DVD Review: Dead Country

Words can’t describe how terrible this straight-to-DVD excuse for a zombie feature is. CGI that’s ‘80s quality, atrocious acting, a deadening, repetitive script, non-direction, sluggish pacing, haphazard grading to hide the uncompromisingly awful cinematography, variable tonal music to cover the multitude of poor audio joins, and several scenes in which half the image is smeared by rain on the lens.

Then there’s the sex scene in which both participants have their pants very much completely on, right the way through to climax…

As far as narrative goes, for the most part there isn’t one. It’s basically a bunch of unconnected zombie attacks inter-cut for the entire first two-thirds, with what passes for a plot kicking in at around the 50-minute mark. In an outer space prologue featuring one of the cheapest spaceship cockpit sets you’ll ever see, extra-terrestrial profiteer Orion (producer/director Merkelbach, co-star in a sea of non-names) crash-lands on Earth. This is the last we hear of his origins for almost an hour – though his plight in the meantime is, like everyone else’s, to dodge random zombie attacks – until he eventually explains to new friend Les (Zoran Babic, top-billed on IMDb but listed below a plethora of cameo “names” on the print itself) that he has brought the zombie plague with him. Cue a bit more zombie rampaging until the (hitherto largely unseen) military does a Return of the Living Dead by nuking the town the film is set in. In stock footage that has this bit of plot explained over it by a text caption.

Yes, really.

The movie is set in a fictional rural town in Victoria (called “Romero”, ho hum) with a population of 341, yet that population includes at least one American woman and her Scottish gardener (in what looks like a scene improvised and shot by Troma hands then mailed to Merkelbach – the background looks more like Californian suburbia) and – wait for it – an entire goth metal band. Which might be why it’s considered a viable location for the porn magazine photo shoot that also happens to visit the town right when all hell is breaking loose on females of an undressed persuasion.

Added to which, Ted V Mikels plays Australia’s minister of defence, complete with American accent, in front of what looks suspiciously like an FBI seal. Obviously another scene shot stateside and mailed to Merkelbach, of which there were reportedly several.

It’s possible that this project originated as a script called “Deadly Whispers”, by co-writer Kaye Redhead. That script followed a pair of journalists investigating strange happenings in a small country town in the wake of something coming from outer space, and centred on their investigation as much as on the paranormal activity itself. If it is indeed the source material, then Clifford Hoeft and “Anthony Davis” (a pseudonym for Merkelbach, which he also uses as the film’s editor) have translated a suspenseful sf/horror piece into wall-to-wall zombie trash while completely failing to replace any of the plot they’ve excised. Almost none of the characters ever seem to know each other, and most are killed within minutes (if not seconds) of appearing. Barring a few key scenes, the entire production is a killing spree absent of any actual narrative progression.

On a technical level, this thing is shocking. It’s been “filmed” by cinematographer Ennis Rowland-Wood on a domestic camcorder of the sort that have lenses so tiny you can easily smear out the entire image by splashing a few drops of rain on it. The bulk of the footage hasn’t even been graded to sweeten the dreadfully plain, “we didn’t even light for exposure” standard definition DV look, and is presented in a standard frame 4:3 aspect ratio. Most of the imported footage matches – though it is at least competently lit – with the exception of one story strand that appears to have been shot in a different aspect ratio to the rest of the production and given an anamorphic squeeze to fit the frame. (Stretch it out on a 16:9 monitor and suddenly it looks fine.) One suspects, particularly based on early IMDb information, that Merkelbach had intended his production be lensed (or at least masked to) a 16:9 aspect ratio and at least one of his Stateside collaborators was not informed of a later change of plan.

Elsewhere, the production is equally impoverished. Specialised costumes are slapdash. A police officer’s uniform consists of navy trousers and a blue shirt with two basic “police” patches sewn on the sleeves. Soldiers are dressed in camouflage pants with green dress shirts. (For that formal combat look, presumably.) CGI, too, is weak. The prologue’s outer space footage has apparently been lifted from a behind the scenes DVD of early ‘90s cartoon Transformers: Beast Wars, almost certainly without permission, and the computer-animated fake blood (what’s wrong with corn syrup and red food dye I know not) looks like it’s been generated in a version of Paint Shop Pro from roughly the same period.

A couple of shots stand out as effective. There’s a close-up of a cobweb-covered budding flower that’s fairly atmospheric with the “silent film” grading (scratchy, sepia, strobing) that has been laid on it, and another shot with identical grading adds creeps when a zombie walks past a window and the ghostly image of a cat jumps up to the window and away again. The effectiveness of both shots is obviously serendipitous, and it’s actually a pity Merkelbach (as “Anthony Davis”) didn’t apply this grading effect to the entire film as it worked very well for The Call of Cthulhu and is eerily reminiscent of Dreyer’s Vampyr.

The best thing I can say about these 72 minutes of essentially home-made dross is that the editing is at least “experimental”, to qualify it kindly. Zombie attack scenes go on forever – usually on scantily clad or naked women, including one whose entire appearance in the film is to get her breasts out for a bit of slow motion softcore before being promptly savaged – but are punctuated by random (and lengthy) shots of nearby native birds. In flight, sitting on branches, whatever.

One wonders if the bird shots are present principally for their staying power. The film’s pace reflects what Merkelbach asked of me when I was editing one of his earlier (unreleased) films: advice along the lines of “I don’t care how crap it is, make it as long as possible”. (It’s hard to recall after so many years, but that might be an exact quote.) This, his first effort to scrape through to actual feature length, stretches to 72 minutes, and it’s entirely because every scene drags on for so pointlessly long. Well, that and the completely unrelated post-credits footage of people at a horror convention being interviewed about anything except this movie. It goes on for something like five minutes and is so disconnected from the rest of the film that it almost makes the preceding hour of random zombie carnage look like it added to the story.

Dead Country is available only as a DVD through Midnight Releasing, an American purveyor of horror films that appears to trade under several names and whose web site used to all but say, “If it’s a horror film we’ll release it.” That’s given the film a life on Amazon, but one wonders what kind of a life it is. Extra features extend to trailers, a “photo gallery” (screen grabs) and a “behind the scenes” feature. This last item is a run of three behind the scenes snippets that must have appeared on the (now seemingly defunct) Dead Country MySpace page. Running to just over a minute per segment, each is basically sixty seconds of off-cuts accompanied by maybe ten seconds of (unfunny and incoherently shot) out-takes.

The first, which focusses on what appears to have been the lone shoot day for top-billed (though hardly featured) Mandy Kane, is a minute of people standing around a parking lot, talking through a soundtrack completely muffled by wind noise, before Kane finally arrives. Presumably late – though it’s hard to tell as there doesn’t look to be any actual point to the exercise.

The second episode concentrates on a photo shoot for the appearance of the goth metal band in the film (I gather they’re called Praetorian, but as the caption is illegible it’s hard to tell), most of whose duration is a single shot of the band, Merkelbach and the barely clothed girl they chase in the film posing for the lone photo.

The contents of the third episode I can’t even remember, so it must have been riveting.

There are trailers for three other movies on this disc: two American and one Australian. The American ones are clearly Grindhouse-influenced, and look like they might work well for what they are. (They certainly appear to be aware of their limitations, even if one is just a Child’s Play rip-off and appears to have included every frame of its nudity in the 90-second trailer!) The Aussie one is a Ring riff that looks atmospheric and competently (if inexpensively) produced, though it’s been shot on unprocessed interlaced video, so a lot of that atmosphere exists despite itself. As variable as these three movies look, they all look a lot better than Dead Country, whose own trailer makes it out to be the intentional comedy it plainly isn’t.

Strong candidate for worst movie I’ve ever seen. It’s mildly entertaining in all the wrong ways, so it’s not my least favourite film, but I don’t think I’ve seen one where so much about it is so wrong. Never mind that large swaths of the narrative appear to exist entirely as an excuse for the director to have naked women parade in front of him on shoot days. Unless you allow that a porn magazine shoot is somehow integral to the plot, all of the nudity is gratuitous, tastelessly shot and among the most sexist footage ever captured for a non-hardcore picture.

At least Merkelbach’s earlier (and unavailable) sf stuff had the occasional interesting idea in it; this just has zombies. There’s a sequel (unimaginatively entitled Deader Country, it adds zombies to a plot Merkelbach already turned into a short in late 2003), so this shifted enough units to convince Merkelbach it has an audience, but I’m not sure I’m game to see it. I just hope it has a plot this time.

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