If Canadian filmmaker Elza Kephart rocked your world with her recent haunted jeans horror film Slaxx, behold the treasures that abound when tracing her filmography back to her 2003 feature film debut, Graveyard Alive: A Zombie Nurse in Love, which Kephart's company Midnight Kingdom Films has shared in its entirety on YouTube.
Anne Day-Jones plays the gloriously named Patsy Powers, the titular zombie-nurse-to-be who, before her unearthly transformation, lives a more banal life. She’s a frumpy nurse whose real life is so glum that hospital romance novels, soap operas and frozen TV dinners provide the little solace she finds in her otherwise dull, profoundly unsexy life. When the ex-boyfriend who took her to the high school prom – now a successful surgeon, Dr. Dox (Karl Gerhardt) – gets engaged to an unapologetically bitchy blonde nurse who works with Patsy, the latter’s desire to remain hidden in fictional love stories disguises her clear disappointment with the way her own life has played out.
But then, as it tends to sometimes do, fate steps in. A man in the woods finds a curious creature and takes it back to his humble home, only to be bitten and, well, zombified. Turning up to Patsy’s hospital with an axe in his head, it is a less-than-conventional case of love at first sight. While we might hope that true love will always find a way, the strange old Dr. Kapotsky (Roland Laroche) who haunts the hospital’s corridors happens to be an expert in zombie lore. He rapidly identifies the truth of the malady plaguing Patsy’s new beau, and dispatches her lover from our mortal coil accordingly.
Heartbroken, yes, but Patsy soon discovers that she herself is transforming. Unlike typical zombie fare, here we find something much more hybridized; in fact, in many ways almost much closer to vampire mythology. Patsy’s transformation bestows upon her an extraordinary sexual awakening, resulting in not only her own voracious horniness but her unquenchable attractiveness to the opposite sex who suddenly find themselves irresistibly drawn to her. To Patsy’s delight this includes her high school sweetheart Dr. Dox, while Dox’s fiancé (who has been saving it for marriage) is decidedly less impressed with the twist Patsy and her own stories have taken.
Broken into a series of chapters mirroring the cheap pulp romances that used to fill Patsy’s days before a seemingly endless parade of attentive dick entered the equation to fulfill her unquenchable zombified sexual desires, Graveyard Alive is, from its opening moments, relishing in the kind of conscious B-grade camp that would mark films like Larry Blamire’s cult classic The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra in 2001 and, more recently, Ryland Brickson Cole Tews’ absolutely gorgeous Lake Michigan Monster from 2018. Drenched in smooth jazz, it even comes complete with a quasi-Twilight Zone intro and the kind of twist ending typical of such retro fare. Graveyard Alive is nothing if it is not committed to the vintage aesthetics that inspired it.
Graveyard Alive is very funny, very horny, very feminist, and – for those amongst you for a taste in microbudget filmmaking – very very fun. The idea of rendering the zombie bite rather than the vampire bite as a kind of pathway to a sexual awakening is a curious twist that the film superficially plays for camp laughs, but clearly has some really strong smarts driving it. Graveyard Alive might lack the polish of the more recent Slaxx, but it has perhaps even more a kind of unrestrained, wild energy to it that makes for a truly joyful viewing experience.
Graveyard Alive is what it is, and makes no apologies for it. This undead twist on the ugly duckling tale is absolutely not the most perfect film you’ve ever seen – this is unambiguously a low-budget debut feature, and comes with all the rough edges that this might imply. But there’s an electricity and joy here that are both genuine and sincere.
Regardless of the gender of the filmmaker in question, it is always a fascinating exercise to go back and see how a given director has developed and polished their craft over the years; it’s therefore not a case of saying Graveyard Alive is better than Slaxx – or vice versa – but rather that in the former, you can really feel that spark, even if it’s the kind of film that would no doubt confuse viewers with little viewing experience beyond Netflix or the multiplex. But if low-budget horror filmmaking is for you, make no mistake; Kephart’s debut feature Graveyard Alive is a big old sweetheart of a film.