Man isn’t the only creature that’s evolved.
Horror movies set on islands are numerous and run the gamut from slashers (Humongous) to thrillers (The Most Dangerous Game) to creature features (Jurassic Park). The common thread between them is the feeling of isolation that’s magnified by geography that leaves characters trapped with whatever nightmare is sharing the land with them. The latest horror film to capitalize on that reliable setting is working with a noticeably low budget, but Island Zero still delivers the goods where it counts as it riffs on genre films as diverse as The Fog, Storm of the Century, and The Bay.
A small island community off the Northeastern coast is in a spot of trouble as their fishermen haul in smaller and smaller catches. The sealife appears to be drying up around the island without any reasonable explanation. Their concern grows with the seemingly unrelated absence of the local ferry and the drop in communications with the mainland. Days pass without contact, and as food and fuel run low without daily ferry deliveries a new threat rears its head.
Something is killing the wildlife on land, and whatever it is, it soon begins targeting people too.
Island Zero gets its weakest scene out of the way at the very start with some rough acting and the cliched killing of a dog — it’s a horror movie necessity! — but things pick up almost immediately following as we’re introduced to the island’s residents. Director Josh Gerritsen and writer Tess Gerritsen devote time to meeting characters on their own turf and getting a real sense of them in short order. That familiarity makes them more than mere fodder for what’s to come, and that in turn elevates the film’s suspense and tension.
It’s an ensemble film, but a handful of characters stand out from the pack. Maggie (Laila Robins) is the temporary town doctor with a past, but anyone doubting her capabilities is a fool. Sam (Adam Wade McLaughlin) is a widowed marine biologist studying the decreasing fish population with his teenage daughter and unhappy girlfriend in tow. Titus (Matthew Wilkus) is a writer whose visit to the island was scheduled to end just as everything turned to shit. Their various introductions feel natural and smoothly integrated alongside each other to the point that the film’s first half flies by strictly on the back of these characters. They feel real (even if some of the amateur acting is shaky) and make for a believable community that quickly falls beneath an unknown threat.
The film is Josh Gerritsen’s feature debut, but he has a heavy hitter as a screenwriter in the form of his mom Tess. This is her first feature film too, but she’s no stranger to writing as the author of twenty-eight novels — including twelve “Rizzoli & Isles” books which in turn spawned seven seasons of a TV series. Monsters were well beyond her purview before now, and it’s ultimately the one area where the script stumbles. As strong as the character work and plotting is the actual creatures don’t quite feel fully thought out.
Their physical presence is a bit iffy, and it’s not just because they’re invisible to the human eye. That feels like a budgetary decision, which happens, but the script’s explanations are sketchy and scattershot at best. It leaves the beasts visible solely through a thermal camera, but even that aspect isn’t played up as well on the suspense and staging fronts. Instead, it’s the attacks committed by a monster we can’t see that work best as their strikes come from empty air leaving dead and injured in their wake. The results are occasionally gory too, and it’s definitely not afraid to get messy when necessary. Story turns keep coming throughout the onslaught, and the script regains its footing along the way as unexpected character beats and plot revelations find renewed dramatic traction.
Island Zero has some clear limitations working against it, but it succeeds despite those concerns to deliver an entertaining and suspenseful little monster movie. The title comes from the book being written by the visiting writer, and while he defines it as meaning a place of renewal it also draws a quick connection to ideas of “patient zero” and “ground zero.” Both themes feel right at home on this little island with a population in quick decline.
Island Zero released to VOD on May 15th, 2018.