When the publicity blurb for a film reads how it 'recalls the spirit, energy and inventiveness of' '"Night of the Living Dead", "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "The Last House on the Left"', you know that an awful lot probably hinges on the use of the word 'recalls' in that sentence. Young Florida film student, Steven C. Miller, certainly seems to have a flair for self promotion: his first low budget feature has been called 'an extraordinary debut', and Miller himself has been described as 'something new, young and fresh.' Although originally saddled with the odd title "Automation Transfusion", for its UK release Momentum Pictures have very wisely renamed the film -- resorting to a moniker that tells you everything you need to know about how 'new' and 'fresh' and 'extraordinary' this debut really is.
There is an established check list of clichés for indie horror flicks, and first and foremost on that list is that it will have lots and lots of zombies in it. Well we can certainly tick that one off here.
"Zombie Transfusion" seems to be a less than promising prospect on the surface of things: a low budget, grainy-looking indie film about zombies on the rampage. Do we really need another one? Indeed, the film contains not one single idea that you haven't seen essayed before in a million other such features. However, there is, despite that fact, clearly still some degree of film making talent here. The publicity blurb may well be playing fast and loose with the truth when it tries to make wild claims for the film's 'inventiveness', but there is certainly a great deal of spirit and a whole lot of energy to be felt exploding off the screen. Miller seems to have studied carefully every major zombie flick that's ever been made, and created a script that reproduces all their major set-pieces, using all the techniques you will be more than familiar with by now from "Dawn of the Dead" down to "28 Days Later"; but he's also injected a massive dose of high-octane adrenaline into what is by now looking to be rather stale material. Unlike many indie film makers, Miller uses the camera well, sets up a decent looking shot and can edit so as to create a sense of movement that hooks in the viewer and creates a sense of involvement. These are all basic skills any film maker needs to master, but rarely do you find them these days at this semi amateur level.
The irony is that, while the zombie film in all its most successful incarnations down the decades, has always been a vehicle for a kind of apocalyptic existential dread, in Miller's over-excitable hands, all you get is an overwhelming sense of the joyful exuberance of youth. Even when the fledgling director's cast of trendy high-school protagonists are having their legs ripped off, being attacked by zombified versions of their own parents or contemplating the end of civilisation as they've known it, the viewer never gets that awful sense of inescapable doom that is virtually the zombie flick's raison d'être; instead one feels Miller and his friends reveling in the cheap gore (the gore effects straddle every continuum between very poor to extraordinarily realistic) and enjoying the conceit of getting to chainsaw the high school jock through the head, or shove a shard of broken class through a stiff-coloured dad's eyeball, or rip off the jaw of the snooty cheerleader. The film rushes delightedly from one action-packed, over-cranked, shaky-cam set-piece to the next with its ripe soundtrack of emo rock and thrash metal constantly jabbering away in the background, but never is there the slightest sense of real dread or horror at the atrocities occurring onscreen, no matter how hard the characters may be screaming or yelling.
After beginning with a conventionally-staged but well handled sequence with a rookie intern at a hospital mortuary getting a rather unpleasant surprise after he hears strange noises from one of the body storage units that prompt him to open it up and take a look, the film introduces its main cast members at the high school locker room. There's a handsome emo kid with ripped jeans and trendy haircut who's dating the cute cheerleader, the super cool black dude -- always ready with a cutting quip -- and their dumpy slacker pal who is put there purely for laughs. Hardly the most enticing bunch, but they indicate exactly who this film is being pitched at.
After the school day ends abruptly because one of the pupils has run amuck in class and bitten a chunk out of the math teacher's neck, the film divides its time between a party organised by the cheerleaders and their jock boyfriends, and a road trip taken by our three main protagonists who are heading for a rock gig in a neighbouring town; emo kid isn't welcome at the party but his girlfriend still joins her pals rather than come with him to the gig. Naturally, the party becomes a bloodbath, overrun with rather clownish looking pale-faced zombies. Pretty soon, cute girlfriend is battling for her life. Meanwhile, the road trip gang are bemused to find the highway is completely empty at rush hour and as soon as they arrive at the town, they discover the streets to be deserted. That is, until they step out of the car -- whereupon they are besieged by an army of running, flesh-hungry ghouls (the zombies may look like crappy, pale-faced Romero zombies, but they run about like the creatures in "28 days Later"). They take refuge in the rock club but eventually realise that they have to make it back home to rescue emo kid's cute girlfriend. Eventually, the two scenarios join up when the various groups of characters meet; and then it's the traditional 'arming up' scene where everyone makes it to a nearby garage that just happens to be conveniently tooled up with chainsaw, shotguns and baseball bats. Our heroes then proceed to smack, chop, shoot and hack their way towards the high school which they believe will be the best place to hole up until rescue eventually comes.
All this is handled competently enough, although you can always tell which film has been used as the model for any particular scene. The scare scenes are effectively rendered, though they do soon start to get repetitive. The film gets extra marks, though, for having a decent standard of acting, which is most definitely a rarity in indie horror. Things climax in a jittery jeep ride to the hospital which is supposed to contain a serum developed by the military that stops one from becoming infected by the zombie virus, and just as the films seems to be building up a head of steam, with the two surviving protagonists being chased by a horde of zombies in one direction and ominous figures in contamination suits from the other, Miller, doubtless 'inspired' by "Kill Bill", throws up a "TO BE CONTINUED" title on screen and the film abruptly ends!
It turns out that this film is meant to be only the first part of a proposed trilogy, the second part of which is 'currently in production'. I doubt if anyone has ever demanded this trilogy, but we're getting one anyway apparently, and if we actually want to find out what happens, I suppose we ought to hope Miller pulls it off, although this is the kind of tactic that hardly leaves the viewer feeling satisfied -- more likely slightly rattled and angry!
Momentum bring this film to the UK minus all the extras that appeared on the North American release (no commentary, no 'making of', no nothing except a pointless trailer!). It is also framed at 1.85:1 instead of the 2.35:1 listed on that U.S. release specs, although I couldn't see anything obviously wrong with the framing here. The film has been anamorphically enhanced but looks pretty grainy and bleached of colour anyway. This seems to have been a deliberate aesthetic decision made by the filmmakers to avoid that cheap video look, and make the film seem more like an old 16 mm drive-in classic like "Last House ...! or "Texas Chainsaw ...". Much of the graininess appears to have been digitally applied in post-production. There is also a weird juddery look to the motion which again seems to be deliberate, although goodness knows what the thinking behind it was.
"Zombie Transfusion" is much better made than the average class of indie flick, but ultimately still tends to leave one feeling unmoved by its lack of originality and frustrated by the lack of any proper ending. Those looking for just a gory splatterfest and bags of action will be sort of satisfied I suppose, but one can't help feeling this is all sound and fury signifying nothing.