Judge William Lee is most effective against the living dead with a +2 dexterity topaz-charmed battle axe.
In the war between men and the savages, he will decide who survives.
Ever since 28 Days Later revitalized the zombie movie genre with its thrilling blend of science fiction and horror, both upstart and established filmmakers have been trying their hand at the living dead. Even the old master George A. Romero returned to the well and delivered results that divided fans (Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead). Zombies are generally played one of two ways: if there are only a few at a time, then they're fast and powerful; if they're available in larger numbers, then they're slow and clumsy. Zombies are always devoid of personality and that allows us to enjoy the spectacle of their destruction without guilt. These soulless villains can also be versatile metaphors for aspects of civilization that threaten to consume our individuality if we don't hack them to pieces first. The trick for filmmakers is to find a new angle on the genre without discarding the conventions.
The U.K. horror flick The Vanguard offers an intriguing variation on zombies. In an effort to subvert their corporate masters, scientists create a chemical that, instead of culling the population, turns those infected into primal killing machines called Biosyns. There is also the possibility that the effects of the formula can be reversed, so it isn't a simple case of walking corpses that need to be put back in the ground. With this as the basis for his zombie movie, it's unfortunate that director-writer Matthew Hope tosses all of that away in favor of employing the Biosyns as disposable props to be shot at and cut up. There are good ideas that form the backdrop of the on-screen action, but the execution makes it all for nothing.
Consider the introduction of the movie's hero, Max (Ray Bullock Jr.), a mute warrior surviving alone in the woods using a pair of hatchets as his weapons of choice. He makes his entrance on a bicycle—not a motorcycle—a low-rider, pedal-powered bike. Upon seeing this, I wondered if this would be a spoof of post-apocalyptic action movies. Having blown their budget on two military vehicles and unable to find a motorcycle, I speculated, perhaps the filmmakers decided to have fun with the discount hero's tough guy image. But no, this scene and the rest of the movie is played grimly straight. The scene's dramatic intentions are undone by budgetary constraints and also by an ill-suited location choice. Max's bike ride is along a well-manicured, tree-lined forest path which doesn't convey the setting of a war-torn landscape teeming with zombies. Most of the action takes place on rolling hills and in shady forests.
After a vicious struggle with some Biosyns, Max encounters a soldier named Jamal (Shiv Grewal). Trackers are undesirables (convicts and Asians, according to the script) that have been brainwashed and made into super-soldiers by the corporation. Jamal breaks his programming and teams up with Max. The pair form an alliance with two scientists heading south in search of the Resistance. With a team of Trackers on their trail, the group must cross Biosyn territory before they can reach safety. On their journey, Jamal will have plenty of opportunity to trust and distrust his companions; Max will demonstrate that he's a capable warrior and a caring leader; and the scientists will reveal they know more about how Max and Jamal came to be who they are.
Early on, there are a few energetic action sequences that satisfy the desire to see spilt blood. There is plenty of blood, but there are just as many camera tricks used to hide the limitations of the production: tight angles so you don't actually see the guns firing, perspective shots on characters bashing someone off-screen. Most of the time is spent watching the heroes skulking and hiding in the woods and the repetitiveness of the scenery becomes tiresome fairly quickly. The movie's look isn't helped by overuse of colored filters in an attempt to lend the environments an otherworldly atmosphere. Even with the constant unnatural colors, the settings and costumes still don't look very interesting.
Anchor Bay presents the movie, without any extras, in a passable DVD transfer. The image doesn't exhibit any noticeable defects aside from being slightly soft in some scenes and I'm assuming the picture is intentionally ugly. As mentioned above, the colors are unnatural throughout and that includes skin tones that border on purple in some scenes. The stereo soundtrack is adequate accompaniment for what you see on screen. Max's dialogue is delivered in a low growl and when I didn't quite make out what he was saying the first few times I turned on the subtitles. Either way, I wasn't missing too much.
The Vanguard has some big ideas: global domination by corporations, depleted oil supplies, populations devastated by biological warfare. Sadly, the story's grand plans are watered down by a mediocre script and weak production. What remains are a bunch of guys in cheap costumes playing soldiers and zombies in the woods. For promising more than it could deliver, we find this movie guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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