Originally released as Last Rites in 2006, Gangs of the Dead was released on DVD a year later with a snappier — if cheesier — title that more accurately reflects its “urban” content. This movie should’ve been a typically corny, cheap, do-it-yourself production, but upon seeing the opening five minutes — which include big, sweeping camera angles, crisp picture quality, solid make-up effects and dazzling computer graphics, my hopes soared. Silly me.
Sure, GOTD is a cut above standard direct-to-video horror fare, but it turns out not to be a very generous cut. After an enticing opening, there’s a looming sense of bait-and-switch as the rest of the flick degrades into the land of Ho-Hum. Part of the problem is the weak (read: non-existent) character development, which reveals so little about anyone that it’s hard to tell who’s supposed to be the hero. Is it JT (credited only as “Howard”), the gangsta with a heart of gold? Or his homeboys Mac (Ethan Ednee) and Snake Dog (Ryan King)? (OK, maybe not Snake Dog; he’s got issues.) Or perhaps it’s JT’s hottie sister Latasha (Dayana Jamine). Throw in a rival Latino gang, a couple of cops, Phantasm‘s Reggie Bannister and a TV weatherman, and who knows who we’re rooting for — most likely the zombies, because the living people are so freakin’ dull and spend all their time screaming at each other.
All of the characters end up trapped in a warehouse surrounded by zombies created when a meteorite strikes a crowd of homeless people. Thus, we get the classic “enemies who must put aside their differences and team up in order to survive” scenario, although since most of them end up killing each other, the moral of the story seems to be that no, we can’t all just get along.
The zombies, meanwhile, are of the slow-moving, Romero ilk, with green skin a la Dawn of the Dead and blue drool a la…Papa Smurf? The make-up and special effects are impressive for the limited budget (under $250,000, according to the DVD commentary), but the gore is brief. These living dead don’t get to do much; there’s little gut munching, few head shots and far too many zombies are dispatched with a simple two-by-four to the torso. And most of the main characters don’t die at the hands (or mouths) of the zombies; they’re done in by their fellow captives.
Given all of this, GOTD lacks the sense of apocalyptic dread that great zombie movies inspire…but don’t tell that to Latasha. After the zombies attack, she goes beyond the reasonable boundaries of shell shock and literally becomes retarded, stumbling around like a punch-drunk toddler and shouting, “What’s THAT?!?” at the most recognizable objects, from a bottle of booze to a hand grenade. I would say that dumbass-edness isn’t contagious if I didn’t feel my own synapses eroding as I watched this, um, moving color drawings in a box — ooh, a pony!