Dead in Tombstone: Unrated [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - America - Universal Pictures
Review written by and copyright: Ethan Stevenson (22nd December 2013).
The Film

“The West. People call it the New Frontier. It sounds almost… nice. They’ll tell you it’s built on the backs of God fearing folks, with true grit in the their hats and the American Dream in their hearts. Well, whoever wrote that is selling snake oil, sure as shit. The real West is a heartless, lawless, Viper pit. An American nightmare, forged by the flames of Hell and the hammer of the Beast. I oughta know. I am Lucifer, and I devour the souls of men. In the West, I never go hungry.”

Hollywood, like America writ-large, was built in the West—or at least on the myth of it. Directors like John Ford, Anthony Mann, and Howard Hawks, and stars like Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, and of course John Wayne helped construct (and in some cases, later deconstruct) the myth of the American West, and got famous doing it too. Before it was a dead, or at least dormant genre as it is today, the western was an immensely popular product in its day. Something like half of all films made in the United States before 1960 were westerns. As the studios, and Hollywood in general, imploded in the middle 60's, when counter culture audiences rejected most of the conventional genres that had proved profitable for decades, two big staples—westerns and musicals—were affected more than all else, and had to significantly change to stay relevant. Those genre pictures that did manage to make money in the post-Golden Age period of the New Hollywood era brought something new to the table; made a marked change over the old. For westerns, this change manifested most obviously in more visceral violence, as seen best in the so-called Spaghetti-Westerns, imports from Europe—(arguably) the most famous of which were directed by Sergio Leone. Leone’s Man With No Name films (1964-1966) left a huge impact on genre cinema, and the western in particular. Leone and the no-named man whom he made a star, Clint Eastwood, parted ways after only three films, but they forever altered the landscape. At least for a while, most of westerns that followed in the wake of their “trilogy” took the form of gritty, revenge narratives. Countless double-crossed gunslingers—usually righteous men of mystery, cast in the shadow of a hat brim—plodded through plots on horseback for no real reason other than to unleash a bloodbath, a type of vigilante vengeance of biblical proportions. Eastwood himself became a successful propagator of the particular subgenre, starring in, and even directing, several entries that could be considered Old Testament style revenge films in cowboy garb—“The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976) and “Pale Rider” (1985) among them.

Dutch director Roel Reiné’s “Dead In Tombstone” is a rather unapologetic riff on these more violent, vigilante revenge films, particularly Eastwood’s “Pale Rider”. It’s basically a poor man’s remake of it, with (even more?) supernatural nonsense thrown in to make it sillier, and more importantly just different enough to protect its producers from a lawsuit over copyright infringement. “Dead in Tombstone” isn’t a good movie. It suffers from a rote plot rife with cliché, and has a random rapid fire feel—like it was quickly thrown together to get a film out in an effort to capitalize on what studio bosses thought would be a trend. I suppose it probably was. The film was shot in 2012, and went into production right around the time Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” (2012) was the talk of the town. That “Dead In Tombstone” is now finally getting released around the time its star has another film—“Machete Kills” (2013)—out is likely not a coincidence either. About 60-percent of thought behind “Dead” was in the rather obvious and ludicrous stunt-casting, with scene-chewing supporting players—including a plastic-faced, peculiarly-voiced Mickey Rourke as the Devil himself—and the ubiquitous Danny Trejo in the lead role of Guerrero, a gun-slinging outlaw back from the dead to exact revenge on those who killed him.

No, “Dead is not good. But, with its gleeful gruesomeness, and surprisingly competent, well constructed action sequences, it is entertaining in the right mindset. A slight shift into the even sillier—say the sort of bizarre B-movie-parading-as-a-Z-movie shtick that Robert Rodriquez seems perfectly content making these days; both Trejo-starring Machete movies included—“Dead In Tombstone” might’ve been an absolute blast. Sadly, it isn’t. It’s merely competent, and a decent, kinda-fun, but easily forgettable time waster.

As the film begins, Guerrero—the leader of the ruthless Blackwater Gang—springs his half-brother Red (Anthony Michael Hall) from prison, just moments before a short drop and a sudden stop courtesy of the hangmen’s noose. The next morning, over a meal around the fire, Red tells tale of a place called Edendale, a small frontier town of fewer than 300 people that is rumored to be newly gold-rich and an easy score. On the way to these supposed easy earnings, Red makes a power grab and betrays his half-brother, ultimately killing him and taking charge of the Blackwater boys. Sent to Hell, Trejo’s Guerrero meets the Devil, and quickly makes a deal. In exchange for being sent back to the surface, he’s to claim the 6 souls of those who crossed him for the Devil, while getting his own sort of vengeance too. Thus, a brutal, rowdily "R" rated (or, if you choose, "Unrated") slaughter ensues.

Trejo plays his part gruffly, stiffly, without a trace of irony. The turn works and it doesn’t, fitting the half-hearted semi-seriousness director Reiné’s set for his “Tombstone”, but then again the slight seriousness is sort of the problem. The film is sorely missing that ridiculous Robert Rodriquez touch that’d make it some much more fun. In bits and pieces, the ridiculousness is there. Rourke doesn’t just chew scenery; like the souls his Lucifer so greedily craves, he devours the sets—or at least his horrible, hellish cave—whole. And Hall works overtime as Trejo’s half-brother (an absurdity in itself that genuinely does feel very Rodriquez-y). Clearly he’s trying to make people forget he was ever semi-sorta-famous for being gangly teen nerds in John Hughes comedies in the 1980's. Less inspired are… essentially everyone else in the movie, especially Dina Meyer, who plays the wife of a hapless town sheriff. She’s clearly bored, cashing a paycheck. (I suppose the river of residuals from “Starship Troopers” (1997) and the “Saw” (2004-2007) movies has finally run dry?).

Reiné’s a kind of pseudo-savant at what he does; a master of the meager budget direct-to-video schlock-fest sequel. He more or less proves his particular, peculiar prowess here with “Tombstone”—if he hadn’t already, with two “Death Race” sequels under his belt ("Death Race 2 (2010) and "Death Race 3: Inferno" (2012)), both of them technically better than the first "Death Race" (2008), outrageously awful bigger budgeted remake by Paul W.S. Anderson (it’s plenty debatable if this is an actual accomplishment). Produced for somewhere around $5 million (IMDB says $5.2 mil; the director says $4.6 mil in his commentary), “Dead In Tombstone” looks like it easily cost twice that, maybe more. It’s stylishly directed and shot, with plenty of action and surprisingly decent visual effects, given the budget. The biggest problem is a trite screenplay by Brendan Cowles and Shane Kuhn; the copy-paste plot hits all the predictable points, most of the characters are cardboard props to be summarily shot in the face (and I certainly didn’t care when each died, ‘cause they’re barely characters at all).

The film feels half-baked, like a bunch of ideas from a number sources, thrown together at a moments notice. In his frankly fantastic commentary on this disc, Reiné basically—in not explicitly—says that that’s exactly what happened. He talks at great length about his love of westerns, and career-long wish to make one. After the success of his direct-to-video sequels for Universal’s 1440 production imprint, studio bosses approached him about trying his hand at something original. Reiné pitched an idea for a western he’d had rolling around in his heard since the 90's, and after some wheeling and dealing—which involved bringing in Cowles and Kuhn (who wrote the director's profitable “Death Race” movies, and also had a script for a Western-Horror hybrid they’d had sitting around for a while in a desk drawer)—he had a greenlight. The only notes from Universal were that the film had to have Tombstone in the title, and Danny Trejo had to be the lead. The result is a film that’s not terrible—well, not totally, because it doesn’t try to be anything other than schlock—but hopelessly unoriginal, not nearly as nutty as it could be, and (probably) pretty forgettable. If, or considering the production’s low overhead, when “Dead” turns a profit, and Universal approaches Reiné about making a sequel, I hope the follow-up cranks up the fun factor. As is, “Dead In Tombstone” has some of the sillier elements already in place, and is reasonably entertaining. Competently made, accepting the caveat that it’s an intentionally bad B-movie, shot on a tight budget in a short amount of time.

Video

Director Roel Reiné often serves as his own cinematographer; lensing 5 of the last 6 features he’s directed himself. He has a surprisingly good eye; “Dead In Tombstone” is shockingly well shot for having such a low budget. Reiné favors digital over film, in part because it’s considerably cheaper, and seems to have a particular fondness for camera manufacturer RED, which he praises in passing on his commentary included with this disc. He shot “Dead In Tombstone” in 5K with the RED Epic system, and then further fine-tuned the image via a 2K DI. The output image (framed at 1.78:1 widescreen) was heavily graded to remove most color not in the earthy brown-gray part of the spectrum. This is a dusty Western, an unglamorous look at the frontier—a cold, desaturated, occasionally dark place. The digital-to-digital transfer is also spotlessly clean, without any sort of intentional “Machete”-esque deterioration or damage, and at times shockingly sharp. Detail is impressive, with a crisp rendering of pockmarked faces, and the fine details even in wide shots and quick cut action scenes clear as day. The black level is rich and inky, but retains strong delineation with no signs of unwanted crushing or boosting. Universal’s 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 encode is close to perfect, without any serious issues to report; no signs of banding or compression artifacts, nor lingering edge enhancement, or overzealous noise reduction. A light peppering of sensor-noise shows up select shots in a few darker scenes and are the only objectionable element of any otherwise excellent presentation.

Audio

The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack (48kHz/24-bit) is almost overbearingly loud and forceful; it’s also surprisingly clear, even in moments of pure chaos. Boasting brilliant bombast, booming bass-backed explosions, a fluid use of surrounds to create total immersion, and an energetic electronic score by Hybrid—a Swansea, Wales based musical group comprised of Mike Truman and Chris Healings, and Charlotte James—“Dead In Tombstone” has a lossless track that transcends impressive-for-direct-to-video and is just outright extraordinary, full stop. The Blu-ray also includes an optional Spanish language track in DTS 5.1, and English for the hearing impaired, Spanish, and French subtitles.

Extras

“Dead In Tombstone” includes quite a few supplements—far more than I expected for a direct-to-video release. Universal’s Blu-ray + DVD combo pack includes two discs, each containing the "R" rated and "Unrated" cuts of the film, an audio commentary with the director, nine deleted scenes, a montage of alternate shots, and a making-of featurette; four additional featurettes are exclusive to the Blu-ray format. An UltraViolet HD digital copy has also been included.

DISC ONE: BLU-RAY

Universal has included two cuts of “Dead In Tombstone” on one disc via seamless branching: an "R" rated version (1 hour 39 minutes 59 seconds) and an "Unrated" one (1 hour 39 minutes 53 seconds). Differences between the two cuts are minor; the "Unrated", which is actually slightly shorter, adds a few shots of topless women and more graphic scenes of violence—including two explosive headshots. The "R" rated film is still plenty explicit, although, in the most objectionable scenes, it relies on alternate takes, with clothed girls and none of the exploded-head inserts.

An audio commentary with director and cinematographer Roel Reiné is available on either cut. Reiné’s accent is peculiar but not incomprehensible, and he’s very enthusiastic about his work, sharing insight into how the project came to be, in particular the compromises and deals he had to make with the studio to get a Western made in today’s movie market. He also discusses the pressure of shooting on a tight budget, on an even tighter 28-day schedule, in a foreign country; his love of old westerns, and what it was like watching a German dubbed John Wayne on television in Holland as a child; the casting; etc. Film it supplements be damned, this is a rather fantastic track. It does get technical at times—Reiné talks about the camera tricks he used to get certain sequences done at a low cost a lot—but the tone generally light and plenty anecdotal, too.

Up next are nine deleted scenes (1.78:1 1080p; 15 minutes 58 seconds):

- “It’s Time”
- “Mrs. Massey Is Queen”
- “Death Walks Among Us”
- “The Name Of This Town Is Tombstone”
- “Ramos Visits Guerrero’s Grave”
- “You Know It’s A Slaughterhouse”
- “Who Should Be Left to Stand?”
- “Guerrero Grabs the Guard”
- “Thanks Again Guerrero”

The self-explanatory “Deleted Shots” montage (1.78:1 1080p; 5 minutes 14 seconds) is a collection of alternate shots, takes and small snippets that didn’t make it into the finished film. The material—mostly 2nd unit stuff; random unused shots from action sequences, Leone-esque eye line close-ups, a slow-mo sequence on horseback, a number of establishing shots, inserts, and other wide-ranging miscellanea—has been edited into a reel, set to the film’s score.

“The Making of ‘Dead In Tombstone” (1.78:1 1080p; 9 minutes 43 seconds) is a fairly standard EPK featurette that gives a cursory overview of the production and plot. It’s comprised of B-roll, film clips, and interviews with cast and crew.

The Blu-ray also includes four exclusive featurettes not found on the DVD.

“Horses, Guns & Explosions” (1.78:1 1080p; 5 minutes 23 seconds) is a stunt-focused featurette.

The next featurette, titled “Roel Reiné: Leader of the Gang” (1.78:1 1080p; 4 minutes 28 seconds), offers a brief look at the director at work. From the look of the B-roll, Reiné gets an insane amount of coverage and just pieces his films together in the edit bay. (I suppose that explains the strange alternate shot montage.) Actor Ronan Summers quips, “He’s like Ridley Scott. He can get a hundred set ups in a day.”

Production designer Christian Niculescu, and several of the actors—apparently pulling double duty as the EPK documentary crew—talk turning the Romanian countryside into the American West, in a featurette titled “A Town Transformed” (1.78:1 1080p; 4 minutes 4 seconds).

The last featurette, “Creating Hell: The VFX” (1.78:1 1080p; 3 minutes 9 seconds), is an effects breakdown, showcasing the various stages of several CG-heavy sequences in the film.

The Blu-ray is authored with the resume playback function and BD-LIVE access. There is no exclusive web content at this time; Universal seems to be using the Internet-connectivity to push up-to-date previews before the main menu.

An UltraViolet HD digital copy is also included.

DISC TWO: DVD

The standard definition copy of “Dead In Tombstone” presents the film in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with English Dolby Digital 5.1 sound; a Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 dub and subtitles in English, Spanish, and French are also included. Special features include audio commentary, deleted scenes, alternate scenes montage, and making-of featurette.

Packaging

Universal Home Entertainment brings “Dead In Tombstone” to Blu-ray in a 2-disc Combo Pack. The film is encoded in high definition on a Region Free dual layered BD-50; the disc includes both an "R" rated and "Unrated" cut. A redundant DVD-9 also includes both cuts, in standard definition; the DVD is locked to Region 1. The discs are housed in a keep case. First pressings include a cardboard slip-cover.

Overall

I can’t in good conscience call “Dead In Tombstone” a good film. It isn’t. Not in the slightest. The rote plot is predicable and cliché, mashing a well-worn Western tale of revenge with some supernatural elements. I doubt this’ll be the first thing I pull off the shelf the next time I’m in the mood for nuts-o Trejo; that’s what “Machete” (2010) is for. But credit where credit is due, director Roel Reiné makes his film look much more expensive than it really was, and is quite a competent wrangler of action. That’s all this one is—competent, for a B-movie. And like many merely competent B-movies, it’s still pretty bad, if also passably entertaining in the right frame of mind. Universal’s Blu-ray is excellent: the video transfer is sharp and detailed, and the powerful lossless soundtrack a force to be reckoned with. Extras are unusually plentiful for a direct-to-video feature—make that for any feature, these days. The included audio commentary is a surprisingly good one. This disc is certainly worth a look for Trejo’s fans.

The Film: C Video: A Audio: A+ Extras: B Overall: B

 


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