I’ll confess that the Dead Rising franchise is near and dear to my heart, ever since I logged countless hours running around the Willamette Parkview Mall with a katana and a “protective” horse-head mask. Boasting insane contraptions, hordes of ferocious zombies, and psychopathic boss battles, the original game features enough cinematic fodder to string together its own wacky animated feature, but the thought of a live-action Dead Rising movie still packed an exciting punch. Thus, Dead Rising: Watchtower was born.
Unlike the games, Watchtower follows the exploits of a young internet journalist named Chase Carter (Jesse Metcalfe). Frank West (Rob Riggle) is a part of the chaos, but he watches as a zombie quarantine goes horribly awry form the safety of a television news room. Chase is the one who finds himself caught in the action, as a new Zombrex-proof virus strain traps the infected inside an East Mission quarantine zone with many terrified survivors. Aided by a female badass named Crystal O’Rourke (Meghan Ory), Chase attempts to uncover what could be a devastating governmental conspiracy while the zombie body-count continues to grow.
All the Dead Rising staples make an appearance here – customizable tool-shed weaponry, Frank West, recognizable storefronts, Servbot heads, insane looters, and even Adam the Clown! Well, Bonzo the Clown, technically, but still! In essence, Dead Rising: Watchtower hits on all the right notes meant to service hardcore gamers who have a vast knowledge of Capcom’s zombie universe. Those who pay close attention might pick upon a few more hidden Easter Eggs along the way, like a zombie who’s dressed as motocross champ Chuck Greene from Dead Rising 2, but sometimes these tasty tidbits feel like they’re placed in plain view only for nostalgia’s sake.
Where Dead Rising feels like an immersive gaming experience full of colorful zombie nods, immense creative freedoms, and a wonderfully detailed world, Dead Rising: Watchtower runs along a very generic path. Aside from some hybrid weaponry (Crystal’s sword/shovel or Chase’s sledgehammer/bonesaw) and a rogue pack of anarchy-loving bikers, Tim Carter’s script doesn’t showcase any of the madcap energy found throughout the game’s engrossing storyline. Chase never appears to be in that much danger when avoiding his sluggish, undead attackers, and when night befalls East Mission, the zombies don’t enter their usual berserker mode like in the game. CGI gore pollutes entire action sequences with pixelated blood streaks, Frank West is turned into a celebrity douche-nozzle who only worries about selling his new book, and survivor interactions come at a minimum. While Watchtower may be riddled with franchise nods, the film’s driving story barely lives up to the Dead Rising name.
Even more disappointing are the performances and tone, neither of which channel the zany characters that Frank West and company interact with during the games. Jesse Metcalfe’s leading hunk is tolerable in most doses, as Chase keeps a strong focus on satirically traversing today’s dirty world of online reporting, and Meghan Ory is charming enough as a Zombrex patient fighting for her life, but the tolerable “praise” really stops there. Dennis Haysbert is used only for his deep, bellowing voice, the writing “Rob Riggles” the hell out of Frank West, and poor Virginia Madsen appears to be on autopilot the whole time. In respect to spoilers, Madsen’s motherly arc is supposed to have a driving emotionality, yet she comes off as stiff as a board in most situations (happy/life-threatening/sorrowful). A drably straight tone saturates the whole production, sucking in supporting actors like Keegan Connor Tracy, while Chase’s exploits mimic a soapy horror drama instead of a playful sandbox filled with undead corpses.
Dead Rising: Watchtower sticks to a more focused script, opting only for a group of power-hungry biker villains led by a self-appointed God named Logan (Aleks Paunovic). It’s a smart decision, because including so many of the lunatics from the Willamette Mall alone might have come across as an overload, and the film runs as a companion piece that takes place during the events of Dead Rising 2 and Dead Rising 3 – but you can’t help yearning for a bit more individuality.
The video game franchise is ripe with characters (hillbilly gun-nuts, cannibal butchers, loner arsonists, bondage-wearing-virgins, ect.), yet only Frank West gets a cinematic reincarnation. Logan’s biker squad are nothing but overused dystopian looters we’ve seen time and time again, almost like a toned-down version of the Mad Max inspired machine-heads from Doomsday. I’ll admit that points are granted for casting Epic Meal Time’s Harley Morenstein as a BBQ-lovin’ madman – but those points are washed out for giving him almost zero screen time. Dead Rising is riddled with characters who are begging to be grindhouse movie legends, yet none of them find their way into East Mission.
At least director Zach Lipovsky shows a directorial growth from Leprechaun: Origins, which comes as a positive takeaway. He shows a better understanding of what succeeds in horror, and executes some pretty rad slayings when practicality and chainsaws combine. There’s one particularly gratifying long-take where Chase runs around a zombie-infested street, smashing skulls one by one, but most other climaxes feel a bit cheap in comparison. It’s obvious that characters aren’t actually hitting the zombies, which post-production attempts to fix with shoddy animation, and Lipovsky utilizes weird POV shots from the business-end of whatever weapon is inflicting damage upon rotting flesh. These views are always static and grainy, like a cheap-grade Go Pro, and add nothing memorable to choreographed fight sequences that otherwise are shot on a crisper level of brutality.
There’s ambition in Dead Rising: Watchtower, but it’s buried under self-serving references, heavy-handed governmental jabs, some harsh visual representations, and a bland tone that doesn’t quite capture what Capcom’s franchise is all about. Dead Rising is a gift to zombie lovers, giving us the chance to walk on the heads of mall-polluting zombies or slap a traffic cone on one for a good laugh, but its companion film is just a generic extension of the zombie genre that fails to recapture that same gleeful spark.
*Half a star was awarded solely based on the Soska sisters cameo. OK, not really, but they friggin’ rock.
Dead Rising: Watchtower is a safe adaptation that doesn't carry the same madcap charm of Capcom's far-more successful video game franchise.