"Do you have the crazy?" a wild-eyed zombie fighter demands of his duct-taped captive. The Signal has the crazy all right, bless its cold and sick little heart. A roundelay/tag-team triptych by three directors, filmed in the hitherto-untapped zombie haven of Atlanta, this uneven but impressive shot-on-digital shocker earns a marker in the mausoleum of apocalyptic horror — a genre that's proving (un)surprisingly durable in the new century.
Four decades ago, surely no one thought the grainy black-and-white Götterdämmerung of George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead would stand as the movies' most telling evocation of Vietnam-era unease and upheaval — a nation imagining itself under siege by something in the air, the world outside reduced to grasping, hungry hands. Since then, though, every generation has gotten the zombie movie it deserves. The genre has circled back from the consumer-culture food court of 1978's Dawn of the Dead to concerns very much like those a decade earlier: bloodthirsty foes, friendly fire, and hometown streets as a Darwinian battleground.
With The Signal, the zombie war arrives in the heartland — not that you could recognize its generic big-box high-rises and nondescript apartment buildings as such. (Unless, of course, you live in any midsize American burg trying to defibrillate its flatlining downtown in the wake of suburban sprawl.) The name of this vaguely futuristic hot zone is Terminus, a 19th-century name for early-railroad-hub Atlanta that seems ominously apt here. Swiping a page from Brian De Palma, the movie opens with fake horror — a mock torture-porn epic playing on one of the film's ubiquitous flat-screen TVs — that sets off the "real" horrors to come.
Bzzt. Bzzzt. The screen blips and buzzes, and the image gives way to blaring white noise and a whorled vortex of color that's a Rorschach of discord (Mushroom clouds? Melting faces? A Doppler radar of projected doom?). Waking from a tryst with tattooed Ben (Justin Welborn), who's in front of the blazing tube, married Mya (Anessa Ramsey) briefly considers what it would be like not to rush back to her grim apartment. Back home, she faces her suspicious husband, Lewis (AJ Bowen), who's watching a game with his buddies when all at once the TV goes haywire. A minute and one bludgeoning by baseball bat later, the world is suddenly a different place.
The Signal was written and directed by Atlanta filmmakers David Bruckner, Jacob Gentry, and Dan Bush, along the lines of the old surrealist jape Exquisite Corpse: one starts the film, and the next continues the story. The movie divides into three distinct sections, each labeled a "transmission." The first, written and directed by Bruckner, follows Mya's harrowing journey out of her blood-spattered domicile into a harsh new realm of crazies armed with hedge-clippers and other makeshift weapons of mass destruction. Unlike Romero's virus, the mystery signal only enhances whatever bloodlust is already there, while leaving the infected (in a fitting 21st-century twist) with enough mental ability to justify their killing.
The first section is well-done if familiar low-budget horror, making the most of its modest production values with empty morning streets, anxious handheld camera, and judicious gore effects. It's the second, Gentry's "The Jealousy Monster," that distinguishes the movie: a bold switch to splattery satire inside the home of a traumatized socialite (Cheri Christian), who numbly prepares for her New Year's soiree literally over her husband's dead body. (The murder weapon is too sweet to give away.) As intruder Lewis whittles down the guest list with Pythonesque logic ("She was coming at me," he says defensively of one bludgeoned innocent), the humor in no way lessens the chill of a world tilted off its axis.
The Signal's feeble (and thankfully few) attempts at blast-in-the-face scares — the whoopee cushion of schlock horror — are less effective than its pervasive, surreal atmosphere of life out of balance. The mostly unknown actors make up in conviction and determination what they lack in polish. Welborn and Bowen are especially good in the movie's third and weakest section, which has the task of tying up the many narrative strands and introduces some clunky late-film exposition. Even here, The Signal retains its admirable emphasis on character and situation over worn-out shock effects. It's peopled with individuals, not archetypes; in a break with the allegorical nature of most zombie movies, the personal here trumps the political, though the subtext — paranoia as a potent neurotoxin that destroys from within — remains.
Employing its interlocked multipart narrative more convincingly than anything Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu has done since Amores Perros — the appearance and recurrence of characters in each other's stories seems organic and unforced — The Signal borrows the most potent trope from the late-'90s Japanese horror craze: the transmission of unspecified evil along the electronic teats plugged into every surge protector and car jack (TVs, radios, cellphones). Amusingly, The Signal — a radar blip at South by Southwest 2007 and a fanboy word-of-mouth sensation ever since — is busy insinuating itself into households using the same methods: MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube. If the filmmakers' viral marketing strategy succeeds, pretty soon we'll all have the crazy. As if we didn't already.