The Z-word is never spoken here, but director John Suits and scenarist Dustin T. Benson’s energetic actioner might as well have Zorro’s brand on its forehead given the general premise and scaled-down resemblance to “World War Z” and the “28 Days Later … ” movies. Originality is not a major virtue here, and the decision to go almost entirely with a first-person-shooter-style subjective camera may strike viewers as more of a wearying debit than an identification-heightening plus. Nonetheless, this is a solid if not quite memorable entry in the ever-expanding canon of survivalist undead cinema. Opening in limited release on April 1, it will doubtless reach a wider genre-fan public via home formats when released to VOD and iTunes on April 5.
In the near future, a virus has wiped out most of the U.S. population. It hit so fast that government forces had no time to do anything but retreat into a few heavily guarded facilities, leaving the rest of the population to fend for itself. Society has basically collapsed; those who’ve survived (without yet becoming “Stage 5” cases, which basically equals “fast-moving zombies”) are starving, desperate and violent. There’s no known cure or vaccine yet, although doctor Lauren Chase (Rachel Nichols) was purportedly working on the latter as a CDC lab tech out East before she was called back to Los Angeles. Here, she’s immediately thrown by a no-nonsense presiding physician (Paul Guilfoyle) into a four-person team charged with hazarding the chaos outside a military compound to hopefully rescue a medical unit stranded downtown.
The others, all much more hardened to their fight-or-die duties than the newcomer, are given functional names: Driving their not-very-well-armored bus is Wheeler (Alfie Allen, “Game of Thrones”), a somewhat noxious ex-felon; providing security (though it’s pretty much every man/woman for themselves) is Gunner (Mekhi Phifer), a surly ex-cop. A more sympathetic figure is navigator Denise (Missi Pyle), who like Lauren has lost a child — though Lauren secretly hopes her teenage daughter might still be alive, and is willing to endanger the mission in order to find out. (She’s also got another, even bigger secret that provides a useful plot wrinkle later on.)
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Once they hit the road, the quartet are immediately under assault from variably frantic, deranged and/or cannibalistic citizens, who try different means of luring them off the bus when not simply hurling themselves in its path. Once they reach their planned destination (a shuttered public school) at the midpoint, things go from bad to worse, scattering the crew while reducing its number. Ultimately the focus turns toward Lauren’s determination to save whatever’s left of her family, a quest that unfolds with a few decent upheavals of expectation, if without approaching the tragic grandeur script and direction seem to be reaching for. In the end, “Pandemic” is still just a B-grade (in both budgetary and “better than a C” terms) zombie movie.
It does what it does quite capably, however, maintaining a muscular, splattery propulsion that never descends into campily excessive gore or any other silliness despite the occasional flat line and plausibility lapse. The performances are convincingly poker-faced under hectic circumstances, and the L.A. location shooting does manage to pass off the city as a trashed disaster zone. (No wisecracks, please.) Nicholas Larrabure’s editing and Alec Puro’s electronica-flavored score are MVPs among resourceful packaging elements.
But having nearly all of “Pandemic” ostensibly shot by helmet cameras worn by protagonists in heavy protective gear — with all the motion-sickness-inducing visuals that suggests — frequently makes the near-nonstop action less comprehensible and impactful than it would have been if conventionally filmed. We’ve been inundated with this kind of subjective “immediacy” enough (particularly via video games) that it no longer offers any inherent novelty. Nor does “Pandemic” use it in particularly clever ways, unlike the self-appointed, gonzo last-word-in-first-person-cinema “Hardcore Henry.” So the conceptual decision ends up simply making a fun, disposable movie just that unnecessary degree harder to watch.