In many ways, Black Sheep is a spiritual successor to Dead Alive. Not just because they’re both slap-sticky horror comedies from New Zealand, although…yes, that is a fair amount of the reason why. But the nature of that slap-sticky comedy feels very much like a call back to the more than faintly ridiculous and over-the-top antics of that earlier film without actually directly referencing the earlier film. Add in the special effects from Weta Workshop, which has its own signficant relationship with Peter Jackson’s films, and the fact that one film is about monkey bites turning people into zombies and one is about carnivorous sheep seems like a middling difference.
Black Sheep opens on an image of idyllic farm life, as a father and son pair herd sheep around the scenic hills of New Zealand, watched by an older boy, his leg in a brace, who seethes with jealousy. He goes home and slaughters a pet lamb, using its carcass to play a sadistic prank on the younger boy. The “joke” is interrupted by the farm housekeeper, who informs both boys that their father has just died in an accident. Flashing forward fifteen years, we find that the younger boy, Henry has now developed a crippling sheep phobia, which he is being forced to deal with on his last trip to the family farm, where his brother, Angus, is buying out his half on the eve of announcing his “revolutionary” new breed of sheep to the eager public. Henry is desperate to leave once he gets his check, but the housekeeper, Mrs. Mac, guilt-trips him into taking one last tour of the farm with Tucker, the farm-manager. Meanwhile, a pair of environmentalists, Grant and his not-quite girl-friend Experience, sneak onto the farm to spy on the lab where blackballed scientist Dr. Rush is conducting illegal genetic manipulation experiments on the sheep, stealing a jar containing what appears to be a pickled sheep embryo. Separating as they escape, Grant drops the jar and is bitten by the very much still alive mutant sheep, before it crawls off to infect the rest of the flock. Henry and Tucker encounter some sheep behaving strangely on the farm when Experience steals a gun from their truck, planning to hold the “evil farmers” with bad auras hostage until she finds Grant, but the trio notice smoke coming from a nearby house. Inside they find a dead farmer and are attacked by vicious sheep and Tucker is bitten on the foot. Eventually the three make their way to Dr. Rush’s lab where the horrible truth is eventually revealed: the mutant sheep are a mix of sheep and human DNA, inspired by Angus’s…amorous relationship with his stock. And also people bitten by the sheep turn into hideous mutant were-sheep. Angus leaves the mutating Tucker to Dr. Rush and Henry and Experience to die in an offal pit, but the two escape and attempt to warn the press about the mutant sheep, arriving just in time to witness the wholesale massacre of the press pool by the carnivorous mutton. Henry and Experience spend the night besieged in the farmhouse, rescued only by the explosive flatulence of farm stock and the anti-mutant serum Dr. Rush developed before being devoured herself. The next day normality reasserts itself, with the survivors de-sheepfying the remaining were-sheep and contemplating organic farming methods.
As a twist on the standard zombie formula, Black Sheep is fairly fun. It lacks the manic energy of most of the zombie comedies, and it’s idea of social satire aims fairly low. In fact, it mostly consists of mocking Grant and Experience for their naivete and Experience’s condescending attitude towards the indigenous population. What little psychological depth the film promises early on (Angus’s dislike of Henry is rooted, the film suggests, in their father’s favoring of Henry over Angus) is roundly ignored and eventually dismissed with the revelation that, no, Angus is just a sick bastard. Instead the film goes the absurdist route and relies on the whole “zombie sheep” motif to drive both the humor and the horror. While the lycanthropy aspect offers a welcome variation on the theme, it’s ultimately just used as an excuse to extend the joke. And while there’s some fun in that joke, it ultimately doesn’t really go anywhere.