The Post-zombie Zombie Film
What happens when you make a zombie film without zombies? You trace the metaphysical, not physical, disintegration of humanity. That makes for a provocative exercise in filmmaking, if not box office gold.
After a deadly epidemic has killed off most of the human population and civic order has broken down, four young adults take to the highway in a stolen Mercedes, looking for a safe haven from the disease. Alpha male Brian (Chris Pine), his vivacious girlfriend Bobby (Piper Perabo), Brian’s younger, smarter, more sensitive brother Danny (Lou Taylor Pucci), and Danny’s stoic friend Kate (Emily VanCamp) hope to find refuge from the plague at the beach where the brothers vacationed as children. Can they avoid contagion along the way? Can they find enough gas to get them there?
The words “road warrior” spray-painted on the hood of the shiny borrowed car remind us that this is not your average post-apocalyptic film. While city streets are clogged with vehicles, bodies, and evidence of the disease and its aftermath, the highways and the scenery extending on either side look just as they would in a road picture with college-age leads, like The Sure Thing. And, except for a general disheveled air that could be chalked up to a wild weekend, so do the foursome. No Mohawks, no fingerless gloves, no boomerang-wielding feral children with big hair; our heroes are wholesome and solidly middle-class.
The markers of normalcy make the harsh choices the characters make in order to survive all the more shocking. Without having undergone any of the deprivations that accompany natural disasters or epidemics (starvation, exposure, brutalization at the hands of other survivors) and relatively soon after the breakdown in the social order, one by one the four turn on others they meet and on each other. The film’s editing is as merciless: when the infected are shunned by the rest, they disappear from the frame for good, including Frank (Christopher Meloni), whom the four leave stranded with his infected young daughter, after commandeering his SUV.
Carriers plays like an experiment testing the strength of people placed in extremity to maintain their humanity. Early in the film we learn about the rules for survival the foursome try to follow.
One: Avoid the infected at all costs; their breath is highly contagious. Two: Disinfect anything they’ve touched in the last 24 hours. Three: The sick are already dead; they can’t be saved. You break the rules, you die. You follow them, you live. Maybe.
The characters left standing at the close of the film have best carried out the actions called for by the rules. But after violating all the bonds that we like to think make us human—filial, fraternal, parental, romantic—they, and the audience along with them, are left wondering if survival was worth the cost.
The film also feels like an experiment in genre bending, hinted at by the Mad Max / Road Warrior reference. The dissonance caused by our heroes’ callous responses to the infected is due in part to the familiarity of their actions: they display the lack of remorse of those defending themselves against the living dead. And in fact, when the infected finally succumb, they look like zombies: bloodshot eyes, wizened faces, mottled skin. Once dead, however, they stay that way.
So close does Carriers flirt with the familiar horror genre, that one of the archetypal zombie film set-pieces—the reanimating corpse—irrupts into the plot, in a dream Danny has of his dead mother’s corpse rising from her bed. It’s a manifestation of his guilty conscience—we eventually earn that when the brothers fled they left their still-living, infected parents behind—but also a glimpse of what the film isn’t, but easily could be.
Carriers comes during a renaissance and transformation in the zombie film. A resurgence of traditional, sober entries in the genre, including George Romero’s recent work—Land of the Dead (2005) and Diary of the Dead (2007)—and the 2004 remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, has been matched by a series of ironic, comic zombie films such as Shaun of the Dead (2004), Planet Terror (2007), and Zombieland (2009), all titles that go for laughs or the gross-out instead of horror.
At the same time, the viral apocalypse genre increasingly resembles the classic zombie film, with the infected looking and behaving like the undead (that is, attacking and/or eating the living): Resident Evil (2002), 28 Days Later (2002), 28 Weeks Later (2007), I Am Legend (2007).
Carriers employs plot devices common to both genres: the confrontation with an insane healthcare worker who, after one too many promising cures has failed, moves into full-out Jim Jones Kool-Aid dispensing mode (in the case of Carriers, quite literally); the run-in with trigger-happy survivalists; the investigation of a residence where all the familiar trappings of domesticity (kitchen implements, knick-knacks, house pets) become horrific; and the monomaniacal quest for a safe haven (heard about in a radio broadcast, recalled from a character’s childhood, or simply imagined).
Carriers takes the logical next step in what looks like a slide toward dehumanization: if survivors can kill the undead (the classic zombie plot), and the infected living who resemble the undead (the viral apocalypse / zombie plot), then why shouldn’t they be able to kill the infected who remain fully human?
In this way the dissonance caused by the film’s hybrid generic status enhances Carriers as a moral tale. It challenges audiences to consider how they would act in similar circumstances, and foregrounds the fact that there are no supernatural or sci-fi machinations to distance events on screen from the world we recognize.
It’s also a well-made film from script to acting to cinematography. The relationship between Brian and Danny is particularly well rendered (not surprisingly for a script written and directed by brothers). So it’s doubly unfortunate that the film didn’t last long in theatrical release. It deserves a better fate on DVD.