The landscape of the zombie apocalypse – whose ‘rules’ were set down by George Romero and have been taken up by remakes, reboots, spinoffs, spoofs and franchises from Shaun of the Dead through The Walking Dead, Resident Evil and Zombieland to World War Z – has supplanted that of the Western in contemporary cinema. A subgenre has metastatised into a tradition as prolific and varied as, say, the cop movie or even the musical … admittedly thanks to the fact that it’s easier to make a no-budget zombie apocalypse movie and get distribution than almost anything else. Another reason for the healthiness of the form is that, every ten films or so, something fresh emerges, even if its menaces are anything but – often, in the smaller, quirkier, more comic fringes typified by Dead Set, Wasting Away, Stalled, Harold’s Going Stiff, Night of the Living Deb or Colin. This desert-set ‘odd couple’ movie brings enough new ideas to the shambling, drooling, infectious dead genre to stand out of the gruesome pack.
Director Colin Minihan and his co-writer Stuart Ortiz have been billed as The Vicious Brothers on their earlier Grave Encounters and Extraterrestrial – films which did great business almost out of the public eye (Grave Encounters was a budget DVD release and early VOD/streaming hit which earned many imitations and an official sequel) – but drop the branding here … as if they’re out to make a grown-up film. Minihan is becoming a genre patron after the manner of Larry Fessenden, producing others’ films, including FrightFest selections Still/Born and Incontrol (which also features Brittany Allen, star of It Stains the Sands Red). Extraterrestrial was a typical claustrophobic siege picture until its last shot – an epic track through a disaster site being cleaned up by ruthless authorities. This opens with an even more ambitious single take pull through Las Vegas, digitally altered on a huge scale to show the aftermath of a zombie outbreak … and then opts to tell a small story, though it goes for agoraphobia as its heroine and her odd partner are marooned in a widescreen-filling desert as they undertake a footslog trek that evokes the artfilm ordeal of Gerry or those Polanski shorts about mismatched couples struggling through hostile wastelands as much as it does the road warrior antics of several previous zombie movies.
After the zombie apocalypse has gone global – but with, for the most part, not that many walking dead around – petty gangster Nick (Merwin Mondesir) drives for an airport to hook up with some pals who have a plan to fly to Mexico and establish their own kingdom idyll, but the car gets stuck in the sand when he pulls over so his dancer girlfriend Molly (Allen) can be sick. A slow-walking zombie (Juan Riedinger) in a suit and tie approaches and, though he seems easy enough to evade, Nick manages to get bitten and killed. Molly, in leopardskin stretch pants and impractical shoes, sets off through the desert, pursued at an even pace by the zombie, whom she starts talking to (she nicknames him Smalls) and begins to treat as a beast of burden (rigging up a tire and an inflatable boat so he can drag her goods behind him) or even a pet. In a new idea for the genre, treated with welcome discretion, Molly’s period comes on at the worst possible time … but she is able to use a bloody tampon to distract Smalls from eating her. She is cautious enough to climb rocks he can’t scale when she wants to rest, though – and he keeps scratching and slavering. The film’s best moments come in this absurdist stretch as the chattering Molly and grunting Smalls totter through spectacular desert, and Molly starts showing survival smarts.
Later encounters with seemingly helpful passersby (friendly folks in zombie movies are rarely trustworthy), regulation unhelpful (and inept) grunts and Nick’s drugged-out friends change the almost-sweet tone for something crueler, but underline the thesis that this dead guy is on the whole better for Molly than any of the living men in her life … even if she does find herself smashing her own thumb off with a rock when she forgets how bitey he is. The last act, in which Molly remembers she has a son cared for by her straight-living sister, reverts to slightly more conventional, family-oriented survivalism but pays off with an effective fade-out.