With almost a decade of Dead Rising videogames since Capcom launched the first version in 2006, while the wave of videogame based feature films seems to have subsided everyone knows that the zombies just keep coming. With brand recognition a factor when a platform wishes to expand into a new venture, digital entertainment streamer Crackle’s first feature film seems to be almost an exercise in marketing potential, based on a zombie game and featuring… the eye candy from Desperate Housewives.
Perhaps in recognition of the presumably largely male heterosexual intended audience, the casting of former Wisteria Lane gardener Jesse Metcalfe is an oddity, his ability as a leading man strictly adequate, his more notable attributes kept firmly under wraps save for one brief shot of semi exposure where he changes his bloody shirt, though in his defence the role does not challenge him to expand his acting range.
Ostensibly set between the second and third Dead Rising games, Watchtower follows the events in the walled-off area of East Mission, Oregon, site of a previous zombie outbreak managed through daily doses of the anti-viral Zombrex, the programme administered by the Federal Emergency Zombie Authority.
A full-scale zombie breakout already underway, the opening moments of the film feature Metcalfe’s reporter Chase Carter fighting an axe-wielding zombie clown, an accurate indication of the general level of invention and subtlety which is to follow as the narrative backsteps several days to chart the cause of the outbreak to Chase and his camera operator Jordan (Battlestar Galactica‘s Keegan Connor Tracy) are seeking a story in the standard inoculation programme.
No sooner are the words “Nobody cares about these people unless they’re eating other people” uttered than just that happens, with several of those who have just received their injections reverting to blood crazed cannibal state. Separated from Chase, Jordan is the last person to make it out before the gates are closed, the army opening fire on any who approach whether they display symptoms or not, though she herself is quarantined under the orders of FEZA official Norton (Stargate SG-1’s Gary Jones).
Inside the wall, Chase finds himself on the run with the capable Crystal O’Rourke (Metcalfe’s John Tucker Must Die co-star Meghan Ory, now best known as Red Riding Hood on Once Upon A Time) then taking shelter in a pawn shop with Maggie (Candyman’s Virginia Madsen) whose daughter has just died in the attack.
The dead may be rising, but expectation is low and sure enough is met: screaming blood covered faces, thrashing bodies, …28 Days Later style shutter speed tweaks as the zombies run, a wheelchair gag done better in Dead Snow 2, digital rather than practical effects, first person “weapon cam,” live reports from Chase slipping into “found footage” tropes, newscasts so artificial they fail to generate any sense of reality other than the lost world of Fox News, though existing fans will appreciate that the motormouth zombie expert is the brash Frank West (Rob Riggle), survivor of the earlier games.
It is the woman who carry the film, Jordan pushing against the indifference of the authorities beyond the wall, Crystal accustomed to standing alone and impatient with Chase (“What weapons?” he asks in the pawn shop, “This place is full of junk.” “Do I have to hold your hand for everything? Make one!”) although the otherwise strong Maggie’s confession of her daughter’s original infection (“I got two of them but the third got to her crib”) is somewhat undermined by the Hallmark sad piano.
Stretched to mere minutes under two hours by a subplot involving a biker gang who turned feral and donned war paint in a single evening and are now looting the city, for the most part of the film the most surprising thing is the astonishing battery life of Chase’s smart phone and the speed with which it can upload high definition video to a remote server, yet without warning in the last half hour an actual plot suddenly reveals itself.
Had this development been deployed with foreshadowing and subtlety through a more compact runtime of what is otherwise an obvious and derivative also shambled in the crowded marketplace of the undead, it would have elevated it to the glorious accolade of passable entertainment. As it stands, it can be recommended only to those with a burning desire to see a former marine sergeant of the last Battlestar being set upon by a flesh hungry Princess of the Royal House Corrino.