Bad movies come in many varieties. There are catastrophic, painful failures like 5 to 7. There are the glorious, seemingly impossible charmers like Winter’s Tale, so inept that they quickly transcend their mistakes to become raucous comedies. Then, on the opposite end of the spectrum is a genre often ignored and usually misunderstood. Dumb plots, bad acting and silly monsters make up part of the formula for what we might call the “made-for-Netflix” B-movie. This year, the Tribeca Film Festival gave audiences a rare treat by showing two of these formulaic gems on the big screen.
Indigenous and Zombeavers were the two most absurd films in the Midnight section, brashly silly “creature features” that don’t have an ounce of sense between them. The first involves a surfing trip to Panama that winds up in the Darien Gap on the border with Colombia. What’s hiding in the jungle? The Chupacabra, of course! Zombeavers, meanwhile, is a bit easier to figure out from the title. There’s a sudden attack of beavers that are also zombies in the idyllic countryside of Indiana!
These films have basically identical casts of characters. Each has six young and (mostly) conventionally attractive twentysomethings on vacation. Three guys and three girls, paired off in one way or another. At least one of the relationships is on the rocks in each film. They’re all colossally stupid because the plot necessitates it. To call them stock characters would be a misnomer because stock characters have attributes, and those attributes occasionally make you think. Not here. The completely derivative nature of each personality on screen, along with the plot, are like comfort food dripping in the blood of an undead woodland animal.
This is not to say that there is no ingenuity in these films, only that absolutely none of it is to be found in the script or the performances. All of the creative energy is directed toward the mysterious enemy, the monstrous sylvan antagonists. The Chupacabra in Indigenous is not exactly the most original of beasts, another variation on the “Gollum” theme that has been kicking around the horror genre in the past decade. Yet while director Alastair Orr isn’t taking the beast to new heights in the manner of The Descent, he has a couple of neat ideas. The Chupacabra has a tendency to pop into the frame at angles that, while not always scary, are always strange. There is also some particularly excellent gross-out nonsense in the demonic creature’s home cave.
The zombie-beavers, on the other hand, are something of a triumph. Sure, they’re incredibly unconvincing but that’s exactly what the film needs. Director Jordan Rubin also chooses to make them surprisingly intelligent, embracing the comic potential of deranged beavers doing such creative things as biting through phone lines to isolate their prey and gnawing down trees so that they fall on unsuspecting passersby. This humor never lets up, each gag bigger than the last. In fact, it’s unfortunate that Rubin wasn’t even more confident in the comic potential of his title rodents. There are a number of non-beaver-related jokes in the movie, most of them scatological, few of them funny.
Zombeavers and Indigenous could be characterized as horror comedies, though maybe not in the way we typically understand it. There are jump scares but they work in a very strange way. When you find yourself freaked out by the sudden appearance of the Chupacabra or a quick cut to a beaver popping through a wall, you experience multiple emotions. The first is the initial fright, of course, then a wave of laughter. Part of that is because the brutes themselves are funny looking, but part of it is embarrassment that a movie as superficially dumb as Zombeavers or Indigenous actually got you to jump.
The whole experience of enjoying these films is a bit strange. There’s bad acting and often bad writing all over the place, especially in the opening third before the monsters have shown up yet. In Indigenous there is even the awkwardness of a “hip” inclusion of social media. There are a lot of “bad movie” red flags that can get in the way of having fun. And yet it’s important to remember that, after all, this is a horror film. These non-characters are going to die horribly, often in very strange ways. More than that, the film itself is something of a downward spiral.
Maybe it can be explained through Freud’s “death drive” idea, the psychological tendency to pursue one’s own destruction. It’s a return to the inorganic, a self-immolation. Zombeavers and Indigenous are monster movies with evidently fake monsters. Their casts give terrible, unconvincing performances as characters that are too generic to exist. As the conventional virtues of writing, acting and editing fall apart, this flatlining actually becomes surreal. It’s like watching a train wreck in a bathing suit. Every misstep enriches the experience, an accumulation of makeshift horror images and rough dialogue that seems to explode before our eyes. By the time the credits roll they are cinema no longer. These films set themselves on fire so that we can watch them burn.