“COCKNEYS VS. ZOMBIES” (DVD Review)
Occasionally there is such a thing as truth in advertising.
To wit: The title COCKNEYS VS. ZOMBIES is not an act of ironic misdirection cloaking a Bergman-esque surrealist rumination on mortality or a too-cutesy moniker slapped on a mumblecore collection of bon mots, but rather a precise descriptor prepping potential viewers for what is basically eighty-eight straight minutes of wisecracking, salt of the earth East Londoners giving a zombie horde bloody hell.
To his credit, director Matthias Hoene doesn’t waste a lot of time pondering the particulars as he adds another torque to the earnest, nerdy-hipster twist SHAUN OF THE DEAD already placed on the zombie genre. The film opens on a foreboding shot of a vulture perched on a construction site billboard hyping “Luxury Living in the Heart of East London” and less than five minutes later a desiccated zombie is chawing the bottom lip off an excavator-operating hardhat who made the spectacularly ill-advised snap decision to crack open a tomb marked “Sealed by King Charles in 1666.”
Hey, wait, what year was the Great Plague of London again? Oh, yeah, right.
As per tradition, zombie begets zombie, one bite at a time, spreading the disease. Meanwhile across town, brothers Terry and Andy MacGuire have assembled a not-quite-crack crew to rob a bank. But not for any garden variety goon-ish ends. No, these are streetwise-with-hearts-of-gold boys playing modern day Robin Hood, trying desperately to secure the funds necessary to save their grandfather’s retirement home from its planned demolition at the hands of a predictably villainous development company, which just so happens to be the very same establishment responsible for the aforementioned breaking of the cursed seal.
And here you probably thought releasing a potentially world-ending zombie infestation was the worst mischief Heartman Construction would get up to…
Anyway, the amateur robbery attempt goes poorly—think OCEANS 11 re-imagined as a sequel to THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG—but before the surrounding police can make any arrests a wave of zombies crests and crashes, providing the reluctant criminals a clear avenue of escape… and a new, very unpleasant set of cannibalistic obstacles to navigate.
From there the film splits into two threads—the brothers MacGuire et al battling their way to the retirement home as Grandpa Ray (a scenery devouring Alan Ford) rallies his co-residents to create a squad of geriatric killing machines. The former strand weds the kinetic momentum and slapstick, gore-festooned humor of ZOMBIELAND to a sort of 28 DAYS LATER lite, while the latter feeds our burgeoning cultural appetite for cartoonish elderly death-dealers wreaking carnage—a weirdly compelling trope popularized in recent years by films like BUBBA HO-TEP, RED and HOT FUZZ, and employed to great effect here.
There is, for whatever reason, something undeniably rousing and amusing about watching as a typically vulnerable, muted population loudly indulges in profane undead-slaughter—especially when one of the slayers is none other than the legendary Honor Blackman, perhaps better known for her turns as Pussy Galore in GOLDFINGER, Hera in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, and Cathy Gale on the early 60s British television show THE AVENGERS. (In another nod to those glory days, a resident who initially mistakes the swarming creatures for vampires declares, “What we need is crucifixes, silver, garlic, holy water and…Christopher Lee!”)
Of course, concept is one thing. Execution is something else entirely. No one wants to see a film where a gag tail wags the narrative dog. And as Hoene notes, any attempt to intersperse this many film genres—heist, horror, comedy, coming-of-age—necessarily presents a “difficult tonal puzzle.” Yet it never feels as if the pieces are being forced awkwardly into place. Yes, there are gimmee jokes—e.g. soccer hooligan zombies; an iconic red double-decker bus moonlighting as apocalypse weapon; a machinegun jerry-rigged to a walker—though none prove so gauche as to overshadow the story or characters, which are wisely infused with more universal attributes than might otherwise have been the case in lesser (or lazier) hands.
As for DVD special features, the behind-the-scenes segments are decent enough to satisfy those who enjoyed the film, while separate, surprisingly excellent full-length audio commentary tracks are provided by writer James Moran and Hoene, who at one point avers that the film’s zombie plague “does kind of symbolize the gentrification of East London.”
One presumes from the epic punishment meted out to a development company apparatchik onscreen that Hoene sees this as regression, not progression. And if the vibrant personalities and appealing tableau created in COCKNEYS VS. ZOMBIES approaches anything resembling reality, it would be exceedingly difficult to disagree by the time the credits roll.