What do you call a zombie movie without zombies? The smart-asses among you will say 28 Days Later, but that at least had killer humans acting like zombies… no, I’m referring more to the idea and atmosphere of a zombie movie but without the actual brain-munching undead. What you’d have is the new, blackly comic, Argentinian thriller, Phase 7.
Coco (Daniel Hendler) and his very pregnant wife Pipi (Jazmín Stuart) are shopping and bickering with love when the other customers around them start panicking and rushing the store. It’s a peripheral panic though as the couple barely notices the frenetic nature of their fellow city dwellers. At least not until they return home and see news that a global virus has spread to epidemic level and has finally reached their home of Buenos Aires. A quick trip down to the lobby late at night sees a neighbor being wheeled out and a plastic barrier going up… the building has been quarantined and the residents are trapped within.
“We are sixteen people and one maid.”
Expectations at this point, largely informed by the excellent [Rec] films from Spain, dictate that the building’s residents soon start facing off against the blood-thirsty infected, but Phase 7 is more interested in subverting those expectations than it it is in meeting them. We get to know Coco and Pipi through their banter during the isolation, and we quickly come to care for them. As time progresses though fear, confusion, and illness begin to saturate the building, and Coco soon discovers that if they don’t fall victim to the virus they may just get their head blown off by a trigger-happy neighbor.
It’s in these neighborly interactions that we meet the oddball residents including the mysteriously well-prepared Horacio (José “Yayo” Guridi) who takes an interest in the couple and he and Coco begin exploring the building’s floors and apartments. Some residents take kindly to their curiosity, but others don’t, and soon a shotgun-wielding octogenarian is roaming the halls with a restrained paranoia and a pocket full of ammunition. The action and antics that follow are filled with suspense, bloody deaths, and more than a little physical comedy, and just about all of it works beautifully.
The cast makes the most of their characters without ever resorting to horror movie clichés or stereotypes. Stuart’s pregnant wife spends much of the film oblivious to the goings on around her and her husband’s bloody involvement, but she keeps the character at the forefront through personality and affection. Hendler is loads of fun as a guy who just wants to be left alone but continuously finds himself reluctantly drawn into the breach. Guridi is equally entertaining as the man who knows too much about what may or not be happening.
Special attention is due to the lively and playful score from Guillermo Guareschi that exists as a solid ode to John Carpenter while also being it’s own entertaining creation. It’s filled with fun, energetic pieces that help propel the action and tone of the film between moments both serious and silly.
Writer/director Nicolás Goldbart makes a very self-assured and entertaining debut here and manages a solid balance of violence and comedy. His direction shows a willingness to take things slow when necessary for the characters and a lack of fear when it comes to the trickier mash-up of tones. The script’s only real questionable point is an unnecessary and dated jab and President Bush’s New World Order speech that continues to encourage conspiracy theorists the world over. The excess time given to it feels a little politicized and it doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the film. Still, it’s just one small part of an otherwise fun, surprising, and occasionally bloody whole.
The Upside: Good mix of the serious and the humorous; character driven build-up to the action; score is a lively and fun ode to John Carpenter
The Downside: No big set-piece; George Bush’s New World Order speech is dated and unnecessary; may not be meaty enough for viewers expecting something akin to [Rec]
Phase 7 is in limited theatrical release at participating AMC Theaters