If Sam Raimi and Jim Henson had dreamed up a movie together … well, it wouldn’t have looked very much like “Zombeavers,” though you can tell that’s the target director Jordan Rubin was vaguely aiming for with his well-meaning but wan, title-tells-all horror parody. An inspired idea in search of better gags and actors with even an iota of Bruce Campbell’s rubber-limbed elan, this debut feature for standup and sketch-comedy vet Rubin is not without flashes of ingenuity, but the one-joke premise wears thin even before the mercifully brief 76-minute running time is up. Still, the pic’s title alone will ensure a certain amount of attention on the midnight and genre circuits, if not any larger, “Sharnado”-sized penetration of the zeitgeist.
We begin on a rural stretch of Indiana highway, where a couple of doofus truck drivers transporting hazardous medical waste plow into a deer and send one barrel of toxic green goo tumbling down an embankment, straight into the lair of some cute, fluffy beavers. Cut to: a trio of sorority sisters — brunette Zoe (Courtney Palm), blonde Jenn (Lexi Atkins) and redhead Mary (Rachel Melvin) — heading down the highway en route to a girls’ weekend at Mary’s lakeside cabin. This was to have been a couples’ retreat, until Zoe discovered that her boyfriend, Sam (ex-Disney Channel star Hutch Dano), was cheating on her and her friends jettisoned their own significant others in solidarity. That does not, however, stop said horny frat boys (including Sam) from turning up at the lake anyway and sweet-talking their way in.
At this point, Rubin and sibling screenwriters Al and Jon Kaplan unleash the zombeavers — first by land (in the cabin bathroom, of course), then by sea (during an ill-advised group dip in the lake, complete with underwater beaver-cam). The toxified beavers themselves, admirably rendered as animatronic puppets rather than via CGI, are adorably disgusting in a retro, Troma Studios sort of way, complete with a guttural growl that sounds like the Muppets’ Animal with a bad case of acid reflux. But having dropped that particular veil, “Zombeavers” effectively has nowhere left to go, and one is left to wonder if a more successful film might not have been made from the beavers’ own p.o.v.
Rubin and company have clearly made a close study of Raimi’s original “Evil Dead” (and its inspired, latter-day successor “Cabin in the Woods”) as well as such tongue-in-cheek invasive-critter pics as “Gremlins,” “Ghoulies” and James Gunn’s marvelous “Slither.” But the best of those movies achieved a deadpan grace, a certain conviction in their own absurdity, that “Zombeavers” never approaches. Rubin’s style is more Wayans brothers than Zucker brothers, with a lot of how-low-can-you-go gross-out gags (including a bit of beaver-assisted castration) and lots of shouted line readings in place of characters whose survival (or lack thereof) might engender even the slightest rooting interest.
There are so-bad-they’re-good schlock movies that endear themselves to the audience by virtue of their own shambling but heartfelt incompetence, and then there are movies like this one that wink and nod incessantly at the viewer to remind us that everything is bad, like, on purpose — which eventually becomes, like, a total drag. Still, “Zombeavers” is not a total wash, and seen at night, under the right combination of low expectations and controlled substances, it may even seem better than it really is. The movie’s two best gags involve, respectively, the conversion of the cabin floor into a kind of real-life whack-a-mole game, and an end-credits tease for the (perhaps inevitable) sequel: “Zombees.”
In a cast that’s nearly as wooden as a beaver dam, veteran B-movie hardass Rex Linn handily walks off with all of his scenes as the grizzled mountain man in whom the zombeavers finally meet their match. Production values are better than expected, while the multitasking Kaplans also contribute an old-school synthesizer score.