Choking Hazard

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Time to share a brief, sadistic pastime, one of the glorious results of a misspent youth. When I was in college, I went anywhere where I thought I could find fun, relaxation and good people. I even went to the frat parties for a while. Soon I realized that these places were not for me, and I didn't find a lot of the people there too interesting. I had my share of booze at the parties, but I basically mellowed out a bit. Don't get me wrong, I've had my moments and I still do love a good beer (nothing watered down, please) or a red wine. Still, I was never a very heavy drinker. So, you would expect that I would just stop going to the parties.

Ahh, but that would have been too easy and nowhere near as fun. Not being nearly as drunk myself, I was able to observe everyone else and their behavior and very quickly I made my own fun. See, it was a liberal arts school, and while I encourage everyone to get cultured and expand their minds, there were nonetheless more than enough big heads to go around. My favorite was the philosophy majors. More specifically, I loved the guys who were no more than a couple years removed from tractor pulls, monster truck rallies and cow tipping who suddenly read Plato's Republic and thus decided they now knew the inner-workings of the universe. In short, the poseurs who talked a good game, but were about as deep as a kiddie pool. So. plying them with that shitty keg beer, or even better bourbon and whiskey, I would drop a few subtle comments to two philosophy majors and just watch them go. The drunker they got, especially if it was hard booze, the more intense and amusing the argument became.

"The idea of a utopian city state is the ideal realization-"

"Yeah, but what about Nietzsche, when he said-"

"Fuck you, you fuckin' Jungian-"

"You nothing but a plutocratic asshole-"

"Come over here and say that!"

It was a practice I enjoyed for a couple months before growing bored with this as well. It was funny and surreal to watch these drunken kids try to have an intense debate when they could barely form words. That is, until my country elected a president who does the same thing every day. Hey, I had a lot of anger, a sadistic streak and way too much free time. See what happens when you don't keep me entertained?

The people in CHOKING HAZARD remind me a lot of those drunken free-thinkers. They too are students who gather at a secluded cabin for a weekend hosted by a philosophy professor. The idea is to study various philosophical ideals and by the end of the weekend, come away with the meaning of life. Frankly, the idea that anyone could find one narrow all-encompassing meaning of life, particularly in a single weekend, is so ridiculous that I can't be too upset when they become zombie chow.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. It's an eclectic group of people, but you'll forgive me if I can only recall a few of them. There's one cynic who has read every major philosophical, political and religious text and dismisses all of them. "The Bible? I read that. It's even more boring that Mein Kampf," he says at one point. Basically he is always ready with an insult and is definitely the nihilist of the group. Which is odd, when you consider he paid his fee as well. Also, he does a lot of name-checking with suggests he's the real poseur. There's the blind professor who says a lot without actually saying anything. There's the good girl who seems destined to survive just about anything. There's the slut who obviously won't. And there's a Jehovah's Witness who also moonlights as a male porn star. It's an off-beat bunch for a film that is designed to be off-beat.

Soon, the group is beset by a rampaging horde of zombies, or "woombies," as they are called at one point. I'll try to explain. They make a big deal and a few jokes about these not being just any ordinary zombies but "woodsman zombies." Now, I don't know if there's some prejudice about woodsmen in Czech Republic (where this film was made) that I'm unaware of. Or maybe they represent the instinct in a recurring theme of instinct versus reason. Or perhaps the fact that there really is no difference was the secret joke of constantly bringing it up. I don't know. Honestly, it may be that I am just being a moron about it, but the joke just went over my head. Perhaps the irony was lost in translation.

The group splits in two as they figure out a way to survive the oncoming zombies. And I am happy to report that at about the halfway point, CHOKING HAZARD becomes pretty enjoyable, and not a minute too soon. All thoughts about the greater meaning behind it all are thrown by the wayside in exchange for the simple instinct to survive at all costs. The very second the zombies break through the doors of the cabin, one of them shouts "There are zombies here!" In other words, they know exactly what is going on, figuring it out ridiculously fast.

Highlights of the zombie battle include a hilarious dancing scene and a takeoff on the overrated pretentious mess FUNNY GAMES. But my favorite would have to be when a couple of the guys manage to hold the zombies at bay and soon become quite amused with their presence. Without any concern for their own safety, they play ridiculous experiments with them like placing them on a treadmill or testing their pain threshold. You can get used to anything, I guess.

Most of the characters manage to distinguish themselves so you wind up rooting for them either to survive or to die in the most heinous ways possible. In his feature-length debut, director Marek Dobes makes some interesting decisions. He plays with lighting from location to location and makes the setting seem much smaller than it actually is. He utilizes tools such as variable speeds and split screen. Oddest of all, the film is presented in a wide 2.35 aspect ratio, but everyone looks a bit too wide. It's as if Dobes had shot the film on a 1.85 aspect ratio and then matted it to appear bigger. Yes, I notice these things.

Shriek Show is set to release this one on DVD. I've been waiting on this review to time it with the eventual release, but it hasn't happened yet. I think it should as CHOKING HAZARD is bound to gain a loyal fan base. Is this I HEART HUCKABEES with zombies? Well, no. It's not quite as funny or creative. But on it's own terms, CHOKING HAZARD works at least half the time. Things get off to a pretty rough start, but shape up nicely once the blood begins pouring in buckets. And you don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out why that happens.

Reviewed by Scott W. Davis