cast: Nick Damici, Ron Brice, Kim Blair, and Bo Corre
director: Jim Mickle
reviewed by Max Cairnduff
Zombie Virus On Mulberry Street, originally released in the US under the better (and more accurate) title Mulberry Street, is a low-budget horror movie in which the residents of a rundown New York tenement building are besieged by mutant rat-people (yes, mutant rat-people) while the powers that be largely abandon them to their fate. Like the Romero films which inspired it, it’s therefore a mix of social commentary and survival horror, some parts of which work better than others.
The film opens with a nicely measured sequence, in which ex-boxer Clutch (Nick Damici, also co-writer) finishes his early morning fishing and jogs home, exchanging greetings with folk in the neighbourhood, all this inter-cut with images of rats scuttling in the sewers beneath his feet. We soon learn that today is an important day for Clutch, his daughter Casey (Kim Blair) is returning home from service in Iraq (her face now scarred from wounds received there), and he and transvestite neighbour and close friend Coco (Ron Brice) are preparing a cake for her return. Meanwhile, Polish immigrant waitress Kay (Bo Corre) is showing an interest in Clutch, an interest which provokes Coco’s jealousy and which Clutch seems ambivalent about returning. We meet other neighbours too, a couple of old men, the superintendent, and so on.
We have then a building in which people are leading messy but essentially normal lives. All, however, are facing eviction. Property developers intend to turn Mulberry Street into a much more desirable neighbourhood. That intention of course becomes ironic, as the street instead is overrun by mutant rat-people.
If it seems I’ve spent a long time describing the occupants of the tenement, it’s because the film does. Roughly half the film is set pre-mutant rat-people attack, developing the characters, their interactions, the curious quasi-family Clutch has formed with Coco and his daughter Casey, his burgeoning relationship with Kay, her relationship in turn with her teenage son, the super’s never ending list of repairs to keep the building going and so on. Director Jim Mickle is at pains to show Mulberry Street as a living place, with tenants who are real people and a genuine sense of community. The build-up is gradual, we hear reports from elsewhere in the city about assaults on commuters, unusual rat behaviour, a couple of characters become infected and there’s one attack, but most of this is off-screen with the cast generally just getting on with their day – Casey returning home and running into transport difficulties as the city starts to shut down, Kay heading to work, the old men bickering and so on.
For me, this was the best part of the film, and there is part of me that would have preferred it if the mutant rat-people (I just love saying that) had never shown up – if we’d just spent 84 minutes in the lives of the inhabitants of a rundown New York tenement building scheduled for clearance. But, the mutant rat-people do show up, and as they do the film’s problems become more apparent.
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The attacks arrive suddenly in Mulberry Street, are soon overwhelming and very quickly going outside becomes suicidal. As the night progresses, the infected become stronger and faster and look increasingly rat-like (they look nothing like the UK DVD cover picture) – at one stage in the process looking distinctly like Nosferatu (a clever implication that this may have happened before). The city is shut down, all exits blocked, and the mayor broadcasts reassuring messages from Bermuda.
A number of reviewers have drawn 9/11 parallels, arguing that Mulberry Street draws on post-9/11 anxiety for its social commentary. Much more obvious a comparison though is Katrina, there too the poor were abandoned within the city, exits were cut-off and official responses seemed remote and irrelevant. Throughout the night, the residents of Mulberry Street see military helicopters fly overhead while chaos reigns in the streets, radio broadcasts tell them help will come, but they’re clearly being left to make do as best they can. Much of the horror of the film comes from the fear of being bitten by infectious mutant rat-people, but much also comes from being poor and abandoned by government in the face of unexpected natural disaster.
The film makes heavy use of shaky camerawork in action scenes, partly I suspect to help disguise the relatively low special effects budget, but even with that it’s hard to take mutant rat-people entirely seriously. Although they obviously bring a level of social commentary that zombies might not, they lack the familiarity and that makes it a bit harder to suspend disbelief. More problematically, as the attacks increase and the tenants are besieged in their respective apartments, the trapped survivors don’t seem all that traumatised. That’s partly a question of time, so much is spent (usefully) establishing the characters there’s not that much left to develop them further once folk start dying, but it leads to well rounded characters becoming a little flat when the horror descends (Ron Brice being an exception, Coco seems genuinely terrified by what is happening).
Nick Damici as Clutch makes a convincing hero and puts in a persuasive performance. Ron Brice and Bo Corre are both excellent, each vying for Clutch’s affections (it’s left ambiguous exactly how far the evident love between Clutch and Coco extends). Kim Blair too is effective in what is a mostly silent role as daughter Kay, returning home only to find another war zone. The remaining cast are also generally solid; it’s really only the monsters that let the film down a bit. The scenes without the monsters, whether before the attack or staying quiet in apartments in the hope of not being heard, are simply more interesting than when the bad guys are on screen.
Overall I enjoyed Mulberry Street, it’s well shot, well acted, and New York is brought to sweaty life. It’s a more intelligent film than the words ‘mutant rat-people’ might suggest, letdown for me only by the weaker second half and the slightly unconvincing monsters, but well worth watching for all that.
Bonus materials: I watched a preview version of Mulberry Street which came without extras, but I understand the DVD release includes short features on makeup, rats used in the filming, the storyboard sequence and about how the effects were realised.