Deathlands (2003) Movie Review

Slowly but surely, the Sci-Fi Channel is starting to become a terrific reservoir for original science fiction movies. While we’re not talking about Hollywood just yet, considering what the cable network has bankrolled in recent years, from the “Dune” mini-series to its sequel, “Children of Dune”, there’s no doubt that the Sci-Fi Channel is really making a name for itself. Their strides at the moment remind me of HBO in its early days, which, considering HBO’s present state as a purveyor of quality movies, should bode well for the fledgling network.

“Deathlands”, based on the popular post-apocalyptic books of the ’80s, is the latest original offering from the network. It’s set 100 years after the world has been devastated by nuclear war. Ryan Cawdor (Vincent Spano) leads a small band of scavengers through the wastelands, surviving on what they can find or kill for. Among Cawdor’s troupe is Krysty (Jenya Lano), a half-mutant, half-human and Cawdor’s lover. There’s Dix (Cliff Saunders), another human, and Jak (Nathan Carter), a mutant with rage issues. After many years in the deathlands, Cawdor decides to return home to a human sanctuary ruled by his stepmother (Traci Lords) and his brother, both of whom had, 20 years earlier, murdered Cawdor’s father.

The first thing you’ll notice about “Deathlands” is that it doesn’t have a very high budget, and director Joshua Butler (“Saint Sinner”) does his best to hide the inadequacies of this post-apocalyptic world. Butler and cinematographer Bruce Worrall uses a lot of red tinting to represent the radiation poisoning in the atmosphere, although this just makes the movie look really dull and lifeless. There isn’t really a lot about “Deathlands” that is impressive despite Butler’s chaotic camerawork and flashy editing work that uses up pretty much every trick in the book.

I’m not entirely sure if the movie works better as a book, because it is definitely not very believable as a movie. And no, I’m not even talking about the human race surviving 100 years of nuclear radiation with only the presence of rampaging mutants to show for it. I’m talking about the movie’s premise that the survivors would go back to living a lifestyle that represents medieval Europe, complete with Barons and heirs to the throne and whatnot. Such is the case with Cawdor’s past, whose father, the original Baron, once ruled the sanctuary with kindness, before the evil Traci Lords and the insane Alan Peterson overthrew him.

If, as the movie posits, it’s been 100 years since the end of civilization, and the survivors were raised without the ability to read, write, or understand history, would they actually return to serfdom? I think not. A more realistic post-apocalyptic world would be one filled with survivalists looking out for themselves at all costs, and not willingly subject themselves to the dictatorial rule of an insane Baron and his equally insane Baroness. Think about it: why would primitive survivors who grew up in a world devoid of civilization bend to the will of two crazies that are as intimidating as day old bread? What exactly is keeping them loyal? It just doesn’t make a lick of sense.

Its main premise revealed to be a sham, there’s not much of “Deathlands” to really hold onto. There’s not enough action to keep one interested, and the characters are drawn with broad strokes. The tough Cawdor, the loyal Krysty, the untrusting Dix, and the needy Jak. Even for a post-apocalyptic movie, “Deathlands” is a bit of a letdown. And how is it that 100 years after a nuclear war people are still running around using M16s and shotguns? Who exactly is still making the ammo for these weapons?

Vincent Spano (“Texas Rangers”) does fine as Cawdor, although on more than one occasion he seems just as stumped by the movie’s many absurd plot turns as we are. Traci Lords, post-porn, still can’t act her way out of a wet paper bag. The rest don’t fare any better, but then again the screenplay doesn’t exactly give them much to work with. Even if you could swallow the film’s many twists and turns with a straight face (which is quite a challenge in itself), “Deathlands” is pretty much death on arrival. (Gee, I’m so clever.)

Joshua Butler (director) / James Axler (novel)
CAST: Vincent Spano …. Ryan Cawdor
Jenya Lano …. Krysty Wroth
Traci Lords …. Lady Rachel Cawdor
Cliff Saunders …. J.B. Dix
Matthew Currie Holmes …. Nathan Cawdor

Buy Deathlands on DVD