I’m the prophet and you’re the messenger.
The amount of zombie properties flooding the market these days has created an unavoidable sense of fatigue. As a result artists have begun turning certain aspects on their heads in order to differentiate one vision from any other. Sometimes this means crossing genres, manufacturing elaborate new mythologies, or playing with aesthetic. Jeremiah Kipp‘s Black Wake attempts to do all three as it utilizes a found footage format to reveal a calamity that’s more invasion than viral apocalypse. There’s still a horde of blood-hungry victims stumbling around, but something controls their actions beyond simple impulse. Horror moves towards science fiction as a parasitic creature is discovered to be more than mere delivery mechanism for the volatile disease. This monster is already here and finally ready to feed.
The job of figuring out what it is falls to Dr. Luiza Moreira (Nana Gouvea), a scientist tasked by the government to sift through a stack of mysterious deaths and the digital recordings that have serendipitously captured them on film. Her journey unfolds within an office building, the ample carnage committed elsewhere before being packaged and shipped her way. Luiza is therefore separated from this phenomenon’s physical presence by an electronic screen, her research always at least once removed from the brutal crime scenes themselves. While this plot choice was probably crucial to the shoestring budget at Kipp’s disposal, it can’t help but grind all momentum to a halt. Everything we see becomes filtered through Luiza’s hypotheses, each new bit of evidence explained rather than experienced.
Acknowledging how repetitious this evidence proves does the film no favors either since the cycle of video, violence, hushed conspiracy, and frustrated lamentations about how no one is listening continues without pause. This doesn’t mean there aren’t some interesting ideas, though. Kipp and fellow screenwriters Jerry Janda and Carlos Keyes strive to create a captivating yarn that builds off of the zombie tropes into something fresh, but they can only do so much with the limited resources available. It’s a shame because they have culled together some familiar faces in Tom Sizemore, Eric Roberts, and Vincent Pastore to flesh out the periphery, but none is able to add more to the proceedings than their name. In many instances their line readings appear to be performed without any preparation.
Their inclusion is mainly to yell at Luiza or become potential casualties. They’re props to fill time between each video containing identical content through new actors. One shows a couple attacked by a crazed beachgoer. Another is three dude bros picking up what they believe is a coked out woman to pass around. There are the students who stumble onto the truth, the documentary crew ill-prepared for just how dangerous those who have left as though in a trance can be, and the two CIA agents following Luiza around who we see attacked at the very beginning before rewinding a few months earlier. Everyone is either naïve or hubristic, two traits that allow them to get too close to the thing hell bent on destroying them.
Our focal point is therefore Luiza as both narrator and lead. We’re meant to invest in her investigation, listening to every word as she parses through the information sent by an unknown source. As things escalate, she falls deeper under the spell. A book written by an enigmatic vagrant named Tommy (Jonny Beauchamp) starts taking over her mind, its scribbles and incoherencies either the ramblings of a mad man or the key to solving everything. We should feel suspense as it consumes her, but that’s a tough sell when we’re shown her blackened, bloodshot eyes speaking to the camera crosscut with surveillance footage of her jogging or swimming as though nothing is wrong. Is this a continuity error? Distraction? All I know is that I couldn’t overcome it.
I divested interest once this happened halfway through. My main goal changed from figuring out what was behind the dead and undead victims of this parasite to simply reaching the end. It became a struggle not to laugh too as the suspension of disbelief I try so hard to muster when confronting budgetary constraints is unavoidably lost so that I saw the imperfections rather than the intent. It’s a shame because I enjoy Kipp’s short films very much. He generally works with a strong formal language and aesthetic beauty that’s absent here in large part due to the constraints of its found footage filter. Unfortunately the ideas behind Black Wake could have greatly benefited from such flourishes. Without a dynamic visual style, ignoring the artifice becomes impossible.
So the weirdness of Tommy and his book of creatures in the ocean is wasted. The effectively creepy visual effects work of said creatures is too. While we should be respecting Luiza as a credible scientist with the means to solve a mystery none of her colleagues believes exists despite the mounting body count, the decision to constantly show her with an intentionally sexualized gaze courtesy of the CIA agents following her off-the-clock endeavors subverts the severity of the situation. The same goes with an autopsy attack performed by busty cadavers as though there was a nudity clause that had to be met for finances to come through. The result is a promising genre conceit buried under the weight of exploitative gimmicks that add nothing to the whole.