One morning in downtown Madrid, a man walks out of a snack bar and falls – when someone else goes out to help him, he is shot in the head. At first, the patrons and staff of the bar guess that a sniper is terrorising the city or that there’s a terrorist attack in progress … then, all the people are cleared out of the normally busy plaza and even the corpses are removed, and the authorities set light to tires to send up smoke, enabling them to release a cover story about a fire. In the toilet of the bar is a military man who has died of what seems to be some new form of Ebola – and the survivors deduce that they are at risk of infection, which makes the fissures in their potential solidarity crack wide open.
In its set-up, Alex de la Iglesia’s film evokes the likes of The Divide, Right at Your Door and Outbreak. The worst happens, the authorities are callous and ordinary people become monstrous, turn on each other, and go to extremes of selfishness in order to survive … the difference is that, as in most of his films, de la Iglesia stages a suspense situation as black farce, with exaggerated characters, non-stop patter and a loose cannon maniac in the mix – here, Israel (Jaime Ordonez), a gaunt and crazed homeless man whose end is nigh pronouncements and cackling over each fresh disaster serve to make everything worse, but also to expose the hypocrisy of the ostensibly more civilised folks who wind up scrabbling over a limited supply of a supposed antidote.
Elena (Blanca Suarez), who wanted to charge her phone, is at first presented as shrill and superficial – Amparo (Terele Pavez) takes offense at her offhanded statement that she would never usually come into a place like this – but emerges as something close to a moral centre. After a winnowing-out of some of the toughest members, the group boils down to Nacho (Mario Casas), who has a laptop and a suspect beard … Trini (Carmen Machi), a neglected widow who just pops in to play the fruit machine … Satur (Secun de la Rosa), a short-order cook. They get driven deeper into the shit – literally, as the authorities set fire to the bar to cleanse the site and they have to squeeze through a drain into a vile sewer, where extended and slightly confused third act takes place.
De la Iglesia and co-writer Jorge Guerrichaechevarria don’t quite work out the details of the big threat – it may be a joke at the expense of official paranoia that no one in the bar actually comes down with the supposedly virulent plague, but it also means that Israel has to act up whenever things geet slow just to keep the story going and (eventually) the bodies piling up. The vagrant is at some times a conscience figure indicting more comfortable, complacent folks – but he’s a completely malevolent bastard when the film needs to turn into a free-for-all fight. Wallowing in the sewer is an all too appropriate metaphor for the way things go in the climax. The business of four survivors with three doses of the antidote makes for good drama, but no one acts in a terribly believable fashion and so tension and satiric point tends to dribble away.
Not for the first time, de la Iglesia starts well – and, as it happens, the punchline is pretty good too – but hares all over the place once things get going.