AUGUST 2, 2012
If I was one of the filmmakers behind Dead Season, I'd want to give whoever wrote the DVD synopsis a swift kick to the balls for claiming that it was an "riveting new spin on the zombie genre!". In actuality, it succeeds because it does pretty much the same thing as dozens of other zombie movies, but does it quite well. It looks better than most, the FX are quite solid (and mostly practical), and the pace rarely lags - all without actually contributing anything you haven't seen before if you've kept up with the sub-genre for the past decade.
I could be a jerk and just list all the movies it reminded me of, but since I walked away impressed by what they pulled off, I'll refrain (except for noting that we as a species really need to stop aping the 28 Days Later score). Zombie movies are nearing slasher territory at this point, where there are so many it's almost impossible to make one that's completely original; even if the filmmakers think they're doing something new, chances are it had been done (indeed, on the commentary they point out a line that was also used in Zombieland, which had just come out when they were filming). And that's the other thing - some independent productions take so long to get distributed, it's possible that some of the movies it was reminding me of were actually shot later.
So what IS the story, here? Typical stuff - zombie outbreak, our hero meets up with some other survivors, they make their way to some assumed safe haven, everything seems great, things go bad, and (spoiler!) the movie ends with them on the move again. I could have just described 28 Days Later or Dawn of the Dead, so what's the "riveting new spin" here? There isn't one. It's just a solid, straight-forward zombie film. The closest I could imagine anyone thinking was new would probably be the fact that they get to the island at the end of the first act, when "an island" is traditionally a generic end location for our heroes to get to by the END of the film (the Dawn remake, for example), but once they get there things proceed as they would if the location were a mall or a fort, so what's the difference?
It even goes down the overplayed "evil human" route, though thankfully it's not a major element, and the guy in charge isn't really all that bad. When things get bad it's because of one of the men in his employ, whereas he continues to help our heroes - that was a relief. The actor had a bit of a Michael Biehn thing going on, which actually helped - as with Biehn himself, it's hard to tell if he's on your side (Terminator) or the enemy (The Abyss). And the subplot with his daughter was actually kind of amusing, our heroes (a man and a younger woman) gain favor in his circle because she's close to his daughter's age and can talk to her about "girl stuff".
On that note, it seems most of the filmmakers' previous films were comedy-horrors, so I am relieved that they went for a mostly serious approach this time, as I've seen enough "zom-coms" to last me a lifetime. While there are sprinklings of humor throughout, it's mostly character-based - someone will make a little joke to cheer up their friend or something. In fact I was impressed with how serious it got at times, such as when a young kid has to be dispatched after being bitten. None of the characters were intriguing enough to really care when they died (maybe someday there will be a zombie movie that DOESN'T decimate 90% or more of its cast*), but I was certainly more invested than I was in... well, whatever the last attempt at being the next Shaun of the Dead I watched was.
And again, I was impressed by the practical FX. There's a lot of real fake blood splatter, a guts being torn out scene (one NOT a shot for shot recreation of Day of the Dead, for once), and some fun prosthetic work with machetes and the like - I particularly liked the little touch of the machete going through a guy and scraping the wall up behind him. The action also came at a fairly steady rate; there's an attack or two before they get to the island, another one shortly after, big climax... with Walking Dead pretty much being the benchmark for zombie entertainment these days, it's nice to see full scale sequences instead of isolated "moments" that tide us over until the season finale. And the zombie cast is HUGE, with dozens of folks listed for its two filming locations (Los Angeles and Vieques, which is in Puerto Rico).
The disc comes with the standard extras; you can skip the behind the scenes as it's just about 10 minutes of random footage that tells us nothing, but the outtakes are actually kind of funny for a change, and the deleted scenes includes a big attack scene that was cut (for pace, I assume). The commentary is also a notch above what I'm used to as of late, as they actually have some interesting behind the scenes stories revolving around the Vieques location. Apparently they are the first production there since the original Lord of the Flies, as the government in between was crooked and didn't want productions there. They also tell amusing stories about the fire department and such, and speak a bit about their original sound guy who quit because he didn't get to spend enough time relaxing with his wife during the shoot. Some of it is in-jokey and they try a bit too hard to make jokes at times, but overall it's an enjoyably breezy track with just enough actual info to make it worthwhile.
Dead Season isn't a classic of the genre or anything, but it hits its marks and gets the job done. And since we're in between Walking Dead seasons, it should hit the spot for those who want their undead taken seriously, as well as those who (like me) are tired of independent horror movies that look like they were shot on cell phones by people who didn't know what the hell they were doing. Good work, gents.
What say you?
*Meaning, since so many zombie movies kill just about everyone off, it's never worth getting invested in anyone but the main two characters (if that). Zombie movies would do well to take a page from Tremors and have a big cast of likable people, put them in danger often, but kill sparingly. Or go back to Dawn and just have four people with time to care about them, so their deaths have weight.