A new thriller from Blumhouse Television and EPIX pits a bus full of high school kids against something…Unhuman.
There’s plenty of comedy and horror to be mined from the high school experience, so it’s fitting that Unhuman, the new film written by Patrick Melton & Marcus Dunstan (The Feast & The Collector films) and directed by Dunstan, does just that. The film takes a diverse sample of the HS social hierarchy and sees how the teens operate in the face of an epidemic that turns regular people into zombie-ish ghouls.
Undead takes place over a single day and principally follows Ever (Brianne Tju, I Know What You Did Last Summer). She’s a smart, but reserved high school senior who struggles to connect to most people except her best friend Tamra (Ali Gallo, The Sex Lives of College Girls). Alas Tamra has begun to drift towards the “popular” crowd, which only fuels Ever’s insecurity over potentially losing her only friend.
Ever is nursing a secret crush on Steven (Drew Scheid, Halloween), and, early in the film, Tamra has a meet cute with loner Randall (Benjamin Wadsworth, Deadly Class), though that doesn’t prevent him from being bullied by her new friends.
The inciting incident involves a field trip that goes horribly awry when the bus hits something and then crashes into the wooded ditch. Almost immediately thereafter, the politically incorrect faculty chaperone Mr Chad Lorenzo (Peter Giles) is attacked and killed by a rabid man (Joshua Mikel), who also murders several other students, prompting the survivors to bolt into the woods for safety.
This leads to the creation of a ragtag bunch that includes Ever, Tamra, Randall, and Steven, as well as fat teen Ryan (Blake Burt, Pitch Perfect 2) and the popular kids: bully/jock Danny (Uriah Shelton, Freaky), his elitist, vacuous girlfriend Jacey (Lo Graham, Scream Queens), and black athlete Hunt (C.J. LeBlanc, Just Mercy). Together this unlikely group hole up in a derelict building and hold off the mindless horde that was once their peers, but who now hunt them.
The film is introduced as a PSA of sorts, presented by the Student Teacher Division. Savvy viewers will note the acronym almost as quickly as they suffer whiplash from the film’s editing (courtesy of Andrew Wesman, who is apparently a huge fan of wipes) and these two elements – the humour and the editing – are clear indicators of whether Unhuman will work for you.
The style, tone and action are reminiscent of Joseph Kahn’s Detention, in that it feels like someone has taken a collection of teen horror comedy conventions, thrown them into a blender and hit pulse for approximately 85 minutes. The result is propulsive and energetic; it’s also exhausting and unsustainable, even for a film with a a short runtime. In Detention this style over substance mostly works because the film is embracing its meta qualities. Unhuman, in contrast, spends most of its runtime content to play in conventional “zombie/infected person” territory.
Then the third act kicks in and upends everything.
The revelations about how the events depicted in Unhuman came to be and who is responsible will be incredibly divisive (which is saying something for a film that is already walking that very thin line). It’s possible some audiences will simply throw up their exasperated hands at the reveal. While Unhuman‘s convoluted – and not entirely satisfying – message might feel at home in an 80s or 90s YA coming of age film, unfortunately Melton and Dunstan haven’t entirely thought through the ramifications of this take-away, much less earned it or rationally explained its logistics.
It’s messy…very, very messy. Expect to hear a lot of talk about this capper, assuming anyone even checks the film out, considering its exceedingly quiet release and lack of buzz.
The major saving grace is Brianne Tju, who is eminently cheer-worthy and totally capable of anchoring her own film. As Ever, she convincingly moves from beleaguered secondary character in her own life to a badass Final Girl who will stand up for her beliefs and she sells every second of it. Her bestie chemistry with Gallo is similarly strong, which helps to carry then film even when it begins to go off the rails. At the very least, Unhuman confirms what fans of Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer (the TV series) already knew: Tju has charisma and star power to spare.
The Bottom Line: If audiences remain focused on Tju, Unhuman is a mostly entertaining diversion; it’s a slight narrative with a bombastic visual tone and an ill-advised ending that tries for something different, and doesn’t entirely stick the landing. 2.5/5
Unhuman is out On Digital Friday, June 3