Professor Sorenson (played by Roddy McDowall) injects baboon Shakma with an experimental drug meant to reduce aggression, but this proves to have the exact opposite effect. He orders medical student Sam (played by Christopher Atkins) to put down the unruly primate, but Sam administers the incorrect drug and Shakma is rolled aside for an autopsy. Just hours later, a group of college students, including Sam, gather at the facility for a live action-role playing game lead by Professor Sorenson. As the group is spread out over multiple floors with no way to communicate with each other, no one notices when Shakma revives in a rage.
On paper, Shakma is a slasher film with a rabid baboon as the killer instead of a masked psycho. A low budget film in which a group of dumb college kids get ripped apart by a vicious primate and actually stars a real baboon sounds promising, right? In reality, Shakma never lives up to the potential of its premise. Christopher Atkin’s constant facial contortions throughout confuse instead of conveying Sam’s proper emotions. The scenes between his character and Ari Meyers’ Kim, the younger teen smitten by the hero, feel uncomfortable to watch rather than the invocation of goodwill they’re meant to instill in audiences. He’s one of the better actors in the film, though that’s really not saying much. Speaking of better actors, Roddy McDowall is sorely under-utilized as the overseer of the role playing, relegated to giving directions to the game’s players via walkie talkie. That the very prim and proper professor spends his Friday night with his students playing a Dungeons & Dragons type game is never brought into question either.
While mechanical baboons were used for scenes in which Shakma may have suffered injury, most of the footage features the live baboon. Even though a real baboon makes for a more impressive on screen villain, the use of a live animal actually imposes limitations on screen. Which means Shakma spends most of the movie jumping, thrashing about on tables, and humping doors without anyone else in the shot. Just as Shakma leaps toward his next victim, the camera cuts away only to pan back on a downed actor covered in blood. With the exception of one character’s acid soaked demise, every other death is nearly identical.
Aside from the poor acting and letdown of Shakma’s slayings, the role-playing game set up allows for one of the film’s positives: there is no true systematic killing spree found in most other slasher films. The human cast consists of nerd-types that would be found gathering together on a Friday night to play a game such as the one in the film don’t fit the normal stereotypes that announce their death sequence from the moment of their introduction. Shakma doesn’t differentiate. He doesn’t care if you’re a responsible med student or an annoying slacker. Some of the characters destined to survive based on their archetype alone often suffered the most agonizing end.
Speaking of end, Shakma does feature a rather gratifying conclusion. For a 100 minute running time largely spent watching a cast of medical students make asinine decisions and a primate throwing himself at closed doors repeatedly, the climax leads to one of the most satisfying and appropriate endings. Only in the final quarter does the film move past tedium into intrigue.
This killer primate tale should draw in fans of camp, but it fails at achieving anything truly special or new. Characters that lack depth or any arch, long stretches of repetition, and limited use of both the antagonist and the amazing Roddy McDowall drag this film down. This film doesn’t hold much love for its characters either, though, which gives Shakma an unbiased murder spree at whim. Copious amounts of blood also help.