Starring: Christine Egan, Jim Townsend, Natalia Jablokov, Kerry Kearns, Watt Smith, John D. Kelly, H. Lynne Smith, and Wyatt Gunter
Director: Jim Townsend
Rating: Five of Ten Stars
A string of bad growing seasons might cause Dionne and Joe (Egan and Townsend) to lose the vineyard and winery she inherited from her father, so Dionne turns to her mother (Smith), a practicing witch, for help. Together, they cast a spell that causes the grapes to grow like never before... but there is one big problem: The plants are sentient and thirsty for the blood of anyone who drinks wine made from the vineyard's grapes.
"Attack of the Vegan Zombies!" is one of those films I wish I liked more than I do. It has a lot going for it... a cast that's generally more talented than what I often see in films at this budgetary level, and a writer/director who seems to actually haven taken his script through more than a single draft, because the dialogue actually seems polished (although I got the sense that maybe a little more research into wine-making might have been needed). Also, as an idea for a low-key "Shaun of the Dead"-type horror spoof, this is a great one.
Townsend also clearly has a firm command of the technical aspects of filmmaking. The scenes are well-framed and well-lit, the edits and establishing shots always dead-on, the sound always clear and well-balanced, be it dialogue or sound effects. On a technical level, this film stands heads-and-shoulders above the vast majority of is low-budget, direct-to-DVD kin.
But as much as I want to like it, the weaknesses present here are so strong that they really get in the way of my overall enjoyment of the film.
The most glaring and persistent of these weaknesses are the characters portrayed by Watt Smith and John D. Kelly. These are a pair of uber-nerds that are played with such over-the-top gusto and caricature that they are out of step with the more realistic performances around them, making their characters irritating on the level of the comic relief characters that were shoehorned into the majority of horror films from the 1930s and 1940s. However, the aren't quite as bad as the majority of those characters, because Kelly and Smith have enough charisma to be likable through the annoying character acting. It's a shame that director Townsend chose to go in that direction, because the geeky banter back and forth between these characters would have been even funnier if they'd been played in a more straight fashion.
Another aspect that weakens the film is that Townsend may have taken on more than he was ready to handle in his first outing as a director; he may have made a mistake when he chose to play the male lead in the film he also directed, because every scene he appears in as an actor seems flat and lifeless when compared to those he isn't in. The clearest example of this is the scene where Dionne and her mother reveal that they are witches with a very real ability to weave spells. It's a great little scene that brings back fond memories of the "Bewitched" TV show, but actresses Christine Egan and H. Lynne Smith showed far greater energy in the scenes where they were interacting with each other or with other actors while Townsend was off-screen watching the scene unfold instead of trying to watch it from within. With more time and money to "get it right", Townsend might have been able to both star in and direct this picture, but given that he only had $30,000 as his budget and presumably the severe time limitations that arise when you have to coordinate your cast-with-dayjobs with when your locations are available, I don't think he had the opportunity for the multiple takes probably needed.
Finally, the film, strangely, seems to come apart at the seams during the final half-hour. For most of its running-time, it builds steadily toward what promises to be a chaotic climax full of killer grapevines and blood-sucking zombies. But as we get to that climax point, promises made early in the film don't pay off--like the exchange the mother has with a local restaurant owner to whom she sells a case of wine that seems to have been made from the magical grapes and its promise of a whole hoard of zombies attacking the winery in search of more "nectar". There are also strange continuity gaffes, and a repeated shying away from anything resembling physical altercations or violent action: We get the set-up, but in nearly every case, the action is either truncated or completely absent. All-in-all, what seemed very promising just sputters out at the end... even to the point where Townsend makes the huge error of tacking on one last joke in the form of a "shock surprise ending" which is predictable, not very funny, and nowhere near the closing moments that this film deserved.
There is enough good about this film that I hope it does well enough for Townsend to either motivate him to self-produce another movie, or for someone to hire him to make one for them. I would like to see what he could come up with, given lessons learned from this film. I also wouldn't mind seeing Christine Egan take another turn in front of a camera, as I think she did a fine job here, in what seems to be her only film role so far. This really is a an okay little movie that got torpedoed by a few bad choices on the part of a first-time director.
"Attack of Vegan Zombies" was completed in 2010, and Townsend has been selling copies of the film directly through his website and on Amazon.com. However, it was recently picked up for distribution by Midnight Releasing, and it will be available everywhere come January 3, 2012.
(My thanks to the good people at Maxim Media for providing me with a copy of the film for review.)