I feel like Two Face at the end of a tragic run with Batman. I have seen both sides of his coin, one side worn and abused, the other side polished and eager to twinkle an eye. That coin is Gary Ugarek.
For those of you unaware, I didn’t particularly care for Gary’s debut feature film DEADLANDS: THE RISING. You can read my review of it here. Gary caught wind of my review and even left a heartfelt comment. To critique a film takes a bit of finesse. I’m kind of the resident smart ass, so I tend to get a pass thanks to my honesty. Due to the graciousness that Gary handled with my review, Kristy Jett reached out to offer him a platform to speak about his work, which can be found here. From this open dialogue, I offered to review his 2nd zombie film, DEADLANDS 2: TRAPPED. I’d like to personally thank Gary for sending along the screener of his sequel and his openness with Blood Sprayer.
Now don’t be confused. This isn’t a direct sequel. This film was originally titled TRAPPED, but with the DVD popularity of the first film the decision to associate the two through title was made for the sake of the box office. There’s no more acting for Gary here, he stays behind the camera to flex what he learned from his first endeavor. Keep this in mind, because even though it’s the same driver, this is a flashier make & model cruising at a different speed in a new direction.
To kick things off the feature starts with a quirky intro by Helena, the Hussy of Horror. Those unfamiliar like I was, she’s an Elvira style Horror Host with a fake Long Island accent gussied up like an extra in MOULIN ROUGE. It begs of the old horror show days when you must remember that what you’re about to witness should be taken with a boulder size grain of salt. But anytime you combine thigh-high stockings with chainsaws, you have my attention. Gary Ugarek has written, directed and, edited this new storyline delivered by Art Held Hostage and Anthem Pictures.
It seems your tax dollars are hard at work when a government agency is poised to deliver the latest advancements in bio-military weaponry for the U.S. Armed Forces. They just have to test it first. The citizens are cut off from civilization thanks to military blockades and the severance of all telecommunications. Two buddies, Sean and Jack are out on the prowl for good times after Sean finishes up his stint at the Gun Shop. Over a few beers they meet up with Shelly, who’s soon on her way to Seattle. When they encounter a “crackhead” that bites Jack, they are sent scrambling to find medical assistance at a nearby movie theater. There they meet up with a couple counter jockeys, Casey and Chris, who try to help piece what the hell is going on. If only they could help the audience with that too.
Soon they’ve all barricaded themselves in the theater as the zombies begin to stare down at their meal like a cat at a fishbowl. I chuckled imagining that this zombie horde were actually just movie goers seeking a refund for watching DEADLANDS, which is featured on the cinema’s marquee. Inside they also discover a little girl separated from her family. That’s right, the story even has it’s own little Newt for all you ALIEN fans. This is supposed to add to the group dynamic of claustrophobic intensity, but she really fails to serve any purpose outside of set dressing their need to get out of there.
The group is taunted by the evil scientist, Dr. Mitchell, behind the experiment, when he warns that everything will be over at 6am. Convinced they just need to survive the night, a plan of action is devised that quickly turns a majority of the cast into worm food. The movie is predictable to a fault, but that’s the only way to follow what happens as it jump cuts back and forth like a Meth addict showing you a comic book.
At 1 hour and 18 minutes, you get a full ride from Gary. Any fan of zombie films will see the influences he pulls from, but you feel that he makes them his own in the way you make vegetables into a salsa. One of my favorite elements of the film are the locations. From the titty bar/pool hall, to the Gun Shop, to the Movie Theater, these are the playgrounds where a harder game could’ve been played. There’s no easing of tension in the movie theater, no raiding of the concession stand for supplies or weapons, no stand off at the Gun Shop, no return to the pool hall for more gratuitous nudity. It feels as if the story was meant for one location despite the plethora of settings that invoke such apprehension if you were to find yourself cornered there. That’s the main sentiment that lingers, that there’s so much potential compounded by too much set up and not enough delivery.
The zombies receive a better makeup job this time around, with paint on effects coupled with a few prosthetics. At times it almost seems like stage make up, but the blur of quick cuts doesn’t allow any fan of effects makeup to truly catch a glimpse at the handiwork of the brain munchers. There’s a few choice kills, including a few face rips. Gary steers away from the gore, hoping to force the audience to imagine the terror of such a fate to the zombie’s victims, but instead you feel cheated from witnessing what zombies do best. One favorite instance though is when the zombies stop a date rape. Chalk it up to opportune timing, but I’d like to think that even the walking dead respect a woman’s mind, right before they eat it. One interesting aspect that does add to the zombie mythos is that while Gary’s zombies run a la 28 DAYS LATER and other earlier depictions, they only do so when they see food, otherwise they shamble about in a stupor usually reserved for a hangover.
The acting is vastly superior this second time around. The characters almost dart in and out as if this was the world’s first zombie dinner theater. Gary properly cast actors rather than himself, Brian Wright, and friends, like the previous installment of the Deadlands name. He reached out through Craigslist invoking many a kindred spirit to assist in his zombie escapades. The trouble with the scheduling shows in the performance when it’s revealed that Gary didn’t rehearse with his actors. Any true emotion is masked with a string of expletives as a means to show fear, agitation, remorse, you name it, just add a four letter word. The dialogue seems unnatural, resounding from one voice split among the group of survivors. Each embodies the social quirks of one consciousness. What is then delivered are scenes that are drawn out for the sake of unnecessary exposition, as if the actors are waiting for the cue cards to be shuffled. Again you never feel for their plight, you never want them to be saved. There’s no leader, no plan, and that’s fine, but if I wanted to listen to incessant whining I’d call my parents to hear them talk about what I’m doing with my life. There’s no sense of cohesion as the two groups merge into one. No one really seems to care about anyone but themselves. Even as you grow anxious hoping to see them eaten alive, most of their deaths occur off screen. This isn’t entirely on their shoulders as there’s nothing else for them to do but cower and run. The stand out performance comes from Jim Krut, the Helicopter Zombie from the original DAWN OF THE DEAD, as Dr. Robert Mitchell. He plays a prick with a God complex and you relish right along in his sinister plans.
The editing is frantic and almost dizzying. It definitely subscribes to the MTV School of thought that no shot should last longer than 5 seconds. This married with the handheld cinematography when the group is trapped in the theater adds a physical sense of unease. If it was done purposefully, then I could forgive the ultra-high contrast lighting between their daytime and nighttime exteriors. The camera work is notable in that it doesn’t venture into any specific color tone. A neutral palette creates everyday life falling apart in the zombie apocalypse.
The main problems I had with the story revolve on its purpose. George Romero juxtaposed the Red Scare, his views on consumerism and even the Bush administration with his franchise. I’m stuck wondering what Deadlands is meant to serve. It has a few stellar opportunities to go for the jugular. I enjoyed how the government is officially responsible for this zombie outbreak, especially as a reflection of our post 9-11 world. I wish this would have been amped up and explored further for a sense of reason and clarity, rather than an excuse to bring up zombies. Films like this exist as thinly veiled mirrors held up to society, meant to serve as a cautionary tale for our inherent crimes against humanity. This is evidenced with the Haliburton style operations of Dr. Mitchell as he conducts his experiment to help ultimately win the War on Terror. I can respect Gary’s decision to shy away from gore, especially when low budget features are not universally adept at delivering believeable effects. Ultimately the horror of the story must stem from drama, suspense and comedy. However, as a self-proclaimed hard core zombie fan, the comedy of parody or spoof is not an option for Gary. The severe lack of levity excludes the audience from truly experiencing the perils of the film’s characters. Without drama, suspense or comedy the plot must revolve around love which is always in short supply when people want to eat your brains. Overall I enjoyed this film as a visible testament to Gary Ugarek’s growth as a filmmaker, an artist fine-tuning his craft. I’m eager to see what will come from the third film in his trilogy, as I’m convinced his talent will grow. I sincerely hope his skills will be worthy of your attention span and his admission price.
The Special Features include “Composing Deadlands” which offers a peek into the DIY style and approach to the score of the film. It’s interesting to see how Brian Wright and Gary composed much of the music in a hybrid style that sounds like John Carpenter making out with Robert Rodriguez. This synth based style offers a simplistic sound that is highly effective in setting a tone and mood for the film. I was a fan of Gary’s ear for rock in DEADLANDS: THE RISING, and he keeps a foot tapping pace in his pseudo sequel as well. If anything it showcases that the tools are there to create, if you’re willing to pick up the ax.
A “Director’s Interview” sits you down with Gary to discuss the ins and outs of his 2nd film. The man is a bit enigmatic. You can see why folks could be drawn to his vision, to his passion, to his determination to make his film the way he wants. At the same time I’m not convinced that the film delivers what he envisions. Here he reveals that Part 2 was supposed to be shorter, almost supplemental, but the story ballooned into a feature length project. You should stand in awe of the guy who took almost $6000 and delivered a film that looks 3 times that budget. I can only imagine the day when he meets with financiers that are able to produce a Hollywood worthy budget. The screener I viewed offers the 3rd cut for DVD, this is after a festival screening, that though garnered an award, irked Gary enough to overhaul the assembly including re-scoring 90% of the soundtrack. I can only imagine what was lost in the shuffle. Here’s where I tend to grow a little despondent from his opinions when he pontificates that as much as he’s a fan of gore in his horror films, he’s not a fan of cheap gore. He explains that he shies away from most of the blood soaking money shots associated with other zombie films for the sake of the scare rather than the gross out. He also proclaims his aversion to parody or spoofing within the zombie genre. He has a love for Dan O’Bannon’s RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD because it’s a “party zombie” flick, and you can see the influences of Dan’s masterpiece throughout the entirety of Deadlands 2. I would almost venture to say that due to its underlying humor that Gary does not consider RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD to be “hardcore” horror. Above all, Gary hopes to return a sense of seriousness to this sub-genre.
A few brief interviews make up a segment where you meet the cast and crew. Here they discuss their involvement and how they came on board. Watching this I couldn’t help but realize that this is AMERICAN MOVIE meets WAITING FOR GUFFMAN and that can be a good thing.
Another Special Feature is the “Weapons & Tactics” of DEADLANDS 2. Here Eric Thomas discusses the politics of realism versus cost when depicting military personnel and law enforcement officials in cinema. Thomas presents a great plan of how to save on costume and props budget by renting from specialists rather than toiling away in Army surplus stores. Gary lets his love for firearms hang out as they discuss and showcase the best weapons for combating hordes of the walking dead. It’s unfortunate that the film did not showcase more gunplay. It’s basically the gun equivalent of those late night knife shows, and just as dangerous.
DEADLANDS3: THE NEW WORLD has been announced to begin filming in April 2011 with a tentative release date in 2012.
You yourself can download the film thanks to a link from the director by clicking here. If you do, please leave a donation via Pay Pal by clicking here. Independant filmmaking is cheap, it ain’t free. All funds generated will help in the financing of DEADLANDS 3.
And the Official Deadlands Trilogy Page