The Desert is the first feature from German/Argentinean documentary filmmaker Christoph Behl and it has its world premiere at FrightFest last weekend. I went in knowing almost nothing about the film other than it being set in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. Being a particular genre-weakness of mine, I decided to forego No One Lives in the main screen (I’d already seen it and didn’t wish to repeat the experience) and check this out on the smaller of the two Discovery screens, and boy am I glad I did.
Although they lack similarities on the surface, for me The Desert recalled Jeremy Gardner’s The Battery (2012), another low-budget film that doesn’t so much concentrate on the zombies but the way humans are coping (or not) in the aftermath of worldwide destruction. The film is more about their relationships with each other than with the immediate danger, not unlike Midnight Son (2011) where the vampirism is secondary to the emotional conflict between two lost souls. In The Desert we have Ana (Victoria Almeida), her boyfriend Jonathan (William Prociuk) and Axel (Lautaro Delgado) who have been holed up together for an indeterminate amount of time, although we can assume that it’s been a while on the basis of their deteriorating relationships. They barely leave the confines of the house, except occasionally in pairs to go on brief scavenging missions for food and supplies. They try to maintain their sanity by engaging in games (truth or dare, Risk…) and by recording private confessionals onto tapes which they then store away in a padlocked box. Things start to unravel, though, when it becomes apparent that Axel cannot bear to share Ana with Jonathan, and his frustration manifests itself in the form of obsessively and secretively watching the videotaped diaries she makes, and by gradually covering his entire body in tattoos of the flies that plague their surroundings – saying that the time when these finally completely cover his body will be the time he leaves the home they have created together, facing almost certain death on the outside.
Although low on action, The Desert successfully creates an air of almost unbearable tension that mimics the stifling and confined conditions that our protagonists are living in. There are some nice little touches, such as Ana wiping condensation from the pipes to wring out on her wilted plants during a time of drought, or making up names for each of the undead that they are forced to execute, giving you a real insight into what life would be like under these circumstances in a way that feels very real. This consequently ensures that we as the audience become emotionally invested in the characters, something that is all too rare when it comes to horror. The camerawork is fantastic, lingering on each bead of sweat and stolen gaze, and the sound design with its constant drone of buzzing flies works fantastically at setting the scene.
As much as I am guilty of enjoying the excesses of the genre, I’ve increasingly come to appreciate these slower meditations on existence that more often than not provide more genuine threat and capture the real urgency of the desperation felt in the face of some truly horrific events. If you’ve got the patience for this sort of film then you’ll be well rewarded by The Desert, but I anticipate many to be frustrated and perhaps a little bored; for me though it was one of the highlights of FrightFest this year.