The zombie film, much like the creatures themselves, never seems to die. It shambles on, stalking horror movie lovers endlessly and seeking to devour us entirely. Occasionally, the genre even surprises us with a new and different approach, much like a new enemy type you run into when you enter a new segment of a zombie video game. It becomes something confusing or frightening or maddening—and even sometimes terrifying.
Unfortunately, BONG OF THE LIVING DEAD is not that type of unique game-changing film.
To be fair, it doesn’t attempt to be anything extraordinary. It’s a small budget film making fun of the zombie tropes by giving us a bunch of characters who are more interested in smoking weed than fighting off the inevitable waves of undying dead. It’s attempting to create a comedy where the state of the world seems to die in tiny stages, repeatedly shown to us by how long it takes for news anchors to finally succumb and how long television, in general, continues onward.
And if Tim Mayo (writer) and Max Groah (writer and director) had leaned into that premise further, one of two things might have happened. Either the film could have become a true satire on both the zombie film and how we have begun to ignore everything outside ourselves in service to our own enjoyment or the film could have become a true comedy where the scenario of “not fighting the apocalypse because we’re high” reached epic proportions.
Instead, the film manages to do neither and ends up being a confused story that doesn’t seem quite sure what it wants to be in the end. We have a bunch of characters that for once have seen zombie movies (which was a welcome change.) They not only have major debates about how to deal with different zombies but respond quite well to their first zombie attack because they actually recognize them for what they are immediately. I was about ready to cheer for a film that would finally let characters respond with knowledge about these creatures because of movies.
But then the characters simply choose to lock the doors and smoke weed. And perhaps that’s what I should have smoked a ton of before I went to the theater that day, but the scenes while they were sitting around just weren’t funny. They were largely attempts at creating emotional ties between characters for (I assumed) the inevitable slaughter to come at the end. They were strange scenes where people had more than one debate about what they should do—kill the zombies, leave the house, stay and smoke—debates that seemed incomprehensible to me when these same characters had made it clear they know what happens when zombies attack (and staying in one house without clear, strong protection never ends well). There were characters whose motivations changed from one extreme to another within one scene for reasons I still can’t explain. It was as though the film had an opening it liked and an ending it wanted to get to but wasn’t sure what it wanted to do in the middle.
And that end, of course, comes when the zombies do finally invade the space—prompted almost traditionally by one character getting bitten and bringing the infection inside the house. At that point, the film transitions into a fairly acceptable zombie movie—but even that was confusing, as in the process it seemed to lose any further attempt at being the comedy it so clearly wanted to be in the beginning.
I want to be clear—I didn’t hate this movie. I was just left confused and unclear about exactly what it was trying to do as a movie. I think we’re past the point where a zombie movie can stand on its own simply because it adds a good name or a simple alteration to the traditional premise. I equally think we’re moving past the era where “pot users are all uncaring, lethargic stoners”, too, but I would have forgiven the film that sort of labeling if it had been funny. And I think it clearly wanted to be funny. It wants to be the sort of movie that gains a cult following.
I’ve seen great movies that succeed in their goals and movies that failed but that I think are great because I can see what they were trying to accomplish. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend a film if I can’t understand its goal at all, and that’s where Bong of the Living Dead comes down for me. It could have been many things but ended up, for me, not being any of them.