Survival of the Wittiest: 'Phase 7'

Before it blunders its way through the ending, Phase 7 is a very smart and very clever film. Once it's over, the inherent issues become more and more obvious.

Phase 7 (Fase 7)

Director: Nicolás Goldbart
Cast: Daniel Hendler, Jazmín Stuart, Yayo Guridi, Federico Luppi, Carlos Bermejo, Abian Vainstein
Rated: R
Studio: Bloody Disgusting
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-07-08 (limited release)

It's the end of the world as we know it, and according to the Argentinean black comedy, Phase 7, it's not merely a matter of the survival of the fittest. It's actually more a question of the survival of the wittiest. Walking the fine line defined by Shaun of the Dead, this is a pandemic/zombie film without the monsters, a Twilight Zone style cautionary tale in which those left behind are far more lethal - and loony - than any disease or collection of walking corpses. Some will see the set-up and instantly think of that modern classic from Spain, [REC] . But instead of going for pure POV horror, writer/director Nicolas Goldbart strives to make light of the situation, pitting a henpecked husband and his conspiracy theory spouting neighbor against the rest of the apartment block in a psychological contest to see who will crack - and kill - first.

Coco (Daniel Hendler) and his seven months pregnant wife Pipi (Jazmin Stuart) are out shopping when all Hell breaks loose. Turns out, a viral epidemic is killing millions, and their building is quarantined when one of the neighbors is removed for showing symptoms. Left behind are nervous busy bodies Lange (Abian Vainstein) and Guglierini (Carlos Bermejo), their respective families, retired loner Zanutto (Federico Luppi) and militaristic nutjob Horacio (Yayo Guridi). There is also an Asian family living in the complex, but no one has seen them recently. As the reality of their situation sets in, many go about their daily lives, following the governments' strict instructions. But as days turn into weeks and help seems farther and farther away, the residents turn on each other, using paranoia and superstition to justify all kinds of antisocial - and eventually, lethal - behavior.

You can tell from the opening credits that Phase 7 is not going to be your typical straight ahead horror rollercoaster. They're like a clip from a Radiohead video. Goldbart runs down the aisles of the local megamart, highlighting pop art presentations of various colorful consumer products. As mayonnaise and other condiments fill the screen in rigid rainbow colors, we sense a subtext usually missing from most fright films. Like George Romero and his dense zombie films, Goldbart is trying to tie consumerism, the lackadaisical attitude of the modern citizen, and the "me first" mindset of most people to explore what happens on the other side of the barricade. All around them, society could be devolving into a flesh eating creature fest, and the individuals in this particular apartment block wouldn't know or care. They are too busy spying on each other and cooking up kooky explanations for what is going on (the title is the lead theory) to notice.

At first, it's the domestic hell that our hero finds himself that drives our interest. Coco lives with a slaggy spitfire, a woman whose main compliment is the term "dickhead." She complains to her partner about everything - his failure to fully test the light bulb he buys, his desire, post-apocalypse, to ration their food, even the "boring" video tape about 'Phase 7' that he brings home. She is a harpy of horrific levels, and yet we can also see her point. If he had his way, Coco would be shuffling around in pajamas, scarfing down endless boxes of Fruit Loops and ignoring his adult responsibilities. Even his neighbors recognize his sizeable slacker leanings, adopting Pipi's nickname for him throughout the course of the film.

On the other hand, when pushed to the limit, Coco proves his measureable mantle. Another joy this film has to offer is watching a weakling finally stand up for himself. Sure, our hemmed in hero is really nothing more than a reactionary wuss. He sits back sheepishly as one neighbor's head explodes in shotgun blast bedlam. When frightened or morally confused, he runs to Horacio for a necessary dose of backbone. Their relationship is one of the more memorable elements of Phase 7. On one side of the coin is Coco, trying to make sense of circumstances. On the other is his hair-trigger pal, overly prepared for such an end times option. As tensions mount and options disappear, violence is always on the horizon. When it arrives, Goldbart doesn't overdo the gore. Instead, he uses it for shock value before reverting to more mundane fears.

With its brightly lit settings and all mod cons backdrop, Phase 7 is really an unusual experience. The suspense doesn't necessarily come from the outside threat. We realize that there is something terrible going on beyond the walls of this particular building, but aside from some suggestive long shots (and the middle act arrival of a marauding masked gang), little is known or explained. Similarly, characters pop up out of nowhere, their existence (and reasons for staying unseen) unexplained and simply granted as realistic and expected. This is especially true of both Horacio and Zanutto, who have last act revelations that don't really resonate with the emotional power Goldbart thinks they do. We've been so busy snickering and sitting at the edge of our seat that we don't need a last minute tug on the heartstrings.

Indeed, within the last ten minutes, Phase 7 almost falls apart completely. As the possibilities evaporate and the obvious choices arrive, we wonder how the filmmaker will find a way out of the counterproductive corner he's painted himself into. The answer - well, without giving away too much, it's like a drop of deus ex machina matched with a calculated convenience. We never see it coming because the movie never lets us know it could happen. Instead, we have sat back for 90 minutes and figured things would take a fatalistic turn for the witty worst. Instead, like many movies of this kind, Goldbart finds a way to symbolically save the day, offering hope where very little of same still exists. Before it blunders its way through the ending, Phase 7 is a very smart and very clever film. Once it's over, the inherent issues become more and more obvious.

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