“The Shadow Zone” is the name of a series of (unconnected) novels for children, written by various authors under the shared pen-name J. R. Black. Only two of the novels have been turned into films: The Undead Express and My Teacher Ate my Homework (1997). The two films seem to share a producer or two, as well as a production company, so I assume they were part of a concerted effort. The Undead Express and (I assume) also My Teacher Ate my Homework open and close with a creature (the “Reaper”) who serves as the “host” – a role known from anthology series. All this makes me think that the original plan was to adapt more than just two of the novels.
As it is based on a novel for kids, it should come as no surprise that The Undead Express is basically a film for older children or young teenagers; and the central character, Zachary, and his two best friends (Gabe and J. T.) are roughly in the 13-14 age-range, I guess.
This target audience is one of the oddities of the film, since basically the only strength of this film are the very nice locations that are on offer and I doubt that the target audience would care about that: The vampires of this story live in the abandoned tunnels and buildings of the New York subway system. And whatever buildings the team has chosen to represent those mysterious lost buildings, there are definitely some gorgeous shots of turn-of-the-century interior design – not something I’d expect your average young teenager to be interested in.
Our hero, Zachary, is an average teenage boy living in New York City. The only peculiar things about him are his enormous interest in horror magazines and horror films; and his vivid imagination, which leads to a habit of embellishing stories and telling a number of lies, big and small. This habit, we learn, has grown to new proportions after the divorce of Zach’s parents, and his mother is sending him to a therapist because of this. (That therapist, by the way, is played by Wes Craven in a small cameo role.)
At the weekends, Zach has to travel between his mother’s rather fancy apartment and his father’s artist’s workshop in a less-than-fancy part of the city. One day, he accidentally enters the wrong part of his local subway station, and meets some weird people – but no-one is willing to believe his story…
As you can see, at the heart of this story lies a “boy-that-cried-wolf” tale. But it is presented to us in a different way. The “Reaper” tells us that telling a lie is a small gate-way sin that enables a person to come into contact with the Shadow Zone. But this is never really explained in the film.
In fact, a lot of things in this film do not really add up. Zach and his friends dress, talk and behave like some streetwise kids from a lower middle-class background, but their parents live in flats that must cost a small fortune to rent, and Zach’s mum is a very busy executive.
The lore and background are also not very clear. We never get a reason why the “original” vampire should have bothered to come to New York, or why he has taken an interest in the subway system. Apparently, though, he had entered and left the subway system of his own accord, while for some reason all the other vampires could only leave if “guided” into the real world by a “pure soul”. To win him over as a guide for himself, the leader of the vampires tries to convince Zach that he is his friend, while his parents are only holding him back and his schoolmates are not his real friends. I guess the filmmakers have a message in there somewhere, about how children should always listen to their parents and stick with their friends, and never trust strangers – something like that. But it is not presented very well and does not work very well within the context of the story.
The “family” of vampires we meet in this film also does not really work, as there is no complex emotional bond between any of them. With the general lore not being all that clear, we at least learn that these vampires “disolve” in sunlight (in various ways), but can recover if exposed only briefly. UV light, we learn, is part of that deadly effect of sunlight, so fluorescent lights and flashlights from cameras are generally irritating. That latter fact we learn through a website that Zach’s friend J. T. conveniently finds. An absolute novelty in 1996, I assume. All this is part of some painful, late-in-the-game exposition, leading to a third act that is even more absurd than the second.
The acting is neither here nor there – a lot of the characters are pretty two-dimensional – but Ron Silver is doing a very good job as the head vampire, and the three kid actors (Chauncey Leopardi, Natanya Ross, Tony T. Johnson) do as fine a job as possible at their age.
The practical effects are OK for television and for their age. Vampire make-up is mostly restricted to coloured contact-lenses and fangs. The way vampires “dissolve” in the sunlight is silly, but these practical effects are meant to offer some variety and to appear “gross” in a way that children might find enjoyable.
I found that the quality of the sound failed me. A lot of the dialogue was really hard to understand. Especially in the case of the head vampire – I could often hear only half of what he was saying. That is not the fault of Silver, who speaks very clearly and distinctly, but a tech issue, as he speaks also very calm and with a low and soft voice, something that they seemed to be unable to support properly in post-production. But maybe it is a problem of the DVD-transfer and was originally not that bad on TV. Be that as it may, I would have been grateful for subtitles, but the cheap collection in which this film is included does not offer any.
I am really not sure how to rate this film. I know this is a small-budget TV-film produced for children. But that does not excuse the weak writing. The story is also too long and meandering. There are very long passages in which nothing is happening. Which is why I fear many children or young teenagers would be bored by this.
Given the nice locations, the solid camera work, and the efforts made in make-up, and practical effects, etc., I would rate the “looks” of this film at 7 out of 10, while the acting (Silver excepted) is only of middling quality (5 out of 10) and the writing deserves no more than 2.5 out of 10.
So, taking into consideration that this is a kids’ film, and rating it as such, my overall verdict would probably be 5.5 out of 10; but in many ways that feels far too generous.
There is no need for anyone to see this. I cannot even recommend it to children (of whatever age group), because the film has not aged all that well and I fear that today’s children would find it rather dull.