Released in select theaters May 2018, Island Zero is the first feature film ever produced by Donkey Universe Films. And I have to say, they have done a spectacular job.
The film opens with a man and his dog on a boat drifting near a small island just off the coast of Maine. As he goes below deck for another drink, his dog mysteriously disappears. All that’s left is a blood-soaked doggie life-vest. A few days later, the islanders find themselves suddenly unable to contact or return to the mainland. Cell phones and radios cease to work. The local ferry never returns to pick up its passengers and any boats that leave don’t come back. As time passes, the villagers find themselves running out of food as, one-by-one, they are hunted and eaten by invisible predators from the depths of the ocean.
The script for Island Zero, written by Tess Gerritsen, was really quite imaginative and terrifying. I couldn’t help but see several Lovecraftian themes woven into the story as I watched. After all, it’s set in a small town in Maine, there are ravenous flesh-eating sea creatures that can venture on land to hunt, and there’s even a shady guy who’s hiding a dark secret.
And let me tell you—the ending was great. I don’t want to give away any spoilers but the very last scene was quite poignant, making great use of the Happy For Now trope. The end wasn’t wrapped up all nice and neat for us. Instead, we’re left with something of an open-ended question that is both hopeful and worrying at the same time. I really liked that. It’s not something that you see every day in horror films.
Donkey Universe Films did a great job at casting Island Zero. Although Adam Wade McLaughlin’s character Sam couldn’t be considered a true hero archetype, much of the story certainly revolved around his work as a marine biologist and what he knew of his late wife’s work. Despite this somewhat vague archetypal foundation, McLaughlin gave a great performance. There was only one scene in which, as far as being considered a main character goes, Sam fails. Near the end of the film, he breaks down at the most inconvenient time and things just go south from there.
Matthew Wilkas was awesome as the film’s secondary villain Titus. He maintains a dark charm throughout the film that gives us a hint that something’s not quite kosher about him but you just can’t put your finger on what it is. Laila Robbins and Teri Reeves were fantastic in the lead female roles, both giving strong performances. Robbins especially was convincing as the doctor whose former military experience helps to steer the group as they try to survive.
I wish I could touch on each and every cast member in this film, especially knowing that a lot of them were locals. Unfortunately, it’s just not possible in a review like this so it will have to suffice to say that they were all fantastic. That being said, I would be remiss if I didn’t give one last shout out to two of the cast whose characters provided some great comic relief throughout the film. Richard Sewell (who played the long-suffering Alvis) and Anabel Graetz (who played his spirited wife Ruth) were comical. The dynamic between the two was so enjoyable and they added so much to the film that I have to mention them.
The soundtrack on Island Zero was interesting. I don’t mean that in a bad way, mind. I liked it. It had a 1980s vibe to it that I didn’t expect in a newer film like this, with a lot of what sounded to me like synth. I’m not absolutely sure if that was on purpose but if I had to bet, I’d say that since the crew was endeavoring to create something along the lines of The Thing and Them, this may have been the case. Other than that, the sound levels were good. At no point did the music overwhelm the dialogue and it supported the action just like it should have done.
One of the things you always hear in horror is that “less is more” when it comes to the scare factor and Island Zero certainly made good use of that old adage. The sea-monsters were invisible so you never really see them well, even when one is killed. They remain a lurking menace throughout the film which served to heighten the tension. The only time you got a glance at the creatures was when the characters saw them through an infrared camera, which also means there was minimal use of CGI. And even this was tastefully done and only when really necessary.
The film was shot across a few small towns in Maine, using the homes of people who the crew knew. They even burned down a real house for this film! The landscape is beautiful. There was some gore as the creatures tear through the islanders but it was not over done by any means. The lighting used supported the intended mood and tone of each scene incredibly well. Finally, the camera movement and aerial views were well shot and smooth. All in all, this “small-town” style (as the film’s website calls it) produced something really quite lovely.
According to the film’s official website, Donkey Universe Films had a particular vision for Island Zero. They wanted to shoot a traditional horror film in their hometown using local people wherever possible and they certainly pulled it off quite well. I don’t know what else to say except that I really enjoyed this film. It’s a well-paced bit of frightening fun and well worth a view. If you have the opportunity to watch it, I highly recommend you do.