Patient Zero (Movie Review)

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

PLOT: When a global pandemic leaves scores of humans infected with rabies, a partially infected man named Morgan (Matt Smith) who has the ability to communicate with the zombies could be the key to their salvation.

REVIEW: A year after opting for the unvarnished grit of a female-driven crime thriller in COLD HELL, talented if uneven Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky has taken a step backwards in his blandly conventional handling of the rote and over-trampled infected-zombie picture PATIENT ZERO; an effort that registers far more as an upscale episode of Z Nation rather than a compellingly insulated standalone horror feature. It’s not that there’s anything particularly terrible about Ruzowitzky’s latest, it’s just that there isn’t anything all that memorably inspired either. The biggest problem I can see is that, despite working from Mike Le’s blacklisted script, is that said screenplay was written back in 2012-2013, when the zombie subgenre was just in its relatively welcome resurgence following The Walking Dead (2010), WWZ (2013), Z Nation (2014), etc. Had PATIENT ZERO come out then as an entry of competition, when the subject was still mildly fresh, rather than an apparent cash-grabbing derivation of such in a time when we’re all zombied-out, the film would likely resonate far greater and for much longer. As it is in 2018, even a slightly mutated strand of the zombie brand like this can’t really sustain itself for too long. Alas, after a while, even the most zealous zombie-heads are bound show zero patience with PATIENT ZERO!

A kinetic montage opens the film, explaining that the rabies virus has spread across the globe, rendering those infected as violent zombielike predators. Morgan (Matt Smith) is a former teacher now working as a military scientist in a subterranean silo that will instantly call to mind Romero’s DAY OF THE DEAD (and ironically, more recently, the movie MORGAN). Morgan has been bitten, but something in his blood has blocked his body from transforming into a rabid flesh-starved ghoul. Still, Matt has developed the ability to communicate with the infected and has been tasked with interviewing zombies in order to locate Patient Zero, the very first infected human. Along with Dr. Gina Rose (Natalie Dormer), Morgan discovers that the first infection took place in Minnesota around Halloween roughly 18 months prior. Morgan also wants to engineer an antibody and omnify a cure for the disease so he can heal his infected girlfriend Janet (Agyness Deyn), who is quarantined in a nearby cell. While Morgan’s ability to speak the zombie language is an interesting idea on paper, and a much needed wrinkle in the all-too-exhausted subgenre, it’s never really plumbed to persuasive enough depths in the film. The one aspect of Le’s script that shows tangential ingenuity is stranded in favor of worn-out zombie clichés and familiar salvos of gory evisceration.

Unsurprisingly, the movie picks up when the great Stanley Tucci shows up as The Professor. Attacked when giving a lecture one day, The Professor ends up as the de facto leader of the infected, and shrewdly implants a tracking device in one of them as a means of seizing control of the ordeal. Swarms of jaundice-eyed, blood-thirsty beings fiendishly descend on the underground lab, 28 DAYS style, making for a hyperactively entertaining but utterly unoriginal climax. When The Professor gives his grand “Ah-Ha” speech at the end, given the title of the movie and Morgan’s mysterious nature, we have already gathered what it is he is about to say. Dramatically, the reveal falls flat in its inability to shock and awe the way you can tell it was meant to on the page.

And to this point, at an underwhelming 82 minutes, it’s painfully apparent large swaths of the script have been excised or pared down in order to ensure a brisk tempo. The trade off becomes a deficit, as there simply isn’t enough run time dedicated to all of the competing subplots and narrative tentacles the movie flirts with but cannot consummate. Not just in terms of Matt’s ability to communicate with the zombies, or his relationship with Janet, it’s most egregiously obvious in the episodic ending of the movie, which casts the whole endeavor off with a copped-out “see you next time” equivalent that shamefully positions itself for a sequel of some kind. Again, this is where the movie feels more like an extended TV episode, perhaps a supercharged premiere or elongated series finale. It has that kind of forgettable, evanescent quality about it as its happening, and an inconclusive open end when it’s done.

What does work well in PATIENT ZERO, aside from Tucci’s towering turn, is the way in which Ruzowitzky lights and shoots the film. Ruzowitzsky’s longtime Swiss DP Benedict Neuenfels (COLD HELL, THE INHEREITORS) imbues the claustrophobic lab setting with sharp flickering neon and a shoots with a kinetic hand-held lens that suitably mirrors the frenetic activity inside the lair. Conversely, in the few times Ruzowitzky does leave the underground silo, he gives apposite size and scale to counter the tight-knit closed-quarters seen earlier on. There’s a set-piece that takes place in a homeless shelter below the lab, for instance, that ends with a barbarous bombardment of flesh-feeding and entrails-eating. The violence in the film is requisitely biting (no pun) for a zombie flick, but like everything else about the movie, hardly stands out on either end of the spectrum to be of much note. The gore is neither extreme nor restrained enough, which reinforces the overall quality of the movie as little more than being beyond the mean. Again, had the movie come out five years ago when the script was as fresh as the resurrected zombie craze, surer footing the film would likely tread along. Unfortunately, to this topical end, you may actually have more tolerance for the contagion of CABIN FEVER: PATIENT ZERO instead. How sick is that?!

Patient Zero



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Jake Dee is one of JoBlo’s most valued script writers, having written extensive, deep dives as a writer on WTF Happened to this Movie and it’s spin-off, WTF Really Happened to This Movie. In addition to video scripts, Jake has written news articles, movie reviews, book reviews, script reviews, set visits, Top 10 Lists (The Horror Ten Spot), Feature Articles The Test of Time and The Black Sheep, and more.