Dead Rising: Watchtower Review – Stretched Thin, But Not Broken

Video game movies are bundled with a mix of anticipation and anxiousness. It’s exciting to see a universe that we feel like we’ve been inside on the big screen, but it’s nerve wracking to think that the movie is going to be an utter mess. Being released exclusively on Crackle, the least of the popular streaming services, is not a confidence inducing start, but rest easy friends, Dead Rising has a lot going for it.

First of all, it’s useful to set some expectations. Dead Rising isn’t so much a zombie horror movie as a zombie adventure movie. For the most part the zombies never feel threatening enough to build an atmosphere of terror. With only three characters inside the quarantine zone there also isn’t enough of an ensemble to sacrifice to the undead hordes. There’s a reason most zombie movies have a larger group. You need some fodder for the audience to invest emotionally in before they become zombie chow.

Likewise the main characters are sympathetic and attractive enough but don’t have the chemistry to draw us in the way a smaller scale zombie movie might. To its credit Dead Rising seems to know this and pads out the plot rather than relying on atmosphere or terror to keep us entertained. A few scenes where zombies are easily shaken off or pushed away are a bit exasperating, and make the zombies feel a bit toothless, but the movie always manages to ramp things up so that they at least feel dangerous, if not actually terrifying. The plot padding ends up distracting from some of the quieter jokes and moments being thrown around. There’s too much going on for too long and points that I recall smiling at while I was watching have been forgotten. Some things that I remember consciously wanting to discuss in this review have been crushed by a load of unnecessary happenings.

Chase, the main character, is an internet journalist who used to work for a bigger network, with the usual nebulous itch to find a REAL story. When Zombrex, the zombie vaccine, stops working for some reason his camera woman, Jordan, escapes the quarantine zone, and he joins an anti-social woman in a leather jacket named Crystal, and a mother who’s recently killed her daughter with a pocket knife (Maggie) in a search for shelter and over the top combo weapons.
The group comes together with only a token amount of infighting. Maggie naturally takes on the role of nurturer. Crystal is out for herself and another dose of black market Zombrex.

Chase wants to uncover what’s really going on and get the story out to Jordan. The short group building sequence is handled subtly and quickly. On some level it feels a bit too easy, but it’s also nice to not deal with the histrionics and pointless shouting that a lot of shows and movies use to establish conflict. It keeps the atmosphere in the breezier environs of the adventure movie and out of the tension of a horror movie. Which works if you’re on board, but grates if you’re waiting for things to turn up to 11 shades of shit.

There’s also a roving gang of looting bikers, who’ve apparently resorted to Mad Max levels of cruelty and post-apocalyptic fashion, complete with face paint, in less than twenty-four hours. This highlights another bothersome aspect of Dead Rising. Two major plot points hinge on hard time restrictions and those time restrictions are never made real for the audience, even with an actual countdown timer on screen. As cliche as it is, there’s a reason the counter always stops at 1. There’s a reason you don’t set the fire bombing 48 hours out. Though things come down to the wire at the end there simply isn’t much punch to the looming deadline.

Even more disappointing is the way that the biker leader’s villain monologue is undercut by the apparent nonsense that he’s gone from cubicle drone to amoral biker badass in less than a day. There was so much potential there! He has a more articulate motivation than your average biker villain. The actor nails the proper level of madness, but were there ravening biker gangs before everything went to shit? Were these guys at a company lunch when they heard the call of the wild? They just spring up out of nowhere.

Most efforts at humor, in your face (the cuts back to Frank West in a news studio being terrible) and subtle (hiding a smartphone in a Wall Street Journal machine) land well. Most of the plot is cliche, and a bit overworked, but it’s thankfully short on empty yelling to build cheap tension and infuriatingly stupid plot points. It might lack the over the over-the-top moments of the Resident Evil or Die Hard franchises, but it easily surpasses the latest entries in both those series by not making me want to close my head in an automatic door out of exasperation. It also avoids the turgid emotionality defined by The Walking Dead. It’s robbed of some of some vital darkness, but it doesn’t make me want to scream at the screen on a regular basis either.

On a technical level the cinematography is well done. A long, single shot zombie fight comes off well and nothing ever looks cheap or poorly lit. Occasional cuts to Go-Pro style shots don’t always work, but even when they don’t aren’t worse than mildly distracting. Some of them are plenty effective. It’s a clear call out to the immersive video game format that sometimes distracts from the action we want to see in favor of a gimmick.

There are some really good gore moments from director and VFX artist Zach Lipovsky, (I interviewed him earlier this month.) one involving a zombie clown with a giant axe, another a father eating his child from out of a front pack. The run of the mill zombies don’t have the variation in injury and decomposition that a larger budget or smaller scale production might manage though.Some ambiguity of scale results from focus on certain small areas (just how big is the quarantine area?) it’s clear that the production focus was on creating spaces that looked convincing rather than grand. I’m sure the temptation to use cheap CGI was high, but keeping things practical saves the production from looking like a SyFy original.

Call outs to the video games are constant. Zombies get killed with literally anything at hand and a mad selection of duct taped combinations thereof. Chase wears a Servbot shirt for most of the movie and Frank West trophies are scattered throughout the background. Even mentions of weapons breaking are clear call outs to the game’s dynamics. At one point one of the bikers is even playing Dead Rising, with a wince inducing cut to the game over screen upon his death.

In the end it’s nice to be free of some of the headache inducing tropes of modern action movies and the constant shrieking that characterizes so many zombie films. Within that space there is time for some thoughtful, subtle moments, but those moments get lost in the two hour runtime and been there, done that plotting. The zombies get robbed of some of their threat level and don’t have it adequately replaced with anything else.The adventure oriented atmosphere is a welcome change, but not enough is done with the extra space. Some trimming and tightening might have robbed us of some video game worship, but probably would have netted us a more memorable movie experience.

Most people will probably find this forgettable, if entertaining, but I think it will find an enthusiastic, if moderately sized audience.

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