Yes, the movie is called “Special Dead” and yes, it’s exactly what you think. Going by the typical standards of low-budget horror-comedy, “Special Dead” could have been awful. Probably like many of you, I enjoy humor that more decent folks might find obscene. I do have two rules of thumb for tasteless jokes. Number one, the more obscene the joke, the funnier it has to be. That’s what makes George Carlin a genius and Andrew “Dice” Clay an embarrassing footnote in comedy history. Two, the best tasteless comedy has us laughing as much at ourselves and the absurdity of our own prejudices and hang-ups as we are at the ostensible target of the humor. That’s the difference between Dave Chappelle and Jeff Dunham. All of this is a roundabout way to say that “Special Dead” comes down on the right side of the line in both cases.
The film is genuinely funny and while it does have a few broadly played caricatures of mentally handicapped people, they are treated as comedic characters among other comedic characters. In many ways this portrayal is less exploitative than their typical patronizing mainstream depiction as magical noble savages whose unending kindheartedness in the face of adversity serves as little more than schmaltzy Oscar bait for “serious” actors. You don’t buy that? Ask Sean Penn, 2001.
While hiking in the woods, a guy (with Tourette’s, natch) and a girl find a stream in a cave that has been sealed off. There’s some strange glowing substance at the bottom of the stream but the guy is thirsty and drinks anyway. As you might expect, that there’s zombie water and the guy becomes patient zero for a zombie outbreak that soon spreads to nearby Camp Special Dude.
Camp Special Dude is run by the ass-kicking, name-taking Cameron “Snuff” Stone and his son Machiavelli “Mac” Stone, who is essentially an even more oversexed and macho Ash Williams with nunchucks. Mac is the kind of antihero who, when asked by a lover if he’d save her from a hypothetical puma attack, says no because he’d “pull a shit-ton of pity pussy” at her funeral. Snuff and Mac head up a ragtag bunch of heroes including Mac’s wheelchair-bound sister and her would-be boyfriend, a few other counselors and campers and one boot-camp-bound gangster who was put on the wrong bus.
There’s nothing in “Special Dead” that hasn’t been done a million times before in other zombie movies (except maybe for one headslappingly clever method of zombie disposal), but as an entertaining, funny diversion, it’s a fairly pleasant way for a certain kind of person to spend 90 minutes. Not being unwatchable is usually an achievement in itself for a movie like this, so for “Special Dead” to actually be funny and charming makes it a gem in the increasingly overcrowded ranks of the micro-budget zom-com. If anything, this film knows its audience. There are boobs in the first five minutes, a kill scene involving Elmer’s glue and popsicle sticks and a hilarious campfire song (reprised in singalong form over the closing credits) about the sexiness of Joanna Kerns and other 80s sitcom MILFs sung under the assumption that the song’s subject matter isn’t important because the campers won’t pick up on it anyway. How Lloyd Kaufman let this one get away I have no idea.
Technical flaws are all but unavoidable for movies of this budget and “Special Dead” is plagued by a common problem of movies shot on digital video: in low-light conditions, the picture looks grainy and terrible. This limitation could have been easily minimized or even eliminated by simply not setting much of the film after dark but unfortunately, almost the entire middle section of the film takes place at night. The graininess is distracting but in the better-lit scenes there are some nice stylistic flourishes including one zombie beat down scene near the end that gives the Roddy Piper-Keith David fight from “They Live” a run for its money as one of the most absurdly endless fight scenes ever recorded.
“Special Dead” is not something I’d recommend for everyone, but fans of South Park, 80s summer camp movies and low budget zombie flicks will find that it does the job just fine as an amusingly braindead Sunday afternoon time-waster. In fact, there are enough flashes of potential throughout the movie that leave me interested in seeing the filmmakers return to horror (or comedy) with a bigger budget. As the film’s tagline says, “sometimes heroes ride the short bus”.