Indie-horror can sometimes be a frustrating viewing experience: saddled with low budgets and "amateur" acting, indie-filmmakers are often tempted to play it for laughs, indulge in ironic pastiche of the classic horror genres, or resort to poor rip-offs of the latest Hollywood blockbusters. It is, therefore, incredibly refreshing when an independent filmmaker comes along who successfully overcomes the constraints imposed on him/her by a low budget, to contribute something original to the genre, exploring areas often ignored by the mainstream. Isn't this, after all, what independent movie-making is meant to be all about? Italian director, Ivan Zuccon, is one of the most promising exponent of this maverick sensibility: his challenging Lovecraft trilogy of films transcend their lowly origins and deliver everything a horror fan demands while completely disregarding conventional narrative structures. The latest release from the excellent UK Hard Gore label brings us another fine example of independent horror at it's most original in the guise of American director Chad Ferrin's "Cannibal Dead: The Ghouls."
Ferrin's film takes a grungy, unflinching look at the ruthless world of news stringing. A stringer is someone who monitors police scanners for information and then arrives at the scene of a crime armed with a video camera hoping to record footage which they can then sell to TV news stations. The bloodier the footage they can capture, the more money they can earn! Timothy Muskatell plays Eric Hayes: a drug-fuelled, alcohol-addicted mess with one hell of a smokers' cough! Hayes makes his living following Los Angeles' police chases and ambulance runs -- and seeking out acts of random street violence to record. One night, he stumbles upon what appears to be a group of vagrants gang-raping a female pedestrian in an alleyway! With his usual lack of moral concern, Hayes grabs his video camera and rushes up to the scene, standing right over the spectacle so as to get the best possible view! To his amazement and horror though, he realises that the woman is not being raped at all but is actually being torn-apart and eaten by her aggressors who, although dressed like homeless people, are clearly not human!
Hayes can hardly believe his luck to have acquired such a piece of valuable footage; but when he takes it to a cynical and contemptuous news editor (Joe Pilato), Hayes realises that he was so inebriated at the time that he forgot to put a video in his camera! To make matters worse, his long-suffering girlfriend decides to finally leave him after discovering some video footage in his flat showing some children burning to death in a house-fire without any intervention from him! With his life crumbling around him, Hayes joins forces with a pal (Trent Haaga) in order to hunt down the ghouls and finally get the footage that will make his fortune...
"Cannibal Dead" was shot on mini DV for $15,000 and attains a look which perfectly suits it's subject matter while still achieving a high level of professionalism. Ferrin professes a love for the work of Mario Bava and Val Lewton, but it is George A. Romero and Abel Ferrara who seem to have had the most influence on this particular work -- which blends the social commentary of Romero's Dead Trilogy with a powerful study of one man's moral and mental disintegration in the style of Ferrara's "Bad Lieutenant" or "Driller Killer".
Ferrin takes his time sketching-out the pitiful character of Eric Hayes in the early part of the film, and actor Timothy Muskatell does a fine job of portraying his malaise as Hayes suppresses all human emotions of empathy with drink and drugs in order to do his job. Hayes has become emotionally cut off from everyone around him and exists entirely in a moral vacuum inhabited only by his competitive and ruthless stringer colleagues; but his addictions are beginning to progress to the point where they are now hindering his ability even to compete in their cut-throat world. When Hayes discovers the underclass of ghouls, openly feeding off of the flesh of a society which resolutely refuses to acknowledge their existence, the film becomes a metaphorical social commentary on how contemporary society its self feeds on real life horror and degradation for entertainment. The authenticity achieved by the shot-on-video look of the film is augmented by what appears to be footage of real vagrants filmed on the streets of Los Angeles and incorporated into the movie; and the film opens with some real stringer footage of a free-way car chase which turns into a suicide when the driver stops and blows his own brains out! There is even some very unpleasent fake snuff footage in which a downs-syndrome man strangles a woman on video! All this gives the film a clammy, voyeuristic feel which implicates both the audience and filmmakers.
The underclass of ghouls live in the city sewers (reminiscent of Gary Sherman's cult classic "Death Line"  in which a underclass of cannibals breed in a disused section of the London Underground) and are obviously meant to represent the homeless who go unnoticed and ignored in everyday life. Ferrin gives his creatures a distinctive look which combines the dead-eyed style of Romero's zombies with a regressive, troglodyte demeanour. Although Ferrin brings a serious tone to the film he doesn't hold back on the gore: there is some seriously nasty stuff included here. The ghouls really tear into their victims with relish; one poor guy gets torn clean in half while another is skinned alive and hung on a meat hook! There is also a vicious stabbing and a baby ghoul is shot to death in his ghoul mother's arms! The film doesn't ever bother providing any explanation for the existence of the creatures, but that arguably just leaves the allegory open to interpretation.
Hard Gore bring another obscure independent gem to the UK. The film is presented in it's original 4:3 aspect ratio and it's excellent sound design comes over well in the Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track. There are no extras present -- apart from a trailer and the usual extensive collection of trailers for other Hard Gore titles -- but the film is well worth checking out.