A regular criticism I hear about zombie movies is that “no one does anything different with them”. This annoys me for three main reasons; firstly, that there could be anything wrong with the classic plot of “people fine, zombies turn up, zombies eat people”. Secondly, because there is a massive difference between plot and story and it’s pointlessly reductive to confuse them (“person commits crime, they think they go away with it, turns out they didn’t”, I’ve saved you watching everything from Hound of the Baskervilles to Wolf of Wall Street), And thirdly because it’s so ignorant of all the amazing work that’s been done in the genre, even within the “confines” of it’s three-act framework.
Case in point; this Jim Mickle-written and directed movie, co-produced and co-written by various members of the cast. It’s got novel zombies/infected (“~~let’s call the whole thing off~~”), amazing performances, interesting characters, and a whole pack of social commentary. The film is set within a working-class, Italian-American area of Lower Manhattan, New York, and from the start it establishes the bustle and the claustrophobia of that environment. Low lighting, simple camera angles, and extensive use of close-ups immediately give a sense of place for the piece, and are carried on throughout. Whilst it is made clear that it’s a lower-income part of the town, it also introduces a collection of characters that give the place a vibrancy, a taste of a cultural melting pot in action, and a realism that is often forgotten within the genre.
This world is presented to us through the eyes of Clutch (Nick Damici) and his interactions with neighbors within their tenement building. It’s a dark, oppressive place but has many people trying to live their best life through regular struggles. At the same time, it is juxtaposed by the brighter and more openly-filmed journey of Casey (Kim Blair), as she heads home from the military with visible war scars. The scenes of her travel are interjected with people’s reactions to her disfigurement, and her responses to them; a subtle piece of social observation and of-the-era political commentary that foreshadows the care that has been put into the script. At the same time all this is happening, a number of reports are coming through of people being attacked by hyper-aggressive rats within the New York underground system and then turning aggressive themselves.
I don’t know if this is the first instance of zombie plague caused by rat bite in horror, but using that as the mechanism for the infection works incredibly well as it showed an understanding of the location the film was set in. New York has a rat problem, rats aren’t news; so, rat attacks happening, even ones that make the news, aren’t inherently frightening or bizarre to the residents. The escalation curve for the people on the screen, and the responses from the authorities within the city, make sense to the viewer. Rather than bemoaning the cast for missing the blindingly obvious, you start willing them to make a logical leap in the hopes it might save them.
When the outbreak finally happens, the choice of rats is again shown to be a great one as it means we get to see human-rat hybrids causing terror and destruction. They look different, move different, and cannibalise different from regular zombies, and that gives things another little extra kick. The violence is well shot and on a second watch surprisingly less graphic than you think at the time. Then, when things start, they don’t let up until the end of the film. Through a combination of having made us care about the main cast, being willing to let those characters die in unexpected times. Working with the environment, both physical and social, the film manages to keep you engrossed, even as it exhausts you from the unrelenting wave of incidents that go down. Once the credits do roll, you’ll probably watch them through to the end as you try to catch your breath.
This is a film that sticks with you after watching, partly from the rush and partly from unpacking the events witnessed. As said; it’s socio-political throughout, but it’s subtle “show, don’t tell” elements that you’ll keep picking back up on after you’ve finished the film. Issues are represented by people dealing with them, rather than caricatures who are the avatar of the issue. The situations and dialogue are organic, foreshadowing is subtle, and there is a consistency of style and quality that makes you feel everything is part of a cohesive whole. When you then find out that this was made for $60,000, shot in three and a half weeks, and that the cast was extensively friends and family, you’ll need to catch your breath again as it is infinitely better than a lot of run-of-the-mill genre horror churned out for ten times that amount. However you want to cut it, this is a Treasure of a film and one that everyone, not just zombie diehards, needs to watch.