Part of the Spanish horror renaissance of the early 21st century, this outstanding exercise in sustained dread was beaten to UK / US release by two other “found-footage” zombie films (THE ZOMBIE DIARIES and DIARY OF THE DEAD) but, despite its modern approach, is closer in cynical spirit and relentlessness to Romero’s original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. The sexy front-woman of a reality show called “While You Sleep” accompanies two firemen on their nocturnal rounds, hoping for ratings-friendly drama but, after responding to a call about an old woman in distress, ends up trapped within a large apartment block just as it plays host to the beginnings of a highly contagious zombie-like virus. Claustrophobically confining its outbreak to a single location, [REC] cannily reworks the story dynamics of NIGHT, as the fraught, gradually depleted characters argue with and blame each other for the unfolding crisis rather than joining forces to boost their survival chances; like the Romero film, it also boasts a creepy-assed zombie kid for a sequence to rival the matricide set piece in NIGHT. Often breathlessly suspenseful, the film offers only fleeting glimpses of crowd-pleasing gore, instead devoting its energy to capturing the sense of a dire situation spiralling horribly out of control. [REC] really comes into its own during a harrowing final 15 minutes as the heroine and her cameraman venture up to a hitherto sealed room, learn the origins of the virus and swiftly realise, via the camera’s night-vision function, that they’re not alone. The closing sequence, in which the audience and the cameraman can see the shuffling grotesque ghoul in the room with the heroine (but she can’t), is truly the stuff of nightmares.
[REC] 2 **** Spain 2009 Dir: Jaume Balaguero / Paco Plaza. 80 mins
In the two year gap between [REC] and its sequel, it had already been remade by Hollywood (see below), but [REC] 2 immediately put that in the shade. A rare horror sequel that begins right where the previous movie left off and finds fresh angles on the material, it is split between the perspectives of a SWAT team who enter the apartment building in search of blood (and, thus, an antidote) from the apparently possessed young woman responsible for the escalating contagion and a trio of errant youths who break into the building just as all holy hell is unleashed. The returning dual directors rely on familiar horror sequel shtick, including the rebirth of the original heroine as a shotgun-wielding, ball-busting survivor figure, and the re-use of the most memorable “monster” from [REC] for a night-vision-enhanced climax. The movie’s genius, however, is the way it pulls the rug out from us in a startling fashion as soon as we think we know where it’s heading. Everything great about the 2007 movie (the brilliantly unnerving sound design, inventive use of the first-person-camera format, the judicious use of gore) is present, but the extension of plot points only sketched in the original allows the franchise to move away from the then-familiar post-28 DAYS LATER virus territory into more chilling post-modern EXORCIST stylings, complete with blaspheming, demonic kids. Like its predecessor, its real triumph proves to be the final reel, as the overwhelming sense of dread reaches its apex with another nightmarish venture into the Medeiros girl’s room, this time building to a jolting twist offering the prospect of the infection running amok in the outside world.
[REC] 3 : GENESIS **** Spain 2012 80 mins Dir : Paco Plaza.
Paco Plaza, co-director with Jaume Balaguero of the first two [REC] movies goes solo (as did Balaguero for REC 4) for an inventive departure for the franchise, pulling off the bold feat of subverting our tonal and stylistic expectations of a [REC] sequel while still feeling like it belongs in the series. Forsaking the relentlessly intense tone of its predecessors, REC 3 revels in knockabout black humour, cheer-worthy gore and running gags but still doesn’t lack for sincerity. It also cheerfully trashes the found-footage format that was the foundation of the franchise, its wedding party HD Shakicam early footage – shot by a teenage amateur videographer – abandoned when the lad’s voyeuristic camera is destroyed as what appears to be a standard, embarrassing drunk uncle turns out to be a disease-carrier. [REC] 3 subsequently turns into a lush-looking, widescreen 35 mm movie – while still incorporating clever detours into found footage territory – with slick camerawork and strong production values. Feisty bride Leticia Dolera (who’s terrific) battles the growing armies of the infected while desperately searching for her new husband – all the while with the ominous CDC-types closing in on the escalating mayhem. The gore set pieces are uproarious (particularly a chainsaw massacre transforming Dolera into one of Zombie Cinema’s great blood-drenched heroines) and the witty script cleverly sets up incidental details – like an elderly man’s hearing aid – that pay off much later in the story. The gags, including a low rent Spongebob Squarepants entertainer and the hero’s transformation into a damsel rescuing knight, put some fans’ noses out of joint, but they never undermine either the effectiveness of the central threat or the well played, surprisingly moving love story at the core. The bleak ending returns the franchise to the Romero-inspired cynicism of its beginnings, albeit with an unashamedly romantic fade-out.
[REC] 4: APOCALYPSE *** Spain 2014 Dir: Jaume Balaguero. 95 mins
Manuela Velasco makes a welcome return to the [REC] franchise as the reporter whose terrifying plight started the whole series with the original, 2007 [REC]. This unfolds within the same 24 hour period as the previous three movies, with Angela (Velasco) rescued from the apartment block carnage and the Barcelona wedding massacre of the more light-hearted [REC] 3 referenced in the dialogue. Like [REC] 3, it’s mostly told in conventional third-person widescreen format, but this time takes place on an oil-tanker used by the authorities as a “precautionary quarantine” and home to secret testing of a retro-virus using infected blood retrieved from the apartment block. A lab monkey infects a Filipino chef and the virus, which spreads like a parasite and looks like a relative of the creature from THE HIDDEN, is soon running rampant. Sadly lacking the sustained terror of the first two movies – and the inventive gore of the third – the fourth movie opts rather lazily for a more generic, though enjoyable, zombie-style-virus-on-a-boat approach, complete with frenetic action scenes and a 20 minute countdown to auto-destruct. The genuinely interesting possession element established in the first two movies is played down in favour of an all-too familiar parasite hopping from host to host, and the story even wastes the returning heroine in a reactive reprisal of her once-feisty character. It’s not dull, and there is some suspense along the way, but there’s none of the intensity of the first two films and the APOCALYPSE promised by both the title and the ending of [REC] 2 is notable for its absence. Worst of all, it bows out with an embarrassing CG effect that looks like something out of a Sy-Fy Channel movie and proves to be the biggest mis-step in the whole [REC] franchise.
QUARANTINE **** USA 2008 Dir: John Erick Dowdle. 89 mins
Those that can’t – or refuse – to read subtitles were well-served by this faithful, proficiently frightening American remake of [REC], which duplicates the look and feel of its predecessor, recreating all of its major scares and set pieces while coming up with a few frissons of its own. The Americanised central characters – notably Jennifer Carpenter as the young TV presenter following an L.A. fire-crew – are charismatic and it’s refreshing to see Hollywood diverting from the usual American horror trend of having the heroine transform into a ball-busting warrior princess a la BUFFY : Carpenter falls instead into an understandable state of sustained hysteria. Director Dowdle, who got the job on the strength of the barely released but bone-chilling found footage serial killer shocker THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES (2006), does a fine job of emulating the intensity of [REC], making equally effective use of an unforgiving soundscape. The recreation of the original’s masterful finale does not dilute its power, offering Doug Jones as the terrifying, emaciated infected-thing. Sadly, in a typically brain-dead Hollywood touch, the trailer for QUARANTINE gave away the very last shot of the movie!
QUARANTINE: TERMINAL *** .USA 2011 86 mins Dir : John Pogue.
Unlike [REC] 2, the sequel to the American QUARANTINE breaks the virus out from the apartment block and offers a variation on FLIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, as a stock bunch of disaster movie characters (pregnant woman, fat guy, flirty flight attendants, old guy with Parkinson’s) end up in an emergency-landing situation before being quarantined at an abandoned terminal with the authorities ominously lurking outside…and what is described as “some fucked up people-rabies” spreading inside. As with both its predecessors, this straight to DVD sequel presents the “officials” containing the threat as just as much of a hazard as the infection itself, though QUARANTINE 2 creates its own virus mythology, revealing it as a man-made creation of a doomsday cult : in a stand-out moment, one of the cult members cheerfully insists “Earth could use a good plague” before injecting the antidote into his eyes. The movie ditches the shaki-cam found footage approach of its predecessors, but this decision renders the feral-infected somehow less effective: they were more frightening when only fleetingly glimpsed during panicky wobbly camera shots. Director Pogue makes the mistake of semi-reworking [REC]’s classic night-vision sequence, but otherwise does an efficient job. Regrettably, a sub-plot involving lab rats masquerading as “hamsters with tails” inadvertently plays out like a horror movie remake of the immortal “Basil The Rat” episode of FAWLTY TOWERS!!