Harold’s Going Stiff (2011) d. Wright, Keith (UK)
With a tagline like “The Nicest Zombie You’ll Ever Meet,” hardcore horror fans might be a little reluctant to saddle up with this Brit import fearing it to be an overly cutesy spin on the exhaustingly prevalent walking dead. While it’s not likely to send any shivers down the spine or lunches lurching down the loo, Harold is a sublime piece of filmmaking and a thoughtful reinvention of the shambler mythos.
You see, in writer/director Keith Wright’s gentler, kinder and more grounded version of the apocalypse, the traits associated with our traditional Romero-type ghouls are really just symptoms of a new physical ailment appearing in the UK called Onset Rigors Disease (ORD). The condition (caused in part by the consumption of a particularly addictive brand of sausage) begins first with the stiffening of the joints, followed by a general loss of mental faculties, and culminating in mindless bouts of violence. Sound familiar?
Well, in Wright’s world, it’s recognized by the general populace as well, creating mass hysteria and prejudice toward those who suffer from ORD, believing their loved ones to be risen undead on the verge of taking a bite out of them. This fear has inspired several members of the community to appoint themselves “protectors of the innocent” bent on ridding the English countryside of this “terrifying menace”; in reality, they are portrayed as mere thugs zealously bashing brains to satisfy a calloused bloodlust. (All together now: “I wonder who the real monsters are...?”)
Harold Gimble (Stan Rowe), though the first individual known to contract the disease, has lasted the longest without succumbing to ORD’s more serious symptoms. In addition to being frequently poked and prodded by lead researcher Norbert Shuttleworth (Phil Gascoyne) to ascertain the reason for his resistance, Harold is visited by a traveling nurse named Penny (Sarah Spencer), a warm and gentle soul whose Rubenesque frame houses a heart of gold. The blossoming friendship between the failing old soul and the lovelorn lass is the stuff of Hallmark Channel Programming 101, but the enormous amount of humor and heart with which Wright imbues his characters raises them above these potentially saccharine trappings to achieve something deeply moving.
It feels strange to wax so touchy feely about a zombie yarn, but if you hadn’t caught on by now, this is a fright flick cut from different cloth. Even so, there are numerous incidents of gore and violence, almost exclusively at the hands of our three showcased vigilantes (Andy Pandini, Lee Thompson, and sad sack Richard Harrison) whose bloody deeds are shown via documentary-style footage. Harold’s seemingly inevitable decline into a staggering, drooling monster is emotionally devastating; we’ve grown to care a great deal for this artful codger and his meeting the business end of a cricket bat is a sight we’d gladly avoid. Along with Penny, we hope that a cure can be found and that Harold can be spared his graceless fate.
The relatively scant 76-minute running time feels much weightier thanks to exceptional performances from all involved, with Rowe and Spencer sharing the greatest load. There are a few quibbles to be had with Wright’s tendency to bounce from documentary footage to an omniscient camera and back again without explanation, but chances are you’ll be too invested in the story and characters to care much about it. Bottom line, this is a zombie movie unlike any you’ve seen before...and likely to become one of your new favorites.
Harold’s Going Stiff is available now on Vimeo on Demand from Level 33 Entertainment.
--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine