Stars: Greg Bronson, Sandy Penny, Lee Whitestar, Mark Trombino, A Calion Maston, Paul Winters, Jarod Anderson, Jessica Winters, Jean Paul Turgeon, Sam Keller, Efrain Escudero and Mark Grossman
I enjoyed Cowboy Zombies, a new feature shot entirely on location in Arizona and California with a few recognisable local actors, but it has many flaws, perhaps the biggest being that it can't seem to decide what it is. Beyond the obvious horror western, it's at heart a drama and, in its imagination, a comedy, albeit one that doesn't trawl for laughs but merely smiles if we do. However, for a story that so often seems to be carefully building a long complex joke, it refuses to give us a punchline. The feel is mostly old fashioned, as if this was a thirties movie given a colorisation treatment, and Clem, the dim witted deputy sheriff, is an acutely interactive character, reminiscent of the sidekicks kids used to shout at in Saturday morning matinees. The zombies are old fashioned too, slow moving snarly creatures, but the effects work is more modern and bloody. Paul Winters, who directed and co-wrote with the acclaimed cartoonist, Gahan Wilson, calls it a 'popcorn kind of movie' but that's about as definitive as this gets.
It starts out emphatically as a western, with lazy music to accompany Marshal Frank Wilcox riding his horse through the Arizona desert. Winters played this character himself, so it's perhaps appropriate for him to dominate the first couple of scenes, especially as there really aren't any lead characters in this ensemble picture. He keeps quiet for most of it, letting others do their thing, but the scene as he steps out from behind a cactus to walk slowly towards the camera, while the score frantically tries to build a semblance of suspense, is woefully overdone. It played to me like a silent movie and I expected a train to come hurtling onto screen with Buster Keaton on board to scoop him up out of harm's way, but no, he's just moseying up quietly to his prey, a trio of outlaws camping in the desert. He leaves two dead and one wounded, to face justice in Tucson, just as you might expect from a western. Back in town, to which we quickly cut, everything else fits that mindset too, until an absolutely glorious shake up.
There are some truly magic moments in Cowboy Zombies, though there are as many head scratching ones as consistency is not the film's strongest suit. My favourite magic moment is the very first scene in the tiny frontier town of Crumpit. The townsfolk are all ready for a hanging, with two rustlers strung up outside the Double Peach Saloon. The first dies with no last words but the other pleads for a sign from the Lord, which arrives not in his freedom but in the form of a zombie apocalypse, his partner in crime returning from beyond the veil to dangle helplessly at the end of his noose, surely a sadistic fate for a zombie. I am stunned that over the last decade of unending zombie movies, I've never seen this before. I absolutely adored this performance from Henry Ibarra, as he floundered around like a rabid chihuahua piñata, barking in frustration at his unexpected lot, constantly reaching in vain for a treat he'll probably never get. Every time he reappeared, I wanted to cheer.
Somewhat inevitably in this schizophrenic picture, one of the best moments is accompanied by one of the worst. The zombie apocalypse arrives in Crumpit in the form of a wind effect, which neatly avoids any need for an effects budget and is vague enough to only be hinted at as the film runs on. Perhaps it's appropriate that these frontier townsfolk haven't a clue what causes this world changing event but it feels like a copout for us to miss out on an explanation too. Most annoying is that various characters ask the same question every once in a while, if only to remind us that nobody has an answer. 'Why is this happening?' asks Rose Ann. Why indeed. We have no idea. Another pair of contrasts comes as the dead start to return. In a priceless moment of humour, dim witted deputy Clem manages to shoot the sheriff, but we're then treated to a weird loop where a host of characters die, return as zombies, only to be killed again, all accompanied by the same pantomime: 'He's dead!' 'No, he's not!' 'He is now.'
And, of course, here's where the joke comes in. Initially, it takes the form of, 'a preacher, a sheriff and a midget walk into a bar...' and then builds as we're introduced to characters. Before long, it seems as if we have a character of every ethnicity, minority or social background filling up the Double Peach, as if the zombie apocalypse has caused a dozen of these jokes to collide in the only bar in town, all of them apparently in search of the punchline, which unfortunately never arrives. Every time somebody new arrives in Crumpit, two things happen: that potential joke gets bigger and the bar gets more crowded. Early on, once the initial zombies have been cleared, there are only six characters sharing the frame, so it isn't particularly crowded, but the camera and actors are mostly static. As six expands to nine, eleven and thirteen, so does the complexity of the composition of frame, which is done very carefully indeed, so that we can still see everyone without even straining.
Like the mysterious apocalypse rapture thingamajig, this is surely a result of the lack of budget, but it rankles nonetheless, only to feel justified in the context. At least the budget does appear to be larger than the average local indie movie, perhaps in large part because of the authenticity of the sets. The lack of character motion within the Double Peach is often frustrating, these scenes reminiscent of the early thirties when microphones were bulky creatures carefully secreted behind pillars and props and actors couldn't move an inch without their voices vanishing into the background. Yet, for a completely different reason, this ends up easy to rationalise. Outside there's all the space in the world, if you can take down the zombies shuffling around the Crumpit streets; inside, the survival space becomes more and more claustrophobic. I can think of worse places to hole up during a zombie apocalypse and the various clear hints that this is a 19th century Dawn of the Dead don't stop there.
With the town looking great and the costumes following suit, the budgetary constraints become most apparent with the acting. Certainly I've seen a lot worse and a few of the actors do a solid job, but it's clear which of them are starting out and which have experience under their belts. Greg Bronson, the easily recognisable bearded presence in what often seems like every locally made student short, gets a peach of a role for a change as the preacher. Certainly he looks amazing in a black outfit that would work just as well for an undertaker. If this ensemble picture had a lead, it would be him. He gets more dialogue than anyone else and he drives much of the story forward, as both the preacher and the doc, but the script stretches his character a little far on occasion. Surely he's a particularly forward looking preacher for the old west, more of a Dr Frankenstein at points with his ruminations on science and its possibilities for the future. Still, it's good to see him not playing the usual homeless guy.
There are so many other characters that they're spread inevitably thin. Lee Whitestar maintains a firm presence as a stoic Indian warrior chief, but he gets precious little to do and he remains appropriately silent while doing it. Having kicked off the film, Winters plays the rest of it relatively quiet as the tough but fair marshal. A Calion Maston gets a few moments as an army sergeant picked up on the road, as does Sandy Penny as the black clad proprietress of the Double Peach, but those moments are either too infrequent or not consistent enough to resonate far. In the end, it's Mark Trombino, last seen in the unrelated 2009 short, Cowboy Dreams, who gets closest to stealing the show, as Jasper the diminutive barkeep with his sassy attitude and his delightfully evil eye. He gets the most motion in the bar, partly because he doesn't obstruct our view of anyone else as he does so. He makes for a memorable double act with the obnoxious marshal's convict, George Rivers, played capably by Jarod Anderson.
It's good to see a local film playing a full week at a single screen theatre, as Cowboy Zombies is doing at the Harkins Valley Art in Tempe. I'd like to praise it more, because there was much I liked and a few things that I loved about it; Winters promised 'lots of action and good stuff' and he delivered on that, but there's a negative point to counter every positive one. For each well choreographed turkey shoot of zombies, there's a slow and static scene indoors. For each running gag Jasper dishes out to Rivers, there's a strange character choice. For every well composed theme in a solid score, it's stuck backing people doing nothing but walking for far too long. And for every new character who shows up to be integrated into the wider story in decent fashion, there's a disappointing ending. Beyond not getting the punchline we expect, we don't get anything to go home with; even the characters are puzzled as the credits roll. At least I wanted more, which tells me that the balance is to the good side. Only just.