Zombie Warz: Falls the Shadow is an extremely low-budget independent film, one that has much less to do with zombies than it does its cast of characters. I have to imagine that the “Zombie Warz” title was added just to sell DVDs to the crowd that loves awesomely-bad B-movies. However, people expecting some cheap-looking zombie guts are going to be disappointed. While Falls the Shadow is definitely a film mad on a micro budget, it’s a beautifully photographed, well-directed little gem, that accomplishes more than most student films of its ilk could ever dream of.
The film opens with the execution of a young black woman by a gang of southern neo-nazis, lead by the appropriately named Reverend Phelps (Phil Perry), who seems hell-bent on rebuilding a post-apocalyptic America in the image of some violent right-wing God. His organization exemplifies the negative side of how humanity may act in a world where all organized governments are gone; his band of raiders use fear and violence to get what they want, including sex.
As their counterpart we meet a cast of compassionate characters, all of whom begin with their own separate stories. Eventually their lives intertwine, thanks to an invariable link to the band of neo-confederates, who are expanding their reach by raping, murdering, and robbing anyone they come into contact with.
We first meet Noah (Luke Hatmaker), a man who has escaped the neo-nazi compound, and now traverses the world alone, surviving without sacrificing his capacity for empathy. On his travels he meets a young woman, Elena (Olivia Bishop), who is living in an abandoned house alone and seems all too happy to have a man enter her life – one who isn’t already dead, that is.
Other stories involve a young woman, Kina (Nomalanga Eniafe, and her son, Orlando (Jesse Warrick), both of whom are black, and both of whom are hunted by raiders for exactly that reason. We also meet Frank (Ron Berryessa) and his son-in-law, Michael (David Eby), who are on a mission to save Michael’s daughter from the bad guys, who have already taken the life of Michael’s wife.
The zombies are little more than a backdrop in the story, existing to give an explanation to the apocalyptic setting, but having very little to do with the plot or the characters otherwise. Falls the Shadow is very much inspired by The Walking Dead, which also features zombies that are largely inconsequential to the plot. This is a character study more than anything else, following the trend of using horror settings to put characters in situations where their emotions are pushed to the limits.
The juxtaposition between the cruelty of the neo-confederates and the compassion of Noah and the rest of our heroes is interesting to consider. What would happen if extreme religious groups, like the KKK or the Westboro Baptist Church, were able to garner influence in a world where people have to fight for every necessity? What role would the rest of us have in creating a new world if those groups had centralized their power?
I think Falls the Shadow hopes that the best parts of humanity will prevail in the end, though its exploration of these questions is, admittedly, rather limited. These characters largely wear their sense of morality on their sleeves, and there are definitely clear-cut good guys and bad guys. These aren’t exactly complex people, but I still enjoyed the hell out of learning about them .
The apocalyptic world on screen comes to life surprisingly well, thanks largely to the superb cinematography and efficient art direction. Lighting a scene where only sources of natural light are supposed to exist can be difficult to accomplish, but cinematographer Kevin Eslinger pulls it off perfectly, delivering light without sacrificing the need for darkness. There is almost a cinema verite style to the photography, thanks in part to the film being shot largely in handheld and having the appearance of being lit largely by fires and moonlight. This was an excellent artistic choice for a story that focuses on the lives of the characters more than anything else, and in a way it makes you feel like you’re watching events unfold in real time.
This realistic approach to photography is reinforced by the simplicity art direction and set design. No doubt this movie was actually shot at a lot of abandoned properties, most of which already contained the graffiti and broken glass you’d expect from something no longer in use. Still, adding junk, like rubble and crushed cars, to decorate a set isn’t as easy as it sounds. It’s difficult to create a sense of randomness, especially on a budget; however, Falls the Shadow pulls it off perfectly, in a way that makes you believe the apocalypse has actually happened.
Yes, the film suffers from typical low-budget problems: the acting is uneven, some of the dialogue isn’t perfectly in sync, and the sound design could use some tweaking. But none of this matters; issues like this are inevitable when you’re making a film that largely features your friends and family, and I was easily able to overlook many of the technical problems.
Writer/Director Steven Berryessa is very talented, and what he’s managed to accomplish with such limited resources is remarkable. I’ve seen a ton of student films like this, and they very rarely get any sort of nationwide release. Typically this is the type of movie than can only be seen at a local theatre or perhaps on Vimeo, but almost never in a Redbox.
There’s a reason that Falls the Shadow earned a nationwide release, and that’s because it’s a really good little movie. If you’re going in with Hollywood on the brain, you’re going to be very disappointed with what you see; Falls the Shadow is so indy that we need a new word to describe just how indy it is.
You’ll have to be open to watching something that’s on a different level than what you’re used to in order to thoroughly enjoy it. For someone like me who is used to seeing dozens of student films every year, that wasn’t an issue. I loved this movie.
Falls the Shadow makes me want to grab a camera and start making a movie of my own. It’s amazing what you can accomplish with a small kickstarter and a handful of friends. The photography is beautiful, the original soundtrack fits the movie perfectly, and the script is solid. Micro budget filmmaking – a filmmaking process where talent is your primary resource – is an art form all its own, and I hope this type of independent cinema carves out its own niche. Falls the Shadow is likely a side of filmmaking that most people haven’t seen before, and I hope anyone reading this is willing to start exposing themselves to more movies like this. You may just like what you find.