If we are what we eat, it may well be because of all the things we've been forced to swallow. Students Nicole and Karl are coming to realize this. When Nicole is late for class one day, she's able to avoid detention through a plausible excuse... she claims she was held up by her art teacher, who was discussing her end-of-year project; and even though she has no proof, her teacher finds it acceptable. After all, an adult was involved. It's not as though Nicole was thinking or acting for herself! But the even tardier Karl is not so lucky. His excuse is every bit as valid: he isn't feeling at all well. But nobody cares if you're sick when you're a teenaged student; in fact, unless you can back up your story with some serious symptoms, you're likely to be accused of making it all up. Karl is not only sentenced to after-school detention — the teacher also takes him to task for the pins he's got stuck on his backpack. Backpack pins may seem like a tame sort of rebellion, but they're enough to change the teacher's attitude from contempt to cold fury. OK, the Che face has probably worn out its shock value over the decades; but Karl's GO SUCK A FUCK pin is likely to be the one that pushes the teacher over the edge.
Ah, well. The kids are used to it. They're too old to be treated like children, but too young for adults to take them seriously. For their part, Nicole and Karl don't take their teacher particularly seriously, either: they ignore the last few minutes of class and turn to each other instead. Karl really does look peakèd. He'd been fine, he says, up until lunchtime. After lunch, he'd felt really ill, and had had difficulty staying awake through some of his classes. In fact, he'd had a very strange dream... But now the school day is ending, and the two students agree to meet up later, in the woods — once Karl's detention is over.
Later, when Nicole arrives at their usual meeting spot, she's alarmed to find only Karl's pin-laden backpack lying on the path. What's happened to Karl? Unless, that is... what's that behind that fallen tree? It seems to be moving. Could that be... Karl?! And why is there... blood on his hands? Uh-oh. It looks like Karl's lunch has done more than disagree with him. Which brings up the question: what are the kids being fed in school?
That's the beginning of We Are What We Eat, the terse debut of 16-year-old director Sam Toller.
The idea for the movie came when Toller saw a group of his classmates shambling to school in the morning, and wondered what would happen if they were real zombies. The idea grew on him, and when he eventually approached producer Darien Davis about the project he had not only completed the script but had also drafted over 300 storyboards for the 10-minute film. Davis found Toller's enthusiasm — how else can I put it? — infectious, and soon teamed him up with a very good Director of Photography, Stuart Dye, and an equally talented sound designer, Carlos Badosa. Toller and Davis then assembled a cast and completed principal photography in a grueling 2-day shoot in the summer of 2011.
Toller is very good at conveying the sense of powerlessness most of us experience at 16. Nicole not only has to endure the scorn of her teacher: her mother's barely around, to the point that Nicole's decided she's not worth lying to; and her estranged father is so wrapped up in his work that he's forgotten — or worse, just ignored — his promises to her ("I'd come and see you tomorrow," he says on the phone, "but you'd be spending the day with a zombie." Toller then cuts to a pair of masks on Nicole's dresser, underscoring the false face her father's put on for her). It's no wonder she starts seeing Karl and the other students as ravenous zombies, stalking each other and their teacher. Karl's not so powerless any more, is he?
But is she hallucinating?
We're led to believe that Nicole is dreaming all this, but if she is, the film is engagingly ambiguous about where the dream really begins. Was she really attacked by her best friend in the woods? Or should we see that as a metaphor for a different kind of pursuit? And did she respond by bludgeoning him with a heavy stick, or is that metaphorical too?
(Actually, if I have any criticism of the movie, it's that the crucial sequence leading up to Nicole's discovery of Karl in the woods goes by too quickly. It seems as though Nicole is just on her way home from school, when suddenly she finds Karl's backpack; we're left wondering how Karl could have got there before her, since as far as we can tell he should still be in detention. A longer build-up would also have heightened the shock of the discovery of zombie Karl. The quick edits work very well in the scene just afterwards, when Nicole first examines the severity of Karl's bite. Since the wound is never shown to us directly, we can judge her injury only by her reaction, and the swift cuts make us imagine something worse than we ever see.)
Whether the school zombies are real or imagined, their makeup is both simple and effective. They look unnervingly like dead kids, pale and livid. Professional makeup artist Alex Whelpton supervised four students of the Greasepaint Make-Up School in creating these zombies, and one of their greatest achievements was their transformation of Halloween novelty teeth into convincing (well, mostly convincing) Undead dental work.
These days you can't swing a dripping femur without hitting another lousy low-budget zombie flick. That's why it's good to see a movie like this: it's brief, it's understated, and it's obviously been made out of deep personal commitment. Most important, Toller shows some real skill at handling his material. It helps that he has a more experienced crew working with him, but everybody involved with the film has made it clear that this is Toller's film through and through. And he has a lot to be proud of. He seems to have a very good instinct for visual storytelling: even when his pace is just a little too brisk, as I mentioned above, it's still perfectly possible to fill in the missing bits from the visual clues he's given us. His screen compositions are generally very well thought out, and imaginative, too: there's a delightfully icky moment during a mass zombie attack when zombie-Karl leans in and drools blood straight into the lens of the POV camera.
But I suppose the movie's most impressive feature is its refusal to explain itself. Subtlety seems to be a dying art among zombie film-makers; even George Romero has lost the knack over the years. We're never really sure how much of We Are What We Eat we're supposed to take literally, but if there's a subtext (and I've tried to point out what I read into it myself) it's never more than hinted at. Certainly the movie's last shot makes us wonder whether we're dealing with Romero-style zombies, as we've assumed, or Lamberto Bava-style Demons (of course, it could just be they had some really cool prosthetic monster teeth left over, and why waste them? But every other aspect of the production has been so deliberate that you have to assume the costume choice was deliberate, too). Is it just a Dead of Night-style (or more appropriately, Nightmare City-style) twist ending? Could the whole last two thirds of the movie be Karl's dream — a continuation of the "strange dream" he told Nicole about — as he sits sweating in detention? Or is there something else going on? That final image, combined with the title, makes the interesting suggestion that becoming a zombie is really Nicole's first step toward not becoming a zombie.
Congratulations to Sam Toller for his first contribution to a genre he's (cough) technically not allowed to see without a Parent or Guardian.