Film Review: ISLAND ZERO (2018)

ISLAND ZERO (2018)
Director: Josh Gerritsen
Writer: Tess Gerritsen
Stars: Laila Robins, Adam Wade McLaughlin, Teri Reeves

It’s a sad thing, that not too many filmmakers devote their energies to telling good stories anymore, such as the ones that populated the TV screens of yesteryear, as “made-for-TV” films produced by the likes of Aaron Spelling, Douglas S. Cramer, and production companies like Bing Crosby Productions and MTM/Lorimar Studios. But every so often, you come across one with that old-fashioned vibe, and in spite of the occasional burst of 21st Century-style gore, it would have been right at home on a programming schedule back in the Seventies or Eighties.

JACOB GERRITSEN’S new film, ISLAND ZERO is definitely one of those. If Stephen King had been around back then, you could’ve easily imagined this as a teleplay he wrote, produced by Spelling/Goldberg Productions. However, this one was written by none other than the director’s wife, TESS GERRITSEN, whom TV geeks and trivia nuts everywhere may recognize as the head writer for the cop series RIZZOLI AND ISLES.

Very much character-driven, the film is a slow-burner, playing its special effects cards close to the vest, until all hell breaks loose in the final act, which is left somewhat ambiguous, but better, in this reviewer’s opinion, than the truly grim climax that could have been used.

The scenario isn’t anything a seasoned horror fan hasn’t seen before. A diverse group of people unwittingly find themselves stuck on an island off the coast of Maine, just before Christmas. There’s Maggie, a doctor temporarily serving the island’s residents, played by LAILA ROBINS (PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES and AN INNOCENT MAN); marine biologist Sam, played by ADAM WADE MCLAUGHLIN (the series VINYL, BLUE BLOODS and BILLIONS), along with his second wife, Lucy (TERI REEVES of CHICAGO FIRE) and his daughter from his previous marriage, Ellie (ELAINE LANDRY in her first movie role).

Rounding out the cast of characters is Titus (MATTHEW WILKAS of the series LOOKING and NEW YORK IS DEAD), the novelist who’s been on the island for almost a month, working on his mysterious next book, and the usual cast of characters native to this part of the country, like Ruth (ANABEL GRAETZ) and her long-suffering husband, Alvis (RICHARD SEWELL).

As most water-based chillers must, ISLAND ZERO has that most stereotypical of openings: the required sacrifice of the first victim. On board a boat is a sloshed ‘captain’ (PAUL HODGSON), and his ‘first mate’, a cute little Yorkie he calls “Sweetie.” Sorry to have to tell you this, pet lovers, but the target here ISN’T of the two-legged variety. It’s a spoiler, yes, but I’d be sleeping on the job if I didn’t forewarn you. At least the departure of Sweetie isn’t shown in gory detail, so there’s THAT.

There are different mini-dramas going on, of course, between Sam and his research, Lucy wanting to return to the mainland for work, and Titus caught up in an uncomfortable three-way romance with the perky waitress at the local eatery, Jessie (JOANNA CLARKE), and her islander ex-boyfriend, Emmett (THOMAS IAN CAMPBELL). The trouble really begins with the sudden disappearance of all the local fish, lobsters and other sea life that are part and parcel of the fishermen’s trade. But things don’t start to get concerning for the locals or the city dwellers, until the daily ferry back to the mainland fails to show up…for THREE DAYS.

Even Helen Keller could tell that something was definitely off at this point, but it’s little Ellie, whose “surprise” holiday gift, an infa-red camera, who has the first sighting of the reason behind the ferry’s delay, as well as the growing number of disappearances among the fishermen first, and then the islanders.

Yep, folks, you probably already went there, but I’ll say it anyway: MONSTERS. And not just any old simple B-movie rubber suits with zippers up the back. These things are like the ALIEN xenomorphs of the sea, except they have a few tricks up their sleeve that would make Old Two-Sets-Of-Teeth jealous.

As I mentioned before, things don’t really jump off until the third act, when folks start dying, some pretty shady secrets come to light, and it’s anybody’s guess who will survive and who will be supper.

Jacob Gerritsen does a pretty good job in his directorial debut, making as much of the actual Maine locale as possible, thanks to some great camera work by his DP, MARK FARNEY. Composer CLAYTON WORBECK does a great job, continuing the retro vibe of using an electronic score that started again with films like IT FOLLOWS, STARRY EYES and the Netflix series STRANGER THINGS.

The best thing about ISLAND ZERO, though, is that the special effects are amazing for a low-budget film. The visuals by EVAN HALLECK and ERIC MICHAEL MILLER are kept minimal, which makes them more creepy and effective, and the practical effects by ERIC ANDERSON are all the more startling when they happen, because the gore is equally as minimal.

Those not inclined to like character-heavy pieces may find the first act in particular a bit draggy, and some of the actors’ Maine-tastic accents tend to drift in and out a bit. But as flawed as most realistic characters should be, Tess Gerritsen’s writing keeps them likeable and interesting, (well, MOST of them fall into the first category.)

To sum it up, ISLAND ZERO won’t win any major awards for anything, but as a pleasant enough 90-minute time-passer, it can safely join the legacy carved out by such fantastic TV flicks of old like KILLDOZER, DEATH MOON and SCREAM OF THE WOLF.

I’ll give ISLAND ZERO a solid two-and-a-half out of five stars.

For monster mavens who still want to add another notch to their viewing belts, Freestyle Releasing will unleash this film upon all media platforms on May 15th.

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Author: Samuel Glass Jr

From the first time, at age eight, when he saw little Rhoda Penmark’s evil ass get taken out by a lightning bolt, Sam Glass Jr. has been freaked out by lightning…and completely captivated by horror. The son of an Air Force communications specialist and a government worker, he’s been a writer and sometime actor, and his biggest claim to fame is getting to appear in a John Waters movie, CECIL B. DEMENTED, in 2000. His biggest passion is reviewing horror films and attending conventions, and overall favorite movie is PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE. Currently, he resides in the city of Las Vegas with his partner of twenty-two years.

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