A few years back, I was searching Netflix for new horror movies and came across an ultra-low-budget film called Colin (2009). The description of a zombie film shot from a single zombie’s point of view appealed to me, and that is the main selling point, conceptually. But I’ve never seen a horror film so dependent on sound, and that’s the element that makes it truly terrifying.
In keeping with the low-budget feel, the sound work on Colin isn’t high tech, but it’s incredibly effective. Before the audience sees a frame of the movie, shuffling footsteps echo over brief opening credits. There’s not a lot of fanfare to it, and the first image – an obviously-injured young man rushing into a lower middle class apartment – looks like it could have been show on VHS. But this works to the film’s advantage. The makeup and special effects wouldn’t hold up to viewing in HD. Plus, it gives the film a gritty feel without diving into the well-worn territory of found footage.
The music on the soundtrack is minimal, mostly low swells and a rhythmic pulse. And since the main character is a zombie, there are long stretches of dialogue. After Colin turns, he “wakes up,” so to speak, lying on the floor of the apartment. He slaps his hand on the hardwood and scratches at it, flexing stiffly. That’s an indicator that he’s changed, but it’s the cracks and pops that drive home what has happened. Distant gunshots and explosions and a few muted screams communicate the idea that the infection has spread throughout the city.
It’s immersive from the start and there’s no real trick to it. No CGI. The zombies’ pallor looks like it was created with stuff you’d get from a party store, and even the latex is used sparingly. For much of the film, Colin doesn’t look too different from what he was in life, just a little sick or drunk. Much of the film’s impact comes from showing Colin’s reactions to this new world around him. The audience hears what he hears, and gets to see Alastair Kirton as Colin react. There’s a sense that somewhere in his head, he is just as terrified as anyone else. And that isolation is scarier than an army of computer-generated ghouls.
The most effective sequence in the movie about a half an hour in, when Colin wonders into a house besieged by his fellow walkers. There is a small group of humans fighting a losing battle to stay alive, trying to keep the zombies from getting to the second floor. Colin is in the middle of it, watching as one-by-one, the humans get pulled into the throng and torn apart. Usually these types of scenes are shot from the point of view of the victim. But just changing where the camera is, placing it in the middle of the horde and hearing the desperate voices of the victims among the chorus of moans frames that scene to maximize the horror. The action is random, and the confusion is palpable.
Colin gets to bear witness not only to the cruelty of a newly born nation of monsters, he also gets to see a bit of how screwed up some humans can be when he’s locked in a basement with a woman he follows from the party to a basement where an older man assures her she’s safe. That basement turns out to be his own personal dungeon where he keeps a few female zombies as torture slaves. He can’t help her, but there is real judgment in his eyes when he stumbles by and interrupts the man as he strangles the woman.
The old chestnut is that the best monster movies aren’t really about the monsters. They’re about the humans trying to live in a changed world. And Colin certainly has that. When he first hits the streets, a couple of guys beat him up trying to take his shoes. When they try to kill Colin, his sister finds them and stops it, only to see Colin wander off. There is no reason a zombie needs shoes, and by most anyone’s judgment, he’s a monster who should be destroyed for the good of humanity. But taking his shoes still seems like a transgression. He’s still partly human at that point.
There is a struggle to retain something of who he was, and eventually he loses that battle in the second half. By then, his sister has found him again, and gets to watch that last bit of humanity flicker away. With only a couple of lines of dialogue, the process unfolds clearly and tragically. Colin gets to watch, pawing at a window, as his sister argues with what is probably her husband and mother about whether or not he should be killed. It’s tough to tell at that point why he is trying to escape, whether he has some instinct left to protect his sister or if the three humans in the yard simply look like a good meal.
The next time they argue, Colin can only hear the yelling and violence on the other side of the kitchen door, where he’s been locked in. Then his sister, who has been nursing a bite wound throughout the movie, gets thrown in with him. In the end, it’s his mother’s job to tape newspaper over the outside windows so no one has to see what their beloveds have become. And that’s another simple, fantastic trick – she tapes them so the camera captures the headlines and communicates a bit of the history of the epidemic. Before she can finish sealing them in, she catches a glimpse of a photo of Colin back when he was her living son, and gets one final look at what he’s become.
By the time Colin and his sister make it out into daylight again, the distant gunfire is sporadic. Humans have started to regain control. Here, just before he is hammered into submission, Colin’s face is torn up in an explosion, and he finally looks the part of a monster. Lying on the ground, he gets to witness humans slaughter a number of infected in their group before they turn. They’re hidden from view, but again, you can hear their desperate screams as they are trapped between a brick wall and a crowd bent on thrashing them with hammers and crowbars.
In a sort of coda, Colin winds up back at the apartment where he was first injured, and has a flashback, showing how it was his girlfriend who bit him, and how he had to put her down with a hammer. The story could have closed with Colin watching the mob, but the movie is more optimistic than that. It’s the story of the zombie apocalypse, sure, but in the end, torn up monstrous Colin gets to keep a tiny bit of humanity. Another simple, but effective, trick.