When selecting movies for the blog I don't really plan too far in advance, trying an almost random assortment of films from varying countries, decades, or genres to keep from watching the same thing too many times in a row. Sometimes a subtle pattern will emerge, such as the one I found this week. Today's entry, 2007's UNDEAD OR ALIVE, marks the third film in a row in which a solid premise is undermined by lousy direction (this is doubly frustrating, with the plethora or remakes and repackaged TV series flooding multiplexes it'd be nice to see someone actually pull off a clever premise).
UNDEAD OR ALIVE is the debut feature from director Glasgow Phillips, who honed his comedic chops working on later seasons of SOUTH PARK (which you'd never suspect, since precious little of that show's sharp eye for satire--or toilet humor, for that matter--makes its way here). Phillips doesn't inspire much confidence in the film's prologue--my eyes were rolling before the opening credits--by introducing his zombie early on and immediately playing it for tired, dumb "laughs" (I've said it before, and I'll keep saying until someone listens, even when you're doing a horror-comedy ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS play your monsters straight). In fact, in the movie's earliest scenes I soon found myself preparing for a looong ninety minutes, as stock Western tropes are introduced and lamely poked fun of, scenes that consists mostly of bad dialogue badly delivered (such as the villainous Sheriff, who's supposed to sound sinister but instead comes off like an effeminitte shopkeeper who doesn't want to be bothered). Chris Kattan carries the bulk of the comedic material as a heartbroken cowboy (sadly, the only thing funny about his performance is the pitiable way he handles his six-shooters) who teams up with a lone gunslinger (James Denton) on the run from the aforementioned sissy Sheriff. After this questionable build-up, the film offers a glimmer of hope, as the Sheriff and his possee are infected with a zombie bite just before the manhunt begins. (Phillips, ever the consciencious comedy director, remembers to add fart sounds to his transformation scenes.)
Once you get accustomed to the movie's level of sucktitude, it's surprisingly easy to get swept along with the story. Phillips, along with Scott Pourroy, actually brings some novel twists to the zombie tale. This time, instead of viruses or voodoo, zombieism is a curse inflicted upon the white man in the last moments of Geronimo's life, a concept that's laudably explored instead of being wasted as a gimmick. And despite the occasional pointless subplot--Phillips spends a little too much time with a drunken priest with no real connection to the plot and a measly payoff--the screenplay is well-paced, offering quite a few interesting turns, culminating in an Old West variation on NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in an Army fort and featuring what I must say is one of the most unexpected and satisfying endings in recent memory.
In addition to piling on one unfunny joke after another, Phillips squanders this refreshing script by punctuating every single action sequence with awful, inappropriate, and often anachronistic music (seriously, keep that mute button handy whenever anything of interest happens). This consistently wrong-headed direction had me banging my forehead in frustration, especially since the movie had so much going for it, story-wise.
UNDEAD OR ALIVE is worth checking out, at least for its considerable strengths, and maybe you'll get a bigger kick out of the humor than I did, but be forewarned: there is a generic rock-country soundtrack waiting for you that'll haunt your dreams for days.