In the years since George Romero singlehandedly created the zombie genre with 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead,” he befriended and partnered with horror fiction magnate Stephen King for 1982’s “Creepshow,” a delightfully cheesy and colorful chiller anthology. And though King has gone on to write and even direct more movies, he never tried his hand at the zombie film until “Cell,” based on his 2006 novel. It seems like King has taken precious little from his friend’s apocalyptic masterworks, penning a script (with Adam Alleca) that’s nearly devoid of the satirical wit and claustrophobic dread that made “Night,” “Dawn,” and “Day” horror classics.
The zombies in “Cell” come about not through a virus or radioactive dust, but through cellular signals that scramble the brains of anyone who uses a mobile phone. This sends graphic novelist Clay (John Cusack), whose smartphone ran out of juice moments before “the pulse” turned people into psychotic killers, fleeing a bloodbath at the Boston airport. He quickly teams up with Tom (Samuel L. Jackson), a capable transit employee and Vietnam veteran, and Alice (Isabelle Fuhrman), a teenage neighbor, in a trek to New Hampshire to rescue his son and estranged wife. The trio expands as they encounter other survivors, and contracts when events cull them off. Aside from a death that’s surprising for both being unexpected and handled with moving solemnity, the plot points move along predictably, at least until an ending that suggests King doesn’t realize that ambiguous is usually the wrong way to go with genre pics.
Romero’s films were cutting satires of consumerism, race relations, militarism, and a host of other issues that gave them an electric zap underneath the gory mounds of dread. But King, never much one for themes in any medium, neglects to even attempt a commentary on how the ubiquitous presence of a phone and computer in everyone’s pocket effects interpersonal communication. It’s simply a plot device, and not a particularly interesting one, either.
The filmmakers, including director Tod Williams, are working with a painfully small budget, and lack either the capability or desire to conceal it. If anyone attached to the film ever suggested a rewrite to shrink the scale and strengthen the production values, they were clearly ignored. Individual “Walking Dead” episodes look vastly superior, except for the presence of bona fide B-listers Cusack and Jackson. But then again, those two are the film’s best use of money, as both give believable turns as men trying to do right when all else has gone wrong. Jackson in particular is remarkably subdued, lacking even one moment where he goes into the red as a slick hardass; instead of functioning as just another waste of the actor’s legendary talents, it shines a rare spotlight on his versatility.
I said King was never much for themes, but I didn’t say that about character. Those who’ve read his how-to guide On Writing know that he thinks character is king (forgive the pun), and this zombie film’s survivors are surprisingly strong. There’s even a tender moment in between the chaos where Cusack and Fuhrman’s characters bond over their pre-apocalypse regrets, as if the chaos is a punctuation to a life wasted. This scene, as well as a few others, beg for a better movie, zombie or otherwise.
There is a scene towards the beginning that demonstrates a fraction of Romero’s wit. Walking through a suburb, Clay spots a car covered in NRA stickers and, before looting the adjacent home, notes that, despite his personal pacifism, a gun would come in handy about now. It’s an unexpected point for the thoroughly anti-gun King to make, and one implicit in the genre: guns aren’t necessary or desirable, until they are. For a moment, “Cell” makes that electric connection between fantasy and reality before dropping the call.