“HAROLD’S GOING STIFF” (Movie Review)
The vast majority of the post-NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD zombie canon has conditioned audiences to accept, without question, the premise that if not somehow contained, the appearance of walking dead leads inexorably to apocalypse. Fast or slow, sentient or comatose, the zombies are not only coming to get poor Barbara in the graveyard—they’re out to decimate civilization.
The faux documentary HAROLD’S GOING STIFF cleverly turns that assumption on its head, offering up a poignant, affecting, and at times quite funny vision of a zombie outbreak that locates the strange, hitherto unplumbed nexus between Michael Haneke’s AMOUR, HAROLD AND MAUDE, and George Romero’s initial 1968 salvo of rot n’ shuffle.
As the film opens, a substantial subset of the male population is already suffering from the scourge of what is euphemistically dubbed Onset Rigors Disease, an illness that manifests in three stages: General stiffness, deterioration of mental faculties, and, finally, a sort of frenzied madness that transforms the men into—as one doctor puts it—“for want of a better word, zombies.”
Cue pandemonium, right? Wrong.
While the documentary interviews reveal a degree of societal anxiety—“I don’t know a lot about zombies,” one man muses, “but I do know they are the living dead and that’s not nice at all”—for the most part individual and state alike have adapted to this new normal. And true to long-standing reputation, evil has smoothly slipped into a shroud of banality.
Cops on zombie duty complain about mandatory overtime. The healthy criticize neighbors’ survival instinct with a lazy, offhand callousness. (“If it were me, I’d want someone to put me down.”) End-stage ORD sufferers are corralled in makeshift sanitariums to be pitied from afar. At the end of a hard day providing physical therapy to the soon-to-be-undead, a nurse scrolls through online dating profiles in search of Mr. Right. Bands of bickering, wiseacre “volunteers” from Generation Xbox prowl the countryside blithely slaughtering rouge zombies, engaging in the sort of gleeful viciousness that always and forever will be the result of convincing ne’er-do-wells they are heroes of humanity.
In other words, it (might be) the end of the world as we know it, but these characters feel… well, if not exactly fine, something reasonably approximating it.
Amidst this tableau we are introduced to Harold Gimble—portrayed with harrowing realism and gritty beauty by Stan Rowe—an isolated elderly widower suffering through the not-easily-disentangled dual indignities of ORD and age in a small, rural village. For Harold, the former affliction metastasizes at an uncommonly glacial pace and, thus, his case garners interest from doctors and officials pursuing a cure—a development and experimental poke-prod process about which Harold is ambivalent at best, until a much younger yet similarly world weary/melancholy visiting nurse named Penny Rudge (Sarah Spencer) arrives on his doorstep.
It doesn’t take a crystal ball or a leaked script to see these two will soon be getting their platonic May/December on, filling in one another’s blanks, healing, etc. Still, the relationship nevertheless unfolds in an elegant-if-elegiac manner and is given a sense of urgency by Harold’s (probably…hopefully?) unrelated stiffening; a romance more akin to the aforementioned HAROLD AND MAUDE than, say, WARM BODIES.
Writer/director Keith Wright sets a great tone and pace, and creates an eminently believable atmosphere on a decidedly low budget. If the price for hiring actors and actresses capable of such subtle, wonderfully naturalistic performances was the awkward late film fight choreography, it is one Wright wisely paid.
As for Harold and Penny…hopes will, of course, be raised and dashed, then raised again. Others will attempt to tear them apart or bend the relationship to their own ends. Hooligans will behave as hooligans. And many of us will be left with the disquieting, creeping notion that our fates might not be as different from Harold’s as we would prefer.
“In a way I just try to make it all shiny,” Penny Rudge tells an interviewer, “and everything will be okay.”
HAROLD’S GOING STIFF suggests embracing such a sentiment in a corporeal world full of danger and defined by certain death might very well be giving chase to a chimera, but also that it is in this pursuit that our lives ultimately gain meaning for ourselves and others.
HAROLD’S GOING STIFF is now available on iTunes. If you’re in LA, it is screening for free this Sunday, August 25 at the Jumpcut Cafe. Event details here.