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Raiders of the Damned
When you mess with zombies, you mess with horror movie tradition. The undead remains one of the Four Horseman of the Cinematic Apocalypse. Of course, there are times when you succeed. Danny Boyle made his rage-infected fiends a rapidly moving menace, and sure enough it gave the genre some of its gravitas back. Zach Synder took it a step further by making his monsters as lethal logistically as they were physically. There was no way to survive his updated Dawn of the Dead. Now writer Mike Ezell and director Milko Davis want to give the cannibal corpse another unnecessary update. This time, the living dead just don't walk or run, they talk, plot, strategize, negotiate, joke, lust, screw, whine, argue, and hold onto petty vendettas. Even more disconcerting, they are capable of being reverse engineered into their former human selves if only they could get the cooperation of a secret government lab. In a post-apocalyptic world where chemicals have created chaos, World War III has left the planet plagued by smart alecky creatures who use their mouths for more than feasting on flesh. These are the talkiest lot of villains ever to violate the longstanding zombie code.
During the last days of World War III, a bio-genetic contagion (or something along those lines) was purposefully dropped on the populace. Instead of ending the conflict, it created a race of zombies. A group of soldiers, including Colonel Crow and his sidekick Captain Treadway were sent out to quarantine the surrounding area. Somehow, they too became infected. Now the rogue undead solider has assembled an army of his own, and he wants some payback. He gets his chance when a helicopter spraying anti-undead chemicals crash lands in the Forbidden Zone (or whatever it is called). Crow captures the leading scientist, Dr. Wells, and demands the secret to reversing the flesh feasting process. Back at the lab, insane doc Lewis gathers up a band of mercenaries and sends them on a rescue mission. All four candidates - Dewey, Kane, Flex, and Roxanne - have shady pasts, and there is a real fear they will balk and head for the hills. But with decapitating collars in place, and a chance of killing Crow and his men, these Raiders of the Damned will stop at nothing to achieve their mission.
Initially, this critic was ready to rip into Raiders of the Damned. He was prepared to pull apart its horrid CGI, its lack of compelling characters, its golf cart level amateur acting, and the blatant directorial overreaching. After all, this is a zombie film where the creatures do more cursing than cannibalizing, where the undead stand around and wait while their leader whines on and on about a lack of respect and a need for living dead dominance. Even worse, this is a movie that allows a marginal talent like Richard "Why Can't I Have Johnny Depp's Post 21 Jump Street Career?" Grieco to indulge in improvised Method madness. Heck, his scientific savant prattles on, chain-smokes, and carries around a furry fake rat. Talk about your three dimensional personalities. So, just as he was ready to ream this sucker from one end of George Romero all the way to Peter Jackson, a strange kind of epiphany occurred. Suddenly, yours truly realized that, for all its faults, this was NOT the worst corpse grinding he has ever seen. As a matter of fact, in the race of retarded fright flicks, it doesn't even show. When you've got real examples of cinematic cesspooling like Curse of the Zodiac, Pirates of Ghost Island, Ripper 2: Letters from Within, and Bloody Tease to remind you of how rotten a scary movie can be, director Milko Davis's flaccid frighteners just don't seem so bad.
It does not make it good, however. Part of the problem with Raiders of the Damned is the entire nuclear wasteland setup. It's impossible to follow what is going on most of the time. We learn about different scientific cock-ups, and the resulting zombie plague, but the purpose of Wells' mission makes little sense. If he's supposed to be eliminating the undead threat by crop dusting them to death, then his pilot does a piss poor job of it. If there is another purpose to the Forbidden Quarantine Zone project, it would be nice if the movie would tell us. Similarly, Colonel Crow seems obsessed with military order and undead discipline. Then, unexpectedly, he wants to use Wells as a means of escape. Then, when he learns of the dimensional portal that allows objects to move through the Mordor sized wall surrounding the zombies, he focuses in on that. And it only gets worse. When Dewey shows up, he wants revenge. Then impregnating Wells' sexy assistant with his dormant zombie sperm becomes the military man's newest obsession. Apparently, as your flesh begins to rot, you get a wicked case of cannibal ADD as well. It's enough to make a fright fan's head spin. Toss in Grieco's equally illogical kvetching and the mangled motives of our regressive rescue team and it gets to be too much. We give up on this unmanageable movie and remember a time when zombies ate people and that was that.
There are other elements that definitely stifle Raiders of the Damned's effectiveness. Thomas Medina's makeup effects are mediocre at best, resembling the pizza dough on puss dynamic in all its yeasty splendor. The rest of the cast are tricked out in monster masks that look like remnants from the Army of Darkness yard sale. There is very little gore here - aside from a moment when Treadway scoops an eyeball out of a victim's head - and the computer generated backdrops are generally dopey. They are just fake enough to fudge with our suspension of disbelief, but as viable as anything else in the film. It renders all we see as slightly surreal. First time director Davis has ambitions out the yingyang, but no real way to realize them. He's hoping for Mad Max meets Day of the Dead. What he winds up with is a corpse riddled Algonquin Round Table. There is just too much damn talking in this movie, endless scenes of disconnected exposition that do little to clarify things. In fact, if one was the cynical type, they'd theorize that the dialogue was beefed up to avoid the need for anything action oriented. Between the postproduction gun bursts which require the actors to feign firing their weapons, to the overlapping last act denouements, Raiders of the Damned is a dizzying mess. It's not the lamest frightfest in the world, but when compared to the crap that's actually out there, that's not saying much.
Given a good going over by Image, the shot on digital, formatted to film transfer is actually pretty good. While Davis won't win any awards from his shoddy cinematography and editing style, the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen picture is actually pretty good. Granted, there is way too much after the fact visual canoodling, but decent colors and competent details are to be celebrated, not slammed.
As for the sonic situation, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround is an aural abomination. The dialogue is recorded so badly, and mixed so far down in the auditory soup that you can't understand a single syllable. When you turn up the volume to hear the conversations, the overblown musical score arrives and rips your ears open. It's all bombast as blithering idiocy. Even the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 take is no better. The next time a slipshod digital presentation like this is prepared, subtitles are a mandatory inclusion.
Aside from a trailer (which actually contains footage not found in the film) and a photo gallery, the only added content here is a commentary track featuring director Davis and his Executive Producer (and digital compositor) Sandy Davis. While they tend to pat each other on the back a bit too much, their discussion is frank and filled with insight. If you liked the film, you'll love their anecdotes and explanations. If you didn't, their conversation will just make you sad. They seem like such nice people. Knocking the fruit of their labors seems so unfair afterwards.
As stated before, the critic intends to throw Raiders of the Damned a big fat unapologetic bone. While he was bored silly by 99% of this movie, and can't imagine how anyone would find it fun, he's going to broaden his audience horizons and suggest a rating of Rent It. This way, those who check out the film and find it fascinating will be buffered, while those who do the same and find lackluster terror will have only coughed up a few bucks. In retrospect, the desire to reinvent the zombie genre into something more intellectualized is not an ignominious idea. Done properly, with the right artistic and technical support, it could actually be quite enlightening. But Raiders of the Damned doesn't have the necessary backing to make its conceits believable. We end up with a noble failure...but a failure nonetheless.
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