Can a ridiculous, out-of-left-field plot thread make a bad movie better? No, but in the case of 'Battle of the Damned,' it does transform what would have otherwise been a monotonous 70 or 75-minute film about a mercenary trying to save a young woman in a city overrun with "infected" zombie folk into a monotonous 89-minute film about a mercenary trying to save a young woman in a city overrun with "infected" zombie folk…with the help of some violence-prone robots that just happened to wander into town.
Dolph Lundgren stars as mercenary Max Gatling – because when your parents name you Max Gatling, your career options are either mercenary or personal trainer, and with the economy in the kind of shape it's in, killing is a far more reliable gig than helping some dudebro blast his pecks down at the local 24-Hour Fitness. At any rate, Gatling is hired by the standard desperate-guy-with-a-lot-of-money-and-something-to-hide, to take a team of highly trained operatives and rescue his daughter Jude (Melanie Zanetti) from the aforementioned city with the zombie-like populace. The film doesn't explicitly call them zombies, and there's some question as to whether or not they're just infected à la '28 Days Later,' or actually undead, as in 'Night of the Living Dead,' but, then again, the movie's not really concerned with nailing down specifics about anything – primary characters or potentially undead antagonists alike.
Getting into the quarantined city is essentially a snap, since no sooner has Jude's father delivered the necessary exposition to tell the audience exactly why Max is the man for the job, than Team Gatling is being relentlessly pursued through the city's ravaged streets by the infected and subsequently picked-off one by one. It's when things look most dire that Max ventures back into the city alone to finish the job he was hired for – which is the kind of gung-ho attitude that will really improve his ratings on Angie's List. This setup is worth mentioning not because it tells us something about Max, but rather because it all happens before the film's title sequence – which should give you a pretty good idea of how writer-director Christopher Hatton handles the concept of pacing in 'Battle of the Damned.'
Not long after, Gatling meets up with Jude and a group of stock characters who've managed to survive the outbreak largely because they're holed-up in a secure house in the middle of town with large walls the infected can't breach. Well, it's either that or the fact that there's little difference between the characters inside the house and the mindless zombies milling around just outside. To be honest, there's not a whole lot of distinction between any of the survivors, except for maybe Reese (Matt Doran, 'The Matrix'), Jude's boyfriend and all around nice guy who takes a liking to Max even though Duke (David Field), the group's ostensible leader, wants him gone.
There's potential conflict here, but Hatton's script doesn't bother to justify it any more than it does the existence of the infected population, Max's complete-the-mission-at-all-costs attitude, the reluctance of the survivors to be taken to safety, and, of course the appearance of zombie-killing robots. Are the survivors planning on starting over in the city? Are they completely unaware that the world outside the city is completely unaffected? Hatton doesn't bother to provide answers to these questions, primarily because that would force the characters to act in a way that made sense, and was related to some form of plausible motivation. Duke (whose name and personality call to mind another would-be despotic leader of callow survivors during the zombie apocalypse) is the most troublesome, however. This broadly-drawn villain offers so little intrigue and nuance that he doesn't even register as a threat, even after he's handcuffed Gatling to a street light (with traffic visible in the background of the scene, mind you) and left him to die.
The rest of the cast winds up being similarly thin characters drawn mostly from cliché or, unfortunately, racial stereotypes. But mostly they exist as fodder for the infected, especially once the robots show up, inexplicably accept Max as their leader (insert robotic acting joke here), and allow him to start replacing their limbs with guns in a montage worthy of 'The A-Team.' And therein lies the essence of 'Battle of the Damned': the reduction of anything complex down to the most basic component possible. Hands (even the kind of cool, robotic hands Sam Waterston warned us about through Old Glory Robot Insurance) suggest a certain amount of nimbleness and dexterity that's counterintuitive to a movie like this. Guns, on the other hand (pun!), seem to be the vehicle for what this film is aiming (double pun!) to accomplish: just shoot enough stuff and no one will ask too many questions.
So, despite it's nearly nonsensical blend of zombies and killer robots, 'Battle of the Damned' doesn't quite achieve the coveted home video title of So Bad It's Good. The tone is a little too scattered and humorless at times, and the actors, though brilliantly ham-fisted on occasion, wander through scenes, half-questioning whether they're supposed to be laughing at themselves or finding a new agent. There's a certain amount of ridiculousness inherent in the movie that will be attractive to those looking for something they can snicker at, but for all its supposed lack of pretense and sophistication, and its apparent willingness to induce as many mocking giggles as possible, the movie's naïve self-seriousness keeps it from being in on the joke – which would have made all the difference in the world.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Battle of the Damned' comes from Anchor Bay as a single 25GB Blu-ray disc in an eco keepcase. There are a handful of previews ahead of the top menu, but they can be skipped one at a time or altogether. The menu allows selection of subtitles and the single supplemental featurette found on the disc.
'Battle of the Damned' sports a clean, detailed 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer that offers a tremendous amount of detail on the actors' facial features, as well as textural elements found either on clothing or the film's set and background elements. Most of the time the skin tones are lifelike – though the palette of the film tends to skew more toward steely blues – but the image doesn't seem to suffer due to whatever manipulation took place to achieve that look. Contrast levels are also high, as blacks are generally full-bodied and help to provide clean edges that help focal elements to stand out. There's little evidence of crush or banding, as shadow delineation is quite strong.
Although the image is borderline pristine, it suffers from the same malady so many low-budget films of this ilk do: it's essentially sterile. The image looks great, but there is no real life in it – which, again, acts as a metaphor for the film itself. The biggest drawback to the overt cleanliness of the image is the way it hinders the low-budget effects, which range from crudely done make-up to partially CGI robots, and enormous explosions. The disparity between the image's nearly too clean presentation and the DIY effects results in a nice-looking, but ineffective picture.
Saddled with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix, 'Battle of the Damned' presents strong action sequences with plenty of atmospheric elements popping up in front and rear channels, as well as some solid LFE effects to enhance the various battles with the damned that are sometimes further accentuated by the sounds of robots clanking their way through the scenes. The mix handles the various elements well for the most part. The majority of the battles are loaded in the front speakers with the rear channels supporting or helping with some decent imaging effects.
There is some issue with the balance, however, that makes the dialogue sound lower than the rest of the film, and causes some of the speaking parts to be difficult to hear during the more frenzied battle sequences. On their own, the dialogue-heavy portions sound okay and sometimes good; it seems as though this mix just wasn't intended to focus on the actors as much as the sound effects – I can't imagine anyone will complain about that.