Along the way, they’re disturbed by an absence of rush-hour traffic on the freeway and even more disturbed by the complete absence of people in the city. It’s not long before they’re chased by a horde of zombie cannibals, and the rest of the film follows their attempts to get back home to save their family and friends. Only toward the end does the film get around to explaining how this apocalypse came about, serving up just enough exposition to set up the (hoped-for) sequel.
In terms of technical finesse, the film’s budgetary limitations are transparent, yet somehow the shaky camerawork and blurry video images become a virtue; the multiple angles and jagged editing create a grungy aesthetic that feels like the horror movie equivalent of punk rock. (One is reminded of John “Ned” Mendelsohn’s review in Rolling Stone of the Who’s debut album “My Generation,” which he called “Raw, shoddily produced, and utterly stupendous.”)
Where the film succumbs to its budget and genre limitations most obviously is in the early scenes, which seem pumped up to offer memorable shocks as soon as possible, with little or no explanation, as if afraid that any build-up or exposition would bore the target audience. The first victims are nothing more than warm bodies – convenient targets to be torn apart for the enjoyment of the gore-hounds. Fortunately, once the focus settle on the main characters, the film does an about-face, generating genuine horror and suspense instead of simple shocks.
The movie pushes the outer envelope of on-screen violence: besides the obligatory shotgun to the head routine, one cheerleader has her jaw ripped off; and a pregnant girl suffers an unwilling abortion, then lives just long enough to see a zombie devouring her fetus.
But what’s really shocking – well, maybe not shocking but certainly surprising – is how much juice the film gets out of its young cast. It’s always nice to see movie teenagers acting like real people instead of the idiots we usually see in Hollywood horror films. But more than that, making them the leads adds another turn of the screw in a story about the end of the world as we know it: it’s a situation that would put any adult through the proverbial gauntlet, and it’s even more intense watching these kids try to grapple with a something that’s just too big to control.
Perhaps the key scene occurs after the young lead Chris (Garret Jones) is forced to kill his father, who had become a zombie. Chris returns to the vehicle where his two friends are waiting for him, and the very fact he arrives alone is enough to tell them all they need to know about what happened. Miller wisely avoids dialogue (anything the characters said would only be overstating the obvious), favoring an uncomfortable silence instead, broken only by the anguished wail that erupts from Chris’s throat when he is no longer able to contain the pain inside. It’s a moment guaranteed to squeeze tears out of even the driest eyes – the sort of achievement seldom found in a graphic horror film.
Not that the film ever succumbs to mawkish sentimentality; it serves up hard-edge horror throughout, but with a sense of credibility that makes it more than a shooting gallery of faceless victims. Once or twice the attempts at pathos may turn melodramatic (as when one character opts to die fighting rather than continue running), but more often than not the sense of desperately fighting for survival in the face of insurmountable odds rings true.
The movie ends with an outrageous, BACK TO THE FUTURE-type “to be continued” cliffhanger that will leave you eagerly anticipating a sequel. Given a (hopefully) bigger budget, it will be interesting to see what Miller can achieve next.
AUTOMATON TRANSUFION was shot in nine days, yet the film features an incredible number of camera set-ups and makeup effects, and the story is spread out over several locations. Writer-director Steven C. Miller credits his cast-and-crew for working eighteen-hour days, in order to cram so much into the camera on such a short schedule. The film screened at the Screamfest film festival in Hollywood in October of 2006. At that time, no distribution had been set. Miller told the audience after the screening that he hoped to land a distributor soon, so that he could not only get the film released but also start on the follow-up, AUTOMATON TRANSFUSION: CONTINGENCY.
AUTOMATON TRANSFUSION (2006). Written and directed by Steven C. Miller. Cast: Garrett Jones, Juliet Reeves, William Hoard Bowman, Rowan Bousaid, Ashley Elizabeth pierce, Joel hebner, Kendra Farmer, Kevin J. O’Neil