Last month, the locally produced zombie comedy A Cadaver Christmas was named Best Professional Feature at the Cedar Rapids Independent Film Festival, and given its title, you'd rightly expect the movie to have its tongue stuck firmly in its cheek. Most likely, after being gnawed off and spit out by the groaning, lumbering undead.
Yet what you might not expect is that this campy, gory outing - reportedly made for a paltry $7,000 - would emerge as a true genre rarity: an ultra-low-budget horror comedy that, as it progresses, actually gets funnier and funnier. Director/editor Joseph Zerull and producer/star Daniel Rairdin-Hale - both St. Ambrose University graduates - are clearly talented; the film's low-angle tracking shots and compositions, especially, are playful as all get-out. (Danny Boyle would likely applaud the shots in which the camera stares up from the bottoms of a beer mug and toilet.) But in the end, what makes A Cadaver Christmas such a hoot is the filmmakers' obvious appreciation for the absurd, and their skill in setting up gags that continue to pay off, incrementally, over the course of 90 minutes.
It's a safe bet that local audiences will probably laugh harder than others; when a film's first scene finds ComedySportz veterans Jeff Adamson playing a TV newscaster and Ben Hopkins playing a gruff bartender, you can pretty much rest assured that something funny's going on. (A Cadaver Christmas will be screened at ComedySportz's Rock Island venue, the Establishment Theatre, on May 29.) And with the arrival of Rairdin-Hale - an assistant professor of theatre at St. Ambrose - as a surly, blood-soaked janitor, the film's satirical-B-movie aspirations are made terrifically apparent. Describing his on-the-job encounter with a horde of cadavers - the results of a university medical experiment gone horribly wrong - the actor's tough-guy pronouncements and bad-ass posturing are so incongruous with his boyish looks and pale, slender frame that everything Rairdin-Hale says comes with an added wink of parody. ("I don't know what they're teaching kids in Science these days," growls the janitor with perfect, Eastwood-ian self-seriousness. "And I don't wanna know.")
As with all zombie flicks worth their salt, A Cadaver Christmas assembles a motley crew of eccentrics to wage war against the deceased. Those joining Rairdin-Hale and Hopkins on their Christmas Eve splatter-fest, though, are particularly nutso: Hanlon Smith-Dorsey (credited, alongside Zerull and Rairdin-Hale, as a co-writer) as an agreeably sloshed barfly; Jessica Denney as a pert criminal-justice major and campus-security official ("CPR trained and certified!"); Yosh Hayashi as a disgraced, hyper-tense sheriff; and Andrew Harvey as the cop's arrested perp with rather repellent sexual proclivities. Eviscerating their attackers with mops, plungers, snow shovels, and whatever random holiday decorations they land upon, the performers deliver their (intentionally, I presume) stoic proclamations and cornball yuks with ace comic timing, and the amusement they provide is matched by the deliriously icky effects. Seven grand may not buy much, but happily for the zombie fans among us, it buys a hell of a lot of squibs, entrails, and exploding noggins.
Though the movie has obviously been fashioned as a schlocky, Grindhouse-style drive-in feature, complete with scratches on the film reels, there are times when you can't quite tell whether A Cadaver Christmas is satirizing filmmaking amateurishness or is, in actuality, genuinely amateurish. (In a voice-over that I'm surprised made it through the final editing process, Rairdin-Hale's janitor makes the grammatically senseless declaration, "They can all go to hell, for I care"; I think he meant to say, "They can go to hell, for all I care.") And while the current version of the movie has been trimmed from the debut presentation I saw locally this past autumn, it still boasts several sequences that I wish had found their way to the editing-room floor. Much as I like him as an actor and a person, I could've easily lived without the scene of Harvey getting busy with the charred remains of a corpse, accompanied by really unpleasant (and, given the crispy object of his affections, impossible) squishing sounds.
Still, the film is a low-rent blast - with familiar St. Ambrose faces William Campbell providing a divinely tacky score and Michael Kennedy hamming it up to high heaven - and worth catching for the jokes alone; the escalating gag about whether the mutants should be referred to as "zombies" or "cadavers" culminates in a priceless payoff. (Actually, the payoff's entire scene, in which Smith-Dorsey converses with an unconscious Rairdin-Hale, is priceless.) All this, plus a climactic decimation underscored by "O Holy Night." There are warped minds behind A Cadaver Christmas. God bless them, every one.
A Cadaver Christmas plays at Rock Island's Establishment Theatre (220 19th Street) at 7 p.m. on Sunday, May 29. The screening will be preceded by short films at 5 and 6 p.m., and followed by outtakes and a question-and-answer session with the filmmakers. Tickets are $10 at the door, and more information is available by visiting Facebook.com/CadaverChristmas.