There is a feeling of a rushed production as ‘Block Z’ opens and unfolds, a feeling like this is a patchwork of things we’ve seen previously and other similar zombie or zombie-like movies that have come before. The work by director Mikhail Red and writer Mixkaela Villalon is rife with typical tropes and characterizations that are endemic to this genre, and creates a feeling that there’s not much complexity to be found here and it’s all just set pieces to play around with.
Set in a dystopian alternate future where today’s issues are heightened and hyper-realised, a medical school that is situated in the same compound as a public hospital becomes the setting of an outbreak with a fast transmission rate, and turns its victims into rabid flesh-eating creatures. Rabid is an exact term, because it is theorized in the film that it is a mutant strain of rabies and its effects are roughly instantaneous.
At the center of this story is Julia Barretto’s PJ, a fourth year medical student with a tenuous relationship with her father, Mario (played by Ian Veneracion), who has just come home from working abroad and was not present to deal with the death of PJ’s mother.
Populating this world are PJ’s friends, all med students, like the jock love interest Lukas (Joshua Garcia), the nerd Myles (McCoy De Leon), and the modern, say it like it is best friend Erika (Maris Racal). The one word descriptions of these characters encapsulates each character’s arc for the whole movie, really. And from their introduction at the beginning of the film, there isn’t any real complex or surprising arc to be found with these characters.
Much of ‘Block Z’ operates in this manner. It feels like a list of typical tropes that are present in different zombie films and put into a world that is currently experiencing a zombie outbreak. Except for PJ, nobody else really has to wrestle with anything that truly tests their characters, and it makes for a rather predictable and unsurprising experience.
The hodge-podge of references and narrative beats even echoes other works, such as a student who is well-connected in the military negotiates an escape but it’s only for himself. In the process, he finds ways to ensure that only he survives at the expense of others. It’s a very one-dimensional take in a film that would work in a campy romp, but ‘Block Z’ makes attempts at seriousness with its earnest attempt at drama.
What makes it even harder to enjoy is that the film has no sense of geography, and the editing distends time in a way that makes the film’s internal logic unbelievable. There are instances when the characters, needing a safe route to the hospital helipad, must plan a route through the campus. It is visualised by pointing at buildings in a map but it never holds on to the image long enough for the audience to understand the topography. It often feels like they are just going to different buildings for cinematic setups made for interesting zombie attacks. There’s a church, a parking lot, an indoor swimming pool, and so on. And right before all the characters come together, the editing and choice of cuts makes the travel time of characters feel shorter or farther than it should be.
The rabid victims, or zombies, have a strange behaviour pattern that feels inconsistent. They are there when they need to be to create external conflict, and there’s a predilection for them to act scary first before making any attempt at attacking. Many times, a zombie would attack a character and make scary faces before going for a bite, which gives ample time for someone to kick them away or fight back.
It’s these multiple flaws that make ‘Block Z’ hard to latch on to. The biggest issue is an ending and an epilogue that feels like it belongs in a completely different movie. The tone shifts and the dramatic focus changes implies that the film in itself is just a setup for a larger story. It discredits an already problematic movie.
I’m aware that the film was made awhile back, but it’s fortunate (or unfortunate) that the film is released during a time of an actual outbreak. It makes interesting commentaries on government response and the failure of our leaders to actually lead. It would have been stronger and more impactful had this been the thematic focal point of the film. It seems like more in Mikhail Red’s wheelhouse than the lightweight zombie film that ‘Block Z’ ends up being.