Originally scheduled for a theatrical release in early 2016, Blumhouse Productions’ zombie-infection thriller Viral inexplicably found itself dumped onto VOD platforms. Maybe zombie fatigue played a role in the decision to delay and downgrade it release. After a long zombie renaissance in the horror genre, even The Walking Dead would start to see diminishing returns around this time. Though critics didn’t outright hate it, Viral was hardly treading new ground by imagining zombies as a viral outbreak. Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later broke that ground 13 years earlier. Notwithstanding its
Sisters Stacey and Emma have just moved to a new high school in a small California suburb. While Stacey thrives in her new surroundings, Emma struggles to make friends as her parents become increasingly estranged from one another. Early reports about a ‘worm flu’ spreading across the country don’t seem troubling. But Stacey and Emma soon find themselves trapped in their neighbourhood as the government limits travel. Soon infected neighbors turn unpredictably violence as the country slides into martial law.
Viral Can’t Shake the Real Feeling of ‘Been There, Done That’
Two things are immediately apparent about zombie-infection thriller Viral. On one hand, it’s clearly a well-produced and competently made horror movie on all technical aspects. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish, Paranormal Activity 3, Paranormal Activity 4) certainly know their way around a thriller. Aside from technical merits, Joost and Schulman pace their story quite well building from early teases of danger to the full-on escalation. While Viral shies away from harder-edged zombie carnage, the house party scene where the infection finally ‘explodes’ is fairly tense. And the climax manages a bit more mild edge-of-your-seat suspense.
…Viral just feels like a mostly safe rehash of these concepts for young horror fans.
Yet Viral also feels remarkably derivative in just about every way. Nothing about Christopher Landon and (Happy Death Day, Freaky) and Barbara Marshall’s screenplay adds nothing remotely fresh to the zombie subgenre. Prior to Viral, horror movies like 28 Days Later, World War Z, and Pontypool cleverly re-imagined zombies as different forms of ‘infections’. Meanwhile non-horror movies like Contagion offered glimpses into the very real horrors of pandemics. Subsequent horror movies like Gaia and Into the Earth have done a better job of building on an adding to the zombie subgenre. Comparatively, Viral just feels like a mostly safe rehash of these concepts for young horror fans.
Viral Unintentionally Foreshadows Those Early Days of Uncertainty That Defined COVID
Arguably, the scariest thing about Viral is completely unintentional. Produced and released nearly four years before the COVID-19 pandemic, the horror thriller may serve as an uncomfortable reminder to those early days of increasing infections and uncertainty in the days leading up to mass lockdowns. In addition, the thriller’s house party scene where oblivious teens flaunt warnings about mass gathering – one teen even carelessly wears a mask on the back of their head – also feels a bit prescient about the resistance to precautions exhibited in some circles. But it’s also a stretch to credit the creative minds behind Viral for this overlap.
Produced and released nearly four years before the COVID-19 pandemic, the horror thriller may serve as an uncomfortable reminder to those early days …
As for the performances, Ema and Stacey Drakeford, play by Sofia Black D’Elia and Lio Tipton, respectively, are probably the best part of Viral. Both actresses turn in believable performances that make their strained relationship at least something of an emotional core for the derivative thriller. Similarly, Travis Trope (The Town That Dreaded Sundown, Seven in Heaven) convinces as a character whose primary function is to literally be, ‘the boy next door’. Reliable character actor Michael Kelly (House of Cards) has too little to do in Viral. And Colson Baker (aka Machine Gun Kelly) (Bird Box) shows up in a small role doing what he probably should as a musician trying to break into acting – taking small roles in different movies.
Viral Offers Some Decent Thrills, But Nothing New for Zombie Horror Fans
Everything about Viral is pretty middling stuff. Of course, this doesn’t mean the zombie-infection thriller is a ‘bad’ movie. On the contrary, Viral is well made and a perfectly find way to pass 90 minutes or so. All of the performances are equally affecting and there are a handful of decent jumps. But Joost and Schulman offer absolutely nothing you haven’t already seen in dozens of zombie movies over the years. By 2016, even The Walking Dead was bleeding viewers – the zombie subgenre was running out of life. In fact, Viral may be most noteworthy for some of its pre-COVID depictions of an outbreak. Aside from new horror fans, this zombie movie likely won’t make a lasting impression.