Gary Ugarek's DEADLANDS: THE RISING opens with a disclaimer, stating that the film has nothing to do with Pinnacle's video game or RPG, nor Brian Keene's novel THE RISING. And while I'm sure this is all to avoid any legal fallout, wouldn't it have been easier to just think of another title?
The 2006 movie is one of the many shot-on-video DIY zombie flicks that've proliferated over the past few years. Though it manages to sidestep many of the usual pitfalls that these types of productions face--particularly a non-professional cast and restrictive budget--it doesn't use what it has available to its advantage.
The movie begins in April 2009, with the survivor of a zombie apocalypse recounting the end of the living world. The story then backtracks to the previous October, when an unspecified terrorist attack in the Baltimore area inexplicably sets off an uprising of the undead.
Tackling an end-of-the-world scenario on a miniscule budget is a recipe for disaster, but Ugarek wisely focuses his attention on a single community and a handful of characters. Unfortunately, he doesn't do anything with these characters except provide them with flat, boring dialogue that neither illuminates them as people, nor advances the plot; which is a shame, since the majority of the leads (notably Dave Cooperman, Michelle Wright, and Ugarek himself) aren't bad actors. It would've been interesting to see what these talented amateurs would've done with a meatier script.
In fact, the lightweight screenplay (written by Ugarek) is the source of most of the movie's problems. The first act attempts to build a mounting feeling of dread as it leads to the outbreak that almost works, but would've been far more effective if we'd gotten to know the characters better. Even the initial appearance of the zombies--creeping out of the mist to descend on a cluster of gridlocked motorists--comes close to being an exciting setpiece, but lackluster action (save for a few munched necks and torn entrails) keeps it from really taking off. (Ugarek also can't seem to decide if his zombies are the classic slow-moving kind, or today's faster model, using whichever's convenient at the moment.)
What really damns the movie is that there's no real story here beyond the initial premise. Characters flee for safer ground, while others look for them--all without a hint of tension, conflict, or suspense. A group of secondary characters gather at a shelter set up by the National Guard (where all the subpar actors were apparently banished) for no other reason than to be served up as a zombie buffet--though we are shown a sole survivor of the attack, whose entire existence in the film has no payoff. The story wanders along on its own inertia until its closing scenes; six months after the outbreak, our core characters are holed up together amid dwindling supplies, wondering if they're the last people left. Then night falls and a sudden army of the undead appears to invade the house, just as the end credits begin to roll.
It turns out that THE RISING is the first part of an ongoing series. I'm sure Ugarek probably only had enough resources to shoot the first hour of his opus, but he would've been far better off saving his money until he could afford to make an entire movie. As it stands, DEADLANDS: THE RISING is little more than a slight prologue to a (presumably) bigger story that fails to whet the appetite of its audience for what's to come.