The most disturbing moment in any zombie movie is often the opening scene: that first chilling jolt of revelation that former live human beings have gone murderously off their rocker. The all-time scariest zombie scene? I’d still vote for the graveyard prologue of “Night of the Living Dead” (“They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”), which in hindsight heralded the creepy grandeur of the entire genre. In “Cell,” the most unsettling scene — sadly, it’s the only unsettling scene — is certainly the opening, when John Cusack is in the Boston airport talking on the phone to his ex-wife, and suddenly he looks up and sees…an orgy of insanity. One after another, people are having seizures, and then they start to attack each other, with bare hands or weapons (a cook comes at Cusack with a kitchen knife), or to attack themselves (a girl smashes her teeth against the wall). The fact that they’re all literally frothing at the mouth makes the scene a de facto rip-off of David Cronenberg’s “They Came from Within,” but as long as the action holds you, who’s complaining?
It doesn’t hold you for long. Some may object to my use of the word “zombie” to describe anything other than people who are officially dead coming back to life. So let’s be clear. I’m using zombie in the colloquial way that means: people who skulk around in a brain-dead frenzy, attempting to kill you as if they were…you know, zombies. (Got it?) Cusack, trying to escape, ducks into the airport shuttle, where he finds a handful of survivors along with the shuttle driver (Samuel L. Jackson). The moment is supposed to be a respite, but it actually seems more unhinged than anything that’s come before, because no one even says a line like “What’s happening?” or “Why are people frothing at the mouth like zombies?” This may be the first zombie picture in which the apocalypse is greeted with the non-pulse-raising shrug of viewers discussing last night’s episode of “The Walking Dead.”
Watching “Cell,” no one’s pulse will be raised, since the film is about as close as you could get to a generic low-budget undead thriller. It’s based on a 2006 novel by Stephen King (who co-wrote the screenplay), but the film reduces the book to its bare bones, so that there’s not much in the way of King’s mood, or any other kind of mood, as the characters lope from one safe house to the next. The direction, by Tod Williams, is draggy and disorganized, and that’s a shame, since Williams has shown talent as a filmmaker. He made the very scary “Paranormal Activity 2” (2010) and, before that, the very humane “The Door in the Floor” (2004), a high point in Jeff Bridges’ middle-aged career. But “Cell,” as a movie, barely seems to have a reason for being. Nothing onscreen may prove to be quite as scary as the opening-weekend grosses.
What the movie does have — wait for it! — is a metaphor. Every zombie film needs one, and in this case the wave of skulking murder has all been triggered, somehow, by cell phones, which Stacy Keach, as a private-school headmaster who takes in our heroes, calls “the devil’s intercom.” That sounds like the seed of a promising idea, but we never learn how the technology is transmitting its evil signal, outside of some momentary babble about the zombie hordes being telepathic: a vague stab at tying them to the ominous interconnectivity of the digital age. There is a certainly a place — in fact, there’s still a calling — for a truly great horror movie about the siren song of technology. But “Cell,” which lurks about 20 years behind the perceptions that drove a film like “Ringu,” doesn’t summon much more than Keach staring out over the mass of zombies as he solemnly intones, “They may be the next stage of human evolution.” That’s a line right out of the 1950s. It’s a maraschino cherry of thought placed atop a flavorless zombie pie.