A few years ago any movie given the description "Western" was immediately written off, balked at, and then quickly dropped straight-to-DVD without a second glance. For all intents and purposes, it was considered a dead genre. Fast-forward to 2016, and suddenly westerns are the new hip and happening thing in Hollywood; mostly because of the success of Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful 8 and the acclaim the Kurt Russell vehicle Bone Tomahawk received.
Way before either one of those were in production, two directing buddies from Central Texas were busy realizing their dream. Duane Graves and Justin Meeks wanted to make a sweeping spaghetti western blended with the sort of horror tropes that would make genre fans smile with glee and regular moviegoers wince with anxiety. The only problem was, nobody was making Westerns at the time, so they had to dig deep and find investors and producers who would let them take the time they needed to make a movie that captured the sort of on-location flare that classic films Clint Eastwood and John Wayne starred in throughout their illustrious careers.
From the sick and twisted minds of two of the nicest and most down-to-Earth guys I’ve met in the film industry comes something bold and distinctive for the 21st century. Kill or Be Killed, which used to be entitled Red on Yella, Kill a Fella, is what can only be referred to as a horror western. Equal parts 1980s slasher film and classic spaghetti western, you’d think the combination would be disastrous. I wholeheartedly assure you that it isn’t. Instead, it makes for an inimitable viewing experience that leaves you wanting to revisit the movie and make sure you caught everything the first time around.
The same folks that picked up Bone Tomahawk for distribution decided to take a chance on another quality western when they took on Kill or Be Killed. The movie is directed by Duane Graves and Justin Meeks, who horror fans might know from the independent gems The Wild Man of the Navidad and Butcher Boys. Duane and Justin fine-tuned their filmmaking skills working with Producer and Writer Kim Henkel. Many will recognize that name as belonging to the co-creator of the original 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
In Kill or Be Killed, Claude “Sweet Tooth” Barbee (Justin Meeks) and his gang of cutthroat outlaws – the most wanted men in Texas – are on a desperate ride across five hundred miles of badlands to recover a fortune in hidden loot from their most daring robbery. But Barbee and his crew aren’t the only coldblooded killers riding the range. With a large “dead or alive” cash bounty on their heads, the outlaws are being picked off one by one. What began as a hard journey driven by greed becomes a feverish race to survive.
When viewing Kill or Be Killed, it’ll be hard to fathom the dedication and work it must’ve taken to shoot such a project in this day and age on the micro-budget of an independent film. The sprawling barren landscapes will leave you wondering where such areas still exist in the U.S. The realistic “Old West” settings make you ponder how they were built and put together to look so authentic.
Another amazing thing about Kill or Be Killed is how genuinely filthy and grimy everyone looks in the film. You really do believe you’re looking at outlaws living in the west who haven’t taken a shower in a week or so. The authenticity in the overall look of the movie is quite impressive.
The journey the outlaws embark on in Kill or Be Killed take them in the direction of many different misadventures. It puts them on a path in which they meet several very interesting characters played by familiar genre icons. Bill “Leatherface 2” Johnson from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 appears in a small and gory role. Edwin Neal, who played the Hitchhiker in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, makes the most of his bloody brief appearance. Michael Berryman climbs out of the hills that have eyes to administer some painfully graphic medical help as a town doctor.
The script by Justin Meeks and Duane Graves unfolds slowly and methodically for Kill or Be Killed. If you’re expecting the quick cuts, edits, and jumps of modern filmmaking, you’ll not find that here. The sort of pacing you get with this is reminiscent of the slow-boiling complex tales put on celluloid in the 1970s.
Let’s talk about the musical score for Kill or Be Killed for a moment. Yes, you did read that correctly. There is an actual score for a low-budget independent film that sounds like a million dollars (or more). Composer John Constant gives you exactly what you would expect in a spaghetti western… and I mean that as a compliment. There are also contemporary country twangs that reminded me of the Young Guns movies.
Kill or Be Killed is unrated, but would give the movie an R if it were put in my hands to do so. The movie contains nudity, sexuality, profanity, violence, gore, alcohol, smoking, and frightening and intense sequences. I’m not big on sexuality and nudity in films and it really doesn’t need to be in here. The two sequences I can think of right offhand easily could be taken out, opening it up to a broader audience who might not watch films which include those types of scenes. Editing them out of the film won’t cause people NOT to see the movie, but it might cause others TO watch it.
The special features for Kill or Be Killed contains some great insight into what it took to bring the movie to life onscreen. Filmmakers Duane Graves and Justin Meeks provide audio commentary. Kill or Be Killed: Making an Indie Western is a featurette that takes viewers behind the scenes of the film. There's also an interview shot at the Dallas International Film Festival (DIFF). A number of deleted scenes are found as well; some of which give background on certain parts of the finished product. The segment the directing duo shot for Slacker 2011 is included on the DVD, too.
Kill or Be Killed is an entirely new and unique hybrid in the world of cinema. Although movies like Wesley Snipes’ Gallowwalkers and DC Comics’ Jonah Hex have attempted to dabble in mixing horror and supernatural elements into their western settings, Writer / Director Team Justin Meeks and Duane Graves make the blending feel natural. I didn’t even realize I was watching a slasher movie until about three quarters of the way through it. Just imagine a sprawling western epic in the grand tradition of John Ford and Sergio Leone if an enigmatic and sinister stalker were following the anti-heroes on their excursion. You get an idea of what to expect when climbing into the saddle for this thrill ride.
Kill or Be Killed is available now on DVD and as a Digital Download.