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Saturday, June 05, 2010

Webshow Review: Universal Dead (Ep. 1 and 2)

The web has proven to be a great place for amateur and accomplished filmmakers to showcase their talent. Joss Whedon gave us Dr. Horrible; Felicia Day and her pals gave us The Guild; and Sandeep Parikh gave us The Legend of Neil. Now comes Vernon Mortenson's Universal Dead, a novel attempt at a zombie-apocalypse webshow featuring D. B. Sweeney (Fire in the Sky, Jericho), Gary Graham (Alien Nation, Star Trek Enterprise), Doug Jones (Fantastic Four 2, Hellboy 2), and a crew of real life military men (one Marine and four Navy SEALs).

The story is set in the near future after a strange infection or disease has devastated the world. It follows Dr. Macavoy (Graham), a scientist with the CDC who has been brought out by Captain Trent (Sweeney) to a quarantined San Diego to see a presentation by Dr. Vataber (Jones) that, we're led to believe, will change how the CDC and everyone else views the "infected." The first two episodes very clearly establish a number of conflicts: the personal conflict between Trent and Vataber, the rational vs. irrational conflict between the more scientific Macavoy and the more mystical Vataber, and the physical threat of the "infected" outside the walls of San Diego.

Right from the start, Universal Dead gets a huge thumbs up for its cast. I loved Fire in the Sky, my grandma turned me on to Alien Nation when I was younger, and the fact that there are real military men playing, well, military men is definitely a major plus. How Mortenson managed to get all of these folks is beyond me (in an email he indicated that everyone is doing this for next to nothing in terms of payment, which I think is really a fantastic thing to do for a young filmmaker). There isn't much chemistry between the various cast members yet, but I think this has more to do with the fact that the first two episodes show only about eight minutes of actual story, which hasn't given us the conflict we know and hope is coming (it's a zombie story; let's face it, we all know what we want and expect). I think the personal conflicts and the impending social/political/physical conflict will flare bright in the next few episodes. Here's hoping something great comes out of the wait.

Visually, Universal Dead takes a page from past and present-day zombie films, particularly in terms of cinemetography. While the makeup and set designs are sparse, which might be a weak aspect of the film, the way the film relies on simple shots, rather than overly complex, and perhaps out of place ones, is effective and doesn't make the show into something it shouldn't or can't be. I think the folks behind this production know what their limitations are and are using what they have at their disposal to produce the best thing they can without overwhelming the story or losing focus.

Universal Dead, of course, is not without flaws. While the aforementioned aspects are imperfect, there are some other things that I think are worth mentioning. First, some of the acting is a little uneven. I think Jones and Graham are the strongest of the cast, but each have a few lines that are said either a little forcefully or that are not received well by the other actors. I think this is something that will correct itself as the story progresses, but I do think it is something that is holding show back from meeting the bar set by webshows like Dr. Horrible. Second, I think the 4 minute episode length is far too short, particularly when it takes a week or more between episodes. The length of the episodes and the length between them makes each new episode feel very much like how one feels when the networks show you four episodes of a new show, and then give you nothing for two months, by which time you've sort of forgotten what the heck happened or lost interest. The only good thing about the length of the episodes is that it doesn't take that much time to catch up, which is not at all true of regular length television shows.

Still, while I don't think Universal Dead is a perfect webshow, it has a lot of potential and I will keep watching. I love zombie films, and I have to be honest about something: after only two episodes, I think Universal Dead is thousands of times better than the absolutely dreadful Land of the Dead. No joke. There are no intelligent zombies that make really annoying groans and absolutely no hamfisted political messages. I also think the inclusion of a government official who takes a rational approach to the situation is very realistic; adamantly referring to the "undead" as the "infected," even if there is no proof of an infection, is exactly how I would expect top scientists to react in the real world.

Universal Dead is definitely worth checking out. If you've got the time, give the first two episodes a shot:

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