This review was originally published on April 22, 2011. It has been reposted for the DVD and Blu-ray release.
Jim Mickle’s “Stake Land” is proof that a film can be terribly familiar and yet still be completely engrossing. I guess there are a ton of films that prove this. We wouldn’t have genres without them being defined by fairly strict formulas and still-entertaining works adhering to them. But there’s nonetheless something special here, maybe because it works with multiple genre formulas, and not exactly as a hybrid so much as an overlapping. It works within the western, post-apocalyptic science fiction and the zombie movie narratives all at once. However, I wouldn’t call it a post-apocalyptic zombie western, which sounds more purposefully forged than it actually feels. Plus, technically the creatures in this film are vampires, as much as they act a lot like zombies. They too are not respectfully thought of as hybrids of the two monster types, though. They’re just what they are.
And much of “Stake Land” is just what it is, a near-identical brother to “Zombieland,” only much, much slower and subtler, about a Clint Eastwood type named Mister (co-writer Nick Damici), somewhere between the Leone loner and the mercenary of “Two Mules for Sister Sara” (he saves a nun, played by Kelly McGillis, from being raped, anyway), who teams up with a young boy (“Gossip Girl”‘s Connor Paolo), teaches him better survival skills, and they ride together towards rumored sanctuary. And also meet a cute girl a long the way (no little sister, but the girl, played by horror princess Danielle Harris, is pregnant). But in spite of there being feral bloodsuckers around every corner, life in this land isn’t that much different from pre-apocalypse, basic needs-wise. People need to find food, shelter, love, family, pornography, religion, politics … the just have different obstacles in the way now.
One of those obstacles is a threat even worse than the vampires. A Germanic-looking tribe of religious zealots are taking over North America, and they’re doing so with the exploitation of the undead. I don’t know what’s more fascinating about these people, that they’re emblematic of how significant God and religion is to humanity that belief is even stronger in times of great disorder (I’d expect chaos to be evidence of godlessness, myself) or that they honestly believe God sent these vampires to wipe out the heathens as if they were more angel than demon. They do tend to come down from the sky, but only when the cult members “bomb” villages with vamps, dropping them out of helicopters into country jamborees.
As with most of its kind, “Stake Land” doesn’t fully satisfy in its ending, but it’s not easy to truly conclude a wandering tale like this without a concrete destination to begin with. The climactic action scene unfortunately recalls “Season of the Witch” a bit, but for something produced by Larry Fessenden (“Wendigo”), the finale could have been a whole lot more disappointing. I’ll just say that, blah blah, the journey what counts, etc., and assure you that indeed the film is entirely worth watching, through its predictable moments and up to its, in my opinion, illogical last scene.
And hopefully it can be enjoyed without thinking too much about the intentional allegory of the current religious/political divides of America, which is certainly an interesting subtext but also potentially a limiting one in terms of audience. Besides, the religious villains could be any sort of fundamentalist sect of any religion that turns to terror in desperate times (sure, there’s also something politically relevant to the use of an Iraq War vet as one of the good guys, but it works for various interpretations). Vampires are immortal and I’d prefer to think of a great vampire film like “Stake Land” as suitably timeless itself.
“Stake Land” is now on DVD and Blu-ray.
Recommended If You Like: “Zombieland”; “Two Mules for Sister Sarah”; “28 Days Later”
Before you see it, watch the excellent and slightly preparatory (they’re not necessary) character prequels below (or in better quality on iTunes):