Contains mild spoilers.
State of Emergency has its faults but writer and director Turner Clay, and brother and producer John Will Clay should be immensely proud of their low budget 28 Days Later inspired little zombie opus. Relying a lot on character interaction / development, and long moody shot construction, for a film of an hour and a half not a lot actually happens; yet as a complete work throughout it was utterly gripping and genuinely provocative. While I can understand some of the criticism this film has received, personally I feel the slower pace and more artistic direction lends the film its ever present atmosphere of foreboding, and makes the moments of action and horror far more terrifying for it.
State of Emergency has a very clear and cohesive identity. The Clays dramatize the down-time; with focus on the relationships and needs of those lucky enough to find themselves still alive in a sanctuary that appears to offer them some semblance of the safety of the old world. Then there's outside; outside the shelter means death. The world has gone to hell, the people they once called neighbour are now savage, deranged, and mean to kill and eat them. Inside the feeling is closest synonymised with that feeling as a child that all is safe with the covers pulled high and as long as you can't see the monsters they can't see you. The dichotomy the Clay's have produced is convincing and tangible and it makes the later infringements more disturbing. It's that play with binary conditions and inherent contradiction that also lies at the heart of the zombie concept; that is something that is neither alive or dead. We humans like one thing or another, clear lines, and when they cross the result is uncomfortable.
Fear works when the unpleasant inevitability is postponed. We know the monster WILL jump out, all the cues are there; one finds oneself wishing they would just get it over with. State of Emergency is a masterclass not only in building and maintaining heart pounding suspense but actually making good the promise of delivery. Are they zombies though? At this juncture I think it's quite naïve to demand actual physical deadness from the being that's now clearly no longer the being they were before. The people of Montgomery County exposed and not immune to the fallout from the explosion at the bio-chemical facility might not be physically dead but they're the perfect encapsulation of inhuman, unpredictable and uncomfortable. It's the monsters from 28 Days Later somehow made to seem more savage, more scary when juxtaposed against the frailties and vulnerabilities of real people who really are terrified of them. Like their confusion, their fear transfers through the screen, genuinely becoming palpable to the viewer.
This playing with deliberate vagueness and ambiguity, whether narratively or stylistically lies at the heart of the film. Like the survivors one doesn't ever feel in control of knowing what's going on. Obviously there's going to be a bit of confusion when faced with a county wide viral pandemic that's turning the vast majority of the population into primal homicidal cannibals; but here's its more. The Clay's deliberately embrace the notion that less can be more. There's no laboured exposition, past stories are handled with well-paced flashbacks, no need to fully dissect the zombie identity with long drawn out contrived sequence. We're there, we know as much as they do, yes there's lots of holes but its this that's driving the tension and maintaining the atmosphere.
Tense, gripping and enthralling throughout, this small claustrophobic horror placed a huge burden on a small cast who delivered tight authentic performances that matched the great direction and production. Special mention must also be made for the sound; whether it faint distant sporadic gun fire, close intimidating thunder or smothering silences matching compliment the vision and narrative beautifully.
State of Emergency is a zombie film that's more than the sum of its parts. While it could be argued by some its more style over substance it’s this very deliberate decision and vision that enables it to work the way it does; there's a very clear identity and a confidence to stick it out, and this has to be respected. The apocalyptic world the Clay's have constructed is both cohesive and coherent, and to be honest I'd have loved to have seen a second instalment, with slightly bigger budget to enable them more room to play with their undoubted vision and style, and this says a lot. Recommended - 7/10.