The Film: 4/5
Resting comfortably between the lighthearted antics of Zombieland and the overbearing nihilism of The Walking Dead with a lit doobie in one hand and a frosty cold beer in the other is Jeremy Gardner's haunting and powerful 2012 indie horror feature The Battery. After playing the film festival circuit to great acclaim since it first started garnering positive notices from critics and audiences in 2012 the film now shambles its way to home video thanks to the good folks at Scream Factory.
Here's a story you're probably familiar with to the point of nausea by now: the world has been taken over by the living dead. Zombies are everywhere and the human beings with actual heartbeats are an endangered species. This doesn't seem to faze Ben (Gardner) and Mickey (Adam Cronheim, who also served as a producer), two average guys who once played together on a baseball team before the zombie apocalypse reared its flesh-munching jaws. They spend their days traveling the back roads of rural New England while trying to make the best of the baddest of all bad situations and the two of them could not be any more different: the shaggy-bearded Ben prefers to live every day as if it might be his last and enjoys the freedom of the open road and living among nature, while the clean-cut Mickey dreams of finding a comfortable place to settle down with a woman he loves and return to the everyday routine that was permanently disrupted by the zombie onslaught. While testing out a set of walkie-talkies Mickey happens upon a radio conversation between two fellow survivors who live in a place called "the Orchard". Though he believes he has found the sanctuary he has long desired the people on the radio warn Mickey and Ben against tracking them down. Mickey ignores their warning and makes an attempt to find this elusive patch of paradise in the midst of Hell on Earth in spite of Ben's advice that it will not live up in any way to his lofty expectations. As the search goes on their friendship, which never had a solid foundation to begin with, deteriorates and the sinister nature of the Orchard and its inhabitants carefully comes to light.
To quote another film, get busy living or get busy dying. The Battery illuminates the stark but obvious difference between choosing to be a survivor in a world gone mad and trying to make the world a slightly better place in your own way in a manner that best benefits yourself and the ones you love. It's one of the most unique zombie horror films to come along in ages and one that proves that shocks and gore are not the keys to creating effective terror. This is a case study in human nature as it endures in a world where everything we have ever known and loved has been destroyed. When the rules of civilization now longer seem to apply and most of us don't live to see the next day's sunrise we are capable of just about every conceivable type of behavior. In the characters of Ben and Mickey we see the dichotomy of humanity's existing opinions quietly at war with one another, and that creates a drama and a strong relationship that doesn't need occasional zombie attacks to hold our interest (thought it doesn't hurt either). Writer-director Gardner and producer Cronheim make a fantastic team both in front of and behind the camera. Independently their performances are effective and challenging as both characters can often be difficult to sympathize with, but together the stars' chemistry makes their on-screen relationship the life blood and the soul of The Battery.
In spite of their flaws we come to see these two men as surrogate for ourselves. I saw a bit of myself in both Ben and Mickey because for me it's not hard to see the world as these men see it as individuals and even harder not to understand why they choose to live in their own disparate manners. They both enjoy the simple pleasures life has to offer, be it a long drive on a beautiful afternoon, a good smoke in the evening, quality music, good food and beer, and the company of a loving companion. The Battery is basically a two-character story, with Ben and Mickey's scenes together comprising the majority of the narrative. When Mickey begins to communicate over the radio with fellow survivor Annie (Alana O'Brien), who represents each and every single one of the hopes that keep him going, the story threatens to take us into territory explored in detail already by zombie movies and shows past and I began to worry that "the Orchard" would turn out to be exactly what I had expected. But I was surprised at how that plot thread is resolved and how it leads into the third act in which our reluctant heroes are trapped inside their pilfered station wagon while surrounded by the flesh-crazed dead. Having spent the preceding seventy minutes watching what they consider a friendship slowly fall apart, they find themselves finally becoming close friends because there simply isn't anything else better to do. Accomplished in a series of short and long takes (the standout being the scene where Mickey makes an attempt at getting them out of this mess), this sustained sequence is the best of the entire film and Gardner finds a way to end it, and the film itself, on a note of devastating poignancy that also provides a set-up for a possible sequel should one ever get made.
But The Battery is not without its fleeting moments of unexpected hilarity and humanity. Gardner gets plenty of witty one-liners, while Mickey's reaction to seeing a female zombie leads to one of the weirdest and funniest pay-offs in the modern history of the genre. One thing's for sure, it's certainly original. The look of the film is extraordinary in its devotion to making the most of real locations found throughout the Connecticut towns of Kent (where Friday the 13th Part II and the original I Spit on Your Grave were also filmed) and Norwalk and utilizing natural lighting for the few interior scenes. This is mostly an outdoor film but the visuals photographed are beautiful to behold. The minimalist music score was composed by Ryan Milford and it serves as a terrific sonic garnish for a hearty indie rock and folk soundtrack featuring great tunes from bands like Wise Blood, Sun Hotel, and Rock Plaza Central (the latter is the focus of their own special feature on this Blu-ray). There's even an effective cover of "Brother" Claude Ely's "Ain't No Grave (Gonna Hold My Body Down)", made famous by the late Johnny Cash on his posthumously-released 2010 album American VI: Ain't No Grave. Here it's performed by Chris Eaton and it serves to be a chilling theme song for The Battery.
The Battery benefits from a stronger home video presentation than most independent films are usually granted. The 1080p high-definition transfer is framed in the film's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and looks surprisingly strong and vibrant for a feature with its low budget. Director of photography Christian Stella shot the film with a Canon 5D and none of the exquisite color and sharpened texture of the cinematography has been lost in the transition to Blu-ray. In fact this is one of the best transfers for an indie film I've seen in quite some time, though I think the fact that this was produced in recent years played a greater hand in that. The disc has been outfitted with two English language DTS-HD Master Audio tracks and if you're watching this on a standard television without any additional home theater modifications you won't really be able to tell much of a difference in the twin channels. But they are both excellent soundtracks that allow every component of the overall sound mix to integrate without any of them running the risk of being swamped out or distorted. The music and ambient effects come through with wonderful clarity, as does the hushed dialogue, and at no point does manual volume adjustment become an issue. English subtitles have also been included.
Gardner, Cronheim, and Stella team up for an audio commentary that leads off a generous selection of supplements provided by the filmmakers and Scream Factory. As you would expect from a union of three energetic and enthusiastic creative minds this commentary is an essential listen with attention paid to the rigors of shooting a micro-budget indie horror flick and everything else seemingly related to the subject. The trio stay on point throughout the track and rarely veer off into territory that might induce boredom or have you switch back to one of the main audio channels.
The commentary compliments the feature-length documentary "Tools of Ignorance: The Making of The Battery" (89 minutes) without creating too much overlap in production secrets divulged. This is one of the more candid films made about the making of a film I've seen since I don't quite recall, and "Tools" does not shy away from capturing the highs and lows of the Battery shoot and treating both like they're equally part of the process of independent filmmaking. This is definitely one of the better behind-the-scenes bonus features I'll see on a Blu-ray or DVD this year.
Up next are some outtakes (12 minutes) that weren't taken from the film but from the production, so it's possible this is just stuff that was too goofy to include in "Tools of Ignorance". Still though, this is a pretty entertaining little feature. "Rock Plaza Central at the Parlor" (11 minutes) is a fly-on-the-wall featurette that follows the band that provided the song "We've Got a Lot To Be Glad For" for the Battery soundtrack as they gear up for their first live performance in seven years. Rounding things off are a trailer for The Battery (2 minutes) and previews for Beneath, Dead Shadows, and 5 Senses of Fear, all of which are currently available from Scream Factory. The reversible cover sleeve features the original poster art on one side and a newly commissioned image by RP "Kung Fu Bob" O'Brien on the other.
The Battery is more than one of the best independent horror films of the past decade; it also gives us a new way at looking at the zombie movie genre. It doesn't reinvent the wheel but rather allows the audience to experience a more original perspective of a story about surviving in a world dominated by the living dead. Scream Factory's Blu-ray presentation of this cinematic labor of love is first-rate work across the board and this release comes highly recommended.