Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks
What with Xavier Gens’ painstakingly nihilistic The Divide (2011) and now Greg Jackson’s feature debut Bunker 6, Canada is fast establishing itself as cinema’s ground zero for tense post-apocalyptic bunker-set psychodramas – wherein, no matter how fatally toxic the wastelands outside may be, the real hell is figured as a Sartrean clash of other people. Perhaps it’s something to do with the large number of ‘Diefenbunkers‘ that were built in isolated rural parts of Canada during the early 1960s to serve as emergency government headquarters in the event of a Soviet nuclear strike. Indeed one of these (now decommissioned) fallout shelters, in Debert, Nova Scotia, furnishes the atmospheric location where all of Bunker 6 was shot, as well as the Cold War history that the film imaginatively reoccupies.
October 30, 1962. As Grace plays with her dolls, news comes in of an imminent ICBM attack from the Soviets. The 10-year-old is rushed into a bunker, only to witness her top-brass father and mother being gravely injured and locked out in the ensuing blast. A decade later, Grace (Andrea Lee Norwood) is a haunted childlike adult, living in perpetual artificial light (apart from the times when the facility’s aging tube-and-valve generator fails), and waiting desperately for the green signal that it is safe to open the blast doors and venture outside once again. When Lewis (Daniel Lillford), the bunker’s technician and Grace’s protector, dies, Grace is left to face despair, delusion and death alone, but for a small collection of fellow survivors – bossy Alice (Molly Densworth), unstable Eric (Jim Fowler), stickler Joe (Glen Matthews) and motherly Mary (Shelley Thompson) – who are locked in chronic conflict with one another. Until, that is, someone starts killing them, one by one.
“You can’t just survive,” Lewis tells Grace, “You have to live.” This is the central theme of Jackson’s film, exploring how life can be accommodated and made tolerable in the most straitened of circumstances. Set in more than one kind of alternative reality, Bunker 6 transforms the concrete claustrophobia of a genuine Cold War fallout shelter into a high-pressure labyrinth of the mind. Even as she must negotiate ghosts, madness and murder, Grace is played by Norwood with a doe-eyed panic that recalls Shelley Duvall’s Wendy from The Shining (1980), embodying the cabin fever and bunker mentality that would inevitably come of so many years spent in underground isolation. The fraught mood of this most oppressive of locations is only enhanced by some excellent sound design – but even more memorable than this is the twinned tragedy and triumph of a heroine who, unusually in cinema, is not defined either as or by a love interest. Grace may in the end put away childish things, but her emergence as a woman is steeped in the kind of ambiguity that will leave viewers lost for days in the bunker’s dim-lit corridors.