Watching low-budget horror films is often like panning for gold, sifting through the muck to find that one worthwhile nugget; finding a satisfying flick is hard enough, but it's a rare treat when one comes along, initially appearing to be just another run-of-the-mill potboiler, but turns out to be more imaginative or clever than expected. Director Peter Mervis's 2005 release DEAD MEN WALKING gives the impression of being that kind of film, but unfortunately falters when it should be picking up steam.
A convicted felon is sent to a maximum-security prison following the shotgun-happy massacre that opens the picture (actually, he was killing zombies, but apparently no one was interested in that), only to be followed by an agent from the CDC (Bay Bruner) who's concerned with his medical condition. Needless to say, the convict is carrying the zombie virus and before long the prison is infected, setting up a novel twist on the ol' they're-attacking-the-installation scenario.
It's here that DEAD MEN WALKING suggests it's going to be a better than average flick; the screenplay by Mike Watt--who's written quite a few no-budget gems, often for his own Happy Cloud banner--takes the time to flesh out the characters, supplying them with natural-sounding dialogue. Mervis has also cast his film well, with stronger actors than most straight-to-DVD tripe (standing out is Chriss Anglin as a hardnosed prison guard, whose performance suggests a slightly-unhinged Bill Sadler). The lighting and photography are also solid, and by the twenty-five minute mark I was feeling pretty damn good with this thing.
Unfortunately, trouble sets in once the zombie outbreak starts to spread; the scope of the epidemic is a little beyond the film's means and quite often it shows; many scenes feel cramped, usually with a forced sense of chaos. Mervis does an admirable job of shooting the more intimate scenes with his cast members, but can't seem to exert the same control on, say, a riot in the commissary.
The latter part of the story devolves into a simple gorefest as the prison guards, along with a plucky inmate, blast away at the marauding undead; plenty of well-handled bloodshed, but nothing we haven't seen before; the action is also rather redundant, with the same rhythm and tempo, and the momentum the strong first act has built starts to flag. The film also lowers to toss in some cheap T&A for no discernable reason.
As DEAD MEN walks to its predictable conclusion it also fumbles two potentially rich components; the subplot, if that's the right word, is a wasted opportunity, whose payoff is telegraphed almost immediately and has no real impact. Also, Mervis tries to put Bruner into action-babe mode for the climax, but allows her to be a screaming, ineffectual nuisance before capping it all off with an ending we've seen far too often.
Perhaps if the first part of the film hadn't shown as much promise the end result wouldn't have been so disappointing. Though not a bad film across the board, it's still a let down with obviously-talented filmmakers suggest they can go to the next level, then don't.