is especially grueling on a low-budget. Labor-intensive. Rife
with hurdles, any one of which can kill a project. Thus, whenever
a grassroots filmmaker manages to complete a film, any film, one wishes
to be kind. Even so...
values are not so much rough, as nonexistent. Despite the credits,
there is nothing onscreen even resembling actors. One struggles for
evidence of a script. And if a director was present on set, he appears
have been unconscious during filming.
Even calling Zombie
Rampage a "film" is generous. This project was shot on
video. Not digital video. VHS. Consumer VHS.
I would not say "don't waste your time" on this movie. Not because
it's "so bad it's good" (a sentiment I've never held, or even understood),
but because of its value as a sociological and historical curiosity. One can appreciate Zombie
Rampage -- if one understands its place in film history.
we examine the film and its auteur.
Sheets is an obscure but remarkably prolific Kansas City moviemaker. Sheets released Zombie
Rampage in 1989. He released his "Director's Cut" about
1991-92. There is something touchingly naive in anyone imagining
Rampage cries for a "Director's Cut" (and impossible to imagine
the 1989 version being any worse). A naivete blissfully untouched
by basic film school competence, much less anything approaching art. The naivete of an Ed Wood, who imagined his films to be masterpieces.
Rampage is yet another Romero/Fulci retread. Screaming nondescript people run from zombies. The
zombies saunter and eat the screaming nondescript people. The end.
details? Actually, it's hard trying to discern any clear story from
is essentially an abysmally shot string of incoherent events. But
Rampage opens with two Kansas City gangs rumbling in an alley. One gangsta is killed. His leader tries to resurrect the dead gangsta
with a spell from a paperback occult book. (The bookstore had sold
it to him with a "money back guarantee.") But first, the opposing
gang performs a resurrection ritual, hoping the dead gangsta will switch
sides. It's pointless and inconsequential to the story.
zombies arise from all across Kansas City, killing and eating everyone:
gangstas, pedestrians, whoever. The living run or barricade themselves
in buildings. At some point, with the zombies increasing in number,
the film ends.
those abysmal production values ...
Rampage is performed by people (actors?) loitering before the
camera and shouting over each other's lines (mostly expletives and verbiage).
Because everyone talks simultaneously, amid strong winds, it's hard to
understand anyone. The soundman tries to compensate for the wind
by moving the mike nearer the actors. We see the boom mike moving
in. No matter -- we still can't hear anything. (Why didn't
they shoot elsewhere, or use sound blankets, or wait for the wind to die
acting style in Zombie
Rampage may be chracterized as "animated hysterics." Curse-laden
underscored with broad hand gestures. Acting is also atomized, with
every actor doing his own thing, in his own space. While some gangstas
are screaming, threatening to kill each other, nearby gangstas wander about
aimlessly, stumbling over rubble, looking bored, oblivious to the screaming
gangstas a few feet away. (A scene which inadvertently evokes the
hysterical boyfriend and deadpan cop in Lewis's Blood
Cut" video includes a trailer featuring a Sheets interview, plus "behind
the scenes" of Zombie
Rampage, including "bloopers" and outtakes. We see the
gangsta/actors breaking into laughter, waltzing with each other, clowning
around. (With so much tape to spare, couldn't they have reshot the
scene so we could hear the dialogue?) It appears the actors thought
whole project was a hoot, confirming the viewer's suspicion that few on
set took the film seriously.
never true of Ed
Wood or his actors. However poor their talent or means, they
always gave their best efforts.
claims to have spent a year and half on Zombie
Rampage. Presumably, he took his film seriously. He should have sought actors with similar serious aspirations, perhaps
from a community theater or college. Instead, his cast appears to
comprise easily bored dilettantes. Unpaid and unmotivated, such "actors"
are always liable to walk off the set, so Sheets likely had to humor their
not every actor performs in a style of animated hysterics. Some are
wooden and monotonic. In one bar scene, a woman requests a drink,
then exposes a breast while flatly stating: "Maybe there's another way
I can pay you." The bartender stiffly declines. She re-covers
her breast and curses him. She is deadpan throughout; as sultry as
a plywood board.
being strikingly untalented and unprofessional, even these actors likely
harbor fantasies of being "discovered." This, from a cast that resembles
guests from the Jerry
Springer Show. Oh so painful, yet morbidly fascinating,
to watch these Springer
Show types "slink around" imagining themselves as the next Jennifer
Lopez. Or spout bravado, imagining themselves as the next Rambo.
because Sheets had difficulty casting unpaid actors over an extended period,
or maybe because he wanted a large body count, new characters are constantly
introduced, then killed just as our curiosity piques.
late in the film, we cut to a federal employee of a secret agency. She is wearing what is supposed to be (I guess) a military uniform, but
which resembles an usher's outfit. On the phone in a deserted room,
she discusses a military project that may have created the zombies.
It's the first we've heard of this. Until now, we thought it was
the paperback book that made the zombies. In the next scene, she
ascends the stairs in this federal office complex (which looks like a cheap
apartment building). Zombies break in and kill her. It's the
last we hear of her or this military project.
them, then kill them" is a Sheets motif. A core cast of gangstas
and bar patrons rush from spot to spot, getting picked off along the way. Intercut are scenes of new characters in unrelated locales, who are soon
killed. We also meet a serial killer, a couple in a basement, and
actor tries to give a heart-rending performance, but is stymied by his
own incompetence. Alone in a room, lips blubbering, eyes blinking,
hand trembling, he reaches for a gun. Music swells melodramatically.
More blubbering and blinking and trembling. The moment is extended
past the point of parody. One wants to scream: "Get on with it!" The actor finally raises the gun. We cut to a wall. Brain and
blood splatter it.
effects are substandard. The fake blood is watery and faint. The fake brain and flesh resemble orange foam. The film's chicken
entrails are serviceable, but are just ... suddenly there, atop victims. We never see anyone torn open. The "crying baby" rolling down the
sidewalk looks like a doll in a toy walker. (Why was the mother taking
baby for a midnight stroll on a deserted street?) The zombie eating
the baby is obviously chewing on a plastic doll leg.
switches are sudden, jarring. Intense heavy metal action sequences,
then melodramatic or romantic symphonic sounds, then dark Miami
Vice inspired synthesizers. No pause or transition as we cut between scenes. Editing is rough, both sound and video. In the hands of an artist,
these rough transitions might have contributed aesthetically to create
a sensibility of a world disintegrating -- instead, it just feels sloppy
and cheap. This is because the acting and writing are sloppy and
cheap, and have thus degraded the viewer's sensibility of the film.
inserts some artsy shots into his film, shooting from odd angles. Credit him for trying. But again, his shots achieve nothing aesthetically.
Kansas City gangs dress?
is credited, but again, there's no evidence of it onscreen. Costuming
appears to be as haphazard as casting. From what's onscreen, it appears
Sheets cast his friends and family, "come as you are." Lots of Eighties-type
heavy metal outfits. One exception is the gum-smacking gang leader,
who wears a cheap suit and tie (a satire on yuppies?).
values are of home video/cable public access quality. One can forgive
that. Many of horror's best operate on a Z-budget.
UNFORGIVABLE is the banal writing (much of it lost amid wind and shouting)
and sloppy acting. Excellent writing and acting cost nothing. New York, Los Angeles, and increasingly many other cities, are rife with
trained and talented writers, actors, and crew, willing to work for free. Sloppy writing and acting degrade an entire film, making a rough production
look downright lazy. As though no one gave a damn.
Rampage opens with an incoherent gang fight and ends without
closure, the story halting when feature length has been attained. During his trailer interview, Sheets pleads for the viewer to not be judgmental,
to accept his film as "entertainment," comparing it to Fulci's
Fulci's Zombie is a seminal horror film, featuring a seasoned cast of skilled and talented
actors. Who in Zombie
Rampage can match the charismatic Richard Johnson or alluring
Tisa Farrow? Why, we even understand their lines! And Fulci's
special effects are first-rate, the gore imaginatively presented, his infamous
eye-gouging scene rivaling Luis Bunuel's An
Andalusian Dog (1928) in renown.
was unable to cast talented actors, he might have at least rationalized
their poor acting in the script. In Children
Shouldn't Play With Dead Things, the bad actors in the film
portrayed bad actors in a theatrical troupe -- a clear case of pragmatic
aesthetics, in which a financial shortcoming was put to aesthetic
aesthetics, I mean when a filmmaker puts budgetary
production compromises to aesthetic effect. Forced to compromise
on location, lighting, whatever, the filmmaker uses that limitation in
a way that enhances the theme or story. I first used the term in my essay,
"The Pragmatic Aesthetics of Low-Budget Horror Cinema," published under
another title in Midnight Marquee #60. For a fuller explanation, see my book, Horror Film Aesthetics.)
devout so much review space to Zombie
Rampage, a film that even most gorehounds would disdain?
Sheets belongs to a cinematic tradition that merits attention: The impoverished
artist using inexpensive consumer equipment to produce films with professional
cinematic tradition that comprises 16mm film (when it was still a home
movie format before World War 2) and 9.5mm. It encompasses 1970s
super-8 guru Lenny
Lipton and Cinemagic magazine (they
advocated super-8 as a professional format before its common usage in commercials
and music videos). It includes Mark Pirro's super-8 horror feature, A
Polish Vampire in Burbank, and Oliver Stone's Natural
grew into a "professional" format, VHS camcorders became the new "family
home movie" medium. But stubborn dreamers like Sheets soon conscripted
VHS for feature films, supported by independent packagers, distributors,
and magazines like Independent
Video and Alternative
VHS feature filmmakers weren't quite the new Roger Cormans. Corman
subject to market discipline. Indie filmmaking was vastly more expensive
pre-consumer camcorders, thus, investors required that bare minimum aesthetic
(or at least, entertainment), standards be met.
the floodgates of dreck. Everyone was within grasp of the means to
shoot a feature film. Many did, and produced much rubbish. Yet it was a necessary phase in the historic trajectory of this cinematic
tradition: the empowerment of the grassroots through consumer equipment.
filmmakers could now hone their craft and showcase their abilities. Soon digital video superseded analog VHS, and The
Witch Project proved that consumer equipment could compete financially
with the major studios.
took note. In 2001, Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh released The
Anniversary Party, a feature film shot on digital video and
starring established actors (Jennifer Beals, Kevin Kline, Parker Posey,
C. Reilly). What began as a grassroots effort to compete with Hollywood
has been co-opted by Hollywood.
Rampage is wholly lacking in talent on both sides of the camera,
Todd Sheets is a workhorse. The end credits reveal an impressive
array of support personnel. Police department, film commission, and
many companies all aided the making of Zombie
Rampage. Never has so much effort been expended with so
little to show for it.
Movie Database indicates Sheets is still active. Zombie
Rampage is the only Sheets film I've seen. Maybe he's
upgraded to digital video, but I hope he's done more than that.
filmmakers have long harbored the mistaken belief that the only thing preventing
them from producing Hollywood quality films was expensive technical equipment. They salivate over every innovation in consumer equipment, waiting for
a machine to enable them to produce studio quality films. Concentrating
solely on the technical, they fail to study scriptwriting (apart from formatting)
and directing. Then they write their own scripts (seemingly as an
afterthought), and cast and direct their friends and family.
Rampage is representative of this mindset. It has people
rushing about onscreen. Its video box looks slick, just like the
boxes at Blockbuster. Its cast and crew doubtless imagine they've
produced a "real movie," just like from Hollywood. Or at least, similar
to Fulci's work. But all Sheets has done is run off some tape. Without anything resembling writing or acting, his film is empty. Nothing to see, aside from a home movie of some friends clowning around
before a camera.
fans curious to sample Sheets, check out Ebay.
Review copyright by Thomas
Sheets Replies: "You had to watch that awful Zombie
Rampage - but here's the kicker - it took a year and a half because
I was held hostage by an insane cameraman (who thought he was in charge
always wanted more money) and a cast of local theater majors that refused
to ever be on time. I was left with 68% of a once good script and
I finished it the only way I knew. It was my first film. It
was NOT shot on VHS - but on 3/4 inch video and Betacam like the TV stations
of the time used. It was a horrible experience and I almost never
made another film.
that I tinkered and fought - but I learned and - after 1993's Zombie
Bloodbath - I got serious. I have
won 6 awards from various film festivals all over the world and have improved
- I shoot on 16 mm and 24 frame digital - and I love it - wish you the
best and I wish you could see the newer films - we ALL have to start someplace
- the film you saw was my first and worst, but I had the heart to finish
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