“What’s Left Of Us”. (aka El Desierto (original title)/The Desert)
Review by David Paul Hellings
Cast: Victoria Almeida, Lautaro Delgado, Lucas Lagre, William Prociuk
Written and Directed by Christoph Brel.
Synopsis via producers:
“As far as they know Axel, Jonathan and Ana are the last three human beings. Together, they live in a claustrophobic bunker in a post-apocalyptic hell. Outside lies a perilous, urban landscape filled with the undead, where they must scavenge and hunt for food and supplies.
In order to survive they have to learn to live together and overcome explosive human emotions; love, anger and even hate for one another. So Ana invents ‘the therapy room’, a place for them to privately record their confessions, which are then locked away.
But as boredom overtakes, they play a dangerous game by capturing and bringing a member of the undead into their home. Their new “pet” is one risk too far.
“What’s Left Of Us” is a gripping and terrifying drama that convincingly portrays what life would be like at the end of the world”.
Latin America has long been the seemingly forgotten member of the horror film community and incorrectly so, even if it’s been Mexico that’s reaped the critical glory and public attention in the past with films such as “Poison for the Fairies”, “Even the Wind is Afraid”, “The Book of Stone” and more recently with “We are What We Are” and, of course, Guillermo Del Toro’s excellent “Cronos” and “The Devil’s Backbone”.
Other Latin American countries are getting deserved recognition: “The House At The End Of Time”, the first Venezuelan supernatural thriller, and “Juan of the Dead”, Cuba’s amusing zombie comedy. “What’s Left Of Us” may not be Argentina’s first horror, with films such as “Cold Sweat” and “Jennifer’s Shadow” coming before it, but it does sell itself as “Argentina’s first break out zombie movie”.
The zombie genre has long reached and passed saturation point, with countless films of diminishing quality, but retains its popularity with the ongoing success on TV of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and the positive responses to “iZombie”, but it’s increasingly difficult to come up with a fresh approach to the genre, harder when you look back upon the greats of zombie history such as Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” and “Dawn of the Dead” (still the two classics which set the bench mark ridiculously high) and Fulci’s “Zombie Flesh Eaters” (how can you not love an underwater fight between a zombie and a shark?).
With “What’s Left Of Us”, we get a great example of how well non-English directors gather quality actors to deliver truthful and real performances in a fresh twist on the genre, rather than the cliched attempts that have been coming out of the US and UK for too long. Beautifully and effectively shot, the sense of isolation and claustrophobia in which our three central characters Ana, Axel and Jonathan (excellent work by Almeida, Delgado and Prociuk), are now forced to live creates an atmosphere which heightens the performances and our sympathy as viewers. The banality of existence, the mixture of trying to continue some kind of life, despite the necessary confinement from the shattered, plagued, world outside their home, mixed with characters attempting to retain memories of lost family and a lost life, so that the dead aren’t forgotten is rich and touching, no expositional dialogue to try and fill in the gaps of a tightly plotted, simply and effectively told story. Real people in extraordinary circumstances trying to get through each day as best they can.
The dialogue is sparse and effective, no talking for the sake of filling a script page with empty air, but pure, three people whose words are the humdrum of the ordinary days they try to retain. Like “The Last Man on Earth”, it’s not just about dealing with the enemy, it’s about doing the little things, the house repairs, the things we have to do in the real world, all masking the slow breakdown of isolated people, such as Axel’s ongoing, obsessive tattooing of his body.
There’s nothing worse than watching actors “act”, as though big speeches and shouting are some kind of performance, something we see too much of in low budget English language films. Here, thankfully, writer/director Brel allows his actors to simply be, creating a reality rare in the genre, creating a sense that we’re observers to a regular, if tragic, domestic situation locked away from the broken city beyond their dirty windows.
The use of characters recording themselves (so blatantly and missing the zeitgeist in “Diary of the Dead” and used without real purpose recently in “The Walking Dead” Alexandria episodes) is effective and sparsely done, honing the sense of characters holding onto memories or trying to record their existence for the future, uncertain world and using the camera as a confessional or as a chance for Axel (in an increasingly unhealthy fixation of psychological frustration) to watch the recordings of Ana as masturbatory release without her knowledge. The two men/one woman axis creates an unwanted sexual tension seemingly unavoidable by characters striving to exist together in this broken new world order.
The primarily single interior location is well used, the art design superb in its realism, a dirty place of shadows. You can say more about a trapped life with flies on your possessions or face than a thousand generic speeches, again testament to how well directed it is by Brel, and shot by Gustavo Biazzi and edited by Fernando Vega. We hear the zombies outside at night, but we don’t see them, creating further the claustrophobia of the three human survivors and showing that low-budget means good filmmakers use their imaginations rather than rely upon cheap SFX. When Jonathan and Axel do venture out into the real world, we don’t see their brief expedition, staying in the house with Ana, hearing by way of excellent audio work what’s happening out there. The dare to bring back a captured zombie (Lagre) into the home is a decision made by bored men, the zombie itself raw and stripped of the generic make-up we’ve come to expect from the genre, allowing the performance based creation nothing to hide behind; its presence highlighting the fragile existence and minds of Ana and Axel, with Jonathan seemingly untouched by the world by the world around him, resigned to it all, but clearly as damaged as the others when his world is threatened.
Their world is a constructed, fake copy of the domesticity they knew before the apocalypse, but built on lies and secrets. In a world where the rest of mankind may have succumbed to the plague, this is a story of people struggling to hold onto what’s left of their own humanity, playing games to pass the time and playing games with each other as their private world splinters and shatters.
If you’re expecting a generic multitude of zombies and a splatterfest, you’ll be seriously disappointed, but if you like slow burning, well made and well played character driven pieces of survival, slow breakdown of your own world, and even unrequited and destructive love, this will prove a refreshing change from the norm. If Harold Pinter had written a zombie film, this would have been it. Recommended.
This review originally appeared on Haddonfield Horror April 2015: