“Extinction” is basically a surprisingly effective chamber drama that happens to involve bloodthirsty blind albino zombies. Instead of following the easy camp route many recent lower budget zombie flicks take, it uses apocalyptic horror elements in order to examine how a handful of characters completely isolated from society can survive and hang onto their sanity while their minds are eaten alive by tedium, fear, and paranoia. It’s part of a rare breed of horror film that manages to create three-dimensional characters and puts them in situations with relatable psychological and physical conflict, while not forgetting to satiate the expectations of genre hounds with just enough gore, zombie action, and creative creature designs.
A majority of “Extinction”s first two acts are about the complex relationships between three characters holed up in the small, snow-covered all-American town of Harmony, almost a decade after a zombie apocalypse has turned the world into a desolate wasteland. Co-writer and director Miguel Angel Vivas must have realized that a zombie-less first hour of his zombie movie might not be the best approach to appease fans of the genre, so he opens the story with a pulse-pounding and terrifying 12-minute prologue featuring a bunch of zombies attacking a bus full of people in the middle of nowhere.
This cold open is a refreshing departure from recent examples of the genre. It doesn’t bother with any back-story exposition in order to lazily bring the audience up to speed. We don’t get any jerkily edited montage of fake news reports about a “devastating outbreak” intercut with blog posts flying into the audience’s face. Nor are we hit with an awkwardly over sharing text crawl accompanied by forced and heavy-handed narration. Vivas drops us in the middle of the conflict from frame one, allowing us to easily forego the reasons behind the imminent apocalypse and focus on the specific plight of the characters. All we know is that these people are trapped on a bus, and that something terrifying is lurking outside.
This prologue also works as a short film that budding horror filmmakers should study on how to effectively increase tension. Sure, the placements of the jump scares for when the zombies eventually attack are easy to predict, but the steady rise of tension and the gradual dissemination of information is actually what scares us, not the quick, bloody climax of the scene. By the time shit hits the fan and the inside of the bus resembles an organ farm, we’re scared not because of the stylized violence and gore effects on screen, but because we’ve been allowed to feel the terror rising up within the people on the bus and can relate to them beyond what we would feel for generic zombie fodder.
Among the few who manage to make it out of the bus attack are Patrick (Matthew Fox) and Jack (Jeffrey Donovan), long-time friends who immediately save a woman and her baby girl from the battle. The baby is fine, but the mother has been bit. There’s a hard choice to be made. Cut to eight years later, Jack is essentially the father of the baby, now a curious and warmhearted young girl named Lu (Quinn McColgan). Jack raises Lu with a strict schedule of survival training and general education, managing to construct as normal a life as possible for her in a world that has completely crumbled. Meanwhile, Patrick lives in a house next door to Jack and Lu, but he might as well be hundreds of miles away. Forbidden by Jack to ever interact with Lu for reasons that are gradually revealed through efficiently paced flashbacks, Patrick’s only companions are a loyal dog and a sinister imaginary voice from his radio. It’s safe to say that he’s gone a little bit cuckoo over the years.
The peaceful status quo of the three-person town is shattered when Patrick stumbles upon a mutated version of the zombies from the prologue. While the creatures we saw at the beginning were basically humans with relatively light make-up work, a-la the infected in “28 Days Later,” the new and improved zombies have pale skin, are blind, and can only navigate via improved hearing. Yes, their design is essentially a rip-off of the pale man from “Pan’s Labyrinth,” but I have to admire the filmmakers’ reliance on practical effects while creating these monsters.
That way, at least we don’t end up with the “Looney Tunes” CGI creatures from “I Am Legend.” What I also like is that we don’t get any explanation as to what these monsters are, or how they became this way. I’ve been calling the antagonist force in this film “zombies” for lack of a better word. They’re just there, they’re extremely dangerous, and that’s really all we need to know.
The arrival of the new threat forces Jack and Lu out of their comfort zones while pushing Jack and Patrick to face some of the demons from their past. We’re meant to believe that Jack is the responsible father figure while Patrick’s some sort of a monster for whatever he did in the past. But the gradual reveal of the characters’ back-stories unravel a more complicated scenario. Yes, what Patrick did was bad, but it shouldn’t make him ineligible for eventual redemption. We get the feeling that Jack would become just as insane if not for his responsibilities for Lu. Perhaps he comes from a more selfish viewpoint, Lu represents his only connection to a normal life and he’ll hang onto her no matter what.
The third act brings back the core genre elements as we get a rather predictable siege by the creatures on Jack and Lu’s home, with a dramatic decision made by a character that can be foreseen from a mile away. However, what makes the ending stick is the inclusion of a crucial cut to flashback during the climactic moment, one that brings the emotional journey of the characters full circle. “Extinction” is far from a horror masterpiece and doesn’t really bring anything entirely new to the genre, but it’s a solid zombie survival flick that takes its characters seriously and doesn’t condescend to the audience. [B+]