Judge Gordon Sullivan visits killer Wales.
Unlock your worst fears
Blame George Romero and his epoch-defining Night of the Living Dead, but the voodoo-created zombie has all but disappeared from the horror landscape. When they do pop up, it's almost always in Louisiana, Haiti, or sometimes Africa. Then along comes The Gatekeeper, a film set in the Welsh wilderness that incorporates traditional zombies into a survival horror movie that feels like an undiscovered Eighties blend of low-budget horror and comedy. Although the film never reaches greatness, the above-par acting and solid atmosphere make this a surprisingly compelling feature.
Centuries ago, a family that controls mines in the Welsh hinterlands imported a special batch of slaves to work the mines. These slaves had knowledge of voodoo, and essentially were all zombies. Because they were good workers (and the family couldn't figure out how to kill them), they created a Gatekeeper to put drugs in the foods and water supply of these slaves, and they've worked just fine to the present day. They worked fine, that is, until the Gatekeeper died without leaving a successor or the formula for feeding the zombies. Now they're on the loose, in the same woods where a hockey team and an ex-special forces commando have been stranded by a car crash. They'll have to fight the zombie hordes to stay alive.
The first 20 minutes or so of The Gatekeeper is well-nigh incomprehensible. There's some guys in a car, somebody dying in a bed, and some kind of special-forces operation going on. Then there's a car crash (which looks like it might be a dream, but isn't), and all these threads get woven together. I'd honestly given up on the film at that point because few 70-minute films can dig themselves out of a 20-minute hole. Amazingly, The Gatekeeper does. Once that crash happens, the zombies are introduced, and the film kicks into high gear. The group that's left (including a young couple, the hockey team members, and our special forces operator) end up at a farmhouse where the owner explains what's going on. Then it's off to fight the zombie hordes while trying to make contact with the outside world.
The Gatekeeper is obviously low budget, with effects to match, but that gives the film a charm that reminiscent of The Evil Dead or similar Eighties-era backwoods horror films. Rather than detracting from the film, the low-budget effects give it a charm and atmosphere that lots of modern horror films are lacking. The fact that the narrative doesn't slow down once the zombies are introduced also helps. Also, unlike many modern films, the horror and comedy are much more subtly blended. Unlike films like, say, Zombieland, The Gatekeeper doesn't aim straight for the funny bone. Instead, Gatekeeper goes for the absurd, getting laughs out of the desperation of a character putting on a goalie's mask to protect against his attackers. The film is also aided by strong performances across the board. I don't know if it's a British thing or what, but most low-budget films in America can't get actors this good for all their roles. No, they're not going to win any awards, but they're consistent and fit the film perfectly.
Like the film, the DVD is a workmanlike, though not spectacular, release. The video shows the film's low-budget roots, but despite the problems with the source, this is a watchable transfer. Similarly, the audio is solid though unremarkable. Luckily, dialogue is easily audible, and even with the British accents I had no trouble telling what was being said (although subtitles would still have been appreciated). There are only two extras. The first is a bonus short, "Park & Die" that runs an odd two minutes. The second is a stills gallery with production shots. A commentary or behind-the-scenes documentary is sorely missed.
I don't want to over-sell The Gatekeeper. It's not a new classic or anything, but a solidly built first low-budget effort. Jaded fans will probably cite the slow opening, lack of gore, and somewhat tired story as evidence that The Gatekeeper isn't that great. I wouldn't argue with those charges, but I think that with realistic expectations, there's a lot to be enjoyed about this flick.
Occasionally the world of low-budget horror throw up a surprising film, and The Gatekeeper is one example. With its throwback atmosphere, solid acting, and tight pace the film hits enough genre marks to make it easy to recommend to zombie fans. Those without a taste for low-budget fare should probably stay away.
It's far from perfect, but The Gatekeeper is not guilty.
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