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MOVIE REVIEW: “ALIVE,” A Zombie Thriller With A Reach That Exceeds Its Grasp

Saturday, February 25, 2023 | Reviews


Starring Ellen Hillman, Kian Pritchard and Neil Sheffield
Written and directed by David Marantz
Gravitas Ventures

Can you believe we’ve finally entered an era of horror when zombie movies seem to be few and far between? Sure, every year we get an Army of the Dead (or if we’re really lucky, a Train to Busan), but we’re already a long way away from the early 2010s blight of endless zombie flicks on the cinematic landscape. It’s almost too easy a genre to tap into, armed faithfully with globally understood drama and stakes built in, regardless of what the specific plot entails. It always boils down to the common thread of something went terribly wrong and we are all going to die before we have time to fix it.

Interestingly enough, the worldwide scourge of the all-too-real virus we have faced over the past few years makes us examine the genre in an entirely different, much more personal light. Making an honest-to-God zombie movie in the wake of recent events is intimidating, which is why ALIVE comes out swinging with a compelling premise and presentation – even if it doesn’t stick the landing.

ALIVE is the directorial debut of UK filmmaker David Marantz, and the basic plot (as best I can figure it) is as follows: A trio of young survivors (played rather well by newcomers Ellen Hillman, Kian Pritchard and Andrew May-Gohrey) venture through the zombie apocalypse, trying to protect the youngest, who has become infected. Along the way, they encounter survivalists, cults and uncontrollable shifts in color temperature.

There is a certain allowance we must make for independent, low-budget films, as they are obviously limited by not only money and resources, but often time as well. However, there is a rather identifiable point when these restrictions stop being minor annoyances and ruin the audience’s immersion entirely. A particularly distracting example is a throughline of awkward foley work that cuts sound effects off abruptly and without warning, preventing soundscapes from fully developing and flowing into each other. Also, audio levels are so overmodulated that the viewer can hear harsh static over the actors’ voices, which is a true shame, as the dialogue is one of the stronger elements of ALIVE.

The script and the majority of the performances are actually rather skillfully done, which makes the film frustrating in an entirely different way. There is a wealth of potential here, even if the material was exhausted long ago. Despite varying success in execution, certain plot developments still managed to shock me, such as the cult of survivors serving an off-the-rails priest (Stuart Matthews) who wants Helen (Ellen Hillman), our 15-year-old protagonist, to procreate with him in the not-too-distant future. Ideas that chaotic throw a live grenade into an otherwise by-the-numbers script. Unfortunately, the filmmaking is not up to snuff, and nothing is ever done with this. Plot threads are forgotten as soon as they’re introduced.

Still, the drama surrounding Helen’s young brother who is slowly turning into a zombie is mostly well handled. In its best moments, the theme of selfish love struggling to prevail in the face of sickness and danger found in ALIVE mirrors the dynamic between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Abigail Breslin in Maggie or Shaun (Simon Pegg) and his mother (Penelope Wilton) in Shaun of the Dead. The leads seem to truly care about each other, which in turn makes us care about them. It’s impressive to see such young performers deliver so convincingly in their first film.

Every zombie film seems to have its own take on what the rules are, and ALIVE floats a novel concept: feeding a recently-bitten person raw meat as a way to deter them from consuming humans. This seems to only work for a short time, but it was a level of creativity I was surprised to see.

The zombies seem very much like an afterthought. It’s not at all uncommon in the genre for the outbreak to serve solely as a motivator for the characters to embrace their desperation and to keep them moving. But ALIVE forgets to add any concrete ideas about why they’ve risen from the grave or what even happens if they attack you.

ALIVE is also a completely bloodless affair, save for a moment or two near the climax. There are many antagonistic people shakily pointing guns at each other, but actual zombie violence is kept to a minimum. There doesn’t seem to be any focus on action at all, which could work in a slower drama, but it just brings to mind the unfortunately likely reality that the filmmakers didn’t have the means to pull off anything too elaborate.

Ultimately, ALIVE is not by any means a memorable or game-changing addition to the long-played-out zombie canon, yet it pulls off some impressively thoughtful character moments and creates a unique enough picture of a world ravaged by disease and murder. I couldn’t recommend the film, but I see an underlying potential in David Marantz. I only hope to see it fully realized with a bigger budget or at the very least, a more balanced script.

ALIVE is available now on major VOD platforms.


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