Written by Jaume Balaguero, Luiso Berdejo and Paco Plaza
Directed by Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza
Manuela Velasco: Angela Vidal
Pablo Rosso: Pablo
Ferran Terraza: Manu
David Vert: Alex
Sometimes my plans are not so good. I stuck this movie and Quarantine on the list for HubrisWeen because I thought it'd be interesting to review an original and a remake in the same marathon. But they're in the wrong order--at least when the reviews first go live, people are going to read my take on the metaphorical Ventures cover version of the song before the Tornados' original. At least that state of affairs is only going to last for two days. It's also kind of a grind to watch two found-footage horror movies with the same plot in a row for the marathon.
Sometimes, as I stated previously, my plans are not so good. At least it's a hell of a movie so I got a lot of enjoyment out of it for R day. And when I watch the remake it won't have subtitles (not that I mind 'em, but reading a horror movie sometimes takes the edge off it).
Like all found-footage horrors, this one needs a conceit to justify the narrative, and it's a great idea. The film is presented as the raw footage for an episode of a show called "While You're Asleep", a sort of human-interest reality series where the host, Angela Vidal, finds people who work at night and shows her audience what a typical overnight shift is for, say, the fire department in Barcelona. Her constant companion for this is Pablo the cameraman (who remains almost entirely unseen through the movie). There's the expected "trying on a fireman's coat, boots and helmet" vignette that emphasizes Angela's rather petite frame. She says hi to all the firemen on duty in the dining hall and there's footage of her miking the two firemen she'll be spending most of her time with--Alex and Manu.
Alex gets an interview segment where he mentions all the mundane things that firemen do--pet rescues, shutting off broken water mains, and other necessary but not adrenaline-soaked duties. Angela, proper journalist that she is, wishes for an alarm while Alex corrects her and says nobody should be hoping for a disaster just for good footage. There's also a blip of an outtake where Angela says things are a little dull so far (one assumes that she's hoping for shots of a burning building or something because more viewers would tune in for that than want to watch her playing a late-night game of basketball in the firehouse gym or tiptoeing past the bunk room where a bunch of firemen are sleeping).
She gets her wish during the sportsball contest--there's someone trapped in their apartment in need of rescue. Bravo 128 (the call sign for Manu and Alex as a pair, I think) are dispatched to respond to the call (with a brief moment of levity provided when Pablo says he can't slide down the pole while carrying the camera. Angel and Pablo get on the truck and try to just stay out of the way. Angela is a little disappointed that non-emergency calls don't get the full lights-and-sirens response (it would make great footage). One of the firemen asks who watches the show if it's "While You're Asleep", which is a valid question if the footage is all going out live--but it isn't, so I think he's just razzing the people doing a ride-along. The truck arrives at a several-story apartment building and Alex takes the lock-busting toolkit out of its storage panel.
Inside the apartment building we meet this evening's Spam in a Cabin, though to change things up they're in the middle of a city instead of out in the woods. There's a trio of older people in the lobby as well as a family. Someone heard screaming and called the police--and when the cop sees Angela and her cameraman he's a little nonplussed. He decides that the fireman can be responsible for whatever happens to the journalists and a knot of people go upstairs while the civilians stay in the lobby. A guy with glasses and another cop are on an upper floor by an apartment door. Apparently the woman who lives there is a crazy cat lady who never goes out (is that even an archetype in Spain?), and while Angela is doing a report she gets startled by the firemen smashing the woman's door in with a big mallet.
Inside the apartment there's an older woman who seems to be spaced out, standing at the end of a hallway. As everyone gets closer to her (Pablo bonking into a couple things on the way) it becomes apparent that the woman is splattered with blood. When Pablo turns on the camera light, everyone gets all up in his grill to turn it off, which he immediately does. The police say to stop taping, and Angela lies openly when she says the camera's turned off. She seems charming and nice enough, but the viewer can also tell she thinks she's hit the jackpot with the events in this apartment. An ambulance is called and Pablo gets a great shot of the old woman biting one of the cops on the neck, as well as Angela, Manu and the other policeman carrying the wounded man out of the apartment. The officer is bleeding to death and then, just because things weren't going badly enough, the power goes out.
Guillem, one of the tenants, turns out to be a medical intern and does what he can to help the bitten cop. He also tells the fireman, journalists and uninjured cop (and the audience) that the outside authorities aren't letting anyone leave the apartment building. A loudspeaker voice from outside tells everyone that the health department has quarantined the building. Angela (who is now down to a white tank top that's going to get pretty grimy over the rest of the film) takes in the scene and gives the still-ambulatory cop a piece of her mind when he slaps the camera. Manu wants to open a steel shutter door and get the bitten cop outside via that exit. Meanwhile a woman with a young daughter gets a cell phone call from her husband--the entire street's shut down outside and the police aren't letting anyone in. The husband was making a pharmacy run for some antibiotics because his daughter is sick, and that doesn't seem like a very good sign in a movie like this...
Before much of anything else can happen, Alex the fireman plummets down the central stairwell and thuds to the floor. He's bleeding but alive, and Guillem starts to treat his injuries. Angela and Pablo run back upstairs to document what's happening and go to the crazy cat lady's apartment. Pablo takes point and gets charged by a bitten teenager who collapses in the hallway and then the blood-splattered woman. The second cop shoots the woman (and the audio gets blown out by the gun going off next to the mike; this movie does an amazing job of making the footage seem like it's being captured in the raw by a professional-grade video camera; as things get hairier later in the movie, the images degrade--also a great way to get creepy effects looking better than they otherwise might on a tight budget).
Down in the lobby, Manu wants to get the injured men outside and talks the cop into helping. The young girl, already feverish with what her mother keeps insisting is just tonsilitis, is getting worse. The voice from outside says--over the bullhorn, which makes it even less comforting--that a "BNC protocol" is in effect. One of the lobby denizens clarifies what those letters stand for--either a nuclear, chemical or bioweapon incident. Given that radiation doesn't turn people into brain-wiped cannibals it's most likely one of the other two causes at work. Guillem has done what he can for the two bitten men, but he's an intern used to taking blood pressure and medical history from hospital patients, not a trauma surgeon. And even if he was a brilliant surgeon, there's only so many supplies he has access to in the apartment. Those two need help if they're going to survive. The intern breaks into the concierge office--he's got a plan to jump from the window in that office to a patio outside and flag down an ambulance. There's a riot squad wearing gas masks outside waiting for someone to try that. He backs down immediately as the building gets sealed behind plastic sheets.
Inside, Joven the cop says he's in charge. Nobody challenges him, so he's in charge (this is how democracy works). Manu tells him that being a cop and in charge of the situation doesn't make him any less trapped or expendable than anyone else--that and a bus pass will get him a ride on a bus, if he can get out of the building without getting shot. In response, Joven goes for the George Romero movie Authority Figure Maneuver #6, and pulls his gun on the group, demanding that they try to get out of the building via a textile workshop off to the side of the lobby. The loudspeaker takes that moment to tell everyone to remain calm (maybe it's Alanis Morrissette out there). The voice of authority says there's an agent in the building with them and Joven apologizes to everyone. Guillem goes to his apartment to retrieve some medical supplies.
Angela starts doing a live report, the kind of thing that would play after a commercial break to catch viewers up to developments they'd missed (and she's a consummate professional). The injured men are in critical condition and their bite wounds are going septic. Meanwhile, Angela interviews the various people in the building about what's going on to mixed results. The girl, Jennifer, has part of her segment ruined when her mother interjects--Angela explains that the camera's just on her and Jennifer at that moment so voices from outside will mess up the scene. And a balding man primps and poses for his interview before blaming "the Chinese" for the crisis.
Manu takes a headcount of everyone in the lobby and tries to get organizes so that when the health inspector arrives things can go smoothly. The authorities plan to administer a blood test to everyone i the building and let the uncontaminated people leave, so getting organized for it is a pretty good idea and also will keep people occupied while they wait. Manu has a floor plan of the building and asks who's in each apartment. It turns out that the Asian family on one of the upper floors has a bedridden old man in their apartment, and that the penthouse is owned by a guy from Madrid who's never around.
The health inspector actually arrives, and enters the building in a hazmat suit and gas mask. He locks the door behind him and immediately shuts Pablo's camera off (although a little while later Jennifer, while goofing with it, accidentally turns it back on to catch Angela theorizing to Pablo that the two bitten men are getting sick from whatever the old woman had. While Pablo tries to get a shot of Manu and Joven talking in a side room, the cop closes the door before continuing the conversation. Pablo winds up climbing up on a shelf and opening a transom window to get the next shot, which is the doctor handcuffing Alex to the table he's lying on before shooting him up with...something. Before the bitten cop can be restrained he gets up and bites Guillem; the others run out of the room and close the door, trying to quarantine the infected in there. The hazmat-suited doctor says it's too dangerous to let the infected out. Angela wants to know exactly what the infection is but Guillem breaks out of confinement before she can get an answer; everyone flees and shuts the shutter door. Everyone left is now stuck in the lobby. Jennifer's mom gets handcuffed to the stair railing as a precautionary measure (over her considerable protests).
Manu demands some kind of explanation from the doctor, who first says that he's not authorized to hear it and then takes his gas mask off and explains that there was a sick dog at a vet's office that attacked all the other animals; it turns out to have been little Jennifer's pet. The doctor wants to give Jennifer a blood test but before anything can proceed on that front the girl bites her monther and flees upstairs (panicking the Asian family who are terrified for their patriarch, stuck in his bed with a monster on the loose). Pablo and Angela run upstairs with Manu and Joven to get film of them catching Jennifer (who appears in the shot behind Manu in a great bit of blocking). The capture attempt goes awry when Joven turns away from the girl for a second and she bites him--by now Joven knows what that means and he sequesters himself in a room with Jennifer to protect everyone else.
Downstairs, Guillem opens the shutter gate but the doctor and Manu force him away for the time being. When the gate opens again the doctor flees upstairs and Jennifer's mother is fatally injured when Guillem and the infected cop get into the lobby. Everyone else has to abandon her to her fate (Joven has the handcuff keys) and upstairs, tempers are running extremely hot. The balding guy says that the outside authorities don't care about anyone in the building, but they probably want their doctor back and maybe they can use him as a hostage. It turns out the hazmat-suited doctor ran away from the attack because he was bitten, and wants to lock himself up to protect the others. When the bald guy walks near a window he gets told by the loudspeaker voice to back away or "drastic measures" will be taken. He complies, but only because he's got a better plan--there's a floor panel in the textile workshop covering a tunnel that leads to the sewer--if they can't go out the doors or windows they'll get out under the ground. The incredibly bad news: Guillem has the key to that floor hatch. The worse news: The doctor goes rabid and bites the balding guy; it's down to Manu, Pablo and Angela now.
The survivors flee for the lobby so they can find out which apartment is Guillen's and ransack it for the building keys. There's roaring from the upper floors and Manu is attacked by an Asian tenant who got bitten; he snaps the man's neck. When another tenant attacks Pablo and Manu garrotte her and Angela is convinced she was bitten in one of those attacks, but turns out to be all right. When they get to Guillen's apartment, Manu stays outside and the two journalists search frantically through Guillen's stuff until they find a gigantic keyring full of unlabeled keys. They go out to the stairwell and look for Manu, but he's been turned--along with every other character in the movie so far. There's an amazing continuous shot running up the big square stairwell where every turn reveals another screaming rabid infected person running towards the pair of survivors and Angela finds the right key just as the zombies get to the top floor. She and Pablo are safe inside a locked room but it's pitch-black and they don't know where the light switch is.
The movie takes a little breather here after the building catastrophic horror and the application of the Cast Thinner over the last twenty minutes. Pablo turns on his camera light and it turns out that the penthouse apartment has some kind of medical torture dungeon / amateur chemistry lab in it, along with dozens of newspaper clippings about a possessed Portuguese girl tacked to every wall. And it's just not comforting to see so many religious icons and crucifixes in that room. Hell, I wouldn't want to see posters for romantic comedies taped up in that room, for that matter. There's some rooms that no amount of decor accessorizing can help.
The pair look around and dig through the assorted medical files and sheaves of notes but nothing really makes sense to them. They also don't have the weeks that it would take to go through them properly and figure things out. They do find a huge clunky reel-to-reel tape player, but the fragments of notes they hear don't clarify anything for them (people in the audience, however, when hearing about a contagious enzyme spread through saliva and the potential development of a vaccine, as well as the unnamed speaker fearing disaster when he performs a rite to cleanse the soul of a possession victim...well, we get nervous). The man on the tape got a telegram from Rome saying that the girl must be killed, one assumes in order to prevent something like the events in the apartment building over the last few hours.
When a trap door falls down from the ceiling, Pablo gets a shot up there because it's his job (and this movie came up with a great premise for a found-footage horror movie, because the guy with the camera has actual reasons to keep filming when a sane person would already be running away). He scans the room in a slow circle and is just as surprised as the audience when a child screams and swats at his camera, knocking him down and breaking the light. Angela and Pablo have a brief hushed conversation about trying to escape--Pablo can see through the camera with the night vision turned on, and Angela will just have to follow behind him as best she can.
And then the impossibly slender shape in another room starts to come towards them. It's just as blind as they are, groping around for the victims it can't see (but we can, and can see it--this seen will make you squirm like nothing else in the film). The journalists try to escape quietly, but it's a cluttered apartment and they're terrified. Something gets knocked over and the next thing Angela knows she's tripped over Pablo's body, facing the camera as she gets dragged screaming into the darkness. Turns out George A. Romero had at least two fans making movies in Spain--not a single person in the apartment building survives the movie.
And what an incredible job the filmmakers did in realizing their premise. The screenplay had to have been written with the various shots in mind that they could get in their location and heavily revised during filming; the scene where Pablo films through a four-inch gap in the transom window is too perfectly realized to give and obscure information at the same time to be anything but deliberate and carefully planned. The secondary characters don't have a lot to do but panic, get bitten and turn into rage zombies but they do a fine job (and I did like the preening on display from the balding racist; it's a memorable turn and some character-based comic relief in the middle of the crisis that I really appreciated). The exposition dump at the end (with a tape player that reminds the viewer of the first two Evil Dead movies without belaboring the reference) gives just enough hints to what's going on for the viewer to realize just how bad things have gotten without slowing the narrative down or breaking the suspense.
Special kudos to the effects team as well--I'm sure the damage to the camera was all simulated but as the image goes grainier and distortions creep in it helps the tension build in the second and third acts; all their hard work in postproduction meant that the movie is more effective while it's running, and the best praise I can give to their effects are that they don't appear to be effects at all. They're instantly and totally convincing and pull the viewer farther in to the film instead of being a distraction and drawing them out of it.
Lastly, upon reflection, it's the story of a zombie outbreak that didn't happen. Yes, everyone in the building got infected and died (and I don't even want to think about what that creepy ghoulish figure was going to do with Angela when she got pulled away from the camera), but Barcelona is fine and Spain is fine. The authorities, by sealing the building off and condemning the unlucky people inside to an agonizing death, unquestionably did the right thing. You can't argue with results and by the calculus of lives saved versus lives lost, the dozen-plus casualties in the sealed building would have to be considered perfectly acceptable losses.
This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for today’s entry are:
The Terrible Claw Reviews: Rogue
Yes, I Know: Return of the Blind Dead