I’ll be the first to admit that I was a little disappointed to discover director Travis Stevens zombie flick, BETTER OFF ZED, is absent of what makes its 1985 title riff so absentmindedly gleeful; teen heartbreak and ski competitions. Don’t get me wrong, the idea of a zombie attempting to win back their ex-girlfriend by beating the jock ski captain at his own game seems like an impossible task – and one left for the Disney Channel – but a boy can dream! What they both share however, are elements of the tragecomedy, where dire and often abysmal circumstances collide into a fusion of off-beat hilarity. Here, the reality of a post-apocalyptic existence is dragged through adulthood, resulting in everyday survival that, while perhaps too authentic for its own good, is quirky and laconically blood-filled.
Like every zombie outbreak, there’s survival. What that means for Guy (Graham Sibley), a shiftless, flip-flop sporting renaissance man who has taken the end of days as a good omen is quite a bit different than your average survivor. For Guy, gone are responsibilities, debt, and every other worry that spills from the straw of adult life, allowing him the leisurely pleasure of painting, or whatever hobby strikes a cord that week. Every morning he collects rescue fliers from his backyard, dropped by a mysterious helicopter that signals a path to overcoming this epidemic. His wife Paige (Christine Woods) on the other hand is a bit more level-headed, wanting those good old days packed with more rush-hour traffic and less worry over whether or not your undead neighbor has wandered into your lawn.
What Amy Tofte, writer of the short Other Side in which two brothers try to make amends, understands about life is that it’s redundant. But that it’s also not that far from a zombie apocalypse. You wake up, and survive. What that looks like is left blank, filled in by expectations and goals. For many, those particular goals are sometimes trivial and often boring. Such is life, and sometimes we can feel trapped within its monotony.
It’s BETTER OFF ZED‘s conundrum, helping to ease the film from the clutches of the genres exhaustive cliches while refreshingly playing off the minute details that comprise our daily motions. Steven’s camera understands this, framing Guy and Paige within their domestic safeguard like prisoners. Zombies (though the word is never used) remain tangled within the iron gate that separates their home from the rest of the neighborhood, creating a wall of groaning bloodied limbs of those they once knew. Guy is that prisoner who has adapted, while Paige just isn’t cut out for the confined life. Water is restricted and electricity is siphoned (despite resources still flowing), creating an often buoyant humor between the two.
Unfortunately, it’s also the biggest problem, grounding the film too firmly in this sense of nothing, where boredom is as tangible as the blood that splatters the residing neighborhood. Paige takes a bath while Guy covertly attempts to rescue a case of wine that has fallen passed the boundary of their safe haven. In another scene, Guy quietly paints during Paige’s excursion into the backyard, his headphones drowning out her struggle with their flesh hungry neighbor. In between, they enjoy a highly nutritional dinner of protein paste while snaking on an abundant amount of fruit from their prosperous orange tree.
These scenes dictate the dynamic between two partners with a frank levity – Woods and Sibley effectively create a lived in quality to their domesticity – yet their actions hardly propel the story along, which feels as tangled in its own adulthood as the zombies outside their door. It isn’t well into the 3rd act where any momentum is made, and it feels almost too little too late.
Still, Tofte’s ability to put a female perspective to Paige’s plight creates enough moments of genuine off-kilter reactions to life’s constant struggle that, like a relationship, its flaws are far less glaring. Instead, what lurches out of the pitfalls of being in a relationship, while often stumbling on its own ennui, feels charming and quaintly bloody to the point of acceptance. It’s an undead tragecomedy that exudes a level of humorous lethargy that could have easily felt as doomed as its survivors, allowing BETTER OF ZED to alleviate the stress of a genre that’s been in one too many relationships.