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observation notes: Dead Men Walking

This zombie thriller actually brings a fresh concept to the table, not something easy to do in a genre as well-mined as this one: after his roommates accidentally ingest a biotoxin from the lab where he works, a young lad named Travis (Brandon Stacy), in an effort to keep the virus from spreading, takes them out with a shotgun. The cops, understandably, think he's a homicidal maniac and incarcerate his ass. Only problem is, Trav caught the infection before they locked him up, meaning when the disease manifests itself, it has a nice, well-populated and contained environment in which to spread. Pretty soon, zombie prisoners outnumber regular prisoners and the only hope for survival is escape, a tall order in the best of circumstances. 

Like I said, the concept - from screenwriter Mike Watt (not the acclaimed singer, the acclaimed horror journalist) - is fresh and intriguing, a careful blend of a prison flick, a zombie movie, and a medical thriller; however, it's a concept that isn't always supported by the dialog, which fluctuates between heavy-handed, awkward and wooden. The story flows well-enough, but it is definitely hung up in spots by shoddy verbal execution. To its credit, though, for the latter of these genres, a medical thriller, it is very methodically researched and believably implemented. Truthfully, while 28 Days Later is a far, far superior film, I liked the breakout explanation (epidemic breakout, not prison breakout) in Dead Men Walking much more.

As for performances, the above-mentioned Brandon Stacy (two episodes of "Joey"), who could pass for Zachary Quinto if he needed to (here, then here), makes the most of his brief time onscreen, which, though it doesn't amount to much more than acting crazy and sick, Mr. Stacy does so with admirable aplomb; his final transformation into full-blown zombiehood is truly painful to perceive. I mean that as a compliment.

The lead prisoner in this film is our old-favorite Griff Furst (Transmorphers, The Hitchhiker, 9/11 Commission Report), a frequently-incarcerated, almost as frequently self-liberated criminal with a steel intellect, brass balls and a heart of gold. Furst plays the role with his typical roguish amiability, a violent scalawag with a penchant for adventure that has occasion to blur the line between legal and illegal. In other words: the bad boy just good enough to wriggle into your sympathies. Mr. Furst billed himself here as "Brick Firestone," which is a spot-on porn name if ever I heard one.

Rounding out the cast is the lovely Bay Bruner (this and Bachelor Party Massacre, in which she's billed as - spoiler alert - "The Killer"), playing a CDC scientist who's at the prison running tests on the infected prisoners when the whole place goes zombie-lockdown. Ms. Bruner comes across as a less-bite-more-bark Kristen Quintrall, and plays the role as your standard pretty-authoritarian-with-something-to-prove-as-demonstrated-through-sass-and-frigidity. Despite this common approach, there's definitely a spark to Ms. Bruner that makes her performance far from rote; she conveys an inherit vulnerability, an - even if subconscious - awareness of her fish-out-of-water status that wafts mild empathy in her direction.

Dead Men Walking was directed by Peter Mervis (Snakes on a Train, When a Killer Calls, The DaVinci Treasure), who turns in a taut thriller that moves well-enough along, though hindered in spots by the aforementioned dialog. Mr. Mervis' use of lighting, framing and sound make the prison setting a true cavernous hell, a boundless cell that allows the story to fill it. The action scenes - that is, the kill scenes - while a glorious melee of ferocity and gore, felt a bit too frazzled and unfocused for my taste, like watching a room full of epileptics all seizing at once; too much chaos for focus, which, for all I know, was the very intention of Mr. Mervis. 

Overall, I'm sort of in the middle of this one: it certainly wasn't the best Asylum film I've seen, but it was far from the worst, yet while the concept and story were intriguing, the execution, both in script and supporting performances, made me too aware this was direct-to-DVD, something I never mind, but shouldn't be reminded of. With the right performances and a better script, this concept could have opened to 15 million any October. As is, it's a passable example in a genre too-often visited. Ultimately, though, when they divide zombie movies into watchable and not, Dead Men Walking should find itself safely, though not that safely, on the winning side.

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