Studio: Dimension Films
Director: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Writer: Barbara Marshall, Christopher Landon
Producer: Jason Blum, Sherryl Clark, Matt Kaplan
Stars: Sofia Black-D’Elia, Analeigh Tipton, Travis Tope, Colson Baker, Michael Kelly, John Cothran Jr., Stoney Westmoreland
Two sisters become trapped in an infected suburban community when a widespread parasitic virus puts them under quarantine.
Michael’s marriage has seen happier days. And relocating to the mountain-nestled California community of Shadow Canyon Estates is a promising first step in remedying his fracturing family.
Michael trades down for a job as the local high school’s biology teacher while teen daughters Emma and Stacey occupy themselves by stewarding romances of their own. Rebellious Stacey shares snark and snideness with bad boy CJ. Reliable Emma cutely crushes on good guy Evan from across the street.
School assignments and repairing relationships might remain predominant concerns, if not for ongoing news reports of a worrisome “Worm Flu” spreading worldwide. A parasitic organism capable of controlling human hosts is on its way to the Drakeford Family’s neighborhood, although no one knows it yet.
Once the virus hits, martial law follows. Michael finds himself caught on the other side of a CDC lockdown while Emma and Stacey are sealed inside their quiet cul-de-sac with other quarantined residents. Unfortunately, parasitic worms are trapped with them. As classmates and neighbors succumb to infection and transform into mindless murderers, Emma and Stacey are on their own to fight for survival against an overwhelming epidemic.
A fitting way to describe “Viral” is by likening it to early episodes of “Fear the Walking Dead.” How you felt about the flavor from that first season of AMC’s hit spinoff is a fair indicator of how you might take to this film’s tone.
Outside, sunny streets are patrolled by CDC vehicles and armed soldiers blaring bullhorn warnings of curfews while an outbreak is in its infancy. Inside, personal problems roil up in accordance with an increasing danger threatening to breach the perimeter from without as well as within.
“Viral” is a drama with elements of horror, not the other way around. This is an intimate portrait of a middle class family in a suburban development confronting low stakes worries like boy troubles and divorce against a backdrop of higher stakes terror. Engaging with the narrative depends on being connected with watching Emma and Stacey navigate their issues from level perspectives.
Such an average Everyman approach to seeing small and large catastrophes unfold can only be as compelling as the characters driving the plot. Fortunately, even though the sisters and their friends behave like typical teens, they don’t do so at the expense of insulting an intelligent audience. Sofia Black-D’Elia and Analeigh Tipton carry the charisma as co-leads, and supporting actors follow suit with similarly suitable performances, making for a cast of relatable people, not formulaic filler.
That’s a big boon for the film, because a great deal of time is spent getting to know the core cast before “Viral” takes anything close to a full turn into “28 Days Later” territory. A knock-on effect of focusing on humanity over horror is that “Viral” doesn’t have the sustained action of more energetic apocalyptic epics. Intrigue exists, though suspense is slowed by standard scenes of struggling with soldiers pulling away a loved one, being infected and not telling anyone, and becoming convinced that a turned person can be cured through individual ingenuity.
“Viral” at least doesn’t labor long in checking off clichés. Pacing is instead challenged by starting narrow, expanding to county-wide contamination, and then shrinking again to reframe on the two girls trapped in their house. Smaller scope is part of the film’s initial attractiveness, but “Viral” has a tough time transitioning back into that box after ballooning to more manic madness first. An ending reading as rushed, particularly in light of how dread dulls during the denouement before sequencing suddenly accelerates again, highlights how the last act struggles for a sensible way to tie threads together.
“Viral” still crosses the finish line as a thoughtfully-produced, smartly-shot, well-cast, and mature outbreak feature. Yet its mild restraint in favoring compact storytelling over skin-ripping body horror means the movie has its work cut out to measure up against a wealth of pandemic peers packing more panache.
Review Score: 65