Last Ones Out first published by VODzilla.co
The feature debut of writer/director Howard James Fyvie is set not in his native South Africa, but in the broader, vaguer ‘Southern Africa’, even if its characters are able, within a few days, to trek from here on foot to Harbel – a real place, but in Liberia, on Africa’s West Coast, and far from the South (despite apparently being within relatively easy walking distance). Duazon, also a real place in Liberia, is later visited. In other words, The Last Ones unfolds in an African Never Never Land, in a rural region ‘in the middle of nowhere’, corresponding less to points on a map than to a landscape of the mind. Here an outbreak of disease has spread rapidly through the populace – a virus recognisably of the zombie variety, even if the word ‘zombie’ is never used in the film (in an echo of George A. Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead, where the word also was not used, even as the modern conception of the zombie was defined). American Henry Williamson (Greg Kriek, channelling Casper Van Dien) is about to head back home with his fiancée Laurian (Celé Du Plessis), but first he must wait to have his appendix removed in the local hospital. He will wake up alone in the dark theatre, the operation still not performed, with sounds of screaming and mayhem beyond. “Hello?”, he says, confused. “I think I’m supposed to be asleep.”
Certainly one way of viewing Last Ones Out is as the nightmare of guilt and pain and terror that Henry experiences while under anaesthetic on the operating table, himself laid out like the living dead. On the other hand, the story might instead be taken at face value. After all, in having its protagonist wake up in a hospital after sleeping through the apocalypse – an opening gambit that ultimately goes back to John Wyndham’s 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids – Fyvie’s film places itself directly in a tradition of recent zombie stories with similar beginnings, like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), one of the key films responsible for reviving zombies for the new millennium, and television’s similarly derivative (and similarly influential) The Walking Dead (from 2010).
In a way this is the problem with Last Ones Out: almost everything we see in it we have seen elsewhere before. Even the premise of an American lost in Africa during a zombie apocalypse has appeared previously in Jon and Howard J. Ford’s The Dead (2010). Perhaps the only real innovation here is the improvised surgery that Henry receives without anaesthetic on a pool table (with a broken bottle used as scalpel), although this scene has little function within the broader plot, and Henry recovers from his traumatic experience with absurd rapidity so that he is quickly back on his feet trekking for days and even running and fighting with little apparent pain. Perhaps this really is all an operating-table dream after all.
In travelling to an evacuation centre in Harbel where he hopes to rendez-vous with Laurian, Henry joins forces with trainee doctor Sunet (Christia Visser), hospital worker Siseko (Tshamano Sebe), Siseko’s friend Vincent (Vukile Zums) and eventually Siseko’s son Ayanda (Mfihlakalo Mazwembe). It fast becomes apparent that Henry, as well as being blandly written, is a deeply unsympathetic figure – selfish, deceitful and racist. These dislikable qualities are there in part to allow him an arc where he gradually learns the importance of solidarity, martyrdom and redemption. Some viewers, though, may well feel that he does not merit his elevation to hero, or the self-sacrificing love of a female character who appears to be a mere vehicle for his journey (even if in the end the film’s journey turns out to belong to a different, woefully underdeveloped character).
Overall this is a literally pedestrian entry into the zombie corpus. The African setting is refreshing, but there is far too much focus on the one character who is not African, and who, for all his generically appealing status as fish out of water, comes with a personality that would make him poor company and an unwelcome presence in any country. And despite its slavish imitation of the other tropes from zombie films, Last Ones Out is disappointingly skimpy on the bodily destruction, cutting away coyly both during the surgery scene, and whenever the zombies are (not) shown chowing down on human entrails. Minimalism and restraint are well and good, but when it comes to gore, more is more.
Summary: Howard James Fyvie’s debut throws an American ‘white saviour’ into the middle of an African zombie apocalypse
© Anton Bitel