Harley Neville as Wesley
Jocelyn Christian as Susan
Mike Edward as Adam
Ben Baker as Tane
An actual zombie outbreak occurs in the wooded location/remote set of a low budget New Zealand zombie movie; “Tonight They Come”. The premise is simple and the film delivers on this inspired promise. It’s post-modern in a Wes Craven’s New Nightmare kind of way – only this time, we’re focused on flesh-eaters.
But it’s bad timing for our hero, Wesley (Harley Neville) as he takes on his first day as a lowly production assistant – brought into the job solely to deal with everyone’s neurotic nonsense. His first task? Take one of the ailing stars (what’s he sick with?) back to the nearby small town, where the undead virus has already begun to take over. Immediately upon his return to the set, it’s clear that the infection has already reached the zombie extras (this all makes for good, gory times as it becomes unclear who is dead and who has recently visited the makeup trailer). And thus begins Wesley’s journey from set whipping boy to master of zombie ass-kicking!
Harley Neville as our naïve, optimistic recent film school graduate – Wesley, is adorable. He’s awkward, nerdy and the typical unlikely hero. Neville captures the wide-eyed newbie with great panache. He conjures images of so many (including my own) eager but clumsy attempts to pitch a product, get that toe in the door and prove once and for all that he’s more than just a runner. And it’s this innocence and enthusiasm which brings us along for his ride. As artists, screenwriters and budding filmmakers, we’ve all been in his shoes and painful as it may be, ahhhh… he takes us back.
Jocelyn Christian as craft services guru and wannabe actress Susan (and Wesley’s love interest) is physically a cross between Legends of the Fall’s Julia Ormond and A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Heather Langenkamp. There is some fun chemistry between Wesley and Susan and their first “love-making” session, as they stand-in for the stand-ins (who have strangely gone missing) is the highlight of their rickety but fast-moving courtship (when the world is ending, you just can’t take it slow). Christian is equally as adorable as Neville and while her Susan is not as clumsy as Wesley, they seem to be a perfect match-up.
And then there’s the star of “Tonight They Come”, Adam (Mike Edward). He’s brawny, bulky, sexy and apparently in the closet. In an inspired moment as he makes his way to his trailer, he must pass through a grasping throng of zombie extras – all desperate for his autograph or perhaps a photograph, all the while he proclaims, “This is not professional!” Thing is, they’re not zombie extras. Edward is a fine male specimen, and frankly you wouldn’t think there would be much behind all the muscle, but he’s a hoot and goes all out as the famous, self-entitled screen star. And oh yes, as he did in Spartacus: War of the Damned, he gets naked. So for a little over half of the audience, there’s that bonus.
But the best performance comes from Ben Baker as Tane – one of the film production’s head honchos. He constantly regales the cast and crew with tales of rugby triumphs (all through flashback), which must then be relived and replayed in the film’s climax. It’s executed well (the details of both “runs” are strikingly on the money – not missing one bit of similarity) and it becomes the emotional highlight in a mainly comedic film. Baker provides us with a character who must admit his past failings and push forward to overcome current obstacles. Tane is the character with whom you will most easily fall in love.
And for you American viewers, there’s prop-master Randy Bateman (Mark Neilson) on “Tonight They Come” – an over-the-top, hilarious version of how the world-at-large views citizens of the US. He’s vulgar, overweight and luckily, he’s taken his 2nd amendment rights and brought them along with him to New Zealand – he carries real guns and live ammunition (shocking). But as you’ll see, his prep is not all it’s cracked up to be. And the girth of his over-fed and entitled American belly turns out to be the best gag in the entire film!
As you can imagine, there are wall-to-wall splatter effects to be found. And most of them are imaginative, uber-bloody and quite effective. And from what I know, this is the first time a zombie-to-be is infected through sexual intercourse with an undead co-ed – resulting in things you wouldn’t expect to actually see. But the film happily takes us there.
The climax of the film finds our remaining heroes holed up in a farmhouse. The details are straight out of Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead – including the boarded-up windows, the discovery of the home’s inhabitant, and the gasoline supply at a nearby shed/barn outside the main house.
Moments from many other zombie classics are also borrowed, paid homage – however you’d like to put it. But it’s a self-aware story to begin with, as Romero, Raimi and John Carpenter are all cited as inspirations by the “Tonight They Come” filmmakers, as was also obviously the case for the filmmakers behind I Survived a Zombie Holocaust (writer/director Guy Pidgen). Wesley’s spec script, which he attempts to get into anyone’s hands is called “Twilight of the Dead” (one of the titles oft-thrown around when Romero was first chatting up a possible fourth entry in his “of the Dead” series), some of the over-the-top zombie kills were straight out of Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, and one bit in the farmhouse is clearly inspired by Romero’s Day of the Dead. But it’s all in good fun, and these repeat gags are never taken as rip-offs, only as knowing tributes.
The film isn’t the best thing since sliced zombie flesh, but it certainly is worth a look. Some of the jokes fall flat, while others totally hit their mark. It’s this inconsistency in the punchlines which kept the film from rising high to rule the ranks of zombie-comedies. Its obvious comparison would be the rom-zom-com classic Shaun of the Dead. It never reaches the brilliance which will leave Shaun and his companions as forever beloved in our horror film memories, but it still has a fun concept, goofball antics, raw zombie goodness and characters you can root for.
Oh, and Neville gets naked too – 2nd bonus! And for the other half of the audience – something or other about nude female breasts as well.