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Them Damn Zombies   D-

Stone Dead Films

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Andy Koontz
Writer: Andy Koontz
Cast: Chris Koontz, Amy Renner, Reagan Walters, Douglas Stanley, Kevin Phillips, Randy Bowden, Amie Corbin, Scott Phillips.

Review by Eric Beltmann

For amateur film directors looking to sink a few teeth into the veins of Hollywood, blood is a godsend. Or more specifically, geysers of red that squirt with bright, icky-sticky opulence. The industry is stuffed with professionals who first earned attention by aggressively ripping apart limbs in brash calling cards, including Peter Jackson, who was Oscar-nominated last year for a small film based on a Tolkien novel. Jackson's camcorder-shot Bad Taste is a cult favorite, and his Dead Alive serves as an inspired template for low-budget exploitation. Still, the horror genre is littered with the corpses of "hack" artists less gifted than Jackson. They construct mere ghosts of earlier, better films, which is the case with Them Damn Zombies, a very low-budget horror film from Andy Koontz of Stone Dead Films.

Koontz pilfers his cardboard story directly from Night of the Living Dead, Romero's 1968 classic. Both feature flesh-eating zombies assaulting a young cast holed up in a tiny building, and both linger upon closeups of meat ripping from bone. Set in the rural town of Beaverfalls, the story opens with a hick named Cleatus treading into a bloody puddle that was once his loyal dog. Soon Beaverfalls is overrun with zombies, and a local news reporter is traveling deep into the woods with gun-toting yokel Red Talbot. (Horror fans will identify the allusion to The Wolf Man.) Of course, there's also a trio of girls whose presence ignites the libidos of several rednecks, suggesting the backwoods sexual menace of Boorman's Deliverance.

Unlike Romero or Boorman, though, Koontz never engages with his material. Dramatizing fear is key to generating horror, but Koontz downplays the heebie-jeebies in favor of inconsequential flesh-ripping. Worse, his passive gore fails to advance upon countless other zombie flicks -- Romero himself achieved a greater sense of dread, and fun, nearly 35 years ago -- because it feels strictly obligatory, not rooted in atmosphere, character, or story. This lack of invention also maroons the plot, which evaporates shortly after the setup is finalized. Mounting tensions (sexual, personal, violent) are weakly introduced and then discarded: After the cast is stranded in the woods, a few of them are rapidly mutilated, the girls briefly slice up a few zombies, and then the end credits abruptly roll. Koontz seems to be aiming for something crude and fast, a bleeder so swift that it can't be bothered to reach a payoff. The result is a rhythmless tale that exists only in the abstract, not in the imagination.

I can overlook the movie's atrocious audio synchronization (all dialogue was dubbed in post-production, like a Hong Kong or old Italian picture) and atrocious lighting (some scenes are blindingly bright, while others render the characters into silhouettes), because these flaws are likely related to budgetary concerns. Less forgivable is Koontz's deficient resourcefulness in the face of such limitations. It doesn't require dollars to have ideas, and there's not a fresh concept anywhere in Them Damn Zombies, which might explain its spare running length of 28 minutes.

Clearly, though, Koontz and his crew had a blast re-creating such common images, which reminds me again of Dead Alive. Paced like a silent slapstick comedy, the bloodletting of Jackson's ode to flying flesh is priceless, an unspeakable merging of Savini and Keaton. What Jackson understood is that the backbone of gore is humor, which is something Koontz, to his credit, also seems to grasp. (The movie's poster promises a "gory, goofy good time.")

Unfortunately, what amuses Koontz isn't what amuses me. The grammatically challenged title mirrors the lazy comic sensibility of Koontz, since Them Damn Zombies revels in stupid redneck stereotypes (including numerous jokes about sex with sheep that might fly with a junior-high audience). I'm uncertain whether naming your characters Cleatus, Red, and Billy qualifies as wit, but I'm quite positive that allowing your actors to assume thick redneck accents is the exact opposite of wit. Koontz may have gleaned these lame caricatures from Deliverance, but he completely missed that film's true lessons for amateur horror directors, which is how to build a nuanced, developing sense of panic, and how to exploit a location for its inherent alarms. Them Damn Zombies is essentially a home movie, providing great fun as long as you're a member of the cast.

Them Damn Zombies can be purchased at www.horroronfilm.com. Your $10 will buy a widescreen edition of the film on VHS. As a bonus, the video contains Andy Koontz's eight-minute film Zombie Dawn, which boasts a character barfing directly at the lens. If that's your idea of daring or fun, you might enjoy the organ-chomping imagery. I found it an incoherent jumble, so dimly lit that I could barely follow the zombies as they attack a crew of soldiers. Most of the light is provided by gunfire blasts, producing a derivative strobe effect that goes on far too long.

Koontz is planning a feature-length production called The Book, and I'm rooting for him to improve upon his earlier efforts. He understands the mechanics of style -- now it's time to rise above style and achieve something of original substance.

Review published 08.07.2002.

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