The Wasted Potential of Dead and the Damned: A Movie Review

To waste potential is an abhorrent concept. I see the wasting of my own potential by human resources administrators across this isle as they throw my application form into their bin. In the realm of film, potential can be wasted in a great number of ways. A touch of laziness or lack of attention in a script can ruin what is ostensibly a good idea; bad acting negatively impacts on the dialogue and characterisation; and a lack of budget can make even the most high concept of ideas look like a live action roleplaying session. When it comes to The Dead and the Damned, an unholy cocktail of all of these elements takes what could have been something worthwhile and throws it so deep into the pig swill that not even Jeff can save it.

The Dead and The Damned, or Cowboys and Zombies as it was briefly marketed in an attempt to syphon off some publicity from Daniel Craig’s godawful Cowboys and Aliens, is a Zombie Western film set in California during the height of the Gold Rush. A bounty hunter makes a mining town his temporary residence during his search for a wanted criminal. While exploring the area for clues with the (forced) help of a townswoman, a meteor lands in the town, releasing a gas which turns the residents into zombies. The bounty hunter, his bounty, and the townswoman must survive the zombie onslaught so that he may claim his prize. On a simple synopsis, the plot doesn’t appear to make much sense. On a full watching, the plot doesn’t make much sense either. Oh, and occasionally a rival bounty hunter called The German appears, punches the main bounty hunter then disappears. That’s just a thing that happens.

To begin with, we find ourselves yet again in that age old discussion of what exactly is a zombie. It’s almost as if I deliberately chose to discuss another zombie film just to make this point. In DatD (what a novel concept shortening titles is) there is yet again no resurrection. The zombies are made so by a gas mutating them into savage cannibalistic beings. Incidentally, the film’s own synopsis neglects to call them zombies; referring to them instead as mutants, which is far more fitting. Ergo, like Zombie Women of Satan, it must be said that no zombies appear in this zombie film. Trading Standards is getting another earful.

Secondly, the manner in which the townspeople are turned into mutants is ridiculous and neglects the very setting of the film. The town is a mining town, the townsfolk are prospectors and miners. The dialogue refers going into the mines in search of gold, mines and shafts and mining equipment are seen within the town and in the wider setting. That is a setup if ever there were a setup to miners finding something within those mines that turns them into zombies. But that doesn’t happen. What happens is that from the sky a meteor falls. This meteor, despite visibly leaking a bright green gas, is taken into the heart of the town where it infects the members of said town turning them into the titular (but not actual) zombies. It’s a glaring oversight. I wonder if the writer knew what he was writing or as he wrote it—or if the addition of zombies to the story was a very late one so he just half-arsed a reason for zombies appearing.

A low-budget film is going to struggle to find top talent. A micro-budget film is going to struggle to find mediocre talent. DatD must have had no budget as the ‘actors’ are so deficient in skill that one can only assume the director just happened to cast whoever happened to be walking by while he set up the cameras. There are four main cast members, the rest are a handful of people who get a line or two but are primarily there to transform into mutants and have their faces shot off by the featured cast. The protagonist, Mortimer the cowboy-cum-bounty-hunter, suffers from the expectancy of character archetypes. There are certain traits you imagine when you hear the words cowboy and Wild West: strong, bold, enigmatic The actor possesses none of these: he’s sinewy, weak in the voice, uncharismatic. He’s like Kit Harington without the massive net worth. He noticeably struggles in the gun battles, unable to either hold a gun properly or use it convincingly. His bounty, a Native American, alternates from speaking with a faux-Indian accent to sounding like he just came from filming an episode of The O.C. Like the bounty hunter, he too lacks the charisma—or talent—to carry a scene. When the scenes are just these two killing the mutated townspeople it is not as big a problem; it’s when the script has them talking in darkened room for ten minutes at a time to exposit their backstories that it becomes akin to torture. The townswoman is fine but she suffers the fate of all supporting characters in these smaller affairs. Her purpose is to provide reactionary shots and comments to the words of the main character, and occasionally be in a position where she needs rescuing. 

A good ninety or so percent of the budget went onto fake blood and rubber masks. It’s a gory fest full of blood and splatter effects and actual gooey mush on the floor. I am actually quite surprised that they did use some real blood and gore because despire their low budget. Fake blood is a hassle to clean–my former housemate staining our bathroom in a faded red after he took a shower following a night out at a zombie-themed party is testament to that. The other ten percent must have gone on whatever it is they do to make the guns fire off smoke to make it look a shot has been fired. It looks like they had their fill of doing that. When a six-chamber revolver can fire off a dozen shots before being reloaded, that’s just showing off.

I will highlight one thing I thought was particularly good. There is a scene in which the townswoman locks herself away in a house as protection from the zombies roaming around outside only to discover that there is a zombie inside the house. That in itself is typical horror fare, but a shocking level of originality is thrown in by making the zombie blind. What follows is a genuinely tense at times game of hide-and-seek as the protagonist tries to lure the zombie into a room by throwing items to make noise, while she herself tries to move around quietly enough to avoid being attacked. It is a scene deserving of being in a far better film. In fact, it is at such a higher standard than the rest of it that I wonder who actually came up with the idea. It can’t be the same guy who thought up the meteor falling from the sky plot.

If you are writing a script about a horde of zombies, hire me to flesh (aha!) out your ideas. My genius will be an asset, and my mum might finally stop harping on about me not having a job. 

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