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All Souls Day : Dia De Los Muertos  (2005)

“You should have let me finish. Without sacrifice, those bastards will come right out of the ground. Oh, you’ve got no idea what you’ve done, boy….”

Director: Jeremy Kasten

Starring: Marisa Ramirez, Travis Wester, Danny Trejo, Laura Harring, David Keith, Nichole Hiltz, Laz Alonso, Ellie Cornell, Jeffrey Combs, Mircea Monroe, Robert Budaska, Julie Vera, Danielle Burgio, Noah Luke

Screenplay: Mark A. Altman

Synopsis:  Mexico, 1892. Vargas Diaz (Danny Trejo) encourages the townspeople of Santa Bonita to gather in the local mine for a double celebration: Dia De Los Muertos, and the discovery of an underground temple dedicated to the Goddess of Death, whose treasure he promises to share with them. Shortly afterwards, there is a massive explosion at the mine that buries the celebrators alive.... Mexico, 1952. An American family on holiday pulls into a small town needing gas for their car and somewhere to spend the night. However, the desk at the hotel is unattended. Sarah White (Ellie Cornell) finds two women in the next room: the younger weeps as she cleans the floor; the elder paints small figurines. Neither pays any attention to Sarah. When Sarah reports this to her husband, Tom (Jeffrey Combs), he decides that they will check themselves in. Meanwhile, the young Ricky (Noah Luke) approaches the older of the two women, Oelita (Julie Vera), who whispers in his ear…. Upstairs, Tom and Sarah take one room, while the teenage Lilly is disgusted at having to share with her brother. First hiding her diary, Lilly takes a bath. Becoming aware that someone has been in the room with her, Lilly storms out to confront Ricky, shrieking when she sees instead a skull-faced figure with a bloody head wound. Downstairs, hearing the screams, Oelita smiles. Unable to make her parents hear her, Lilly flees, eventually stumbling into the street, where she finds herself surrounded by figures in capes and masks. Lilly has barely time to rip one mask away and see the rotted flesh beneath before she is overwhelmed. From a window, Oelita and Ricky look on, unmoved…. Mexico, 2005. Students Alicia (Marisa Ramirez) and Joss (Travis Wester) travel south, heading for her parents’ new ranch. As they enter a small town, Joss is momentarily distracted, and almost drives into what seems to be a funeral procession – except that the coffin, dropped in the panic, spills a bound, bloody-mouthed woman whose naked body is covered with painted symbols. As Joss realises that his crashed car will not start again, Alicia tries to comfort the terrified woman, discovering to her horror that her tongue has been cut out. Joss runs for Sheriff Blanco (David Keith), who listens placidly to his hysterical account but follows him outside. The sheriff promises to look after the injured woman, and leads her away; neither Joss nor Alicia notices his compulsive grip on her arm. Joss asks about hiring a car, but the sheriff only laughs derisively, advising them to check into the hotel for the night. There, Alicia has an odd encounter with an old woman, who sits silently, painting figurines, while Joss is told by the young innkeeper, Martia (Laura Harring), that there are no rooms available. Upon seeing Alicia, however, Martia changes her mind, offering a room key and announcing that dinner will be at seven. She also insists upon the two accepting a bottle of wine in celebration of the holiday. Alicia explains to Joss that it is Dia De Los Muertos, the Day Of The Dead, when tradition holds that the dead will walk once more upon the earth….

Comments:  All Souls Day is a prime example of what I consider about the hardest kind of film of all to review: a low-budget effort whose manifest good intentions and occasional good idea struggle to make themselves heard over the combined din of unavoidable production restraints, and some entirely avoidable artistic blunders. As two wise people once pointed out, it’s very easy to criticise – fun, too! – so the temptation with a film like this is to turn a blind eye to its gallant attempt to do something a little different, and just to focus upon its various failures. The question becomes one of how much time and effort a reviewer is obliged to put into panning through the dreck in order to extract the tiny gold nuggets within – and the answer, very often (let’s be honest), comes down less to any sense of professional obligation, and more to what state of mind the film chances to find the reviewer in. Well, as it turns out, Messers Altman and Kasten have lucked out in that department: All Souls Day has been fortunate enough to catch me in an unwontedly benign mood#. Such being the case, I am prepared to offer some tempered praise of the film, the first from Cinefantastique’s new production arm, CFQ Films, which for all its shortcomings does makes a commendable effort to separate itself from the recent glut of zombie films, and to add a few new wrinkles to the ever-evolving mythos of the undead.

One thing that All Souls Day does get right at the outset is its appropriation of the mystifyingly under-utilised festival of Dia De Los Muertos. While the twin rituals of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day are a set part of the Roman Catholic calendar, in Mexico these days of remembrance take on a whole different aspect, being not only a time spent in prayer for the dead, but one for festivity and the celebration of life. Houses are decorated, special meals prepared, and places set at the table for the souls of the departed, who are expected to join their families for this annual gathering. While various movies (mostly Mexican, naturally) have employed the famous mummies of Guanajuarto either as characters or just for atmosphere, surprisingly few film-makers seem to have recognised the inherent possibilities of a festival that involves not just the rising of the dead, but their welcome by the living. All Souls Day, conversely, exploits this feature of its back story with an unexpected and satisfying final twist. The film also distances itself from most of its brethren with an unusual story structure, unfolding as a three-act play (or, it could be said, given that Mark Altman could find no better way of explaining the events we have been watching than an extended narrated flashback, as a four-act one), each act dealing with a particular phase in the unhappy history of Santa Bonita. The zombies here are not the “reinvent Romero” kind that have dominated the recent cinema of the undead, but the old-fashioned supernatural kind, rising from their graves on All Souls’ Day to wreak revenge. (Speaking of Romero--- Throughout All Souls Day you can almost hear Mark Altman and Jeremy Kasten grinding their teeth with frustration at the circumstances that kept them from a perfectly proper usage of the phrase “Day Of The Dead”. Like their own undead, the film-makers finally take revenge on their tormentor by re-working one of Day’s most famous set-pieces in the climax of their film.) The film does reproduce the most standard of all zombie film clichés, the siege, but manages to put a twist on that, too, by turning the reanimation of the dead into a kind of mystery that the living must solve if they are to have any chance of surviving their ordeal.

A fair portion of All Souls Day’s budget clearly went into the design of its zombies, who are a combination of the long and the newly dead, and who sport an understandable mixture of clothing, some of them wearing traditional Mexican garb, some more casual and modern dress. A close look at the shambling horde during the siege sequence shows that a considerable effort went into making these particular undead look realistically decayed and deformed, even though at times their rubbery origins are a bit too apparent. All Souls Day has been criticised in some quarters because its zombies disobey “the rules” when they are re-killed – that is, they go down under any major injury, however and wherever it is inflicted – but given that the film exerts itself to convey the idea that these are not your daddy’s zombies, this criticism is unwarranted. The gore scenes are on the whole well-executed, and there are some nicely disturbing visuals. (I do wish, though, that horror film-makers would give the something-in-the-mirror shtick a rest.) However, it is sometimes difficult to know whether these inserts are supposed to be dreams, or hallucinations, or visions of the past; or indeed, to what extent the characters are seeing what we are seeing, as when Sarah White comes across a young woman who sobs as she scrubs an enormous bloodstain from the floor, and doesn’t even bat an eyelid. All Souls Day does a much better job at suggesting that the hotel, even the town itself, is trapped in a kind of limbo, where the past and the present co-exist. Particularly effective is the scene in which Alicia goes hunting for some alcohol with which to sterilise Joss’s wound, and is taken into the past by the mysterious Martia, where she witnesses the aftermath of Vargas Diaz’ disposal of his henchmen, and helps herself to a bottle of mescal.

One thing I do feel compelled to praise about All Souls Day is the look of the film. There is a dreary similarity about too many of today’s horror films. They feel the same, they sound the same, and they resort to precisely the same kind of scares. Above all, they look the same; and I tell you, I am so sick of that frickin’ blue filter, I....could....just....gaaahhhh!!!!

But here, in the cinematography of the experienced Christopher Duddy and the production design of Denise Pizzini (the latter working hard with restricted means), there has been an obvious and on the whole successful effort to do something different. Much of All Souls Day is bright and colourful and interesting to look at; an unexpected quality for a zombie film.

Ultimately, however, All Souls Day is a frustrating experience, not just because it does some things well and some things badly, but because its good and bad aspects are so inextricably entwined, you can only shake your head in bewilderment. (Or, in my own case, consider removing that gold-panning analogy, and substituting something less polite about extracting trace metals from sewerage.) The overall impression gained about the pairing of Mark Altman and Jeremy Kasten is that their ideas are perfectly sound, but that, at least at this point in their careers, they lack the ability to bring those ideas to fruition. To be fair, some aspects of their collaboration I like very much indeed, including the fact that (rarely these days) the screenplay of All Souls Day refrains from clubbing the viewer over the head with its plot points, yet provides sufficient information for those paying attention. For example, it is perfectly clear, although it is never spelled out, what the relationship is between three of the main characters, and why Alicia is the person destined by fate to try and give Santa Bonita’s living dead their peace. It is also refreshing, in these self-reflexive times, to find a horror movie that is capable of acknowledging the fact that its characters are familiar with other horror movies, without taking on that infuriating air of smugness that taints so many similar efforts. Thus, when Joss comes out of an encounter with the newly undead Esmeralda with a chunk missing from his thigh, his friends react with panicked dismay: they know very well what such a bite wound ought to mean.

(And there’s one more “reference” moment that provoked an appreciative guffaw from Yours Truly, namely when Erica the blonde cheerleader reacts to a mention of The Shining with blank incomprehension. “Her idea of an old movie is pre-American Pie,” comments her boyfriend.)

On the other hand, there are those plot contrivances and carelessnesses that just scream of a screenplay insufficiently polished. Santa Bonita is supposed to be so isolated and lonely that the inhabitants can carry out a ceremony leading to a human sacrifice in the middle of the street in the middle of the day; yet just check out how much traffic is heading in the other direction as Joss and Alicia are driving towards this “ghost town”. Joss’s call for help (the last from a dying phone, natch) goes to his friends back in California, not to Alicia’s parents, who are presumably somewhere in the vicinity and have a more expert knowledge of the area. And why? “My parents are going to be so pissed!” announces Alicia. Why they should be is anybody’s guess, but Joss immediately takes his girlfriend’s emphatic insistence upon her parents’ pissed-ness as sufficient reason not to call them. (I think if I were expecting my daughter and her boyfriend and they didn’t show up, I’d be a lot more pissed if they didn’t phone than if they did.) But all this pales besides the screenplay’s utter refusal to admit that the one thing above all others that its four trapped people would do when confronted by the risen undead, would be to demand answers from the other two people trapped with them! – both of whom are so self-evidently up to their eyebrows in whatever is going on in the town, the screenplay has to write them out of most of the middle section of the film, in order to avoid reminding us just how artificial the kids’ failure to confront them is.

While a great deal of care obviously went into evoking the three different time periods, the structure of All Souls Day brings problems of its own, chiefly – although this is perhaps more noticeable in retrospect than at the time – that the film’s extended second act turns out not to have very much to do with anything. (Even with the one thing that does carry over – a character seen here reappears later on – a few moments’ reflection shows that they’ve got the passage of time completely wrong.) Despite their prominence in the film’s promotion, the appearances of Jeffrey Combs and Ellie Cornell, fun though they are in their own right, are nothing more than glorified cameos. Mircea Monroe, who gets considerably more screen time as their daughter, hardly convinces as a fifties miss. (She does, however, get nekkid, which some of my male colleagues seem to feel is reason enough for the existence of this lengthy cinematic detour. Speaking personally, the Gratuitous Boob Shot is generally when I start fidgeting and glancing at the time counter on my DVD player.)

It is clear that the film-makers intended All Souls Day to be a character-driven film – and this is one of its most contradictory aspects. The performances from the four young actors portraying the film’s protagonists are unusually good for a low-budget production of this nature, and there is a pleasing degree of insight in the way they interact. (Joss and Tyler are friends, but their respective girlfriends can’t stand one another. Male comfort is maintained by a refusal to acknowledge female hostility.) The problem is that in three of those four cases – on the whole, I exempt Marisa Ramirez’s Alicia – the characters that those good performances create are so annoying, it undercuts the impact when their numbers are whittled down over the course of the siege. (Oh, come on! – you don’t consider that a spoiler, surely?) Some of the problems we see here are by no means unique to All Souls Day. Common to many films like this is the fact that the characters are simply never as freaked out by the horrible events they encounter as they should be. In short order, Alicia and Joss almost run over a funeral procession; crash their car; discover that the “body” is a live, bound, naked woman whose tongue has been cut out; and find that their car is a write-off and that they are consequently stranded for the night. They have an encounter with a local hotelier whose conduct gives new meaning to the term behaving suspiciously; and Alicia, at least, begins having visions of the hotel’s bloody history.

The reaction of our heroes to all this? To (i) agree that things are “creepy”; and (ii) to get drunk and have sex.

Of course, I can’t speak for every woman in every horror film; but personally, whenever I’m stranded in a lonely town where the locals like to bury people alive and I’m having repeated visions of dead children and the slaughter of previous tenants of my hotel room, I don’t generally find that it puts me in the mood, exactly.

But I must be in a minority, making such a fuss about such things, because when Joss’s friends, Tyler and Erica, turn up a few hours later in response to his carefully uninformative phone call, their response is, essentially, a disinterested, Oh, whatever.

Giving the devil his due, at least some of this is intentional on the part of screenwriter Altman, who is certainly trying to make the point that even the spoiled and self-interested can, in a crisis, find reserves within themselves and rise to the occasion; even, should friendship require it, at the cost of their lives. However, by the time that the ultimate sacrifice is made, we’re just a little too glad to see it for the good of the film.

Nor is any kindly feeling generated, either towards the characters or the makers of this film, by two short scenes of such concentrated stupidity, the temptation to just turn the damn thing off is almost overpowering. The first comes when, as per formula, the siege has reached the point when those barricaded inside start debating whether or not to try and make a run for it. One of Mark Altman’s better character moments occurs here, with Erica – she who took one look at Joss’s bite mark and voted to ditch him – unexpectedly stepping up to the plate and volunteering a sprint to her car, which she plans to drive as close to the front door as possible. So far, so brave. The problem, to put it mildly, comes with Erica’s exit from the hotel. Let me stress, up until this moment this has been a film played quite straight, with (by and large) believable people behaving in believable ways. Yet all of a sudden we’re in the world of wire-fu, with Erica leaping and spinning and back-flipping and high-kicking her way out of the hotel and through the zombies to her car.

Words can barely convey how wrong this sequence is. As they say in the classics, if you were to look up the word WRONG!!!! in the dictionary, you’d probably find a clip of it. Incredibly, though, things get even dumber. As Erica draws near to the hotel in the car, Tyler makes a run towards her. One side of the car is in the clear. The other side is thronged with zombies. Get which side he goes for?

Yes. Well. I suppose it is funny, really, in a sick, Darwinian kind of way.

(And let us not overlook the moment when the naked, tongue-less Esmeralda conscientiously writes in the dirt, They cut my tongue out so that no-one can hear my screams; an act of supererogation that almost challenges the carving of AAAARRRGGGHHH.... in the rock wall of a cave as the comic pinnacle of non-verbal communication.)

It’s stuff like this that makes it so hard to deal fairly with a film like All Souls Day, where just a couple of missteps – albeit missteps taken in seven-league boots – can so easily evaporate the goodwill built up by the obvious enthusiasm of the film-makers. After the idiocy of Erica’s rooftop escapades, it takes a real effort on the part of the viewer to re-engage with the film. And that’s a shame, because there’s some nice unexpected material in the film’s final act: Mark Altman gets to indulge his evident love of westerns (which I share, so I rather like what he does here; others may feel differently); Laura Harring’s overly mannered performance softens into one of real poignancy; and Danny Trejo turns out to be a total bad-ass. (Okay, I guess that wasn’t so unexpected.) All Souls Day is, in the end, an uneasy kind of film, with too much talk and too little action for the horror-hounds, but also too lacking in the quality of its writing to work as a character piece. (It must be admitted that Mark Altman does have something of a gift for producing a joltingly bad line of dialogue at just the wrong moment.) Still, if All Souls Day is finally a film more of good intention than good execution, it certainly gives reason for us to hope for better things from its production team in the future, not least in the elegant simplicity of its solution to the siege of the undead. I may be wrong about this, of course, but I can’t offhand think of another film that suggests that if you were one night to find yourself besieged by zombies and fighting for your life, the very best thing you could do would be to let the zombies in....

Want a second opinion of All Souls Day? Visit Cold Fusion Video Reviews.

(#So why was I in such a benign mood? Because the night before I watched All Souls Day, my football team had an unexpected win under extremely bizarre circumstances. Thus is a film’s reputation won or lost!)

ALL SOULS DAY – available on DVD through Anchor Bay Entertainment:

Running time:  89 minutes

Aspect ratio:  1:77, 16 x 9 enhanced

Audio:  Dolby Surround 2.0, Dolby Surround 5.1

Extras: 

  • Souvenir booklet

  • Audio commentary with director Jeremy Kasten and producer/screenwriter Mark Altman

  • Raising The Undead: The Making Of All Souls Day

  • Faces Of Death: The Make-Up Effects of All Souls Day

  • Jailhouse Rock: The Stunts of All Souls Day

  • Deleted scene

  • Extended scene

  • Trailer

  • Storyboard gallery

  • Screenplay (DVD-ROM)

Comments:  Anchor Bay has gone above and beyond in the quality of the DVD release of this low-budget horror film. While I’m not a huge fan of DVD extras – I appreciate them if they’re there, but I rarely if ever buy a DVD because of them – this is one time when I think that the extras provided do a real service for the film they are promoting. The commentary by Jeremy Kasten and Mark Altman is an informative journey into the ups and downs of low budget film-making. Although, when they start to invoke not just George Romero but Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur, there are moments when we fear for their sanity, for the most part the two are refreshingly honest about their film’s shortcomings and their own mistakes – and, I’m relieved to report, are just as painfully aware as they should be of how utterly WRONG!!!! the rooftop gymnastics scene is. “Raising The Undead” is a puff-piece, granted, but the participants seem so sincere in their enthusiasm for All Souls Day itself and the experience of making it, that it is impossible to come away from a viewing of it without feeling a little more appreciation for the film. “Faces Of Death” is an interesting look at Almost Human’s make-up work on the film, but certain viewers should beware: the technicians based a number of their designs upon real death scene photographs, at which we are given close looks that might be too much for some.

Material for this review was generously provided by Anchor Bay Entertainment. Special thanks to Melanie

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