Judge Gordon Sullivan met a meta-movie he didn't like.
When the dead rise the cameras roll!
Some of our greatest horror films are meta-horror films. From Wes Craven's New Nightmare to Scream and Shaun of the Dead, horror films that acknowledge their relationship to the genre can be tremendously effective. It must be especially tempting for low-budget filmmakers, since self-awareness comes cheap and provides an instant "hook" for the audience. Reel Zombies hopes to cash in on that idea, offering a take on the zombie picture that's both self-aware and willing to be self-mocking. Though I'm sympathetic to the attempt, very little of Reel Zombies actually succeeds.
Facts of the Case
In real life, Mike Masters produced the film Zombie Night and its sequel Awakening (aka Zombie Night 2). In the reality of Reel Zombies, Mike Masters wants to make a new film, a follow-up to his Zombie Nights efforts. However, in the reality of Reel Zombies, there's been an actual zombie outbreak, with the slow, dimwitted undead littering the countryside, getting in people's way. Masters' brilliant idea is to make a zombie film with actual zombies. No one will blame him for whatever gory things he does to the undead, and those annoyed at all the zombies out there in the world will pay bank to see them killed on screen. It's a win for everyone. In true mockumentary style, Reel Zombies documents Masters' attempts to get his film made.
For some, the zombie film is just another lowly example of the horror genre, an excuse to show lots of gore and a bit of nudity. For others, it's a thrill ride, with the undead providing that perfect thing that goes bump in the night to terrify viewers. In many cases, though, the zombie film is a potent tool for commenting on society. Of course George Romero's original Night of the Living Dead trilogy is the best example of that, taking on racism, consumerism, and Cold War politics, respectively. That sets a higher bar for the genre than, say, the average vampire flick has to deal with, but that's what makes the zombie film special. The main problem with Reel Zombies is that it completely ignores this heritage, instead trying to make a mockumentary out of it.
Things start out on the right foot, at least insofar as the world of Reel Zombies is concerned. The idea that zombies are more of a nuisance than a credible threat is an interesting twist, and the idea of using real zombies to make a zombie movie raises interesting question. Sadly, Reel Zombies doesn't do anything with either of this basic ideas—there's lots of interesting directions to take it. What does it do to our humanity to kill zombies, especially for "entertainment"? What's it like to live in a world where zombies are a threat (they can get you) but they're a really low-level threat? How would people react to this constant state of low-grade anxiety?
Reel Zombies is trying to be a comedy, not a serious zombie picture. In that case, it's doubly disappointing. The funniest aspect of producing a low-budget zombie picture is that everyone is incompetent and incredibly annoying. While that's funny for about two seconds when the "director" in the film is a raving goofball, after those two seconds are up it's just grating, incompetent character after grating, incompetent character. When there are moments for some genuine humor, Reel Zombies pulls back before things get funny. For instance, early in the film, the nominal "director" of the film goes in search of the production manager from Zombie Night. He finds him holed up in an abandoned building with the location guy, and the pair are convinced they're the only survivors. This could be the stuff of many jokes, but it's passed by almost without comment. It's not even really a throwaway joke.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Maybe I'm taking the film too seriously and expecting too much. With a six-pack and a few willing friends, Reel Zombies wouldn't be terrible. I also can't really complain about this DVD either. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer shows the prosumer origins of the image, but that's to be expected. Given the shaky, gritty nature of the source, Reel Zombies seems to look as intended. Detail is so-so, color is a bit all over the place, and artefacts tend to occur during darker scenes. That's the way things go with low-budget productions. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo soundtrack is similarly rough. Dialogue is generally audible and well-balanced with the various environmental effects. Sometimes location audio can be a bit hard to make out, but overall the film sounds good.
Extras are really aimed at fans. They kick off with 42 minutes of deleted/extended scenes. If the original 89 minutes of Reel Zombies left you hankering for more, this is the place to go. As someone who didn't enjoy the film, I find nothing redeeming in the deleted material, either, with the possible exception of an appearance by Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman. We also get a commentary from Masters, his co-director David J. Francis, and producer Papadimitriou (who all star in the film as well). It's a free-flowing, conversational track that covers the basics of production and how the film related to their lives. It's worth a listen for fans and those wanting stories about the vagaries of low-budget production.
Reel Zombies appears to be a low-budget zombie film, but is really a low-budget mockumentary that just happens to be about making a zombie film. Though it has some good ideas—having actors play themselves, tying the film into the real world, making zombies slightly less threatening, and making a zombie film with "real" zombies—these additions to the formula aren't utilized effectively. Instead, we get 89 minutes of obnoxious characters making a movie ineptly. Though it might be amusing for a Friday night viewing with the help of alcohol, only those who are experienced with low-budget pictures should bother to give this one a try.
Guilty, but that's probably the point.
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