Zoo

There’s no shortage of “walking dead” flicks and TV shows. We have slow-moving zombies (Day of the Dead), fast-moving zombies (28 Days Later), train-riding zombies (Train to Busan), Jane Austen zombies (Pride & Prejudice & Zombies), and even pet zombies (Fido) and stripper zombies (um, Zombie Strippers).  Zombie fatigue is settling in fast. When a genre has been exploited to death, how do you bring it back to life?

Writer, director, composer, and editor (!) Antonio Tublen laudably manages to come up with a somewhat new spin on the well-worn genre by… featuring almost no zombies at all in his highly theatrical, contained take on the zombie apocalypse, Zoo. He uses the undead as a metaphor for marital woes, the rapidly-spreading Armageddon a catalyst for stagnating emotions.

In that respect, he succeeds; too bad he can’t quite figure out if he’s making a horror flick, an affecting drama, a theatrical pastiche, a dark comedy, or all of the above. The concoction may have worked in the hands of a more assured filmmaker, but while he touches upon real ingenuity here and there, Tublen’s lurching from one emotionally-charged sequence to a ludicrously over-the-top scene to a meandering one is too jarring to gel.

“…a plane crashes through a nearby building, sending the neighborhood into zombie-chomping chaos.”

As reports of a viral outbreak flood the news, childless and barren London-couple Karen and John (Zoë Tapper and Ed Speleers) are on the verge of splitting up. Before Karen has the chance to utter, “I want to give it a pause,” a plane crashes through a nearby building, sending the neighborhood into zombie-chomping chaos.

All of this is glimpsed briefly, our couple wasting no time barricading themselves inside their apartment. They ration their baked beans and ketchup; they stock up on knives, hammers, aerosol spray and flour (to blind an attacker, of course); they loot neighbors’ homes; they work out; and they mark their windows with X’s, in hopes of being rescued. They also kill time playing cards, watching movies, and doing copious amounts of cocaine. Throughout all this, they discuss their relationship, unraveling new things about each other.

The arrival of neighbors Leo and Emily (Jan Bijvoet and Antonia Campbell-Hughes) leads to a power play (involving competitive dry humping) that gets increasingly violent. With food supplies low, Karen particularly shows an unexpected dark side, ordering the hapless couple around. “You realize that this is gonna come down to them… or us,” Emily – who’s delegated to washing dishes and sorting socks – whispers to Leo.

“…striving for more than just domestic comfort…overcoming grief, and achieving salvation by way of sacrifice.”

This leads to amphetamine-laced cookies, murder, ecstasy-fueled sex, a near-rape, and a near-suicide. Lots to handle then, and, taken separately, there are bits to treasure. The (very few) zombie attacks are unexpected, jolting, and hilarious. I liked the couple’s nonchalant response to the impending doom, themselves numb to the world, resembling zombies. Tublen touches upon some probing themes: striving for more than just domestic comfort (Karen realizes that she’s appreciative of her life, but “the hunger” still “takes over”); overcoming grief; and achieving salvation by way of sacrifice.

A nuanced, particularly effective “what if” dialogue between Karen and John during the finale made me wish Tublen stuck to one gun, instead of holstering a dozen. It’s almost like the filmmaker had a superb little dramatic short that he decided to expand into a multi-genre, low-budget hybrid, to its ultimate detriment. Meandering scenes overstay their welcome, things are spelled out over and over – Ryan Reynolds-starrer Buried, which took place in a single coffin, had more tension than Zoo.

There’s another interesting, subversive little note that Tublen flirts with in Zoo. The two main women in the film are portrayed as determined, passionate, and lively, while the men are passive and somewhat vacuous. “Is this what you teach your students?” Karen says to John sarcastically. “That everything will be okay?” She doesn’t need comfort or reassurance, and it seems – what she wants is to be freed, the unexpected, turned on by John’s drug abuse and murder.

At the end of the day, Tublen seems to be saying, “we’re all animals in this fucking zoo.” I just wish that, like most zoos, his film had a better map.  

Zoo (2019) Written and Directed by Antonio Tublen. Starring Zoë Tapper, Ed Speelers, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Jan Bijvoet, Lucas Loughran.

6 out of 10

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