Directed by Mikhail Red
Starring Joshua Garcia, Julia Barretto, Ian Veneracion
In the Red family filmmaking dynasty, Mikhail Red is fast distinguishing himself as the most genre-savvy. After establishing his indie cred with the accomplished Birdshot (2016), Red started methodically making a name for himself with the atmospheric Eerie (2018) and the heist-lite drama Dead Kids (2019). Both genre riffs suffered from rickety character development, but I am happy to report this is not a problem with Block Z, Red’s appropriation of the zombie apocalypse horror sub-genre.
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Block Z is nothing more nor less than a video game where the object is to either kill as many of the infected as you can or run away from them to reach promised rescue. The script by Mixkaella Villalon (Mikhail Red gets a co-storywriting credit) does this efficiently: Establish lead girl PJ (Julia Barretto) and her fraught relationship with her recently returned OFW father (Ian Veneracion); establish that she is a determined med student with a thoroughly likeable basketball team captain named Lucas (Joshua Garcia) pining for her; establish their friends and frenemies (the reliably intelligent Maris Racal as the equally intelligent if slightly vacuous Erika, Macoy de Leon as the nerdy Myles, Yves Flores as Gelo the entitled son of a general).
For large-picture context, throw in some footage of a virus rampaging through the country with some subtle political shading. (No doubt Block Z got an unintended boost in its chilling, real-world relevance with the novel coronavirus scare currently carpet-bombing the news.) Enter a patient (Ina Raymundo) with suspicious symptoms seeking medical help at the training hospital where the kids are interning, and watch the mayhem erupt.
Artful ripoffs from the zombie catalogue abound: 28 Days Later (these are not the shambling undead of The Walking Dead, but the ravenous runners of that Danny Boyle apocalypse classic), Shaun of the Dead and World War Z are all name-checked. There is even a nod to the climax of It Follows in a sequence set in a pool. Block Z’s wisest move is limiting the action to one college campus for maximum claustrophobia. A slight quibble, though: Even though there is a sequence where the characters painstakingly map out an escape route, this is a movie that could have used a location that really mirrors the script’s geographic mapping—as it stands, there is a feeling of randomness to the characters’ progress. Scratch the surface some more and the itch for explanations might be overwhelming: Where did the virus come from? How did the movie’s magic-bullet solution come to be? What happened to some of the characters? How do characters magically pop up from one location to another?
My advice: Resist that urge to scratch and just go along for the ride. Block Z is not meant to withstand a logic test; it just exists to get your nerve endings thrumming. It doesn’t have to explain everything from A to Z, and in the hands of a director who obviously has more tricks up his sleeve, that’s fine by me.