The undead are the monsters of our time. Just take a gander at the number of movies and TV series - alright, I’ll use the word…content - dedicated to their exploits, or rather, their ability to serve as a catalyst to explore humanity’s inner monstrosity. In the end, that is where we usually arrive, at the point where we discover the good old zombies are mindlessly pursuing their survival - or whatever their state of being is - and the men and women running for their lives break every moral code and turn into worse monsters. The Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968) set the blueprint. Since then, filmmakers and storytellers have explored unending variations of the theme.
Their basic humanity allows low-budget movies to mine with relative ease this horror subgenre. There is no need to invest in special effects or CGI desk jockeys slaving away to turn green screens into imaginary worlds. The action takes place in our pedestrian reality. That’s what makes them so effective. Basic makeup on a bunch of extras suffice to convey the menacing monsters. Camera placement and film language do the rest.
Survival of the meanest: Gardner scavenges for supplies in "The Battery" / Photo courtesy of O hannah Films.
The zombie field is overcrowded, but you should find time for an indie film that hits it out of the park. This rote baseball reference is admissible since the principal characters of The Battery are a couple of young baseball players rambling through rural New England. They fight to survive an unexplained zombie apocalypse. The rationale is that there will be fewer zombies there than in the city. Behind the cameras, this creative decision also simplifies production, with no need to hustle for location permits and studio space.
Ben (Jeremy Gardner) and Mickey (Adam Cronheim) call themselves The Battery, but it is unclear which represents the positive and the negative pole. Maybe they switch roles along the way. Happenstance brought them together: they were members of the same sports team and apparently the sole survivors. They could not be more different. The first is a dumpy grouch, ready to dispatch the undead with a bullet or blunt strikes to the head with the bat he always carries around. Mickey has a gentle disposition. He lacks the stomach for such a thing, even if his life depends on it. Every chance he gets, he escapes into his headphones, finding refuge in the music pumping out of his battery-operated Discman - the ubiquitous CD players from the pre-MP3 era.
Don’t let the absence of an iPod give you pause. A timeframe for the plot is not defined, but we can assume that the action takes place in the early Aughts by its 2012 release date. Or perhaps the technological infrastructure that would allow hybrid cellphones-music players ceased to exist in the doomsday scenario. “That thing is going to cost you your life and mine,” says Ben, in one of many confrontations he stirs up to pass the time.
Into the wild: Gardner and Cronheim enter the forest in "The Battery" / Photo courtesy of O hannah Films.
Mickey’s penchant for sensorial isolation is just one of the idiosyncrasies that threaten to tear the couple apart. He yearns for a semblance of normalcy, which the nomadic Ben can do without. One of their biggest blow ups occurs over sleeping in a house for the night, when Ben favors camping out in the station wagon they use to roam around - a sturdy Volvo recuperated from a zombie woman -. Mickey throws a fit and convinces Ben, but he gets even with a lethal prank.
For all its horror trappings, The Battery plays like a bromance of frenemies, with occasional flashes of tension thrown in to keep things lively. The laid-back vibe almost reaches a breaking point in an extended sequence that finds the couple horsing around in an apple orchard, happily batting rotten fruit away with a rocking alternative tune blasting on the soundtrack. In a commercial movie, this is the kind of blissful scene used to lull you into a sense of safety before blasting it to pieces with a shocking jump scare. Except here, the shock never manifests itself. It really is a leisurely scene of male bonding. This kind of thing would not pass muster with focus groups, but Gardner - who stars and directs - luxuriates in it. He is making a surreptitious hang-out movie. His chemistry with Cronheim allows for it without making it seem gratuitous.
Despite their differences, Ben and Mickey stick together because deep inside, both know their chances of survival improve in numbers, at least until they listen to two unknown survivors via walkie-talkie. The development becomes a wedge that divides them. Frank (voiced by indie horror filmmaker Larry Fessenden) and Annie (Alana O’Brien) have a conversation that hints at an operation where social conventions of life before the apocalypse endure. Who would not want to get into that? Ben, for one, and his resistance pushes Mickey to a breaking point.
Gardner mostly sticks to his claustrophobic focus on the couple while hinting at a larger story. Frank and Annie keep referring to The Orchard, which we can only assume is a commune. Alas, it is intentionally off-limits to newcomers under threat of violence. If this were a Hollywood product, you could imagine a third act fleshing out this narrative thread. Here, when the threat comes into play, it is in a low-key way, triggering a surprising and dramatically satisfying denouement.
The movie is a solid effort, and Gardner deserved more attention. Concept and execution work within the technical limits of low-budget filmmaking, but his filmmaker aesthetic and mise-en-scène bears the mark of professional talent - his movie is light years ahead of something like the recent Summoning the Spirit, for example.
In a perfect world The Battery would have been and arthouse movie hit with a cult following. We could get a prequel about how Ben and Mickey got together and a sequel about what comes after the formal end. Alas, it is unlikely that such a thing might happen. The filmmakers seem to have moved on. A quick visit to IMDB reveals that Gardner has been keeping at it, releasing two more feature films, the comedy Tex Montana Will Survive! (2015) and the fantasy-tinged horror of After Midnight (2019). At least, with The Battery streaming at Popflick, it is never too late to discover gems that fall through the cracks.
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