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CHOPPER CHICKS IN ZOMBIETOWN (1989)

Life’s a bitch. And then you die. Usually.

59.jpg (16720 bytes) Director: Dan Hoskins, Rodney MacDonald

Starring: Catherine Carlen, Jamie Rose, Lycia Naff, Kristina Loggia, Vicki Frederick, Gretchen Palmer, Nina Petersen, Whitney Reis, Don Calfa, Hal Sparks, Ed Gale, Billy Bob Thornton

Screenplay: Dan Hoskins

Synopsis: The Cycle Sluts, a female motorcycle gang led by Rox (Catherine Carlen) and Dede (Jamie Rose), ride into the small town of Zariah as the local mortician, Ralph Willum (Don Calfa), steals a body before it can be buried. In town, the Sluts clash with the townspeople. Meanwhile, a local kid sneaks into a nearby silver mine, where he loses his life and releases a hoard of flesh-eating zombies who head for the town. The Sluts prepare to leave, but Lucille (Whitney Reis) goes in search of a man. Willum deliberately runs her down, then zombifies her: he is murdering people and bringing them back to create workers for his mine, which contains a radioactive deposit. Dede’s eagerness to leave town is explained when she encounters her husband: Zariah is her home town. Another of the Sluts, Tanya (Nina Petersen), a mute girl, is abused by one of the local men, and a violent brawl breaks out as Rox comes to her defence. The locals band together to attack the women, who begin fighting amongst themselves. But then the zombies reach Zariah, and the townspeople are forced to turn to the Sluts for help.

Comments: Don’t be put off Chopper Chicks In Zombietown either by its title or by the above synopsis, which totally fails to do it justice. It is very difficult to capture in words the perverse charm of this little film. As a horror film, or more particularly a zombie film, it is distinctly second rate. Hampered by an obviously minuscule special effects budget, its zombies are a pretty unfrightening crowd, and they go down a lot easier than most of their post-Romero kindred. The reanimated-dead-working-in-a-mine plot is lifted from Plague Of The Zombies (1965), while Don Calfa’s mad mortician is a lineal descendant of Jack Albertson’s character in Dead And Buried (1981).

The explanations provided for all of the undead doings could politely be called perfunctory, but that’s okay, because Chopper Chicks is really about the living, and in particular about the unlikely band of misfits who turn out to be its heroes: the Sluts themselves, a group of blind orphans, and a dwarf. It is here that the film really works, with careful characterisations mixed with a streak of surprisingly tough humour that would border on the tasteless if it wasn’t underlaid by such obvious sympathy for its targets. The depiction of the blind kids is particularly satisfying, turning cloying convention on its head. They’re a foul-mouthed, bad tempered crew (when Dede complains about their behaviour, Lance, their leader, asks her how she’d like them to behave: "Obsequious? Inspirational?"), and they’re also gutsy enough to allow themselves to be used as zombie-bait. Bob, the dwarf, is permitted to change sides once it is revealed how his mortician-boss kept him in subjection: by promising to make him tall, by inflicting cigarette burns on him, and by making him recite the "Bob-motto" - "if God had wanted me to do normal stuff, He would have made me look like normal people".

But most of the script’s efforts have gone into the depiction of the Sluts themselves ("they’re gunna call as sluts anyway, so we might as well get in first"), each of whom is a distinct individual with her own reasons for joining the gang. Although the film plays with the conventions ("For the record, I’m the dyke," announces Rox when the inevitable accusation is made), even to the point of having Dede say that "homes, and families, and husbands" are for normal people, little that happens bears out this point of view. Instead, while by no means being presented as some kind of female utopia, the gang is depicted as a refuge from the various horrors that its members have escaped. (It is a typical touch that it is Dede who suffers the most for her "secret" past, which consists of having being married and, worse, Home-Coming Queen, which is explicitly presented as something to be ashamed of.) The women’s solidarity, under threat for much of the film, is what finally transforms them into a formidable fighting unit, taking on the zombies with baseball bat, blowtorch, wrench and chainsaw.

Even the dead contribute to the fight - Dede is rescued at one point by the zombie Lucille, whose loyalty to her sisters extends beyond death. The unity of the Sluts is contrasted with the unpleasant "normality" of life in Zariah, neatly summed up when a young woman confronts her undead mother, announces, "I had enough of you the last time around," and decapitates her.

In time-honoured tradition, the townspeople form a lynch-mob to dispose of the Sluts, but their efforts fail when they can’t find any rope ("We could just shoot them," someone suggests). But Chopper Chicks is too generous a film to really pay out on anyone, and when the locals finally ask the Sluts to take on the zombies for them, it not because of cowardice, but because they cannot face re-killing their families and friends. As badly as life has treated them, the Sluts and their fellow outsiders ("Blind kids, a midget, dykes on bikes - we could start a side-show," Lance jeers) choose to fight for humanity.

Triumphant, the women literally ride off into the sunset at the end, and it is pleasing that, although two of the Sluts take their new men along with them, not one of them opts to stay behind. The film is dominated by the performances of Catherine Carlen and Jamie Rose as Rox and Dede, but all the women have their moments, particularly Kristina Loggia as ex-Army explosives expert JoJo ("I wasn’t AWOL, I was just lost"). Also giving good performances are Hal Sparks as Lance and Ed Gale as Bob. In addition, Chopper Chicks features an early role for Billy Bob Thornton as Donny, Dede’s soon to be very ex-husband.