*. The return of the living dead. Returning, this time, to the nineteenth century. Because if there’s one thing the twenty-first century hasn’t been able to get its fill of, it’s zombies. But they’re getting harder to make new.
*. The hook here is that the story takes place in Tennessee just after the American Civil War. Apparently there was a zombie outbreak during the war, though it’s not clear how that all worked out. It does seem as though the post-War world is a radically depopulated place, except for the zombies stumbling and moaning through the woods.
*. For some reason, Ontario’s ski country (the area around Collingwood) has recently become associated with tales of grisly horror. I guess the person to blame is Tony Burgess. The same location is also the location of Burgess’s zombie novel Pontypool Changes Everything, which was later filmed as Pontypool, and which also starred Stephen McHattie. (Burgess appears in cameos in both movies as well. You can see him here as one of the zombies McHattie is experimenting on.)
*. I think one reason for this adoption may be the stark loneliness of much of the area. It lends itself to the feel of Ontario Gothic. Yes, it’s also some very valuable real estate, but the communities in the area are small, and relatively remote from one another, with lots of bush in between. It’s easy to feel that you’re the last man on Earth when you’re up there. Whenever I drive through it I get the feeling there must be a serial killer in the basement of every farmhouse.
*. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t look pretty. Maybe too pretty. There’s some really smooth camera movement throughout this film, and the whole is nicely photographed by Brendan Uegama (especially all the torch and candlelight scenes). Though I think he’s sometimes a little too fond of the fall scenery.
*. Also nice are the inventive animated interludes. And the bit where the gang members are introduced by way of old-tyme studio photographs is a nice little touch too.
*. All of which is to say that they do a great job with what they had to work with. Which wasn’t much. And it is a high-concept film: a period gore-fest complete with battle scene. As noted on the producers’ commentary, such a script would have “needed an enormous budget to have pulled it off” at industry standards.
*. It’s curious then that what lets it down is the script. Not because the script misfires badly, but because it slows things down. The goal was to produce “a patient dramatic story,” depressing even, without any glamour or sense of urgency. This was a bold decision, especially given the target audience for zombie fare. Success on these terms could only be the film’s undoing.
*. In other words, in trying to do something different I think perhaps they ended up being too different. Or perhaps “contrary” is the word I’m thinking of.
*. Take the matter of the zombies. The zombies (at least the featured zombies) look great, but they’re not much of a threat. In fact it’s surprising how little anyone seems concerned by them.
*. This is a point I made in my notes on Romero’s Survival of the Dead, and seems to mark a generational shift. I thought it odd that Edward’s first encounter with the undead (he repeatedly shoots a zombie union soldier in the opening battle scene) didn’t seem to register with him as any great shock. When we next see him (six years later) it’s after the outbreak and zombies are more or less taken for granted. A back story is later filled in by way of animation, but by then it’s hard to feel that interested.
*. The problem of making the zombies just background or set dressing is that you need a really compelling human story in the foreground to make the movie work. That doesn’t happen here, though not for lack of trying. In fact, this movie has too much story to get through, and it’s all very familiar territory. The man who has lost his wife and child and is trying to reconnect with humanity goes back to Vincent Prize in The Last Man on Earth, except Edward Young has a beard and he tosses his head back and howls a lot.
*. In conclusion, this a surprisingly, and I think daringly, ambitious movie, and it succeeds more than you’d expect given its tiny budget. The slow pace hurts though, and the lack of a more original story to match the inventiveness of the concept lets it down.