Bravely attempting to shake the onset of rigor mortis from the tired and overcrowded zombie sub-genre, Keith Wright’s low-budget British zom-com Harold’s Going Stiff (2011) displays a surprising amount of heart and tenderness for a film of its ilk. Utilising the tried-and-tested mockumentary format (though not confined to it for the film’s entirety), we watch on as titular OAP Harold Gimble (Stan Rowe) slowly succumbs to Onset Rigors Disease (ORD), a neurological virus sweeping through the nation’s male populace.
Symptoms of this new disease are, as the name would suggest, increasingly severe bouts of stiffness to the arms and legs, mistaken by some physicians for arthritis. However, most horrifying is the end result, wherein the patient eventually falls into a dangerous, zombie-like state, attacking those around him on impulse. As the first recorded sufferer in the UK, Harold is placed under the care of buxom thirty-something nurse Penny (Sarah Spencer), and the two swiftly form a close bond of friendship. However, with a new threat emerging in the form of a group of anti-ORD vigilantes, Harold and Penny decide to make a break for freedom.
Whilst Harold’s Going Stiff is far from being one of the year’s more polished indie efforts (shot in just nine days with a cast of just eight), it certainly doesn’t lack either invention or conviction. Rather than parody the cinema of the dead, Wright – as with all great z-directors – uses the form to explore contemporary societal issues.
In this particular case, Harold can easily be read as a shining spokesperson for this country’s forgotten generations, cruelly deprived of help and support after the death of his beloved wife. The kindly Penny, on the other had, explicitly represents the legions of kindly nurses that daily dedicate their time to the care of others (the Daily Mail would surely disapprove).
Harold’s Going Stiff is so rough a diamond that it just manages to just evade definition as a precious stone (see Bruce McDonald’s 2008 film Pontypool for the finished, revisionist zombie article). Yet beneath its stripped-back aesthetics and unconvincing bludgeoning lies the still-beating heart of a surprisingly subtle, incredibly British social commentary. As Wright succinctly observes in his director’s statement, his second feature – as with all truly successful zombie efforts – is propelled by relatable societal fears: in this particular scenario, of ageing and of illness.