Just as Fail Safe was eclipsed by Dr Strangelove, this well-assembled little end-of-the-world movie has the misfortune to arrive shortly after Zombieland, a film which plays like a comedy version of the same story. Both are road movies in which two couples head towards a coastal resort and perhaps illusory safety, and try to live by a set of tough ‘rules’ for survival after a plague has wiped out the great majority of the population. Though one terminally ill character has a flicker of life which suggests zombiedom, this isn’t yet another walking infected dead picture but an entry in the apocalyptic pandemic sub-genre, evoking the BBC series Survivors (and its remake) and the miniseries version of The Stand.
It skips the fall of civilisation business and starts after the event. Surfer dude brothers Brian (Chris Pine) and Danny (Lou Taylor Pucci) are in a sports car with domineering Brian’s girlfriend Bobby (Piper Perabo) and college student Danny’s not-girlfriend Kate (Emily VanCamp) playing ‘twenty questions’ as they zoom down empty highways – and Kate being sneered at for asking ‘are they alive?’ The quartet pause when the road is blocked by an out-of-gas car but refuse to help Frank (Christopher Meloni), a guy trying to get his sick daughter Jodie (Kiernan Shipka) to a rescue centre where a treatment is promised – but when the kids total their ride, the two groups have to pool resources to move on. The Romero-style rescue centre is a bust, where a despairing doctor is euthanasing children with poisoned kool-aid. Brian, in a display of the ruthlessness he has perfected in these harsh times, takes advantage of the little girl’s inability to go to the toilet unaided to ditch the doomed pair and drive off in their stolen station wagon. However, Bobby has in a moment of weakness tried to comfort the ailing child and been exposed to the superbug.
Naturally, things get worse – and there are dangers at every stop. In a seemingly abandoned golf course resort, the foursome have a Dawn of the Dead moment of aimless luxuriating (breaking windows with golf-balls), but this turns out to be the chosen refuge of a bunch of decontamination-suited survivalists who are having their own internal disputes and are tempted to snatch the girls. When Bobby is forced to strip, she shows the stigmata of the disease and the kids are driven away from the club – and Brian has to stick to his brutal rules by abandoning his girlfriend to protect his brother. Writer-directors Alex and David Pastor use Brian as a plot motor – a pre-Star Trek Chris Pine comes on strong and obnoxious early on, but it turns out that the other, ostensibly nicer folks are happy to let him be the bad guy if it benefits them: a key flashback reveals that he has even abandoned his dying parents, and that Danny has probably suppressed the knowledge. When Brian falls sick, he tries to stick with the group, and Danny steps up to demonstrate leadership by mercy-shooting him. In the end, the survivors get to the beach – a frequent ending-point for apocalypses, from On the Beach to Planet of the Apes to Terminal Beach – and find cockroaches swarming over the crabs.
This is the sort of unassuming genre piece which is almost an endangered species: it has a young, attractive cast (all good in an unshowy way) and its theme is the post-apocalypse assumption of responsibility by kids who would otherwise be carefree (a notion that goes all the way back to Roger Corman’s Gas-s-s-s-s). As in Right at Your Door, sensible yet ruthless precautions serve to make things worse and most attempts at survivalism are seen as inhumane or futile. Less violent, horrific and gruesome than most apocalypse films, it was still never going to be a cheerful bubblegum action picture and the overall tone is of things running down and the road petering out.