Special Dead Review
Written by: Sheila Roberts
"Special Dead," co-directed by Thomas L. Phillips and Sean Simmons, and written by Jared Tweedie, is a proudly cheesy, tongue-in-cheek, horror comedy that will have you rolling in the aisles with laughter. The film, shot entirely on location at Star Ranch, high in the hills of Corona, California, is the filmmakers’ feature debut, and it’s a good one.
The storyline is simple. When bloodthirsty zombies invade Camp Special Dude, a dude ranch for the mentally challenged, a motley crue of stuttering, gun-toting, oversexed social misfits and their equally bizarre camp counselors struggle to survive the night against the cannibalistic onslaught. Led by the perpetually blasé, nunchuck-wielding head counselor, Mac (Jay Brubaker), and his wheelchair-bound sister, Dale (Gia Natale), the unlikely heroes fight their way off the mountain as one by one, they’re picked off and recruited unwillingly into the ranks of the walking dead.
Mac plays the retarded Rambo in this Camp Runamuck who never has to look too hard for sex because it always seems to find him, whether he’s interested or not. Indeed, most of the time he just seems bored stiff by the endless opportunities that come his way. The cast also includes veteran actor Larrs Jackson as Snuff Stone, Mac and Dale’s father, who owns the ranch. He turns in a hilarious performance as a gun-wielding zombie hunter who laments the real estate deal he negotiated years ago when he bought the zombie-infested ranch for a song, then spent years eradicating the undead, only to see them return now in droves and lay siege to his ranch once again.
Rounding out the cast are Cassie (Amy Wade) and Harley (Haneka Haynes), who viciously compete for Mac’s attention; Oswald (Andy Allen), who serenades his fellow campers with hilariously obscene lyrics; Todd (Anthony Rutowicz), who constantly moons over Dale; and Connor (Mark Bate), who does a fabulous job stuttering his way to an early demise. Jah Shams’ performance as Eriq stands out as the gangsta with bling who is out of his element in this rural, white trash hellhole, but whose urban survival instincts, carjacking skills, and gangbanger accessories (think cell phone and 9mm) serve him well, even when he can’t shake his head-banging companion, May (April Wade), who stalks him everywhere. Fred DeRuvo and Nancy Longo play his unwitting carjack victims, Mason and Chloe. The rest of the talented cast includes Keith Hastings, Carl Storm, David Reynolds, Thomsas Crnkovich, Daniel Jenson, Jessica Leaser, and Amanda MacDonald.
"Special Dead" challenges stereotypes by pitting the most unlikely heroes against the undead. Ironically, the mentally challenged and the zombies have a lot in common. "Special Dead" reflects the inspiration of highly original horror films of the late 70s and early 80s. As co-director Phillips stated in a recent interview, "We wanted to make a movie that horror fans would appreciate, but at the same time bring originality to the table. The horror films of the late 70s and early 80s were the best; they never tried to fool anyone by pretending to be something they were not. That is how we set the mode for our film. The Special Dead will scare you and make you laugh at the exact same time." His partner and co-director, Simmons added, "The people with special needs are the heroes of our movie. It’s about people rising to the occasion and doing the right thing when all hell breaks loose. There are many original gory scenes in the film. The special FXs are impressive."
Indeed, there’s lots of gore, and the special effects designed by Mark Fenlason are very good considering the filmmakers’ limited budget. Director Phillips proves he is a triple threat by revealing his considerable skills as both an editor and sound designer. The film is well paced and sound is used effectively to create suspense and scares with a decidedly humorous twist. Some scenes are so underlit you can barely see what’s going on, and you can’t help but wonder if it’s deliberate or just technical goofs, or maybe both. Then again, in this film, it doesn’t really matter because it supports the director’s vision of a campy horror comedy. Even when you are left to imagine some of the action because it’s almost too dark to see, it doesn’t get in the way of following the outrageously funny story. Part of the charm of "Special Dead," is that the filmmakers revel in the fact they are making a cheesy, low budget film, and they enthusiastically make the most of it.
Instead of trying to figure out what you can’t see, your spend your time being thoroughly entertained and laughing at how each character finds a unique way, based on their "special" talents, to make it through the zombie-filled night in this horrifically amusing fight for survival. And don’t let the stereotypes fool you. These people know how to kick some serious zombie ass. In one of the film’s funniest moments, the camera lingers intentionally longer than needed as the heroes of Camp Special Dude tenaciously fight off, and fight off, and continue to fight off a frenzied zombie attacker who just won’t die. In the process, the camera becomes more, and more, and even more blood spattered as the fight goes on and on. Yes, we get the point: these zombies are really hard to kill.
"Special Dead" is full of blood, flesh, gore, flying limbs, boobs, and sex. The costume design by Tammi Marie Hicks reflects the filmmakers’ wacky sense of humor and underscores the offbeat personality of each of the film’s characters. The opening and closing credits are very cleverly designed and not to be missed. Neither are the obscene lyrics that accompany Oswald’s absurdly funny guitar serenades. This hilarious trash-slash film will keep you laughing on the edge of your seat until the very end.