Released as part of After Dark's 2007 Horrorfest line-up, Jim Mickle's MULBERRY STREET is a slow-burning tale centering on the residents of the eponymous street, who live in a tenement slated for gentrification. What makes the film remarkable is that is takes a rather preposterous premise and spins it into a story of surprising intensity (remember when B pics did this all the time?).
Here, the zombies are caused by a rat-borne infection (the epidemic even begins with a nod to the Italian anti-classic HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD, as a seemingly-dead rodent sinks its teeth into the first victim) that spreads quickly until Manhattan is placed under quarantine. From there we watch as the various tenants--some of whom teeter dangerously close to being stereotypes, but an interesting array of people nonetheless--deal with the slowly escalating crisis as the infected become flesh-hungry rat people. (An improbable concept, but it makes for some extremely freaky-looking creatures.)
I've said this before, but my favorite part of apocalyptic zombie films is the earliest stages of the outbreak, as the characters slowly realize that things are not normal, and it's this element that drives the bulk of MULBERRY STREET's plot. With his washed-out color palette almost completely devoid of primary hues, Mickle gradually layers on the tension; a solid enough tactic, but knowing the inevitable outcome compromises that tension somewhat. Fortunately, the excellent cast picks up the slack--yeah, there's some familiar faces (an Italian tough-guy, a single mom and her teenage son, a pair of old duffers that've lived in the building for decades), but it's the relationship between a former boxer (co-scripter Nick Damici, in a quietly powerful performance) and his combat-scarred daughter (Kim Blair, in a great non-traditional role) that really fuel the movie. Several times as I watched Blair struggle through an increasingly dangerous city to reunite with her father, I wondered if the filmmakers were fans of Brian Keene's zombie novels; there's a definite DEAD SEA/THE RISING flavor here.
Mickle sets up quite a few suspenseful moments, but he never truly taps into post-9/11 tension or paranoia, despite references to Bin Laden and terror alerts. (That may or may not have been the intent; I imagine we'll be invoking both 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina during any large-scale cinematic disaster for years to come. There is, however, a Katrina-like allusion to the lack of government response during the outbreak.) And though I cringed in anticipation of the rather predictable ending--note to the actors: when the guys in hazmat suits show up, your character's going to die--but even with this telegraphed denouement, Mickle ends on a note of unexpected tenderness and irony.
While not a genuine zombie film per se--the creatures aren't neccesarily the living dead--it still adheres to the classic undead-film formula, often to much greater effect than some legitimate zombie releases. It may not break any new ground, but MULBERRY STREET succeeds in telling a good story.
(Special thanks to Alex for the recommendation; otherwise this would've remained in the basement of my Netflix queue.)