THEIR BILLION HANDS (rated NC-17) * * * *
After shooting and editing for almost three years, first-time writer/director Thomas Naroth has finally crafted the zombie movie that fans of the genre have pined for since George Romero unleashed Night of the Living Dead on an unsuspecting populace. Fairly breathtaking in scope, this modestly budgeted but impressive-looking film looks at a zombie plague from the perspectives of eleven different characters in an Altman-esque montage of grisly violence and admirably crafted human drama. At a little over three hours in length, Their Billion Hands is a seamless dazzle which omits nothing, beginning with the plague's freakish beginnings in a condemned Serbian church (if the text of the secret ritual which plunges the world into zombiedom doesn't give you nightmares, nothing will) and progressing through agonizing war room arguments which force the American government to scorch the earth in desperation. Naroth's interest goes well beyond vivid shocks and memorable action sequences; the brutal horror of the plague reveals different layers of psychology in each of the principals. From a paranoid Senator with early signs of Alzheimer's to a woman whose hopes for freedom from an abusive husband are pinned on the growing chaos, the people are real and their points of view unique. The ultimate thesis here—that mortal fear, global upheaval, and anarchy are the universe's naturally cleansing agents, both historically necessary and irrevocable—makes for the grimmest of tones. It is Naroth's pure expertise with cinema, though, that offers the moment-to-moment gruesome thrills which will be remembered for a long time to come. His zombies are awful to look at and their violence is unpredictable, the results of it positively sickening. The camera has never had such dark fascination with zombie violence and the threatened humanity of those who are forced to engage in it. Brace yourself for an ending that may leave you queasy with its gore even as it compels you with its opulence of imagination, as hundreds of the living dead sinking into the ocean grab vengefully at the flailing survivors of a gunboat wreck. Trust us, this is not a spoiler; what the scene means in the context of this instant classic cannot possibly be predicted. (Elliot Kell) Playing at several area theaters.
From Milwaukee Arts Watch, June 8, 2011, new film capsule reviews:
THE LANGUAGE DEMONS SPEAK (rated NC-17) * * * *
Thomas Naroth's sequel to Their Billion Hands is creative almost to a fault, the only horror sequel in history to be worthy of the adjective "masterpiece". The film is set during the height of the zombie plague as the undermanned Third Assigned Army hunkers down on the Maryland/Pennsylvania border in preparation for a fiery assault. Through bad decision-making, hubris, and paralyzing fear, the military minds running the encampment condemn it to a state of siege as thousands of the living dead seem to prepare their own intelligent counter-attack in the surrounding hills. The parallels Naroth draws between this situation and the agonizing days of the U.S. Marines at Khe Sanh are at first subtle, but grow more and more daringly obvious. The first hour and a half is like a twisting rubber band drawing the tension and suspense tighter and tighter, as evidence of increasing zombie atrocities are shown but the zombies themselves never are. The day to day struggles of the men to keep sane in the face of madness are relentlessly detailed to the point where there seems little difference between Gladhill, Pennsylvania and Vietnam. By the time the breaking point comes, the men of the "End Times Unit", depicted by a cast of unknowns, have become completely rounded, deeply flawed characters whose fate we absolutely must know. Then comes the coup de grace, as Naroth jerks the story sideways into the snow-blanketed hills to follow the relentless progress of a severely wounded zombie whose identity may remain a conundrum even after you've left the theater. Shooting in conditions of zero visibility during the Blizzard of 2010, Naroth turned the screen into a blindingly white canvas which makes the face of the mystery zombie that much more sinister and expressive. This reviewer thinks he knows who it really is and what Naroth was trying to say by depicting the entire forty-minute climactic battle through its perpetually staring eyes....but even if I'm wildly wrong, the film's surface genius cannot be denied. It is a textbook example of great suspense, gut-churning gore, and well-timed gallows humor, as well as a memorable comment on the sick, undeniable allure of war. Keep in mind that none of the extreme weather was simulated with computer trickery, and fear not, zombie devotees: a possible third movie is cleverly set up with Wallace Stevens's closing quote. (Elliot Kell)
From Obscura 7, A Magazine of Film and Theater, January 14, 2014:
New this week on DVD
THE GRAVE OF TERRENCE NIN
Against all studio pressure, fan desires, and seemingly solid logic, Thomas Naroth chose to close his classic zombie trilogy by reducing the story in size and scope. The story follows an openly racist white veteran of the infamous Battle of Gladhill, which closed the second chapter so memorably, as he makes his way via motorized wheelchair to a fabled zombie-free zone in Tennessee. Along the way, his repeated encounters with a single dark-skinned zombie lay the foundation for a brilliantly comedic and ultimately poignant two-man movie as the survivor's tangled moral sense keeps him from killing the source of his angst. If you find yourself rooting for the survival of poor dead Terrence Nin (some claim the name is a shrewd anagram hearkening back to a key image in Their Billion Hands), you won't be alone: his ultimate fate left so many people in tears upon the film's release last summer that a Best Picture nomination came as no real surprise. The film's final act brings the overall story arc to a close by introducing a cast of psychologically damaged characters who represent American archetypes corrupted and somehow purified by the three-year nightmare of the living dead's hold upon the land. Their methodical planning for a mass crucifixion as a miracle cure for the plague plays out as black comedy given a lingering pathos by the much-talked about final shot. Held for more than four minutes and involving the complex choreography of over a thousand living dead extras, it should give a careful viewer plenty of time to figure out and appreciate just why Naroth ended the trilogy with this rigorous ballet. What remains in the memory most is the fearlessness of a filmmaker who took the strangest genre imaginable and used it to create true art, not just once, but three times. Extras on the DVD include a 45-minute documentary on the exhausting month-long efforts to complete that last shot, hundreds of stills showing how a team of artists and technicians worked for years to come up with the wide variety of ghastly zombie makeovers, and four essays by noted film scholar Howard Doig. (review by Elliot Kell) Overall grade: A
From the Phoenix Street, June 27, 2015, new film capsule reviews:
THEIR BILLION HANDS 4
The temptation to cash in on Thomas Naroth's classic zombie trilogy was too much for the studio that, legend has it, never wanted to release part one in the first place. French action director Cris-Luc Harrard was at least a fairly intelligent choice to pick up the reins, but the scriptwriters simply aren't up to the task. The story picks up at the beginning of a second wave of living dead aggression, the cause of which is complicated enough to require three separate title screens to explain. At least the filmmakers chose ambition over simplicity, and there's enough here to keep the eyes and ears somewhat occupied for a good hour and a half before it begins to lag. A cast cobbled together from the first three films plays a U.N. rescue team trapped in the stinking remains of a Rwandan refugee camp while a sea of zombies inexplicably surrounds them. A week-long project to tunnel to freedom turns into a year of mysterious indecision as the tunnel becomes a never-ending maze from which no one seems to have the courage or even desire to emerge. Despite this intriguing premise, the efforts to salute Naroth's ability to add multiple thematic dimensions to his plots border on camp, and Harrard substitutes meaningless random zombie attacks for real suspense. The first three decapitations were plenty, the next five or so a bit on the unnecessary side. The movie is a failure that doesn't quite tarnish the trilogy and can be easily forgotten if you can get past the most wrongheaded closing credits song in years, a gothic cover of The Who's "Love Reign O'er Me". (Elliot Kell) 1 hour, 53 minutes, contains graphic violence, brief nudity, and strong language.
From Shots: The Video Journal, October 21, 2016, "Elliot Kell's Films in Brief":
THEIR BILLION HANDS 5 * 1/2
(Rated R) Oops—the Billion Hands series has finally reached the regrettable point. Everything about this sequel is relatively half-assed, from the wafer-thin plot right down to the zombies' makeup jobs, which take us back to the not-so-glorious days of Lucio Fulci. In this entry, the American government's efforts to quash the living dead involve dropping the occasional nuclear weapon, resulting in widespread fallout which gives birth to a new species of nasties. These walking corpses talk, and even their verbal sludge is usually more interesting to listen to than the human cast. Is there a reason Matt LeBlanc of Friends fame is still getting work? His performance as a nutty general channels Dr. Strangelove by way of a snippy rat terrier. Director Rob Beddes of video game eminence translates his skills to the cinema in a mostly indifferent fashion, and the addition of a couple of sex scenes to the proceedings provides only a few seconds of interest until those involved try to act. The highlight is most certainly the zombie football game, in which LeBlanc's general forces twenty-two ghouls to stumble around after the pigskin in a sly tribute to the vibrating electric game older viewers may remember owning as kids. Given the relative success of part four in the series, this one will probably hang around theaters for a few weeks, so con a friend into seeing it and wait for his one-word review.
From Shots: The Video Journal, November 1, 2017, "Elliot Kell's Films in Brief":
THEIR BILLION HANDS 6
(Unrated, no one under 17 admitted)
The latest attempt to cash in on the original zombie trilogy isn't being screened for critics, always the kiss of death. Judging by the story behind the making of this one, though, the suspense of whether it's worth the film it's printed on has already vanished. Two directors were fired and the third, the helmer of two children's films and a made-for-cable police drama, removed his name from the finished product when the powers that be decided that they wanted things more funny and less grisly. Given the recent nosedive the popularity of the zombie genre has taken in the past couple of years, you have to wonder if this particular product shouldn't have been quietly exported to Germany, where they continue to eat this stuff up with disturbing enthusiasm. Playing at DiamondView HD Cinemas.
From "Elliot Kell's Worst Movies of 2019", Rapid Eye magazine:
# 4: THEIR BILLION HANDS: GENE POOL
Good luck trying to convince the younger set that the first three movies of this apparently infinite series were worth watching more than once. Part seven is a straight-to-disc jumble of hotties in their early twenties being trained to kill zombies in space, which seems to be much sunnier than you'd guess just by looking up there. The dopey interactive element of the movie (someone put a stop to this trend now, I beg you) hilariously gives away the ending for those not bright enough to figure it out in the first twenty minutes. This unfortunate flick, which is no more sophisticated than any undead opus you would have seen in the 1980s, wouldn't merit a mention on this list if I hadn't been forced to sit through it at my nephew's birthday party. I really, really want my 105 minutes back.
From Onward Nation, May 3, 2026, Recommended Arts section:
THE END OF THE HUMAN SUN
Another lifetime ago, twelve years in fact, Thomas Naroth made zombie movies. Nobody did it better, ever, but when he moved on from that job to live quietly in Rhode Island and teach piano, he thought he was done forever with framing livid corpses and rolling his camera. Then came February of 2024, and after six months of surviving day to day like the rest of us, he knew what he had to do. The End of the Human Sun is everything you'd expect from the first major documentary about the actual zombie apocalypse that first struck the world two years ago: talking heads debate its cause, single mothers shelter their children inside gymnasiums and abandoned night clubs, the world's armies overstep their bounds in ever-sophisticated and politically expedient ways, and America slowly becomes the hallucinatory prison we know today. But Naroth, working under an admitted sense of obligation, goes much further than all of that, and he takes his time doing so. The two-part, five hour program airing this weekend on public television gets closer to the dead than most of us ever have. The scenes of Naroth and his soundman trapped by zombies inside a moving van for six hours because of one miscalculation too many may bring the terror of the situation too close to home for some, and one particular outburst of violence against two sixth graders at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin should simply never have been shown to anyone. The madness of what we must face every day is crystallized best in the documentary's most controversial scene, in which Naroth, with the secret and completely unauthorized cooperation of a heartbroken soldier, films a day spent inside the killing rooms at Warrenton Proving Grounds in southern Virginia. His footage finally confirms the existence of sizeable zombie pens maintained to teach men how to kill the dead with their bare hands. Behind locked doors seventy feet underground, that rebellious (and now AWOL) soldier shows us the tricks he's learned, and almost dies in the process. Here for the first time, Thomas Naroth is seen onscreen, gaunt and unable to smile, seemingly a very different man from the days when theaters showed his version of what would later destroy us. With the country torn apart physically and psychologically and every fourth person unable to function normally due to undiagnosed shock, it's questionable what can be gained just now from watching this film. More likely future generations will, if we ever emerge from our ongoing nightmare, clamor to it as a professional, thorough, and riveting document of madness. Today and for several years more it might feel like nothing more than redundant, masochistic punishment. (reviewed by Elliot Kell) (Contains true life graphic violence and is intended only for mature viewers, airing on local public television stations Saturday and Sunday at 8:30, also available on ImageBank.tv, disc availability not yet announced.)
from Elliot Kell's Film Annual 2041:
THE MIRROR IN THE BARN * * * * Directed by Erin Loomis. 104 minutes, not rated. With Thomas Naroth, William Cole, Donna Beers, James Marsters, Megan Follows, Cris-Luc Harrard, Wes Anderson, David Cronenberg, Grant Estanovich. Indy Streak Pictures.
"He would go to the bank of our little creek to work on a song," says Thomas Naroth's widow at the beginning of this film, "and when he came back, he had sketched zombies." Such was the curse of the good-hearted Naroth, a poet and musician who long ago had an idea for a story about the living dead and a faithful connection at a small movie studio. His wildly successful zombie trilogy made him rich and famous, then doomed him to suicide as real-life events cut off all escape from his old identity.
The eleven-year world zombie plague makes a striking cameo appearance in Erin Loomis's documentary about Naroth's life, but it is mostly about beauty and irony. Back at the turn of the 21st century, no one was much interested in the young filmmaker's student works, experimental shorts set to curious self-penned music of a genre he called "classitone". Classitone's rise to brief cult reverence a decade before his death attracted Loomis, whose work on a term paper on the reclusive Naroth's influence revealed he was the same man who made Their Billion Hands and its two sequels. She has scored her documentary with numerous classitone pieces, and the nature of the music is perfect for the tale: haunting, darkly comedic, occasionally jarring and tragic.
Through archival interviews with the casts he worked with and fellow directors who admired him, Naroth is slowly revealed as the kind of artist who was brilliant and humble enough to restrain himself from using his own music in his films. He made zombie movies, he told people, because he was attracted to the immense contrast between the absurdity of the subject and the seriousness of the themes he could attach to it. He wanted people to be dazed when they left the theater, "psychologically molested", as he is seen explaining to a friend, "by human violence and human tenderness fighting it out on the same screen." The accolades he won for his work naturally tempted him to make more films: dramas, comedies, even musicals, and the studios lined up to offer him the freedom to try them. But he never did, choosing instead to believe he had said everything he wanted to say in three movies about flesh-eating zombies.
He may have been right, but watching Loomis's haunting movie, you almost want to physically cry out to the naive twenty-nine year old Naroth to re-think his decision. For years after the apex of his career he lived contentedly with his wife on twelve acres of farmland, largely indifferent to the taint that other men's shoddy sequels cast upon his trilogy. Then came 2024, and Naroth was forced like the rest of us to watch the cruelest fate imaginable descend upon the Earth. His wife, Donna Beers, describes the onset of his depression in a voice that seems cloaked with a permanent soul sickness of her own. In 2025 Naroth's niece was severely burned trying to evade an attack during her birthday party, and just a day later came the Golden Gate Bridge disaster. But the fact that re-animated corpses had come to actually threaten humanity was somehow no more disturbing to Naroth than the belief that his imagination had betrayed everyone who had watched his work, and insulted the gravity of the new situation. At one time utterly convinced that his vision of that apocalypse was the definitive one, the truth that real zombies were ten times more terrifying, the havoc set loose on his country twenty times more surreal, brought paralyzing guilt to his heart. There was no comic relief, no thematic subtlety, no art to the real carnage. He had been caught playing imagination games—good ones, everyone had always said—with something whose reality left no room for such hubris. The actor who became a star because of the trilogy, Grant Estanovich, has a small but vital part in this film. A sadly suspenseful eight minutes of screen time are devoted to him tracking down an old videotape of he and Naroth drunkenly musing on the mind-bending cause of the real plague, at the end of which Naroth breaks down in tears over the inadequacy of his trilogy to depict the simple nightmarish truth of a real zombie's face. As the plague raged on he spent entire days not filling up notebooks with movie ideas, as he once did as a man in his twenties, but with tireless zombie-watching, a pair of binoculars and a sketchbook ever present. Even Loomis cannot decipher the meaning of his obsession, so she leaves it mostly to us to try, cleverly using pages from the sketchbook as intermittent title screens.
The movie unveils its facts about Naroth's plight in a steady, unemotional stream. We learn of the months of research he did at twenty-two into death's effects on a hypothetical walking corpse, only to see that every one of the suppositions for which so many held him in admiration were proven to be grossly short-sighted. There is the description of a chance poignant meeting between Naroth and an extra in his second movie, a man who later, like his director, used the cinema to casually depict an awful tragedy which was to repeat itself off the screen: the destruction of a vast stretch of the Irish coast by nuclear warhead. Most chillingly, Naroth's last possessions were found to include a letter from an Arkansas woman who accused his very artistic presumption of bringing the dead down upon us. It seemed no matter where he turned, he was reminded of the way his art tried to imitate life but instead could only produce an embarrassing facsimile, once revered, later scorned. He was deeply ashamed of every frame of film whose "realism" he had labored over for years. What is so compelling about the overall arc of this movie is that we can't help but also feel a little contemptuous of the way Naroth was so acclaimed when the events of 2024-2035 make the idea of even watching his movies somewhat ludicrous. All it takes is a single memory of the abominable monstrosity that was an actual zombie—as shown, for example, in Naroth's own sole non-fiction work about them—to condemn the award-winning trilogy to the realm of distasteful camp. Not surprising that his depression reached its nadir shortly after the completion of The End of the Human Sun. I still remember the writhing, headless surgeon shown in the opening shot of that film, and probably, so do you. It's understandable one might recall that and yearn to burn every frame of Naroth's three epics in pitiless frustration.
Toward the last days of his life, Naroth apparently disowned those works and found strange solace in repeated viewings of the last three sequels of the Billion Hands series, whose B-movie silliness offered an escapist release from the horrors going on outside his window. "This is the way I should have made the stuff from the beginning, dumb and harmless," he is quoted by his wife as saying as he watched a typically ridiculous scene in the almost-extinct Their Billion Hands 6. "It wants to be nothing but what it is." Loomis concludes her documentary by rolling the clip in question, removing all sound from it, and bringing in Naroth's "Winter Circus", his very first classitone piece, to score it. Instantly we see the mood and meaning of the scene transmogrify as if Naroth himself is again playing with our expectations. The images of some lesser director's hackneyed vision of a zombie chase scene then merge into rarely seen images that Naroth deleted from his trilogy: five violent shots that seemed to him at the time too explicitly bloody to include but which would soon seem officiously tame to a stunned populace, and five remarkable landscape shots whose beauty he deemed irrelevant. This intriguing montage serves as more evidence that he perhaps could have broken his curse if he had only been able to summon one movie about something other than zombies, a single purifying motion picture to separate his fate from that of the hideous bodies that would grasp at his world even after he hanged himself in a lonely barn. That movie never came, but with this one, at least, his humanity is finally somewhat detached from the awful legacy of the time of the living dead—unspeakable memories that should never be simulated as long as we draw breath.
From the entry listings of the 2050 Sacramento Festival of Independent Cinema:
ALL SOULS FORGIVEN IN TIME (Dir: Dave Lahn, Tues. at 7:30 in Bodie Auditorium) This convincing documentary examines the suicide of Their Billion Hands director Thomas Naroth and finds that despite his family's account of his death, he may have botched his hanging and become undead himself for more than three weeks. 38 minutes.