(Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza, Spain, 2007)

BY NICHOLAS RUSSELL | March 22, 2024

Seen from the vantage point of the present, any film with the barest hint of a quarantine narrative can only remind its audience of the COVID pandemic. There is a solipsism at play here, though one that is in mangled, fearful conversation with every other widespread health crisis we tell fearful stories about. The zombie genre has always been relevant in this respect. By the 1968 release of Night of the Living Dead, the 20th century had borne witness to the Spanish flu, the Russian typhus epidemic, and a second outbreak of flu in 1957. And yet it’s remarkable how flexible the genre remains, as allegory and as an exaggeration of the truth. The 21st century has produced forays into every subcategory of zombie narrative, though its most exciting examples rest within the first decade.

From 2007, [REC] is a study in cinematic lineages as much as it is an exemplar of a moment in time. The film, directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, takes its format from found footage: a reporter and her cameraman hang out overnight in a Barcelona fire station hoping to cover the exciting lives of emergency responders, with the film treated as one long, real-time breaking story. The fire crew is summoned to an apartment complex where an elderly woman is trapped, though the audience soon learns there’s something much worse happening to her. What ensues is an exercise in pacing, tension, and claustrophobia. The woman attacks a police officer, people begin to die, others become infected. Before the reporter or any of the residents can grasp the situation, the authorities arrive and quarantine the building. Stuck inside and frightened, with no way of knowing which corpses are truly dead and which are merely dormant, the survivors scramble between floors and apartments to stay alive.

The most obvious aesthetic predecessor that comes to mind is Danny Boyle’s 2002 lo-fi, high-intensity 28 Days Later, a similarly grounded yet nervy zombie film that exploits the immediacy of then-groundbreaking DV cinematography. What sets [REC] apart as one of the best horror movies of any kind is Balagueró and Plaza’s willingness to indulge the pulp and circumstance of their story. Various characters attempt to escape, to hide, to reason with the police, and, crucially, to figure out why the government was so swift in its response to seal off the building. In the midst of their search for answers, the reporter and her cameraman discover a conspiracy far larger and more esoteric than a secret experiment gone wrong. The following year, in 2008, Matt Reeves’s Cloverfield would take the niche of found-footage conspiracy thrillers to blockbuster heights, while a forgettable American remake of [REC]—lamely titled Quarantine—would scrub the original’s surprise supernatural ending. [REC] succeeds where both fail, at a smaller, more convincingly gonzo register. If the film’s first half reminds audiences of the horrors of recent years, its final act breaks free of the real and enters murkier waters, steering the zombie genre into altogether engrossing, unexpected territory.🩸


is a writer from Las Vegas. His writing has appeared in The Believer, Reverse Shot, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Vulture, and Film Comment, among other publications. He is a columnist at Gawker.

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