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A Neglected Zombie Apocalypse Narrative Lacking Depth


Alive's lack of passion makes it easy to overlook the charm typically found in low-budget horror.



Feb 2, 2024


Many films considered titans of the horror genre came from incredibly low-budget projects: Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Evil Dead (1981), The Blair Witch Project (1999), and Paranormal Activity (2007) were all made on budgets that are dwarfed by most films today. In horror, a lack of funds does not necessarily mean a lack of quality. Of all the genres movies are known for, horror possesses a unique and powerful ability to establish a deep connection with its audience without having to do much.

The reason that horror can make such a connection is in our biology and evolution. Over millions of years, humans evolved survival instincts to protect us from danger like animal predation. This instinct is driven by one universal emotion in all humans: fear. Fear is a cornerstone of our biology. No other emotion except fear can motivate us to form social groups, create new technologies, and even build civilizations. Fear is also the most accessible and reliable human emotion. Bad actors in the media, in politics, and consumer societies rely on fear to manipulate our thoughts, cast our votes, and buy their products.

Horror filmmakers are exceptionally aware of (or, at least, they should be) how easy it is to access our fears. Legends of the genre, like John Carpenter, accessed our fears by obfuscating scenes to fire the audience's imagination and make them question the shadows. This is why low-budget independent horror films can be so compelling; the special effects in billion-dollar movie franchises can never invoke the fear of a terrifying story and a darkened corner shot the right way.

Sadly, Alive (2022), written and directed by David Marantz, foregoes these fundamentals and ends up being a production that lacks value unrelated to the budget. Alive gives the viewer the impression that it came into being because a community theater troupe was spontaneously interested in making a zombie movie. The end result is a disjointed, unprofessional mess that hopefully was at least a fun weekend for some of the younger actors. Before covering the film's shortcomings, let's cover where it exhibited at least some value: writing and cinematography.

Marantz demonstrates good narrative ideas, even if they are somewhat derivative. The film's story focuses on Helen (Ellen Hillman), a teenager caught in the zombie apocalypse, accompanied by her boyfriend, Kevin (Kian Pritchard), and her little brother, Barney (Andrew and Daniel May-Gohrey). Helen's primary motivation is ensuring the survival of Barney, who has been infected by the zombie. Alive's plot has heavy overtones of 28 Days Later (2002), I Am Legend (2007), Warm Bodies (2013), and The Walking Dead (2010). Marantz combines narrative tropes from these influences in a way that is as interesting but only slightly more than the source material.

The film's opening introduces at least eight possible protagonists before Helen becomes the primary focus. If audiences can get through the frustrating start, they will feel invested in a mildly compelling story focused on Helen. The focus on Helen makes it easier to endure the film in the second act. Still, it finishes on a narrative low note that disposes of a pillar of the zombie genre and deflates much of the previous tension. The narrative proves to be the film's best part, even with these problems.

Neil Sheffield and Ellen Hillman in Alive (2023), Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

Cinematographer Tom Allen does his best to support Marantz's story with a washed color pallet rooted in dark greens and sepia undertones. These choices complement the emotion of the scenes, making Alive somewhat enjoyable to look at. Unfortunately, the camera work is inconsistent, especially in the later acts. Marantz uses noir shots with heavy shadows to save on backgrounds and avoid inflating the budget. This means that the audience must watch the actors in close-up static shots against black backgrounds, which is very noticeable. This use of obfuscation works in some scenes, but it quickly overstays its welcome and becomes overbearing. The camera angles multiply rapidly in the film's action scenes, making these scenes difficult to watch.

As turbulent as the camera work is, the actor's performances are weak and lack emotion. The zombies are unbelievable, with many extras just walking like normal humans going to their cars to retrieve their phones. The actors display no confidence in their delivery or characterization. Gillian Broderick, as Lucy, delivers a few good moments, but these only stand out because she displays a basic competence missing in the performances around her. The director and cast needed to take more risks. There is more potential beyond the performances on display in Alive.

Issues holding the movie back were more than just the performances. Alive’s technical production was amateur at best. The audio engineering was terrible. Towards the film's end, a microphone track is laid only for the left channel, which completely ruins the scene. There are disembodied heavy breathing sounds in other scenes, which could have been a zombie, only there were none on the screen. It can only be attributed to a sound boom operator unknowingly leaving a microphone on and neglecting his cardio at the gym. Some of these issues, especially the one-channel sound error, could have been fixed in post-production, but they weren't. It raises the question of whether the filmmakers even watched their own film.

Alive is a film that lacks any charms audiences look for in low-budget horror projects like this. It just doesn't work, and the narrative potential, which one can only assume motivated this group to make this movie, remains safely locked away. Despite interesting cinematography, Alive lacks execution, motivation, and inexcusable neglect. Even the infamous Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957) was unintentionally entertaining at some points; Alive could only hope for such heights.

Note: A previous version of this review appeared on on 4 Apr 2023.

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