WRITTEN REVIEW – Survivors (2015)
Directed by: Adam J. Spinks
Written by: Adam J. Spinks & Laurence Timms
Starring: Joanne Gale, Simon Burbage, David Anderson & Adrian Annis
Release Date: October 26th 2015
If there’s one sub-genre in horror that has been done to death (pun not intended) over the past 50 years, it is the zombie genre. While it was first utilised in films in George A Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead‘ in 1968 as an excuse to get a group a survivors trapped in one location to explore conflict and social commentary, this commentary has been lacking over the past few years in the indie scene as it’s mainly an excuse to show off gore on a budget. This is probably because zombie special effects can be easily achieved in the low-budget space by blood stains, ripped shirts, oddly coloured skin etc. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that but…it’s everywhere.
The zombie sub-genre has been so saturated that horror films need to differentiate themselves from the pack, with 2013’s ‘World War Z‘ delivering a never-before-seen global scale thanks to a big budget and ‘Maggie‘ from earlier this year using zombie infection as an allegory for a terminal disease. ‘Survivors‘ from Initiative Motion Pictures looks set to be one of the more unique zombie movies of recent memory with its micro-budget of £10,000 (crowdfunded) and blend of found-footage and conventional cinematography. But ‘Survivors‘, despite having zombies and horror-elements, isn’t really a horror movie as its emphasis is on the human survivors.
Kate Meadows (Gale) is an independent reporter investigating M.E.D.E.A. Corporation who have been conducting potentially dangerous and immoral experiments on human test subjects. She is joined by her camera operator Duke (Burbage) as a zombie outbreak occurs and the two wind up separated as the government tries to contain the infection caused by M.E.D.E.A. Kate, in her search for Duke, comes across a helpful stranger, Paul (Anderson) and the two must avoid the infected as well as the worst of humanity in these dark times.
‘Survivors‘ has divergent narrative paths with around 40% of the movie being filmed though found-footage before the outbreak as Kate and Duke investigate M.E.D.E.A. as the outbreak begins and the rest of the movie taking place long after humanity seems to have fallen to the hubris of science with Kate and Paul roaming the abandoned countryside which is not found-footage. Also, despite the genre hallmarks, ‘Survivors‘ would be difficult to class as a horror movie as it’s primary focus is on the characters making their way across a seemingly long-abandoned society without many rules left and there are very few moments of horror outside of the presence of infected/zombies.
The obvious budget limitations come through with the fact that most of this 90 minute movie is made up through atmosphere as Kate and Paul scavenge for supplies en route to Duke’s aunt’s house on the coast and rendezvous with other survivors, as opposed to a walking-tour of the apocalypse encountering different scenarios. ‘Survivors‘ is a slow-paced mood-piece but thankfully the segments involving Kate and Paul nail the atmosphere. The two are aware that the infected (I don’t recall the “Z Word” being used anywhere in ‘Survivors‘) could be anywhere so they need to tread lightly, but there are actually very few infected seen on-screen in these segments of the movie.
This could, once again, be chalked up to budget-limitations but in ‘Survivors‘ it’s turned into a strength as you get the impression that the worst-part of this apocalypse has come and gone with only a handful of humans and infected left. ‘Survivors‘ gets across the crushing dread that comes from being alone in the aftermath of a conflict that has passed you by and every moment of hope or redemption comes with several caveats.
But, as effective a mood-piece as ‘Survivors‘ is, had its brief 90-minute runtime been comprised of entirely this, it would have felt flat and dour. Thankfully, it’s frequently broken-up by the found-footage elements with Kate and Duke pre-outbreak, which is where the movie finds most of its humanity. Duke is the MVP of this movie, with charismatic and funny quips behind the camera and engaging interactions with Kate that clearly get across a long-standing working relationship. So many movies of this ilk fail to humanise their characters with light-hearted dialogue which makes them continually depressing, but with Duke and Kate’s banter with each other and moments of genuine sweetness, it’s a constant reminder of the world Kate wishes to return to and just why she’s so committed to finding Duke despite the crumbling of society around her.
I’ve made it no secret in the past that I think found-footage is a terrible format for horror movies. Building tension, atmosphere and subliminal fearmongering through cinematography and sound simply cannot be done with the shakey-cam found-footage (at least, I’ve never encountered a found-footage movie that’s accomplished this). BUT, other genres are fair-game for found-footage, including drama, action and mockumentary. The found-footage in ‘Survivors‘ is not done for the horror, but to establish the intimate, friendly relationship between Kate and Duke, as well as capturing interview footage to give the viewer some hints as to the bigger-game at play here that caused the outbreak in the first place. The horror in these portions is scarce, but one sequence involving a road-block did get under my skin.
And Duke talking to the Spongebob toy on his car’s dashboard got a big laugh from me.
While Duke is where ‘Survivors‘ finds its heart, Kate is where everything else about ‘Survivors‘ comes together. Joanne Gale is simply superb as the passionate reporter desperate to do the right thing, but is in way over her head. It’s a well-worn character on the surface, but Gale, who is in almost every scene in the movie, makes for a brilliant lead and her increasingly world-weary performance does something that very few performances do; elevate the material. Her simple, but effective moral compass does hide a fierce intelligence that she finds very little use for when the infected come knocking at the door as Kate finds herself in a world that doesn’t have any use for her anymore which makes her desperate to cling onto the companionship she once knew. In fact, her empathy winds up getting her into a lot of trouble. Not a lot of this comes through on a script-level and it’s all down to Joanna Gale’s brilliant turn.
Fairing not as well is David Anderson as Paul. The movie already leave subtlety at the door in regards to this character having a hidden agenda (there’s no room for the audience to put the pieces together themselves) but Anderson is monotone and flat. Also, because the character’s arterial motives are kept at such a distance from the viewer, when Paul makes important decisions at the end of the movie, they don’t mean anything emotionally because there’s been no visible build-up for the audience to latch onto. There’s even a scene early on involving a “mercy killing” but because we don’t know anything about Paul, what should be a big character-defining for him just comes across as another act of brutality in a movie-universe that is already steeped in it.
Supporting cast members are strong across the board, particularly from Adrian Annis who comes into the movie much later on and Kate Meadows as Joanna who…god, I won’t even tell you what happens to Joanna.
There are a few out-of-place moments, such as out of nowhere tension builders like where Kate is scavenging on a road with abandoned cars and decides to open the door where a dead person potentially is and leans in and risks the fact that the person could be infected. There is no reason for her to go in the car. There’s also a moment where Paul is attempting to sneak up on someone and picks up a wrench. But instead of picking the wrench up to make as little noise as possible, he drags it across the surface of the workbench making a loud noise. That may be a nitpick, but it does hurt the credibility of the scene.
But the most interesting thing ‘Survivors‘ does narratively with the zombie formula is that it commits to the idea that those infected are sick people and not just mindless zombies. At least that’s how most of the civilian population treats them. Many are reluctant to kill them, or destroy the brain because they want to cure them or help them. You wouldn’t shoot a sick person, would you?
On the production side, I’ll be lenient because it is a £10,000 independent production but it does still look like a more expensive product then that. There are lots of extras, strong make-up effects, great shots of the tranquil countryside, great lighting and while the handheld camera style during the Kate/Paul sequences works well for the most part, the jerkiness becomes distracting during walking sequences. I hate to nitpick such a small production (I do it out of love) but there is one scene where Kate gets knocked out and there is no cut to black between her being knocked out and her regaining consciousness. The lack of a transition is very noticeable and questionable.
In terms of the sound quality, there’s very little middle-ground. Everything is either really good or really weak. Bullets, explosions and punches lack impact (the latter is particularly noticeable in the “mercy killing” scene I mentioned earlier) and while ADR is often essential during low-budget location shoots, its usage is noticeable. However, some of the sound-effects are brilliant such as a tension-filled scene where Kate and Paul are hiding from an infected person and she is walking on broken glass (instant cringe) and the score by Buz is minimalist, but atmospheric and effective.
‘Survivors‘ is not a game-changing zombie movie, but it does something rather unique in the low-budget scene in that it brings the sub-genre back to what made it so relevant and popular in the first place; that it’s not about the zombies or the make-up, it’s about the people. It’s a moody and atmospheric dramatic mood piece that’s wrapped up in a pleasing and accessible horror package that, while light on scares, is replete with memorable dramatic moments (Kate and Paul coming across the “Missing Persons” board might just be my favourite scene) and two superb lead performances in Joanna Gale and Simon Burbage, with Gale in particular running away with the entire movie. Its marriage of conventional cinematography and found-footage helps to keep the brief enterprise engaging throughout and while it may not be particularly scary, it does leave an impact.
I give ‘Survivors‘ 4 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 26th Oct 15