Both of the first two movies I looked at this month have one major element in common – they were low-budget. Plan 9 From Outer Space had a budget of $60,000, back in the 50’s. Troll 2’s budget was $100,000 back in 1990. Considering inflation, you could say that Plan 9’s budget was larger, yet it still feels cheaper out of the two. Well … today’s focus “film” began production in 2006 and released in 2010. Its budget: less than $10,000. I’ve spent more than that on computer hardware since I finished high school. It’s also worth mentioning that of all the movies I’m looking at this month, this is the only one I haven’t seen before.
Birdemic: Shock and Terror, often shortened to Birdemic, is directed by Vietnamese filmmaker James Nguyen. Although he’s been living in the United States for most of his life, he’s still purely a Vietnamese citizen. He never received any kind of formal training in filming, but grew up watching Alfred Hitchcock movies, most notably The Birds. The Birds is a horror movie that serves as one of the main inspirations behind Birdemic. After he grew up, he worked a brief stint as a software salesman, before picking up a camera in 1999 and following his true passion, filmmaking.
His first two movies, the romance Julie and Jack, and the sci-fi thriller Replica (Inspired by Hitchcock’s Vertigo, not Blade Runner), are both very low-budget movies that most people don’t really know about. In both of these movies, he wrote, directed, and produced them. With Julie and Jack, he also operated the camera, lighting, designed the costumes, helped out with set decorating, and even wrote the songs, “Spiritual Love” and “Professor Tran”.
Production for Birdemic faced a number of problems from the start. Due to time limitations, filming mostly took place on weekends over the course of several months, with most of the financing coming from Nguyen’s day job. They didn’t even get filming permits for the majority of their scenes. On several occasions, they were kicked out, and had to find other locations to film. Whitney Moore, who plays the female lead Nathalie, said that at one point, they were filming on a public jogging trail, and Nguyen started yelling at joggers who got in the shot. She told him not to yell at people, so he refused to talk to her for three weeks, using the male lead Alan Bagh (who plays Rod in the movie) to act as an intermediary. Stephen Gustavson, who plays the “treehugger” character, mentioned in a 2021 interview that in his scene, Nguyen spotted a park ranger and told the crew to pretend they were having a picnic.
The crew was very small, and several of them quit on top of that. After two different makeup artists quit, Moore took charge of makeup duties. Cast members usually held their own microphones, often between their knees. In order to make the film look more legitimate, Nguyen inserted fake names into most of these crew credits.
Also as the production continued, Nguyen became more and more influenced by Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth documentary, and started tacking on themes of global warming into the movie.
Even after filming concluded, it took a long time for Nguyen to find a distributor. In 2009, he travelled to the Sundance Film Festival to promote his film freelance, handing out flyers from his van, with stuffed birds inside and a paper sign that read “Bidemic.com”. Yup, he couldn’t even bother to spell the movie properly for his freelance advertisement. Eventually, Birdemic received a premiere at Los Angeles’s Silent Movie Theater, sponsored by Bloody Disgusting, and a couple follow-up screenings took place in Texas, Arizona, and New York City. After these screenings, Severin Films acquired the film and toured the movie in numerous cities in the USA, as well as Toronto, Canada, and London, England. It then released on Blu-ray and DVD in 2011, with a commentary track from Nguyen, and a second with Baugh, Moore, and a fan who discovered the film, Bobby Hacker. Oh yeah, and it also included several deleted scenes.
As for the movie itself, oh boy. If you thought Plan 9 from Outer Space felt cheap … just wow. This is by far the worst editing I’ve ever seen in a theatrically released movie. The audio balancing doesn’t match up from shot to shot. Most of the shots linger on for too long, to the point where the cast clearly don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing. Other shots are abrupt. The special effects can be summed up by saying they superimposed a bunch of gifs over the footage. The environmental message, while well intentioned, is tacked on, overly preachy, and makes no sense.
Even back in 2006, I could have easily fixed the audio balancing in this movie within one afternoon. Well … other than the beach scene below. There’s no fixing that without the actors dubbing themselves over, which is fairly common practice even in low-budget movies.
The acting is very wooden across the board. Considering Moore, Bagh, and a number of other actors have a career outside of this movie, most of the blame can be placed on the directing and the low budget. Every time the Rod character speaks, he sounds insincere. Most of the time when Nathalie is on screen, it looks like she’s only half-paying attention, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Moore’s issues with Nguyen had something to do with that. There is one actress in the movie, Patsy van Ettinger, whose entire acting career is in Nguyen’s movies, who often sounds like she’s reading her lines out loud with the script just off-screen. She plays as Nathalie’s mom, and she’s only got two scenes. In one, she’s congratulating her daughter on both finding a boyfriend and landing a major gig, and in the other one, she briefly talks about what she does in her retirement. You could completely remove her character and change nothing about the movie’s story.
Even ignoring the completely amateurish editing, complete lack of sound mixing, the bad acting, and the botched environmental message, this would be a terrible movie. The first half is a happy go lucky romance story, where everything goes right for all of the characters. Rod’s career is really taking off, with him making a big sale, his company buying up a smaller company, and then he easily gets millions in funding for his green energy startup. Nathalie works as a model. In one scene, she’s doing a photo shoot at 1-hour photo … because that’s how the modelling industry works in Birdemic’s universe. The next, she’s going to be the cover model for Victoria’s Secret. If not for this being a step-by-step guide on how not to edit a movie, and all its other problems, the first half would be very boring.
In the second half of the movie, eagles start attacking humans. Sometimes, they even explode or spit acid on people. Why are they exploding? Where did they get their acid breath? Uh … global warming? The movie never tells us otherwise. They meet up with characters we’ve never seen before, one of them happens to be an ex-marine who stores a bunch of weapons in his van. Convenient. They also rescue two kids, whose parents were killed by the eagles, and the rest of the movie pretends as if these kids belong to Rod and Nathalie. They never cry over their parents’ deaths. They just complain about how hungry they are, or they hold hands with their “adoptive” parents. Regardless of which scenes your talking about, the child actors look bored.
Along the way, they meet a bird scientist who preaches about global warming and how the birds are dying from some sort of disease. Then they come across the previously mentioned “treehugger”, who says that he dislikes humans in general, and preaches on about global warming. Apparently he’s safe from the eagles because of his life in nature, but shortly after his scene, the eagles start burning the forest down. If these eagles really are intelligent as this movie suggests, and attacking city dwelling humans in revenge for the environment, why are they burning down a forest?
As you may have gathered from the rest of this review, Birdemic isn’t a very good movie. Even before its theatrical release, Bloody Disgusting listed it as an honorable mention, calling it “the best worst film you’ll see in 2010”. Variety Magazine’s review said that “Birdemic displays all the revered hallmarks of hilariously bad filmmaking: inane dialogue … and special effects that simply must be seen to be believed: birds dive-bombing and exploding in red-and-yellow poofs of smoke, and clip-art eagles, crudely pasted on the screen.” Slate wrote in their review, “Birdemic can seem too bad to be true … The film’s artlessness comes to function as its own sort of hallucinatory art … we see the narrative space of the film breaking down and rebuilding itself constantly.”
Birdemic’s infamy led to a sequel, released in March 2012. By this point, Nguyen fully embraced the movie’s so bad its good reputation, and actively went for the same feel for Birdemic 2: The Resurrection. He even shot the movie in 3D, hoping it would bring more people to the sequel. The sequel wasn’t nearly as “well-received”, as it tried too hard to capture the same kind of so bad it’s good humour as the first one. There is also a Birdemic 3: Sea Eagle that has already finished filming, and is aiming for a late 2022 release. Nguyen also says that this will be his final film. Baugh is the only cast member from the first movie set to appear in the third. Moore’s career has actually taken off since Birdemic 2, appearing in the moderately successful horror movie Satanic Panic in 2019, multiple appearances in the ongoing Vampire: The Masquerade series, voicing Stargirl in Young Justice, and a number of appearances on popular YouTube shows. That’s not to say she’s a superstar, but she’s doing alright.
Birdemic must be seen to be believed. Every aspect of this movie is an epic fail, and it’s not worth expanding on that any further. As usual, I will not spoil what I’ll be watching next week, but considering every movie I’ve looked at so far has some sort of horror element, it’s time to switch it up. As of right now, I’ve got two possible choices for next month’s theme. One would be the Hollywood Epic month (the only issue is that I’ve only picked 2 movies for that so far). Although I was considering Best of Tom Hanks as the other option, considering the recent announcement of Bruce Willis’s retirement due to his recently announced diagnosis, a Bruce Willis theme month feels more appropriate.