Originally released in 2007, Awaken the Dead aspired to be a movie with an intricate but engaging storyline that happened to include zombies as a plot point. Sadly, the resultant movie does not achieve such a lofty goal, perhaps because in part the zombies take on a secondary role. What is so often missed in movies of this type is that the storyline can be about zombies without necessarily focusing on the zombies. Think for a moment of the first two Romero zombie films and you will get the idea.
Gary Douglas Kohn stars as Christopher, a Catholic priest who was once a government assassin. Haunted by his horrible past, Christopher has turned to alcohol but continues to cling to his faith as a coping mechanism that brings him some peace. That peace is disrupted when he receives a red envelope with a simple message inside. His response is one of horror and subservience.
In the meantime, another character, Mary (Lindsey Morris), is struggling with inner demons as well. Sequestered in a gloomy house, she spends her days looking out the window and wandering about aimlessly—she never leaves the house. She has also received a red envelope with a simple message—stay in the house. She also is oddly subservient.
Christopher shows up at the house, using a key to enter. Mary is outraged at such an intrusion, but once Christopher shows her the red envelope, she reluctantly agrees to let him stay in the house. After some odd encounters with a very large man who threatens Mary (Grin, played by Big Will Harris) and a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses (one of them named Stanley, who is played by Nate Witty), the pair shares notes regarding their mutual note sender. However, the conversation is guarded, deepening the plot slightly.
While all this is going on, the movie takes a moment to focus on an aircraft that is flying overhead. Soon after, a pair of oriental teenage girls looks up and is doused with what looks like grimy glitter. Moments later, the girls turn into flesh-eating zombies. They make short work of Grin and begin to attack other people in the vicinity. As these attacks move from person to person, a strange man wearing dark sunglasses (Paul Dion Monte) wanders among the marauding zombies. Seemingly immune to their attacks, he simply takes notes in a little notebook.
The zombies eventually attack the house, working hard to penetrate its defenses. However, the house is heavily fortified, having bullet-resistance glass and barred doors. Stanley, the Jehovah’s Witness, seeks asylum at the house after his brother is killed, as do a jarhead and his wife, who has been bitten. Chaos erupts when the wife succumbs to the zombification infection and has to be put down (after much havoc, naturally). Christopher and Mary eventually find another red envelope and learn that the zombies are a result of a new biological weapon. They then manage to find a secret cache of weapons, which at last gives them a chance of survival.
It turns out that Christopher and Mary are “related” to the man who is perhaps responsible to the current mess. Christopher grew up as the adopted son of Jeremiah (Michael Robert Nyman), a government assassin who eventually moved into management. Christopher grew to despise Jeremiah, as he was cold-blooded and ruthless when it came to executing orders without question. Mary is Jeremiah’s daughter. Alienated from her father, she ran away from home and became a prostitute—Grin was her latest pimp.
When the two receive another red envelope instructing them to go to a nearby church, they agree that they must put an end to the menace. Along with Stanley, they make their way through a town filled with zombies. The movie’s climax has the couple confronting Jeremiah, who in true 007 movie-fandom explains his plan for world domination before being taken down (nice touch, however, on how the zombies can be controlled and even eliminated). Interestingly, it is the guy in sunglasses who has the last laugh, not only finishing off Jeremiah but also ordering the death of the zombies. The film’s coda has this mysterious stranger hunting down Christopher and Mary, who believe they have at last achieved peace.
Written, editing, produced, and directed by Jeff Brookshire, Awaken the Dead held a lot of promise but delivered very little of it. Brookshire’s comic-book background proves effective when blocking certain scenes (Mary’s close-ups are effectively lit), but it also proves a distraction, as when he uses the teenage girls as the initial victims of the zombie biological weapons (Dirty Pair anime and manga, anyone?). The grainy, color-muted cinematography is interesting but really does not add anything to the proceedings.
Much more detracting is the heavy-handed acting and the direction. Lindsey Morris delivers a one-emotion performance, staying angry for the bulk of the film. Although at first this is understandable, after a while her anger simply becomes distracting and annoying. Gary Douglas Kohn attempts to create a stoic character, but he goes too far and simply becomes boring as a result of his emotionless performance. Only Nate Witty seems at home with his character, making him funny and sympathetic.
Special effects range from the interesting to the mediocre—this is perhaps the makeup was contributed by students from the Joe Blasko Makeup School. Music is provided Edible Clowns and the Gentle Fracture—it’s pretty good stuff.
Awaken the Dead’s script and direction are lackluster, although there is promise in both. Brookshire needs to move away from heavy-handed scenes and instead give sequences a more streamlined approach. He also needs to provide bridges that link his scenes, as too often characters and situations appear out of nowhere. Despite these quibbles, I did appreciate the melding of the zombie genre to the conspiracy genre, although this in itself is not new. Zombie soldiers have been around for a while, hearkening all the way back to 1977’s Shock Waves to 2009’s Dead Snow.
I can’t really recommend Awaken the Dead. Hardcore zombie fanatics and conspiracy nuts may find it somewhat entertaining, but most horror hounds will find it really doesn’t deliver the goods that make up for a good zombie or a well-told horror tale.