With the saturation of the zombie as modern cinema’s de facto monster, it’s difficult to imagine in what new direction the shuffling dead can possibly amble. Yet, with the imperfect but fascinating Endzeit, director Carolina Hellsgård ultimately guides her ravenous wanderers down an original and largely unbeaten track.
The film’s first half is its weakest, leaning too heavily on genre tropes and familiar formulae to distinguish it from the aforementioned groaning hordes of zombie schlock. We open in the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse, with only two cities in the whole world holding out – Jena and Weimar in Germany. Conveniently, they’re only about thirteen miles apart, connected by an automated train, and able to function as a research station and military outpost respectively. It’s a decent enough premise, but we’ve seen similar set ups in films like 28 Weeks Later and The Girl with All the Gifts, and it does very little to foreground the rich themes of the film’s latter half.
After a brief but costly attack on the Weimar outpost, hardened badass Eva (Maja Lehrer) and timid, traumatised Vivi (Gro Swantje Kohlhof), stow away the train to escape to Jena. When the train breaks down, they decide to hoof the rest of the way on foot, risking the open countryside rather than waiting for the ravenous flesh eaters to come to them. This sequence is functional but hardly inspiring, though it is bolstered by Vivi frequently mistaking her dreams for reality, leading her to believe that she can see her long-dead sister returning to her. In one intriguing shot, a horde of zombies amble over the crest of a hill with a Christ-like figure on a cross behind them.
Things improve once the women spot a zombie fully clad in wedding garb with what appears to be weeds growing from her face. The deeper into the wilderness Eva and Vivi venture, the more their foes resemble not rotting flesh, but thriving plant life. The imagery is reminiscent of the uncanny splicing of photographer Cal Redback or the eerie-beautiful pencil drawings of Iakovos Ouranos, but Hellsgård isn’t simply content with referencing creepy art to bolster her film’s visuals.
Endzeit seems to be engaging with a growing tradition of post-human cinema – the zombie apocalypse is only the end of the world if you’re human, after all. It’s this ecological theme that leads to some truly inspired visuals which sustain the film until its unexpected, conciliatory conclusion. Endzeit is an unbalanced film, to be sure, but proof nonetheless of zombies’ enduring relevance in horror cinema.
The Toronto International Film Festival 2018 takes place from 6-16 September.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell