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The latest scarefest from director Jordan Peeler recalls our most primitive fears by invoking the claustrophobic confines of a subterranean parking garage in all its cold fluorescent glory. Like the levels of our own subconscious, the deeper you go the deeper you get, and sometimes it’s hard to find your way back.
Never one to simply join in any established trend, Peeler (Catch 22) knows we’ve seen slow lumbering zombies, fast running zombies, and smart functioning zombies; zombie humans and zombie animals.
So his zombies are only the people we love. And since we all love different people, zombies are different for each of us. Some see zombies where you see just another person.
Some see you as a zombie.
That’s right: the people who love you want to kill you because they think you’re a zombie.
The mere sight of you causes fear. And screaming.
When confusion and sheer terror- real, primal, soul shivering fear of death and monsters- reign, hysteria and loss of life ensue. Any second can be a fight for survival. Your last moments may be spent searching for loved ones you club to death or abandoning your children as you run screaming from them. The world as you knew it is gone; everything is turned upside down. You may live or die at any moment but one thing is for sure: those kind of stress and adrenaline levels are unsustainable.
Peeler knows this, so the director allows the narrative room to breathe inside the bloody mayhem as we float from one terror to the next on a sort of river of shock. The threat is constant but the enemy can come from anywhere at any time. Most everyone you see appears to be just as confused and scared as you but no one can trust anyone else because if trusted family, friends and loved ones are all gone then what’s left are zombies and strangers. Panicked, traumatized strangers who are, like you, just trying to survive an insane world that set upon them with no rhyme or reason. As if someone threw a switch that suddenly sent the world into chaos, into the terrifying stuff of nightmares. The suspense climbs and falls as the strangers piece together why none of them can find their loved ones, their grief palpable when they realize they may have already killed them.
Winston Cuke stars as Mr. Dapner, the luxury pre-owned car salesman whose asphalt lot showroom becomes a fortress and sanctuary for himself and three others during the awful night in which the film is set. Co-stars Elisabeth Mosh and Lupita Gyno’o are both excellent as survivors with different methods of defending their families, though Mosh’s character benefited from advance warning allowing her a chance to lock her children alone in their rooms. Gyno’o’s had no such warning but managed to piece together what was happening by observing her neighbors kill each other on their front lawn. As passing motorists pull over to try to halt the attack or emerge screaming from their cars, other neighbors come out to watch. Some of the married couples only stand and stare in bewilderment; some are covered in blood, be it their own or anothers. Some are running away from each other toward strangers. The quick thinking mom texts both her daughters phones simultaneously telling them to go somewhere public where they won’t run into any family or friends. Or better yet just stay in their cars. Alone.
And whatever you do, she warns them, stay away from your boyfriends.
It’s obviously futile, but that may be the only thing obvious about Us. The film succeeds not because of the heart pounding tension and dread that permeate it. Instead it succeeds despite it, filling us the viewers with the feeling that despite our differences (and different perspectives) if we just slow down long enough and maybe give ourselves a quiet chance to stop and think we might see we have a lot more in common than in difference.
An effective duo of mood and space permeates the film, making tight confines and bright light both calming and chilling. In fact, the entire third act set in a parking garage is a joy to behold both visually and as a horror fan. The point of view is tight as we descend deeper and deeper into the concrete cavern, where small spaces offer a sense of security and light affords no shadows. Darkness begins to represent unknown dangers so when those safe, brightly lit spaces become deathtraps it is all the more jarring. In retreating deeper underground the cast seeks to burrow away from the real surface world in hopes of security, where it counter intuitively grows brighter instead of darker.
So imagine the lowest level sub basement, a vast expanse so blindingly bright that one can’t see more than a foot or two in any direction, filled with lost wanderers drawn to the light; wanderers lost in time and space as they circle the brightness in mute repetition like souls trapped in hi wattage purgatory.
It’s never clear if the titular us is actually we humans or we zombies, and maybe that’s the point of Us. That we’re not only zombies to each other; we’re zombies to ourselves.