Seemingly inspired by George A Romero’s cycle of zombie films, Stake Land is a low-budget independent American horror film that comes across as an aggressive cross between The Road, Near Dark, The Book Of Eli, and even the recent Zombieland, as well as any number of other post-Apocalyptic films.
A man known only as Mister (Nick Damici) and Martin (Connor Paolo, better known for his role in Gossip Girl), a teenage orphan, are wandering across a post-Apocalyptic America that has been devastated by some unknown cataclysmic event. “I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe, things you really shouldn’t see,” says Martin, who acts as our narrator on this journey into the dark heart of madness. They are headed towards a mythical safe haven known as New Eden.
The roads and forests become dangerous places at night. Towns have become fortresses and tightly protected enclaves, and their inhabitants are deeply suspicious of strangers. The nomadic pair has to deal with the zombie/vampires that have arisen from the rubble. There is also the Brotherhood, a bunch of neo-Nazi zealots that are just as dangerous in their pursuit of non-believers. And they are also warned: “It’s not the zombies you have to worry about, it’s the cannibals!” Mister teaches the young Martin survival skills and trains him in the ways of killing vampires. During the journey through this lawless world without hope they are accompanied by a nun (Kelly McGillis, best known for her roles in Top Gun and Witness, etc), the former Marine Willie (Sean Nelson, from Fresh, etc), and the heavily pregnant Belle (Danielle Harris).
Stake Land is the brainchild of former cameraman turned director Jim Mickle and co-writer Nick Damici, who have a great understanding of the cliches and the formula of the horror genre. Their previous film together was the straight to DVD sci-fi horror thriller Mulberry Street, about a New York infested with killer rats. It is at times quite bloody, but it also has rare traces of black humour, and Mickle creates a disturbing atmosphere. He keeps the film moving at a brisk pace, and his handling of some key action scenes is surprisingly muscular.
Despite the low budget, the film boasts some great and gory special effects. Ryan Samul‘s dark and moody cinematography suits Mickle’s bleak tone and stripped visual style. The set design and Daniel Kersting‘s production direction also creates a convincingly decayed landscape. And Jeff Grace’s haunting score adds to the film’s mood. Stake Land was originally intended to be a television series, which accounts for the episodic nature of some of their encounters.
The performances from the largely unknown cast are fine. Cast against type, Paolo brings a touch of naivete, vulnerability and uneasiness to his role as Martin, who initially struggles to cope with this violent and unfamiliar world. Stage actor Michael Cerveris brings a frightening intensity to his role as the menacing leader of the Brotherhood.
Winner of the Midnight Madness Award at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, this unashamed genre piece has all the ingredients to become a cult classic on the late night circuit.