There must be something in the water in Maryland, because I honestly think no other state has produced more backyard cinematic auteurs. I’m not talking about Baltimore-born-and-bred Oscar winners like Barry Levinson here, obviously. No, I’m thinking more the kind of guys who figured all they needed to make a movie was either a 16mm camera or a hand-held VHS camcorder, some friends, a few thousand bucks, and most importantly, the will to just get out there and get the job done. The kind of guys who watch a movie and think to themselves “heck, this shit doesn’t look that hard, I bet I could do it!” Maryland’s been damn generous when it comes to producing moviemakers of this ilk — after all, John Waters, Don Dohler, and Tony Malanowski all hailed from there, each with less ability, experience, and money than his predecessor, but arguably more determination. The name Pericles Lewnes should be added into that list somewhere as well, I’m just not quite sure where.
Who, you say? And why the uncertainty as to his placement in the dime-store pantheon?
First, the who — like the other esteemed folks just mentioned, Lewnes hailed from the Baltimore suburbs and didn’t know anything in particular about movies other than the fact that he wanted to make one and had some like-minded acquaintances (a good many of whom chose to have their work on his picture credited pseudonymously — hence the deliberate lack of reference to actors and actresses, screenwriters, etc. that you’ll find for the balance of this review — no, I’m not just being lazy) who were willing to chip in with the scripting, acting, and “special” effects —so in 1989 he set about to make what he considered to be the most outrageously stupid movie he could think of, a tongue-in-cheek (to put it midly) shot-on-video splatterfest with perhaps one of the more deliberately no-frills, here’s-what-this-flick-is-about, take-it-or-leave-it titles in cinematic history, Redneck Zombies (whether or not Lewnes and company were aware of the earlier super-8 effort out of Texas, Ozone! Attack Of The Redneck Mutants, I have no idea).
The total budget for their movie was just under $10,000, it was shot in Maryland farm country, and the “plot,” such as it is, can be summed up more or less completely in one sentence thusly : “Incompetent army fuck-up loses barrel of “chemical warfare toxic wate” (the script’s exact words) somewhere in the sticks, local inbred hillbilly clan uses said barrel as part of their new still, green moonshine comes out, everyone who drinks it turns into a zombie, and gory hijinks ensue when a group of city-folk campers who apparently barely know each other (and frankly have no reason to given their diverse cultural backgrounds etc.) and can’t seem to talk about anything other than sex and how fucking tired and/or lost they are encounter aforementioned redneck mutant zombies.” Damn if that wasn’t the quickest and easiest story recap I’ve ever churned out in a couple years of movie blogging.
So that’s who Pericles Lewnes is, and what he made. Now, as to why I’m not quite sure where he should fit in on the list of homemade moviemakers out of Maryland —
First off, chronologically speaking it’s pretty cut-and-dried — Waters preceded Dohler who preceded Malanowski (who got his start working for Dohler) and they all preceded Lewnes. But Lewnes shot his first (and, until 2007’s highly experimental distributed-via-online-download effort Loop, only, apart from working as an FX man on a couple of Troma’s Toxic Avenger sequels) movie on video, and all those other guys shot on film. Furthermore, Lewnes had a very specific goal in mind for his picture — he wanted it to be the first-ever (so he thought, in truth BoardingHouse beat him to the punch by a few years) SOV feature to be blown up onto film and distributed for theatrical release (a pretty lofty ambition for a guy with no cinematic experience whatsoever — and damned if he didn’t get his wish, since Troma picked this flick up and it got some east coast movie-house play before enjoying a long and semi-prosperous run in the home video rental market). So there’s our first key difference between Lewnes and his Maryland-based cinematic progenitors.
Next up is the budget — Lewnes hustled up $10,000, which is frankly a bit more than more than probably Dohler and certainly Malanowski had to work with on their earliest forays into moviemaking (albeit not by much, and any flick produced in the, say, $5,000-$25,000 range is gonna look pretty cheap regardless), and unbelievable as it sounds this actually proved to be more than enough to give him and his cohorts the ability to produce some pretty damn solid (for the homemade variety, mind you) gore effects (as with most SOV horror or horror/comedy hybrid efforts, it’s pretty clear that this is where more or less all the money went — certainly the uniformly (in this case self-aware) atrocious acting “talent” probably didn’t cost a dime, not should it have, but at least in this movie they’re clearly having a good time across the board hamming it up).
Following on from the budgetary differences, minscule as they may be, we have the issue of actual technical competence, and for that we need to get a bit hypothetical for a moment here. Certainly if you gave Don Dohler a couple million bucks, he could at least deliver some solidly cool special effects, but you would probably still get straight-forward “point-and-shoot” style camerawork and a script about a killer alien or three on the loose in the woods being hunted down by townsfolk (in this case played by, I dunno, Brad Pitt and Sylvester Stallone or something), with no self-aware humor whatsoever. In short, instead of a backyard evil-alien runaround pretending to be something more, you’d have a medium-budget evil-alien runaround pretending to be something more (and I mean no disrespect by this — Dohler’s absolutely serious efforts to deliver a product of at-least-near- passable quality with no reference at all to its own obvious budgetary limitations is one of the things I love about his work — he was more about showing off what he could do with limited means while keeping more or less something of a straight face about what he couldn’t do and still giving even that a go regardless), and if you gave Tony Malanowski a Hollywood-sized budget you’d probably get a semi-respectable middling-quality “supernatural thriller” of some sort. In short, both these guys took their jobs seriously. Lewnes, quite obviously from the get-go, doesn’t. But that doesn’t automatically mean that he’s a bad filmmaker — he’s just a guy who has no illusions that he’s making anything other than a bad film (or video, as the case may be). Redneck Zombies knows it’s a piece of crap right out of the gate and never tries to “rise above” (whatever that even means) its blatantly less-than-humble origins. Lewnes, opearting without the budget to actually scare you, is more than willing to settle for grossing you out and making you laugh instead.
Beyond all the obvious and stupid laughs, though (look! a baby drinking moonshine! and a gay hillbilly (played by the director himself, no less)! and lots of dick jokes!) there is, dare I say it, some intelligence at work here — the “tabaccky man” scene, with a backwoods tobacco farmer hustling his produce (is tobacco actually considered a form of produce? oh well, too late to wonder about it now) from out of the back of his truck while dressed as the Elephant Man and talking like, I dunno, the angel of fucking death or something, is both hilarious and genuinely unsettling (if you’re in the right mood) and shows that Lewnes has probably at least watched, if not understood, a Bergman flick or two, and the lame-brained spoof of the infamous hitchhiker scene in the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre shows that he’s counting on most of his audience to at least have enough smarts to get an admittedly blatant in-joke (which may not sound like much but I’ll take brainless entertainment that assumes its audience has a brain over pseudo-brainy mainstream Hollywood product that actually insults your intelligence and plays to the lowest common denominator at every turn). So who knows? To return to our “if you gave these guys a budget —” hypothesis, maybe with a couple million on hand Lewnes could have produced a seriously sardonic black comedy of some sort.
So for all that digital “ink” spilled, I think we’re back at the beginning — quite clearly Pericles Lewnes has a lot in common with the Maryland homemade moviemakers who came before him, but there are key differences, as well. He’s got the “I’m making shit here and I know it” attitude of John Waters mixed with the “I can make these effects look decent” gumption of Don Dohler combined with the “maybe I can try to at least be creepy here for a second” ambition of Tony Malanowski, yet stands on his own as perhaps the most at-the-end-of-the-day- unclassifiable of the whole bunch. Certainly Redneck Zombies never for one instant displays any pretenses of being anything apart from the brainless gore-fest-mixed-with-overtly-stupid-humor romp in the woods that it is, yet it at least tries to, as weird as this may sound, show the audience for that kind of crap some level of, inherently blasphemous as this may sound, respect. Even if said audience isn’t much in the habit of looking for any, much less caring whether or not they actually get it. There’s an attitude of “hey, turn your brain off and have a good time here, because we did, too” in Redneck Zombies that’s missing from a lot of other blatantly lame shit of this ilk that just seems satisfied with topping itself on the outrageous gore front as the movie progresses and has no other ambitions apart from that. It’s this reviewer’s steadfast belief that if more “dumb movies” were as smart as this one, then more of them would be genuinely entertainigly stupid, rather than just stupidly stupid for the sake of nothing other than — well, being stupid. Anyone can do that kind of stupid. The kind on display here at least takes some forethought and planning.As mentioned earlier (and speaking of stupidly stupid instead of smartly stupid — some notable exceptions like Combat Shock and Screamplay aside), Troma picked up Redneck Zombies for theatrical as well as home video distribution, and a couple years back released the definitive, 90-minute “director’s cut” of the movie as part of their “Tromasterpiece Collection” DVD series (it’s billed as the “20th Anniversary Special Edition”). Picture (full-frame) and sound (mono) have both been remastered and are of respectable-enough quality, and extas include a pretty good commentary track from Lewnes, a selection of outtakes and deleted scenes, a plethora of interviews with, it seems, damn near everybody inovlved with the making of this thing, trailers for some other Troma prodcut, and the usual annyoingly unfunny Lloyd Kaufman ego-boosting crap. It’s literally a packed -to -the- gills release and even includes the complete original soudtrack score on a second “bonus disc” CD. Good stuff, Maynard.
If you’re up for a swim on the absolute bottom of the SOV barrel, Redneck Zombies is a fun way to while away an hour and a half of your existence. It knows what it is, knows that you know it too, and never thinks you’re an asshole for digging this kind of —- uhhhmmm — “entertainment.” It’s reasonably well-executed, refreshingly self-aware, and completely devoid of even the basic ability to sets its sights any higher. That’s never going to make it a “respectable” piece of moviemaking by any stretch of the imagination, but it never figured to be and frankly has an attitude about it that seems to state that it honestly could care less. As somebody somewhere else once said (about something else entirely, and I can’t remember what) “it sucks — but it sucks with integrity.” Who can’t go for a little bit of that every once in awhile?