Zombies weren’t exactly a hot commodity when Zack Snyder and James Gunn‘s remake of Dawn of the Dead hit theaters back in 2004 — but it sure did re-ignite one of the horror department’s most beloved sub-genres. It may seem bizarre to think about it these days, now that zombie fiction adorns every TV channel, bookshelf, movie theater, and video game console. but zombies weren’t exactly big business before Dawn of the Dead ’04 opened the floodgates for The Walking Dead, endless indie zombie flicks, and some pretty kick-ass video games like Dead Rising and its two sequels.
There’s a strange irony in turning Dead Rising into a movie, since (like most zombie-related video games) its plot, theme, tone, and structure are little more than compilations of stuff you’ve already seen in kick-ass zombie movies like Dawn of the Dead (both the remake and the brilliant George Romero original). If the original Dead Rising game was little more than a tongue-in-cheek homage to zombie cinema, then what would a movie version of Dead Rising feel like?
It would probably feel a lot like Zach Lipovsky’s Dead Rising: Watchtower, a sometimes colorful, occasionally energetic, and surprisingly well-cast action / horror / comedy mash-up that runs a bit longer than it needs to, but still manages to deliver some old-fashioned b-movie fun, thanks to a glibly amusing tone, some pretty wild action sequences, and a bunch of actors who are clearly having fun running around inside of a live-action video game. Dead Rising: Watchtower will never be mistaken for the Holy Grail of Video Game Movies that we’re all still waiting for (fingers crossed on Warcraft), but as a passable diversion for fans of zombie cinema, it’s certainly more appealing than your typical SyFy Channel movie.
The plot? OK! A few humans are trapped behind infected lines when the government declares East Mission, Oregon, a full-scale zombie epidemic. That’s pretty much it, story-wise, although we do get one busy subplot involving crooked authority figures, government conspiracies, and faulty vaccines that helps to keep the movie from feeling like an endless stream of zombie attacks. There’s also a broadly amusing series of TV interview segments in which a frustrated reporter (Carrie Genzel) tries to get some worthwhile material out of a famous zombie killer (played by Rob Riggle), but Dead Rising: Watchtower is at its best when it stays away from the subplots and sketches, and simply focuses on the zombie mayhem.
Our heroes are a fast-talkin’ internet journalist Chase Carter (Jesse Metcalfe), a tough-as-nails femme fatale who hides a dangerous secret (Meghan Ory), and a mourning mama who is teetering on the edge of insanity (Virginia Madsen). Trapped deep inside a quarantine zone with zombies around every corner, Chase, Crystal, and Maggie have to stay one step ahead of the ravenous undead, build some decent weapons, and find their way to safety. Sounds kinda like a video game, doesn’t it? Also there’s a crazy biker gang roaming around!
Meanwhile, outside the quarantine zone, we have Chase’s loyal pal Jordan (Keegan Connor Tracy) trying to piece all the clues together, avoiding the attention of the ominous military men (led by Dennis Haysbert!), and guiding our heroes to the nearest safe zone via cell phone. Just like in a video game!
At its best moments (like during a wildly elaborate action-heavy tracking shot that occurs about halfway through the movie), Dead Rising: Watchtower is precisely the type of comedic action/horror concoction that it plainly wants to be, but there’s something about the film’s aggressively episodic structure — and 118-minute running time — that makes it feel more like a series of short films that were cut together than a full-bore three-act story. This somewhat clunky editorial approach prevents Dead Rising: Watchtower from building up a whole lot of steam, narrative-wise, but given that each 20-minute “segment” has at least a few laughs, a few cool explosions, or more than a few zombie attacks, it’s safe to say that the flick is never boring.
It doesn’t hurt that Mr. Metcalfe makes for a suitably solid wise-ass action hero, or that Ms. Ory is quite the astute ass-kicker where zombies are concerned — and it’s difficult to deny the novelty in seeing people like Virginia Madsen and Dennis Haysbert deal with the zombie apocalypse. (Also I think I’m in love with Keegan Tracy.) Despite an overlong running time and a somewhat patchwork editorial approach, there’s actually some pretty cool stuff to be found here — and given what movie video game movie adaptations look like, “pretty cool” is relatively high praise.
3 out of 5 tasily overstuffed burritos that are based on a video game
Dead Rising: Watchtower is available (for free!) via Crackle.
NOTE: Nerdist Industries is a subsidiary of Legendary Digital Networks, aka the producers of this movie. We do, however, remain editorially autonomous.