Those who are familiar with it love its outrageous, over the top tenets. Though it can be incredibly corny at times, and look about as retro as a Ray Harryhausen revival with its inflated physical effects, Riki-O: The Story of Ricky remains a true treasure - a post-modern gore drenched chop socky epic. This 1991 classic is considered here because, somewhere, in the back of their brains, the creators of the Fangoria film Shadow: Dead Riot, must be freakish fans of this flick. So much of this movie - nothing more than zombies unleashed in an experimental women's prison - reminds the viewer of that martial arts madness that the other obvious homages take a terrific backseat. Indeed, sprinkled throughout the story are facets of Fulci, reminders of Romero, as well as nods to other craven cult concoctions, including those brazen 'babes behind bars' bonanzas. While Shadow: Dead Riot doesn't totally transcend its low budget trappings to become an instant exploitation icon, it surely is one of the more entertaining and inventive films to come out of the outsider arena in a long time.
When badass black girl Solitaire is sent to an experimental women's prison, she senses something is not right with the place. Her instincts are quite correct, since years before, a serial killer scheduled to be executed simply "blew up" while on the lethal injection table. His death caused a riot, and the prisoners were eventually killed and buried in a mass grave on the penitentiary grounds. Now Solitaire believes that the murderer, a menacing man nicknamed Shadow, is trying to use her to come back from the dead. While dealing with an inappropriate jail doctor, gangs of danger-lovin' lesbians, and one big bruiser of a Queen Bee, Solitaire starts to unravel the clues inside the creepy, decrepit reformatory. But she had better hurry. With every drop of blood spilled in this haunted hoosegow, our undead psycho gains more and more power. When enough of the artery elixir is drained away, Shadow and his pals will return from the grave to feast on the flesh of the living. Sounds like a real Dead Riot is about ready to break out.
With its living dead overtones and naked chicks in communal correctional showers showboating, Shadow: Dead Riot would appear to be, at first glance, a balls-out terror treat, the kind of movie you used to find running along the bottom shelf of your local Mom and Pop Video store. Said description, however, could also indicate a humorless horror film where gore and gratuity reign supreme. After all, this is nothing more than zombies vs. gazangas in an all out battle for the arrested adolescent mind. Frankly, if your cleverness level hasn't matured since Junior High, you will utterly dig this craven confection. For all its blood and bosoms, this is a very funny movie, in a very jeering, juvenile way. Any film that has characters using body parts as weapons, offers decapitations as frequently as it exposes bare bodkin, and purposely places two former cinematic corpses - Captain Haggerty's bloated Zombi fiend and Bill Hinzman's Barbara chasing cemetery ghoul from Night of the Living Dead - in the middle of the madness is not really interested in subtlety. Indeed, this is a movie made by horror geeks for movie macabre dorks, a delirious bit of genre referencing that purposefully pulls out all the formulaic stops to deliver death and dismemberment with a little lesbian loving on the side. That sound you currently hear in the background is hundreds of fright fans climaxing in semi-sexual, semi-religious release.
Directed with perfunctory action acumen by Asian filmmaker Derek Wan and layered with cult film lunacy by screenwriter Michael Gingold (editor of the horror magazine Fangoria for over 10 years) this is the kind of movie that challenges the audience to acknowledge their own level of nerdiness and nod in knowing recognition at the moviemaking conventions at play. Beginning with a typical voodoo variation on the inmate about to be executed, Shadow: Dead Riot digs deep into the b-movie basin and sifts out some of the more instantly identifiable elements. There's the prison loner, who prefers the company of her own internal ticking timebomb. There's a bullying "big girl" who throws her weight - and hefty bustline - around with complete disregard for authority. There's the horrifying history to the place, and those who would causally spit at the spooks. In addition, we get the mousy waif who seems to be kept by everyone, the sexually improper doctor who gropes anything, a drugged out snitch with a typical 'need a fix' twitch and a power-mad lipstick lesbian guard. Add in the caring and considerate warden and a stock company of ready to get nekkid prisoners and you've got the makings of a minor masterwork. And indeed, had Shadow: Dead Riot had the money to completely maximize its vision, it could have been a real camp creature feature keeper.
But something minor is amiss in this movie, an element of amateurishness that hampers some of the scenarios. The acting is below average at best, with only Tony Todd, the creepy Candyman himself, able to offer a performance of perception and power. The rest of our intrepid cast is merely around for flesh-flashing eye candy. Even the questionably popular Mistie Mundae is here to expose her underdeveloped frame and whine incessantly about being picked upon. Then there is the narrative. Either Wan or Gingold are unaware that following up fisticuffs with boring expositional speeches really destroys the forward momentum of your movie. You need to get all the plot points out right up front - like Rene Harlin did in his superior Prison - and then let the inmates loose in your asylum of ludicrousness. Sure, some of the subplotting here is welcome (especially when the result is a nifty mutant offspring, or a weird wire fu fight), but there are several sections of this film where the fun stops cold so we can get a few more insignificant storylines in. Even the ending seems obvious, with Todd chastising actress Carla Greene for not being "capable" of killing him. As the editing keeps suggesting the possible denouement, we simply wait for the cast to realize the resolution and get on with it.
Despite these more or less insignificant misgivings, Shadow: Dead Riot is still an entertaining romp into the retro days of direct to video monster movies. It offers just enough titillation to keep the libido loose, while it's zombie stomp finale is a gory good time. Sure, we could have had something that zings and sizzles instead of merely being serviceable and sufficient, and the imprisoned pretties could be more curvaceous and less like refugees from Spahn Ranch, but this is still a hilarious helping of mockable, miscreant macabre. Indeed, everything about this production shows promise, from Wan's way with mood and atmosphere to Gingold's potluck approach to plotting. Perhaps with a better cast, or more money to make the effects truly standout (the bloodletting is excellent, but there is some incredibly crappy CGI on hand as well) we'd have an American Riki-O to celebrate and cherish. Instead, Shadow: Dead Riot is a wonderful distraction from the overly serious slasher/serial killer shite that passes for indie eeriness in our camcorder creativity era. With a little more tweaking, this would be a post-modern classic. As it stands, it represents a nifty night of viewing on the humble home theater.
Shot with obvious digital devices, the 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen image here is excellent. Yes, there is grain in some of the night scenes, and the overall look of the film is cloudy and occasionally unclear, but this is still a remarkably vibrant visual offering. The transfer may take a beating from video purists, but this is still a relatively professional appearing film.
Presented in both Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 and 5.1, Shadow: Dead Riot offers up a great deal of ambient scope for its minimal monetary outlay. There are some discernable directional elements in the expanded mix, and we get a semi-immersive environment in the movie's spatial stance. Sadly, the dialogue is often buried in the mix, and former Living Color guitarist Vernon Reid is forced to find his excellent, atmospheric score lost on the very outskirts of the aural palette. While the use of all the speakers is commendable, a more upfront approach to the sonic situation here would have helped all around.
As for bonus materials, the selection is sparse but compelling. We get a 14 minute Making-Of that gives the cast and crew a chance to wax prosaic about the project. We also view some behind the scenes stunt work and the hilarious site of men mimicking the gladiator gals of the film (usually for the fight scenes). In addition, we are treated to a trailer and a still gallery. While a commentary would have been nice (if Wan's English was too broken, at least Gingold could have stepped up and described his inspiration for the film), the complimentary content here is an interesting, if incidental, feature.
If you go in prepared for something fun but flawed, if you realize that your year's of fright fandom will be clearly recognized and rewarded, if you acknowledge a secret shame for the mixing of boobs and blood, then Shadow: Dead Riot is your kind of film. Easily earning a Recommended rating, it misses a higher score due to some substandard sequences and an overall pallor of limited production power. Maybe in the ensuing sequel - yep, the movie sets us up for one, sort of - we will get the true over-the-top triumph this joyful jumble purports to be. When you start off name-checking something as sensational as Riki-O, you're bound to get burned in the final analysis. Shadow: Dead Riot comes incredibly close, but it still has a ways to go to compare with that sensational slice of Asian atrocity anarchy.
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