For my first "official" post, I figured I'd make it about a film that's pretty near and dear to me, as I have a bit of history with it. This was the first "obscure" movie I ever saw. I rented it as a young kid, and remembered it being real gory and it had boobs in it. To an 8 year old, that was pretty much perfection. Anyway, it always stuck with me, but until a few years ago when it finally got a DVD release, for the longest time it was pretty hard to track down, so when I finally found an Australian VHS copy, I was ecstatic I've been a champion of this film ever since.
Government officials order the spraying of a marijuana crop in the hills using an experimental herbicide, Dromax, that has not been approved for use, and not knowing any of it's side-effects when exposed to humans. A federal worker, Cole (writer/director/producer Charles McCrann, billed here as Charles Austin), is all set to take a fishing trip to the region which he tours annually for work. The two Washington higher-up's that ordered the spraying tell him not to take the trip this time, fearing he'll get suspicious, lying to him about severe flooding in the area. He ignores, and takes his wife (Beverly Shapiro) and brother Jay (Phillip Garfinkel) along with him. The Dromax hits the weed growers, altering them into a zombified, flesh-starved, cannibalistic state, hunting down Cole, his wife and brother, along with anybody else in the area, including two young teens, a girl and her mentally challenged brother who's parents were killed by the infected growers. Both parties eventually cross paths and try to escape the forest.
Toxic Zombies was obviously a labor of love from first time filmmaker Charles McCrann, having done all the heavy lifting on the project. He financed, wrote, produced, directed and edited it, along with staring as Cole. For an amateur filmmaker, he sure seemed to know what he was doing most of the time. It never seems at any point in the movie like he was trying to go beyond his ability. A movie like this doesn't require any fancy camera tricks and things of the like, it's mostly point and shoot but he handles it all more than competently. He also seemed to work very well within his limitations when considering the low budget concerning gore effects. While not as overtly gory as I remembered it being the first time I saw it, the gore effects, while not mind-blowing are indeed quite well done, including a neat looking eye stabbing, a sliced off hand resulting in blood spraying like a fountain, and a pretty big splat of blood as a result of a slit throat (although the actual cut is off-screen). There are also occasional close-up shots of flies flying around the recently deceased characters, which I always thought was a nice way of trying to gross out the audience when certain resources were limited. The poisened pot farmers get some cool scabs, various facial additions and some have their faces whitened to give them a more "infected" look. Nothing really intricate, but you get the effect.
Yes, the titular "zombies" aren't actually zombies in the traditional sense as their not actually dead, just in an altered state as a result of the Dromax. This might explain the other two titles the movies goes by in certain places. Still, they act like traditional zombies, caring about nothing other than eating your flesh. They're not always 100% slow moving though. That might irritate some zombie purists. But, I digress. There's also not that many of them, but I think the idea was to create tension by not knowing where they're coming from or when one's going to jump out. Another cool thing about them is their somewhat intelligent, making torches to burn down a hermits cabin where Cole and the group take brief refuge.
Aside from John Amplas (the titular character in George Romero's Martin) as Phillips, one of the government agents who ordered the spraying of the Dromax, the rest of the cast is made up of first timers, who, surprisingly do a fairly decent job. Sure, they ham it up on occasion and some of the dialogue comes out sounding somewhat forced at time, but that's bound to happen. I bought McCrann and Bevery Shaprio as husband and wife. The same can be said about the two kids who played the sister and mentally challenged brother. I have no idea if Kevin Hanlon, the actor who played Jimmy is actually handicap, but if he wasn't, bravo! The entire cast seemed to be really into what they were doing and taking everything seriously, and it shows because the good guys here are very likable. You route for them when the zombies are after them, and the brother and sister are made more sympathetic by the fact that their parents were murdered. Before the Dromax hit the dope growers, they don't come across as cliche'd free loving weed smoking hippies as not even 5 minutes into the movie, two of them murder two federal agents. On the other hand, said agents shot down one of the female members of the growers group in cold blood, so they're not exactly 100% good either. The government workers who gave the order to spray the Dromax come off as real bastards, just as intended. Paul Haskin (Briggs) in particular as the top fed asshole. Amplas' character Phillips seems to second guess Briggs for a second when we first meet the two, but ultimately he comes across as just a stooge. They becomes even more unlikable when they meet up with Cole later on in the film. There's even some nice comic relief in the form of the alcoholic crop duster and his nagging bitch wife. Of course the Dromax affects him too, and he's actually pretty creepy looking coming towards the camera with his bugged out, glazed over eyes.
A few notes about the synth score by Ted Shapiro (I'm guessing actress Bevery's husband or brother?). For the most part, it works pretty well, especially during the chase scenes. There's also some nice, eerie droning sounds in there as well. It would have fit a 70's science fiction film perfectly. Unfortunately, it's not without it's blemishes. The main theme that plays during the film's opening, and at select times throughout the movie, is a blatant rip-off of the Halloween theme. I'm sure it was done as an homage, but it's noticeable right off the bat. The other musical beef I has was when we first meet the brother and sister, the scene has this "cute" (or attempting to sound cute) sounding piano score. White the music itself is pleasant given the context of the scene, it comes off as REALLY corny. If I can nit-pick just a bit more, the picture is a tad bit grainy Not really a huge deal, as you can still see everything, but I figured it was worth a mention. The transfer on the DVD is the same as the VHS, so don't expect an upgrade.
Not to end this on a tragic note, but sadly Charles McCrann died in the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. He was the Sr. vice-president of a financial-services company who had an office in the WTC. This was his only film. It's a shame, because it would have been interesting to see what else he could have done with a bit more experience He clearly had some talent behind the camera, and was obviously a fan. But, he left us a fun little B-movie. That's the key word here, fun. Chalk it up to childhood nostalgia if you must, but I always have a blast whenever I watch this. Of course, it's not a masterpiece, and it wasn't made with the intention of being on. It was made by a director and cast/crew who's hearts were all in the right place, and it's worth 90 minutes of your time. Toxic Zombies might not be considered "essential" in the grand scheme of things, but to me, it's a classic.