This weekend I watched the Mariel Hemingway zombie film Rise of the Zombies. It premiered on the Syfy network in 2012, and has just been released on DVD via Netflix.
Rise of the Zombies imagines a San Francisco of the near future in which the ravenous dead have risen and a band of survivors has joined forces to make their stand inside Alcatraz Prison. Levar Burton plays a scientist bent on researching the “colonial microorganism” that has turned the dead into zombies. Danny Trejo and Ethan Suplee are survivors who seem less analytically minded than the others. (At the start of the film, they have burned valuable research samples that would have been useful to Levar Burton’s scientist character. For some reason.) Mariel Hemingway plays the de facto leader of their band, though she is not more centrally featured than any of the other characters.
The zombies in this film are fast-moving, ravenous, and hunger not just for brains but any human flesh they can get. A bite or scratch turns the living into a member of their legion in under a minute.
The imagery in Rise of the Zombies is all over the place. There was a lot of cartoonish CGI I couldn’t get past, but some of the non-effects shots of the island were really evocative and well-done. The zombies, for their part, looked excellent. The zombie acting, however, was uneven. (Sometimes they just hovered like stuntmen, waiting to be punched.)
Any zombie tale that has survivors holding out in a prison almost necessarily invokes the work of Robert Kirkman. Will this film replay his tropes, or will it try to build something new and original? The answer turns out to be “Yes.” It will do both.
The narrative action really begins when a group of the survivors—who are sick of (literal) wave after wave of zombies washing ashore to attack their prison compound—set off on a raft in search of a better survival location. Many of the well-worn zombie movie chestnuts are here. Survivors irritably bickering about what they should do next (often with nonsensical reasoning). A researcher who cannot bring himself to abandon a zombified family member. A religious adherent who sees ecclesiastical portent in the risen dead. A romantic couple torn asunder by their zombie-related choices. A scientist racing to discover the cure.
In fact, we get all of these in the first 25 minutes of the film.
I once saw an Elvis Costello concert where he opened with “Radio, Radio,” then went straight into “Allison,” and then into “Every Day I Write the Book.” At first I was like “Wow, he’s playing all the hits!” Then, as a sinking feeling came over me, I thought “No, he’s rushing through them. Why’s he doing that? This can’t be good…” And so, after he had played all the compulsories, he brought on Emmylou Harris, and they did ninety minutes of country songs. And I had paid to see a rock show.
In the same way, I wondered why Rise of The Zombies wanted to rush through all of the elements that are so often compulsory in a zombie film? (The only thing missing was a “weaponing-up” montage in an abandoned armory.) Were they getting these chestnuts over with to clear the way for a new and novel twist on the zombie narrative? Sadly, no. The speedy parade of well-worn tropes only cleared the way for action sequences I felt like I’d seen before.
There were a few unique and memorable scenes of gore involving Mariel Hemingway and Levar Burton. (I’ll let you discover them for yourself.) But even seeing a familiar actor play against type and go for the super-grisly can’t save this film.
There’s not much character development in Rise of the Zombies. I often had trouble telling what characters wanted, or why they were doing certain things. Frequently, I just didn’t understand what was going on. There are some good performances here and there, and a few satisfying zombie killings, but at the end of the day I really struggled with Rise of the Zombies. I can’t in good conscience recommend it.