Ben Jonson, rival poet and friend of the Bard, once said “Shakespeare is not of an age, but for all time.” Over the centuries since his friend Will’s plays were first staged, Jonson’s words have proven true over and over again. King Lear and MacBeth have been adapted into samurai films by Akira Kurosawa, Hamlet has been adapted into a World War I era film by Kenneth Branagh and recently Much Ado About Nothing was re-set in the modern age by Joss Whedon (as an unlikely follow-up to The Avengers).
Indeed, take any given Shakespeare play and set it on another planet in the far future and not a single line would need to be changed. My favorite idea? A science fiction version of Titus Andronicus called “Saturn Nine”. (Bard Scholars would get that one.)
This is why a title like Zombie Hamlet is not necessarily the appalling turnoff that it could have been. Surely the very idea of mashing up Zombies with arguably Shakespeare’s best known work would seem to be a travesty or, at least, one of the many recent classic/ horror mash-ups like Pride, Prejudice and Zombies or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. This confusion is, in fact, part of the point of Zombie Hamlet.
The film starts out with a young director named Osric Taylor (Travis Wester) attempting to get his Civil War era version of Hamlet funded intact. While the location has been secured, the money isn’t so certain until someone jokes that they could pack the film with Zombies to ensure a monetary return. Naturally, this horrible idea is very reluctantly agreed to by the otherwise conscientious director and the production moves forward.
Other horrible ideas follow, such as the casting of Jason Mewes as Hamlet, the insistence of one producer that they remove “all the talkie stuff” from Shakespeare’s play, the re-casting of the ghost of Hamlet, Sr. into a talking corpse and the use of subtitles in popular modern slang to translate Shakespeare’s words into something the kids might eat up. All of these ideas would naturally have been barred by the Bard
The truth is, were this to be the movie itself, it would surely be a really bad film, but Zombie Hamlet is not that movie, instead it is a mockumentary, behind-the-scenes telling of the making of this zombie version of Hamlet and all the mishaps thereof.
The actual film itself (as opposed to the film-within-a-film), is very low budget with some admittedly forced moments and occasional bouts of mediocre acting (and not just the intentionally bad in-film moments). Often the film is too silly for its own good and feels as cheap and independently made as it really is. That said, writer John McKinney and director John Murlowski are smart enough to at least realize what would not work in a Hamlet movie and play everything for laughs.
There are some truly funny farcical moments when the deadpan trappings of Murphy’s Law kick into high gear. The ideas forced into the film-within-a-film are so ludicrous that any Shakespeare Scholar would wince if the movie itself was real. By placing this in the context of a lamentably lamentable b-movie, viewers who know better might easily join in the fun and laugh with the filmmakers (who also seem to know better) as opposed to raging against the travesty the film might have been.
That said, the low-budget and unrealistic tone of this farce never quite leaves the screen. To be sure, the film is quite funny, but there are just as many eye-rolls as there are guffaws to be had here. Shelley Long gives an over-the-top performance as a local TV reporter, while June Lockhart (of Lost in Space and Lassie) plays a Southern Plantation owner and John Amos plays a very tongue-in-cheek Louisiana District Attorney. Good use is made of these guest stars, sure, but in general the impact is more of mockery than documentary in this mockumentary.
Further, the film loses its focus about halfway through and becomes a comedy of errors in its own right as opposed to a making-of Zombie Hamlet film. The film is at its very best when it focuses on the bad ideas going into this hapless and misguided production as opposed to the wild, cloak-and-dagger attempts to keep the follies funded.
Still, even at its worst moments, this low budget farce never stops being fun to watch and the best moments of the film are really quite funny (if inconsistent) and much better than films of comparable budgets have been in the past. For all its fun, the DVD extras are almost completely bare bones with only a theatrical trailer to enrich the package.
The feature itself, however, is a flawed gem that is less a cash-in on similarly themed horror mash-ups with classic themes than it is a mocking spoof of the worst things that could go into a film of that kind. Taken as the silly farce that it is, Zombie Hamlet can be a very funny film about what not to do in a Shakespeare adaptation, but taken as an all-original piece that attempts to be funny in its own right, well, it’s not exactly Shakespeare… or even Ben Jonson, for that matter.