‘Block Z’ and the Dystopian Present

It is impossible to watch Block Z without being reminded of the novel coronavirus outbreak spreading in various parts of the world. From the film’s opening sequence, the director Mikhail Red makes his statement clear: viral epidemics are as political as they are biological. They are the direct result of the government’s neglect of the public health care system and ineptitude at fostering a scientifically aware populace.

Red makes it easier to draw metaphors between the film’s zombie-infested setting and the socio-political decay of the real world. People are left to fend off for themselves, collective action their only option for survival. Block Z’s social milieu is a direct filmization of a country in crisis, the horror-thriller elements working for a more fantastical retelling of a rather depressing real-world situation.

As with most of Red’s films, however, the politics don’t blend well with his genre obsession. To make things worse, Block Z also finds the director neither in his sharpest politics nor in his most refined filmmaking style. He says too much—from the inaccessibility of education, military intervention in academic spaces, even to the classic rich vs poor divide—to the point where his excessive messaging seem to exist only to make up for his unexciting storytelling.

Block Z follows an almost video game-like structure, where the central characters must first go to certain “stages,” each offering its own set of challenges, before they can reach the goal site for survival. This would have been fine if not for the clichés riddled throughout the narrative. Everything is predictable, which seems ironic considering zombie films depend so much on suspense and anticipation of what happens next.

Though his intentions appear noble, Red’s blatant, in-your-face narrative manipulation may seem overbearing for some viewers. All the characters feel inauthentic, created merely as pawns to deliver his political points across. The audience are never given the chance to develop empathy for any of the characters; or at least, when Red tries to do so, it seems to stem from a forced compliance to narrative conventions rather than something he actually wants to do.

For a zombie film, Block Z exhibits no clear crowd direction. During most of its runtime, the supposed undead creatures appear to be doing some sort of Harlem Shake challenge gone wrong. No amount of blood and gore can suffice for the lack of tension vital for a successfully riveting thriller film. In particular, the killer combo of Steven Paul Evangelio’s uninspired cinematography and the uncreative choreography of fight sequences (save for PJ’s reawakening towards the end) make it a chore to sit through the entire film; Block Z’s poor technical qualities almost seem scarier than the zombies themselves.

And it’s a shame, really, because the ensemble cast’s acting potential feels wasted in such a weak screenplay. The comeback pairing of Julia Barretto (as PJ) and Joshua Garcia (as Lucas) do not achieve even a quarter of the emotional range they both showed in 2017’s Love You To the Stars and Back (dir. Antoinette Jadaone). Dimples Romana’s character (Bebeth) was even literally discarded during the film’s climax despite being the one with the strongest resolve to survive the zombie apocalypse.

Overall, Block Z is a classic case of a film whose intentions outshine its content and execution. That it even has the guts to boast of being the first mainstream Filipino zombie film is embarrassing, because there is so much more to the genre that other Filipino filmmakers can achieve.

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