When a movie is aiming to be a western, a comedy, and a zombie-fest all at the same time, "subtlety" doesn't really enter into the equation all that much. I expected something broad, diverting, and slightly amusing from Glasgow Phillips' Undead or Alive, but I wasn't adequately prepared for how, well, silly the darn thing is. I mean like Gilligan's Island-style slapstick, broad puns, and cartoon-ish sound effects that honk across the soundtrack when someone falls down. So the flick doesn't really work all that well as a comedy. As a western, not much better. And as a horror movie ... well, at least it's got some gooey gore in it.
James Denton and Chris Kattan (yes, I said Chris Kattan) play a pair of ill-matched cowboy-types who team up with a sexy Native American gal when a mysterious curse causes a huge zombie infection in a typical frontier town. That's pretty much all we've got, plot-wise, but it's not like you're renting a zombie comedy western and hoping for James Joyce ... but even going by the lower standards of the bottom-shelf video stuff, Undead or Alive often feels like a chore to sit through. That's not to say it's a terrible little concoction. Writer / director Glasgow Phillips (who worked on South Park, so he clearly knows a little something about the funny) presents his debut effort with an undeniable sense of enthusiasm -- if not all that much energy. The flick's got a light tone and a potentially likable demeanor ... but one can't help but feel that the screenplay needed three or four more polishes before production got rolling.
Lacking a reliable narrative spine, Undead or Alive just sort of rambles around from scene to scene, dryly spinning its wheels in between the (all too rare) bits of color, wit, and creativity. Save for a few key scenes, the movie feels like it could be re-edited at random and not much of a difference would take place. As the more serious of the two cowpokes, James Denton seems to be having a little fun with the role -- and I was more than willing to buy Chris Kattan as a comedic cowboy. If only the guy weren't intent on being so annoying. The lovely Navi Rawat certainly adds some nice scenery to the film, but her performance is borderline laughable. (And not the way it was intended.) Supporting players like Brian Posehn, Chris Coppola, and Matt Besser add a little spark to the gradually-more-tiresome proceedings -- but why hire a funny guy like Posehn if all he's going to do is mumble around zombified and speechless??
The main problem is a simple one, and it's that of tone. Undead or Alive is an amazingly schizophrenic movie, and while that might sound like a fun time, it's really not. The flick never really decides if it wants to be a farce or a spoof; scenes of over-the-top gore are followed by groan-worthy comedy schtick; and there's even one outlandish scene in which we're meant to (sorta) cry along with the Kattan character. And he's been like a cartoon character for the whole movie! Jokes that would only make a child laugh are interrupted by violence that's probably not all that kid-friendly. The western setting is ultimately kinda pointless, although I suppose it's not that bad if you're looking for a novelty item. The bottom line is that Undead or Alive shoots (hard) for the type of tone found in Shaun of the Dead and/or Tremors, and it fails pretty consistently across the board. It's easy to respect the Phillips for trying to meld a bunch of disparate genres into one kooky piece, but the end result is a few cute ideas mired amidst a movie that starts out silly -- and just keeps getting sillier.
DVD extras include a jokey audio commentary with the director and his three leads, a pair of behind-the-scenes featurettes, and the trailer.