Shadow: Dead Riot (2005)

Starring Tony Todd, Carla Greene, Nina Hodoruk, Andrea Langi

Directed by Derek Wan

Being too young and not having grown up in New York City, I missed out on the whole Time Square, 42nd Street grindhouse cinema thing. Whenever I’m in New York, I try to imagine what it must have been like, but I usually end up getting distracted trying to dodge all the baby strollers and kids with Mickey Mouse balloons. There’s been a glut of recent films that have heralded their grindhouse origins, but I find the majority of these movies too slick and overproduced. I’ve yearned for a movie that could make me believe it was truly a product of the early 80’s exploitation scene. Fortunately, the folks behind Shadow: Dead Riot have come up with a sleazy, badly acted, shitty looking chunkblower that satisfies a nostalgia for never-experienced grindhouse delights.

I need to temper this glowing praise with a dose of reality. Dead Riot is not a “good” film in any conventional sense. The pacing is pretty wonky, the acting campy, and the visuals, while filmed in HD, appear decidedly video-ish (to be fair, I saw a Beta master, so it may look better on film). While many flicks of this ilk like to use the exploitation moniker to hide their ineptitude, Dead Riot seems to intentionally revel in its cheesier elements. It takes a lot of balls to intentionally make a “bad movie”, and while I don’t think all the camp elements in Dead Riot are intended, most probably are. The film forces one to judge it according to the grindhouse rules it’s playing by, and when seen from this vantage point, it succeeds quite admirably.

Dead Riot is smartly constructed in two parts. The first act consists of a wickedly sleazy women’s prison story, in which we follow the introduction of a new inmate named Solitaire. Like in any good jailhouse movie, Solitaire must rise through the inmate ranks, proving her pedigree by kicking ass, standing up to the warden, and taking many, many showers. Only once the women’s prison story has been bled dry of boobs, catfights, and lesbian sex does Dead Riot kick into overdrive.

This is where Dead Riot shows it’s smarter than your average B-movie. Most one-note exploitation flicks lose steam by the end because they focus more on shocking the audience than telling a story. Dead Riot avoids this pitfall by re-animating a hundred years worth of death row inmates, right at the moment that the women’s prison angle starts to lose its appeal. The second half of Dead Riot is straight up zombie carnage.

The fight scenes, of which there are many, deserve special mention for their quality. Director Derek Wan, who was the cinematographer on Jet Li’s Fist of Legend, shows that he knows how to stage and shoot a shitkicker. Instead of the usual hair pulling and nail scratching, Dead Riot succeeds in depicting some seriously brutal inmate-style Kung-Fu. Comparing Dead Riot to Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky is apt, both in terms of the prison elements and the over the top fight choreography. Heads are kicked off, hearts are ripped out, dismembered limbs are used as nunchakas, and more.

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t yet mentioned the title character Shadow, played by Tony Todd of Candyman fame. It’s apparent that Shadow is an attempt at creating a budget horror icon ala Candyman, and they might have succeeded if not for a single, small detail. The wig. I don’t know where they dug up this low rent Whoopi Goldberg piece of shit, but it pretty much ruins the whole character. Last I checked, Bob Marley never hurt anybody. Say it five times: Candymon, Candymon, Candymon…

That said, Shadow doesn’t have that much screen time anyway. The stars of the show are the naughty naked ladies and the rotting corpses that want to eat them. Save yourself some time watching that Caged Heat/Zombie double feature you were planning, and just check out Dead Riot instead.

3 1/2 out of 5

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Jon Condit