30 Days of Night (2007) dir. David Slade
Starring: Josh Hartnett, Melissa George, Danny Huston, Mark Rendall
“30 Days of Night” is a familiar story – a small isolated community shut in and invaded by a horde of bloodsucking zombie/vampires. After countless films on this subject it’s hard to believe this film could be made fresh and entertaining. But David Slade does just that.
The hook of this zombie film is that the town under invasion, Barrow Alaska, the northernmost city in the state, is stuck under cover of night for 30 days. It’s a geographical thing - being so far north the sun doesn’t rise and set in traditional hours of the day. During the month of darkness most of the town leaves for the south, but a few of them stay. One day a drifter (Ben Foster) walks into Barrow making trouble and ranting about a plague coming for the town. After some other strange occurrences the malevolent demons reveal themselves. Over the next 30 days a race of rabid vampire-zombies savagely kill the citizens of Barrow. Sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett) leads a group of scared citizens against the onslaught.
“30 Days of Night” follows the familiar path of the genre. There’s the small group of survivors in an enclosed location with no escape; there’s the scene where a friend or family member has to be put down after being bitten by the demons; there’s the irrational old man who thinks hiding is a bad idea, leaves the security of the group and is horrifically killed; and there’s the debate of who will sacrifice themselves for the good of the town. These familiarities work because it’s clear the classic ‘zombie story’ has become a sustainable and enduring form of cinema-storytelling - like “The Odyssey” in literary storytelling.
Director David Slade doesn’t complicate the form and lets his fine actors sell the story to us. As he should Slade carefully builds suspense in the opening act by hiding the demons from us. Ben Foster, who teases us with his incoherent rambling, turns in another scene stealing performance. His performances in this and “3:10 to Yuma” remind me of the ‘Christian Bale disappearing-act’ method of acting. And it won’t be long before Foster is an A-lister too. The great character actor Danny Huston, is a pleasant surprise as the leader of the zombies. He doesn’t speak a word of dialogue other than a made-up language through which he communicates with his minions. But with a pale white face, giant black pupils and a set of sharp mangled teeth Huston becomes a truly menacing baddie.
The film gives us the violence we expect, and Slade makes it all fun and horrific. Not even children are spared the carnage. Guns are kept to a minimum. Instead Slade prefers the good old fashioned axe as his prima-weapon. Hartnett performs some evil and nasty headchoppings – not the clean and simple one-swipe lop offs either, but tough and brutal hackings.
It’s a great showcase film for David Slade (“Hard Candy”) who will soon be making bigger blockbusters in no time. He has a great eye for composition and editing. Watch the first big vampire attack set piece, which he shoots from a high helicopter angle above. It’s a fantastic and fresh way of visualizing a scene we’ve scene dozens of times before in movies.
An interesting contrast film to “30 Days of Night” is Frank Darabont’s “The Mist”. It’s a similar film with the same genre parameters, and even a talented filmmaker like Darabont couldn’t get away with diverging from the path. So in this case perhaps inexperience was Slade’s greatest ally.
“30 Days of Night” is available on DVD Feb 26 from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.