Virus :32 Review: The Zombie Genre Is Still Kicking In The Latest From Gustavo Hernandez

The brief distance between life and death finds purchase in the genre most equipped to express it in "Virus :32," a zombie thriller from director and co-writer Gustavo Hernandez. These zeds sprint, leap, and don't necessarily need brain death to be put down, making life hell on earth — in this microcosm, Montevideo — for the uninfected. Among them are the aimless Iris (Paula Silva), daughter Tata (Pilar Garcia), and estranged husband Luis (Daniel Hendler). Unaware that people are tearing each other apart across the city, Iris brings her daughter along to her job following a schedule mix-up. She's a watchman at the abandoned rec spot Club Neptuno, whose serpentine hallways and peeling walls conjure the same creeps as the hollow corridors of the mental asylum in Brad Anderson's early aughts gem "Session 9" — that liminal arena where the living once walked, a ghost of a location. The difference is omnipresence; cameras and fingerprint-locked checkpoints pepper the building, meaning that there is little excuse to be caught unawares — a motivational shove that the purposefully avoidant Iris needs when it all hits the fan. Once she and Tata become separated, it's up to mama bear to make her way to her little girl, room by room, and get them to safety.

A dangerous world

You hear the movie before you see it; in a Montevideo flat, a caged bird makes a fuss, which its owner interprets as hunger. She goes to fetch some food for her pet and the camera follows her, returning to discover that another occupant of the apartment has crushed the bird bare-handed. The camera continues along in what appears to be one long continuous shot, moving out of the apartment and down to the street where the principal players are introduced in the first ripples from a viral outbreak. 

The long takes of Hernandez's "Silent House" and "You Shall Not Sleep" continue in "Virus :32," where there's more square footage to play in. As in his past works, Hernandez wields location as a gauntlet of pain, like the underground caverns of "The Descent" or the catacombs of "As Above, So Below," tailor-made to confront its weary traveler before allowing passage (if it does at all). Iris, in particular, struggles with guilt — allusions to her late second child suggest that he drowned on her watch, and her introduction is among a messy flat strewn with liquor bottles and drug paraphernalia. Hernández, in all of his sadistic glory, ensures that the mourning mother is thus forced to dive into a pool and watch an infected assailant drown, and to care for a wounded loved one on the floor of another emptied-out pool. Rather than its common symbol of rebirth, water is just another obstacle keeping Iris from her daughter, and another land mine to sidestep.

Death is potentially around every corner, a concept worked thoroughly through the story; the number in the film's title refers to the amount of post-murder time that the zeds spend in a food coma before their bloodlust returns. During these 32 seconds, they are docile enough that the uninfected can slip past unbothered, and they begin to twitch and growl more aggressively with each tick of the clock. It's a nifty mechanism that ensures that no one stays comfortable for too long and that survivors' heads stay on a swivel.

Such a taut tale requires the world of its protagonist, and Paula Silva is up for the task. For Iris, avoidance is the key to survival and that plays out physically in her various stealth tactics — smoke flares, decoy tennis balls, and good old noise discipline to keep her alive and moving. Spiritually, avoidance has put a strain on her relationships with her husband and daughter, making her oblivious to family responsibilities (like a promise to watch her daughter one afternoon) and the zombie outbreak at large. Silva's weary eyes distinguish her character from a slacker, leading to a delayed-release burst of energy the moment she finally registers the peril that's been shadowing her and her daughter. The screams, the shudders, the turning gears strategizing escape ' it's all in Silva's face.

A familiar but effective ride

"Virus :32" plays in a familiar sandbox to any casual zombie fan, or anyone who has watched "The Walking Dead." Some parts are wholly derivative (no spoilers, but fans of Zack Snyder's "Dawn of the Dead" reboot will find one set of its characters echoed in Hernandez's movie), others simply tweak the formula like the "Land of the Dead"-esque zombies who can open doors and intelligently stalk prey. 

The crawling introduction to the apocalypse recalls Edgar Wright's "Shaun of the Dead," using a clueless protagonist shuffling through daily life unaware of the mayhem around them — except Wright plays it for character and humor, while Hernandez plays it for character and tension. The most egregious repeat comes at an emotional climax when zeds have a building overrun, and the score that kicks in sounds awfully close to that of "28 Days Later," rising distortion and all. That said, the moment is all part of a vicious fake-out that adds layers to both the chaos and Iris' sense of maternal guilt, and the payoff is good, so how mad can I be in the grand scheme of it all?

Hernandez's film has a stronger grasp of space than most of its subgenre brethren along with an unyielding sense of mean-spiritedness that, with its gore, skates up to the edge of grindhouse fare. The routine genre elements are forgivable blips on a technically gripping journey through one woman's fight for survival in a world whose perils, like ours, are increasingly impossible to maneuver.

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10

"Virus :32" premieres exclusively on Shudder on April 21, 2022.