[REC] (2007) ***½
Seriously— who the hell ever guessed that the Spaniards would be the ones to show us all the correct way to make a faux-verite horror film? It’s been a long time since Spanish horror movies got much exposure in the English-speaking world, but the state of the art in those days was hardly conducive to high expectations for future developments. I’m not saying that Jesus Franco, Amando de Ossorio, or Paul Naschy never made a good movie, but their careers were all highly erratic, and even their greatest successes had a certain disreputability about them, as if one had stumbled upon an insane hobo who was also a gifted sketch artist or a master of blues harmonica. And the last time I can remember a Spanish horror film in wide, non-arthouse release over here, it had Juan Piquer “Pod People” Simon infesting a little New York town with vicious, flesh-eating slugs, having apparently learned nothing from the cautionary example of Squirm. It would seem that much has changed since the late 1980’s, however. There’s a new generation of Spanish horror filmmakers now, and little sign that their creativity has suffered any from the lack of attention abroad. We may soon see if it suffers from increased scrutiny instead, however, because their work has finally started to attract some of the international notice it deserves. Indeed, a few years ago, first-time writer/directors Jaume Balaguro and Paco Plaza were paid what seems these days to be Hollywood’s ultimate compliment. Their debut, [REC], may never have played in American theaters, but it made its mark indirectly when it was picked up for remaking on a budget many times larger than Balaguro and Plaza had been able to muster themselves. And fortunately for both its creators and us, [REC] also received what has increasingly become the second phase of the Hollywood remake treatment, being released on DVD to modest fanfare after Quarantine (as the American interpretation was called) had finished doing its business on the big screen.
Angela Vidal (School Killer’s Manuela Velasco) is the host of a Barcelona-based television show called “While You’re Sleeping.” The premise is to document the hidden nocturnal life of the city, to profile the men and women who must arrange their working lives upside-down in order to keep things running smoothly on the 24-hour schedule of modern society. You know— cops, night watchmen, third-shift factory hands, that sort of thing. Tonight, Angela and her cameraman, Pablo (not that we ever see him, really, but his feet are played by Pablo Rosso, from House of Voices and Films to Keep You Awake: To Let), are visiting a municipal fire station, following firefighters Manu (Ferran Terraza, of The Nameless) and Alex (Diary of a Nymphomaniac’s David Vert) through their overnight workday. It’s a slow shift, and the TV people are beginning to despair of capturing any activity worth putting on the air when the alarm suddenly sounds. It isn’t a fire, but in some ways, that’s even better for Angela’s purposes. The danger inherent in a burning building would most likely cause Manu, Alex, and their captain to insist that she and Pablo keep their distance from the action, and in any case, everyone already knows that firefighters fight fires. An old lady in need of some unspecified personal rescue promises something both much quirkier and much more amenable to close-quarters coverage.
The police are already on the scene when the fire trucks pull up to the apartment block from which the summons came. Most of the residents are down in the foyer, excitedly talking past each other, so that neither cops nor firemen nor TV crew can quite get a fix on the story at first. Eventually, though, it becomes reasonably clear that the call for official aid was put in on behalf of Mrs. Izquierdo (Shiver’s Martha Carbonell) by a neighbor who heard a frightful commotion coming from her apartment on the second floor. When the rescue workers go up to the old lady’s flat, they find her dazed and unresponsive, milling about to no apparent purpose in a nightgown stained with what appears to be an alarming amount of blood. The older of the two cops (Vicente Gil, of Hypnos and Blood Red) attempts to get her settled and focused enough to report what happened, but all he receives in return is Mrs. Izquierdo’s teeth in his throat! The two firemen tackle the addled woman at that point, and Manu wrestles the wounded policeman away from her. Manu and the other cop (Jorge-Yamam Serrano, also of Diary of a Nymphomaniac) then hustle the injured man back downstairs, leaving Alex behind in the apartment to keep Mrs. Izquierdo restrained; Angela and Pablo follow Manu, plausibly reasoning that the effort to save the cop will be more dramatic than Alex keeping a crazy old lady in an armlock. The bitten cop has just a wee bit of luck on his side, in that one of the residents, Guillem Marimon (Carlos Vicente), is a hospital intern. Not as good as a real doctor, obviously, but better than Manu or Alex. Guillem has just begun attending to his patient when the situation becomes drastically worse in two ways. First, Alex’s mutilated body comes plummeting down the stairwell to the lobby floor, throwing all of the assembled residents into a panic, and then the younger cop discovers that a S.W.A.T. team has blocked off the main entrance to the building, preventing anyone not only from getting in, but from getting out as well.
What the fuck is this about? Apparently there’s some official concern that the building is harboring a serious disease of some kind, and the authorities have placed it under quarantine. Granted, two of the residents are known to be sick, but the one girl’s mother (Maria Laman, from Sexy Killer: You’ll Die for Her) swears that her little Jennifer (Claudia Silva) merely has a case of tonsillitis, and the Asian couple from the third floor (Kau Chen-Min and Akemi Goto) are equally adamant that the woman’s father is suffering from no more than the normal infirmities of old age. But maybe those two aren’t what the folks outside are worried about. Maybe the patient they’re trying to keep under wraps is Mrs. Izquierdo— whom those inside the building would do well to focus on, too, if she’s the one who tossed Alex down the stairwell. Either way, all efforts to leave the apartment block are thwarted by the S.W.A.T. team’s very thorough containment measures, so there’s nothing anybody inside can do on that front but to wait for the health inspector (Ben Temple, of Romasanta: The Werewolf Hunt and Fragile: A Ghost Story) to take matters in hand. In practice, though, the inspector’s arrival marks the point from which matters start going even more badly out of hand. Mrs. Izquierdo’s affliction is something very much like a post-Romero zombie disease, and it spreads via contact between body fluids. In other words, Alex and the injured cop are about to become an altogether different sort of problem— as will anyone else who gets seriously hurt fighting the infected. And the sealed-up penthouse flat that might seem at first glance like the safest place to hole up until the authorities get a handle on the situation? Let’s just say the people who sealed it up several months before had their reasons…
I think I’m finally starting to get a little burned out on zombie movies— and, for that matter, on I Drink Your Blood-style quasi-zombie movies, which might be a better characterization of [REC] (although there’s some ambiguity here regarding whether the infected are merely sick or truly undead). But even so, I can’t deny that this is a pretty great example of the form. To begin with, I can’t tell you how excited I was to see post-Romero zombies treated as something other than an apocalypse in the making. It’s easy to see how [REC]’s disease could reach that point if it were allowed to become epidemic, but the entire story proceeds instead from how that isn’t being permitted to happen. Official response to the outbreak is both swift and decisive, and there’s no reason to imagine that it isn’t also successful in its main aim of keeping the contagion from spreading. It’s just that what’s necessary to do so effectively dooms eighteen people. The situation in [REC] is thus the direct opposite of what one usually sees in this genre; instead of the protagonists being locked in by the zombies, they’re locked in with them. [REC] is also most unusual among modern zombie films in providing a relatively clear point of origin for the infection while simultaneously leaving open a range of possibilities for how to interpret that information. The documents eventually discovered in the penthouse contain all the data needed to understand what’s happening, but there’s no time for those who still survive by that point to read or listen to more than a few brief snippets, and there’s no savant on the premises to explain it for them. It is therefore impossible to say for certain whether we’re looking at a nearly unprecedented melding of science and the supernatural, or at an atypically astute rendering of the process whereby most people’s natural first response to the inexplicable is to attempt explaining it in terms of their preferred conceptual framework.
But what makes [REC] truly special is not its effectiveness as a zombie movie. After all, there have been plenty of good films in the genre, even if it has spent most of its history awash in a sea of crap. [REC]’s primary virtue, rather, is that Jaume Balaguro and Paco Plaza have finally solved the most persistent problem of the found-footage horror film: there is a defensible diegetic reason for nearly every second of this footage to exist. Pablo, to begin with, is not just a camcorder hobbyist. He is a professional cameraman, on assignment for the television show that employs him. So first and foremost, he’s filming all this stuff because doing so is his job. That premise provides cover for virtually any questionable inclusion, because the more sensational the risks taken to catch something on tape, the more valuable the footage will be to the producers of “While You’re Sleeping.” [REC] keeps the point clearly in focus, too, by having Pablo and Angela continue to shoot introductory segments suitable as lead-ins from a commercial break whenever there is a sufficient lull in the action. And once the setting shifts to the penthouse— where the electricity has been shut off for months— Pablo’s camera, with its integral spotlight and infrared night-vision setting, becomes nothing less than an instrument of survival. The infrared setting not incidentally enables Balaguro and Plaza to enlarge upon one of The Descent’s best tricks as well. Inevitably, the penthouse does not long remain a zombie-free zone, but zombies see no better in the dark than a normal human. Infrared thus confers a limited advantage on the living. (I don’t know if the last survivors trying to sneak silently past a zombie who can’t see them was intended as a nod to Tombs of the Blind Dead, but I like that it works that way.) Only one person can look through the viewfinder at a time, however; anyone in that person’s company can merely stay close, stay quiet, and hope for the best. The image of Angela and a once-human creature that would very much like to kill her groping blindly within arm’s reach of each other through the green night-vision murk is one of the most suspenseful things I’ve seen in ages.