DVD Review: Zombie Hunters: City of the Dead
Zombie Hunters: City of the Dead (2008)
Studio: Devarez Films
Directed By: Patrick Devaney
Cast: Patrick Devaney, Christopher J. Murphy, Rick Martinez, Linnet J. Brooks, Rosemary Kiladitis
Review By: Sam Hawken
In a certain respect, reviewing material produced by professional film- and television-makers is easy: if it’s not up to the standards of their trade, then it’s fair game for criticism. When faced with something like Zombie Hunters: City of the Dead, there’s a need to re-calibrate the instruments because it falls firmly into the category of “labor of love,” and gets a good-faith exemption from certain things as a result.
The brainchild of Queens filmmaker Patrick Devaney, Zombie Hunters is walking-dead horror made on a shoestring, featuring work in front of and behind the camera by a cast and crew of volunteers, with all the earmarks of such a production. It is in its way an audacious production because it’s not just a two-hour movie knockoff of George Romero, but a fully-fledged television series that actually gets airtime on public TV stations around New York City. The disc I have contains the first four episodes of the initial Zombie Hunters season and establishes a very large canvas with a broad selection of characters and a slowly developing zombie apocalypse. Many more episodes are planned, with production to stretch into 2012.
Compared to the high-gloss efforts of pro media, Zombie Hunters is rough stuff, and that’s where I had to be careful about determining what’s fair game for criticism and what isn’t. The cast of the show consists mostly of non-professional actors donating their time, the teleplays are handwritten affairs jotted down on whatever came to hand (images of these are included in the disc’s extras) and the realities of ultra-low-budget video production means picture and sound aren’t great. Sometimes the action onscreen meanders, possibly because chunks of dialogue are improvised, performances can be uneven and occasionally it’s nearly impossible to understand that anyone’s saying due to microphone issues, but is Zombie Hunters a bad show? Not at all.
For one thing, Zombie Hunters actually does something new with the walking-dead subgenre. By now we’ve seen take after take on Dawn of the Dead’s out-of-control zombie infestation storyline, such that it’s almost cliché. Zombie Hunters, forced to go smaller scale because of its production constraints, can’t rely on hordes of bloody zombies to tell its story. Instead we get a zombie outbreak the way it probably would happen, with isolated cases occurring at the periphery of people’s attention as the world continues with business as usual. Devaney goes for some 9/11 parallelism that doesn’t really fit, but I found it advantageous to watch the show after the recent H1N1 situation; the disease spread and killed a number of people before the world took notice, and by then it was already pretty much everywhere. Zombie Hunters posits that until the numbers of the walking dead rise to the point where they’re cropping up on every street corner, most people wouldn’t pay much attention.
Patrick Devaney created Zombie Hunters and directs the four episodes on the disc. He also stars as Billy Cassidy, the central player in the zombie-hunting group. Devaney is not, as far as I know, a trained actor but he gives the best performance on the show. Occasionally he loses focus — not surprising, given all the duties he has, and probably the lack of time/money for multiple takes — but for the most part his portrayal of Billy is intense in the right way and sometimes creepy. While watching the fourth and final episode on the disc, where Billy and his near-constant companion, Bates (Christopher J. Murphy), make a gun deal with some odd characters, I began to wonder if maybe the “zombie outbreak” wasn’t actually happening, but a product of Billy’s fragmented psyche. When questions like that are raised through the acting and not hints from the script, that’s the hallmark of good on-camera work.
It’s fair to say that Zombie Hunters isn’t for everyone. The wonky sound makes following the action without subtitles — they are available for those who want them, I should say — and the pace is slow. Zombies crop up in pretty much every one of the first four episodes, but the focus is less on zombie hunting and more on how Billy and his core group begin their preparation for the collapse that’s coming. A skewed timeline that jumps forward and backward makes it sometimes difficult to know what’s happening when, though that also contributes to the weirdness of Billy’s clear mental instability.
Devaney’s behind-the-camera work shows the most potential. Working with essentially nothing but good will and pure intentions, Devaney manages to do enough with the camera to indicate he could probably make something more polished with time, money and better equipment. Occasionally he’ll lapse into an Eli Roth/Quentin Tarantino mode — especially in the fourth episode, with its gun deal and such — which puts me off, but when he’s simply focused on telling a story the results are much stronger.
What poses the most significant barrier to entry is the reality of Zombie Hunters’ production. No-budget filmmaking happens whenever the stars align, which means each half-hour episode of the show promises to appear on an erratic schedule. It’s hard for some folks to love rough, homegrown horror like this. Add into the mix an open ending and a potentially long wait for the ending and it’s a safe bet many viewers will gravitate to easier fare.
As for me, I’m curious to know how it all shakes out, not least on the production end of things. It’s inevitable that Devaney and his band of committed pro/am filmmakers will produce smoother and smoother product as the show goes on, which will make the story easier to engage with even as it resolves itself. And I’m further interested to see what happens with Billy, faced with the perversion of the walking dead and plagued by incipient madness. With a subgenre densely populated with square-jawed hero types, each interchangeable with the next, Billy Cassidy is an original.
Brutal As Hell Rating:
3 out of 5