The Woes of Inappropriate Cultiness: Undead and Alive (2007)
Not all cult films are created equal. Some earn their cult status by being sharp, tight little films that push and fight and scrape their way to gathering a dedicated audience of eventual diehard fans. Despite their often miniscule budgets (and let us not discount the rare, occasional larger budget production which gets waylaid by the press and public until they eventually come to their senses and realize what they have missed) and despite some obvious small flaws, these films can often represent what is best about filmmaking: originality, spontaneity, and the raw talent of unproven but eager to impress filmmakers. The best of these films truly deserve the discovery and recognition, and sometimes even the most suspect of these films can still be fun and gritty delights and worthy of their pocket audiences.
Undead or Alive is going to be a cult film, but it will not be of the first variety, nor will it be of the lesser second variety. It will fit into a third, possibly broader category of films whose small perhaps absurd uniqueness will allow them to capture an audience but are in the vast majority of ways wholly undeserving of the attention.
Make no mistake. In this viral Internet-dominated culture, Undead or Alive is going to find an audience by the single ingenious thing its creator brought to the table: zombie cowboys. Sure, sounds great. Even those not given to zombie flicks might think, “Hey, I’ve got to see that!” I am given to zombie flicks, and I said it. Not that zombie cowboys are an original idea -- I will mention another older film from 1988 called Ghost Town, which, yes, has "Ghost" in the title, but its chief antagonist is very much the revived dead* -- but it's high time someone gave it a full-on, decent shot with loads of zombie mayhem crossing paths with the denizens of the Old West. Let us imagine for a few seconds that very someone who might give such an undertaking a decent shot, and the way they might approach some of the chief areas of fan interest in the film:
Male Lead: If it’s a cowboy flick, you’ve got to have a gunslingin’ hero. A little world-weary, a little “seen it all”, and with a hidden heart of gold. Definitely a crack shot with just about any type of firearm, but especially a Colt .45. Doesn’t have to be a proven lead, but maybe a TV actor looking for a goofy role in which he can flex other acting muscles besides banging Teri Hatcher and popping pills. You could do far worse than James Denton in the part. He’s rugged, he’s handsome, he’s got that two-days-unshaven look (even after just a few hours) and he talks a little bit out of the side of his mouth. And he’s from Tennessee, so he can get a decent drawl on if he has to. For a low-budget horror film, this could be a good break, and for him, with a halfway enjoyable effort, a slow rise through the indie hero ranks.
Sidekick: He’s got to be smaller (or if bigger, then fatter) than the hero, he’s bound to be annoying, but he also has to be able to collect a hatful of laughs here and there. I’m not a Chris Kattan fan, though I will admit he was the only thing I even halfway liked in Monkeybone. His Mango and Mr. Peepers on SNL a few years back cracked me up on occasion (esp. with Garth Brooks and Vince Vaughan, respectively). So, if he were available and looking for just above scale to begin making what to some might seem a comeback (but what is actually him still trying to break big to begin with), I’d dish out some cash. Give him some pistols, a horse, and an ill-suited cowboy outfit, and let the antics begin. He can't mess this up if he tried.
Western Hottie Dept.: This movie needs a girl, but true to the modern post-Buffy form, she’s got to be able to kick a little zombie butt herself. She can’t be content to be rescued in the old school way, whether or not this is a western. More than most genre, Westerns stick to formula. Audiences like formula, but they also like ass-kickin’ chicks. So, we might as well make her an Indi—er, Native American. Must remain politically correct, especially if we are paying the proper obeisance to the idea of the ass-kickin’ hottie. It all ties in together. (Hey, we can use that stance in the film! It'll seem edgy... and making her a Native American allows us to add yet another dimension by which we can upend Western myths throughout the flick... even if we manage to not really tie that attitude to anything else in the script.)
Music: You know what would cool? Get a band that sort of sounds like they are doing a bar band knockoff of Bon Jovi in their semi-acoustic fake-Western phase and have them do a spoofing semi-remake of Wanted: Dead or Alive, their theme song from Young Guns. And we can name our film Undead or Alive to boot, and the match-up will be perfect. Done right, this will add even another twist to our crazy zombie comedy. Of course, this all demands on getting a band so bland and that plays so... well, zombie-like, that it kills any wacky zest the music might otherwise add to the film.
Tone: Oh, yes. Did I mention zombie comedy? Yeah, there's no way anyone is going to take this seriously for two seconds -- so we might as well go for it! That way we can cut back on creating makeup for the zombies that is too realistic or even plausible (we especially want to replicate that "living human eyes behind a zombie mask" look), and it gives us free reign for copious amounts of ridiculous arterial spray and brain eating. Of course, many a normal zombie film gets by on just these two items, but if we are going to be a comedy, we'll need something extra. Hmm... Jokes, jokes, jokes -- yeah, we are going to need them. Luckily, we've got a ringer in our court: our director worked on the sixth season of South Park as a staff writer. We've got this thing in the bag...Back to reality... Perhaps sometime in the future, someone will hire James Denton in a similar Western hero role, and perhaps there will be a sidekick for Denton who will bring amusement to the audience with some genuine comedic ability beyond just being clumsy, and perhaps they can even present a combined spoof Western and zombie movie tropes and bring a smile to a vast crowd (and not just the wholly uncritical and easily amused) with their knowing bending of those time-honored and seemingly beloved cliches. I wish, I wish, I wish that I knew Undead or Alive was something akin to a first draft, or maybe a collection of first or second takes that somebody weaved together as an on-set joke that got out to the Internet which someone slapped onto DVD.
There is just so much dead space in this film (no pun intended), and while there are intermittently clever lines, it's not enough to truly capture anyone's interest that isn't just looking for a passable time-filler. I never look for time-fillers, so maybe that is my fault. It also may be my fault to have expected too much from this. Months ago, during the writer's strike, when I saw a feature on TV showing Denton and Kattan filming this movie, it genuinely intrigued me. Enough so that when I saw the title pop up on Netflix, I immediately grabbed it. And I even threatened to make Jen -- of whom it is nearly impossible to convince to watch any form of horror film, even though she loves the Evil Dead films -- watch this if it turned out to be even halfway decent. So, the true test of this film became -- apart from the horror quotient, for which I would be the barometer -- would Jen think it was amusing?
She would probably not wish for me to speak for her in most cases, but I do know that she trusts me enough to know that I am not going to purposefully steer her towards a dull time. I know what she likes, and pretty exactly too, and Undead or Alive would fall directly into the lame horse category for her. She might chuckle a couple of times, but I know the other 95% of the film would have her sighing and checking the timer on the DVD player.
For myself, I will now speak of that which disappointed me directly: everything I set up earlier. Before I do go on a rampage, let me state that sitting through this is not a total wash. There are about a half dozen good lines, Denton is solid in the lead even if his character is not fully thought out on paper (something which can be said of most of the characters in the film), Kattan can be charming for a few seconds at a time, and the hottie is definitely hot-looking. Comedian Brian Posehn is his usually goofy self (albeit as a loving zombie father), and its nice to see Matt Besser from the Upright Citizen’s Brigade again (as the main zombie/sheriff). There are chunks of time where the film starts to feel like it will turn into a cult film that truly deserves an audience. And then that dead space pours back in to drown us in ennui, and to soak the entire thing in a shroud of disappointment.
One other thing that must be touched on: the tenuous South Park connection. The DVD itself is quick to point out how the film is created by one of the writers of South Park, but never making clear he is not one of the creators of South Park, which is a far, far different thing. Of course, we are now possibly entering a period where we will get flooded with “from one of the makers of South Park,” such is the case with the upcoming Hamlet 2 release, where one of the co-writers is Pam Brady, a former producer and writer for the show. The intention, naturally, is to make the fans of South Park believe that Trey Parker and Matt Stone are involved somehow in these productions, because they are justly famous/infamous for smart, innovative and often shocking ribaldry. And because they think the audience (which is true in many cases, it seems) can't read the quickly flashing credits at the end of the ads. Or just can't read in general. These productions might scream that this is not the case, but come on… you know it’s true… It’s the reason films are called “Wes Craven Presents…” even if Mr. Craven merely did a flyby on the project, and had little or no input at all on it, just garnering yet another executive producer’s credit. (And, in most cases, if he had done more than a flyby, maybe they wouldn’t have stunk so badly…) The marketers know that implication is half the game; get a prospective audience believing that a name they trust is somehow involved, and start printing the money.
The DVD is also quick to point out that the creators of South Park are in no way involved with the production of Undead or Alive in some text that appears at the beginning of the “making of” documentary. It is apparent, though, that Mr. Phillips is quite reverential of his old bosses, both in what he says in the doc, and also by some of the gags in the movie. A far too long dialogue bit involving the Colorado River seems inspired by Parker’s Cannibal! The Musical, though the Phillips version comes nowhere close in impact. There are a variety of gross-out gags that would fit right into the South Park mindset, but are so telegraphed as to be ineffective. It’s hard to point what, if anything, he learned from his time on the show from that which is on display in Undead or Alive. (Apart from scripting gross-out gags, which even G-rated films these days seem to be full up on…) And the phrase seems inspired comes into play throughout the film. In fact, I almost get the feeling that this is a zombie comedy where the chief creator of the material seems to have little handle on either the zombie or comedy portions of the film.
I charge the makers of this film with Scripted Laziness, for confronting the audience with a promising premise wherein the screenplay and resultant filming will only allow things to be carried “so far.” This much, and no more… Any joke is fine as long it seems like a joke. No joke will be carried through to its logical (or, preferably, illogical) conclusion. Kattan fumbling his guns and shooting them awkwardly will suffice for slapstick, but don’t dare (or just barely) allow any real payoff in these scenes. There will be a couple of scenes where the characters will speak in a more modern tone, seeming to make politically correct hash of the mores of the Old West period, but none of it really ties in much with the rest of the film, and consistency in either character or tone is anywhere to be found. I am sure there was a lot of fun on the set – hell, I would have loved to be on this set – but it really doesn’t come through in the finished product. Instead of spirited cast interplay, so much of it simply seems like actors waiting for other actors to get through their lines, so they can get to the next shot as quick as possible.
Why? Why criticize that which is meant only to be the lightest of entertainments? I’ve read defenders of this and other similar films, which strive only to be pass-the-time amusing or diverting, and often the pose taken by their defenders is one of “if you feel the need to tear this down, then you need to get a sense of humor.” Or something to that effect. I think the phrase is the fake movie critic's version of "check yourself before you wreck yourself." (Seek out IMDB, or any movie site for that matter, for its prevalence...) I will let their own words speak to the need for these crybabies to seek out their own form of emotional surgical implantation. I would also suggest that from the evidence of this film, then these people may be the reason the creators of Epic Movie, Superhero Movie and Meet the Spartans are able to make a living. Undead or Alive is certainly above that level of mediocrity, but the film itself is still evidence that the standards of its defenders are not all that high.
I would further use the slightly elevated status of Undead or Alive over those one-joke blunders as the very reason why entertainments like this should be criticized: because Undead or Alive actually had potential... as a premise, as an entertainment, in its casting, and yes, in its writing. This one could have been the very deserving cult film that it will surely become... undeservedly.
[*Some will quibble over the fact that the film is titled Ghost Town, not Zombie Town, and so the lead creature must be a ghost cowboy, not a zombie cowboy. I own a VHS tape of the film (it is not on DVD as of yet), have watched it a few times, and the creature is clearly more of a zombie than anything. If you doubt me, I turn to Jamie Russell's sublime history of Zombie Cinema, Book of the Dead, where he doesn't take these things lightly at all. He describes it as a "zombie ghost" and further calls the film "just about the only zombie western ever made." So there... nyaahh!]