Monday, November 20, 2017

Review: Night Zero

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2017
Images from the Internet



Night Zero
Written and directed by Mark Cantu
Lost Empire; Cineworx; Tredd Productions;//; Dreaming Droids Productions; MVD Visual
81 minutes, 2017

First of all, right off the cudgel let me posit that Night Zero is a great title. For those who don’t know, when the word “zero” follows a noun, it usually means “where the destruction began,” such as the first known to die of AIDS being called “Patient Zero.”

As the prologue shows, there is some kind of explosion that releases a chemical gas – it’s ambiguous by whom – with a toxin that increases the person’s rage, and also takes away all inhibitions. Thereby, the infected becomes extremely angry and violent without the compulsion of socially constructed guilt. One might think from the trailer that this is yet another zombie movie, but rather it’s more insanity with the blood lust, without the need to consume said blood or body parts. Just Me Smash!

Dawnelle Jewell, Monisha B. Schwartz, Katie Maloney
For the meat of the film, we are introduced to three couples who come together to celebrate the moving away of Sophie (Dawnelle Jewell) and Eric (Vincent Bombara) from a small-ish town in Pennsylvania (more on that in a sec) to Boston. Joining them are interracial couple Monica (the fabulously monikered Monisha B. Schwartz) and Danny (Umar Faraz), and the two main protagonists who are on the verge of separation, Nina (Katie Maloney) and CJ (Eric Swader).

For the first 20 minutes or so, we get to hang out with these three pairs, as they talk, argue, talk, argue, celebrate, and then talk some more. For an action film, there is a lot of conversation at the onset, but I have come to believe that when cinema historians look back on the horror genre of this period, they will come to the conclusion that the first 20 minutes of most films is basically lead-up time and exposition.

This all takes place in a burg about 20 miles away from Pittsburgh (actually filmed an hour south of Steel City). Of course, Pittsburgh is a touchstone town for this kind of story as most of the …of the (Living) Deads took place in that area, thanks to the godfather of the modern zombie and violently looney genres, George A. Romero.

There are many film references and hallmarks that are reminiscent of others that came before. Let’s start with the local, mainly being the trapped in the house as the infected try to get in of Night of the Living Dead (1968), and the diseased violence of the Crazies (1973). But here, those effected by the gas can run (though we don’t see much of that), such as in 28 Days Later… (2002). Like 28 Days, neither that nor this is a zombie film per se, but rather both pertain to a disease or infection, and this is certainly closer to 28 Days than to NotLD. There is also the cabin-in-the-woods claustrophobic feel and fear of Cabin Fever (2002), and the last is the slow, inevitability of On the Beach (1959).

Eric Swader and Umar Faraz
Especially once the film gets on its hind legs, there is a lot to like about it. For example, whether you like them or not, the main characters feel like real people; they make good or bad choices, but mostly it feels realistic, such as Monica wanting to go home even though there is extreme danger in the streets and a greater possibility of absorption of the gas. They also turn on each other out of fear, even after years of friendship, which also feels accurate to me. But on a more subtle note, the audience begins to wonder about how much of the anger this group exhibits among itself is the onset of the toxin, or just righteous indignation and anxiety.

What especially impressed me was that while the cast is certainly attractive, they also have more of an everyday look, rather than as if their second jobs are models. For example, while low on role credits in IMDB, Maloney would be more believable to me as Tonya Harding in the new film, I Tonya, than poster queen Margot Robbie (plus, I believe Maloney would do a great job of it).

Writer (and director) Mark Cantu wisely adds two characters later on: a cop (Mike Dargatis) and a scienist (in this case, the ironically named Tom Mirth), who both help with exposition and to be the connection to what is happening beyond the door – which is locked, but never barred, even with all the glass.

Going against the grain, I’m guessing in part due to direction and budget constraints, this is more of a thriller than a gorefest, into which it could easily have waded. There is some violence, and there are spurts of the salty red stuff, but it’s kept at a minimum and is not a key part of the zestiest. It’s more about how the characters interact with each other and their situation that is the locus focus.

For me, the one flaw is that the protagonists are trying to avoid being seen by whomever is out there, yet walk around with flashlights on making themselves targets. Me? I would turn off all the lights to avoid attraction, but they’re swinging the huge torches around, even when not needed, such as waking through the center of town.

Despite the budget and a few of the actors with limited credits, the cast is quite strong and work together well. With a mixture of good writing, editing that isn’t in hyper speed, and a wise use of the unseen (such as being able to hear the screams and sirens from outside without needing to drive the audience into it), Cantu comes up with a film that is subtle and one that becomes more interesting as time passes over its single night.

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