By Toby Venables @TobyVenables
There’s a great moment in Dead Rising: Watchtower when the hero Chase attempts to dispatch a zombified cop in an trash-strewn alleyway. At one end, zombie hordes are moments away from bursting through the gates. At the other, a hideous zombie clown shuffles towards him, dragging an axe. Chase smacks the zom-cop with the first thing to hand: a bag of garbage – but it’s a poor choice of weapon. The cop draws his gun and starts shooting randomly. Chase brains him with a toaster. Better, but still not good enough. He hurls a cooling fan blade. It embeds in zom-cop’s skull – but still he keeps coming. Finally, at last satisfied he has the right tool for the job, Chase smacks the cop around his bloody chops with a car exhaust, and gets his gun. The tables are turned – for the moment…
At first sight, the prospect of a video game conversion from the director of Leprechaun: Origins (Zach Lipovsky) written by the producer of the Mortal Kombat TV series (Tim Carter) doesn’t exactly fill one with hope. These first few minutes, however, challenge those expectations. It’s a tightly directed bit of gory action, with a nice balance of humour and genuine horror. It makes sly reference to the record hurling sequence in Shaun of the Dead. It also riffs on the video game origins of the film, in which weapon choices are everything, and nearly everything can be a weapon. It even throws in a few cheeky game-style POV shots. So far, so good.
The premise is also an interesting one. In this world, zombies are already old news and have been successfully contained – not just geographically, but medically. As a Jurassic Park-style TV promo explains in the films opening seconds, Zombrex, taken once a day, can ensure you stay human. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, like Jurassic Park, pretty much everything. And they’re about to go very badly wrong in the quarantined city of East Mission, Oregon, into which Net 2.0 reporter Chase and camera operator Jordan have been sent. It seems like a routine handling of an outbreak until Chase stumbles on a horrifying fact: the drugs have stopped working. As Chase tries to keep reporting to the outside in a now locked down city, he finds he must contend not only with zombies, but biker gangs, governmental conspiracies and a potential new girlfriend. Zombie outbreaks don’t make for the most romantic of circumstances, however, especially when your date’s own supply of Zombrex is about to run out.
Along the way, the movie tackles some radical notions, evoking the failures of Katrina (here it’s FEZA, not FEMA) with rioting, looting and a military which may not have our best interests at heart. And it’s this attempt at overt social commentary that, ultimately, is its undoing. Despite the assured tonal hand in the opening sequences, the film becomes increasingly confused as to what it wants to be. It lacks the budget to be World War Z, doesn’t carry the political weight of 28 Days Later and doesn’t have good enough jokes to be Shaun of the Dead (the scenes in the TV studio, played for laughs, are excruciating). It instead aims for some kind of mid ground between all of these, ensuring that none of the targets are hit squarely, and the potential for it to simply be good fun becomes hopelessly bogged down in an overstuffed and unfocused plot. The hermetically sealed nature of the environment also does the drama no favours; we want apocalypse from zombies, not just a spot of local trouble. When the Mad Max-style biker gang starts to assert itself and bring a threat of zombiehood spilling into the outside world, it gains an edge, but it’s too little too late.
Compressed to a snappy 90 minutes, rather than a saggy two hours, this might have been a film whose flaws we could overlook and just enjoy for its crazy array of pointy, spinny, shreddy weapons improvised out of local hardware. Game conversions so often strive to rise above their origins; the irony here is that had it remained truer to the relentless splatterfest of the game, rather than trying to be The Walking Dead, it would have made for a better movie.
While the heat has gone out of the post-milennial zombie renaissance – with World War Z looking for a time like it was the last word (or the last straw) – you can rely on the undead for one thing: they keep coming back. Dead Rising is not the film to set the world of zombie cinema on fire – it barely even does that to East Mission, Oregon. But with a TV series of Dead Rising currently in production, it will be interesting to see whether episodic treatment can turn the film’s weaknesses into strengths.
Dead Rising is released on all main VoD platform from July 27th.