I got into an argument with someone who made the mistake of telling me they thought that the book World War Z was stupid because it was just a bunch of people whining and there were hardly any zombies in it at all.
(No, I haven't seen the movie. No, I have no plans to do so.)
What I told this person was that that was exactly what made the book so good - that it wasn't about zombies, it was about people. All of the best stories - the most horrifying and the most inspirational - are about the people in extraordinary circumstances, not the circumstances themselves. Zombies, especially as they're portrayed in contemporary film, are basically a natural disaster. What makes a natural disaster into a compelling story isn't the spectacle of the disaster itself (maybe at first, but it's hard to sustain over a whole story), it's how the disaster affects and changes the people caught in it. In fact, I think this is good advice for horror movies in general: Keep people first as much as you can. The more we understand, identify, and connect with the people in the film, the more the things that happen to them (and the things they do) will evoke a response. A "scare" isn't a "scare" because of staging, lighting, or effects. It's a "scare" because it represents something about to happen to someone in whom we are invested enough to care about their outcome.
Salvage is a small-scale, intimate siege story populated by well-rounded characters, and the results are generally quite good.
We open on a quiet neighborhood somewhere near the English seaside, and it's all pretty domestic - a boy delivering the morning paper, a father and daughter driving to grandmother's for Christmas Eve, milk bottles on doorsteps, everyone knows everyone else. It all seems nicely bucolic at first, but then you notice the cracks - a couple arguing violently in a foreign language, the father's dropping off his daughter at her mother's house and she doesn't want to go, the paperboy gets spotted by the arguing couple and is forced to abandon his bike to flee into the woods.
Everyone's too busy with their own problems to pay attention to the news story about the mysterious cargo container that's washed up on the nearby beach, and as their personal dramas escalate, nobody notices the soldiers now patrolling their streets.
The Crazies, 30 Days of Night, Splinter, or [REC]. The basic feeling is that the outside is hostile - people who leave their homes die in bloody, horrible ways, and men with guns are keeping people from going anywhere. It's not clear exactly what it is, but people from the community are turning up dazed, covered in blood, holding weapons, and their loved ones are dead in their homes.
Between the rapidly mounting deaths, the isolation, and the pervasive uncertainty, Salvage is a deeply tense movie. Part of that is because ultimately, the horror and the violence isn't just confined to one force or antagonist - there's the violence inherent in whatever is threatening the neighborhood, the violence used by the military sent in to contain it, and the violence that naturally emerges from human weakness and frailty - both physical and emotional. There are conversations and arguments and decisions in this movie that are as painful to watch as the physical attacks, and it works because the people feel like actual people, with feelings and histories and flaws and virtues, conveyed through simple pieces of dialogue, little behaviors, looks on faces. "Show, don't tell" is almost a cliche, but things like the pictures a person has displayed on their mantel, the way they fiddle with their wedding bands, the way their faces fall or light up, all of these contribute to a sense that these are people with whom we might share a life or a community, and that connection helps us feel their triumphs and failures intensely. In a situation where those triumphs and failures concern basic survival in the face of something (or things) killing off everyone around you, everything is stretched unbearably tight.
It also helps that the movie is made with a sure touch, without being showy - first, it's economical. It all takes place in a fairly small area, and some apparently little background details from early on come back toward the end in ways that reinforce just how quickly things went to hell in this sleepy little neighborhood. There's very little physical movement for most of the movie, mostly the protagonists trying to find ways to get outside or to move from one house to the other. Just trying to get across the street is a dangerous proposition. Second, it's unsparing. The violence is sudden, visceral, and horrific. Injuries are awful, deaths are worse, and we aren't given much distance in either case. People scream and cry and choke and bleed out, and everyone reacts just as badly to it as you or I would. Heroism and action in this movie isn't pretty. Third, it's willing to play with our expectations. Nothing is what it seems, and as the characters' understanding of the situation changes, ours does too. Even our own meta-understanding ("oh, they think it's this, but since I know I'm watching a horror movie, I know it's really this other thing") changes. Some moments feel a little choreographed, like "something scary is about to happen…yep, there it is," but others manipulate that sense of expectation, reverse it or add one more beat to it that catches us off-guard. All of this reinforces the idea that these people - these people for whom we come to feel first distance and contempt, then sympathy and compassion - are caught in a world turned upside down, where nothing is certain and death is bloody and swift. The focus on the people instead of the circumstances gives everything more weight and impact.
It does have its weak moments. There are a couple of highly improbable escapes - though to the movie's credit, a character I expected to swoop in and save the day never showed up again - the explanation we get for the event that kicks the whole thing off is a little unfocused and that robs the revelation of some of its impact, and although there's not an overuse of practical effects, what we do get is just cheap-looking enough to undercut its effectiveness somewhat. To the extent that there is some misdirection employed in our understanding of what exactly is going on, the truth ends up being sort of anticlimactic. I appreciate the narrative ambition, but I wish they'd stuck the landing a little better. But these aren't deal-breakers. This is a taut, deeply human story about loss, regret, and our attempts to make things right cut short in howls of grief and rage.
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