In Monday’s edition of The Highlight Reel, I talk at length about the infamous production house known as The Asylum. The Asylum is a place where ideas and dreams are made into living, breathing reality in less than 4 months. Now, even though The Asylum is somewhat notorious for basically piggybacking on the multi-million dollar blockbusters churned out by Hollywood by producing ultra-low budget facsimilies of those films, known as “mockbusters”, I still think there’s a lot to love about them. I go into this in more detail on the show, but in case you don’t listen (you totally should, though), a few key facts about The Asylum for you: Most of their output is based on ripping off big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. They come up with cool titles before they write the stories and scripts. They shoot these films in a matter of weeks, sometimes days, and the film is ready for release within 2-4 months. They make them for under $1m each. And, most importantly of all, they’ve never, ever lost money on one of their mockbusters.
Now, given that these films are hastily scrabbled together to capitalise on whatever Hollywood is doing, it’s fair to say that none of them are really rivalling Citizen Kane and The Godfather for the critics’ affections. In fact, if you go into an Asylum movie with your Film Critic hat on, and look objectively at the pieces of each movie, they’re almost all pretty awful. That doesn’t mean they can’t be worth watching, however, and several of them manage to be much more watchable that the sterile Hollywood originals that they’re based on. While many of them are just plain bad, the so-bad-it’s-good-o-meter (which I always make sure to have on me in case someone sets upon me and forces me to watch an Italian horror movie, safety first kids) measures high on a select few. I singled out Transmorphers and Snakes on a Train in The Highlight Reel, but I also gave special praise to another film which I felt was head and shoulders above the rest of their output, both in terms of pure entertainment, but also in terms of being a surprisingly good action film on its own merits. That film was Abraham Lincoln vs Zombies, a film which centres on Abraham Lincoln. And zombies. You can’t say you don’t know what you’re getting.
This film is based on Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, a film which itself sounds like it could well be a product of The Asylum, but which bizarrely tries to play the concept of the most famous US president in history slaying a bunch of undead ghoulie types as straight as possible. No such problems with Abraham Lincoln Vs Zombies, however. In films such as this, the plot merely gets in the way, so it’s best to treat it with the same discourtesy here. There’s a zombie outbreak in the midst of the American civil war, so it falls to one of history’s most famous badasses (and allegedly the pioneer of the chokeslam, don’t you know) to take them down. So, he and a group of his aides head down to a Confederate Fort, form an uneasy alliance with some of the soldiers there, and set about killing some zombies. Those two sentences probably took longer to write than the entirety of the plot, and really, it’s pretty standard zombie movie fare if you strip away the faahbulously flaahmboyant southahn accaints, fancy-dress-shop-window outfits and hilarious glued-on facial hair.
Really though, that is what sets it apart. It is ridiculously silly, with the hit and miss southern accents being a particular highlight which need to be heard to be believed. It’s like your drunken friend attempting to do Leo DiCaprio in Django Unchained. It’s not all quite so camp, however. Anchoring the film with a surprisingly distinguished turn as Abe himself is Bill Oberst Jr., who portrays Lincoln as the perfect mixture of historical figure and action movie badass. It’s hardly Daniel Day-Lewis, but it’s still a far better performance than you’d expect from any Asylum movie. His Lincoln is as likable an action hero as you could ever wish to see, wise, charismatic and handy with a scythe, which makes it all the more satisfying to watch him hacking up zombies. You really root for him as tears through the undead, and it’s amazing how much simply having a likable protagonist sets this film apart from the legions of identikit zombie movies.
You can’t really say the same of the rest of the characters. Of course, this is an Asylum movie, and the fact that it was probably written under similar circumstances to Father Ted’s Eurovision entry shows through in the films’ midsection. Anyone who’s seen a zombie movie in their life knows how it goes; the survivors barricade themselves in a safe place, and seem to be safe, until they all fall out and contrive to get themselves killed, one by one, in incredibly stupid ways. That formula rings true here too, only being in a nice, safe and secure Confederate fort, the survivors have to try really, really hard to get killed. So desperate were the writers to give their characters something to overcome, we get such hilarious deaths as a man attempting a leaping spinning Street Fighter-style move with a pickaxe, complete with slow-motion, only to fall flat on his arse and get eaten. We also get a man inexplicably climbing out onto a roof and falling off for no reason, as well as a running gentleman who flees onto some train tracks, and decides to continue running along them even as a train drives right up his backside.
Much of the writing is basic and contrived like this, but, as mentioned before, that’s almost a positive for an Asylum movie. A film that was written in a matter of days is hardly going to be some Tarantino-esque display of verbosity and tight plotting, so why bother? Might as well focus on what people want to see out of a movie called Abraham Lincoln Vs Zombies, and that’s exactly what this movie does right. With The Asylum, it’s all about priorities, and in this case, much of the budget was blown on reasonably stylish action (which is very cannily edited, with a creative use of offscreen space), and lots of it. In that regard, it’s a roaring success, and crucially it’s very rarely boring.
Ultimately, that’s all you can ask for from an Asylum movie. These films aren’t made to please critics; they’re made for film fans, by film fans. They’re hardly high art, and they’re not the most memorably bad films ever either, but they do have their own charms when done right, and I would recommend Abraham Lincoln Vs Zombies a hundred times before I pointed someone in the direction of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It’s available on DVD everywhere now, so do check it out, and keep checking back in future for more Asylum reviews. Until next time, keep emancipatin’.