dead man walking

Claustrophobia sucks.

I’ve never been officially diagnosed with the actual phobia, but I’ve got it, at least a low-level version. I remember it first manifesting way back when I was in Boy Scouts as a young pre-teen; my troop went on a spelunking expedition to a system of caves in southern Indiana, and the realization came at a point where I was wedged into a two-foot-wide space in between two rocks that were hundreds of feet below the surface of the earth. I said to myself, “Self, why the Hell are we doing this to ourself? We could get stuck here, with no way out and very little chance of someone coming to save us. We could get injured…we could starve…we could die. Who in their right mind finds this kind of thing fun?”

Needless to say, I haven’t been spelunking since. To this day, I do get a little panicky when I get in certain smaller spaces, usually those that I feel I might have trouble escaping from; being in a small closet that has a door I can open is no big deal, but scooting all the way into the small space under an RV to retrieve a lost ball is another story altogether. So I feel like I have a special kind of appreciation for the terrible scenario with which most of the characters in ‘Dead Men Walking’ found themselves facing.

The premise of ‘Dead Men Walking’ is actually quite smart, in its simplicity: a “convicted killer” is placed in a maximum-security prison. The inmate, charged with four counts of murder, was actually defending himself from four zombies, one of whom took a little nibble before being dispatched. The zombie plague is not widespread yet and is therefore not of knowledge to the general public. The infected inmate, of course, quickly turns dead, moving smoothly into undead, and since the prison is under maximum lockdown, the zombie finds himself with a captive smorgasbord as inmates and prison staff fight to stay alive.

Of all the “independent,” a.k.a. smaller-budget, straight-to-video films I have seen so far, this is one of the best. The writing is fairly solid, most of what happens actually makes sense, and the actors (none of whom I recognize at all) are surprisingly not-terrible. Does that sentence sound a little too bitter? I guess I’ve seen enough junk in my day to get really excited when something comes along that doesn’t suck too badly. ‘Dead Men Walking’ is even one step above that, which makes it a pleasant surprise all around.

Most zombie movies are so concerned with detailing the cause of the beginning of the outbreak and trying to show it go widespread that they forget the fundamentals of a zombie film – be scared that it’s happening and that you can’t escape it. Think about George Romero’s original ‘Night of the Living Dead’ – he didn’t try to show things happening all over the city/country/world, he just focused on the farmhouse. By setting all of their action inside a locked-down prison, ‘Dead Men Walking’ eschews the same kind of story. Who needs to worry about the virus going global when it’s inside the building you can’t escape? Kudos to writer Mike Watt and director Peter Mervis for using this plot device; they took something old and made it new again. The final scene of the movie, while very effective and unexpected, also directly evokes ‘Night,’ causing me to wonder whether this film was meant as some sort of homage to Romero’s classic.

We are still dealing with lower-level actors here, so make no mistake: some bad acting and bad lines are present. But as I’ve said multiple times already in this review: it was an unexpected treat to have this present as well as it did. While certain lines and parts of scenes come off as wooden or cheesy (depending upon the moment), most of the actors did a very serviceable job of capturing the “realistic panic” of the situation, and there’s a bit of effective comedy thrown in for good measure. I also appreciated the many different physical and character types of the inmates – they weren’t all Hispanic and black gang-bangers, a stereotype overload. Using one static setting – the inside of a prison building – allowed the creative team to be frugal yet still factual with the location-dressing budget. The film was shot on location at the former Lincoln Heights Jail in Los Angeles, now the home of the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts, and it’s an often-used Hollywood filming spot.

For a film with an estimated budget of $500,000, it doesn’t look that bad. My guess is that the vast majority of the money was spent on physical effects because there are enough zombie kills and zombie killing of humans to please even the most die-hard fan. Happily, most of the effects were done physically; when the CGI does come with certain head shots, etc., it looks cheap. As mentioned above, the film is pretty solid in its construction, running just long enough to tell its story without boring viewers with extra nonsense scenes. The viewer doesn’t get a whole lot of variation in the setting of the tale, but that’s to be expected in a movie where all the action takes place inside one confined building.

All in all, ‘Dead Men Walking’ is a nice oasis in the desert of straight-to-video zombie flicks. It’s available on home video, and The SyFy Channel seems to have a license with the film’s distributors as well – I’ve seen it in the listings at least twice in the last six months, so keep your eyes peeled. It’s definitely worth a look-see for the fan that has seen all the “popular” undead films and is looking for something else to satisfy their appetite for destruction.