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Rick McGrath [Film Festival 10.23.11] post apocalyptic zombies movie review

Year: 2011
Directors: John Geddes
Writers: John Geddes
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Rick McGrath
Rating: 6 out of 10

Exit Humanity is a movie that tries very very hard to be something it isn’t: scary. And that’s probably because this semi-epic look at an outbreak of the undead in post-civil war Tennessee might best be called Enter Sentimentality. Yeah, it’s full of high-falutin’ ideas about how unfair life can be. Unfortunately, it’s also full of melodramatic weeping and wailing, mostly by our regret-torn hero, who endures mental pain and physical anguish but who also sorta lucks out at the end.

Writer/Director John Geddes told his audience at the Toronto After Dark festival his film was a “story of hope and survival”, and he is right – it is an uplifting yarn about a man who loses everything and perseveres against both the living and the undead to create a new life for himself, but unfortunately along the way the zany plot and overblown antebellum diction encroaches to the point where basically we just don’t give a damn, Scarlett. This is trouble, because the last time I watched a character I basically didn’t care about… I didn’t care.

In hindsight Geddes’ problem may be he simply tried too hard to make his point – salvation lies in a moral code – by overdressing his story with philosophic meanderings and underdressing the action, what there is of it. This is partly due to the storytelling technique – a man, in voiceover, is reading from a recently-found and unknown family journal. We split between montages of our hero as the plot is read to us, and action elements where the plot is displayed to us. And even what action we see is further broken up by the visually stunning but attention-sapping technique of breaking the story into chapters – we watch a pen write out the next chapter heading in an ancient journal. So much for whatever suspense there may be. “Retribution” is a tad revealing as a header.

Take the zombies as an example. In many ways, they’re not even necessary to the plot, although Geddes does come up with a new twist on the genre, as these zombies all derive from one woman who becomes one of the undead by way of a dark spell. That’s cool – we see the magical documents – but we’re unfortunately not shown the ritual that completes the process. Is this proto-zombie evil? We’re not told, but we do know she’s pregnant from a gang rape, has attempted to have an abortion, was caught and hanged. Her grieving sister hides out with a woman thought to be a witch, finds the spells, and brings her back to “life” with dire consequences. Is this pro- or anti-abortion? Who knows… it’s just another plot thread left dangling.

The zombies themselves are nowhere near as dangerous as the movie’s live bad guys, who basically represent the evils of capitalism in their psychotic attempts to profit from finding a cure for this zombie “disease”. Nor are the zombies that freaky, as they’re recently created from contact with another zombie and lack the rotted flesh look that comes from being buried for years. Sure, they have the blood-smeared faces and ripped clothes, but these undead can barely totter along through the rough forests – and why are the deep woods of 1860s Tennessee literally crawling with zombies anyways? And why are they all white?

And then there’s the acting. Our hero, Edward Young, is played by newcomer Mark Gibson, and I’m going to give Gibson the benefit of the doubt and surmise his over-the-top performance was fanned by Director Geddes in an attempt to beef up sympathy for this oddly over-emotive yet obviously over-educated dirt farmer (he can read and write). Gibson moves well and looks good, despite his beard (did he look too young clean-shaven?) and he tries his best to add some grace to his cumbersome script, but his personality – nerdy introspective -- just isn’t that appealing. His fate is almost Dickensian: he loses his wife to zombies early, then later has to track down and kill his zombie son. On his way to scatter his son’s ashes at a waterfall he has to kill his longtime horse. I was happy he didn’t have a dog. Or a pickup truck. Even obsessively writing about his misadventures in his journal doesn’t assuage his grief and pain, and basically for the first third of Exit Humanity we watch him cry uncontrollably over his bad luck and scream intensely at the sky. By the time the plot actually appears, it’s tough to scrape up much empathy for a guy who melodramatically wails about as much as Calculon on Futurama.

The rest of the crew also must struggle with their characters. Bill Moseley is the evil General Williams, and he’s more silly than scary, with his gang of idiots, clanging sword, field uniform and dreams of riches thru discovering a drug. Stephen McHattie plays the General’s drunk doctor, Medic Johnson, and he managed a few guffaws from the audience by answering nearly every question with a series of mumbling grunts. Fortunately, he always works on females. The obviously professional Dee Wallace plays Eve, the witch who starts all the mayhem, and Jordan Hayes is competent as Emma, the story’s ultimate salvation. Adam Seybold is great as Emma’s brother, Isaac, perhaps the only character with a winning personality, and Ari Millen and Jason David Brown are convincing as the General’s evil yet even more evil accomplices.

Exit Humanity was made for very little -- $300,000 is the number I heard – but much richness is added by the movie’s landscapes and the delicate, sensitive camera of cinematographer Brendan Uegama, who artfully captured the early Autumn countryside around the Ontario, Canada, town of Collingwood. Dense woods, waterfalls, valleys, rivers – the story slowly flows through a monochromatic, bleached-out landscape that somewhat reflects the inhumanity the movie attempts to project.

Also noteworthy is Geddes’ use of animation to both save money on complex shots and add some visual excitement to the story. Colin Berry and his staff deserve congrats for some very sophisticated visual effects work.

Also integral to the experience is Brian Cox, whose dulcet tones basically explain all to us as an ever-present voiceover. While I’m not a fan of narration – I’d prefer to learn the story from the action – Exit Humanity is structured in such a way that both the plot and observations about the plot work best as a sort of history lesson.

I’m going to say Exit Humanity is a kind of ungainly experiment. It’s not really a combination of Western and Zombie flick – is Tennessee anyone’s idea of the wild west? – but more of a study of men on the edge of survival and the choices they make twixt good and evil, which in this case is love vs capitalism…. although even that is muddy, as the original zombie was created out of misguided love. Not a movie I’d see a second time, and one which might be better entitled “Enter Humanity”, given the thick layer of sentimentality that clogs the exits.

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