They aren’t zombies, strictly speaking, but righteous pedantry aside, Jim Mickle’s gritty horror unleashes some moments of considerable bite. Mark Lee reviews.
I have to admit to being rather baffled as to why the UK releases of some US movies are rebranded in a manner that is somewhere between the cynical and the downright patronising. Micro-budget effort Automaton Transfusion was adjusted to Zombie Transfusion for the British video market, whereas the title in question here, the multi-award winning Mulberry Street, has had its moniker re-engineered as the painfully cruder Zombie Virus on Mulberry Street. Whether it’s to cash in on the success of a slew of blockbusting zombie movies (zombie movies which were equally popular stateside), or perhaps because British audiences are considered so crass that they select their horror movies by homing in on the most blatantly obvious of titles (‘What? Mulberry Street? Far too subtle for the Brits. Slap a ‘Zombie Virus’ in front of it and bang it out there!’), I’m not sure, but what irks the most is that Zombie Virus… is a ridiculous reworking of the original title, given that the nefarious nasties of this New York based shocker are not, strictly speaking, zombies at all.
Setting aside my reservations surrounding the UK DVD release title, Jim Mickle’s debut full length feature (he had previously directed horror short The Underdogs and performed crew duties for a number of other releases) makes for an initially intriguing but ultimately flawed slither of survival horror, casting an early foundation that feels solid enough, yet which crumbles as the inevitable climax gathers a shaky momentum.
The opening scenes are certainly stylish enough; as the camera tracks the progress of our protagonist, ex-boxer Clutch (played effectively by Mickle collaborator Nick Damici, who also co-wrote the movie), through an oppressive and sweltering New York, the camera takes a brief diversion to disappear down a drain, observing the itch-inducing activities of a group of subterranean rats, before popping back up and re-tracking the tough but amiable New York jogger. Amongst this technical creativity begins a remarkably restrained and patient build-up that proves refreshing amongst the movies’ peers, eschewing the opportunity to throw in cheap shocks and instant gratification.
This thoughtful and careful construction ultimately pays dividends, as Mickle develops a portrait of contemporary America, depicting a caricature with distinguishing features which are all too familiar. As a mysterious vermin-related virus rips through Mickle’s increasingly ravaged and infected New York, the city is ablaze with barely contained anger, rampant paranoia, seething tension, and a depressing sense of mistrust; a sense of mistrust of the government, and of its beloved capitalist darlings, in this instance manifested in the form of the dubious, greedy ‘Crome Development’. The presentation of an increasingly panicked and terrified New York is cleverly delivered; are some of those scenes from stock footage, or did the crew manage to recreate the negative buzz of a city in crisis? Whichever way, the overall impact is impressive.
…Mulberry Street spews out some intriguing questions during the pressure cooker tension of the first half. As Clutch’s daughter, the disturbed and scarred yet attractive, freckle-bound heroine, Corporal Casey, makes her way back to New York to visit him, she meets with varying reactions; an attendant at the train station shows gratitude for the service she’s giving ‘over there’, yet a girl on the train sitting opposite stares with partial fascination, and partial distaste. Is the tension and paranoia inside New York, the growing divide between the greedy elite and the poverty-stricken apartment folk, and the growing legions of human ‘vermin’, some sort of metaphor for the disastrous results of US foreign policy? Is Corporal Casey’s clear disconnection with larger society and the distaste with which she is viewed by some members of society paralleled with the army of rampaging rats? The main faces in the feature are all living beneath the conventional radar of American society, and it’s interesting to see what Mickle was trying to say with this creative picture.
Yet …Mulberry Street‘s most valuable asset – this initial depth and presentation of ideas – is ultimately its heaviest disappointment. Whilst some of the analogies and metaphors are quite happily left as open questions for personal interpretation, other, more direct references are seemingly, and frustratingly, left unanswered. There are a few moments where a distinctive mobile phone ringtone seems to be suggesting some sort of link, a la Ring, or One Missed Call, yet this seems to be a red herring with no useful function. The original introduction of ‘Crome Development’ hints that the firm will play some sort of sinister role in the unfolding crisis – especially as the company is responsible for the impending eviction of the tenants of the doomed apartment block. And most frustratingly of all, we never really have answers to our most basic questions about the crisis, and whilst this may be by design, it somehow undermines the suspension of reality that we so desperately crave.
Suspended reality is also compromised by some of the special effects. Whilst we might be able to forgive the less than convincing mechanical rat as it is crushed underfoot, and where many of the effects are perfectly acceptable for a budget presentation, when hell is unleashed at the midpoint of the movie, the action is so fast and poorly lit that we can barely see the horror at all. After such a patient build-up, this proves a genuine disappointment. Some iffy moments with the script also weaken its powerbase, and there’s something about the reactions of the doom-stricken tenants that further undermines the overall sensation of terror. I won’t even mention Clutch’s unlikely heroics against the sewer-born terror using the skill that he knows best (though his sparring with the son of fleeting love interest Kay, a young man named Otto, is well shot and pleasantly done).
For all of its weaknesses though, there are promising elements to counterbalance. The humour can be surprisingly sharp for the genre, and is not just of the ‘black horror’ variety; the dentures moment is cringe-worthy and brilliant, and there’s a bizarre scene where, in a breathing point between absolute bedlam, Corporal Casey pulls out a huge kitchen knife, and family friend Coco looks at her as if she is about to cut the cake that has been made as a welcome home present. Of course, our heroine is searching for weapons to defend against the rampaging rodents, but the subtlety of the moment works a treat.
…Mulberry Street is, ahem, streets ahead of many of its budget rivals, and initially full of inventiveness and creativity. It’s just a shame that the key ideas aren’t followed through to satisfactory conclusion, or even explored to the appropriate degree. Most disappointing of all, though, is that this promising horror flick just doesn’t do horror to the horrific degree we crave; after an extended period of tension building, the resultant explosion is smothered by some questionable effects, and a lack of definition that is eventually frustrating. Overall, there are enough decent elements to make this vermin-oriented shocker worth a viewing, but my guess is that Mickle’s talents will be better applied in future features.
As a UK release, …Mulberry Street is region 2 encoded. The aspect ratio is 1:78.1, and you can expect a clean transfer that is free of distortion and well balanced. Colours look strong and vivid. There are some issues, though many of them relate to the film itself, rather than the transfer. Firstly, the movement of the picture can look a little laboured sometimes, and some of the computer-processed elements, such as the ‘Crome Development’ advertisement across the high rise, look slightly pixelated as the image moves across the screen. Blacks are sufficiently dark and solid, but the real issue is the definition. When hell breaks loose in the bar scene, the movement of the camera, the speed of the action, and the lack of adequate definition unite to make the resultant viewing a blur, and a genuine headache to pick out enough detail to get a grasp of what is going on. Even when the action slows a little and the camera zooms into some gory scenes, you can see that something is going on, but it’s simply not clear enough to know exactly what. Whilst high quality terror is often all about what you can’t see, there is a requirement to be able to pick out some sort of definition behind the shadows.
Hard of Hearing subtitles are available, and are a sensible size, thoughtfully placed (they move to the top of the screen at points where they would have overlapped with the opening credits), and they contain an excellent level of detail for the viewer. For instance, important noises are noted in the subtitles, and song lyrics are included where they do not conflict with dialogue.
It’s a budget release, but audio is delivered in Dolby Digital 5.1, and the resultant sound quality is rather good. There is a decent balance of sounds, even when the action is cranking up, and the definition between various sound sources is good. Take, for example, the moment where Clutch is listening to a message from daughter Casey; the scene flicks between his swelteringly hot apartment and the cool blue glow of Casey’s distant bathroom. As the scene pictures Clutch listening intently to the message, the thick hum of the ceiling fan weaves in and out effectively, making us sweat the New York heat with him. Sound doesn’t falter during the action points, maintaining a clear and distortion free delivery.
The soundtrack is enjoyable enough, with some almost country-tinged tracks (Suzi Jane Hokum’s haunting For a Day Like Today during the opening sequences being one of particular note) sandwiched between some satisfying crunching metal – especially effective during the action sequences.
There is a generous wedge of extras to be savoured for fans of the movie, though the volume is somewhat misleading since the majority of these tend to be fairly short and under-cooked. Still, it’s nice to see some effort here.
First up are some Deleted Scenes. Well, I say ‘some’, but I actually mean two. Whilst the second one is superfluous and adds nothing to our understanding of what may have gone into the movie, the first scene is a real treat, featuring some sharp New York dialogue between a handful of the characters, sitting out in the New York sunshine in a downtown area of the city. The scene lends us a real insight into the unusual concentration on effective dialogue in a genre that all too often casts such things aside flippantly.
The Make-up Test sequence presents some bizarre footage of the rat make-up being tested on an executive producer, and sheds more light on the nefarious nasties of the movie than you have opportunity to glimpse in the feature itself. This segment is very short.
Shooting Rat Creatures is straight-ahead fly-on-the-wall stuff showing the filming of the movie, and whilst interesting continues in a brief vein, and Behind the Scenes: The Rats takes a similar approach in revealing the techniques used to film the live rat sequences. The techniques certainly seem cleverly done, once you’ve seen the result in the film itself, and I’m reassured to see that it all seems to have been completed in very humane fashion.
The Sketches featurette presents some of the pre-production sketches from Director Mickle, which are suitably accomplished (although not especially similar to the final images of the creatures), plus a tacked-on image of the promotional poster, which seems particularly bland once compared to the overblown image on the final UK release cover; please note my opening comments!
Much time and effort seems to have gone into the Storyboards section, which showcases long reels of storyboard material interwoven with the related clips in the film itself. It’s well done and revealing, but the section, in comparison to its fellow extras, persists for so long as to become tedious! And it goes without saying that it would be foolhardy to watch this, or any other extra, before the film itself.
Finally, the VFX Tests segment uncovers some of the techniques used to create the special effects, mainly using computer based processing. It’s well worth a look.
Jim Mickle’s Zombie Virus on Mulberry Street (though I suggest you stick to the U.S. name of Mulberry Street; the movie will be presented with this name in the credits anyway) won a number of underground awards and it’s not difficult to see why. The budget shocker makes some positive in-roads with its restrained and controlled build-up, and its quiet analysis of the state of modern America. That said, it raises more questions than it dares to answer, and when it comes to high quality horror delivery, the film lets us down with some poor effects and lighting so dubious as to rob us of anything approaching a clear view of what the hell is going on. This UK release has a decent slab of extras, though some are uncharitably short, and if you’re a forgiving fan of independent and inventive horror, you’ll be glad you’ve checked this one out.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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