Hal Masonberg’s independent horror movie “The Plague” is a decent genre entry, right up to the last few minutes when everything goes to hell in a hand basket, and instead of an actual ending, the audience is treated to some New Age mumbo jumbo about fear and how if you don’t feel fear your fart doesn’t stink. Or some such. While it’s true enough that most movies can stand a little improvement, it’s terribly disappointing how quickly “The Plague” goes from being a good, solid genre thriller made on a budget to something incredibly insipid. Dying, as it were, with an inane whimper instead of zombie exploding goodness, which would have been preferable for these types of movies.
Our film opens with every child in the world under 9 years old falling into a coma — a sort of limbo state, where their bodies continue to function, but their minds seem devoid of consciousness. Fast-forward 10 years later, as we follow recently paroled ex-con Tom Russel (James Van Der Beek, all grizzled and muscled up and as far removed from “Dawson’s Creek” as he could possibly get) back to his small home town. No sooner does Tom’s ex-wife Jean (Ivana Milicevic), who is also the town doctor, spurns his offer of reconciliation that the comatose children wake up — zombiefied!
While it’s never clearly established if the kids are in fact zombies, they certainly act like it. At various points, their faces are even painted white to give them that nice zombiefied touch that all zombies must have. And of course they eat their victims, which doesn’t really make sense. Or actually, the zombie kids only eat their victims early in the film, but later they start “delivering” them from life with some kind of holy ritual — after which they either eat the victims or mutilate them. How else to explain why some victims are left whole and others are viciously eviscerated? If it’s not obvious by now, the zombie elements of “The Plague” are amusingly inconsistent and puzzling.
For the most part, Masonberg’s “The Plague” offers up solid genre entertainment. A beefed up James Van Der Beek makes for a good laconic protagonist, even if his character doesn’t end up doing a whole lot when all is said and done. In service of character development, Masonberg and co-writer Teal Minton allow for 20 minutes or so of dramatic tension at the beginning of the film, as we watch Van Der Beek’s Tom re-adjust to civilization after his prison stint. His disastrous attempt at reconciliation with wife Jean, his re-acquaintance with drinking buddy Sam (Brad Hunt), and most notably, his awkward re-insertion into the life of his big brother.
But of course this is a movie about zombies, and once the character stuff is dealt with, we have to get to the killing and running and last standing. (These movies always invariably end up with survivors making a last stand in a building of some sort.) The revived zombie kids seem to have some type of hive-like consciousness, as can be evidenced by the “whispery talk” that fills the soundtrack whenever the kids get together for some adult eatin’ and killin’ fun. Having been in a coma for the last 10 years, one supposes that they might have forgotten everything (except that whole kill the adults part, I mean), thus they are forced to relearn. So when one of them learns how to use a gun, the others learn as well. So in theory, all kids around the world would start attacking the adults with their bare hands before graduating to guns and C4 explosives.
“The Plague” mostly works, at least until the confusing final Third, when things go from “pretty good” to “Jesus, what were Masonberg and Minton thinking? This thing is going down faster than Anna Nicole Smith chasing after peanut butter cookie crumbs!” By which I mean “The Plague” becomes something beyond what it should have been, and does the one thing that genre pictures should never do — it strives for something substantive. There is ambition and there is the impossible; a movie about kids that wake up from 10-year comas and become zombies should not strive to be deep.
To give Masonberg credit, he does make honest attempts to flesh out his characters. In the film’s early parts, we get a sense of who these people are, which makes it easy to care about what happens to them later in the film. As well, the script avoids the one major pitfall of the genre — it doesn’t offer cardboard stereotypes as characters. For example, while the town sheriff shows some opposition to Tom’s parole, he isn’t the Odious Bad Guy with a Badge that many authority figures are in these movies; also, teen characters Kip and Claire are not mouthy smartasses, but are instead thoughtful and honest in their emotions.
My advice to genre fans would be to watch “The Plague” up to the moment when Jean engages in an improbable shootout with two zombie kids tasked with guarding a bridge. At this point, you should simply turn the movie off, because what follows will only dilute what you’ve enjoyed so far. Trust me when I say there’s nothing else to like about “The Plague” from this point on. Why someone would make a genre movie, about kid zombies, and then turn it into some meditation on life and death and fear and cosmic checkers is beyond me.
Hal Masonberg (director) / Hal Masonberg, Teal Minton (screenplay)
CAST: James Van Der Beek …. Tom Russel
Ivana Milicevic …. Jean Raynor
Brad Hunt …. Sam Raynor
Joshua Close …. Kip
Brittany Scobie …. Claire
Bradley Sawatzky …. Nathan Burgandy
John P. Connolly …. Sheriff Cal Stewart
Dee Wallace …. Nora