Some people claim that good zombie movie is an oxymoron. In part I agree, because the concept of zombies in itself is a little bit cheesy to begin with, and let’s face it – most of the movies in this genre are less than ambitious. Nevertheless I love them all. I completely adore all Zombie movies no matter how silly and pathetic they are. So while I’d trash any other movie, and berate it for plot inconsistencies or stupidity, a zombie flick gets a much gentler treatment. I watch these movies knowing they will be really, really bad and every once in a while I get nicely surprised when something rises above the sea of mediocrity.
[Rec] came highly recommended, but since I knew it will be a zombie flick I watched it with that particular mindset. I didn’t need to. For a zombie movie it was abso-fucking-lutely brilliant. You could argue that there was nothing new in this movie and you would probably be right. But that’s not the point. Using old themes and plot elements is not a crime – otherwise all film makers would be in jails. The trick is using these elements together in a way which is either innovative or entertaining. Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza did exactly that – took bunch of standard pieces and put together a puzzle that is more than just the sum of it’s parts. For once the end product of mathematical recycling is a polished, high quality little gem instead of a malformed turd with a piece of corn in the middle.
The plot is simple: a young TV reporter and her camera man tag along with a group of firemen as part of a show which I gather is a more serious version of Insomniac with Dave Attell. One of their fairly routine tasks that night is rescuing an elderly lady who is trapped in her apartment. Only the poor little lady is covered in blood from head to toe, and goes berserk biting people left and right. Next thing we know the police seals off the building threatening to shoot anyone who attempts to leave, trapping scared tenants, firefighters and the reporter inside. You know what is going to happen next. But that doesn’t change the fact that the movie is very well done.
If you watched way to many zombie movies, you can pretty much call the shots here and guess who dies when, and who gets infected with a good degree of accuracy. But this doesn’t mean the plot doesn’t suck you in, and keep you on the edge of your seat. This is not a Hollywood production and it shows. There is no sympathetic leading man with a military background who can blow away the zombies and sacrifice himself heroically. There is no female lead who plays a damsel in distress half of the time, only to show incredible amount of courage, self determination and sheer force of character to carry her through the ordeal unscratched. There is no silly heroism, no moving sacrifices, no cool headed leader to take control of the situation. What [Rec] shows you is bunch of absolutely, frightened ordinary people desperately trying to stay alive. You see chaos, fear, panic and desperation which feels real because these people seem real.
The whole movie is filmed using shaky cam method just like Blair Witch or Cloverfield. If you get motion sick easy, you may get annoyed. But the jerky motions and weird angles are limited here, and kept only for special circumstances. What we see on the screen is supposed to be filmed by a professional camera man using stabilized equipment meant to be used on the move. The camera moves erratically when he is running, or gets freaked out but for the most part he keeps it as stable as possible – just like a professional news person would do which is a benefit for us viewers. Other movies tend to give their cam-carrying characters brief appearances and screen time – [Rec] does not. We can hear him, but never see him and he technically functions as sort of avatar of the viewer. He is our Gordon Freeman – the faceless guy you identify with because he is the “lens” through which you view the portrayed world.
[Rec] does another cool thing – it explains why our protagonist doesn’t just leave the camera when shit hits the fan. I was totally annoyed with this when watching Cloverfield for example. Any normal person would stop filming at some point, survival being more important than making permanent record of the event. However they keep it rolling, because we, the audience, need to find out what happens next. In [Rec] we are dealing with an actual news crew – they have a much stronger incentive to keep filming than the dude in Cloverfield for example. This is essentially the story of their life and being able to capture it on film can not only make them famous, but also be used as evidence of horrible lack of regard for their lives shown by the police outside the building. They are not just some dude who decided to film things for a day – this is their job. Of course at some point all of this stops mattering to them but – as it would to you and me if we were put in a life threatening situation. Instead of just keep filming for the sake of filming [Rec] gives our protagonist new excuses to keep the cam around long after he stops caring about recording things. For example when the lights in the building go out they are forced to use the cam mounted spotlight for illumination. Wwhen that gets broken, they must rely on night-vision mode. Btw, night-vision segment at the very end of the movie is brilliant. I’m not going to spoil it for you – I’ll just say it is genuinely freaky, and incredibly well done.
The explanation for the Zombie outbreak is not mind blowing, but then again show me a movie that explains flesh eating corpses in a plausible and original way. Most of the time I don’t really care how it all started – once you seen one zombie origin story, you have seen them all – and skipping that part of the plot may save you the embarrassment, and make room for more drama. [Rec] gets points for at least trying to give us some obscure and cryptic scraps of info from which attempt to piece together how the infection got into the building and guess at it’s nature. Again, it’s nothing spectacular but it works withing the framework.
Manuela Velasco does an incredible job in portraying the frightened reporter. At the beginning she comes off as a self confident, a little cocky, vain and stuck up but pleasant person. She does multiple takes of a shot because her hair was covering her face, tries to trick or guide people’s interviews for a better effect. She gets bossy. When she is interviewing a little girl trapped in the building she totally milks it by putting words in her mouth for greater emotional effect. When she sees the magnitude of the story she has on her hands she pounces on it ferociously, taking risks and even putting her camera man in danger to get a better shot. And then as things get worse, you see her coming unglued. She is vulnerable, scared and completely helpless just like everyone else. She becomes the Alyx Vance to our Gordon Freeman – a strong emotional focus of the story. She is the vehicle through which we feel the sheer terror of the situation and her performance is superb.
I whole heatedly recommend this movie to anyone who loves Zombie flicks, or enjoys a zombie-style horror movie now and then. It is not terribly original, and it is not some masterpiece of cinematography. It does not try to be ambitious, it does not try to make you think, and it does not try to smuggle in a message about the evils of science, or human vanity. What it delivers is raw emotion, and edge of your seat thrills. It is a zombie movie but instead of mindlessly aping the existing works it takes their themes and setups and subtly subverts so that while predictable they seem new and original. In that it is unique and refreshing stab at the genre which seemed all but depleted by Hollywood lately. The plot is very simple, but solid and without major holes. Characters are simple and not terribly deep, but average and ordinary enough to be believable. Acting is superb all across the board, and the camera work tries not to be too annoying. It is a Zombie movie reanimated in style and with great deal of finesse.
Of course there is one issue here: the movie is in Spanish and if you don’t speak the language you will need to watch it subtitled which I hear is deal breaker for some people. I’d still recommend watching it, but if you refuse to read you will be happy to know that a Hollywood remake starring Jennifer Carpenter (aka Dexter’s Sister) will hit US theaters in October. I watched the trailer and it seems that they kept it pretty close to the original (almost scene by scene) up until zombies show up at which point I saw a lot of gun waving, testosterone fueled bravado, bunch of action sequences and cheep scare shots – in other words, standard Hollywood bullshit which was so gloriously absent from [Rec]. It seemed like they they were trying to “Hollywood up” something which worked great because it was filmed in a style that was intentionally different. The end product will likely suck, since they are going to miss the whole point of this film by a mile, without even knowing why. But that’s Hollywood for you – they’ll never miss an occasion to fuck up a good thing.
[tags][Rec], rec, quarantine, zombie, horror, review[/tags]