‘It gets up and kills. The people it kills get up and kill,’ said a TV show host in the seminal Dawn of the Dead (1978). While he understood the undead threat, Spanish TV personality Ángela (Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman Pablo (Pablo Rosso) obviously never saw Romero’s original broadcast before their fire department ride-along turned all-they-can-eat zombie feast in [REC]. The handheld horror film’s story will be recognized by most Stateside audiences thanks to the American-remake Quarantine, which can’t match the original’s atmosphere and scream-out-loud scares. When the fire station gets a call about a woman trapped in her apartment, Ángela and Pablo are happy to see some action as they shoot their nightly TV show. But they quickly realize this is no typical rescue when the old lady goes mad and bites a policeman. As they try to get the policeman out of the apartment building, crews in hazmat suits have sealed off the apartment building, trapping our heroes inside with the flesh-hungry fiends.
The handheld, point-of-view style of [REC] is nothing new to horror, but it’s the first film that actually gets it right. Rather than a bumbling film student (i.e. The Blair Witch Project) or a terrified New Yorker (Cloverfield), the person wielding the camera is a cameraman. While there’s plenty of shaky-cam running during the action, when things slow down, shots are neatly framed. Pablo knows where to put the camera and where people should be standing to make things interesting. He is more than a character — he becomes the camera — and we are right there with him.
By giving us a professional handler, the camera sucks us into the action — we’re in the thick of a full-on zombie outbreak. And when aesthetics call for a camera spotlight or that bizarre green night vision, they aren’t just cheesy visual devices fueling the next jump scare, but the tools that move the story and scares along. There is one drawback, however. If the well-shot, visceral handheld camera ramps up tension and sucks us into the action, we also feel the slowness of the expository scenes. Mostly shot in one take, the explanatory scenes and character interviews (they are a TV crew to the end) can’t benefit from traditional quick cuts that would speed up dialogue. Luckily, these scenes are few and they still help to ratchet up the tension in the film.
Adding to [REC]‘s effectiveness is its ‘less is more’ attitude. At this point, the genre is so overrun with zombie movies that we’ve seen nearly every thing in the way of flesh eating. The film shows us enough action to make us feel like we’ve seen all we would of a zombie attack, just before we turn the other way and start running. Early in the film we see attacks from down a hallway or through a crack in door — with people and objects obscuring our vision. Toward the end, as the zombies close in, [REC] shows us more of the undead through spotlights, but less of the action thanks to the surrounding darkness, leaving us with a claustrophobic feeling. Sure, we can see what’s directly in front of us, but darkness hides that one right beside us.
Although [REC] doesn’t bring anything new story- or character-wise to the cannibals’ table — its zombies (or more accurately ‘infected’) are straight out of 28 Days Later and the acting is on par with any film where screaming is much of the dialogue — its execution of terror is scary, in a good way. For those who are sick of the run-of-the-mill remake or just looking for a good chill, [REC] has refined visceral horror to show us the way it should be done. Not since John Carpenter’s one-shot intro to Halloween has POV horror been this good.
The DVD includes a making-of featurette.