Super Zero: It Gets Better

“You never hear about how the apocalypse smells like total ass. But it does.”

And so do some stereotypes. We all know this one: about the geek who thinks they are so prone to so many physical and emotional weaknesses that they will slow down everybody else if they are even noticed at all.

Mitchell L. Cohen’s short zombie film Super Zero starts off just like that age-old trope. You know the one: about the stereotypical geek boy whose crush and attractive female love interest doesn’t seem to notice him, who he doesn’t have the courage to even talk to, and who views himself as almost completely useless. It’s a story told so many times by our culture and literature that it is essentially a very typical narrative. But Cohen adds two more elements to this story.

Josh Hershberg doesn’t view himself as that passive-aggressive stereotype of “the nice guy.” He doesn’t think he is owed anything by Page Reynolds or even society. In the year 2017, as a sample of water is discovered and taken from a Mars expedition, he can’t even enjoy this development of science in his geeky life. Why?

Because is geeky is going to be over in a very terminal sense. In the society that exists before the apocalypse, Hershberg has brain cancer: the kind that doesn’t have a cure. Hershberg ends up quoting Theodore Roosevelt when he states “do what you can, with what you have, where you are” in a self-derisive way: because he doesn’t have that much time left. The initial tones of Hershberg’s first-person narration in Super Zero are laced with an irreverent black humour and an infusion of despair as he decides to end his story.

It’s funny, however, just how the reminder and slogan of “It gets better” becomes so prevalent as the zombie apocalypse part of the story begins.

It gets better ... at least for some.
It gets better … at least for some.

Cohen plays up Hershberg’s adaptation to a foul-smelling post-apocalyptic world with a slow and careful pace. You wonder just how a slow-moving cancer victim with seemingly no fighting or survival experience would even last a minute after an outbreak of fast moving zombies: yes, that kind of zombie. Certainly the stock survivalist jock Nate Bishop and the wise-cracking obnoxious Gary Amante characters see him as more of a liability even though Page, who has survived this far, seems to be a popular girl with a “heart of gold” or at least common human decency. In fact, from the very beginning you see that she does indeed notice that he exists and has an inkling of what he’s capable of even before he reveals it.

Because when you realize that Josh Hershberg is a hard-core engineering geek genius and you see just what he can do with a brain disease that makes him unpalatable, a walking stick and something that looks like a flux-capacitor, you will not be disappointed. All in all, I think that while Super Zero does use some age-old high school zombie survival group stereotypes — complete with the compassionate woman, the stoic jock, the annoying and loud meat-shield, and the nerd — it has the potential to utterly subvert them. In our day and age, we’ve seen a lot of bad-ass geeks and nerds of all genders, so to some degree we are rather spoiled.

And wow is that musical score ever bad-ass.

After watching this film I want to see what happens next as Cohen wants to grow Super Zero into a series. Does Josh Hershberg’s biological advantage overcome him in the end? Would that affect any relationships that he may make? What happens if the group loses him? Will he leave a legacy or will this all get changed somehow? And would we see more development for the other characters?

And as a geek, how do you think you would survive a zombie apocalypse? Personally, my fantasies have wavered between learning necromancy and controlling the zombies, dying first because I slowed people down, or finding my way to a group of my friends where I can tell stories for morale. But while I don’t know about myself or the rest of you, I do think that if Josh Hershberg could give this film a subtitle it would be the following:

Who's Useless Now?
Who’s Useless Now?

Jovanka Vuckovic Looks Inside The Box

I met Jovanka Vuckovic this weekend. It was the second and last day of the Suspect Video and Fangoria-sponsored Torontonian convention Horror-Rama and I stepped behind the curtain to sit in on Jovanka Vuckovic’s Hangout session: to listen to her answer questions about her career and her future plans. I didn’t go into the Hangout with plans to write an article this time. I have written about Jovanka Vuckovic before: specifically about her creating the film adaptation of Clive Barker’s short story The Last Will and Testament of Jacqueline Ess.

But in the midst of hearing about her time at Clive Barker’s house, an anecdote or two about Guillermo del Toro, her plans for and a few more details about Jacqueline Ess, her views on diversifying the roles of women in film as characters and creators, and advice about not necessarily requiring film school to direct a film Jovanka Vuckovic revealed something for the first time that day.

She told us that she would be writing and directing a short film based on Jack Ketchum’s story “The Box.”

I’ll admit that up until that moment I’d never read anything of Jack Ketchum’s, though I watched and loved The Woman that was adapted from his novel a few years ago at the Toronto After Dark. And I definitely heard of him in the horror community: as he is generally highly regarded there. So after being among those who got to hear the news publicly for the first time I just had to find this short story and piece together, in my mind and based on Jovanka’s works and thoughts, just how this might go down.

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There was one thing that Jovanka Vuckovic mentioned in her Hangout that really stands out for me: her need to bring her voice to the work in question. As someone who looks at a creator’s own personal bent or slant, and as a creator myself, I can tell you that this is really important and also challenging when you are working in another’s world.

Or someone’s sandbox. A box is created to contain something. It can be put together, and it can be taken apart. It can have beautiful red wrapping paper on the outside and look like a pretty present. It can be a heavy burden or something incredibly light. The thing to remember about a box is that it’s hollow on the inside: perhaps, dare I say, even bigger on the inside. A box has nothing inside of itself except for what you put into it, or how you make it …

Or what you might see in it.

After being introduced to Junji Ito’s bizarre and Impressionistic horror manga Uzumaki this past weekend, it’s tempting for me to say that just as spiral patterns are prevalent in nature and culture, so too are boxes prominent in human society: if only as metaphors. Boxes can be homes and coffins. They can also be check lists and labels. They can carry tools that build, repair, and take things apart.

Children play in boxes and imagine them to be something else.

The way I see it, these considerations are important in speculating just what kind of creative sensibility and voice Jovanka Vuckovic might bring into “The Box” of Jack Ketchum. And in order to ponder further on that, there will be some story spoilers.

Jack Ketchum The Box

“The Box” is a story about a man who watches his family slowly and peacefully starve to death after his son gets a peek at a stranger’s box on a bus ride. This box is like a twisted version of Pulp Fiction‘s MacGuffin. However, unlike that film’s briefcase we only get to see the box once: and even then we never know what’s inside of it. It’s gone: slipped back into the night. But, at the same time, this isn’t true.

The true horror of the story is the fact that the protagonist watches everyone he loves understand something he can’t, seen from that box, while slowly and gradually fading away: leaving him alone and desperate to find that man and his box again so he can finally feel what his family feels, and join them.

Jovanka Vuckovic is no stranger to families, death, and particularly children in horror. She isn’t even unfamiliar with Impressionist or the abstract: the Kafkasque in storytelling sensibility. All you need to do is view her short films The Captured Bird and The Guest to see that much. But here is where Jovanka’s voice comes into play with something like “The Box.”

It’s only in retrospect that I realize that she is making this film for Magnolia Pictures and XYZ Films’ all-female anthology XX and it makes so much sense. At the Hangout, Jovanka told us that she is going to make the film version of “The Box” from the perspective of the mother as opposed to the father. You might think that this doesn’t make a difference, but it does. It really does.

I already have my own speculation as to what was in that box. The story narrator’s son, who looked inside, told his father that he saw “nothing” in the box. At the same time, the man who carried it claimed it was a present. What if the box contained the truth: that life is meaningless in itself and the acceptance of such is positively liberating?

Then you also have to take into account that the father character makes a point of stating that he has always carried a deep sense of detachment and separation from the rest of the world: from all other people including his own family. At the same time, the father believes in routines and order. He believes in protecting and helping his family. He just can’t let go of needing to live so that he can continue that role: and it’s only at the end that he realizes that this role no longer exists. He has no emotional shelter — no box — around him any more. He needs to find a new one.

Now think about this. It’s very clear that society has different roles and classifications for the female gender. There are various expectations for women, some spoken and others not, that they have to struggle with every single day. And motherhood is loaded with even more cultural assumptions and scrutiny. A mother tends to be seen as always related to her family unit, particularly to her children. But a mother is also a woman and a human being first: someone who can’t always relate to people, even her loved ones, all the time. Sometimes she just doesn’t understand her family: and feels distance from them and the guilt that comes with it. Sometimes she needs her own time away from societal and familial obligation and deep down in a place she doesn’t always want to look feels the burden and wants to be rid of it all. In this way, a mother is a person who has to reconcile her own individuality with her family-identity: or a lack thereof.

What happens if her family finds that box and realizes that all of these roles are pointless? There is her love for her family and her sense of obligation. Would she hold onto it with a death-grip towards the very end? Would she be afraid of dropping that heavy burden off of her shoulders? Would she fight to save their lives? Or, at the end of the film, would there be a shift from the personal into the frighteningly transcendent? Would she finally accept the inevitable and realize that she — and they — are and can actually be free?

It would be quite a challenge: to create something that could become a feminist existential horror genre film: a very poignant and human story. But this is all speculation on my part. There is just so much potential here and we will only know if Jovanka Vuckovic turns this “Jack in the Box” inside out after the film is shot this December.