Blu-Ray Review: The Zombie Army (1991)

Dave gets to grips with the shiny new disc release of a shot-on-video horror flick.

“Guys, I’m not sure if you’re aware, but I originally released The Zombie Army on my Video Outlaw label, back in the early days of Tempe!”

Well, J.R. Bookwalter, how could we not know given the iconic status of this celebrated Tempe offshoot; a subdivision that gifted the world the lo-fi wonderment of such titles as Prehistoric Bimbos in Armageddon City (1993) and Sorority Babes in the Dance-a-Thon of Death (1994). But far from just a source of tease and titillation, Video Outlaw also snuck a few humdingers into their slender slate, most notably Matthew Jason Walsh’s wildly imaginative The Witching (1993) and Betty Stapleford’s flesh-melting delight, THE ZOMBIE ARMY.

With its concrete-bunkered military setting, it’s clear that, like Bookwalter’s own The Dead Next Door (1989), The Zombie Army is a Romero-driven homage with Day of the Dead (1985) written all over it.  And there’s nothing wrong with that! The plot finds the army taking over a former nuthouse, only to discover that two ex-inmates are still in solitary confinement. Worse, is that said inmates are partial to the idea of turning their new camouflage-clad co-inhabitants into the undead.

Filmed on both a homemade soundstage in Newark, Delaware, and at an actual ex-asylum in Pennsylvania, what The Zombie Army lacks in finesse, it makes up for in anarchy and sheer enjoyment. There’s a hint of some self-referential in-jokes (“Well if you don’t want to watch some stupid zombie movie, then what do you want to do?”), and although the gore is crude and a little coarse, it’s surprisingly effective and it grows in its awesome vulgarity as the film progresses.

‘Roger Scearce’ penned the script for this feature, but as Bookwalter pointed out to The Schlock Pit, he’s confident that this was a pen name for producer John Kalinowski – a fact that the film’s current licensor, Matt Dilts-Williams confirms:

“After a tour of duty in Vietnam, John had dabbled in a little writing under that pseudonym, and over the course of a few years, he discovered that schlock is what got published. While working as a major in the Army reserve during ’88, he was tasked with determining the feasibility of using the grounds\of a former insane asylum as a military facility. While surveying the underground tunnels, an accompanying Lieutenant remarked how the location looked like the kind of place where they’d make a zombie movie. The seed was planted, and in early ’89 he hired a production crew out of Delaware, and talked the army into letting him shoot on the asylum grounds.”

However, of all the surprising trivia titbits for The Zombie Army, the fact that director Betty Stapleford isn’t a homely generated pseudonym steals the crown. Dilts-Williams, who owns the distro, Future Video, that put this Blu-ray out, actually managed to track her down. Sadly, she had little interest in contributing to the disc:

“Betty Stapleford was the drama coach at the local high school,” revealed Dilts-Williams. “Legend has it that she saw John having trouble giving the actors direction one day, and because a number of them were students of hers, she offered to help, and John subsequently hired her. Either way, she was very surprised to find herself credited as the director!”

Looking (relatively) hot-to-trot in this fine new edition – which, in addition to Future Video, is also available from Bookwalter’s MakeFlixThe Zombie Army has been digitized and restored from Super-VHS archival elements, and the film’s kick-ass soundtrack from The Killtoys and Halo pops like never before thanks to a decent Dolby Digital sound mix. Extras include the isolated music tracks of The Killtoys, as well as a fun, plucked-from-the-vault TV appearance from producer Kalinowski; an interesting vintage contest video from the film’s original VHS release; and a selection of trailers.

Updated with corrections 1/11/21

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