SXSW Film Review: ‘Mayhem’

Equal parts corporate satire and violent melodrama, this indie with attitude is an exuberantly gonzo thriller.

Steven Yeun, Samara Weaving, Dallas Mark Roberts, Caroline Chikezie, Mark Stewart Frost, Kerry Fox, Lucy Chappell, Steven Brand.

If you can imagine a multi-movie-mashup of boardroom suspenser, “Die Hard” redux and zombie apocalypse — well, too bad, director Joe Lynch and scripter Matias Caruso have already beat you to the punch. “Mayhem,” their rousingly gonzo thriller about the violent commingling of infectious disease and corporate malfeasance, is a smartly constructed and sardonically funny indie with attitude that somehow manages the tricky feat of being exuberantly over the top even as it remains consistently on target.

The opening minutes briskly establish the B-movie premise, as a cable-newscaster explains the growing threat of the “ID7 virus,” a mind-twisting, id-unleashing scourge that drives the infected to such unseemly extremes as uninhibited public fornication, high-decibel screaming matches, and, in some cases, rage-fueled slaughters. (“Basically,” someone helpfully explains, “human dignity takes a sick leave.”) Attorneys for the corporate law firm of Towers & Smyth Consulting manage to clear an accused killer by arguing that ID7 made their client temporarily unable to control his actions. But in a classic case of chickens coming home to roost, the virus is discovered in the firm’s high-rise headquarters, leading to the imposition of an eight-hour quarantine — and, as the infection spreads, an inexorable escalation of seriously bad behavior.

Derek Cho (Stephen Yeun, late of “The Walking Dead”), who does double duty as protagonist and narrator, is the right man in the wrong place at the worst possible time. After being framed for making an expensive error that’s damaging to one of the firm’s biggest clients, Cho is brutally rebuffed when he complains to his immediate superior (Caroline Chikezie) — who, of course, is really the one who made the bad call. But before he can plead his case to the firm’s ferocious CEO (Steven Brand) in the top-floor boardroom, the outbreak begins and all hell breaks loose.

Cleverly redefining the term “damage control,” “Mayhem” mixes savage satire of ruthless capitalism run amok with the bloody carnage normally associated with movies about rampaging undead hordes. Call it “Margin Call Goes to Hell,” and you’d be pretty close to the mark.

Joined by Melanie Cross (Samara Weaving), an outsider who gets caught up in the chaos while visiting Towers & Smyth to dispute a foreclosure notice, Cho makes slow, steady progress in his floor-by-floor ascent to the boardroom, in a manner that suggests a relentless avatar in an M-rated videogame. It helps a lot that he and Cross have been exposed to ID7, rendering the pair sufficiently unrestrained and enraged to efficiently wield found objects — nail guns, screwdrivers, power saws, whatever — as weapons. On the other hand, they are repeatedly impeded by crazed employees and thuggish security personnel, all of whom are revved up by the $450,000 bounty the big boss places on Cho’s head.

Yeun and Weaving generate beaucoup rooting interest as they cut a bloody swath through the dark side of corporate culture and spark a high-voltage sexual tension that leads to a gleefully spirited payoff. For all the grievous bodily harm their characters cause, they remain engagingly sympathetic, providing useful counterbalance for the purposeful overplaying by, among others, Chikezie as a silkily villainous conniver known as The Siren, and Brand as the CEO who insanely amps the effects of ID7 with his customary intake of recreational drugs.

“Mayhem” keeps the pedal to the metal throughout its lean-and-mean 86-minute running time, allowing few opportunities for any catching of breath or scoping for plot holes. Somewhere down the line, it would indeed be amusing to see it on a double bill with “Margin Call.” Or, perhaps better still, “Office Space.”

Popular on Variety

SXSW Film Review: 'Mayhem'

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Midnighters), March 15, 2017. Running time: 86 MIN.

Production: An Avva Pictures presentation of a Circle of Confusion, Royal Viking Entertainment production. (International sales: Paradigm.) Producers: Mehrdad Elie, Matt Smith, Lawrence Mattis, Sean Sorensen, Parisa Caviani. Executive Producers: Buddy Enright, Steven Yeun.

Crew: Director: Joe Lynch. Screenplay: Matias Caruso. Camera (color): Steve Gainer. Editor: Josh Ethier.

With: Steven Yeun, Samara Weaving, Dallas Mark Roberts, Caroline Chikezie, Mark Stewart Frost, Kerry Fox, Lucy Chappell, Steven Brand.

More Film

  • Amanda

    ‘Amanda’ Takes Home Best Int’l Film at 15th Sanfic

    SANTIAGO, Chile    French director Mikhael Hers’ “Amanda” scooped up the Best Int’l Film award Saturday (Aug. 24) at the 15th Santiago Int’l Film Fest (Sanfic), which reported a 20% audience uptick in the past two years and continues to grow its reputation as the most vibrant and prominent film festival in Latin America’s Southern [...]

  • disney d23

    Cruella, Kit Harington and Black Panther's Return: Everything We Learned at D23 Day Two

    Not to be outdone by the avalanche of series orders and casting announcements bolstering the new streaming series Disney Plus, Walt Disney Studios showed off its film wares in a marathon presentation at D23 on Saturday. The Anaheim, Calif. expo brought star power, if perhaps fewer surprises than Friday’s presentation, as fans in princess and [...]

  • Harvey Weinstein, Katie Holmes, Taylor Swift'The

    Taylor Swift Downplays Association With Harvey Weinstein

    Taylor Swift’s association with disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was among the topics the singer addressed in a revealing new interview with The Guardian. Weinstein held producer credits for the movies “One Chance” and “The Giver,” both of which featured Swift — in the former, a song, and in the latter, a supporting role. She [...]

  • Breaking Bad Movie

    'Breaking Bad' Movie: Watch the First Teaser for 'El Camino'

    In case you hadn’t heard, Emmy-winning drama “Breaking Bad” is cooking up a movie sequel. On Saturday, after details of Netflix’s project quietly leaked online, the streaming giant issued the first teaser for “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie,” which will be released on October 11. Starring Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman, the “Breaking Bad” [...]

  • Samara Weaving and Adam Brody Big

    'Ready or Not': That Time Samara Weaving Hit Andie MacDowell in the Face

    Samara Weaving didn’t mean to hurt Andie MacDowell, but she did just that while they were rehearsing for their new horror dark comedy “Ready or Not.” “I hit Andie MacDowell in the face by accident,” Weaving says on this week’s episode of “The Big Ticket,” Variety and iHeart’s movie podcast. “It was horrible. It was [...]

  • Aracne

    Chile’s Sanfic, Mexico’s Morbido Fest Pact to Promote Latino Horror (EXCLUSIVE)

    Mexican horror festival Morbido and Chile’s Santiago Intl. Film Festival (Sanfic) have agreed on a long-term collaboration intended to strengthen the genre film industry in Chile and across Latin America. This partnership will see Morbido representatives attend the Sanfic industry section each year to aid in the promotion of horror projects and advise those projects [...]

  • Tom Holland'Spider-Man: Homecoming' film premiere, Arrivals,

    Tom Holland Addresses Spider-Man’s Studio Divorce at D23: ‘I Love You 3000’

    British actor Tom Holland showed face on the main stage at D23 on Saturday, in the thick of an ugly studio battle over the rights to his iconic Marvel character Spider-Man. Headlines have been rolling in for days about the contentious battle for the cinematic future of the hero, after Sony Pictures became unwilling to [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content