If I had a bucket list of things I want to see in a horror movie, it's safe to say that the "zombie road movie" would have always been close to the top of the list. I just wanted to see some smart dudes/dudettes driving around, trying to find safety, and discovering different kinds of terror wherever they go. I thought Romero was gonna go there after Land of the Dead - and he kind of did with Diary of the Dead - but he never was able to recapture the humanity of Dawn of the Dead that really would have made the thing work. The idea hadn't really worked for me in any of the few attempts I'd seen - until this week, when I saw Stake Land.
Of course, I should get a bit of nerd classification out of the way here. These are not zombies. These are vampires. But they're the kind of vampires Richard Matheson would have written about, the kind of vampires we saw in The Last Man on Earth and I am Legend. They're not your Bela Lugosi/Bram Stoker/Gary Oldman romantic vampires. They're what I like to call zompires. Which makes my zombie analogy OK, OK?
Stake Land follows the narration of a young man named Martin (Connor Paolo), who rides the vampire infested highways with Mister, a gruff vampire killer played by the film's co-writer Nick Damici. The youngster is sort of like the narrator of Moby Dick who becomes intrigued by the violent Captain Ahab, also chronicling the people who join their journey - primarily a converted cannibal woman played by Kelly McGillis and a young pregnant woman played by Danielle Harris. The film wants us to relate to Martin - even though he's not the most interesting character around - because he is young, scared, and uncertain as to what lies ahead of him. That's something that any young adult can relate to in some way, which makes it a little easier to get involved in Stake Land's story.
I'd avoided most advanced writings on Stake Land going in to the movie (and I hadn't watched a full trailer, either), so I was a bit surprised at how poetic the whole thing was. A lot of that is credited to composer Jeff Grace, who knocked out one of the year's best musical scores; a musical score that creates a dramatic connection to the material. The film has a lot of chances to let this beautiful music fill the screen as the camera oversees the landscapes that the characters are crossing, which gives the film a lot of peaceful moments. In fact, the final moment of the film is about 40% about the characters and 60% about the score, which is given a ton of power to take the film home as the last shot disappears.
The sense of peace that is provided by the music and cinematography is a great tool for director Jim Mickle, because it allows him to shock us even more when the film jumps into its action-filled scenes. In what might be the film's best scene, the characters find refuge in a makeshift town and start to take part in an impromptu jamboree, only to be disrupted in a shocking manner by the vampires and the violent Christian clans that have been assaulting the countryside. It would be unfair for me to recap what occurs in this scene, but the frantic change in tone left me in a state of awe, knowing that I hadn't seen anything quite like it in a horror film before. Mickle and Damici develop a methodical pace throughout the film, leaving the viewer feeling that carnage could break out at any moment, no matter how peaceful that moment is.
Stake Land didn't wow me immediately - I think I expected something more up tempo than what I got - but I quickly wanted more of it once I finished the film. This is that man vs. horror-filled nature tale that I'd been longing for for all these years, taking us on an interesting journey and not forgetting to shake our comfort levels along the way. It's original, it's well made, and it's incredibly memorable. (It's also a crying shame that it didn't get a major theatrical release, but that's a whole 'nother issue.)