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.
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.