Reviewed by Johnny Butane
Starring Ray Bullock, Jr., Emma Choy, Bahi Ghubril
Directed by Matthew Hope
Distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment
Over the last decade or so, zombie films seem to be churned out at an alarming rate from both big budget studios to no budget indies. The reason is simple; for the most part a zombie film is cheap to make, doesn’t take a helluva lot of thought to write, and has a rabid built-in audience desperate to see something with some originality.
Allow me to introduce you to The Vanguard, then. Matthew Hope’s ambitious vision of our future is one of the most refreshing zombie films to show its face in a long while, mainly because Hope ignored that second rule of cheap zombie filmmaking and actually spent some time developing a story.
Said story follows Max, a survivor living in the wilderness of a world bereft of human life. In a future that’s uncomfortably possible in this day and age, mankind has run out of oil and a company called simply The Corporation developed a new race of creatures called Biosyns as part of a depopulation program. This new breed comes equipped with an insatiable taste for human flesh, relying on sound and smell to guide them.
They’re everywhere, and Max sees it as his sole purpose on Earth to eliminate them. However, when we meet him, he’s to the point that he questions if there’s anything left of the world outside his own. For all intents and purposes, he’s become just as animalistic as the creatures he hunts.
As if things weren’t bad enough, the Corporation has dispatched a group of genetically altered humans known as Trackers to dispatch Max for reasons that are unclear at first. He meets up with one of them and almost kills him but stops at the last second, recognizing the Tracker as human. The Tracker convinces Max they need to head south, where it may or may not be safer, and on the way they meet up with two other survivors looking for a fabled Resistance. When the truth about Max’s real reason for living is revealed, however, everything changes. Slowly Max comes to realize that instead of being the executioner of the Biosyns, he may be their savior.
It’s a damn good concept and well executed, though The Vanguard is not without its issues. Though Max’s time alone at the start of the film is usually peppered with some serious violence, it’s hard to figure out just what is going on. He wanders, fights some Biosyns, and then wanders some more, scenes that are occasionally accompanied by a voiceover of Max speaking to his father, whom he never knew. Until he meets up with the rest of the characters, we only see the Tracker randomly stalking through the woods, with no clear purpose that we know of.
Of course it all comes together and makes sense, but some patience is required. Those looking for a wall-to-wall gore-soaked zombie opus should look elsewhere; The Vanguard is deliberately paced, and while at times that is to the film’s detriment, it’s a refreshing switch from the brainless “films” zombies fans usually subject themselves to.
Bullock turns in an effective, creepy performance as Max, channeling some Christian Bale a la Reign of Fire (shut up, I liked it) combined with an unhinged mountain man. His humanity is in question at the beginning of the film, despite all appearances of being human, but as the film progresses he noticeably becomes more and more of a hero. It’s quite a character arc, especially impressive when you consider he hardly speaks a word for the entire run time.
Along with being a good storyteller, Hope has a great eye for design, too; the Biosyns especially are a smart blend of traditional zombie and medical experiment gone wrong. Their eyes and facial markings set them apart from other “undead” creatures, and the animalistic sounds they produce and their movements make them seen truly fierce. The Trackers look quite iconic with their military uniforms and identical haircuts. Just futuristic enough to put you in the right place.
Pacing issues aside, The Vanguard is a breath of fresh air in the over-crowded market of low-budget “zombie” films. Hope shows a good eye and real storytelling skills, and I hope this is only the beginning of his time in our genre!
4 out of 5
1/2 out of 5
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