Yesterday I watched the 2006 indie zombie film, Deadlands: the Rising. It was written, directed by and stars Gary Ugarek, a zombie-film enthusiast who played a zombie in George Romero’s Land of the Dead. It’s great to see do-it-yourselfers making new zombie films, but unfortunately this one wasn’t very good.
Deadlands: The Rising seems to follow the lives of a pair of family-men (one played by Ugarek), and a few other people in suburban Maryland, as they navigate a zombie-outbreak. I say “seems” because the plot is difficult to recount. There are sequences at an improvised firing-range, in a housing development, and along a highway during an evacuation, but it is frequently difficult to understand how these scenes are related. At times, there seems to be no main character in Deadlands, which is never good. (I like to read books by E.L. Doctorow, but there’s this one called City of God which is just inexplicably terrible. When I read it, I was like “What’s up with this dreck? Doctorow is usually awesome, but this sucks.” Then, a few weeks later, I read an interview with Doctorow where he said he was trying–as some sort of artistic experiment– to write a novel without a main character. And I thought, “There’s your problem!” Anyhow, same thing with Deadlands. Without a main character, it all feels scattered and pointless.)
The zombies in Deadlands don’t look very good (lousy makeup, etc.), and they’re not introduced until the halfway-point of the film. The zombies are also inconsistent– some are fast and sprint after their victims, while others shamble slowly in the Romero tradition. I know some favor fast zombies, and others (like me) prefer slow ones, but you’ve got to decide on one or the other. (It’s like Geddy Lee says: “If you choose not to decide [on fast vs. slow zombies], you still have made a choice [to make a lousy film].)
Narrative aside, it should be noted that the sound/audio in Deadlands is also terrible. (If you watch it, be sure to have the remote handy so you can ratchet the volume up and down.) I feel like, if you’re a filmmaker and you know your audio equipment is cheap and terrible, just make a Zombie Diaries/documentary-style zombie film. That way, the lousy, patchy audio can become part of the narrative. But don’t try to make a traditional, “Hollywood” zombie film if you know you’ve got terrible audio, because it’s not going to work.
Another strange feature of Deadlands is that many of the establishing shots feel curtailed or “cropped” in weird ways. One has the feeling that the shots have been filmed guerilla-style, on the fly. In an interview, Ugarek says that he was stymied by the City of Baltimore when trying to get permission to film in the city-proper. It looks to me like Ugarek did his best within those constraints to create abandoned-looking urban scenes, but he was forced to position his shots in awkward ways to avoid showing the people who were naturally present in those areas.
I think it’s awesome that a zombie fan made his own film–and he probably learned a lot from this experience– but I’m hard pressed to recommend the final-product this time around. (Most of the other reviews I found for Deadlands were negative, but here’s a guardedly positive one, if you’d like a dissenting opinion.)