Slither is a zombie film. Anyone familiar with American pop culture knows what to expect. The dead will walk and a small band of survivors will find themselves battling reanimated friends and loved ones. Blood will spatter, there will be close-ups of chunks of human flesh being bitten and the subsequent sound of munching. Zombie heads will be blown off. After almost three decades of zombie films, all that’s left for filmmakers to examine is the question of why. Rage infested monkeys? Overcrowding in Hell? A virus? Alien intervention?
And what’s the metaphor this time? Rampant consumerism? Complacency? The anomie of modern life? The rage of the mob?
The answer to the first question comes immediately in Slither, with a chunk of stone hurtling through the vastness of space, straight towards the big blue marble we call home. It’s an outer space kind of thing, and like most out of space things in movieland, it’s headed straight for Middle America. The meteor lands late at night just outside the depressed little hamlet of Wheelsy, which is wonderfully and tersely depicted while the credits roll.
This is no charming down home slice of Americana. The optimistic sign from another era welcoming travelers to Wheelsy is peeling and barely legible, obese teenagers drift down dirty sidewalks, cracked-faced bums gather in front of empty storefronts, a flint-eyed man in a priest’s collar fixes the camera with a cold stare as he puffs a cigarette… Wheelsy is the kind of small town that sends its best and brightest screaming to the urban jungles of the big cities, and after watching the first few minutes of sure handed direction by writer and director James Gunn, the audience knows that Wheelsy is due, in the next hour and a half, to get even more horrifying.
Once the invasion/epidemic gets underway, the answer to the second question – what’s the metaphor? — is as subtle as a punch in the gut. In this well-made, well-acted, and funny sci-fi horror hybrid, wet alien flesh glistens and pulsates, penis-like organs strain to plunge into the flesh of unwilling victims, (who immediately go into a spastic parody of orgasm, followed by an even more ghastly parody of pregnancy) and swarms of what look like small severed tongues slither through forests, towns, and homesteads, relentlessly transforming those they encounter, animal or human into walking cadavers. Sex and its consequences have rarely been so repulsive.
There is not a boring moment in this entire film, thanks not only to Gunn’s script, but to the cast. Elizabeth Banks is Starlet, the ex-white-trash school teacher whose drawl and delicate good looks conceal the innate toughness of a poor gal made good, Nathan Fillion is the cop who’s carried a torch for her since childhood, and Tania Saulnier is the quintessential farmer’s daughter, the nubile teenager who thinks flowers painted on her fingernails the ultimate in sophistication. All of them are fun to watch, but it’s Michael Rooker as Grant Grant, Starlet’s wealthy muscle-bound husband, who stands out, giving a performance that’s funny, sinister and at times surprisingly sympathetic.
As is now the tradition with zombie films, there is a "monks reward" at the very end, for those willing to sit through the closing credits – not a great chore in this case since the music is quite good. The bit at the very last is not the best part of the film, however, and unlike the rest of the movie, it’s predictable to the point of being just a bit disappointing.
Anyway, don’t we all know already that zombie films never end happily, no matter what happens just before the end credits roll?