Quarantine a Competent and Enjoyable Pseudo-Zombie Flick

Pity the poor horror-movie fan.

He wanders the new-releases aisle at the video store disconsolately, casting his jaundiced eye on the latest offerings.

After long experience, he knows that the best he can realistically hope for is that the movie he selects won’t insult his intelligence too much. Still rarer is the movie that is written well enough that the viewer can identify with or at least worry about the fates of the characters all the way through to the end. There are legends of horror movies that transcend their genre and qualify as works of art on their own, but these are as rare as unicorns.

My last post, a rumination on “why movies suck,” spilled out of my brain as I tried to begin a review of the 2008 horror film Quarantine, recently out on DVD and rented by me this past Saturday night. I decided to spin those thoughts off into their own post when I realized they would be out of place in a review of a movie I actually enjoyed.

But the point I made about Hollywood’s obvious interest in pleasing teenaged movie viewers – its best customers – applies in spades to horror, a genre that has its lifelong fans but which appeals almost across the board to young people, simply as a function of their being at an age when they are just beginning to realize how pleasurable autonomic nervous-system arousal can be – especially when it causes one’s date to snuggle closer through no potentially humiliating effort of one’s own. So, while it’s fairly difficult to find a newly released film aimed at a wider audience than 14-year-olds across all genres, the odds are even poorer when the field is limited to horror.

So I was pleasantly surprised by Quarantine. When I rented it, I knew nothing more about it than the description on the back and the fact that someone at the web site Bloody-Disgusting.com (previously unknown to me) considers it “quite possibly the best horror film this year”; intending no disrespect to that web site in particular, I was braced for disappointment. But the movie was clearly positioned as part of the zombie sub-genre, a type of horror movie particularly near and dear to my heart (possibly because one of my earliest horror-movie viewing experiences was sneak-watching Night of the Living Dead one night in early middle school when my parents were out), so I decided to give it a shot.

Quarantine is not really a zombie movie, of course. It’s a disease movie, and in that regard shares some scare territory with the masterful 2002 Cabin Fever, in that part of what is disquieting about the plot setup is not just the threat of infection that the characters face, but also how the characters behave toward each other as they realize that any one of them could at some point begin to pose a fatal threat to the rest. But this element is much more pronounced in Cabin Fever, where the disease simply causes its victims to sicken and die. In Quarantine, infection eventually results in extremely aggressive behavior manifested in a pronounced desire to bite other people; in other words, infection essentially turns people into the sort of “fast zombies” popularized in 28 Days Later (2002) and the 2004 remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.* They’re not really zombies, but they are the next best thing.

These pseudo-zombies are encountered when a TV film crew – one anchorwoman and one cameraman – tag along with some firefighters to a medical call at a small apartment building in Los Angeles. No sooner has the realization dawned that there is something unexpectedly dangerous in the building than the emergency personnel and residents realize that they are trapped, with no hope of assistance from the outside world.

The movie is full of smart references to other horror classics. The shot of one sickened woman staring blankly at her snowy television screen is straight out of Poltergeist, and  speaking of Night of the Living Dead – the Romero film is evoked by a television interview with an unfeeling police official as well as by the sniper’s headshot that kills one of the uninfected characters, in the same sort of “better safe than sorry” mentality that is evident at the end of that early classic. And at the risk of seeing references that might or might not be intended, there is even a blood-cleaning scene in which one character all but starts quoting “out, out damned spot” as he furiously scrubs his – well, I wouldn’t want to give away one of the most creative zombie-killing weapons/scenes I’ve ever seen.

One problem for some potential viewers is the fact that Quarantine is shot entirely from the TV camera on the cameraman’s shoulder. (And we only know what happened because of the footage found later, etc.) This sort of technique, used – I thought – to great effect in The Blair Witch Project, has two main potential problems.

One potential problem is logical and risks hampering suspension of disbelief, i.e., some viewers won’t be able to keep from wondering why the camera operator doesn’t put the damn camera down, given that his or her hands might be better employed bashing zombies or otherwise doing something other than recording everyone else’s deaths for posterity.

The other potential problem is what you might call ergonomic: the recent release Cloverfield (which I enjoyed), was presented as if shot entirely from a handheld mini-video-camera, and was as a result so shaky that there were reports of people having seizures in the theaters, while Amy left our viewing sick to her stomach.

Quarantine handles both problems fairly well. As to the first problem: on the one hand, the cameraman is a news professional, so it’s not surprising that he would be disciplined to keeping rolling even during moments of extreme duress; on the other, as events build to a more and more fatal head, the power goes out, and the light on the camera is one of the only handy sources of illumination. As to the second problem (potential shakiness, etc.), the Quarantine camera man is a professional with a shoulder rig, so there is relatively little shakiness and reeling.

Quarantine is a remake of the 2007 Spanish movie Rec, which I have not seen but which everyone on-line seems to agree was much better (well, except for commenter bmgpimpin13@hotmail.com on this post). Still, despite being a remake, Quarantine was clearly shot by some people with at least a little wit (there’s this scene with a rat that made me laugh out loud) and more than a little skill. (Have you ever considered, for example, how much directorial and acting skill goes into these “handheld camera” movies? There are necessarily some very long takes, which requires quite a lot of planning and blocking and, needless to say, knowing your lines.) It’s far from the first movie I’d recommend if you want to start watching horror/zombie movies, but if you’re a fan already and recognize it’s a mass-market Hollywood effort, it’s a decent little picture.

* I’m predisposed toward and more likely to find real artfulness in slow zombies, again possibly because of having had my first exposure to the genre through Romero’s groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead. In the shambling gait of the reanimated corpses of that film, you have something like the prospect of death itself: far away at first, approaching you predictably and – for the most part – avoidably, if you just pay attention and take some precautions. It should be easy to stay away from or defend yourself against slow zombies, but inevitably mistakes are made, sheer numbers overwhelm, irrational decisions are made, and isn’t this how it is with life itself? But this isn’t a debate worth having about Quarantine, because – insofar as some people make the dubious argument that fast zombies aren’t “believable” (as opposed to zombies in general?) – of course it’s believable that people who have simply been infected with a disease would still be able to move relatively quickly, as opposed to, say, reanimated corpses in varying stages of decomposition.

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