The zombie sub-genre of horror has blown up in the last few years, in part because of The Walking Dead becoming a huge success on TV. I can’t think of any original zombie films that were any good in the last few years, but a couple of series have been hits, like [REC] and Resident Evil. When I heard that Harrison Smith (the director of Cinefessions favorite Camp Dread) had a new film coming out, and it was about zombies, I was both worried and excited. Could he really do something different with what has now become a stale sub-genre?
Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard opens with a rather bland monologue spoken by Doc (played by Brian Anthony Wilson). It explains the world we are entering, the zombie outbreak, and the general way of life for this community. From here we meet a group of young guys playing paintball, and their “coach”, or leader, if you will, is Seiler (Billy Zane). What sets ZK:EG apart from other films in the gene is that it’s more focused on the human side of things. This is a problem I have with The Walking Dead, but here it’s all about building these characters up before we see how bad things are on the outside. As the film builds towards its climax, we realize that Doc has a kind of God complex; rejecting people out of the community based on blood tests or if he deems someone sick. We also have a religious sect, lead by Lia (Felissa Rose). There are a lot of little sub-plots going on, and sadly there isn’t enough time to focus on, or deliver on, every account.
Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard has a rocky start, and it isn’t just the monologue. The paintball scene also seems weird and off-kilter. I did some research to try and make sense of it, and during an interview, Smith says that one of the producers of the film really wanted to include paintball in the film. This got me rethinking the scene. Maybe it isn’t so crazy after all. You’re in a world gone crazy with zombies, and you need to train your guys. You wouldn’t want to waste ammo, so the next best thing would probably be paintball guns to get a better handle on aiming, and so on, without the fear of using up your harder to come by resources.
Once I realized the style and flow of the film, I started to dig it. It all comes together for me when a group of guys, lead by Seiler, head off to a frakking site to get supplies. There’s a moment where they decide to drop cheesy action movie one-liners, one by one, in rapid-fire succession. This moment, while silly, comes off as a jovial bit of fun between friends, and feels really natural. I contacted writer/director Harrison Smith about this moment, and asked if this scene was all written, or if the actors ad-libbed it. He confirmed that, while the script calls for the banter, he had asked the guys to wing the actual quotes they used. I love this because it shows how much fun these guys had making this film, which is something I noticed in Smith’s previous work.
With any zombie film, you’re only as strong as your special effects. Let me get one thing out of the way: the CGI zombie animals are hysterically bad. Sure, the deer look kind of cool, but they are “Asylum bad” (anyone who ever watched a horror or sci-fi film from The Asylum will understand what this means). I know this all falls back onto the budget. Smith’s script is more ambitious than his budget allows for. The zombie effects on the humans are petty great, though. Since these aren’t typical zombies – and I won’t ruin the film’s big reveal – I love the way their eyes ooze a black liquid. The first zombie we see up close isn’t until about 20 minutes into the film, but he has these giant, oozing wounds on his body, and he looks pretty cool.
The cinematography and camera work are not up to the same level of quality we saw in Smith’s first film for the fifteen minutes of the movie. After that, though, the film finds it groove, and I enjoyed the slice of life moments we share with the characters. One of my favorite scenes is between Ian and his girlfriend after they have sex. It just hits the right notes, and makes both characters likable. Another scene I really like comes around the one-hour mark, as the guys realize something is happening, and they look off into the distance. We get this awesome aerial shot of a giant zombie swarm. It looks like one of the battle scenes from the third Hobbit film. I discovered that this scene, and many of the other aerial scenes, were filmed using a drone, showing off Pennsylvania’s natural beauty, and that the zombie swarms are CGI. I honestly didn’t think these were CGI because they are just that impressive. Smith also mentioned that he used practical actors instead of CGI for film’s big finale. This is another great scene, and the most up-close zombie action we get in the film’s 105-minute runtime.
There’s a pretty decent cast to found here. The big star is obviously Billy Zane (Titanic), who is both charming in his role, and just a tiny bit hammy, but it works. Felissa Rose (Sleepaway Camp, Camp Dread) plays Lia, the religious zealot who rides the crazy train the whole way, and is clearly having a lot of fun here. Dee Wallace (E.T., The Howling) plays Ian’s mother Sharon. She’s a sick woman whose son has to be taken care of by her son. She has a few solid scenes, one involving a not-so-G-rated birds and bees talk with Ian’s girlfriend. Speaking of Ian, Michael Kean brings a simple innocence to the character, and this was actually his first big acting role.
Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard is a mixed bag, and not the film I was expecting from the director of Camp Dread. The script is, at times, too ambitious for its budget, and the final thirty minutes come off as rushed, and a bit confusing. This film holds its own in the current, bloated zombie market, and its little differences make it stand out in the crowd. While not in the same league as the Syfy Channel originals or an Asylum mockbuster, Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard definitely has a B-movie charm to it, and that’s all I can ask for from this sub-genre.