Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the first installment of my crawl through Netflix’s basement. Each Wednesday in October I’m going to be reviewing some of the most, hopefully, craptastic contemporary sci-fi and horror films that Netflix has to offer, and have I got a doozy for you this week. Behold the glory that is Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies.
NB: AvZ is in no way related to the Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter movie.
This movie frames the life and death of the great emancipator through the lens of an outbreak of Zombification in Savannah, Georgia. The story itself is set shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg. As Lincoln (Bill Oberst, Jr.) considers his now famous Gettysburg Address, word reaches the White House that a Union raid designed to capture Fort Pulaski has failed miserably. What’s worse, the lone survivor returns to Washington with stories of animated corpses feeding on the flesh of the living. Abe’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton (Bernie Ask), believes the man to be deranged from battle, but Abe suspects otherwise. You see, Abe’s mother didn’t die from “Milk Sickness” as history records; she and Abe’s father were both infected with the zombie virus. As a nine-year-old boy Abe used a wheat scythe, which he subsequently employs as his weapon of choice as an adult, to decapitate both his parents.
The rest of the movie unfolds about as you would expect given such an auspicious start. Abe and a dozen men from the newly formed secret service – before you ask, yes they do wear black suits – take a train into the Deep South to ascertain the fate of the initial Fort Pulaski raiding party. Secretly though, Abe leads the mission because he alone has the experience to deal with a zombie outbreak. Oh and this is the sort of movie where people call zombies zombies, courtesy of the lone African American secret service agent whose name is – wait for it – Mr. Brown. Seriously? Mr. Brown? That’s the best name screenwriter Richard Schenkman could come up with for the token black character? Anyway, Mr. Brown gives us “zombie” as a proper noun because he grew up in a Creole family or some such culturally sensitive contrivance.
For a movie made on an estimated $150,000 budget, I’m not going to bag too hard on AvZ’s meagre production values. Point in fact, the decision to shoot most of the film on location at Fort Pulaski was quite clever. As well, there was a clear mobilization of the local Civil War re-enactment community as all of the costuming is quite period appropriate – the notable exception here is Stonewall Jackson’s hat which prominently and stupidly features the Confederate battle flag. One quick Google images search should have told the director such a choice was out of line.
It’s the little details and inconsistencies which very quickly take a viewer out of a state of suspended disbelief and into the realm of “Dear god how am I only twenty-five minutes into this steaming turd?”
Perhaps the creepiest element among these goof-ups is seen in the relationship between Abe and Mary Todd. History records Mary Todd as Lincoln’s wife. We also know that Todd and Lincoln had four sons together. Why then does Mary Todd refer to Abe as “father” at two separate points in the film? For the life of me I couldn’t tell if Abe’s subsequent paternalism toward Mary Todd was typical behaviour for a nineteenth century male, or a genuine attempt to convince the audience that Lincoln’s wife is actually his daughter. Then again, maybe they had some sort of kinky take on the “call me daddy” fetish. Who is to know?
This first father/husband/daughter scene occurs five minutes into the movie. In the ninety or so that follow, we get to see revolvers magically transform from single to double action, muskets fire without the benefit of reloads or cocking the striking hammer, a Stonewall Jackson in the world’s most hilariously fake beard, and a ten-year-old Teddy Roosevelt charming the crap out of a Georgia prostitute, who just happens to be the daughter of another prostitute that Abe had a thing with in his younger years. That’s right, if you’re a women with a speaking part in this movie, you’re either a prostitute or burdened by quasi-kinky historical revisionism.
Truth be told, I kind of like the allusion to both Lincoln and Roosevelt as notorious philanderers. It’s probably closer to truth than most contemporary history books would have us believe.
Still, even if I forgive the almost unpardonably bad sound editing, the perpetual use of a low-light lens filter that washes out all but the brightest colours, and Lincoln’s battle cry of “Emancipate this!”, I still can’t bring myself to absolve this movie of its crimes against story telling.
Almost every ounce of dialogue within this movie is painfully contrived. The foreshadowing is so heavy handed and clumsy that each time it occurs it’s accompanied by the sound of a blacksmith banging a hammer against an anvil; one such scene features John Wilkes Booth delivering a soliloquy to a zombie. The proportion of scenes with characters walking to scenes where characters are doing something other than walking rivals the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Rather than telling a story in the conventional three acts, AvZ opts for four or five narrative chunks, all of which feel bloated. Rarely has a ninety-five minute movie felt as draining as watching The Ten Commandments. And not withstanding Bill Oberst Jr. as Lincoln, who did a decent job considering the material he had to work with, none of the principle cast seem like particularly gifted actors. Though, I suspect said absence of measurable talent might go hand in hand with the writer’s cliché driven approach to character development.
Ultimately, this movie is far too self-serious despite writing that takes many a merry jaunts south of the Cornball-Dixon line. There’s no inherent charm or whimsy to counteract the low-budget production values. And I see no reason to overlook the numerous flaws, inconsistencies, and common-sense short comings which would make a lesser person walk away from this movie after fifteen minutes. Were costumes and set pieces the only precursors to a cinematic romp, Abraham Lincoln versus Zombies would be at least acceptable as a Sunday afternoon B-movie. As it stands, it would take a barrel of Tennessee whiskey to drink this Southern belle pretty.