Sunday, November 30, 2008


“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” meet “Return of the Living Dead” in former “South Park” scribe Glasgow Phillips’ directorial debut “Undead or Alive,” (**1/2 out of ****), a creepy, tongue-in-cheek, zombie western starring former “Saturday Night Live” comedian Chris Kattan and “Desperate Housewives” hunk James Denton. Everybody looks like they had a good time making this frontier farce about a couple of hard-luck cowboys on the lam from a posse of zombies. Mind you, “Undead or Alive” never takes itself seriously and prefers to spoof its elements rather than scare the daylights out of us. Writer & director Phillips tosses a few surprises into this supernatural saga while the camaraderie between Luke (Chris Kattan) and Elmer (James Denton) is sufficiently strong enough to make us laugh at their tribulations right up to the twisted finale. Indeed, Chris Kattan and James Denton reminded me of Bob Hope and Bing Cosby in one of their road comedies. “From Dusk Till Dawn” make-up effects wizard Robert Kurtzman makes his usual sterling contribution that boosts “Undead or Alive” into the ‘must watch’ category. The flour-faced ghouls are shown gnawing on enough brains and getting shot enough times to make it worth watching at least once. “Slumber Party Massacre 2” lenser Thomas L Callaway endows “Undead or Alive” with a larger-than-life look. Some of his splendid widescreen compositions that make this “Blazing Zombies” horse opera appear almost artistic. Clocking in at a trim 91 minutes, Phillips doesn’t wear out his welcome and provides suitable closure. Although it doesn’t rank as the greatest zombie western ever made, “Undead or Alive” qualifies as entertaining enough to sit through a couple of times, with sturdy production values and an amusing dialogue.

“Undead or Alive” establishes its premise immediately in a prologue about the legendary Apache chieftain Geronimo (Lew Alexander) who concocted something called ‘the white man’s curse’ that turns ordinary, everyday Anglo-Saxon Americans into flesh feasting fiends. The action unfolds at a hard scrabble farm where a farmer Ben (Brian Posehn of “Eulogy”) somehow comes down with Geronimo’s curse. He pulls an Ozzie Osborne and bites the head off a chicken before he tears into his wife and your daughter. The story shifts then to the frontier town where an Army deserter on the run, Elmer Winslow (James Denton), climbs off the tailgate of a wagon that he hitched a ride on to cut the dust from his throat in the local saloon. He observes there is not being a piano player and settles behind the ivories to plink out a tune. A sexy saloon girl (Patricia Greer) who loves to display her cleavage decides to accompany Elmer. Luke Budd (Chris Kattan) picks that moment to saunter into the saloon with some form of desert plant for his so-called ‘princess,’ only to find the slut cuddling up with Elmer. Later, Luke explains that she had told him that she’d marry him. Luke and Elmer tangle briefly, wind up on the floor, and find themselves staring into the business end of a shotgun with the town sheriff Claypool (Matt Besser of “Drillbit Taylor”) standing over them. Claypool hauls them off to the calaboose, takes their boots, and confiscates Elmer’s $500. They encounter the skin eating zombie farmer locked up in a nearby cell. Eventually, Elmer picks the cell door and they get the drop on Claypool, recover their loot, and hightail it out of town. Predictably, when they skedaddle out of town, Luke rides off in the wrong direction. Generally, Luke is a goofy galoot in a singing cowboy outfit. Elmer describes him later on “as a brokenhearted cowboy that doesn’t know his ass from a bag of sweet potatoes.” That line of Phillips’ dialogue has an Elmore Leonard flavor.

Sheriff Claypool regains consciousness and unties his pot-bellied deputy Cletus, but by then Ben has taken a chomp out of Cletus, so Cletus takes a chomp out of Claypool. The sheriff hangs Ben and assembles a four-man posse to ride with Cletus and him on the trail of our heroes. Before long Claypool and Cletus realize that they love the delicious smell of their posse and chomp on them, turning them into zombies. While Claypool and his posse scour the sagebrush for our heroes, Phillips shifts the story back to the town. The citizens cut Ben down, but discover to their horror that he is still alive and starved for human flesh. Ben embarks on a human buffet and turns everybody into a zombie. Meanwhile, our heroes fall victim to an Apache maiden, Susan (Navi Rawat of CBS-TV’s “Numbers”), who is Geronimo’s niece and speaks fluent English. She explains that she was educated at a New York boarding school. She disarms and strips them of everything except their Stetsons and boots. Later, after they sweet talk her, she gives them their clothes and guns back and they try to ambush Claypool’s posse only to realize that the lawmen have mutated into bona fide zombies and cannot be killed by bullets or arrows. Not even the surefire George Romeo shoot-them-in-the-head strategy works. Evidently, the only positive way to kill the zombies is to literally chop their heads off. These zombies resemble those in "Return of the Living Dead" and Romeo's "Land of the Dead" because they retain some semblance of motor function and can think to a limited extent. Luke, Elmer, and Susan outrun the posse only to be captured by Elmer’s old U.S. Army buddies who arrest them and escort them back to their fort near the Grand Canyon. When they ride into the fort, our heroes and their army escort get the surprise of their lives.

Glasgow Phillips has written a fairly entertaining zombie western. Classically speaking, it could be compared to a Budd Boetticher based on its story arc. Our heroes escape from jail, a posse chases them, and each side confronts the other at a mountain-top army stockade. Whether he knows it or not, Phillips has pulled elements from classic westerns into his oater. Cletus warns our heroes after they have been jailed that the sheriff plans to tie them to the hitch rack and horse whip them for their rambunctiousness. This is a clear homage to “One-Eyed Jacks,” the classic western where Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) whips the hero (Marlon Brando) for everybody to see. The western town and the western outfits all look authentic, except for Kattan’s B-movie cowboy gear. The special effects get pretty nasty toward the end in the army fort and the ending isn’t exactly a happy one. The DVD comes with an insightful commentary track with many of the stars and the director. “Undead or Alive” is better than most critics say.

No comments: