Stakeland Dir. Jim Mickle

[Scareflix; 2011]

Styles: horror, zombie
Others: Zombieland, The Road

Although it amounts to little more than a lazy pastiche of every well-known zombie movie ever made, Stakeland has two things going for it: (1) photographically, it looks surprisingly professional, despite the fact that it was made for very little money; and (2) it reaches for a new angle on the post-apocalyptic zombie movie, an angle that would have made it stand out had the reaching amounted to anything grabbed. This is to say that aside from not containing what should be essentially present in any decent movie — strong characters and a well-structured story — Stakeland is not bad.

Director Jim Mickle and star/cowriter Nick Domici possess the abilities to play the notes of the zombie genre (or, in this case, the vampire genre, but there isn’t any difference) reasonably well, which means the only thing stopping Stakeland from being thoroughly adequate is its inability to decide which notes to play at what time. Half of its scenes are taken up in ripping off 28 Days Later’s grim seriousness, the other half in cribbing from Zombieland’s mix of gore and comedy, with a touch of The Road’s paternal relationship thrown in for good measure. It doesn’t come together, even as an homage, because Mickle and Domici never decide to rip off one movie for long enough to make the ripping work.

Indeed, it’s an erratic mash of its influences, higher-quality than you’d expect from cheap horror but a nonetheless confusing mess, in which a stoically moniker’d hunter of the undead, Mister (Domici), takes a teenage boy (Connor Paolo) under his wing after saving him from the vampire who ate his family. The America through which they roam has been carved up into Waco-esque armed compounds that resemble the dirt-poor Ozarks locations in Winter’s Bone. Scenes from their travels include saving a nun (Kelly McGillis, amazingly) from religiously-charged rapists, rescuing a black combat veteran (Sean Nelson) from a port-o-potty outside of which waits a vampire inexplicably dressed like Santa Claus, and battling a David Koresh-like cult leader (Michael Cerveris) who believes that vampires are god’s wrath against our sinful nation.

The would-be social-political commentary is by far the movie’s most interesting angle. Had Mickle and Domici dedicated their script to skewering religious fanatics — by making the doomsday cults that stake out vampire-free territories more overtly resemble the militia compounds scattered across rural America — Stakeland might have had some resonance. But it doesn’t. As with every character in the movie, the nature of the cults is thinly sketched, presumably to leave room for more horror and/or comedy, neither of which actually emerges.

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