Al Kaplan, Bill Burr, Brent Briscoe, cabins, cheating boyfriends, cinema, Code Monkeys, Cortney Palm, dark comedies, dark humor, directorial debut, Ed Marx, electronic score, feature-film debut, film reviews, films, girls only weekend, goofy, gory films, horror, horror-comedies, Hutch Dano, isolation, Jake Weary, John Mayer, Jon Kaplan, Jonathan Hall, Jordan Rubin, Lexi Atkins, Movies, multiple writers, Peter Gilroy, Phyllis Katz, practical effects, Rachel Melvin, Rex Linn, Robert R. Shafer, silly films, sorority sisters, toxic waste spill, Troma films, writer-director, Zombeavers, zombie films, zombies
There’s a point in Jordan Rubin’s ridiculously fun Zombeavers (2014) where our hapless heroes need to execute one of those standard “shoring up the defenses” scenes that’s as much a fixture of siege films as the actual siege itself. Working together, the group goes through all the familiar motions: moving dressers against doors, nailing boards across windows, frantically working to keep what’s outside from coming inside their small, isolated cabin. Despite their best efforts, however, it seems to be a losing battle, the gist of which isn’t lost on one of the exasperated survivors: “You do realize that the whole point of a beaver is it chops fucking wood, right?”
It’s an astute observation but, more importantly, it’s a damn good line and pretty much par for the course in a debut feature that’s always more intelligent than it seems, never quite as crass as it means to be and an easy step above similarly goofy horror-comedy fare. Writer-director Rubin comes from a long background as a writer on TV comedies (most notably the crude but effective Crank Yankers and several late night shows, including Craig Kilborn and Carson Daly) and his script (co-written with Al and Jon Kaplan, who also handled the fabulous score, just as they did with the criminally under-rated Code Monkeys) is consistently smart, if constantly silly. The biggest coup? Rubin and company manage to take a fairly dumb concept (zombified beavers) and inject just enough genuine tension and action to keep the whole thing from floating away into the ether. Zombeavers may be the class cut-up but it sure as hell ain’t the class dunce.
Kicking off with a fantastic gag involving a heavily disguised John Mayer and comedian Bill Burr as less than attentive truck drivers, we immediately get the nuts and bolts of the tale: a mysterious barrel falls off the truck, proceeds down a river and winds up at a beaver dam where it’s inspected by a couple of cute beaver puppets. If you grew up in the ’80s, you probably know what mysterious barrels that fall into rivers do and, by Jove, that’s just what happens here: exit the cute, friendly little beavers…enter…the zombeavers!
Our cannon fodder, in this case, consists of a trio of sorority sisters, Mary (Rachel Melvin), Zoe (Cortney Palm) and Jenn (Lexi Atkins), who’ve headed into the woods for a “girls only” weekend. Jenn has just seen a photo of her boyfriend, Sam (Hutch Dano, grandson of Royal), canoodling with a strange girl (or, at least, the back of her head) and Mary and Zoe want to help take her mind off her misery. Or, to be more accurate, Mary does: for her part, Zoe is the kind of amazingly snarky, sarcastic and just plain shitty character who can either make or break a film and she’s a complete blast.
While they settle in, the girls meet a local hunter, Smyth (Rex Linn), who flips the tired, old “leering redneck” cliché on its head by admonishing the young ladies’ skimpy bathing suits and “weird tattoos” rather than wolf-whistling. They also find the beaver dam from the beginning, although it’s now covered in neon-green “beaver piss,” so they keep their distance. As the “friends” play Truth or Dare, a pounding at the door begins as a fright but culminates in that other, great slasher film cliché: the crashing of the girls’ night out by their loutish boyfriends. Seems that ultra horny Zoe can’t go a weekend without screwing her equally horny boyfriend, Buck (Peter Gilroy), so she secretly invited him, along with Mary’s boyfriend, Tommy (Jake Weary) and good, old, cheatin’ Sam.
With our crew assembled, it’s only a matter of time before the zombeavers rear their vicious little heads and, before they know it, our young lovers are knee-deep in ravenous, dead-eyed little dam-builders. When the group is forced to split-up, it seems that tragedy is looming ever nearer over the horizon. As they must deal with not only the very real outside threat but their own internal struggles, a new wrinkle emerges: this is a zombie film, after all, and we all know why it’s a good idea to keep those fellas at arm’s length. Will our plucky heroes be able to pull together and kick beaver ass or have they just been dammed?
On paper, Zombeavers is a thoroughly ridiculous, silly concept, akin to something like Sharknado (2013) or FDR: American Badass (2012): after all, this is a film about zombified beavers…gravitas might seem slightly out-of-place, here. Thanks to a pretty great script, however (it’s probably one of the most quotable newer films I’ve seen), Zombeavers functions as more of a high-concept parody/homage than a lunk-headed bit of SyFy fluff. While it’s not in the same vaunted company as the stellar Tucker & Dale vs Evil (2010), Zombeavers is pretty equitable to Mike Mendez’s fun Big Ass Spider! (2013) in that it mixes fun, dumb gags with more clever, subtle marginalia. One of my favorite bits in Zombeavers is a throwaway gag that features a teenage fisherman wearing a “#1 Dad” ball cap: it works on a number of levels but, most importantly, it’s the kind of absurd detail that makes the film’s world feel so much more complete than it could have, something akin to the immersive worlds of Troma films.
Rubin and company throw a lot of schtick at the screen (particularly once we get to the last act “twist” that introduces a whole other, outrageous element to the proceedings) but most of it actually sticks, unlike something like the obnoxious, tone-deaf Sharknado. Part of this has to do with all of the aforementioned nifty little details but the whole thing would collapse if there wasn’t an incredibly game cast propping it up. Luckily, Zombeavers is filled with actors who perfectly understand the razor-thin line between “campy” and “stupid” and manage to (mostly) walk it with ease.
While the central trio of Melvin, Palm and Atkins are set-up as rather feather-headed (particularly Melvin’s Mary), they have tremendous chemistry together: their scenes have such a quick, snappy pace to them that they handily recall films like Mean Girls (2004) or, to a lesser extent, Heathers (1988). While Melvin’s exquisite comedic timing and Atkins’ slightly ethereal bearing fit like a glove, the real standout is Palm’s Zoe. Time after time, Palm manages to swipe the film right from under the others, whether it’s the bit where she gleefully doffs her bikini top only to cover herself up when a bear looks at her or any of her perfectly delivered bon mots (her deadpan rejoinder of “Maybe you should try going down on me more often,” to Buck’s “I’ve never seen a real beaver before” is so perfectly delivered that it hurts).
As befits their characters, the guys are pitched as pretty unrepentant, obnoxious horn-dogs but it works, for the most part, although Dano never seems to connect with his character in any meaningful way: his delivery always seems awkward and slightly off. Although Weary’s Tommy doesn’t get as much to do, Gilroy’s Buck is another highlight, just like his equally churlish girlfriend. While Gilroy’s delivery doesn’t always work (there are some definitively odd things that he does, beat-wise), he almost hits an Andy Kaufman-lite vibe when it does. His “my dick is asleep” bit starts out irritating but becomes oddly amusing (and weirdly charming) but moments like his bizarrely energetic sex scene (screaming “You’re way too hot for me!” as he enthusiastically humps away) or any of his great throwaway lines (“Who the fuck is crying on vacation day?!”…”I’ll see you in the bone zone!”) are all but essential to the film’s overall vibe.
And back to that vibe: one of the most notable things about Zombeavers is that, despite the assumed crudity of the concept and execution, the film is anything but a collection of stupid “beaver” jokes and frat boy humor. If anything, Rubin’s script constantly pushes against those stereotypes, walking a fine line between embracing the clichés and setting them on fire. This isn’t to say that Zombeavers is wholesome family fare (penis-chomping, eye-gouging and Zoe’s boobs abound): it is to say, however, that Rubin and crew are smart and savvy enough to know that raunchy humor doesn’t have to be braindead…there’s nothing in this film that comes close to approximating the inanity of the aforementioned SyFy tripe, no matter how hard they try.
As should be plainly obvious, I was quite taken with Zombeavers: as a directorial debut, it’s even more impressive. While not everything worked, the elements that really worked tended to soar: the last fifteen minutes of the film are so damned perfect that I, literally, cheered. Since the film ends with a direct, clever set-up for a sequel (there are other things in the woods besides beavers, after all), I’m hoping that Rubin can capitalize on what worked here and come roaring out of the gate on the next one. After all: any guy that can see the inherent, soul-shattering evil of those flat-tailed, buck-toothed bastards…well, he’s pretty alright in my book.