Following a cryptic note from his onetime mentor, troubled assassin-turned-Catholic priest Christopher Gideon (Gary Kohn) arrives at the house of his friend’s daughter. Ill-tempered Mary (Lindsay Morris) also discovers a letter from her father instructing both of them to stay indoors, a task complicated by the arrival of her violent pimp Grin (Will Harris). Outside, a passing aeroplane sprays toxic gas turning all their neighbours into flesh-eating zombies who proceed to terrorize passers-by, except for a mysterious man (Jeremy Jones) in leather jacket and shades who surveys the carnage with grim amusement. Though Mary proves reluctant to help survivors, Father Gideon shelters a timid Mormon (Nate Witty), a gun-toting redneck (Paul Dion Monte) and his infected Asian wife (Dominiqua Alexis). Gradually, the priest realises he must fall back on his old killing skills if they are to survive the horror and uncover a government conspiracy.
Speaking as someone who has sat through far too many shot-on-camcorder indie horror films, Awaken the Dead definitely ranks among the better ones. Filmed using mixed video formats, the grainy, borderline monochrome visuals are atmospheric, and writer-producer-director Jeffrey McMichael Brookshire makes skilful use of stop-frame effects and creepy lighting, but the sound recording is poor with dialogue often hard to make out. His script is snappy and offbeat, with much of the drama centred around Gideon and Mary’s conflicting attitudes towards their fellow survivors, but prone to dull stretches and bouts of silliness, although this remains a rare indie horror with character depth and occasional genuine wit.
Thrown into the mix are a zombie sex scene, death by blender and the often clever use of blackouts and flickering torchlight to enhance scares or cover how Gary Kohn is less convincing a kung-fu badass than he is a conflicted priest. Both leads deliver strong performances, even though grouchy Mary’s relentless self-interest wears out its welcome and Father Gideon abandons his vow of chastity rather too easily. This suffers the usual bugbear of post-Tarantino/Rodriguez indie cinema, with characters we’re meant to find cool because they’re hard-bitten and tote guns, yet who often seem callous and intolerant of the more frail, and consequently more believable, supporting players. Happily, this is counterbalanced by a moving moment when meek Mormon Stanley heroically defends the companions who have done little but bully him, stoically facing zombies even as he begs God’s help under his breath. Had there been more moments like this the film might have avoided unintentionally reinforcing Mary’s point of view, that showing compassion just gets you killed.
The third act swerves closer to Resident Evil (2002) territory as the survivors confront Mary’s father (Michael Robert Nyman) at a supposedly zombie-proof, abandoned church. The revelations aren’t all that unexpected and the double-twist coda proves unsatisfying, or possibly setting up a sequel. While the zombie makeup is sub-par, the splatter effects are effectively messy and moist.