Meltdown (Dir. Jake Mulliken)
[Lucky 4 Productions; 2014]
After filmmaker Jake Mulliken won a RAW award for his directorial debut Meltdown, plans to turn the comedy horror short into a feature film were soon set in motion. The concept certainly had potential, as its ambiguous ending left the main character, Hunter, and his friends trapped by zombie hordes in Pittsburgh. This time around, Mulliken delivers a longer, bloodier, more ambitious vision that’s a worthwhile expansion on the 32 minute-long original.
Shot in Somerset and Venango County, PA, the new Meltdown follows Hunter (Mulliken), a well-meaning, but unsuccessful comic book writer intent on marrying his girlfriend (Hannah Horwatt) even after she abandons him on his birthday. When she rejects his proposal, and leaves him with a broken heart and a black eye, he retreats to a townie bar to numb his sorrows. Before long, he and his drinking buddies, the obnoxious sidekick Les (Seth Gontkovic), the sage bartender Zeke (F. Robert McMurray), and the determined love interest Callie (Alicia Marie Marcucci), are attacked by flesh-eating monsters. As their small town becomes overrun by zombies, the four shoot and hack their way to freedom and take refuge in a remote cabin.
Much like its predecessor, the first half of the film leans more toward comedy with gross-out gags galore. Though similarities to the zombie rom-com Shaun of the Dead are apparent – an everyman hero and dead mother being among them – the humor avoids becoming derivative by often veering into absurdity (a moment when Callie instigates some inappropriate, pre-zombie kill flirting is especially hilarious).
The tone shifts to post-apocalyptic survival horror when the story fast forwards two years later and finds Hunter, his friends, and other survivors holed up in a wilderness stronghold called Whisper City. With Hunter as the leader, the group battles encroaching undead (dubbed Howlers) and murderous rednecks, all while dealing with unrequited feelings and dwindling supplies. Their situation worsens when a deceptively meek preacher (David Petti) and his young daughter (Rebecca Gruss) pose a new threat that could destroy Hunter and his clan.
Mulliken, whose acting background includes appearances on Breaking Bad and In Plain Sight, tackles the lead role with confidence and a commendable disregard for his own safety (stunt work, in this case, is not optional). He obviously recognizes skilled actors, and everyone from the core players to the minor supporting cast deliver performances that add quality and just the right amount of emotional weight to the ultra-low budget indie. Actress Pilar Freeman in particular stands out as Murph, a tough-talking badass who exudes old school horror heroine swagger.
Meltdown benefits further from the impressive work of special effects coordinator Cody Ruch, whose rolling zombie heads, realistic gaping wounds, and detailed monster makeup ratchet the visuals up into some truly cringe-worthy territory. A number of spectacles also stand as testaments to the ballsy guerilla-style shoot, including a scene where an actual house goes down in flames.
For the most part, Mulliken’s script keeps the pace quick and the action plentiful, but the first 15 minutes are awkwardly focused on emphasizing the loathsomeness of Hunter’s obviously loathsome girlfriend – in retrospect, the time could have been better spent establishing Hunter’s relationship with Callie or his ill-fated mother. Like with any shoestring production, lighting, editing, and sound issues are present, but these flaws seem insignificant compared to the strength of the more crucial areas (writing, acting, and FX).
Overall, Mulliken and his crew have succeeded in crafting a solid, entertaining zombie flick that should please horror fans with its sick sense of humor and extra-splattery kills. With a reported sequel in the works, is should be interesting to see what other gory pleasures they have in store.
An Indiegogo campaign for Meltdown is currently underway to raise funds for film festival and theater rental fees, and publicity costs. A Meltdown DVD release is scheduled for sometime in November.