Very few movies have attempted to mix the idea of the George-Romero-style apocalypse with the Christian Apocalypse. True, both involve the sudden, calamitous End of the World; both involve the raising of the dead; and both are filled with violence, bloodshed, decay and death. But the resemblances are superficial. In general, if religion gets brought up in the context of a zombie film, it's used ironically, as a counterpoint to the existential nightmare — this resurrection of the soulless dead, that exist only to feed their now-useless desires.
An obvious example of this anti-Apocalypse approach can be found in Scooter McCrae's Shatter Dead, with its zombie Preacher and its signature line, "God hates you". But perhaps the best-ever mixture of zombie horror and Christian iconography comes not in a movie, but rather in Leonid Andreyev's story "Lazarus", which dates from the early part of the twentieth century. Andreyev's story tells what happened to Lazarus after Jesus raised him from the dead: the thing which has come out of the grave is not the same as the warm, humane man who went in. No one who meets the risen Lazarus is ever the same again. Lazarus may not eat people like a true zombie, but he does crush their souls. Anyone who looks into his eyes can see in them the futility of all human endeavor... the unbearable fragility of life in the face of the void. Andreyev shows us in the face of Lazarus the kind of world-shattering horror that H.P. Lovecraft attempted, but rarely achieved; this is because Andreyev understood that our inner sense of the void is much more terrifying than any outward projection of the imagination. Andreyev's use of the familiar New Testament story is anything but Christian in its implications, and in fact, when Caesar Augustus asks Lazarus if he is a Christian, the man Jesus brought back from death answers: "No."
But there has been at least one attempt to bring together the traditional post-Romero zombie movie and the Christian Apocalypse... and that film is Jens Wolf's Noctem. And a very credible attempt it is. Noctem manages not only to be an ambitious independent horror film, it also stands out as the best of the recent crop of films that explicitly deal with the Christian "end-times". I'll try to explain why I consider it the best of this peculiar breed later on, but perhaps I should state my biggest reason right now: it's a movie which even a steadfast skeptic like myself can watch and enjoy. That fact alone puts it in a totally different class than other Apocalypse films like the Omega Code or Left Behind series.
Wolf's film starts considerably later than many other zombie flicks do: several months after the dead have started coming back to life, and after the world's social structure has collapsed. Nobody knows what's caused the dead to come back, and neither do we. There's no real attempt to give us a back story, or to lay out the rules (such as how the zombies behave, how they pass the infection, or how they may be stopped). I thought this was a good idea, since it increased my sense of unease as I followed the main characters through their journey. I didn't know what to expect any more than they did, and I found myself very pleasantly surprised by some of the unconventional situations they found themselves in.
The first person we meet is a young girl named Amy, and we are introduced to her just as she slashes open her wrists with a broken mirror. We will learn later that she's just lost her parents — not to the zombies, but to scavengers looking for food to survive. The loss of her family on top of everything else has pushed Amy beyond her endurance, and now she only wants to die.
But before she dies, she is found by a young man named Kusey. In spite of the fact that Amy is squirting blood from her wrists like an extra in an Andreas Schnaas movie, Kusey manages to save her by wrapping some gauze around her wounds. Perhaps we're supposed to come away with the idea that Amy hasn't done a very good job of cutting her veins, either out of ignorance or because she still really wants to stay alive. This would have been more convincing if we hadn't seen her lose so much blood before Kusey found her.
At any rate, Kusey binds her wrists, and together they try to find a way out of the nearly-empty city where they've been trying to hide. To get out of the building they're currently hiding in, they must go through an abandoned video store. Here we have the first glaring plot inconsistency: though the zombie incursion has been going on for a long time now, the social order has largely collapsed, and the cities are nearly deserted by the living, the power is still on. Later, we'll see that the streets and public buildings are also perfectly well-lit. This is just a minor irritation, and perfectly forgiveable in a low-budget production like this.
There is one zombie woman shambling around in the store (There's also a chewed-upon corpse behind the counter, which doesn't make much sense: do video store clerks continue to show up for work after the End of the World? It seems as though the decision to place the action significantly after the initial panic may have been made after the first few scenes had been filmed). Kusey and the still-groggy Amy must slip past her in order to get out.
This sequence is noteworthy because it's filmed with real humor — not the sort of overstated comedy you'll sometimes find in zombie movies, but the kind of genuine humor that has its source in observations of the real world. First, there's the fact that the action movie video Kusey throws on the store monitors to distract the zombie starts to mirror what's going on in the store. Next, when Amy accidentally attracts the attention of the zombie, the poor panicked girl attempts to fight it off with the only weapons within reach: empty DVD covers. It's absurd, but it's believeable. Lastly, when Kusey is attacked by the zombie, the dead woman tackles him when he is behind a life-sized carboard stand-up of Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs. From Kusey's point of view, it seems as though he's being mauled by Anthony Hopkins. If director Wolf had tried to call too much attention to any of these little details, they would have fallen flat. Since he doesn't, they don't interrupt the flow of the movie, and because they seem so spontaneous, they help us to suspend our disbelief and immerse ourselves in the movie.
After a few close calls, Kusey and Amy manage to stumble out into the deserted streets. As they try to find some means of getting out of the city, we start to learn more about the conditions they face. The most interesting part of this exposition is what we're shown about the living dead. These zombies are much different from the standard post-Romero type: though Kusey refers to them as "animals", most of them lack the animal cunning that most movie zombies display. They're extremely inefficient hunters, even when they form large packs. It even seems to be more coincidence than planning when they do decide to travel in groups. Strangely enough, they even need to sleep. You'd think these details would make the zombies less frightening, but I found I was terrified by them: I could believe very easily that this is how shambling dead people might behave.
Amy and Kusey find a working car and manage to drive far out into the country. When the car eventually runs out of gas, Kuesy decides to just lock the door and sleep in the car. This made me cringe: if the zombies were any better at tracking their prey, all they'd have to do would be to surround the car in the night... and that would be the end of the story. But the zombies never show up. Instead, they're awakened in the morning by a shabby-looking wanderer, who seems to know a little more about them than he should. He takes a quick look at Amy's torn wrists before he goes on his way. Kusey invites the stranger to come with them, but he is very insistent that his road lies elsewhere. Amy urges Kusey to call him back, but Kuesy, referring to the other man's strange appearance and otherworldly demeanor, says, "You can't stop Jesus."
The pair try to find food in a cornfield, but unfortunately the field is infested with zombies on the same mission. Here the movie reinforces the idea that these zombies behave like malfunctioning versions of living people: some of the creatures merely howl in mindless agony, chasing their victims without really seeing them. On the other hand, a zombie child Amy and Kusey stumble on is playing with a knife. The child-zombie doesn't seem to have any idea how to use the knife, though; when Kusey takes it away, the child-zombie starts bawling in disappointment... and its zombie mother comes after them to find out why. Yet another zombie seems to have retained some of its instincts, and manages to stalk and fight Kusey.
Amy and Kusey meet up with a man who has been badly wounded fighting the zombies. This man is a member of a group of "freedom fighters" called the Rednecks, who have established their own primitive society in the absence of any effective government. When Amy and Kusey take the wounded man back to the Redneck compound, his fellow Rednecks kill him: they have no use for anyone who can't pull his weight in the fight against the living dead.
Brutus, the leader of the Rednecks, welcomes the pair into the group — as long as they follow Brutus's harsh regulations and do their share in the little community. But Mike, the brother of the slain fighter, tells them that conditions in the camp are barabaric and intolerable. Together they make a plan to slip away during the daily hunt for food, and take their chances against the zombies on their own.
Amy, Kusey and Mike hide from the Rednecks in an old farmhouse. This turns out to have been a bad idea, since they catch sight from an upper window of hordes of zombies approaching from every direction. Before the house can be overrun, the three survivors try to block up the entrances in true Night of the Living Dead style. Kusey stumbles across an autistic man who's been abandoned in the house, clutching his Bible and waiting for his Saviour. Since he's the first person to find him, the young man mistakes Kusey for the Saviour; in fact, Kusey is powerless to save him from the zombies when they arrive.
Now at last it's time for the big zombie onslaught, in which the fingers and teeth of the living dead are pitted against every possible weapon our heroes can come up with... including firearms, blunt objects, and one particular power tool that I don't think has ever been used in a zombie flick before (and for good reason). During this battle, the zombies are shown to have an unexpected ability, one which more than compensates for their stupidity. As the terrible battle becomes more and more intense, the ambient soundtrack gives way to the music, in what is probably the best-ever use of Bach in a zombie movie.
By the end of the film, Amy has put together all the pieces, and figured out the identity of the wanderer they met on the road. She removes the bandages from her wrists, and finds that her wounds are miraculously healed. As she reads the autistic man's Bible, she concludes that everything going on around them is a part of the Apocalypse, as described in the Revelation to Saint John. No sooner does she come to this realization when things turn really bleak. This leads to the tragic, extremely ambiguous, exceptionally moving ending. I really can't describe it, and wouldn't give it away even if I could. It reminded me very much of the ending of The Beyond, even though its meaning is absolutely opposite to that of Fulci's conclusion.
Noctem is big and serious, as befits a movie about the end of the world and the possible return of Christ. Unfortunately, its "big seriousness" is also its chief liability. Consider the look of the movie: few low-budget zombie films are shot using an aspect ratio as great as 2.35:1, and honestly I don't think this one was, either... though it's presented in CinemaScope-like widescreen, I suspect much if not all of it was actually shot at a more standard 1.85:1 and then matted down. The depth of field seems much shallower than it ought to be if the movie had really been shot at the wider aspect ratio, and the result is that much of the close-up action is hard to follow. But, hey: "real" movies are shot in scope format, so... this one will borrow that look, even if the screen compositions get thrown out of proportion.
I may be wrong about the movie's original aspect ratio, but I'm on stronger ground with the script. Amy's narration is painfully pretentious. The rest of the dialogue fares somewhat better, except that there's far too much of it. Most of what happens in the film is explained to us rather than shown. A perfect example is the encounter with the Redneck camp: while the initial murder of the wounded man is shocking and effective, everything else we learn about the fighters comes from dialogue. We never actually experience the barbarity of the camp, or the hardships the newcomers would be expected to face. These things are described to us, before Amy, Kusey and Mike head out on their own; but they would have made a bigger impact on us if we'd actually seen more of them.
This over-reliance on words instead of action slows down the pace of a movie that's already fairly long. But by the last act, when the action starts to pick up again, the viewer is likely to forgive the comparative lack of activity in the film's middle section.
Whatever limitations the film may have, its strengths are greater. Consider, for example, its use of violence and special effects: though it is not afraid to show us graphic bloodshed, most of its strongest violence hidden from our direct view. Perhaps the action is off-screen; perhaps there's an object or a hand strategically placed to cover the horror... in any case, the extremely clever framing manages to do three things: first, it prevents us from seeing how the gore effects are realized; next, it prevents the movie's subtler points from being lost in the sheer spectacle of gore; and last, since we're forced to use our imagination to fill in for what we can't see, it makes the violence even more shocking.
Then there's Noctem's approach to its themes. A great deal of thought and care went into the method by which the movie presents its messages. One moment which stands out in particular comes late in the film, when things are looking particularly grim: Amy picks up a shard of glass that reminds us of the mirror fragment she used to cut her wrists in the movie's opening. It's clear she is remembering her previous response to a hopeless situation. However, at this point she is no longer thinking only of her own situation... her refusal to give in to selfish despair is pointed up by the fact that she is now holding a piece of clear glass, instead of a mirror.
It's obvious from the way the movie is put together that Jens Wolf believes Amy is right in her conclusion that the Day of Judgement is at hand. However we, like Kusey, are free to reject her conclusion. After all, the poor girl has been through enough (including her suicide attempt) to have left her desperate and clutching for salvation from any source.
Even if Amy is right, we're never given a clear idea about what this all means... and that's also one of the movie's strengths. Our view of the End of the World is the same as Amy and Kusey's: we see only one small, bewildering piece of what may be a vast design. Other recent Christian Apocalypse films attempt to give us a view of the whole world, and populate their view with straw men. If, say, you reject that particular film's sectarian interpretation of the identity of the Whore of Babylon... or resent its shallow depiction of the non-believers... or find its view of good and evil exceptionally naïve... then the film has probably lost you. Noctem's strength is that it does not attempt to foist one concrete meaning on its audience. We have no idea how Amy and Kusey's situtation fits into the Apocalypse. They are, after all, exceedingly minor characters in the drama: he's an unbeliever, and she's recently succumbed to the mortal sin of despair. In a way, it seems as though the terrible things that happen after Amy has her epiphany actually represent the first steps of her redemption. Or her enlightenment may have come too late to save her... or it may mean nothing at all. Wolf wisely lets the viewer make all the decisions.
You can, if you like, see everything in the film as an allegory. If you want to see the zombies not as actual zombies, but as those who follow a short-sighted, materialistic way of living... you may. If you see the Rednecks, who kill the weak and inconvenient in their ranks, as symbols of corporations... or globalists... or those who favor abortion... go ahead. You may also see the film as a straightforward zombie flick. Noctem allows you to read as much or as little into its narrative as you wish.
Wolf's approach not only makes for a more enjoyable and thought-provoking experience for everybody, it also avoids the sin of hybris that other Apocalypse fiction falls victim to. The Book of Revelations is very clear about its disapproval of rewriting its content:
22:18 · For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book:
22:19 · And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.
The Book of Revelations also speaks about the rise of false prophets and wannabe-Messiahs, who pretend to be revealing the Word of God, but are in fact lying (this is one of the few points in the whole Book that are spelled out with reasonable clarity). I can think of few better descriptions for those who write dogmatic, politically-minded fiction that purports to be "based on" the Bible. I'm thinking here of people like the Rev. Tim LaHaye and his cronies, who exploit religion to sell bad books. Such people count on their subject matter to defeat criticism: they can simply claim I don't appreciate the books because I have "hardened my heart against the Lord". But I'm not really complaining about their subject matter: books like LaHaye's are so badly written that I can't bear to read them long enough to find their subject matter. I'll say only this: those who purport to be revealing the Word of God by scribbling bad fiction could learn a lesson in humility — not to mention talent — from Jens Wolf.