Last night I went to see Theatre of the Dead, an impressive feature-length zombie movie birthed into this world, more or less, by the collective will of Canberra’s musical theatre scene.
Sadly, it’s not a musical.
Missed opportunity there guys.
I said I’d review it, although the value of the review is questionable because… well you can’t go see it. It was a one off showing. It will apparently be available on DVD and BluRay from early next year which is good to hear because it’s a great piece of work and it deserves to be seen.
Keep your eyes open for it.
Theatre of the Dead (I’m going to call it TotD from here) is a standard zombie story that follows the tropes of the Zombie genre to the letter. There’s a virus outbreak of unknown origins, a group of survivors that slowly succumb one by one, a unique location to hide out in, a slow descent into madness that demonstrates that man is the real monster here… you know the drill. In most circumstances this ‘script-by-numbers’ style of storytelling would be an instant turn off but the zombie genre thrives on revisiting tropes over and over again. A good zombie movie is more like a fantastic cover of a song you already know.
TotD’s unique location, and its spin on the formula, is that it’s set in a theatre. A group of musical theatre performers, along with their egomaniac director and gruff stage manager lock themselves into a 16 hour long rehearsal only to discover once it’s over that the zombie apocalypse has come and they have nowhere to run.
Queue the lock in and the slow descent into madness.
Well not really a slow descent… it kinda happens quickly. Also it’s not really a descent either. It’s more of a hokey pokey into madness, where different characters seem to hop into madness, shake it all about, and then hop back out with no real explanation or warning. One minute character A is power hungry and trying to assert dominance, the next he’s the good guy while character B is now the power hungry one, where as previously he’d been the reasonable guy. Very few of the characters have a noticeable character arc and their motivations seem to be based more on the needs of the scene they’re in rather than being motivated a combination of their personality and wants.
“Alright where are we, scene 32? Ok, is anyone the bad guy yet? Oh, alright you’re the bad guy for this one, I’ll be the good guy, and you can be the one reminding us that this isn’t the time for this. We’ll all swap around next scene, and go!”
The script doesn’t quite know what it wants its characters to be.
In fact the script doesn’t quite know what it wants to be either. Is it a love story, or is it a comedy about the theatre? Is it a parody of zombie tropes, or is it an action movie? What about a horror? While there’s nothing necessarily saying that it can’t be all these things, the movie rarely blends these ideas and simply to jump from one to another leaving it feeling a bit disjointed.
There’s a story of love and betrayal in there that is only ever handled with complete moody sincerity, but there’s also a hilarious sequence where the choreographer (played by actual choreographer Jordan Kelly) fends off zombies using his dance skills. Neither of these scenes felt like they were from the same movie.
About halfway through the movie a new character is introduced for no purpose other than to have him perform a tightly choreographed fight scene. It was a well done scene, but again it felt like a completely different movie. The fight didn’t serve the story or advance the plot at all. It seemed to be there only so they could have an action sequence. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if it was only included because the director realised he knew some stuntmen and figured “Why not?”
When you look at the poster, or when you read the premise you can’t help but feel that this movie was destined to be a zom-com, and in the scenes where it embraces this and lets loose the film is an absolute delight.
When the tyrant director (a standout performance by Matt Butcher) chews through the scenery (not literally) having a freakout about how he’s going to get his show up and running with half his cast dead, this movie is great. When the joker of the group (played by the charmingly dopey Andy Minh Trieu) gets into the props room and tries to arm himself with fake weapons and gaffer tape, this movie is great. When it stops trying to be a serious drama and finally lets the zombies take centre stage, this movie is brilliant.
I criticise because I love. More often that not this movie is on track and hits the right notes. Even when it gets bogged down and forgets what movie it’s trying to be it’s never actually bad, just a bit frustrating, like watching someone you know is brilliant make a careless mistake.
You can feel how excited everyone was with what they could put into the production; it’s a shame they didn’t put a little more effort into deciding what to leave out.
I would also probably be more willing to overlook the character and plot issues if the rest of the film wasn’t so well put together. This is a polished production. Most of the crew were volunteers, but they obviously worked like professionals. While it’s in no way polished to the glossy finish that we see from Hollywood, this does not look like a amateur production.
Special mention needs to go to the props, the special effects, and the stunt work. All were top notch. The real stars of any zombie movie are the gore and the violence and both were brilliant.
I’d love to go more into what worked for me, but I’d hate to ruin the surprises.
Long story short, go see it if you have the chance. It’s a fun, bloody romp, and for a local production made on a shoe-string budget and the blood sweat and tears of a bunch of volunteers, it’s an amazingly slick production. It has it’s flaws yes, but it’s an indie zombie movie. They’re not supposed to be perfect, they’re supposed to be fun and TotD is certainly fun.
I thoroughly recommend checking it out.
My thumbs are pointing upwards.