I, Zombie: A Chronicle of Pain (1998) ***Ĺ
I love zombie movies, maybe more than any other horror subgenre. Thus it is with no little sadness that I say I pretty much gave up on the things sometime around 1990. There are only so many ways a person can go about ripping off Night of the Living Dead, after all, and George Romero was so successful at raising the stakes for movies involving the walking dead that the older, and thematically richer, tradition of voodoo-based zombie flicks essentially withered up and died in his wake. Whatís more, I can honestly say that I enjoyed even the worst of the earnest Romero rip-offs (think Night of the Zombies or City of the Walking Dead) more than I did most of the ironic, self-aware films that followed in the footsteps of The Return of the Living Dead. Then came the micro-budget, direct-to-video zombie explosion of the 90ís to extirpate any remaining interest in new tales of gut-munching ghouls that I might have hadó you really donít know what a bad zombie movie is until youíve seen the work of Todd Sheets or Andreas Schnaas. So although I had heard about I, Zombie: A Chronicle of Pain several years ago, I didnít exactly rush out to see it. This is one case in which, had somebody said to me that I didnít know what I was missing, I would heartily agree with them. I, Zombie takes forever to get started, and it never does deliver the sort of apocalyptic undead mayhem to which weíve all become accustomed, but it is among the best of the last decadeís DIY zombie films precisely because of writer/director/everything else Andrew Parkinsonís stubborn refusal to do what is expected of him.
With a title like I, Zombie, itís only natural that this movie is shot from a zombieís-eye view. The zombie in question starts out as an English PhD student in botany by the name of Mark (Giles Aspen). The subject of his dissertation is a species of moss that grows in the countryside some miles out from the city where he lives, and it is on a specimen-gathering expedition out to the sticks that he gets himself turned into one of the living dead. Returning to his car by a different route than that on which he came after collecting his moss samples, Mark notices a wrecked vehicle in the middle of an overgrown field. Not far away, there stands a building in similarly wretched condition, and Mark hears what sound like human voices coming from inside it. When he goes to investigate, he finds a dead man in one room and a deathly ill woman having violent convulsions in another. Mark scoops up the woman and begins carrying her to his car as the first step toward getting her proper medical attention, but he doesnít get very far before the woman bites him savagely on the side of the throat. Mark understandably drops the woman on her ass and flees, but he collapses after running only a dozen yards or so. He has no idea how long he was unconscious, but he awakens feeling very sick himself, and worse yet, he instinctively attacks, kills, and eats the first human being he comes across while trying to find his way back home.
Well if whatever disease that woman gave Mark is going to turn him into a compulsive cannibal, then obviously it isnít safe for him to return to his old home or his fiancee, Sarah (Ellen Softley). Instead, Mark gets himself a flat on the other side of town, reckoning that the sheer size of the city will prevent him from accidentally coming into contact with anyone he cares about. Then, having thus quarantined himself, Markís scientific mind springs into action, and he begins studying his own strange affliction, looking for any clues that might help him find a cure for it. He develops a routine according to which he can safely satisfy his bodyís new demands for human flesh, while obsessively tracking the progress of his illness and scouring the medical journals for mention of any syndrome which exhibits the same combination of curious symptoms as his own.
Sarah, meanwhile, has no idea in hell whatís become of Mark. So far as sheís concerned, one day he went out to do research for his doctorate and simply never returned. After three weeks without word from him, Sarah finally turns to the police, and files a much belated missing person report. Of course, the trail is more than cold by this point, and there really isnít a damned thing the cops can do to trace Mark. As the weeks stretch into months, and the months into a year, Sarah gradually regains her equilibrium and starts living again, even finding herself a new boyfriend (Dean Sipling). Parkinson teases us for a while with the prospect of the zombified Mark coming home to Sarah and catching her with her new man, but he actually has far less conventional plans than that in mind. Mark does appear to come hunting for Sarah with his trusty bottle of chloroform (the movie is such an elaborate Russian doll of flashbacks, hallucinations, and dream sequences that itís difficult to be entirely sure), and it looks to me as though he gets as far as abducting her before realizing that she will never be able to accept him as he now is, but that the other obvious course of actionó killing and eating heró wonít bring him the closure he so desperately desires, either. Foiled on all fronts, Mark returns the still-unconscious Sarah to the house where he once lived and heads back to his flat to face his rapidly accelerating dissolution, both physical and mental, alone.
Neither plot nor narrative were high on Andrew Parkinsonís list of priorities, and I, Zombie: A Chronicle of Pain is really little more than an extended character study. I already knew that going in, and in fact, that knowledge was a big part of what had kept me away from the movie for so longó from what Iíd read, I, Zombie sounded suspiciously like a bunch of pretentious student-film bullshit. Truth be told, there is a certain element of that at work here, especially early on, but the movie rises farther and farther above that level with each passing scene after about the 30-minute mark. At its best, I, Zombie does for the cannibalistic undead what Maniac did for slashers. Mind you, it isnít nearly as disturbingó or as revoltingly violentó as that movie. It tends instead toward tragedy, and it does a better than fair job of conveying the hopeless injustice of Markís situation. Itís a somber, emotional film, but lest you worry that I, Zombie is completely devoid of horror movie kick, let me assure you that it features a couple of truly brilliant gross-out scenes, including one that rivals even the notorious pistol-fuck sequence from Shatter Dead. All in all, I, Zombie: A Chronicle of Pain probably wonít do the trick for you if youíre in a Lucio Fulci sort of mood, but it should make for rewarding viewing if youíre looking for something a little more introspective.