Starring Jesse Metcalfe, Meghan Ory, Virginia Madsen, Keegan Connor Tracy
Directed by Zach Lipovsky
Popular video game series Dead Rising makes the leap to the cinematic world with Dead Rising: Watchtower. Set somewhere between the second and third game entries, Watchtower focuses on the city of East Mission. As we enter the film, tensions are rising amidst the populace due to rumours of a shortage of Zombrex, the sole medication – created and supplied by pharmaceuticals giant Phenotrans – that can stop the infected from going full-blown zombie.
In the middle of the ruckus is small time reporter Chase Carter (Metcalfe) and his camerawoman Jordan (Tracy). Looking for something that can send his outlet, Hitpoint Digital, viral, Carter desperately tries to uncover as much drama as possible at the drug administration site – but finds himself smack bang in the middle of much more drama than he ever bargained for.
You see, the Zombrex isn’t working… and before you can say “whoops, I’ve missed my daily dose”, zombies are running amok in the crowds. With chaos unleashed and the military sealing off the city, patrolling the walls with deadly force, Chase and his newfound companion – the initially untrusting and caustic Crystal (Ory) – must find a way to get the word out about what’s going on inside, and stay out of the clutches of the ravenous undead.
As an adaptation of the video games, Dead Rising: Watchtower gets it right. Nods to the games abound, but are generally subtle visual references or quick actions taken by characters – for example, planting a traffic cone on an attacking zombie’s head – that mirror the player’s in-game abilities. It’s never shoved in your face, director Lipovsky doing well to present his references without screaming, “Look at this! Hey, you play the games… isn’t this cool?! Remember this?! Hey! Hey!”
This serious approach also carries over admirably to the tone of Dead Rising: Watchtower, which remains dead serious besides some organically injected humour. There’s no self-aware awkwardness or ham-fisted attempts at fan service beyond the simple use of the game series’ lore – and damn it feels good. So much could have gone wrong with this very core element – as it often does with video game film adaptations – but it seems that Lipovsky and Co. have made every effort to ensure that they never crossed that line.
As in the games, our heroes get busy forging combo weapons, such as electrified machetes, and are forced to face off against not only zombies, but a gang of marauding biker psychos led by the hulking Logan – a man with a few too many muscles and more than a few screws loose. Also showing up is the original game’s protagonist, Frank West. Played here, to hilarious effect, by Rob Riggle, West is as scathingly sardonic as gaming fans initially loved him for back in 2006. Most of the comedy is to be found in West’s appearances – popping up occasionally as he’s interviewed on a television news show by an increasingly frustrated anchor – and Riggle is definitely a highlight of the film.
That’s not to say that the rest of the cast are in any way poor, though. Metcalfe makes for a solid leading man and carries the film very well indeed, backed up by the gorgeous Meghan Ory as the butt-kicking Crystal – a survivor of Dead Rising 2‘s Fortune City outbreak. Virginia Madsen proves the weakest link, with an introductory performance that doesn’t quite feel like she’s putting in as much effort as those around her.
Lipovsky has fun with his zombie mayhem, including plenty of splatter, severed limbs and flesh-eating to go around alongside some key gore gags and a seriously impressive single-take sequence that sees Chase fight off a crowd of zombies single-handedly. The violence isn’t watered down at all, but does find itself marred by lots of cartoonish CGI blood spatter that looks disappointingly unconvincing.
Dead Rising: Watchtower does drag some following Chase’s big-time zombie face-off – something that seems inevitable given the film’s excessive runtime. Clocking in at just under two hours, it feels a little long in the tooth – but that’s not to say that the story, including zombie survival, combat, and a slowly unravelling military/government/Big Pharma conspiracy isn’t an involving and entertaining one. In fact, it would have been nice to have had some more characterisation of the other biker psychos beyond Logan, or even a small variety of maniacs as per the games. Rather, there’s something about the construction of the various action sequences that sees them fail to push the film’s pulse higher than the threshold it seems determined to keep itself at – meaning it’s never quite as exciting or fulfilling as it should be.
Still, fans of the Dead Rising games should have a very fun time with Watchtower, and its respectful approach to the genre should please zombie fans who aren’t au fait with the inspiration behind it. It’s a fun zombie romp that seems to achieve exactly what it set out to do – and in all honesty, there isn’t a lot to put it down for. This is just a good ol’ piece of an evening’s entertainment.
The ending does tease at a sequel, revealing the nature of the film’s subtitle and making it feel like one big piece of setup for something much grander. Given the quality and care on show here, that sounds like a very welcome proposition.
Dead Rising: Watchtower is available right now on DVD, Blu-ray, UK-Exclusive Limited Edition Steelbook and VOD outlets.