Okay, The Mad may have a generic zombie movie cover and a generic zombie movie tagline, but how many generic zombie movies give top billing to Billy Zane and kick off with a lengthy cow montage? That'd be "none" -- and stop me if you see where I'm going with this -- and that's 'cause The Mad is anything but a mindless, standard issue gut-muncher.
It's a cautionary tale, really: organic beef turns you into an undead flesh-eater. Yup, thanks to a loophole in the USDA guidelines, a farmer near a country bumpkin fair-slash-restaurant-slash-hotel feeds his cattle some neon green gunk that looks like it was shipped straight from Miskatonic University. The feds give the beef the thumbs-up, and it's delivered fresh to the burger joint down the road. The Hunt family -- doctor and one-time skinny-tie-wearing-synth-drum-pounding pop Jason (Billy Zane), his eye-rolling-'n-argumentative teenage daughter Amy (Maggie Castle), her two-tacos-short-of-a-combination-plate boyfriend Blake (Evan Charles Flock), and Amy's soon-to-be-stepmom Monica (Shauna MacDonald, overenunciating like a two-time local Emmy winning newscaster) -- is having a rough enough time on their vacation, and being stranded in the sticks with a bunch of tourists-turned-frothing-at-the-mouth-cannibals by tainted burgers isn't exactly family fun time. They're not alone, at least, barricading themselves in the restaurant with Steve (Jordan Madley) and her stepfather Charlie (Rothaford Gray), the most kindly bald, black chef in a remote hotel this side of Scatman Crothers. Not getting munched on is priority one, but the quickly dwindling number of survivors feel like they should do more than run for the hills when they have a chance, trekking to the Sutter family farm to keep our great nation safe for Big Macs and Jumbo Jacks.
Plenty of zombie flicks have been laced with a cacklingly dark sense of humor over the past twenty years and change, but most of 'em are still horror movies at heart or at least manage to cram in a couple of genuinely intense sequences. The Mad, on the other hand, is almost completely a straightahead comedy. Sure, plenty of the red stuff is sloshed around, and there's some gnawing on severed limbs and all that fun stuff, but you can tell that this isn't where the movie's heart is...that it's there just 'cause this is a zombie movie and that's what zombies do. Perfunctory, as I think the kids say, not reveling in the guts-'n-grue. Really, that's only a third of the movie anyway. The Mad is chopped up into three distinct acts, each running 25 minutes or so. Act one: set up your characters. Act two: kill most of 'em off by tossing in a bunch of zombies. Act three: have the few survivors escape to the farm that's shipping out the zombie-beef to stave off the contagion.
The Mad doesn't build to the grim, quasi-apocalyptic climax the way most zombie flicks do. Virtually all of the gut-munching is sandwiched in the middle of the movie, and that's kind of a letdown. I get that The Mad wants to flesh out its characters, but a good bit of the dialogue in the first act is borderline-rambling and riddled with awkward pauses. While that is how conversations tend to go in real life, it doesn't flow well in a movie, and some tightening up could've kept that emphasis on characterization intact while making the pace a little more nimble. The editing can be kind of clunky in general, from Billy Zane's choppy, frantically cut together implied blowjob to the abrupt way The Mad dives into its cannibalistic second act. The last third of the movie is set at the Sutter family farm and is practically zombie-free, revolving around a couple of survivors, the cadaverous farmer, and his bright-eyed son. Tossing out the usual zombie blueprint is a welcomed change of pace, but even though there are some clever, unexpected moments in the third and final act, it's really subdued considering the half hour of mayhem it follows, and such a dramatic downshift for twenty-someodd minutes seems awfully anticlimatic.
...but hey! There's still that zombified middle stretch, and it's the best stuff in the movie. The Mad has a smirkingly low-key sense of humor, not turning to grotesquely over-the-top splatter for laughs like Dead Alive. One random example: Jason peeks through a peephole in his daughter's hotel room and sees a zombified arm flailing around with a credit card in hand. The zombie uses the card to jimmy open the door and pokes her arm inside. Jason smacks it and slams the door. The door opens...another smack...closes again. Wash, rinse, repeat, but with the third or fourth smack, Jason slaps the "Do Not Disturb" sign on the outside knob, and the zombies are courteous enough to abide. It's simple, it's straightforward, and I swear that it gets a laugh. When it comes time for the survivors to make a run for it, Jason distracts the zombies with swag from the gift shop. He doesn't miss a beat in the middle of a heartfelt father/daughter conversation even though the two of 'em are mauling zombies with recreational sports equipment along the way. I mean, this is a movie with ravenous, pulsing hamburger patties and steak cutlets. There's a post-mortem chat about precisely which black dress one bloodied, half-eaten character wants to be buried in that gets some intentionally uncomfortable laughs...not about what's said, exactly, but from the absurdity of the situation, in the same vein as the undead chatter near the end of John Landis' An American Werewolf in London. A good bit of the comedy misses the mark, but enough of it's funny for the movie to still work, and the cast and crew are clearly having such a great time shooting the flick that it's almost infectious.
The Mad seems like it was rushed out the door, playing more like a rough cut than a tightly-edited, brilliantly paced horror-comedy. It's an already lean flick, clocking in under eighty minutes minus credits, but I get the impression that it'd play a lot better with another ten or fifteen minutes snipped out. The Mad is too uneven for me to recommend shelling out fifteen bucks to buy sight-unseen, but zombie-comedy fans still might find it worth a rental.
Video: The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen visuals have the smooth, glossy sheen you'd expect from a flick shot on HD video: sharp and clean and colorful and lots of other flowery adjectives. It's a rock solid presentation for the most part, but some compression hiccups creep in, and a few of 'em are particularly nasty:
That sort of thing happens several times throughout The Mad, and even though it's for a grand total of just a few frames, this never should've made it past any sort of QA. This is a really slick looking DVD overall, but the occasionally sloppy compression is why you don't see all that many stars in the sidebar.
Audio: The Mad sports a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, but you can wrap sarcastic finger-quotes around the "5.1" part: it's one of those lousy remixes that plops the same audio into every single speaker. There are plenty of squishy sounds sloshing around in every channel, sure, but you're also stuck with all of the sound effects and the movie's dialogue being belted out simultaneously from five different directions.
I really dug the kitschy synth-pop score by Canadian prog-rockers Half Past Four -- the movie has kind of an '80s playfulness to it anyway, and the score accentuates that -- but when the bass kicks in, it's cranked up obnoxiously high. There were a few times where I found myself frantically clawing for my remote and mashing the volume buttons up and down, and that's not so much how I like to watch movies.
It's a drag because the fidelity of the recording is perfectly fine; the audio would've snagged a higher score if it had just been in stereo and eased up on the bass a bit. It's still listenable, but flip the switch on the rear speakers and dial down the subwoofer a few notches. There are no other audio options: no commentary, no dubs, no downmixes, no subtitles, and no closed captions.
Extras: The meatiest of the handful of extras on this DVD is a twenty-five minute making-of featurette. Anchored around interviews with director John Kalangis and actors Billy Zane, Maggie Castle, Evan Charles Flock, Rothaford Gray, and Jordan Madley, most of the comments are character-centric, particularly how the story relates to the characters' journey. (You hear "journey" a lot in this featurette. Way, way too much, actually.) The characters get the most attention, but some of the other notes include the arguably-not-zombies consuming more than just flesh, the '80s edge to Billy Zane's character, and the different versions of the theme song that bookend the flick. Some more traditional making-of footage is spliced in closer to the end, including a glimpse at the splatter with make-up supervisor Daniel Lee and some intercutting between the behind-the-scenes stuff and what made it into the final cut. It's a nice making-of piece, although it would've been nice to have the writers chime in, especially to help flesh out the process of getting a movie like this off the ground, and it's punctuated by far too many lengthy clips from the movie.
There's also one deleted scene: a two minute series of shots of the cast silently shellshocked. This additional footage has a deeply somber tone that doesn't gel with the rest of the flick and was rightfully yanked out of the movie. A letterboxed theatrical trailer and plugs for a few other Peace Arch-slash-Genius releases round out the extras.
Conclusion: I wanted to like The Mad a lot more than I actually do -- zombies and slapstick are two great tastes that taste great together! -- but its sense of humor is really uneven, and cramming all the manic stuff into the middle of the movie futzes with the pacing. Still, The Mad gets bonus points for veering away from the stale, crusty zombie formula. Not in the same league as Dead Alive or Shaun of the Dead, but you still might find it worth a rental. Rent It.