features no zombies, a vampire film sans bloodsuckers.

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The first rule of Bite Club is, you don’t talk about Bite Club!

Which isn’t to suggest Raw is a strictly speaking a horror film, although obviously in many ways it is, but like the best horror films it’s more than just a scary movie, and it has something to say. It’s exceptionally dark, evocative, disturbing, sexy, funny, and shocking. At times you want to look away, not because something is happening on screen, but because of what you imagine could happen at any moment. It’s an unsettling film because you’re always on edge, and in part this is why it’s so enthralling (along with the performances).

Rumours abound that, much like the Exorcist or Robocop when they first came out, people were fainting/vomiting in the aisles. I can’t say I ever quite felt like doing either, but at times this is a wince inducing film, and not always in the moments you might imagine. The bit where Justine scratches her rash is one of the most grimace inducing bits of the film, as is a waxing scene. There’s disturbing imagery at play outside of the more horrific elements. The scene with students crawling through an underground carpark is genuinely unsettling, and with this being a veterinary school there are a lot of scenes featuring animals which again put you on edge without you knowing why.

If it has a flaw I’d say it was a touch impenetrable at first, it did take me a little while to get into it, but that might be more to do with me acclimatising to the subtitles rather than anything the film does or doesn’t do. Suffice to say that after a while I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen, which given what was often happening on screen says a lot for how enthralling it is.

Proving yet again (if it even needed proving) that women can make films that are every bit as unsettling (if not more so) as blokes, this is a treat. Oh, and it has a great soundtrack too.

It isn’t a film for everyone, but I really, really liked it. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m feeling a trifle peckish all of a sudden…

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It’s going to take more than Persil to get these stains out…

Get Out

Posted: March 31, 2017 in Film reviews, horror
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Directed by Jordan Peele. Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener and Lil Rel Howery.

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Photographer Chris Washington (Kaluuya) is nervous about meeting the parents of his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Williams) for the first time, especially when he discovers that they don’t know he is black. Rose assures him her parents will be cool about their interracial relationship. “My dad would’ve voted Obama a third time if he could have,” she assures him.  Leaving his pet dog in the safe hands of his best friend, and TSA officer, Rod (Howery) Chris sets off for the weekend with Rose.

En route they hit a deer. When a police officer arrives he insists on seeing Chris’s licence and registration, even after Rose assures the officer she was driving. Rose is outraged but Chris takes the encounter in his stride.

When they arrive at the palatial Armitage home Rose’s parents are welcoming, perhaps a little too welcoming, and Chris is disturbed to see they have two black servants. Rose’s father Dean (Whitford) advises Chris that the servants (Betty Gabriel’s Georgina and Marcus Henderson’s Walter) had been hired by his parents and he couldn’t bear to let them go. Meanwhile Rose’s mother Missy (an exceptionally creepy performance from Keener) offers to hypnotise Chris to help him quite smoking.

As the weekend proceeds, and more family members show up, Chris begins to feel increasingly uneasy, and begins to fear that he and Rose might not get out alive…

 

Get Out is a hard film to pin down, which accounts for some of its charm, but also ensures it’s something of a slow burn, but it’s a film that repays your efforts, and a film that very much plays with your expectations. Technically it’s a horror film, but it also functions as a comedy and, most of all, as satire. The ghost of The Stepford Wives looms overhead, and Peele has been very upfront about that film being a big inspiration. Whereas that film tackled gender roles, Get Out is quite patently about race, and however welcoming the Armitage clan are it’s clear from the start that something is slightly off kilter. It isn’t just that the Armitage family have black servants, as much that Georgina and Walter act so strangely, as does the sole black guest at the weekend garden party.

One of Peele’s triumphs is placing his lead in a situation where, theoretically he should be safe. This isn’t the deep south, he isn’t surrounded by good old boys waving confederate flags, or alt-right white supremacists. No, instead the racism he encounters is much more subtle and unconscious. Nobody outright says anything racist too him, yet the comments are increasingly close to the line, and the fact that the threat to Chris comes from white middle class liberals just makes it all the more uncomfortable.

I’ve been a fan of Kaluuya for some time. He was the best thing about BBC 3’s The Fades (which is saying something given the show had a strong cast) and was fantastic in the Black Mirror episode Fifteen Million Merits, and it was a pleasant surprise when he showed up with an American accent in Scicario. Hopefully Get Out will secure his leading man credentials because he’s very good, especially at portraying Chris’s helplessness at certain points. He’s a good actor and a strong screen presence, not to mention handsome, damn him! He makes Chris a likeable hero you want to root for, and you will want to root for him because he’s in over his head!

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Look out, she’s got a teacup!!

Williams makes for an engaging heroine, and the two make a likeable couple. As the elder Armitage Whitford plays the part to perfection, walking a delicate tightrope between friendly and threatening. As I’ve already said Keener is a trifle less subtle, but in many ways that makes her scarier.

Threatening to steal the show however, and providing some much needed laughs on occasion, is Howery as Chris’s best friend Rod, although I did find it a little odd that a film written and directed by a black man that tackled issues of race should feature such an obvious trope as the wisecracking comic relief black best friend, but then again as I said this is a film that plays with your expectations, and perhaps the use of such a well-worn cliché was intentional given how well put together this film is (though having said that having heard how the film was originally going to end I’m glad they changed their minds because I wouldn’t have liked the film half as much if it hadn’t ended the way it does.)

Peele is a solid director, and on occasion gives us something surreal amidst all the normalcy (which isn’t remotely normal). The film is painted with quite broad brushstrokes at times, and this did make it a hard film to get into, but, much like last year’s Arrival this allowed for my mind to be somewhat blown when the rug was very firmly tugged out from under me midway through. Like Arrival the film relies on certain contrivance and narrative tricks that mean a second viewing is going to be essential to determine whether it’s quite as good as I think it is now. Do the pieces fit neatly together, or is the puzzle a little too clever for its own good?

The best horror films are ones that have something to say beyond just wanting to scare you, and in this Get Out comes up trumps. It’s unsettling, scary, but also very funny in places and I urge people to get out and see it.

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“I’m sure we’re going to have a nice relaxing weekend…”

Blair Witch

Posted: September 30, 2016 in Film reviews, horror
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Directed by Adam Wingard. Starring James Allen McCune and Callie Hernandez.

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This time she was determined to get photos of the teddy bears’ picnic.

Even though it’s been 20 years since his sister Heather disappeared in the woods near to Burkittsville, James Donahue (McCune) hasn’t given up hope that she might one day be found. When he finds video footage online that seems to show Heather inside a dilapidated house in the woods he persuades his friends Peter and Ashley (Brandon Scott and Corbin Reid) along with film student Lisa Arlington (Hernandez) to accompany him to Burkittsville. There they meet up with Lane (Wes Robinson) who is the man who found the video and posted it online. Lane agrees to show them where he found the tape, but only if he and his girlfriend Talia (Valorie Curry) can tag along.

The six travel into the woods, taking with them all manner of modern technology, including GPS trackers, walky-talkies and even a drone. After their first night camping out they awake to find a multitude of stick figures hung around their campsite. When it becomes apparent that someone might be playing a prank on them the group decide to head back to their cars, but despite several hours walking in a straight line they find themselves back where they started.

Soon they will experience the wrath of the entity that lives deep in the lonely woods, the eponymous Blair Witch, and all the modern technology in the world might not be enough to save them.

 

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The Blair Witch is so scary she’ll turn your hair purple!

Blair Witch is a sequel that came out of nowhere. It’s working title was The Woods, a deception designed to obfuscate its true nature as a sequel/reboot of the 1999 original, The Blair Witch Project, a film which, though it wasn’t the first such film, kick-started the found footage genre that continues to this day.

I’ve always been a big fan of the original film, though I’ve never seen the somewhat derided sequel, but I was wary of a direct sequel set twenty years after the original, especially when it transpired that it might be something of a re-tread of the original.

The first thing to say about Blair Witch is that, odd as it may seem, the film this most reminds me of is the Force Awakens, insofar as it is a sequel that follows many story beats of the original, with similar things happening to new characters. The similarity ends there for whilst The Force Awakens is magnificent, Blair Witch is nowhere near as good—which isn’t to say it’s bad.

The biggest difference between this and The Blair Witch Project is in its production. The 1999 original was pure guerrilla filmmaking, with Myrick and Sanchez sending three unsuspecting young actors into the woods with only a vague script and then proceeding to genuinely scare the shit out of them. There is a visceral, realistic edge to The Blair Witch Project which the sequel lacks. Blair Witch is far slicker, it’s clearly scripted rather than improvised and this ensures a better quality of performance from the actors. This means it loses the raw brilliance of the original, but the flipside is that Blair Witch feels more coherent.

For saying that the film steers so closely to the original, it’s testament to the production that it works as well as it does. It relies on many elements of the original; a sense of dread, an unseen threat, lots of running through the trees in the dark being chased by something…in fact there’s little the film does that is very different, though when it does deviate from the original’s path through the woods this leads to several of its best moments. There’s some gruesome body horror that unfortunately doesn’t lead to any real payoff, some nicely claustrophobic scenes that are again let down by the lack of a punchline, but there’s a moment perhaps two thirds of the way through that is truly original and one hell of a shock. The real shame is that there isn’t more of this.

The original film was notable for its expanded universe; webpages and books that told us more about the Blair Witch, about Elly Kedward and Coffin Rock and Rustin Parr, and Blair Witch builds upon what has been told before (though there is some nice moments when Lane explains that there are other theories out there and that what we took for fact might just be conjecture). The film almost makes more of the fact, only alluded to in the original, that those haunted by the Blair Witch can find themselves out of temporal sync, and at times the film veers close to becoming a time travel movie (and it has to be said a good one at that).

From my perspective a film that doesn’t show much tends to keep my attention focused, because I’m constantly trying to spot something in the background, but be warned, if you suffer from motion sickness this might not always be an easy watch.

The performances are decent enough, and though it relies on too many jump scares there is a genuine creepiness to it. The opening fifteen minutes are awful, but once the group make it to the woods the film gets a lot better. The incredibly deranged reappearances of one character are a trifle too hammy, and the finale inside Rustin Parr’s house starts well, segues into a nice roller coaster scare ride, but then goes on too long and ends up slightly tedious.

It’s scary, but nowhere near as scary as The Blair Witch Project, and it offers very little that’s new, but as found footage horror films go it’s actually quite good, and it takes care not to trample on what made the original great. If you go down to the woods today you might not find a big surprise, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be disappointed with what you do find.

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The gang had a horrible feeling that this wasn’t Glastonbury…

The Witch

Posted: March 17, 2016 in Film reviews, horror
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Directed by Robert Eggers. Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie.

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In 17th Century New England a man named William (Ineson) is sent into exile after disagreement with the religious leaders of the Puritan plantation that he and his family have been living at. William sets off with his wife Katherine (Dickie) his daughter Thomasin (Taylor-Joy) son Caleb, and young twins Mercy and Jonas. They locate a patch of land close to some woods and build a farmhouse there. After a while Katherine gives birth to a fifth child, Samuel.

One day Thomasin is playing with the baby when Samuel vanishes. William blames the child’s loss on wolves, but several within the family believe the baby was taken by a witch. As time passes and blight strikes their crops, hunger and paranoia see the notion that the family is cursed grow. But who is to blame? Is it Thomasin, whose own pubescence causes issues, or is it the twins who converse with one of the family’s goats, Black Phillip, or could it be that there is an external cause, a malevolent force living deep in the darkened woods?

And so Robert Eggers writing and directorial debut arrives trailing plaudits and awards from the Sundance film festival and cloaked in an advertising campaign that perhaps doesn’t do it any favours, emphasising the horror elements without necessarily preparing viewers for what they’re going to see.

I’ve heard reports of people walking out or being very unhappy when the lights came up. This isn’t to suggest The Witch is an especially nasty film, it’s not (or at least no worse than most other horror films) but it isn’t quite the film it’s billed as (which isn’t any kind of fault of the film makers). I knew little about the film but I was at least prepared for what kind of film it is.

The first thing to say is that there’s a lot to like about The Witch. The second thing to say is that it’s a hard film to like. If those two things seem at odds with one another, well I’m sorry but that’s just how it is.

First the good. The film features a truly terrifying soundtrack that’s unsettling on its own, let alone when you play it over brooding shots of deep dark woods. Eggers chose his location well, and the woods are practically a character in themselves; unsettling even when only seen in the background.

The small cast do a good job all round, even the two youngsters playing the twins who are wonderfully annoying. Harvey Scrimshaw is good as the conflicted Caleb, troubled by his own perceived sin and terrified that he’s going to go to hell, and Ineson and Dickie bring all of their experience to bear as the puritan parents, who love their children yet are hamstrung by their own religious paranoia. The standout however is Taylor-Joy who, going on this evidence, is going to have a very successful career. She’s perfect as the poor benighted Thomasin, a young girl on the cusp of womanhood struggling to find her place in the world and haunted by the loss of her baby brother while she was supposed to be watching him. Remove her and the film wouldn’t work half as well.

Eggers and his crew have also recreated 17th Century New England and its people to perfection, even going as far as to draw on historical sources for the dialogue.

Unfortunately the authentic period setting and dialogue works as much against the film as for it. At times this world seems a little impenetrable, and in particular the language makes it hard to truly engage with. It’s a slow burn of a film as well, and because it’s played so completely straight, at times it treads a very fine line (as horror often does) between what is frightening, and what is ludicrous, and there are certain elements, like the hare and Black Phillip, that are liable to make some audience members laugh rather than scream.

When it works though the film is genuinely unsettling and I do plan to watch it again on the small screen where its effect may well be magnified. It is be lauded for trying to do something a little bit different and it does make a pleasant change from most modern horror, but sadly, at least on first viewing, I have to be honest and say that I didn’t like it anywhere near as much as I expected to.

Lure of the Dead

Posted: January 14, 2016 in horror, Published fiction
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Zombies are so hot right now! They’re everywhere in films, on TV and in literature. Abaddon Books even have a specific imprint just for the walking dead. It’s called Tomes of the Dead and recently I was honoured to have my novella, The Lazarus Conundrum, published under this imprint.

But what is it about the living dead that’s so fascinating? What is it about zombies that has elevated them above so many other monsters in recent years? I’m not sure I can give a definitive answer to that, so my thoughts here are simply that, my thoughts.

I suppose in a way they enable us to confront our own mortality in a way that other undead creatures do not. Death is a universal constant, but it’s something that most of us shy away from thinking about. Even when loved ones die we rarely confront the icky nature of death and decomposition. If we see a loved one before their burial then that encounter will usually be stage managed, they will have been dressed and arranged to give the illusion of life, and thankfully most of us will never see an actual dead body out in the wild, as it were, unless we are very unfortunate.

People have differing views about why people like horror. I’ve always been of the opinion that horror, good horror done well, is about catharsis, it’s about facing our fears in a safe environment, and it’s about watching characters overcome terrifying obstacles, which gives us hope. If Rick Grimes can survive the zombie apocalypse then our dead end jobs or annoying families spats or ever spiralling credit card bills don’t seem quite so bad.

And there’s definitely something cathartic about being able to stare death in the face, especially if the monsters are secure behind the screen of a cinema or a TV, or safely locked away within the pages of a book.

You could make the argument that other monsters can fulfil the same purpose, but I’m not sure that’s true. Aside from the fact that they walk (and bite!) Zombies are us, or at least the meat portion of us, although whatever made us human is long gone. They’re not vampires, imitations of living people with human memories and with eternal youth, perfect death, and they’re not werewolves, there’s no animalistic metamorphosis going on here, only slow decomposition.

And the death we’re staring at when we look at zombies isn’t inert, death might be waiting for us further (hopefully a lot further!) down the line, but this isn’t a prelude of what’s to come; oh no, zombies are death not just staring us in the face but rushing (or lumbering) right at us, death hurrying to meet us.

And of course there’s a more visceral thrill to be enjoyed with zombies. Most often encountered in large groups they’re a natural disaster rather than an intelligent enemy, a tsunami of dead flesh, the unstoppable force against us, the living, who are far from being an immovable object. Even at their slowest there’s something relentless about the walking dead, like a glacier slowly encroaching. You can’t scare them off by waving a crucifix at them, and they’ll come for you whether its day or night. The only way to stop them is to destroy their brain (usually, there are exceptions) but when there are so many of them ammunition will only last so long. After this you need to get inventive, and this is where zombie fiction can actually be all kinds of gruesome fun: knives, clubs, swords, lawn mowers, garden gnomes…

Sometimes though all you can do is run, and isn’t that what most of us spend our lives doing? Trying to stay out of death’s reach for as long as we can?

Happy Christmas everybody! As a free treat today I offer the below Christmas themed horror story. Watch out for zombie Santas!

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The guide was a waste of money. There are still multiple guard patrols, but their schedules are so predictable that a toddler could find a gap, let alone an experienced fifteen year old urban explorer.

I guess they don’t expect anyone to want to get in. As for those within; well, the dead might walk but they sure as hell can’t climb, which is probably why the authorities don’t bother too much about the roof.

We’re crouched beside a smashed skylight, hands shrouding our torches so the light only shines down. Below is the upper level of Stonebridge Shopping Centre. My guide at least has provided a rope ladder, it hangs below looking uncomfortably like a shoelace you might dangle to tease a cat.

He shakes his head, chapped lips pursed. “The jewellers have all been looted; all the cash is long gone too.”

“I’m not after money or jewels.”

His eyes narrow, I can almost hear the cogs whirring as he considers various scenarios, none of them palatable. I could tell him I’m doing this for a thrill, but somehow I don’t think he’ll buy that. “It was the Saturday before Christmas five years ago,” I tell him, even though he knows the story. “Rumour had it Toy Horde had somehow got a delivery of Action Ahmed figures and I wanted one so bad. Dad could have got me one weeks earlier if he’d got his arse in gear, but he always left things to the last minute, so he was here that Saturday.”

My guide nods. “Ah…”

“He texted mum at nine fifty. Ten minutes later the Lazarus Army’s bomb went off.” I didn’t say any more, he, like me, would have watched it all unfold on telly. MI5 got a tip off, not quick enough to stop the toxic gas, but quick enough to seal the shopping centre before any of the infected could escape.

The bulldozers and cement trucks had turned up soon after—far too quickly for some conspiracy theorists—and despite protestations the doors were permanently sealed. There’s been talk over the years of sending in clean-up teams, or of just razing the place to the ground, but like a sunken battleship it’s morphed into a bizarre kind of memorial.

“I’m going in.”

My guide doesn’t ask what my plan is. Likely he’s taken a look at the zip gun strapped to my hip and come to the most logical conclusion.

The air is calm, but the ladder still flaps around like it’s caught in a breeze. The effect on my stomach isn’t pleasant. I have a torch gripped in my left hand, another fixed to my head. I caught a whiff of inside from the roof, so I’m glad I have a face mask to keep the stench away.

My feet touch solid ground before I can get seasick. I don’t care if my guide waits; don’t even care if he takes the ladder. I have a thin coil of rope, and I’ve clambered out of tougher places than this.

I’m wearing leather and denim. It’s not quite shark proof chainmail, but with luck it should be enough to prevent me getting bitten.

I’ve studied the plans of this place until I could walk around it blindfolded, so the meagre light cast by my torches is more than enough for me to find my way. I head south, towards the main bank of escalators. So far it’s quiet, so far I can’t see any of the dead. The authorities claim they’ll have decomposed by now. I don’t believe them. Prevailing Internet wisdom is that the biological agent will have prevented them from rotting too much. The dead probably hibernate if there’s no one around to munch on, but like a hedgehog sensing spring they’ll soon liven up.

In the gloom up ahead I hear bells tinkling, it’s such a cheery sound within this glum mausoleum that for a moment I think I’m imagining it. A moment after that and I’m convinced it’s soldiers come to collect me.

A two headed Santa staggers out of the darkness up ahead and I almost laugh at the absurdity of it all.

It isn’t a double headed monster, rather two men each dressed as Santa; their ankles are tied together, and each has an arm draped loosely around the other’s shoulders. Their free hands dangle limply. I wonder if, originally, they carried buckets to collect charitable shrapnel, a few pence to assuage the guilt of people spending enough to feed a family of Africans for a week on a crappy remote control helicopter for Uncle Gary.

The tinkling comes from bells stitched to their grubby red hats. Dried puss sticks greying cotton wool to their faces.

They see my lights and start to shamble quicker, sensing their first meal in years. I don’t draw my gun, I’ve no need to make additional noise if I can help it, and besides, bound together like that double zombie Santa has a turning circle wider than the average cruise ship, so I’m past them before they’ve even started to manoeuvre after me.

Unfortunately in the process I kick a discarded shopping bag across the floor, making enough noise to…well, you know.

Four of them shamble out of a branch of Make’Oeuvre. The woman in the lead wears a bib, and one side of her waxy blue complexion is a different shade to the other. She totters on heels so high that I imagine she shambled like a zombie even before she was dead.

I draw my zip gun. It’s homemade but I trust the maker with my life. I shoot makeover zombie in the knee. Headshots are a gamble, but a kneecap will always slow a zombie to a crawl.

She drops. A fat man in a tacky Christmas jumper trips over her and lands flat on his face.

That leaves two; myriad designer bags still dangle from their wrists slowing them down. Two kneecaps later and I’m on the move again, running this time, even as more and more of the shopping dead appear out of the gloom. Nobody knows exactly how many people were infected in here; six hundred is a conservative assessment. I need a distraction.

The escalators are clear so it’s safe to turn towards the oncoming tide, and damn it’s almost a tsunami, a wall of corpses shambling inexorably towards me.

It takes an effort of will but I turn my torches off. I can still hear them though, although there’s a shift in the timbre of their moaning. Confusion. Zombie eyesight isn’t great, but they’ll keep coming unless I give them something else to chase.

I throw the bounzer over their heads. It doesn’t go off until it lands. My friend Zoe makes more selling these than the zip guns. Multi-coloured lights flash in the distance; a jingling tune plays. It’s supposed to be for babies or dogs; zombies are a bit like both. The moaning increases in volume as they turn, en masse, to follow the pretty lights. Still I hold my breath for a few seconds more before softly padding downstairs.

* * *

I have another bounzer but I hold it in reserve. I keep my lights off and my gun in hand. I can see shapes moving in the gloom, hear the occasional moan. They’re reacting to the earlier gunshots and the bounzer which is still playing Ring a Ring o’ Roses upstairs, and they don’t seem to notice me as I slip quietly past.

Toy Horde was a magical place for much of my childhood but it’s gone downhill somewhat; the windows grubby and broken. Strings of Christmas tree lights that had been strung above the entrance must have fallen at some point and the wire now stretches across the doorway, the bulbs are dead as zombie eyes. My dad struggles against the wire. That’s just like him.

He sees me and strains harder against the makeshift barrier. It’s curious to see eyes that are at once lifeless, yet filled with unfathomable hunger. He’s my dad, but he’s a stranger too, a slavering monster dressed in my father’s skin.

His grunting will attract others, I need to hurry. The zip gun’s still in my right hand. I holster it and pick up the Toy Horde carrier bag he obviously dropped when he walked into the Christmas tree lights.

I don’t look at him; I only have eyes for the shiny plastic box. “Better late than never, dad,” I mutter softly. He moans in reply.

With reverence I slip the box into my rucksack. A mint condition Action Ahmed Astronaut figure is the rarest of the rare; it’s going to be a flush Christmas.

I head back towards the escalators. Behind me dad’s groans intensify. I like to think he’s expressing pride in my enterprise rather than frustration that he can’t eat me, but either way he’ll prove a handy distraction while I slip away. Merry zombie Christmas, dad…