My little catchy parody of the Adam Ant “Ant music for sex people” line jumps into my head every time I watch the 2006 film Mulberry Street, in which one of the characters refers to the infected as “rat people.” Many who argue that 28 Days Later is an ‘infection’ movie and not a zombie movie would claim the same thing about Mulberry Street. But if it walks like a zombie and eats like a zombie, it’s a zombie in my genre book. Because I love zombie movies, I love Mulberry Street. The only real downside for me is that it has the same name as my favorite local pizza parlor. So if I’m not careful about compartmentalizing the movie and the pizza parlor VERY far apart in my head, I could end up picturing a zombie with whiskers eating the cheese off my pizza. Which was this weekend’s challenge, since me and my friends were gnawing on Mulberry Street Pizza Parlor slices as we watched this rat zombie film.
‘Rat zombies???’ you scoff? Well don’t. It makes for a heinous premise that’s just as believable as dead people rising from the grave to munch on brains. Citizens of New York City are being infected by rats and morphing into human/rat hybrids; they grow hair on their ears, their eyes get beady, their mouths become sharp-toothed snouts, and their nails grow sharp enough to rip out your guts.
The number one complaint from many in reviews I’ve read is that the filmmakers resort to shaky cam, dark lighting, and chaotic choppy editing to hide the lack of budget and ability to pull off makeup effects, but the film seared plenty of horrific images into my brain despite all of that. And seriously, this isn’t a technique that’s foreign to even the most mainstream movie watchers, and transcends the modern PG-13 horror movies that rely on this ADHD style. My partner was watching one of the latest James Bond movies on cable the other day and I happened to catch a rooftop pursuit scene that was supposed to be a huge adrenaline rush and rollercoaster ride for viewers, but was nothing more than a 15-minute blur. I had NO IDEA what was going on and couldn’t even catch a glimpse of Daniel Craig’s rippling muscles. And this is a costly Hollywood film! So I don’t quite get the nitpicking about budgets here.
Like many successful horror movies, Mulberry Street doesn’t try to be an epic, apocalyptic film, instead focusing on a small group of people enduring the major catastrophic events. Like Cloverfield, it takes place in New York City and makes the outbreak the backdrop for just a small group of those affected (not infected) in the metropolis. Like Quarantine, it takes place predominantly in one apartment building. In fact, it is stylistically very much like Quarantine with its gritty feel and green hues.
The film is simple in its plot, with no obvious explanation as to why people are turning into rat zombies (although, it seems pretty obvious with what we know about rodents spreading disease). What I most appreciate about the film is how you essentially like and root for all the characters in the film, and don’t want any of them to die. Despite, again, criticism from reviewers online, who say that the characters are underdeveloped due to the focus on the infection, I found this is one of few films that actually DOES develop the characters. Sure, we might not know where they grew up, went to school, and when they lost their virginity, but we know enough about them to really care about them. And questioning of their “motivation” also comes up in reviews. Um…the city is overrun by man-eating rat people. The motivation of the characters is pretty much the same motivation I would have if I were in their predicament. Too avoid an inevitable legacy as a pile of rat poo! But I guess critics need it spelled out.
This is what we do know about our main characters. There are two charming and eccentric older men in the building who have seen and done it all and are essentially just trying to survive in a lower income area of the city in their later lives. There’s a blonde single mom struggling to make ends meet and raising her teenage son, with whom she seems to have an unhealthy attachment because she’s lonely. She’s also got her eye on the sexy ex-boxer who lives in her building and is waiting for his daughter to arrive home from her time in the armed services. She is a damaged individual who has war scars that have made her insecure about her looks. And then there’s a gay black man who is absolutely in love with the boxer. They have a very interesting relationship in which they are extremely close, even if it is platonic, and they seem to share their love for the boxer’s daughter, almost as if they are a gay couple who raised her together. The black man shows a clear jealousy of the boxer’s interest in and concern for the blonde single mom and her son. This is some of the most complex character development I’ve ever seen in a zombie film, and it’s wonderfully realized.
The standout character in the film IS the boxer. He is the hero, played ever so modestly and beautifully by actor Nick Damici, who also co-wrote the script. Actually, one of the strongest aspects of this film is that it isn’t like a bunch of guys got together to make a low budget horror film and just threw their friends into the cast regardless of their acting abilities. ALL of the performances in this film are genuine and real. But the boxer’s character has it all—and dang, is he saxy. It’s not like he’s movie star hot, but there’s just something about him that makes you want to know him—every inch of him! Part of the appeal is that he is really the everyman—the nice, rugged-around-the-edges-but-soft-inside guy you see jogging in the morning with whom you might exchange a few pleasantries at the local deli. He’s not trying to impress anyone, not trying to assert himself in any way towards anyone. He’s just someone living his life who doesn’t consider himself important enough to be selectively kind or caring. He dedicates himself to the people in his life, and isn’t afraid of his feelings for those people.
Mulberry Street is effectively short, at about an hour and 20 minutes (I love short horror films). No time is wasted. The initial setup of the people living in a lower-class area of the city holds your interest while the infection situation is slowly weaved in—it’s very real to life in a large urban area. It could start happening right next door or right out on the sidewalk and so many people dealing with the daily grind could be oblivious until it’s too late. There is also an implied government conspiracy angle to the movie, but it’s never fully developed or forced, so it doesn’t distract from the fact that this is a horror film and is supposed to keep us on the edge of our seats. Which it definitely accomplishes once our small group of survivors gets into the thick of the horror in one isolated and claustrophobic location with few possibilities of making it out alive, just like the original Night of the Living Dead.
Director Jim Mickle and writer Nick Damici are most definitely fans of the genre because all the most important ingredients of an effective zombie feature are brought together. Ain’t nothing cheesy about this ratfest! And with all the crappy low-budget indie horror films that are hitting the market these days, it’s counterproductive for horror fans to bash a movie of this quality. Some low-budget horror gets credited for being good because the creators “don’t take themselves seriously,” but couldn’t that be considered an excuse that is no different than using a shaky cam and dark lighting to thinly disguise the indie aspect of the film? The creators of Mulberry Street do take themselves seriously, and deservedly so. They know what they’re doing and have created a serious horror treasure completely void of cheap gags or cheap scares.