It’s a long, slow death for nine unfortunate refugees in “Aftermath,” an often tedious but clammily atmospheric end-of-the-world thriller set in the wake of a nuclear holocaust. The fate that awaits this gaggle of temporary survivors is as grim and unsurprising here as it is in countless other low-budget horror knockoffs of its kind, and neither the thinly drawn characters nor the murkily lensed action sequences rise above the routine. Still, director Peter Engert does conjure and for the most part maintain a suitably hellish mood, aided considerably by a murky color paletteredolent of nausea, cancer and death (courtesy of d.p. Scott Winig). The pic opened July 18 in limited release.
An audio montage of news reports spell out the premise over the opening credits: A string of political assassinations in the Middle East has ushered in the outbreak of World War III, and humanity’s days are decidedly numbered. The story proper picks up somewhere in northeast Texas, where a conspicuously computer-generated mushroom cloud sends young doctor Hunter (C.J. Thomason) into a storm cellar with several other desperate souls, barely clinging to what remains of life. Huddled together in this shadowy underground bunker, they tend to each other’s wounds, dole out meager rations and await a cruelly protracted demise by radiation poisoning, the film steadily marking their progress as day after painful day passes.
Not everyone is prepared to go quietly — least of all the redneck whose sudden, belligerent outbursts make him the most dangerously unpredictable member of the group and by far the most irritating (even though he’s played by the under-employed Edward Furlong). Still, even he doesn’t entirely escape our understanding by the end, and there are enough sympathetic faces among the rest, among them Thomason, Monica Keena and “The Wire’s” Andre Royd, to supply a measure of goodwill, if not exactly a rooting interest. As these characters waste away (their radiation-induced wounds made manifest by Rip Odebralski’s special makeup effects), you don’t root for them to survive so much as die as quickly and painlessly as possible.
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Which, in a sense, sums up the primary achievement of “Aftermath.” Treading territory well covered by everything from “Night of the Living Dead” to “The Road,” Engert’s film is fairly ineffectual as character drama and pretty dismal as action. Christian McDonald’s screenplay remains curiously noncommittal on the question of whether there really are radioactive zombies afoot; suspense is nonexistent, and the climactic fight sequence is marred by incongruous, momentum-killing freeze-frames. Still, as an exercise in sustained claustrophobia, the movie is not without its grisly accomplishments. Its effectiveness lies not in those moments when its characters are struck down without warning, but rather in the lingering sense that death has slowly, quietly taken up residence among them.