Microbudget indies, I have found, are usually about one of three things:
-Young urbanites talking about sex;
No points for guessing which of these is the subject of Attack of the Vegan Zombies, a recent DVD release and the debut film of writer-director-producer-star Jim Townsend. And at the same time, no points for guessing what makes this particular zombie film an unusual and surprisingly original entry in what is perhaps the most unoriginal subgenre in all of horror. We've seen ravenous zombies do just about everything there is to do in movies stretching back over 40 years, but Townsend, happily, has found something new. I won't give away the details, although "vegan" ends up meaning less than you might expect: still, the actual hook is nonetheless clever and unique.
There are basically two ways to do a zombie story: start with the cannibalistic ghouls and keep throwing them at the characters for the whole movie, or keep them offscreen for as long as possible, to get the audience good and ready for the inevitable attack. Vegan Zombies takes the latter approach: for the most part, it's a story about a failing winery, run by Dionne (Christine Egan) and her husband, Joe (Townsend). After one particularly wretched crop, Dionne reluctantly asks her mother (H. Lynn Smith), a witch, to help ensure the success of the next year's grapes, knowing that another bad season will put them out of business altogether.
The magic ends up working almost too well: their grapes flourish like mad, far better than any other vineyard in the region. Eventually, Joe has to call in help, from his old friend Tom Frank (Wyatt Gunter), a professor at a nearby university, who brings along two pairs of student workers to help: cheerleaders Jenny (Kerry Kearns) and Lee (Natalia Jablokov), and nerds Ray (John D. Kelly) and Louis (Watt Smith). Frank quickly figures out that something is weird about the soil in the vineyard, but that's no longer the immediate concern, once the vines come to life and start killing people. And that is how, more than two-thirds into the fleet 77-minute feature (had he done nothing else right, Townsend would earn my gratitude for having the rare sense not to pad his film longer than it needs to be), we finally see our revenants, their blood replaced by chlorophyll, hungry for... but I said I wouldn't spoil it.
Besides his admirable wisdom about taking only as much time to tell his story as he needs, the best thing Townsend brings to the table is a solid control of tone. Like just about every horror film these days, or so it seems, Attack of the Vegan Zombies is a semi-comedy; unlike most of the others, it does not allow the comedy to run roughshod over the seriousness owed any good horror project. Characters make snide jokes, and the very title gives us a good idea of the general tenor of the film, but first and above all, Townsend makes sure that the inherent gravity of the scenario is treated with dignity. Something is out there, it is deadly, and there are no quips made about that fact. Certainly, it occasionally errs on the side of silliness - and in one case, worse than that, for the nerds are annoyingly over-the-top, and suggest that nobody involved has ever actually met a nerd since the early 1980s - but mostly it is a sincere attempt at a low-budget horror film. Not something to sniff at too readily, says I.
The film isn't even prone to the more common flaws of low-budget filmmaking: Max Fischer's cinematography is quite handsome and slick, though the night scenes reveal the project's limitations, the sound is recorded at something approaching consistent, legible levels (my pet peeve with this kind of film is the tendency for unusable sound getting used anyway, and I'm always profoundly grateful for filmmakers who make the effort to actually hire a damn sound mixer), and at least a couple of the performances are genuinely great; especially Egan, whose simple, straightforward approach to even the most peculiar moments (such as when she confesses to Joe that her mother is a witch) is the most important component in giving the film the "realistic" grounding that sets it apart from so many low-budget zombie films.
It is customary to praise this kind of film for showcasing the filmmakers' "promise" - and Attack of the Vegan Zombies certainly does that. But it doesn't require such a back-handed compliment, for it is, despite a roughness born from cheapness that no amount of talent can erase, one of the more interesting zombie movies to come down the pike recently. Sure, I look forward to seeing what Townsend can do with some real resources; but that doesn't mean that I didn't thoroughly enjoy what he could do on a shoestring.