Saturday, 12 January 2013

Army of the Dead

Director: Joseph Conti
Writers: Michael Ciccolini, Tom Woosley
Producers: Joseph Conti, Paul Conti, Fred Tepper
Cast: Ross Kelly, Stephanie Marchese, Miguel Martinez
Country: USA
Year of release: 2008
Reviewed from: screener

Never judge a DVD by its sleeve. Army of the Dead just looked so cool. Skeleton warriors with shotguns! Wow! How can you go wrong with skelly warriors?

Army of the Dead proves that you can indeed go very wrong with skelly warriors. All you need is a hopelessly insufficient effects budget, wooden actors portraying instantly forgettable characters and a script which piles cliché upon cliché while making no sense whatsoever.

To put it bluntly, Army of the Dead is a shouter. That is, a film which makes you shout at the screen while watching it. A film which elicits unbidden, involuntary, instinctive cries of “Oh for God’s sake!” and “This is so-o-o-o bad!” and “Christ there’s another nine minutes. I hope eight of those are the end credits.”

The set-up is that some Spanish conquistador I’d never heard of sent some men to find El Dorado. Or something. We see a bunch of Spanish conquistadors explore along a tunnel, find some gold and a bunch of skeletons, and then get attacked by the skeletons. Only we don’t actually see any attacking. The reanimated skeletons are shown only by shadows (from some unspecified bright, steady light source which certainly can’t be the Spaniards’ flaming torches). We see the shadows draw bows and then flaming arrows hurtle into the explorers.

At no point do we see skeletons and humans in the same shot. In fact, throughout this film, even when we get lots of advancing skelly warriors on screen we almost never see humans in the same shot. That would be too expensive.

We do however get to see lots of flaming arrows and it’s a measure of this film’s incompetence that the makers either didn’t understand, or just weren’t bothered about, the nature of a flaming arrow. Which is that the arrow head is dipped into something or wrapped in something and it is the head that burns. But all the flaming arrows in this film have flaming shafts. The heads are untouched but the entire shaft is on fire, whether represented by CGI before being launched or by actual burning props afterwards.

You can’t set fire to the shaft of an arrow! The shaft is made of wood, you dummies! So I mean, you can technically set fire to it but if you do you will almost immediately not have an arrow any more. Or a bow, quite possibly. I know these are supernatural arrows fired by supernatural beings and suspension of disbelief and all that but dude, there’s a limit. Flaming arrow shafts: they look cool but they make zero sense.

Anyway, our main story is set in the present day and concerns a group of Americans who go ‘desert racing’ in Mexico. I wasn’t previously familiar with the ‘sport’ of desert racing but it seems to consist of basically just driving cars at high speed across rocky desert terrain and then stopping each night to pitch a tent and drink booze around a campfire. Okay, whatever.

Now, it is a measure of the sheer amateurishness of both script and direction that, even by about halfway through this 90-minute film I was still not entirely sure how many people were involved in this expedition or indeed how many vehicles. There is no attempt to introduce the various characters beyond our central couple and all the characters are utterly bland and interchangeable.

The central couple are John Barnes (Ross Kelly: Pretty Dead Things, Wedding Slashers) and his wife Amy (Stephanie Marchese) and their token bit of characterisation is that he has always wanted to go desert racing but she hasn’t, but she has now paid for this trip as a surprise birthday present. “Are you going to tell me where we’re going?” he asks her as they drive towards the initial rendezvous point in the middle of the Mexican desert. Well gosh, maybe you’re going to Butlins.

There is another couple called Tobias (Malcolm Madera) and Jenny (Audrey Anderson) who have even fewer identifiable characteristics. To wit, Jenny is John’s ex and still carries a torch for him. That’s it. We never find out anything about Tobias beyond his name. But even those two are detailed characters compared with... well, I eventually realised that there was a third couple along for the ride, who barely feature. The woman is called Kristen (Jocelyn Tucker) and gets a few things to do very near the end of the film, when viewers start furrowing their brow and trying to work out who she is. The man is called Matt (Vic Browder) and I’m not entirely convinced he even has any lines or that his name is ever mentioned.

Nor could I tell you what any of these people look like. They are the blandest, nothingest most interchangeable set of horror movie characters you will ever see. There is also a slightly older (though not much) guy called Professor Vasquez played by the completely non-Hispanic-looking Miguel Martinez who is in something called Wolf Man vs Piranha Man: Howl of the Piranha (which is just trying too hard really, isn’t it?). The implication is, I suppose, that some or all of the others were at university together and taught by Vasquez although this is never made clear. Furthermore, some of the other male characters are referred to or addressed as ‘Professor’ on occasions so either they all went on to become professional academics or some lines of dialogue have been randomly reassigned, possibly at script stage, possibly during editing.

Then there’s grizzled, baseball cap-wearing Fred (Mike Hatfield: Into the Valley of Elah) who appears about halfway through but must surely have been there since the start as he is in charge of the ‘desert racing’ expedition. Finally there is some woman called - according to the IMDB - Alicia (Casey Messer) who may possibly be some sort of assistant to Fred but since she is given nothing to do and nothing to say and serves absolutely no purpose in the script, it was only counting the names in the credits which confirmed for me that she even existed.

John/Amy, Tobias/Jenny and otherbloke/otherbird are driving suped-up, four-wheel drive Volkswagen Beetles, so presumably the cars they used to get there have just been left parked in the middle of nowhere and the route they’re taking will be some sort of huge circle. I eventually worked out that the Prof is driving a white Range Rover or something similar and Fred is in another white vehicle. But we never see all five vehicles in one shot - or indeed all seven people. Or is it nine people? See how easy it is to lose count when none of them have any defining characteristics. I assume that anonymouswoman travels with Fred because Prof seems to be on his own. But that’s just a guess. Maybe she‘s in the back seat of one of the Volkswagens...

Well anyway, you would think, would you not, that in these 21st century days of satellite phones and GPS tracking that the five (or is it four? or six?) vehicles would be able to stay in contact with each other and know where they were. Or that they would at least have fucking radios? But no, apparently this ‘desert racing’ malarkey involves complete freedom to drive in any direction you like and an assumption that you will somehow magically end up in the same place in the evening.

So it is that after a couple of days Professor Vasquez has disappeared and no-one’s sure when he’ll turn up. Let’s see: he’s on his own, without a radio, in the middle of sodding nowhere surrounded by rough terrain. Let’s hope he’s not irretrievably stuck in some deep sand. Or upside-down at the bottom of a canyon.

Actually no, he’s meeting up with three generic bad-guys-for-hire played by Jeffrey James Mocho (Ninjas vs Zombies), Matt Camacho and Jason Hill. These are the last three characters we will meet but in the credits there is also someone called Spencer Combs (Brian Lucero: Urban Justice, The Spirit) who I can only assume is a person seen in a flashback narrated by the Prof around the campfire on the first night. But since the characters are so bland and interchangeable, and since the flashback is also set around a campfire in the Mexican desert, I can’t be a hundred percent certain it is a flashback and not just a badly edited sequence of the main characters. That is how thoroughly inept this whole mess is.

The Prof has got half of some ancient treasure map and the bad guys leader has, for no apparent reason, got the other half. And they’ve both brought these ancient artefacts with them because you would, wouldn’t you? You would bring with you into the desert a parchment several hundred years old, something so precious and fragile that any sensible museum would keep it in climate-controlled conditions. You wouldn’t bring something sensible like a copy, would you?

Speaking of stupid things to bring into the desert, Amy presents John with another surprise birthday gift. Not only is she paying for this desert trip, but she has brought along, without him knowing, something he has always wanted: a 16th century samurai sword.

A what?

Yes. Quite apart from the sheer cost of such an item (wow, those must have been really good degrees they all got to land such highly paid jobs) and quite apart from the sheer stupidity of bringing a 500-year-old antique into the dry, dusty desert, and quite apart from the unnecessary extra weight and load which could have been used for, oh, water or fuel. Quite apart from all that, what the fuck is he going to do with a samurai sword in the desert? Why didn’t she save that extra surprise till they get home?

Unless... wait a minute... suppose he gets in a sword fight with some skelly warriors. It might come in handy then.

While John (I think) and Fred (I worked out, because he had a hat) discuss the possibility of looking for the Prof the next morning, entirely unconcerned about any danger he might be facing, the Prof and his three paid slimeballs are working out where the sacred cave (or whatever) is. The reason these other three guys are there in their truck is because... well, so they can shift the gold and smuggle it back across the border. That bit isn’t the daft bit. The daft bit is why the Prof felt the need to combine this illegal treasure hunt with the desert racing weekend. Why didn’t he just come down to Mexico and drive out here himself, in the truck, with the other three guys? Who knows, who cares?

The cave turns out to be a solid wall of rock but lead bad guy has a stick of TNT which they use to blow open the entrance. And it is the shittest CGI explosion you will ever see. It doesn’t look like a real explosion, it certainly doesn’t sound like a real explosion, and there’s no sense of the ground shaking or lumps of rock falling down from the sky. It’s just a crappy orange flash that disappears to reveal a black shape crudely matted onto the rock wall in the distance.

Here’s what I don’t get. The visual effects in Army of the Dead are awful. Really, really cheap, bad effects that make the film look quite a few years older than it is and a hell of a lot crappier than it should or could be. And yet the director, Joseph Contegiacomo aka Joe Conti, is a visual effects artist. He does this stuff for a living. He worked on Xena and Hercules and seaQuest and Men in Black and Black Hawk Down and all manner of other stuff.

It’s not like he’s been hired by some know-nothing producer - because he’s a producer too, along with his brother Paul and a guy named Fred Tepper. The film was made by his own production company, Contifilms. Nor is it, as sometimes happens, a situation where a VFX guy moves into the director’s chair and gets someone else to do the VFX for him. No, Joe Conti has to take full blame for this piece of junk. (Apart from the script, to be fair. And the acting.)

Okay, so he’s wearing three hats but if he couldn’t manage all three, he should have delegated. But the effects don’t look like effects that were rushed because the VFX guy was busy also directing and producing. No, they look like effects that somebody ran up on a home computer. They look like effects from a 1990s video game. They’re obviously, embarrassingly poor. In fact, Conti did actually use an Amiga to generate effects for early 1990s films like Freejack and Star Trek VI. The trouble is, nearly twenty years later he is apparently still using the same Amiga.

The rubbish visual effects are not helped by the most half-arsed, pathetic sound design you’ll ever (just about) hear which gives every bang or boom a little nothing of a sound. We get scenes later (quite soon, in fact) when people are letting off guns in a cave and there’s just a quiet gunshot sound. No boom, no ricochet, no echo. Good grief.

The four men explore the cave from the prologue and find some sort of painted design on the wall with one of those hand-shaped holes in the middle. Apparently the ancient people who built this - whatever it is - had some pretty nifty pressure-sensitive technology. Jumping to the conclusion that this must be some sort of ancient control panel, one of the men applies a hand. But not his own hand. No, he picks up a skeletal arm and uses that hand.

Oh good Lord. How many things are wrong here? Well, the most obvious one is that the skeletal hand doesn’t have spread fingers so it can be clearly seen to not fit in any way into the hand-shaped bit of the design. More to the point, what’s holding the hand and arm together?

Look, skeletons are collections of disconnected bones. When the flesh and muscles rot away, so do the ligaments, tendons, synovial membranes and all the other bits that hold them together. If a skeleton is absolutely picked clean, it doesn’t hold its shape. Oh, I’m wasting my breath...

Activating the hand thing makes all four men fall through a secret trapdoor (must be quite a large one). We’re not shown how far they fall but it can’t be far because no one gets hurt, yet they’re in a tunnel big enough to stand up in so they must have fallen at least seven or eight feet. They make their way past more skeletons before coming across some gold, most of which is sealed up in well-constructed wooden boxes because the film-makers apparently couldn’t decide whether this was an Inca treasure trove that the conquistadors found or a conquistador treasure trove of stolen Inca gold.

I mention Incas because the script does but really, no-one’s done their homework. The Incas didn’t live in Mexico. The legend of El Dorado, also explicitly referenced in dialogue, is nothing to do with either Incas or Mexico. And in any case the original people who buried this gold are supposedly the Anasazi. In fact the sleeve and DVD menu (but not the film) are subtitled Curse of the Anasazi. But the Anasazi lived in New Mexico (where this was shot) not actual Mexico (where this is set). The whole historical and cultural background to this film is a hodge-podge of half-remembered school classes which could have been sorted out by a ten-minute trip to Wikipedia.

On seeing the gold, Professor Vasquez exclaims... well, before I tell you, let’s play a game. It’s called guess the cliché. I’ll tell you what the Prof says and you see if you can guess what the main bad guy replies. Ready? Okay?

On seeing the gold, Professor Vasquez exclaims, “This is the greatest day of my life!” to which the main bad guy replies...

That’s right! That’s exactly what he says! You got it in one. How lazy, unoriginal, banal and all-round crappy is this script if every single person who reads this review can predict the next line (and I’m guessing you winced a bit when you said it, didn’t you? Christ knows I did when I heard it).

So anyway, the skeletons come back to life and kill the intruders with the usual flaming-shaft arrows. One of the bad guys manages to escape from the tunnel (somehow - hey, didn’t they fall down a hole?) and gets back to the Prof’s car but there are no keys and he gets splattered all over the inside of the windscreen somehow.

The next morning, Fred (because he has a hat) and John (I think) set out to find the Prof. Oh, the night before, Jenny climbed into John’s sleeping bag and - what’s her name? Mrs John - found them and something or other but it’s all irrelevant so never mind. Anyway, Fred assures John that: “If he’s within ten miles of here, I’ll find him.” Which is pretty impressive. You’re capable of searching 314 square miles of rocky, barren terrain in one jeep? Wow.

Yet find him they do. Or rather, they find his car with blood all over the inside of the windscreen and no sign of the bad guys’ truck which presumably the skelly warriors have driven away somewhere. Fred and John enter the same tunnel, press the same skeletal hand against the painted wotsit, drop down the same hole, explore the same lower tunnel and find the Prof, still alive, babbling and occasionally flashing his eyes red in a crappy, gratuitous effect which has absolutely, precisely zero relevance to anything.

They bring him back to camp somehow (hey - didn’t they fall down a hole?) where they discover that he has brought back with him an absurdly large gold coin from the treasure horde, despite that flashback we saw earlier where he explained that the guy in the flashback got killed because he stole a gold coin from the Anasazi Incas of El Dorado. Or something.

And at this point, the skelly warriors attack. Well, I say skelly warriors in the plural because there are supposed to be hundreds of them but in fact it’s clearly just one that has been copied hundreds of times. The film-makers seem incapable of animating more than one skeleton (maybe they didn’t have a second Amiga) so you get either shots of the whole skeleton army acting in perfect unison or shots of a single skeleton which is suddenly on its own.

The skeletons wear conquistador helmets but no breastplates or anything. They carry small, round shields which are sort of historically accurate because when conquistadors bothered to carry shields (not often) they were small and round. But really those shields are just designed to make the skeleton warriors look like the classic Harryhausen creations, which carried small round shields because that’s what the Ancient Greeks used.

The big problem is that the Army of the Dead skeletons have also been given short stabbing swords - again like the Harryhausen Greek skelly warriors - which look nothing at all like the epees and foils that Spanish conquistadors carried around. But as you will have gathered by now, wrong swords is the least of this film’s problems.

There is a bit of dialogue later on which suggests that the skeleton army is a mixture of the original Incas/Anasazi/whatever and everyone else who has died searching for their gold, including not only the Spaniards but also some guys from the Civil War. Was there a lot of the American Civil War fought in Mexico, then? Really, this is just designed to explain why the skeletons suddenly have access to a small cannon. But as the operation of said cannon is dependent on crappy special effects and even worse sound effects, it has no effect on the besieged living Yanks.

A couple of them get killed. Or something. And another one or two or three get killed. Or something. Considering that this is where the action is supposed to start, this is where any interest in the film disappears. At least before the skeleton attack started it was worth trying to work out what was going on and waving one’s arms through the gaping holes in the plot, but once the attack begins, it’s snooze-time.

The survivors (I don’t know how many but they fit in one car) find an empty, unused radio station, as you do. Which has a generator that can be got back into working order and enough fuel to power it. Some more people die. Or something. Some skelly warriors get into the building and - I think - one or more of the dead people comes back to life as a skelly warrior. Which even by the low, low standards of this crap is batshit stupid. How does a dead person turn into a skeleton in five minutes? Did the people who made this film simply make the whole thing up as they went along?

Frankly, those big stupid things are less interesting to me than the small stupid things. Like the woman (which one?) who is told to remove her jewellery before starting the generator so she doesn’t get an electric shock. Because wearing anything metal will do something bad, apparently. And yet she is very obviously wearing an underwired bra. In any other film that would be a notable and amusing goof. Here it’s just one more slice of they-didn’t-care cut from a big, creamy gateau of so-why-should-I?

I don’t even know who survives. Nor do I care. And I think they bury the coin or throw it away or something. I say coin, but as noted it is absurdly large, like the props department was asked to make an amulet or something. The thing about old coins is: they’re usually really, really small. But that, once more, can be filed away in the box marked The Least of This Film’s Problems.

I don’t like it when critics trash a film and many is the movie I’ve praised which other people on the web or in print have ripped apart as if it’s an offensively stupid piece of crap. But Army of the Dead really is an offensively stupid piece of crap. It’s been made by people who, despite having been involved in some very big, very popular, very successful films have apparently learned nothing from them about how to give audiences an interesting and exciting and entertaining 90 minutes.

You can watch this film if you want but you’ll get no pleasure from it at all. It’s dreadful, really shockingly poor. I’m amazed to find that they still even make films like this. Dodgy digital effects aside, it’s like something from the late 1980s. A skelly warrior does actually grab a shotgun at one point from someone - these desert racers having an extraordinary range of weapons with them, for some reason - but by then you’ll be looking for a shotgun yourself or some other way of destroying this DVD.

A very, very large part of the fault for this mess has to lie with the two credited writers, who either came up with a terrible, cliche-packed script full of banal characters or possibly wrote a halfway decent script, saw it ruined and didn’t bother to take their names off the thing. One of the writers is Tom Woosley whose two previous credits are the 2002 James Hickox movie Sabretooth and the apparently unrelated 2005 George Miller movie Attack of the Sabretooth. Kudos to him for writing something not about sabretooths (sabreteeth?) but honestly, I’d go back to the smilodon screenplays if I were you, mate.

The other guy is Michael Ciccolini who wrote and starred in a 2003 short action movie spoof called Strongerable. The IMDB thinks this is a different Michael Ciccolini to the one who starred in Beethoven’s 3rd, although that actor has also written a couple of short films. Other crew who might want to consider omitting this title from their CVs include cinematographer John Grace (Naked Fear), composer William T Stromberg (Future Zone, Mutant Species, Starship Troopers 2), production designer/art director Peter Lane (Klown Kamp Massacre) and editor Richard Byard (Sasquatch Hunters).

MJS rating: D
Review originally posted 1st November 2010

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