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State of Emergency

D: Turner Clay / 90m

Cast: Jay Hayden, Tori White, Scott Lilly, Kathryn Todd Norman, McKenna Jones, Andy Stahl

Low-budget often means minimal resources.  It can also mean inventive outcome.  Such is the case with State of Emergency, a movie that, at face value, is a zombie movie but which never uses that word once to describe the victims of a chemical plant explosion.

After a tense prologue, we see Jim (Hayden) and his partner Emilie (Jones) running across open countryside.  Emilie is bleeding from a wound in her side.  As they rest under a tree, Emilie dies.  Jim carries her body to a nearby stable block where he hides out.  Up tip now the audience doesn’t know what’s happening, but whatever it is, it can’t be good.  It’s only when Jim is attacked by another man that we begin to realise what’s going on, and the possible reason why.

Later, Jim meets a couple, Scott (Lilly) and Julie (Norman), who have taken refuge in a warehouse; with them is a young woman called Ix (White).  They have plenty of food and water, and weapons; feeling safe, they have decided to wait for help to arrive.  And all the while, “people” are gathering outside the warehouse…  That’s the meat of the movie right there: the anxious wait for help to arrive while a growing threat gets nearer and nearer.

State of Emergency - scene

Full marks to writer/director Clay for making State of Emergency such a compelling movie.  It’s difficult enough to put a fresh spin on the zombie genre, but he pulls it off.  Not referring to the affected as zombies helps tremendously; after all, in the real world, if something like this was to happen, would we even call them that if we didn’t have George A. Romero to thank?  And where Clay really comes up trumps is with the committed performances of his cast.  Hayden does exceedingly well with his everyman role, projecting the right amount of vulnerability alongside a steely determination to survive.  Lilly has the more difficult male role, his character trying to be braver than he is and almost dying because of it, but he’s equally good even though he has less screen time.  As Ix, White plays defensive and scared mixed with an entirely credible teen obnoxiousness before she strikes a rapport with Jim; the scene where she opens up to him is one of the movie’s best.

As for the affected – remember, they’re not zombies – Clay has another good idea: if there’s no one around for them to attack they mostly stand still or walk in whatever direction (apparently) takes their fancy.  When they do spot someone, they charge at them, snarling.  This one-two combination of stillness and berserker speed is disconcerting; when it happens to Jim at the stables it’s a shock, even though Clay has set things up so the audience knows something nasty is about to happen.

With a clear nod to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), State of Emergency lacks that movie’s rising hysteria and ghoulish shock moments  (there’s no daughter in the basement), but it does ratchet up the tension.  The siege elements are handled with aplomb and Clay shows an aptitude for quick, yet concise characterisation.  Jim is someone the audience can identify with, as are Scott and Julie, and when they are put in danger, the movie lacks that sense of detachment that you’d find in most other zombie movies.  (I’ve seen quite a few zombie movies in the past year, from Zombie Farm, a more traditional, voodoo-based effort, to World of the Dead: The Zombie Diaries, a poor sequel to the original Zombie Diaries, and they all suffer from the same two problems: characters that you don’t care about, and – this bugs me the most – zombies who suffer from disfiguring facial injuries from the word go – I mean, how does that work exactly?  You die, come to as a zombie and wow! your jaw’s hanging off by a tendon or two.  Here, the affected have bloodshot eyes and what looks like a bad case of necrotising fasciitis – and that’s it, no missing bits, no decomposing limbs or extremities.  Memo to other would-be directors of zombie movies: make sure you watch State of Emergency first.)

Rating: 7/10 – a tense, effective “zombie” movie that keeps you hooked from start to finish; well-acted and free from the usual absurdities/deficiencies that otherwise seem endemic to the genre.

Originally posted on thedullwoodexperiment website.