Next month, Paramount will release “Paranormal Activity 4,” and if the elliptical trailers are any indication, the filmmakers are doggedly sticking to the found footage aesthetic that has made them spookily huge amounts of money on the three previous films. But the faux documentary format is wearing old very quickly, and what seemed so fresh more than a decade earlier with “The Blair Witch Project” (and intermittently since, on movies like J.J. Abrams‘ monster mash “Cloverfield“), is turning into just another cliché in a genre already littered with them like so many bloody body parts. Thankfully, “[rec] 3,” the third in the series of popular Spanish zombie movies, wisely dispenses with the tropes that made it such a smash in the first place. The results are liberating; what could have been a stale retread is instead a lightning-pace horror comedy that seems destined for rowdy cult status.
Initially, though, things adopt the found footage model. When the movie begins, it appears to be a wedding DVD, the kind of schmaltzy souvenir that’s all the rage these days. Thanks to the tacky montage we’re brought up to speed on the relationship of the soon-to-be-married Clara (Leticia Dolera) and Koldo (Diego Martin), a young couple that seem achingly in love. From the DVD we cut to the actual wedding, where a whole host of professional and amateur videographers are capturing every moment – there’s everyone from young cousin Adrian (Alex Monner), who is filming on his little HD video camera, to the professional wedding photographer Atun (Borja Glez. Santaolalla), who claims that you need a “little Renoir” when splicing together footage of the happy couple. Then, at the wedding reception, all hell breaks loose.
The previous two films in the ‘[rec]‘ series took place in an apartment building on consecutive nights after the start of a zombie outbreak that might have spiritual (demonic) overtones. In the first film, the footage was captured by a local television crew who were doing a story on night jobs and happened to follow a team of firefighters to the doomed building, while in the second film we followed the night-vision cameras of the SWAT team who entered the building after most everyone had already been gobbled up. (We should pause and note that the first film was remade in the U.S. with very little additional creative juice under the bland title “Quarantine.”)
Supposedly the events of “[rec] 3” happen parallel to the events of the first two films and as such follow a completely different narrative path. So when Koldo, in a fit of rage and anxiety, and separated from his newly minted wife, takes Atun’s camera and smashes it to the ground, it seems like an act of defiance – “[rec] 3” is it’s own movie, damn it! The moment feels triumphant for a different reason too, because it’s the only time a character in one of these movies has questioned why another camera is still filming and actually done something about it. This wry meta-textual knowingness is part of what makes “[rec] 3” so much fun to watch. When the camera breaks, near the 23-minute mark, the movie shifts to a more traditional format, and at that moment you can feel every member of the audience who suffers from motion sickness quietly slipping their travel-sized package of Dramamine back into their bag.
The rest of “[rec] 3” fits snugly in the madcap realm of the horror/comedy genre, a genre that isn’t indulged in as much as you’d think it would be, mostly because it’s a tonal landmine, full of potential missteps. Thankfully, “[rec] 3” never makes such missteps. It sets up the dynamics of the struggle well – the married couple are desperate to reunite, amidst the zombie chaos, and survive to live happily ever after. (If they find out more about the possible demonic origins of the zombies, since weddings, especially in Spain, are draped in Catholic mysticism, so be it.) Survivors are introduced and quickly dispatched but vividly sketched in their brief time on screen – there’s a character known as “John Sponge,” who wears a SpongeBob SquarePants knock-off costume, and another character who crashed the wedding to make sure the music being played was properly licensed (the rest of the characters refer to him as “Royalties”).
It also helps that Dolera and Martin are such charismatic leads. When we’re first introduced to her, Dolera, with her embroidered veil draped atop her head and her raven-colored hair cut into a severe bob with just-as-severe bangs, she looks like the Virgin Mary as doodled by Tim Burton, the embodiment of a kind of heavenly ghoulishness. By the time, in the movie’s heavily Sam Raimi-indebted third act, she wields a chainsaw to shorten her wedding dress (in a nifty flourish the chainsaw cut shows off her garter belt, the perpetual symbol of future weddings), it seems less like a natural progression than fucking destiny. The fact that we’re still rooting for Dolera and Martin to get together (and survive) is a testament to the emotional soundness of the romantic comedy at the heart of “[rec] 3.”
Director Paco Plaza co-wrote and co-directed the first two ‘[rec]’ films with collaborator Jaume Palaguero, working exclusively within the format since late 2007, which makes his leap to a more traditional narrative form even more impressive. Plaza and his confederates could have continued, with great profitability, to repeat the formula. Instead, Plaza chose to expand the scope of the ‘[rec]’ universe and create something genuinely fresh and new, a bold and brazen comment on the found-footage genre and a supremely entertaining horror comedy. Zombies need fresh flesh to survive. So does the horror genre. And right now the found footage genre is looking pretty rancid. [B]