Infection thriller never realizes its potential.
Patient Zero is now on Digital and VOD and in theaters September 14.
Patient Zero is an anomaly. Its premise has all of the required ingredients to produce something novel. This includes a fresh take on its villains, a competent director in Stefan Ruzowitzky and a decent cast. Yet somehow, all of these attributes fail at helping Patient Zero live up to its potential.
Set in a post-apocalyptic world, Patient Zero details humanity’s last efforts at combating a new form of rabies. Scientists work around the clock to find a cure in an underground bunker while remnants of the US military provide protection. Infected individuals are kept in cages, only removed to be used as test subjects. This comes to the dismay of Colonel Knox (Clive Standen) who feels that the tests are a waste of time. He doesn’t think they’ll ever find a cure and is hesitant to risk the lives of his men on missions to acquire more specimens. Opposing him is Dr. Gina Rose (Natalie Dormer) and Morgan (Matt Smith), a CDC virologist and the only human who didn’t “turn” after being bitten. They both look to the infected as the key to their survival. Rose believes that she can derive a cure using Morgan’s blood and the original virus strain, the source of which is the first known carrier, aka patient zero. Morgan’s ability to communicate with the infected helps in this regard; they hope that his interrogations will yield information about patient zero’s whereabouts.
Most of Patient Zero’s plot is borrowed from Day of the Dead. A slight change in antagonists – it uses infected individuals in the place of zombies – isn’t enough to hide the similarities to George Romero’s film. What’s interesting though is how writer Mike Le tries to flip this familiar set-up on its head. The captured infected are treated like prisoners of war. Their ragged clothing and self-inflicted wounds act as uniforms. Instead of trying to get them to mimic normal behavior or to remember their past in an attempt to prevent future attacks (like Day of the Dead), the humans engage them on an equal level. The infected aren’t humanized enough to gain sympathy of course; their collective persona is only enough for a slight evolution over their mindless counterparts. That said, their ability to pose a threat to humans is magnified by their ability to reason. Basically, Mike Le has created a more monstrous version of the infected seen in other films.
The thought of having to face hordes of intelligent zombie-like creatures is downright terrifying. Conventional warfare isn’t an option. Winning a prolonged fight against the infected is unfeasible given the nature of the virus. At the same time, hiding in bunkers and such only delays the inevitable. The infected aren’t just wandering around in hopes of bumping into someone. They’re actively hunting the humans. These different factors allow for the exploring of new angles, plot-wise. Unfortunately, the film rarely deviates from the norm, that being a slow ride to a loud finish. There are no interesting encounters with the infected, no moral dilemmas about what it means to be sentient or anything beyond the impending doom earmarked by a mismanaged love triangle.
The constant push to an explosive end (which turns out to be anticlimactic) ruins the possibility for Patient Zero to be anything but typical. Contributing to this fact was the melodramatic acting of Matt Smith and Clive Standen. They weren’t very believable in their roles, though that could have been due to the poor script; Standen’s Colonel Knox has more than a few awkward scenes with Dormer’s Gina Rose. Stanley Tucci’s performance as an infected called The Professor was wasted, not because he did a poor job, but because his character isn’t as involved in the narrative as he should have been. The Professor’s peculiar behavior was ripe for further analyses – a possible in for the audience that leads to the more thought-provoking stuff, like how these horrible acts of violence can’t be totally explained away by the infected’s primal urge to kill. If that wasn’t the goal, his character could have at least been made into an interesting foil for our heroes. Instead, he’s little more than a catalyst for the film’s final events.
Patient Zero is void of horror. It struggles to build tension thanks to a predictable plot and lackluster villains, which is as shame considering how the infected were built up to be this menacing force. They’re never really allowed to showcase their savagery beyond a few scenes; the encounters are uninspired to say the least. That said, the film could have been salvaged if it offered some meaningful message or if the few intriguing characters got more screen time. Alas, the audience gets none of the former and not enough of the latter.