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Sunday, 5 September 2010

Alice Jacobs is Dead (2009)

Director: Alex Horwitz
Stars: John La Zar and Adrienne Barbeau

After a string of amateur or budding professional films, here comes a short with name actors, very professional denouement and a thoroughly unusual take on a commonplace story. Everyone seems to be making zombie movies these days but this shows just how far the genre can go, winning the Best Horror/Suspense Film award at the San Diego Comic-Con in the process. It's a zombie movie but it's one in which the disease that causes zombies becomes the focus instead of the ensuing brain munching. Producer Jacob Robinson described it to Fangoria magazine as 'a story of terminal illness where the terminal illness is zombieism.' Alex Horwitz, who wrote and directed, calls it 'a heartbreaking, tender, impassioned love story about aging, but aging in this case means turning into a zombie.' Surprisingly, the film that leapt into my mind as a comparison was Lovely, Still, because what rang out to me the most was the use of older lead actors in a very unusual romance.

This time out the disease is called the Z-Virus and it's been stopped in its tracks by Dr Benjamin Jacobs, working out of the St Romero Memorial Hospital in San Francisco. His work has ensured that there are no new cases any more, but there are still older ones that the Jacobs serum can't cure and the real story stems from the fact that the doctor's wife Alice is one of those cases. She's somehow immune to the serum but he's unwilling to let her die. Officially she's already dead, as Jacobs has announced to the world, but in reality she's kept alive in tight quarantine at their home, running through a sick woman's routine and deteriorating a little more each day. She showers, she vomits, she spits out blood when she brushes her teeth, she injects herself with her medicine, she watches White Zombie on TV. Dr Jacobs is a devoted husband and he works hard to find a way to save her before she finally turns into a zombie and it really becomes too late.

Horwitz wrote this short film with two actors in mind. He conceived it as a project for John LaZar, from Night of the Scarecrow, Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and the joyous sword and sorcery spoof Deathstalker II. He'd met him in LA and fashioned the story around him, but then wrote the part of his screen wife for Adrienne Barbeau, not dreaming that he'd ever actually succeed in casting her. He sent her a script anyway and her agents didn't think she'd be interested either, given that she'd never appeared in a short film before and this had a really quick shoot: a mere four days, only three for her. Yet after reading it, she found herself fascinated by the part, which is rather unique in zombie movie history, and chose to go ahead. Backing up Barbeau and LaZar is Peter Cambor from NCIS: LA, completing a surprisingly high profile cast for a horror short. He plays George, the doctor's lab assistant, who is bright enough to figure out what's going on.

This really is a peach of a short, impeccably produced and beautifully executed. It runs 21 minutes, giving plenty of opportunity to flesh out the characters and establish the setting, but it knows just how long it should run and it's paced well. It even suckers us in at the beginning with what initially appears to be the old cliché of panning across the Golden Gate Bridge, but it soon reveals itself to be something new and carries on breaking fresh ground from there. It asks a lot of questions, not just about science but about humanity, and it plays with the point at which one becomes the other in both directions. When we meet her, Alice Jacobs is suffering. Her husband calls her beautiful. She calls herself an aberration. Next day she wakes up zombiefied and takes a chunk out of his shoulder. He ties and gags her to keep her safe, but still gives her a kiss before heading into the lab. This could all easily be surreal but Horwitz keeps it grounded and it's a treat to relish.

Horwitz is an experienced hand in film but not usually on his own pictures, his only previous credit as a writer/director being on a short called The J2 Project about the cloning of Jesus that starred Peter Cambor long before he found his way to television. Mostly he's been a production assistant on high profile features like Spider-Man 3 and The Bourne Ultimatum, the perfect way to learn how the industry works and a great way to make contacts too, something that helped when he set up Alice Jacobs is Dead with his own money. Wanting it to look professional, he hired professionals at a fraction of what they'd usually earn. Producer Jacob Robinson explained to Horwitz how he could get away with not paying people at all, but he wanted to do it properly and he did. 'I've produced a feature film,' said Robinson, talking about The Distance Between the Apple and the Tree, 'and both the budget and scale of Alice Jacobs were much larger than that movie.'

There's very little to find fault with, beyond the name of the hospital which is fast becoming a pet peeve of mine. With everyone and their dog making zombie movies, that name is everywhere. In a hundred years, after the zombie apocalypse when every male child is named Romero, people will look back and wonder what happened to Bobs, Jacks and Bills. To be fair, at least there's another connection here. Not only is this another cinematic child of the genre he rejuvenated, but Adrienne Barbeau worked for him on a couple of other pictures, Creepshow and Two Evil Eyes. She praised Horwitz's preparation. 'Sure, it would've been nice to get a different angle for maybe one scene or another shot,' she said, 'but we got everything we needed in that short period of time because he knew what he was doing.' It's only looking at what isn't there that flaws appear, like wondering if the final shot should have been more iconic, and if we have to look that hard then this is essential.

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