In the beginning there was the long, drawn-out stalk of George A. Romero’s undead, a mindless meandering informed no longer by intellect, only by time-worn habits collected during a pedestrian life. Of these slowly-creeping, vacant-eyed and purple-blue skinned beings, Peter (Ken Foree) in Dawn of the Dead (1978) says: “They’re us, that’s all. There’s no more room in Hell. […] When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth.” And walk they do. What these zombies lack in speed they more than make up for with their voracious and instinctive hunger for human flesh. That is, until Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) comes along and infuses these walking dead with blood-red ire and speed like boiling water. Boyle’s zombies are perhaps more frightening than Romero’s because Boyle renders them closer to us.
Today, the prevailing image of the zombie is that of a sprinting and screeching being, harboring only our worst and basest animal instincts and none of our goodness. Zombies mindlessly and endlessly hunt, encrusted in blood that’s their own and their victims’. It is into and informed by this culture of zombies that Latin American director Gustavo Hernández — whose prior work includes La Casa Muda (2010) and Silent House (2011) — unleashes Virus: 32, a zombie flick that, like Romero’s and Boyle’s before it, redefines and refines what a zombie is.
In keeping the zombie movie mainstays introduced by Romero of a killer score (which is rock-ified by Boyle), and by Boyle of kinetic camera work, Hernández pays homage to his predecessors. Hernández has finessed his films’ own kinetic cinematography over the years, with the mesmeriszng and disorienting tracking shots of La Casa Muda that are carried over into Silent House, a single-shot masterpiece. He also builds off his predecessors’ work, introducing his own intricacy, a new element that takes the zombie flick to the next frontier: Virus: 32 infuses its racing undead with a balletic agility and a calculating mind. In other words, Hernández brings the dead closer to us than ever before.
The first 10 minutes of Virus: 32 are a whirling single-take drone shot, tracking the nascent stages of a mysterious virus’ spread in a residential building in Montevideo, Uruguay. Iris (Paula Silva) gets ready for work as an overnight security guard at a sports club, taking breaks to smoke weed with her roommate and to take swigs of rum, until her eight-year-old daughter Tata shows up with her overnight bag. Iris has forgotten she agreed with her estranged husband to watch Tata. With no other childcare option, Iris decides to take the girl with her to work. It emerges rather indirectly and wonderfully subtly that the small family is fractured after the accidental drowning of their 10-month-old son a few years prior, after which point Iris, plagued by guilt, ostracized herself from her daughter and husband, suffering mentally — it is for this reason that Tata is more comfortable with her father and is reluctant to spend the night with Iris.
As mother and wary daughter make their way to the sports club, the camera roams overhead, catching glimpses of people running in confusion and fear, of cars stalled, some on fire, while others continue their day as usual, hanging laundry out to dry or going off on dates. Montevideo teeters on the brink of apocalypse. At the sports club, Iris makes her usual rounds locking up as Tata plays, all as the undead along with those wanting to survive make their way past the bulwarks of the labyrinthine club. As Iris is cornered into a room by a zombie, separated from her daughter, she tells Tata over a walkie-talkie to barricade herself in the boiler room. She watches the club’s live CCTV stream to determine the best route to her daughter and survival. Iris learns that for a span of 32 seconds after one of the infected has made a kill, they enter a fugue state, they’re unresponsive and incapacitated. Iris utilizes this information to her advantage as she makes her way to Tata, and along the way encounters Luis (Daniel Hendler) and his pregnant, infected wife. Luis promises to get Iris to her daughter if she first helps his wife give birth, which Iris reluctantly agrees to. The film follows the macabre trio – infected, wheelchair-strapped, pregnant wife wanting to eat the baby in her belly, the delusional Luis who believes maternal love will save his unborn child, and the bewildered Iris, whose trauma of losing one child is compounded as she loses track of her daughter in face of voracious, fast, and calculating monsters lurking and lurching beyond every turn — as they race toward survival.
The most spectacular aspect of this film is the grace about the infected. They move with an agility we’ve not yet seen, they’re balanced — not flailing or tripping — on their feet as they creep through a room in which the uninfected are hiding. One infected in particular watches the CCTV footage as Iris does to determine where the uninfected are, pursuing them thereafter with a calculating capability that is totally Hernández’s original addition, only becoming like Romero’s dull undead for the 32 seconds when they are incapacitated. The zombies here kill with the kind of menace that the mutants in I Am Legend (2007) or the strigoi in 30 Days of Night (2007) possess. It’s a truly stunning and captivating addition to the canon, what Hernández creates, and certainly ups the ante, giving the zombie movie a much-needed refresh.
But a new type of zombie isn’t this film’s only compelling aspect. At its core, the film is about motherhood, particularly a complex, “bad” motherhood. It’s about a mentally-ill mother, a mother who doesn’t want to be a mother anymore. Iris personifies this complex, culturally unsavory motherhood. She has scars on her wrists, she tried to kill herself after her baby died, but this is not to say she doesn’t love Tata; of course she does, in that all-encompassing, self-sacrificial way that parents have. But Iris is also afraid, she feels guilty about letting her baby die so she keeps herself away from Tata, why she drinks too much and gets high often. And now, with the undead in the sports club, she wonders whether she can keep her only child alive, even though she wants to more than anything in the world, if she failed the first time. Iris embodies a kind of motherhood we don’t often get in horror movies, which is why it’s so captivating to watch in Virus: 32. Silva plays Iris’s confusion in face of tragedy well, we can see her brain working to determine how to keep herself and her daughter alive as her eyes scan her surroundings helplessly.
Iris’s complexity isn’t writ large in the film, or talked about ad nauseum, rather it’s something that undergirds scene after scene, is revealed in gasps throughout Hernández’s script and Silva’s deft performance. In the beginning it’s in her aloof and apprehensive movements about Tata, her jovial manner that is too-much, contrived, like so much gesturing to distract from visceral heartbreak – Tata would certainly remind her of her other dead child. And later, when all hell breaks loose, we see her complexity surface in her drive to survive even as she weeps and wails and is afraid that she will fail, again. In this way, Hernández’s subtle storytelling is like Alfonso Cuarón’s style of filmmaking, which sees narrative as a hostage of cinema, as opposed to seeing cinema as beholden to narratives, to unrelenting, belabored, expository dialogue. Hernández’s lens moves about Iris as her backstory unfurls at its own pace throughout the film, which gives the plot its texture and infuses it with urgency as things become dire, which keeps audiences cerebrally engaged until the credits roll. This is much like the way in which Cuarón’s lens frenzies about Clive Owen’s Theo in Children of Men (2006).
Hernández’s long takes, his spinning lens also is instrumental in placing the viewer right at the epicenter of apocalypse, as it spreads, amplifying the sense of dread we feel as Iris tiptoes amongst zombies, as she counts down the 32 seconds until they return to their horrifying selves. Hernández firmly places Virus: 32 in conversation with the best of the best of zombie movies, while also taking the conversation to the next level by focusing on a mother, picking the story up perhaps where Dawn of the Dead left off with its pregnant Francine (Gaylen Ross) flying a helicopter away from the zombie-infested mall. But it also deals with questions of lineage, of the survival of humans, that 28 Days Later and Children of Men sparked, through the baby born to Luis’s wife in the midst of catastrophe, through its image of women carrying on in face of annihilation. All these are worthwhile questions sparked by these previous movies and whose answers Virus: 32 toys with, carrying on an engaging conversation, all as it gives us a new generation of zombies: smart, agile, and even faster than Boyle’s.
Iris’s story carries all these delicious aspects wonderfully, particularly because it’s so refreshing in a zombie movie, but also because Silva does a stellar job of articulating the rawness and newness of much of what Iris would feel in a situation unlike any other she’s experienced, a zombie apocalypse. The film seems unafraid to throw our most aching experiences into the zombie fray, moments when we are already so vulnerable and confused and like exposed wounds, it ups the ante on these, prods them with a ragged, rusty blade, endangering its protagonist further, exploring what she, we might do. It’s unafraid to explore how Iris’s psyche reacts and frays to horror upon horror in the midst of general collapse. And it has a killer score to boot.
You simply cannot miss Virus: 32, a refreshing work of horror that is a worthy successor to all our favorites because it gives us the most terrifying zombie yet: one most like ourselves.