DEAD KANSAS, or: The Unlikely Return of the Serial

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In the 1990s, every middle aged person vying for relevance told us that the major strides in entertainment would be coming from the internet. It finally has, though after about fifteen years of serious growing pains. After a brief flirtation where everyone threw everything they could at the technology, the internet has finally shown some sophistication and is now a viable breeding ground for our next great artists. It all recalls that transformative period cinema as silent films dug deeper than simply replicating everyday tasks and started presenting the magic that previously existed only in our imaginations.

I bring this up because just as silent films may be seen as an artifact of the past, the same can be said for serials. But serials are getting a new lease on life, thanks to the internet. And one such serial is Aaron K. Carter’s DEAD KANSAS.

DEAD KANSAS originally began life as yet another horror short. Carter and company then decided to add to what they had and create a more ambitious story set in the world they had created. As it begins, Emma lives a humble, sheltered yet dangerous existence on a farm with her father, Glenn (Aaron Guerrero). They keep a fence up in order to defend themselves against “rottens,” the term this film uses to describe a zombie menace. Jebediah (Michael Camp) is a former friend to Glenn who now leads a pack of survivalists in the post-apocalyptic landscape. He demands that Glenn hand over his daughter so she can be used for breeding, which Glenn naturally doesn’t take very kindly to. Glenn manages to shoo Jebediah off the property, though he knows he’ll be back and with a less friendly offer.

All of that becomes moot when Glenn is bitten by a rotten. Unable to deliver a mercy killing to her father, Emma instead travels to a neighboring camp full of circus folk who reluctantly agree to watch over Glenn while Emma searches the wasteland for a cure. The camp is filled with a wonderful group of character actors, including Irwin Keyes (HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES) and the late Ben Woolf (AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW. Meanwhile, Jebediah’s crew is still on the hunt for Emma, especially when they figure out what she’s after.

DEAD KANSAS begins by depicting the hardscrabble day-to-day life after society has collapsed. But it quickly introduces a welcome sense of humor and although things get pretty serious towards the end, you get the feeling that you’re supposed to be grinning and giggling along with much of the film. Carter tries to strike a balance between the quirky and dramatic, sometimes losing focus but for the most part keeping things entertaining. He exhibits a lot of talent behind the camera.

Being a micro-budget production, Carter has to come up with some inventive ways to keep things moving at a minimum cost. One of the gutsier moves is the decision to make a zombie movie where you don’t see many zombies. The creature effects consist mainly of black and white POV shots as the rottens slowly approach their prey. While this might seem blasphemous to some zombie purists out there, I found it to be a refreshing change of pace. It forces Carter to frame the action a bit differently, adding a new layer of suspense rather than just have the same old Karo-syrup smothered flesheaters jumping out of the bushes.

You have to forgive the various ways in which the production is salvaged. One of the more disarming is the recasting of the lad character. In the first act/episode of DEAD KANSAS, Emma is played by Alexandra Lightford. Like many indie productions these days, DEAD KANSAS was not filmed in one marathon sprint but in pieces several months apart. Hence, when Lightford became pregnant and was unable to continue in the role, Carter was left with some tough decisions. Going back and reshooting the beginning was out, as that’s simply not a feasible reality for micro-budget cinema. So, not wanting to scrap their hard work, the production recast Erin Miracle in the part of Emma. Both actresses do a decent job and while the switch is a bit disorienting at first, it does not take long to get back into the groove.

One can watch DEAD KANSAS either in the five episodic installments or as a complete work. The serial format works well for this material. In too many indie horror films of today, there are long periods in which nothing really happens. But due to the need to stuff each episode with enough material to keep people coming back, there is no lag here. The film offers two zombie encounters, an attempted kidnapping and a tornado, all within its first eleven minutes. The production also has a more epic scope than most low-budget films which tend to stay in one confined place.

DEAD KANSAS is a mixed bag. And if you’re new to low-budget exploitation, you might as well learn to accept that. The film is always entertaining and interesting. The cast is mostly capable though some fare better than others. It features a great soundtrack, with several fist-pumping songs from Power of Aggression. Most importantly, I was always looking to see what happened next. And this kept me coming back, cliffhanger after cliffhanger.  Recommended.

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RATING SYSTEM AND CRITERIA

  • What was the film trying to accomplish and how well did it meet those goals? 
  • In addition to (or sometimes despite) that, how does the film hold up on sheer entertainment value?

The Best – Reserved for the absolute cream of the crop.
Highly Recommended – Very good. Far better than your typical film and one that I will remember for some time.
Recommended – Just what it says. This is a good film and earns a recommendation. Don’t think that because it’s not one of the top two categories that these films aren’t worth your time. The “recommended” tag is a winner and nothing to sneer at.
Barely Recommended – The middle of the road. Those films where I didn’t feel it was a complete waste of time, but it didn’t set my world on fire either. Not bad, but leaves me feeling bored and/or apathetic.
Disappointing – Close but no cigar. Does a few things right but is ultimately a whole lot of wasted potential. Not recommended.
Awful – A bad movie. Pure and simple. Not worth your time.
The Worst – The Britta Perry of ratings, though not as entertaining. The bottom of the barrel.

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