Starring Angelique Rivera, Jake Cannavale, Sarah Yarkin
Written by Mike Herro, David Strauss
Directed by Rodman Flender
Kicking off this year’s SCREAMFEST is Rodman Flender’s (IDLE HANDS) adaption of Jeff Hart’s book of the same name: EAT, BRAINS, LOVE. A zombie comedy that oddly lacks two of the words in its title. No romance (unless you count completely superficial) and a severe lack of brains. But it does have eating. A lot. So I’ll give it that.
After succumbing to a zombie virus that only occasionally renders its host feral, popular gal Amanda (Angelique Rivera) and self-medicating douchebag Jake (Jake Cannavale) spend their lunch hour ripping through the necks, faces and intestinal tracts of their fellow schoolmates. Understanding what they’ve done (and showing nary an ounce of sorrow for it), the mismatched duo set off on a road trip while evading a shadowy government organization and their telepathic soldier named Cass (Sarah Yarkin).
If that sounds like a rollicking good time, well, I guess it could’ve been. The premise does make for a mile-a-minute journey of occasional comic violence and grisly effects, but it’s also one fraught with narrative potholes, uninspired characters and a kitchen sink mentality that’s as disorganized as it is barren of ingenuity. The end product feels like an R-rated rehash of WARM BODIES (yet devoid of actual chemistry) mixed with the devil-may-care attitude of ZOMBIELAND. Both predated EAT, BRAINS, LOVE (book & movie) and their inspiration seems quite apparent. But where those concepts actually attempted something unique (though I disliked WARM BODIES), EBL lacks anything that would give it a personality.
While the gore is on practical point, EBL is ultimately undone by its slipshod script and unbearable cast of clichés. Jake and Amanda undergo no growth as characters and have no discernible redeeming qualities. By the end (which barely qualifies as an actual ending), both are the same as when they started—terribly unlikable. When Jake eviscerates his best friend, he maintains the sentience to know what he’s doing and even makes a crack at his screaming, thrashing compatriot’s expense. Having only been zombified for barely a day, Amanda chews the head from a rodent’s body and then repurposes the bleeding torso as a microphone for karaoke. After debating the moral high-ground each should consider when killing (sex offenders), Jake and Amanda willfully butcher an innocent husband simply because he annoyed them. While their antics are all played for laughs, the majority of the schticks just aren’t humorous and are often cringey to say the least (as in, the lip-synching moment described above). The problem with this is that EBL wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants its hero and heroine to collectively perform audacious acts, but at the same time, doesn’t want either perceived as the villains.
Herein lies the reason good stories don’t utilize a formulaic cheerleader and a formulaic stoner as their go-to templates for central figures. At their base level, they’re just not interesting. Can it be done? Of course, if the script allows them to have actual personalities beyond the parameters of social hierarchy. But the majority of the time, as in instances like EBL, this is exactly the reason said typecasts are relegated to the background and/or the first to be killed. They don’t have the depth to last a feature runtime and quite simply, are annoying to endure. While Angelique Rivera at least encapsulates the role of an entitled high school queen, Jake Cannavale’s performance as Jake Stevens is weak. I get it, he’s a stoner. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have to try. Every line is spoken in a monotone droll devoid of emotion as if he just read his dialogue for the first time—and consequently—they just went with the first take. I’m not sure if it was due to decree of direction or personal preference, but no matter the severity of a given situation (regardless of whether he’s high or not) he always maintains the same form of rhetoric and facial expressions of someone just waking from a nap.
All of this goes the same for Cass, the telepath. She verbally asserts her qualms with the “evil” intentions of the zombie-culling agency and their leader, but has no issue mocking the gut-muncher’s victims (as depicted in her first scene), has no problem misdirecting her cohorts from Jake and Amanda (as they kill indiscriminately) and takes zero responsibility for her actions—even when they result in the loss of life. Yes, when guiltless blood is shed, Cass’s supposed “epiphany” occurs, but it’s not so much an arc as it is a petulant child being caught for indiscretion by a disappointed parent. Amidst all of this, we’re supposed to root for she, Jake and Amanda? We’re supposed to be against “Bow Tie” and his goons? Why, exactly? Normally, there needs to be something the audience can empathize with, but as simple stereotypes and nothing more, there’s zero reason to be invested in anything Cass, Jake and Amanda do beyond watching how low each can fall on a scale of affability.
These characterization issues are also the result of a script that appears to have avoided any quality assurance. From scene-to-scene, it’s as if the rules and continuity were completely ignored. Early on, during the initial scene of cafeteria carnage, a character with a Go-Pro attached to his helmet rolls in handing out fliers for his missing dog. Later, Amanda and Jake realize the bloodshed they caused when they watch the footage of the attack via playback on his camera. The problem? Said Go-Pro character wasn’t present during the rampage. He only saw the corpses afterward. So how exactly was this recorded? The big bad uses a mind-controlled zombie to infiltrate a house in pursuit of Jake and Amanda. Moments later, the same zombie is thrown back out the way he came in—to which the very antagonists that sent him in exclaim “Is that one of them?” (Jake or Amanda) Why would it be? it’s literally the mutated human you were just standing alongside seconds ago. Both the zombie traits and Cass’s powers are mildly described early on (lots of exposition) but don’t remain consistent as the film progresses; they just keep fluctuating depending on whether the screenwriting demands it necessary to progress the scene. Late in the film, two characters secretly invade a top-secret facility. Moments later, the nameless henchmen now equipped with firepower storm in after them. How were they alerted? One character is held hostage in a cage. But the cage has been placed with its open backside against a window . . . so why doesn’t said super-powered captive break it and flee? These are just a few examples, but the amount of disconnect sequences equivalent to these just reinforce the slapdash nature of the entire film.
With that said, I think it’s agreeable that narrative depth isn’t exactly what the filmmakers were going for. As a crass, mindless comedy—some of EBL works thanks to its sheer momentum, total disregard for proper plotting and one or two jokes that actually land. If you’re in the mood for an undead distraction before ZOMIBIELAND 2 arrives, EAT, BRAINS, LOVE might satisfy a quick and dirty craving, but you might just be hungry an hour later for something far more substantial.