Zombies, once the exclusive province of low-budget horror, seem to be just about everywhere in pop-culture these days — on popular TV shows, in big budget movies and teen-targeted comedies and interspersed with classic literature. I suppose it was only a matter of time until they made it to Mars.
No one ever says the word "zombie" in "The Last Days on Mars," but there's no question that it is a zombie movie. And aside from the extraterrestrial location, it's really a rather conventional one, in which a small group of people in a remote area must fight for their lives when a viral outbreak starts turning them into power-tool-wielding undead menaces.
The future undead and their victims are near-future astronauts on an early, six-month manned mission to the Red Planet. It's a lonely gig in an inhospitable world, but they've got only 19 hours left (really, the movie could have been called "The Last Day on Mars") in their inflated Martian living habitat. Mission specialist Vincent Campbell (Liev Shreiber) longs for the blue sky and green grass of Earth, and wants to start the six-month commute home as fast as possible.
But some of the team wants to work until the very end. One of the scientists (played by Goran Kostic) gets special permission from mission leader Charles Brunel (Elias Koteas) to make a last minute run to fix a sensor. Or so he says. He's actually off to collect a specimen he believes could prove the existence of microbial life on Mars.
Life on Mars! Do undead zombie astronauts count? The movie lumbers forward in standard zombie-pic fashion, pitting man against walking dead in a familiar array of sterile corridors, pitch-black exteriors and strobe-lit hallways. It's paint-by-numbers sci-fi monster movie stuff, and it borrows a lot from both the original "Alien" and John Carpenter's 1982 remake of "The Thing."
It doesn't break much new ground, but it works well enough on its own terms. The movie's biggest strength is its locale. Director Ruairi Robinson shot the movie's sandy exteriors in Jordan, and makes the most of his location: His Martian landscapes feel desolate, dangerous and realistically alien. The same goes for the interiors of the temporary Mars-base, which feel clunky and functional enough to be real products of a space program still in its infancy.
Indeed, the movie's up-front realism is so effective that when the zombies finally arrive, it's something of a letdown. The opening minutes set up expectations for a coldly realistic science fiction tale that the preposterous rest of the movie doesn't deliver.
The good news is that viewers won't have to make an interplanetary voyage of their own to watch "The Last Days on Mars." The film won't open in D.C. theaters until Dec. 13, but viewers can catch it now through cable company video-on-demand services and Apple's iTunes for less than the price of two adult movie tickets.
The video-on-demand release is part of a growing wave of smaller budget films premiering on the small screen at the same time or, in some cases, weeks prior to their theatrical openings. In other words, you can now watch zombies on Mars — and on demand. Zombies really are everywhere, aren't they?
TITLE: "The Last Days on Mars"
CREDITS: Directed by Ruairi Robinson; screenplay by Clive Dawson from a short story by Sydney J. Bounds
RATING: R for violence and language
RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS