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.

JESSICA NELSON/MOMENT OPEN
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The fisher bird that unites levity with strength

We think the planet's fish are rightfully ours. But the brown pelican is known to snatch fish from other birds in mid-air.

If ever there was a time when I was unaccountably happy, it was the day I first saw the Pacific. I had just started working at an office near San Jose and, three days in to my first week, a colleague drove me south and west on a back road that seemed to run for hours through dense stands of Douglas fir and redwood, not stopping till we were just shy of the coast, the firs giving way to wind-sculpted specimens of California cypress and Monterey pine.

Here we parked and walked the rest of the way, coming over a rise and finally gazing out over the water. The Pacific. The idea of it had been part of my mental furniture since childhood, though I didn’t really know why, and what I saw both confirmed and confounded the image I had of that great ocean. But the thing that struck me most, the true source of my unaccountable happiness, was a long flight of brown pelicans drifting along the waterline, just ten yards from the shore, more elegant than I could have imagined from having seen pictures and captive specimens in zoos. This is not surprising, as what makes the brown pelican so elegant is how it moves, whether diving from astonishing heights in pursuit of fish or, as on this first encounter, hastening slowly along a beach in groups of thirty or forty, head back, wings tipped up slightly, with an air of ease that would give the term “laid back” a whole new definition.

The brown pelican: it’s a slightly misleading name, as the predominant colour varies from cocoa-brown to near-grey, while the breast is white and the head is brushed with a pale citrus tone, rather like the gannet, to which it is related. The birds breed on rocky islands off the Central American coast and travel north to hunt. In recent years, concern has been voiced for the species’ long-term safety: first, because of an observable thinning of the eggs, probably caused by pesticides, and second because, as recently as 2014, there was an alarming and inexplicable drop in the birthrate, which some observers attributed to huge fish-kills caused by Fukushima.

On an everyday level, though, pelicans, like cormorants and other coastal dwellers, have to be protected from those among the human population who think that all the fish in the ocean are, by some God-given right, unaccountably ours.

But none of this was in my mind that day, as I stood on that white beach and watched as flight after flight of pelicans sailed by. Out over the water, the sun sparkled yet the sea was almost still, in some places, so the bodies of the passing birds reflected in the water whenever they dipped low in their flight. What did come to mind was a phrase from Marianne Moore’s poem about another member of the Pelecaniformes family – the “frigate pelican”, or frigate bird, which she describes as “uniting levity with strength”. It’s as good a description of grace as I know.

Yet grace takes many forms, from the absolute economy with which an old tango dancer clothes her unquenched passion at a Buenos Aires milonga to Jürgen Schult’s world-record discus throw at Neubrandenburg in 1986, and we have to learn from birds such
as the pelican what we mean by “levity”, and “strength”.

How else to do that, other than by closely observing how the natural world really operates, rather than how we think it does? Later, in her poem about the frigate bird (an accomplished flier and an even more accomplished thief, known to pluck fish from another bird’s grasp in mid-air), Moore extends that notion of levity: “Festina lente. Be gay/civilly? How so?” and adds a quote from the Bhagavadgita that, to my mind, gets to the heart of the matter: “If I do well I am blessed/whether any bless me or not . . .” The lesson we learn from the noble order of Pelecaniformes is exactly this: of the many prizes we may try for, grace transcends all.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times