July 14, 2011

Cowboys and Zombies (Review)


Cowboys and Zombies (2010)

aka. The Dead and the Damned (US title)

Director: Rene Perez

3 / 5 zedheads


1849: A mysterious glowing meteorite unearthed by the residents of an Old West mining town suddenly releases a glowing green cloud of spores, turning all it contacts into mutant, flesh-hungry zombies. Welcome to Cowboys and Zombies (releasing July 26, 2011 in the US as The Dead and the Damned before releasing August 1st in the UK as Cowboys and Zombies). In the small world of zombie westerns, Cowboys and Zombies serves up very impressive zombie makeup and gore effects, but where the zombie element is strongest in Cowboys and Zombies, its Western genre elements are half-hitched and consistently fail to deliver.

Only in the Old West will you find zombies with suspenders.
In the film's opening gunfight, we are introduced to Mortimer (David A. Lockhart), a bounty hunter who's just as comfortable in a fight with his sixshooter as he is with his fists. Single handed, Mortimer dispatches a group of outlaws before subduing a fugitive with a series of furious blows. Lockhart is so tough and determined, he immediately take a new job to hunt down an alleged rapist and murderer, the Indian named Brother Wolf (Rick Mora). Along the way, Mortimer encounters a human trafficker from whom he buys a "wife" named Rhianna (Camille Montgomery) and callously uses her as bait to catch Brother Wolf in exchange for her own freedom. While Mortimer sets out to bring in the man he believes to be a ruthless savage, real savagery is erupting in the nearby town as the miners and town's folk are mutated into fast, strong, and violently mindless creatures on the hunt for human flesh.

Rhianna (Camille Montgomery) packing heat
Let's start with the stand-out achievement of this film: the zombies. With Ed Martinez on special makeup effects, Cowboys and Zombies doesn't just give us zombies. We get great-looking zombies! I was genuinely surprised by the film's attention to undead detail. The film features a variety of deformed and dessicated zombies, all of which are unique -- some look more like corpses, others look more like mutants -- and each have unique personalities. The standout zombie of the picture appears during a tense scene in which Rhianna is accidentally boarded inside a building with the undead mutants. She is pursued silently upstairs by a blind female ghoul that tracks her by smell and sound alone. The blind zombie, dressed in a loose night gown, is flawlessly designed. From the face to the bare skin of the neck, shoulders, chest, arms, and hands, the Blind Zombie is consistently covered in zombie makeup. In fact, you rarely see in Cowboys and Zombies that tell-tale sign of low budget productions: zombies with messed up faces but clean arms and hands. This attention to detail goes a long way in convincing me of the film's zombie threats. Although the zombies make some pretty terrible and generic monster sounds, they look great and wreak all sorts of gory havoc that is fairly realistic (except for one ridiculously impossible feat of anatomy). There's a lot for zombie fans to love in Cowboys and Zombies.

Love, Justice and now Zombies are Blind
 If you're a fan of Westerns, I have bad news, cowpoke. I think Cowboys and Zombies is going to disappoint you terribly.. Where it went above and beyond to bring us zombies, Cowboys and Zombies misses the mark of a good Western. Take Lockhart, the lead actor, for example. He reminds me of a young Tom Cruise -- he has that look of a very a-typical yet plausible action hero. The moment Lockhart opens his mouth, however, I knew he was miscast. His voice is simply too soft and boyish to convey the physical force we're expected to believe on screen. In the short-hand of genre, Lockhart simply lacks the commanding on-screen presence necessary to sell his role as a Western (anti)hero. I'm not saying that all Western characters have to be Rooster Cogburn, but when a film like this relies so heavily on Western stereotypes and genre conventions, audiences expect a certain level of gruffness and authority from their cowboy heroes. When Lockhart speaks, he makes Mortimer sound like an awkward young boy incongruous to the character we see before us. In a telling bit of advertising, you'll notice that Lockhart (as Mortimer) is totally absent from the poster art provided by Left Films, the film's UK distributor. That cowboy bad-ass with the goatee who's front-and-center on the poster art is not even in the film although, I suspect, this is how the film wishes us to see Mortimer. I'm sure Lockhart is a good actor in other projects, but he's all kinds of wrong for this part.

Even this publicity still is awkward

In addition to our miscast hero, Cowboys and Zombies's budgetary restrains prevent the film from capturing the lived-in atmosphere of the Western genre. It takes more than some cowboy hats, wooden buildings, a hitch, wagon, horse, and period dress to be Western. Too much of Cowboys and Zombies feels like actors running around the site of a Western tourist trap while playing Cowboys and Indians. By this I mean that the sets look too new and lack real-world detail. The only signage we see in the town are stark wooden signs for the generic "Bank," "Saloon," Sheriff," and "Nugget." Gotta get me some of that generic nugget. At the same time, everyone is way too clean and shooting guns that look like they've never been fired or maintained. Hell, even the wanted posters and the black-and-white mug shots on them are CLEARLY produced by a digital printer. Whereas the zombies in the film are appropriately grimy, the other costumes, set design, and special effects are irritatingly artificial. In particular, the film relies on terrible CGI blood spurts, sprays, and bullet effects that have no weight or substance. Even the music and choice of songs are completely antithetical to the cowboy genre. Bless them for trying, but Cowboys and Zombies is one hell of a disappointing Western.

Can anything save the film from its genre failures? Well, the action cinematography by Paul Nordin gives the film a much needed boost of drama and energy that otherwise is sapped by the dialogue (Lockhart and Mora don't have the gravitas required to land their exchanges). Camille Montgomery, on the other hand, is a beacon of light; not only is she beautiful but she comes across as the most sincerely real character in the whole film. Whenever the film begins to drag, we're treated to some pretty shameless female nudity (that has to count for something). Finally, there are some directorial misdirections and twists that really impressed me yet speak volumes about the missed potential in the rest of the movie.

All in all, the scale tends to even out. While weighed down as a mismanaged Western, Cowboys and Zombies is lifted up by some truly impressive zombie makeup and effects. It's a middle-of-the road, direct to video feature. For a Horror Western, you can do a lot worse, but you can also do a lot better.