Sunday, October 21, 2007

Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2007: "Mulberry Street"

(USA 2006)
Written by Nick Damici and Jim Mickle
Directed by Jim Mickle
Cast: Nick Damici, Kim Blair, Bo Corre, Ron Brice, John Hoyt

The inventive and unnerving DIY shocker Mulberry Street may seem to take its cues from 28 Days Later, but since Danny Boyle’s zombie-virus hit was the British response to George A. Romero’s very-American undead allegories, director Jim Mickle and his resourceful collaborators can be excused for taking a little something back thru Ellis Island: all is fair in love and the zombie war, it can be supposed.

Set primarily in a tenement building in Little Italy, the taut and efficient urban fable wastes not a scene, shot, or character, beginning in medias res with the outbreak of a mutating virus spread by rat bites. Of course in this vermin-infested slum, the infected, with their loping gate, runny eyes and muffled growls, can scarcely be distinguished from many of the locals who haunt the seedy neighborhood in various states of intoxication, mental illness, heat exhaustion, or existential despondency.

Ex-fighter “Clutch” (screenwriter and William Smith look-alike Nick Damici) is the building’s go-to guy, running daily to stay in shape but always willing to stop to help out his neighbours, a colorful group who include a disabled Vietnam veteran, a pair of octogenarian WW2 buddies, an attractive single mother who tends bar next door to raise her teenage son, and an aging drag-queen, who’s helping him prepare a party to commemorate the return of his adult daughter Casey (Kim Blair), recently discharged from military service in Iraq. The residents are outraged that their home, while technically condemned long ago, is due for demolition as part of the “gentrification” that’ll soon turn their neighborhood into just another pricey condo haven.

The superintendent (co-producer Tim House), bitten by the vermin while tending to some basement repairs, initiates the spread of the virus from within the building, while outside, the plague moves throughout the boroughs of Manhattan with alarming speed. Subway service is shut down, the entrances to and from the island closed, martial law declared. Battle-scarred Casey arrives by train to find that she must navigate home on foot, having left one battle overseas only to be dropped into another. And yet on Mulberry Street, life goes on for those who are largely invisible on the best of days. As the tenants monitor the news with disbelief, it’s only a matter of time before their dilapidated surroundings splinter under the assault of the rapidly growing army of the infected, who share the same dining habits (and some physical features) of their rodent carriers…

Mickle’s debut feature shows a sure hand as he bravely tackles a potentially ludicrous premise which he perfectly modulates across three distinct plot threads: Clutch and the tenants’ siege against the zombies, Casey’s dangerous trek home across a barren but threat-filled New York, and the useless coverage from a gradually dwindling local media. Shot on digital video, the low-cost (and low-res) medium infuses the piece with a you-are-there! immediacy that heightens the terror (much of the film was shot guerilla-style and without permits, although the filmmakers confessed they often lied and told officers they were either NYU film students, or working for Law And Order, which apparently carries a lot of cache!). It also conveniently provides an easier means to cover the cramped interiors of the tenement (I was amazed to learn in the post-screening Q&A that all of the dwellings were a single apartment set, redressed and repainted) and the neighboring bar that hosts a zombie attack—both actual locations (Damici admits that he rewrote the script—originally planned as much grander affair—around props and venues he knew he could get).

Eagle-eyed genre buffs will spot cameos from genre vets Larry Fessenden and Debbie Rochon.

There’s really only one detail that doesn’t work, and that’s the decision to have the zombies develop some too-literal rat-like features in the advanced stages of contagion. Such a risky conceit requires a dramatic makeup design that doesn’t turn the performers into rejects from a Sid And Marty Kroft production. Unfortunately, the wrinkled snouts and pointy buck teeth here look silly (unlike the sheep-people in Jonathon King’s New Zealand counterpart Black Sheep, which were supposed to be funny), which no amount of stage blood or chaotic shakey-cam can hide, and sometimes threaten to derail the otherwise grueling onslaught of doom (but some genre newbies might take as welcome relief).

As with the precedent set by Night Of The Living Dead, Mulberry Street eschews an easy third-act solution and ends on an appropriately bleak note, although one more piercing than most, since we’ve grown to love these characters so much (the film features one of the most engaging casts of unknowns and amateurs since Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead). Mickle and Damici have also wisely imported Romero’s headier leftist concerns: the collapse of social order, the failure of our institutions, the rise of the underclass (I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the writers are also fans of David Cronenberg’s Shivers, which was also about an outbreak in an apartment building, and J.G. Ballard’s “High Rise”), and cues to the Iraq mess and the recent Hurricane Katrina disaster (but no character ever stops to lecture). Besides, when is cannibalism not a metaphor? If it ain’t about the haves and the have-nots feeding on each other, then it’s just another Resident Evil sequel, and look how that one did at the box office…

Mulberry Street has received much (deserved) acclaim during its run on the festival circuits (SXSW, TriBeCa, FantAsia, Amsterdam Fantastic Film Festival), and at its TAD screening Mickle, Damici, and their returning producers announced their next effort: an adaptation of Joe. R. Lansdale’s “Cold In July”. But ultimately audiences will decide if there’s room for yet another voice in the already-overstuffed “zombie” subgenre when Lionsgate releases Mulberry Street on November 9, 2007.

©2007 Robert J. Lewis