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Canuxploitation!

Severed

2005, Starring Leanne Adachi, J.R. Bourne, Sage Brocklebank, Paul Campbell, Julian Christopher, Patrick Gallagher, Colin Lawrence, Sarah Lind. Directed by Carl Bessai (Brightlight Pictures).





A West coast director usually associated with auteur films, Carl Bessai is the latest serious filmmaker to discover that the sleazy lure of Canuxploitation is often too strong to resist. In between making several staunchly personal efforts, including Lola and Emile, Bessai took a brief detour into the zombie-infested woods of Victoria to stage  his own zombie apocalypse.

An ecological horror film of sorts, Severed takes place amid clashes between a crew of lumberjacks and the environmental protestors determined to stop them from doing their job. Far away from the conflict, a team of scientists discover that the trees slated for cutting are leaking a gelatinous red sap that resembles blood. When a worker accidentally cuts himself with a chainsaw and some of the mysterious fluid gets in his blood stream, he suddenly turns into a carnivorous zombie and begins infecting the others. Meanwhile, Tyler (Paul Campbell), the son of a high-powered executive running the logging project, is sent to the forest to learn something about the business. By the time he arrives, however, the place is desertedexcept for a few living dead creatures intent on having him for lunch. One of the surviving lumberjacks helps Tyler escape to a small shack where the remaining protestors and workers have holed up, and together, they attempt to escape from the camp. The zombies have other ideas, however, and manage to whittle the group down to just a handful of survivorsTyler, aging construction foreman Mac (Julian Christopher), tree-hugger Rita (Sarah Lind) and the cowardly Carter (J.R. Bourne), a scientist who knows the secret of the ooze and may have caused the zombie uprising in the first place.

Despite receiving very little attention, Bessai's self-assured foray into genre film provides an interesting, undeniably Canadian take on the zombie subgenre. Admittedly, the film does borrow ideas and situations directly from George A. Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead (not to mention some of its sequels) as well as the more recent hit 28 Days Laterbut the stark, realistic style of Severed and the unique woodland setting manage to set it apart from most current straight-to-video foddereven if Bessai's arthouse sensibility often wins out over pure exploitation.

As with many Canadian horror films made since the 1970s, Severed features an uneasy marriage of well-established genre conventions and loftier human drama, as Bessai attempts to align his personal artistic aspirations with the zombie carnage that horror audiences might expect. Instead of focusing on any real scenes of tension or terror, however Severed is far more interested in the relationships and personal regrets of its characters. Like in Romero's film, the threat of the zombies takes a backseat to the squabbling of the survivors as they try to weather the attack, with the added twist that the previously opposed protestors and lumberjacks are now forced to work together to avoid becoming zombie buffets. The trade-off, however, is that most of the gory details are pushed off-screen, hinted at only by arterial sprays splashing out from an unseen source. Genre fans will be likewise disappointed to find that many of the zombie attacks are filmed with shaky handheld camera to ramp up the pressure. It does succeed in making the forest feel more claustrophobic, but this cinematography trick sometimes associated with horror films that want to hide the shoddiness of their special effectsis far too disorientating, often making the film more confusing than scary.

Thematically, Severed is much more solidly constructed, as Bessai takes some digs at those on both sides of the issue. Aside from scenes of boorish and violent lumberjacks amusing themselves by torturing the creatures and each other, one memorable gag has a protestor, who has chained himself to a tree, unable to escape an approaching zombie. In the end, the blue collar workers and the strident environmentalists are portrayed as equally sympathetic, with Bessai not content to make the simplistic generalizations that sometimes creep into other politicized zombie films, including Romero's Day of the Dead. Instead, Severed seems to carry a message about the partisan squabbling that makes it impossible for any real progress to take place.

The isolated woodlands of northern Canada have long been a convenient and cheap choice to set Canadian horror films, and Severed follows in the footsteps of Rituals and Humongous, portraying the forest as a spooky and inescapable labyrinth where danger lurks around every corner. Here, the setting is more than just a backdrop, however, it also plays an important role in the plot, surrounding the main characters with the ooze-leaking trees that could ultimately spell their zombie doom.

Despite changing the title to the almost laughable Severed: Forest of the Dead for its video release, Bessai's Severed may owe too much to the arthouse to satisfy long-time zombie junkies, but it's an extremely sobre and dystopic film that still makes for a strong entry into Canada's horror canon.


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