Zombie Rampage

Film review by Thomas M. Sipos




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Zombie Rampage  (1992 "Director's Cut", dir: Todd Sheets)




Filmmaking 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...

Zombie Rampage is a film of mind-boggling ineptitude.

Production 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 to 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.

And yet, 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.

But first, we examine the film and its auteur.

Todd 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 that Zombie 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.

Storywise, Zombie Rampage is yet another Romero/Fulci retread. Screaming nondescript people run from zombies. The zombies saunter and eat the screaming nondescript people. The end.

You want details? Actually, it's hard trying to discern any clear story from what is essentially an abysmally shot string of incoherent events. But I'll try.



Zombie 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.

Anyway, 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.

About those abysmal production values ...

Zombie 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 down?)

The dominant acting style in Zombie Rampage may be chracterized as "animated hysterics." Curse-laden hysterics 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 Feast.)

The "Director's 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 the whole project was a hoot, confirming the viewer's suspicion that few on set took the film seriously.

That was never true of Ed Wood or his actors. However poor their talent or means, they always gave their best efforts.

Sheets 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 amateurish behavior.

Still, 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.

Yet despite 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.

Perhaps 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.

For instance, 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.

This "introduce 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 a suicide.

The suicide 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.



Special 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 her baby for a midnight stroll on a deserted street?) The zombie eating the baby is obviously chewing on a plastic doll leg.

Musical 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.

Sheets inserts some artsy shots into his film, shooting from odd angles. Credit him for trying. But again, his shots achieve nothing aesthetically.

How do Kansas City gangs dress?

A costumer 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?).

Production values are of home video/cable public access quality. One can forgive that. Many of horror's best operate on a Z-budget.

What is 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.

Zombie 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 work.

Ah, but 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.

If Sheets 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 advantage.

(By pragmatic 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.)

So why devout so much review space to Zombie Rampage, a film that even most gorehounds would disdain?

Because Sheets belongs to a cinematic tradition that merits attention: The impoverished artist using inexpensive consumer equipment to produce films with professional aspirations.

It's a 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 Born Killers.

As super-8 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 Cinema.

These VHS feature filmmakers weren't quite the new Roger Cormans. Corman was 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.

VHS opened 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.

Talented filmmakers could now hone their craft and showcase their abilities. Soon digital video superseded analog VHS, and The Blair Witch Project proved that consumer equipment could compete financially with the major studios.

Hollywood 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, John C. Reilly). What began as a grassroots effort to compete with Hollywood has been co-opted by Hollywood.

Although Zombie 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.

The Internet 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.

Many grassroots 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.

Zombie 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.

The Blair Witch Project and The Anniversary Party demonstrate what consumer video can create when it has some real writing and acting to record.

Horror fans curious to sample Sheets, check out Ebay.

Review copyright by Thomas M. Sipos


Todd 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 and 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.

"After 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 it.

"Try and find Moonchild or Violent New Breed - or even Shivers, Zombie Bloodbath 2 or Fear of the Dark. The scariest part is they are putting Zombie Rampage on DVD - I just did a commentary track on it and I told everyone to turn it off and get another video quick!"  -- 12/28/04


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