Arguably, the seminal template for micro-budgeted debut features to which all others should be compared is El Mariachi, but there have been several other success stories (Clerks, Primer, and I know a few of you secretly dug The Blair Witch Project before it was over-hyped into movie-dork oblivion). El Mariachi is pure talent triumphantly emerging through 40-watt lighting, a movie that quickly established its director as a cinematic force to be reckoned with. But even Rodriguez experimented with short films, and it must be a difficult choice for a director, realizing when he has the skill to hold an audience at rapt attention for over an hour, and—perhaps more importantly—knowing when he finally has a feature length story to tell.
Sometimes, as an independent director, the need to fill a predetermined running time can create immense creative limitations. This is one of the myriad problems with Gary Ugarek’s debut feature, the micro-budgeted Romero homage, Deadlands: The Rising.
Gary (Gary Ugarek, director) and Brian (Brian Wright, producer) are a couple of wise-cracking family men who enjoy shooting handguns at empty Miller Lite bottles whey they’re not endlessly bantering about their dearth of collective parenting skills. One day, while they’re out plunking bottles in inexplicable slo-mo, there is news of a zombie outbreak.
The next 30 minutes of the film pass in a sort of incoherent blur. There is a massive traffic jam and every single car seems to be occupied by an arguing couple experiencing tensions more highly melodramatic than anything you could see on an episode of Divorce Court. The couples bicker about directions and wrong turns, as if the problem is cartography, rather than the massive traffic jam laid out in front of them. The “action” soon shifts to a shelter where national guardsman, humorously clad in camoflauge, bicker around a table usually reserved for PTA meetings. Apparently, there’s been an epidemic, and things are very, very dire, and we’re probably a good third of the way through Ugarek’s 65-minute opus, and there is nary a zombie in sight.
Finally, in a moment of horror glory, the zombies emerge, but for some reason, the drama refuses to intensify. The viewer gets the vague notion that Gary and Brian are trying to make it back to their families, but the plot is a negligible wisp, batted away when it starts to grow distracting. The gore is sparse and incredibly cheap, shot occasionally in slow motion, as if to strengthen the movie by falsely elongating the brief moments of visceral horror. Many of Ugarek’s directorial decisions seem fairly arbitrary, like setting the movie two years in the future or constantly centering character action around Gary’s sweet red mustang (must’ve been a loaner). Maybe it was just me, but a few of the zombie chase scenes seem to have been sped up, adding an unintentionally humorous Keystone Cops vibe to the low- budget craziness. The movie drapes tattered rags on its coat hanger of a plot with lingering shots of passing traffic or local buildings in an attempt to pad out the films already laborious 70-minute running time.
Unfortunately, Deadlands: The Rising emerges as the lowest common denominator of low budget horror pics: a movie without a purpose, a movie without a soul. Adding insult to injury is Gary and Brian’s public service announcement preceding the movie: hey, guys, I’m not selling 8-track players at The Hi-Fi Shop in 1978, I know what the black bars at the top of the bottom of the screen are for, but thanks so much for the heads up.