Some years after a street drug called “Natas” unleashes a zombie virus across America, nihilistic road warrior Hunter (Martin Copping) cruises around in his battered Camero, gunning down flesh-eaters for sport. After his car crashes in the desert he finds refuge with a small group of survivors led by hard-bitten, zombie-slaying priest Jesús (Danny Trejo), including cute and perky Alison (Clare Niederpruem), her pasty kid brother Ricky (Jason K. Wixom), slutty stripper Fast-Lane Debbie (Jade Regier), grizzled old-timer Jerry (Terry Guthrie) and token fat obnoxious redneck Lyle (Jake Suazo). Following a zombie assault, the mismatched misfits escape into the desert in search of a route to safety but soon find there are worse things than zombies out there.
Away from mainstream roles, grizzled Mexican action icon Danny Trejo has a laudable reputation for lending his cult cache to first-time filmmakers toiling in the low-to-no-budget arena. Unfortunately the films themselves are by and large not very good. Zombie Hunter was Trejo's other grindhouse-themed vehicle of 2013 besides the more high-profile Machete Kills. A blatant Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez pastiche, the film lifts numerous motifs from the duo's Grindhouse double-bill Death Proof and Planet Terror (2007) that were derivative in the first place: exploding zombies styled after Italian horror, gun-toting chicks in denim hot-pants a la those redneck action films Roger Corman produced in the Seventies, a hard-bitten lead who drives a death proof car and a scene where a pneumatic stripper performs a sultry pole-dance. Of course originality is not an issue when it comes to exploitation so long as the film delivers the goods.
Debuting director Kevin King has a freewheeling visual style with a lively colour palette and rampant (purple!) gore and clearly knows how to assemble a fast paced, good looking low budget horror movie. Tonally this is closer to Troma than Tarantino though a handful of gross-out gags do raise the odd laugh (notably the discovery of something grisly in the freezer that prompts the entire cast, save Hunter, to barf their guts out) and the film at least makes an attempt at characterisation, emotion and thematic content. Hunter's nihilistic philosophy (“Nothing puts a smile on my face like a mid-day massacre) versus Jesús' steadfast belief in hope and redemption would seem to be the thematic backbone. However, Trejo exits early on leaving us with an annoyingly surly hero who gets off on offing zombies, treats women like garbage and doesn't seem to have learned anything by the fadeout. A line of gratingly jokey misogyny runs throughout as Alison and Fast-Lane Debbie go all-out to try to get Hunter into bed despite his evident disdain for them both. The film trips into that classic exploitation trap of ogling sexy women whilst hypocritically denouncing them as whores. On the other hand, Clare Niederpruem makes an appealing heroine whose sweet nature provides a counterpoint to Martin Copping's third-rate Snake Plissken impersonation.
Decades ago zombie movies provided the same antidote to campy gothic horror that punk provided to prog rock but have since grown hopelessly clichéd. Like George A. Romero's original Dead films Zombie Hunter confines an eclectic group to a claustrophobic space where they snipe and growl at each other but does not have much to say about society at large. Things soon descend into a chomp and chase scenario no different from overblown, plot-free videogame adaptations like Resident Evil (2002) with the protagonists on the run from a hulking CGI monstrosity. Once it is done riffing on Tarantino, Romero and John Carpenter, the film takes a bizarre detour into Texas Chain Saw Massacre territory with a saw-wielding, cackling cannibal clown disposing of the survivors. While the film has few ambitions beyond cheesy comic book thrills, compared to the glut of DTV horror trash out there Zombie Hunter is at least well crafted and entertaining with solid performances all round. The Carpenter-esque synth score supplied by Christian Davis is pretty darn good too.