Starring Gary Ugarek, Brian Wright, Michelle Wright, Connor Brandt, Dave Cooperman
Written/Directed by Gary Ugarek
Distributed by WetnWildRadio Films
A lot of film industry people who go on to be big names both behind and in front of the camera make their starts in horror movies. For first time writers, producers and directors, there are usually practical reasons for their initial forays into our favorite genre… It’s cheap and easy to make a decent low budget horror movie. Or at least that’s the perception. For first time writer/director/editor/composer/star Gary Ugarek, he found out that perception and reality can often be very different.
Deadlands: The Rising tells a familiar story of a scattered group of people trying desperately to survive after a post-apocalyptic event that somehow managed to reanimate the dead with a hunger for human flesh. Gary and his partner in crime, producer and co-star Brian Wright, haven’t reinvented the wheel here… what they have managed to do is produce a fairly solid, if sometimes uneven, film that is a testament to their passion and drive and a lesson in guerilla filmmaking.
The film begins as Gary arrives at Brian’s house to pick him up, and we’re introduced to Brian’s wife Michelle (played by Brian’s real life wife) and their son Connor (played by producer Lisa Brandt’s son), and quickly learn that some unknown phenomenon has wiped out all the phones (landlines only) and TV. Gary and Brian aren’t worried though, they head out into the country for a fun day of drinking and shooting at things, leaving Michelle and Connor to hang out with Connor’s friend Layne (played by Brian and Michelle’s real life son). It’s during this day of all American fun that something happens… what it is exactly is never 100% clear, but it seems to be some sort of terrorist attack on multiple cities.
This is where the story fragments and the movie begins to become somewhat uneven. As night begins to fall, and the zombies begin to come out in full force (in fact, they seem to travel in packs) Michelle decides to take Connor and go look for her husband. At the same time, Gary and Brian are trying to get back to her and Connor… but they have to take alternate routes, since people trying to flee the city are causing horrendous traffic jams. These two pieces work quite well together, and even the side story of what happens to the people in the traffic jams fits fairly well, as Gary and Brian have to travel through them.
However, the mini-story of Dave, one of the men from the traffic jam who we then follow to one of the ‘emergency shelters’ that FEMA and Homeland Security have set up in the wake of the attacks, just feels… out of place. Maybe if it had somehow tied in to the other characters, it wouldn’t have felt so out of place. The mini-story itself was interesting, had some good gore, and Dave Cooperman acted the role well… but it felt like a piece to another puzzle. This was my biggest pet peeve with the film, and the only thing that really rankled. Once we’re back with our core group, things are better again though. I won’t go into the details of the story much more, because I don’t want to give everything away. But don’t expect any huge surprises. Like I said, this isn’t a reinvention of the genre. It’s just a good story, though not without its flaws, done by people who are obviously fans and wanted to do what they always watched, and have a good time.
I mentioned that Dave Cooperman acted the role well. In fact, for a no budget feature like Deadlands with roles filled by mostly inexperienced actors, the performances were all decent, some better than decent. The look of the film is sometimes rough, there’s some choppy editing in the very beginning, but overall it’s amazingly polished. Especially considering that the producers spent about $5000 on cameras and equipment and another $10000 or so on everything else, filmed over 14 months (on weekends, so that everyone could work their regular 9-5 jobs), and had really never done a feature film before or gone to film school. True, occasionally there’s some shaky shots, or stumbled over lines, but no egregious mistakes – and there’s some good stuff that does momentarily elevate it above just another zombie movie.
For one, there’s what I’ll call ‘the conversation’ between Gary and Brian near the end of the film…. It’s a moment between the two friends that’s very genuine, intense, and interesting… and makes the final note of the movie a little dark in a way too. Oh, and while we’re talking about the final note of the movie… I think it’s important to mention that Gary and crew are in pre-production now for Deadlands 2: The New World. Some people might thing mentioning that is a spoiler of sorts, but until I learned that, I felt the ending was a sort of abrupt… now it just seems like a To Be Continued. The cinematography, from DP Thomas Fant (and occasionally director Ugarek), is pretty high budget with some very lovely shots (my favorites were the traffic jam scenes). The makeup is impressive as well. Zombies are zombies, but my favorite is the Throat Ripping Zombie. I forget the actor’s name, he’s only briefly on screen, but damn does he sell that role, and his makeup is very cool.
Since this is a DVD (available online at Gary’s site), we need to talk features. Since Gary and Brian’s company Wetnwildradio Films is releasing this one on their own, and the film itself was produced on their own, the extras are of course pretty slim. We’ve got a trailer, a brief interview with producer Brian Wright, and a commentary with director/everything Gary Ugarek. Now, normally extras are not my thing… I watch and/or listen to them on DVD only if I have to for reviews. On DVD’s I own, I rarely if ever do, unless it’s a movie I really, really loved. Well, I have to say that I am glad this movie is one I watched for a review. The commentary, which can be a hit or miss kind of thing, is in this case definitely a hit. Speaking from his multiple roles, Gary manages to make the commentary part anecdotal, part cautionary tale and part tutorial. It’s fascinating from a filmmaking standpoint, listening to how budget restrictions forced Gary to take his original script and completely rewrite it, and interesting from a horror fan perspective, hearing how much fun he had despite everything, as well. I enjoyed it immensely, and enjoyed the movie more for having listened to it.
Overall, Deadlands: The Rising is a decent entry in the zombie subgenre, using some tried and true story constructs, with some new window dressing. If you’re a fan of zombie movies, then you’ll probably enjoy it. And if you’re thinking about making a film, you’ll enjoy the commentary. Honestly, Deadlands legs are shaky, but it’s got legs, and it was enough to get me interested in seeing what Gary and Brian can do with more money and more experience under their belts.
3 ½ out of 5