Like THE QUICK AND THE UNDEAD (2006), this is an attempt to fuse the Western with the zombie genre. Despite the superficial similarity, the two films are actually quite different: UNDEAD OR ALIVE is set in the Old West (QUICK AND THE UNDEAD was set in a post-apocalyptic future that resembled the West); UNDEAD OR ALIVE is an overt comedy; and although modestly budgeted, UNDEAD OR ALIVE has enough resources to capture the grandiose look of an old-fashioned Western, completely with lovely desert vistas bathed in the warm rays of the setting sun. What UNDEAD OR ALIVE shares most in common with THE QUICK AND THE UNDEAD (besides the basic concept), is thin storytelling: the script provides a basic of plot, which functions as an excuse to have fun with the idea of putting zombies in a Western.
An amsuing prologue (in which the subtitles let us know that we won’t have to read for too much longer before the film really gets started) tells us that the Indian warrior Geronimo summoned up the zombie curse as revenge against the White Man. Unfortunately, the film does not really pursue this idea; it is merely a plot device to justify the existence of the walking dead in Western times. For some reason, the curse directly affects only one man; instead of seeing legions of the dead rise up from their graves, the plague is passed on from one victim to the next through a bite – an approach more appropriate to a viraul infection than a supernatural intervention. If the film had followed through on its own premise, instead of sticking to this tried and true formula, it might have been more original and interesting.
Playing a couple of gun-slingers, Chris Kattan and James Denton provide an enjoyable comedy team. Kattan, obviously, is the funny one, and Denton is the straight man (although he gets a few laughs, too). After being jailed by a corrupt sheriff, they escape and hook up with Geronimo’s niece, played Navi Rawat, whose contemporary demeanor is absolutely unconvincing for the role of a 19th century Native American – but that’s part of the joke, and she is appealing enough to pull it off. The rest of the story consists of the trio being pursued by the sheriff and his deputy.
Doesn’t sound like much of a zombie movie, does it? Truth be told, the story plays out like an old B-movie Western. The twist is that the sheriff and his deputy have been bitten, so when our heroes shoot them, they don’t die. Oh, and there are buckets of blood spilled everywhere you can imagine.
The gore is easily excessive enough to appeal to the hard-core horror addicts, but it is more gross-out funny that actually frightening. Technically, the zombie carnage is impressive, but director Glasgow Phillips never quite establishes a tone that sells the effects as either horrific or comedic; they’re just there, in all their gory glory.
The result never fully gells as satire or parody; it’s more like a SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE sketch stretched to feature length – some of the scenes are very funny, but whole feels like less than the sum of its parts. The best bit is when Denton (playing a former soldier) is fed up with feeling guilty for the way the U.S. army has treated Native Americans: he unleashes an amusing tirade about how much the Indians owe the Europeans (e.g., the wheel, the horse), which is then ably countered by Rawat’s own litany (small pox, etc). The dialogue works because the humor arises believably from the characters; it has nothing to do with spoofing zombie or Western cliches.
The film ends with a rather sexist joke that is not only delivers cruel fate to one of the more likable characters but is also staged in an unconvincing way (a supposedly “surrounded” character could obviously escape with ease). The gag seems recycled from A BOY AND HIS DOG: it was bad enough in 1975, and it is hard to imagine why anyone would resuse it today. Perhaps Phillips was trying to spoof the “Hollywood Closet” interpretation of some Westerns, which often featured heavy male bonding at the expense of the female characters, who were often decorative and/or disposable. Whatever the intent, the finale fadeout undercuts the pleasantly light-hearted tone of the rest of the comedy, in favor of chortling with a “boys will be boys” attitude.
Image Entertainment’s DVD release of UNDEAD OR ALIVE offers a good-looking widescreen transfer of the film with English audio and subtitle options for Spanish and English fo the hearing impaired. The disc includes a handful of bonus features, including a trailer, a couple behind-the-scenes featurettes, and an audio commentary with director Glasgow Phillips and actors Chris Kattan, James Denton, and Navi Rawat.
Unfortunately, the commentary is rather too jocular and informal to be of much interest. Kattan arrives late, so time is waste while he takes his place with the others and gets up to speed. A few interesting behind-the-scenes tidbits emerge, but mostly the actors talk about where they went to eat after filming wrapped each night, and a unfunny throw-away line about an alleged “lesbian night” at a local establishment gets recycled into an interminable running gag. Not surprisingly, almost everyone remains mum about the lame ending; only Rawat tangentially references it by noting that she will not be around for the sequel.
The two featurettes are a little more interesting. “From South Park to the Wild, Wild West” gives a rundown of the project, from genesis to completion. We learn that Kattan’s character was written to be a better gunslinger, but the characterization changed because Kattan was so funny at bumbling with his guns; conversely, Denton was supposed to play a bumbling horseman, but the director changed his mind upon seeing how comfortable the actor was on horseback. (The title of this featurette refers to writer-director Glasgow’s work on the sixth season of SOUTH PARK; the DVD includes a disclaimer.
The second featurette, “Geronimonsters: The Zombies That Walked the West,” focuses on the makeup effects by Robert Kurtzman and Gary Jones. It features a glimpse or two of makeup not seen clearly (or at all) in the finished film, such as the mangled face of a preacher (Leslie Jordan), whose fate is left off-screen in the final cut. Glasgow Phillps mentions that the film opts for the infection model of zombies, instead of the dead rising from their graves, but he never bothers to explain why he chose an option that seems out of keeping with the premise of the story. This is just one more example of why DVD promotional features will never replace real journalism.
UNDEAD OR ALIVE (2007). Directed by Glasgow Phillips. Written by Glasgow Phillips; story by Scott Pourroy and Glasgow Phillips. Cast: Chris Kattan, James Denton, Navi Rawat, Matt Besser, Chris Coppola, Leslie Jordan.
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