First published by TwitchFilm
“Just try to think of it as a game. It’ll help.”
This is how the unnamed Gunner (Mekhi Phifer) describes to his four-person unit’s new doctor Lauren Chase (Rachel Nichols) the best mental attitude to adopt while beating people off their moving armoured bus with a baseball bat.
Gunner is likewise modulating the viewer’s reception of the film. For Pandemic, directed by John The Scribbler Suits, restricts itself not only to intradiegetic cinematography, but also mostly to the digicams fixed in the four principal characters’ helmets, so that what we see closely resembles a first-person shooter (with variable perspectives).
As Lauren, Gunner, navigator Denise (Missi Pyle) and driver ‘Wheeler’ (Alfie Allen) make their way through a virus-ravaged, post-apocalyptic Los Angeles on a mission to rescue the unit that preceded them, they must fight off hordes of the desperate, the diseased and the monstrous while gradually unmasking their own personal motivations. Pandemic is a thoroughly bleak portrait of rapid societal breakdown resulting from global illness and Darwinian dog-eat-dog pressures – but also, unfortunately, it is a collection of genre clichés.
When George A. Romero called his flesh-eating undead ‘ghouls’ in Night of the Living Dead (1968), that is because he was in the process of inventing the modern zombie from the ground up – but when this film likewise avoids referring to its pallid and pulse-less infected cannibals as ‘zombies’, it seems more like a doomed attempt to conceal a lack of originality. No matter what you call them, these walking not-quite dead seem all too recognisable, and put the living through routines that are similarly overfamiliar. It does not help that some of these routines – like fleeing an invading crowd of the infected via an upper-story window – are themselves used more than once even within the film.
Even Suits’ trump card, the POV style of the filmmaking, has already been done to death not only in ‘found-footage’ zombie films like [REC] (2007) and its many derivatives, but in a whole slew of actual zombie-themed FPS games. So if you have been living in a cultural vacuum for the last 15 years, Pandemic might just strike you as a supremely tense, misanthropic and immersive ride into a post-millennial sense of hopeless beleaguerment. Anyone else, though, might think it would help to be actually playing the game rather than merely watching it.