TRIBECA Review: THE DARK is the Living Dead by way of EC Comics
Zombie films are the new Found Footage: oversaturated and unwelcome. At least that’s what you would expect if you listen to the vocal majority of Film Twitter. After the triumphant return of the ghouls who George Romero made famous through Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (yes, technically “infected humans” but they are clearly the genesis of the zombies we know today), Hollywood was rocked by the success of Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead. Since then you can’t really look anywhere without seeing zombie content everywhere, especially with the cultural smash that was AMC’s The Walking Dead. But what we don’t see as much is the imaginative ways creatives used zombies before this modality became the norm. Specifically the living dead of the 1950’s EC Comics, or even the zombies that were touched by some form of dark magic. Especially in the zombie stories found within Vault of Horror or Tales from the Crypt, the dead rose not for the express purpose of chowing down on a buffet of humans, but rather to extract revenge from their wrongful death. And it’s this designation that makes me pause to call The Dark a zombie film, but rather a Living Dead Revenge film. Yes, people will call this a zombie movie, but I’m going on the record now and saying that designation categorically hurts the bizarre brooding fantasia that is The Dark
The Dark is an Austrian film in English directed by Justin P Lange. The film follows Meena (Nadia Alexander, The Sinner, Blame) a young ghoul who lives in an abandoned house in a spot of land known as The Devils Den. The locals know not to go to The Devils Den, unless you be hunted by Meena. And it’s not that Meena takes pleasure in the hunt, but a girls gotta eat, and when your body can’t even begin to process human food like cereal, you take what you can get. Meena’s world is rocked when she comes upon Alex (Toby Nichols, who you will recognize as Young Danny Rand in Iron Fist), a young abused boy who is left in the back of his kidnappers car. But Alex is suffering from heavy Stockholm Syndrome, believing that Josef (who Meena viciously encounters moments before) was helping him keep his family safe. We never know the extent to what happened to Alex, but we know it was bad. So bad that Josef blinded Alex by burning out his eyes, leaving scar tissue covering his sockets. Feeling a frustrated connectedness to the boy, namely that Alex can’t tell that Meena is a monster, she helps him hide away in the forest as she struggles to understand how the power of empathy can foundationally change who you are.
The Dark feels like a feature length episode of Tales from The Crypt as written by Alan Ormsby. Child abuse is a topic that is brought up over and again in these EC comics as a way for children to recognize evil in this world. The sugar that makes this medicine gone down is, of course, the horror elements. What happens to Meena feels drawn from these 1950s morality tales. The reveal of her backstory and how she became what she is equally heartbreaking and cinematically exhilarating, echoing iconic moments of The Evil Dead and Creepshow while still being very much it’s own unique voice. Calling it a zombie film is not only a stretch, but a disservice to this interesting pulpy tale. If you miss the days when zombies rose from watery graves to strangle Leslie Nielsen to death, then you will not want to miss The Dark.