“No one said high school was easy…”
…Angstiest of the angsty teenage thoughts there is, those words were true when I was in high school, and I can only begin to fathom how true they ring now. Way back in 1985 when The Breakfast Club released (god, I’m old), teens dealt with the usual growing up elements of first loves, first heartaches, sex, drugs, figuring out your lifelong career, etc. Now, they get all of that on top of fear of school shootings, the threat of nuclear war, the existential crisis of Global Warming, and a whole wheel of other doomsday options. High school teens have it harder than any of us ever did, all while they’re just trying to figure out what it means to be human, the crux of director Marcus Dunstan’s bloody zombie comedy, Unhuman.
Written by Dunstan and Patrick Melton (the writing team behind Feast, The Collector and many of the later Saw films), Unhuman follows Ever (Brianne Tju), a girl who believes she’s nothing to the world around her. Her best friend, Tamara (Ali Gallo) has started to hang out with the “cool” kids, jocks Danny (Uriah Shelton) and Hunt (C.J. LeBlanc) as well as queen bee blonde Jacey (Lo Graham). And Ever can’t bring herself to tell school D&D master Steven (Drew Scheid) that she likes him. When an extra credit field trip full of burnouts and overachievers and led by the douchebag gym teacher (Peter Giles) crashes near an abandoned building, Ever and her classmates find themselves in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, forcing them to set aside their differences and work together.
It’s your usual clash of frustrated teen personalities, but you know, with zombies.
If you’ve seen Feast or Piranha 3DD, then you have a sense of the sort of kinetic energy that Dunstan and Melton infuse into their scripts. Unhuman is no exception. This film is a vigorous blast of quippy dialogue, swift editing by Andrew Wesman, and a zany score from Charlie Clouser (creator of the infamous Saw theme). Unhuman slaps you awake with a speed that had me feeling like I had a trio of flesh-hungry zombies on my tail. Blended with gross out humor like a kid slow-mo vomiting and dialogue such as Mr. asshole gym teacher uttering “let’s just hope he was a racist so we don’t have to feel bad” after the bus hits someone, Unhuman is the sort of horror comedy which you can’t take seriously in the slightest. Undead head to rotting toe, this film is pure, unfiltered, injected straight into the bloodstream from the opening moments, camp.
Unhuman is also a textbook teen angst movie that struggles to expand the standard curriculum.
The cast, which includes bullied kid Randall (Benjamin Wadsworth) and overweight Ryan (Blake C. Burt) all do well with their roles, despite being given only the bare bones basics to work with. But while many modern teen movies have generally moved beyond tropey characters like the jock bully and the vapid blonde, Unhuman fully embraces these tried and true clichés while doing nothing new with them. That’s not a bullet to the brain for the film by itself, but it is disappointing to see such talented writers pick low-hanging fruit. This is teen angst movie 101, barely achieving a passing grade in the shadows of films it aims to emulate like The Breakfast Club. In this case, genuine and surprising character transformations are few and far between, lost in a frenzied script not interested in anything deeper than surface level development. D- for effort, though.
Luckily for the film and the audience, the chemistry between Tju and Gallo is electric. There’s no doubt that these two are best friends, with a playfulness between the pair that warms the heart, and shatters it during some of their more painful moments together. Those of you that actually watched the “I Know What You Did Last Summer” series know that Tju was the best piece of that show (sorry Madison Iseman, you were great to), and she’s far and away the standout here. At the heart of Unhuman is the journey of Ever and her classmates to discover who they really are, not just what they want to be. These kids are all dealing with a crisis of self, expressed through a setting full of confused, angry graffiti and the fear of change seen in the zombies. Ever doesn’t have much meat on the bone as a character, yet she’s incredibly engaging nonetheless. Tju wields a sword of emotions that cuts through the audience as Ever fights to ascribe herself as more than “nothing”, both to herself and Tamara, a description far too many teens believe of themselves.
In an effort to earn extra credit from the audience for originality, Unhuman does eventually attempt to set itself apart from your average zombie movie, but in such a way that it buries itself in a grave of absurdity. Unlike the gratuitous pile of horse guts that one unfortunate character falls in, I won’t spoil anything here. Let’s just say that, like a pop quiz on the Friday before a three-day weekend, Unhuman makes some choices that at best will leave you dumbfounded, and at worst are going to leave you aggravated to no end. Dunstan and Melton make some interesting commentary on toxic masculinity, but it isn’t enough to justify one of the most unnecessarily elaborate plot points I’ve ever seen.
Gory, goofy, and goddamn ridiculous, Unhuman is an average teen horror comedy that doesn’t put in enough studying of its themes to stand out amongst its peers, but still makes for a fun afternoon watch of campy humor and zombie mayhem.
Unhuman arrives on digital June 3rd from Paramount Home Entertainment.
By Matt Konopka