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First Look Review - The Burning Dead

Residents of a small town must deal with an erupting volcano, and a horde of flaming zombies.


Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Rene Perez

Starring: Danny Trejo, Thomas Downey, Moniqua Plante, Nicole Cummins


If there’s one thing worse than being caught in a small town under threat from a freak volcano explosion, it’s being caught in a small town under threat from a freak volcano explosion whilst burning zombies maraud the area, making escape all but impossible. Such is the misfortune that befalls the fractured family unit of mum Mindy (Moniqua Plante), daughter Nicole (Nicole Cummins) and Nicole’s boyf Ryan (Kevin Norman), as The Burning Dead sees them scramble through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, searching for Mindy’s estranged and grumpy old dad Ben (Robert F. Lyons), all the while hot footing it from the lava and living dead. Can our intrepid heroes avoid the smouldering zombies, the falling comets, the encroaching lava? Could they solve the curse of the infamous Donner Pass? More importantly, will they be able to stop bickering and put aside their differences for just one day?
Let’s make no bones about it, in an objective sense, The Burning Dead is awful. To say the effects are unconvincing is an understatement. A Microsoft Paint volcano boils and bubbles in the distance, but the roads are suspiciously empty of evacuating town folk; the family drive at low speed away from the most unconvincing lava ever committed to screen, to then watch their jeep simply fade out into a transparent peach wash of flame. Characters scream in agony when the flaming zombies grip at their arms, even though not even a scorch mark is left on them. The plot is similarly silly; the film reaches its nadir when, apropos of nothing, the story simply stops so an attractive and curvaceous blogger can take the opportunity to snap a few topless pics of herself as the volcano erupts in the distance (paging Dr. Freud) for her website. Gratuitous isn’t the word.
However.
Despite all of this, or perhaps because of it, I couldn’t help but enjoy The Burning Dead. It’s as daft and shambling as the zombies it depicts, and just as entertaining. The family relations are so soapy and dopey that when violent deaths do eventually occur they are actually quite jarring. With a little mental reframing, The Burning Dead is great fun: imagine you are watching a run of the mill television movie about a soccer mom getting over her daddy issues by dating the local sheriff…but then zombies come to cause gory mischief, romping across the familiar melodrama and eating the stock characters as if they were nothing more than half fried quarter pounders (the sub Hallmark acting and soap opera lighting would support this). And, in fairness, there are other, more genuine, pleasures on offer too, such as a pair of mismatched ‘Volcanologists’ (Kyle T. Heffner, earnest and old, Julia Lehman, funny and cute) whose odd chemistry provides a comic relief. The charred look of the zombies is striking, and, as said, I found the brutality and indiscriminate nature of the kills surprising. Finally, you get vintage genre dialogue throughout, such as a harassed cop brilliantly barking ‘the director of FEMA is riding my ass!’ It’s hard not to be won over by a film boiling over with so much energy, however misguided and random that verve may be.
The zombie film has much in common with the disaster genre; ragtag survivors banding together, fighting back against insurmountable odds, a rising sense of dread within a hostile environment. The explicit merging of the two genres in The Burning Dead is a good idea, and, although regretfully, the film’s ambition goes down in flames, at least it had a flicker to being with. An odd framing device bookends the film, wherein we witness Danny Trejo (an actor who has become less a man, more a special effect, a purely cinematic entity wandering ghost-like through countless indie flicks), playing a Cherokee who is ostensibly ‘telling’ the story of the film to a group of campers: but what sort of campfire tale involves an old man with an ipod and a sub plot involving family photographs? This foible is typical of The Burning Dead; utterly ridiculous, but still somehow charming in its well-meaning, ramshackle nature. I’m not exactly sure if I was laughing along with this harmless and fun film, but I do know that it made me laugh. While it’s more damp squib than firework, The Burning Dead still has some spark.




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