The condemned: GallowWalkers (2013)
The plot: A cowboy rises from the dead… but so do the men he killed for raping his girlfriend. So yes, he must kill them all over again, and now they’re sort of zombies or something.
Over-the-top box copy: Nothing too great, actually, but the tag line is: “Live by the gun. Die by the gun. Come back for more…”
The descent: The history of GallowWalkers (which has also been titled, over time, Gallow Walker and Gallowwalker and The Wretched) is fraught, and its direct-to-DVD status is tied both to its quality and to the real-life misadventures of its star, Wesley Snipes. The initial filming began way back in 2006 in Namibia, but it was interrupted by Snipes’ trouble with the IRS—which ought to inspire a movie itself. Journalists speculated that Snipes’ time in Namibia was tied to his tax problems, because the country does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S. But Snipes returned to America to face the music, and eventually went back to finish filming a considerable time later. Then, of course, he went to jail, and wasn’t around to promote this movie—which was just released on DVD, seven years after principal photography and five months after Snipes got out of prison. (Going further back, the movie was originally supposed to star Chow Yun-Fat.)
The theoretically heavenly talent: It’s easy to forget, given the string of direct-to-DVD failures that Snipes has been involved in most recently, but he was once an absolute A-lister—and that that status was well deserved. Snipes can be a terrific actor, and he’s got the kind of undeniable charisma that earned him eight-figure paydays in the ’90s and early aughts. GallowWalkers also features Riley Smith of 90210, who was once paid $8 an hour for folding clothes at The Gap. (Possibly.)
The execution: GallowWalkers is a narrative mess, and it’s undeniably dumb, but it’s more marginal than actively shitty. Parts look fantastic, which is no surprise given the backdrop: Filmed entirely in Namibia and mostly out in the desert under big blue skies, it’s expansive-looking and remarkably well set-decorated. (In other words, somebody put some money into this thing—reportedly $17 million, but that’s tough to accurately track.) The story itself isn’t half-bad, either, though it’s badly obscured by the decision to jumble the timeline into incoherence. In chronological order, here’s what happens: Wesley Snipes is born to some kind of witch who guards the gate to hell. She gives him away to a strong, great woman, who raises him as her own. He falls in love with that woman’s daughter, who is later raped and impregnated, then dies during childbirth. Snipes goes on a killing spree, murdering the rapist’s whole posse—but Snipes is mortally wounded in the process. Some ghoulish omnipotent voice—presumably Satan—agrees to bring Snipes back from the dead, but his curse is that those he killed will also rise. Here’s a chunk of Snipes’ overlong origin story; please note his delivery of the word “daughter,” because it’s magical.
None of that, it should be noted, is terribly clear until almost the end of GallowWalkers, especially since the first 30 minutes concerns itself mostly with setting up atmosphere and establishing a completely unimportant character and unresolved B-plot. That said, it looks cool: One of the first scenes features three men clad in red bishop’s robes being ferried along a railroad cart in the desert: It looks and feels—for a brief moment, anyway—like Tarsem Singh’s The Fall. It veers quickly, though, when Snipes reaches into the back of one of these men and tears his head off, along with the man’s entire spinal column, which wriggles like a snake.
Inevitably, after lots of flashbacks and ham-handed Snipes voiceover, there’s a big battle between Snipes and the zombie rapists. Adding to the ridiculousness and/or fun: The fact that they’re “gallow walkers” means that the baddies need to frequently replace their skin, which is sensitive to sunlight. One guy chooses to graft a lizard hide and tail on to his head—and he looks like a Star Wars cantina reject—and another, played by former pro wrestler “Diamond” Dallas Page, wears a giant hand-crafted, spiked metal headpiece. His character’s name? Skullbucket. (And not just in the credits—his big, bad boss yells “Skullbucket!” at him several times.) When Skullbucket’s face is finally revealed, after a monstrously dumb, horribly choreographed fight, he looks exactly like Sloth from The Goonies.
And I haven’t even mentioned that Snipes has a gunfighter sidekick named Fabulos. Or that Snipes’ character is named Aman. (Get it? A man?) Perhaps we’re meant to think this is all a comic book, in which case… fair enough, but not good or dumb enough to really recommend.
Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: It’s got a chance. The fight scenes—though not frequent—are silly enough to warrant re-watchings, and the minor characters could actually inspire some obsessive fandom: Snipes’ adoptive mom is drunk (or something), and she wants to fight, and the bastard rape-child wears a nest of blonde dreadlocks so outlandish and a face of freckles so puckishly cute that he ought to get his own spinoff where he gets to gleefully murder skinless zombies. (Did I mention the main zombie appears skinless at one point? He does. And the makeup effects aren’t half-bad.) There are also quotable lines like, “Yes boss, it’s what we’ve been looking for—the map to Skull Mountain!” and “Forgive me father, for I have skinned.”
Damnable commentary track or special features? Just a 10-minute collection of cast interviews in which they talk about how beautiful Namibia is, and how GallowWalkers inventively blurs genre lines—not untrue. (“It’s hard to miss any particular demographic with the movie,” says Snipes, ignoring the fact that it’s also possible to miss every demographic.) The movie is also compared to Once Upon A Time In The West, because director Andrew Goth (his real name? I don’t know.) used a lot of very wide and very tight shots. (And he steals a line of dialogue from Once Upon A Time—the one about bringing too many horses.) But classic spaghetti Western this surely isn’t. Still, for a movie that’s been gathering dust for seven years, it might have been much less watchable.