Cast your mind back into the distant past...
Do you remember when less than 90% of all pop culture was dedicated to superheroes and zombies?
Much like the walking dead themselves, zombie pop culture has spread exponentially. It’s an infectious disease that won’t rest until we’re all eating zombie-themed ice cream and making love with zombie-flavoured condoms.
Since George Romero built the template decades ago and Danny Boyle disinterred the genre with the 2002 film ‘28 Days Later’, it has chewed its way through most tonal incarnations, from straight horror to high blockbuster (‘World War Z’), to comedy (‘Zombieland’, ‘The Dead Don't Die’), to satire (‘Shaun of the Dead’). Robert Kirkman's comic series ‘The Walking Dead’ was adapted for television in 2010 and grew into a worldwide phenomenon. Countless new movies have been rightfully accused of repeatedly treading on familiar ground, refusing to try anything truly fresh. For many, the mere thought of a new zombie movie sounds exhausting, boring.
The genre isn’t quite dead - a wave of high-quality zombie films that put unique twists on old tropes, like ‘One Cut of the Dead’, ‘Anna and the Apocalypse’, ‘Cargo’ and ‘Overlord’, were released in 2018. But writer/director/editor/composer Antonio Tublen’s new film ‘Zoo’ was going to need to be something special to stand out from the herd.
Karen (Zoë Tapper) and John (Ed Speleers) are an attractive young couple who have become increasingly estranged after finding out that they can’t conceive a child together. When London is struck by a virus that turns people into zombies, the couple lock themselves in their spacious city apartment, waiting for rescue. Determined to stay alive, they gather all of the right tools to defend themselves. To stave off boredom, they exercise and do lots of drugs. As they wait, they end up discovering a lot more about themselves than what they already knew.
Zombie movies have always been fertile ground for subtle-to-sledgehammering social commentary. ‘Night of the Living Dead’ exposed the racism still residing in America after the Civil Rights Movement through an ending - intentional or not - that showed militarised America's inability to see black people as anything other than monsters - and in hindsight, perhaps spoke to the omission of black people from the zombie narrative they created. ‘28 Days Later’ isn't concerned with race, but rather the evil and uncontrolled impulses of men. The film's exploration of repopulation through sexual slavery is harrowing, and like Romero's films, it makes the point that the living are just as frightening as the dead when left to their own devices. ‘Zoo’ touches on everything from toxic relationships to (seemingly) Brexit, when the couple grudgingly let their foreign-accented neighbours, Leo and Emily (Jan Bijvoet and Antonia Campbell-Hughes), into their home and force them to do menial household chores. The dynamic between the two couples is the most interesting part of the story, and sadly underdeveloped.
On the cheaper end of the zombie apocalypse genre are the films where survivors are trapped in a small location while, outside, the world goes to hell. There have been some excellent films in this category, like Marvin Kren’s ‘Rammbock’ and Dominique Rocher’s recent ‘The Night Eats the World’. Tublen’s slick cinematography and his modest effects - like a plane jutting out of a building - are, when married to the broadcast accounts of death and destruction, just enough to scarily hint at the metropolitan chaos. The film wrings the maximum mileage from a meagre budget, with the action focusing on food supplies and the well-equipped modern apartment. The authorities, meanwhile, are represented by a handful of visiting goons, the odd TV news clip and a disembodied voice spouting misinformation on the radio.
Tublen’s slick cinematography and his modest effects - like a plane jutting out of a building - are, when married to the broadcast accounts of death and destruction, just enough to scarily hint at the metropolitan chaos.
Like all horror subgenres, a zombie movie is only as good and as unique as its makers are ambitious and clever. ‘Zoo’ isn’t especially concerned with the particulars of where the zombies came from, or how they spread - although we do see people become zombies after being killed, so clearly this is more of a Romero-style "living dead" scenario than a ‘28 Days Later’-style virus - and instead devotes its attention to the intimate details of energetic Karen and passive dullard John’s relationship. Unfortunately, this is very tedious.
Stuck with two irritating characters (proficiently embodied by Tapper and Speleers), an unbalanced tone that never unifies the comedic and thrilling sides of the story, a narrative with muddled things to say about love and sacrifice, and an undeveloped view of the government as a threat rather than a help, ‘Zoo’ eventually seems unsure of where it should go, a situation that - unfortunately, given the decent first twenty minutes - is resolved via a deflating Rod Serling-style twist. In fact, I had been wondering why Tublen had used zombies at all and not a more unique lethal virus, like the dirty bomb in Chris Gorak’s similar (but much better) ‘Right at Your Door’... until I saw that tiresome twist ending lumber out from the shadow of the finale.
The popularity of specific horror subgenres - slashers, paranormal, vampires, giant monsters, etc. - like so many waves of pop culture, come and go in cycles. Teen-specific pop-culture crazes are a strong measure of what to expect when it comes to the subgenres of science fiction, fantasy and horror. While those three genres will always be popular and likely account for our biggest sensations, the ways they are presented to us have shown an ability to change drastically.
The thing about zombies is that they are quite versatile; you can make a film and add zombies as a metaphor for almost anything, and it wouldn’t be too outlandish. Likewise, as a horror villain, zombies can be easily explained in any circumstance, from films going back to the beginning of time, across cultures, to even the distant future. The simplicity of the concept gives the genre infinite potential and the only thing making the genre feel overdone are bad ideas. It only takes one good and original film to breathe new life into the genre that refuses to die and make us believe in the walking dead once more.
‘Zoo’ is not this film.