Lionsgate // 2008 // 73 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // May 11th, 2012
Nobody is immune to fear.
If we only counted vision and ambition, Descendents would be in the top ten films of all time. Working in a debased genre (the zombie film), with a miniscule budget (approximately enough to buy a mid-luxury car) and no stars to speak of, director Jorge Olguin aims to make a dramatic and ambitious film that layers political commentary with familial heartache in a post-apocalyptic world. Of course, in 73 minutes, it doesn't succeed -- what film could under the circumstances? -- but as a demonstration of Olguin's talent and the possibilities still left in the zombie genre, Descendents is worth a look for fans.
It takes place in some indeterminate future, where a mysterious virus has turned a significant portion of the population into the ravenous undead. However, unlike ever other zombie flick setup, this one includes a little girl as the protagonist, one who must make her way through this nightmare world. She and other children discover they are immune. Heading to the coast, the fragile group hopes for survival.
As a genre, the zombie film has had its ups and downs. Starting officially with Night of the Living Dead, the genre had a pretty obvious form to follow: humans versus the undead, preferably in a sealed-off location (house, mall, or island). That got boring quickly, so directors were forced to either retread the same old Romero territory or attempt ever more outlandish zombie encounters (which explains the famous zombie-shark fight from Zombi 2). Then along came 28 Days Later, which gave the genre a new lease on life with the fast-moving zombie as the new monster. The arrival of Descendents is proof that the genre is entering (or has entered) another stagnant period; I fully expect to see a fast-walker on a treadmill in a movie in the near future.
That is not, however, to completely dismiss Descendents. Yes, it has a lot wrong with it. It follows the formula of the zombie film a little too closely. It's got a lot of good ideas, but doesn't know how to turn ideas into a coherent story or character arc. It's way too short to even get a handle on the material it does have to work with. It's straining for visual style with sometimes cheap effects.
No, despite this mass of flaws, there's something fairly compelling about Descendents. Part of that rests on the fact that the focus of the film is on children as post-apocalyptic protagonists. While it's easy to dismiss most adult characters as either lifeless or annoying, children arouse our sympathy immediately. We worry about these kids and want to see them reach their mythic destination.
Another aspect of the film that makes it compelling is the political engagement it shows. I don't know that much about Chilean politics, but I do know that they're still under the cloud left by the human rights abuses of dictator Auguste Pinochet (who overthrew Salvadore Allende in 1973 with CIA help). Though I can't detect a specific political message in Descendents (and I'm not sure there's a specific one in any of Romero's great films), the imagery of children in a war zone certainly resonates with the country's history. It's not enough for the film to appeal to those outside the genre faithful, but it gives the film a little more substance than most zombie films.
I also think a lot of genre fans will appreciate what Olguin has done with such an obviously low budget. The makeup is solid, the landscape of the world appropriately blasted-looking, and the film feels impressively zombie-fied (unlike many low-budget zombie films that were obviously just filmed in some guy's house).
The film's 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is fine for a film of this budget. It's got a dark look to it, with lots of obvious digital trickery going on. Detail isn't great, and black levels can fluctuate, but none of this takes away from the film's storytelling. The 5.1 surround track (in English, somewhat surprisingly) is similarly okay. The dialogue can get a bit messy during some of the characters' more hysterical moments, but voiceover narration sounds great. Surround use is pretty consistent during action scenes as well.
The film's main extra is a 30-minute making-of featurette that provides an exhaustive look at how the film was shot and put together. It's a little light on story info than I'd like, but it really gives a good picture of what it takes to make a low budget zombie picture. It's not in English, but subtitles are provided. We also get four music videos featuring imagery from the film (sometimes incogrously), and the film's trailer.
Even though Descendents is an impressive zombie flick, it doesn't quite have what it takes to be a classic. It's certainly worth a rental for fans of the genre, but outside the zombie faithful, it probably won't play well.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 73 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Music Videos