With Containment having proven a success earlier this year and with the notion of a global pandemic an ever-present threat in the age of cheap flights and bird flu, it was never going to be long before somebody took 28 Days Later and reimagined it in modern America, with fewer zombies and a greater emphasis on, ahem, worm flu.
Viral is, as the name itself might suggest, the teen take on plague horror. And it’s a lot more accomplished and considerably less attention deficient than that premise promises. There’s a singular shortage of pounding music on the soundtrack, and much less agitated camera-work and overactive editing than in most current movies; instead there’s a languorous concentration on the characters and the gradual unfolding of the story – it’s a good half an hour before things really kick into gear and possibly this is the film’s biggest issue. For once, it could have done with an extra half an hour at the end, as it appears to be building towards an “escape” chapter that never quite happens.
Sofia Black-D’Elia is Emma Drakeford, readjusting to a new school and a new life in small town California after some as-yet undisclosed incident has caused her parents to relocate. Over the road is Evan (Tope), and Emma’s older sister Stacey (Tipton) decides to intervene and help transform the two teenager’s mutual unspoken crush into something more palpable. With the spread of the virus happening largely off-screen and related by news reports, this opening third of the movie confidently yet carefully introduces and develops the characters while always holding certain aspects back for later reveals. When the epidemic finally hits Shadow Canyon everything goes Outbreak and from this point on we’re mainly contained in the Drakeford household, which with dad away means just the two sisters and their occasionally appearing love interests. Sadly, in spite of the peculiarly effective literalisation of the worm parasite and some fantastic acting from the two girls, the clichés begin to dominate and the film strays dangerously close to tedium. The last few minutes might be obvious, but they’re invigorating enough to just about pull things back around.
There’s nothing we haven’t seen before, a lot of it recently enough to be fresh in the mind. But the juvenile perspective – although an obvious choice in more straightforward horror movies – balanced with a thoughtful outlook means Viral takes itself seriously enough to count. It will no doubt struggle to find an audience (hence its disappearance from cinemas, and eventual VOD debut), thanks to its odd combination of preoccupations. But those who do find it are unlikely to be disappointed, except by the all too brief ending. A follow-on would actually be welcome.
VIRAL / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: HENRY JOOST, ARIEL SCHULMAN / SCREENPLAY: CHRISTOPHER LANDON, BARBARA MARSHALL / STARRING: SOPHIA BLACK-D’ELIA, ANALEIGH TIPTON, TRAVIS TOPE, MICHAEL KELLY / RELEASE DATE: OCTOBER 17TH