Monday, March 26, 2012


It should come as little surprise to readers of this column that I love no-budget films. Yeah, I critique 'em. I tear them apart a bit. But in my heart, there's something about the creation of entertainment on limited resources that simply warms my soul. You love movies? You want to make one? Well, write a script, get your friends together, and start filming. It'll likely be terrible, but that experience will make the next one better. Which will make the one after that better. And so on and so on. But perhaps more than this "let's put on a show" attitude, I dig the freedom of self-financed, ultra low-budget film-making. If you want to make something horribly offensive, tasteless, disgusting or unwatchable.. nobody will be looking over your shoulder to try and correct you. It's a beautiful time for creativity. It's the wild west.

In 2003, Dan West and Rick Popko directed a ridiculous monster movie parody called MONSTURD about a serial killer being mutated into a giant creature made of.. shit. It was full of silly humor, off-the-wall performances (including great turns by West and Popko) and an energy rarely seen in shot-on-DV productions. It's a gleefully offensive piece of genre filmmaking, but one that sometimes has trouble sustaining interest throughout its 80 minutes. A full five years passed before we would see their followup film, which would end up being a direct sequel to MONSTURD though significantly more polished (get it?). RETARDEAD plopped in 2008, and we're all still attempting to recover. I remember reading about the film in A D Puchalski's wonderful SHOCK CINEMA magazine and knowing that I simply had to check it out, though it would unfortunately be years until I had the chance.

As you might have already gathered, RETARDEAD is a zombie film - though one with a twist. Dr. Stern (Dan Burr) has vanished after the events of MONSTURD and is presumed dead, though Sheriff Duncan (Paul Weiner) and FBI agent Hannigan (Beth West) are skeptical that he's gone for good. Their suspicions are confirmed when he pops up at a local special education school where he begins experimenting on the unwilling students with his Algernon 9 formula, which is meant to rapidly increase their intelligence. The FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON reference should be a tip-off that there might be some side-effects, and soon the mentally challenged kids turn into flesh hungry ZOMBIES. The zombie plague rapidly gets out of control, with Duncan's deputies Rick and Dan (our two directors) - who had been busy chasing the perverted Weenie Wagger - called into action, and eventually having to enlist the help of Stern to try and track down an antidote. Things just get nuttier from there, and the final gag is a howler.

West and Popko definitely take advantage of the freedoms offered on a low-budget, as they gleefully bathe themselves in bad-taste comedy and gore to the delight of discriminating genre fans. But a film can't live on gore alone, and the directors - who are comedy sketch veterans - have assembled a sharp, funny script that continually both wallows in and subverts the conventions of zombie horror. They've also amassed a cast much higher in quality than normally found in films of this budget - including the actors playing the special ed students who somehow skirt the line between hilarious (think crayons up the nose and random bunny outfits) and sympathetic. Best of all is Dan Burr as Dr. Stern whose solution to the zombie problem ends up being hilariously simple, but who carries a quiet menace - particularly when using a particularly frightening spider analogy.

Technical specs are surprisingly high, with a cavalcade of head shots, organ eating, the requisite machete to the head, and even a helicopter explosion thrown in for good measure. Once things start ramping up at the half way mark, there's a constant stream of gory set pieces, with occasional comic relief from the deputies ("What kind of cop are you?" "I dunno. A crappy one, I guess") to remind us that we're watching a comedy. The make-up effects quite good - and plentiful - and West and Popko get plenty of cooperation from droves of zombie extras, and even filmmakers (second unit footage comes from around the US and Canada). Sound is excellent, too, with a fine score by Marshall Crutcher and an excellent closing theme song that I find myself whistling on a frequent basis.

RETARDEAD is packaged as a full drive-in experience, with not only a comical pre-film concession stand advertisment parody (directed by RETARDEAD editor Ken Dashner), and TWO parody trailers (directed by West and Popko): FRANKENSTEIN AND THE BLOODY BEAST OF GHASTLY TERROR and DRACULA VS JACK THE RIPPER which poke fun at the terrible dubbing and goofy plot devices often present in foreign horror films of the 70s. RETARDEAD also has some wonderful - and surprising - cameos. Horror legend H.G. Lewis does an opening bit of narration, while fellow legend (and partner) David Friedman shows up briefly on a television as "Captain Kooky". Perhaps strangest of all, punk God (and former Dead Kennedys frontman) Jello Biafra shows up as the mayor of Butte county. Amazing!

Of course, RETARDEAD isn't for everyone. Even if you can get past the title and the obviously comical portrayal of people with disabilities, it's still an ultra low-budget film with all of the limitations that would imply. While the acting is good, it's inconsistent - with Beth West as Agent Hannigan giving an unfortunately (but appropriately) stiff performance. But these rough edges are part of the appeal for fans, and horror fans looking for something happily unrestrained will be overjoyed at Popko and West's commitment to crowd-pleasing. It's a whacked-out, unpredictable mess of a film, and when it comes to no-budget film-making, there can be no bigger compliment.

One Nightmare out of Five - No-Budget Perfection

One Nightmare - No-Budget Perfection, Two Nightmares - Shocking Success, Three Nightmares - Shows Potential, Four Nightmares - Not Much Fun, Five Nightmares - Please Kill Me

Join me this week for an interview with RETARDEAD directors Rick Popko and Dan West.



Retro-Zombie said...

Attn: HBA Members,

Updates, Changes... and No Response you might be considered D.E.A.D.

"The Horror Blogger Alliance" is having a "Give Blood [Money]" Drive,
March 10th to April 1st 2012, for
more details:

Thank You,
Jeremy [Retro-Zombie]
HBA Curator

Simply Sam Norris said...

Great post friend but the movie itself not for my taste.