A girl runs through wintry woods, her clothing torn and filthy, her face blood-splattered. As she lurches through stream water, falls and gasps for breath, the pale sky and trees above her impose an eerie quiet. Spotting a road, she pitches forward and pauses, hoping at last that she’s escaped an unseen though obviously very bad something.

You’re not surprised when the girl meets a bad end on that road, as she’s the first victim in a movie called Mutants. Neither are you surprised by the bloody suddenness of that end, because you’ve seen movies with names like Mutants. This is a primary pleasure of David Morley’s film, now available on IFC On Demand, that it knows you’ve seen those other post-apocalyptic-plague-of-zombie-cannibals movies, and knows you’ll keep up without a whole lot of explaining. Thus, this unnamed girl serves as quick prologue to what comes next, plot: she’s running and she’s afraid. Next?

That would be Sonia (Hélène de Fougerolles), a paramedic, and her boyfriend Marcos (Francis Renaud), speeding down that same road in an ambulance. As Sonia tends to a patient in the back — a solider who looks like someone’s been chewing on him — his buddy Perez (Marie-Sohna Condé) insists they “keep going”, no matter what they run into. “Go where?” asks Marco. It’s exactly the right question, and there’s now good answer. Perez has the gun, however (“You’ll have to trust me”), so he keeps his foot on the gas while Sonia presses on the about-to-be-dead man’s chest. That is, until it begins to undulate and gurgle and seep.

Thus Mutants shows the effects of the virus that’s afflicting France — and for all you know, everywhere else on the planet — which turns sufferers into more revolting, less lumbering descendents of George Romero’s famous flesh-eaters. As ever in such situations, Sonia and company seek refuge and help, preferably from a recognized authority, folks with uniforms and communications capacity and means of transportation.

When their own vehicle runs out of gas, they decide to hide out in an abandoned and decidedly isolated institution they discover in the woods. Here they find a strikingly traumatized young man, huddled against a cold white wall. Perez thinks he’s infected, Sonia insists he’s only autistic and in shock. Their clashing diagnoses say more about them than the kid they’re trying to decipher, as do their responses to the inevitable and immediate crisis he presents.

In setting a couple of very insistent women at odds over what do about men in trouble, Mutants is working within some well-worn genre conventions. Sonia’s a nurturer and fiercely maternal figure, and Sonia’s the warrior, her anger, toughness, and weapons expertise plainly helpful for the not-quite-a-team’s survival. Mutants is hardly coy about its models, with both women here referencing 28 Days Later‘s Selena (Naomie Harris), in her knowledge of both human bodies and zombie behaviors.

Sonia’s relationship with Marcos established her investment early on. As they wonder whether they can actually trust the volatile Perez, they hold hands, the shot clarifying the threesome’s tensions: the hands appear in the foreground center, Perez stands far off, positioned in between the lovers, whose silhouetted bodies form a frame for her, set against mountains and sky, her gun prominent even as she’s “at ease”.

This team doesn’t quite get the job done, as the girls’ best efforts can’t keep Marcos from being bitten during a scuffle with a mutant. His infection develops excruciatingly slowly, and as Sonia does her best to tend to him inside the institution, it’s clear moment by moment that he’s doomed — not to mention reduced to a gross and mostly frail physicality, vomiting and shaking and sometimes attacking. Thus the movie is transformed as well, as Sonia is no longer only fighting anonymous and exceedingly expendable monsters.

She responds to this as a doctor might, hoping against hope that she’ll come up with a way to save her man, refusing to believe that he’s lost by definition. Her loyalty and resourcefulness are contrasted with the very bad decisions made by another couple, Franck (Nicolas Briançon) and Dany (Luz Mando), who show up with a couple of armed comrades and a maybe-kinky interest in violence mixed with sex. Sonia remains resolute, if very beset: she ends up running a lot.

Still, she embodies the film’s thematic focus on defining (or better, redefining) compassion in chaos. This focus, along with frequently exquisite imagery — snowy tableaus, dark hallways, repeated red on white — helps to make Mutants beguiling even though you’ve seen so much of its plot before.

RATING 6 / 10