'Viral' a Functional, Insubstantial Zombie-Contagion Drama

Directed by: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman; Runtime: 85 minutes
Grade: C

So long as there's a new virus scare making the rounds on the news, there will be an opening for the zombie apocalypse and medical disaster genres to exploit those fears, even though the creative vein continues to dry up for both. As of late, filmmakers have gravitated toward horror-drama hybrids to break from the status quo, combining the peripheral scope of a global or countrywide threat with contained, more subtly harrowing character examinations, focused on individuals feeling the personal impact of their respective pandemics. For one of these to succeed nowadays, it's got to stick out with the statement made or the thrills provided alongside the drama. One of the latest of these direct-to-video infection dramas, Viral, is polished, modestly well-performed, and mildly unsettling in its depiction of a somewhat practical spread of zombie-creating parasites. Neither the thrills, the smarts, nor the family friction get deep enough under the skin to make it feel consequential, though.

Sisters Emma (Sofia Black-D'Elia) and Stacey (Analeigh Tipton) have recently moved out to a mountainous California suburb with their father (Michael Kelly), a biology teacher at their local high school. Emma tends to be more responsible and reserved, shying away from revealing her affection for her next-door neighbor, Evan (Travis Tope). Stacey, her older sibling with blue-tinged hair, has adopted a more rebellious and free-spirited attitude after moving out to their new location, getting involved with tatted-up locals and lashing out at her father. While they're going on about their lives, news broadcasts have gradually increased their discussions about a "worm flu" that has been spreading across the globe, driven by rhetoric similar to the flu and virus talk heard on the nightly news nowadays. Soon, however, the worm flu really does arrive at their small California town, eventually leading to a government-led quarantine that leaves Emma and Stacey to fend for themselves at their home, contemplating whether to party with their schoolmates or treat the threat seriously.

Viral cannot be accused of not attempting to set up its characters, devoting its energy almost entirely at first to fleshing out the dynamic between the sisters, their friends, and their father, while also forming a portrait of the small California town's moving parts before things go sideways. Against the backdrop of casual news broadcasts about the potential for outbreak and the sisters' father discussing the logistics of parasites in his science class, the script builds up requisite, convincing relationships between the teenage schoolmates, breathing just enough life into 'em to care -- if but just a little bit -- about whether they're going to get infected or not. Sofia Black-D'Elia's natural charm as Emma works as the modest hero of the story, though her horror-movie shy personality makes her growing relationship with Evan fairly cliche and entirely predictable. Analeigh Tipton's quasi-bad-girl Stacey comes across as a genuine teenager lashing out at split-up parents, someone who could feasibly endanger everyone.

Thing is, there isn't enough originality or substance to these characters in Viral to justify the attention spent on them, transforming the slow-burn suspense into what feels like tediously going through the motions until the outbreak eventually happens. Between Paranormal Activity writer Christopher Landon and Terra Nova scribe Barbara Marshall, the screenplay reveals a reputable degree of prudence in showing how the disease has spread and what measures could, in theory, be used to combat it while a quarantine takes place, revealed in scenes like Michael Kelly's squeamish biology class. Unfortunately, one cannot predict the nonsensical and reckless nature of teenagers, even amid a pandemic, which is what the bulk of the film places its faith in to culture its thrills. Eerie, sickly shades of tan and hazy shadows not unlike Steven Soderberg's work coat the camera's movement throughout the neighborhood, disguising the iffy decisions and awkward drama of youth with an ominous mood.

Had Viral been more concentrated on its suspense, instead of drama impacted by its horror premise, this teenage mischief could've been more passable in the vein of other body-count disease or zombie movies. Instead, elements of mild body horror -- underscored by squirmy visual effects and unsettling sounds like the clickers in the videogame The Last of Us -- and fears over the government-led quarantine interweave with the complicated dynamic between the sisters, hinged on the harrowing decisions they make in the name of survival similar to those found in like-minded flicks like Maggie and Carriers. Credible performances enliven the tumultuous happenings in the film's anticipated zero hour, but little occurs here that hasn't been realized in other indie zombie-disaster fusions of recent memory. Thus, Viral gets trapped in a tricky zone between derivative family turmoil and outbreak panic that wasn't engineered for continuous scares, and it struggles to find a reason for its existence because of it.

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