I hate making claims like the one you’re about to read, but here goes nothing: Pandemic is the Alien Outpost of 2016 – assuredly my most inconsequential critical comparison. “Alien Outpost” will mean nothing to the hordes who never discovered its existence, and I’m confident that many of you might never have heard of a little first-person thriller called Pandemic until now. But that’s why I’m here! It’s my job to constantly chug away at a never-ending pile of horror’s lesser publicized efforts while insomnia sets in and the voices keep me company.
In this who’s who of “where are they now” talents from Hollywood’s yesteryear, director John Suits dives head-first into a zombie plague that’s a little bit 28 Days Later, a tad Battlefield LA (in feel), and reminiscent of [REC] (not in quality, though). Beginning as any video game would (an introductory tutorial), we’re treated to a more involved story with flickers of emotional depth, which is more than most vapid low-budgets can muster. It’s not GREAT, thanks to generic found-footage tropes that are more recycled than engaging, but there’s an apocalyptic feel worth looting and rooting through. Think speedy and intense – a perfect late-night Netflix kind of watch.
Rachel Nichols stars as Dr. Lauren Chase, a military medical specialist tasked with bringing a group of trapped survivors home. Along for the ride are Gunner (Mekhi Phifer), Denise (Missi Pyle) and Wheeler (Alfie Allen), whose duties correlate with their nicknames (except for Denise, obviously). Charging into the quarantine zone, Dr. Chase is instructed to rescue any survivors who are not infected, which she can determine with her “mosquito” gun blood-test system. But when the team hits a dead-end when reaching the survivor’s supposed rendezvous point, things go south. It’s a race against monsters for Dr. Chase’s team, as they make a break for safety by running through an infected, decimated Los Angeles.
So, here are the positives that made me dig Pandemic enough to give it the old red tomato (and no, that’s not a weird foodie innuendo). First off, we get a pretty fluid action sequence where Mekhi Phifer goes all “Locked Gymnasium Tyreese from The Walking Dead comics” on an overwhelming number of infected pursuers. Translation: Phifer goes berserker on advancing zombies (whatever you want to call them). This is a reflection of action sequences that populate the entirety of Pandemic, which is no Hardcore Henry, but doesn’t mess around when it comes to ferocious monsters running towards Dr. Chase’s helmet camera.
Other than Phifer’s wack-a-zombie experience, Suits earns a salute for finding tension in daytime, nighttime, or night vision scenes dreamed up by writer Dustin T. Benson. The [REC] comparison comes during a claustrophobic stealth scenario cloaked in infinite darkness, when a gangly creature sniffs around for Dr. Chase and Denise. This is one of the true moments of hold-your-breath intensity that Pandemic unleashes, and, again, while it’s not a non-stop thriller, these vicious distractions balance out the duller bits of chaotic camera-whipping. Couple that with a few hidden twists that even this guy didn’t see coming, and intrigue paves a road to acceptable levels of genre appreciation. The film isn’t worth a roaring applause, but a good-natured golf clap for sure.
On the flip side, some character arcs come and go without much to offer. Denise, for example, carries around a picture of her son, which leads to an unfortunate run-in when the photograph is dropped. It’s such an avoidable and predictable method of tension, much like a few other ambushes set by some of the infected who display formidable levels of intelligence in the early stages of disease. Pandemic does its best to be a parkour-bustin’ survival flick, but some mundane sequences fall victim to found footage roadblocks that have tripped up so many filmmakers before. Suits should consider himself lucky enough to walk away mildly victorious here, as not many first-person POV directors can say that.
At first glance, Pandemic might seem like just another personally recorded horror flick – and it is. But in a good way! It’s part of the upper crust, where filmmakers strike enough of a balance between easy pandering and worthwhile creativity, while also casting a strong leading actor/actress (Rachel Nichols). Take a ride on this magic school bus straight to Hell, and enjoy the sights along the way!
Pandemic certainly won't spark a nationwide outbreak, but it's a sleek enough take on infection thrillers that's worth one good late-night watch.