I was a teenager in the 2000s. My introduction to zombie cinema was George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which I was only exposed to because my older brother had seen Zack Snyder’s (great) remake and rented the original. I was always a very terrified kid, and the concept of zombies haunted me for years leading up to the fateful evening my brother left the credits playing in our family room. The mall music playing over shambling corpses enjoying a day at the Monroeville Mall somehow dissipated all fear. I was hooked, devouring Romero’s stuff, the knockoffs, The Walking Dead comics from its earliest issues. Looking back, it doesn’t feel like the time between my introduction to the stuff and its explosion into wider popular culture around 2010 was all that long, but it felt like it at the time. My odd nerd genre was suddenly big-time thanks to a mediocre television show and a string of mostly lousy movies.
Now we’re back there again, as popular culture has moved on (despite AMC’s desire to oversaturate spinoffs of their endless, lousy franchise) but what’s dead is never over with this kind of thing, and independent filmmakers looking to make a dramatic horror movie with blood, guts and violence continue to turn to the genre. End Times is a competent production that runs through the template’s greatest hits, largely without falling into the self-pitying storytelling that defined the past decade’s most prominent zombie tales.
Written and directed by Jim Towns, Desolation follows Claire (Jamie Bernadette), a suburban girl unprepared for the end of the world. Claire quickly finds herself on the wrong end of a band of cruel survivors who rape and humiliate her before leaving her to die alone among the undead. She’s rescued by Freddie (Craig Stark), a former mercenary with a dark past who knows the keys to apocalyptic survival. Together, they travel the wastelands searching for food and battling the disturbing new cultures that have arisen from the ashes of America.
Most of their experiences are straight from the genre playbook. Freddie teaches Claire the art of survival as they explore the world. They eventually come upon her former attackers, which allows Claire to embrace the violence of her new world. Zombies routinely attack them until they come upon a seemingly peaceful society with a hidden darkness.
The violence is well-choreographed, the zombies look grisly and the performances make the characters interesting enough for the story to work. There’s also an attempt at telling a story about women’s agency in the new world through Claire’s experience with sexual violence and later conflict with a cult that encourages “free love” with strings attached, but the themes aren’t properly cooked and mostly function as a half-formed subtext in favor of what becomes a very traditional denouement. Truthfully, the weakest portions of the film are the final scenes between Claire and Freddie, which devolve into the brand of post-apocalyptic emotional conflict we’ve seen countless times before.
Although it isn’t hard to find zombie material, it certainly feels like a genre that has found its way away from its hallowed spot in popular culture. Most of End Times is a nice reminder of how low-budget filmmakers can harness its tropes to tell entertaining enough stories with all the nastiness audiences expect. The ending is a letdown and it doesn’t deliver anything special overall, but End Times is good enough.