A novel strain of bat-derived rabies spreads rapidly, transforming its victims into ravenous, bite-happy zombies, and leading a small band of survivors to struggle for their very lives against increasingly overwhelming odds. We have been here before: after all, the only thing that proliferates faster than a contagious disease is the sheer number of films (and TV shows, games, novels, etc.) concerned with the undead apocalypse. Yet while these vary greatly in quality as they shuffle – or in this case run – through their well-worn tropes, there is the sense that any country wishing to rewrite its place on the cinematic map must release its own assimilated local version of this global film type. So even if Flavio Pedota’s Infection (Infección) is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the first film of its kind, it is, certainly and categorically. Venezuela‘s first zombie film – and the novelty of this setting alone ensures that the film represents a variant strain on an otherwise familiar subgenre.
Still grieving the loss of his wife to cancer, molecular biologist Dr Adam Vargas (Rubén Guevara) finds himself rushing cross-country in the middle of a violent outbreak to be reunited with his young son Miguel (Luca de Lima). Along the way, he falls in with his neighbour Johnny (Leonidas Urbina), a World Health Organisation scientiest (Genna Chanelle Hayes) and various other people, all equally frantic, in a picaresque road movie that bears witness to the rapidly unfolding chaos and dissolution of civic norms.
The undead routines in Infection are well executed on a low budget, if somewhat undistinguished and meanderingly episodic – but there are two other factors that make Pedota’s feature debut stand out from the flesh-hungry crowd. The first is entirely circumstantial: the film’s long production coincided with the arrival of the Zika virus in Venezuela, and it is being released at a time when the Coronavirus is spreading across the world. These contingencies amplify the film’s themes of contagion with our own anxieties, contemporary and all too real, about the threat of infectious disease.
The second, which is openly exploited and interwoven into the fabric of the film, is political in nature – something hardly unusual for a subgenre which has, at least since George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), been celebrated for its capacity to allegorise sociopolitical tensions as subtext. It may be a cliché of zombie movies to show derelict buildings, abandoned cars and strewn corpses, but to do so under a poster which clearly reads, “An achievement of the Bolivarian Revolution” introduces an element of localised commentary. Likewise, visible anti-Maduro graffiti, and the sight near the end of a prominent pro-Chávez T-shirt sported by a desperate, demoralised refugee, all present an associative connection between the apocalypse fictionalised within the film, and a broader, real-life breakdown of Venezuelan society over the last few years.
Unsurprisingly, Infection has been banned in its native Venezuela, and not, one suspects, for its visual horror (which is relatively restrained). The film’s final scenes, showing an exodus of Venezuelans in search of a better life across the border, intercuts fake vox pops about the stigma of Venezuela’s disease with real footage of migrants marching en masse. This further serves to break down any distinction between art and life. For in this feature film infected with reality, the ravages of ideology are the true plague.
© Anton Bitel