Dead Air (2009)
Reviewed by Gareth Jones
Starring Bill Moseley, Corbin Bernsen, David Moscow, Patricia Tallman, Lakshmi Manchu
Directed by Corbin Bernsen
Genre favourite Bill Moseley heads up the cast in one of the newest entries to the zombie apocalypse DVD stable, Corbin Bernsen’s unfortunate Dead Air.
Shades of Pontypool are inevitably present in this tale of late-night airwave jockey Logan (Moseley) finding himself and crew Gil (David Moscow), Burt (Joshua Feinman), and Lucy (Patricia Tallman) caught in the middle of a terrorist attack on America; an attack involving dirty bombs planted at major sporting events and convention centers, turning everyone within blast radius into a contagious, bleeding-eyed, sprinting, flesh-tearing maniac. While our protagonists continue to feed information to listeners and callers, they get a ground-zero view of the chaos unfolding as they attempt to figure out exactly what is happening and whether they or their loved ones are safe.
While the plot outline itself invites excitement at the possibility of an involving, personal, yet brimming with zombie goodness, good time, the delivery crumbles at almost every turn. The biggest flaws of Dead Air are the visuals – it’s an incredibly flat, almost TV-movie-like experience in sedation. Even the chase/escape scenes (as mentioned, the zombies/maniacs here are sprinters), bar one, lack any kind of suspense or sense of threat as the blocking, editing, and plain sub-par score all come together to foil the possibility of even a modicum of real horror.
The zombies/maniacs themselves lack any scare appeal, too, looking more like a bunch of random passers-by pulled off the street, a bit of stage blood rubbed under their eyes, and shoved in front of the camera to mouth like angry grounded guppies and slap against glass. The lack of any explicit violence lessens their impact immeasurably as they repeatedly pile on top of victims and flaccidly slap their arms and claw at them until the film decides to cut away. Dead Air, save a couple of scenes in the final act, is almost completely bereft of any mutilation or strong violence – seriously, with a few small edits to stronger moments and language, this could easily be shown as a daytime television thriller. There are a few minor moments of horror to be found during the runtime, but they’re incredibly scarce. A scene involving Logan receiving a running commentary from the ground by an unfortunate victim-to-be is relatively exciting but pales in comparison to the blood-freezing delivery of Pontypool’s similar scenes.
The script itself starts off strongly with some nicely crafted dialogue and ideas but rapidly begins to fall apart once the chaos kicks off. The opening reveal of our terrorist antagonists being a trio of Middle Eastern Muslim types accurately draws your attention to the cliché, but of course it’s obvious that the film will attempt to redeem this with a groan-worthy third act twist – and that it does, as it tries to drive home the central themes of paranoia-led mob mentality and xenophobia. If it weren’t for the awful sound mixing in places, it perhaps would have been easier to get the complete point; however, our main villain’s final voiceover finds itself swamped by the suddenly overwhelming soundtrack to the point of being almost incomprehensible.
Now, there is some good about Dead Air – the cast. While the majority of the supporting cast are instantly forgettable (even the head terrorist is banal) and the zombies/maniacs laughable, our core protagonists deliver in spades, especially Moscow and Moseley. While Bernsen’s visuals let the film down, it’s more than obvious that he’s primarily an actor himself and knows how to get the best out of the craft. This should, in fact, be renamed The Bill Moseley Show: The One With Zombie Maniacs considering just how effortlessly he steals every scene. From his initial ribbing, and outright insulting, of callers to the show (the theme of which is paranoia) and realisation that something is actually very, very wrong, through to his struggle between remaining a contact point for the populace and ensuring his wife and daughter are safe, Moseley proves just how commanding and authentic a presence he can be when he has his heart set in a role. Larry Drake deserves more than special mention for his voice-only involvement as regular caller Vernon, sharing quite possibly the most effective and emotional scene of the entire film with Moseley.
Dead Air has a message to give, and while it doesn’t mash your head to a pulp with it, it doesn’t deliver it succinctly or skillfully either. While violence and gore are far from the point of the flick, it would have been nice if what was there had any impact at all. A balance between delivering a relevant point and shocking/scaring the audience is what Dead Air sorely needs, but unfortunately lacks. There’s the nugget of a genuinely good piece of modern horror at the core here, but the failings of almost everything encasing it ensured that if it weren’t for the captivating effort of Moseley, it may have proven perhaps a little too difficult to make it the whole way through the runtime.
2 out of 5
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