Filmed over the course of five weeks in 2015, while Matt Smith was between gigs on Doctor Who and The Crown and Natalie Dormer was on hiatus from Game of Thrones, zombie flick Patient Zero is an example of how a charismatic cast can only do so much for a film with limited resources, bad direction, and an uninspired script.
It must have been jarring for Smith to go from this production to production on the first season of Netflix’s The Crown, which, at the time of its filming, was the most expensive TV show in Netflix history. It’s not fair to compare a $130 million production to whatever the hell Patient Zero cost to make, but comparing the work of this film’s talented cast to their work in the many, other infinitely better projects they’ve all worked on is one of the only strategies that makes this truly terrible movie watchable.
Stefan Ruzowitzky (The Counterfeiters) directs from a script by Mike Le (Dark Summer) about a post-apocalyptic world in which a global pandemic has turned almost the entire world’s population into flesh-eating monsters known here as The Infected. Only a handful of not-zombies—sorry, “uninfected”—remain. Patient Zero follows a group of scientists, military men, and refugees locked inside an underground bunker where Matt Smith’s Morgan and Natalie Dormer’s Dr. Gina Rose work to find “patient zero” and develop a cure for zombie-ism.
There are a few interesting, somewhat unique ideas here. Morgan is an asymptomatic victim of a zombie bite who, because of his unique situation, can communicate with the highly-intelligent, ever-evolving zombies in the film who, for some reason, can no longer speak English, but have developed some other form of language. It’s unclear what that language might sound like to uninfected observers as the film never bothers to give us this contextual information—one of many directorial oversights that serves to disorient the viewer and undermine the paper thin reality of this cinematic world.
Unfortunately, Morgan isn’t very good at interrogation, his goals and methods as erratic as Smith’s American-Canadian accent. (It’s unclear why this film isn’t just set in the U.K., as most of its main cast is, in fact, British.) The rules of zombie-ism in the film are so vague and changeable that it’s kind of understandable why this gaggle of uninfected humans is so bad at coming up with a plan for fighting the zombies off. One of Morgan’s chief methods of torture and interrogation is The Infected’s aversion to music—they can’t process harmony (yes, this is actually how the film puts it)—but the uninfected never use this method to fight off the zombies in any other scene.
Perhaps the movie used its entire music budget on the few, admittedly excellent songs Morgan uses during his interrogations? There is no soundtrack to be found in any of the other scenes, which would have gone a long way to liven this movie up or at least thrown it further into the unintentional camp cult classic world where it is the closest to finding a watchable home. This movie definitely veers into the “so bad it’s good” category a few times, notably in one of the worst filmed sex scenes I’ve scene in a long time and the inclusion of some zombie rats.
The movie gets several degrees better when Stanley Tucci’s infected professor character shows up, but that doesn’t come until well into the film’s 90-minute runtime. Watching the zombie-fied professor trade barbs with Smith’s Morgan is engaging, if sometimes unintentionally amusing when it veers into flashback, and would have made for a good frame device. One can almost imagine a Hannibal Lecter/Clarice-style relationship between these two characters serving as a backbone for the film. That is not what happens, however, and we only get a few wonderful scenes of Tucci hamming it up as the side-smirking zombie academic.
Patient Zero also stars Agyness Deyn, John Bradley (also on hiatus from Game of Thrones), Colin McFarlane, and Clive Standen. It is now available to stream on digital and VOD services. It will hit select theaters on September 14.