The Slacking Dead
I don't know if John Pata's decision to make his debut film, Better Off Undead, a short was prompted by vision or simply a lack of funds. Either way, he made the right choice. At twenty-nine-minutes the story of zombies overrunning Oshkosh, Wisconsin, is well-executed enough that its weaker elements don't wear out the movie's welcome.
Let's get those "weaker elements" out of the way, before moving on to the good stuff. As with most small-scale indies I've seen, Better Off Undead suffers from a lack of actors in roles that call for them. Of the three slacker youths who make up the main cast, only one of them doesn't appear to get a migraine every time he tries to come off as, I'm sure, a version of who he really is. That would be Drew Schuldt as Marcus, the sarcastic douchebag who settles in for the zombie apocalypse by hanging out in a room wallpapered with horror-movie posters and swigging liberally from a bottle of Jack.
His friends, Chris (Dale DeVries) and Evan (Jordan Brown), are too freaked out to do anything but follow the one plan that doesn't involve getting eaten, so much of the movie is spent sitting around, wondering how to spend their copious free time. This is primarily a dialogue movie that's been dusted with gore; it's Shaun of the Dead by way of Kevin Smith--which is a fine thing to aspire to, but only if the performers can handle the dialogue and comedy.
DeVries and Brown aren't terrible, but they work way too hard at being casual. Schuldt fares slightly better, but--and please don't take this as regional prejudice--his thick Wisconsin accent fails the rat-a-tat, comedic sophistication of Pata's words. I had the same experience watching these guys as I did the Oscars' Best Screenplay category, where the Academy showed a split-screen scene of each nominated film next to its corresponding script page. To appreciate Better Off Undead, I had to mentally separate the words from the performers, which is never a good sign.
Fortunately, there's so much more to love about the film that, by the end, the main cast's foibles become almost charming.** They say the best way to make a movie is to write/film what you know, with the meager resources at your disposal. Pata may not have a lot of experience with flesh-eating-monster invasions, but he's familiar as hell with Oshkosh. He pulls off the terrific feat of painting a town as both oppressively boring and really cool to look at. The opening credits scene alone is worth the price of admission, zooming from a murder scene through the streets and into a cool apartment that sits on top of a comic book store.
Even if this were a travelogue of aimless twenty-somethings, and not a zombie film, Better Off Undead would still be fascinating. Pata and cinematographer Colin Crowley shoot everything with what Sean Cunningham calls "film school" angles; sometimes to great effect, and sometimes with eye-rolling results (the keys-opening-the-door montage springs to mind--very Clerks). They also capture local flavor in a way that seems cool to this outsider, but which the movie's characters likely have no appreciation for. It's sort of a "found art" approach to filmmaking that I liked just as much as the action.
Nope, you read that right: I said "action". The movie's other great strength is its slow-burn approach to zombie mayhem. The guys are safe inside Marcus' room, but once they venture out into the daylight, things devolve quickly. Though zombies get hold of the cast one-by-one through a series of silly mistakes and ineptitude on the part of the living, there's real terror in the attacks--a claustrophobic helplessness stemming from the fact that these guys are often so close to freedom. This is a key component to any great zombie story, and Pata and Crowley deliver, big-time.
This movie is far from perfect, but as a calling card for a promising, ambitious director, it can't be beat. Pata displays his influences a little too proudly at times, but he has the chops and heart to elevate most of his homages above mere imitation. Though it came out when zombies merely nibbling on pop culture, Better of Undead will, I suspect, engage fans who've all but succumbed to "walker" fatigue.
Shameless Plug via Full Disclosure: I'll get a chance to see how John Pata has matured as a filmmaker at the end of the month, when I attend the premiere of his new movie, Dead Weight (it debuts in Oshkosh, naturally). Look for a review of that film, as well as an interview with Pata and co-writer/director Adam Bartlett, in April.
*Which the guys were doing before the outbreak, anyway, so boredom is obviously not a problem for this crew.