The Desert (El Desierto, aka Zombie Desert, aka What’s Left Of Us) first published by Grolsch FilmWorks
Microphones on a house’s barred window capture the amplified buzzing of flies, and birdsong, and shuffling footfalls, and a strange death-rattle wheeze. A blonde woman, staggering along with her back to the camera, is summarily shot in the head – the gun’s report, like everything else, eerily overamplified by the mics (serving as an intruder alarm system). If the opening sequence of Christoph Behl’s The Desert (aka What’s Left Of Us, aka Zombie Desert) quickly establishes the film’s affiliation to the zombie subgenre, it does so obliquely, evocatively and largely through (distorted) sound – while a different genre entirely, tragedy, is suggested by the subsequent sight of Ana (Victoria Almeida) painting ‘Medea’ onto a name list that she ritualistically expands every time a zombie is killed.
For some time, Ana has been holed up with Alex (Lautaro Delgado) and Jonathan (William Prociuk) against a global catastrophe outside, in a well-fortified house which they only occasionally leave (in pairs) on provisioning raids – and we are holed up with them, hearing the endless flies, and feeling the hot, airless claustrophobia of the place. So far this trio has survived by following a ‘house constitution’ designed to minimise contact with the undead and to foster a certain psychological well-being within the group (through game playing and private video confessions in the ‘consulting room’) – but of late there has been something of a breakdown in domestic relations.
“This situation is unsustainable,” declares Jonathan, “I can’t even breathe in this house anymore” – and he is not just referring to the building’s poor ventilation. If Ana’s self-harming tendencies are written in scars on her neck, wrists and belly, Alex’s own internal rot is measured by the tattoos (of flies) that come, over time, to cover his entire body. Unable to countenance sharing Ana with the altogether less complicated Jonathan, Alex has distanced himself from the couple – while still secretly intruding upon Ana’s inner life by furtively viewing her taped confessions. As part of a flippant – if potentially deadly – challenge from Jonathan in a game of ‘truth or dare’, a captured zombie dubbed ‘Pythagoras’ (Lucas Lagré) is brought in and chained to the living room wall, becoming all at once pet and punching bag for the house, and mirror to the zombified stasis of the three unhappy householders.
The Desert makes little attempt to curry favour with horror fans. It is far less focused upon the zombie threat without than the hellishly Sartrean ménage à trois within (first-time writer/director Behl cites Sartre’s 1944 play No Exit as a major influence), and has more in common with, say, Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) than with Night of the Living Dead (1968). Here character, rather than creature, is key – and as though to underline the film’s refusal to deliver on straightforward genre thrills, frustration and disappointment are made prominent themes. Yet it is all this, plus a stifling atmosphere and masterful sound design, that makes The Desert stand out as a welcome oasis amidst the arid uniformity of so many other zombie films. The apocalypse may be equally bleak wherever you go, but it is at least a whole lot more original, intense and internalised in the Argentine wastelands.
© Anton Bitel