Sunday, April 24, 2011

Bloody Nightmares #32: Zombie Rampage (1989/1991)

During a recent viewing of Bruce McDonald's Pontypool, I began to ponder just how oddly versatile the zombie film genre has become. Despite some serious over-saturation, talented filmmakers still manage to wring out new and interesting perspectives on the shuffling dead in a variety of different artistic mediums. Now that we're inundated with successful mainstream films, books and even television series', it's hard to believe that it wasn't too long ago that fans had to resort to somewhat less polished efforts to get their zombie fix. And, yes, sometimes that means dipping into works of auteur director Todd Sheets, the low budget maestro who also brought us Nightmare Asylum and Prehistoric Bimbos In Armageddon City. By 1989 the bloom was off the zombie rose, coming before Tom Savini's remake of Night Of The Living Dead or Peter Jackson's Braindead, so Sheets - obviously a massive fan of the genre - decided to get some friends, some camcorders and some animal entrails together and put on a show. The result was Zombie Rampage, which swings wildly between incoherent and amateurish, but does manage to provide plenty of gut-munching for particularly undemanding audiences. The version of the film in the Bloody Nightmares collection has an opening disclaimer stating that this is the "director's cut", so take that for what it's worth.

Note: That is not how discretion is spelled.

Two gangs from the mean street of Kansas City - one led by Sheets himself - have an old fashioned brawl (with a rock cover of "Spirit In the Sky" in the background) that leaves a few members dead. Upset, one of the gang leaders gets an occult paperback book that is said to bring the dead back to life, though the other gang manages to get the same book and - after a particularly windy reading of incantations - manage to create the titular zombie rampage. The gang members are quickly consumed, leaving the leader (and king asshole) Tommy (Dave Byerly) to hole up at a bar, alongside the young bemulleted Dave (Erin Kehr) and his girlfriend. There's also big dopey serial killer roaming around for some reason. Soon they are all overwhelmed by zombies of various quality - from halloween fun mask, to gooey burn victim - and the constantly bickering Tommy and Dave (along with their girlfriends) attempt to escape down an elevator shaft. And then there are a couple of shots of zombies, and the whole thing ends. Huh. How about that.

I feel like I'm repeating myself by mentioning that Zombie Rampage is a total amateur effort, featuring consistently terrible acting, special effects, writing and direction. I suspected - based on Sheets other efforts - that this would be the case going in, but this movie has some unique quirks that are particularly baffling. For one, the transition between the gang's efforts to raise the dead and the panic that leads to the characters attempting to seal themselves in a bar is totally nonexistent. There appears to be at least five minutes of exposition that is totally missing, and characters who seemed absolutely fine one minute, are suddenly (and incompetently) attempting to seal up doors and windows the next. Then things just get strange, as we're shown some random guy getting bitten outside a church(?) and a young man and woman attempting to nurse his wound, another couple attempting to hide in some sort of boiler room, and of course there's the serial killer subplot which is a real head scratcher.

And then there's the ending. I actually went back and watched it a second time to see if I may have missed some sort of event that would trigger the closing credits. Maybe the characters slipped into the elevator shaft? Maybe they were suddenly overrun by zombies? All we get is the voice-over from the ending of Lucio Fulci's Zombi implying that the city is overrun, but the characters get absolutely no visual resolution. The IMDB does imply that there is a Zombie Rampage 2 out there, but I can't find any concrete evidence supporting this. Needless to say, what is already a confusing film is saddled with a particularly unsatisfying ending.

Note: Quite a visible boom mic in the bottom left.

But let's look on the bright side. First, this isn't nearly as awful as Nightmare Asylum. The acting is a smidge better, and while characters still constantly shout unintelligible dialogue over each other, at least the first twenty minutes seems to make some sort of sense. The music is also much better than in the other Sheets films I've seen, no longer relying on public domain classical music and instead featuring a mix of rock songs and dated synthy stuff - as well as some more recognizable genre thefts. There's also plenty of guts to go around if you're into that sort of thing, though the special effects are inconsistent - the knife used by the serial killer has obviously been cut off, and most scenes of cannibalism are just a pile of entrails laying on someone's stomach.

I also can't help but note two particularly ridiculous moments. First, there's a scene where a woman is pushing a baby carriage through a street at a comically late hour before being attacked by zombies. I give Sheets some bad-taste credit for also having the ghouls tear her baby - which is obviously just a children's doll - to bits, An inspired bit of sickness. Second, one random character decides to blow his own brains out, which leads to a delightfully extended sequence that - despite the sorrowful music in the background - is absolutely impossible to take seriously. Needless to say, if you guessed that a slew of brains end up coating the wall, you would be correct.

Baseball fury? Or zombie mime?

Zombie Rampage has obviously been transferred directly from an old VHS tape and features the requisite tracking issues and washed out colors you expect from that format. It's a shot-on-VHS production, so image quality is iffy, and there's a notable hiss on the soundtrack throughout. Sound is a constant issue, particularly in the early scenes where wind consistently drowns out dialogue, and I again had to switch to headphones in order to attempt to make sense of what was being said. Despite many outdoor scenes at night, the lighting is thankfully serviceable. 

My understanding is that one of the selling points of the "Director's Cut" of Zombie Rampage is that there was a collection of extra features, but we get none of them here. And once again there are no chapter stops, so prepare yourself before you dive in.

Teenage mullet fury.

Perhaps I'm growing more fond of Todd Sheets' work, or perhaps my expectations have just shifted appropriately, but Zombie Rampage isn't nearly as offensively awful as I was expecting. It's still wholly nonsensical - and a frustrating experience for those not used to the limitations of no-budget films - but in all it's fairly painless, and would have delivered the goods for a zombie-crazed 14 year old version of myself. Strangely, it seems like Sheets' work actually regressed after this film, as this is the best of the three efforts of his that I've seen. Best to stick with one of the many, many, many superior zombie options that are available.


Ash said...

Man, you are rockin' these.

What's the chance that you're the only person in the history of mankind to actually watch this entire box set?

Doug Tilley said...

When I realized that I started the project in February of 2009(!), it suddenly kicked in that if I was ever going to finish it I was really going to have to kick it into high gear and start churning them out a little faster. At the very least I want the first 50 done by the end of the year, though I have to balance them out with quality films or I might just end up killing myself.

And I know for the fact that I'm the only one who has watched all of these - the external reviews section of IMDB has some usual suspects appear again and again - but I think it's fair to say that I'm taking more time to write up my thoughts. The way I see it, even the worst of these took hundreds of man-hours and weeks, if not months of a whole lot of people's lives. The least I can do is give them an honest appraisal.

Still, BOY do most of them suck.