Zombies - the go-to ghoul of every homemade filmmaker. Along with vampires and serial killers, these much maligned reanimated corpses have become the illegitimate lifeblood for hundreds of hack motion picture pariahs. Using the ongoing industry myth that a genre effort is the easiest way to get one's foot in the directorial door, a myriad of mom and pop moviemakers use the said trio of terror types to realize their usually limited and unimpressive aims. One such wicked wannabe is Todd Sheets. Back in the mid '90s he concocted his own tribute to the ongoing fascination with flesh eaters. When his Zombie Bloodbath made a minor splatter splash, he was inspired to fully explore the possible franchise. Two sequels later, and Sheets was labeled a certified cult phenomenon. Whether or not he deserved such a title is up for debate, and thanks to Camp Motion Pictures, we finally have access to his tainted Trilogy. And like they say, the proof is in the putrescence.
Like mash-ups of everyone's favorites horror films and macabre styles, Todd Sheets' Zombie Bloodbath Trilogy is, in many ways, the culmination of this homemade filmmaker's career behind the camera. Beginning back in the early '80s when he was just a teen, this Missouri madman has had one cinematic goal in mind - to avoid all manner of motion picture nonsense like artistry, depth, or complexity and simply deliver the fright fans' favorite big three - shivers, splatter and lots of arterial spray. In the grand scheme of Guignol, Sheets out flummoxes Fulci, out revolts Romero and generally out guts a gagillion other wannabe terror titans. This doesn't mean the end result is good, mind you. It just means that no one leaving a Sheets film will ever say "there wasn't enough death and dismemberment". As for clothesline narrative strands, simplistic storylines meant to lead up to and around all the slaughter setpieces, here's what each entry in the Trilogy offers:
Zombie Bloodbath (1993)
When a government experiment goes array, a local Kansas City suburb is overrun by flesh-eating fiends. It is up to an ex-military man and his family to find the source of the problem and save the city from a persistent plague of cannibal corpses.
Zombie Bloodbath 2: Rage of the Undead (1995)
When a group of Satanists sacrifice a wannabe criminal back in the '40s, his festering soul vows revenge. Six decades later, his wrath arrives in the form of dozens of undead horrors. It's up to some local college kids to ward off this vicious evil.
Zombie Bloodbath 3: Zombie Armageddon (2000)
During an all day session of detention, the students at a local high school discover that their building sits on top of an old military hangar. It's home to a time traveling space shuttle, a mainframe computer, and several hundred members of the living dead.
Some may call this genius. Others will label it lame. But perhaps the best way to initially describe Todd Sheets' Zombie Bloodbath Trilogy is to call it what it really is - a collection of halfway decent special effects sequences split up by excruciatingly painful amateur moviemaking. If all you care about is continuously running grue and gallons of bodily brine, this director feels your fetish. His movies tend to resemble gore porn - minutes of straight feature flaccidity followed by extensive sequences of pus producing pop shots. Indeed, with their gonzo cinematography and 'caught on the fly' facets, this is probably some parallel universe's idea of hardcore smut. Since they are not linked by overall mythology or narrative arc, each movie more or less stands on its own. Some are decidedly better than others, while each illustrates quite clearly Sheets' strengths (and abundant weaknesses) as a director. By looking them over one by one, we can determine their effectiveness as splatter, as well as their viability as fright fodder. Let's start with:
Zombie Bloodbath (Score: **1/2)
At a little over an hour, you'd think the original Zombie Bloodbath would be a nonstop blitz of bile and body parts - and for the most part, you'd be right. Within five minutes of the opening set-up, Sheets has the pasty face ghouls chomping on human hummis, and the organ orgy never really lets up. Using a combination of Jewel Osco meat and utility grade animal protein byproducts, a few hundred liters of ersatz life fluid, and a bunch of eager buddies capable of convincingly gorging on the grossness, every zombie attack is about pigging out on people, not on the standard biting, ripping and tearing. Since he typically bases his story concepts on the available backdrop (in this case, some strange underground office complex) we get a lot of aimless running around and moments of makeshift conversation, all designed to utilize the showcase structure. Perhaps the most compelling element - aside from the buckets of barf - is Sheets' choice of hero. Looking like the 50 year old offspring of Tom Clancy and Knute Rockne, our lead is a grizzled old military man who spouts the kind of proto-jingoistic junk you'd expect to hear out of a far more jaded John Rambo. Who cares if he's built like a butterball beer keg, Sheets has him kicking butt and taking names. Along with the rest of his able cast, the performances here are passable. But it's a shame when such a short movie runs out of ideas 45 minutes in. The last act turns into a half-baked highlight reel of more basic bloodletting.
Zombie Bloodbath 2: Rage of the Undead (*1/2)
This time around, it's a local deli that provides the setting for Sheets' expanding ideas. Proving that a clear concentration on plot doesn't improve things one eerie iota, this overly complicated tale has four differing storylines, lots of attempted intertwining, and an inevitable ending where everyone is turned into zombie chow. We begin with a group of kids heading to a party. They run into a gang of escaped cons. They, in turn, run into a pair of petty thugs trying to rob a sandwich shop. They all, in turn, run into a military mercenary sent out to set things right. In between, some Satanist-inspired corpses come crawling out the grave looking for a little paranormal payback. Granted, the premise is novel (his other two offering here have a strict "government experiment gone bad" basis), but it really makes very little sense. Additionally, Sheets' lack of actor control is readily rampant. Every single one of his characters shouts their lines like they're trying to get people in Peoria to hear them - literally. Such hambone histrionics make Zombie Bloodbath 2 extremely hard to get through, especially since the plentiful gore - which once seemed novel - no longer shocks. Since we've now come to expect it, the delivery is dulled. And all those who love logic, beware. The ending, involving a horde of the undead and several dozen vials of flesh eating bacteria is laugh out loud ludicrous.
Zombie Bloodbath 3: Zombie Armageddon (**)
Combining the best and worst elements of the previous two films, Zombie Bloodbath 3 is perhaps the most accomplished of the three films presented as part of this set. With a high school as his latest location and a weird time traveling tale as his living dead excuse, you can tell that Sheets (and his screenwriter, Brian Eklund) has been inspired by the Quentin Tarantino pre-Y2K take on human interaction. F-bombs fly fast and furious in this occasionally funny film, and the various mega-machismo standoffs between the characters and the ghouls play like outtakes from a camcorder version of From Dusk 'Til Dawn. Again, actors have their performances pitched way above outrageous, screaming and yelling like someone's sticking pins in their eyes, and Sheets lets them ramble on and on. Some of the dialogue is very clever in a kind of John Hughes horror film ideal, but once we get to the scare stuff, it's all high pitched harangues. Perhaps the most unimpressive element this time around is the glop. Sheets and his collaborators do try for something unusual here - it involves zombie 'consciousness' - but aside from a killer fetus gag, everything else presented has been seen before. Without the differing locations and novel way of getting to the grue, the Zombie Bloodbath films are practically interchangeable.
Overall, Sheets is the kind of director who consistently says "Hell Yes!" to another excess. He loves to languish over scenes of flesh feasting, and can't quite bring his camera to leave an installment of heavy human snacking. It has to be noted that said sequences are not so much disturbing as they are disorienting. As the minutes tick away, we tend to wonder why Sheets stays on them for so long. Then, when you consider he has little else to say, you realize implicitly the time suck situation. Indeed, if you remove the splatter, you'd probably wind up with three 30 minute movies on your hands. These are efforts aimed directly at those who believe blood is the only legitimate fear factor, and while there is a lot of promise inside each of the films in the Zombie Bloodbath Trilogy, their abject amateurishness consistently countermands any outright entertainment or enjoyment.
It's Super-VHS spectacle in abundance as the 1.33:1 full screen image offers up a nonstop selection of analog video defects. The colors remain bright, but the balance between light and dark is consistently off. Some scenes look great. Others are muddy and dim. Contrasts are unclear since the lack of resolution dampens the details, and the overall appearance is low budget and shoestring.
Overloaded with Haunted Mansion style background music and loads of punk/speed/death metal, the Dolby Digital Stereo mix has several sustainable issues. First and foremost, dialogue tends to get lost in the ambient noise surrounding the production. This is probably the result relying on the camcorder's internal mic to capture your performances. Secondly, the amateur actors are not trained to enunciate They garble their lines, which makes hearing them under said sonic circumstances twice as difficult. Finally, the balance between the score and the speaking is way off. Musical cues frequently muffle the main action, leading to cacophony and confusion. None of these issues are the DVD's fault. They all come directly from the handmade source material.
Spread out over two DVDs, the bonus features presented here do an excellent job of letting Sheets explain himself and his craft. All three movies get individual Behind the Scene making-ofs, all shot while the featured film was being produced. This allows us to see the F/X crew in action, along with Sheets' attention to tone and detail. Amateur auteurs looking for some cinematic insight can peruse these featurettes for hints and handy tips. Even better, we get to see how the local Missouri news covered Sheets' efforts, acting like his homemade productions were something to really celebrate. Disc 1 also offers up two equally insightful audio commentaries (Zombie Bloodbath 3 does not get an alternative narrative). Both feature Sheets - and in the case of the first film, his adolescent son. These tracks tell an engaging, if sometimes slight story of one horror fan's desire to make the bloodiest, nastiest, most gore-drenched films imaginable. Coming across as personable and pleasant, Sheets is a good cinematic salesman. Finally, we are offered one of the director's lesser works, a hillbilly vs. city slicker slice and dice short called Dead Things. It's barely watchable. Toss in some trailers and the standard Camp Motion Pictures shilling and you've got a nice selection of supplements.
Being an old school sluice fan from way back, this critic is going to cut the Zombie Bloodbath Trilogy a substantial break. With modern digital technology usurping much of this title's cinematic properties, and the rather routine nature of the more than plentiful gore, post-millennial movie fans probably won't appreciate what Sheets set out to do. They'll be baffled at any positive consideration. But traditionalists will find lots to like here. As a result, this intriguing compendium of organs and offal earns a borderline Recommended rating. In truth, renting it would probably be the horror fans' first step. Zombie purists may balk at such a suggestion, believing this director's gut-munching tendencies explore the true meaning of fan-based undead lore. But these decidedly dated examples of his aesthetic are better examples of the past than the present.