by Barry Meyer
Sometimes, no-budget backyard cinema can be pretty fun.
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I’ll admit that I absolutely enjoy watching amateur films. I’m talking the low-no-budget stuff made in someone’s backyard with a borrowed super8 or video cam, starring themselves and their friends. It’s not that I have a masochistic need to watch those poorly lit, badly acted, sound from the mic on the camera flicks. Rather, for me, there’s a certain organic sincerity to them that hasn’t yet been convoluted by a skilled understanding of the whole motion picture process. Yeah, a lot of the stuff is merely reconstituted fanboy shtick that gleefully tries to duplicate the Matrix without a budget, or Tarrantino without the wit. But if you can muster up enough energy and shift those ass cheeks around a bit to get the blood flowing, then you’ll be rewarded to find a nice little piece o’ pie every once in awhile — like Demon Summer, a no-budget gem put out by some local Ohio kids known as Speed Freak Productions.
As the story goes on the DVD sleeve…20 years ago the small town of Louisville was stunned by the gruesome death of a local teenage girl. The case was shrouded in mystery and never resolved, and the only man who knows the terrible secret of what happened that night wanders the streets in silence. Two decades later, a group of meddling high school kids, with a summer full of time on their hands, gets too curious about the mystery and inadvertently resurrects the town’s demons. Now this sleepy little suburb will be forced to remember…evil hides in every town.
Let me add that there’s also this Evil Dead thingee that involves the wickedness contained in the pages of some dusty old book, which is the source of all the gory creepiness. But that is about as fanboy as these guys get with this relatively impressive production. Zombie films have become zombie-like themselves lately, with every kid with a camcorder (or even worse, a Hollywood zippy with a budget) doing their own version of Raimi or Romero. However, the Campbell brothers, directors Luke and Andy, do a great job breathing fresh life into the stale ol’ setup with their understated script (which they co-wrote with Cory Maidens) that avoids being overly ironic or too self-aware (take a lesson from this Hollywood).
The story itself isn’t anything to bang yer cans all around the room about, but these guys do a fine job keeping a storyline flowing with some consistency, even throughout the subplots. Subplots!! Yes, for once a no-budget flick that has enough imagination to have fairly well developed characters with their own subplots! You know, this may sound like I’m heaping on the praise for such minor achievements, but let me remind you that these guys are non-pro, backyard moviemakers.
The best part about Demon Summer, for me, is that it’s as close to real camp as anyone has gotten in years. Here’s the trouble with camp - you cannot duplicate it with effort (nor on a Hollywood stage with major celebrities). Do you really think that the actors in those 50s B-movies were intending to be so ironically deadpan? Do you honestly think that Tor was going for the laughs in Plan Nine From Outer Space? Of course not. The beauty of camp is that the people involved are trying as hard as they can to be good — not comical or wooden. The actors in Demon Summer aren’t as oblivious to camp as their predecessors were, but they still put in an earnest effort to do the best job they can, and they do well to avoid being overly ironic. The result is some good-as-apple-pie ol’ fashioned camp acting (that’s meant as a compliment here – really!). To tweak the camp even more are some casting choices that have the older guys in the circle of filmmaking friends called upon to take the adult roles. So, you have some guy in his mid-twenties playing the step-father to a high school senior, and then this other mid-twenties dude as the town bum, who, incidentally, was a teen in the 70s. Genius!
The Campbell boys said that they intentionally cut the humor quotient in Demon down from their previous flick, Midnight Skater, and I’m glad they did. The jokes here don’t overshadow the spirit of the movie, and seems to spring naturally from the characters instead of from some artificial need to draw attention to how witty the filmmakers can be (take a lesson from this Eli Roth). And the Campbell boys had enough trust in their actors, especially Bob Hawkins and Cory Maidens, to allow them to adlib some really great lines. My favorite gag was uttered by the town’s obnoxious skirt-chasing thug after his ego is threatened by a zombie. He spends the entire movie chasing after his dream-girl and running from the zombies, but when he finds his dream-girl about to succumb to the zombie’s will, the thug finally grows some cajones, “If anyone’s gonna hit that, it’s gonna be me.” More subtle humor is added by the 80s-mocking soundtrack, designed by some of the films cast and friends.
Aside from the creative end, it seems as the Speed Freaks have drawn on their meager experiences to make a fairly technically sound film. Much of the movie was shot at night, and the Campbell boys upgraded to a digital video cam this time around to enhance the low lit setups. Personally, I love night-for-night shooting. Day-for-night has a certain warm and fuzzy bring-me-back-to-the-70s feeling to it, but for Horror movies, you just gotta shoot for night. You can do so much more with the shadows, and these guys take advantage of it and design some pretty creepy shots.
The Demon Summer DVD is put out on underground legend J.R. Bookwalter’s Tempe Entertainment subdivision, Splatter Rampage, and it’s given the full blown treatment. The picture and sound quality are crisp, and the disc itself is packed with cool extras — including outtakes, a behind the scenes look at the FX, a short doc on the Speed Freak’s tour of some horror fests, and some trailers for other Splatter Rampage releases. There is also a commentary track, to boot! It’s mostly the Campbell boys and the Speed Freak gang having a good time watching themselves (through much of it you can hear the kids yammering away in the background), but every so often someone drops some interesting info in. They could’ve done a bit better on the track, but it’s still fun to listen in on these guys and girls.
A WARNING! To avoid confusion, keep repeating…this is only an amateur movie, this is only an amateur movie, this is only an amateur movie… Okay? Just want you folks to understand that this is not a Hollywood production by any stretch of the definition. I don’t want anyone going on this recommendation and expecting some cinematic treat for the senses. Demon Summer is about as low budget as you can get, and all the people involved, from the video makers to the actors to the FX crew, are all amateurs and non-actors, some with little or no experience, at all. But, like I said before, sometimes there’s this bit of sincerity that shines through the piles of crap you watch, and you find a flick where you can see that the makers take their stuff pretty seriously. For once you have some amateurs who are willing to move beyond the fanboy stuff and make something that they seem to really care about. I can’t honestly say that I was terrified by this Horror film, but I can say, without hesitation, that I was very impressed, very much so that I look forward to seeing what dish Speed Freak serves up the next time around. The Campbell boys could very well be headed for cultdom if they keep up the work.
So remember, this movie is a no-budget underground amateur flick. It’s a bunch of twenty-something kids who got together to make a backyard spook movie — and it looks that way! But, if you’ve got the balls to see something different, then Demon Summer is one great can-kicking no-budget underground flick. I’ll tell you this much, I’d let my ass cheeks go numb watching Demon Summer over and over for the umpteenth time rather than watch Cabin Fever ever again!
Barry Meyer is a scriptwriter living in Jersey, where he has had many a run in with real life zombies… They turned out to be just morning commuters.
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