Portrait of a Zombie is the story of young, but dead Billy Murphy. Now Billy isn't like other zombies. Yes, he's a cannibalistic gut-munching serial-killer in waiting, with rotting flesh, blood-stained hair and clothing and quite the unpleasant aroma. What makes Billy special, is the love of his family, especially that of a mother who will quite literally do everything to carry on her role to both protect him from an outside world that wants to put a bullet in his head, and her state of denial that keeping a delirious inhuman monster chained up close to your other loved ones is quite frankly seriously mentally deranged, never mind negligent. It's also the story of amateur documentary maker (played by Todd Fletcher) and his increasingly desperate and actionable efforts to capture the situation in a way that will see him attain stardom and fortune.
Now, brush aside the low budget, a purported £100k, look and feel of the film, and also brush aside the interesting shall we say, directorial style, which I believe was more forced on them, to move from the standard 'b-movie' composure, to a mockumentary hybrid, with the story exposed both through interviews and the traditional vantage, which at times feels at odds with each other. What director, co-writer and co-producer Bing Bailey has attempted here should first and foremost be applauded. Portrait of a Zombie is ambitious, genre-breaking and making, and both disturbing and interesting; and for the first thirty minutes captivating and coherently assembled. The family lead by the delightful Lizzie (Geraldine McAlinden) and Danny Murphy (Rory Mullen) are full of sincerity, the set-up whilst already stretching does hold reasonably together, and the use of the film crew with their interviews is the perfect vehicle to present the insular working class Dublin suburb narrative. It's all good, if a bit slow, competent low budget film making.
So where does it all go wrong? All of Portrait of a Zombie's problems stem from trying to keep up the pretence; the implausible plausibility of a set-up that's been so carefully built. I could just about grasp some level of responsibility and ownership of a child that's become a zombie; to wrestle with grief and the acceptance that at some point this dangerous shell would have to be let go of. I could also just about go along with the idea that the authorities could possibly be taking a while to catch up to a new isolated, extraordinary and limited condition, and putting together a legal framework to challenge a guardians rights of responsibility, could be causing a few head scratches. Where it all started to go wrong for me, wasn't when additional zombies starting appearing, killing and eating en-masse, it was the fact that not one soldier nor so much as one bobby-on-the beat thought it prudent to even show up. Also, with a backdrop of death and gut-spewing carnage, even after Billy has eaten his pregnant girlfriend, do his ma and pa think to agree to the wishes of the entire neighbourhood and rid everyone of this clear and present danger.
The 'But he's ma son', card is just played too many times and whilst Bailey could have turned it more into the black comedy, than keeping straight, there are just never enough laughs, nor does it start down this path early enough to think it was ever an option; all of which makes late scenes such as an unfathomable sequence with a newly stumped camera-man acting as if it was merely a nuisance, Monty Python Black Knight-esque, and the uncomfortable and drawn out self-mutilation mother and son moment the more incongruous and desperate.
Now I've read the contrasting reviews, which seem to swing from scathing, or refer to it positively as the next coming, which it could be said actually occurred one year later when Channel 4 brought the series In the Flesh to screen. Like Portrait of a Zombie, at least to start with, it spun things round, but unlike Portrait, it actually held it together with a brilliant narrative and believable structure; all bonded with an extra level of professionalism, gravitas and depth. The truth, as always, is somewhere in between. No doubt hampered with budgetary concerns, the ideas and undoubted talent that were clearly present here were not enough to pull it all together into a coherent or persuasive whole. Also, despite other smaller issues; the zombie back-story and identity is firmly and well established, the zombie kills (zombies on humans) were well presented, and the acting always coherent; which if the narrative had managed to match might have actually made this quite the feast the cover (another cheap re-release with a cover that has no connection to the film) alluded to. 4/10.