By Mariko McDonald | August 16, 2009

To say that the zombie film has been played out is, in itself, a somewhat played out statement. Riding a wave of resurgence brought on largely by Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later,” the zombie is now everything from student film fodder to romantic comedy backdrop. Which isn’t to say there aren’t things yet to be done on film with our shambling, brain-munching buddies, as French neo-zombie entry “Mutants” proves. Or at least, almost proves.

Mining similar territory as “28 Days Later,” “Mutants” drops us right into the midst of an infectious plague. No explanation is given as to where it came from, just that it spreads quickly and that it is 100% fatal. Sonia (Hélène de Fougerolles) and Marco (Francis Renaud) speed through the snowy French countryside in an ambulance. With them is a somewhat trigger-happy police officer and their goal is the military base NOAH (pronounced “Noé” in the film), the last desperate hope for survivors. Tensions between Sonia, an emergency doctor, her civilian boyfriend Marco and the cop are high, finally reaching a fever pitch during an encounter with some particularly fierce zombies.

The encounter leaves the cop dead and Marco critically wounded, and they are forced to hide out in a massive abandoned building in the mountains. However, in addition to his injury, Marco has become infected and has only days before he becomes one of the cannibalistic horde, turning the second act into a romantic elegy as Sonia tends to her doomed lover. Marco becomes more and more resigned to his fate, yet Sonia seems incapable of relinquishing her hope that Marco will survive until help arrives. Their gradual mutual understanding of the situation is actually very emotional and affecting.

However, at about the point where Marco’s transformation is almost complete, “Mutants” takes a left-turn into clichéville and never comes back.

What really makes the film frustrating is that it does so many things right. Impressive, but not overly flashy photography and an ambient noise score add oodles of atmosphere to even the most familiar of proceedings. The performances by the actors are uniformly strong, and there is no doubt that the emotional weight of the first half of the film would not have worked without them. It’s a shame that the characters have to do such eye-rollingly stupid things. The late introduction of a band of scavengers doesn’t help either, but at least it gives us more potential zombie food whose demise we can cheer for.

For a first feature, “Mutants” is stronger than most, and for a genre as recycled as zombie-horror, it at least plays things straight enough to be taken seriously. But the problem is that it starts to take itself too seriously and the characters are forced to do so many dunder-headed things that any sympathy the audience had for them is completely exhausted by the time the film reaches it’s long telegraphed ending. Multiple opportunities to end things before they get any worse are ignored in favor of teary-eyed soul searching, clearly not the best course of action when faced with a zombie plague.

Like many of the films in the current resurgence of French horror, “Mutants” is infuriatingly far from unique.

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