Nobody typically accuses modern slasher films of putting much thought into the setup. It's usually all about getting a group of pretty young things into a nondescript location and finding new ways to dismantle their bodies. 13 Eerie rises above its low-budget roots and bucks this trend by staging its mayhem against a fairly imaginative backdrop. The fact that it can't keep the creativity alive for its entire running time speaks to its slavish devotion to zombie and slasher film clichés. As it stands, it's a fun little diversion but based on the promise of its first half-hour, it could have been so much more.
Pay no attention to CSI and its many variants. Take away the stylized visuals and throbbing electronic score and you see forensic work for what it really is: an investigator alone with a mass of something that used to be alive. This is the bleak reality that Professor Tomkins (Michael Shanks) wants to impress upon his students who are all vying for a couple of prized internship positions. To this end, he sets up a body farm with a few corpses in various states of decay: one face down in a swamp, another stuck under a school bus and a third shoved into the trunk of a car. To make things even more interesting, the whole shebang has been set up on the grounds of an old abandoned penitentiary.
Tomkins arrives at the remote location (by boat no less) with 6 of his students and a grumpy assistant (Nick Moran). They soon split up into pairs and get to work on the recently planted corpses. You know the sort of movie you're watching and so you may expect that the corpses will come back to life but writer Christian Piers Betley and director Lowell Dean have one more twist up their sleeve. You see, the penitentiary was once the site of shady experimentation on violent criminals. Considering they were quite unsavory to begin with, it's no surprise that the testing turned them into supremely aggressive monsters with a taste for human flesh. When our protagonists notice a few of these brutes lurking about in orange jumpsuits, they have every reason to be terrified.
From this point on, the film turns into a routine survival flick with our heroes trying to avoid becoming zombie food for as long as possible. Now, the film doesn't really drop the Z word but the implications are obvious. When the beasties chow down on someone, the corpse always comes back to life with a forbidden hunger of its own. With that said, these are definitely not your lumbering zombies of yore. They move fast, are quite strong and seem to be semi-organized. Unfortunately the same can't be said for the folks we're supposed to be rooting for. For a bunch of smart people, they do some incredibly stupid things especially during the needlessly action-packed climax which substitutes explosions for genuine thrills.
Considering the human cast is roughly divided between survivors and zombie-bait, it takes a little while before the film offers up a strong lead. Fortunately when the opportunity presents itself, Katharine Isabelle is up for the challenge. She's a gutsy female heroine who doesn't need any of the boys to bail her out. With a mixture of MacGyver smarts and bloodletting brawn she injects a great deal of fun into the proceedings. Brendan Fehr and Brendan Fletcher competently play second fiddle to Isabelle while Michael Shanks pops in once in a while to add a scowl and some gravity to the film. He leaves enough of an impression that when he is inexplicably missing for a lengthy portion of the climax, you are pulled out of the action as you question his whereabouts.
If the film gets by on auto-pilot for much of its second half, why am I not being harder on it? Well, it could be better but it could also be a helluva lot worse. The gore effects are above average and filmed in loving slow-motion. The pacing propels the film without ever letting up. The action scenes, while overblown, are competently staged. I've already mentioned the engaging leading turn by Katharine Isabelle. I guess what I'm saying is, I can't get down on the film for being exactly what it was meant to be. The film may not have paid off on the dread-filled atmosphere it set up in the early scenes but it is certainly worth a watch.
Besides a Photo Gallery, we also get an Audio Commentary with Director Lowell Dean and Producer Mark Montague. As commentary tracks go, this is a fairly genial and laid back one. Dean and Montague discuss their reluctance to label the creatures as zombies and striving for more of a mutant monster vibe. They also delve into their preference for practical effects over digital ones.