Many films considered titans of the horror genre come from incredibly low-budget productions. A low budget does not mean low quality. Films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Evil Dead (1981), The Blair Witch Project (1999), and Paranormal Activity (2007) were made for a pittance compared to their big studio counterparts but still proved revolutionary in their impact.
Compared to other genres, horror is unique in its ability to establish a powerful connection without requiring a large budget. Horror filmmakers can use darkness and shadows to activate our survival instincts and evoke fear, drawing the audience’s attention to the story. Low-budget horror films can deliver a quality experience by taking one of two approaches: be funny or scary. Alive, written and directed by David Marantz, is neither funny nor especially scary. The production value is low, giving the impression a community theater troupe made the film with a spontaneous interest in making a zombie movie. Nonetheless, it does exhibit potential in two aspects: writing and cinematography.
Marantz demonstrates good narrative ideas, even if they are somewhat derivative. The film's story focuses on Helen (Ellen Hillman), a teenager caught in the zombie apocalypse. Helen, her boyfriend, Kevin (Kian Pritchard), and her little brother, Barney (Andrew and Daniel May-Gohrey), accompany her. The zombie virus has infected Barney, and Helen's primary motivation is ensuring his survival.
Alive's plot has heavy overtones of 28 Days Later (2002), I am Legend (2007), Warm Bodies (2013), and The Walking Dead (2010). Marantz combines the narrative tropes from these influences in a way that is as interesting as the source material. The film’s opening introduces no less than eight possible protagonists before Helen becomes the focus. If audiences can get through it, they will feel invested in a mildly compelling story. Despite its other shortcomings, the plot makes it easier to endure the film to its conclusion. The film finishes on a narrative low note that disposes of a pillar of the zombie genre and deflates much of the previous tension, which is disappointing. The narrative proves to be the film's best part, even with these problems.
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Cinematographer Tom Allen does his best to support Marantz's story with a washed color pallet rooted in dark greens and sepia undertones. These choices convey the emotion of the scenes, making Alive enjoyable to look at. Allen’s camera work compliments the film but isn’t consistent, especially in the later acts. Marantz uses noir shots to save on backgrounds and avoid inflating the budget, but as a consequence, we must watch the actors in close-up shots against a wall or black background. This clever use of obfuscation usually works, even though it's noticeable and overstays its welcome. The camera angles multiply rapidly in the film's action scenes, making viewers dizzy and desperate for less. The rest of the camera work is sufficient for a movie of this caliber.
The film’s performances are weak and lack emotion. The zombies fail to be believable. The actors display no confidence in their delivery and characterization. Hillman is adequate in Helen and Gillian Broderick, as Lucy delivers compelling moments but nothing extraordinary. The cast needed to take more risks. There was vast potential beyond the performances they gave.
Alive’s sound engineering is amateur. In some scenes, a mono microphone track is laid for the left channel, pulling viewers out of the film. There are inexplicable heavy breathing scenes attributed to a sound boom operator unknowingly leaving a microphone on. These are audio issues that post-production should have resolved.
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t work, and the narrative's potential remains safely locked away. It attempts to diverge from traditional low-budget horror movie-making but achieves little. Despite a promising plot and suitable cinematography, its failure rests on a lack of execution, emotion, and inexcusable neglect. Even the infamous Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957) was unintentionally entertaining at some point, while Alive could only hope for such heights.