Directed by Neil Jones (aka Napoleon Jones)
Distributed by Left Films
Even outside the confines of a genre film, the ritual of stag night can be a horrifying experience for many involved – and that’s not to mention the innocent bystanders caught amidst a tsunami of bare chests, sex toys, alcoholic beverages and flying bodily fluids. Compared to some, Stag Night of the Dead protagonist Dean’s stag do feels relatively tame as the film opens with him being whipped by a parading stripper and tortured half-naked by his guffawing chums.
With the drinking swiftly out of the way, the group move via limo to a shady military facility for a game of Zomball. You see, with a bird-flu-like pandemic sweeping the nation, leaving those infected the flesh-eating shamblers we know and love, you can now pay to head to a remote army base and let loose on gangs of the undead with rechargeable (laser tag style) electricity-firing rifles. This being a horror comedy (is “zombedy” now a legitimate term?), it obviously doesn’t take too long for some of the gang to ignore the predefined rules of Zomball, resulting in the gut-munching inmates quickly gaining control of the asylum and leaving the remaining partygoers locked in a desperate fight for survival. With the military staff running the show also harbouring a less than open agenda, the guys and gal involved are in way over their heads… and making it to the altar in time is now the last of Dean’s worries…
As a low-budget British indie effort, Stag Night of the Dead oozes ambition and heart. It’s easy to see what director Neil “Napoleon” Jones is trying to do right from the toe-tapping credit sequence; yet, it’s only in sporadic bursts that he actually manages to fully succeed. His script is light and humorous with well defined characters (it’s of strong benefit to the film that no two personalities here are ever interchangeable) and a solid number of twists and turns – not all of which you’ll see coming. The cast, too, tackle their roles strongly. Leading man Sebastian Street in particular is admirably natural and believable as everyman Dean, while Sophie Lovell Anderson’s reluctant stripper Candy is an endearing, if somewhat cliché, addition.
The comedic elements of Stag Night of the Dead work well on paper, but Jones’ inexperience as a director becomes glaringly obvious amidst visually confused punchlines, stilted editing and occasionally awkward line delivery ruining what should be some of the biggest stand-out moments. When Stag Night of the Dead hits, it hits hard – but seeing various potential gags fall flat through technicalities when the laughs really are right there on the page becomes quite frustrating. One element, however, that never should have made it beyond the page is the character of Ronny. Obviously intended to be the character that garners the most laughs, this screeching, ebonics-flinging wannabe “gangsta” is one of the most infuriatingly insufferable realisations to hit a DVD player in quite some time. Thankfully, things get a little better when certain narrative developments readjust the character, but his initial involvement almost entirely ruins the first act of Stag Night of the Dead and may lead many a viewer to abandon it in the early stages… which is a shame as it gets much, much better than it first appears.
Visually, the film is alarmingly murky and blurry. Most of the external Zomball scenes appear to have been shot hastily with natural light, but the HD-Video cameras used leave even manually illuminated internal scenes looking barely a step up from VHS quality. As with many a low-budget indie, audio quality also varies wildly with some mumbled dialogue rendered incoherent or on the cusp of being drowned out by the score. This, too, manages to defeat some of the dialogue’s punchlines. The occasional CGI is predominantly awful and tacky looking, especially in the kind of explosive climax that is really best avoided with a budget this low. Still, there’s a decent amount of gut-munching, disembowelment and spraying gore, and the zombie make-up is surprisingly effective.
It most certainly stands as testament to Jones’ script here that even with all of these negatives taken into account, Stag Night of the Dead is well worth a watch for fans of comedic horror and good old shambling zombies. There’s an abundance of promise here and the distinct feeling of a director who did strive to make the best with the resources given. A ropey opening will soon be largely forgotten once the zombies are loose, and by the time the credits roll, it’s unlikely anyone will really regret spending some time at this party too much. Overall, though, it’s just slightly too rough around the edges to rise much further than average.
With the visual and sound issues already mentioned, the only thing left to cover on Left Films’ DVD release of Stag Night of the Dead are the special features, and they’ve really put some effort in here. First, we have a behind-the-scenes featurette with plenty of cast and crew chatter and a first-hand look at life on the set of a low-budget flick, followed by a time-lapse instruction video on creating your own zombie makeup with some grease paint and latex. A couple of deleted scenes follow (and it’s easy to see why they were excised), followed by some very funny outtakes. A stills gallery and trailer finish off that section of the disc before we hit an audio commentary with director Jones, actor Mike Busson (who plays the nefarious military villain “Number 48” in the movie) and credited “Zombie Wrangler” Raymond Brown. For anyone interested in making a start in feature films, this is a must-listen: a lively and engaging track filled with down-to-earth outlooks of the filmmaking business and plenty of eye-opening info on the trials of shooting with little time and few assets. For such a small, independent piece of work, you can’t ask for a much better package than this.
2 1/2 out of 5
4 out of 5