Often in the culture of zombie horror film, there is an abundant emphasis on the physical mechanics of the zombie as relentless monster of instinct, with horror created around the constant threat of this undead horde ripping heroes and heroines into pure viscera. As a direction, this has undeniably produced many classics over the decades; but at the same time, for some lower budget and unoriginal productions, the lustre can sometimes be lost in the endless stream of repetitive set pieces and the reality that many characters are simply created to be zombie food rather than engaging and affective human avatars.

Sometimes, it takes a film that strips away at the trappings of the genre and looks at the real horror of such an apocalyptic situation on a human level, where the damage and the harsh reality of such a dystopic scenario really cuts deeper than just running from the flesh eating undead. Christoph Behl’s What’s Left of Us is such a rare treat, one that draws into the light the textures and emotions that are often left under exposed. A film that is as much about what you don’t see, with a sheer intensity of focus on the few surviving in a world where there are no more rules, where relationships and sanity are pushed to the edge when there is nowhere left to run to.

Starting with the bang of a gunshot, the film throws us not into a zombie infested show piece…but into the lives of three survivors of a zombie apocalypse, one whose scale is never revealed, but its devastation hangs in the air like a sadness that haunts the film. In a small home, Ana, Axel and Jonathan live together, trying their best to survive and, most importantly, maintain their humanity in the face of the chaos that the world has become. This is obviously symbolised in Ana’s naming of the dead they kill as a form of remembrance for imagined lives; and the system of video diaries they keep, so they can express themselves without the others knowing, a system that proves to be as fragile as the microcosmic dream of familial civility they attempt to foster. What’s Left of Us drips with a tension that is truly overwhelming. In this close environment, it becomes clear there is a triangle of attraction between the three, which breathes in the awkward silences and the glances shared between them, a pressure that constantly threatens to boil over, and it’s a tremendous credit to Behl as a filmmaker, and the outstanding performances of the central actors, that this raw, emotional frenzy is left constantly on the edge, just behind the veil of social unity they hold onto, like the last vestige of their old lives. The greatest praise I can give the film is, in the layers of dread and the increasingly petty games of masculine power and sexual tension, the first half of the film evokes the brilliance of Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water, another cutting portrayal of human relationships, where the love triangle becomes a space of horror and the bitter pursuit of power.

One of the film’s strongest elements is its commitment to subtlety in its creation of the world. You don’t ever see piles of bodies, the carnage of the streets left to die, or gory executions; You see the reality of a world slowly dying. A world swarming with flies, present in every single scene, their abundance representing both the physical decay of the world, and the decay of the character’s relationship with one another; reinforced by Axel’s desire to tattoo himself completely in flies, with the intention that once he completely covers himself, he will leave the house and go out into the dead world for good. These are simple, yet powerful images that convey so much more about the sad deterioration of their existence.

The one element of the film that doesn’t completely fit is the introduction of a captured zombie, whom Ana names Pythagoras. The arrival of the first zombie into the film holds much promise initially, with the image of Axel using this poor pathetic creature as a punching bag, drawing into question the physical reality of these creatures as nothing more than objects to be used, a moral question that reflects Jonathan’s use of Ana as an object of sexual power over Axel, to assert dominance. Unfortunately, his presence somewhat derails the intensity of the love triangle by breaking into it, and ultimately exists more as a narrative necessity than a statement, something that hinders the drive of the middle of the film. However, this is a small issue in the middle of an expertly crafted picture, especially considering the strength of the film’s tone in the final third, where all the tension, frustration and anger lead ultimately to a beautiful sense of tenderness and surrender, the heart of these characters finally pouring out in the film’s most devastating scene, one that touches and wounds all at once.

What’s Left of Us is an example of the power of drama and emotion over some of the more obvious techniques that are exploited in low budget horror. Its stark visual simplicity and refreshing commitment to the complex moral deconstruction of the three lead characters elevate it as a work of psychological horror. At its beating heart, What’s Left of Us delivers an intense portrayal of the most frightening reality at the end of the world…surviving; and ultimately, what’s left to survive for?

DVD Review: What's Left Of Us
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About The Author

Matthew Hammond is a full time cinephile, specializing in cult, art house and 1980’s cinema. While film is his overwhelming passion, Matthew has been known to enjoy comic books, Sherlock Holmes stories and a good film related T-shirt. Feel free to email me with any questions or comments: mattpaul61@o2.co.uk