DVD Review: Zombie Contagion (2008)
Review by Ben Bussey
Ever seen or heard of a movie called Ninjas Vs. Zombies? Well, that’s this film. Quite why they bothered to rename it for its UK release is beyond me, particularly given what a painfully bland and prosaic replacement title they opted to go with. Were they trying to avoid association with writer-director Justin Timpane’s follow-up feature Ninjas Vs. Vampires, which was released on Region 2 with little fanfare a while back, original title intact (which has a third installment, Ninjas Vs Monsters, currently in the works)? Were they trying to encourage association with Steven Soderbergh’s recent killer virus movie, which I haven’t yet seen but feel quite secure in assuming has very, very little in common with this…? Who knows. Who cares. The pointless retitling of low-budget horror films for overseas markets is a time-honoured practice that isn’t about to stop. I mean, how many alternate titles does Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood/Twitch of the Death Nerve/Carnage/Bloodbath have? You know how the saying goes: don’t judge a book by its cover, and don’t judge a B-horror on its first/second/third/fourth title.
So – now to consider Zombie Contagion/Ninjas Vs Zombies/Not Another Microbudget Zombie Flick on its artistic merits… oh dear, what kind of a hole am I digging myself into here…
Here’s the basic set-up in a nutshell: our heroes are a group of old friends, frustrated artists/filmmakers/musicians one and all, struggling to do what they’d hoped to do with their lives. One of them, Randall (Dan Guy), is in a particularly dark place since the death of his brother Eric (PJ Megaw). But what none of his friends know is that the force is strong in Randall’s family. Secretly, they’re master magicians, and it was Eric’s dabbling in the dark side that brought him to his untimely demise. But when the grief-stricken Randall manages to bring his brother back, he unwittingly unleashes a terrible curse on the town: Eric comes back evil, slurping up souls and turning folks into zombies every which way. Working some magic mojo to counteract this, Randall turns himself and his buddies into superpowered ninjas in order to fight back. As you do.
I think the best way to approach this film is to imagine what Kevin Smith would do if he made a zombie movie. Yes, he’d tour it like a carnival sideshow, add on a four hour post-screening Q&A in which he would talk incessantly about what a great innovator he is and how the entire film industry and all film critics are scum because anyone who dares suggest his films are less than exemplary is obviously jealous, and then he would bend over backwards until his gaping anus literally swallowed his own head like some particularly horrific deleted scene from Brian Yuzna’s Society… hang on, I think I may be getting away from the point here. Okay, imagine instead that Kevin Smith made a zombie movie when he was still good; say, he opted to do it as a follow-up to Clerks. There’d be Halloween zombie make-up jobs and bargain basement special effects aplenty, scenes in comic book shops for no good reason, a vast overabundance of supremely unsubtle film references, and a hearty dollop of twentysomething what-am-I-doing-with-my-life angst on the side. That’s just what Justin Timpane has put together, and perhaps unsurprisingly Kevin Smith’s films are amongst those referenced (including but not limited to the character name Randall). This is a film that seeks to tick all the boxes for fanboys, self-conscious of its own absurdity and doing its utmost to radiate enthusiasm for horror, comedy and action. And it kind of works, to a certain extent.
I’ve rabbited on enough recently on the subject of microbudget horror, so I won’t restate my whole case here: suffice to say, Timpane doesn’t do too badly with the clearly limited resources at his disposal. Yes, the film looks and sounds pretty poor, but the performances really aren’t bad, and neither is the script. Sadly, they’re not that great either. It’s nice that Timpane is not content to coast by on film geek humour alone, playing much of the action surprisingly straight, but as a result of this the film toes an awkward line between taking itself a little too seriously and deliberately sending itself up, and it never really finds a comfortable balance. Add in some fairly major pacing problems, and it’s really fighting a losing battle. Unusually for a film of this nature, it’s actually at its most assured when the focal point is a bunch of friends talking, and in some respects its hard not to think Timpane and his cast would have been better served by a more down-to-earth indie comedy (again, like good Kevin Smith), rather than the horror/comedy/action mix-up they’ve attempted here. Still, while I’ve seen better I’ve certainly seen a whole lot worse.
Zombie Contagion (if we must call it that) is available now on Region 2 DVD, download and on-demand from Revolver Entertainment.