Directed by: John P. Gibson
Starring: Daniel Van Thomas, Daniel Britt, Jordan Elizabeth, Robert Valentine
"Zombies, man. They freak me out!"
So said Dennis Hopper in Romero’s Land of the Dead (2005) - a film that, following their 70s heyday, did much to initiate the Noughties’ second cycle of zombie films. Since then, like the shambling, brain dead monsters depicted within, zombie movies have kept on shuffling across screens en masse; film audiences have witnessed zombies who strip (Zombie Strippers, 2008), cheerleader zombies (Zombie Cheerleader Camp, 2004), even zombies vs. cockneys (Cockneys Vs. Zombies, 2012). Easier to recreate on screen than the werewolf, and more adaptable to given situations than the haughty vampire, the zombie has been the go-to monster for low budget film makers since the advent of digital film making. And, now, ambling in the shadow of a high noon sun, comes John P. Gibson’s kickstarter funded Revelation Trail; a zombie Western set in the Midest at the end of the 19th Century.
Zombies, man. Can they still freak us out?
Revelation Trail follows in the dust trail of other zombie/western hybrids such as Exit Humanity (2011), Gallowwalkers (2013), and, of course, the successful Red Dead Redemption video game. Even The Walking Dead - the world’s most popular zombie melee - has shades of the Western in its iconography and themes. It’s hardly surprising, as the two genres are a perfect fit, featuring archetypal conflict, grizzled anti-heroes, and blood and violence; lots of blood and violence.
Revelation Trail clearly has a deep affection for both genres (As a bonus testament to the filmmaker’s love of the two genres, we even get a straight faced Country and Western song about zombies over the end credits. Cute!). Gibson is fully committed to recreating the Western era; the film looks gorgeous, using the Kentucky/Illinois/Ohio landscape to evocative effect (even apparently relying on backer’s backyards for sets, not that you’d notice), and the cast are suitably grubby: sweat and grime glistens through stubble, rusty blood stains heavy cotton costumes and a perpetual hot breeze lifts dust and greasy hair.
In further hybridity, the plot takes on the structure of an ersatz buddy movie; centering on an odd couple comprised of The Preacher (Daniel Van Thomas), a square jawed padre, and Marshall Edwards (Daniel Britt), a sozzled sheriff still haunted by his years ago involvement in a lynching. Within the first 20 minutes of the film, Gibson takes time to establish the town where the men live, introducing its denizens with care and attention….only to wipe them out within seconds; including, in a move that this reviewer found darkly surprising, The Preacher’s homely wife and son. From then on in, our mismatched heroes battle and philosophise their way across the fraught American landscape, journeying across the frontiers in search of safety.
There is plenty to enjoy in Revelation Trail. The effects are practical and efficient, with the violence almost always occurring in broad daylight (muddy darkness: the true curse of the low budget zombie film). Daniel Britt brings a world weary authenticity to his cynicism, and Van Thomas makes for the toughest preacher man since Gene Hackman in The Poseidon Adventure. There is, however, a drag at around a third in, where we see the pair, in elegiac montage, shoot countless zombies, as the seasons change from summer to winter. The sequence is affectionately shot, but lacks any jeopardy and feels as if the film is padding itself to feature length. Also, a zombie geek gripe, throughout the movie some zombies shamble along in traditional style, but others seem to move with athletic speed (a character even refers to them as ‘runners’ at one point); there are many fan arguments concerning the merits of slow/fast zombies, but one thing is for certain, you can’t have both.
However, in all the best zombie films, the undead are backdrop; a canvas upon which the dramas of the living are painted out in heightened, gory tones. The film picks up when we meet Beard (Robert Valentine), the ex- military, self-styled mayor of a walled compound (think Christopher Eccleston’s character in 28 Days Later). Beard is a racist who blames the plague on Native Americans and wears the confederacy uniform in order to intimidate his people; indicative of the film’s allusions to American history. The bullying control Beard exerts over a scared people cannot extend to an undead horde that know no fear, only hunger, and the final act of the film becomes a siege; traditional set piece of both zombie and cowboy flicks.
In true Romeric tradition, the film projects interesting ruminations on America’s relationship with violence; in the opening sequence, we see the group of bandits who become the original infected taking part in a gang rape - suggesting that the plague is birthed from man’s inhumanity to man. Also, via The Preacher (in an avenue largely ignored by American horror, but explored more readily in European zombie flicks), the film examines what a resurrected corpse could mean to those of a religious faith: the film’s title refers to the Book of Revelations.
So, while perhaps not a film that will freak you out, Revelation Trail will pass an evening with some beautiful photography (the film employed two d.o.p.s; one for summer and the other for winter!), dedicated performances, and enough ideas and variations on the genre to give any Horror or Western fan enough to chew on.
By Benjamin Poole