DVD Review: Cowboys & Zombies

Cowboys & Zombies (AKA The Dead and the Damned) (2010)
Distributor: Left Films
DVD Release Date (UK): 8th August 2011
Directed by: Rene Perez
Starring: David A. Lockhart, Camille Montgomery, Rick Mora
Review by: Ben Bussey

The old west. It’s the rootinist, tootinist place. You got lone gunslingers having daring shoot-outs with bad guys in the streets, collecting the bounties on their heads, then heading off in search of the next outlaw with his face on a wanted poster. One such lone gunslinger is Mortimer (Lockhart), and his intended next big payday is an injun – hey, it was the 1800’s, Native American was not yet the preferred term – who is wanted alive for rape and murder. Taking along the first pretty young whore he can find (Montgomery) as rapist bait, Mortimer heads into the hills to trap his prey. However, just as they leave town, a couple of lame-brained prospectors head into town with a strange glowing rock they just dug up, which promptly zombifies everyone nearby. Up in the hills, Mortimer comes face to face with his would-be prey (Mora), but he doesn’t seem to be quite such a cold-blooded savage as expected. Helpful really, as those two men and one woman soon have to fight side by side to quell the tide of flesh-eating fiends from hell.

Yes, this film was originally released in the US last year as The Dead and the Damned; I feel compelled to emphasise this, lest anyone take it as an Asylum-esque cash in on this summer’s Cowboys & Aliens. This, of course, doesn’t make its retitling any less of an unabashedly exploitative move. But frankly, Cowboys & Zombies is the better title. It’s direct and to the point. It lets you know exactly what to expect. And sitting down to watch it with that mindframe, I must admit that, to my great surprise, Cowboys & Zombies is actually a pretty watchable movie. It wears its low-budget, direct-to-DVD origins on its sleeve, with all the hallmarks we expect: below-bar DV photography, weak costumes and make-up FX, and a few instances of utterly gratuitous nudity. But along the way there are some pleasant surprises that help lift the movie above the standard.

It’s shot efficiently and energetically, with the opening shoot-out scene setting things off at a high pace. Sure, it’s inescapably amateurish; it looks like (and most likely was) a few friends messing around in a wild west theme park off season, and David A Lockhart hasn’t quite mastered that problem of blinking when shots are fired, plus I swear I saw sneaker footprints in the sand at one point. Even so, the camerawork and editing are relatively slick, resulting in a number of effiective action sequences. These scenes are also complemented well by the guitar-based score. I was initially wary to see the old west played out against contemporary rock music, but given that the film is a crossover of genres we don’t often see combined, it seems oddly fitting that the music be a bit out of place, if that makes any sense.

So that’s the plus side; now for the rest. Despite that blinking-while-shooting problem and a voice that is somewhat less than gravelly, David Lockhart makes for a reasonable cowboy, with a look that’s somewhere between early 80s Dennis Quaid and early 70s Graham Nash. However, both he and writer/director Rene Perez should have learned a few lessons from a few classic westerns and had him do one simple thing: shut the fuck up. I’m no western afficionado by any means, but I think I can safely say that the great screen cowboys were notably taciturn, men of action rather than words; hell, at his best Eastwood did as little as he had to of either. Lockhart just keeps talking, talking, talking, constantly giving explanations when one was neither requested nor needed. Rick Mora doesn’t fare much better; every time he opens his mouth, both the words and the delivery reek of Native American cliche, to the extent that we wouldn’t be too taken aback if he were to declare something “heap big” then dance around a campfire whooping. At least Camille Montgomery manages to come out of proceedings with a little more dignity, successfully conveying both vulnerability and inner strength in the face of the zombie horde.

Cowboys & Zombies has another fairly significant problem in that it doesn’t have an ending. Nope. None at all. There are a couple of nice, unexpected twists and turns (by which I do not mean anything remotely Shyamalanesque), then just as it looks like there’s another cool action sequence coming up it just stops. Pah. I struggle to see how anyone involved thought that would be a satisfactory way to finish things off, unless there was some vague hope of leaving things open for a sequel. But what the hell, in spite of this Cowboys & Zombies remains a reasonable bit of fun so long as your expectations aren’t too high. It’s not going to rock anyone’s socks off, but it delivers most of what you’d hope for from a microbudget bottom shelf B-movie. And from what I hear Cowboys & Aliens itself isn’t even all that good anyway, so hey, one DVD’s cheaper than a couple of cinema tickets…

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