Mutant riffs on the country/city divide that’s at the center of the more recent Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, a gorier, funnier and more touching film.
Two big city brothers descend upon small-town Georgia to find it overtaken by zombies whose hands are infected with some kind of vaginal stigmata that oozes chemical waste. Originally released as Night Shadows, Mutant is exactly the kind of movie you expect B-movie ham Wings Hauser to have made in 1984. The actor gives his all whether the project is his own rock album (released under the name Wings Livinryte) or the several episodes of “Murder, She Wrote” in which he appeared, and is the best thing about this competently made but ultimately forgettable horror movie, streaming in an appropriately murky transfer on YouTube. Fans of The Walking Dead could find worse ways to kill time while waiting for the next chapter in the zombie apocalypse to begin.
Mutant begins like dozens of other ‘80s horror movies, with a preview of the carnage to come and a look at the unsuspecting victims heading into harm’s way. On a foggy night, a man finds a strange, mustard-like substance in front of his house. Investigating further in the basement, he discovers a corpse with a mutilated hand, and is quickly dispatched by some unseen foe.
The next day, Josh (Hauser) and his little brother Mike (Lee Montgomery) are driving down a seemingly quiet country road when they run afoul of violent locals who run their big city sports car (white, because they’re the good guys, natch) off the road. The brothers are forced to find shelter in an unnamed town where Mike finds a dead body by the railroad tracks. Seeking help in a local bar that proudly displays confederate flags, the brothers run into more trouble before Sheriff Will Stewart (Bo Hopkins) reluctantly comes to their aid. But when Mike shows the sheriff where he found the body, they only find a drunk who is very much alive.
Director John “Bud” Cardos came from old Hollywood. His family ran the legendary Graumann’s Egyptian and Chinese Theatres, and the young Cardos appeared in a number of “Our Gang” comedies. The child actor grew up to be a stuntman and was a second unit director on The Wild Bunch, but as a director he largely stuck to exploitation fare with titles like Kingdom of the Spiders and Gor II. Still, on the basis of Mutant (not to be confused with a 1982 sci-fi B-movie of the same name), Cardos is a capable director. The movie has decent production values and is shot with a derivative flair for basic suspense tropes. The dark basement, the staircase to danger and the mysteriously ominous backwoods community are all staples of the genre, and this movie handles them better than most.
Unfortunately, the script and supporting cast do not follow suit. While the zombie’s vividly cleaved hands are a distinctive and memorable feature, little else stands out. Hauser is restrained, his signature mania never reaching the over-the-top heights of his work in Vice Squad or Tough Guys Don’t Dance. He gets in a few of the wide-eyed, animated bursts that made him a consistently entertaining presence in this era’s exploitation movies, but has a better chance to show off his acting chops when he breaks down to schoolteacher Holly (Jody Medford) about his lost little brother. Hopkins is fine as the big-city cop demoted to the sticks because he shot an innocent kid, but the actors in lesser roles occasionally give off zombie-like readings even while presumably alive.
Mutant riffs on the country/city divide that’s at the center of the more recent Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, a gorier, funnier and more touching film. While Tucker and Dale finds humor, pathos and pools of blood in the kind of cultural antagonism that increasingly divides the nation, Mutant finds big city outsiders and small town good old boys are all evil, as corporations send chemical waste into poor rural communities where corrupt locals are happy to profit from it (although it’s never clear how exactly the town profits from the hot mustard-like goop). Can a rugby-shirt wearing guy from the big city and a rural schoolteacher find love? Perhaps the standard-issue romantic interest will bear fruit with the most startling Mutant of all.