(Judge Dredd Megazine, Rebellion)
Stake Land is a zombie apocalypse picture. The undead may burn in the sun, and they may be dispatched by pointy sticks rather than headshots, but the film still belongs on the “Z” side of the library, no better disguised than the sprinting Infected in 28 Days Later. The vampires are animal carnivores, apparently incapable of speech, and they’re most interesting in the way they’re used by the bad humans as weapons of mass consumption. In one of the battier scenes, the Stake Land fascists tie up captured vampires, then fly low over the encampments of other humans and push the vampires out.
If this suggests a broad farce, then it’s not – Stake Land plays everything straight and grim, so even when there’s a flicker of humour you wonder if it was an accident. Teenager Martin (Connor Paolo) sees his family wiped out in a vamp attack on their home, and is only saved by the anonymous “Mister,” a hardassed vampire hunter/backwoodsman played by Nick Damici with a puffy face and unfashionably trimmed beard. Although civilisation has fallen, there are more people than in most Undead Apocalypses, some of whom join with the pair. They include a dignified quasi-mother figure played by the most recognisable face, Kelly McGillis (yes, Tom Cruise’s squeeze in Top Gun twenty-five years ago).
Stake Land is a capable, even compelling film that can’t shake the feeling of redundancy. The central boy-man pairing inevitably recalls last year’s The Road, and any number of other downbeat post-apocalypses, from The Walking Dead to the 2009 plague film Carriers. We move through familiar territory – monster-haunted woods, dead family homes and plucky survivor towns where people amuse themselves by stringing up vampires at dusk and leaving them for dawn. Christianity figures heavily, mostly as a Nazified death cult (there’s a pointed early reference to the Jonestown mass suicide in 1978), though the script is nuanced enough to acknowledge that the macho Mister’s way of life has downsides. At one point, he casually severs the spinal cord of a young rapist and leaves him in the dirt, only to meet the lad’s dad a few scenes later. Oops.
There’s an unfortunate giggle factor introduced by the montaged shots of father training surrogate son in the best vampire-killing moves; and a bad stumble at the climax with an unwise twist return that turns the carefully-built bleakness into an E.C. horrorshow. But the most serious mistake may be the title, which suggests either a boneheaded actioner or a followup to the more crowdpleasing Zombieland.
(c) 2018 Rebellion A/S. Reprinted with permission.