When is a zombie movie not a zombie movie? “Hesher” director Spencer Susser answers that question with gusto in his 2008 film “I Love Sarah Jane.” The short does have a zombie, and it’s a pretty classic variety of zombie at that. It looks like a zombie, hungers for human flesh and can infect with zombie-ness by biting you. Yet that’s the extent to which “I Love Sarah Jane” conforms to the genre. The cast of healthy human characters, entirely kids and teenagers, are neither running away from an undead horde nor holed up trying to fight them off. It’s a movie in the context of zombies, but it can’t really be considered a “zombie movie,” and that’s part of what makes it so cool.
Susser wrote “I Love Sarah Jane” with David Michôd, director of last year’s Aussie gangster hit “Animal Kingdom.” The two are both members of a collaborative group of seven Australian filmmakers called Blue Tongue Films, of which Susser is the only American. This particular short is also set and filmed in Australia, and stars a young(er) Mia Wasikowska just before heading to the US and break-out stardom. She does a wonderful job as the rough sense of reason amongst younger boys, all stranded in a classically abandoned zombie landscape.
With an atmosphere not unlike that of “28 Days Later,” Susser’s short opens with a young boy riding his bike through a smoky post-apocalyptic suburban community. Overturned cars fill the streets, windows are broken, and all of the houses have been vandalized in this world that seems to have been completely de-populated by the zombie catastrophe. The only ones left are a small group of kids, fending for themselves and keeping a lone zombie tied up in the backyard.
It’s an interesting treatment of some classic themes of adolescence on film, with an undead twist. These kids, especially the oldest boy, take the violence and aggression of their independence out on this undead prisoner without fully understanding the consequences. Susser also introduces the subject of emerging sexuality, as the shy young newcomer to the house finds himself enamored with Mia Wasikowska’s aloof Sarah Jane in the most awkward 13-year-old manner. The short has a lot going on and all of it is articulated in a cool, frank and understated sort of way. It’s exactly the kind of filmmaking that makes great use of this time-constricted form.
According to The Playlist, it seems as if Susser will be adapting “I Love Sarah Jane” into a feature film. While that’s certainly exciting news, I hope that he manages to maintain the depth and originality of this short, a movie in the context of a zombie apocalypse rather than a “zombie movie.”