“BATTLE OF THE DAMNED” (Blu-ray/DVD Review)
I’m sure I’m not the only horror fan who has begun to groan at the sight of the phrase “zombie apocalypse.” Since THE WALKING DEAD completed its gradual climb to media domination, it appears that every filmmaker under the sun has added zombies to their portfolio, and as a result, below-average undead offerings have littered DVD shelves week after week. However, for that very reason, when this writer discovers a secret success hidden amongst the crowd of disappointment, that’s all the more reason to celebrate, and even encourage those who break the mold of Z-grade direct-to-video horror.
I didn’t know what to expect out of Anchor Bay’s recent Blu-ray and DVD release BATTLE OF THE DAMNED, as there seemed to be enough disadvantages to cancel out the advantages. Luckily, the film handily won me over, pleasantly surprising me around every turn and injecting the often lifeless subgenre with a heaping helping of fun. Granted, BATTLE doesn’t necessarily elicit much in the way of fear, but for a genre-hybrid action flick, it rarely feels repetitive or uninspired, and invests much more in the way of character than one might initially expect.
BATTLE OF THE DAMNED showcases several of horror’s most debated elements, including fast, viral-born zombies, a shadowy and violent government and sentient killer robots. However, the film never dwells on these points or gives them introspective gravitas, instead using them as mechanisms to forward the narrative. The story starts out rather simply, following a hardened mercenary (Dolph Lundgren) as he goes in for an apparent recovery mission with a squad of bad-ass compadres. But the movie almost immediately starts turning expectations on their head, and soon enough, we’re thrown into a character-driven genre hybrid with a proper balance of action, humor and organic plot development.
Writer/director Christopher Hatton does an excellent job on an obviously low budget, with a surprisingly well-crafted script. Hatton refuses to fall into postapocalyptic stereotypes, switching out the usual talk of faith, philosophy and survivalism for genuine curiosity, societal logic and not-half-bad dialogue (at least for the most part, as few DTV films are without some cringeworthy lines). Furthermore, Hatton writes characters who are enjoyable to watch, replacing the usual invincible superhero with a somewhat desperate, resourceful man, and having him interact with people who have their own motivations and vices. Despite some occasionally sloppy and generic Handicam action sequences shot by DP Roger Chingirian, the film never falls into shoot-’em-up territory, keeping the action tight, lean and often brutal.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited to see Lundgren do more genre work, as I’ve always been a fan of the guy; he always seems to try harder than many of his DTV action contemporaries, and exudes a natural charisma as well. Lundgren doesn’t really stretch his acting chops here, but still, he gives it his all and seems to be having progressively more fun when the film starts diving into sci-fi territory. Melanie Zanetti also does a great job playing an action heroine with a surprising vulnerability, and her conviction in the role works wonders to elevate the potentially cheesy material. David Field and Matt Doran also shine, perhaps elated to have postapocalyptic-film characters with depth, strong relationships to their surroundings and shifting allegiances.
As long as you’re not expecting some explosion-laden extravaganza or zombie-swarm dreck, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by BATTLE OF THE DAMNED. By investing time with interesting characters rather than dispatching them at a moment’s notice, it becomes a fun, engaging, refreshingly modest entertainment. Whether or not you’re a fan of running zombies, killer robots or Dolph Lundgren, the film refuses to deliver more of the same, and I respect it for that, even if its final moments are a tiny bit antithetical. In fact, the only real disappointment is that Anchor Bay’s supplemental package consists of a single featurette, comprised of six minutes of strung-together behind-the-scenes footage without direction, context or fluidity.