A version of this review appeared in The Age, June 23, 2011.
Jim Mickle's low-budget horror road movie begins on familiar ground. The world has been overrun by vampires, the grubby, non-articulate kind (they might as well be zombies, except for their fangs). Awaiting the end of days, gangs of demented religious believers have aligned themselves with the undead.
One of the saner survivors is Martin (Connor Paolo), an orphaned teenager adopted by a middle-aged slayer known only as Mister (Nick Damici, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Mickle). In their armored car, the pair make their way across a despoiled America, heading up north to a possibly mythical haven known as “New Eden.” In the course of their journey they add more members to their surrogate family, including a pregnant young woman (Danielle Harris) and a peaceful nun (Kelly McGillis).
Mickle provides enough excitement and gore to satisfy fans, but also finds time for some suggestive, contemplative moments. The camera lingers on what seem like documentary images of industrial decay: abandoned factories overgrown by weeds, piles of wrecked cars. “Where did all the evil come from?” Martin asks dreamily in voiceover, sounding like someone in a film by Terrence Malick. There are echoes, too, of Zombieland (2009) and The Road (2009) – but Stake Land seems most closely related to the films of George Romero, especially the recent ones such as Diary of the Dead (2007).
Like Romero, Mickle has a pragmatic attitude to genre convention: even the corniest stereotypes can be turned to new purposes. Mister, for example, looks and behaves like a standard weather-beaten action hero, delivering his quota of gruff, tough wisecracks: asked how many “vamps” he's killed, he growls “Not enough.” Yet he remains an ambiguous figure – and for Martin, not necessarily an ideal role model. In the teeth of the apocalypse there's little room for scruple, but Mickle makes sure we grasp that learning how to kill always comes at a price.