‘The Battery’ Is a First Act in Search of a Plot

Amounting to one feature-length inciting incident, the low-budget zombie film The Battery will test the limits of even the most devoted horror fans’ patience.

Films that go by the moniker of “post-apocalyptic” generally go to some effort to stir the imaginations of their audience by suggesting drama in the past. The setting, usually adorned with wreckage, sunken landmarks, burned-out dwellings, wastelands that still bear the names of major cities, can supplement a slower pace or even a weak screenplay, as viewers get to not just anticipate what will happen to the characters before them, but also what has already happened to them. In many cases, this is a more rewarding process than the actual development of the film’s narrative, which helps to make genre cinema seem livelier than it often is. At the very least, the current market for independent horror and science fiction films provides a factory for the development of new scares, new speculative concepts, and a means of exhibiting them to the public.

So a film like The Battery — made for only a few thousand dollars — is a puzzling thing to take stock of. The film offers no pleasures of craft save for the minimal zombie makeup and soundtrack featuring evocative folk songs by Rock Plaza Central and Wise Blood. Here, we have nothing like a post-apocalyptic landscape. Instead of an earth-clearing event having taken place, it appears that everyone save the two roaming protagonists simply got up and cleared out of the way. Most of the time you can almost sense humanity hovering just out of the frame, waiting for someone to call “cut” so that they can resume their places, once the actors have finished reciting their lines in the middle of a field.

Director Jeremy Gardner plays Ben, traveling the New England countryside with friend and former baseball teammate Mickey (Adam Cronheim) in the aftermath of an unspecified but all-too-familiar event that unleashed the zombie virus on the world. Between bored spats with the undead, they play catch and snipe at each other. If they were ever indeed close friends on their team, circumstances seem to have eroded their relationship. Mickey tinkers with a walkie-talkie that occasionally picks up the voice of a woman named Annie, who warns him not to find her and her group, but who might represent their only chance of finding shelter and safety.

The stakes remain pretty low; how urgent could it be for these two to find an organized group of survivors, since (at least until the final sequence) the zombies are isolated, minor threats easily dispatched with the swing of a baseball bat, and Ben and Mickey never really run short of supplies or country homes to stop over in? Ben has serious concerns about staying the night in a strange house, alluding to some violent encounter in their past, but the languid mood of the film and his reasonable demeanor keeps even this episode from achieving any power in the audience’s mind.

It’s during the first of the film’s two or three truly dramatic confrontations — in which Ben takes a dangerous approach to curing Mickey of his aversion to violence — that the deflating sense of the film’s opening scene becomes a dominant mood, and The Battery’s crippling lack of resources becomes apparent. Low budgets are surmountable in genre cinema with good casting, performances, and writing, variables that don’t demand a boost in the budget. Gardner and Cronheim, obviously committed to the project, swing not between moods but volumes, from mumbly guy-talk to shouty, vein-throbbing fury. Neither of them are truly bad performers, but the strain of these few scenes of conflict shows in their expressionless eyes and brows.

Not to mention that Gardner’s screenplay shortchanges Mickey’s character, who seems to be the more interesting and troubled of the two men, in favor of an ending that promises to set up a whole new set of conflicts. It’s the sort of development that should have come fifteen or twenty minutes into the picture and triggered two further acts of complication. Instead, it has to bear the weight of paying off the previous ninety minutes, and winds up bizarrely dissatisfying, tainting what minimal interest the project had to begin with.

The barebones plot of The Battery raises only minimal questions: the sustainability of male camaraderie in the face of truly hostile circumstances, or whether certain persons, all other physical variables being equal, have a stronger natural predilection toward survival. Moreover, these questiosn are ultimately subsumed by the worst tendency of low-budget filmmaking: how long can we drag this out? As unfinished as the dramatic arc of the screenplay feels, Gardner’s film practically demands to be viewed as a pitch for a higher budget, and a more satisfying feature to come. But that’s no way to watch a film, and no fit state to release it.

Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray of The Battery comes with an improbably feature-length documentary detailing the film’s production in encyclopedic detail, serving as further evidence of the kind of confounding enthusiasm necessary to see a half-formed project like this through to its conclusion. It also includes, by way of making the purchase worth small consideration, footage of a live performance by Rock Plaza Central, a great band whose presence on the soundtrack is welcome.

RATING 4 / 10