Dimension Films // 2006 // 75 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // March 4th, 2008
Recently, I discovered that I'm not actually a fan of zombie films. You wouldn't be able to tell that by my film collection, as George Romero's Dead films, Shaun of the Dead, 28 Days Later, Dead and Breakfast, and assorted other zombie titles are cherished members. However, I realized that I like those films not because they are zombie films, but because they do interesting things with their zombies. Romero and Danny Boyle provide generally creepy atmospheres and political commentary, Shaun of the Dead is full of comedy, and Dead and Breakfast has hilarious musical numbers. Sure, they all have zombies as well, but that's just an excuse for the other fun stuff. In short, to make me appreciative, a zombie film has to do something special. Automaton Transfusion never really gets there.
A modern-day Romeo and Juliet, Chris (Garrett Jones) and Jackie (Juliet Reeves) are from opposite ends of the social spectrum. He's a stoner and she's a cheerleader, so it's no surprise when she goes to the popular party alone while he goes to the next town to catch an early rock show. While they are separated, a zombie attack breaks out, and they must fight to find each other and stay alive.
Since director Scott C. Miller doesn't go for political allegory or huge laughs, the only real expectations that Automaton Transfusion has to fill are to be sufficiently fast paced to hold interest, and have enough gore to satisfy the fans. The film gets it half-right.
For a movie that's only 75 minutes long, Automaton Transfusion has no excuse for being this slow. From the start, the film follows two narrative threads for the first two acts, and then unites them for the third. Except for a prologue which features some gut-munching, the zeds are largely absent for the first 20 minutes of the film, only cropping up here and there to dispatch secondary characters. This would have been acceptable if the film had never let up from then on, but it continues to drag despite the continual threat of zombie attack. Part of the problem lies with the fact that this film tries to do too much. Although films like 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead made character movement work, most of the canonically good zombie films feature one or two locations. This siege-like focus increases tension. The characters in Automaton Transfusion, instead of remaining in a single location, must travel from one city to another, and then from one part of that city to another (never mind that their geography doesn't seem consistent). It feels like a video game: get the chainsaw power-up, go to the school gym, kill the zombies, get the serum. In a video game, this might be fun, but these characters aren't particularly well-drawn, so following them around a poorly-established town isn't very enjoyable.
For all its pacing and story faults, Automaton Transfer does a pretty good job of drenching the screen in the red stuff. There are some pretty long bloodless stretches (the longest is between the opening scene and the first zombie turning we see), but when it's there, the makeup effects deliver. Two set-pieces deserve a mention as stand-out examples of gore ingenuity. The first is a woman who has her jaw ripped off. I've seen this trick before, but it's never looked this convincing. The other remarkable moment of gore is likely to cause a stir: a zombie attacks a pregnant woman, reaches into her midsection, removes her fetus, and starts to eat it. It's a sick idea, and kudos to the filmmakers for realizing it effectively and keeping it in the film despite the pressure they must have felt to cut it. While it might not be a gore-hound's dream, Automaton Transfusion is a cut above many other low-budget zombie epics in the effects department.
Although the effects look good, the look of the rest of the film didn't do much for me. The entire film has an overly processed, shot-on-video look. This doesn't seem to be a function of budget, as some of the behind-the-scenes footage appears minimally processed and looks good. It appears that the filmmakers deliberately chose a dark, smeary look for the film. At times the effect made me nauseous, which may have been the filmmaker's intention, but I can't say I appreciated it.
I may not have liked the look of the film, but Dimension Extreme does an effective job bringing the movie to DVD. Although the transfer isn't anamorphic, the video presentation is strong for a film of this budget. The audio offers a balanced mix of the film's dialogue, effects, and the songs that make up the film's soundtrack. The box claims that it's a 5.1 audio track, but my receiver didn't agree, showing only two channels of audio during the feature, so caveat emptor. Kudos to Dimension for including subtitles, not just on the feature, but for most of the supplements as well.
The supplements include an extensive behind-the-scenes documentary, which includes location footage and newer interviews with the director and producers. It could have used some trimming, but it gave an effective picture of the difficulty in mounting an epic zombie production in nine days. The commentary with the director and producers covers this ground in slightly greater depth, from how the creative team met, to the challenges of shooting and post-production. There are four deleted scenes, with optional director commentary, but they are mostly shots of gore or deaths that were cut for time or technical faults. The disc also offers the short film that got the guys behind the film together in the first place. It's only a few minutes long, and was wrote/shot/edited in 48 hours as part of a festival. It's worth watching if you enjoyed the feature. Dimension also throws in a pair of music videos and the trailer.
For a first feature shot in nine days with thirty grand, Automaton Transfusion is an amazing feat. Those who are interested in the ingenuity of indie filmmakers will find much to admire in the film. Also, it's a zombie film, and the film gets enough stuff right to recommend it to fans of the genre.
In the special features, the creators say that they are now on to bigger and better things, and that's certainly what they deserve after Automaton Transfusion. It might not work very well as an exemplary zombie film, but considering what they had to work with, it's a triumph of guts and ingenuity. Keep an eye out for other work by these guys.
Automaton Transfusion is found guilty of having a stupid title. It's acquitted on all other charges.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Dimension Films
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 75 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes with Optional Director's Commentary
* "Suffer or Sacrifice" a short film by Steven C. Miller
* "Can You Hear Me Now?" Music Video
* "Arsenaholic" Music Video
* "Trials and Tribulations: The Making of Automaton Transfusion"
* Feature Commentary with Director Steven C. Miller and Producers William Clevinger and Mark Thalman