In some geographically-nebulous 18th Century European setting – with a mix of Irish, English and cod-Irish accents and a plot-required use of the guillotine for public execution – proletarian body-snatchers Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan) and Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden) are arrested and tried after the authorities have followed a trail of body-parts to their doors. Willie is hauled off by a mob and beheaded, but Arthur has a long night’s wait before execution, which he passes in conversation with monk-robed Father Duffy (Ron Perlman). As in The Curse of Frankenstein, the condemned man tells the story of his life the mad science trade, though he has worked in the lower-end of the business – exhuming corpses for anatomical experiments.
Writer-director Glenn McQuaid, who has done effects work on Fessenden’s films as a director, incorporates his previous short film, The Resurrection Apprentice, which shows how young Arthur (Daniel Manche) got in with Willie in the first place, as a prologue. Briefly intending to kill the lad and sell him, the verminous Willie shows a sentimental streak by adopting him as a protégé. The duo toil at the behest of tyrannical Frankenstein-type Dr Vernon Quint (Angus Scrimm), who is disposed of when the body-snatchers dig up a toothy woman with a stake through her heart. Pulling the wood out brings her back to bloodthirsty life, which leads to a comedy routine testing the process and a blackout gag as the dead body is delivered to Quint – who is promptly killed by it. The crooks graduate from simple corpse-snatching to the specialised, lucrative trade of apprehending the undead – who often need extreme measures to bring in. Not content with this already-wild premise, the film then concentrates on the rivalry between the two-man outfit and the more-organised, frightful Murphy gang, who want a monopoly on the zombie business – with Arthur’s grasping girlfriend (Brenda Cooney) nagging them into a raid on an offshore island where crates containing creatures have washed up, though it’s bound to bring them into conflict with the merciless Murphys.
The humour is a mix of period grand guignol and Re-Animatory business with unkillable, angry corpses who keep making trouble even when cut into pieces – a persistent foot is one of the zombies, and a bitten Willie returns with a detachable head to reteam with Arthur after Duffy has been revealed as the vengeance-seeking Murphy patriarch. It’s obviously a shaggy dead story, with sidetracks and vignettes that string it out to feature length, but the nicely broad playing (the gap-toothed Fessenden and the canny tagalong Monaghan bring a lot to their genially roguish characters), off-kilter inventiveness and decent use of limited production values make it distinctive.