It’s been said that every playwright—at least, every playwright writing in English—labors under the long shadow cast by Shakespeare. To that I would add that every zombie movie labors under the long shadow of Night of the Living Dead. I would argue that George Romero’s 1968 epic, shot on a miniscule budget outside of Pittsburgh, is pretty much the only zombie movie you’ll ever need to see. Hope springs eternal, though—much like zombies themselves—so I keep trying out new zombie movies, waiting for the day when my pet theory will be proven wrong.
Alas, that day has not yet come. State of Emergency is unlikely to unseat Romero in the minds of too many horror fans. This isn’t to say that it’s a horrible movie. It’s not, but it’s far from being a definitive masterpiece.
Generic nice guy Jim finds himself caught in a war zone when an explosion at a chemical factory turns the local populace into something resembling red-eyed, sprinting flesh-eaters a la 28 Days Later. The opening scenes of the movie are creepy and effective, as the ever-reliable tropes of “isolated guy walking through a spookily empty landscape” and “sinister silent figures hovering on the horizon” are in full effect. Jim holes up for a time in a farm before shifting to a nearby warehouse, one already occupied by a trio of survivors.
As Jim and his new friends Scott, Julie and Ix hunker down and play the survival game with the surrounding nasties, they are also privy to glimpses of TV news reports that cleverly convey the scope of the disaster and the military response, highlighted by the endless army helicopters passing overhead. This suggestion of government action is a clever way to impart information, and adds an extra layer of tension to the proceedings, as both characters and audience remain aware of their own ignorance of events beyond the immediate surroundings.
This ignorance is addressed in the final minutes of the film, in which the conventions of the zombie story are dispensed with and the action changes to a kind of sci-fi medical thriller. In so doing, the movie usurps some of the audience’s expectations and, briefly, takes them into unfamiliar territory. Nothing much comes of it, ultimately, but for a few minutes this element of surprise is at play, and makes the movie worth a look for dedicated zombie fans.
On a technical level, writer/director Turner Clay has done an impressive job. The overall look of the film is effective, shot as it is in sickly tones of yellow and green, with deep shadows providing the always-crucial doses of spookiness and menace. Sound effects manage to be effective without being overone. The film is also paced well, with plenty going on from moment to moment but enough downtime to let the audience relax a little between set pieces.
More problematic are the performances, which range from serviceable to weak. Jay Hayden as Jim has an appropriately wide-eyed, freaked-out look most of the time, and he delivers his lines with gusto. He is also a skillful physical actor who gets through the various acrobatics involved in zombie escaping with ease. At the other end of the spectrum is Scott Lilly as Scott, who is doubtless a nice fellow in real life but whose line readings tend to clunk louder than a zombie’s footsteps stomping up a staircase. (See what I did there?)
Bonus features on the DVD are considerable for such a low-budget movie. Besides an engaging behind-the-scenes featurette, which shows some of the challenges of shoestring-budget filmmaking, there are a number of deleted scenes and a visual-effects feature. The movie itself is watchable enough, and these features reinforce the idea that this project was the result of a lot of hard work by a large group of likeable individuals. It may also fill you with the desire to make your own movie, but maybe that’s just me.
At the end of the day, what most viewers want from a film like this is a little atmosphere, a few chills, and maybe an unexpected twist or two. There aren’t many twists in State of Emergency, but everything else is present and accounted for. Night of the Living Dead it ain’t, but neither is it a “so bad it’s good” kind of movie. It’s actually pretty good, period. If zombies are your thing, or low-budget filmmaking in general, you could find many worse ways to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon.