Review by Daniel Lima
“Is it just me, or is the whole f*cking concept of zombies f*cking strange?” asks one character in the new Norwegian horror film Project Z. “The fact that they are dead humans eating living humans.” Thirty years ago, that kind of postmodern, profanity-laden observation directly wrestling with the subject of the piece might feel fresh. Today, it’s a bleak indication of the level of insight that a movie like this has to offer about this brand of horror filmmaking. That is, very little.
The film chronicles the student production of a low-budget horror film, comprising both footage that the students have shot and the behind-the-scenes drama that unfolds. In the midst of this, there are mysterious reports of meteorites falling from the sky, which may be more than they appear to be.
From the jump, Project Z announces itself as a found footage horror movie, and fails to live up to the conceit just as quickly. The entire appeal of the subgenre is the idea that the viewer is witnessing the raw, unedited last moments of hapless victims, yet all the footage shot for the student production here has gone through post-production (barring a handful of jokes). Green screens, foley, a score — all this polish ends up having an adverse effect on the behind-the-scenes footage as well, giving it the same artificial sheen. The film is never allowed to feel like organic found footage because there are constant reminders that it is not.
The depiction of the production process does seem to accurately reflect the kinds of struggles and tensions that flare up on these sets. Egos that eclipse the scale of the shoot, adapting to changing conditions, the small crew blowing off steam together, all the hallmarks of low budget filmmaking are represented. To their credit, the cast all give fine performances, with Dennis Storhøi playing a pompous version of himself being a highlight.
That said, there’s no shortage of movies about moviemaking, and beyond merely showing the process, Project Z has nothing to actually say about it. That would be fine if this crew were actually fun to be around, but each character is painfully unlikable and not the least bit compelling. You might be able to get past that if the film nailed the aesthetic of found footage, making them feel like real people, but these feel just as fake as the movie they are shooting. Thus, the film lurches on, with no reason to exist in sight, until a predictable third act turn that itself articulates nothing.
While this hits a trifecta of well-worn indie territory — zombies, found footage horror, and films about filmmaking — it suffers especially compared to one movie in particular. One Cut of the Dead managed to carve out a unique identity in the space as an exhilarating, madcap, loving ode to low-budget horror filmmaking. The quickfire ingenuity it takes to get a project off the ground, especially one on a limited scale, is made tantamount to magic, and watching it unfold feels electrifying in spite of decades of other films tackling the same subject matter.
Alas, that magic is nowhere to be found in Project Z. There are no new ideas here, no unique stamp of personality — just tired conventions trotted out in service of a distinct lack of vision. As short as the film is, it is a frustrating experience, and it’s hard to recommend knowing how many others accomplish what it should.
Project Z is now available on VOD.