Poorly executed in just about every way imaginable, “Shadow: Dead Riot” even forgets that it’s supposed to be a horror movie about zombies until an hour into things. The one category where the film has any chance of excelling at is high camp. Alas, it will take an argument to prove that all this silliness is intentional, as no one onscreen seems to be “in” on the joke. Less a horror movie than a really cheap way to spend a couple of thousand bucks and make use of its singular rundown (and no doubt abandoned in real life) prison locale, “Shadow: Dead Riot” is an embarrassment that is only occasionally interrupted by laughter from the audience.
Our tale of lesbian female prisoners and angry resurrected zombies begin with convicted serial killer Shadow (genre vet Tony Todd) being put to death 20 years ago, only to (literally) explode and infect everyone in the prison with his blood. How? Don’t ask. It just happens. Fast forward 20 years later, where we meet Solitaire (Carla Green), a convicted murderer who arrives at the same prison facility, now refitted to house female prisoners according to the female warden’s passive-aggressive therapy experiments. No sooner does Solitaire get on the bad side of uber butch lesbian prisoner Mondo (Tatiana Butler) then she begins to uncover the secret of the prison and a connection she shares with its most infamous inmate — Shadow.
Fast-forward once again through about 50 minutes of female prison movie cliché (including gratuitous naked showers, gratuitous sex with prison guards, and lesbian encounters), before writers Michael Gingold and Richard Siegel remembers that they are in fact writing a horror movie. After the prison’s lone pregnant con finds herself giving birth in the prison’s yard at night, blood finds their way into the ground, where Shadow and crew are buried. And because this plot encapsulation has gone on for much too long already, let’s cut to the chase: zombies wake up, eat people, and the end.
Although it proves to be a terribly painful viewing experience, “Shadow: Dead Riot” proves doubly disappointing because I had high hopes for the film. To be honest, and even after all these years of watching bad movies, I could never have predicted something this dire could be produced from such a great premise: “Zombies in female prison.” How could you possibly go wrong with that? Well, the people who made “Shadow” didn’t just go wrong with it, they went so far wrong that I can’t be sure if this final product is hard work turned bad, or bad work turned excrement. I’m going to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt and go with the former. What can I say, I’m generous that way.
Frequent points of mockery come at the expense of the film’s low budget and its nonexistent common sense. For instance, the prison doctor’s office, it appears, is just another cell with a curtain for a “door”; head prison guard Elsa Thorne seems to be wearing a police uniform for some reason while everyone else wears, well, prison guard uniforms; and for a prison with violent criminals, the environment feels more like a slumber party, complete with matching comfy pink wool pajama outfits for the prisoners and water therapy. And is it me, or did the filmmakers only have access to one prison hallway, so had to keep shooting it over and over from different angles? And the less said about the mysterious prison yard, with its shockingly radiant green grass, the better.
It does make you wonder, though, why Carla Green, who can barely act and can barely fake her way through a fistfight, was cast in the lead role. Why didn’t director Derek Wan hire someone who was equally unknown and untalented, but who can actually fight? Acting ability, it seems, was superfluous here given the cast. Except for the stunt doubles, the women in “Shadow” have such difficulty with the fight scenes that a game of “Spot the Obvious Stunt Double” crops up in every instance of action. Hint: whenever Greene’s Solitaire or the rest of the cast does something athletic or physically impressive, it’s the film’s Chinese stunt doubles at work.
The clumsy nature of the film’s action scenes is annoying, especially in light of Wan’s past as a long-time Hong Kong cinematographer, and one would assume he’s learned a thing or two about staging action, but apparently not. How is it possible that someone who lensed Jet Li’s “Fist of Legend” (which is, bar none, the best pure martial arts movie ever committed to film) would have such poor understanding of how action scenes flow together? It’s like Wan has never seen an action sequence in his life, much less direct one. Granted, the lack of talent in front of the camera might answer some nagging criticisms in this area, but even so, the editing is so overly choppy that one almost thinks they’re not even trying.
It’s difficult to fathom how “Shadow: Dead Riot” could have turned out as badly as it did (and don’t even get me started on the mutant zombie baby — Jesus Christ). Everything about the finished product screams “amateur”, from the acting to the directing to a script laden with groan-inducing one-liners. Apparently the bulk of the budget must have gone to hiring named actor Tony Todd, who certainly gives the film his all, perhaps hoping for a Shadow franchise out of this. I wouldn’t recommend “Shadow” to anyone, including the most undemanding fans of the genre, as it’s a painfully bad movie, inadequate in just about every area except high camp (and I don’t believe that was the intention, which makes it worst).
Derek Wan (director) / Michael Gingold (screenplay), Richard Siegel (story)
CAST: Tony Todd …. Shadow
Lee Burkett …. H. Rollins
Tatianna Butler …. Mondo
Carla Greene …. Solitaire
Andrea Langi …. Elsa Thorne