Directed by: Glenn Ciano
Starring: Michael Madsen, William Forsythe
Synopsis: A virus that turns people into cannibal monsters has started doing that. Now some people are trying not to get killed.
Rating: 3 Brains
The movie starts with some nature shots that are meant to look artistic, but aren’t so much. There’s some narration about how this virus has happened that turns people into flesh-eating monsters, and what a bummer that is. The music is serene for some reason, something that feels really inappropriate for the narrated tale of the oncoming apocalypse. But at least it’s not the hard rock/blues guitar stuff we hear in most of these zombies flicks these days.
But our hopes for appropriate music are dashed when we launch into a scene where zombies are attacking a house full of people to the sound of driving guitars.
Let’s talk about music for a minute here, because this is something that a lot of movies get totally wrong. You don’t think much about what music does for a film. That’s because it’s meant to have a subtle effect. Most of the time, it’s just in the background, not stealing focus from the scene, but just enhancing it. For some reason, we humans have a strong emotional reaction to music. Long ago, filmmakers realized that by playing music that elicits a certain emotional reaction from the listener, a movie’s audience can experience a heightened sense of whatever emotion they’re meant to feel in the scene they are watching. If it’s a sad scene, a melancholy tune will make us even sadder. If it’s a happy scene, jubilant music will make us swell up and smile.
Here’s a little experiment.
Watch this scene from Night of the Living Dead. This is the scene at the end, when the zombies finally break through and basically everyone dies. (Spoilers, I guess). The music is classic horror – suspenseful, with string instruments creating a high sense of tension.
Now watch the same scene again, but mute it, and listen to the music from this video while you watch the NOLD scene.
Notice what a difference that makes? It’s not so scary and tense anymore; now it’s a bit bad ass. Ben the bad ass zombie killer is taking care of business! Even when he shoots another person, the music kind of gives us the sense that he’s kicking some ass that needs to be kicked (which is true), rather than giving us the feeling of “oh God, has it really come to this?” that it’s meant to.
As a side note, try watching the NOLD scene with this music. It changes the context again, but makes it super epic.
The basic plot of the movie is this: A small group of people lives in a remote mountain region. Some virus, apparently originating from ticks on deer (it’s mentioned that it is related to lime disease), has started turning the infected into 28 Days Later rage zombies. One of the characters’ grandmother is sick, clearly infected with the disease, and like any zombie flick where one of the people is infected, this affects a chain reaction where most of the characters end up bitten or dead. Michael Madsen and his family manage to escape when the zombies finally swarm on them. That’s it, really.
This movie isn’t great, but it isn’t horrible. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s good either. It’s good for a first effort from a director – that it happens to be the second effort of this director means he’s just kind of a slow learner. The lighting is good. The atmosphere is superb – I’m from a suburb of Atlanta, and two hours north of there, everything looks like this movie. The sound isn’t fantastic – there are scenes that sound like they were shot on a camcorder – and the dialogue isn’t particularly inspiring. But the shots are framed well, and the director clearly knows what he’s doing…he just hasn’t really honed his craft yet. And he needs to figure out the music thing.
The characters are lame. This isn’t as bad as The Dead Undead where I am rooting for the zombies because I hate the characters so much. But these characters are all very flat. The way the older characters (Michael Madsen and William Forsyth) are portrayed as middle-aged men who remember the “good ole days” is slightly relatable, at least for people who feel that way, and the younger people who think that attitude is stupid is as well, for the rest of us. But the characters are not memorable or empathetic. I just finished watching it, and I don’t remember any of their names. That’s a problem in a horror movie. It falls flat if I don’t care if they all die, and in this thing, I really don’t. Let’s put it this way: the first time we’re shown two characters off by themselves having a meaningful conversation, the guy starts talking about his balls. I’m not sure if there’s an amount of ball-related conversation a character can have and still remain sympathetic, but conventional wisdom holds that it’s none.
The acting is sub par, but not the world’s worst. Even Michael Madsen delivers a pretty uninspired performance, and this is a guy who could bring the feels in Free Willy.
Other than the music, and the ending – which I’ll get to in a second – the worst thing about this movie is that it feels like Glenn Ciano, who both wrote and directed this one, conceived of it in high school. It very much feels like what a 13 year old boy would come up with if he wrote a movie, and then was told to revise it to add some more compelling story elements. He’d keep the useless scene with the topless hooker who is killed in the woods, because boobs. He’d still make the main character a bad ass cowboy, and the supporting character of the doctor would remain a sort of country doctor caricature with ridiculous hair. Then he’d tack on an extra character – Michael Madsen’s pregnant…wife, I think? And make the end about loss, and sneak in a theme about the world progressing and leaving behind the old-fashioned world of the older characters. Sort of a No Country for Old Men zombie movie.
And these elements do feel forced, and added after-the-fact. But the worst is the ending.
In the beginning of the movie, we’re shown the scene where the infected attack the house. The rest of the movie is the events leading up to that. Once we get there for reals, the whole scene lasts less than ten minutes; the infected attack, a few folks get killed, they fight them back, and then they escape to the car and drive away. Strangely, it’s pretty realistic how simple it is. I mean, if that happened to you, would you barricade the house and get ready for a last stand? Or, knowing you had a car right outside the back door, would you just get in it and bolt? Well that’s what I’d do, and it’s what Michael Madsen and the survivors – miraculously, his son and wife – do in the end.
Which wouldn’t be such a problem, if we didn’t cut there, and go into about 15 minutes of Michael Madsen narrating the rest. Apparently they got overrun, and the wife died. We don’t see this – he just tells us this, somewhat matter-of-factly. The fact that this did not warrant a scene screams that they ran out of money and had to rush the end. Still, a better choice would have been to cut it entirely. We see Michael Madsen losing it and crying like a baby at his wife’s grave – which is good, considering he was bitten in the fight, and seems to have come through just fine (despite the movie establishing that bites = infection).
Then we see about ten minutes of his character’s son turning a car into a tank, raiding a warehouse for supplies, and driving home to a military safe zone where people are gardening, guarding, and basically just living their lives safely. The scene is shot outside in overcast weather, there are a lot of details about this safe zone that are shown pretty quickly. The music is even pretty appropriate, and really helps the scene. And when the credits hit during that scene, I couldn’t help but think: this would have been a better movie. I really liked what I saw at the end there! But it made the rest of the movie look that much worse in comparison. Get rid of the first two hours of this thing, and expand on the last 10, and we’ve got a party.
Maybe Ciano is dreaming of a sequel. If it picks up where this one left off, I’d watch it for sure. Or maybe it’s just the culmination of that theme he tried to put in there about the new generation overtaking the old. Because while we see a bleak apocalyptic world, in the end there is hope and it looks like the kids are doing alright for themselves. This is why the first character infected is the oldest, and the second significant character that is infected is the white-haired doctor, who shows up during the escape scene to say “it’s too late for me.” The message of this movie seems to be that while the new world is replacing the old, as it always does, everything’s going to be okay. Very different perhaps, but we’ll make it work.
I’m a little bothered by the fact that Michael Madsen survived the bite though, and narrated an ending about him and his son surviving and hoping for the future, even though Madsen does not appear to be present at all in the safe zone. It feels like he probably died in the first draft, and they couldn’t get him back for more scenes after he’d left the set. Can’t really blame him.
This movie is worth a watch. It’s not going to change your life, but it’s not bad, and if Glenn Ciano learns something from this and manages a respectable career, you’ll want to be able to say you saw this one before he was cool. You zombie hipster, you.