At Famous Monsters, we admire self-starters and DIY superstars. Whenever an indie horror film comes onto my radar that sounds too fun to pass up, I always give it a shot over the latest glossy major studio craze. There’s a sense of passion and authenticity in these labors of love that too often goes missing in over-promoted cash grabs (with exceptions, of course — we all loved A QUIET PLACE). Sea creature features are a favorite, from CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON to THE ABYSS, LEVIATHAN, and beyond.
ISLAND ZERO is advertised as a suspense tale of creature horror about a remote fishing island in Maine that is cut off from the rest of the world when something starts attacking their boats.
As in many films of isolation horror, some of the mechanics have to be taken with a grain of salt. No cell service? No radios? No emergency vehicles? Just a single ferry that comes once a day. Okay, I’ll bite. The suspension of disbelief is a bit extreme, but no more so than any other modern horror film burdened by the advances of technology.
To its great advantage, ISLAND ZERO takes suspense cues from JAWS and makes it all about the population of the island before blood even hits the screen. All the requisites are there: the locals, the biologist studying fish populations, the biologist’s daughter and girlfriend and inevitable family tension, the visiting stranger writing a novel, the codgy old fishermen who are used to roughing it and think nothing of a once-regular ferry that seems to be missing in action. Conflicts and conversation exist far before the creature action begins, and you form opinions on these people and their situation early on, which is much more satisfying than a cabin full of vapid teenagers obviously just waiting to die.
Truly, the writing is where this film excels. There is a natural twist in the second half that you don’t see coming, the characters are for the most part well delineated and three dimensional, and the foggy atmosphere of the fishing island where the action takes place gives an eerie quality to all the proceedings.
The screenplay, however, was written by suspense novelist Tess Gerritsen, and in light of this knowledge, I can’t help but wonder if certain aspects of the film worked better on paper. Having Jessie the waitress and Titus the writer hook up on his last night on the island may sound like a natural thing to have happen, but on film it feels forced, like the characters are carefully following a script. Several smaller scenes are similarly awkward in a way that might be intimate in a novel but stumble over their chemistry and context when acted out.
I certainly wouldn’t chalk it up to the acting, which is pretty strong across the board. There are tropes, of course — the obsessive scientist ignoring his home life is a big one — but it’s nothing the likeable (and Maine local) cast can’t work with. A well-cast Laila Robins shines as the island’s doctor Maggie. She seems like a peripheral character in the opening scenes, but as the stakes get higher, Maggie gets tougher, and the survivors feel safe putting her in charge. And in true Maine doomsday-prepper fashion, she reacts with determination instead of panic when an uncovered conspiracy indicates that there is something more sinister than sea creatures at work.
So, you ask — what about the monsters?
Well, seeing as ISLAND ZERO is an indie low budget creature feature, you see their effects more often than their actual physical forms. The carnage they leave behind is plenty gory and entertaining, featuring skinless skeletons, the requisite blood splatter on the sides of boats, and a scene of a character’s lower half being ripped from her torso in an impressive display of practical (intestinal) effects.
Unfortunately, the majority of the picture relies on the creatures being invisible to the naked eye, which could be horrifying, but in this case is clearly just to save money. A strategically placed heat-sensing device is used as a way to “view” the creatures, who are not visually impressive (there are a few well-placed tentacles in lieu of any detail), but manage to pose enough of an all-encompassing threat so that the script doesn’t suffer. And in a no-frills local production like this one, that’s honestly the most important element.
As a regular watcher of horror flicks, I also very much appreciated the unusual selection of “survivors” at the film’s end. Survey always says, if you can predict who’s doomed from the start, the writers have done something wrong. There are smatterings of humor throughout, and the action in the final act is enjoyable enough that I could almost forgive the filmmakers for killing a dog in the first five minutes (not really a spoiler, but as a dog owner, I was traumatized).
All in all, I give ISLAND ZERO a basic 7 out of 10 for good dialogue, believable characters, and a moderately high body count (a must). My major complaint is that there wasn’t nearly enough time spent designing and animating the mysterious creatures. Even a CGI mouth with sharp teeth goes a long way.