Vampires overrun the world. A veteran hunter (Damici) and his orphan teenager apprentice (Paolo) wander between enclaves of survivors, and are harried by both the vampires and a cult, led by the charismatic Jebedia (Cerveris), who believe the monsters are instruments of God’s justice.
The most refreshing thing about Stake Land is that its monsters are proper vampires. There’s none of that embarrassed ‘dark seeker’ nonsense which showed the film of I Am Legend didn’t understand Richard Matheson’s novel, though these bloodsuckers have interesting features. One of the best plot threads is the suggestion (taken from Matheson) that after initial infection, the disease mutates and the monsters get cleverer and more dangerous — so creatures which seemed as mindless and instinctual as the cliché zombie start planning, thinking and talking.
Like The Road, Zombieland, The Book Of Eli and The Walking Dead (to take a recent sampling), this is an archetypal post-apocalypse horror. Its scruffy, energetic, melancholy feel reclaims the form for the low-budget, art-exploitation area where it’s most comfortable (think The Day The World Ended, A Boy And His Dog or Mad Max 2) in an era when comparable films and TV shows have drifted towards the mainstream. This takes pride in its rough-hewn, on-the-road manner, with plot developments that surprise and unsettle precisely because they’ve not been processed through the system of previews or focus groups which try to turn a film about the end of the world into a feelgood experience. Stakeland isn’t a complete downer, but its streak of hope is hard-won and all the more precious for it.
Director Jim Mickle and writer-actor Nick Damici made a Dungeon Break-Out direct-to-DVD debut with the New York City-set rat-man epidemic movie Mulberry Street (more bluntly retitled Zombie Virus On Mulberry Street). Here, they graduate to a theatrical release and the casting of a few select names (Kelly McGillis, missing in action for a few years, makes a surprise return as a middle-aged nun). From their debut, they carry over a blue-collar, practical feel and ambiguous feelings about organised religion (some very nasty people call themselves Christians), but it’s more expansive as it wanders between frontier settlements. It’s to be hoped Mickle and Damici stick around at this level for a while, if only because the horror film needs a flow of 1970s-style indie movies to stay alive.
A vampire post-apocalypse road movie with blood, brains and heart — and not just in the literal, splattered-on-the-screen sense. It’s a good little genre piece, edgy rather than slick, and well worth a look.