LIFF 2011: EXIT HUMANITY review

There are some ideas it's hard to see how people could possibly screw up. Take horror (as in the supernatural) in the middle of a war zone. You've got potentially limitless subtext, the nightmares soldiers and civilians go through literally brought to life, and yet John Geddes' Exit Humanity fails to wring a single minute of drama out of any of it, let alone actual scares. With a Confederate soldier Edward Young (Mark Gibson) struggling to survive as the living dead crop up in the middle of the American Civil War, his family devoured and the natural order collapsing Geddes seems to want his story to say something, but he can barely even manage 'Man is the real monster', let alone 'Oh, the humanity'. Technically inept, artistically overstuffed, bafflingly overwrought and unintentionally hysterical its cast and crew are clearly trying pretty hard, but virtually none of it comes to anything.

The opening is a worrying indication of how little self-awareness the director seems to have. A mish-mash of hand-drawn animation, flashbacks and grim shock tactics, you assume it was meant to be a grandiose statement of intent. There's the hapless Edward's memoirs introduced by Brian Cox, all gravelly, sepia-toned weariness; the dead attacking a terrified Confederate platoon surrounded in a barren, windswept autumn forest; the repeated portents of doom culminating in confirmation that yes, the undead did turn poor mister Young's family, and now he's all alone after having to put a bullet through his son's brain. Edward sets out to take his son's ashes to the waterfall he promised the boy they'd visit, and (understandably) looks like he wants to end it all shortly after that, but things don't turn out that straightforward.

All of which sounds solid enough, but the utter lack of restraint floors any chance the film has of making an impact almost right from the off. The absence of any real budget's bad enough; people have done more with (presumably) much less, but Geddes simply isn't up to papering over the threadbare production values. The initial battle scene never feels like anything more than an enthusiastic bunch of Civil War recreationists doing a Halloween special, and it only gets worse from there. There's no sense of place, nothing that grounds the hero's story with any impression of how the rest of the country is reacting. There's barely any dynamics to the pacing - all the melancholy brooding is pitched at the same kind of emotional level as the action scenes. There are times it feels as if Young's just gone nuts, running around in the wilderness convinced everyone's a zombie .

The pitiful script doesn't help - Gibson emotes manfully in the lead, Cox is reliable as ever and horror icon Bill Mosley as General Williams, a Republican commander trying to rule over his own little slice of the apocalypse manages a couple of moments of something approaching actual pathos. But Geddes peppers the dialogue with so many anguished screams from Young it's bordering on farcical. Every new outburst comes across as part flaming camp, part maniacal solemnity. Are we meant to find Williams' incompetent doctor (Stephen McHattie) funny because his puzzled grunting makes him sound like one of the zombies? After seeing  Geddes pull off a rising crane shot without a hint of irony as Gibson drops to his knees bellowing with grief you're never quite sure.

None of the contortions the plot goes through carry any kind of weight. The animated interludes look laughable - the idea anyone can see a cartoon Young riding his horse ragged through a crowd of the undead and not think 'Oh, look, they were so hard up they had to film their storyboards' is baffling. Young's efforts to overthrow Williams are tedious at best - when all Gibson gets to do is yell or crack juvenile one-liners, and Mosley's stuck with canned villainy that's long since gone off, who cares which of them lives or dies? The Civil War backdrop is pointless - if you don't see much of anything beyond a few extras falling over in some random Canadian backwoods, why bother with the setting at all? And if you're not meant to take it all that seriously why throw in not one, but two painfully literal explanations of what the title means?

There's still plenty of mileage to be had out of zombies, same as any other cliché. A good director can work miracles with a film no matter how hackneyed their material. There's just nothing here to make anyone think Geddes is much of a good director. It's not that he hasn't put the effort in, or that he doesn't care about the project. The air of road-weary dignity about the film suggests  he'd like to think of it as Fulci by way of John Ford. But while it hurts to fault someone for aiming too high, Exit Humanity doesn't convince either as an epic or a gore-soaked genre piece. It's cramped, cheap, hackneyed, ridiculously melodramatic and not frightening in the slightest. If Geddes dials back his vaulting ambition perhaps he could deliver something worth watching in the future, but as it stands unless you're that interested in seeing yet another poorly conceived cinematic trainwreck crash and burn, Exit Humanity is impossible to recommend.

(Exit Humanity was screened at the 25th Leeds International Film Festival, which ran from 3rd-20th November 2011.)
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