Pub date July 13, 2010
SectionFilm Review


FILM Yes, vampires and werewolves are getting pretty dang tired lately.

Yet even they haven’t risked getting so overexposed as our shuffling undead friends.

George Romero’s last couple Dead films felt tapped out — if you were Romero, wouldn’t you be bored with zombies by now too? We’ve had remakes of Romero sequels, fer chrissakes. Plus we’ve had so many zombie comedies (2004’s Shaun of the Dead being the gold standard) that parodying the genre has itself become a cliché. There’ve been Zombie Strippers (2004), Nazi zombies (last year’s Dead Snow pretty much completed that concept), gay zombies (Bruce La Bruce’s oddly poignant 2008 Otto), a zombie feature made by an 11-year-old girl (Emily Hagins’ 2006 Pathogen), a documentary about that (2009’s Zombie Girl) … yada, yada. Of course there’s still fun to be had on occasion. But mainstream hit Zombieland (2009) worked not ‘cuz of zombies per se, but because Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg were funnier than their routine spoofy material.

Let’s face it: zombies are a limited concept. You can make them go slow or fast (pausing naturally to debate whether “fast zombies” betray all things sacred). They can be silent, grunty, or banshee-screamy. That’s about it. Vary the formula much farther and you’re outta zombie territory.

[Rec] 2 does fudge matters somewhat. This sequel to the successful 2007 Spanish original (decently Hollywood-remade in 2008 as Quarantine) elaborates its hints that what’s going on here is not just some bite-driven viral thingie but a supernatural evil. It’s home-lab “contagious enzyme” germ warfare — meets Satan. The zombies are, indeed, recently-munched living beings who can be perma-killed with the traditional headshot. Yet they are also Exorcist-y “possessed” who speak in many voices, including the classic Mercedes McCambridge-through-Linda-Blair obscene croak. Whatever.

Explication wasn’t the first film’s strong suit. It isn’t for this superior follow-up, either, which starts with [Rec]‘s memorable final shot (which Quarantine shamelessly surrendered in trailers): last survivor Ángela Vidal (Manuela Velasco) dragged from first-person camera range by something that surely ended her career as both glam TV reporter and living human.

Picking up moments later, [Rec] 2 then switches to the camcording POV of special-forces cops speeding to a Barcelona apartment building whose residents, responding firefighters, and fluff-story-pursuing TV news guests are now presumed undead. No one is allowed in or out save the SWAT-equivalent team whose imposed outside leader (Jonathan Mellor) turns out to be no Ministry of Health official, but a priest.

After various really bad things happen, their camera dies. [Rec] 2 cleverly then restarts the narrative from other live-video viewpoints, first wielded by three neighboring bourgeois teens who elude site barriers in search of “something really cool.” Once they realize what they’ve gotten themselves into, they do what comes naturally: panic and demand adults save them. But mummy and daddy can’t help you now.

Returning writing-directing duo Juame Balagueró and Paco Plaza know the slow build won’t work a second time, so [Rec] 2 quickly turns headlong. That it works pays testament to their screenplay — which cleverly develops original tropes rather than simply reprising them — and ability to invest the exhausted mockumentary form with visceral potency. (A couple deaths here are truly memorable despite the usually obfuscating shaky-cam format.)

There are silly ideas — otherwise invisible ephemera can be seen by night-vision cameras? Satan hasn’t covered his Radio Shack ass yet? — but [Rec] 2 proves there’s still imaginative life in zombie cinema, even if it requires bending the rules. [Rec] 3 and 4 are reportedly moving forward. This might become the rare film series — living or undead — that steadily improves.

[REC] 2 opens Fri/16 in Bay Area theaters.