Dead Rising: Watchtower Review
March 25, 2015
Turning a video game into a live-action movie remains one of Hollywood’s most elusive achievements. Even the best game adaptations — Resident Evil, Mortal Kombat, Prince of Persia — are barely competent from an artistic standpoint. Dead Rising: Watchtower, a Crackle original available starting March 27th on Xbox One and Xbox 360, isn’t as good as any of those movies but it’s infinitely more watchable than abominations like Street Fighter or Doom.
Many video game adaptations bear little resemblance to their source material. (Lookin’ at you, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.) Watchtower doesn’t suffer from this particular problem. If anything, writer/producer Tim Carter (Mortal Kombat: Legacy) delivers a movie that’s too faithful to its origins, focusing on gimmicks that work in the heightened reality of a video game but feel silly in live action.
Though it’s a completely new story featuring new characters, the events of Watchtower fit neatly into the Dead Rising universe, falling somewhere between 2011’s Dead Rising 2 and Dead Rising 3, set in 2021.
If you’re late to the Dead Rising party, here’s all you need to know: zombies have been a fact of life since an outbreak in a Colorado mall in 2006. In the aftermath, a drug called Zombrex was developed. Taken daily, it allows an infected person to lead a normal life. But miss just one dose and you get a sudden, permanent craving for human flesh.
Watchtower takes place in the fictional American city of East Mission, Oregon. A cynical digital news correspondent named Chase Carter (Jesse Metcalfe) is on the scene doing something or other blog related. What he’s hoping to find in the government’s FEMA-like Zombrex distribution center is unclear and doesn’t really matter. All that matters is he’s the wrong place, wrong time hero we’ll follow when people start eating each other.
The story plays out like a Dead Rising game. Exactly like one, in fact. There are endless shout-outs to the games, including wacky combo weapons, sadistic biker gangs, and psycho boss battles. There’s even an on-screen “countdown to firebombing” timer. They skip super zombies, zombie wasps and night time feeding frenzies (probably for budgetary reasons) but otherwise everything you’d expect is there. If you’re primarily interested in seeing a man in a Servbot t-shirt wielding a sledge saw, your journey is at an end. If you’re hoping for an objectively good zombie movie, better luck next time.
Watchtower isn’t without entertainment value but, like the games, it struggles to blend bleak, life-or-death struggles with zany humor as seamlessly as movies like Evil Dead II. There are a few solid dramatic moments, mostly courtesy of Virginia Madsen. More often, however, we’re forced to sit through sappy, piano-scored heart-to-hearts in which serviceable but forgettable pretty people whine about how hard the whole zombie apocalypse thing is.
Some of the jokes work, most notably the TV news segments with Rob Riggle’s foul-mouthed Frank West. Most others fall flat or are more tasteless than irreverent, like the zombie dad casually munching on the dead infant strapped to his chest like a horse with a feedbag.
Aesthetically, Watchtower looks pretty good. Director Zach Lipovsky, known mainly for VFX work and directing last year’s Leprechaun: Origins, does a decent job of bringing an overrun city to life on a budget. There may not be many big action set pieces but the production values, especially the set dressing and props, are significantly better than most digital projects. Almost every shot is handheld, which can get a little nauseating, but enough effort is put into the cinematography to keep things looking polished and professional.
Dead Rising: Watchtower is not a good movie or even a good video game movie. It is, however, a painstakingly faithful rendering of its source material. Fans may justifiably complain that it’s impossible to invest in one-dimensional characters and cliché government cover-ups, but no one can say it’s not as good as the games. Disposable characters and convoluted conspiracies are as common to the Dead Rising universe as machete shotguns and ludicrous Mad Max-style gangs. For better or worse, Watchtower is exactly the movie the Dead Rising series deserves.
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