Contains mild spoilers.
The fact that thirty minutes into Rise of the Zombies I found myself in the kitchen kneading dough says a lot. It wasn't that I wasn't enjoying the high octane zombie action it was just that I was finding the whole thing a tad derivative and stale and the thought of freshly baked bread was more than enough to distract me.
I'd happily call myself a bit of a zombie geek; a zombie aficionado if you like, and I'll pretty much watch anything if it's got an undead shambler or two in. The problem with Rise of the Zombies is I've just seen it all before. It doesn't really do anything wrong; each stylish well constructed set piece is pulled off with aplomb and vigour, the story makes reasonable sense and the characters are well presented by a surprisingly strong cast. It just lacks any ambition or any desire to be original and it's problem I've seen all too often before with films that go direct to TV and to audiences that probably don't watch that many zombie films. It's like director Nick Lyon is working from a crib of popular zombie tropes and clichés ticking them off one by one as they're added to narrative that ends up feeling tepid and as unoriginal as you can get.
One thing I will say though is Nick Lyon has obviously gone back and watched a few old Romero zombie films since his last The Asylum zombie feature, Zombie Apocalypse, in 2011. It's still another action zombie film first and foremost but from the explosive opening fight as zombies washed on the Alcatraz shore siege and overflow the prison survivors, we can tell it's all a definite a step up. The zombies are visceral, skilfully presented, varied and most importantly now, pretty uniform in their movement and behaviour (halle-fucking-luiah). Zombie Apocalypse was actually quite tame but Rise of the Zombies from the get-go is chock full of far darker, more gruesome macabre deaths and even has a touch of the Romero humour. Apocalypse was a (15) certificate here in the UK, this was awarded an (18) and it shows. Zombies are sliced and diced, victims are torn into and ripped apart, and it's a bloodier, gorier experience. Lyon even includes a couple of rather gratuitous exploitation scenes that even made yours truly wince a little, and it did make me wonder, if I wasn't the target audience and the SyFy saturday night crowd were, what they would make of it all. I'm probably being a bit of an old nurse-maid and they didn't mind, but it's almost like Lyon made a film with a narrative aimed at one set of people but presented it all in such a way to please another.
I'll be honest. The quality of actors put together, for an Asylum production took me by surprise. Ethan Suplee plays Marshall, an ex-Air force soldier who believes it's all god's plan, Mariel Hemingway plays Dr. Lynn Snyder, a cool headed scientist looking for a cure and Danny Trejo plays himself. The undoubted star of the show in my mind though is LeVar Burton as Dr. Dan Halpern, best friend of Lynn, who despite being the closest thing the survivors actually have of finding the cure quite makes quite convincing work portraying a guy going quite off the rails after trying to cure his daughter. They all do a reasonable job portraying the disparate mixed survival group but ultimately can't hide from the one dimensional character design and hokey dialogue. They've all got motivations and clash and argue, but much like the attempt at story telling it's all rather tame and lacklustre, merely acting as filler to move the film from one big zombie pagga to the next.
There was also an attempt, I think, to add a little depth to the narrative here and there, and though the whole science vs religion stuff all fell flat, I did quite like all the scientific mumbo-jumbo from Dr. Dan Halpern as he explored the virus, its pseudo parasitic makeup and aversion to electricity, even though they never really go anywhere with it all.
Rise of the Zombies is a competent zombie survival story, well presented with a reasonably coherent story. The action is nicely paced if you don't question things like the complete absence of zombies over large swathes of the city only for them to turn up in droves the moment they stop somewhere. The near constant fighting is well executed, dramatic and reasonably entertaining, with a good amount of blood and splatter. It still has the dodgy direct to TV FX The Asylum is renowned for, but it's not quite as bad, and overall there's far more cinematic confidence and competence on display. Special mention must lastly go to some truly brilliant zombies that look like they've finally taken inspiration from The Walking Dead. It's just a shame it's all so darn derivative and the story so flat and stale. Still Lyon is moving in the right direction so things are looking up if he decides to do another, 5/10.