Director: John Suits
Writer: Justin T. Benson
Stars: Rachel Nichols, Alfie Allen, Missi Pyle, Mekhi Phifer
Time to press the “On” button and push “Start” on your controller, for the first-person shooter movie has arrived. While the video-game-turned movie is not new by any means, in comes Pandemic, a sleek and stylistic horror-action film that could (and should!) be turned into a video game. Director John Suits certainly intended for gamers and horror fans alike to enjoy this Left 4 Dead/Call of Duty-style first person perspective thriller. The dopamine-producing chaos one experiences when playing an action-oriented game like the aforementioned can appreciate the turmoil and adrenaline shared by the characters on the screen. The experience, to say the least, is unique and different for the first-person genre. And for those anticipating the release of Hardcore Henry, another “genre-bending” film that takes the video game concept a step further, treat yourself first to Pandemic.
Set in the throes of post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, primarily the downtown region, we first meet Lauren (Rachel Nichols, who horror fans will know from the underrated P2), one of only a few qualified doctors tasked to find a cure for an infection that, quite expectedly, turns humans into rabid zombies. The outbreak separated Lauren from her husband and daughter, both of whom Lauren believes remain trapped in a suburban neighborhood, cut off from supplies and communication. Lauren, meanwhile, is protected in a government-run compound awaiting orders. Although Lauren will be teamed with others on a supply run mission, the film hints at the inevitability that not only will the run hit more than a few zombie-infested road blocks, but that Lauren has other intentions to save her family.
The cause and consequences of the virus are unknown, but a number of “infected” have been studied within the compound, which also houses government staff and rescued civilians. The infected are classified into 5 categories – stages, really – of infection, with number 5 being full-blown, man-eating killers. Lauren learns of this quite early during a debrief and very frightening scene in the movie’s opening moments, where she and the compound’s head doctor tour what is quite literally a cell block of the dead. This moment not only introduces the audience to the threat outside the compound’s walls, it compounds Lauren’s fears that her family may have succumbed to a Level 5 infection.
Lauren soon meets the others – Mekhi Pheiffer as the pensive but talented marksman Gunner (pun certainly intended), Missi Pyle as the navigator Denise, and Alfie Allen, best known for Game of Thrones, as Wheeler, the potty-mouthed driver who substitutes his native accent for a Marky Mark inspired dialect. (Feel the vibration…) All will venture on this dangerous supply mission whilst recording their every move via cameras installed within their hazmat helmets. This allows for the camera to shift perspectives as our four protagonists battle through hordes, stomping heads, and aiming high in many thrilling and creatively choreographed scenes.
This creativity cannot be understated. Perhaps the epitome of independent filmmaking and thinking, Pandemic utilizes every inch of its backdrop to engage the viewer. In a move that combines cinéma vérité and fantasy, shots of the film are taken from downtown’s infamous skid row, blurring the lines of the post-apocalyptic with the very real “walking dead” known as the homeless. Without seeming churlish, this choice does add a layer of sensibility to the viewer that the apocalypse has arrived for some, and even the good intentions of our characters pale in comparison to the impending doom that we fear could land us ravishing on the corpses of others or more realistically, living in a tent on the sidewalk. In either case, the fear for our characters is quite real for us.
Which is why Los Angeles is the perfect backdrop for this film. Never has the vastness and density of one of America’s most modern cities felt so small and claustrophobic. It is why the current Walking Dead spin-off Fear the Walking Dead works well, pitting once innocent Angelenos in a war against the undead and each other, echoing the chaos and breaking the social contract seen quite satirically, albeit with deadpan seriousness, in The Purge: Anarchy, also set in an alternative Los Angeles. Pandemic also echoes the relatively unknown, but excellent post-9/11 indie Right at Your Door, which chronicles a Los Angeles man’s resolve to stay alive in his home after a presumed terrorist cell sets off a chemical bomb and devastates downtown.
But what ultimately makes Pandemic stand out from its successful contemporaries as well as those failed attempts at the first person perspective genre is not money. Sure, Uwe Boll’s modestly budgeted House of the Dead, which is more mindless than the film’s zombies, already adopted this style; and the video-game inspired Doom with powerhouse Dwayne Johnson recreates scenes that were, quite frankly, more fun to play than to watch. (If you’ve ever been subjected to watching a friend play a video game and not share, then you know what I mean.) Those movies missed an important component necessary to produce a worthwhile film: Soul. Instead, those previous attempts are cheap derivatives exploiting otherwise successful and beloved franchises that should stick to their respective mediums. Pandemic doesn’t have this problem. It has bite, it has soul, and most importantly, it has fun.
Pandemic opens in theaters on April 1 (US) and on VOD & ITunes April 5
Images provided by Katrina Wan PR