John Rosman’s New Life opens with a racing heart, blood, and an impossibly contained panic — it’s the kind of rush to sweep us, as viewers, up into its chaos, effectively keeping us as spellbound hostages until credits roll. That is to say, New Life is a captivating achievement.
The film, written and directed by Rosman, follows an unnamed young woman (Hayley Erin) fleeing from a mysterious, biological crime, and a special agent, Elsa (Sonya Walger), working to apprehend the young woman, all while the specter of a medical apocalypse looms. This is a film tough to describe for the way in which Rosman has wound it, brilliantly and spellbindingly — so taught it’s like a gasp caught in your throat. Vignettes of the past, the moments preceding Erin’s young woman’s flight, puncture and punctuate the tension of the present cat-and-mouse chase, working to infuse an already confounding mystery with an even more deliciously delightful thrill. The effect of this is that New Life serves as a masterclass in how to keep audiences on the edge of their seats.
Rosman’s story and Walger and Erin’s performances work in concert to form a film that is a fascinating and deeply enjoyable reinvigoration of the genres New Life melds: medical disaster and zombie thriller. It succeeds as a medical disaster thriller and as a zombie flick by offering a robust story helmed by two characters who are incredibly well written and respected by the narrative, to the effect that it’s impossible not to fall in love with them. With jaw-dropping, striking special effects, and warmth, by virtue of its delicately intricate story and compelling performances, this film is not only captivating, it’s also human in the way it conceptualizes the zombie.
Often, zombie films frame the turning, or the transformation, into a zombie as a loss of humanhood; once a person becomes a zombie, they become something dangerous, lose the ability to love or reason. Or they lean into only one aspect of personhood (whatever is necessitated by the story). By virtue of this loss and attendant exacerbation of only one aspect of humanity, they warrant death, they earn the right to be killed, allowing us to not feel guilty about snuffing out this danger, this being that is unable to live in society. So many of New Life’s predecessors depict an un-ironic and paradoxical fight against humanity, this battle of humans versus zombies, who are us, while New Life seems to almost ask of us that we remember that the transformed being was once a human being; is, indeed, still a person.
Without unfurling much of the mystery at the film’s core, I would like to applaud it for its stunning reframing, near reinvigoration of the idea of the zombie, taking the genre to a new level and sparking potent conversations, because of the manner in which it allows the transformed beings in its story to retain their humanity. Beings in this film desperately cry out for help that never seems to come, even as they become increasingly visually terrifying, morphed so wonderfully by the film’s deft special effects. As Rosman presents his zombies as visual monsters, he also, through his tender tale, searingly reveals the hypocrisy of the paradoxical dance, of the battle of humans against zombies, by showing us deeply lovable characters and carrying their humanity, consciousness, sadness, hope, over to their zombie form. This film’s genius lies in its lingering upon the “monsters” in the throes of transformation, having us watch as they fearfully plead for safety and salvation, beings who, because of their grotesquerie and the transmissive terror they contain, we begin to feel afraid of, we begin to refuse to see as human.
New Life, carried by its leads’ aching and beautiful performances, masterfully tells the story of our paranoia and lack of empathy, our tendency to other, in the face of our own illnesses. As it thrillingly nudges us toward sympathy by depicting in the same breath others’ beating hearts (despite an illness) and our lack of recognition and near rebuffing of them (because of our fear of illness), the film illuminates a deeply compelling and interesting allegory of our times: of our frailty, our fear of ourselves.
This is a tender film, especially as it reframes the zombie, understanding that these used to be people we loved, these were people who could love and desire, and that they still do. This film is not only a successful thriller, it’s also unforgettable and damning, and more than anything, it’s deeply, profoundly human.