There’s something almost romantic about the zombie film genre. In a world with grossly overpopulated urban swaths, rampant pollution, and constant noise, the idea of 99% of the planet being turned into mindlessly-stupid and easily-killable monsters seems to rub a lot of people the right way. It’s the ultimate ‘Mother Nature’s revenge’ scenario. A giant Earth reset button. Of course, secretly enjoying such a possible scenario requires operating under the assumption that you wind up as part of the 1% of survivors. So let’s say you did. What if you were one of the “lucky” ones? How would you handle a wildly changed world, both physically and emotionally? How would you survive? Would you even want to, once you realized what your new life would entail?
Because that’s the crux of a great zombie story narrative. Its real power lies in its characters’ methods of dealing with a society gone horribly wrong. Strip away the CGI, the often-tedious explanations of how zombies came about, the shaky cam, etc., and you’d better have a story that highlights humanity in a sea of inhumanity or you’ve missed the point. This is why The Battery is one of the greatest zombie films you may ever see.
Written and directed by Jeremy Gardner, and starring Gardner and Adam Cronheim, The Battery tells the story of two men, Ben (Gardner) and Mickey (Cronheim), as they travel the woods of Connecticut after a zombie outbreak that has presumably struck the entire planet. The vast majority of the population is dead or zombified, while most of the stragglers must endure a nomadic existence in order to survive. Ben and Mickey were baseball players in their former lives, Ben a starting catcher and Mickey a relief pitcher. Thus the film’s title, alluding to the close relationship between a pitcher and his catcher.
Although they travel together, Ben and Mickey have taken very different paths in dealing with post-zombie life. Gloriously-bearded extrovert Ben has largely rolled with it, taking a very pro-active approach when it comes to dealing with zombies. He carries a handgun and baseball bat, not afraid to use either on whatever hapless zombie crosses his path. Ben is so nonchalantly violent that he appears to almost revel in this new world. On the other hand, Mickey is still very much stuck in his former life, emotionally unable to cope with the present. Mickey constantly listens to music on a portable CD player and religiously scavenges for batteries to keep the device alive. He is non-violent and refuses to kill zombies or even name them as such, a point of tension between the duo. He even continues to use hair gel whenever he can get his hands on some. In short, Mickey is in denial. His denial runs so deep that one of Mickey’s first scenes in the film brings the point quickly home by showing him scratching a handful of pilfered lottery tickets. He whoops in delight when he ‘wins’ $1000, while Ben studies him in puzzlement, bemusedly shaking his head.
The two wander the woods of New England, searching abandoned homes for supplies, moving on, practicing baseball pitches, bathing in ice-cold snowmelt streams, surviving. Ben has no plan, beyond not dying. Mickey needs to know that there is an eventual endgame, wondering where they are going on their endless post-apocalyptic treks. Ben seems confused by his frustration. There is no ‘somewhere’ to go. If there is, they’ll know it when they get there.
Then, after Mickey stumbles across a couple of walkie-talkies that he deems useful, a possible answer rises from the ether. Mysterious survivors on the same frequency speak of a place called The Orchard, where an unknown number of survivors are living some semblance of a normal life, even talking about what movie they plan on watching that evening. Mickey desperately asks the voices for help and the location of The Orchard, but one of the voices, a woman named Annie, warns him to stay away. The Orchard is full. Ben and Mickey are not welcome. Mickey’s frantic pleas for Annie to reconsider go unanswered. After a brief interruption, Ben and Mickey have been left alone once again.
What follows is a very intimate buddy picture. It is eventually revealed that Ben and Mickey barely knew each other before the zombie outbreak. They were not friends before and their friendship is tenuous at best even now. Ben’s casual indifference and Mickey’s pining for something forever lost are energies that are constantly at odds. Ben insists that the pair keep moving, while Mickey just wants to be able to sleep in a real bed again. Mickey tries to formulate a plan to find his parents and his girlfriend, while Ben shrugs off the idea, deeming it pointless. But despite their opposing personalities, Ben and Mickey’s friendship grows throughout their trials. Whether they like it or not, all they have is each other.
As the film’s end nears, a chance and unfortunate encounter brings Ben and Mickey face-to-face with the mysterious Annie, which soon leads them trapped in an old Volvo surrounded by zombies. The tension builds as the duo rack their brains for a way out and contemplate their possible impending deaths.
Made for six million dollars, The Battery would be a damn fine movie. Except that it wasn’t. Amazingly, the film was made on the microbudget of six THOUSAND dollars. The absence of big dollar signs forced Gardner, Cronheim, and director of photography Christian Stella into a no-frills, bare bones approach that focuses heavily on a study of the interpersonal effects of a zombie outbreak, rather than special effects, explosions, CGI blood, or other frivolities. The viewer never sees a burnt-out city, nor soot-stained wastelands, nor the recently-made-obligatory ‘fires off in the distance’ zombie film shot. Instead, we see the occasional group of wandering zombies, the pair’s varying methods of dealing with the threat, and a script that hints at faraway chaos and allows your imagination to fill in the rest. The film is further fleshed out by wonderful musical choices, a variety of minimalist folk that magnifies Ben and Mickey’s new existence of forced rustic coarseness. Stella’s photography is beautiful, filling the screen with bright yellow and green countryside and avoiding the more ‘traditional’ zombie movie atmosphere of dialed-down contrasts and unnaturally bleak blues and grays. The script, penned by Gardner, is tight and unencumbered by unrealized subplots or unnecessary filling. Also notable is a climactic scene towards the end of the film that is an obvious nod towards Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, an extremely ballsy move that further cemented my love for The Battery.
Gardner and Cronheim are astonishingly good. Gardner plays Ben as a physically-dominating warrior, using humor and an easygoing manner to deal with the situation, while Cronheim deftly creates a Mickey whose introversion and quiet demeanor struggles to hide a simmering anger that boils over more and more as the film goes on. Cronheim does much of the emotional heavy lifting as Mickey implodes further and further, while Gardner shows a natural talent for comedic timing. In short, the tandem is a good one and wholly believable in their situation.
I thoroughly recommend The Battery. It is the boiled-down essence of what many other, and far more expensive, zombie horrors aspire to be: a story that strives to witness, remember, and celebrate humanity in a situation where humanity is in danger of being snuffed out forever. It is frightening, sad, and thought-provoking, with nary an exploding head or amputation in sight. Some movies need fountains of gore to keep its audience interested. The Battery doesn’t. Instead, it gives you a gut punch of a story that you’ll remember long after the credits roll. As all good movies should.