Herschell Gordon Lewis may no longer be with us, but the spirit of tongue-in-cheek Dixie exploitation lives on in “Attack of the Southern Fried Zombies.” This genial but very silly gorefest looks like it was fun to make — practically the entire population of Charleston, Mississippi, seems to have pitched in. Still, horror fans will have to be in a generous, perhaps beered-up mood to feel the same way about watching it. Mark Newton’s film, which played festivals last year as “Kudzu Zombies,” is already available on DVD and VOD prior to a March 23 theatrical opening.
Nominal hero Lonnie (Timothy Haug) is a small-town lad happy to get temporary work flying a crop-dusting plane for an agrochemical corporation. They’re trying out a new pesticide that might get rid of kudzu — the picturesque vine widely associated with the American South, but which is in fact a non-native (and aggressively invasive) species.
The first sign that this plant-killing cocktail might have wider deadly consequences arrives when three youths break into a pot-dealing hermit’s shack. At first they think the man (Bruce Penton) is merely passed out after a bender. Then they realize he’s dead. Then, to their grief, he turns out to be undead, taking a bite out of one boy’s arm before they can escape.
Meanwhile, it’s opening day of the Mose Allison Music Festival — Allison being this lesser-known Charleston’s most famous former resident, alongside the still-breathing Morgan Freeman. (The latter does not appear, making this the rare movie in which Morgan Freeman is neither seen nor heard.) Seeking help, the frightened trio make their way to the festival fairgrounds, trailed by the zombie, who for some reason now looks like he’s wearing an over-elaborate Halloween mask. Already on-site are Lonnie, working his other job as purveyor of an older interracial couple’s (Escalante Lundy, Susan McPhail) delicious meat pies; his ex-girlfriend Kayla (Wyntergrace Williams), back from college with her slick new beau (Clay Acker); a jealous rival meat-pie maker (Johnny McPhail); a frisky young lesbian duo (Kaitlin Mesh, Megan Few); and many more.
It takes about 35 minutes for the kudzu to hit the fan. That buildup turns out to be the best part of “Attack” — not because it’s very good, but because the filmmakers just aren’t equipped to pull off the subsequent mayhem. The gore effects are variable, the explosion ones laughable, and there’s scant consistency to how these zombies look or act. The editorial pace is fairly lively, but Newton evinces no feel for staging action or building basic suspense. Every so often, Christian Hokenson’s screenplay flatlines with very hit-and-miss humor or labored dialogue stretches. Sometimes it seems the cast members were allowed to determine how seriously to take the enterprise, as broadly comedic performances are juxtaposed against unironically earnest ones, with more than one downright maudlin moment.
The result is a film that’s tonally all over the place, but has a sort of forgiving consistency in its semi-amateurism. It’s a hell of a lot closer to the “let’s-make-a-movie party” shenanigans of shlock legend Ted V. Mikels’ latter-day “Astro Zombies” sequels than to something as, well, sophisticated as “Shaun of the Dead.” The kitchen-sink approach hauls in every genre trope that comes to mind, from “evil clown” and “killer granny” to (presumably intentional) nods towards “The Ruins” and “House of the Dead.”
Cluttered as it is with characters and references, however, “Attack of the Southern Fried Zombies” still feels like a good-natured goof that overstays its welcome — and pads that length further with 10 slug-slow minutes of closing-credit crawl. Jonathan Hammond’s cinematography and James Covell’s score represent the most professionally adequate aspects of a movie that carries the whiff of a lark — albeit one too seldom smart or competent enough to assure us it really gets its own joke.