Predicated on the idea that whiplash pans, inconstant focusing and other faux cinema verite embellishments can refresh even the moldiest of zombie-movie tropes, “Quarantine” is a modestly inventive, sporadically exciting thriller that nonetheless proves too faithful to its central conceit for its own good. Based on the 2007 Spanish-produced “Rec,” the pic sacrifices coherence with its vertiginous approach, yet managed to shake out $14.2 million over its opening weekend from those hungry for horror. Whether auds remain under its power is the question.
Working from a well-structured script he co-wrote with sibling Drew Dowdle, director John Erick Dowdle (“The Poughkeepsie Tapes”) deceptively dawdles over the opening scenes as reality TV reporter Angela Vidal (Jennifer Carpenter) and her cameraman, Scott (Steve Harris), ingratiate themselves with their latest subjects, firefighters Jake (Jay Hernandez) and Fletcher (Johnathon Schaech).
The pace quickens only slightly when a 911 call leads the firefighters and two LAPD officers — and, of course, Angela and Scott — to a small downtown apartment building where an elderly resident is found covered in blood and breathing erratically. Unfortunately, she’s not nearly as fragile as she appears: Without warning, she attacks one of the cops, ripping away a huge hunk of the poor guy’s throat with her teeth.
A bad situation soon worsens as the luckless folks inside the building find the complex has been sealed off by the Center for Disease Control and various heavily armed military types, as whoever turned the old woman into a flesh-eating marauder is highly contagious.
Ratcheting up the suspense, helmer Dowdle unfolds the action more or less in real time while presenting everything from the p.o.v. of Scott — or, more specifically, his video camera. (Think “Cloverfield,” writ small.) “Quarantine” relies heavily on shadowy atmospherics and cheap-but-effective shocks, while the infection slowly but surely decreases the number of non-zombies in the building.
Fortunately, the bogeymen can be pounded into submission, or killed, with blunt instruments. Pic’s highlight is a shocking, hilarious scene in which a zombie is beaten to a bloody pulp with the omniscient video camera.
Unfortunately, Dowdle goes overboard with the fake-reality-TV excess, dashing the camera hither and yon so frenetically that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to keep track of who’s where, and how individual characters might be interconnected emotionally or spatially. By the time Angela is flailing about in the darkness of an attic lab, her frenzied gestures may produce giggles, not shivers, from a sensory-overloaded aud.
Even so, perfs are credible across the board. Harris gets minimal screen time, but still manages to limn a compelling character. And considering the limitations imposed by the storytelling gimmick, pic’s ending — not unlike the finale of “The Blair Witch Project” — is surprisingly satisfying. (It might have been even more impressive had it not been excerpted in the theatrical trailer.)
Credit d.p. Ken Seng’s HD lensing and Jon Gary Steele’s production design for raising the creepiness quotient.