Carlo (Rob Belushi) is the ineffectual son of mob boss Mr. Serrelli (Maurice LaMarche) in Witness Infection, a horror comedy that blends mafioso machismo with gory zombie shenanigans. He spends his days grooming neighbourhood dogs. His peace is shattered when his father insists that, in order to bury the feud between their family and another mob, he must marry Patricia (Erinn Hayes). This doesn’t sit well with Carlo, who only has eyes for his co-worker Gina (Jill-Michele Meleán). However, when a batch of infected sausage meat causes a zombie infestation in the town, an unhappy marriage is the least of his problems.
On paper, Witness Infection has a stellar set-up for a rip-roaring horror comedy. With its rival mob families in hiding, and young lovers caught in the middle of the feud, it’s got all the makings of a classic Romeo-and-Juliet-and-zombies story. By slamming two well-worn genres together in zombie and mob movies, the film also presents a lot of opportunities for generic riffing. English horror fans are more than likely to see this as an American cousin to our own Cockneys Vs. Zombies, another film where gangster archetypes square off against the living dead.
So how well does the film capitalise on this premise? It’s a mixed bag. In the first half of the film, most of the humour revolves around predictable Italian-American stereotyping, which isn’t particularly fresh or interesting. The zombie infection takes a while to take hold, causing severe gastro-intestinal distress for those afflicted. What this means is lots of fart and poop jokes, and if you like your humour broad (and we do), there’s some fun to be had in watching mobsters get the runs, at least for a bit. Where the script is strongest, however, is in throwing up the odd witty line or sassy comeback, and the occasional well-handled film reference. One of the strongest sequences, involving two hitmen, is clearly a nod to the opening of Pulp Fiction.
With the exception of a few standout one-liners, a lot of the comedy is hit and miss. The film is peppered with references to zombie movies, but doesn’t often go beyond a name drop. In a particularly memorable scene, we catch up with a local bartender (Monique Coleman), who has transformed in the zombie outbreak into a Blaxploitation superheroine, complete with overpowered shotgun. She loudly proclaims that she will not be the first black character to die in this story, in an impassioned speech that cites Aliens, Night of the Living Dead and Jurassic Park. However, after a fun scene with her, the plot moves on and we leave her to look after her bar. Her purpose wasn’t to be a new character, but to reference a bunch of movies that the audience will know. It’s illustrative of a problem the script has throughout: dropping winks to the audience by mentioning tropes, but then not doing something worthwhile with them.
The miniscule budget is also an issue. It always sucks for horror fans to have the tension of an action sequence completely undermined by distracting CG blood effects, but it’s an unfortunate necessity for a lot of bootstrap productions. The physical effects, on the other hand, are gooey and disgusting in exactly the right ways. These zombies are covered in glistening boils, and the gore, much of which looks like they sent a runner down to the butcher for a bag full of offal, is downright revolting.
All in all, Witness Infection has a good idea buried in it, but suffers from slapdash plotting and characterisation. Some grotty thrills are had, and the script has some memorable comedic lines in it, but the project doesn’t quite hang together as a cohesive whole, and the potential of the novel set-up is never quite lived up to. That said, it’s clear that the filmmakers managed to pull off a great deal with a tiny budget, and there’s an endearing enthusiasm onscreen throughout, which may well encourage generous viewers to overlook the missteps.