Written by: James Moran & Lucas Roche (screenplay), Matthias Hoene (idea)
Directed by: Matthias Hoene
Starring: Rasmus Hardiker, Harry Treadaway, and Michelle Ryan
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“No, you sloppy tart, those things are fucking zombies!"
Cockneys vs. Zombies sounds like it’s another one of those one-note zom-com jokes, but let’s be fair: it’s actually a two-note joke because the titular cockneys are divided into two separate groups: a ragtag bunch of bank robbers, and the inhabitants of a nursing home. But I guess Bank Robbers and Old Folks vs. Zombies isn’t quite as succinct, so the catch-all cockneys it is. At any rate, what’s most important is that you understand that, yes, this is another silly zombie flick, albeit one that has a lot of heart to go along with its farcical setup.
For one thing, its bank robbers aren’t really hardened criminals—instead, they're a pair of brothers (Rasmus Hardiker and Harry Treadaway) who assembles a shotgun crew consisting of their cousin (Michelle Ryan) and some other acquaintances, and their motives are well-intentioned: their grandfather (Alan Ford) is set to be evicted from a nursing home that’s due for demolition, so they need the cash to set him up for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, these plans are interrupted after a couple of construction workers uncover a centuries old crypt and unwittingly unleash the zombie apocalypse on the East End of London.
Whenever I encounter a film like Cockneys vs. Zombies, it’s always tough not to be reminded of Shaun of the Dead, the zero patient for this particular breed of zombie flick. This London-based effort especially begs that sort of comparison, though it’s probably unfair (if not inevitable) to put it in that light just because it’s British. Sorry, aspiring Brit genre filmmakers, but Edgar Wright casts a long shadow. It should be obvious that Cockneys vs. Zombies doesn’t escape that shadow because it doesn’t feature the clever, breathless wit or cinematic verve of Shaun, but, to be fair, few films do. Instead, Matthias Hoene’s film prefers to go a little more broad and silly by relying on goofy sight gags and outlandish situations (it especially gets a lot of mileage out of its “old fogies vs. zombies” premise).
But if the film gets one thing absolutely right from the Shaun formula, it’s arguably the most important: it might be an over-the-top, farcical lark, but it has a charming set of characters, all of whom are extremely likeable. The film is obviously sympathetic towards its downtrodden East-enders, and even the most unhinged of the wild bunch (Ashley Thomas playing a guy suffering from PTSD) still feels pretty harmless. There’s a scrappiness to the group, anchored by the two brothers who serve as the film’s amiable center; the two were actually orphaned by their criminal parents (who apparently died in a shootout with the police) before being raised by their grandfather, and the chemistry shared by Treadway and Hardiker is strong. On the whole, the familial bonds shared between them and the rest of their family seem genuine, plus I love that Ryan is actually the biggest ass-kicker among them (upon realizing they’re in the middle of the zombie apocalypse, she casually insists that you just need to shoot the undead in the head before plugging them full of bullets).
And of course the other half of the film features a group of elderly folks, and you’d have to be a real asshole not to dig that. Cockneys vs. Zombies doesn’t rest on its laurels, though, as it doesn’t just sketch out some lovable old coots before calling it a day. Alan Ford is awesome as the grandfather, a tough old curmudgeon who actually hates being called grandpa and doesn’t hesitate to drop F-bombs or needle his two dipshit grandsons for their harebrained scheme. He’s surrounded by a lot of similarly incongruent asskickers (including Honor Blackman!) who bring a lot of color to the proceedings. Of the two plots, this one is more fun, even if it resorts to some well-worn gags and silly humor (though the scene where the guy is sure they’re dealing with vampires and insists they call Christopher Lee is pretty funny—there’s a Fright Night re-imagining I wouldn’t mind seeing).
It also doesn’t hurt that Cockneys vs. Zombies is a brisk, bloody romp that isn’t shy about slathering the screen in gore. While some of the digital effects (especially the blood spatter) are occasionally distracting, there’s a nice mix of practical stuff in here too. The zombie designs are top-notch, with the emaciated, centuries-old zombies down in the crypt providing a grotesque sort of walker that we don’t see enough of. There’s a sizable horde, too, which guarantees plenty of clever zombie-smashing mayhem, at least until the film disappointingly degenerates into a bunch of mindless bullet-spraying towards the end. But before that happens, the script provides some fun methods of dispatch that highlight the absurdity of it all (the film also features the first zombie with a bulletproof plate in its head, which is a genuine stroke of genius).
Aside from feeling just a little slight and lightweight, the biggest problem here that Cockneys vs. Zombies faces an uphill battle as a latecomer to this particular genre. Again, that’s probably not fair because familiarity isn’t inherently bad—it’s just that it’s tough to shake the “been there, done that” vibe here, even if it’s retreading with a lot of sincerity and heart. After becoming a festival favorite in 2012, Cockneys vs. Zombies is arriving on home video here in the States courtesy of Scream Factory, who have churned out another strong effort. The high-definition presentation on the Blu-ray is strong, as the transfer reflects the film’s candy-colored, comic book aesthetic quite faithfully, while the DTS-MA 5.1 track is perpetually active and often aggressive. A healthy dose of extras also rounds out the discs: you get not one, but two separate commentary tracks featuring Hoene and screenwriter James Moran, about six minutes worth of deleted scenes, a trailer, and a 30 minute behind-the-scenes look that’s divided into eight different featurettes that focus on a variety of topics, including the actors and a look at the effects work. Writing off Cockneys vs. Zombies is admittedly easy—I’ve seen so many riffs on this theme that my eye-rolling is almost Pavlovian at this point, but it’s proof that you really only need a bunch of likable rascals in the human half of the equation to make these gimmicky approaches work. Buy it!
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