Now available on DVD
Chris Kattan as Luke Budd
James Denton as Elmer Winslow
Navi Rawat as Sue
Matt Besser as Claypool
Chris Coppola as Cletus
Leslie Jordan as Padre
Directed by Glasgow Phillips
I sometimes pity the zombie. Few horror archetypes have been subjected to the kind of treatment dished out to the walking dead in recent years. Sure, there have been high times, moments at which flesh-eaters topped the terror totem pole, usually at the grace of talented vanguards like a Danny Boyle or an Edgar Wright; gents who recognized the untapped potential of the undead but maintained a certain level of cinematic respect for these rotting, reanimated corpses. Others, however, have in their approach to the zombie relegated these favored fiends to the most pathetic fringes of the genre with endeavors that would shame even Uwe Boll.
In the right hands, a zombie western about an ancient Apache curse that brings the dead back to life as gut-munchin’ ghouls could be the perfect platform for a satiric comment on the slaughter of Native Americans. In “Undead or Alive,” the directorial debut from “South Park” alumnus Glasgow Philips, it’s the set-up for a lame joke. A lot of lame jokes.
Rising from grave that is his post-SNL career, Chris Kattan turns in a typically grating performance as Luke, a hapless, witless, and recently loveless cowboy on the run from a crooked small-town sheriff (Matt Besser). Playing Sundance to Kattan’s Butch is James Denton, fresh from cleaning pipes on “Desperate Housewives” and here portraying Elmer, a drifter looking to disappear after deserting his Army post. Following a bar fight that lands the two in jail, Luke and Elmer form a reluctant partnership and seize their opportunity for escape. But in doing so the duo crosses Sheriff Claypool and his slovenly deputy (Chris Coppola, who did time for Heir Boll in “BloodRayne II: Deliverance”) and unknowingly incites a zombie outbreak planned ages ago by the apparently shamanic Geronimo as revenge on the white man for massacring his people in the move westward. Soon cowboys and soldiers alike are trading chewing tobacco for human flesh, and our heroes on horseback must solve a cryptic riddle with the help of Geronimo’s strapping niece Sue (Navi Rawat, the literal Heroine of “Feast” and its forthcoming sequel) to put the posse of the living dead underground for good.
With horror comedies â particularly zombie comedies â devouring a good chunk of the horror scene over the last few years, it was only a matter of time before the undead started crossing genre lines and turning up in odd places (they’ve already visited the hood, so space must be the next destination on their itinerary). Here director and co-writer Philips does an effective job of leading them into western territory, dusting off the familiar trappings of the genre and priming them for a clever twist. There’s enough whiskey-slugging, gun-toting machismo to satisfy any John Ford fan, all of it undercut by bad guys who won’t obey the bullets pumped into them. Even a shot to the head is no match for Geronimo’s curse.
But in tipping the film too far to the latter end of the horror-comedy scale, Philips serves these “Undead” their undoing. If “Shaun of the Dead” is the current era’s “Return of the Living Dead,” a successful dark comedy pierced by moments of fun, over-the-top fright, then “Undead or Alive” is its “Return of the Living Dead Part 2.” The pervading yucks and one-liners keep any scares far away, but leave no laughter in their wake â only tumbleweeds. The cast seems fully invested in all of the cartoonish nonsense, especially Kattan’s whiney, wiry cowboy schtick and a scenery-chomping turn by Besser as the vile sherrif, but some of the material they’re handed is bad enough to warrant a hangin’ â or at least a groan. At one point Kattan, suddenly beset by a horde of rotting Union soldiers, exclaims, “Geronimonsters!” â a line that’s clearly intended to draw big laughs but which hits the dirty ground harder than a dead horse.
The zombies themselves fare better, with Robert Kurtzman and his team performing makeup and visual effects duty. Each rotting mug gets plenty of face time, and the cameras don’t shy away from any of the cowboy carnage. Heads split, bullets rip, and the dead enjoy a number of juicy bites. The gore gags are not as plentiful as one might like or expect for a “zombedy,” but all are executed with splattery precision and give the film its only real perk â all the more impressive considering that cinematographer Thomas L. Callaway bathes most of the film in bright natural light, a palette that could rob weaker effects of their impact.
An inventive conclusion lends another brief bright spot to “Undead or Alive,” but it’s doubtful the film will leave much of a lasting impression once its sun finally sets. It’s an energetic, mildly entertaining ride, but one that ultimately leads nowhere.