November 12, 2009

Vs. the Dead (Review)

Vs. the Dead (2009)

Directors: Phil Pattison and Jeff Beckman

3/5 zedheads

Vs. the Dead from RABIDOG FILMS is like a steak prepared by an verdant but inexperienced chef. The meal may not be perfect -- some parts are a little tough and chewy to get through -- but once you get to the tender meat, it tastes so sweet.

I attended a screening of the very new and very independent film Vs. the Dead during Horror in the Hammer's November 6th screening of the film that kicked off the Hamilton Film Festival. It was our NIGHT OF THE INDEPENDENTS, and our screening of Vs. the Dead was only its third public screening. Previously, it premiered for two showings at The Movie Palace theatre.

The always glorious and glamorous Hamilton, Ontario
 Of specific interest to me, Vs. the Dead is a zombie film shot and set in the city I now call home: Hamilton, Ontario. On the one hand, I'm happy to report that Vs. the Dead is a stylish and technically impressive film as a low-budget independent feature. It showcases some amazing special makeup effects by Carlos Henriques of The Butcher Shop. On the other hand, it's overly long, and its plot and characters barely work to sustain a feature-length project.

I've said it before: never trust anyone in a white hazmat suit
Vs. the Dead begins with a fun premise: a canister of a dangerous military toxin is lost on transport through the city of Hamilton, Ontario. The chemical in question is used in warfare to reanimate dead soldiers so they can return to attack the enemy. For the most part, the zombies will only attack the people they hated in life. Unfortunately, the canister is mistaken for tattoo pigment by a skeevy and drunk tattoo artist named Scratchy Dan. He uses the toxin to sink some infectious ink into the skin of the locals. In particular, a group of tattooed slackers convince a local pizza parlor owner to get a tattoo at Scratchy Dan's by promising that if he gets inked there then the slackers will never set foot in the pizza parlor again. Zombies and gore ensue as the slackers must face off against the dead.

Tattoo FAIL
 Vs. the Dead is truly independent. According to co-director Phil Pattison, Vs. the Dead was filmed on a budget not even close to what most studios pay for craft services. You wouldn't expect a very low budget, however, because the film looks impressive and is stylishly edited. Carlos Henriques' special makeup effects in particular add some truly fantastic-looking zombies to the film. There are also brief yet bright moments of truly sharp and funny dialogue. The film's strengths are best demonstrated in a zombie battle scene within Scratchy Dan's health-code-violation of a tattoo parlor. The blood and quips fly in a brisk sequence that is smartly edited and a pleasure to watch.

I call the bearded one bitey
Unfortunately, there's a lot of dead space in Vs. the Dead between the good parts. I wish more of the movie could have been as tight and well-paced as the trailer and zombie scenes. Frankly, there is a lot of wasted opportunity in the movie. In particular, the story and characters are weakly developed. Character sequences run on for far too long and very little happens to further the story. Too many unnecessary characters are introduced that divert attention away from the arcs of the established characters. These same arcs fizzle out early on and never progress. In particular, an employee at a pizza shop (Dave Montour) is introduced as a key character who is conflicted about whether to be professional at his job or cater to his slacker friends that his boss hates. A love interest for him is briefly hinted at when a group of hot girls drop by for pizza. Neither the character's growth nor his connection to his love interest go anywhere. The hot girls never reappear. The film places each character of the cast on a narrative path, but those paths are never meaningfully or satisfyingly explored. As a result, the narrative stalls and becomes repetitive. The middle of the film just drags on into a anti-climactic conclusion.

Certain elements really hold back Vs. the Dead from success

Speaking of repetitive, Vs. the Dead also tries to replicate a modern grindhouse effect with the repeated use of black and white freeze frames as well as digital effects to create the impression of film scratches, missing frames, and warped or burnt film stock. This technique is overused and feels too derivative of Tarantino / Rodriguez films. I think it is safe to say that this style of faux grindhouse has become tired in recent years and overly cliché. The overuse of this style detracts from the film and actually accentuates the film's undeveloped story, character, and dialogue rather than improves it. Whole scenes, characters, and "faux grindhouse" effects could be cut from the film to improve its pace and its story.

The Boss from Hell
That being said, what should NOT be cut from the film is its soundtrack. The filmmakers have assembled a kick-ass soundtrack of independent punk and rock tracks. When the story lags and the characters become dull, at least the action scenes are fueled by amazing and energetic music that complements the indie  tone of the film. Could this movie have the best indie punk soundtrack of a zombie movie yet? Better than the party themes of Return of the Living Dead? Quite possibly. I know one thing for sure: when Vs. the Dead finds distribution, it would be a cruel shame and devastating blow to the movie if the rights to the soundtrack were not maintained. I would buy this soundtrack in a heartbeat.

A health code violation just waiting to happen
 Vs. the Dead is a tough movie to rank. In technical artistry and style, it is heads and shoulders above most dreary independent zombie films. At the same time, it suffers from some very rough acting and a weak and thinly stretched story. Clearly, the filmmakers are not rank amateurs. These guys have real talent and credibility. Sadly, the film needs a better script and story. As a result, I had fun watching the film and hope the film gets distribution so others can see it (since publishing this review, Vs. the Dead has been released by Midnight Releasing). At the same time, I cannot turn a blind eye to the film's serious story flaws. In the end, I get the impression that Vs. the Dead does not fully show the filmmakers' true capabilities.