Thursday, December 14, 2017

December to Dismember: CHRISTMAS WITH THE DEAD (2012)

Christ, I am so over zombies. If you went back in time and told my teenage self that in the future zombies would become so mainstream that I'd be sick to fucking death of them, I'd kick your ass right through the doors of the funny farm. Having thoroughly braced myself for the worst in Christmas horrors and oh, jeezus, a zombie one no less, it feels more than a little weird to end up with something that is really not all that bad. Even, I might say, enjoyable! I know! What the hell is going on here?

On Christmas Eve slacker husband and father Calvin (Damian Maffei) has procrastinated on putting up the outside Christmas decorations until literally the last minute. His well-meaning, but pestering wife Ella (Kasey Lansdale), all gussied up in what appears to be a sexy mall-Santa's helper outfit, is upset that the decorations aren't up and wants Calvin to go out right now to go buy them. She doesn't indicate where exactly Calvin should buy them, at night, on Christmas Eve, but that's not her problem! Her problem is that their five year old daughter Tina (Madeline Brassell) is being cheated out of having the perfect Christmas, like ever! Am I supposed to sympathize with either of these bums? Fiiiiine, I'll try.

While Calvin is trying to nap on the sofa (at night, on Christmas Eve), his girls witness some colored flashing lights in the sky. When he wakes up he finds that his wife and daughter are sprawled out on the floor dead. With the phones not working (we seem to be in an era that only has land-lines), he steps outside and what to his wondering eyes should appear? His entire neighborhood is littered with corpses. Yep, the apocalypse happened and lazy-ass Calvin missed the whole damn thing. So what's a man in the middle of the apocalypse do? He cries, of course. Jeezus guy, butch up, have a beer, blow something up, do donuts in the police station parking lot, something!

When his neighbor Ray (Adam Coats) stops by, covered in blood (and a ludicrous Christmas costume), he swears that Tina bit him, just to prove him right, Ella takes this cue to pop up all zombized (zombieized?) and sinks her choppers into Ray as well, causing him to shout "goddammit, your whole family bit me!" Wait, did I blink and suddenly find myself watching a very special episode of STAN AGAINST EVIL?

All of a sudden CHRISTMAS WITH THE DEAD (ahem) comes to life with some snappy dialogue and a crafty sense of humor. This shouldn't be much of a surprise as legendary scribe Joe R. Lansdale wrote the short story of the same name. Adapted for the (small) screen by his own spawn Keith Landsale, we finally have a shot-on-video, amateur acted, low-renter that is actually well written, through no fault of its own. Are we in opposite land? I mean, I go to the local multiplex and see movies with good acting and lousy scripts and now I'm all turned around. Ok, who spiked my egg nog? This is not how it's supposed to go.

Joe's other spawn, Kasey, her character fortunately dies almost immediately so we don't have to suffer through her savage attempts at acting. Well, sort of. Calvin, unable to bring himself to shoot her in the head, decides to keep her chained up on the porch and feeds her dog food out of a dog bowl, because... he, uhhh, loves her so much? Amazingly, Kasey can't even really handle the chores of being a zombie and kind of acts like a dog. Sort of a zombie dog. Or a sorority chick who really can't handle her magic mushrooms. This would be fine except this movie being about as neopotismal as the White House, Kasey is also allowed to perform several saccharine pop-country tunes that blare over the soundtrack once in a while and pretty much made me want to slam candy canes in my ear drums to make it stop. Fortunately for me and my ear drums, I have a mute button. Use as necessary.

After deciding to light up his place of work and play constant Christmas music over the radio, Calvin also babbles messages to anyone who is listening. Being a man, he is assuming that there are hot girls somewhere who will hear his blubbering self-pity and come running to give him some sloppy holiday cheer in the middle of August. Instead he gets George (Brad Maule). A beer-bellied ex-garbage man who wears a uniform with a name tag that reads "Kathy". They become friends, because they really don't have any options, and eventually get mixed up with a cult of zombie worshipers run by the Reverend Mac (Chet Williamson) who has escaped from the local loony bin and set up a "church" in a rodeo arena with the rest of the inmates as his "flock".

I am genuinely amazed, and a bit saddened, that this couldn't get a decent budget and better actors. This could have easily played in the cinemas of the past if it had been shot on film with a better cast. It's not a tent-pole franchise starter, so there's no way it could happen today, but if anyone in Hollywood had any sense (they don't), they could have turned this into a minor hit. Fer chrissakes, we still have THE WALKING DEAD as popular as ever and we even got a good Krampus movie in theaters a couple years back. This, with a little cash, could have easily been another BUBBA HO-TEP (2002), at the very least.

Lansdale's characteristic humor is channeled through George, and while the lines are still funny, there are some hiccups that apparently did not deserve another take. George says of the zombies, that music "holds their attention like a naked lady in church". Not the greatest line ever written as it rips-off classic Southern witticisms like "sweating like a whore in church", but in the context of a SOV beater, it's definitely chuckle worthy. Too bad veteran TV actor Brad Maule stumbles over the line, wrecking the delivery, and director T.L. Lankford said "fuckit, we'll just leave it in." Of course, Lankford is probably best known for writing and co-producing a few Fred Olen Ray and Rick Sloane movies, so yeah, mystery solved.

On the acting front, most are unknowns, possibly friends of the Lansdale family, though Damian Maffei has appeared in a few things including a bit part in Andreas Schnass' NICOS THE IMPALER (2003) and the lead in Jay Woelfel's CLOSED FOR THE SEASON (2010), however it's first timer Chet Williamson's Reverend Mac who easily steals the show with his boisterous Texas wing-nut preacher shtick. This character also proves that this is a Lansdale flick. I mean, Lansdale is the guy who managed to squeeze a Western-themed episode (complete with Jonah Hexx) into BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES (1995). I can trust Lansdale to figure out how to stuff a Western-theme into The Little Mermaid on Ice, if given half the chance.

As disconcerting as it is to see good writing go hand in severed hand with stiff acting and digital video, you could do a lot worse this Christmas. I know I have.

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