Friday, April 9, 2010

Zombies of Mass Destruction

I wish Zombies of Mass Destruction was better. I really do, for a variety of reasons. First, it was produced in Seattle, my town, and I like it when the locals do something good. Secondly, a friend of mine wrote the script, at least in part. (He is a good writer, I swear, it just isn’t on display here) And thirdly, I’m in it. I got to be an extra one night when the production crew picked up some additional shots they missed during principle photography. At 48:30 there is a shadowy figure shuffling around at the tree line. (I was this close—imagine me holding my fingers half an inch apart—to being a zombie that gets stabbed in the crotch and spews blood from a crotch-mounted blood cannon, but we ran out of darkness.) In reality all you can see is the picture on the front of my hoodie, but it is enough to identify me.

Like I said, I really wanted it to be good, but it just isn’t.

In the idyllic, picturesque island town of Port Gamble, Washington (which isn’t really an island at all, but I’ll let that slide), all is not as wholesome as it seems. Beneath the small-town veneer lurks an ugly undercurrent of racism and political discontent. Frida Abbas (Janette Armand), Iranian by descent though she was born and raised in Port Gamble, feels this firsthand. She recently dropped out of Princeton and returned home. Her ignorant, lily-white neighbors treat her differently, never quite accepting of her or her Muslim father as “real Americans”, and mistakenly calling her Iraqi over and over. Even her boyfriend subtly belittles Frida and her heritage.

Tom Hunt (Doug Fahl) is another Port Gamble-ite. He escaped to New York and now returns years later with his ultra-gay boyfriend, Lance (Cooper Hopkins), in order to come out to his mother and stop hiding his true self.

But something is amiss in the community. Namely zombies. A nefarious terrorist has unleashed a biological weapon that turns its victims into flesh eating undead cannibals. Of course the prime location for a terrorist attack is a small, isolated town in Washington. (And somehow the national news knows of this attack before any of the citizens of Port Gamble. Curious.) Over the course of the infection, the town’s latent racism and homophobia boil up to the surface, and Frida, Tom, and Lance encounter all manner of trouble because of their differences.

Zombies of Mass Destruction falls into the same category as movies like Dead Snow. It tries to be a comedy, it tries so damn hard, and that is what ultimately causes the film to fail. We get it, Shaun of the Dead was funny, but that doesn’t mean that every fucking zombie movie has to be god damned comedy. (Zombieland is the exception, it is legitimately funny.) Director/writer Kevin Hamademi and writer Ramon Isao spend too much time and effort trying to be funny, trying to force jokes and moments of levity into places where they don’t fit. The humor just doesn’t work. The jokes that try to be subtle aren’t clever enough to be funny, and the ones that try to be over the top funny aren’t big enough to elicit more than a mild chuckle (if that). This is one more example of the adage about comedy being the most difficult genre to write.

If the filmmakers had simply let the movie run its course as a zombie movie, without fishing for laughs, it would be much more effective. It still wouldn’t have been great, the acting never feels quite natural enough to be taken seriously, but it would have been better. The set up is there, and the gore and effects could have carried it through. Tom Devlin from 1313fx does a great job, an impressively good job, especially considering the budget and production scale. It is as good as anything I’ve seen recently.

Letting the movie play out as a horror would also better serve the political aspirations of the movie. It wants to make some wide reaching point about the war in Iraq, intolerance of other ways of life, religious fanaticism, and how seemingly ideal appearances can hide ugliness. These are worthy goals, but they are dealt with too simplistically, too bluntly, to make any sort of coherent statement. We never really connect with the protagonists, and consequently there is little emotional investment with them. The secondary characters are little more than caricatures, one-dimensional racists and religious fanatics. You can get away with that, but the caricatures have to be caricatures for a reason, they have to take the stereotypes to the extreme. Instead they are wind up limp and mild. The sinister preacher isn’t sinister enough to be frightening. The racist redneck isn’t racist or redneck enough to inspire dread. (He doesn’t even have a gun for god’s sake, what kind of self-respecting hillbilly doesn’t have a small arsenal stashed in his closet?) They are not taken far enough to be effective in the way they are intended to be. It feels false, like kids who grew up in the city mocking small town life without ever actually experiencing it for real. This small town is what TV and movies have told them a small town is like.

ZMD bounces back and forth between humor and seriousness, between horror and comedy, and because of this lack of focus, doesn’t work in either capacity.

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