DVD Review: Horror Western KILL OR BE KILLED

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Texas-shot gore western KILL OR BE KILLED is a bloody blast.

If S. Craig Zahler’s indie gore western sleeper BONE TOMAHAWK was like the bastard offspring of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah (with a dose of Ruggero Deodato’s DNA swirling around in the inception cocktail), writer/directors Justin Meeks and Duane Graves’ (BUTCHER BOYS) indie oater KILL OR BE KILLED plays like the product of Sergio Corbucci and Lucio Fulci.

Corbucci, the director of the original 1966 cowboy carnage flick DJANGO, was the less restrained and refined version of Leone, a contemporary whose wave of violent “spaghetti westerns” weren’t as well known or revered as his more celebrated counterpart, but were just as interesting, just as compelling, albeit in rougher, weirder ways. And Fulci was Fulci, an auteur who didn’t respect the meaning of restraint and God bless him for that.

KILL OR BE KILLED isnn’t concerned about restraint either and one wishes distributor RLJ Entertainment (who also released BONE TOMAHAWK) had have kept the film’s original title, RED ON YELLA, KILL A FELLA, a wonderfully eccentric handle that perfectly exemplifies the wild-eyed level that Graves and Meeks are aiming for. The new moniker is rather generic and hopefully won’t dampen the movie’s destined cult appeal. This thing needs to be seen and embraced by the most deranged audience possible.

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In it, grease-ball outlaw Claude ‘Sweet Tooth’ Barbee (majestically played by Meeks) rounds up his hateful hangers-on (this gang of rural droogs are a truly vile lot) and hightails it to Texas (where the movie was shot on a shoestring) to search for buried gold. After a series of amusing and unique adventures (the film sort of  ambles along as a series of meandering, violent vignettes), including encountering a demented SOB (veteran actor Pepe Serna) who poisons travelers, cuts off their fingers for their gold rings, robs them blind and leaves them for dead, the horde descend on a god fearing family in a friendly household. A despicable crime occurs and the bandits flee the scene. But very soon, Barbee’s boys begin winding up dead, their eyes burned out and yellow, victims of a potentially supernatural force.

Like BONE TOMAHAWK, KILL OR BE KILLED begins as an authentic western, with splendid period costumes, dusty, guitar-driven cowboy rock propelling the action and peppered with colorful dialogue and delicious performances (though some of the supporting turns are spotty, Barbee’s gang are so damn good, you forgive the others any thespian trespasses). But then it starts to wind down into Hell, a dark spiral that skirts horror before becoming a fully-loaded genre piece. I mean, Michael-fucking-Berryman shows up as a sadistic doctor and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE’s Ed Neal also stars (Graves and Meeks were once students of TCM writer Kim Henkel and Henkel wrote BUTCHER BOYS, which also starred Neal and other TCM alumni).

The blood of horror’s history positively pounds through this film’s veins…

KILL OR BE KILLED was made for a low budget on some alarmingly authentic locations, as the brief making of documentary on the DVD’s back-end illustrates. It’s an immersive movie that betrays its shot-on-video origins with a real sense of cinema. Graves and Meeks understand what makes a western work and they allow nature to be just as vital a character in the film as the human cast. The movie is bloody too (though the occasional CGI squibs are a bit of a bummer), with a comic book cruelty that makes even the most despicable on-screen acts a joy to behold.

It’s all such a great big, brutal ball of fun…

KILL OR BE KILLED hits DVD on March 1st.

Find it.