Friday, July 07, 2006

Shadow Zone: The Undead Express - review

Director: Stephen Williams

Release Date: 1996

Contains spoilers

I’d never heard of “Shadow Zone” but I’m guessing it is kind of a cross between “Tales from the Crypt”, as it is hosted by a creature called the Reaper (Stephen Russell), and “Goosebumps” as this made for TV movie is definitely aimed at a teen or lower market.

Zach (Chauncey Leopardi) is a New York kid and when we first see him he is playing basketball with his friends Gabe (Natanya Ross) and JT (Tony T. Johnson). The ball is mis-thrown and goes through a warehouse window. The building has do not enter warning signs but Zach kicks the door down and they enter. His friends are full of trepidation when suddenly tentacles grab Gabe and the floor beneath JT turns into quicksand. Zach is grabbed by hands through a wall.

Zach is on the couch talking to his counsellor (Wes Craven) and has told him this story. The counsellor is aware that Zach has an imaginative approach to the truth and this seems to have developed since his mom (Sherry Miller) and dad (Ron Lea) got a divorce. To a degree this story is very much a case of the boy who cried wolf (in fact we later see that Zach has a movie poster in his room for “The Boy Who Cried Werewolf” (1973)). His school work is suffering. He is meant to be working on a history project with Gabe but hasn’t done any work on it and he is as lax with the truth with his friends as with everyone else.

Zach calls into a Chinese restaurant on his way home and then into a video store where he rents the movie ‘Blood Curse of the Vampire’ (don’t look it’s made up). He gets the subway home and notices that the clock hands are spinning wildly. He looks down the tunnel and sees a suave gentleman in turn of the century evening dress, whom we later discover is Valentine Cutter (Ron Silver), who throws something at his feet, a worm infested rat. The man has vanished before the train streams along the tunnel and Zach narrowly avoids falling in front of it.

Just a note about the clock. This is an effect through the film, when a vampire is near the clocks go crazy. There is no explanation and this is not a device I’ve come across before and I suspect that we can put it down to the vampires, as they are immortal, being out of time.

Getting home to his mom’s apartment we see that Zach’s life is not a happy one. His mother is an executive and has to cut short their evening together because of work. Whilst this is going on it is interesting to note that the famous graveyard scene from the beginning of “Night of the living Dead” (1968) is playing on the TV. Mom leaves to go to work and Zach watches his vampire video. The next day she has to work again and he is sent to his dad’s a day early. He is given taxi money but takes the subway and manages to get himself lost and into an abandoned area of the station. He asks a workman, Dwayne (Michael Rhoades), the way and he offers to take Zach to the platform he wants. Zach refuses and Dwayne leaps at him but hits a beam of sunlight, his face begins to melt but he is pulled out by Valentine. Zach assumes it is a movie shoot and lets Valentine lead him to the platform. He gets on the train, leaving Valentine on the platform, but the train seems old and the occupants, who are somewhat pallid, all wear costumes from various decades. Suddenly Valentine is on the train and says that it is the undead express, but he will protect Zach. Zach cuts his hand and the rest of the undead go crazy but Valentine, true to his word, scares them off him. He explains that he was the man, back in 1905, who built the subway and was turned into a vampire by Barnabas, a 1000 year old vampire now deceased.

Valentine only drinks from rats, unlike the other vampires, a self styled ‘vegetarian’ vampire. They are trapped within the abandoned tunnels and stations and he needs the help of an innocent, Zach, to get out. Zach panics, gets off the train and escapes. Unfortunately his parents and friends don’t believe him and so Zach ends up in the station again to prove that there really are vampires. Valentine manages to befriend him but can he really trust a vampire?

For a TV movie, aimed firmly at the young teen market, this isn’t a bad little film. The effects are quite good. The effects when a vampire dies have a degree of gore belayed by the rest of the film and the opening graveyard with the Reaper has a very effective living statue moment. The story isn’t too bad, though it is a little simple and is definitely aimed at being a bit of a morality play – don’t tell lies or you’ll be drawn into the Shadow Zone and your friends won’t believe what you say. I did like the idea of the vampires living in the abandoned subway. There are plot holes that have undoubtedly been left because it is assumed that a teen wouldn’t spot them or care. For example not only does sunlight burn the vampires but so do camera flashes and certain types of electric light, which emit high UV levels. This is all well and good but one has to question why the electric is still on these abandoned areas of the subway, which feeds the bulbs that are ultimately trapping the vampires. One also has to ask if they have never considered throwing rocks at the offending lights. There is also a moment when Valentine is considering his young son, whom he lost when he was turned, that could and should have been expanded on more.

The kids’ acting is functional enough to be not too annoying, however the film contains a standout performance. Ron Silver plays Valentine in an understated way and yet simply exudes charm and a dark presence. He also has some great lines. When Zach explains that Gabe is a dyslexic he asks whether she is from another country and when Zach explains what dyslexia is he clearly absorbs the information without a hint of embarrassment. Unfortunately you do find yourself sitting and waiting for Silver’s reappearance when he is off screen as he makes this film.

Unfortunately the film hasn’t got too much in the way of pace, indeed the trailer, which is here, portrays a much more action packed adventure than what we actually get.

I must of course mention Wes Craven’s cameo and, though it spoils the very end of the movie but past the end of the actual story, point out that we discover that the counsellor is also a vampire. Wes Craven has therefore played a vampire in a movie!

Overall I’m giving this 5 out of 10, but the score has been greatly inflated by Silver’s performance and I’ve taken into account the target audience.

The imdb page is here.

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