The problem with most contemporary zombie movies is that so little of them bring anything new or innovative to the dining table. Half the time they end up merely imitating, poorly, the best aspects of George Romero’s Dead films and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, despite the fact that 28 Days Later is not a zombie film. Others are just big Schwarzenegger-style action movies with a lot of gratuitous violence and bad storytelling. Thus we, the movie-going public, end up with a lot of crap like the Resident Evil films. It also means that we rarely get to see anything that is new and even half-way original. All of this just adds more fuel to the oft-spoken question, has Hollywood run out of ideas? Well, I would have to agree that they have. The rest of the world, however, has not.
Case in point, a delightfully creepy little film from Spain, released last year that has generated so much buzz and word of mouth in the international horror community that Hollywood has already snapped up the remake rights to. The film is called [REC] and it certainly lives up to its hype by both offering something new and refreshing as far as zombie cinema goes, as well as remaining true to some of the traditions and conventions of this oh-so-revered subgenre.
The film follows reporter Angela (Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman Pablo, who are assigned to cover the lives and duties of some local firemen for a television show called “When You’re Asleep.” At first it’s a quiet evening with not much in the way of gripping action until they receive a call to respond to an apartment building where an elderly woman has locked herself inside her own apartment and may be in need of help. With Angela and Pablo in tow, two of the firemen, Manu (Ferran Terraza) and Alex (David Vert), head to the building in question. When they arrive along with some police officers the woman attacks, ferociously tearing a chunk of flesh from a police officer’s throat with her teeth. Things take a turn for the worse when the health department seals up the building, trying to prevent a mysterious disease from escaping. The only problem now is that the firemen, police officers, Angela, Pablo, and the already scared and confused tenants are now trapped in the building with no way of escaping. As the situation worsens and things start to become more and more hopeless for all involved, Angela keeps on telling Pablo to keep the camera rolling; taping everything so that they will have a document of what happened to them to show the world.
As far as modern zombie films go, [REC] is a real surprise, and scary too; a breath of fresh air with two or three moments that will probably cause even the most hardened horror fan to jump out of his or her seat. What really makes the film work is the fact that it is made on such a low budget. Tight and economical, clocking in at 78 minutes long, it succeeds because directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza use the simplest of camera techniques and the most basic of locations to generate a real sense of tension that you just can’t get with millions of dollars and slick special effects.
The overwhelming majority of horror films are shot and edited using master shots, long shots, close-ups, parallel action, and POV (point of view) shots – the traditional cinematic style; and while it’s a very effective way to craft a film, generating shocks as well as suspense, it can also become quite stale and cliched. By shooting the film from a first person perspective entirely, Balagueró and Plaza craft a new sense of directness where you feel like you’re right there, trapped, in the midst of whatever is happening along with the other characters. Unlike other films shot and edited in a traditional manner, where you can see things that other characters cannot see, in [REC] they only see what you yourself can see.
The other element that makes [REC] work, in terms of its tension and bleak atmosphere, is the location. By setting the action in one location, a dank, large windowless apartment building where all the characters are trapped, one can build up a feeling of tension – much like being imprisoned – where there is no way of escaping. And when things become really rough with the zombies attacking, there’s nowhere to go.
Now I have to admit, the idea of presenting a fiction film as the document of an actual event has always seemed a little gimmicky. There are always questions that you ask yourself about logistical reality when watching a film presented as found footage. Like how did it get into the general public and marketplace? How come the government didn’t get their hands on it and suppress the footage? How did Pablo keep from dropping the camera while running up all those stairs that fast? How was the camera not destroyed by the hordes of rampaging zombies? Well, to be honest, these questions don’t matter because you’re so wrapped up in the story and the dilemma these people face that you don’t ask yourself these questions. You only care about the story. It’s only in retrospect, when the film is over, and you stand back and actually think about it that such questions come up. Are such questions bad? Not really. But then again, when it comes to any kind of horror movie, when do you not find yourself asking such questions about logical reality?
While the zombie subgenre is littered with thousands of half-baked films, nearly all of which seem to think that horror means excessive gore and blood, there are still a few films that remember that that is fine, but if there is no real tension or story, then the film will just become a tiresome exercise of cruelty and violence between the living and unliving. Today, very few films, American or non-American for that matter, balance story/tension and gore equally. On the other hand, [REC] was one of the highest grossing films in Spain when it was first released, so there’s clearly an audience that will pay to see films – horror films – that offer them some substance with their gore. It’s only a disappointment that more people here in the States haven’t heard about it, or seen it. Sadly, those might watch [REC] may instead see it as the English-language remake Quarantine – which will no doubt be full of blood, gore and flat storytelling.
Whether or not the movie-going public goes to see Quarantine has yet to be proven. What can be proven is that [REC] is a real surprise, and one of the best horror/zombie films of recent years. While it’s not completely original – but then again, what is completely original these days – it does have more than it’s fair share of innovations and surprises with real tension and creepy atmosphere. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, especially after a second viewing and look forward to what directors Balagueró and Plaza cook up in the future.
This review is part of Spanish Horror Week, the second of five celebrations of international horror done for our Shocktober 2008 event.