By Jamieson Pearce
Directed by Christoph Bell
Eyelashes. The most luscious I’ve ever seen. This is what will stay with me from Christopher Behl’s 2013 zombie-drama What‘s Left of Us. Every time (and there were many) the camera lingered in meaningful close-ups, my gaze could focus on nothing else but that dark, dense curtain framing her eyes. One flutter would surely produce as much energy as that of a dove’s wings.
As you may have guessed, this particular zombie film isn’t your usual pulp & gore offering. And, rest assured, it has more to offer than a voyeuristic appreciation of Argentine eyelashes. It tells the story of Axel (Lautaro Delgado), Ana (she of the eyelashes Victoria Almeida) and Jonathon (William Prociuk) as the last people on earth. A twisted love triangle emerges as the threesome are forced to remain cooped up inside their makeshift home. It is this human drama that the film explores. How and why this apocalyptic scourge has come to Earth is not addressed. The opening scene provides us with the only glimpse of the outside world in the entire film. From behind, we see a female zombie amble forward before she is suddenly shot down. The female gunman is also shown from behind. Director Christopher Behl often frames his characters like this, producing a wonderful sense of unease and predation that continues throughout the film.
Inside the house, the three survivors have formed rules and rituals to govern their existence. They can only go outside in pairs; for each zombie they kill they write a name on a wall; any new decision must be unanimous; and in their Big-Brother-esque video-diary room, all the tapes they record are stowed in a locked container, not to be viewed again. This space allows for a semblance of privacy in which Axel, Jonathon and Ana reveal their thoughts and feelings. It’s a useful device that allows the audience to get to know them, given there is not much plot to speak of. Jonathan is the rational, clear-headed male, while Axel is the surly, brooding male. Ana is the more vivacious female, providing a welcome dose of colour, literally and figuratively; her red polka-dot blouse stands out in the otherwise bleak colour palette of greens, greys and browns.
Time is measured through the increasing expanse of flies tattooed on Axel’s arms that gradually spreads over his entire body. Once his body is covered, he tells us, he will leave the house, providing the only forward motor in the plot. Axel’s camouflage correlates with his increasing animalism. He prowls the house, lurking in corners, watching Ana like prey. His behaviour causes a rift in the group, which is exacerbated by the capture of actual prey. Returning from one of their excursions, Axel and Jonathan bring home a zombie (Lucas Lagré) as prisoner. While Axel literally uses the zombie as a boxing bag, Ana searches for remnants of humanity within the aggressive creature. She names him Pythagoras.
Christopher Behl skilfully creates a sense of claustrophobia. The sound design of What‘s Left of Us is excellent. The original title for the film in Spanish is “˜The Desert’, and the sound design conveys, in what must be among the greatest challenges for a sound designer, a sense of emptiness. Flies, that are audible and visible from the first second of the film, gradually increase. The dry, raspy breaths of Pythagoras signal danger. But the impending explosion never comes. Instead, Axel and Ana fixate on the zombie. They take to staring into his eyes, seemingly looking for an answer. What separates them from the zombie? Are they disintegrating into a similar state? At this point, it seems that the film arrives at where it wants to be. Through a strange romance of shared video-recordings, Axel and Ana become more intimate. Perhaps it is their ability to love and be loved that separates them from the zombies. But are they still able to do so?
There are several questions that the film seems poised to explore, but it never really gets into any one element with gusto. Behl has listed directors as varying as Truffaut, Haneke, the Dardenne Brothers and George Romero as references for What‘s Left of Us. This assorted list is reflected in a film which is part romance, part drama, part thriller, part zombie. I’m all for genre-muddling, but it’s a tough balance to strike, and at the end of the film I found myself wanting more of…something. Ultimately though, the film does deliver as a mood-piece. The performances, though heavy-handed at times, are moving, and the film provides an unnerving portrayal of human isolation.
Watch ‘What’s Left of Us’ at FilmDoo now (UK & Ireland only)