Army of the Dead (DVD)
Reviewed by The Foywonder
Starring Ross Kelly, Stephanie Marchese, Miguel Martinez, Mike Hatfield, Audrey Anderson, Vic Browder, Jocelyn Tucker
Directed by Joseph Contegiacomo
Distributed by Maverick Entertainment Group
Given the glut of zombie movies out there I think we're long overdue for a fright flick about killer skeletons that rise from their graves. I'm talking about skeleton warriors of the Army of Darkness/Jason and The Argonauts variety; the kind that are battle ready in addition to being the calcified undead. In the case of Army of the Dead, we're talking about the skeletons of cursed conquistadors whose boney remains are doomed to forever guard the very gold the coveted and kill all that seek it out. Where's Ash when you need him?
An opening graphic informs us that Spanish conquistador Coronado sent a small contingency of conquistadors to find the lost golden city of El Dorado. This led to the conquistadors completely eradicating the Anasazi tribe (the infamous lost Indian tribe that's mysterious vanishing from the face of the earth hundreds of years ago has inspired countless genre film plots) for their gold, thus wiping them out and any trace of their existence. But as a professor character will tell, an Anasazi high priest cursed the very gold they coveted and, as the film itself shows in the opening prologue, a gruesome skeletal death came for those conquistadors; they too then became doomed to rise again as cursed skeleton guardians of the gold.
Jump forward to present day where lovebirds John and Amy are headed off to the Baja desert. It's his birthday and she's surprising him with the desert racing excursion he's always wanted to go on. They're joined on this journey by several others, such as the guy running the racing tour who isn't too fond of these no-nothing city slickers coming out to his desert to get their jollies and a young brunette with designs on stealing John from Amy. That brunette's scheming will lead to some shrill lover's quarreling between John and Amy. He once cheated on her and she still has some unresolved trust issues.
More importantly, there's someone on the trip with an agenda that does not involve high speed desert dirt racing. Professor Vasquez, played by an actor who does not look like someone who's last name would be "Vasquez", is actually using the desert racing holiday as a cover for his personal scheme to find that lost gold, a scheme that will also include a trio of paid mercenaries he's hired to assist him. Not sure why he really needed his own private commandos other than a paltry explanation that the Mexican government would severely punish anyone doing what they're doing, especially since the professor has pinpointed the location of the "Cave of Souls" containing the gold to be on the grounds of a Mexican military artillery range.
Forget needing protection from the Mexican authorities; no sooner do they find the gold than those very soldiers-of-fortune the professor hired double-cross him with plans to hoard all the gold for themselves. They might have gotten away with it too if it hadn't been for those pesky cursed conquistadors and their eternal fleshless damnation. Somehow they overlooked killing the professor, allotting him to go sufficiently mad and lead the marching skeletal horde right back to where the other racers are camped out for the night. The rest of the movie is them just trying to survive the night.
If ever there was a case of me wanting to like a movie more than I actually did, it would be Army of the Dead. We'll see special effects shots of marching skeletal conquistadors advancing on the innocent motorists yet they marched and marched without ever actually getting to them. We're shown a whole legion approaching and yet only a few individual stragglers will ever actually physically engage the racers. This is obviously due to the film's very limited budget, but in a way it sort of encapsulates why the movie never seemed to gain any real traction. To use a car analogy, the whole movie felt stuck in neutral.
It's easy to ascertain why the film never quite clicks. The characters are extremely pedestrian and when there aren't skeletons on screen attacking - skeleton action doesn't even fully kick into gear until about the 50-minute mark - the film is as dry as the desert it's set in. Because the plot is so routine and is populated by such boring characters that rarely say or do anything worthwhile, the whole production ends up saddled with an air of lethargy hanging over it. It's never outright boring but the energy level just isn't there despite things picking up once the skeletons go on the offensive.
That's not to say the film doesn't have its positives. The computer generated skeletons are sufficiently ghastly looking and seeing them launching a barrage of flaming arrows or getting their boney hands on a shotgun and blasting away is pretty nifty. Despite a few iffy effects shots here and there, the CGI skeletons look really good, especially those that just have just shed their skin and are still dripping blood red.
Surprisingly, the worst effects shots are the gore effects, much of which are done with CGI rather than by conventional make-up. CGI blood will pour unnaturally out of victims that get gutted with swords looking more like someone just punctured a squeeze bottle full of ketchup. It just doesn't look right. Neither do most of the film's explosions, also just CGI fireball effects covering up whatever it is that supposedly blew up. It struck me as sort of odd that the makers of the movie could or would go out of their way to do such a good job bringing the skeletons to life using motion capture technology only to turn around and use less than convincing computer effects for stuff that could have been accomplished using more practical means. Ah, well; I suspect this was another fault of the obviously meager budget.
One last thing, as appreciative as I am of their doing so, the screener of Army of the Dead that Maverick Entertainment provided me with had a humongous "PROPERTY OF MAVERICK ENTERTAINMENT GROUP" watermark splashed across the top third of the picture that never went away and became bolder during night scenes. I fully understand why Maverick Entertainment would do this in this day and age of internet piracy run amok, but it doesn't change the fact that I'm still being expected to review a movie in which one third of the screen is permanently obscured with text, even if that text is mostly transparent. I know it's not fair to penalize the movie because of the means by which the distributor went about trying to protect its intellectual property from online theft, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a constant annoyance that impacted my enjoyment of the movie itself just a little.
2 out of 5