Thursday, October 16, 2008


Originally titled LAST RITES, this 2006 video-based production from director Duane Stinnett proved to be a pleasant surprise, much better than its obscurity suggests it to be. Far from a perfect film, it offers a degree of craftsmanship and skill not readily found in shot-on-video cinema.

An amalgam of DAWN OF THE DEAD and RESERVOIR DOGS, GANGS OF THE DEAD details the uneasy transactions of two rival gangs in an abandoned Los Angeles warehouse (overseen by the always-awesome Reggie Bannister) just as a meteor hits the city, turning those who come into contact into flesh-eating zombies. The gang-bangers soon find themselves having to make peace with the LAPD, if only to escape the undead that've infiltrated the warehouse.

An impressively solid micro-budget film, GANGS gets underway with a very well-executed prologue involving the meteor's landing that boasts much better CGI than we normally see (owing to Stinnett's background in the video-game industry, no doubt). As I stated earlier, Stinnett's got some definite directorial chops, and it's a shame his movie hasn't gotten a bigger, or better, reception; however, as strong a filmmaker as he is, GANGS is missing a few intangible elements that prevents it from being a no-budget classic.

It boils down to the two biggies, story and characterization. While most likely a budgetary decision, the conceit of fighting zombies trapped in a single location is a mighty stale one, and Stinnett never makes the setting fresh. And though he does an excellent job whenever the zombies are on-screen--capturing well-shot sequences of chaos that a lesser director would fumble--the movie suffers whenever the dead aren't around, as his characters just aren't vivid enough to sustain interest (with the notable exception of Bannister; unfortunately, once he's killed off the cast can't compensate for his absence). The performances are by and large quite good, largely avoiding stereotypes (except for the ineffectual white guy who exists solely to illustrate just how ineffectual white guys can be).

Some excellent gore and a nice downbeat ending ultimately makes GANGS OF THE DEAD worth the investment, and most die-hard zombie fans might even enjoy some of those standard tropes. Stinnett hasn't directed a feature since, but I'm very much interested in seeing what he does next.

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