My biggest complaint about the genre films offered from places like The Asylum and SyFy Channel is not the chintzy effects, the generic stories, or the frequently amateurish action performances. My gripe is that of simple tone. There should be no shame in producing low-budget monster movies for the video and cable TV markets, but I've grown weary of these disposable flicks because they're generally just too damn snarky. Not smart, really, but wise-assed enough to say, "Hey, we have a very low budget and some very crazy monsters. Let's be silly about all this." A serious aficionado of genre movies can often overlook all sorts of problems -- provided the flick at hand has a little respect for its audience and, more importantly, for itself.
All of that may help to explain how I can give (mostly) positive marks to Zombie Apocalypse, which is the latest (and arguably the best) horror flick to spawn from the super-schlocky union of The Asylum and SyFy Channel. Granted, that's pretty much the textbook definition of "faint praise," but while ZA certainly does suffer from a few of the more obvious issues (like special effects), it also earns points for valuing thin characters over extra carnage -- and the script actually does a decent job of dumbing down stuff like The Walking Dead, World War Z, and Left 4 Dead and then tossing it all into a blender set on "simple." (Fans of the extra gooey stuff will have to wait until the DVD release; SyFy is premiering a slightly cleaner cut this weekend.)
Virtually (almost admirably) bereft of "plot," Zombie Apocalypse is about a group of survivors who are steadily traveling west across a landscape long since overtaken by, you guessed it, a zombie apocalypse. Sketchily drawn but amusingly realized, our heroes are iconic tough guys and gals with a variety of weapons -- and by now they've become fairly proficient at destroying any zombies that stand in their way. For the most part. Little more than a 90-minute collection of action scenes, chomping sequences, and low-key conversations between the (gradually dwindling) collection of survivors, Zombie Apocalypse still manages to entertain for a few reasons:
A) It's a teensy bit smarter than it needs to be: the screenplay offers a few clever exchanges about how to avoid / dispatch zombies in practical fashion -- most of which seem clearly inspired by Max Brooks' superlative World War Z tome, but hey, at least the writers are reading the right books.
B) It's a (much) lower budget version of the stuff you like in the Walking Dead series and/or the Left 4 Dead video games: a close-knit group of "never leave a man behind" survivors who must contend with a world gone zombie. None of the characters leave that much of an impression after all is said and done, but at least the script (and the cast) makes a concerted effort towards "personality."
C) Despite its obviously lean budget, several of the action sequences contain moments of directorial creativity and editorial style....
... which leads us to the film's biggest stumbling block: its overwhelmingly inept special effects. The relatively few practical effects work well enough, but the digital blood splatters and beheadings are frequently laughable. The aforementioned style that's found in the action scenes are frequently and quickly undone by the generally amateurish gore geysers. (I found myself thinking, "nice angle! hey, nice cut to a kill shot! aw man, those fx are laughable!") A similar problem arises, and I hate to nitpick, with the extras employed as zombies. Several do a fine job of portraying the shambling undead, but a good portion are, well, clueless.
But here's the weird part: a lot of the digital effects are lame, and several of the background zombies are thoroughly unconvincing. But those are my biggest problems with the flick. A SyFy / Asylum flick! Bonus points for enlisting folks like Ving Rhames and Taryn Manning for this sort of undead silliness, but even the folks playing the stock characters manage to deliver some good work. Two relative unknowns, for example, named Gary Weeks and Johnny Pacar, manage to deliver some simple but effective character touches along the way.
So it's not much more than a movified video game with basic characters, lots of gore, and some egregiously unfortunate special effects. It's cable-channel junk for genrevores, through and through. But it's also kinda fun. For all its obvious silliness, Zombie Apocalypse is an appreciable step forward for both production companies. It never manages to transcend its obvious material, but if one has spent several years mocking the films of these two companies (and lord have I), then it only seems fair to take note when some obvious improvements have been made.
At the very least, I'm grateful for the distinct lack of snark and irony.