Gilbey on Film: horror at the box office

Is Zombie Undead the lowest-grossing film on record?

I've never been much of an industry-watcher, which is why Charles Gant's box-office digest in Sight & Sound magazine, and online at the Guardian, is so valuable. As well as being a witty read, there's the secondary but entirely pleasant sensation that someone else is doing my homework for me; Gant gets on with all the number-crunching so that this two-time maths flunkee doesn't have to.

There are usually some interesting stories in the figures, as it transpired recently when a friend emailed me to draw my attention to a striking detail in the UK box-office chart. Way down the list at number 89 in the tally for the weekend of 29 April to 1 May was something called Zombie Undead, a British horror movie which had passed me by.

What makes it so distinctive, apart from its tautological title (aren't all zombies undead?), is that it took just £10 during that three-day period. It didn't even have the excuse that it had been hanging around the charts for several weeks or months: we're talking £10 on its opening weekend, £10 from two screens. I'd love to find the two people who rushed out on that first weekend, almost as much as I'd like to know which cinema charges a mere £5 for a cinema ticket.

Perhaps it wasn't two people. Perhaps it was the same person seeing the film twice. Was it the director, or one of his friends, relatives or pets? If you're reading this, and either of those Zombie Undead opening-weekenders was you, or -- even better -- if both of them were you, please do get in touch. I'd love to know what you thought of the film.

A cursory look at some of the reviews suggests that it may not figure prominently in next year's Bafta nominations. Total Film called it a "no-budget, no-brains outing." Time Out found it "laughably inept" and singled out the "uniformly, enthusiastically dreadful" cast, while conceding that the film boasted "a small handful of . . . so-bad-they're-hysterical moments." But, hey -- any publicity is good publicity, right?

Most of the newspapers, as far as I could tell, didn't review the film. A search on the Guardian website asks me: "Did you mean Bobbi Undead?" Woah, I think to myself. Did I mean Bobbi Undead? What on earth is Bobbi Undead? That sounds intriguing. A vision of Bobbi Flekman, the "hostess with the mostest" who presides over the Smell the Glove launch party in This is Spinal Tap, materialises in my mind's eye. Except that now Bobbi is a blank-eyed zombie, foaming at the mouth and carrying a severed arm between her teeth. (Somehow this image is more comforting than the real, non-zombie Bobbi Flekman, of whom Tap's guitarist Nigel St Tufnel later said: "If she hadn't been a cheat, a liar and a bitch, she would have been a great girl.") So I click on Bobbi Undead. Disappointingly, it returns 0 results. Guardian website, you are such a tease.

I'm sure someone will rush to correct me if I'm mistaken, but it looks very much as though Zombie Undead could be the lowest-grossing film on record. Certainly it appears to have taken less at the box-office than the previous record holder, the 2006 thriller Zyzzyx Road, which starred a pre-Knocked Up Katherine Heigl alongside that Hollywood scandal magnet Tom Sizemore (who was arrested for violation of parole shortly before filming began), and boasts the tagline: "What happens in Vegas . . . gets buried on Zyzzyx Road." Entertainment Weekly has the full, gruesome story (and it's a good one) of why and how the film came to take just $30 after being seen by six people during a week's run in Dallas:

One of those paying customers was Sheila Moore, a Dallas-based make-up artist who had worked on the film. "I thought it was a little odd," she says of the film's debut. "I thought it was a joke at first. Yeah, right, of all places they're gonna premiere this in Dallas, so far from where we filmed it? I figured they'd do it in Los Angeles." Moore and a friend were the only people in the theatre. "We got popcorn and a drink from the same lady that took our tickets," she says. "It was kind of surreal. She looked at us like, 'You want to see what?'"

That film achieved notoriety for a time, helped no doubt by the fact that Heigl went on to bigger if not always better things. The best that the makers of Zombie Undead can hope for is that the same fate befalls their work. So-bad-they're-good pictures are a niche market in themselves, notable "successes" in the field including Plan 9 from Outer Space, Battlefield Earth, Gigli and the recent Birdemic: Shock and Terror. Much rarer is the so-bad-that-nobody-goes-to-see-it movie. If I were overseeing PR for Zombie Undead, I would recommend an immediate theatrical re-release -- except that there's always the chance it might jeopardise the low takings which currently represent the film's USP.

Zombie Undead is released on DVD on 30 May

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood