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Monday, May 31, 2010

LIVELIHOOD -- DVD review by porfle

Of all the zombie spoofs that seem to be clawing their way out of the grave these days, LIVELIHOOD (2005) is probably the cheapest. Director Ryan Graham managed to put it together for about four-thousand bucks, building much of his own equipment such as lights, camera dollies, and even a makeshift crane. He also put together a cast of enthusiastic performers who zapped their wacky characters into vibrant life and helped turn this off-the-wall screenplay into an often hilarious romp.

The story follows the lives (and deaths) of three main characters. First, there's 80s hair-metal rocker Billy Jump (Steve Thomas), who electrocutes himself one night just as he's finally discovered the perfect riff. Then there's perpetually cheerful shlub Alexander Keaton (Scott Graham), who thinks he has a wonderful marriage although his shrewish wife despises him, and thinks he's on the fast track to a promotion at work although his surly, abusive boss treats him like dog poop. While working late one night, Alexander is chased through the halls of his office building and then beheaded by a screaming samurai warrior. Finally, we have Roger and Jean (real-life couple Lewis and Amy Smith), whose marriage would be just peachy if Roger's domineering, over-possessive mother, Vida (Michelle Trout), didn't live with them and make Jean's life miserable. That is, until someone poisons the old bag and she croaks facedown in her tapioca pudding.

As so often happens in zombie movies, the dead suddenly start returning to life for no reason. This time, though, they're not interested in killing people or devouring their flesh--they just want to return to their former lives as though nothing had happened, which becomes a problem for the living when these reanimated corpses start showing up again. In Billy's case it actually turns out to be an advantage when shifty record exec Kris Kashgrab (John Bennett) conjures up a scheme to transform Billy's return into a big comeback event. Alexander has no such luck, however--he staggers home, duct tapes his head back onto his neck, and discovers his wife in bed with another woman. Ordered out of the house, he returns to work to find that he no longer has a job. As for Roger and Jean, the horribly decayed Vida's sudden reappearance as the mother-in-law from hell turns Jean's life into a waking nightmare, although mama's boy Roger is tickled pink.

The "Billy Jump" segments are okay although I found this storyline a bit tiresome after awhile. His bandmembers are pretty funny, and are played by actual members of the Dirty Maramaduke Flute Squad, which also includes director Graham on guitar. Putting the old band back together a la THE BLUES BROTHERS, Billy discovers that his lead guitarist and bassist are now an openly-gay couple, while his deaf keyboardist Beat Ovin (Mike Bennett) is tinkling the ivories in a snooty restaurant.

Alexander, who reminds me of alien leader Mathesar from GALAXY QUEST, finds forbidden love with his boss' misfit Goth daughter Zoey (Kara Webb), but their subplot isn't really all that exciting, either, until the surprise conclusion. The best part of LIVELIHOOD for me was the mother-in-law story. Amy Smith's energetic performance as Jean is consistently good, and the escalating tensions between her and Vida, with doofus Roger in the middle of it all, finally culminate in a wild free-for-all battle to the death that's wonderfully staged.

Gross-out moments include the vomit-inducing tapioca pudding scene (the second one, that is), a couple of groupies collecting Billy's body parts to sell on eBay, the equally vomit-inducing apple cobbler scene, and other comically disturbing highlights. The return of the dead also results in some great new television programming, such as a soap opera entitled "The Dead and the Breathless", a take-off on those Matthew Lesko infomercials which promises "Free Money Now!" for the dead, and a really wrong commercial for a product that claims to cure the zombie malady known as Deteriorating Bowel Syndrome.

As can be expected from a movie with so many gags flying fast and furious, LIVELIHOOD is pretty uneven and some sequences tend to drag. Still, the cast is so talented and the script (by Ryan and Tracey Graham and Curtis Crispin) so packed with bizarre jokes and ridiculous references that I was kept fairly entertained most of the time. Several of the scenes resemble good sketch comedy found on such series as Mr. Show. In fact, there's a fake music video by country singer Junior "The Senior" Young Jenkins III for his song, "Leave the US to the Livin'", which bears a striking similarity to the fake country music videos featured in Mr. Show's "Blow Up the Moon" episode.

One of my favorite sequences is the one in which Roger's abrasive, zombie-hating boss, Larry Tate (Davon Hall), shows up for dinner on a Rascal scooter with his bimbo wife Lucy, while Vida does everything she can to disrupt the occasion and get Roger fired (leading to the aforementioned "apple cobbler" scene.) I think this entire storyline could've easily been expanded into a separate movie of its own.

As for extras, not only are there two cast and crew commentary tracks, but a second disc of stuff as well. The deleted scenes are mostly better off deleted, and some of them, such as Alexander's long, dead-serious monologue to Zoey about his parents getting killed by a drunk driver, make you wonder what the hell they were thinking. The bloopers are pretty good but are interesting mainly for some glimpses of low-tech SPFX wizardry such as the "flying plates" scene. This is also true of the featurette "MacGyver DIY Filmmaking", in which Ryan Graham gives a highly-instructive demonstration of how to build your own moviemaking equipment on the cheap. Finally, there's a short about the Dirty Marmaduke Flute Squad ("The Real Billy Jump Band"), which is interesting although I don't plan on purchasing any of their CDs anytime soon.

Watching LIVELIHOOD is like going through a buffet blindfolded--you have to take the bad with the good. But it's a respectable effort for such a low-budget flick and the talent in front of and behind the camera makes it pleasantly watchable and, at times, downright funny.

(Note: This review was originally posted at in 2008 and covers the DVD edition that is pictured above.)

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