United States. Directed by Jeremy Gardner, 2012. Starring Jeremy Gardner, Adam Cromheim, Niels Bolle. 102 minutes.
Let us ponder, for a moment, the case of Dawn of the Dead. “In 1968, George Romero brought us Night of the Living Dead,” an ominous voice (belonging to actor Adolph Caesar) informs us in the theatrical trailer. “It became the classic horror film of its time. Now, George Romero brings us the most intensely shocking motion picture experience for all times.”
How intensely shocking was it? So much so that Romero released it unrated rather than with the X rating the MPAA offered it. “There is no explicit sex in this this picture,” said the ads, “however there are scenes of violence that may be considered shocking.” (There’s that word again.) “No one under 17 will be admitted.”
That was in 1979. If you were seventeen in that year, you’re probably fifty-two today. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then–and so have a lot of zombie. Since the early 2000s, they’ve multiplied like the flesh-eating ghouls that populate them. We’ve had zombie movies, zombie action movies, zombie rom-coms, zombie coming-of-age-movies, zombie found-footage movies, zombie mumblecore, zombie period pieces, and probably at least one PG-13 zombie movie. All of that in addition to comics, video games, TV shows, anime, and God knows what else.
Which leads me to ask two questions. First, can we do anything new with zombies anymore, or are we just limited to knocking off Romero or adding zombies to an existing formula? And second, can zombies be as scary or even shocking in 2014 as they were in 1968 or 1979?
Both questions have an obvious answer, which is that I need to get my head out of my ass and stop pretending that my view of the zombie sub-genre, in which everything is centered around Dawn of the Dead, is the only one that matters. But until then, here’s The Battery, which is the freshest and most original zombie movie to come down the pike in a dog’s age (always assuming, of course, that Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies isn’t your idea of daring and different), and which did a fairly good job of scaring me.
The Battery doesn’t look like much on the outside. Kicking off months after zombies first appeared, it follows former minor-leaguers Ben (played by Jeremy Gardner, who also wrote and directed) and Mickey (Adam Cronheim) as they wander aimlessly around New England, fishing, playing catch, fending off the occasional zombie. Mostly they bicker.
None of this is anything new. Defining character through bickering has been an essential component of the zombie formula since Mr. Cooper argued with Ben over whether the cellar was the safest place or a deathtrap. Unpleasant characters is another standard feature, and true to form, neither Ben nor Mickey are particularly likable. The former adopts a self-satisfied, know-it-all demeanor and has tendencies which are borderline-sadistic; the latter is more sensitive, but is prone to co-dependence and lacks common sense. Oh, and he beats off while…no, I really shouldn’t tell you about that. Best to experience it for yourself.
What makes the film refreshing is less in what it actually does than how it does it. Our annoyance at the two characters who can’t get along to (literally) save their lives is offset by the easy chemistry between Gardner and Cronheim. The loose plotting (this is one of those films that vaguely saunters from plot point to plot point rather than rigidly following them) makes the story feel more organic than it might have, considering how much one of the late plot beats hinges on coincidence.
Other key elements of the formula are deployed sparingly, with two in particular dropping in the last twenty or so minutes of the film to astounding effect. I can’t say too much more than that without entering spoiler territory, but I will say that there’s a good reason, in constructive terms, behind Gardner’s decision to not show more than one or two zombies at a time for most of the film.
Gardner’s direction is also very strong even though there isn’t much flashy “style” to it. He always keeps the tone keenly balanced between horror and comedy–like Shaun of the Dead, you probably won’t notice that the mood has shifted from “dark comedy” to just “dark” until it’s too late. His fondness for long scenes and takes generates grueling tension in the film’s final act, although some viewers might feel he drags things out a bit too long. For me, though, it’s just right.
The two questions I opened the first section of this review with are pure and utter bullshit and The Battery helps prove it by taking some chances, striking the right balance between familiar elements and unfamiliar elements. Zombie movies and other “tired” sub-genres will remain relevant as long as good movies are made within them, and good movies are always being made within them. You just might have to do a bit more work to root them out. Don’t let this one slip under your radar.