PLOT: A pandemic of the parasite zombie-creating Worm Flu is experienced through the eyes of teenage sisters Emma and Stacey.
REVIEW: The latest horror film from Blumhouse Productions, VIRAL could be most easily described as "a zombie movie", but that would be doing it a bit of a disservice when it's entering a market that's overcrowded with flesh-eating ghouls. Viewers who want to see more shambling hordes of flesh-eaters won't get what they're looking for in VIRAL, as screenwriters Christopher Landon and Barbara Marshall have crafted something a little different from the average Walking Dead (or NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD) knock-off. A difference that begins with the cause for its mindless zombies.
The Worm Flu is a disease that is already sweeping across the globe as the film begins, although the full range of its effects has not yet been revealed. The known symptoms include increased appetite, fever, bloody cough, and seizures. It's not common knowledge that sufferers eventually fall completely under the control of the parasites squirming throughout their bodies, or that they purposely spread the disease by spewing worm-infested blood into people's faces.
To prevent the spread of Worm Flu across the United States, entire towns are being put under military quarantine, and that includes the desert community of Shadow Canyon, where teenager Emma (Sofia Black-D'Elia) has recently moved with her family. The Worm Flu situation is playing out on such a massive scale that VIRAL could have been packed with scenes of scientists trying to figure out a cure or of soldiers struggling to get things handled, but Landon and Marshall's story is centered on Emma. We only see her personal experience with Worm Flu, we mostly learn things as she learns things.
Even without Worm Flu going around, Emma has plenty of drama to deal with in her life. She's slowly trying to adjust to the new social scene she's been thrust into. She's pining for a boy named Evan (Travis Tope). Her sister Stacey (Analeigh Tipton) is such a pain that Emma refers to her as Lucifer. Her parents' marriage is obviously crumbling. Now she has to deal with people around her turning into the violent vehicles of worm parasites.
Emma isn't the greatest character, but to show this large scale disaster solely from her perspective was a good choice - it's more appealing to me to follow an average person through the situation rather than professionals, and a teenage girl is a solid choice to be that person, especially due to the inherent vulnerability of such a character. Emma's parents are out when things in Shadow Canyon fall apart and can't get back to her because of the military blockades, so this young girl has no adults or authority figures to rely on in this world of madness and zombies. When Stacey becomes infected, Emma takes it upon herself to do whatever is necessary to save her sister. Stacey may be devilish, but Emma truly does love her and care for her.
The main characters being teenagers does also allow for the film to feature more stupid decisions and naivety than it might have otherwise, which can drag it down a bit. Older characters wouldn't be likely to seek out a party in the middle of a quarantine, or to think that some packing tape and sisterly love can accomplish what the CDC couldn't. Viewers will probably be grumbling at the screen at different points because of these things. I certainly was.
The members of the cast, which also includes Michael Kelly as Emma and Stacey's schoolteacher father who makes an early exit from the film, all turn in fine performances, with Black-D'Elia doing a lot of the heavy lifting while Tipton provides some great support. This was my first time ever seeing Black-D'Elia in something, and she proved herself to be a capable leading lady.
Landon and Marshall's story was brought to the screen in a serviceable manner by the directing duo of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. They didn't knock it out of the park with this material, but they didn't drop the ball, either. This is Joost and Schulman's third film in the horror genre, following two PARANORMAL ACTIVITY sequels (parts 3 and 4), and while VIRAL is much more to my taste than the PARANORMAL films, I would still have to say that their best film remains their captivaing 2010 breakthrough "Is this real or not?" documentary CATFISH.
Of course, whenever a film has the living dead (or creatures strongly resembling the living dead) in it, the question has to be asked: "How are the zombies?" The worm drones aren't exactly impressive, but what makes them stand out from the pack is the fact that the worms don't rely on the human eyes of their hosts to find potential victims; rather, worms stick out of the host's mouth and ears to detect non-infected people. Through the worm element, VIRAL sometimes brings about THE FACULTY flashbacks, and these creepy, slithering things also provide some very gross moments.
Not just another movie about flesh-eating zombies but also far from a game changer, VIRAL is a decent way to kill 86 minutes. You might not remember a whole lot about it after it's over, but some of that worm imagery could burrow into your mind and linger there.