It’s that time of year again! Time to celebrate the Resurrection with a weeklong plunge into all things zombie! Here’s the history: In 2008, Dr. Girlfriend and I decided to spend a week or so each year marathoning through zombie films that we’d never seen before and I would blog short reviews. And simple as that, the Easter Zombie Movie Marathon was born.
The Dead and the Damned (2011)
Writer/Director: Rene Perez
Also known as Cowboys & Zombies.
Rene Perez is a low/no budget filmmaker who has been making films non-stop since around 2010, when he finished and released his debut, War Machine. Since then, he’s made ten more films that generally fall into three main categories (sometimes overlapping): fairy tale horror adaptations, zombie movies, and westerns. The Dead and the Damned was Perez’s second film and his first feature-length excursion into both the western and zombie genres.
As such, it’s an extremely ambitious film for someone new to filmmaking and working with a very limited budget. Of course, there are your standard shortcomings with a film like this: the actors aren’t great, the dialogue is serviceable, the plot takes a little time to really get going, and there are some issues here and there with sound quality and framing of shots. But everybody is game, there’s a dedication to low-budget gore effects (despite the occasional reliance on CG blood splatter), and if you like boobies, you’ll get your fair share.
The biggest shortcoming is the pacing. The Dead and the Damned has a runtime of 82 minutes and nearly the first thirty of those are straight-up western without a zombie in sight. And when I say “straight-up” I mean straight up. This isn’t parody. This isn’t comedy. Perez is dedicated to making serious films with little to no money and that’s regardless of genre. This is both a benefit and a drawback (as I mentioned earlier this week in my review of The Dead 2: India) when we’re dealing with inexperienced actors and no money.
As viewers, we’re usually predisposed to give leeway to bad line readings or cheesy effects or melodrama if they’re in service to comedy. We can fold what could be considered aesthetic stumbles into the overall fun of a project. It’s not fair, but there it is. We’re easier on bad comedies than we are on bad dramas. Drama requires a certain level of verisimilitude and a bad actor or script can take you right out of the moment to the detriment of the film.
And the first half hour of The Dead and the Damned is filled with stilted acting that borders on painfully awkward and is only alleviated by the occasional naked lady and a couple of decently staged fight scenes. Our hero, Mortimer (David A. Lockhart) is a bounty hunter with a mysterious past, who is on the trail of Brother Wolf (Rick Mora), a native American who supposedly raped and murdered a white woman and is now on the run in the woods around Whiskeytown. Mortimer buys Rhiannon (Camille Montgomery) from a shady fellow selling “wives/hostesses” and uses her as bait to catch Brother Wolf.
As this plot is developing, a couple of locals discover a strange meteor and bring it back to town. In an attempt to bust it up to see why it’s glowing green, the zombie infection begins and we are off to the races.
As you might expect, previous enemies are force to team-up in the face of the undead hordes and the final fifty minutes or so fly by. Perez has a good sense of action pacing, and while the zombie make-up is almost so over-the-top as to be comical, it retains just enough gore to be effective. These aren’t the shambling type of zombies, either. Being newly-dead, they sprint with the best of them and Perez makes good use of the California wooded landscapes to provide a few nicely executed action sequences.
The real highlight of the entire film, though, takes place near the end, as Rhiannon is hunted through a boarded-up hotel by a blind zombie. Not only is the zombie make-up the most disgusting in the film, it’s just plain disturbing. Lauren C. Kelly, as the zombie, gives everything she’s got to making this monster a nightmare through her movements, which when combined with the hideous make-up, made this one of the most effective horror sequences in any of the films we’ve watched in this year’s marathon.
It almost makes up for the ending.
Perez tries to go for a traditionally dark, borderline nihilistic ending but pulls back at the last minute with a surprise hero showing up to save the day. It’s an odd choice that doesn’t quite work for me, given the time we’ve devoted to the other characters and the way the final moments seem to undermine the hope we’ve just been given.
Does that make sense? I’m trying to avoid spoilers here, so forgive me for being overly vague.
When the film fades to black, there’s a sense that either Perez either didn’t know how to wrap up the story or he intended to leave it open for a potential sequel. As it turns out, there is a sequel, but it has very little to do with The Dead and the Damned.
The Dead and the Damned 2 (2014)
Writers: Rene Perez & Barry Massoni
Director: Rene Perez
Also known as The Dead the Damned and the Darkness or Tom Sawyer vs Zombies.
First up, ignore that cover. While The Dead and the Damned 2 is an indirect sequel to the first one, it is not a western. That cover is a marketing ploy. Instead, The Dead and the Damned 2 is set in the near-future after a zombie apocalypse and follows Lt. Colonel Sawyer (Robert Tweten) as he makes his way to the ocean to dispose of the ashes of his wife and child. Along the way he is joined by a deaf woman named Stephanie (Iren Levy) and an elderly survivor named Wilson (John J. Welsh) who has a pretty good plan for their future.
Unlike the first film, Part 2 doesn’t really have a stand-out scene that rises above the rest of the film. In an interesting opening, we see Sawyer burning the skeletal body of someone we are to assume was his wife and/or daughter (those bones were kind of small, but there were a lot of ashes), he suits up in futuristic body armor and proceeds to kill a bunch of mutated zombies in what appears to be an abandoned chemical plant.
I liked this scene. It was simple, but direct. There was a good pace to the action and I’m always a fan of a setting like this that invokes Quatermass 2. The only real problem I had with the opening is a problem that continues throughout the film. The zombies are pretty poorly done. Instead of make-up effects, even the cheap but effective ones from the first film, these zombies appear to be wearing rubber masks.
Rubber clown masks.
I have to admit that it puts me off of the film. There had to be a better option.
Anyway, this is followed by a scene that really confused me. We watch as a woman (Raven Lexy) and her daughter (Jade Armenta) hide in a greenhouse from a zombie. Mom’s been bit and tells the little girl that she’s going to have to run. The zombie outside is her dad. They bust out and the little girl escapes while the zombie pounces on mom and kills her; but not before ripping her blouse open.
Here’s the problem. Mom’s dead and the daughter is on the run, but we never see her again. Later in the film [SPOILER ALERT], Sawyer discovers his daughter (Leia Perez) is still alive and he is haunted by a vision of his dead wife (Jenny Allford). The daughter is played by who I assume is Perez’s daughter, but since she’s Hispanic and Sawyer is blonde-haired and blue-eyed, they put Allford in a brunette wig for the hallucination scene.
Unfortunately, this makes her look a lot like the mother from the greenhouse, which caused no end of confusion at my house.
I was completely taken out of the moment and had to figure out just what was going on. Was the family in the greenhouse supposed to be his? Why did they say dad was the zombie, then? Clearly that wasn’t his family, but then why include that scene? What happened to that little girl if it wasn’t his daughter? The scene wasn’t really necessary to establish that Sawyer would build a new surrogate family. It just made the ending confusing.
That nitpick aside, the rest of the film moves along at a nice pace, avoiding a lot of the typical clichés of the genre. At the same time, there is more than one scene that really has no purpose except to seemingly pad out the run time. A scene where Stephanie breaks into a mall and tries on clothes before falling asleep in a pile of them was particularly annoying as it seemed to be an attempt to recreate the suspense that the blind zombie brought to the first film.
It didn’t work at all this time, and instead of being suspenseful it just made me think that Stephanie was an idiot. I can’t imagine how she’s survived this long without being able to hear the monsters lurching around towards her, bellowing like animals.
The conclusion of the film is the visual highlight though — which is saying something, because as dumb as some of the scripting is, the film looks great. Shooting at Shasta Dam at Shasta Lake, California, the final act features Sawyer inside the dam killing zombies left and right, so that his new family can live there in relative safety. These are mostly effective moments, even if the zombies don’t seem to really be a threat (and there doesn’t seem to be as many of them as he was told to expect).
Again, it looks great, but falls short in the story and script departments. That pretty much sums up the film, to be honest. It’s worth a look, and all of the actors do good jobs with what they’re given (particularly Welsh, who has the most natural delivery of anyone in the cast) but if you’re looking at entertainment value, go with The Dead and the Damned instead of the sequel.