War of the Worlds isnt the only alien invasion flick in theaters right now. This scruffy sci-fi-horror-comedy hybrid made in 2003 hails from Australia, and although it was made for a fraction of what was spent on Tom Cruises wardrobe alone, Undead boasts an impressive array of gruesome digital effects, acrobatic stunt work and old-fashioned directorial ingenuity. If its creators were handed a decent script and some better actors, they might actually be on to something.
Evil aliens arent the only thing Undead has in common with the Cruise blockbuster. Its clear that brothers Michael and Peter Spierig who wrote, directed, edited, supervised the visual effects and even operated the cameras worship at the altar of Spielberg. Their movie is full of cheeky in-jokes: The sign that welcomes drivers to the sleepy fishing town is straight out of Jaws, and the climactic alien visitation steals shots from Close Encounters. But the Spierigs also have a jones for the same sort of sick, morbid humor that Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson so memorably capitalized on in their early horror features. The result is a seemingly routine zombie comedy that turns into a Hong Kong gunplay spectacular before coming out the other end as a we are not alone sci-fi thriller.
The somersaulting plot begins in a quaint burg, where the townspeople occupy themselves with petty differences. Recently crowned the towns Fish Queen, our heroine Rene (Felicity Mason) is busy dealing with the bitter runner-up, the pregnant Sallyanne (Lisa Cunningham), when strange shafts of light begin to transform everyone around them into the living dead. Taking refuge in the farmhouse of the rifle-toting town nut Marion (Mungo McKay), the women are soon joined by a pair of inept cops and Sallyannes boyfriend, and the group tries to slash its way out of town. But when they come up against an alien barricade, things really start to get inexplicably weird, and only the previously abducted Marion can help them figure out how to escape annihilation.
If Undead had focused merely on the zombie scourge, it might have worked. Instead, the Spierigs indulge in the broad, unfunny humor so common to Australian comedies: A seemingly Tourettes-afflicted sheriff, for example, simply isnt amusing after the fourth or fifth fuck. Mason and McKay handle themselves well, but the rest of the cast is shrill; even by horror-movie standards, theres way too much screaming.
Of course, people arent the focus here; the film is more of a flashy calling card to Hollywood than anything else. But until the Spierigs learn how to pay as much attention to characters as they do with special effects, they shouldnt be trusted with any blockbuster budgets.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.