What could be more pertinent to 2020 than a horror / psychological thriller film based on the fear of social isolation?
The central conceit to Human Zoo is of a reality TV show where the contestants are placed in a cell and filmed constantly until all but one of them quits. The last person remaining wins the huge cash prize (of course it is 1 million dollars). What could possibly go wrong, and who on earth would watch that show? Sadly, I find myself also asking the question “who would watch this film?”
Human Zoo features Robert Carradine. one of the stars of Revenge of the Nerds a cult film that is, objectively awful but is really fun to watch. Human Zoo at least nails the first part.
The film starts us off with some auditions for people wanting to be contestants on this shadowy game show. Oddly these opening scenes film more like outtakes of the movie. We get a bizarre mix of accents and miscast actors talking about what it means to be social isolating and how they might intend to win the show. The mix of people, attempts at comedy and implied dread is jarring and off-putting.
We then sit through an extended period of the contestants giving a snapshot into why they are competing. And what their massive psychological defects are that make them entirely unsuitable to this kind of experience. We quickly learn that the people behind this TV show are not terribly pleasant. Human Zoo makes the mistake of repeating near-identical scenes for each of the contestants repeatedly. We were building very little momentum, but even that is shot stone dead.
In a piece of text exposition at the beginning of Human Zoo, we are told the contestants don’t know how many other contestants they are competing against. But shortly into the film one of the producers expressly tells them that “one of you in this room is going to be a millionaire”. so… they do know how many people they are competing against.
From a storytelling point of view, there are too many characters. This means Human Zoo runs at an incredibly baggy 1 hour and 50 minutes. Unlikable, un-relatable, unbelievable characters doing not very much for a long time. The film makes the same broad mistake a lot of low budget horror films make. It ties itself into a gimmick (people in cells going bananas) that is at odds with quality film making. Watching the film is very boring. Listening to the unlikeable characters fly off the handle at being given oatmeal is very tiresome.
The characters start off swearing about everything and going nuts at nothing so their incessant complaining quickly wears thin. On the plus side, almost all the contestants have toxic personalities, so the rest of society must find it a blessed relief. Ironically for a film where almost all the characters are locked in cells, Human Zoo lacks any kind of structure. Each character pleading to be let out, swearing and shouting creates a fragmented work that does not come together as a whole. The ending is also disappointing.
Sound design is too minimal and predictable (sinister circus music played endlessly, followed by mostly nothing).
Despite the incredible timing of this release, given what is happening in the world right now this film has very little to say. The plot is dull and predictable. A few of the actors manage to do their best with some ripe material. Jessica Cameron (Red Eye, The Tombs) fights gamely against the cliché-ridden script admirably. But the film is a turkey. The script, direction and most of the large cast are poor. Human Zoo is a dull story, badly told.
Human Zoo premieres on digital/DVD May 5th from Wild Eye Releasing. You can visit the film’s website for more information.