Released in 2007
Zombies have enjoyed a resurgence in recent times, with a barrage of films and novels dedicated to returning the flesh-munching, walking dead to their rightful place as one of horror’s most beloved archetypal monsters. However, whereas the comparable current fascination with all things vampiric has produced a bewildering array of different approaches to the children of the night, only a few new zombie texts have brought something fresh and exciting to this archetype, whilst the majority have opted to rehash the template created by George Romero in the 1960s and 70s. Two of the most innovative additions to the subgenre to emerge over the last few years are: John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Handling the Undead (2005, translated into English in 2009), in which the shambling revenants disturb through their mere presence, without any innate bloodlust; and Charlie Brooker’s gloriously bloody Dead Set (2008), a hilarious post-apocalypse story of a zombie plague that the inhabitants of the Big Brother house remain blissfully ignorant of until the danger reaches their enclosure. [•Rec] is another step forward in exploring the possibilities offered by the zombie. Tying into the reality TV theme [•Rec] follows a presenter and her cameraman as they go about filming a show before facing a flesh eating horde. However, whereas Dead Set found humour in this scenario, the events that we witness in [•Rec] make it one of the most fast-paced, terrifying horror films of the 21st century.
[•Rec] begins with Àngela Vidal (Manuela Velasco) and camera operator, Pablo (Pablo Rosso), filming and interviewing a local team of firemen for their television show, ‘While You’re Asleep’. She meets the two firemen who she will accompany if they get called to an incident, Alex (David Vert) and Manu (Ferran Terraza). The atmosphere in the station is jovial as we see Àngela eating and playing basketball with the men, waiting for something worthy of filming to happen. The events to come are deliciously foreshadowed as she talks to Alex about the possibility of them being called out. He says that most nights are “monotonous” and many calls are routine, often involving “burst water pipes” and “pet rescues”. Àngela, obviously thinking about her viewing figures, says that she really hopes something exciting happens. Later that night they get a call: “Person trapped in apartment, in need of rescue”.
As soon as Àngela, Pablo and the firemen enter the building they have been called to, it is clear that the situation is more serious than they had been led to believe. The hallway is filled with panicked residents, all talking about the screams they have heard coming from one of the apartments. A sense of claustrophobia starts to build as the attendant policemen struggle to keep the residents confined to the small entrance hallway, insisting that they do not go back up to their homes. On investigating the apartment of Senora Izquierdo (Martha Carbonell), after grudgingly allowing the film crew to accompany them, the firemen find the old woman standing at the end of a corridor, silhouetted against the light coming through her window. She does not speak, and does not respond when they call out to her and begin to approach. The lighting here is repeated throughout the film to sustain its sinister atmosphere. Much of what we see occurs in semi-darkness, illuminated entirely by light from the streets provided by the windows and/or the spotlight on the hand-held camera. Izquierdo remains obscured in darkness until the crew get closer, revealing her to be wearing a white dressing gown covered in blood. It is only when this becomes obvious that she strikes, with alarming speed, attacking one policeman and biting him, tearing huge chunks of flesh from his face. Àngela’s priority is clearly still to provide exciting footage for her viewers, as she whispers, “Pablo, don’t miss a bloody thing.”
So far, so 28 Days Later (2002). However, from this point on Àngela, the firemen and the terrified residents of the building find themselves trapped with the monstrous threat within the building by the police and other authorities outside, who will not let them leave and refuse to give any coherent explanation for their behaviour. One of the announcements is particularly ominous: “Do not try to leave the building. All exits have been sealed. A BNC protocol situation has been declared. Shortly a health inspector will come to assess the situation. Thank you for your cooperation.” Manu explains to them that a BNC is a protocol used in a biological, nuclear or chemical threat situation, suggesting to the savvy viewer that the zombies are some form of bio-weapon.
Interestingly, Àngela seems to understand the deadly implications of the situation before the others, and although her main priority is still to keep the camera rolling it is not for the sake of entertainment. She comments, “I don’t care what they say, we have to tape this. We have to show what’s happening.” When a younger police officer draws his gun and threatens to use violence unless the camera is turned off, César, an older resident of the apartment block, states: “It’s the only proof we have. You’re locked in here, just like us. They don’t care about you either.”
From here things spiral out of control rapidly. It is no great spoiler to say that the reason for the aggressive behaviour of Senora Izquierdo is revealed to be an infection, spread through saliva. Once bitten, people change (at different speeds seemingly) to become psychotically violent; the portrayal of this change lies somewhere between the infected in 28 Days Later and something much more bestial and primitive. The one aim of these creatures seems to be biting others to spread the disease and again the setting adds to the sense of claustrophobia as there is not far to run and very few places to hide in the small building. As such, by the time we get to the last half hour of the film the stairwells are slippery with blood and the distinction between those infected and those simply blinded by panic begins to blur. At one stage we see Àngela running around an apartment frantically searching for keys, the guttural sounds she is making as she throws objects out of her way in her single-minded quest to find some way of escaping are eerily reminiscent of the sounds of the infected as they move about the building searching for those who are left. Similarly, we see Manu become increasingly brutal in his attempts to dispatch the infected and protect those around him; at one stage he seems to garrotte one infected woman and he pulverises another’s head with a mallet.
It is not for nothing that this film is certified 18. The violence is frequent, brutal and very messy. However, although the attacks are violent they are also fast and often, due to the hand-held camera technique employed throughout, shakily shot (no doubt as Pablo’s main desire at these points is to drop the camera and run rather than stay and film). For me, it was not the visual impact of the attack scenes that was so affecting, but the sounds. Throughout, the viewer is beset by the screams and bestial noises the infected make as they go about their business, at once otherworldly but also horribly reminiscent of a human in agony, making them profoundly disturbing.
I must admit that I was almost dissuaded from seeing this film on its release by the importance placed on its hand-held camera cinematography. It felt to me that it was simply the ‘hippest’ thing to do at the moment, following the success of The Blair Witch Project (1999) and it’s infinitely superior but overlooked predecessor The Last Broadcast (1998). However, though it may be hip, it does not always make for a good film; as for example, in the disappointing Cloverfield (2008). To make this style work there must be a compelling reason for one of the characters to keep picking up the camera and shooting despite what is happening around them. In Cloverfield the reason just was not there, particularly so at the very end after the crash-landing of the rescue helicopter. However, [•Rec] cleverly provides reasons for Àngela and Pablo to be invested in filming throughout; at first, of course, they are professionals working for a television company and their reason for shooting is to make money; then the reason becomes to document the behaviour of the authorities towards them should they not make it out alive. The endings of horror films are difficult to pull off using this style, as the action characters are embroiled in at this point is often so horrific that any sane person would ditch the camera at the first opportunity and make the speediest getaway possible. Again, [•Rec] comes up with a plausible way to integrate the camera into the story, making a virtue of necessity.
In the final scenes, Àngela and Pablo find themselves in the penthouse of the apartment building. The electricity is suddenly turned off, leaving them in complete darkness; they must use the spotlight on the camera in order to see. When they manage to illuminate the room, they find a chaotic mess of what looks like scientific, experimental equipment. The walls are covered with Catholic symbolism and newspaper articles related to a Vatican-led investigation called the ‘Medeiros Case’. This bizarre intrusion of religious imagery so late in the film is disturbing, making us wonder how what we are seeing fits with what has gone before (which is explained in the brilliant sequel). Our two main characters, thinking they had managed to find the one safe and uninhabited place in the building, are now trapped in a dark room surrounded by strange paraphernalia and quite understandably begin to panic, searching wildly for another way out. When a door to the attic space falls open without obvious cause Pablo decides to go up and look for a way out; it is this action, along with his fall from the attic space and the subsequent damage done to the camera spotlight that again sees the characters pitched into total darkness, but now with the distinct impression that something else is in the penthouse with them.
The very final sequence here is reminiscent of the famous ‘night vision’ scene in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), but is infinitely scarier. The two filmmakers must find a way out of the penthouse with no light, without disturbing the occupant, and thus have no option but to keep rolling the film with the night vision turned on; the camera at this point is acting as their eyes and their only possible chance of escape. To describe the thing that Àngela and Pablo find themselves sharing the small space with would do these scenes a massive disservice. However, I can tell you that, even after all the blood and gore earlier in the film, this scene significantly escalates the threat and is one of the most singularly horrifying in the history of the genre.
[•Rec] is an excellent reinvigoration of the, now in danger of becoming over-exposed, zombie subgenre. It is fast-paced, tightly scripted, with great structure, and, once the action begins, relentlessly delivers shock after shock over its short run time. It is one of the greatest examples to date of how effective hand-held camera work can be when properly written into the story rather than used as a USP marketing gimmick. Most refreshing of all is that it clearly embeds the groundwork necessary for its strong and equally innovative sequel, which moves even further towards redefining the cinematic zombie and reclaiming its power to deeply disturb.
Laura Bettney is an Assistant Psychologist with a degree in Psychology with Criminology. She is a lifelong fan of horror working on her first short story. Laura also reviews albums and gigs for the American Indie (in the original Pixies, My Bloody Valentine, and Dinosaur Jr sense) online magazine, Delusions of Adequacy. This is her second review for Twisted Tales.