Most zombie movies with a modicum of artistic ambition—and this is one of them, right down to never mentioning the word ‘zombie’—use the supernatural antagonists as a device to examine what people are capable of in extreme situations in which the sheltering structure of civilization has been stripped away.
The latest in a recent run of well-conceived female protagonists in horror cinema, Lucy Walters plays Ann, a woman who begins the film eking out a survivalist’s existence out of a campsite in a North American forest. Through a series of flashbacks, we discover that she’s in this situation because of a virus that has turned most of humanity into ravenous monsters. At the epidemic’s onset, her woodsman husband (Shane West) had decided to bring her and their infant child to the forest he had grown up around. In the present-day sequences, however, she’s conspicuously alone, a discrepancy that goes a long way towards explaining the tragic air that hangs over her determined yet resigned daily routine. That routine includes trapping food, fetching water, getting what nightmare-stricken sleep she can in the car beside her campsite and, occasionally, venturing into a zombie-infested farmhouse that contains tinned supplies. Eventually, however, that routine is interrupted by the appearance of pouty teenager Olivia (Gina Piersanti) and her stepfather Chris (Adam David Thompson). The trio begins to form a bond born of necessities practical, social and psychological but, as we all know, human beings are generally more unpredictable than zombies.
Most zombie movies with a modicum of artistic ambition—and this is one of them, right down to never mentioning the word ‘zombie’—use the supernatural antagonists as a device to examine what people are capable of in extreme situations in which the sheltering structure of civilization has been stripped away. In other words, they’re far more interested in people than they are in the beasties. First-time feature director Rod Blackhurst and writer David Ebeltoft take that approach to the extreme here, making a zombie movie in which the supernatural element is almost entirely absent. The film is more than half over before we get our first proper glimpse of the creatures. This is Ann’s story first and foremost, complicated later by the introduction of the new characters. What makes this film special is its focus on a positive aspect of post-apocalyptic social restructuring: the practice of human beings risking their necks to help each other. Where so many other post-apocalyptic/zombie pictures put human depravity, selfishness and betrayal front and center in their non-supernatural character interactions, Blackhurst emphasizes Ann’s essential decency throughout. Shattered by her nigh-on-unbearable circumstances, she still finds it in her not just to survive but to help others do so. Given weight by Walters’ deeply felt and moving performance, Ann is the film’s narrative, emotional and moral anchor. Despite the terrible situation and depressive mood accentuated by stark cinematography and an ambient soundtrack of constant rain punctuated by faraway screeches, Here Alone manages to avoid a complete descent into cynicism. That is not to say that the film doesn’t contain betrayals or, for that matter, one or two tense action setpieces that don’t necessarily have uplifting outcomes. However, for all its elegiac overtones, this is not a story that leaves you feeling entirely in the dumps about our status quo as a species. Much of this is down to Walters’ superlative work, which I hope we get to see more of in the near future. I should add that I don’t mean to undersell Blackhurst who does an admirable job of stripping a tired genre down to its essential elements, reminding audiences what made it vital in the first place.